19-year-old High School Student
Cause of Death: Poisoned
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
Anna and Leonard Winters Home
Near Union Depot
February 5, 1896
By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2011
On the bitterly cold day of Saturday, February 8, 1896, a tragic and pathetic scene unfolded for investigators when they arrived at the Sheldon, Iowa, home of Anna and Leonard E. Winters.
The Winters’s tiny house, located just east of the Union Depot and the second dwelling south of the Milwaukee tracks, was only 10-feet tall and 12-feet by 16-feet. It had three windows and a single door and was the smallest house in Sheldon.
The inside was crowded with items needed for daily life, as well as two small stoves, a table, a cupboard, a bureau, a sewing machine, and several chairs.
There were also two beds, one large and the other a half-bed or couch.
☛ Dead in the Tiny House ☚
On the smaller bed lay the body of 19-year-old Maud Straw, the sister and sister-in-law of residents Anna and Leonard Winters.
Maud’s clothes were disarrayed and she had been dead for several days, probably since February 5.
Nearby in a cage was a pet bird — dead from the bitter cold.
A pan with several loaves of bread sat on the table, and a pail of frozen water and two buckets partly full of coal stood on the floor.
While Anna and Leonard Winters were staying in the country, Anna remained in Sheldon because she did not want to miss high school classes, as she expected to graduate in June.
Neighbors reported that when not in high school classes, Maud stayed inside the small house.
The Paulina Times wrote of Maud:
“[Her] teacher and schoolmates speak of her in terms of high praise, and as one of the brightest and most studious scholars in the school.”
Maud last attended school on Tuesday, February 4. At 11:30 a.m., she told the teacher, Miss Jones, that she needed to go home and fix a mid-day meal for an expected guest.
Neighbors, however, saw no one other than Maud enter or leave the house that day.
Maud was last seen about 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 5 when she returned from Art Groff’s house after performing housework for him. Groff expected her back in the afternoon, but Maud failed to show up to finish her tasks.
☛ Autopsy Findings ☚
The coroner’s jury could not determine cause of death based on observable evidence so it ordered an autopsy which revealed that the stomach was badly damaged, as if from poison. The stomach was sent to State Chemist Floyd Davis for examination.
The post-mortem also revealed that Maud Straw was “outraged,” either before or after the lethal substance was administered.
☛ Suspects Identified ☚
Two traveling peddlers came through Sheldon around the time of the murder; they were located on the road, brought back to town, questioned, and released.
When rumors came out of the coroner’s jury that a certain young local man was involved, talk of lynching spread through Sheldon.
That man was Alan A. Bull, best known in the community for a fractious, messy, and very public 1895 divorce from his wife, who was allegedly having an affair with a local physician.
Alan Bull and an acquaintance, William Morrow, were arrested and charged with gaining Maud Straw’s trust and then raping and murdering her. Two bottles of poison were found in Bull’s home.
Bull and Morrow appeared at a preliminary hearing before Judge Conant. The defense gave no testimony, so Conant bound Bull over to the grand jury; William Morrow, however, was released.
The grand jury consisted of J. R. Elliot, R. M. Cheslear, James C. Briggs, Harve Hollister, and John Bloodgood. Bull’s defense lawyers were overruled by the judge when they asked that two jurors be removed because of prior prejudice against their client
The newly-freed William Morrow testified before the grand jury that on Monday, February 3 after school was let out, Allan Bull went to the Winters residence to ask Maud to keep house for him for a few days.
The grand jury charged Bull with murder and he was taken to the Primghar jail, with bail set at $10,000. The Alton Democrat wrote about the suspect:
“He exhibits considerable nervousness and declines to talk, other than to proclaim his innocence whenever the subject is mentioned to him.”
Judge Scott M. Ladd released Bull on his own bond on a writ of habeas corpus.
Then Allan A. Bull was arrested again, along with a man named John Spangler, and taken to Sanborn, where they were kept until being sent to Primghar. The basis for this arrest was “new evidence”; but when that proved of little value, Bull and Spangler were released.
On March 11, the grand jury ruled that Alan A. Bull be discharged from custody because it could find no evidence to try him in the murder of Maud Straw.
Allan A. Bull was never tried for the rape and murder of Maud Straw. He died before 1915, leaving behind an ex-wife and son.
☛ Continued Questions ☚
The community of Sheldon continued to mourn the death of Maud Straw and to raise questions about the case.
In mid-May of 1896, the O’Brien County Attorney requested that the Board of Supervisors allocate $100 to pay for another analysis of the victim’s stomach.
The stomach was taken to Des Moines for examination by an expert chemist, who reported that he found no poison present in the organ, although he stipulated that a “volatile” poison might have disappeared between the time of death and the analysis.
The Paullina Times wrote:
“Regarding the perforation of the stomach, [the chemist] says that such things more frequently occur as the result of disease than of corrosive poison.”
That information changed few minds and Sheldon residents continued to believe that Maud Straw was murdered by poison.
☛ Maud Straw’s Life ☚
Maud Straw was born in 1876 in Iowa to Anna E. Humphrey Straw and a father whose given name is unknown. She had one sister, Anna, who was born in 1879. The Straw girls were orphaned when very young.
In the 1880 Census, Maud and Anna Straw were living with their maternal grandparents Narsissa and Jonathan Humphrey in Marietta in Marshall County.
By 1896, Anna was married to Leonard E. Winters and was a resident of Sheldon. Maud lived with the Winters while attending school.
At the time of her death, the Alton Democrat wrote:
“Maud Straw was a young schoolgirl of about 19 years and bore an excellent character. She was industrious, neat and modest and was much respected by those who were intimately acquainted with her.”
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ Alan Nicholson, Personal Correspondence, April 2014.
- ☛ “Bull Bound Over,” Alton Democrat, March 7, 1896.
- ☛ “Found Dead,” Davenport Leader, February 12, 1896.
- ☛ “Look For A Confession,” Alton Democrat, February 29, 1896.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Roland Record, February 21, 1896.
- ☛ “News Of The State,” Cedar Rapids Evening News, February 14, 1896.
- ☛ “Northwestern Iowa News,” Elgin Echo, November 10, 1898.
- ☛ Paullina Times, May 9, 1895.
- ☛ Paullina Times, October 10, 1895.
- ☛ Paullina Times, October 17, 1895.
- ☛ Paullina Times, February 13, 1896.
- ☛ Paullina Times, February 20, 1896.
- ☛ Paullina Times, March 5, 1896.
- ☛ Paullina Times, March 12, 1896.
- ☛ Paullina Times, May 21, 1896.
- ☛ Sheldon Union Deport photo courtesy of Mid-Continent Railroad Museum Archives.
- ☛ U.S. Census.