58-year-old Car Inspector
North Western Railroad
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Romantic Obsession
Murder Scene and Date
Garage, Christensen Home
1735 Grand Avenue
Council Bluffs, Iowa
June 21, 1941
By Nancy Bowers
About 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 21, 1941, 58-year-old North Western Railroad employee Henry Christensen came home to his rural acreage at 1735 Grand Avenue in Council Bluffs.
Written September 2011
As he drove his car into the garage, he had no idea someone was lying in wait with a gun.
Henry’s brother Alexander, who shared the home with him, heard shots and found Henry dead behind the garage with two bullet wounds to the torso — fired from behind — and one to the temple.
There was no weapon nearby.
☛ A Suspect is Found ☚Suspicion quickly fell on Henry’s ex-wife Catherine Johnson, 42, whom the widowed Christensen married in December of 1939. The couple obtained a divorce in September 1940 after filing cross petitions charging the other with cruelty.
Newspapers described Catherine Johnson — 16 years younger than Christensen — as a “blonde divorcee.”
Pottawattamie County Attorney Roy W. Smith filed charges against her on June 24; Police Chief Clarence A. “Pat” Bangs announced that the day after her arrest Johnson took an overdose of sedatives in a failed suicide attempt.
☛ Legal Process ☚
Johnson was arraigned before Municipal Judge Dan Sheehan, who set July 1 for a preliminary hearing. Johnson was refused bail and was held in jail.
In early September, a Pottawattamie County grand jury heard testimony from:
- ☛ Henry Christensen’s brother Alexander, who found the body
- ☛ A taxi driver who claimed he drove Catherine Johnson to the Christensen house on the night of the murder
- ☛ A restaurant employee who said Johnson came into his place of business not long after the shooting.
At the end of the testimony, the grand jury indicted Catherine Johnson for first degree murder.
Then Johnson was brought before District Judge John A. Murray. According to the Waterloo Daily Courier, she “displayed no signs of deep emotion as she uttered her plea” of not guilty.
Council Bluffs Police Chief Pat Bangs told the press the prosecution would show that Catherine Johnson took a cab to her former husband’s home and waited for him. When he got out of his car, she shot him three times and threw the revolver in a remote area along the bluffs near the Christensen acreage.
Catherine Johnson admitted taking a cab to Christensen’s house because she wanted to make up. However, she insisted that she walked back into town without seeing him.
The trial began in early December.
After the prosecution rested its case on December 5, 1941, Johnson’s lawyer motioned for a directed verdict and dismissal on the grounds that the prosecution had not established its case.
District Judge Andrew V. Thornell sustained the motion and directed the jury to return an acquittal, saying:
“There isn’t anything more than a mere suspicion that this woman [Catherine Johnson] committed this crime.”
☛ Case Pushed from the Headlines by Pearl Harbor ☚
Two days after Catherine Johnson’s acquittal, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Iowa and the rest of the nation went into war mode, with the murder of Henry Christensen quickly forgotten.
No one else was accused of or charged with the murder.
☛ Henry Christenson’s Life ☚Henry Christensen was born July 1, 1882 in Council Bluffs to Danish immigrants Ellen Peterson and James Jorgen Christensen. He had five brothers — Alexander, Alfred, Harry Joseph, Lehi E., and Edwin Ephraim Christensen — and a sister, Clara Christensen Talbott.
About 1905, he married Pearl Ivy Scott. They had three children: daughter Francis Ellen Christensen Nusser and sons Erwin H. and Lester Franklin Christensen. Pearl passed away in early 1916 at the age of 29.
In 1939, Henry married Catherine Fisher, the woman who was accused and acquitted of murdering him two years later. They divorced after 10 months of marriage.
Christensen was a longtime car inspector for the North Western Railroad.
Henry Christensen is buried beside his wife Pearl Ivy Christensen in Walnut Hill Cemetery in Council Bluffs.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Council Bluffs Woman Faces Trial on Charge of Murdering Ex-Mate,” Mason City Globe-Gazette,” September 10, 1941.
- ☛ “Council Bluffs Woman Freed of Murder Charge,” Carroll Times Herald, December 5, 1941.
- ☛ “Divorcee Faces Murder Charge,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 5, 1941.
- ☛ “Ex-Wife Denies Garage Slaying,” Waterloo Daily Courier, June 25, 1941.
- ☛ “Iowa Woman Indicted for Slaying Mate,” Ames Daily Tribune, September 5, 1941.
- ☛ “Iowa Woman Is Accused of Murder,” Ames Daily Tribune, June 25, 1941.
- ☛ “Massouris Case Into Fourth Year,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 16, 1953.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Woman Charged With Slaying Ex-Husband,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, September 10, 1941.
- ☛ “Woman Faces Trial in Husband’s Death,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 10, 1941.
- ☛ “Woman Held On Murder County,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, June 25, 1941.