Dead From a “Wallop”: Murder of John Schnellbacker 1913

Murder Victim

John Schnellbacker
(John Schnellbächer)
55-year-old Handyman
East Des Moines Hotel
1858 -1913
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Argument

Murder Scene and Date

E. Third and E. Walnut streets
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
March 10, 1913


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2010

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

Late in the day of Monday, March 10, 1913, 55-year-old John Schnellbacker (Schnellbächer) was found unconscious on the sidewalk at the corner of East Third and Walnut streets in Des Moines.

Believing he was intoxicated, the police took Schnellbacker to the police station on a charge of drunkenness and identified him by papers in his pockets.

When authorities finally saw that Schnellbacker was critically injured and not drunk, Police Surgeons Percy B. Glew and Charles Bartruff worked all night to save his life. He was then taken to Mercy Hospital, where he died the next day.

from Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Newspaper reports described the severity of the victim’s injuries very differently.

The Des Moines Daily News reported that Schnellbacker had:

“A slight bruise on the head [that] indicated he might have fallen on the sidewalk [but Police Surgeons did] not think the injury enough to have resulted in death.”

However, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette said Schnellbacker was:

“Suffering from terrible bruises inflicted on [the] head and face [as well as] cuts about his neck [that] showed that the assailant or assailants had wielded a knife.”

John Schnellbacker was found unconscious at the corner of E. 3rd and E. Walnut in Des Moines (Google Street View).

Dr. Daniel J. Glomset, Professor of Pathology and Bacteriology at Drake University College of Medicine, performed a postmortem exam and discovered an internal skull fracture. He also found that Schnellbacker was in poor general health.

Little was known about Schnellbacker, except that he was from Marshalltown and had been recently staying at the East Des Moines Hotel operated by 45-year-old Alice M. Coggswell. She paid him to carry ashes out of the cellar.

Alice Coggswell said that Henry Franzen from Hanley, Iowa, was also staying in her hotel and that he and Schnellbacker quarreled.

According to the Des Moines Daily News, on the afternoon of the murder Franzen came up from the cellar and told Alice Coggswell:

“‘[I took] a wallop at ‘Old John.’”

When Alice Coggswell later saw Schnellbacker, he seemed dazed or intoxicated; but when she asked if he was hurt, he said he was fine. Six hours later, Schnellbacker was found unconscious on the sidewalk and died the next day.

Early in the investigation, Des Moines Police expressed certainty that an arrest was imminent, but none was ever made.

☛ John Schnellbacker’s Life ☚

John Schnellbacker was born in 1858 in Lindenfels, Germany, to Mary and H. Schnellbacker. He and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1879.

For a time, John Schnellbacker — who never married — farmed in Elk Creek Township of Jasper County. Polk County Coroner James M. Lee sent word of his death to the surviving family in Marshalltown.

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



  • ☛ “Death Mystery Of Marshalltown Man Is Baffling,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 11, 1913.
  • ☛ “Expect Early Arrest In Schnellbacker Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 12, 1913.
  • ☛ “Hanley Man May Be Summoned To Tell Of ‘Wallop,’” Des Moines Daily News, March 12, 1913.
  • ☛ “Investigate Death Of Man Found Unconscious,” Des Moines Daily News, March 11, 1913.

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