Samuel S. Cronk
23-Year-Old Deputy Sheriff
Civil War Veteran
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned With a Clevis
Murder Scene and Date
South of Cottonville, Iowa
January 23, 1867
By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2017
On the cold winter morning of Thursday, January 24, 1867, children walking to the Sawtell School House a mile south of Cottonville came upon footprints and splashes of blood in the roadway.
One of the more adventurous of the group, 16-year-old Daniel Gleason, followed the tracks as they led off the road into a snowy field.
In a spot about 150 feet away, Daniel found trampled ground and a large amount of blood that indicated a violent struggle. He followed the trail farther to a fence and, peering over, saw the body of a man, partially covered with wooden rails and piles of snow.
The man, fully clothed except for hat and trousers, wore a soldier’s overcoat which had been pulled up over his head when he was dragged to the fence.
The children raised an alarm and nearby residents gathered around the body. They immediately recognized the dead man as 23-year-old Jackson County Deputy Sheriff and Civil War veteran Samuel S. Cronk from the town of Andrew six miles south of Cottonville.
According to the Dubuque Daily Herald:
“The corpse was terribly mangled; the skull was broken in two places upon the forehead; there were half a dozen or more cuts about the head and face, apparently done with a common jack-knife; and [there were] numerous other wounds and bruises.”
The iron-grey horse Cronk always rode was nowhere to be seen.
Samuel Cronk was a respected man in the area; he was well-liked and had no known enemies. “As may justly be imagined, Jackson County is wild with excitement, and the neighborhood of Cottonville is ablaze with feverish anxiety,” reported the Daily Herald.
Residents were advised to be on the lookout for Cronk’s horse and for any suspicious persons in the area. A $450 reward was offered for the capture of the killer or killers.
☛ Days Leading to the Murder ☚
Investigators reconstructed Cronk’s movements for the two days preceding the discovery of his body.
He left his home in Andrew on Tuesday, January 22 with the goal of serving notices for the Sheriff’s Department in La Motte, a small town 18 miles due south of Dubuque. He planned to make the journey there in two installments.
Cronk first rode six miles north to Cottonville, where he spent the night with friends — 28-year-old John D. Bucklin; Bucklin’s brother-in-law Calvin Nelson, 36; and Samuel P. Watkins, 22, with whom Cronk served during the Civil War in Company I of the 31st Iowa Infantry. Watkins boarded at the Bucklin farm and Cronk stayed there overnight.
The four men attended a dance that evening at the Purdy home and stayed out late.
On Wednesday morning, January 23, Cronk rode on four miles north to La Motte, served his notices, visited with acquaintances, and returned to Cottonville.
There he reunited with his three friends and they went to the George Nelson home three-and-a-half miles away to visit the Nelson daughters for the afternoon. At 9:00 p.m., he and Samuel Watkins left for Cottonville; he was last seen about 10:00 p.m. heading south for Andrew and home.
By the time he was ready to leave, Cronk was carrying a good deal of money. Lyman Abbey, of Cottonville, gave him $25 to deliver to a person in Andrew; he also had a $160 promissory note.
There had been a rumor in the area that Cronk sold a farm and, therefore, possessed a large amount of cash. That wasn’t true; however, the story might have created a motive for the crime.
☛ Arrests Made ☚
Shortly after the body was discovered, Samuel Watkins, John Bucklin, and Calvin Nelson were arrested for murder, as they were the last to be in Samuel Cronk’s company.
Bucklin and Nelson were discharged after a preliminary hearing; Watkins, however, was bound over to the grand jury, which then failed to indict him for lack of evidence.
Though not indicted, Watkins was generally considered the prime suspect by the community, having admitted to being with Cronk at the time he went missing and having no way to account for himself after they parted company.
Also, Watkins was known to be in debt prior to Cronk’s murder and yet had plenty of money afterwards. He paid off an account with a bootmaker, using a $10 bill and telling him to keep the change. Among the cash he used around town was a bill which Lyman Abbey claimed he gave to Samuel Cronk the day before the murder. Watkins said it came from his father in Richmond, Virginia; but the Cottonville postmistress swore no letters arrived for him in the weeks before and after the murder.
☛ A Pathetic Discovery ☚
On the morning of Saturday, April 6, schoolboy Joseph McComb wandered off the road south of Cottonville to explore a grove of trees. When he came upon the skeleton of a large animal, he gathered neighbors who recognized the carcass from its color and from a saddle and bridle as Samuel Cronk’s iron-grey horse.
It was a pathetic scene. The horse had been led a quarter of a mile from the murder location and tied to a small tree by five thongs of leather — the bridle’s double reins and the halter strap. In its desperation to get free, it had worn the ground down and had eaten most of the tree it was tied to and part of another nearby. Eventually, the poor animal starved to death.
Authorities speculated that the person who left the horse there intended to come back and free it, but Cronk’s body was found quickly and the area was soon under great scrutiny.
Cronk’s empty pocketbook lay near the horse.
☛ Murder Weapon Found ☚
Then came another piece of evidence. While area resident Samuel Dean was traveling the road near the spot where Cronk was attacked, he discovered a piece of a broken clevis from a plow. A string had been attached to the clevis to turn it into a sling shot; on the broken end was human hair.
Authorities ordered Cronk’s body to be disinterred from the Andrew Cemetery. When his skull wounds were compared to the broken clevis, there was an exact fit.
A search was made of the John Bucklin farm, where Samuel Watkins boarded. The other portion of the clevis was found in a box of old tools in the granary. Cronk’s trousers were also discovered hidden in some brush on the property.
☛ Re-Arrests and Hearing ☚
Once again, Samuel Watkins, John Bucklin, and Calvin Nelson were arrested and placed in the Andrew jail.
An extraordinarily long preliminary examination was held before Justice of the Peace James Thompson at Andrew, beginning on Tuesday, April 9 and ending at 9:00 p.m. on Friday April 12.
At the end, Calvin Nelson and John Bucklin were bound over for trial with $1,500 and $3,000 bonds, respectively; Watkins, however, was ordered held without bail until the next term of the District Court in the fall.
☛ Lynch Mob Forms ☚
People from all over the area swarmed into Andrew, and the courtroom was packed each day with spectators outraged over the murder of the highly-regarded lawman and curious to view the three suspects. Most of the anger centered on Samuel Watkins.
As excitement and rage reached a fever pitch, the town’s Mayor ordered every saloon closed. Guards were set up around-the-clock at the jail.
Some men in the community formed what they termed a “Vigilance Committee.” They bought rope and picked out a tree — a white oak 600 feet east of a church — mockingly described by the Dubuque Daily Herald as “very conveniently adapted for [lynching], almost tempting a man to hang himself.”
Well-respected local lawyer J.S. Darling addressed the mob, urging the men to keep calm and appealing to their sense of justice and the rule of law.
The lynching was scheduled to take place at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, but the indictments were announced the night before. The agitators swore they would’ve followed through with their plans had Watkins, especially, not been bound over.
Some believed that closing the saloons was the only thing that prevented the lynching — that and the lack of a forceful leader to keep the crowd stirred up.
Although the throng finally dispersed, the town of Andrew was deemed unsuitable — because of the strong feelings against the prisoners — to hold the men safely, so Watkins and Bucklin were temporarily transferred to Dubuque.
Calvin Nelson was not taken with them because the public’s anger was not directed at him. In fact, most citizens believed Nelson was not involved in the crime and would soon be released from custody.
About 1:00 p.m. — the time the mob had set for the lynching — Jackson County Sheriff M.S. Allen and an assistant started for Dubuque with Samuel Watkins and John Bucklin in a covered carriage to protect against the rain. They arrived at 8:00 p.m., and the Dubuque Daily Herald took advantage of the physical proximity to immediately interview the suspects.
Biographical accounts and physical descriptions of John Bucklin and Samuel Watkins appeared in the newspaper.
Twenty-eight-year-old John Bucklin, a married father of two and a farmer, was 5 8; weighed 138 pounds; had blue eyes with “a touch of hazel;” and sported brown, curly hair. He was a New York state native who lived in Michigan before moving to Cottonville.
Watkins, it was noted, appeared younger than his 22 years; was almost five nine; weighed 150 pounds; and had brown “rather straight hair,” blue eyes, and a “lightish” complexion.
The men were declared unlikely killers by the Daily Herald:
“Neither Watkins nor Bucklin possesses the low forehead, broad back-head, or villainous expression of countenance which are usually supposed to belong to men guilty of great crime. On the contrary they carry respectable heads and faces, and have every bearing of frank, honest, mild-mannered men.”
☛ Trial of Watkins ☚
On Thursday, December 12, 1867, Samuel Watkins’s trial began back in Andrew, with J. Scott Richman, Judge of the 7th Judicial District, presiding. Watkins was deemed indigent and was to be defended by court-appointed attorneys William Graham of Dubuque and D.A. Wynkoop of Bellevue (associated with C.M. Dunbar of Maquoketa). Lyman A. Ellis, District Attorney of the 7th District, and J.S. Darling of Andrew were appointed lawyers for the state.
Over 70 potential jurors were examined and more than 100 witnesses were scheduled to testify; both sides were prepared to contest the case aggressively.
The evidence against Watkins was circumstantial but strong. Watkins was with the victim around the time of the deadly attack; he had money after the murder; and he supposedly exclaimed “I am sorry! I am sorry!” when told of the dead horse being found.
A verdict of guilty was returned at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the day before Samuel Watkins’s 23rd birthday. At 9:00 that night, Judge Richman denied a motion for a new trial and passed sentence.
Watkins was to be hanged on February 21, 1868 between the hours of sunrise and sunset.
Unlike during the preliminary hearing — when a mob intent on lynching Watkins formed — the court on-lookers and town residents were orderly and law-abiding and no threats of violence were made.
If court spectators hoped to see a broken and guilt-ridden defendant, they were disappointed. Watkins was calm and quiet throughout the legal proceedings except for once — when he was visibly shaken by the prosecutor’s intense and dramatic description of what it must feel like to be guilty of an atrocious murder. The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote:
“From the time when he was first arrested, Watkins has carried himself with a self-possession which could only be supported either by conscious innocence, or by consummate villainy.”
☛ Postponement of Execution ☚
An appeal — supported by trial judge J. Scott Richman and prosecuting lawyer Lyman A. Ellis — was made to Iowa Governor Samuel Merrill that the execution be postponed until after the trial of John Bucklin and his brother-in-law Calvin Nelson.
Governor Merrill agreed and on February 13, 1868 notified Jackson County Sheriff M.S. Allen that the hanging of Watkins would be moved from February 21 to April 17.
Sheriff Allen prepared for any potential violence on the originally-scheduled day of execution by gathering a posse of men from around the county to guard the jail against any mob that might form.
☛ Acquittal of Bucklin and Nelson ☚
Unlike Watkins, who asked to be tried in Jackson County, John Bucklin and Calvin Nelson requested a change of venue to Clinton County. There they were acquitted of the murder of Samuel Cronk.
☛ Interview With the Accused ☚
On Thursday, February 20, 1868 — the day before the execution had been originally scheduled for — Samuel Watkins was interviewed in his jail cell by a Dubuque Daily Herald reporter.
Watkins described his memories of the night Cronk was slain. He was unsure when he and Samuel Cronk left the Nelson home; there was no timepiece in the house and the pleasant evening passed quickly. He believed it was after 9:00 p.m. because the moon had risen.
He said he walked along the roadway with Cronk, who was on horseback, up to the path leading to Cottonville and bid him goodnight — this would have been a mile-and-a-half from the murder scene. He claimed he walked across the fields, reaching the Bucklin farm where he boarded after 11:00 p.m.
As for his sudden influx of cash, Watkins claimed that 10 days before the murder he cashed a $100 bond in Clinton and had not spent much of it. He said there was no chance to pay his bills during the time of the discovery of the body and his incarceration until he was released after the first preliminary hearing.
The Daily Herald reporter informed him of a theory that had spread across the area, a rumor that Watkins did not kill Samuel Cronk but did observe the murder and that if he helped convict the guilty parties he would not hang. Watkins adamantly insisted that not only was he innocent, but that he knew nothing at all about anyone committing the murder.
Watkins presented his own theory about the killer. He believed it was a man named Thomas, the estranged husband of one of the Nelson daughters. This man had been known to sneak into the neighborhood and spy on his wife; that night, Watkins speculated, Thomas saw her and her sister entertaining himself, Cronk, and the other men. He became jealously enraged, accosted Cronk in the road, and attacked and killed him. This account would have required that Thomas slip onto the Bucklin farm to pick up the broken clevis before and hide Cronk’s trousers in the brush on the property afterwards.
☛ Calmness and Poetry ☚
The prisoner’s eerie calmness continued. Samuel Watkins was no more flustered by the building of the scaffold right outside his jail window than he was by the lynch mob that formed during the second preliminary hearing.
He consoled himself by writing poetry. The Daily Herald printed his poem “The Andrew Jail,” which was dedicated to a woman who had been kind to him and was inscribed “Remember me. All I ask is, never believe that I am guilty of the crime of murder”:
I am indeed a prisoner now in body, but nay in mind
Is free to follow Christ, and now unto me he is kind,
But awful to think death so near.
For though men keep my outward man within their locks and bars,
Yet, by the faith of Christ I can mount higher than the stars
But awful to think death so near.
This jail to me is a hill from whence I plainly see
Beyond this world, and take icy fill of things that lasting be,
But awful to think death so near.
Strong are the walls around me, that hold me all the day,
They who thus have bound me cannot keep God away.
My very dungeon walls are dear,
Because the Lord I love is here.
They know who thus oppress me ‘tis hard to be alone.
He makes my dungeon’s darkless light,
And fills my bosom with delight.
☛ New Suspects ☚
On January 19, 1869 — almost exactly two years after Samuel Cronk’s death — Cottonville residents Joseph E. “Joe” Farrington, George Luther Farrington, and John Polders were arrested for the murder on the recommendation of a man named Beebe, who claimed to be a private detective.
Polders was heard by Beebe — a stranger who had been in town briefly and heard about the murder — to say that he was just as guilty as the men brought to trial, ironically meaning not at all.
All three men were well-respected by their neighbors and deemed incapable of murdering anyone. In a bold headline, the Dubuque Daily Herald termed the men’s arrests “A Farce.”
They were brought before Judge Warren in Bellevue for a preliminary hearing, but no evidence could be found against them and they were discharged.
☛ Jail Escape ☚
The months wore on as Watkins awaited a verdict from the Iowa Supreme Court, to whom he had appealed for a new trial.
He had become somewhat of a fixture in the Andrew jail and in the town after all the months of confinement. Guards became careless in watching him and the intense emotions by the public that had once driven a lynching party to form had dissipated.
In early May of 1869, Samuel Watkins escaped the jail by crawling through an opening in the cell door. The Jackson Sentinel wrote about the escapade:
“After wandering around town awhile, and exchanging the compliments of the season with his acquaintances, he quietly wended his way back to the jail, aroused the jailer, who was enjoying his afternoon siesta and politely requested to be locked up again, as it was too much trouble to crawl back in the same manner he got out!”
☛ New Trial Ordered ☚
In May of 1869, the Iowa Supreme Court did not take action on Watkin’s case when they met in Dubuque. However, when they next convened in Des Moines in early July, the appeal for a new trial was granted.
☛ Shift in Public Sentiment ☚
As time passed and the legal process lumbered along, the public grew more sympathetic towards Samuel Watkins and much less certain he was guilty, so much so that the Jackson Sentinel wrote:
“As the result of a new trial will in all probability be his acquittal, we suggest that the Governor pardon Watkins and thus relieve the county of an enormous expense.”
☛ Charges Are Dismissed ☚
For his new trial, Watkins requested a change of venue to Clinton County and the proceedings were scheduled for late November of 1869.
Before the trial could begin, however, District Attorney Lyman A. Ellis — lacking testimony for a conviction of Watkins — announced a nolle prosequi (“not to prosecute”) motion, a statement that he was voluntarily discontinuing prosecution of the defendant.
Those who knew the details of the case had gradually come to believe Watkins was innocent.
Samuel Watkins was discharged from custody after nearly three years in jail.
He died on December 18, 1903 only days before his 62nd birthday and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Fort Madison in Lee County.
No one else was arrested or tried for the murder of Samuel S. Cronk and the murder remains unsolved.
☛ Life of Samuel Cronk ☚
Samuel S. Cronk was born in 1844, the son of Dennison Cronk. He was orphaned as a young child and raised with two of his siblings by Wilson B. Whitley and his wife Johanna in Farmer’s Creek Township in Jackson County, Iowa.
On August 8, 1862 at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Union Army and served as a Private in Company I, 31st Iowa Infantry. He was discharged on June 27, 1865 at Louisville, Kentucky, and returned to Jackson County.
According to Donald B. Wentworth in his Stone Cities Writings, Samuel Cronk held various jobs: he helped the Whitley family run a store, carried the mail between Maquoketa and Quasqueton, and worked as a horse trader.
He then became a Jackson County Deputy Sheriff.
Samuel S. Cronk is buried in the Andrew Cemetery beneath a stone erected by his sister.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Brutal Murder In Jackson County,” Dubuque Daily Herald, January 25, 1867, p. 4.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case: Conclusion of the Trial of Watkins,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 27, 1867, 1.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case: The Last Arrests A Farce,” Dubuque Daily Herald, February 26, 1869, p. 4.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case: Postponement of the Execution of Watkins,” Dubuque Daily Herald, February 22, 1868, p. 1.
- ☛ “Cronk Murder Case: Progress of the Trial,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 18, 1867, p. 1.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case Revisited,” Maquoketa Jackson Sentinel, January 28, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case Revived,” Jackson Sentinel, January 26, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “The Cronk Murder Case: Three Men Arrested upon Testimony Obtained by a Detective,” Dubuque Daily Herald, January 22, 1869, p. 4.
- ☛ Dubuque Daily Times, January 21, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “End Of The Cronk Murder Case,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 4, 1869, p. 4.
- ☛ “Escape Of Watkins,” Jackson Sentinel, May 20, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “Escape Of Watkins,” Maquoketa Jackson Sentinel, May 20, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “Iowa Items,” Cedar Rapids Times, July 15, 1869, p. 2.
- ☛ Iowa State Weekly Register, December 8, 1869, p. 3.
- ☛ “The Jackson Co. Murder,” Dubuque Daily Herald, April 15, p. 1.
- ☛ “Jackson County Prisoners,” Dubuque Daily Herald, April 16, 1867, p. 4.
- ☛ Jackson Sentinel, May 6, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “The Jackson Tragedy: The Body of the Horse Recovered,” Dubuque Daily Herald, April 7, 1867, p. 4.
- ☛ Maquoketa Jackson Sentinel, May 6, 1869, p. 8.
- ☛ “Our Own State,” Cedar Falls Gazette, December 10, 1869, p. 4.
- ☛ Roster & Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of Rebellion.
- ☛ “Samuel Cronk” by Donald B. Wentworth, Stone Cities Writings.
- ☛ “State News,” Jefferson Era, January 8, 1868, p. 2.
- ☛ U.S. Census.