Charred Remains: Murder of Jane Otis 1921

Murder Victim

Jane Otis
76-year-old “Spinster” Homemaker
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned and Set On Fire
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Otis Home
Gravity, Iowa
Taylor County
January 4, 1921


By Nancy Bowers
Written December 2010

location of Gravity, Iowa

location of Gravity, Iowa

At 4:00 a.m. Tuesday, January 4, 1921, Gravity resident Charles O’Brien smelled smoke and ran outside to find the home of his neighbor on fire. He tried to get into the house but was driven back by the intense flames and heat.

When the blaze died down, the badly burned body of 76-year-old Jane Otis was discovered.

Jane Otis — a spinster who lived alone — used kerosene lamps and was known to have dizzy spells, which at first seemed to account for the fire.

However, her body was draped over a trunk in a storage room at a distance from her bedroom; one arm and both legs were separated from her body and her skull was crushed.

It appeared Jane Otis was murdered in a robbery and the fire set to cover the evidence.

Although she owned her home, Jane Otis was not wealthy. However, it was widely known in Gravity that she once withdrew all her money from the bank to keep in her house and on her person.

What might not have been known by a robber was that she later returned the money to the bank and there was no large amount in the house at the time of her death.

☛ The Life of Jane Otis ☚

from the Clearfield Enterprise

Nancy Jane Otis — always called “Jane” — was born in Tuscarawas, Wayne, Ohio, in 1845 to Catherine Ann “Kitty” Gartrell and Edward Otis. The Otis family lived in Illinois before moving to Taylor County, Iowa.

Jane had three brothers — John, Ezekiel, and Merrill Otis — as well as seven sisters: Louisa Otis, Alice Otis, Christina Anna Otis, Marilla Otis Lavery, Sarah Ann Otis Gartrell, Mary Jane Otis Cole, and Ada E. Otis Freeman.

Her funeral was held on Thursday, January 6 at the Christian Church in Gravity with the Rev. Orr Campbell officiating, and she was buried in Washington Cemetery.

Several of her siblings preceded her in death. Extended family were scattered about in Shenandoah, Mason City, and Omaha. Jane’s nearest relatives were her sister Ada Otis Freeman and nephew Sam Freeman in Clarinda.

Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ Adams County Free Press January 15, 1921.
  • ☛ “Burned to Death,” Clearfield Enterprise, January 13, 1921.
  • ☛ Humeston New Era, January 12, 1921.
  • ☛ “Iowa News,” Pella Chronicle, January 13, 1921.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Was It Homicide?” Clearfield Enterprise, January 13, 1921.
  • ☛ “Woman Was Burned To Death With Home In Gravity Tuesday,” Iowa City Press-Citizen January 6, 1921.
  • ☛ “Woman’s Body Was Horribly Mutilated and Also Burned,” Waterloo Evening Courier, January 8, 1921.
  • ☛ Works Progress Administration 1930s Graves Registration Survey.

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