Drinking Bout: Suspicious Death of John F. Brennan 1898


John F. Brennan
35-year-old Ice Harvester, Farmhand
Eagle Center Resident
Apparent Cause of Death: Beaten
Motive: Drinking Party Gone Wrong

Death Scene and Date

Sweeney Home
Dysart, Iowa
Tama County
January 30, 1898


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2014

location of Dysart, Iowa

location of Dysart, Iowa

During the winter of 1898, 35-year-old farmhand and Eagle Center resident John Brennan took a job at Dysart in northeast Tama County.

There he worked for the local creamery harvesting ice from area streams and ponds. While in Dysart, he stayed at the home of “Shorty” Sweeney.

John Brennan spent the afternoon of Sunday, January 30 at Sweeney’s house drinking liquor with Shorty and local men John Ahlers and Jack Mathieson.

As the imbibing got heavier — one newspaper termed the gathering a “drinking bout” — the four argued and bickered. Sweeney later said that Brennan got into a “hard scuffle” with one of the other men and then left the house with Ahlers and Mathieson.

from the Chariton Patriot

from the Chariton Patriot

Sweeney’s story about what happened next was vague. He said he did not see Brennan come back and walk into the bedroom, but later found his houseguest lying dead on a bed there. The victim’s stomach was bruised and marked as though he was struck forcefully.

Jack Mathieson backed up Sweeney’s version of events and said he saw nothing of Brennan or Ahlers after leaving the house with them.

☛ Coroner’s Jury ☚

Tama County Coroner Dr. William Corns convened a jury of K.K. Liquin, H.K. Bates, and A.L. Burford to view the body and take testimony. Because the jury speculated that Brennan had been drugged, a post mortem was held.

Afterwards, the panel issued this verdict:

“We, the jury, find that the deceased came to his death as the result of taking into his stomach an excess of alcoholic stimulants.”

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

The verdict left a number of unanswered questions. What about the marks on John Brennan’s stomach and the forceful struggling among the men drinking at Shorty Sweeney’s house? Or the newspaper reports that Sweeney and Mathieson were “under grave suspicion” and that John Ahlers had fled the area?

The Waterloo Daily Courier wrote:

“The postmaster of Dysart tells the Courier that the residents of that place are considerably wrought up over a sensational report of Brennan’s demise sent out from Cedar Falls which attempts to assign murder as the cause of his death.”

This was in response to a Des Moines Daily News story with a Cedar Falls dateline titled “Found Dead In Bed: Murder Mystery at Dysart — Brennan was apparently Drugged.”

☛ John Brennan’s Life ☚

photo by Couple of Gravers

photo by Couple of Gravers

John F. Brennan was born October 16, 1862 in Iowa to Irish immigrants Margaret Casey and Edward Brennan, who lived in Canada before moving to the Hawkeye State. At the time of the 1880 Census, the Brennans resided in Geneseo Township of Tama County.

He had one sister — Mary A. Brennan Welch — and three brothers: Thomas Brennan, Patrick J. Brennan, and Edward Brennan, Jr.

Before taking the job in Dysart, Brennan lived in the unincorporated community of Eagle Center and worked as a farmhand.

John F. Brennan is buried in the family plot at Saint Mary’s of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Tama County.

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



  • ☛ “Evidence of Foul Play,” Chariton Patriot, February 3, 1898, p. 3.
  • ☛ “Found Dead In Bed,” Des Moines Daily News, February 2, 1898, p. 3.
  • ☛ “Had Drank [sic] Too Much,” Waterloo Daily Courier, February 2, 1898, p. 5.
  • ☛ “The Hawkeye State,” Cedar Falls Semi-Weekly Gazette, February 15, 1898, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Told Short,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 2, 1898, p. 7.
  • ☛ “The State of Iowa,” Parnell Iowa County Advertiser, February 4, 1898, p. 11.
  • ☛ U.S. Census

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