Picture Imperfect: Suspicious Death of Oliver Pearson 1896


Oliver E. Pearson
39-year-old Photographer and Artist
Cause of Death: Pushed From a Height
Motive: Business Quarrel

Death Scene and Date

Pearson Gallery
East 6th & East Locust
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
March 20, 1896


By Nancy Bowers
Written October 2012

Oliver Pearson’s logo

From the time Oliver Pearson was a small boy in Polk County, Iowa, he had a passion for drawing, sketching, and photography.

His father Abel — a local hotel owner and former city jailor — recognized his talent early on. After Oliver finished high school, Abel Pearson found an apprenticeship for his son in the studio of George Washington Stiffler, a leading Des Moines photographer.

Pearson's well-known photo of "Doc," courtesy Ross McClintock

Pearson’s well-known photo of “Doc,” courtesy Ross McClintock

The 1890 Portrait and Biographical Album Polk County Iowa wrote of Pearson’s self-made artistic career:

“No time was idly spent by young Pearson, but with great activity and energy he applied himself to the work and soon mastered the art. He remained with Mr. Stiffler for two years, during which time he made great progress, and then branched out in business for himself. He had made a careful study of his work, his instructor being one of the ablest in the State, and the public from the first gave him a liberal patronage, which has constantly increased. He has successfully contended with all competition, and by his indefatigable industry, skill and ability, has won a place in the foremost rank of the photographers of the country.”

Oliver Pearson showed such talent and initiative that by 1880 he had his own second-floor gallery at the corner of East 6th and East Locust in Des Moines known as Pearson’s Portraits. His business expanded quickly, and he hired assistants to help him. He placed an ad in the 1888 Des Moines City Directory calling himself “The King of the Camera.”

In addition to taking photographs, Oliver Pearson drew in pastels, India ink, and crayon. His work earned attention and honors like the Iowa State Agricultural Society’s 1888 medal for “the finest art collection.”

His most well-known photo was of a small dog named “Doc,” the 23rd Iowa Infantry’s mascot during the Civil War.

In 1883, Pearson married Canadian immigrant Susie Pierce; and by 1896, the couple was living at 740 E. Walnut with three small daughters.

☛ Business and Art Collide ☚

Charles Wilcox placed this ad for his book in the Des Moines Daily News.

In 1895, Oliver Pearson entered into a business deal with brothers Charles F. and Henry W. Wilcox, relocated Guthrie County residents who wanted to make a name for themselves in the Des Moines publishing world.

Henry Wilcox, 27, sold ads and made collections for the LeMars Semi-Weekly Globe and 23-year-old Charles managed the Iowa Historical Illustrative Company out of an office at 202 Fifth Street in the Youngerman Block in downtown Des Moines. The Wilcoxes boarded at the John and Mary Coggeshall home at 7th and High streets.

For several years, Charles Wilcox — assisted in the final preparation by his brother Henry — labored to produce the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir, described by the Des Moines Daily News as “an elaborate pictorial volume.”

Charles Finney Wilcox, from the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir

When it was published in late 1895, the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir’s title page deemed itself:

“A work published for the purpose of presenting to the public in an artistic and attractive manner some of the most interesting features of the Capital City.”

The handsome by-subscription, advertisement-free volume featured elegant full page engravings — accompanied by text — of Des Moines businesses, schools, colleges, parks, prominent citizens, newspaper offices, and art and music organizations, as well as buildings such as the State Capitol and the Public Library.

“Pearson Photo”

Webster and Alcott schools, 1895,
a photo attributed to Oliver Pearson

Oliver Pearson and a small number of other local photographers were hired to contribute their work to Wilcox’s book, and the volume contains two photos marked “Pearson Photo” — one depicting Webster and Alcott schools, another Longfellow School.

Also, a single page bears Pearson’s name with text heaping this lavish praise on him:

“Very few photographers have won so enviable a reputation as Mr. O.E. Pearson, whose gallery is located at East Sixth and Locust streets. The rooms are richly furnished and artistically arranged, and equipped with the latest improvements in instruments invented for the business. His life size portraits won much admiration. He also made a specialty of fine cabinet photos.”

Oliver Pearson’s photo of Homer D. Cope

Then the complimentary language takes a sudden and odd turn and change of verb tense, presenting without any context a photo of Homer D. Cope — Des Moines businessman and “dramatic reader” known for his rendition of “Damon and Pythias” — with the following statement:

“[Pearson] was very successful as a scenic artist. However, some of the views in this work bearing his name do not do him credit as they were made by his assistants, as Mr. Pearson’s business made it impracticable for him to be absent from his gallery much of the time. The cut [sic] of Mr. Homer D. Cope, published herewith, was reproduced from a photograph made by Mr. Pearson.”

The words have the feel of careful legalese, as though dictated by attorneys to clarify and sort out an intellectual property dispute: praise for Pearson followed by a euphemistic account of the Wilcox brothers’ side of the matter.

Was there trouble between Oliver Pearson and the Wilcoxes, perhaps a conflict in artistic tastes or a dispute over money? Did the Wilcox brothers refuse to pay Pearson for photos they believed his assistants took?

☛ Over the Edge ☚

Outside steps to Pearson's studio are seen in this photo (Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir)

Outside steps to Pearson’s studio are seen in this photo (Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir).

On March 19, 1896 — just months after the publication of the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir — Charles and Henry Wilcox climbed the outside stairs to Oliver Pearson’s gallery at East Sixth and East Locust. No one else was present at the studio besides Pearson, so what initiated the visit and what transpired there are undetermined.

It is known, however, how the meeting ended. Passersby on the streets heard noises and looked up to see the three men pushing and shoving on the landing outside the gallery.

Suddenly, Oliver Pearson went over the railing and landed on the concrete below.

Pedestrians rushed to help Pearson — who lay critically injured from a skull fracture — and carried him to his home at 740 E. Walnut, where medical aid was summoned.

Charles and Henry Wilcox were immediately arrested by Des Moines Police officers Crumbaker, Rood, and Ellsworth and held without bail in separate jail cells.

☛ Aftermath ☚

Oliver Pearson was well-liked on Des Moines’s East Side and the Des Moines Daily News described reaction as word spread of his violent fall and then death:

“Hundreds of businessmen eagerly inquired about Mr. Pearson’s condition and offered all possible assistance. They expressed great sympathy for his family and on the other hand talked openly of wreaking summary vengeance upon his assailants in case he died. It may never be known just how near a certain company of East Side men came to making a raid on the city jail this morning and lynching the two men. Mr. Pearson had close friends not only in business but in several orders, and his death comes with appalling force to hundreds of hearts.”

The Oelwein Register and the Alton Democrat reported the Wilcox brothers went to Pearson’s gallery to settle a dispute over money the photographer believed they owed him.

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On the morning of March 20, a Des Moines Daily News reporter interviewed the Wilcox brothers in jail. They claimed Henry was not involved in the physical side of the argument and Charles acted only in self-defense. They maintained that during a heated discussion — presumably concerning payment for photos in the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir — Oliver Pearson pushed Charles and that:

“Charles resented the attack and in the scuffle Mr. Pearson lost his balance and fell with his back or side against the rail and slid down the railing for several feet before falling to the pavement.”

Coroner Rollin V. Ankeny appointed H.P. Holmes, J.W. Hill, and A.B. Snider to a jury which viewed the body at the Pearson home on the morning of March 20 and met the next day at City Hall to hear testimony.

Statewide newspapers wrote that Pearson was pushed over the stair railing by Charles and Henry Wilcox. And the coroner’s jury agreed, finding that the Wilcoxes caused the death of Oliver Pearson.

However, a grand jury did not return a criminal indictment against the Wilcox brothers because authorities could not substantiate the specific details of the death, despite witness testimony of a scuffle. Two of the three men involved in the incident claimed it was an accident, and the third man was dead.

The Wilcox brothers moved on quickly, even publicly suggesting that Pearson’s death was an unfortunate turn of events that befell them in a “Card of Thanks” which appeared in the March 26, 1896 edition of the Des Moines Daily News:

“To all who have so kindly befriended us in the sad misfortune which has recently befallen us, we wish to express our appreciation of their kindness and heartily thank them for all favors shown us. Very respectfully, Charles F. Wilcox, Henry W. Wilcox.”

☛ Oliver Pearson’s Burial ☚

Oliver Pearson’s tombstone,
photo by Katie Lou

Oliver Pearson — born June 14, 1857 in Beaver Township of Polk County — was buried in Des Moines’s Woodland Cemetery near his recently-deceased parents, early Polk County settlers Matilda J. Wise and Abel Pearson.

He was mourned by his wife Susie and their daughters Hazel Elizabeth, 12, Alice, 4, and 9-month-old Mildred Margaret, who after his death was known as “Olive” in her father’s honor.

Des Moines citizens also lamented the loss of a local businessman and artist, who was active in the Knights of Pythias, Modern Woodmen of America, and Royal Arcanum.

☛ Pearson Widow Files Suit ☚

from the Marion Pilot

Oliver Pearson’s widow Susie was dissatisfied with the lack of criminal charges in her husband’s death and, no doubt, was distressed by the “thank you” ad in which the Wilcox brothers suggested public support was behind them in the matter.

In August of 1896, Susie Pearson filed a petition in District Court against Charles and Henry Wilcox, asking for $25,000 in damages for the death of her husband.

Charles and Henry Wilcox continued to maintain that during an argument with Charles, Oliver Pearson accidentally slipped and fell, causing his own death.

On March 4, 1897, the court found in favor of the Wilcox brothers and dismissed Susie Pearson’s suit.

☛ The Wilcox Family: Guthrie County’s Most Odd? ☚

Henry and Charles were two of the eight children of Sabina M. Hopkins and Lewis Allen Wilcox of Guthrie County. Their brother Andrew, later committed to a hospital for the insane, lived in Des Moines at the time of Pearson’s death and worked as an advertising salesman.

In reporting the unusual and “unique” February 1902 funeral of patriarch Lewis Wilcox, the Guthrie Times made clear that the Wilcox family was eccentric:

On Tuesday of last week, Lewis A. Wilcox, a character of the west part of the county died after a short illness. For thirty years and over, the deceased and his family have been before the public, either as exponents of their peculiar views of the Bible, or as litigants in the courts of our county. The funeral was set for Friday of last week, but on the arrival of the youngest son, Charles . . . . he declared that the funeral could not take place until Andrew, who was an inmate of the insane asylum at Mt. Pleasant, should arrive, and a couple of days were consumed in securing a parole from the Governor for Andrew.

On Sunday the friends were ready, and the body of the father was taken to the church at Bear Grove, the casket was wrapped with the flag, and the church was decorated with flags. Andrew read a passage of scripture, and sang a hymn, he then gave a genealogical history of the Wilcox family that was exhaustive in more than one sense.

The four brothers then sang another hymn, and Andrew gave way to Charles who read an original poem for the occasion, but the poem not having exhausted him, he proceeded to read the declaration of independence, and was only restrained from reading the constitution of Iowa, by the impatience of the congregation, and the lateness of the hour. The body was then taken to the cemetery, and interred, the grave was filled, and a flag was placed at the head of the grave and at the foot.”

☛ Complicated Life of Charles Wilcox ☚

Henry Wilcox, from the Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir

Charles and Henry Wilcox — the two men most Des Moines citizens felt pushed Oliver Pearson to his death — left Des Moines before 1900 and roomed for a time together in Kansas City, Missouri, where Charles practiced law.

After going his own way from his brother, Henry Wilcox seemed to lead an uneventful life. He worked as a salesman, farmer, and botanical gardener, dying in Kirkwood, Missouri, in 1945.

Charles Wilcox’s life, however, was far from traditional.

By 1914, he had moved from Kansas City to Brooklyn, New York, where he was a patent attorney and Secretary of the Madison Cooperative Building and Loan Association.

In June of 1924 at the age of 51, he married Edna Emily Allen and the couple lived at 108 Clark Street in Brooklyn. Their daughter Mary was born three years later.

Wilcox ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1914 and for the New York State Assembly in 1926.

In 1919, Charles Wilcox and his brother Albinus Wilcox co-filed a patent for a method of “producing musical compositions through the medium of color.” Charles claimed 51 percent of the idea, Albinus 49 percent.

On November 21, 1927, Charles Wilcox was sentenced in Kings County, New York, Supreme Court to two-and-a-half to five years in Sing Sing Prison for forging the 1925 will of a client and stealing $100,000 from the dead man’s family. He was disbarred after the conviction.

Photo of Longfellow School, attributed to Oliver Pearson in Charles Wilcox’s book about Des Moines.

Charles Wilcox was later institutionalized at Dannemora State Hospital for the criminally insane, a part of Dannemora State Prison in Clinton County, New York, where he resided as late as 1930. His wife Edna by that time was taking in boarders to support herself.

A family historian believes Charles Finney Wilcox died in 1935.

Whatever his misdeeds or psychological problems, Charles F. Wilcox left an invaluable and lasting treasure for researchers with his book Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir, which is filled with excellent photos capturing the city of Des Moines in 1895.

Among those pictures are the photos of Oliver Pearson, the man some believed Wilcox pushed to his death in an argument over payment for that work.

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



  • ☛ “Around A Big State,” Marion Pilot, August 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “Brevities,” Algona Upper Des Moines, April 1, 1896.
  • ☛ “Card of Thanks,” Des Moines Daily News, March 26, 1896.
  • ☛ Des Moines City Directories, 1888, 1893.
  • Des Moines Illustrated Souvenir, 1895.
  • ☛ “Fatally Injured In A Row,” Alton Democrat, March 28, 1896.
  • ☛ “Fall Killed Him,” Des Moines Daily News, March 20, 1896.
  • ☛ “Iowa View: Patriotic pooch has place of honor in Civil War lore: ‘Doc’ accompanied Iowa soldiers into battle and in parades afterward,” by John P. Zeller, Des Moines Register, May 12, 2012.
  • ☛ Langdon’s List of 19th & Early 20th Century Photographers, LangdonRoad.com.
  • ☛ “Miss Allen Bride of Brooklyn Man: Lowville Girl Weds Charles Finney Wilcox, Groom A New York Lawyer,” Watertown (New York) Daily Times, June 21, 1924.
  • ☛ “O.E. Pearson Killed,” Oelwein Register, March 25, 1896.
  • ☛ “Oliver E. Pearson,” Portrait and Biographical Album Polk County Iowa, 1890.
  • ☛ “Pushed Down A Stairway and Killed,” Dubuque Daily Herald, March 20, 1896.
  • ☛ Iowa State Historical Society.
  • ☛ “That Patriotic Dog,” Iowa State Register, September 2, 1870.
  • ☛ “Three Damage Suits,” Des Moines Daily News, August 27, 1896.
  • ☛ “A Unique Funeral,” Guthrie Times, February 13, 1902.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Wilcox Sentenced To Prison For 2 1/2 Years For Will Forgery,” Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, November 21, 1927.

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