James Edgar “Ed” Knotts
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Murder Scene and Date
Charles R. McCuddin Home
Elijah W. Knotts Farm
Near New Virginia, Iowa
January 23, 1895
By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2017
James Edgar “Ed” Knotts was a wealthy young farmer, the son of long-time and prominent Warren County residents Elizabeth A. Hall and Elijah Washington Knotts.
In early 1895, Ed Knotts was living in a house sitting on farm land owned by his parents and being rented by Charles R. “C.R.” McCuddin, 26, and his wife Iva May; also living there was Charles’s 23-year-old-brother John J. McCuddin.
On Wednesday, January 23, 1895, Ed Knotts was three days past his twenty-third birthday and just days shy of his wedding to a young woman from Murray in neighboring Clarke county.
It was bitterly cold during that day and the ones following, with temperatures hovering around four below zero.
According to the McCuddins in sworn testimony given later, the only person in the house that day was Ed Knotts. Iva said she and her husband traveled to C.R.’s parents’ home in New Virginia for two days. When they departed Wednesday morning, she claimed, Knotts was still asleep.
John McCuddin, too, was staying elsewhere, he said, although he returned to the farm on Wednesday night and then again on Thursday morning and evening to feed the livestock.
John McCuddin claimed that on Wednesday night, he peered through the window of the house and saw Ed Knotts lying on the floor and assumed he was sleeping. On Thursday evening, he said he saw Knotts was still in the same place and entered the house to check on him.
He then realized that Knotts was dead, his body — frozen stiff in a contorted position — was lying in congealed blood from a head wound.
John McCuddin notified authorities, who determined Knotts was murdered by a blow from a blunt instrument.
Not long afterwards, John McCuddin was arrested for the homicide but was not bound over after the preliminary hearing.
The Warren County grand jury twice heard a case against the McCuddin brothers but failed to indict them.
☛ Grand Jury Indictment and Trial ☚
The Knotts family buried Ed in Osceola’s Maple Hill Cemetery in Clarke County. His tombstone carries the date of death as January 23, 1895, indicating they believed he was dead 24 hours before his body was found on January 24.
Ed Knotts’s father Elijah believed the McCuddins’ stories were odd and the whole affair was suspect. He, like other area residents, had heard rumors of a romantic entanglement between Iva McCuddin — C.R.’s wife — and his son. So, he hired a private detective to investigate the death and then presented the findings to county law enforcement.
Nearly two years passed before the grand jury finally took action. The McCuddin brothers were indicted in November of 1896 for first degree murder. They were arrested in early February of 1897 and jailed in Indianola without bail.
According to the Burlington Hawk-Eye, “Until detectives succeeded in finding enough evidence against the McCuddins to have them arrested this affair was a great mystery.”
The Milford Mail wrote of the trial:
“The Warren district court is in session [in Indianola], Judge Wilkinson on the bench. The docket for this term is said to be the largest in the county’s history, there being more than 200 cases, criminal and civil. The most important among the former is the trial of the McCuddin brothers . . . .”
The proceedings began during the first week of April in 1897. Over 150 witnesses were scheduled to testify.
The courtroom was packed daily with locals eager to hear details; the spectators were particularly affected by Ed Knotts’s mother Elizabeth as she identified belongings taken from the room where her son’s body was found.
One whole day was spent questioning physicians about whether Ed Knotts’s frozen body would have been in such a twisted position if the death were natural; all said no.
However, it became clear that the case against the McCuddins was largely circumstantial and there was no obvious motive; the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette noted: “The defense in the McCuddin murder trial, now on at Indianola, are [sic] making a good showing.”
In fact, after a 14-day trial and 48 hours of jury deliberation, a verdict could not be reached; and the case was declared a mistrial.
☛ Second Trial: Skeleton and Skull On Display ☚
Despite costs totaling $6,000 for the trial, authorities decided to retry the McCuddin brothers for the murder of Ed Knotts in the September 1897 term of court.
The second trial began in early September, with Judge Gamble, known for his extensive experience in criminal trials, presiding. The jurors — averaging in age about 40 and all but two being farmers — were B.B. Bennum, J.F. Brown, J.W. Farley, W.O. Hunt, Harley Kerr, W.B. Lowe, Charles McClintic, William McClure, C.S. Parker, A.L. Putnam, Charles Russell, and Allan Talbot. Over 160 witnesses were scheduled to give testimony.
The trial was a fierce struggle between the prosecution and defense, with exhibits and testimony that did not disappoint the onlookers.
The Daily Iowa Capital wrote:
“Every inch of the progress of the trial is being hotly contested by both sides, and to add to the curiosity and interest . . . there is now a whole human skeleton and a skull in addition being exhibited to the jury and being explained by expert witnesses as throwing some light on the manner in which deceased came to his death.”
On September 25, 1897, the McCuddins were acquitted on a technicality which the Hawarden Independent described as a “defect in the papers of the state’s attorney.”
☛ Another Suspect? ☚
Quickly, the authorities turned their attentions towards another suspect. They apparently had been waiting for the trial to end before acting.
Two days later in Chillicothe near Ottumwa, Warren County authorities arrested a young farm hand named Jeff Harsh for the murder on the theory that he and the McCuddin brothers lured Ed Knotts into a card game and then killed him.
There is no further newspaper record of any legal action involving Harsh; because the 1908 History of Warren County, Iowa, does not mention any suspects other than the McCuddins and indicates the investigation of Ed Knotts’s murder ended with their acquittal, it is likely the charges against Jeff Harsh were dropped for lack of evidence.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “All Over Iowa,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 5, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “All Over Iowa,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 28, p. 2.
- ☛ “All Over Iowa,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye Gazette, April 22, p. 6.
- ☛ “Are Charged With Murder,” Ackley World, February 5, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Are They Guilty of J.E. Knott’s [sic] Murder?” Hawarden Independent, April 15, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “Are They Guilty of J.E. Knott’s [sic] Murder?” Sioux Valley News (Correctionville), April 15, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “Arrested For an Old Murder,” Atlantic Daily Telegraph, February 3, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Arrested For an Old Murder,” Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, February 10, 1897, p. 10.
- ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, January 30, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, September 22, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “Hawkeye Happenings,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 24, 1897, p. 4.
- ☛ “Iowa Condensed,” Algona Upper Des Moines, April 28, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Iowa Condensed,” Eldora Ledger, February 11, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Iowa Condensed,” Roland Record, April 30, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Iowa Items,” Davenport Daily Leader, February 1, 1897, p. 4.
- ☛ “Iowa News,” Mills County Tribune (Glenwood), September 23, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “The Knotts Murder Trial,” Milford Mail, April 1, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “The Knotts Murder Trial: Will Come Up at Present Court Term at Indianola,” Spencer Clay County News, April 1, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “McCuddin Jury Disagreed,” Anita Republican, April 21, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “McCuddin Jury Disagreed,” Humboldt County Independent, April 22, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “M’Cuddins [sic] Are Indicted,” Daily Iowa Capital, February 1, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “McCuddins Are Indicted: Warren County Men Must Fight For Their Lives,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 2, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “New Move in Knotts Murder,” Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, September 29, p. 5.
- ☛ “New Move in Knotts Murder,” Carroll Sentinel, September 27, p. 9.
- ☛ “New Move in Knotts Murder: Failure to Convict McCuddin [sic] Leads to Arrest of Jeff Harsh,” Carroll Sentinel, September 27, p. 1.
- ☛ “A New Suspect Was Found,” Hawarden Independent, September 30, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “A New Suspect Was Found,” Spencer Clay County News, September 30, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “A New Suspect Found: Harsh Must Answer to Charge of Murdering Knott [sic],” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 27, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pella Advertiser, April 24, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas County Sun, April 29, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa: Sensational Murder Case,” Algona Upper Des Moines, February 3, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa: Sensational Murder Case,” Humboldt County Independent, February 4, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa: Sensational Murder Case,” Morning Sun Herald, February 4, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa: Sensational Murder Case,” Roland Record, February 5, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Sensational Criminal Trials,” History of Warren County: From Its Earliest Settlement to 1908 by Rev. W.C. Martin. Chicago: S.J. Clark Publishing Co., 1908, p. 178.
- ☛ “State Brevities,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 13, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ U.S. Census.