30-year-old Transient Farmhand
Resident of East St. Louis, Illinois
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Murder Scene and Date
Montgomery Railroad Bridge
Little Sioux River
8 Miles West of Spirit Lake
Diamond Lake Township
Dickinson County, Iowa
October 7, 1897
By Nancy Bowers
On Saturday, October 9, 1897, a Chicago & Northwestern passenger train made a seemingly routine trip over the 50-mile Estherville-Sibley Line. Eight miles west of Spirit Lake, the journey became anything but ordinary.
As the train crossed the now-abandoned Montgomery Bridge spanning the Little Sioux River, engineers spied a man lying dead below.
When the train stopped at Lake Park, station personnel were told of the body. They were requested to instruct the passenger train coming back east from Sioux City to pick it up.
As it happened, Dickinson County Sheriff P.E. Narey was riding that train; he took charge of the body and brought it to Spirit Lake.
☛ Inquest ☚
Sheriff Narey turned the corpse over to County Coroner Dr. Charles B. Fountain, who appointed C.E. Abbott, W.F. Wright, and Harry F. Requartte to a jury to examine the body and take testimony that very afternoon.
The dead man’s boots, shirt, and coat had been stolen, leaving him clad only in ordinary trousers — with empty pockets turned inside out — and a heavy sweater, clothes commonly worn for farm work. The Iowa State Bystander wrote that he looked “like a thresher,” perhaps one of the many itinerant workers who followed the harvest.
A physical description was immediately released to the press in hopes of identifying the man. He was 28-30 years-old; weighed about 160 pounds; and had a “light complexion,” blue eyes, and a “light mustache” on an otherwise clean-shaven face.
Dr. Fountain identified five gunshot wounds. Two shots to the left side of the man’s head were fired at such close range they left powder burns, and another bullet passed clean through the head. He was also shot in the neck and in the left side of his chest near the heart.
The Spirit Lake Beacon wrote:
“There was no evidence of a struggle, and there are the best of reasons for believing that this man was shot in his sleep, to awake in eternity.”
The victim had been dead about 48 hours, making the probable date of death Thursday, October 7.
☛ Identifying the Body ☚
After the corpse was cleaned up, local photographer C.H. Hunt was paid $3.00 to take a picture to be circulated in newspapers to help with identification. A sketch of the body was also created.
In addition, townspeople were asked to view the man in hopes he was known to someone.
According to the Spirit Lake Beacon:
“The body was kept in a public place for purposes of identification and a stream of people were coming and going. The mystery seriously disturbed men, women, and children. Rumors of all sorts and descriptions were in circulation.”
☛ Viewing the Crime Scene ☚
The next day, Sunday, October 10, the coroner’s jury traveled to the crime scene. It was the perfect spot to murder someone, as the Beacon described it:
“The bridge under which the corpse was found is in one of the loneliest spots in the country. There is no house in sight; indeed, the view is cut off on all sides only a few rods distant.”
About 20 feet from where the body had lain, the coroner’s jury found a linen bag — a shot pouch that served as the dead man’s purse.
Inside the bag, authorities discovered a signed temperance pledge from Chicago’s Bethsaida Mission and a pay slip issued in Minneapolis which provided the dead man’s name. He was John Legall.
Business cards and other papers testified to a nomadic life of labor. A memorandum book listed John Legall’s employment for eight days in August and the complete month of September.
Near the crime scene, crammed into a tile culvert, was a distinctive double-visored cap, which later took on significance.
☛ Hearing Further Testimony ☚
The jury met again in town that afternoon to hear testimony from area residents who knew the murdered man in life.
An Ocheyedan saloonkeeper confirmed the dead man was John Legall and that he had worked around that area of Osceola County for several weeks with John Bartholomew Overmiller, a German immigrant the Cedar Rapids Weekly Gazette called “a man of rather hard character.”
While Legall and Overmiller were drinking in the saloon during the first week of October, the victim flashed a “large roll of bills” — $65 in saved wages.
Ernest Bunker of Ocheyedan also named the dead man as John Legall and said he’d worked on farms nearby with a companion named John Overmiller to whom the unusual cap found at the crime scene belonged.
Legall and Overmiller told Bunker they had traveled around seeking work together in Iowa and Minnesota for two years and were originally from East St. Louis, Illinois.
Bunker described a trip Legall and Overmiller recently took into Minnesota, where they argued and came to blows. When he returned to Ocheyedan, Legall was sporting bruises on his head and face.
Ocheyedan resident J.G. Lamm testified that Legall came to the area in early July to follow threshing crews, working first for Ernest Waldben about two weeks.
When Lamm ran into Legall on a Lake Park street, Legall showed him a torn shirt and said he and Overmiller had fought.
Then Overmiller joined the two men. When Legall stepped away for a moment, Overmiller confided to Lamm in broken English that Legall had $65 in his cloth purse but was a “miser” and wouldn’t spend it.
Lamm last saw Legall and Overmiller between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 5. They begged a train conductor for a free or reduced-price ride, but he refused; so they were setting out along the railroad tracks to find a conductor who would accommodate them or to simply steal aboard.
The Spirit Lake Beacon reported that Lamm said:
“Overmiller clapped his hand on his hip pocket and made the remark that I have some[thing] now with which to protect myself.”
Their destination was East St. Louis, Illinois. Overmiller said he once tended bar there for a man who recently passed away; he intended to marry the widow and take over the tavern and settle down.
Legall and Overmiller were last seen heading east out of Lake Park walking along the railroad tracks about 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday night. Legall’s body would be found three miles east of the city on Thursday.
☛ Naming a Suspect ☚
The circumstantial evidence against Overmiller was strong. He was quick-tempered and had a volatile relationship with the victim. He knew the victim had money, enough perhaps to buy the East St. Louis tavern he wanted to own. The victim was last seen in his company. The victim was shot and Overmiller had a gun. He was alone with the victim in a remote place where he could kill without being seen. His hat was distinctive, some even said peculiar; and it was found in a tile culvert not far from where the body lay.
The coroner’s jury ruled that John Legall was murdered by John Bartholomew Overmiller for the purposes of robbery.
☛ Tracking the Suspect ☚
Dickinson County authorities were so certain they were focused on the right suspect that they offered a $200 reward for information leading to the capture of John Overmiller; Iowa Governor Francis M. Drake matched that amount.
On October 19, Sheriff Narey sent out postcards to neighboring jurisdictions announcing the reward and urging them to be on the lookout for the fugitive.
Overmiller, who was in his late 30s, was described as:
- ☛ Having a tattoo of a man and woman shaking hands — a symbol often found on tombstones
- ☛ Standing 5 feet 11
- ☛ Weighing between 160 and 170
- ☛ Having a “sharp-pointed nose” and “piercing” grey-blue eyes
- ☛ Having a fair complexion with light hair, mustache, and goatee
- ☛ Wearing shoes studded with nails and tacks on the bottom
- ☛ Wearing a new yellow duck coat with a sheepskin lining and a cowboy hat he stole from the victim
- ☛ Walking very quickly and erectly
- ☛ Speaking fluent German and French but poor English
- ☛ Traveling in the direction of East St. Louis, Illinois
Feedback from the postcards allowed Sheriff Narey to trace Overmiller’s movements to the Olin Pillsbury farm two miles west of Milford, where he worked two days using the name “Albright,” hurriedly leaving on Saturday, October 9. He was also spotted in West Bend on Monday night, the 11th.
Investigators were dispatched to Renwick on Wednesday, October 20 to check out a suspicious man on a train who turned out to be one of three tramps stealing a ride and not John Overmiller.
On Thursday night, October 21, a 39-year-old German man was arrested in Marshalltown who, aside from his height and nose, closely matched the description of John Overmiller.
Most astounding, the suspect sported the same tattoo of clasped hands that Overmiller bore on his arm.
Papers in the man’s possession proved he was Jacob Posser. He denied ever being in Ocheyedan or even Dickinson County.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“It is a case of one in a thousand and Posser’s likeness to Overmiller would have caused any officer to have held him, and if no further identification could have been obtained, would have stood before a jury. The weight, the mustache and goatee and the strangest of all the tattoo mark on his arm, tallied almost exactly with Overmiller’s.
Posser explained to a reporter during his incarceration that his arm was tattooed on board a ship while he was crossing the ocean on his way to this country from Germany. He did not say that the design was a special symbol, but there is a possibility that the two men journeyed to this country on the same ship and worked their passage over.”
Although he was afraid of potential violence from residents gathered at the train station, Posser agreed to accompany Sheriff P.E. Narey to Spirit Lake; there two men who knew Overmiller traveled from Ocheyedan to view him. They were struck by the physical similarities; but when Jacob Posser spoke, they knew he was not Overmiller.
Eventually all leads on John Overmiller dried up, and he was never brought to trial for murdering John Legall.
☛ No One to Mourn ☚
Dickinson County assumed the cost of burying John Legall, the man whose homicide the Waterloo Daily Courier called “one of the most heartless and cold-blooded murders ever committed in the northwest [part of Iowa].”
A.O. Stevens was reimbursed $26.50 for a coffin and burial robe, and B.S. Phippin was paid $3.00 to dig Legall’s grave in the Lakeview Cemetery.
The Spirit Lake Beacon described the funeral:
“There was no man to speak as a friend, no woman to shed a tear. Rev. H.J. Frothingham performed the office of clergyman, and John Legall, murdered for a paltry sum, by a companion he should have shunned, was lost to earth forever.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “After The Murderer,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 20, 1897, p. 8.
- ☛ “After Overmiller,” Spirit Lake Beacon, November 19, 1897, p. 3.
- ☛ “All Over Iowa,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 25, 1897, p. 18.
- ☛ “A Brutal Murder,” Spirit Lake Beacon, October 15, 1897, p. 3.
- ☛ Daily Iowa Capital, November 19, 1897, p. 7.
- ☛ Estherville Democrat, October 20, 1897, p. 9.
- ☛ “Fugitive Wanted For Murder,” Daily Iowa Capital, October 20, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “Fugitive Wanted for Murder,” Renwick Times, October 22, 1897, p. 5.
- ☛ “Murder,” Milford Mail, October 14, 1897, p. 5.
- ☛ “Murder and Robbery,” Estherville Democrat, October 13, 1897, p. 4.
- ☛ “Not the Man,” Spirit Lake Beacon, November 26, 1897, p. 3.
- ☛ “Overmiller Still at Large,” Spirit Lake Beacon, October 22, 1897, p. 3.
- ☛ “Schedule of Claims,” Spirit Lake Beacon, November 19, 1897, p. 4.
- ☛ “Spirit Lake Mystery Solved,” Waterloo Daily Courier, October 13, 1897, p. 1.
- ☛ “The Victim Identified,” Cedar Rapids Weekly Gazette, October 13, 1897, p. 10.
- ☛ “Victim Of Murder Is Indentified [sic] At Last,” Milford Mail, October 21, 1897, p. 2.
- ☛ “Wanted For Murder,” Iowa State Bystander, October 22, 1897.