Clara B. Mellor
Alfred P. Mellor, Jr.
Cause of Deaths: Gassed
Murder Scene and Date
625 Hedge Avenue
Des Moines County
July 29, 1920
By Nancy Bowers
Written October 2014
In 1920, Clara and Alfred Mellor, Sr. lived in a pleasant home at 625 Hedge Avenue in Burlington. Alfred, a native of England, had a good job as a turntable operator in the railroad roundhouse; Clara made a home for them.
Their five-year marriage was harmonious and the center of their existence was their blond and blue-eyed three-year-old son, Alfred, Jr. — affectionately known as “Bubbles.”
The Mellors’ lives had not been free from worry, however. Alfred contracted flu during the 1918 epidemic; he fell ill again in early 1920 and required an operation. Medical bills piled up, but the couple seemed to be coping by paying them off in installments from their savings.
☛ Horrible Discovery ☚
Alfred worked the midnight-to-8:00 a.m. shift at the railroad; it was his habit to get up at 10:30 p.m. and wake Clara. On the night of Tuesday, July 28, he and Clara arose as usual. Alfred checked in on the sleeping Bubbles. As he left the house, Clara kissed him goodbye and locked the back door. It was 11:00 p.m.
When his shift ended at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Alfred Mellor walked home. Bubbles did not run to meet him as usual. Assuming the child was feeding his pet rabbits, Mellor walked to the rear of the house but Bubbles was not there either. Mellor called out for his wife and son and then tried the back door. It was unlocked.
A dish lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The dining room appeared ransacked; buffet doors and drawers were open, and broken dishes littered the floor. When Alfred Mellor called out for Clara, there was no answer and she was not in their bedroom, where the bed was carefully made up with clean sheets and pillow cases.
When he opened the door to the spare bedroom at the front of the house, Mellor was swamped with the unmistakable odor of gas. The windows were tightly closed and the blinds pulled down.
Inside, the scene was horrific. Clara lay on the floor and Bubbles was draped over her feet. Both were dressed in nightclothes spotted with bright blood and both were dead.
Clara had an apron string tied around one wrist, a diaper looped about her ankles, and a child’s stocking wound around her neck.
Mellor turned off the fully-opened gas jets, which were used to illuminate the room.
He ran to a neighbor’s home; the occupants were not there so he continued to another house. Resident Theresa Menne met him in the yard and saw his color was gray and he was shaking. “My wife is dead,” he managed to say.
Theresa Menne accompanied Alfred back to his home and then told him to fetch Minnie Schultz a few doors down. Soon other neighbors crowded the house.
☛ Hasty Investigation ☚
Des Moines County Coroner Burton A. “Bert” Prugh and Burlington Police Chief H.H. Schwenker were summoned to the scene. They surveyed the situation and ordered the bodies moved to Prugh Undertaking operated by the Coroner and his son.
There was no evidence of a break-in; all the windows were covered in screens and all but one were fastened. The one unsecured screen was above a nasturtium bed, and no trace of footprints was found in the soil among the flowers.
There were, however, fingerprints on the sill of the master bedroom window as though someone pulled himself up to look in.
A search of the house failed to turn up the bed linen which had been replaced by freshly-laundered sheets and pillow cases.
☛ Hurried Coroner’s Inquest ☚
Coroner Prugh appointed W.F. Kitzele, Theodore Butler, and A.T. Harper to a coroner’s jury to convene at 5:00 p.m. that day.
Prugh, who was not a physician, immediately concluded that circumstances indicated murder and suicide; so he did not order autopsies.
The inquest lasted one hour, and only four witnesses were called: Alfred Mellor, neighbors Theresa Menne and Minnie Schultz, and Police Chief H.H. Schwenker. The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of the husband’s testimony:
“Alfred Mellor, a small, slightly built man with red hair and quietly dressed in gray, controlled his emotions as he testified. At times he paused but he never faltered. His account of the tragedy was intensely dramatic. Told in short, crisp sentences, it visualized to the few spectators the horror and pathos of the event in far greater measure than a longer narrative would have done.”
When Mellor was asked if his wife was suicidal, he responded:
“Well, she worried quite a bit. She was pessimistic. I was sick this spring — I had an operation which cost us quite a bit. I couldn’t pay that all at once and she worried terribly about that. She told me many times that life was not worth living. Many times she said if it were not for the baby she wouldn’t live. I never thought she would do anything like this.”
After hearing the abbreviated testimony, the jury issued a verdict that Clara Mellor killed herself and Alfred, Jr. by opening the gas jets in the closed room.
As for speculation that Clara Mellor was restrained by another person, the jury pointed out the apron string was tied around only one wrist, the diaper was just loosely knotted about the ankles, and the child’s stocking was not tightly wound around the neck.
In addition, blood running from the noses and mouths of the victims was bright red, indicating asphyxiation from gas and not strangulation.
It was also noted that Clara’s hair was “done up in steel curler devices” that would have come loose had she struggled with an assailant.
Although the jury’s verdict was unanimous, it was far from agreeable to all three jurors. Kitzele and Butler appeared to have lingering suspicions that the deaths were, in fact, murders. They thought a physician should have performed autopsies to determine if the victims were drugged before the gas was turned on — an idea eliminated out of hand by the Coroner because no poison was found on the premises.
☛ Disagreement With Verdict ☚
Those who knew the family were stunned by the verdict, believing that Clara would not harm her little son. When neighbor Minnie Schultz was asked by the jury if Clara had ever threatened to kill herself she replied, “No, she loved her child too much for that.”
Clara’s seven sisters, too, were adamant Clara did not kill herself and would never hurt Bubbles. They maintained the Mellors had about $2,000 in savings, so they did not have financial concerns despite bills from Arthur’s illness and operation. They believed the missing bed sheets and pillow cases contained evidence of foul play.
One sister, Lillie Starker of Fort Madison, received a letter from Clara on the morning the bodies were discovered, mailed before the deaths. She said the communication was “bright and hopeful”; other family members argued that the letter’s contents and her recent behavior showed Clara was not despondent.
Alfred Mellor, however, readily accepted suicide and murder as the likely scenario. At the funeral home, he told the press:
“I will say that I do not believe that any person came to our house and killed my wife and boy. . . . I loved my wife. We may have had some little differences about things as all married folks do, but we loved each other and we loved our little lad.
. . . She was of a melancholy disposition and worried too much. But last night she seemed happy and kissed me when I went away.
There has never been any other persons to trouble our life. . . .We courted for three or four years and there was no other man who interfered with our affairs. There is no person that I can suspect. No one that would have cause to harm us.”
The public, however, felt the coroner’s jury verdict was too hastily arrived at and thought the details were subject to interpretation. Many, for example, questioned the jury’s assertion that the stocking around Clara’s neck was too loose to be an instrument of strangulation and was, therefore, a ruse to cover up suicide. It could, some argued, have been used as a gag by the killer and have slipped down when the victim’s muscles relaxed after death.
☛ A Prowler ☚
Neighbors were certain there was a connection between the deaths and ongoing suspicious activities by a night stalker — termed a “mad man” by the Burlington Hawk-Eye — who recently menaced residents on Dunham Avenue to the south of Hedge and Harrison Avenue to the north.
The Hawk-Eye reported stories of a “prowler who had been seen slinking thru [sic] the alleys, peering into widows, crossing back yards and wantonly chloroforming chickens, pigs, and other animals.”
Victims’ descriptions were uniform: the suspicious man was short, wore dark clothing, skulked furtively, and peeped into bedrooms as occupants readied for bed. One woman reported that someone tried twice to enter her house.
These residents believed the man terrorizing the neighborhood saw Alfred Mellor leave for work and used that opportunity to enter the home and kill Clara and her son.
☛ The Junk Man ☚
On Thursday night at 8:00 p.m., Burlington Police Chief H.H. Schwenker and Captain McElroy arrested 51-year-old transient junk dealer James Stevens on the basis of information Stevens provided to a Burlington Hawk-Eye reporter who interviewed him.
Stevens, who traveled with an old mule and horse that grazed along the street and which he staked at night, was filthy and unkempt. He arrived in Burlington from Moline, Illinois, on July 24 and took work as a groundskeeper for the Tennis Club directly across from the Mellor residence.
Stevens’s sleeping area at the club was searched unsuccessfully for the missing bed linen.
He was escorted to the Mellor home and made to put his hands next to the prints on the ledge of the bedroom window; his fingers were larger, however. W.O. Ransom, a fingerprint expert, took photographs of the prints on the sill and compared them to Stevens’s without finding a match.
James Stevens was also taken to a Prospect Hill home where a man with a hat pulled down over his forehead and eyes reportedly stopped to make an inquiry about the Mellors around the time of the deaths. However, the resident could not identify Stevens as that person.
At Police Headquarters, Stevens was questioned — “sweated” — intensely but let go for lack of evidence, although an officer was assigned to shadow him afterwards.
After being released by the authorities, Stevens talked freely to a Burlington Hawk-Eye reporter he mistook for a Tennis Club member. He made wild claims that his great-great-grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence and was later massacred by Indians in Wyoming; that his own wife and children were killed by Indians also; that he spoke Sioux and fought with the 7th Cavalry; and that he sustained a jaw injury at Wounded Knee.
He told the reporter that on the night of the deaths he had trouble sleeping — he routinely bedded down on a concrete bench or on a pile of planks inside a shed belonging to the Tennis Club — so he sat in the street in front of the Mellor home. He saw Alfred Mellor leave for work. He returned to his quarters but was kept awake by his rheumatism. He said:
“Sometime after midnight I got up . . . [again] and went over across the street and sat down on the ground in front of [Alfred] Mellor’s gate. No one passed up or down the street. I saw no one. All was mighty still.
Along in the night, I guess it was about 2 o’clock, Wednesday morning, I heard someone in the Mellor house groan. It sounded real loud. Then I heard the groan again. I thought that the woman was sick.”
Despite the horrific sound of the moan, Stevens neither tried to help nor informed authorities that someone needed assistance. He blamed himself for his lack of courage, saying:
“I did not go. I was afraid. I looked at the house and expected to see someone strike a light. But no light appeared. I was scared to go to the door or neighbors. Someone might have shot me. I am a stranger here. Only a poor hobo.
Just think if I had gone over there I could have saved that woman’s life and her little boy. I might have broken out a window and let the gas out.”
His fear of involvement, Stevens claimed, stemmed from being jailed in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, four years earlier on suspicion of involvement in a mysterious death — he said he gave a widow money with which she bought spoiled fish that caused her to die of ptomaine poisoning — and he was afraid of being implicated if something was wrong at the Mellor home.
LaCrosse Police were contacted by the newspaper and Chief J.B. Webber sent a telegram back which said: “No record of James Stevens. No such case here four years ago.”
A rumor circulated that almond, lemon, and vanilla extracts were removed from the house and consumed for their alcohol content. Former Burlington Police detective M.E. Flynn, who was at that time State Food and Dairy Inspector, came to examine the scene in the role of private investigator. He found the extracts in kitchen cabinets where they belonged, eliminating a potential motive.
Flynn also spent an hour interviewing James Stevens and dismissively pronounced him “a moron” who had likely been institutionalized in the past.
It is possible that James Stevens was the “mad man” who peeped in windows, startling and scaring neighborhood residents; but Burlington Police seemed certain he did not kill Clara and Bubbles Mellor.
☛ Final Verdict ☚
On August 3, Chief Schwenker declared the Mellor case closed unless some “unexpected development” should arise later. He did so after interviewing Alfred Mellor in his office. Mellor dispelled rumors circulating in Burlington that Clara had $2,000 before her death; he said it was $225 — enough to cover funeral expenses.
Mellor also told the Chief:
“My wife had intimated that she was tired of living. She never threatened to kill herself but I understand she told a sister that if she died she wanted the boy to go with her. I think my wife committed suicide. No one could have placed her in the room without leaving any marks on her body. Little things excited her. She was clever and shrewd. She might have tied her hands to throw everyone off the track of the real manner of her death.”
☛ One Theory of the Crime ☚
Burlington residents were not convinced by the arguments of the police and Alfred Mellor.
One prominent person in the community — Mrs. Elisabeth Thompson who wrote the “Heart and Home Problems” advice column in the Burlington Hawk-Eye — believed it was her duty to present the public’s view. She did so by answering a question in her column from “A Mother” about the mysterious deaths of Clara and Bubbles Mellor.
Readily admitting that her beliefs were largely based on “woman’s intuition,” Elizabeth Thompson laid out the case for murder.
Clara, she said, would have removed the hair curlers and changed out of her nightgown if she intended to kill herself and knew she would be found by others. Nor would she have let Bubbles lie on her feet; instead, she would’ve held him in her arms as they died together.
Thompson speculated Clara might have been killed by someone who heard the rumors of her having a large sum of money; the killer found it in the dining room, which led to the ransacking of only that room and the kitchen.
The Coroner and other investigators, she wrote, too quickly concluded the deaths were murder/suicide — without establishing a motive — and never entertained the possibility of murder.
Then Elizabeth Thompson laid out her own theory of what happened. According to neighbors, Clara Mellor was in the habit of sitting on her porch at night. Someone who knew her husband worked the late shift might have sneaked up and overpowered her — or perhaps she fell asleep or was drugged with something in the stocking around her neck — and then moved her inside, placed her in the room, and turned on the gas. Bubbles was carried in and laid on top of her.
Mrs. Thompson ventured three possible motives: the killer, she said, was either a “robber, a madman, or an assaulter of women.”
☛ Sad Farewell ☚
At 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 30, the bodies, lying in the same flower-covered, gray casket, were transported from Prugh Undertaking back to the Mellor home. The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“Under the arm of his mother the head of little ‘Bubbles,’ the baby boy, rested. His childish face, like that of his mother, had not suffered any change in death and he seemed sleeping as sweetly as he was when his father kissed him good-bye that fatal night.”
The next day, the Mellor house was filled with family members; a few neighbors stood in the yard. Curious onlookers stayed away, allowing the family privacy to mourn and pray with Rev. T.F. Cook, pastor of the Harrison Avenue M.E. Church. The Burlington Hawk-Eye described the pathetic scene:
“Before the casket was closed, Alfred Mellor stood and looked in the face of his wife and at ‘Bubbles.’ No one who witnessed this poignant farewell watched with undimmed eyes.”
As the casket was taken from the house by pallbearers, junk man James Stevens — the center of so much suspicion in the case — was hoeing the Tennis Club grounds across the street. He never looked up at the mourners or procession.
After funeral services at the Rev. Cook’s church, Clara and Alfred Mellor, Jr. were buried in Aspen Grove Cemetery.
☛ Clara E. Mellor’s Life ☚
She had seven sisters: Lydia Marie Wertz Fynquist, Bertha Louise Wertz Gerdes, Lillie Wertz Starker, Allena J. Wertz Oetkin, Laura P. Wertz Sander, Esther Sophie Wertz Biner, and Alma N. Wertz Rolf.
Clara met Alfred Mellor about 1911 when he was an Assistant Director of a Chicago Y.M.C.A. After a four-year courtship, they wed on June 30, 1915 but kept their marriage secret for a year while Alfred pursued his career. Alfred P. Mellor, Jr. — “Bubbles” — was born in 1917.
After Alfred, Sr. fell ill during the 1918 flu epidemic and was too weak to fight in WWI, he felt he should labor at something that contributed to the war effort. The couple moved to Burlington and he worked two other jobs before settling at the railroad roundhouse. In April of 1920, they moved into the house where Clara and Bubbles died. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Arrest Murder Suspect,” Des Moines Daily News, July 30, 1920, p. 2.
- ☛ “Curious Crowd Is Absent From Mellor Funeral,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 31, 1920, pp. 1-2.
- ☛ “Doubt Suicide,” Des Moines Daily News, August 2, 1920, p. 2.
- ☛ “Fear Foul Play In Death Of Woman And Son,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 28, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “First Arrest In Mellor Mystery,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 30, 1920.
- ☛ “Mellor Case A Closed Incident Unless Unexpected Developments Reopen it Says Police Chief,”Burlington Hawk-Eye, August 3, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “Mellor Homeless For Third Time,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 29, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ Mellor Obituary, Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 30, 1920, p. 7.
- ☛ Mellor Obituary, Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 31, 1920, p. 5.
- ☛ “Mother And Child Are Found Dead In Home; Hands Tied,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 28, 1920, p. 3.
- ☛ “Mrs. Mellor Did Not Kill Herself And Little Son Say Mrs. Thompson,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, August 1, 1920, pp. 1, 4.
- ☛ “Mrs. Mellor Had $2,000 In The Bank,” Burlington Gazette, July 30, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “Murder Suspect Arrested,” Oskaloosa Daily Herald, July 30, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “Mystery Surrounds The Tragedy,” Burlington Gazette, July 31, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “Neighbors Doubt Suicide Verdict,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 29, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “A Startling Fact Is Revealed In Mellor Tragedy Late Today,” Burlington Gazette, July 29, 1920, p. 1.
- ☛ “Third Gas Mystery Unsolved,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, October 17, 1920, p. 1-2.
- ☛ “Unsolved Mysteries Mark Year In Police Circles,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, January 2, 1921, p. 19.