Obsession: Murder of Mamie Peterson 1896

Murder Victim

Mamie A. Peterson
18-year-old Household Helper, Family Home
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motives: Jealousy/Avoiding Responsibility for Pregnancy

Murder Scene and Date

Unionville, Iowa
Appanoose County
May 12, 1896


By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2013

The elements were in place for a summer night idyll. Band music. An ice cream social. Two newly-introduced teenagers strolling the streets of a small Iowa town.

But then suddenly from the darkness — gunshots.

☛ Coquettish Flirt ☚

Ned Hemphill

Ned Hemphill

Mamie Peterson was 18 in the early summer of 1896, the youngest of 7 children in the family of Unionville teamster Stewart Peterson and his wife Eppalina.

She was pretty and vivacious. And everyone in the small town knew Mamie was a coquette, a flirtatious girl who understood her attractiveness to young men and wielded that allure to taunt and tease them.

location of Unionville, Iowa

location of Unionville, Iowa

The Oskaloosa Evening Herald later wrote of Mamie:

“She is a girl whose character has been questioned some and has been going out considerable with the young men around Unionville.”

But there was one boy that she saw more than others, 20-year-old Edward Talbot “Ned” Hemphill, who recently moved from Kansas City back to his native Unionville along with his mother Emma to reside with his uncle and grandfather. Ned was not tall — about 5-7 — but he was handsome, his brown hair and eyes setting off a ruddy complexion.

Ned seemed absolutely stuck on Mamie Paterson and perhaps she liked his possessiveness — it was later said he threatened violence against other boys who showed interest in her — and Mamie, in turn, enjoyed trifling with Ned by flaunting her flirtations.

☛ Night of Music Ends in Murder ☚

That summer of 1896, Unionville was putting together a band to perform at civic functions and present concerts for social gatherings. Young musicians from the surrounding towns and communities of Appanoose County were invited to join.

Twenty-seven-year-old Francis Davis of Moulton, which was 9 miles southwest of Unionville, conducted the band and recruited members.

On the night of Tuesday, May 12, Davis traveled to Unionville, bringing with him two young Moulton musicians — J. Alonzo Warner, 23, and 15-year-old George M. Shutts. There was to be a band concert and ice cream social at the home of prominent Unionville physician Dr. John Lazelle Sawyers.

from the Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette

from the Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette

All that evening, music and conversation wafted from Dr. Sawyers’s yard throughout the small town.

Francis Davis introduced the Moulton boys to local girls at the social, including Mamie Peterson and 20-year-old Anna Underwood.

As the concert ended, Davis and Shutts offered to walk the young women home and they strolled away from Dr. Sawyers’s home — Francis Davis with Anna Underwood and George Shutts with Mamie.

The four walked east on Main Street; then Mamie remembered she left her hat at Anna’s house; George Shutts went with her to retrieve it and then they met up again with Francis Davis and Anna Underwood.

Dr. John L. Sawyers (Drake University)

Dr. John L. Sawyers hosted the ice cream social (Drake University).

When Mamie and George reached the gate of the Peterson home, Davis and Anna walked on, leaving the talking and laughing teenagers alone.

Perhaps she was trying to impress young George Shutts or perhaps she was pitting, as usual, one boy against another. Whatever her reasons, Mamie told George that Ned Hemphill had threatened to shoot her if he “caught her with any kid.”

Just as she spoke those words, a gunshot rang out. George yelled for Mamie to run into the house and he fled down the street. As he looked back, he saw flashes in rapid succession from two more shots.

Mamie cried, “Oh” and fell backwards.

Fearing for his life, George Shutts kept running until he reached the drugstore on Main Street, where he breathlessly reported what happened.

At the same moment, local teamster Fred Buckmaster rode past the Peterson home and saw a person lying at the gate. When he got out, he found Mamie Peterson dead, with a single bullet hole in her forehead. She was still clutching her hat.

Buckmaster raised the alarm; and although a doctor arrived quickly on the scene, he could do nothing.

Mamie had died instantly, murdered — townsfolk quickly concluded — while trifling with one boy at the expense of another one, likely Ned Hemphill.

☛ Early Investigation ☚

early  view of Unionville, Iowa (History Appanoose County)

Early view of Unionville, Iowa
(History of Appanoose County)

The investigation began immediately into Mamie’s murder — termed “atrocious” and “heinous” by regional newspapers. And Appanoose County Coroner William J. Martin convened a jury on May 13 to take testimony about the murder.

George Shutts was quickly eliminated as a suspect because he had no reason to kill someone he’d known only a few hours.

Dr. L.S. Patterson testified that during the autopsy he found a bullet lodged at the base of Mamie’s skull. Patterson also reported that Mamie was pregnant.

The pregnancy made the motives of revenge or jealousy by a betrayed suitor less certain. It then had to be considered if she was killed by someone wanting to evade responsibility for her and her unborn child.

After voluminous testimony — much of it pointing to Ned Hemphill, although nearly all circumstantial — the coroner’s jury issued a verdict that Mamie Peterson was killed by a pistol shot fired by an unknown person.

☛ Persistence by the Sheriff ☚

from the Burlington Hawk-Eye

from the Burlington Hawk-Eye

The failure of the coroner’s jury to accuse Ned Hemphill did not dissuade law enforcement, who continued to question him about the murder. Appanoose County Sheriff Benjamin Franklin Silknitter headed up the investigation.

Authorities felt certain they could match prints found the night of the murder to Hemphill’s shoes. Those led from the scene of the crime through a wet field of oats towards the Rock Island Railroad tracks.

And there was the matter of the weapon and ammunition.

The local hardware store operator told investigators that Hemphill purchased cartridges from him on the day of the ice cream social. Other locals saw Ned with a revolver just a few days before the murder, a gun they believed he borrowed from Dr. Sawyers’s grandson.

Knowing of Hemphill’s tempestuous relationship with Mamie, investigators went to his uncle Edward M. Phillips’s house immediately after the shooting and found him sitting on a bed reading a book. He claimed then that he had no gun.

After that, Hemphill gave conflicting, evasive accounts, first saying he’d never possessed a gun and then admitting he had one but lost it out on Soap Creek.

Officer Nathan S. Bray directed a search of the Phillips property and home, even draining the wells.

In the attic, law enforcement found a 6-shot .38 caliber pistol with five loaded cartridges and one empty chamber. Because three shots were heard on the night of the murder, authorities speculated that two loaded cartridges were placed in the gun after the shooting.

Based on the discovery of the gun, Appanoose County Attorney C.W. Vermillion ordered Ned Hemphill arrested, and he was placed in the Appanoose County Jail in Centerville 15 miles southwest of Unionville.

☛ The Motive ☚

Unionville residents and authorities had no doubt Ned Hemphill killed Mamie Peterson; several citizens even reported they heard Hemphill say he “would take a shot at [Mamie] someday.”

But public opinion was divided over the question of his motive.

Was he jealous of Mamie’s flirtations with other young men and pushed to the edge by her attentions to George Shutts?

Or did Ned, as the father of the unborn child, shoot Mamie to escape responsibility? The Burlington Hawk-Eye reported a rumor that Mamie told her friends she’d been shot at before, which would substantiate that notion.

Another rumor was that Mamie’s unborn child was fathered by a friend of Ned Hemphill who was also at the ice cream social. Was that friend the intended target, perhaps someone the killer mistook George Shutts for in the darkness?

☛ Aborted Preliminary Hearing ☚

An inquest was held at the old Appanoose County Courthouse.

Appanoose County Courthouse (courthousehistory.com)

A preliminary hearing for Ned Hemphill was scheduled for Thursday, May 21 at the Centerville Courthouse.

Meanwhile regional newspapers closely followed the crime, and the entire area was stirred up by reports like one published in the Pella Advertiser:

“The entire history of Southern Iowa has no page in it as black as the one that will have record[ed] the cold blooded murder that occurred at Unionville . . . whereby Miss Mamie Peterson . . . met a sad and untimely end at the hands of an unknown cowardly assassin, who shot her in the back of the head [and] then fled.”

Emotions were running high by May 21, the day Hemphill was brought back to Unionville to appear before “Squire” William Stanley in a preliminary hearing.

Outside the proceedings, a large crowd — drunk and angry — agitated against Hemphill.

from the  Daily Iowa Capital

from the Daily Iowa Capital

Fearing for the safety of his client, defense attorney J.C. Mabrey waived Hemphill’s right to a preliminary hearing and the prisoner was whisked back to the Centerville jail.

A source, identified only as “a prominent citizen,” told the Burlington Hawk-Eye:

“Had the preliminary hearing been held he doubted not that there would have been serious trouble.”

When the grand jury convened and heard testimony in mid-September, Hemphill was indicted for the murder of Mamie Peterson.

After defense attorney J.C. Mabrey argued that his client could not receive a fair trial in Appanoose County, Judge Robert Sloan granted Hemphill a change of venue to Davis County, where the trail would be held before a District Court Judge in Bloomfield.

☛ Murder Trial Begins ☚

from the  Alton Democrat

from the Alton Democrat

On Monday, November 9, Sheriff Silknitter transported Ned Hemphill from the Centerville Jail to the Davis County Courthouse in Bloomfield to stand trial before District Court Judge Frank H. Eichelberger.

The state’s 50 witnesses provided essentially the same testimony heard by the Appanoose County grand jury. Although compelling and strong, it was all nonetheless largely circumstantial.

The most dramatic testimony came from Mamie’s father Stewart Peterson. As he talked of his daughter’s death, the sobs of Mamie’s mother Eppalina echoed through the quiet courtroom.

Ned Hemphill, however, showed no emotion during this pitiful scene and sat calmly reading a newspaper at the defendant’s table.

In fact, Hemphill took no apparent interest in the trial at all, seeming almost transfixed on other thoughts. He had repeatedly claimed his innocence but seemed not to care about what was being said or about the outcome.

☛ Trial Groupies Create Spectacle ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

It’s a phenomenon as old as jury trials themselves and it persists into contemporary times.

When certain males — usually young and handsome — are accused of murder, trial followers or “groupies” fixate on them, women who romanticize the crime and the alleged perpetrator. They obsessively insist on the accused’s innocence and shower him with attention and desire no matter how heinous his crime.

The Perry Daily Chief wrote of the Mamie Peterson case – which essentially became “The Ned Hemphill case”:

“The really most peculiar feature of the case was the interest displayed by the people of Bloomfield, including almost its entire population of women and girls. Although the crime was committed in another county . . . . [and] although the young man, perhaps innocent of this crime, was at any rate considered to be a tough, some impulse moved the women of the town where the trial was held to crowd the courtroom day after day, [and] shower on the prisoner lavish presents of fruits and flowers . . . .”

Bloomfield women talked of nothing else and believed that Ned was falsely accused. They delivered homemade confections to him in court and at the jail.

One newspaper described the women’s fervor as a “fever” that spread through Bloomfield and noted that husbands and fathers claimed they could not keep their womenfolk home during the trial.

Police received reports that flowerbeds throughout town were being stripped of their fall-blooming Chrysanthemums, which when taken to court were banned by the judge and then ended up in Ned Hemphill’s cell.

Because of this fixation on Ned Hemphill, the judge ordered bailiffs to eat and sleep with the jury members in a large, single hotel room. Not only did the bailiffs read Hemphill’s mail, but they also prevented anyone from communicating with him as he was walked to and from the courthouse.

☛ Masterful Defense ☚

Davis County Courthouse

Davis County Courthouse, where Hemphill’s trial was held (courthousehistory.com)

After calling about 40 witnesses, the prosecution rested on November 17.

Then point by point, defense attorney J.C. Mabrey took apart the testimony against his client.

Mabrey was termed by one reporter “a complete master of the situation.” The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:

Never have the people of Bloomfield listened to such eloquence and earnest pleading as was made by [him].”

Mabrey’s primary witness was Hemphill’s 18-year-old “chum” Milo Weaver, who provided an alibi for Ned’s whereabouts during the time of the murder. Hemphill and Weaver were seen on the streets looking for Mamie to escort her home.

On November 18, Hemphill’s grandfather, James H Phillips, died at the family home in Unionville. Had he lived, it was rumored, he would have presented information to identify the real killer and free his grandson.

☛ Acting like “Lunatics” ☚

After the closing statements by both sides, the jury was sent to deliberate.

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

But the fawning and yearning women obsessed with Ned Hemphill refused to leave the courtroom until the judge promised to notify the public of a verdict by having the courthouse bell rung. Even then, some women would not vacate the building.

By that time, Bloomfield men were invested in the case, as well, and many mingled with the women outside in the street deliberating the case and advocating for Hemphill.

On Friday, November 20, 1896, came the moment the entire city of Bloomfield was waiting for.

The Perry Daily Chief reported the unbelievable scene that unfolded:

“At the first tap of the court house bell at 9 o’clock Friday morning men left their work, women dropped household duties and all joining in the grand rush for the court room.”

Spectators, mostly women, crowded the courtroom; it became pure pandemonium as the bell kept ringing and emotions reached fever pitch.

Then came the verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant, Ned Hemphill, not guilty.”

The Daily Chief described the moment:

“[The spectators] paused for a moment to hear . . . . the verdict, and when it was announced . . . the crowd became mad. Men stood in the seats, threw their hats in the air and shouted themselves hoarse; women waved their handkerchiefs, clapped their hands in a feeble effort to make a noise, threw their arms about one another and wept . . . . The fortunate ones on the inside of the courtroom conveyed the intelligence to those massed in the street below, and it was passed from mouth to mouth all over the city. People grasped one another’s hands and formed in bodies and paraded and acted like lunatics.”

The women who were fixated on Hemphill cried hysterically — “bawled,” one reporter wrote — and his mother was overcome with relief.

After sitting without emotion during the trial, Hemphill came alive. He jumped up, hugged attorney J.C. Mabrey, and burst into tears.

Then Hemphill rushed to the jury box. He shook hands with individual jurors, presented each with a photograph of himself, and then asked the group to pose with him for a picture.

When court was dismissed at 1:30 that afternoon, Hemphill left the courthouse to the cheers of a crowd still gathered outside.

Mamie Peterson’s family, however, departed the building in a much different manner from her accused — but acquitted — killer.

The Petersons, too, were in tears. But theirs were tears of sorrow and disappointment.

☛ Elsewhere, Disappointment and Anger ☚

from the Perry Daily Chief

from the Perry Daily Chief

If the Bloomfield populace was joyful and pleased by Hemphill’s acquittal, the citizens of Unionville — where the murder occurred — were furious.

They resented that the case was tried in a county where the circumstances and parties were not known and they felt certain Ned Hemphill and his attorney worked their wiles on an uninformed population.

This resentment and hostility caused Ned Hemphill to leave Iowa immediately after the trial and resume his former life in Kansas City.

The trial cost the county $1,000 but produced no justice nor answers in the case.

After their most promising suspect was found not guilty, Appanoose County officials despaired of finding justice for Mamie Peterson and her unborn child. No one else was ever charged with the crime.

☛ Mamie Peterson’s Life ☚

Mamie A. Peterson was born in 1878 in Appanoose County, Iowa, to Eppalina McKendric and Stewart Peterson. She had six siblings: Duria Catharine “Kate” Peterson Rogers, Jerome Calvin Peterson, Arabella I. “Bell” Peterson Ferrell, Molinda Mayberry Peterson, and Thomas D. Peterson; a sister, Allena J. Peterson, preceded her in death.

Mamie’s funeral was held on the afternoon of Thursday, May 14 and she was buried in the Unionville Cemetery

☛ The Worm Turns From One Murder to Another ☚

Gate to the Unionville Cemetery, where Mamie Peterson is buried.

Gate to the Unionville Cemetery, where Mamie Peterson is buried.

Ned Hemphill’s life went on after his acquittal of murdering Mamie Peterson.

Whether seeking adventure or hoping to put distance between himself and the sensational Iowa case, he volunteered in May of 1898 to serve in the Spanish American War and was a private in Company E of the 20th Kansas Infantry. He was discharged in August 1899 after being a patient in the Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco, likely because of an illness or injury related to his military service.

By the 1900 Census, Hemphill was back in Kansas City and working as a restaurant short order cook. At the time of the WWI Draft, he was a yard clerk for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In 1901, he married Norine Emma Morris and they had a daughter before later divorcing.

In May of 1925, Hemphill was admitted to the Western Branch National Military Home (the Kansas State Soldiers’ Home) in Leavenworth suffering from what records describe as “myopea and neurasthenia.”

In spite of his disabilities, he married a second time on January 14, 1927 in Leavenworth to a wife much younger than he, Beulah Tetrick Boyd. He lived in the Soldiers’ Homes until he died on November 27, 1928.

The cause of Hemphill’s death was listed by the home as “accidental fracture of right temporal bone, hit by a holdup man, and also accidental fall.”

It appears that Ned Hemphill’s death was in part due to a criminal act perpetrated by another person — “a holdup man” — and that he was, in fact, himself murdered.

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



  • ☛ “Alleged Murderer Acquitted,” Carroll Sentinel, November 21, 1896.
  • ☛ “Centerville Murder Case,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 22, 1896.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, May 19, 1896.
  • ☛ “Condensed Iowa,” Daily Iowa Capital, November 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “Found Not Guilty,” Daily Iowa Capital, November 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “He Waived Examination,” Daily Iowa Capital, May 22, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Case Transferred,” Pocahontas County Sun, October 1, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Freed,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, November 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Case Transferred,” Pocahontas County Sun, October 1, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Is Free,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 21, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Put On Trial,” Humeston New Era, November 18, 1896.
  • ☛ “The Hemphill Trial,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, November 10, 1896.
  • ☛ “Hemphill Trial Begins,” Alton Democrat, November 21, 1896.
  • History of Appanoose County,Iowa. Western Historical Company, 1878.
  • ☛ “Is It The Weapon?” Humeston New Era, May 27, 1896.
  • ☛ “Mamie Peterson Murder,” Algona Courier, May 22, 1896.
  • ☛ “Morbid Sympathy,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, November 17, 1896.
  • ☛ “More Developments,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 15, 1896.
  • ☛ “More Developements [sic],” Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 15, 1896.
  • ☛ “A Murder With Peculiar Features,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 14, 1896.
  • ☛ “Mystery Deepens,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, May 15, 1896.
  • ☛ “Mystery Deepens,” Dubuque Daily Herald, May 16, 1896.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Marion Sentinel, November 26, 1896
  • ☛ “On Trial for Murder,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 16, 1896.
  • Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, L.L. Taylor, Editor. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.
  • ☛ Pella Advertiser. May 16, 1896.
  • ☛ “State Brevities,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 15, 1897.
  • ☛ “State Items,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 11, 1896.
  • ☛ “A Strange Murder Case,” Perry Daily Chief, November 24, 1896.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 Records.
  • ☛ “Will Investigate the Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, August 23, 1896.
  • ☛ “Young Girl Murdered,” Cedar Falls Semi-Weekly Gazette, May 19, 1896.
  • ☛ “Young Girl Murdered,” Sioux County Herald, May 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “Young Murderer’s Weapon Found,” Carroll Sentinel, May 22, 1896.
  • ☛ “Young Murderer’s Weapon Found,” Atlantic Weekly Telegraph, May 27, 1896.
  • ☛ “Young Woman Murdered,” Oskaloosa Evening Herald, May 14, 1896.

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