“Love and Absence of Love”: Suspicious Death Of William F. Lewis 1903

Murder Victim

William F. Lewis
49-year-old Farmer
Cause of Death: Laudanum Overdose
Motive: Love Triangle

Murder Scene and Date

Lewis Farm
Benton Township
Southwest of Sigourney, Iowa
Keokuk County
October 11, 1903


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2015

location of Sigourney, IowaOn Saturday, October 10, 1903, 49-year-old Keokuk County farmer William F. Lewis fell ill. He performed some limited chores on his Benton Township farm and then took to his bed.

The next morning his wife Belle prepared two doses of medicine — she later said it was Wards Liniment — and gave it to William. Then the family left him alone all day.

Lying by himself, the sick man took a turn for the worse, steadily deteriorated, and was dead in bed when Belle retired at 10:00 p.m. that night.

Keokuk County Coroner J.M. Adams convened a jury to investigate William Lewis’s death and hear testimony, including from Belle and her five children. The panel ruled that Lewis died of natural causes.

☛ Suspicions Arise ☚

from the Des Moines Iowa State Register

from the Des Moines Iowa State Register

The coroner’s jury verdict didn’t sit well with those in the community who had grown suspicious about the death and about Belle Lewis, who moved her family to Ottumwa two weeks after William died.

Responding to these doubts, Coroner Adams ordered the body exhumed and had the stomach removed and sent to Iowa State Chemist Sherman Macy in Des Moines.

Professor Sherman Macy (Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa)

Professor Sherman Macy (from Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa)

Macy’s examination found large amounts of the powerful opium-based narcotic laudanum in Lewis’s stomach.

It was learned that just previous to her husband’s death Belle Lewis purchased laudanum from stores in Hedrick and Fremont.

Suspicions about the death were further fueled when Belle applied for the $2,000 life insurance policy William carried through the fraternal organization Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W).

And something else was questionable. According to the Titonka Topic:

“[Another motive] came out in the investigation over the sudden death of a prominent Keokuk County woman. There were hints of intimacy between the husband of this woman and Mrs. Lewis. . . .”

That woman was Mary Elizabeth Glasford, who died unexpectedly in late November of 1901 and whose spouse Ira Glasford worked on the Lewis farm.

Rumors swirled in the community about a potential romantic relationship between Ira Glasford and Belle Lewis and a possible conspiracy between them to eliminate their spouses.

☛ Investigation and Grand Jury ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Keokuk County investigators worked methodically to collect every bit of evidence connected to William Lewis’s death.

As for Belle’s motivation, the Des Moines Capital reported:

“It was alleged she had not got along pleasantly with [her husband] and that she had a motive in desiring to be rid of him. Love and absence of love are said to have figured principally in this direction.”

The case was referred to the Keokuk County grand jury, which on New Year’s Day of 1904 indicted Belle Lewis for the first degree murder of her husband. The findings were kept secret until she could be taken into custody.

☛ Arrest and Arraignment ☚

On January 4, 1904, the Titonka Topic reported on the arrest of Belle Lewis:

“Late last night Sheriff [John] Baty of Sigourney arrived [in Ottumwa], and with Chief of Police Gray, went to Mrs. Lewis’ home and placed her under arrest. She was taken at once to Sigourney. She refused to say anything and was seemingly without fear of the consequences.”

She was incarcerated in the old jail at Sigourney. The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of her situation:

“Mrs. Belle Lewis sits silent in the Keokuk County jail awaiting — she knows what. Whether she will, after the conclusion of her trial, begin a penitentiary sentence that will end only with death, or will be allowed to go out into the world again and battle for her living and her children, is more than mortals can know at this time. She has, apparently, become resigned to the future.”

On January 5, 1904, Belle Lewis was arraigned in district court and pleaded not guilty.

☛ Trial ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

The court appointed the firm of Stockman & Hamilton of Sigourney to defend Belle. H.M. Eichler of Washington and J.P. Tally of Sigourney were chosen to assist Keokuk County Attorney W.H. Hamilton with the prosecution. Judge Scott of Brooklyn, Iowa, presided.

The A.O.U.W. refused to pay William’s life insurance to Belle Lewis on the grounds that she was accused of his murder. The fraternal organization assisted in the prosecution, hoping for a conviction that would negate its financial responsibility.

Over 50 witnesses were subpoenaed to give testimony. Both the prosecution, who wanted to prove that Belle killed her husband, and the defense, who hoped to show that William died of either natural causes or laudanum addiction and a subsequent overdose, were confident of victory.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette wrote of the sensational event:

“The trial of this woman promises to be one of the hardest legal battles ever fought in Keokuk County and great interest is being roused.”

The trial began on the afternoon of February 15 with jury selection lasting till 9:00 that night.

Waterloo Daily Reporter reported: “Mrs. Lewis sits calmly in the courtroom and shows no emotion.”

☛ Compelling Testimony ☚

from the  Des Moines Capital

from the Des Moines Capital

The prosecution presented persuasive facts. Hired hand Thomas Lappin, who was at the Lewis home the day William died, swore he saw Belle pour something from a small vial into her husband’s medicine.

Although Belle bought vials of laudanum at two stores in the days leading up to the death and was seen to give William doses from them, neither bottle was found in the house.

In addition, the victim’s symptoms were so suspicious that Dr. Morgan of Fremont, who was summoned after the death, refused to sign the burial certificate.

The Des Moines Capital reported of the proceedings:

“The state is weaving a strong chain of circumstantial evidence against the accused woman — it has shown that she and Ira Glasford, with whom she was on more than intimate terms, were seen buggy riding together on several instances and that they had their pictures taken together once while in Ottumwa attending a show.”

Indeed, photographer Bert Gillette testified that around October 1, 1903 — 10 days before William died — Belle Lewis and Ira Glasford had their picture taken together at his Ottumwa gallery.

Other witnesses claimed the two were overly-friendly, and were spotted in Sigourney and Ottumwa while taking secret trips together during the summer of 1903.

Samuel Lewis, brother of the dead man, testified that the day after his brother died, Belle and Ira spent a good deal of time together in the yard outside the house. When word came that she would be arrested, Glasford declared he would “spend the last dollar he had to clear her.”

The trial moved slowly as the state carefully presented its case. Defense attorneys could not shake the prosecution witnesses.

☛ Shocking Courtroom Scene ☚

from the Daily Iowa State Press

from the Daily Iowa State Press

Then stunning news was announced on February 18.

The prosecution ordered that William Lewis’s body be exhumed again and his head be brought into court.

The Daily Iowa State Press wrote:

“Dr. L.W. Dean of Iowa City has been instructed by the state of Iowa to examine the exhumed head of William Lewis, which was recently taken from the sheltering arms of Mother Earth . . . .”

Dr. Lee Wallace Dean, a prominent doctor at the State University of Iowa Hospital, specialized in Otology, Ophthalmology, Rhino-Laryngology, and Oral Surgery.

Dr. L.W. Dean

Dr. L.W. Dean examined
the victim’s head.

The prosecution hoped that Dr. Dean’s testimony about the head and Dr. Macy’s about the stomach would show the dead man was poisoned. The defense wanted to prove through the same evidence that William Lewis overdosed himself with laudanum.

In fact, on February 25, Dr. Dean testified that he found the bones of the skull in a “badly diseased condition from an inflammation at the base of the brain.” He stated that William had been living on borrowed time.

It seemed it didn’t matter if the victim was deliberately given laudanum or accidentally overdosed, his death would have been imminent in a matter of weeks.

☛ Dismissal of Charges ☚

from the  Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

After Dr. Dean’s testimony, the prosecuting attorneys asked that the case against Belle Lewis be dismissed.

Judge Scott immediately gave instructions to the jury; and, without even leaving the courtroom, the 12 men returned a unanimous not guilty verdict.

The Waterloo Daily Reporter described the scene after the verdict:

“When it was known that Mrs. Lewis was free, the women and men who crowded the courtroom rushed up to offer congratulations, and the woman who for some time past has been confronted with many years of imprisonment, was tendered an ovation which transformed the sober court room into a reception hall. During the trial, Mrs. Lewis maintained her composure, even while the state was introducing its most damaging evidence, but she plainly showed her relief that the long strain was over, and that she was at last permitted to go forth a free woman.”

☛ Suspicions Return ☚

from the  Iowa Postal Card

from the Iowa Postal Card

By April — two months after the trial ended — Belle Lewis had married Ira Glasford. And she had received the $2,000 insurance money.

This confirmation of a love affair between the two again raised doubts about the death of William Lewis. The Iowa Postal Card reported: “Public sentiment is very outspoken since the wedding.”

Those that the Emmetsburg Democrat described as people who “fell over themselves to congratulate the woman” after her acquittal were once again wondering where the truth lay.

☛ Aftermath ☚

photo by InSearchOf

photo by InSearchOf

Belle and Ira Glasford lived out their lives in Ottumwa, where he worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad.

When Ira died in 1921, Belle buried him in the same plot in Mahaska County’s Cedar Township Cemetery where she had William laid to rest in 1903. The two men also share a tombstone. She herself died in 1934 at the age of 74.


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



  • ☛ “Belle Lewis A Free Woman,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 26, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Belle Lewis Murder Trial,” Waterloo Daily Courier, February 16, 1904, p. 5.
  • ☛ “Belle Lewis Murder Trial,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, February 19, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ Cedar Rapids Weekly Gazette, February 24, 1904, p. 10.
  • ☛ “The Chronicle’s Enterprise,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 9, 1904, p. 108.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa News,” Carroll Herald, January 13, 1904, p. 4.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa News,” Spencer Clay County News, January 14, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “County Seat News,” Keota Eagle, January 7, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Dead Man’s Head To Be Examined,” Daily Iowa State Press, February 22, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Exhume the Body of Lewis,”Atlantic Semi-Weekly Telegraph, February 26, 1904.
  • ☛ “Freed of Murder Charge,” Elgin Echo, March 3, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Gruesome Evidence,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, February 19, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Have A Strong Case,” Palo Alto Reporter, February 25, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “The Hawkeye State,” Sioux County Herald, January 13, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “In Evidence,” Jacksonville (Illinois) Daily Journal, February 19, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Lewis’ Body Exhumed,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 18, 1904, p. 10.
  • ☛ “The Lewis Murder Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 5, 1904, p. 10.
  • ☛ “Lewis Murder Trial Slow,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 18, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Marriage Sequel to Trial,” Greene Iowa Recorder, April 20, 1904, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Lewis Acquitted On Charge Of Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 26, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Lewis Arraigned,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, January 7, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Lewis Is Acquitted,” Akron Register Tribune, March 3, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Lewis Weds Again,” Iowa Postal Card, April 21, 1904, p. 14.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Lewis Released from Prison,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 26, 1904, p. 7.
  • ☛ “Murder Charge Placed Against Ottumwa Woman,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 4, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Murdered Sick Husband,” Akron Register Tribune, January 7, 1904, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Murdered Sick Man,” Titonka Topic, January 7, 1904, p. 7.
  • ☛ “Murdered While Sick Abed,” Des Moines Iowa State Register, January 8, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “News In Brief,” Pocahontas Democrat, January 14, 1904, p. 11.
  • ☛ “She Sits and Listens,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 17, 1904, p. 3.
  • ☛ “State News In Brief,” Williamsburg Journal Tribune, January 14, 1904.
  • ☛ “Strong Case Against Mrs. Lewis,” Des Moines Capital, February 20, 1904, p. 12.
  • ☛ “To Use Head As An Exhibit,” Carbondale (Illinois) Daily Free Press, February 19, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Will Try Lewis Case,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 14, 1904, p. 3.
  • ☛ “Woman To Be Tried For Murder Shortly,” Des Moines Capital, January 30, 1904, p. 10.

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