Death Going West: Murder of Apple Grove John Doe 1866

Murder Victim

“Apple Grove John Doe”
Stephen D. Cooper
Stonemason, US Cavalry Veteran
Cause of Death: Struck with Axe
Motive: Argument

Murder Scene and Date

Apple Grove, Beaver Township
Polk County, Iowa
Late April, 1866


By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2012

After the Civil War, thousands of travelers called “emigrants” trekked over the unbroken prairies of Iowa. Some were passing through to points farther west, some headed for local settlements.

The journey was difficult, and many emigrants died from hardships, disease, and accidental death.

And even though they usually traveled in numbers, the chances of being set upon and robbed were always present, as was murder. Homicide resulted when clashes erupted within emigrant groups or with other groups who competed for resources or held long-standing ethnic antagonisms.

Lambert Sternberg lived in Beaver Township in the eastern portion of Polk County near Apple Grove — today only a ghost town — three miles south of Mitchellville.

Polk County Townships (Polk County GenWeb)

In the third week of April in 1866, Sternberg came upon a party of six emigrants — three men and three women — with a wagon and supplies. One of the men told Sternberg he was the “owner of the outfit.”

The group stayed overnight on the banks of Camp Creek running between the properties of Sternberg and William C. Humphrey.

Around the same time, Sternberg saw another party of about 10 emigrants camped near the same spot. He witnessed two men in this group heatedly disagree before they were separated, and he later described it as a “knock-down argument with great energy.”

On the morning of May 4, 1866, a man newspapers called “an Irishman” went looking for a stray horse along Camp Creek. Instead, he found a dead man.

The Irishman ran to the Humphrey home to spread word of his horrible discovery. When others returned with him to the crime scene, they saw drag marks for 50 yards on the ground.

The man’s wrists bore defensive wounds from a double-bitted axe dropped nearby. His money and identification had been stolen; as his pockets were rifled, a round metallic mirror fell on the ground near the axe used to kill him.

With the hope someone could identify him, newspapers carefully detailed the victim’s appearance and clothing.

“Apple Grove John Doe” ☚

The dead man was about 5′ 8″ and solidly-built, probably 35 to 40 years-old. Gray strands shone through his black hair.

Canton flannel underwear

He wore Canton flannel “drawers” — pantaloons buttoned at the top and tapered to the ankles, where they tied with a draw cord — and a blousy, long-sleeved Canton flannel undershirt tied at the wrists.

On the right knee and the seat of his cashmere pants were “snuff brown” patches. The pants pockets contained two white linen handkerchiefs and two “fine” combs, one white and the other black.

The collar of his white cotton pull-on “over-shirt” was snugged up with a “check gingham necktie.”

His “plush” vest was made of material in a cross-barred pattern with flowers between the bars. And over the vest he wore a short coat with a brown velvet collar.

Reproduced checked gingham cravat of the time

On his feet were “new” Kip Boots with one-to-two inch heels and leather uppers rising to just below his knees. Under the boots he wore mixed cotton socks.

The brim of his cotton-crowned black hat was made of soft plush.

And over his clothes, he wore a Union Army Cavalry overcoat with the name “S.D. Cooper” written inside.

Hundreds of people from around the area came to gaze at the body, but no one recognized the man or his clothes.

Waiting for an Inquest

U.S. Cavalry overcoat

In 1866, neither Beaver Township nor Polk County were prepared to deal with a murder. Because he built coffins, Des Moines cabinetmaker John M. Reicheneker was the County Coroner.

But Reicheneker was unavailable. So, for an entire day — from the time the body was found on May 4 till the morning of May 5 — the community waited for an inquest.

During that time, hogs mutilated and ate the corpse.

The Verdict

In the absence of the Coroner, an inquest was conducted on Saturday, May 5 by Justice of the Peace Benjamin Pearson, an early settler who lived between Camp and Mud creeks; William T. Allen, John A. Craig, and long-time and well-respected resident Thomas “Uncle Tommy” Mitchell served as jurors.

Early settler Thomas Mitchell served on the coroner’s jury.

The sole inquest witness was P.H. Humphrey, who lived on the property where the body was found.

According to the Daily Iowa State Register, the inquest consisted of three simple questions and three simple answers:

“Q. ‘When did you hear of this dead body?’”
A. ‘May 4th, 9 o’clock A.M.’
Q. ‘When did you first see the dead body?’
A. ‘A few minutes after getting word.’
Q. ‘Do you believe the person was murdered?’
A. ‘Yes.’”

The coroner’s jury ruled the unknown man was dead a week-to-ten days and was “killed by blows with an axe by some person unknown.”

Because Lambert Sternberg saw two parties of emigrants stopping at Camp Creek near the time of the murder, it was assumed the dead man was traveling with one of those groups, perhaps was one of the men who violently argued.

Immediately after the verdict, Apple Grove John Doe was placed in a grave already dug at the edge of Camp Creek.

The Daily Iowa State Register — pointing out no mention was made during the inquest of the body’s having been dragged — wrote:

“True, the whole affair is one of those horrible mysteries which shock and bewilder the public mind, and yet fail to furnish any evidence of the identity of the victim and his murderer. The jury probably did all that they were able to do under the circumstances; but it strikes us that there might have been a more searching and satisfactory inquisition.”

Dead Along the Way

The murdered man was buried along Camp Creek without a name. Hundreds of others like him — unknown, struck down traveling through a strange place — are buried in similar graves along emigrant pathways.

Their next of kin may have been unknown or gone unnotified out of carelessness or neglect. Family and friends assumed they started a new life and didn’t want to be found. Or knowing the challenges of traveling west, those left behind believed their loved one was dead.

Those traveling with John Doe — or at least one of them — dragged his body to Camp Creek. Then he and the others packed up and moved on without a proper burial for the dead man and without notification to local authorities of the death.

How did the man die? Was he struck and killed in self-defense? Did the victim and his killer step away from the group to settle an argument and only one of them return?

Did the others ask about the victim? Were they afraid or intimidated by his killer? Did they just simply not care?

Apple Grove John Doe: Stephen D. Cooper?

A search of censuses and military records and an examination of the body and clothing of Apple Creek Joe Doe suggest the dead man may have been 36-year-old Illinois resident Stephen D. Cooper.

U.S. Cavalry overcoat

The most helpful clue is the name “S.D. Cooper” inside the sleeve of the Cavalry overcoat.

Military records show that 33-year-old married stone mason Stephen D. Cooper was recruited to the Union Army on September 5, 1861 in Pana, Illinois, by Lieutenant William N. Elliot.

On November 8, 1861, Cooper was mustered in at Camp Butler near Springfield and assigned for three years to the 5th Illinois United States Cavalry, Regiment G. The Fifth was organized at this time under Colonel Hall Wilson and later saw service in St. Louis, southern Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

On January 30, 1864 at Red Bud, Illinois, Stephen D. Cooper reenlisted as “a veteran,” which guaranteed him a furlough from March 17 to May 19 of 1864. This was a time when Stephen D. Cooper could rejoin his family, could find sanctuary from the war.

Stephen D. Cooper and the entire 5th Illinois Cavalry were mustered out October 27, 1865 and received final payment and discharge on October 30, 1865.

Physical Characteristics

Apple Grove John Doe corresponds in age and physical characteristics to Stephen D. Cooper.

Cooper was 33-years-old when he enlisted in 1861 and would have been 38 at the time of the murder. The estimated age of Apple Grove John Doe was between 35-40.

The murdered man was about 5′ 7″; Stephen D. Cooper was 5’8.”

Army records list Cooper’s hair as black; Apple Grove John Doe had black hair flecked with gray that he may have earned during the hard years of the Civil War.

John Doe was “heavy set,” perhaps in the way a stone mason – Cooper’s profession — would be.


Apple Grove John Doe’s clothing could well have been acquired and worn by Stephen Cooper.

Kip boots were issued to Union soldiers; after the war, the government allowed the public to buy from their oversupply of standard-issue items like the boots. Cooper, accustomed to wearing Kip boots during the war, may have prepared for his trek west by purchasing new ones.

Canton flannel underwear issued by the Union was in great supply after the war. Stephen Cooper may have bought a new pair or retained the ones he was provided in the Cavalry.

5th Illinois Cavalry soldier Henry Gilbreath wearing a velvet-collared coat.

The photo to the right shows Henry Gilbreath who, like Stephen D. Cooper, was a resident of Randolph County, Illinois, and enlisted in the Union Army in Pana in the fall of 1861. Gilbreath and Cooper were mustered into the 5th Illinois Cavalry that November, re-enlisted as veterans in 1864, and were mustered out in October 1865. In the photo, Gilbreath is wearing a velvet-collared coat similar to that found on Apple Grove John Doe’s body, possibly bought from the same local tailor or merchant in their home county.

Apple Grove John Doe’s coat and white linen handkerchiefs suggest a certain prosperity that would have marked Cooper’s life as a farmer and stone mason before the war.

The two combs in his pockets hint at attention to appearance, with the cravat and plush vest providing the sort of flair that Cavalry soldiers often exhibited.

Of course, the most telling item of Apple Grove John Doe’s clothing was the Cavalry overcoat with the name “S.D. Cooper” written inside.

Who Was Stephen D. Cooper?

Stephen D. Cooper was born in 1828 in Washington County, Ohio. By 1850, he had married Hannah E. Stiles and they lived in Warren Township of Washington, Ohio; his occupation was stone cutter.

During the next decade, Stephen and Hannah Cooper migrated to Randolph County in southern Illinois, where they farmed at the time of the 1860 census and got their mail at Prairie Du Rocher. Their daughter Alice was 6 and their son Frank 2.

When Stephen Cooper enlisted in the 5th Illinois Cavalry in 1861, he was said to “reside” in Pana Precinct, 133 miles northwest of Prairie Du Rocher, suggesting either the Cooper family had relocated in the year between the census and his enlistment or that he traveled there specifically to enlist.

In the 1870 Census, there are no records of any member of the Stephen D. and Hannah E. Cooper family.

However in the 1880 Census, Hannah — classified as a widow — was recorded in Memphis, Clinton County, Illinois, with her children Frank, Lucetta, and twins Lucinda and Arthur.

On July 2, 1880, Stephen D. Cooper’s wife Hannah applied for a pension as his widow, stating that he served in the 5th Illinois Cavalry Company G.

In an account of the marriage of Stephen’s and Hannah’s daughter Lucinda to John Edward Wylie, Progressive Men of Western Colorado states that Stephen D. Cooper died in 1875 in Washington County, Illinois.

If that date is accurate, then Apple Grove John Doe could not be Stephen D. Cooper, despite the physical similarities, the manner of dress, or the name “S. D. Cooper” written inside the Cavalry overcoat.

There are no death records for Stephen D. Cooper, no available cemetery stone, no newspaper accounts of his death. In applying for her military pension, his widow Hannah did not specify the date of his death.

It’s possible that 1875 was the date Cooper was finally declared legally dead and that action was taken in Washington County, Illinois.

Many Questions

Where was Apple Grove John — or Stephen D. Cooper — going when he was murdered?

The Oregon Trail ran south of Iowa.

The most common method of travel west in that time was by the Oregon Trail, which started at St. Louis, ran across northern Missouri, then through the northeast corner of Kansas, and merged in Nebraska with a trail originating at the Missouri River in Council Bluffs.

Stephen Cooper, if he was the murder victim, would have had only a short trip from Randolph County, Illinois, to St. Louis — the place where the Oregon Trail began at the Mississippi.

The Mormon Trail did not cross Polk County.

The Mormon Trail did not cross Polk County. The Mormon Trail of 1846 started at Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi and eventually joined at Council Bluffs what was essentially the Oregon Trail. However, Apple Grove John Doe and his fellow emigrants could not have followed that trail and traveled through Polk County.

It is possible, however, that the murdered man and his companions followed either the Oregon or Mormon trails and turned north at some known path such as pioneer roads which became present day I-35, Highway 69, or Highway 65.

If Apple Grove John Doe started farther north in Illinois and crossed the Mississippi at Davenport, it was a straight path across the southern third of Iowa to Council Bluffs, where he could join the Oregon Trail.

Was Iowa the murdered man’s final destination? Did he have relatives already in Iowa?

Who was traveling with the victim? Were they people he knew and began the journey with or were they individuals who formed a group as they traveled, picking up members along the way?

Forever Unknown

Someone rests in that long-forgotten grave along Camp Creek near the ghost town Apple Grove in Polk County. Many signs point to it being Stephen D. Cooper. But whoever the murdered man is, those who knew are long-dead. And unless some confession or bit of memory was preserved in a letter, diary, or oral communication, he will be unknown forever.

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



  • LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS: Union Army Uniforms and Insignia of the Civil War, Compiled by Dr. Howard G. Lanham.
  • ☛ Roster of Company “G” 5th Illinois Cavalry, ILGenWeb Project.
  • ☛ “Additional Particulars!” Daily Iowa State Register, May 9, 1866.
  • ☛ “The Deadliest Enemy,” by Dale Thomas, The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, 2008.
  • ☛ “Henry Gilbreath,” Photo Archive,
  • ☛ Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls, Illinois State Archives.
  • ☛ “Inquest In The Murder Case!” Daily Iowa State Register, May 9, 1866.
  • ☛
  • Pioneers of Polk County, Iowa and reminiscences of early days, L.F. Andrews, 1908.
  • Portraits of Citizens of Polk County, State of Iowa, 1875.
  • Progressive Men of Western Colorado, A. W. Bowen & Co., 1905.
  • Regimental and Unit Histories, Illinois Adjutant General’s Report: Containing Reports for the years 1861-1866.
  • ☛ “Stephen D. Cooper,” Illinois Civil War Detail Report, Illinois State Archives.
  • ☛ “Thomas Mitchell,” Pioneers of Polk County, Iowa; And Reminences of Early Days, Vol 1, L.F. Andrews, 1908.
  • ☛ “Uncle Tommy” Pioneers of Polk County, Vol I. 1908.
  • ☛ U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865.
  • ☛ Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive.
  • The U.S. Army in the West: 1870-1880.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

4 Responses to Death Going West: Murder of Apple Grove John Doe 1866

  1. DJJ says:

    Perhaps, the murder victim had stolen the U.S. Cavalry overcoat from Stephen D. Cooper because he was of similar build.

  2. Nancy Bowers says:

    Yes, the murder victim may have stolen the overcoat or even have bought it from Stephen D. Cooper. That person would also have had to be the same age and have similar hair color. It would be interesting to know if Cavalry veterans kept their overcoats because they were designed to be functional and worked well against the elements and/or because they were proud of their service. Or if they were a souvenir of status. If the latter, then they would’ve been desirable for others to buy or steal.

  3. DARRELL DOTY says:


  4. Nancy Bowers says:

    I think it’s fairly certain the axe was lost track of over the many years since the murder. So many people would have handled it that any DNA found would be meaningless.

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