Death Along the Lincoln Highway: Murders of Rosela and Homer Brownfield 1922

Murder Victims

Rosela May “Rose” Brownfield
41-year-old Wayside Store Owner
1881-1922

Homer Francis Brownfield
43-year-old Veterinarian, Hog Farmer, & Wayside Store Owner
1879-1922

Cause of Deaths: Gunshots
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Brownfield Store
Low Moor Corner
Lincoln Highway
Low Moor, Iowa
Clinton County
November 3, 1922

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By Nancy Bowers
Written December 2011

location of Low Moore, Iowa

location of Low Moore, Iowa

In its heyday, the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway was a heavily traveled route straight through the heart of Iowa.

All along the highway stores, tourist camps, restaurants, and gas stations — mostly “Mom and Pop” businesses — served the needs of travelers.

Ten miles east of Clinton and the Mississippi River, a road — now County Road Z36 — ran north from the tiny town of Low Moor and intersected the Lincoln Highway.

In 1922, at that crossroads — called the “Low Moor Corner” — stood a wayside store operated by 43-year-old Homer Brownfield and his wife Rose 41. Facing towards the highway, it was the lone building at the intersection.

☛ Murder at Low Moor Corner ☚

Rose and Homer Brownfield (courtesy Ancestry.com)

At 8:00 a.m. Saturday, November 4, 1922, an early customer made a horrible discovery inside the Brownfield store.

Homer Brownfield, 43, was dead, apparently shot as he bent over the counter to help a robber pretending to be a customer. Lying on the floor nearby was 41-year-old Rose Brownfield, her head bloody and her stockings rolled down.

Rose was still alive but unconscious and unable to tell investigators what happened before she died at 9:00 a.m., about 12 hours after she was shot.

Initially, it looked like Rose was clubbed to death; however, an autopsy by Coroner Dr. Charles F. Kellogg revealed gunshot wounds. Rose was also sexually assaulted.

Dr. Kellogg later told newspapers, “Mrs. Brownfield had been most shamefully mistreated, beaten and criminally assaulted while dying.”

☛ Investigation Leads Nowhere ☚

Clinton County Sheriff C.I. Ramsey headed up the investigation, with help from the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

As word spread of the murders, Lincoln Highway motorists came forward with tips that established the Brownfield business was still lighted at 9:00 p.m. on Friday night, but was dark by 9:45.

Other than the time frame, nothing else was learned about the homicides.

Despite a $500 reward offered by the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, the case went cold.

☛ 1924: Shocking Confession ☚

Nearly two years after the murders, Clinton County authorities announced the Brownfield homicides were solved.

Harold “Buster” Dannatt (Atlantic News Telegraph)

Seventeen-year-old Harold “Buster” Dannatt — whose parents Floyd and Gertrude Dannatt owned the land where the Brownfield business was located — boasted he had first-hand knowledge of the murders.

When he made these claims, Buster was drunk on bootleg alcohol, which his parents admitted was a common occurrence.

Buster Dannatt was arrested on Saturday, August 23, 1924 and brought in for questioning.

He quickly confessed to the murders, and named his accomplices: Arnold Dierks, 26, and his brother Clarence Dierks, 24; and Harold “Scoop” Smith. All three men lived with their parents in the Low Moor area.

In a statement witnessed by County Attorney Emmett P. Delaney, other county officials, and a Department of Justice representative, Dannatt told a detailed story, published in the Davenport Democrat and Leader.

Dannatt said on the night of the murder he picked up Scoop Smith in his Ford Touring Car and then the Dierks brothers, who suggested the robbery and said the Brownfields were rumored to keep $2,000 on hand.

Dannatt went in first to case the store by asking to borrow a dollar from Homer Brownfield and went back to his car parked at the rear of the store, ready to be the getaway driver. While Smith guarded the front door, the Dierks brothers went inside the front. Two shots were fired — presumably from the .25 caliber revolver Clarence Dierks showed them earlier by the illumination of the car headlights.

The brothers came out with a pocketbook containing between $200 and $400. The other three split the money — Dannatt said he refused what was offered him — and the brothers burned the pocketbook in their backyard.

The confession was laden with tough-guy dialog like, “Why not do it tonight and have it over with?” and “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Dannett detailed the men’s dramatic escape, describing how they pulled their sweaters over their heads when one car approached them and then jumped out and hid behind bushes when another automobile drove near close to them.

Dannatt said they went to Clinton and he provided the name of every street they drove on. After visiting the stockyards, he said, they stopped at the Coney Island Stand and “bought a biscuit apiece” before returning to Low Moor.

The other three young men denied every detail of Buster Dannatt’s elaborate story. All were from prominent, hard-working families and had no criminal record.

Because they never wavered from their accounts of innocence while Dannatt changed his account repeatedly, they were soon released from custody.

☛ Another Confession: “I am the biggest liar outside Hell” ☚

Within days of the first admission of guilt, Dannatt — declaring, “I am the biggest liar outside Hell” — made a second one which he termed “the true confession.”

from the Davenport Democrat and Leader

Although he said he “hated” the other three men, he exonerated them and admitted they did not murder the Brownfields.

Dannatt said he implicated Scoop Smith to get even after Smith accused him of stealing his liquor and made him pay for it. He heard the Dierks brothers were suspects in 1922, so he mentioned them to give his story plausibility.

In the second confession — this one also reprinted in the Davenport Democrat and Leader – he told Benton County investigators:

“Left house at 6:30 in car, stopped at Low Moor than went to Folletts where I bought oil then back to restaurant at Low Moor, where I got something to eat. At 8:30, I went to the Brownfield store. Low Moor corners. Drove the car to the northeast corner went in and borrowed a dollar of Brownfield.

Then I came out and investigated the gas and oil in the car. Went back into the store. Brownfield was back of the [soda] fountain. I ordered a bottle of pop. Brownfield asked ‘What kind?’ I said ‘My favorite.’ As Brownfield reached for the pop I plugged him in the head with a gun.

Then Mrs. Brownfield came out. I raced toward her, stretched out my arm and fired at her. Got a blanket out of the dining room and threw it over her. I bought the revolver of Montgomery & Ward three weeks prior to the shooting. Two weeks before the murder I bought shells at Armstrong’s, Clinton.

I threw one of the wallets I found, a red one, and a revolver into an outdoor vault on my father’s farm.”

Investigators dug on the Dannatt farm where Buster Dannatt claimed he’d thrown the wallet and gun, but nothing was found.

And no records were located at Montgomery Ward to establish Dannatt bought a gun by mail order.

County Attorney Emmett P. Delaney told newspapers that Dannatt’s stories were fabricated and if investigators caught him in one lie, he’d make up another to explain it.

Another Clinton County official said that Dannatt was, “One of the most daring and thorough liars . . . ever encountered.”

☛ “Queer Mental Twist”? ☚

Dannatt’s parents told authorities Buster had always “acted queer.”

Pointing to a visible scar on his scalp, they said “a horse kick in [the] head when he was a child” caused his “queer mental twist.”

Authorities concluded Buster Dannatt was mentally unbalanced — either from his earlier head injury or from drinking “poisonous” bootleg alcohol.

Harold Dannatt was released from custody in November 1924.

☛ 1925: New Accusations ☚

Agent Donald A. Davis, who gained attention by solving the March 1924 murder of prominent Cedar Rapids businessman Ethel Collicott, was assigned to “unravel” the Brownfield homicides, even though they had been cold for three years.

Daniel “Dan” O’Neal, Brownfield suspect (Davenport Democrat and Leader)

Using tipsters from the Collicott case, Donald Davis was determined to link the Collicott murder to the Brownfield homicides. And, initially, he seemed successful.

In mid-April of 1925, tips by Fort Madison convict Sylvester Miller and a woman named Effie Wilson — who both provided details in the Collicot case — led to the arrest of Cedar Rapids residents William “Buck” McLaughlin, a.k.a. James Buckley, and Daniel “Dan” O’Neal.

McLaughlin and O’Neal were rum runners who frequently drove the Lincoln Highway to transport booze between Chicago and Cedar Rapids.

Dan O’Neal was placed in the Clinton County Jail. Buck McLaughlin was already in custody, serving a term for robbery in the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing.

BCI Director James Risden (courtesy Iowa DPS).

James E. Risden, Chief of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was certain the two men were guilty, and announced that “McLaughlin did the dirty work” in the shootings.

Clinton County authorities ordered the exhumation of Rose Brownfield to determine the extent of the injuries and to learn if she might have lived if found sooner.

On May 22, 1925, the Clinton County District Court grand jury returned indictments against McLaughlin and O’Neal for first degree murder in the Brownfield case.

Special Prosecutor George Claussen was in charge of presenting the state’s case.

The heart of the case was a witness who said he saw the automobile of the accused outside the Brownfield store the night of the murder, heard two gun shots — which at first he thought were tire explosions — and then was passed on the Lincoln Highway by the fleeing men.

Suspect William “Buck” O’Laughlin (Davenport Democrat and Leader)

The witness said he caught up with McLaughlin and O’Neal at Cedar Rapids, where they stopped to rearrange their cargo. As they transferred their guns from outside to inside pockets, the witness said he saw a .25 caliber automatic like that used in the Brownfield murders.

Dan O’Neal’s defense attorney, Carl Jordan, requested O’Neal be arraigned quickly and that a special jury be called for the June term of court for his trial. Claiming he had 15 to 20 witnesses who could provide an alibi for O’Neal, Carl Jordan insisted, “They have absolutely nothing on him.”

On November 12, 1925, Dan O’Neal was released from jail and the charges were nolle prossed; Clinton County Attorney George Mattson admitted he did not have enough evidence to convict O’Neal and was voluntarily dropping the charges.

Effie Wilson, who originally said O’Neal committed the Brownfield murders and another one in Cedar Rapids, was found to be lying about both. She was charged with perjury, but those charges were later dropped.

Because the case against O’Neal collapsed, the case against William McLaughlin never moved forward.

No one has ever been brought to justice for the murders of Rose and Homer Brownfield.

☛ The Lives of Rose and Homer Brownfield ☚

Rosela May “Rose” Brown was born in Jasper County, Iowa, in June of 1881, the oldest child of Emma Darnell and William Andrew Brown. She had three brothers — Earl Brown, Marion Brown, and Harry Brown, as well as two sisters, Pearl J. Brown Bohne and Elizabeth Leon Brown Levi.

In 1899, Rose married Harrison S. Briggs, a Sheridan, Nebraska, day laborer. They divorced before 1906.

Homer Francis Brownfield was born February 23, 1879 in Champaign, Illinois, to Elizabeth Funkhouser and Elias K. Brownfield. He had two brothers — Leroy Brownfield and Crawford Andersen Brownfield — and three sisters: Jannettie Brownfield Neilson, Ica Dora Brownfield Mitchell, and Edith Belle Brownfield Sinclair.

The Brownfield family moved from Illinois to Sheridan, Nebraska.

While living in Sheridan, Homer Brownfield met Rose Briggs. The two married in 1906 and moved first to Randall, South Dakota, and then on to Low Moor in Clinton County, Iowa.

Homer worked as a veterinarian, raised pure-bred livestock, and operated — with Rose’s assistance — their business at the Low Moor Corner along the Lincoln Highway.

The couple, who had no children, were buried in Clinton’s Springdale Cemetery; there are no markers for their graves.
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Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ Alden Times, August 25, 1924.
  • ☛ “Counsel Asks Trial of Low Moor Suspect,” Waterloo Evening Courier, May 23, 1925.
  • ☛ “Dannatt Given Liberty; Crime Case Unsolved,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 28, 1924.
  • ☛ “Four Held for Murder,” Palo Alto Reporter, September 11, 1924.
  • ☛ “Grand Jury Indicts Two for 1922 Crime, Waterloo Evening Courier, May 22, 1925.
  • ☛ “Low Moor Crime Is Near End,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, June 12, 1925.
  • ☛ “Low Moor Murder ‘Confession’ Boy’s Fantasy?’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 28, 1924.
  • ☛ “Man Who Solved Collicott Murder on Low Moor Case,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 4, 1924.
  • ☛ “New Dannatt Story of Low Moor Murder Goes Way of First Confession,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 26, 1924.
  • ☛ “Offer Reward For Double Murder At Clinton,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 6, 1922.
  • ☛ “O’Neal Let Go In Brownfield Murder Cases,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, November 12, 1925.
  • ☛ “O’Neal Trial As Slayer Is Set For Next Week,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 28, 1925.
  • ☛ “Probe of Low Moor Murders Being Pushed,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, April 17, 1925.
  • ☛ “Risden Certain of Conviction of M’Laughlin,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, April 19, 1925.
  • ☛ “Rum-Runners Accused in Brownfield Murders; Face Indictment at June Term, Davenport Democrat and Leader, June 19, 1925.
  • ☛ “Slain Woman Is Fiend’s Victim, Says Coroner,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 24, 1925.
  • ☛ “State Fastens Murder Guilt On A Convict,” Sioux City Journal, April 19, 1925.
  • ☛ “Tells Conflicting Stories Regarding Double Slaying,” Atlantic Telegraph, August 26, 1924.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ Waterloo Evening Courier, November 2, 1925.
  • ☛ “Woman’s Body Is Exhumed At Clinton Plea,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 1, 1925.

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