John E. “Jack” Wilson
Chicago Great Western Railway
Cornelius “Con” Matthews
Chicago Great Western Railway
Cause of Deaths: Gunshots
Motive: Resisting Eviction from Train
Murder Scene and Date
Two Miles Southwest of Marshalltown, Iowa
August 21, 1899
By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011
John E. “Jack” Wilson, 30, and Cornelius “Con” Matthews, 32, were brakemen on the Chicago Great Western Railway.
On Monday, August 21, 1899, the two men worked a west-bound freight train that originated in Waterloo at 7:47 p.m. with 32-year-old William J. “Will” Fickas as conductor.
At Marshalltown, Will Fickas noted three tramps near the water tank and made a mental note that they would probably hitch a ride. One was large, weighing 200 pounds, and had a month’s growth of beard and wore a dark slouch hat. The other two men were slighter. Fickas later said that all three were “rough looking” and “poorly dressed.”
☛ Brakemen Disappear, Are Found Dead ☚
Fickas became worried when the engineer whistled for Laray, where the grade was steep, and no brakes were applied.
At Melbourne, 13 miles southwest of Marshalltown, Fickas confirmed that his brakemen were missing. When he informed dispatchers in Des Moines, he was ordered by the railway to return slowly back over the route to find the men.
Two miles southwest of Marshalltown, Will Fickas discovered the mangled bodies of Jack Wilson and Con Matthews in a ditch by the rails.
The Oskaloosa Herald wrote:
“A subsequent examination of the train showed that several cars had passed over the bodies and there were bits of flesh and bone scattered over the wheels and the bottoms of the cars. It was also evident that a terrible struggle had taken place on the train.”
☛ Investigation and Posses ☚
Railway investigators believed that Wilson and Matthews discovered tramps in a coal car filled with steel rails near the middle of the 22-car train and that, during a struggle to put the illegal riders off the train, the brakemen were shot in the head and thrown onto the tracks. It was thought the killers jumped off the train near Luray, where the train slowed down.
Two flattened .45 caliber bullets were found in the car where the murders occurred. Also present was a large, bloody handprint with an unusually short thumb. The hand imprint was traced on paper to be studied by investigators.
There was also an eye-witness to the crime — Joe Malchal, a track walker for the Northwestern Railway which ran parallel to the Chicago Great Western for several miles south of Marshalltown.
Malchal observed the Great Western train coming from a distance; as it got closer, he could see in the moonlight three men sitting on the end of a flat coal car and two brakemen with lanterns. Then he saw the flash of a revolver — fired into the air once and then twice into the car — and witnessed large objects being dropped off the train.
Railway detectives and local law enforcement immediately set to work, with Marshall County Sheriff J.W. McPherson in charge. Men matching the description of the murderers were detained at several rail stops, but none turned out to be the suspects.
Armed posses were dispatched from Newburg and Grinnell. About two miles north of the small station of Dixie near Grinnell, a group led by Marshal Vanderwenter of Gilman encountered the three suspects. Shots were exchanged. The posse’s efforts were hampered by heavy rain, and it was believed the men escaped through a corn field and got away on an east-bound Rock Island freight train.
☛ Railroad Employees Agitated ☚
This was the first time Chicago Great Western rail workers were killed rousting tramps off trains, and the railway vowed to crack down on illegal riders.
On August 22, highly agitated Chicago Great Western employees gathered at Union Station in Des Moines to see off Superintendent James Burlingett and friends of the murdered men who were departing for a coroner’s inquest in Marshalltown.
Conductor Will Fickas, looking worn and exhausted, returned to Des Moines on August 23; he brought with him the dead men’s battered lanterns and Wilson’s cap, pierced by a .45 caliber bullet, and spoke angrily about the murders.
☛ The Tramp Problem ☚
George Rieth, Chief Clerk of the Chicago Great Western, told the Des Moines Daily Capital:
“I passed through the district of the murder a short time ago at night. The country round about was a perfect settlement of tramps and hobos. The hillsides were brilliant with their bonfires. The murderers must have been a part of this crew.”
The Marshall County Supervisors offered a $500 dollar reward, but the murders were never solved.
☛ The Victims ☚
John E. “Jack” Wilson, a three-year employee of the railway, was married and had a permanent residence with his wife and two children in Oelwein; he stayed at 210 Tenth Street in Des Moines during his working schedule. Wilson was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown, where his parents resided.
Cornelius “Con” Matthews lived at 311 Raccoon Street in south Des Moines with his wife Mary and two children and had been employed by the railway for a year, having worked for the Iowa Central before that. He was a former policeman in Oskaloosa; his body was buried in the St. Mary’s Cemetery there.
☛ Insurance Matters ☚
Jack Wilson carried a small amount of life insurance, but Matthews had none. Newspapers speculated that the Chicago Great Western would provide for the two families who had been left without support.
However, that was not the case for Matthews’s family. In late 1901, they brought a $25,000 suit against the railroad alleging that at the time of Con Matthews’s death and unbeknownst to him, the railroad and the conductor knew there were armed tramps attempting to ride for free who were willing to use violence to stay on the train, which placed Matthews in harm’s way.
The railroad countered that Matthews and other employees knew the dangers of tramps and willingly worked in spite of them.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Are Murdered,” Des Moines Daily News, August 22, 1899.
- ☛ “Awful Crime,” Oskaloosa Herald, August 24, 1899.
- ☛ “The Hawkeye State,” Sioux County Herald, December 18, 1901.
- ☛ “Many Wild Rumors,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 13, 1910.
- ☛ “Murder By Tramps,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 7, 1901, p. 8.
- ☛ “Murdered by Tramps,” Cedar Rapids Republican, August 23, 1899.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Humboldt County Independent, December 12, 1901, p. 1.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Webster City Tribune, December 13, 1901.
- ☛ “Posse Has An Encounter,” Iowa Daily Capital, August 23, 1899, p. 1.
- ☛ “Recalled Old Mysteries,” Des Moines Daily News, February 22, 1906.
- ☛ “Sues Railroad for Damages,” Spencer Herald, December 18, 1901, p. 1.
- ☛ “Suit Follows Murder,” Palo Alto Reporter, December 12, 1901, p. 2.
- ☛ “They Murder Two Brakemen,” Des Moines Capital, August 22, 1899, p. 1.
- ☛ “Will Have Them Tonight,” Daily Iowa Capital, August 24, 1899.