Down in the Dark: Murder of Officer Pitt M. Doxsie 1897

Murder Victim

Officer Pitt McClellan Doxsie
34-year-old Night Watchman
Assistant Marshal
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Avoiding Arrest

Murder Scene and Date

Rear of W.H. Littell Store
Independence, Iowa
Buchanan County
Shot: October 24, 1897
End of Watch: October 26, 1897


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2013

location of Independence, Iowa

location of Independence, Iowa

In the 1890s, the busy town of Independence, Iowa, along the Wapsipinicon River in Buchanan County became a mecca for horse racing with its “kite-shaped” track Rush Park, known as “The Lexington of the North.”

A special trolley system carried thousands of racing fans from the railroad depot to the track west of town, and the grand Gedney Hotel accommodated overnight guests.

Independence thrived and prospered from the racing industry and maintained a solid base of local business and manufacturing, as well.

But wherever there is prosperity — especially in an environment where large numbers of outsiders pass through —  thieves and robbers will be looking for chances to steal.

The Gedney Hotel

The Gedney Hotel

During 1897, Independence was undergoing a particularly bad spate of break-ins and robberies believed to be the work of criminal gangs.

Not everyone charged with upholding the safety of the community and enforcement of the law was fully dedicated to stopping crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.

However, 34-year-old Night Watchman Pitt McClellan Doxsie was different. Local businessmen thoroughly trusted him to watch over their stores after hours because he was devoted to his work and absolutely fearless.

☛ Officer Down ☚

Early postcard of Independence, Iowa, business district.

Early postcard of Independence, Iowa, business district.

As Officer Pitt Doxsie made his rounds through Independence on Saturday night, October 23 and into early Sunday morning, October 24, 1897, the business district seemed quiet.

The streets and alleys were consumed in darkness because the streetlights were turned off, so Doxsie had only a watchman’s lantern to guide his way.

At 11:00 p.m., he encountered off duty Town Marshal W.M. Higbee who was walking to a social club at the Gedney Annex in the Borie Block. The two talked briefly, and Doxsie then went on about his duties.

Depiction of Littell's Store, where burglars were trying to break in.

Depiction of Littell’s Store,
which the suspects tried to burglarize.

Officer Doxsie turned down the alley behind what is now 1st Avenue W. about 12:45 a.m. In the blackness, he could just make out two men who appeared to be prying open the back door of W.H. Littell’s clothing store. Doxsie turned his lantern’s beam on them and drew the .38 caliber revolver he always carried.

When he approached the men and asked what they were doing, they ducked behind a stairway and opened fire on Doxsie, who was in the open without protection and could judge the shooters’ location only by flashes from their gun muzzles.

Their second shot struck Doxsie in the right leg below the knee. Doxsie fell to the ground but managed to get off five shots at the burglars as they fled towards the east.

Looking south on 1st Street towards Littell's Store on 1st treet

Looking down 2nd Ave. NE towards Littell’s
Store on 1st St. W to the left of the drugstore.

Doxsie dragged himself to the front of Stout & Woods Cigar Store in the Borie Block on what is now 1st Street W and then collapsed.

Inside the social club, Marshal Higbee could not hear the gunfire but happened to leave by the rear door only moments afterwards. As he neared the Presbyterian Church not far from the intersection of 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue, he heard cries for help and ran towards the sounds. Less than a 100 feet away, he found Doxsie lying in front of the cigar store.

By then, other citizens were aroused by the gunfire. Joe McDonald, Charles Bissell, John Bitner, Sr., and L.W. Goen hurried to the scene.

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

McDonald, who was nearby when the volley of shots rang out, lifted Doxsie up and asked who shot him; the wounded man rallied into consciousness and said he didn’t know, that the alley was so dark he could make out only shadows.

The responding men tended to Doxsie and then carried him to his home on West Main Street.

Marshal Higbee tracked blood from the cigar store to the alley and then to the rear of the Littell Store. A large pool marked the spot where Doxsie was shot, about 8 feet south of the stairway the burglars had fired from behind.

Marshal W.M. Higbee

Town Marshal W.M. Higbee
(History of Buchanan County, Iowa)

Higbee found indications of bullet damage everywhere around the area — in the wooden posts, the stairway where the burglars hid, and the windows of the neighboring marble shop. He determined the burglars fired 12 shots in all and Doxsie 5, some of them while he lay on the ground.

Buchanan County Sheriff Clyde E. Iliff was not informed of the shooting for over three hours and by then the trail of the suspects was long cold. The 1914 History of Buchanan County, Iowa, recorded that failure to notify Iliff happened either “through some misunderstanding or fearful negligence.”

In the light of Sunday morning, Sheriff Iliff and his deputies tracked blood spots leading away from the alley to a bridge on a wagon road about a mile or so east of town, indicating at least one of the burglars was shot by Officer Doxsie.

☛ Death and Honor ☚

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

Initially, the seriousness of Doxsie’s wound was underestimated. The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote:

“Mr. Doxsie’s injuries are very painful, but are not considered dangerous.”

However, the bullet had struck an artery and he was severely weak from blood loss. At 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, October 26, Doxsie passed away at his home.

The populace of Independence was shocked and saddened at the loss of Pitt Doxsie, the father of three young children under the age of four — one a newborn — who gave his life protecting the city.

Rev. Tommy Eddy Taylor

Rev. Tommy Eddy Taylor

A huge crowd packed the Methodist Episcopal Church to hear a funeral sermon by Rev. Tommy Eddy Taylor who, according to the Dubuque Daily Herald:

“Paid a touching and beautiful tribute to the brave officer who sacrificed his life in the discharge of his duty.”

Mayor Warren F. Miller and the Independence City Council attended the service as a body and covered expenses for the funeral as well as the burial, which was held at the Oakwood Cemetery with honors provided by the Modern Woodman of the World and the Iowa National Guard.

☛ Sleuthing Leads to Suspects ☚

Buchanan County officials petitioned Iowa Governor Francis Marion Drake to offer a reward for information in the Doxsie murder, but Drake refused, issuing a statement defending his actions:

“If the parties were known and could be identified, I should be glad to conform with your wishes. But I have uniformly declined to offer rewards for unknown parties, not believing it to be in the best interest of the state to do so, or to be conducive to success in securing the criminals.”

Undiscouraged by the Governor’s rejection of help, Mayor Miller and the Independence City Council used city money to hire a Pinkerton Detective out of Chicago.

Independence Mayor Warren F. Miller (from

Independence Mayor Warren F. Miller (from

The Pinkerton arrived in Independence on November 5, 1897, poked about a bit, and then made an accusation he claimed was based on “evidence” he’d found.

The guilty parties, the Pinkerton said, were two well-known local men: John L. “Jack” McGready a 27 year-old blacksmith, and McGready’s friend Joseph “Joe” Hurley, 19 — “local characters,” according to one source.

Most newspapers wrote little about Hurley, and some articles termed McGready a young man of a “respectable family” who would be an unlikely suspect in any crime.

But other newspapers reported a different opinion. The Waterloo Courier wrote: “McGready has for some time been a hard drinker and his reputation is [such] that [his] character is against him.”

The Burlington Hawk-Eye went even farther, making pointed and serious accusations:

“Hurley has been rather a desperate character for some time, while, until recently, McGready has borne a good reputation. Lately, however, he has been associating with tough characters and drinking heavily . . . McGready is a morphine fiend, and shows plainly the effects of his being deprived of the use of the narcotic during his confinement.”

The evidence against the two men was not made public but was said to be strong enough to warrant their arrests.

The Oelwein Register acknowledged the gravity of the case:

“The charge laid to the prisoners in custody is a very serious one, and if sustained will probably land them in the penitentiary for life.”

from the Oelwein Register

from the Oelwein Register

Citizens of Independence, eager for a resolution, were urged to wait until all the facts came out before reaching a judgment, but they found it difficult to suppress their anger over the alleged actions of two of their own. The Oelwein Register wrote about the townspeople’s sense of betrayal:

“These arrests yesterday are all the more shocking to the public and all the more disgraceful to the community, because the accused are young men who were born and raised here and to whom the late officer had many times been kind, by taking at least one of them home during his drunken carousals.”

Buchanan County Attorney Charles E. Ransier questioned Jack McGready and Joe Hurley separately, giving them a chance to explain their whereabouts on the night of the shooting.

But during the interrogations, the two men related differing stories that raised Ransier’s suspicions; on November 9, he had McGready and Hurley placed under arrest to await a preliminary hearing.

To keep the suspects from talking to each other, Ransier sent McGready to the Waterloo Jail about 25 miles to the west of Independence and Hurley to the jail in Manchester 25 miles to the east.

☛ Preliminary Hearings ☚

Buchanan County Jail and Courthouse (

Buchanan County Jail and Courthouse, where
the hearings were held (

The preliminary hearing for Jack McGready began in the Buchanan County Courthouse on Monday, November 22 before Justice of the Peace D.F. Bisbee on a change of venue from Justice J.H. Williamson.

County Attorney Ransier was assisted in presenting the evidence against McGready by State Attorney E.E. Hauner. McGready was represented by local attorneys Frank Jennings and W.H. Holtman. The proceedings went on for four days.

Ransier called to the stand 40-year-old David Broadstreet, who ran a Walnut Street livery barn. Broadstreet testified he was at his barn the morning after the shooting and saw Jack McGready walking past and then stopping to talk with local resident Ray Thompson. Broadstreet swore he heard McGready tell Thompson:

“I told you I’d get the son of a bitch, and I got him.”

John Bitner, Jr., 17, was also at Broadstreet’s barn on Sunday morning and testified he heard McGready tell Ray Thompson, “Doxsie got his needlings [sic].”

No one could place Jack McGready in downtown Independence that night, although Joe McDonald — one of the first to respond to the wounded Doxsie — testified that he saw Joe Hurley in the business district about 10:00 p.m.

A Miss Cooney, whom McGready appeared to be “courting,” testified that she had been boarding with her mother at George Cameron’s home after moving to Independence on October 15.

She said since she arrived in town that Jack McGready had called on her every evening but two — those being nights when “he was under Dr. May’s care” — and she had never seen him with a revolver. Miss Cooney said Jack came to call on her at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night and left about 10:00. She saw him again at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, October 24.

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

To establish Jack’s whereabouts after he left Miss Cooney’s residence, the defense attorneys called McGready’s household to testify: his Irish immigrant parents John, 64, and 57-year-old Honora; his 30 year-old sister Mary, also known as “Mame”; and two female boarders at the home, a Miss O’Laughlin and a Miss Sullivan.

All but Miss Sullivan – who said she went to her room at 9:00 p.m. and did not see him that night — testified that Jack was home during the time of the Doxsie shooting.

Jack, they agreed, ate supper with them, went out about 7:00 p.m., and then returned home between 10:00 and 10:30, entering through the kitchen door.

John McGready said he and his wife Honora were retired upstairs when Jack came into their room and told his mother he needed to eat breakfast early the next day, Sunday, because he had to work at the Rush Park racetrack.

Both parents said they then saw Jack go across the hall, undress, and get into bed.

Mary “Mame” McGready, testified she herself went to downtown Independence after supper and came home about 9:00 p.m. Thirty minutes later, she and Miss Sullivan went into the bedroom they shared.

Miss Sullivan said Mary came and went from their room several times and the two women talked about how late they were staying up. Mary said that she turned off their lamp at 11:00 p.m. because she thought it was shining across the hall into Jack’s room and feared it might keep him awake. When the two women went to sleep about 30 minutes later, Jack was in his bed, Mary said.

Rush Park Racetrack (History of Buchanan County, Iowa)

Rush Park Racetrack
(History of Buchanan County, Iowa)

Charles Cox and his son, as well as Independence resident Del Davidson, drove horses on Sunday at the Rush Park racetrack. All of them testified that Jack McGready was at the track and they heard him say he would have to get rid of his gun because it was the same caliber as the one used to kill Officer Doxsie.

The three men also testified that one of McGready’s shoes was untied; when that was pointed out to him, he replied it “didn’t make much difference, it seems to stay on pretty well anyway, hadn’t been off since Friday night,” a comment that contradicted the McGready family’s testimony that Jack came home Saturday night, got undressed, and slept all night in his bed.

In the end, the family’s testimony was considered to be more persuasive than that of the men testifying against McGready.

☛ Charges Dismissed ☚

On November 29, the state rested its case against Jack McGready. Then County Attorney Ransier asked that the charges be dismissed because of insufficient evidence to present to a grand jury.

The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote:

“There was not even the color of evidence to connect Johnny [sic] McGready with the crime and his arrest at the instance of one of these sleuths known as detectives was an outrage for which there is no redress.”

from the Hawarden Independent

from the Hawarden Independent

But the Herald added a tantalizing, unexplained paragraph that reinforced the notion that Jack McGready was a ruffian:

“So far as we are able to learn, the other charges against McGready, for taking the Evans harness and for attempting to kill Billy Hughes, have been dropped and no attempt will be made to punish him.”

Joe Hurley was brought from the Manchester Jail to Independence on Monday morning, November 29 and taken before Judge Bisbee on Thursday, December 2.

Prosecutors had expected to use evidence from McGready’s hearing against Hurley. But because that hearing resulted in dismissal of the charges against McGready, there was no evidence to proceed on and Hurley, too, was released from custody.

☛ “Iowa Fred”: The True Killer? ☚

Early on in the investigation, another theory developed about the identity of Doxsie’s killer that was not pursued, a theory that Officer Doxsie was shot by an infamous criminal known as “Iowa Fred.”

Iowa Fred was arrested in Independence on a misdemeanor charge a few weeks before the Doxsie shooting, fined one hundred dollars, and confined to jail. One of his gang appeared before Justice of the Peace J.H. Williamson and paid the fine.

Justice Williamson kept an office and a sleeping room on the second floor of the Littell Store and during the night before the Doxsie shooting heard familiar-sounding voices in the hallway.

Later Williamson realized that the men he heard were Iowa Fred and the cohort who paid his fine. Williamson believed that the two men were scouting out the building for a robbery.

Although Williamson presented his information to the Pinkerton hired by the Independence City Council, the detective failed to follow up on it.

Iowa Fred was later sent to the Anamosa Penitentiary for a burglary he committed in the city of Anamosa.

☛ What Went Wrong? ☚

There was plenty of blame to go around in the investigation of Officer Doxsie’s murder and many questions about why no one was brought to justice.

The Dubuque Daily Herald disdained the Pinkerton’s methods and conclusions, which had needlessly agitated and distressed the city:

“The detective, who had conducted the investigation somewhat on the brass-band order, assured our people that he had the right men in custody and would establish their guilt upon the examination. This noisy detective had worked our people to such a pitch that lynching was in the air.”

The History of Buchanan County placed blame for failure to solve the crime on local citizens who did not cooperate with investigators and investigators who did not work hard enough to find justice:

“There were many vicious individuals in town who, if they were not the real criminals, were innocent simply from lack of courage.”

☛ Pitt McClellan Doxsie’s Life ☚

photo by Mary E.

photo by Mary E.

Pitt McClellan Doxsie was born in Eaton County, Michigan, on October 19, 1863 to New York-born Lucia S. Hough and John Doxsie, a native of Canada. Because he was born at the height of Civil War hostilities, his middle name may have been given in honor of the famous Union General George B. McClellan. He had one older sister, Jennie Doxsie Reams, and two younger sisters, Edna W. and Florence C. Doxsie.

The entire Doxsie family moved from Michigan to Iowa. In the 1885 U.S. Census, Pitt Doxsie was recorded as a laborer in Madison Township of Poweshiek County.

On October 30, 1892, Pitt Doxsie married Buchanan County native Viola Eva Cramer. The couple had two daughters, Leola Mae Doxsie, who was barely four when her father was killed and whose name was inscribed on his tombstone when she passed away in 1919; Lucille Ellen Doxsie Trebon, aged about one year at the time of his death; and son John McClellan Doxsie, who was only 14 days old when his father died.

☛ In the Line of Duty ☚

Independence Police Badge (Iowa DPS)

Independence Police Badge
(Iowa DPS)

Pitt McClellan Doxsie is one of 184 Iowa peace officers — as of September 2013 — to die in the line of duty and one of 104 killed by gunfire.

Click here to view the article “Iowa Department of Public Safety Peace Officer Memorial Page Remembers Patrolman Pitt McClellan Doxsie” or click here to view the page in Doxsie’s memory on the website Officer Down Memorial Page.

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



(The victim’s surname has been regularized from the incorrect “Doxie” to “Doxsie” in all references.)

  • ☛ “Both Suspects Discharged,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 2, 1897.
  • ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 4, 1897.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, October 27, 1897.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, November 4, 1897.
  • ☛ “Drake on Rewards,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 4, 1897.
  • ☛ “The Doxsie Murder,” Dubuque Daily Herald, November 30, 1897.
  • ☛ “Funeral of Officer Doxsie,” Dubuque Daily Herald, October 30, 1897.
  • ☛ “Held For Shooting Doxsie,” Oelwein Register. November 10, 1897.
  • ☛ “His Wounds Fatal,” Waterloo Daily Courier, October 27, 1897.
  • ☛ “Hurley and McGready,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 11, 1897.
  • ☛ “Hurley Is Discharged,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 1, 1897.
  • ☛ “The Independence Tragedy,” Waterloo Courier, November 10, 1897.
  • ☛ “Iowa Brevities,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 28, 1897.
  • ☛ “Iowa In A Nutshell,” Des Moines Daily News, October 26, 1897.
  • ☛ “Neighboring Notations,” Oelwein Register, November 10, 1897.
  • ☛ “Neighboring Notations,” Oelwein Register, December 1, 1897.
  • ☛ “Neighboring Notations,” Oelwein Register, December 8, 1897.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pella Advertiser, October 30, 1897.
  • ☛ “McGready Is Discharged,” Hawarden Independent, December 2, 1897.
  • ☛ “Officer Doxsie Shot,” History of Buchanan County, Iowa, and Its People, Volumes 1 & 2. Harry Church Chappell and Katharyn Joella Allen Chappell. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914.
  • ☛ “Shot The Watchman,” Dubuque Daily Herald, October 26, 1897.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Watchman Shot By Burglars,” Cedar Falls Semi-Weekly Gazette, November 2, 1897.

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