The Irish Carpenter: Murder of William Martin 1885

Murder Victim

William Martin
42-year-old Carpenter
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Mississippi River
Clinton, Iowa
Clinton County
September 26, 1885


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2017

Forty-two-year-old Irish-born carpenter William Martin kept busy at his trade. He had constructed five houses in his hometown of Miles in Jackson County and was working to complete a shop on Main Street there in the fall of 1885.

location of Clinton, Iowa

On Tuesday, September 26, he traveled by train to Clinton — on the Mississippi River in Clinton County 20 miles to the southeast — to purchase lumber and supplies.

After buying his materials, he carried them in a box towards the train station and tucked the receipt for them inside his jacket. Just as he approached the depot, the train he was intending to board pulled away. Martin stashed his box in the train office to pick up later and left the station. By then, it was evening. He was never seen alive again.

☛ Body Recovered ☚

Six weeks later, William Martin’s body was discovered in the Mississippi River beneath a bridge at Clinton. It was badly decomposed, but he was identified by his possessions and the lumber bill of sale.

A wound on his head indicated he was struck with a blunt object before being thrown into the river.

His pocketbook was empty, but his watch was intact, as was a $5 gold piece and between $160 and $200 in an inner pocket.

Because such a large amount of money was still on his person, there was some speculation that Martin committed suicide rather than was the victim of a murder-robbery. Investigators pointed out, however, that the watch was inexpensive; and they theorized that the killer or killers were in such a hurry to dispose of the body that they did not thoroughly search Martin’s clothing.

His family believed that Martin would not have taken his own life, had no reason to, and had demonstrated he was fully participating in life by buying building materials for his continuing work.

☛ Laid to Rest ☚

Miles Iowa Cemetery

William Martin’s body was transported back to Miles on Friday, October 22. Because of his mother’s poor health and the state of the body, no funeral was held and he was buried in the Miles Cemetery.

His wife Sarah and five children between the ages of nine and 20 — William, Jr., Sarah, Eacy, Martha, and Catherine — grieved along with his parents Eacy and Daniel.

☛ Life of William Martin ☚

Martin had led an adventurous life. He was born in County Antrim in Northern Ireland on May 4, 1843 and came to the United States in the mid-to-late 1860s. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean five times.

The Maquoketa Excelsior wrote of him:

“Mr. Martin was an inoffensive citizen, a peculiar man, whose ill health was the cause of his gloomy appearance.”


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



☛ Ken Wright, USGenWeb Archives, December 6, 2009.
☛ U.S. Census.
☛ “Was He Murdered,” Maquoketa Excelsior October 28, 1885.
☛ “Was He Murdered,” Maquoketa Excelsior, November 28, 1885.

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