Horse Medicine: Murder of James Banda 1904

Murder Victim

James Banda
Occupation Unknown
? – 1904
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Drinking Party Gone Wrong

Murder Scene and Date

Duncan, Iowa
4 Miles East of Britt, Iowa
Hancock County
May 1, 1904


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2014

Historical documents such as newspaper clippings can tell only part of a story. Sometimes they merely tantalize and provoke with a small amount of information, leaving the curious wanting more.

Such is the case of James Banda, a man of unknown age whose death aroused suspicion at the time and continues to be mysterious.

☛ Sudden Death ☚

location of Britt, Iowa

location of Britt, Iowa

On Sunday May 1, 1904, James Banda gathered with friends in Duncan, Iowa, a small community four miles east of Britt in Hancock County.

It was likely a noisy gathering, a group of men letting off steam through drinking, telling tall tales, bragging, and pulling pranks.

As Banda drank, he and the others became more and more intoxicated and the level of excitement and risk-taking no doubt accelerated.

Someone handed Banda another drink — one that had no obvious unusual appearance and that smelled sweet.

Within seconds of drinking the liquid, James Banda was writhing in extreme pain and within 10 minutes was dead.

☛ Clear and Deadly Liquid ☚

from the Chariton Leader

from the Chariton Leader

James Banda had been poisoned with carbolic acid, a colorless distillation of coal-tar that was used as a disinfectant and antiseptic for equine conditions such as cracked heels, ringworm, skin sores, and even, in combination with glycerin or other solvents, for ulcerative conditions in the mouth and nose. When used in this way, it was termed “horse medicine.”

Mixed by certain methods and used cautiously and sparingly, it could be gargled for human ailments of the mouth and throat. Bottles of it were frequently kept on personal dressers or washstands for such use.

But it was deadly poison if swallowed and brought about an excruciating death.

Nineteenth century newspapers brimmed with accounts of accidental substitution of carbolic acid with some other product normally kept in homes of that time. Its sweet smell only enhanced the perception that it was something palatable.

And drinking carbolic acid was one of the most common forms of suicide in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was deadly, quick, and impervious to stomach pumping or vomiting.

☛ Forever a Mystery ☚

Hancock County Sheriff H. Gartin investigated the matter, and Hancock County Coroner A. E. Carton convened a three-man jury to hear evidence and reach a conclusion about Banda’s death.

According to the Chariton Leader,

“The verdict . . . was to the effect that [Banda] was handed the acid by the party under suspicion and that it remained to be seen whether or not the act was done with murderous intent.”

Questions about Banda’s death linger. Was it due to roughhousing and boisterous, drunken abandon? Did the victim drink the liquid on a dare? Or was there murderous intent?

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



  • ☛ “Claim Murder Was Done: Hancock County Aroused by Death of James Banda, Emmetsburg Democrat, May 4, 1904.
  • ☛ “Claim That It was Murder,” Chariton Leader, May 5, 1904.
  • ☛ “Claim That It Was Murder,” Palo Alto Reporter, May 5, 1904.
  • History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa, Vol. I and II. Chicago: Pioneer Publishing Company, Chicago, 1917.
  • ☛ “Think Murder Was Done,” Hull Index, May 6, 1904.
  • ☛ “Think Murder Was Done,” Ireton Weekly Ledger, May 6, 1904.

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