Lynch Law: Murder of Reuben Proctor 1877

Murder Victim

Reuben B. “Rube” Proctor
26-year-old Farmer
Cause of Death: Hanging
Motive: Vigilante Justice

Murder Scene and Date

Schonburg Community
Belmont Township
Near Milo, Iowa
Warren County
November 14, 1877


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2016

It was a frightening and brutal crime, a home invasion gone terribly wrong, resulting in the death of a brave girl and leading to the mob-fueled lynching of a young father.

☛ Terrifying Home Invasion ☚

Location of Milo, Iowa

Location of Milo, Iowa

On Wednesday evening, October 31, 1877, quiet calm lingered over the Charles Kading home in northwestern Belmont Township. Charles and his sons August and Frederick had traveled to nearby Indianola, leaving the rest of the family alone.

With her back to the door on the north side of the house, 19-year-old Augusta Kading sat at the kitchen table with her sisters Bertha, 13, and Mary Ann, 9. A younger brother, 7-year-old William, was asleep, as was her 42-year-old mother Henrietta, an invalid of many years.

At 7:00 p.m., the door behind Augusta flung open. One man rushed in; two others stood just outside the house. Over their heads the men wore white muslin sacks with eye and mouth holes cut out; streaking out from those openings were wild, black marks that created a bizarre and terrifying effect.

The trio did not speak, but one made noises to attract Augusta’s attention. She stood and turned; as she did, the closest man pointed a cocked revolver at her.

Augusta leapt towards him. Her left hand grabbed the weapon and her right hand tore the mask from his face. At that moment, the intruder fired a bullet which struck her in the right breast.

As Augusta pushed him back, he fired a second time, shooting her in the right hand. The other man, standing behind the gunman, then said, “How do you like that?”

Although badly wounded, Augusta forced the man out the door, slamming and bolting it. After locking the other doors and windows and dragging heavy furniture to the cellar entrance, she collapsed onto her bed, where Charles Kading and his sons found her, mortally wounded, when they returned home.

On the floor was the eerie mask Augusta tore off the gunman.

☛ Suspect Identified ☚

Although the unmasked intruder was unrecognizable to Augusta because his face was blackened, she felt sure the man who spoke was the Kadings’ 26-year-old neighbor Reuben Proctor, a father of two small sons.

Another mask was found a few feet from the Kading house and still another 300 yards from the first, both in the direction of Reuben Proctor’s place.

Augusta told authorities she had known Proctor for over a year and that he sometimes came to the Kading home. His visits increased in the past two weeks after Augusta’s father Charles sold his farm. Proctor repeatedly asked the girl details about the price received; it was generally believed that the money from the sale was kept in the house.

One week before the home invasion, Charles Kading left early in the morning to drive hogs to market in Indianola and passed by Proctor’s house. That afternoon, Proctor appeared at the Kading place to ask where the father had gone and what time he would return.

Through these visits and conversations, Augusta said, she became familiar with Proctor’s voice, his walk, and his general demeanor and sensed he was trying to find a time when her father would be absent.

Proctor came to the Kading home early the day after the shooting before the tragedy was widely known among neighbors. Anxious and uneasy, he inquired about Augusta’s condition and the shooting details, declaring he wanted to help find the perpetrators. While studying the masks the intruders wore, he found a wisp of hair in one and threw it on the ground. Others who glimpsed the hair declared it black, but Proctor — whose own hair was black — insisted it was another color.

Proctor and his brothers were well-known in the area for mayhem and larceny. The Jackson Sentinel, calling him a “ruffian” and a “desperado,” wrote that he “had kept the township in which he lived in terror for years.”

☛ Arrest Is Made, A Mob Forms ☚

Based on Augusta’s and her sister Bertha’s certainty that Reuben Proctor was one of the home invaders, he was arrested by Warren County Sheriff William B. Meek and placed in the Indianola jail to await a preliminary examination. Security was tight and the jail heavily fortified.

On the night of Monday, November 12, that security was tested by 100 men who rode into town. The Indianola Tribune wrote of the throng:

“Hardly were they heard until their arrival at the jail. One gentleman saw them when passing the National House. They proceeded with remarkable quietness, the noise of the horses’ hoofs being about the only warning of their approach. Once the order ‘close up’ was given in a hushed voice, but this was all. The [law] officers had had intimations that they were coming, however, and the jail guards had sought the outside, though the vigilantes were given to understand that they were on the inside.”

At 11:30 p.m., Indianola residents heard scuffling in the streets. Then the fire alarm bell sounded from the Presbyterian Church signifying that something was wrong in the little town and calling all able-bodied men to gather.

Armed with pistols and revolvers, the mounted men cursed and shouted threats against Reuben Proctor. Quickly it became apparent they had come to lynch him.

One man made an attempt at setting a fire to drive out the guards, but that activity soon petered out. The mob seemed disorganized and lacking in leadership, but it was determined.

Two men pounded at the jail door with huge sledgehammers. Because it was made of oak planks covered with heavy sheet iron and was securely bolted, the door resisted the blows.

The keys were demanded of Sheriff Meek and Deputy Pressley, who did not know where they were because jailer John Burkett had hidden them. The two lawmen ordered the vigilantes back but were ignored, as was the group of townspeople who tried to make the raiders think they were armed and would shoot.

Sheriff Meek asked local attorney Lewis Todhunter to appeal to the crowd, but his words had no effect. Others also futilely urged that the law be allowed to take its course.

About 1:00 a.m., the vigilantes began arguing among themselves. When their leaders ordered a retreat, only a few rode off; some continued pounding on the jail door. By 2:00 a.m., nearly 300 citizens had gathered around the band of men.

Whether they felt out-numbered or decided the door could not be knocked down, the vigilantes suddenly left, firing shots into the air as they rode away.

Reuben Proctor talked out the jail window to townspeople outside, his voice trembling with fear and relief. A fellow prisoner, Thomas Rice of Palmyra who had been incarcerated for two months on grand larceny, also came to the window. He, too, was badly shaken and admitted he would “a gol-darned sight rather be out husking corn.”

The crowd taunted Proctor, telling him the vigilantes had gone only a short distance away to reorganize and would soon be back with more riders to tip the jail over.

Slowly the citizens returned to their homes. Early Tuesday morning when they came back to survey the damage, they saw that 70 bolts had been torn out of the jail door and that a little more effort would have breached it.

☛ Preliminary Hearing ☚

Reuben Proctor’s preliminary hearing was scheduled to be held in the Schonburg home of Justice of the Peace Samuel Van Gilder. After the assault on the jail on Monday night, Proctor’s friends urged him to waive the preliminary hearing so he would not be returned to Belmont Township and put in harm’s way, but Proctor chose to go along.

Although some believed the crowd had gotten their anger and violence out of their systems with the raid on the jail, Proctor was dubious enough about his own safety to make his final farewells to his family.

The Kading family and other township residents hired George W. Seevers to represent the State; he was assisted by Eli Townsend, a local farmer, coroner, and community leader. Proctor retained defense attorneys James E. Williamson and Robert Parrott.

At 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 14, the State’s attorneys set out from Indianola for Squire Van Gilder’s home. The prisoner accompanied them, escorted by a special detail made up of Dayton Culbertson, D.H. Van Pelt, and William J. Clark. Sheriff Meek and Deputy Pressley rode with them.

The trip was uneventful and calm until the parties arrived at the small community of Hammondsburg, where the sight of Proctor stirred concern and curiosity. From there to Schonburg, men on horseback rode ominously near the party, although making no overt threats.

At Schonburg, however, 200 men and boys had gathered to see the prisoner. Proctor was taken to a room for the hearing and Seevers said he was ready to begin. It was then Proctor learned his attorneys were not coming. When he asked Justice Van Gilder if there was anyone else to defend him, he was told that attorney O.O. Morrison was present. Morrison conferred with Proctor and agreed to represent him.

☛ Deathbed Testimony ☚

Before the proceedings could begin, Seevers received word that Augusta Kading was failing quickly and might have only hours to live.

Seevers asked that the proceedings be moved to the Kading home — three miles away — to hear her testimony, which was beginning to look like a dying declaration. All parties agreed, including Reuben Proctor, who chose to go along.

Before the move, all witnesses were sworn in, including Proctor’s parents Reuben, Sr. and Sally, a sister, and his wife Sarah, who were prepared to testify he was at home the night of the shooting.

As Proctor, Justice Van Gilder, George W. Seevers, and attorney O.O. Morrison left for the Kading home, Seevers was asked by members of the crowd how long they would be gone; he responded it should take about an hour-and-a-half.

At the Kading place, several prominent Belmont Township citizens had gathered in the yard. The Indianola Herald wrote:

“The sight of Proctor at the house . . . created considerable feeling on the part of the father, uncle and other relatives of the girl, as well as other gentlemen present, although . . . not a demonstration was made against him, or a harsh or angry word spoken. Proctor also, when brought in front of the house of his alleged victim, who was then announced as lying ‘in extremest [sic] and intensest [sic] suffering,’ manifested a nervousness and twitching of the muscles, with a downcast and broken look, he had not been before noticed to exhibit.

He glanced eagerly about the premises in the direction of the schoolhouse, where the masks used on the night of the robbery were said to have been made, then to that of his own house, all visible from where he stood. His eyes turned nervously again upon the door of Mr. Cading’s [sic] house, watching it intently as if expecting it to open and the object of his search to be made visible; then his eye turned again upon the little crowd of perhaps half a dozen who stood in the yard about the house; then he sank his chin upon his breast in a downcast, meditative attitude, from which it was not raised for any length of time during the entire stay at Mr. Cading’s [sic].

After some discussion, it was decided that the sight of Reuben Proctor would be physically and emotionally injurious to Augusta Kading. So the attorneys and Justice Van Gilder went into the room without the suspect to quietly take her testimony.

As Augusta Kading lay on her deathbed, it had been 15 days since she was shot twice by a home invader. Although in great pain, Augusta was lucid and rational as she deliberately recited her story to the men gathered around her. She told of the intruders breaking into the home, of unmasking the gunman, of the shooting, and of her belief that Reuben Proctor was one of the men.

☛ Tensions Escalate ☚

Because Augusta spoke so slowly, the proceedings were time-consuming; the men waiting in Schonburg for the party to return with Proctor grew restless and concerned that Sheriff Meek was traveling to Indianola on backroads to evade them and set out to find him and his party.

When the two groups crossed paths, the mounted men exhibited obvious threats. One man carried a newly-purchased rope over his shoulder; he passed it to another, who created a hangman’s knot and passed it back.

Both groups returned to Justice Van Gilder’s Schonburg home, the lawyers and suspect inside conducting the rest of the preliminary hearing, the irate men in the street growing angrier and angrier.

The Indianola Herald wrote of the latter group:

“. . . this crowd was not composed of boys, or idle, thoughtless men, but of old and responsible citizens, not only of Belmont township but from very remote parts of the county. Prominent and leading men in the neighborhoods where they reside. Sober, thoughtful, quiet, well-meaning men. It was also evident that that collection of men had not come together by accident. Remorse and pride, with timid dread to do and dare, had long held balance over many a mind, until conviction came at last then with swiftest justice pointed out the way. Thus every man had formed his purpose — no other man that purpose knew so fully. Each knew his neighbor’s mind so well they stood side by side and they did not care to speak concerning it, while a few outsiders, who did not really know the full intent and purpose of the many, talked freely of their duty and their purpose, the more responsible and thoughtful men, the men who listened, heard and thought, and really meant to act, spoke seldom and said but little. And thus the day was passed outside among the crowd that numbered several hundred.”

As the evidence taking proceeded, defense attorney O.O. Morrison suddenly disappeared. The Indianola Tribune wrote of his behavior:

“The cause was said to be, his neighbors had impressed upon his mind the fact that his associations there that day were not good for his health. That home was the best place for him. Being of a disposition that takes kindly to advice, Morrison thought well of the idea of being healthy, and went home.”

As the afternoon waned, a two-hour break was announced. The state had not closed its presentation and had other evidence to tie Proctor to the shooting.

During the adjournment, Sheriff Meek and William Seevers escorted Reuben Proctor to the hotel across the street for supper. Someone at the table told the suspect to eat hearty, which caused him to ask, “Why? Do you think it will be my last?” The reply was, “. . . it might be.”

☛ Mob Violence Leads to Lynching ☚

from the Ottumwa Weekly Democrat

from the Ottumwa Weekly Democrat

An eerie calm was in the air as night fell. The crowd outside dwindled; men there earlier in the afternoon had left. Those still present knew the missing men were elsewhere plotting their actions and that something was going to happen when they returned.

Murmurings ran through the crowd that Sheriff Meek would be safe if he didn’t interfere and that the men wished to harm no one but Reuben Proctor.

At 6:45 p.m., the lawmen prepared to leave the hotel with Proctor to resume the testimony. Sheriff Meek and Deputy Sheriff Pressley were positioned on either side of the prisoner as they exited the front door to move into the fence-enclosed front yard; jailer John Burkett walked ahead of Proctor and Dayton Culbertson behind.

When the five exited the door, Burkett was grabbed and shoved into the fence. As a group of men stepped between Deputy Pressley and the suspect, two others forced Sheriff Meek’s hands behind his back. Then Proctor was seized and led out of the yard and into the street.

The Indianola Tribune reported that Sheriff Meek cried out to no avail, “‘Hold on there, gentlemen, hold on, there! Don’t you do that — stop that — I command the peace!’”

While the bulk of the crowd kept order and formed a barrier, about 20 of the men hurriedly escorted Proctor, a noosed rope thrown around his neck, to the farm scales west of the hotel and a short distance back from the street.

The Indianola Tribune described what happened next:

“When the end of the rope was thrown over one of the crossbeams of the scales above, it was caught below, when, by a hurried, but regular pull, Proctor was lifted by the neck from the platform, some motion was made in that direction, and it was thought he would attempt to catch the rope above his head, to slacken the pull on his neck. Someone said to tie his hands, which was quickly done, when, by the same process as before, Proctor was raised and suspended about half-way between the crossbeam above and the platform below.

After he was drawn up, someone said, ‘Let him down; let’s see what he has to say for himself.’ To this came the reply: ‘Leave him up, damn him! We do not want a word out of him. He is such a damned lair we could not believe a word he would tell us,’ and without a word he hung.

Not a word was uttered by him when he was seized by the mob as he came out of the house. Not a word as he passed across the street. Not a word as the fatal rope was thrown over his head, and tightened with its death-like grasp around his neck. Not a word when he stood upon the scales and watched the greedy hands that thirsted for his life adjust the rope above his head with a speedy determination he could not misunderstand. Not a word as he felt the steady pressure of that rope about his neck. But without a word at any time after he was seized by the mob; without a groan, a quiver, a sigh, or a struggle, Reuben Proctor was thus lifted into eternity.”

After Proctor hung for a while, his body was lowered to check if he was alive; when signs of life were found, he was kept hanging until he was dead.

The leader of the group ordered the men to fall in and they marched across the street to waiting horses, mounted, and rode back again to the scales where Proctor hung. The leader commanded that they should stop using names so that identities could be protected. They formed up in front of the hanged man and the leader exhorted them to go home and remain peaceable and law-abiding and said they would be notified when needed in the future. When he asked for three cheers for what they had done, the loud and enthusiastic response echoed through the street.

A prominent Belmont Township resident stepped up and thanked the men for their actions, saying they should be proud of themselves.

The mounted men rode away to the south but soon some returned and then rode to the north, presumably to conceal where they lived.

☛ Hurried Death Inquest ☚

In the absence of Warren County Coroner William P. Judkins, Justice Samuel Van Gilder immediately empaneled a jury of three men to hold an inquest over Proctor’s body, which had been cut down and carried into a nearby empty storeroom.

Van Gilder took testimony only from Sheriff Meek and Deputy Pressley before ruling that Rueben Proctor came to his death by hanging “at the hands of parties unknown.”

Despite there being 200 men who watched the hanging, Van Gilder called no one besides the lawmen. Some thought he eagerly assumed the role of acting Coroner and hurried the jury’s work along to cover up the truth of what had transpired; there was little or no objection because the community believed the mob’s actions were justified.

From the time that Proctor was seized outside the hotel until he was cut down and given after the inquest to his family (who had been at a nearby house all the time), fewer than 30 minutes had passed.

The streets of Schonburg were by then deserted and empty.

☛ Death of Augusta Kading ☚

On Friday, November 16 — two days after the lynching — Augusta Kading died of her gunshot wounds; she had suffered intensely for over two weeks.

Warren County Coroner William P. Judkins convened an inquest that evening in the Kading home. Jurors Wesley Cheshire, William J. Clark, and W.M. Peck were sworn in and, after taking testimony, issued the verdict that Augusta Kading:

“Came to her death from a gunshot wound inflicted with felonious intent, upon the 31st day of October 1877, by some person or persons to the jurors unknown.”

Although a man had been lynched for the crime against Augusta Kading and two of the home invaders remained at large, her murderer was officially considered unknown and her homicide — like Reuben Proctor’s — unsolved.

To read an account of the murder of Augusta Kading, click here.

☛ Reward for Lynchers ☚

from the Atlantic Telegraph

from the Atlantic Telegraph

On December 8, Iowa Governor Joshua G. Newbold offered $500 for information leading to the arrest of the other two men involved in the home invasion and death of Augusta Kading.

He also offered $300 for the identification of each man who participated in the lynching of Reuben Proctor, which should have been easy to obtain since so many witnessed the act and none of the men was disguised. It was even rumored that a member of the Warren County grand jury took part.

☛ Back From the Dead? ☚

The community talked of little else after the fatal shooting and the lynching which followed. Newspapers argued for and against capital punishment and lynching. Varying accounts and rumors spread rapidly.

The Iowa State Leader, a Des Moines newspaper, ran a shocking story on December 10 that Reuben Proctor was still alive, although only a few people knew where he was.

The article reported:

“Reuben Proctor’s life was saved by the hasty and awkward manner in which the mob did its work. The rope used was a thick, heavy one, and was so clumsily tied that his neck was not broken, and, indeed, was not drawn tight enough to prevent breathing, but the intense agony of his situation threw him into a faint so deep as to closely resemble death. In the hurry and excitement of the affair no critical examination of his condition was made, but when his struggles ceased he was pronounced to be dead.”

The newspaper asserted that the purpose of the hastily-convened inquest held over Proctor’s body was to implicate no one — thus, the verdict of “persons unknown” — even though the lynching was done in full view of a large crowd and none of the participants tried to conceal his identity.

So, the story went, his friends and family took the body to the Proctor home, where it was placed on a bed. A family member was assigned to keep watch through the night.

That person fell asleep and on waking a few hours later observed no rigor mortis. He put his ear to Proctor’s chest and thought he heard a faint heartbeat; he then held a mirror to the lips and saw condensation. He woke up the family with the news that Proctor was still alive.

There was confusion over what should be done. The family could not send for medical help because the mob might find out and try to lynch Proctor again.

The family threw cold water on Proctor’s face and rubbed the body briskly. At first, there was no response. Then, the Iowa State Leader reported, “A feeble groan escaped the lips, the eyes opened, closed again, as if dreading to see.” The family talked to him, assuring him he was safe.

The Leader wrote:

“He again opened his eyes and looked about in a curious, wandering way, and, after a few attempts, spoke, but with great difficulty. He had no memory of what had happened but when told of it, his body was convulsed by a terrible tremor. He seemed then to be reliving the events, each time feeling the physical and emotional horror once more. He breathed heavily and his face turned red as though the oxygen was being cut off. The assurances of his friends and family could not dispel his horrors.

True it is that all the ingenuity of the inquisition could not devise such powers of torture as exist in man’s own mind. To influences without, he can oppose the resources of mind, courage, fortitude and resolution, but when mind is itself the instrument of torture, when thus the means of defense are made the weapons of assault, he suffers, a helpless, hopeless victim.”

Because the neighbors avoided the house, the newspaper claimed, no one else knew that Proctor had come back to life. The family bought a coffin, filled it with dirt, and buried it in Lacey Cemetery in Milo.

Reuben Proctor heavily disguised himself and left home, never to return.

The Leader concluded its story:

“Guilty or not guilty of the terrible crime of which he is charged, [Proctor] is accompanied by memories that will destroy his peace forever, and from them neither accident nor ingenuity can rescue him. Those that hate him cannot wish him worse than to be left to himself, a prey to his own imagination.”


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



  • ☛ Atlantic Telegraph, November 21, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Capital Punishment,” Jackson Sentinel, November 29, 1877, p. 5.
  • ☛ Chariton Patriot, December 12, 1877, p. 3.
  • ☛ Indianola Tribune, November 1877.
  • ☛ “Iowa Items,” Atlantic Telegraph, December 19, 1877, p. 2.
  • Iowa State Leader, December 10, 1877.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Ackley Enterprise, December 21, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ Jason Townsend, Personal Correspondence, May 2017.
  • ☛ “Judge Lynch Foiled,” Davenport Gazette, December 12, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Judge Lynch’s Court,” Ottumwa Weekly Democrat, November 22, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Lynch Law,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, November 16, 1877, p. 13.
  • ☛ “The Miss Cading [sic] Murder,” History of Warren County, Iowa. Des Moines: Union Historical Company, 1879, pp. 462-473.
  • ☛ Sioux City Weekly Journal, December 13, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ “State Items,” Waterloo Courier, November 11, 1877, p. 4.
  • ☛ “State News,” Ames Intelligencer, December 14, 1877, p. 2.
  • ☛ “A Troublesome Question,” Ottumwa Weekly Democrat, December 6, 1877, p. 3.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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