Jesse Skinner Wilkerson
Civil War Veteran
Cause of Death: Kicked
Murder Scene and Date
Attacked December 9, 1869
Died December 12, 1869
By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2016
Jesse Skinner Wilkerson’s story is especially tragic. As a Union soldier, he survived violence, disease, and other horrors of the Civil War only to be murdered in civilian life four years after returning home. In addition, those responsible for his death were never punished.
☛ “Bullying, Bantering, and Bluffing” ☚
On Thursday, December 9, 1869, 38-year-old farmer Jesse Wilkerson drove a herd of hogs into Hamburg, a small village along the St. Joseph and Council Bluffs Railroad in Fremont County. He planned to transfer the hogs to a contracted buyer there.
While in Hamburg, Wilkerson stopped at the Cummings Saloon, where he encountered local residents Isaac Cummings — who owned the saloon — Alexander Dempster, William Murray, and S. Beaston, the establishment’s bartender.
What followed was, according to the Council Bluffs Nonpareil, an incident of full-blown “bullying, bantering, and bluffing.”
The four men in the saloon schemed among themselves to get Wilkerson drunk and have him sign an agreement to sell the hogs to them instead of to the original buyer.
As drinks were bought and consumed, Wilkerson did indeed become intoxicated; but he would not sign the document to sell the men his hogs. Alexander Dempster tried to give him money, but Wilkerson refused it.
Then Dempster paid five dollars to another man in the saloon to place money in Wilkerson’s pocket so it would appear that he had sold his hogs; that way, Alexander Dempster could collect damages from Wilkerson if he failed to deliver the hogs to him.
When this plan was unsuccessful, the men tried to provoke Wilkerson into a fight.
Bartender Beaston punched Wilkerson. The History of Fremont County, Iowa, describes what happened next:
“[Alexander] Dempster then clinched him and they fell upon the floor. Dempster then arose, raised Jesse to his feet and said ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ [Isaac] Cummings rushed around the bar saying ‘I do,’ and struck him in the face, knocking him down, and then kicked him in the face and side, bruising his head and side badly, and cutting his cheek to the bone.”
Then Jesse Wilkerson was thrown out into the street, where the Town Marshal arrested him for being drunk and disorderly and hauled him before the mayor, who fined him $3.50.
☛ Severe Injuries Lead to Death ☚
Wilkerson was taken home to his wife Sarahette, where the severity of his injuries became clear.
He suffered greatly from his wounds and drifted deliriously in and out of consciousness. On Sunday morning, December 12, Jesse Wilkerson passed away, leaving a widow and several small children, one only a few weeks old.
☛ Suspects Are Charged ☚
That very night, Justice of the Peace James H. Hood held a preliminary hearing concerning Wilkerson’s death and the involvement of the four men who bullied and beat him.
Isaac Cummings plead not guilty; Dempster and Beaston waived the preliminary hearing. All three were sent to the Fremont County Jail in Sidney on Monday morning to await trial for murder.
William Murray was set free; the evidence appeared to show that, although a participant in the hog swindling scheme, he was not engaged in the brutal assault on Wilkerson. Murray was given 24 hours to pack up his belongings, gather up his lady friend, and leave Hamburg.
Tempers and strong feelings against Cummings, Beaston, and Dempster ran high and many in the community agitated to forcibly take the prisoners from the jail and lynch them. Calmer heads prevailed after a plea by Jesse Wilkerson’s brother Benjamin to let the law take its course.
☛ Justice Withheld ☚
In March of 1870, the Fremont County grand jury indicted Beaston and Dempster for manslaughter and Cummings for murder.
Defense attorneys petitioned to have the venue changed to Council Bluffs in Pottawattamie County. Insisting that fair trials were possible in Fremont County, a large and angry group of Hamburg citizens rode to Sidney and promised violence if the venue was changed.
The trials for Cummings, Beaston, and Dempster were postponed until the next term of court, and the suspects were kept in the Fremont County Jail in Sidney. These actions diminished the threat of violence.
When Isaac Cummings came to trial, Colonel John R. Cornish of Sidney prosecuted; R.M. Crandall of Hamburg acted as defense counsel.
Cummings was acquitted after his attorney convinced the jury that Jesse Wilkerson’s fatal injuries were sustained when his wagon overturned on the night of the attack.
According to the Glenwood Opinion, charges against Beaston and Alexander Dempsey were dropped.
☛ Aftermath ☚
Justice was denied to Jesse Wilkerson, his family, and a concerned community. The History of Fremont County, Iowa, wrote of the murder’s aftermath:
“A good man is dead and a nest of robbers broken up.”
☛ Civil War Letters ☚
Jesse S. Wilkerson was a Union Civil War veteran of major campaigns, having been drafted in 1863 into the 13th Iowa Infantry, Company C. He is buried in the Hamburg Cemetery beneath a Union tombstone; a Grand Army of the Republic star marks the grave.
Wilkerson’s letters home to his wife Sarahette — who ran the farm in his absence — and to his brother Benjamin and theirs in return are part of the Abraham Lincoln Collection at the University of Iowa.
During Wilkerson’s service, the 13th Iowa Infantry was engaged in significant battles — Port Gibson, Raymond, Champion’s Hill, Big Black River, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Jonesboro, and Bentonville — as well as the Siege of Vicksburg and the March to the Sea.
The University of Iowa Library notes that:
“[Wilkerson] traveled by his estimate more than 5,000 miles to seven states and the District of Columbia during his service, and was mustered out in July 1865.”
To read these fascinating and detailed letters about Jesse Wilkerson’s experiences and observations and, in turn, what life was like on the home front during the Civil War, click here.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Another Murder In Fremont County,” Glenwood Opinion, December 18, 1869, p. 2.
- ☛ Council Bluffs Nonpareil, March 1870.
- ☛ “The Fremont Murder Case,” Glenwood Opinion, March 19, 1870, p. 3.
- ☛ History of Fremont County, Iowa. Iowa Historical Company, 1881, pp. 529-530.
- ☛ “Iowa Items,” Burlington Daily Hawk Eye, March 18, 1870, p. 7.
- ☛ “Outrage In Southwestern Iowa,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 19, 1869.
- ☛ “State Items,” Monticello Express, March 24, 1870, p. 2.
- ☛ Wilkerson Letters, 1863-1865, University of Iowa, Collection of CW Letters and Diaries, Abraham Lincoln Collection, MSC0906.