“Living Funeral Pyre”: Murder of Jerome Curran 1897

Murder Victim

Jerome D. Curran
60–year-old Farmer
1837-1897
Cause of Death: Shot and Burned
Motive: Argument

Murder Scene and Date

Washington Township
Near Waverly, Iowa
Bremer County
August 22, 1897

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By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2014

location of Waverly, Iowa

location of Waverly, Iowa

On Monday morning, August 22, 1897, 60-year-old farmer Jerome Curran set out from his home just southwest of Waverly in Bremer County to find and bring back a swarm of his bees which escaped into the woods the day before.

Those woods near Curran’s home in Washington Township were known to be dangerous, a place for the lawless to hide and hatch plots. Area residents never forgot the 1883 lynching in the woods of the infamous horse thieves Bill and Ike Barber who took refuge there after killing a Fayette County Deputy.

The Daily Iowa Capital wrote that Curran himself expressed fear about the place, mysteriously telling those who would listen:

“There are two men in the woods of whom I am afraid and if you find anybody you may know they have got me.”

☛ “Living Funeral Pyre” ☚

When Curran hadn’t returned with his bees by the next day, Tuesday, August 24, a search party went out. At 5:00 p.m., Will Bingham and John Fails found Curran dead face-down on a brush pile which had been set on fire; his clothing and body were partially burned.

Bremer County Coroner William M. Barber convened a jury to examine the body. It ruled that Curran was shot in the back with a .38 calibre revolver by an unknown person; the bullet entered the body between the fourth and fifth ribs and lodged in the breast bone.

The Waterloo Daily Courier wrote of the murder:

“. . . [it] had been carefully and fiendishly planned. The quivering body of the farmer, before life was extinct, had been saturated with kerosene and a match applied making of it a living funeral pyre.”

Robbery was eliminated as a motive because the small amount of money Curran had on him was not taken.

Rumors spread that Curran had a poor character and was killed because of some act he’d committed; however, neighbors who knew him well denied that was true.

Bremer County Sheriff Henry Parrott and County Attorney D.A. Long examined the evidence and possible culprits. Their suspicions fell on four people — Jerome Curran’s 18-year-old son William, William’s girlfriend, and neighbors John Lewis and S.O. Stewart.

☛ Patricide? ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

William Curran argued with his father on the Saturday night preceding the murder. At the core of their disagreement was 26-year-old Delilah J. “Lyal” Fails, whose father John was one of the men who found the body.

Also a resident of Washington Township, Lyal was seven years William’s senior. Jerome Curran didn’t approve of the love match and forbid William to see his sweetheart again.

Not long after his father went to retrieve the bees, William left home as well and was later found at the Fails home. He showed no concern that his father was missing and did not join the search; the Waterloo Daily Courier described the son as “sullen and surly.” When the body was found, William refused to go home and view it, causing some to believe he was afraid to see what he had done.

His behavior became even odder on August 25, as described by the Daily Courier:

“[William’s] strange actions culminated in a burst of insane fury . . . at the funeral. He had been prevailed upon to attend the services.

During the delivery of the prayer he suddenly jumped to his feet and throwing his arms wildly about, exclaimed: ‘By God I’m not afraid of the corpse. I’m here. I’m not afraid of the sheriff or the coroner. God damn the corpse.’”

Other mourners grabbed and attempted to quiet him. William’s widowed mother then tried to calm him; but he turned on her as well, screaming “imprecations” before he was finally restrained.

Lyal Fails was tarred by her romantic involvement with William; the community and authorities believed that, if the young man killed his father, she must have had knowledge of it.

☛ Murder as Payback? ☚

Suspicion next fell on neighbor John Lewis, who was taken into custody and questioned by authorities. Lewis harbored ill will towards the victim because Curran gave essential testimony against Lewis in a seduction case that sent him to the penitentiary for two-and-a-half years.

Before heading to jail, Lewis was heard by numerous people swearing to kill Curran when he got out; he’d continued the threats when he returned to the community.

☛ Quarrel Ending in Murder? ☚

Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Yet another suspect was scrutinized, someone else who might have borne a grudge against the victim.

The Daily Iowa Capital wrote:

“Saturday last Curran had quarreled with a neighbor named [S.O.] Stewart and threats were freely made on both sides. Stewart appeared in Janesville [in Jackson Township] the afternoon of the day Curran was shot and appeared greatly excited. His actions caused comment, though nothing was then known of the murder. That night he remained in Janesville, something he had never been known to do before. Tuesday he returned home and joined the searching party. Here he appeared more excited than before. At the close of the afternoon, Stewart disappeared. Later in the night Stewart reappeared and once more his nervousness created comment. When suspicion was directed to other parties, he became more at ease and was loud in condemning the suspects.”

☛ Unsolved Case ☚

Authorities were unable to make a case against any of the suspects; and the homicide — which the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette called “one of the blackest tragedies enacted in this section in recent years” — went unsolved.

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

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References

  • ☛ “Another Man Suspected,” Daily Iowa Capital, August 27, 1897, p. 3.
  • ☛ “Beheaded And Burned,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 25, 1897, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Causes Of Suspicion,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 27, 1897, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Did The Vigilantes Do It,” Hawarden Independent, September 30, 1897, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Found Dead on a Brush Pile,” Dubuque Daily Herald, August 26, 1897, p. 1.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas County Sun, September 2, 1897, p. 6.
  • ☛ “On The Trail,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 27, 1897, p. 6.
  • Plat Book of Bremer County, Iowa. Philadelphia: Union Publishing Company, 1894, p. 25.
  • ☛ “Son Is Suspected of Murdering His Father,” Waterloo Daily Courier, August 26, 1897, p. 5.
  • ☛ “The Son Is Suspected of Murdering His Father,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 1, 1897, p. 13.
  • ☛ “A Waverly Man Killed,” Elgin Echo, September 2, 1897, p. 8.

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