76-year-old Mortgage Broker
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned with Poker and Hammer
Murder Scene and Date
Nurre Farm Home
2 miles east of Brown’s Station
Clinton County, Iowa
March 11, 1890
By Nancy Bowers
Shrewd real estate purchases, money lending, estate administration, and great personal economy to the point of stinginess.
All these things combined to make German immigrant Henry Nurre one of the wealthiest men in Clinton County, where he was an early settler and important figure in Waterford Township.
In the 1840s, Nurre bought from the government extensive tracts in both Waterford and Fairfield townships near Brown’s Station (familiarly called Sugar Creek) 13 miles east of Maquoketa.
He paid $1.25 an acre, clear-cut the land, and sold the plots for nearly 40 times as much as he originally paid. The Maquoketa Excelsior claimed that Henry Nurre held more real estate mortgages in Clinton County than any other man.
That mortgage business brought in steady amounts of cash. But because he thoroughly distrusted banks, Nurre installed a home safe, a secure place where he allowed neighbors to keep their money also.
By 1890, 76-year-old Henry Nurre was so financially comfortable that he had given up the worries of large-scale farming to concentrate almost completely on his financial business.
He settled into a routine of collecting his accounts, puttering about as needed in the barnyard, and faithfully attending church with his third wife, 59-year-old Elizabeth Finke Nurre.
☛ Isolated and Vulnerable ☚
Henry’s and Elizabeth’s 10-room, two-story limestone house was located in a remote area just north of Sugar Creek in section 3 of Waterford Township.
It sat back from the road, surrounded on three sides by heavy timber which provided dense shade from summer heat, blocked the prairie winds in winter, and — most importantly — provided nearly-complete privacy.
Although the tracks for Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad — “The Milwaukee Road” — ran through the Nurre farm about 500 feet from the house, the farm was remote from neighbors and was nearly two miles east of the Brown’s Station postal hub along the rail line. Roads in and out were primitive.
It was a lonely and secluded place for two old people to live alone. Nurre himself may even have felt vulnerable dwelling in such isolation because he had recently purchased a home in the nearby town of Preston for relocation.
☛ Last Accounts ☚
On Tuesday, March 11, 1890, Henry Nurre spent his day as usual, picking up mortgage payments and performing small chores required for the family part of the farm.
One account he collected that day was $1,156 from his 32-year-old son-in-law Theodore Huilman, the husband of step-daughter Elizabeth Finke — his wife Elizabeth’s child from her first marriage — who later spelled his surname “Huelman.”
Eighty acres separated the Nurres from the Theodore and Elizabeth Huilman farm to the south.
After performing some light chores, Henry came into the kitchen and flung off his cap and mittens, although he kept on his work clothes and shoes.
At a table in the southeast corner of the sitting room, he addressed an envelope to his son Joseph in Sac County, Iowa, and composed a response to a March 10 letter, saying that $1,100 — part of the amount collected that day from son-in-law Theodore Huilman — would be deposited in the Preston Bank for Joseph to withdraw.
Elizabeth Nurre also wrote a letter to be mailed along with her husband’s, a personal note to Joseph Nurre’s wife — her daughter Mary Finke Nurre from her first marriage.
During the afternoon, neighbor Barbara Arkenberg from a bordering farm in Section 2 came to visit Elizabeth and Henry. Barbara, like the Nurres, spoke both German and English. All was fine in the home when Mrs. Arkenberg left about 4:00 p.m.
☛ Absent From Church ☚
The Nurre family had always been deeply involved in the faith of the community and, like most of their neighbors, were observant Catholics.
In the early days before a church was built, nearby residents gathered in their home to recite the Rosary and hear masses by traveling priests.
Before Nurre’s first wife Mary Fehring Nurre died of typhoid in 1855, she asked Henry to donate land for a Catholic church, and she picked out a spot for it in Section 11 on a hill south of their home.
In 1859, Nurre kept his promise to his late wife Mary and officially deeded 40 acres to the Bishop of Dubuque, Mathias Loras. On that land were built a church with an adjoining cemetery and a public school which later became parochial — together known as St. Joseph’s Parish of Sugar Creek, later part of the Diocese of Davenport.
Aside from Henry’s financial business, the biggest part of the Nurres’ life was St. Joseph’s, which Henry’s generosity had made possible. They never missed a mass or gathering at the church.
By mid-March of 1890, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church of Sugar Creek was well into Lenten observations leading to Easter, which would fall on April 6. Extremely long daily worship services were part of the rituals.
On Tuesday, March 11, faithful congregants Elizabeth and Henry Nurre were absent from St. Joseph’s. They were missing again on March 12, when the services ran 13 hours.
When the couple failed once more to show up at the church on Thursday, March 13, general concern ran through the whole congregation, who had never known them to miss one day, let alone three consecutively.
Theodore and Elizabeth Huilman — their son-in-law and daughter — volunteered to go to the Nurre home; St. Joseph’s parish priest Father William B. Sassen accompanied them.
The trio entered the Nurre house on the north side through a door opening from a porch into the kitchen. The Davenport Morning Tribune described the gruesome sight they encountered:
“On opening the back door to the kitchen they found the body of old man Nurre lying on the floor, his throat cut from ear to ear, and his head beaten to a jelly.”
Henry Nurre lay dead and cold to the touch just inside the door and in front of the kitchen pantry, fully dressed and wearing overshoes.
Furniture was overturned. Blood spotted the floors, papers were strewn about, and first-floor rooms were completely ransacked.
The Huilmans and Father Sassen rushed about the house to locate Elizabeth Nurre.
The Davenport Morning Tribune described what they found:
“Upstairs another terrible discovery was made. Lying upon a bed was Mrs. Nurre, with her head also badly battered. The skull was so badly smashed that the brain was exposed and the bedclothing [sic] was covered with blood. Strange to say, Mrs. Nurre was still alive, but she was in a comatose condition, and it is impossible for her to recover.”
Elizabeth Nurre was literally black and blue from a severe beating. Left for dead, she had lain unconscious but had revived and staggered about the room in confusion, staining the walls with blood as she repeatedly bumped her head before falling unconscious again onto the bed.
It seemed miraculous that Elizabeth could still be alive after the initial battle she waged for her life, the beating she received, and the number of days she had lain unattended. In fact, most newspapers reported that she was killed in the attack or unable to recover and would soon die.
The Huilmans and Father Sassen notified the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office. At that time, Sheriff William M. Desmond was temporarily unavailable, so a deputy asked Jackson County Sheriff O.H. McCaffrey to assist with the investigation. Soon, both sheriffs were intently working the case together.
According to the Jackson Sentinel:
“When these gentlemen reached Brown’s [Station] they found the people wild with indignation, and it would have been a sorry day for the perpetrators of the crime had they been discovered or even suspected.”
At the Nurre home, the sheriffs inspected the body in the kitchen and then followed a smeared trail to the sitting room. Two large pools of blood, which the killer had tried to mop up, indicated Henry Nurre was attacked as he was writing to his son. His body was dragged into the kitchen, where his clothing was rifled.
Elizabeth may have been having a meal when the intruder appeared, as there was a partially-eaten plate of food in the kitchen. Realizing the murderous intent of the assailant, she fled in horror for whatever small protection the second floor bedroom afforded.
After killing Henry, the assailant ran up the stairs and battered down the bedroom door with a poker and then struck Elizabeth on the back of the head with both it and a hammer left lying nearby.
Clinton County Attorney A.R. McCoy and Coroner Dr. Charles W. Meyers were called to the scene immediately. Through telephone reports from local citizens who had information, word spread of the crime and of the investigation to county and statewide newspapers, quickly circulating the specifics of the attacks.
Sheriffs Desmond and McCaffrey believed the killer knew that Henry Nurre had a particularly large sum of money in his possession that day and watched from the cover of the thick tree grove surrounding the house for a chance to rob him; after Barbara Arkenberg left, he knew the old couple was alone and entered the house.
A Sheriff’s Marshall named Francis told newspapers he was certain the killer was someone the Nurres knew because of his “hideous persistency” in pursuing Elizabeth Nurre upstairs and clubbing her until he thought she was dead and could not identify him to authorities.
☛ Motive ☚
The brutal crime appeared to be a robbery. The combination lock on the safe where Nurre kept his money was battered off with a heavy tool, but the safe remained tightly closed.
At first it appeared that the robber-murderer realized only a small amount of money from Nurre’s pockets and even overlooked $24 in another pair of pants hanging on a hook above the safe.
The large amount of cash Nurre collected on March 11 was still in his satchel on a bed in a first-floor bedroom covered with one of Elizabeth’s skirts. In it was $1,156, which Theodore Huilman identified as the money he gave Nurre on the day of the murder.
When the safe was forced opened by law enforcement, $107,000 in notes and mortgages were found. In addition, there was one single penny.
Since the first of March, Nurre had collected a total of $4,120 from mortgages he owned and had loaned out $1,600. All but $1,070 could be accounted for and was assumed stolen by the killer.
☛ Inquest ☚
On March 13, Dr. Charles W. Meyers, an 1860 graduate of the Cleveland Medical College and a Civil War surgeon, conducted an inquest in Waterford Township before a coroner’s jury composed of local men James W. Kerwin, John Borman, and Henry Brown.
The jury took testimony from those who examined Henry’s body, including Dr. Owen B. Bowers, the physician initially summoned to aide the injured Elizabeth Nurre.
These accounts revealed that a weapon was used to rip the underside of Nurre’s left jaw, creating a 2-inch long and 4-inch deep wound. Also, his neck was bruised and his larynx broken as though from strangulation.
The coroner’s jury ruled that Nurre was murdered on March 11 by:
“violence, bruises, blows, and choking, and by use of certain weapons to the jurors unknown, and by some person or persons to the jurors unknown.”
☛ Sad, Familiar Scenario ☚
In the annals of historic Iowa crimes of this type — known today as “home invasions” — there is a sad familiarity in the details.
Other victims, among many, were Mr. Knisley in 1848, Henry J. Millard in 1874, Lena and Martin Schultz in 1893, George Sulzberger in 1898, Jane Otis in 1921, George G. Shackell and Winfield Scott Rouse in 1929, and Sarah Tracy in 1935.
Victims like Henry Nurre were targeted either because of known facts or widespread myths that they kept large amounts of money in the home.
The victims were elderly or incapacitated and, therefore, unable to defend themselves against force.
Eccentricity, too, was a primary ingredient because it caused the victims to be solitary or to desire seclusion, where they were vulnerable to crime.
Acknowledging the role Nurre’s personality may have contributed to the crime, the Davenport Democrat wrote:
“Henry Nurre was very eccentric in his habits, and the rigid economy practiced by both himself and his wife verged on penury. It was generally understood that he had a great deal of money in his house at all times, having no confidence in banks, and this is probably what incited the dastardly deed.”
☛ The Widow’s Memories ☚
Elizabeth Nurre, although critically injured, was judged by doctors to have a good chance of surviving.
So it was important to keep her safe so she could provide clues to investigators.
Elizabeth was kept under guard in the Nurre home and tended by Dr. Owen B. Bowers in the bedroom where she was viciously attacked. No neighbors were allowed to see her.
Because it was feared bad news might hinder her progress, Elizabeth was not told of Henry’s death but, instead, was led to believe he was in Cincinnati, Ohio, on business with his brother.
At all times, two family members — one who spoke German and one who spoke English — kept vigil at Elizabeth Nurre’s bed to catch any words she might utter in either language about the attack.
The family said she recognized them and talked with “perfect self-possession until the conversation leads to the tragedy, when she becomes bewildered.”
Elizabeth even had the presence of mind to ask if she’d received letters from Henry, whom she believed was traveling.
Then came the announcement that on April 3, 1890 Elizabeth Nurre had again come close to death when in a disoriented state she allegedly got up from her bed and took strong medicine, which caused an overdose.
After that second near-death incident, Sheriff Desmond took Elizabeth Nurre to Clinton to be cared for by Dr. Daniel C. McNeil, a highly-skilled graduate of Pennsylvania Medical College who gained expertise while a surgeon in both the Mexican and Civil wars and who had tended Pinkerton Detectives wounded in a shootout with the Younger Brothers gang.
Sheriff Desmond’s stated reason for removing Elizabeth was that she required more skilled care than she could receive in her remote home, which was difficult for doctors to access because of bad roads.
☛ Rumors Abound ☚
All around Clinton County there was great speculation about the horrible crime. Particularly of interest was that Elizabeth Nurre seemed to regain all her memory except for details about Henry’s murder and her own savage beating.
This fact led to questions about family members who might have borne grudges or stood to gain from the deaths of Henry and Elizabeth — someone Elizabeth might be reluctant to identify or be afraid of.
Initially there were rumors that while she was comatose Elizabeth Nurre regained consciousness long enough to name her son-in-law Theodore Huilman as the assailant. Humeston New Era and Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette even reported that Huilman was arrested.
After asking Clinton County Attorney A.R. McCoy about rumors that a family member had killed Henry and savagely beaten Elizabeth, the Davenport Morning News wrote:
“[McCoy] did not think the rumor had foundation but also intimated that [it] may have become the accepted theory of late.”
The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported on April 12, 1890:
“The theory that [the murder] was a family quarrel is not generally credited.”
Sheriffs Desmond and McCaffrey issued warnings that they would arrest anyone spreading gossip about family members being suspects in the Nurre murder and assault, but that threat didn’t stop the rampant speculation.
Theodore Heulman, however, had defenders in the community who argued that he could not be a suspect because arrangements were being made to move Elizabeth into his home when she recovered — supposedly a sign of the family’s trust in him — and that he had offered a $1,000 reward for information about the killer.
☛ Grand Jury Hears Testimony ☚
Gossip and rumors persisted about the Nurre case, and locals demanded answers for the death of one of the county’s most prominent citizens.
In late September of 1890, a District Court grand jury was convened by Clinton County Attorney McCoy. Fifty-to sixty witnesses, including Sheriff McCaffrey, Dr. McNeil, and Nurre family members — widely-suspected son-in-law Theodore Huilman along with others — gave testimony.
On October 23, the grand jury’s verdict was filed with Clerk of Court R.J. Crouch and signed by Foreman George F. White:
“Before adjourning for the term the Grand Jury desire to say in regard to the murder of Henry Nurre, concerning which there is general interest, that this Grand Jury has examined about sixty witnesses brought before it, and as searching an investigation as we were able to make, has been made. We have not yet been able to obtain sufficient evidence to justify us in finding an indictment against any particular person or persons for the murder of said Nurre, and in our judgment; it being to the interest of public justice, that the investigation be not closed at this time, the same is left open for further investigation at the next session of the Grand Jury. We all unite in saying that the sheriff, county attorney and coroner have done all in their power to aid us in our investigation; and their labor and efforts from the time of the death of said Nurre to this time, have been to ascertain and bring to justice the guilty, all that the most exacting could demand.”
☛ Elizabeth Nurre’s Final Account of the Facts? ☚
In early January of 1891, both the Davenport Morning News and the Jackson Sentinel reported the astounding information that Elizabeth Nurre had told a neighbor woman that on March 11, 1890 she and Henry argued about “the disposition of some property” and he began savagely beating her.
As she was near death from the blows, her son-in-law Theodore Huilman arrived at the house and intervened to save her. When Henry’s wrath turned on Huilman, the younger man killed his father-in-law in self-defense and then scattered papers and household items around to make it appear that Nurre was murdered during a robbery.
Apparently, Elizabeth provided no reason why Theodore Huilman would leave her alone, battered and near death, for three days.
As they had done with such information previously, authorities seemed to ignore these new revelations.
Pinkerton detectives from Chicago were said to have worked the Nurre case in the years following the murder, but it remained unsolved, and a $2,000 reward went unclaimed.
☛ Change of Name, Avoidance of Guilt? ☚
In September 2013 personal correspondence with me, Theodore Huilman’s great-grandson Thomas Huelman accounted for the changing of his ancestor’s surname from “Huilman” to “Huelman”:
“What I remember being told when we were growing up was that great-grandfather Theodore had broken his arm. While it was healing, he had to sign some legal papers and when he did the lower case ‘i’ was open and there was no dot on top — thus resembling an ‘e.’ To change the legal papers would have cost a lot of money, but it was only $5.00 to change his name!
It was later that we heard a suggestion that he may have changed the name to get out from under the cloud of suspicion that arose from the Nurre murder.”
Thomas Huelman recalls hearing family stories that Theodore Huilman signed a dying declaration stating he was not involved in the murder of Henry Nurre.
☛ Henry Nurre’s Life ☚
The details of Henry Nurre’s life are widely available through county history books and genealogical sites.
He was born in Oldenburg, Germany, September 28, 1814. He sailed to America in 1841, living first in Chambersburg and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Nurre’s sense of adventure and exploration — and perhaps his strong, individualistic nature — drove him even farther west to Iowa, where he settled near Brown’s Station in Waterbury Township of Clinton County. He was one of the earliest settlers there, and his life was intertwined with the history and development of the township.
About 1846, Henry Nurre returned to Cincinnati, Ohio, to wed Mary Fehring, the daughter of Hanover, Germany, native Lucas Fehring.
Mary and Henry — by some historical accounts named John Bernard “Henry” Nurre — had two children: Catherine Lucinda Nurre in 1847 and Joseph Gerhard Nurre in 1851. Some sources cite another child, Stephen.
After Mary Fehring died of typhoid in the summer of 1855, her father continued to live with the Nurre family. When Mary passed away, Henry had not yet donated land for the St. Joseph’s Cemetery and he took her body by oxcart to Galena, Illinois, where she was buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.
In 1857, Henry married again to German immigrant Susanna Adelaide “Anna” Wilmes, with whom he had no children. Anna died in 1860 and is buried in the St. Joseph’s cemetery for which Henry donated land.
Before 1870, Henry married Elizabeth Fundermann Fink, the widow of Johann Ortwinus Finke. Elizabeth brought three young children to the marriage: John, Elizabeth, and Mary Finke.
Henry’s stepdaughter Elizabeth Finke married Theodore Huilman, the son-in-law who some in the community believed attacked the Nurres.
Elizabeth Finke Nurre’s daughter Mary married her step-brother Joseph G. Nurre and the couple lived and farmed in Sac County, Iowa, where Joseph’s sister Catherine Nurre and her husband John Reiff Sr. also resided.
Henry Nurre was a justice of the peace for many years, served altogether 12 years on the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, and held other county and school offices.
His extensive land holdings and his mortgage business made his estate worth nearly $200,000. In January of 1891, Henry’s widow Elizabeth Nurre, his daughter Catherine Nurre Reiff, and his son Joseph Nurre — heirs to the large estate — auctioned off his farm, selling it to Katrina and August Boehmer.
Elizabeth Finke Huilman was not a direct heir because she was a step-child of Henry Nurre and the daughter of Elizabeth Finke Nurre from a previous marriage.
Henry Nurre’s funeral was held on the morning of Monday, March 17, 1890, and he was buried in the Sugar Creek Cemetery behind St. Joseph’s Church.
Over 200 horse-drawn vehicles made up the funeral procession, with people traveling from all over the area to pay their respects.
In February of 1891, Henry Nurre’s coffin was exhumed and moved to another grave in the cemetery, over which a huge monument was erected.
The church and cemetery remain, but the rest of the land Henry donated has been returned to farming, although a building left from the days of a school is called “Nurre Hall.”
The Jackson Sentinel noted Henry Nurre was:
“A man of the strictest honesty and probity, careful, conscientious to the last degree.
Albeit somewhat eccentric, he was a man universally liked and respected.”
Elizabeth Fundermann Finke Nurre — having survived her horrible injuries — lived until May 21,1898, when she died at the age of 67 in Schaller in Sac County, where she was living with her daughter Elizabeth Finke Huilman and husband Theodore, the man some suspected of killing Henry and attacking Elizabeth. She is buried in the cemetery at Schaller.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Additional Local,” Jackson Sentinel, April 24, 1890.
- ☛ “Additional Local,” Jackson Sentinel, October 2, 1890.
- ☛ “An Atrocious Crime,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, March 16, 1890.
- ☛ “Brevities,” Davenport Morning Tribune, September 27, 1890.
- ☛ “Brevities,” Davenport Morning Tribune, October 25, 1890.
- ☛ “Browns, Sugar Creek and Riggs, Waterford Township, Clinton County, Iowa” compiled by Lorraine Houghton and Marilu Thurman, updated August 2006.
- ☛ “A Brutal Murder,” Jackson Sentinel, March 20, 1890.
- ☛ “Condensed Items,” Milford Mail, February 12, 1891.
- ☛ “Correspondence,” Jackson Sentinel, January 15, 1891.
- ☛ Davenport Morning Tribune, March 20, 1890.
- ☛ “From the St. Joseph’s Church-Sugar Creek-1855-1890,” Clinton County IaGenWeb.
- ☛ “Iowa Condensed Items,” Oelwein Register, November 6, 1890.
- ☛ “Iowa in Brief,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 20, 1890.
- ☛ “Iowa News Items,” Brooklyn Times, March 19, 1890.
- ☛ “Iowa News Notes,” Humeston New Era, March 26, 1890.
- ☛ Iowa State Reporter, April 10, 1890.
- ☛ “Killed For Money,” Davenport Morning Tribune, March 15, 1890.
- ☛ “Murder Most Foul,” Maquoketa Excelsior, March 15, 1890.
- ☛ “News Of the State,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 12, 1890.
- ☛ “News Of The State,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 30, 1890.
- ☛ “Neighbor Town News,” Jackson Sentinel, July 31, 1890.
- ☛ “Neighbor Town News,” Jackson Sentinel, October 30, 1890.
- ☛ “Neighbor Town News,” Jackson Sentinel, January 1, 1891.
- ☛ “The Nurre Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, March 23, 1890.
- ☛ “The Nurre Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 24, 1890.
- ☛ “The Nurre Murder,” Davenport Morning Tribune, December 25, 1890.
- ☛ “The Nurre Murder,” Jackson Sentinel, March 27, 1890.
- ☛ “Nurre Murder Unsolved,” Jackson Sentinel, April 24, 1890.
- ☛ “Pencilings,” Jackson Sentinel, April 10, 1890.
- ☛ “Personal and General,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 18, 1890.
- ☛ Plat Book of Clinton County, Iowa. North West Publishing Co., 1894, University of Iowa Digital Library.
- ☛ “The Reporter,” Iowa State Reporter, March 27, 1890.
- ☛ The Roscoe Gun Battle; Younger brothers vs. Pinkerton Detectives. By Wilbur A. Zink. Democrat Publishing Company, 1967.
- ☛ “Slain In His Home,” Oskaloosa Daily Herald, March 15, 1890.
- ☛ “Spirit Of The County Press,” Jackson Sentinel, February 26, 1891.
- ☛ Tom Huelman, Personal Correspondence, August and September 2013.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ Wolfe’s History of Clinton County, Iowa, Volume 1. Patrick B. Wolfe, Editor-in-Chief. Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen and Company, 1911.