Corpse in the Pump House: Murder of Mary Gilfillan 1896

Murder Victim

Mary E. Gilfillan
30-year-old Waitress
Howe Hotel
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Love Triangle

Murder Scene and Date

Pump House
Chicago Burlington Quincy Railway Depot
Osceola, Iowa
Clarke County
December 26, 1896


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2014

location of Osceola, Iowa

location of Osceola, Iowa

It was said that 30-year-old Mary Gilfillan left Branford, Illinois, to put distance between herself and a cruel marriage.

Leaving two older children behind, Mary took her infant son William Clifford and moved to Osceola in Clarke County, Iowa, in mid-November of 1896.

Postcard view of Osceola business district

Postcard view of Osceola business district

She first found employment on the John “Doc” Wolverton farm as a domestic. During that time, she and one of Doc’s sons — John “Joe” Wolverton, 29 — kept company.

Mary then found a job waitressing at the Howe Hotel (later the Garner Hotel) in Osceola, where she was a diligent and dependable employee.

On the day after Christmas, a Saturday, Mary told other employees she was meeting Joe Wolverton that night at the pump house near the pond that supplied water to the Chicago Burlington Quincy Railroad steam engines.

Mary did not return from her assignation.

☛ Gruesome Discovery ☚

from the Atlantic Daily Telegraph

from the Atlantic Daily Telegraph

On Sunday evening, December 27, railroad employee G.E. Smith went into the pump house for tools and discovered a horrifying scene: a young woman lay dead on the floor, her hands smeared with blood. In her temple was a bullet hole. Some accounts reported she was shot six times.

Smith immediately notified authorities and the body was taken to a local funeral home where it was identified as Mary Gilfillan, who had been missing for nearly 24 hours.

☛ A Prime Suspect Emerges ☚

Suspicion naturally fell first on Mary Gilfillan’s estranged husband William. The Atlantic Daily Telegraph, however,  wrote:

“The rumor was circulated about Osceola that Gilfillan had been seen in town, but that is erroneous, as advices from Bradford locate him in that place [at the time of the murder].”

Most believed that Joe Wolverton, whom Mary said she was going to meet that night, was a better suspect. And a witness claimed he saw Wolverton walking away from the pump house near the time the murder was believed to have occurred. After Wolverton suspiciously disappeared from the area, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

On the second day of January 1897, the Clarke County Board of Supervisors issued a $250 reward for information leading to the capture of Joe Wolverton.

Clarke County Sheriff N.J. Jolley and his deputies worked the case, as did Joe Ballou of the Burlington Secret Service rail police.

☛ Sightings and Spottings ☚

from the Daily Iowa Capital

from the Daily Iowa Capital

There was much conjecture about where Wolverton might be, as well as numerous sightings in the surrounding area of men thought to be him.

Some believed Wolverton was hiding with friends in Ottumwa in Mahaska County. Sheriff Jolley traveled there to conduct what he said was unrelated business, although locals speculated the trip was related to the Gilfillan murder.

Wright County Sheriff C.N. Bradfield detained a man in Clarion who matched Joe Wolverton’s description and could not account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. However, Osceola investigators interrogated and eliminated that person.

On January 7, a man resembling Joe Wolverton registered under the name “A.L. Norman” of Oskaloosa at the LaClede Hotel in Des Moines. When he said he wished to retire immediately, the night porter took him to room 17. However, the man did not enter the room. Instead, he returned to the front desk, settled his bill, said he was going to have a drink, and — after looking furtively around the hotel — left and did not return.

The most intriguing alleged spotting of the fugitive was by a Daily Iowa Capital newspaper correspondent who saw a man who matched the published description of Joe Wolverton on a Burlington passenger train on New Year’s night of 1899.

The reporter’s account — replete with intrigue and written in the third person — appeared in the January 11, 1897 edition of the Capital:

“New Year’s night as No. 2 pulled into Creston a man boarded the chair car and dropped into a seat in the rear of two boys, one of them grown and the other quite small. He drew the boys into conversation and while talking to them he suddenly recognized an old man sitting across the aisle a few seats in front of him and directly behind the newspaper man.

He left his seat and came over and sat with the old man and they had a long talk, but conversed in whispers and kept glancing up at the correspondent frequently, as if to see if he was listening. Finally the man who answered to Wolverton’s description traded a blue mackintosh which he was carrying on his arm for an overcoat which the old man carried and he also traded his plush cap for the old man’s black stiff hat. He next pulled from his pocket a set of false whiskers of a grayish color, which he put on and turned to the old man with a laugh, asked him how he looked. They then conversed again in a low tone and as the train was then nearing Afton Junction, a few miles west of Osceola, the man [believed to be] Wolverton got up and shook hands with his strange companion and stepping out on the platform, dropped off and disappeared in the darkness.

The newspaper man followed him to the platform but was unable to tell which way he had gone, as the night was dark and there were no lights in the neighborhood where he jumped off. If this was Wolverton, and he answered the description perfectly, even to the mackintosh overcoat which he carried, it is strange that he should return to the scene of the crime, which he evidently intended to do.”

☛ Two Years Later, An Arrest and Trial ☚

from the Corydon Republican

from the Corydon Republican

The murder of Mary Gilfillan haunted Osceola and cried out for solving. In addition, the lure of the reward was a strong incentive to investigation.

On November 17, 1898, after two years of eluding authorities, Joe Wolverton was tracked down to Maynard, Nebraska, where he had been living under the assumed name Groatt.

Wolverton was discovered through letters he exchanged with a brother living in Story County. Mr. King, the Cambridge Postmater, became suspicious and reported the missives to authorities.

After Iowa Governor Leslie M. Shaw issued an extradition order to have Wolverton returned to the state, the suspect was arrested by Clark County Sheriff C.D. Lukinbill and brought back to the Osceola Jail.

The suspect was then transferred to the Fort Madison Penitentiary out of fear for his safety because feelings about Mary Gilfillan’s murder ran high in the community.

Wolverton, who was engaged to be married at the time of his arrest, insisted he did not murder Mary Gilfillan and told authorities he fled because he had no way to prove his innocence.

from the Algona Upper Des Moines

from the Algona Upper Des Moines

His trail for first degree murder was held at the Clarke County Courthouse in Osceola during the December term of court after a change of venue and continuance were denied. Local men were said to be making themselves scarce so as not to have to serve on jury duty in the trial.

After deliberating 28 hours, the jury returned a not guilty verdict on December 17, 1898.

All that was left to do after the trial was to divide up the $250 reward: one third for Postmaster King of Cambridge; one third to Clarke County Sheriff C.D. Lukenbill; and one third to Postmaster Swearingen of Maynard, Nebraska.

No one else was charged with the murder of Mary Gilfillan and the victim, like so many others, failed to receive justice.


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



  • ☛ “Abbreviated Telegrams,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 29, 1896.
  • ☛ Burlington Hawk-Eye, January 15, 1899.
  • ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Davenport Weekly Leader, November 18, 1898.
  • ☛ “Corpse In Pump House,” Atlantic Daily Telegraph, December 29, 1896.
  • ☛ “Corpse In Pump House,” Carroll Sentinel, December 29, 1896.
  • ☛ “Fire and Casualty,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 28, 1896.
  • ☛ “History of a Week,” Goshen Democrat, January 6, 1897.
  • ☛ “History of a Week,” Oelwein Register, January 7, 1897.
  • ☛ “An Iowa Murder,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, December 29, 1896.
  • ☛ “Murder A Mystery Still,” Daily Iowa Capital, January 11, 1897.
  • ☛ “Murderer Arrested,” Reno Evening Gazette, November 17, 1898.
  • ☛ “Murderer Arrested,” Reno Weekly Gazette And Stockman, November 24, 1898.
  • ☛ “A Murderer Arrested,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, November 17, 1898.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Iowa State Bystander, January 1, 1897.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa: Mystery Solved,” Perry Advertiser, November 18, 1898.
  • ☛ “Not Guilty,” Spencer Clay County News, January 5, 1899.
  • ☛ “Probably Murdered,” Davenport Weekly Leader, January 1, 1897.
  • ☛ “Reward for an Alleged Murderer,” Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, January 6, 1897.
  • ☛ “Reward Offered for Wolverton,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 31, 1896.
  • ☛ “State News,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 11, 1899.
  • ☛ “Two Years A Fugitive,” Corydon Republican, November 24, 1898.
  • ☛ “Will Be Tried for Murder,” Janesville Daily Gazette, November 18, 1898.
  • ☛ “Wolverton Lodged In Jail,” Spencer Herald, November 23, 1898.

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