What the Medium Saw: Murder of John Pierson 1904

Murder Victim

(Louis) John Pierson
52-year-old Dairyman/Milkman
Cause of Death: Undetermined
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Mississippi River
Burlington, Iowa
Des Moines County
Last Seen: March 11, 1904
Body Found: August 20, 1904


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2014

location of Burlington, Iowa

location of Burlington, Iowa

Friday, March 11, 1904 was the end of the work week; and Swedish-born John Pierson, a 52-year-old dairyman/milkman who lived on Augusta Road in the western outskirts of Burlington, was determined to have a good time. With his brother Charles, he sought entertainment in the saloons and taverns along Jefferson Street.

The more alcohol John Pierson drank, the more careless he became. Soon, he was bragging and flashing a large sum of cash, money made from selling his crops.

Charles, the more temperate of the two that evening, decided they should call it a night; but John wasn’t ready to end his spree. Despite pleas, John would not leave with him. Charles last saw his brother at 9:00 p.m., still in a tavern.

☛ Gone Missing ☚

John Pierson (photo courtesy of Lora Pierson Larrance )

When John Pierson didn’t make it home that night, his family thought he was sleeping off his drunk somewhere and, when sober, would come home. Sometimes, he crawled into the wagon and went to sleep; the horse would pull him back to the dairy farm.

The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of him:

“Mr. Pierson has always been a very kind and considerate father and husband, and his life has been exemplary except for these occasional lapses.”

However, John Pierson never returned. The Burlington Police were notified and they scoured the city for the missing man without results.

Because he was intoxicated when last seen, authorities speculated Pierson wandered from Jefferson Street to the nearby Mississippi River, fell in, and drowned.

from the Burlington Hawk- Eye

from the Burlington Hawk-Eye

The Pierson family, however — especially his brother Charles — couldn’t shake the feeling that John’s disappearance had to do with the money he was flaunting, that the cash lured a robber who spotted an easy victim in the drunken man.

Then came a promising lead that kept the Pierson family’s hopes alive. A barber said John Pierson came into his shop on the Saturday after his brother last saw him. After getting a shave and haircut, he left at 10:00 p.m., saying he was taking a street car to West Burlington.

That tip failed to lead anywhere.

☛ What the Medium Saw ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

With all clues exhausted and with a desperate need to learn what happened, John Pierson’s friends consulted a spiritualistic medium who said the missing man was set upon by robbers, murdered, and flung into the Mississippi.

On August 20, 1904, five months after he disappeared, John Pierson’s body — just as the medium had said — was found floating in the Mississippi at the mouth of a large storm sewer opening onto the river. Pierson’s trouser pockets were turned out and cut open; his money was gone.

The state of decomposition made determining the cause of death impossible, although robbery was clearly the motive for the murder.

No one was ever charged with killing John Pierson.

☛ Life of the Victim ☚

Louis John Pierson was born in April of 1851 in Sweden; he immigrated to America in 1882 and became a Naturalized Citizen. He was survived by his wife Hattie, also a native of Sweden, and his children Eunice H., Ernest L., John Gear, Dewey R., and William.

After the death of their father, two of the older Pierson sons dropped out of school to run the dairy operation and kept the farm going through the Depression and into the 1960s.


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



  • ☛ “Body Has Been Found,” Altoona Herald, August 25, 1904, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Body In A Sewer,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, August 20, 1904, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Body Is Found,” Oskaloosa Herald, August 25, 1904, p. 7.
  • ☛ “Home News,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, March 17, 1904, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 17, 1904, p. 8.
  • ☛ Lora Pierson Larrance, Personal Correspondence and Photograph, April 2016 and March 2017.
  • ☛ “Man Is Missing,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, March 16, 1904, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Robbed and Thrown in Sewer,” Malvern Leader, August 25, 1904, p. 3.
  • ☛ “Spiritualists Located Body,” Waterloo Daily Courier, August 20, 1904, p. 9.
  • ☛ “The State of Iowa,” Cedar Falls Gazette, April 5, 1904, p. 6.

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