Poison Kiss: Murder of Edwin Hodges 1869

Murder Victim

Edwin F. Hodges
24-year-old Farmer
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Elimination of Husband to Obtain Wife

Murder Scene and Date

James McQuinn Home
Florence Township (formerly Cue)
Benton County
January 8, 1869


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2013

from the Des Moines Iowa State Register

from the Des Moines Iowa State Register

A prominent figure in a small community — with all the trappings of power and ego — can sometimes get away with murder.

And no doubt about it; in 1869, James McQuinn was a prominent and wealthy figure in Benton County, Iowa.

Whether or not he escaped punishment for murdering a young man on January 8, 1869 became the subject of a sensational court case and fueled local gossip for many years.

☛ Man on the Move ☚

Born in 1820 in Pembroke, Maine, to a Scottish father and Nova Scotian mother, McQuinn was adventuresome and eager to establish himself on the western frontier where he could live out dreams of accomplishment and prestige.

James McQuinn (courtesy Ian McQuinn)

James McQuinn
(courtesy Ian McQuinn)

His first excursion west took him to Eldorado, California, where as late as 1852 he was prospecting for gold; when he returned to Maine, McQuinn had enough money to embark on a more permanent adventure.

In 1854, he and his wife Mary Elizabeth Ayers packed their sons Bernard, Bryan, and Baxter into a prairie schooner and set out from Maine for the West. Along the way in Illinois, a fourth son, Bacon J. McQuinn, was born.

Location of Vinton, Iowa, Benton County Seat

Location of Vinton, Iowa,
Benton County Seat

The McQuinn family ended its trek on a tract of land in what was then Cue Township of Benton County, Iowa.

By the time of the 1856 Iowa Census, James McQuinn was widowed and raising his sons with a house full of boarders.

On September 15, 1856, McQuinn married Rebecca McCormick; the four McQuinn boys considered her their mother.

At some point, James and Rebecca added to their family an orphaned young niece, Anna McCormick.

In the years following, the nature of the relationship between James McQuinn and Anna McCormick would become the object of intense speculation and gossip, which in the long term was borne out.

Upwardly Mobile

In the early days of Benton County, McQuinn took an avid interest in civic affairs and community service.

McQuinn was appointed head of the

McQuinn was President of the Board of
Trustees for the Iowa school for the blind.

He quickly became a Trustee of Cue Township, which was later incorporated into Florence Township, and then served as Chair of the Benton County Board of Supervisors from 1860-1868.

But Quinn had higher aspirations than local politics. He ran successfully for the State Legislature, serving as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1860 to 1862.

In August of 1865, the Iowa Legislature appointed McQuinn President of the Board of Trustees of the Institution for the Instruction of the Blind, a Vinton school that provided a classical education in the arts and sciences to sight-impaired Iowans, along with music and practical skills such as beading and sewing.

Heading up such a prominent and innovative state institution brought great status to McQuinn.

With real estate holdings estimated to be worth $3,500 and his personal wealth at $13,000, McQuinn seemed insulated from the cares and traumas of ordinary life and above reproach — or at even criticism.

Fateful Marriage

At about the same time the McQuinn family settled in Iowa, Elizabeth and Hope Hodges left Ontario, New York, and brought their young children to the state, putting down roots in Iowa County’s Lenox Township.

As a young man, the Hodges’s oldest child Edwin, born in 1845, found his way northward to Benton County, perhaps to find work as a farm laborer.

And as young people will do, Edwin met someone in his new residence and fell in love. The object of his affection was Anna McCormick, the young woman raised by the McQuinn family.

In 1868, Edwin, 22, and 20-year-old Anna were married.

Double Tragedies

Scarcely a year into the newlywed’s marriage, disaster struck.

At the beginning of the 1868-1869 winter, the Hodges’ rural home was inexplicably consumed by a fire which destroyed the young couple’s possessions and left them homeless.

Just as he had done all her life, Anna’s protector James McQuinn again stepped in to shelter her — and this time her husband — under his care. The Waterloo Courier wrote that “Mr. McQuinn offered them the privileges of his home.”

But not long after the young couple moved into the McQuinn home, Edwin Hodges fell sick with debilitating symptoms.

Yet again, James McQuinn came to the rescue, offering to personally care for the husband of the niece he had raised.

A type of Dover's Powders used in the 19th century (courtesy The Medicine Chest)

A type of Dover’s Powders
(courtesy The Medicine Chest)

McQuinn told others that he procured from a local doctor named Carmichael a popular antidote to colds, flu, and other afflictions known as Dover’s Powders — a mixture primarily of ipecac and opium.

While the opium soothed, the other ingredients caused intense sweating, believed to rid the body of toxins and disease. The preparation also had antispasmodic properties.

On Friday evening, January 8, 1869, McQuinn administered a dose to the sick man. Edwin Hodges fell into a profound sleep. But when he awoke, he had not improved.

At 9:00 p.m., James McQuinn dispensed a second dose of what he said was Dover’s Powders. About 10:30, Hodges’s upper body was contorted by extreme spasms that lasted 10 to 15 minutes each.

“Death Watchers” surrounding Hodges’s bed reported that during these contractions, both of the young man’s arms drew upwards towards his chest and his breathing was labored.

About 11:00 p.m., Edwin Hodges’s upper body twisted in one last spasm and he died.

Unfolding Drama

The community was, of course, shocked by the news of Hodges’s death but then the loss of young people to infections and any number of communicable diseases was not as uncommon as in contemporary times.

A funeral was held for Edwin Hodges and he was buried in Linnwood Cemetery in Iowa County, where his parents still lived.

Public Display of Affection

The scene of "the kiss": The Vinton Rock Island Deport

Scene of “the kiss”: Vinton Rock Island Deport

Shortly after Edwin Hodges’s death, James McQuinn escorted his newly-widowed niece Anna Hodges to the Benton train depot, where he handed her into the care of a local woman who accompanied her to Illinois.

No one found fault with McQuinn’s wanting to shelter Anna Hodges or to relocate her away from the recent tragedy.

But that day, 49-year-old James McQuinn did something shocking in full view of townspeople that didn’t sit right.

He kissed young Anna Hodges.

Accusations of Murder

Dr. James Blaney

Dr. James Blaney (from The Story of Rush Medical College)

Many were rankled by the brazenness of McQuinn’s public behavior with the young widow whose husband died under peculiar circumstances in his own home.

Especially Hodges’s family and friends.

Agitation about the suspicious death continued during the days after the funeral until authorities exhumed Edwin Hodges’s body. His stomach was removed and sent to Chicago for analysis by Dr. James Van Zandt Blaney, who headed up the Rush Medical College Chemistry Department.

Dr. Blaney’s report was ominous: not only did he find strychnine in Hodges’s stomach, but also traces of arsenic.

Authorities Act Against McQuinn

After evaluating Dr. Blaney’s report and hearing testimony from those who observed the end of Edwin’s life, the coroner’s jury ruled the death a murder by poison.

The prevailing theory was that after Dr. Carmichael provided the Dover’s Powders to James McQuinn, arsenic and strychnine were put into it, likely by McQuinn, who then administered the mixture to the sick man.

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

On July 20, 1869, Hon. James McQuinn — prominent figure, community leader, former Iowa State Legislator, and head of a state agency — was arrested by Benton County Sheriff Henry M. Wilson for the murder of Edwin Hodges and held under bonds. A preliminary hearing was set for early August.

The Waterloo Courier wrote about the astounding turn of events:

“The community is horror struck at the unexpected turn of affairs and is almost equally divided as to the guilt of the accused.”

“Mr. McQuinn is a man of considerable prominence in Benton County and has hitherto borne an excellent character as a man and a citizen. His friends are hopeful of being able to clear him of the foul crime and trace it out and fasten it on the guilty one.”

The preliminary hearing was heard before Justice John L. Yonel, who chose to conduct the testimony behind closed door, perhaps to afford the powerful James McQuinn as much privacy as possible. This arrangement frustrated townspeople who wanted to look at the principals and hear any possible salacious details firsthand. They had to content themselves to await a report from Edwin Hodges’s father Hope, who attended the legal proceedings and took copious notes.

John Shane was a McQuinn defense attorney.

John Shane was a McQuinn defense attorney (from legis.iowa.gov).

Well-known prosecutor, former probate judge, and former State Legislator Isaac Mosher Preston and his son Edmund from Marion in Linn County presented the case against James McQuinn with assistance from S.P Vanatta of Vinton.

James McQuinn retained attorneys John Shane of Vinton and Charles H. Conklin, a fellow member of the Board of Trustees of the Institution for the Instruction of the Blind.

Thirty witnesses for the prosecution and 30 for the defense took the stand, including Dr. Carmichael, who attended the victim in his illness; Dr. James Blaney, who analyzed the victim’s organs; Dr. Harley G. Ristine of Marion; Dr. Jacob H. Camburn and Dr. Freeman McClelland of Cedar Rapids; Dr. Griffin, Dr. Meridith, Dr. W.B. Lathrop, and Dr. C. P. Carpenter, all of Vinton; Dr. Jesse Wasson of LaPort City; Dr. Lewis of Florence; and Dr. Oren E. Peabody of Waterloo.

Prosecutor Isaac Preston — a Civil War Colonel — was a powerful force to be reckoned with. The History of Linn County, Iowa, wrote of him:

“He was possessed of a strong mind, his reasoning was logical and his analysis keen . . . He was pronounced by competent judges the greatest criminal lawyer of Iowa in his day.”

Jessie Wasson (from

Dr. Jessie Wasson (from legis.iowa.gov)

In fact, nearly every man in the courtroom had outstanding credentials — the group was a stunning collection of men who had served their state and country. Isaac Preston’s assisting counsel S.P Vanatta rose to the rank of Captain during the Civil War. Defense attorney Charles H. Conklin was a former Iowa 8th District Court Judge; his co-counsel John Shane, who was promoted to Major immediately preceding the Battle of Shiloh, had also served as an 8th District Judge and later was a State Senator in the Iowa General Assembly.

Expert witness for the prosecution Dr. Blaney was not only a distinguished chemist at a premier Midwestern medical school but also had served in the Civil War as a Lieutenant Colonel. Medical witness for the defense Dr. Jesse Wasson was credited as being the founder of La Porte City, Iowa, and at the time of the trial was a State Representative in the Iowa General Assembly. Dr. Freeman McClelland was a Civil War surgeon, newspaper publisher, and future member of the Iowa General Assmbly. Drs. Ristin, Camburn, Wasson, and Peabody also were Civil War surgeons.

from the  Marion Reporter

from the Marion Reporter

On August 4, 1869 — after hearing testimony from 30 witnesses for the prosecution and 30 for the defense, Justice John L. Yonel dismissed the charges and McQuinn was set free.

The regional media rushed to praise the verdict. The Belle Plaine Union wrote, “The evidence by which it was sought to throw suspicion upon him was of the most slight and frivolous character.”

Col. Preston’s presentation of the prosecution was deemed by the Vinton Eagle as being “filled with the most unwarrantable abuse” he could muster. The Eagle‘s Editor declared that Preston and others who prosecuted or even suspected McQuinn:

“Had their minds most woefully blinded by passion and prejudice, or else (and we incline to this) it was a most outrageous attempt to crush an innocent man, an upright and respected citizen, a person whose reputation had never been sullied by the shadow of an imputation — and whose character will now only appear brighter and purer than ever before.”

To satisfy the need of locals to know details from the preliminary hearing and to act on behalf of his deceased son’s memory, Edwin’s father Hope Hodges attended the legal proceedings and recorded the events. He incorporated the information into a letter published in the Signal, in which he plaintively asserted that his son was denied justice.

Hope Hodges reported that the noted Dr. James Blaney from Chicago testified that the quantities of arsenic and strychnine he discovered in the victim’s stomach and intestines would cause death. Local physician, Dr. Carmichael –- the one testifying physician who actually saw and attended the dying man — concurred with that assessment.

However, wrote Hope Hodges, McQuinn’s defense attorneys marched, one by one, doctors from all over the region who did not see the victim nor know anything about the circumstances to pronounce that Edwin died of something else, even though almost all agreed that he exhibited symptoms of poisoning and stipulated to Dr. Blaney’s finding of poison in the dead man’s stomach.

Drs. Meredith, Griffin, Ristine, Canborn, Wasson, Penbody and Lewis testified for the defense that Edwin Hodges did not die of poisoning. But when asked what caused his death — given his symptoms — they offered no alternative and said they had no opinion.

Dr. W.B. Lathrop testified he believed Edwin Hodges died of tetanus; Dr. Jacob H. Camburn favored a diagnosis of of spinal meningitis; and Dr. Carpenter offered a specific cause of death the name of which Hope Hodges –- not being medically trained — could not recall.

Some of the medical men suggested that Edwin contributed to his own death by taking patent medicines that contained amounts of the poisons which accumulated in his system and ultimately caused his death.

Dr. Henry Ristine (from the History of Medicine in Iowa)

Dr. Henry Ristine (from the History of Medicine in Iowa)

The Vinton Eagle reported other aspects of the testimony by those who rejected poison as the cause of death. Some of the doctors said Hodges lived three hours after taking the first dose when, if poisoned, he would have died sooner, perhaps within a half-hour or an hour-and-a-quarter.

A few ruled out death by poison because the victim’s physical symptoms did not match those of a poison victim’s. The intense spasms — which went on longer than those caused by poisoning would — affected only his arms. There was no drawing back of the head; and the body was not arched upward to rest on the head and heels as it would’ve been from poisoning, but instead went limp at death.

And some of the testifying physicians noted that Hodges did not froth at the mouth, considered a tell-tale poison symptom.

According to the Eagle, some witness who believed McQuinn did nothing wrong claimed that Hodges suffered milder spasms in the two weeks leading up to his death.

☛ Hodges’s Father Rebutted ☚

Dr. Freeman McClelland

Dr. Freeman McClelland (from legis.iowa.gov)

In a scathing response titled “Misrepresentation” which addressed the murder victim’s father, Dr. Freeman McClelland, Editor and Publisher of the Cedar Rapids Times, refuted the points made by Hope Hodges.

McClelland’s was a unique point of view because he was one of the medical experts called to the stand by the defense in the preliminary hearing.

A former Civil War surgeon with Company S of the 16th Iowa Infantry, McClelland turned to journalism —  as well as later serving as an Iowa State Representative — after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

In his refutation, McClelland politely maligned Hope Hodges’s account of the hearing’s details and implicitly mocked his misunderstanding of medical terms.

from the Cedar Rapids Times

from the Cedar Rapids Times

Stating that he did not know what the other physicians were asked during the closed hearing or what they testified to, he said he could report only about his own experiences.

McClelland stated he was provided details about the symptoms, death, treatment, and chemical analysis, not for the actual victim Edwin Hodges, but for an unnamed victim termed only a “Hypothetical Case.”

McClelland wrote that he studied the symptoms and when he was asked, “In your opinion was death in that case caused by strychnia?” he answered it was not. Then, he said, the prosecution asked, “If that hypothetical case did not die of poison by strychnia, what did it die of?”

McClelland continued:

“A direct answer being insisted upon, I answered that the symptoms were much like those of cerebra-spinal meningitis . . . . The prosecution then asked, ‘Suppose you take the hypothetical case you have just sworn did not die from poison by strychnia and in ten days after death a chemical analysis showed sufficient strychnia in the stomach to cause death, what then would be your opinion as to the cause of death?’ I replied that I could form no opinion in such a case; and was proceeding to give my reasons for not being able to do so when prosecution stopped me. The defense then asked, “Why are you unable to give an opinion?’ I replied that the case was an anomalous one, a man dying without any of the prominent symptoms of poison by strychnia, and yet strychnia enough found in his stomach after death to produce his death, that I could not conceive of the existence of such a case, and could not give an opinion concerning it.”

McClelland stated he believed that the other physicians responded to questioning in the same way he had.

☛ A Kiss is Just a Kiss? ☚

The murder charges having been thrown out — rightly or wrongly — what about the suspected romantic relationship, deemed “inappropriate” by some, between the exonerated man and his niece, the widow of the victim? What had that kiss at the Vinton railroad depot meant?

The Iowa State Weekly Register claimed that James McQuinn had found the marriage of his niece Anna to Edwin Hodges “entirely satisfactory” and that his relationship with the dead man was “perfectly friendly.”

The Vinton Eagle chided its readers:

“Bear in mind that Anna Hodges is a niece of Mr. McQuinn, has lived in his family almost from infancy, being an orphan treated as his own child –- and then mark the enormous offense of an ordinary token of affection. If such were evidence for charges of criminality, scarcely an individual in the community would be safe.”

It would have been useful for the individuals and newspapers who defended McQuinn’s conduct to have possessed a crystal ball to tell them the future.

Because had they known what was going to transpire in the not-too-distant future, perhaps they would not have been so quick to declare McQuinn’s behavior towards Anna Hodges simply familial affection or even to have rallied to his defense against the murder charges.

☛ Suspected Killer and Widowed Bride ☚

On May 5, 1871, one year and 9 months after the murder charges were dropped against James McQuinn, his wife Rebecca passed away at the age of 50. Her cause of death is unknown.

What is known, however, is that in 1872 James McQuinn and Anna Hodges, the widow of the man he was suspected of killing, were married.

Before their first son James I. McQuinn was born in October of 1874, the McQuinns had left Iowa — perhaps to escape from memories and suspicion — for Ceredo in Wayne County, West Virginia, where they purchased a farm and, as he had in Benton County, McQuinn took an interest in civic affairs.

The couple had three more children: Thomas E. McQuinn in 1877, William Eugene McQuinn in 1878, and Mary E. McQuinn in 1879.

James McQuinn died at the age of 85 in 1906; Anna lived out her life in the home of their son Thomas and passed away on Christmas Day of 1937 at the age of 88.

☛ The Life of Edwin Hodges ☚

photo by Dawn & John Vesely

photo by Dawn & John Vesely

Edwin T. Hodges was born August 7, 1845 in Wayne County, New York, the first child of Elizabeth Jane Allen and Hope Hodges. He had five siblings: Allen L. Hodges; Lidda Hodges; Lillian A. Hodges, who was not quite two when she died in 1860; Mary J. Hodges Wilcox; and Carrie Adelaide Hodges.

His grave near those of his parents and other family members is marked with a stone which continues to plead the case that Edwin Hodges was a wronged and innocent man. It reads:

“Blessed Are the Pure in Heart For They Shall See God.”


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


  • The Annals of Iowa, Volume Two, Third Series. Edited by Charles Aldrich. Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1895.
  • Aurelia Centennial Book 1873-1973, Page 132.
  • The Chicago Medical Journal, Volume 28, Edited by James Barnet, 1871, p. 185.
  • ☛ “Dispatch from La Porte City,” by “Qui Vive,” Waterloo Courier , July 22, 1869.
  • ☛ “End of the Florence Case,” Marion Register , August 11, 1869.
  • ☛ “Goings-On In Iowa,” Waterloo Courier , August 12, 1869.
  • The History of Benton County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1878.
  • History of Linn County, Iowa: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Volume 1. Luther Albertus Brewer and Barthinius Larson Wick. Chicago: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1911.
  • The History of Linn County, Iowa, Volume 2, Part 2. Luther Albertus Brewer and Barthinius Larson Wick. Chicago: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1911.
  • History of Medicine in Iowa. D.S. Fairchild, M.D. , F.A.C.S. (reprinted from The Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society, 1927).
  • ☛ Ian McQuinn, Personal Correspondence, March 2014.
  • James McQuinn Biography: Iowa Legislature
  • ☛ “The McQuinn Investigation,” Daily Iowa State Register, July 30, 1869.
  • ☛ “The McQuinn Investigation — The Gentleman Indicated [sic] and Discharged,” Iowa State Weekly Register, August 11, 1869.
  • ☛ “Misrepresentation,” by F. McClelland. Cedar Rapids Times, August 26, 1869.
  • ☛ “Murder Will Out,” Logansport Weekly Journal, July 31, 1869.
  • The Story of Rush Medical College, Ernest E. Irons, Chicago: Rush Medical College Trustees, 1953.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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