Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Family Dispute Concerning Incest
Murder Scene and Date
Saylor and Crocker Townships Line
Polk County, Iowa
March 8, 1864
By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2013
In the 1860s, the 10-mile road heading northwest from Saylorville, Iowa, to Polk City took sharp turns as it edged along dense timber.
On this road on March 11, 1864, 41-year-old Aaron Smith was ambushed in his horse-drawn wagon at the location where Saylor and Crocker townships meet in Polk County. A shot fired from a brushy area on the east side of the road struck him in the back.
Smith was still alive when passersby found him; before dying he swore he saw and recognized his assailant fleeing the bushes from which the gun blast came. He had been shot, he said, by his late wife’s nephew — Christopher Columbus Howard.
Howard was located four miles away from the murder scene and taken into custody.
☛ Family Troubles ☚
The brutal act appeared to be the culmination of twisted domestic relationships and violence between the Smith and Howard families.
Indiana-born Aaron Smith married Ohio native Jemima Howard in 1840. By the time of their first child Hardin’s birth in 1841, they had settled in Saylor Township. Eight more children followed before Jemima died in 1859.
Family members of Jemima Howard Smith also migrated to Iowa, and her brother Robert Armstrong Howard and his wife Martha lived and raised their own 11 children in Saylor Township as well.
Robert Howard’s sons bore eclectic first names, both Biblical — Jerusha, Israel, Lazarus, and Gabriel — as well as patriotic: George Washington, Winfield Scott, and Christopher Columbus.
It was the latter, known as “C.C.” Howard, at whom the dying Aaron Smith pointed his finger.
While it is difficult to pinpoint when bad feelings developed between the two families, it is certain the feud was full-blown by January of 1863.
At that time, Polk County Deputy Sheriff Peters arrested and jailed Aaron Smith for incest and “criminal intercourse” with his daughter, which resulted in her becoming pregnant and giving birth to a child.
The arrest warrant issued by a grand jury was sworn out on the complaint of the daughter, but Aaron Smith maintained his Howard in-laws — particularly Robert Howard, the girl’s uncle — had encouraged her to make false accusations against him.
For whatever reason, perhaps fear or intimidation, Aaron Smith’s daughter refused to testify at Smith’s arraignment and the charges were dropped.
About a year later, trouble arose again between Aaron Smith and Robert Howard, this time about livestock.
During an argument, Smith aggressed Howard as if to strike him. C.C. Howard tried to separate his uncle and father, but Aaron Smith had drawn a knife and the younger Howard received a critical stomach wound in the scuffle.
Aaron Smith was murdered not long after the stabbing.
☛ Murder Trial and Verdict ☚
Because of the victim’s dying declaration and the history of conflict between the families that provided a motive, C.C. Howard was arrested for the murder of his uncle, Aaron Smith.
After a preliminary hearing, Howard was bound over to a grand jury which returned an indictment.
The murder trial began July 26, 1864 before Judge John H. Gray in District Court. Presenting the case against C.C. Howard were attorneys Joseph M. Dorr, Peter Bartle, and prominent local figure Jefferson Scott Polk, who later established the Des Moines City Railroad Company and worked on many civic causes.
C.C. Howard was defended by Stephen Sibley and long-time and pioneering Polk County lawyer Daniel O. “Dan” Finch.
Arguments were heard by a jury consisting of Jacob Crum, J. M. Davis, George Bogenwright, J. O. Doolittle, Jonathan Bliler, J. H. Johnson, David Mattern, Benjamin Woodrow, Jarvis Whitmarsh, James Barrett, Charles Fox, and B. F. Reynolds.
When the case was sent to the jury on August 26, the men deliberated two hours before returning a not guilty verdict.
☛ Analyzing the Verdict ☚
According to the 1898 History of Polk County, Iowa:
“There was no positive proof against Howard, except the dying statement of Smith, and the evidence contained in this statement was invalidated by the bad character of the man while living.”
In addition, the Howards were well-regarded in the community, and C.C. Howard was not known for violence or trouble-making.
The case against Howard had been made forcefully by a team that included one of the most respected legal minds in the county, Jefferson Scott Polk. The History of Polk County also acknowledged a widely-held view:
“There were . . . some circumstances which led many to suppose Howard guilty.”
It is possible the Howard verdict was jury nullification, a legal term for a jury’s disregarding instructions or ignoring incriminating facts to acquit a defendant.
Although there are other reasons for this action such as the jury believing a law used to prosecute is unjust, it is often done out of sympathy for the accused and even a belief that the particular person’s action was, if not acceptable, understandable. That judgment can be coupled with an unspoken assumption that the victim “had it coming.”
C.C. Howard might have been regarded by the jury — and other Polk County citizens — as having “just” reasons for killing the victim, a man who not only seriously injured the defendant but also forced incest onto the defendant’s cousin.
☛ Burial of the Victim ☚
The widower Aaron Smith was survived by his children Hardin, Martha Ann, Julia Ann, Amanda, Lucinda, Mary Jane, and Aaron, Jr.
He was buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Saylor Township.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “From Des Moines,” Dubuque Democratic Herald, March 15, 1864.
- ☛ “Jefferson Scott Polk,” The Irish in Iowa, celticcousins.net.
- ☛ “Jefferson Polk,” Annals of Polk County, Iowa, and City of Des Moines by Will Porter. Des Moines: George A Miller Printing Company, 1898.
- ☛ “Joseph M. Dorr,” Portrait and Biographical Album of Polk County, Iowa. Chicago: Lake Publishing Company, 1890.
- ☛ “Local and Miscellaneous,” Des Moines Iowa State Register, February 4, 1863.
- ☛ “The Murder of Aaron Smith,” The History of Polk County, Iowa. Union Historical Company, 1898.
- ☛ “News Items,” Cedar Valley Times, January 8, 1863.
- ☛ “Our State,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, August 15, 1864.
- ☛ “Our State,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, August 20, 1864.
- ☛ Plat book of Polk County, Iowa, 1947. University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Digital Library.
- ☛ Polk County Plat Map, 1875. Polk County Auditor GIS Division – Historical Maps.
- ☛ U.S. Census.