Mistaken Identity: Murder of Peter Ross 1909

Murder Victim

Pete Ross
Coal Miner

Cause of Death: Slashed, Axed, Shot
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Murdered in Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
February 1909
Found in Des Moines River at Ottumwa, Iowa
Wapello County
March 6, 1909


By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2015

location of Ottumwa, Iowa

location of Ottumwa, Iowa

On Saturday, March 6, 1909, the body of a male was pulled out of the Des Moines River at Ottumwa in Wapello County. There was little doubt the man was the victim of a violent homicide.

The Iowa Postal Card wrote:

“The murder is one of the most brutal committed in years. The head was nearly severed by a razor, cut from one ear to the back of the head. The skull had been then split open with an ax. On different parts of the body numerous knife wounds were found, making [the] corpse a sieve. In addition to this, several holes were found above his heart which the coroner believes were made by revolver shots.”

from the  Fairfield Tribune

from the Fairfield Tribune

Authorities immediately announced the victim was Fred Loerche, an Ottumwa bricklayer; newspapers all over the state reported the news. Loerche, who had been missing, was held up and robbed by five men several months before and failed to show up to testify at their February trial.

Two of the accused were Frank Ash and Fred Young, who were convicted without Loerche’s testimony to 10 and 15 years in the penitentiary, respectively. Authorities believed the two were heads of a gang — referred to by newspapers as the Ash-Young Gang — and that to keep Loerche from testifying against them had him killed and thrown into the river.

☛ The Wrong Man ☚

On the afternoon of March 9, Wapello County Coroner Dr. A.W. Slaught convened a jury to hear testimony about the murder.

Dr. Slaught startled jury members by announcing that a misidentification of the body had been made. Members of the Ash-Frank gang thought responsible when the body was believed to be Fred Loerche’s were released from custody.

The dead man was not Fred Loerche. He was Peter Ross of Des Moines.

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

When he examined the murdered man’s body, Dr. Slaught found evidence that provided identification.

Letters in the pockets were addressed to Peter Ross in Des Moines; a money order through the Des Moines Post Office documented that the victim had sent money to his family in Italy.

There were also records indicating he was employed by the Johns Coal Company at Fort Des Moines in Polk County.

The company confirmed Ross worked there but had not been seen since picking up his paycheck on a Friday about a month before.

The jury concluded that Peter Ross was murdered and thrown in the river at Des Moines and floated 85 miles southeast to Ottumwa, where he was found.

Investigators had no clue as to the identity of Ross’s killer or killers. Because he had just been paid, however, the motive may have been robbery.

☛ The Black Hand? ☚

Black Hand symbol

Black Hand symbol

Another possibility is that Peter Ross fell victim to the violent Black Hand, a gang that extorted money through threatening letters and killed brutally and without compunction.

Thousands of Italian-Americans were terrorized by the extortion activities and death threats of the Black Hand in cities like Des Moines which had large Italian populations.

Between the early 1900s through the mid-1920s, the Black Hand was responsible for numerous Iowa murders, particularly in coal mining communities where many workers were Italian natives.


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 Thrown in the River,” Oxford Mirror, March 18, 1909, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Loerche Murdered By Ottumwa Thugs,” Fairfield Tribune, March 10, 1909, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Murdered Man From Des Moines,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, March 9, 1909, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Murdered Man’s Corpse Identified,” Alta Advertiser, March 12, 1909, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Murdered Man’s Corpse Identified,” Ames Intelligencer, March 18, 1909, p. 14.
  • ☛ “Ottumwa Has Another Stir,” Iowa City Daily Press, March 6, 1909, p. 1.
  • ☛ “Thrown In River,” Atlantic Evening News, March 9, 1909, p. 7.
  • ☛ “Thrown In River,” Buffalo Center Tribune, March 12, 1909.
  • ☛ “Thrown In River,” Iowa Postal Card, March 18, 1909, p. 9.
  • ☛ “Thrown In River,” State Center Enterprise, March 11, 1909, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Thrown In River,” Upper Des Moines Republican, March 10, 1909.
  • ☛ “Victim Of Robber Gang,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, March 12, 1909, p. 4.

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