Shot Down in the Street: Murder of Dr. William F. Swisher 1898

Murder Victim

Dr. William F. Swisher
29-year-old Physician
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Concealing a Secret From the Past

Murder Scene and Date

Main Street (now Vine Street)
Woodburn, Iowa
Clarke County
June 23, 1898


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2011

location of Woodburn, Iowa

location of Woodburn, Iowa

In the mid-1890s, something happened in the life of Dr. William F. Swisher that forced him to leave the state of West Virginia. Only his close friends knew for sure what occurred and they weren’t talking.

Swisher, a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, looked around for a new place to live — or perhaps to hide.

He chose Woodburn, Iowa, in Clarke County and arrived there in 1894 with his parents and most of his siblings.

☛ New Life in the West ☚

In this 1910 photo, Swisher’s office was a Meat Market. Note the livery stable he once owned next door (courtesy Lynnette and Steve Davis).

Swisher quickly settled in at Woodburn. He opened a medical office on Main Street — (now Vine) and bought the livery stable. His practice was successful and he was well-respected in town.

On April 16, 1895, William Swisher married 23-year-old Mary Francis “Matie” Dailey, the only child of prominent Woodburn residents Emma Place and Thomas Vincent Dailey.

But tragedy struck. William and Matie were married only 11 months when Matie suddenly became sick; she lingered for three days until dying on March 5, 1896, two days before her twenty-fourth birthday.

William stayed on in Woodburn. In 1898, he constructed a new office building on a lot he owned north of the livery barn.

Also that year, he became engaged to a woman described by newspapers as “a young milliner of Woodburn.”

☛ Confrontation and Murder ☚

Waterloo Daily Courier

On the night of Thursday, June 23, 1898 — just a few weeks before his second wedding was to take place — Swisher worked late at his medical practice.

At 10:00 p.m., he left the office to walk a short distance to the home he shared with his parents.

Dr. E.J. Lawrence, a medical doctor who operated the local drugstore, saw Swisher as he walked along Main Street. Suddenly, a man appeared and confronted him. The two argued loudly, a shot was fired, and Swisher fell.

The shooter ran west to a horse he had left tied up on the edge of town and rode past an itinerant camp into the night.

Lawrence immediately rushed to Swisher’s aid and saw there was nothing he could do, as Swisher was dead from a shot through the heart. Swisher’s knife — with the blade opened — was near his body.

A posse quickly formed to track down the shooter, but the men returned to Woodburn empty-handed.

Instead of continuing west — the direction he rode out of Woodburn — the murderer was believed to have gone through Lucas and then deserted his horse at White Breast, where he boarded a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy train to Chariton.

☛ Suspect Emerges ☚

In the days before the shooting, a standoffish stranger appeared in Woodburn and took a hotel room.

The City Marshall saw the outsider was armed and asked the hotel keeper to quiz him about his presence in Woodburn.

The stranger said he was there because he had “a damned dirty job to perform.”

On Saturday, June 25, a man fitting the description of the stranger was arrested at Weldon. However, he was soon released when he could not be tied to the Swisher murder.

☛ Who Wanted William Swisher Dead? ☚

Swisher had no known enemies in Woodburn, as far as his parents and other citizens knew. But, that didn’t keep townspeople from having various theories about his murder.

Swisher’s office is the last building on the left. He was murdered as he walked along this street (courtesy Lynnette and Steve Davis).

Swisher was armed with a knife and apparently was ready to use it. Had he been expecting trouble and felt the need to defend himself?

There was speculation that Swisher’s engagement and approaching marriage might have stirred a jealous or spurned rival to kill him.

A newspaper mentioned the “serious trouble . . . which prompted his removal westward.”

That made townspeople wonder if an old foe from West Virginia came to Iowa and killed Swisher or hired someone to do it for him.

According to Woodburn historian Lynnette Davis, local gossip said that Dr. Swisher tended Mamie Carson, the wife of Harry Carson in Jackson three miles north of Woodburn, and that Carson believed there was more to the visits than medical treatments and shot Swisher.

In the end, there were no answers. No one was charged with the murder and it became another part of local history.

☛ William F. Swisher’s Life ☚

William Festus Swisher was born October 5, 1868 in Clay, Monongalia, West Virginia, to Isabelle Jane Clayton and John Wesley Swisher.

He was the oldest of seven children. He had one sister, Jessie Swisher Harrison, and five brothers — Harper Pedilo Swisher, George F. Swisher, Boyd Reamer Swisher, John W. W. Swisher, and Spray Grover Swisher.

photo by Lynnette Davis

William Swisher graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and College of Physicians and Surgeons on April 14, 1892.

In 1894, he and nearly his entire family moved from West Virginia to Woodburn, Iowa, where he was a physician and ran the livery.

He married Mary Francis “Matie” Dailey on April 16, 1895. When Matie passed away in March 1896, she was buried in Chariton Cemetery but was later re-interred in St. Mary’s Cemetery at Woodburn.

At the time of Swisher’s death, he was engaged to be married.

William Swisher membership in the Masonic Lodge is commemorated on the stone he shares with his parents in Woodburn Cemetery.

Although that stone bears the inscription William T. Swisher, all historical and genealogical documents give his middle name as Festus.

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



  • ☛ Biography of William F. Swisher, Lynnette Davis,
  • Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929.
  • ☛ “Iowa Items,” Davenport Daily Leader, June 27, 1898.
  • ☛ “Iowa News In Brief,” Fredericksburg News, June 30, 1898.
  • ☛ “Murderer Still At Large,” Waterloo Daily Courier, June 29, 1898.
  • ☛ “Mysterious Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, June 25, 1898.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • Woodburn, Iowa History by Lynnette and Steve Davis.
  • Woodburn, Iowa: Life in a Railroad Town, compiled by Steve and Lynnette Davis, 1998.

Comments are closed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,