Killer in the Tombstone: Murders of Lena and Martin Schultz 1893

Murder Victims

Helena Katherina “Lena” Schultz
48-year-old Physically-Handicapped Farm Wife

Martin Schultz
60-year-old Physically-Limited Farmer

Cause of Deaths: Beaten With a Hammer
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Tilden Township
Cherokee County
August 19, 1893


By Nancy Bowers
Written February 2011

Cherokee County had seen nothing like it before. It was a crime that incited and outraged not just because of its brutality, but also because of the helplessness of the victims.

Sensational and puzzling clues and even confessions emerged throughout the investigation; but in the end, the double homicide remained unsolved.

☛ Dwarfish and Handicapped ☚

from the Iowa State Leader

In 1893, Martin and Helena “Lena” Schultz lived alone in an out-of-the-way house between two sloughs a mile from any neighbors in Tilden Township of Cherokee County.

They rented 80 acres in the east half of section 25 from Lena’s brother, John Montagne, a prosperous local farmer. Lena’s other brother, George Montagne, Sr., was also a wealthy county landowner.

Both Lena and Martin were natives of Germany. They met and married in Clinton County, Iowa; and after farming a number of years there, moved to Cherokee County in 1880.

The Carroll Herald described the two:

“The . . . couple had been buffeted about by the storms of life, but had hoped to find in the west [of Iowa] an opportunity to recoup their fortunes and to save enough money to make their last years comfortable. With this idea in view, they brought their hoarded savings with them, and every cent they could save after their arrival here was carefully put away, with the intention of buying the farm upon which they were living.”

What is remarkable about their ability to live alone and farm was that Martin and Lena were both very small people. After their deaths, the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote of them:

“[Both were] below the average size, the old lady being a deformed cripple and no more than four feet in height.”

The 1880 Federal Census designated Lena “a hunchback” with “spinal complaint.” Despite their size and handicaps, Lena and Martin worked hard, depending on neighbors for occasional help.

They spent little money on themselves and kept every cent they had on the premises rather than in a bank, due to widespread economic woes of the times and numerous runs on local financial institutions. Relatives believed that more than a thousand dollars was hidden in Lena’s and Martin’s house.

☛ Horrible Discovery ☚

location of Cherokee, Iowa

location of Cherokee, Iowa

In the late morning of Thursday, August 17, 1893, neighbor Nick Halk came to the Schultz’s field to help stack grain. When Martin didn’t appear to work, Halk went to the house, where there were no signs of life and no answer when he knocked on the front door.

As he walked towards the back of the house, Halk made the first gruesome discovery.

At the corner of the building, six feet from the open summer kitchen door, Lena lay with her head in a pool of blood. Her face and skull were badly mutilated with large gashes and holes. She received such a forceful blow to the mouth that six of her teeth were scattered within a two-foot radius of her body. She had been dead since the night before.

Nearby was a water dipper Lena was carrying. She was killed going to or from the well, which put her death before dark when there was still enough light to see the way.

Inside the kitchen was butter that Lena lifted out of the churn just before going to the well.

Martin — mutilated beyond recognition — lay dead in a small bedroom. His left arm was cut and bruised with defensive wounds and on the left side of his head and face were several large holes — some as deep as two inches.

Clotted blood covered the floor and bloody fingerprints were smeared on the handle of the door between the sitting room and the bedroom. Near Martin’s body was a blood-covered hammer.

Martin had gone to bed the night before while Lena finished churning butter and cleaning up the kitchen and may have been asleep when the first blow was struck.

The coroner’s jury met the day the bodies were found and ruled that Lena and Martin Schultz were murdered with a blunt, metallic instrument. No one was named as the killer, although it was alleged the culprit was probably someone who knew the couple and their habits.

Robbery seemed a motive; however because of the Schultz’s secret hoards of money, it could not be determined how much was taken beyond $250 and $300 dollars missing from a deerskin pocketbook.

All cabinets and drawers had been opened and papers were strewn about the floors of the home from what looked like a frenzied and thorough search by the intruder. The murderer did not find, however, $5.45 hidden in an old Bible or $2.55 stuffed in a baking powder can hidden in a pile of beans on the second floor.

☛ Investigation ☚

from the Rock Rapids Review

Cherokee County Sheriff Daniel W. “Dan” Unger and County Attorney J.A. Miller headed up the investigation of the Schultz murders.

By August 20, a sizable reward was gathered; the Cherokee Board of Supervisors put up $500, neighbors contributed about $1,000, and Iowa Governor Horace Boies offered enough to bring the total to $2,000.

☛ Possible Suspects ☚

from the Eldora Herald

In mid-September, 30-year-old Jack Skinner of Cherokee — described by the Eldora Herald as “a notoriously desperate character” — was tracked to Sioux City and arrested for the murders by Sheriff Dan Unger. Skinner reportedly was seen near the Schultz house the night of the crime. Witnesses said he had little money before Lena and Martin were murdered, but spent lavishly afterwards.

Skinner was held in the Cherokee County Jail for the grand jury. Public sentiment was so strong that an extra guard was stationed at Skinner’s jail cell to prevent a lynching. On October 11, he was cleared and released.

Pinkerton operatives worked the case and arrested several local criminal types such as Oscar Nellis and Will Florence. All were let go when evidence of guilt failed to materialize.

☛ Emergence of the Killer? ☚

Some believed the killer’s face emerged on Lena’s and Martin’s gravestone.

Lena and Martin Schultz were buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a small country burying ground near their home. As cemetery sexton, John Williams tended the grounds; he often went to the victims’ graves and eventually became fixated on the granite grave marker over Lena’s and Martin’s plot.

One day while studying the side of the tombstone, Williams thought it was undergoing “a peculiar” transformation — he believed a face was forming there, perhaps two faces. In fact, he thought he could see Lena and Martin as they looked in death, with the terrible gashes they received from their killer.

Williams rushed from the cemetery to spread the word. The community, already highly excited about the brutal and unsolved murders, latched on to the promise of the apparition, believing that when the face was completely “developed” it would be the murderer’s.

The tombstone became a sensational and morbid tourist attraction, with as many as 500 people per weekend visiting, some traveling distances of 25 miles and more.

Photographers arrived to take pictures for souvenir booklets; often they toned their photographs to create special effects because they were too light to reveal any images.

Soon word spread to the East Coast newspapers. The New York World sent a reporter and photographer to cover the event. They could not discern anything in the stone, so they draped a slab of wood with a white oil cloth and painted on it a representation of what they thought the killer might have looked like: a “Bowery tough” wearing a bowler hat. The resulting photo was published by the World.

The stone mason who created the monument tried to end the rumors by putting on display the other part of the slab of Vermont granite he had left over from hewing out the Schultz tombstone. He said he thought the markings looked like dogs or cats or some other four-legged creature rather than humans.

Still, the superstitious went on believing in the ghosts in the granite.

As time passed and no further changes emerged, however, most locals accepted the marks as merely patterns in the granite or discoloration from weathering.

The tombstone apparition imbued the entire case with a supernatural tone. Soon, locals began reporting that the Schultz house was haunted and that strange lights could be seen moving about the rooms at night.

☛ Sinister “White Cap” Letters ☚

One morning, John Williams — who discovered the “face” on the Schultz tombstone — found strange papers nailed to his fence. They were “White Cap” letters, the late 19th century term for threatening, anonymous notes.

Williams was badly frightened by the letters — written on variously-sized and -shaped paper and all marked with a skull and cross bones in the upper left hand corner and a date in the right. He turned them over to County Attorney Miller.

One letter read:

“To John Williams: You have been found out and we now know who did the deed. You must come forward and tell the facts. If not your days will be numbered. We mean business and our company is 500 strong. Unless you comply you must take the consequences. [signed] Committee”

Other people in the community received similar letters; fear spread throughout the area, with residents wondering if they were safe in their own homes.

☛ Astounding Accusation ☚

Despite the large reward offered and the best efforts of Cherokee authorities, the killer of Lena and Martin Schultz could not be found; and the community tried to accept the grim realization that he might never be.

Then, more than two years afterwards, hope rose when an arrest was made. Relief was mingled with disbelief, however, because the suspect was one of their own and someone close to Lena and Martin Schultz.

On November 10, 1895, Lena Shultz’s brother George Montagne, Sr. was arrested for killing his sister and brother-in-law. An informant claimed he heard George Montagne, Sr. confess to the murders on three different occasions.

No one could believe this was possible; and George, Sr. was soon cleared of the crime and released.

The community went back to accepting a lack of resolution.

☛ Another Accusation — Or a Joke in Poor Taste? ☚

On September 6, 1901, George Montagne, Jr., a 27-year-old nephew of Lena Schultz, told Cherokee Sheriff John Hill, who succeeded Dan Unger, that he helped his father and uncle — George, Sr. and John Montagne — kill the Schultzes.

In a detailed confession to County Attorney J.A. Miller, George, Jr. said he drove the older men to the Schultz house and held the horses under some shade trees while they killed his aunt and uncle. His said they took the couple’s money and gave him $80, which he buried in a tin can under an old tree. He also turned over what he said were the murder weapons: a harrow tooth and a lever from a reaper.

Then suddenly, George, Jr. retracted the story, saying it was all a “joke.”

Despite his changing stories, Miller brought George Montagne, Jr. before a grand jury, where he once again made the confession and then once again declared it a joke.

Dr. Edward Hornibrook of the Insanity Commission

Because of his contradictory stories and odd manner, the county turned George Montagne, Jr. over to the Insanity Commission, made up of Dr. John G. Biller, Francis A. Molyneaux, and well-known Iowa physician Dr. Edward Hornibrook.

Cherokee County Attorney J.A. Miller claimed there was a “a taint of insanity in the Montagne family,” and recalled that young George, Jr. was judged insane by the commission in July 1900 and sent to a state asylum. After treatment, he was allowed to return home.

This time, however, the Insanity Commission declared George was not insane, but only “simple.”

County Attorney Miller further explained that George, Jr. was angry because he believed his father John promised him a quarter section of the family farm when he turned 27, but had not fulfilled his promise.

George, Jr. said he refused to work on the farm until he got his land and had been “idling about” with nothing to do so filled his time making up various stories to get back at his father.

He also confessed to the White Cap letters, saying they were a “joke” and that he enjoyed the fright they created in the recipients.

With only the rambling and contradictory stories of a possibly mentally-ill and vengeful family member, authorities could not declare the murder solved.

☛ The Culprit Unveiled at Last? ☚

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

The Schultz case took another strange turn in March of 1899, six years after the double homicide, when a South Dakota woman and former Cherokee County, Iowa, resident made a startling accusation.

Martha Nellis told authorities that her 33-year-old husband Oscar Nellis killed Lena and Martin Schultz on the night of August 16, 1893.

According to Martha Nellis, she and her husband lived on a farm 16 miles from Cherokee and about a mile from Lena and Martin Schultz.

The Nellises, like all residents in the area, had heard stories that the old couple kept in their house a large sum of money which they were hoarding in order to purchase land.

Martha said she and Oscar retired about 9:00 p.m. on August 16 but that Oscar got up about 10:00 and put his clothes on.

According to the Paullina Times, Oscar Nellis told his wife:

“I am going over to rob those Schultzes. They’ve got some money and I want it.”

Martha said she tried to talk Oscar out of his plan, but he was determined to follow through.

He left and then returned with the story that while he was rifling the Schultz house, Lena woke up and recognized him. She chased him towards the door; he picked up an object and struck her. Then he left; but realizing that Martin would be able to describe him, he went back and killed the old man.

A week after the murders, the Nellises moved to Oklahoma and then to South Dakota. They lived roughly in a dugout, and Oscar had been frequently arrested on various minor charges.

Oscar threatened Martha with her life if she ever told anyone about what he did. For six years, she lived with immense guilt and fear.

On March 6, 1899, a man, woman, and child registered at a Yankton hotel under false names. The man was recognized, however, as “shady” jailbird Frank Culligan. The woman was not his real wife.

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

Rumors came to Martha Nellis that the woman was going to claim she had been married to the man who killed Lena and Martin Schultz and was going to turn him in and receive a $2,000 reward. Apparently, Martha wanted to prevent the woman from obtaining the reward under false pretenses.

Cherokee County Sheriff John M. Hill and Sheriff W.M. Hickey of Yankton arrested Nellis in Lodi, South Dakota, and brought him to Cherokee. From there, he was transferred to the Woodbury County Jail in Sioux City.

The Paullina Times wrote:

“Cherokee authorities are satisfied of the guilt of Nullis [sic].”

The short, stocky, rough-looking Nellis talked freely at the jail of his innocence, accounted for his time on the night of the murder, and showed no fear that he would be convicted. When asked about the “picture” on the tombstone, he said he believed it signified nothing.

from the Perry Chief Reporter

from the Perry Chief Reporter

On April 10, 1899, the preliminary hearing to present evidence against Nellis ended. Martha Nellis never received an opportunity to testify against her husband because she could have done so only if the defense called her to the stand, which it did not. In fact, the Perry Chief Reporter wrote that “The defense made no showing whatever.”

The case against Oscar Nellis was dismissed by a motion of the court.

Martha’s accusations against her husband apparently did not end their marriage, as they were still living together in Vermillion, Clay County, South Dakota, as late as the 1930 U.S. Census.

☛ The Lives of Lena and Martin Schultz ☚

photo by “Nancy,” findagrave

Little is known about Martin Schultz, who was born October 25, 1833 in Prussia and who married Lena Montagne before 1880.

Lena Schultz was born Helene Katherina Montagne in Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, Germany, on April 1, 1845 to Ann Margaret Gerdels and shoemaker George R. Montagne.

Lena had six siblings: Margaret, Christian F., Frederick, Wilhelmina, John George (always called “George”), and John Carl Montagne.

In 1845, the Montagne family immigrated to America. They arrived not on the East Coast, as most immigrants did, but rather on the Gulf Coast; and they settled in Harris, Texas, near Houston.

Two of the Montagne children died in Texas and another, John Carl, was born there. The family stayed in Harris for six years. In 1851, the Montagnes returned to Germany, where two other children and the mother died.

In 1863, the father came back to America and settled in the Lyons district of Clinton, Iowa; a year later, George, Lena, and John Montagne left Bremen, Germany, on the Elise and Mathilda; landed in New York City on May 23, 1864; and then traveled across the country to join their father in Iowa.

Lena married Martin Schultz and they lived and farmed, with the help of a hired hand, in Hampshire Township of Clinton County.


In the 1870s, John and George Montagne both bought land in Cherokee County and, in 1880, invited their sister and brother-in-law to live there. Lena and Martin Schultz farmed the rented Tilden Township land, with help from neighbors, for 13 years before their brutal murders.

They were laid to rest in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Quimby Township of Cherokee County beneath a fine stone inscribed in German.



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



  • ☛ Alan Nicholson, Personal Correspondence, March 23, 2014.
  • ☛ “Big Rewards for Cherokee Murder,” Rock Rapids Review, August 24, 1893.
  • Biographical History of Cherokee County, Iowa, 1889.
  • ☛ Cherokee County IAGenWeb.
  • ☛ “Cherokee County’s Murder Mystery,” Carroll Herald, September 14, 1901.
  • ☛ “Cherokee Items,” Daily Iowa Capital, April 7, 1899.
  • ☛ “A Cherokee Murder,” Daily Iowa Capital, November 11, 1895.
  • ☛ “Dismissed on Murder Charge,” Perry Chief Reporter, April 13, 1899.
  • ☛ Edward Hornibrook photo, History of Medicine in Iowa by D.S. Fairchild, reprinted from The Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society, 1927 (transcribed for the Iowa History Project by S. Ferrall).
  • ☛ “Evidence Against Nellis,” Des Moines Gazette, March 30, 1899.
  • ☛ “Evidence Against Nellis,” Humeston New Era, April 12, 1899.
  • ☛ “Foully Murdered,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 18, 1893.
  • ☛ “He Told His Wife,” Des Moines Daily News, March 28, 1899.
  • ☛ “Held For Their Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 20, 1893.
  • ☛ Humeston New Era, September 27, 1893.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Eldora Herald, September 21, 1893.
  • ☛ “Looks Bad For Nellis,” Weekly Northern Vindicator, April 6, 1899.
  • ☛ Marion Sentinel, September 13, 1893.
  • ☛ “Nellis In Jail,” Alton Democrat, April 1, 1899.
  • ☛ “News Of The State,” Eldora Ledger, October 12, 1893.
  • ☛ Pella Weekly Herald, December 8, 1893.
  • ☛ “Proven Guilty by His Wife,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 28, 1899.
  • ☛ “Recalls A Famous Crime,” Daily Iowa Capital, April 10, 1899.
  • ☛ “The Schultz Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 21, 1893.
  • ☛ “The Schultz Murder,” Paullina Times, March 30, 1899, p. 5.
  • ☛ Sioux Valley News, July 5, 1900.
  • ☛ “Strange Picture: A Murder And The Superstitious Recalld [sic]” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 8, 1899.
  • ☛ “Tragedy In Iowa,” Iowa State Reporter, August 24, 1893.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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