James W. B. Alfrey
Civil War Veteran
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Avoiding Arrest
Murder Scene and Date
Near Pleasanton, Iowa (formerly Pleasant Plain)
May 16, 1866
By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2014
The case of James “Jim” Alfrey began with one cruel act — the brutal beating of a woman — and ended with an even crueler one — the cold-blooded execution of a man who tried to help her.
The scene was Pleasanton, once known as Pleasant Plain, in Hamilton Township of Decatur County along the Missouri border.
During the planting season of 1866, Jacob Williams — a landowner in both Missouri and Iowa — hired a woman named Helton to sow or “drop” corn for him. But he became unhappy with her work and, having a vicious nature, knocked her down and violently whipped her.
Mrs. Helton sought legal help from 34-year-old Pleasanton attorney James Alfrey, who advised a suit against Williams. Alfrey also asked authorities to issue a warrant charging him with assault and battery. Law enforcement could not locate the suspect, however, to serve it.
So James Alfrey took matters into his own hands. On Wednesday, May 16, Pleasanton Town Constable and fellow attorney W.S. Warnack accompanied James Alfrey on horseback as Alfrey searched for Williams in hopes of serving the warrant.
Not finding the suspect at his home, the two men turned back around and rode to the residence two-and-a-half miles from Pleasanton where Mrs. Helton was staying. Alfrey went inside to inform her they had not located Williams and then came out to get on his horse.
Suddenly, a revolver-toting Jacob Williams appeared from the brush, climbed a fence into the yard, and walked towards Alfrey and Warnack, the latter on horseback.
What happened next was reported by the Decatur City Enterprise:
“[Williams said], ‘You have a warrant for me, and I am going to shoot you.’ On being informed by Mr. W[arnack] that he did not have any warrant for him and had taken no part in his prosecution, Williams then said, ‘Well, Jim Alfrey has, and I am going to kill both of you, but will shoot him first.’”
Williams turned towards Alfrey and fired his revolver. A bullet tore through Jim Alfrey’s raised lower arm and lodged in his shoulder. The impact dropped Alfrey to his knees. Then Williams walked up to the wounded man and deliberately shot him through the heart at pointblank range.
The gunfire spooked the horses and Warnack was thrown off his, but he managed to escape on foot into the undergrowth and run to Pleasanton to spread word of the murder.
Jacob Williams was believed to have fled to his father’s house, where he grabbed a horse and escaped. A large posse searched for him without success, and Alfrey’s murder went unavenged.
The Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye wrote of the killer:
“[Jacob] Williams is a man of considerable wealth, but has for many years borne a bad character. This is the record of the third murder in which he has been concerned.”
☛ James Alfrey’s Life ☚
James W. B. Alfrey was born August 24, 1831 in Montgomery County, Missouri, to Magdalena “Maggie” Peveler and James Alfrey. He had 12 siblings. There were six brothers — Lewis, Jonas, John Wesley, Benjamin E., Jacob Peveler, and Milton Alfrey — as well as six sisters: Polly Alfrey Pratt, Barbara Ann Alfrey Wilson, Sarah Eliza Alfrey Spurgeon, Sabetta “Sibble” Alfrey Spurgeon, Jane Alfrey Johnson, and Eliza Alfrey.
The Alfrey family first lived in Kentucky before migrating to Montgomery County, Missouri, and then moving on to Farmington, Iowa, in Van Buren County.
About 1860, Alfrey wed a woman named Mary and they had two sons, Leroy and Sherman.
James Alfrey enlisted in the Union Army in 1864. He first served in the 11th Missouri Cavalry Militia and then was commissioned an officer in Company E of the Missouri 12th Cavalry Regiment. He was mustered out on March 9, 1865.
Alfrey was a member of the Masons, who conducted his burial services in Pleasanton’s Hamilton Cemetery.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Another Murder!” Daily Iowa State Registry, May 20, 1866.
- ☛ Index to Compiled Military Service Records, Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force 1861-1865.
- ☛ “Iowa News,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, May 31, 1866, p. 3.
- ☛ Decatur City Enterprise, May 1866.
- ☛ Decatur Patriot, May 24, 1866.
- ☛ “Iowa News,” Davenport Daily Gazette, June 1, 1866, p. 2.
- ☛ National Archives: Index to Federal Pension Records.
- ☛ U.S. Census.