Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Business Quarrel
Murder Scene and Date
Pleasant Ridge Community
14 Miles Northeast of Elkader
Clayton County, Iowa
March 31, 1881
By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2014
There was nothing in that seemingly normal evening — Thursday, March 31, 1881 — that foreshadowed the violent act which transpired in the Clayton County farm home of 55-year-old financial broker Gustav Rechfus.
Rechfus ate supper with his brother Henry and sister-in-law Marie Rechfus as usual and then took quiet time to look at a newspaper before bedtime.
But as Rechfus read by the light of a kerosene lamp placed on the dining room table, he was illuminated as a target to someone standing outside the house with a gun.
Suddenly, a shot rang out and Rechfus fell dead on the dining room floor.
Gustav Rechfus, who was born in Württemberg, Germany, on April 4, 1826, was buried on the day before his 55th birthday in Council Hill Cemetery of Giard Township, Clayton County.
☛ The First Suspect ☚
Some were immediately suspicious of Gustav’s brother Henry because he was present at the time of the shooting.
However, Sheriff L.H. Place, prominent citizen Realto E. Price, and Judge Samuel Murdock — the first lawyer to practice in the county — investigated the homicide thoroughly and were adamant that Henry Rechfus was innocent of his brother’s murder.
They believed the motive for the homicide was retribution resulting from a business deal gone wrong.
According to the History of Clayton County, Iowa:
“Rechfus was a man of considerable wealth, had loaned money to many, and was not an easy man with his creditors [sic]. The theory first held was that some hard pressed creditor [sic] had committed the crime.”
Samuel Murdock hired detectives to investigate the case.
Suspicions fell on George Ellinger, a man who borrowed money from Rechfus and was being pressured to repay the loan. Ellinger received his mail in nearby Watson but lived in contiguous Allamakee County.
In May of 1881, prominent local attorney Edward Arthur Burlingame, Sr., swore out a warrant for the arrest of George Ellinger, who was taken into custody by Clayton County Deputy Sheriff G. Henry Frese and Allamakee County Sheriff W.A. Benton
Ellinger was released on his own bond after a preliminary hearing. In July of 1882, all charges against him were dismissed due to lack of evidence.
☛ Close to Home? ☚
In 1883, suspicions returned to Henry Rechfus, who was arrested and tried for the murder of his brother. The History of Clayton County, Iowa recorded:
“There was a lengthy trial in which the best legal talent of the county was employed; Henry was acquitted and the crime was never punished.”
☛ By the Light of a Lamp ☚
Gustav Rechfus is not the only historical Iowa homicide victim to be ambushed through a window nor was he the only to be illuminated for the convenience of the killer by a light inside the residence.
Click here to read “Assassination,” the story of farm wife Lizzie Brownlie, 32, who was shot with a double-barreled shotgun as she held her 4-year-old son and stitched at her sewing machine by the light of a kerosene lamp on February 18, 1874.
On September 29, 1897, 49-nine-year-old Calhoun County Farmer Fred Quade was shot through a dining room window as he sat near a glowing light and rested his head on his hands and legs after a tiring day of pressing grapes. Click here to read his story in “The Clue In The Dress Pattern”
Lee County cattleman and hotel owner William D. Mullikin, 57, was shot from the porch as he dozed by a stove near a lighted sitting room window on February 25, 1902. Click here to read “Back To the Window.”
K.K.K. officer and W.C.T.U. activist Myrtle Cook was shot through a window as she sat at her home desk writing an anti-alcohol speech on September 7, 1925. Click here to read “Teatotaling Klanswoman.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Criminal Record,” History of Clayton County, Iowa, Edited by Realto E. Price. Chicago: Robert O. Law Company, 1916.
- ☛ History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Volume 4.
- ☛ Iowa Cemetery Records, 1662-1999.
- ☛ “Local Items,” Postville Review, May 14, 1881.
- ☛ U.S. Census.