Deadly Holiday Excursion: Murder of Alexander McArthur 1899

Murder Victim

Alexander McArthur
22-year-old Laborer
Cedar Rapids Resident
Cause of Death: Pushed From Train
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

West of Train Depot
Davenport, Iowa
Scott County
September 5, 1899


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2011

location of Davenport, Iowa

location of Davenport, Iowa

On Labor Day morning of 1899 — Monday, September 4 — 22–year-old Cedar Rapids resident Alexander McArthur was in high spirits in the home at 1001 South Fifth Street he shared with his father Martin.

When he showed his father $60 he’d earned working for Rolla Jackson, the old man advised him to deposit the money in a bank.

But Alexander had other ideas. He took the $60 and boarded an eastbound Excursion Train to Davenport to celebrate Labor Day and then to take in the Johnson County Fair in Iowa City on the way home.

But, Alexander failed to return from his holiday trip and his father never saw him alive again.

☛ Murder on the Train ☚

postcard view of Davenport train station

postcard view of Davenport train station

On the evening of Tuesday, September 5, a Rock Island passenger train chugged slowly west out of the Davenport train station. Lena Aldine — who lived across from the tracks about 300 yards from the station — leaned out the window to watch it pass.

Two men stood on the rear platform. Just as they moved past Aldine, one man pushed the other off into the path of an eastbound Chicago Rock Island and Pacific freight engine on the other track.

Then he jumped from the train car and ran down East Fifth Street into the approaching darkness.

Lena Aldine alerted the Davenport Police and reporting officers found a man’s badly mangled body on the tracks. According to the Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, the victim was “literally ground to shreds” by the train wheels.

Until the Scott County Coroner could be summoned, Officer Adam Staffenbiel took charge of the body.

The mangled corpse was put on display at Boles Undertaking Parlor. Next to it lay personal effects which escaped the train wheels: a return ticket stub to Cedar Rapids, two nickels, and a linen shirt collar marked “J. McA.”

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette cynically wrote about the curious who filed through the funeral home on Wednesday:

“All day yesterday many people called there for the purpose of identifying the remains or one pretext or another.”

By the time the man’s belongings were bundled up by the undertaker, someone had stolen one of the nickels as a ghoulish keepsake.

Victim is Identified

from the Davenport Weekly Leader

from the Davenport Weekly Leader

Because the victim’s return ticket was to Cedar Rapids, Davenport authorities telegraphed the man’s description to the City Marshal there, Joseph Kozlovsky.

Shortly afterwards, Marshal Kozlovsky happened onto Martin McArthur on the street. When McArthur told him his son Alexander went to Davenport and did not return, Kozlovsky informed Martin about the unidentified murder victim in Davenport.

Martin McArthur — assuming that Alexander was wearing his brother’s shirt, thus the mark “J. McA” on the collar — sent a detailed telegram to Davepnport authorities describing his son. And a match was made.

On Wednesday, September 6, Marshal Kozlovsky accompanied Martin McArthur and his daughter Catherine McArthur Alt by train to Davenport, where they identified the victim as their son and brother, Alexander.

At 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, the family left on the with the body on a train bound for Cedar Rapids and what was left of Alexander was buried in the Murdoch-Lynnwood Cemetery, where today he shares an impressive tombstone with his father Martin.

☛ Investigation ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Police reported to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette what they believed happened:

“McArthur fell in with some fellow to whom he foolishly exhibited his roll on Monday and who induced him to stay over the night.”

Officials believed the companion robbed McArthur and pushed him off the train to cover his crime.

On Thursday, September 6, Scott County Coroner Dr. Fredrick Lambach convened an inquest at the funeral home which took up most of that day and the following Saturday.

Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter who sat in on the inquest reported the general speculations:

“[McArthur] was in company with another stranger while in the city, whose name seems to be Wellsley. Together they visited the resorts in the lower part of town and it is reported that money was freely spent.

A report is also in circulation to the effect that he made the remark in one of the houses that he would not spend any more money as he was nearly ‘broke,’ and that he would have to save enough to get back to Cedar Rapids.”

Although investigators could not find Wellsley, a man named L.M. Johnson claimed he was still in town and was telling people his “pal” was run over by the train.

☛ Conflicting Witness Testimony ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Lena Aldine insisted to the coroner’s jury that she saw the victim and the man who pushed him standing on the rear platform of the train. She also said she was put out of her house by a “colored woman” because she “had talked too much” about the incident.

With the help of Officer Adam Stuffenbiel, Aldine located that woman — Mrs. Matilda Marshall — and another woman, Miss Mattie Marshall, who were brought before the jury. Their statements seemed vague to jurors, as if the two were hiding something.

However, Davenport resident C.A. Carlson contradicted Lena Aldine. He said he was sitting in front of the Kyle Saloon on Fifth Street between Brady and Perry as the train pulled away from the station.

Carlson said a man boarded the third car from the front and that a few yards west another man got on the same car. Then a man in a white uniform came out of the car, an arm was extended, McArthur fell off to the south, and the other man jumped from the train to the north.

Carlson’s claims led to the investigation of a black train porter, George Slater; and some newspapers even incorrectly reported that Slater confessed to shoving McArthur off because he didn’t have a ticket.

George Slater testified that he rode the platform of the mail coach as the train pulled out of the station and remained there, looking for tramps, until it reached Brady Street, where he jumped off and permitted the smoker car to pass and then got back on.

Slater claimed he knew nothing of the death until he returned to Davenport the next morning.

James Baker, a Why Store [sic] employee, corroborated Slater’s testimony, having seen the porter get off at Fifth and Brady and then back on further down the train. The railroad company, moreover, stated no train employee wore a white uniform.

George Slater was cleared and let go.

Another witness, Davenport cigar maker Joe Hendel, said he jumped off the smoker about 30 feet east of where McArthur was killed but knew nothing was amiss until a crowd gathered. He insisted that McArthur did not fall off the rear of the train.

On Saturday, September 8, the jury — composed of Layton R. Ackley, Charles M. Wittig, and John D. Tichenor — released their ruling:

“The deceased came to his death by being run over by an East [sic] going freight of the C.R. I. and P., Sept. 5, 1899, at about 9:15 o’clock.”

The jury did not single out accident, suicide, or homicide as the cause of death.

☛ A Father’s Search for the Truth ☚

photo Frank Holmes

Martin McArthur asked Cedar Rapids insurance adjustor James LeGore to investigate his son Alexander’s death. LeGore traveled to Davenport to interview coroner’s jury witnesses and others, hoping to establish that Alexander McArthur was pushed from the train by a porter and to locate Alexander McArthur’s mysterious companion Wellsley to confirm the murderous porter theory.

LeGore learned that the friend’s name was actually Ellsey Riley. He searched for Riley in Davenport and then traveled to Albany, Illinois, on the east side of the Mississippi River to locate L.M. Johnson, who supposedly knew where Riley was.

The insurance adjustor admitted that Riley probably would not be found and was making himself scarce for fear of implication in the death.

Neither LeGore nor official investigators could establish how McArthur came to be under the wheels of the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific freight engine.

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



  • ☛ “Around A Big State,” Sumner Gazette, September 21, 1899.
  • ☛ “It Gave No Light,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 8, 1899.
  • ☛ “Railroad Porter’s Crime,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Post, September 8, 1899.
  • ☛ “Railroad Porter’s Crime,” Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette, September 12, 1899.
  • ☛ “Pushed From Train: Killed,” Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, September 13, 1899.
  • ☛ “Verdict Rendered,” Davenport Daily Leader, September 11, 1899.
  • ☛ “Was Murdered For His Money,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 6, 1899.
  • ☛ “Who Is Ellsey Riley?” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 15, 1899.

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