Stephen Harry Overturf, Jr.
32-year-old Farmer & Laborer
Former Iowa National Guard Sgt.
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Murder Scene and Date
Lane Leading to Overturf Home
One Mile East of Ottumwa, Iowa
July 15, 1925
By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2013
In a rural Ottumwa home on the sweltering day of July 19, 1925, Baptist minister Rev. R. H. Tharp stood before the open casket of 32-year-old murder victim Harry Overturf and declared the deceased was “a victim of the Jazz Age.”
Overturf’s widow Emma — collapsed in a chair — sobbed and wailed as other women clamped cold rags to her face.
Everyone packed into the modest house nodded in agreement when Rev. Tharp quoted the Fourth Book of James, accentuating the words “adulterers,” “lusts,” and “kill,” and then reiterated the scripture’s warning to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Outside the Overturf home, the 1,000 Wapello County mourners and curiosity seekers who had gathered in the merciless heat of the treeless yard fanned themselves and passed word along that Rev. Tharp was blaming lax morals and indecency for the tragedy that had gathered them all to that spot that day.
Everyone knew the preacher was talking about the condition of sin and abandon that the 1920s had brought to Iowa and the rest of the nation, a time of lapsed standards and morals.
☛ The Spooner Problem ☚
Although Prohibition was the law of the land, bootleg liquor was available everywhere. Alcohol and the privacy afforded by automobiles were a tempting combination for young people who no longer required chaperones and who were eager to push the bounds of sexual limits.
To avoid disapproving and prying eyes and the ever-vigilant agents searching for alcohol consumption, young couples or small groups — called “neckers” and “petters” — sought lonely, dark spots for their romantic assignations, known as “necking” or “petting” parties.
Lonely farm lanes were ideal for such trysts. In the 1920s, these isolated byways were called “Spooners Lanes.”
Farmers and others who owned remote roads didn’t want Spooners on their property. Rowdy talking and laughing wafted across the fields; liquor bottles and trash were left behind; drunken quarrels led to violence; and robbers were attracted to the vulnerable partiers.
But especially, altogether too much notice was brought to the scene, which could alert liquor agents and focus attention on the property owner, who might himself have a little bootleg alcohol on the premises.
On the night of Wednesday July 15, 1925, one such necking party turned deadly in a remote country lane leading to the Harry and Emma Overturf house one mile east of Ottumwa.
Over the next few weeks, however, the facts reported by eye witnesses and other sources morphed and melded until it was unclear exactly what actually happened that night.
One thing, however, was certain. That night in that particular Spooners Lane ended with the murder of Harry Overturf.
☛ Facts According to Eye Witnesses ☚
The first accounts of the facts came from the three people who were with Harry Overturf that night: his 30-year-old wife Emma, Emma’s brother L. Roy Ferguson — who was about to celebrate his 29th birthday — and Roy’s wife Myrtle, also 30.
They told investigators that the four of them went to a neighbor’s place that evening to get apples and that between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. as they had walked about 50 yards up the lane to Harry’s and Emma’s house, they saw an automobile stopped ahead.
Harry, they said, had been ongoingly annoyed by the neckers and petters who used his lane and figured those in the car were the “usual party of Spooners” who frequented the spot.
Overturf approached the car and asked, “Don’t you know that this is a private road?” The man driving the car — a stranger to the two couples — responded, “No. Is it?” Overturf angrily said, “Yes, it is, and you had better get out of here damn quick.”
And then, according to Roy Ferguson, the male driver said something that later would catch investigators’ attention:
“You’re not going to hold me up.”
Overturf moved away from the car and started walking towards his house. Suddenly, the driver got out and shone a light on him and said not to move. Overturf replied, “It’s my lane and I’m going home.”
Two shots rang out and Overturf fell to the ground, shot twice near the heart. Although mortally wounded, he was not dead.
Roy Ferguson, who had been walking just behind Overturf, started to run; a shot whizzed past him as Ferguson fled for help to the nearby home of Arthur and Julia McNurlen.
Emma Overturf and Myrtle Ferguson climbed over a fence into a field and watched while the car drove towards the Overturf house, turned around at the end of the lane, and then sped back past them to the main road.
None of the three witnesses could provide any information about the make and model of the automobile because they claimed they were “too excited” to notice.
Roy Ferguson, however, said he did see that the car’s Iowa license plate bore the number “91” — indicating it was issued in Wapello County — but could not remember the other numbers.
The two women could say only that a man was driving and that the other person in the car was a female, someone they would recognize if they saw her again — “a white-faced girl.”
Before the week was out, that simple portrayal — a description of either the woman’s race or her fear-blanched face — transformed into something almost mythical.
Soon, the woman in the car in the Spooner’s lane murder was known as the “Woman in White.”
☛ Victim’s Death ☚
Harry Overturf was transported to Ottumwa’s St. Joseph’s Hospital — which some residents believed was haunted; he died at 3:00 a.m. on July 16 without regaining consciousness.
At 7:00 a.m. that morning, a taxicab drove to the opening of the road where Overturf was shot. The driver got out and posted a crudely-lettered sign that read:
☛ The Morning After ☚
In the light of the next morning, Wapello County Sheriff H.C. Richards examined the crime scene. On the ground were .25 caliber automatic shells. And pressed into the dirt were tire prints which Richards identified as made by Ford Goodyear tires.
Richards speculated the killer and his passenger were frequent users of the lane and, therefore, local residents.
To help Ottumwa Police and Wapello County deputies investigate the murder, State Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) Chief Oscar Rock assigned Agent E. C. McPherson to the case. Until recently, McPherson was Chief of the Keokuk Police Department and served as President of the Iowa Association of Chiefs of Police and Peace Officers.
☛ Long and Then Secretive Inquest ☚
On July 16, Dr. L.A. Hammer, Wapello County Coroner and Vice President of the Wapello County Medical Society, convened a coroner’s jury to take testimony.
However, unlike most other such proceedings which usually lasted hours or a day, this death inquest did not reach a verdict for 11 days.
First, a physician testified that the bullets in Overturf’s body were .25 caliber steel jackets.
Then Roy and Myrtle Ferguson and Harry’s widow Emma Overturf gave testimony about what happened that night: the walk up the lane, the confrontation, the shots, the chaos.
After Emma told her story, she fainted and was described by one newspaper as in “critical condition.”
She also refused to attend a later session for testimony from a particular suspect, who was never detained nor charged. Emma claimed he had a voice so similar — which “harmonizes identically” — to that of the man who shot her husband that it would “drive her into hysteria” to hear him speak.
Witnesses told how the Overturf’s pet dog Mike was shot not long before the murder, and they speculated his bark annoyed Spooners who feared he would bring unwanted attention.
While one newspaper said Mike was killed, another reported the dog was alive and consoled by mourners at the funeral; he yelped when they patted his tender fur.
☛ BCI Agent Works On His Own ☚
While Coroner Hammer heard witnesses at the inquest, DCI Agent E.C. McPherson gathered information on his own, but he told reporters he would not name names and would keep his public comments vague to protect his investigation.
McPherson, however, did share with reporters what local farmers told him:
“The vicinity of the killing . . . had something of a reputation as a bootleggers [sic] cache.”
On July 19, the Burlington Hawk-Eye reported McPherson’s announcement that:
“Three men and two women are under suspicion for the killing of Harry Overturf . . . and prominent local people may be involved.”
This information, of course, conflicted with the inquest testimony from eye witnesses, who claimed only two people — a man and a woman– were in the car.
That contradiction was only the beginning of many that investigators were encountering.
The Hawk-Eye also reported:
“[Witness Roy] Ferguson has been extensively questioned not because of any theory involving him with the crime, but because of an alleged conflict of stories and the belief that he may know some of the people who were in the habit of coming to the lane.”
In addition to the information Agent McPherson turned up, Dr. Hammer was taking down inquest testimony that also conflicted with the stories of Emma Overturf and the Fergusons.
Forty-six-year-old Julia McNurlen, to whose house Roy Ferguson ran after the shooting, said she saw the murder car drive out of the lane but her description of it did not match that provided by the three survivors.
At that point, Sheriff Richards and Ottumwa police officers told the press they believed the Fergusons and Emma Overturf were not being truthful or forthcoming about all they knew.
☛ Innocent Victim or Predator? ☚
Suddenly, the storyline of the murder took a huge divergence from the original details and cast doubt on eye witness testimony.
Ottumwa resident M.A. “Spec” Young testified to the coroner’s jury that three weeks before the murder he was parked with a young woman in the Spooners lane leading to the Overturf home.
Two men matching the descriptions of Roy Overturf and Roy Ferguson rousted the couple, pretending to be law officers. They said they’d let them go if money was exchanged. Young said one of the men told him: “Suppose you let the girl get out and square things up.”
Young, however, didn’t get out because he thought the men were what he termed “hi-jackers.” Instead, he gunned his car to drive away. But one of the men stayed on the running board and beat him on the head with a flashlight until Young attained enough speed to push him off.
Then came testimony from former Ottumwa Police Chief Harry Blizzard, who lived near the Overturf lane and was at the murder scene that night. He saw a club lying in the road, a weapon fashioned out of a wagon wheel. Roy Ferguson, Blizzard said, pointed to the truncheon and told him, “Harry had it in his hand when he was shot.”
Another area resident who was at the scene that night, W.B. Graham, said he also heard Ferguson’s statement about the club.
This testimony caused Coroner Hammer to declare:
“This may show there are two sides to the case.”
On July 20, wire service articles were also questioning accounts by the eye-witnesses. An AP story reported that the “Spooner” theory was being discounted, Mike the dog was not shot by the same gun that killed Overturf, and five people were under suspicion.
UP reporter Willard R. Smith wrote that July 20 inquest testimony presented the entire incident in a new light because it suggested Harry Overturf “had been trying a little blackmail” on Spooners.
It was also reported that in addition to extorting what one newspaper called “hush money” and “something for their trouble,” the men made insulting remarks to women in the cars they accosted.
This new information gave a whole new interpretation to the first-hand account of the incident by Roy Ferguson, who told investigators the shooter told Harry Overturf, “You’re not going to hold me up.”
Harry Overturf certainly possessed the strength to intimidate, even though he was only about five foot six. He had been a Sergeant in the Iowa National Guard and his physical stature was described as “stout” (as opposed to slender or medium) when he registered for the WWI draft. He had mined coal and hauled feed and fuel as a teamster.
Roy Ferguson, too, was a military veteran; together the two men — especially if they had a heavy club — could have exuded an authoritarian or threatening presence to vulnerable couples alone on a country road.
Locals wondered if Overturf and Ferguson routinely extorted money and/or liquor from the Spooners and if they were doing so on the night of the shooting.
The potential charge of murder was even called into question should a suspect be arrested. Because of the testimony about what the Oelwein Daily Register called possible “badge-banditry” and attempted blackmail by Overturf and Ferguson, it was possible that any charges filed by Wapello County Attorney E.R. Mitchell might have to be for manslaughter rather than homicide.
☛ Rumors Result in Secrecy ☚
Rumors in Ottumwa were intense and accusations were wild. On July 21, Coroner Hammer announced that anyone spreading gossip about who might have been involved would be arrested and prosecuted.
It appeared that Hammer himself was being accused in the murder he was investigating.
Overturf’s father, Stephen Harry Overturf, Sr., asked the Ottumwa Courier to print a statement that he had not accused Coroner Hammer of being the slayer and would bring a law suit against anyone who reported he said that.
Because of the rampant speculation and the out-of-control rumors, the inquest was closed off and testimony was kept so secret that reporters had difficulty finding anyone to interview — like formerly accessible source Ottumwa Police Officer Liston Leon Lightner.
Sheriff Richards and State Agent McPherson kept mum as well.
☛ The Woman In White ☚
The community was fixated on the crime in general with its titillating elements of secret back road romantic trysts and murder. But the center of the public’s fascination was on the female passenger who had become known as the “Woman in White.”
In his funeral sermon, Rev. Tharp appealed to the mysterious woman to come forward and reveal her companion’s name so she might ease her conscience. Until she did, he warned, she would be labeled a coward who was impeding justice.
After the funeral, Rev. Tharp told the Waterloo Evening Courier that he used the funeral as a forum for appealing to the Woman In White because:
“It would not be strange if she came to the services. The ordinary woman has a conscience that will not rest. The woman in this case will not be able to keep her secret. If she will confess to the law, the murderer can be found and she will have freed herself from great responsibility as a partner to the crime. That is why I tried to reach her.”
What Tharp didn’t know, however, was that investigators had located the mysterious woman, kept her under surveillance, and then questioned her in secret at the July 21 session of the ongoing inquest.
Contrary to the predictions of character that Rev. Tharp had attributed to her, one newspaper said the Woman In White showed “no indignation.”
An AP wire story reported:
“She has not been arrested for lack of definite evidence. When questioned today, she did not appear perturbed at being suspected, investigators said.”
☛ Finally, a Verdict ☚
The inquest dragged on until July 27, when the coroner’s jury finally issued its verdict:
[Harry Overturf] “came to his death in an altercation that took place in a lane on the Overturf premises between himself and family on one hand and trespassers on the other, and that death was affected from gunshot wounds from a pistol in the hands of a party among the trespassers whose identity could not be established from the evidence submitted to the jury.”
☛ Reward and Fading Hopes of a Resolution ☚
Despite their public vows for a quick resolution to the murder which created newspaper headlines about imminent arrests, investigators’ hopes of finding meaningful clues in the murder of Harry Overturf faded quickly.
On August 28, 1925, Iowa Governor John Hammill offered rewards in several recent cases. He pledged $500 for information leading to the killer of Des Moines Police Officer Ollie D. Thomas, $500 in the Harry Jones and William Laugeson Sioux City case (click here to read my article about that double homicide), and $250 for information in the Harry Overturf murder.
Although Officer Thomas’s murder was solved, neither the Governor’s reward nor efforts by local, county, and state investigators yielded solutions in the Sioux City double homicide or the murder of Harry Overturf.
☛ Another Spooner Murder ☚
Only 9 days after Harry Overturf was shot in the Spooners Lane leading to his home, an unknown woman believed to be part of a “necking party” was killed and placed in a strawstack that was set ablaze on Watts Hill two miles East of Carlisle in Warren County. Her murder, too, is unsolved.
Click here to read the story in my article “The Redhead in the Strawstack: Murder of Jane Doe 1925.”
☛ Indignation Against Spooners ☚
Although they must have known they were fighting a losing battle against the lure for young people of sexual attraction, fun, and alcohol, many Iowans privately and publicly expressed indignation and hoped that something could be done to derail the growing custom of Spooning parties.
The Monticello Express spoke for many:
“The killing of Harry Overturf has brought forth vehement statements from local officials, representative farmers, social workers and officials as to the prevalence of ‘necking’ in parked cars on local highways. Many of them termed it a menace. A drive against this practice is expected to be the result of the murder.”
☛ Overturf Family Memories ☚
In early December of 2013, I received an email from Ottumwa resident Robert Swanson, the grandson of Emma and Harry Overturf.
Robert shared the following information about the murder, while noting that “these theories are just speculation by my family and have no evidence to support them”:
“My grandmother did not talk about the incident and we always thought there might be something she didn’t want anyone to know.
One of the theories was that Roy Ferguson, her brother, was bootlegging and the so called ‘Spooner’ had a hit on him and had mistaken my grandfather for him. Roy Ferguson was not a very nice man and could have been involved in more than was told by my family.
The other theory (the one that my family thought was true) was that the coroner, Dr. Hammer, was involved in some way. It was thought by my family that a close acquaintance of Dr. Hammer murdered my grandfather. It was felt that he was not being sincere in his investigation. It was thought by my family that the man that murdered my grandfather was from a prominent family in Ottumwa and did not want to be associated with an extra-marital affair (with the white faced lady . . . .) he was having in my grandfather’s lane. The possible blackmailing of my grandfather and great uncle could have contributed to the situation.”
☛ Harry Overturf’s Life ☚
Stephen Harry Overturf, Jr. was born in Wapello County on February 27, 1891 to Sarah E. Kershner and Stephen Harry Overturf, Sr. He had three brothers — Henry Franklin, Bert Marion, and George Lawrence Overturf – and five sisters: Clellia Z. Overturf, Martha Philadelphia Overturf Belger Hastings, Pearlie May Overturf, Dora S. Overturf, and Goldie Overturf.
Harry Overturf married Emma Alda Ferguson about 1910.
The couple experienced the loss of two children. Their firstborn, Marjorie June Overturf, died at the age of 10 in 1922, and Mary Louise Overturf passed away at the age of four in 1920.
Overturf was survived by five other children — Steven H. Overturf, George R. Overturf, Sarah Elizabeth Overturf, Margaret Eloise Overturf (Swanson), and Martha Myrtle Clellia Overturf (McDonald). Martha was not quite 8 weeks-old when her father was shot and killed.
Before his marriage, Harry Overturf lived with his parents at 512 E. Finley Avenue in Ottumwa and was a teamster for his father’s company Overturf and Son, a business on North Hancock Street that hauled fuel, feed, and sand.
He worked as a laborer and then as a miner and a wagon driver for the Mystic Coal Company in Appanoose County. By the 1920 census, he and Emma lived at 822 W. Mills Street in Ottumwa and he listed his occupation as foreman on a locomotive.
Overturf was a Sargent in the Iowa National Guard.
After his funeral service was conducted, Harry Overturf’s body was placed in a hearse. Those standing outside the house and those sitting in the cars that filled the 5-acre lot nearby watched respectfully as his body was borne down the lane where he was killed and then on to the Ottumwa Cemetery for burial.
Rev. Tharp told those mourners:
“[Harry] Overturf’s death is a challenge to society to mend its ways and stop the drift toward moral laxity. I hope it will be a lesson to this community. I hope good will come of it, that it will make people think, that Overturf’s martyrdom to the trend of the age will not be wasted. It is sad that it takes a death to bring home to people the speed at which we are traveling today.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Agents Probe Death Of Man Shot Down by Gun-Toting Spooner,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 17, 1925.
- ☛ “Circulators Of Rumors May Be Prosecuted,” Davenport Democrat And Leader, July 21, 1925.
- ☛ “Coroner’s Jury in Overturf Case Finds No Clues to Slayer,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 28, 1925.
- ☛ “Crime Carnival Is On In Iowa,” Oelwein Daily Register, September 9, 1925.
- ☛ “Development In Overturf Death Is Announced,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 23, 1925.
- ☛ “Farmer Is Slain By Male Member Of Petting Party,” Burlington Hawk-Eye July 17, 1925.
- ☛ “Hammill Plans Crime Offensive,” Iowa City Press Citizen, September 9, 1925.
- ☛ “Hope To Clear Iowa Slaying,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 22, 1925.
- ☛ “Important Clues In Ottumwa Crime Have Been Found,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 19, 1925.
- ☛ Iowa Peace Officers Association.
- ☛ “Iowa Sheriffs Confer On Crime; Are Seeking Means to Control Wave,” Davenport Democrat And Leader, September 9, 1925.
- ☛ Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society, Volume 12, 1922.
- ☛ “Jury Blames Trespasser For Overturf Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 29, 1925.
- ☛ “Murder Case At Ottumwa Takes New Angle,” by Willard R. Smith, Oelwein Daily Register, July 21, 1925.
- ☛ “Murder Mystery Unsolved,” Sioux City Journal, July 29, 1925.
- ☛ “No Arrest In Iowa Mystery,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 24, 1925.
- ☛ “Officers Probing Overturf Murder Cannot Be Found,” Davenport Democrat And Leader, July 24, 1925.
- ☛ “Ottumwa Man Murdered By ‘Lovers,’” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 16, 1925.
- ☛ “Ottumwa Slayer Arrested Soon,” Oelwein Daily Register, July 23, 1925.
- ☛ Robert Swanson (Grandson of Harry Overturf), Personal Correspondence, December 2013.
- ☛ “Seek Bullet That Slew Dog As Clue In Overturf Case,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 18, 1925.
- ☛ “Shot Down By a ‘Necker,’” Monticello Express, July 23, 1925.
- ☛ “Solution Likely In Lovers’ Lane Murder Mystery,” Sioux City Journal, July 22, 1925.
- ☛ “State Offers Rewards For 3 Iowa Murderers,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, August 29, 1925.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Woman In White Is Implicated in Ottumwa Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 22, 1925.