Death In the Rail Yard: Murder of Bill Dayton 1894

Murder Victim

Bill “Billy” Dayton
Age and Occupation Unknown
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Train Yard
Boone, Iowa
Boone County
August 22, 1894


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2014

location of Boone, Iowa

location of Boone, Iowa

During the third week of August in 1894, a group described by newspapers as “a party of seven Negroes” — four women and three men — spent a few days in Boone, Iowa, a small but busy rail hub in central Boone County.

The group, whose residence was unknown, might have been looking for employment at the many hotels, restaurants, and other businesses which served the large number of rail passengers and train employees passing through the town.

Or the seven may have been on a holiday, a getaway from one of the grim coal mining camps in Boone County or in Polk County to the southeast like Saylorville and Marquis, where some whole populations were made up of African-Americans brought from the southeastern United States to replace striking white coal miners in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Postcard view of the Boone train yard.

Postcard view of the Boone train yard.

About 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday August 22, the party of seven approached a Chicago & Northwestern Railroad train in the rail yard and the four women and one of the men boarded a passenger car. The other two men — Bill “Billy” Dayton and John Wells — searched for a place to ride the train for free.

A favorite spot for those hitching rides was the blind baggage car behind the tinderbox, with its only door facing the engine. Small recesses on the outside of that door provided a foothold and protection from the wind to those who were strong enough to cling on and gave them space to press into so they would not be seen by conductors on the last passenger car.

Riding the blinds (Photo by Popular Mechanics)

Riding the blinds (Photo by Popular Mechanics)

It was dangerous and illegal to sneak onto a train or “ride the blinds,” but it was free transportation and commonly done by those without means — itinerant workers or tramps who called stealing onto a train “beating a ride.”

Railroad police patrolled the yards looking for illegal hitchhikers, so ride-stealers often waited until the train had pulled a short distance away from the depot before jumping on. Right before the next stop, they hopped off before being seen by station personnel.

Just as Dayton and Wells stepped up onto the unlit side of the train to make their ways towards the blind baggage car, shots were fired at them. Both men fell off the train and onto the ground near the rails, where they were discovered by train employees.

Bill Dayton was dead from a gunshot, and Wells had sustained what newspapers described as “an ugly scalp wound” from a bullet.

☛ What Happened in the Rail Yard? ☚

Railroad police speculated the two victims fired on each other, with Dayton getting the worst of the exchange.

Wounded survivor Wells denied that scenario; however, he told investigators two differing accounts of what happened.

from the Anita Tribune

from the Anita Tribune

In one version, Wells stated that two white men walking by the train — feeling insulted by something the black men said — fired on them and fled.

In a second rendering, Wells claimed he and Dayton were shot by somebody already on the train as they tried to steal aboard.

Train tramps were often armed, as well as fiercely territorial about locations such as the blind baggage cars where they liked to ride. It’s possible Dayton was murdered and Wells injured by a tramp who felt the two men were encroaching.

Or the victims may have been shot by the rail police, who were hired by the train companies not only to keep dangerous people off the trains but also to prevent the stealing of rides. Armed officers relentlessly patrolled the yards and train cars and had no qualms about shooting at tramps and other trespassers as part of their jobs.

It’s possible that racism played a part in either of these scenarios.

☛ Danger on the Rails ☚

Because railroads were the most important method of transportation in the nineteenth century, they brought together at all hours of the day and night a steady stream of people of all sorts — some intent on victimizing their fellow passengers. Tragedies, violence, and crime just naturally existed on train cars and at or near depots and rail yards.

Perpetrators were carried away on the trains before the crimes they committed were even discovered, as in the case of 17-year-old Addis Lyman, who was shot to death on a train near Carroll in 1905.

Click here to read “Wages in Gold: Murder of John Hill Beal 1893,″ the story of a 19-year-old farmhand who was killed and robbed of his pay on a train near Cherokee while returning to Waterloo for Thanksgiving with his family.

Elmer Dudrey, a farm worker with a wife and small son in Macon, Illinois, was murdered on the blind baggage car of a train pulling into Webster City while stealing a ride home from Storm Lake. Click here to read his story in “Riding the Blinds: Murder of Elmer Dudrey 1896.”

Chicago Great Western Railway brakemen John E. “Jack” Wilson, 30, and Cornelius “Con” Matthews, 32, were shot and thrown off a train by tramps two miles southwest of Marshalltown on the night of August 21, 1899. Click here to read “Mangled Bodies.”

Click here to read “Deadly Holiday Excursion: Murder of Alexander McArthur 1899,” which details how a 22-year-old passenger on a Labor Day outing was robbed and pushed from one train in front of another in the Davenport rail yard.

Welio Tsnoff, a 35-year-old Chicago and Northwestern Railroad section hand, was struck with a hammer, robbed, and set on fire in an employee boarding car in the Marshalltown rail yard on January 10, 1910. Click here to read “The Dead Bulgarian.”

On the night of May 17, 1925, Allan Shoemaker, a 36-year-old Special Officer for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Police was shot by tramps as he patrolled the Missouri Valley rail yard in Harrison County. Click here to read the story of an Iowa peace officer killed in the line of duty in “Deadly Tramps.”

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



  • ☛ “Around A Big State,” Sioux County Herald, September 5, 1894.
  • ☛ “Goings-On In Iowa,” Waterloo Courier, August 29, 1894.
  • ☛ “A Murder at Boone,” Anita Tribune, September 6, 1894.
  • ☛ “A Murder at Boone,” Cedar Rapids Standard, September 6, 1894.
  • ☛ “A Murder at Boone,” Hull Index, September 7, 1894.

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