Miller’s Toll: Murder of John Smith Ross 1869

Murder Victim

John Smith Ross
32-year-old Mill Owner
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Ross’s Mill (later Bone’s Mill)
Boone River
6 Miles South of Webster City
Hamilton County
June 16, 1869


By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2014

location of Webster City, Iowa

location of Webster City, Iowa

The spot along the Boone River south of Webster City where Ross Mill stood was originally deemed “Hope Hollow,” a place where the original 1854 owner made a good living sawing logs for the settlers clearing timber.

By 1868 when Ohio native John Smith Ross bought the operation, then known as Sternberg’s Mill, it had been adapted to grind grain as well.

John Smith Ross lived with his wife Lydia and young child in the miller’s house 400 feet up the hill from the river just beyond an apple orchard.

He was a hard-working, if eccentric, man who made no secret of carrying large sums of money in his pocketbook.

In the late spring of 1869, Ross’s 18-year-old nephew — also named John Ross — left his family in Janesville, Wisconsin, to live with his uncle and work at the mill. After a short time, the nephew moved in with the nearby Meeks family, who were also relatives.

However, the nephew was unhappy in his new circumstances and, after about six weeks, wanted to return to Chicago, where he earlier spent time. He asked his uncle John Smith Ross for cash to make the trip but was told that although money was available, it was going towards the next mill payment. The uncle encouraged the boy to work for another month to earn money for his train ticket.

On Thursday, June 15, the nephew was present at the mill while John Smith Ross counted out $490 in front of his brother Samuel Ross. The money was to be given to former mill owner Jay Sternberg on the following Saturday.

☛ The Day of the Murder ☚

John Smith Ross arrived at his mill early on Friday, June 16. He walked home about 10:00 a.m. to eat a small brunch and told his wife not to prepare a midday meal because he wouldn’t be home until supper.

After that time, Ross was alone in the mill while four of his employees — George Adams, W.B. Willson, James Adams, and E. Walters — worked outside 50 yards away on a large log.

Customers Rev. J.J. Mershon and Robert Foster stopped by the mill in mid-morning and later reported that John Smith Ross’s nephew was present then. He was seen by others about the same time inspecting a washing machine on a wagon hauled by a peddler.

Ross's Mill stood on the Boone River where Beaver's Bridge once stood.

Ross’s Mill stood on the Boone River where Beaver’s Bridge once was located.

At 11:00 a.m., Ross’s wife in the miller’s house and the men in the mill yard heard a gunshot. The sound did not cause especial alarm because everyone knew a shotgun was kept on the mill wall for shooting fish and rats.

Lydia Ross walked down the hill to the mill in mid-afternoon, but returned home when she could not find her husband.

Although they usually went inside the mill many times during working hours, the mill employees that day stayed in the yard until 4:00 p.m., at which time they needed to ask a question. But Ross was nowhere to be seen, so they returned to their outside task.

About that same time, nearby resident Abner Peeler came to help with the log. He spied a shotgun under a porch that ran the length of the building; the weapon was partially concealed by logs with only the muzzle visible. Peeler examined it, finding that one barrel was empty and the other contained 30 and 40 shot. He thought the discovery odd, but returned the gun to the spot where he found it.

At 6:00 p.m., Ross’s brother James arrived at the mill. When he was told that the mill owner had not been seen for seven hours, James began searching the surrounding area and the structure. Things just didn’t look right.

According to the History of Hamilton County, one of the first things to arouse suspicion was “that the burrs were so tightly screwed down that a full head of water would hardly have been able to start the machinery.” The flood gate was half open but the mill was not running, apparently because of an obstruction.

☛ Body in the Wheelhouse ☚

Then a horrible discovery was made. The searchers followed drag marks for 20 feet from the east door in the bran room on the first floor. These led to the wheelhouse, where the men found Ross’s body submerged in water.

When they pulled the body out and laid it on the floor, it was obvious John Ross had been shot in the back just below the shoulder. All the money from his pocketbook was gone.

Word of the horror spread quickly from the mill. The Freeman newspaper wrote:

“The excitement in the neighborhood at the discovery of the murder was intense, and all sorts of rumors in relation to the terrible affair were soon flying in every direction over the country. The crime was so fearful and cold blooded in conception, and so unnatural and horrible in execution, that everybody stood dumfounded at a recital of its detail.”

A small group of mounted men with vigilantism on their minds formed in Webster City in response to the public anxiety.

The Hamilton County Sheriff and Coroner were sent for; by then, it was 11:00 p.m.

☛ Coroner’s Jury ☚

Coroner Burgess could not be found, so Justice J.F. McConnell took his place, appointing Sumler Willson, Addison Arthur, and Charles B. Willson to a jury to take testimony and examine the body.

Drs. Hendryx and Ament assisted physician Harvey W. Crapper with the post mortem and declared Ross was killed by a shotgun blast fired from a distance of 12 to 15 feet. The 8-inch wound, likely inflicted as the victim was bending over, collapsed one lung and dented the skull. The shotgun kept in the mill was deemed the murder weapon.

Because so many people heard the shot, the time of death was easily fixed at 11:00 a.m. The mill workers outside heard no additional unusual noises at that time, such as talking or screams.

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

After taking down the facts, the coroner’s jury issued the verdict that Ross was killed and robbed by his nephew John Ross, the only person seen going into the mill near the time of the gunshot.

The young man was immediately arrested by Sheriff Rufus E. Nelson’s posse at the John Meeks house. When the lawmen arrived, the suspect was in a deep, seemingly guiltless sleep. Along with a comb and keys, 25 dollars in greenbacks was found in his blood-stained clothing.

The Freeman newspaper was baffled by the apparent innocence of the suspect:

“If he was guilty he was a most consummate actor, or a most heartless villain. It seems incredible that anyone, much less a young and inexperienced boy, could have committed such a cold blooded and horrible murder, and so successfully concealed all traces of remorse or feeling in reference to it.”

☛ Legal Proceedings ☚

On the day following the arrest, Justice J.F. McConnell began a preliminary examination which was halted on a motion by the defense that proceedings be postponed until June 28th, when it was then held behind closed doors with only relatives of the victim and suspect allowed in. Charles A. Clark presented evidence against John Ross, and N.B. Clark handled his defense.

The History of Hamilton County records a contemporary description of the suspect:

“The prisoner is a young man of rather prepossessing appearance; is about five feet eight or nine inches in height, has a mild expression of countenance and a clear, but restless blue eye; gives unmistakable evidence of some culture and claims to be but eighteen years of age. He is a son of the murdered man’s brother, and bears his name — John Ross.”

When the District Court convened in October, John Ross was indicted for the murder of his uncle. He remained in the Waterloo Jail until December 3, when the trial began. It was the first murder trial held at the 1866 Hamilton County Courthouse, then located at the corner of Seneca and Bank streets in Webster City.

John Duncombe

Defense attorney J.F. Duncombe (State of Iowa)

Judge Chase presided. J.H. Bradley made the state’s case and N.B. Hyatt and Ft. Dodge attorney J.F. Duncombe defended the accused.

Although 48 potential jurors were called, 12 unbiased men could not be found among them; courtroom spectators were recruited to fill out the jury.

The defendant was supported in court by his parents and sister. Many observers found it difficult to believe that a young man from such a good family could kill so violently, especially as the victim was his own flesh and blood. Yet, sympathy was strong for the widow and orphan.

The three-day trial was filled with conflicting testimony about whether the defendant was at the mill at the time of the gunshot.

John Meeks, brother-in-law of the victim, testified that the defendant was staying at his house and told him he needed money to go to Chicago. The young man left home about 8:00 a.m. the morning of the murder and returned about 1:00 p.m., saying he’d borrowed money from a Webster City friend. He wanted to take his trunk and leave immediately, but Meeks convinced him to stay overnight and leave the next morning. The defendant plowed corn during the afternoon and went to bed at sundown, sleeping soundly until the posse woke him.

The defense called the accused to the stand. Although he had earlier denied being at the mill on the day of the murder, the defendant admitted to being there early in the morning — before 8:00 a.m. He testified he then went to Webster City, leaving there in time to arrive by 1:00 p.m. at the Meeks home, which was three miles from the mill. That time of arrival was corroborated by Meeks and others.

But witnesses put the defendant at the mill from mid-morning to noon, giving him plenty of time to arrive at the Meeks house by 1:00.

The defendant claimed the 25 dollars in his possession was given to him by a man who came into Webster City from the east on the 11:00 a.m. train — “a lame man” wearing a “velvet suit.” He maintained the blood on his clothes was from helping his uncle butcher.

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

from the Dubuque Daily Herald

The defense called Black Hawk County Sheriff W.F. Brown, who ran the jail in which the defendant was incarcerated after his arrest. Brown said John Ross was a model prisoner who even warned him of an escape plot hatched by other inmates; Brown told the court:

“[The defendant] always acted honorable, respectful, and in every manner contrary to anything tending to exhibit a vicious disposition.”

The defense then tried to establish that Abner Peeler — the man who discovered the murder weapon — had been so angered by the victim’s refusal to lend him tools that he threatened to duck him in the mill pond.

The defendant’s team also suggested a conspiracy by contending that one man alone could not drag a dead body 20 feet and place it in the wheelhouse.

☛ Summations and Verdict ☚

The prosecution’s closing arguments took two hours, the defense’s six. The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote of the summations:

“The pleading on both sides was impressive, able, eloquent and masterly, and during its progress a great many eyes, doubtless a long time strangers to tears, were on this occasion bedimmed with the glancing beam which told plainly the soul within was deeply stirred. During the argument the courtroom was literally jammed, and as it proceeded it seemed as if the breath of that vast crowd was suspended. Not a motion, not a whisper, not a sound could be heard in all that multitude save the voice of the pleader, and weeping, sighing and sobbing of the parents and sister of the accused.”

It took the jury one hour to return with a not guilty verdict.

Many in the community felt the verdict was just, but some continued to insist that the young man killed his uncle. However, even those people believed he earned only 25 dollars from the crime, having likely hidden the money somewhere along the Boone River, only to have it carried away by flooding that occurred while he was incarcerated.

After his trial, John Ross left the area and was not known to have returned.


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



  • ☛ “Bone’s Mill: The Mill Tour of Hamilton County, Iowa,” Hamilton County Brochure.
  • ☛ “The Murder of John Ross,” History of Hamilton County, Iowa, Vol. 1. W. Lee. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912, pp. 154-158.
  • ☛ “The Ross Murder,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 23, 1869.
  • ☛ “The Ross Murder,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 24, 1869.
  • ☛ “The Ross Murder,” Dubuque Daily Herald, December 25, 1869.
  • ☛ “State News,” Dubuque Daily Herald, July 3, 1869.
  • ☛ “State News,” Dubuque Daily Herald, July 16, 1869.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885.

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