Skull by the River: Murder of Jane Doe 1920

Murder Victim

Jane Doe
Age and Occupation Unknown
Residence Unknown
Cause of Death: Undetermined
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Conjunction of Des Moines & Raccoon rivers
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
Date of Death: 1920
Skull found: June 7, 1921


By Nancy Bowers
Written February 2011

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On Tuesday, June 7, 1921, Des Moines resident Robert Manbeck took some refuse to the bank along the conjunction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

He intended to bury the garbage there. But while digging a hole, Manbeck found a skull under about a foot of sand.

United Press story from the Oelwein Daily Register

Des Moines Police responded to the scene and turned the skull over to Polk County Coroner Guy E. Clift. Officers dug in the vicinity for more bones and clues, but found nothing.

Clift determined the skull was that of an adult woman. There was a large indentation on her right temple and a bullet hole in the back of the skull. Clift said these injuries “plainly indicated murder.” He estimated the skull was buried about a year before, likely making 1920 the date of the homicide.

The conjunction of Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, where Jane Doe’s skull was found in June 1921 (photo by Neal Bowers).

Authorities believed that after the woman was murdered, her head was removed and buried to confound identification; then the rest of her body was thrown into the water to drift away.

Authorities combed records for missing women and hoped to identify the woman from her gold fillings and other dental work. However, these efforts failed.

She quickly became another Jane Doe on the records and her killer was never brought to justice.

As with all unknown victims, this Jane Doe was no doubt loved by someone who missed her and always wondered what had happened.

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



  • ☛ “Find Woman’s Skull Causes Deep Mystery,” Cedar Rapids Republican, June 8, 1921.
  • ☛ “Hope to Unravel Murder Mystery,” Sioux County Index, June 12, 1921.
  • ☛ “Human Skull Murder Mystery,” Oelwein Daily Register, June 7, 1921.
  • ☛ “No New Clues,” Des Moines Daily News, June 8, 1921.
  • ☛ “Skull of Woman Is Found Buried In Sand In River,” Des Moines News, June 7, 1921.
  • ☛ “Think Murder In Finding Of Woman’s Skull,” Cedar Rapids Republican, June 10, 1921.
  • ☛ “Will Unravel Murder Mystery,” Oelwein Register, June 9, 1921.

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