A Spoonful of Medicine Makes the Poison Go Down: Murder of Sarah Kirker 1897

Murder Victim

Sarah Ann “Sally” Kirker
51-year-old Farm Wife
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Spousal Abuse

Murder Scene and Date

Kirker Home
Lincoln Township
Near Guernsey, Iowa
Poweshiek County
April 1, 1897


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2014

Location of Guernsey, Iowa

Location of Guernsey, Iowa

In 1897, Sarah “Sally” Kirker, 51, and her 61-year-old husband John lived on a farm in Lincoln Township of Poweshiek County two miles from Guernsey along a section of the Chicago & Northwestern railroad tracks known as the Belle Plaine Branch.

The marriage of eight years was the second for both and apparently was not a happy one.

The Pocahontas County Sun described Kirker as:

“A rough, brutal fellow . . . who [had] frequently beaten his wife in a shocking manner.”

☛ Pounded and Poisoned ☚

Sarah Kirker

Sarah Kirker

In the early spring of 1897, the violence in the Kirker home escalated. The Pella Advertiser reported:

“[John] Kirker had apparently become tired of his wife and treated her cruelly. About a week ago in a family quarrel he struck her down, terribly injuring her.”

John’s attack on Sarah was so vicious and debilitating that she, in the parlance of the day, “took to her bed.” Witnesses who saw Sarah after the beating said she was literally “black and blue” all over her body.

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

There are two accounts of what happened next.

In one, John Kirker went into Guernsey and bought what he said was medicine for Sarah.

In a second account, it was said that Kirker summoned a doctor to attend his beaten wife and the physician left medicine for her.

However the medicine was obtained, John Kirker gave some to his wife.

After swallowing one dose, Sarah was stricken with sudden and intense stomach pains from which she suffered terribly. She was dead within 90 minutes of taking the medicine.

☛ Suspicions Aroused ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Sarah Kirker was buried. But the circumstances of her death and the common knowledge of her husband’s previous physical abuse led Poweshiek County Coroner Dr. A.J. Harris to order her body disinterred on Saturday, April 3, 1897.

Dr. Harris then took Sarah Kirker’s stomach, heart, liver and one kidney to Des Moines to be analyzed by Professor Floyd Davis of the medical college there.

Professor Davis found only one-five-hundredth of a grain of strychnine in Sarah Kirker’s stomach; but the other organs were, according to the Pella Advertiser “rank with the poison.”

A coroner’s jury heard the evidence and ruled Sarah Kirker died of strychnine administered by her husband John.

Speculation was that when the beating did not kill Sarah, her husband turned to poison, which he put in the medicine he gave her. Sarah had property of her own, and John stood to inherit it after her death.

☛ What Goes Around ☚

John Kirker was not tried in the death of his wife because, in a strange twist fate of in contemporary terms of “karma,” he himself died after suffering intense stomach pains, such as his wife had before she died.

The Pella Advertiser reported on April 17 — two weeks after Sarah Kirker died of poisoning:

“Advices from Montezuma brings [sic] news that [John] Kirker has just died there, where he was being treated for cancer of the stomach.”

Sarah Kirker’s Life

Sarah Ann “Sally” Kirker was born April 16, 1845 in Dansville, Illinois, to Sarah Ann Cooper and Goldsten Steppe Nutterfee.

On January 22, 1870 in Iowa, she married New York-born Jonathon Hungerford; the couple had six children: Jennie, Amos, Oliver, Eva, Anna, and George Hungerford.

On February 10, 1891 in Marengo, Iowa, Sarah married John Kirker, the son of Ellen and William Caruthers Kirker, who had three children from his first marriage to a woman named Elizabeth.

Sarah Kirker was buried next to her first husband John Hungerford at the Community Cemetery in Iowa County.


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



  • ☛ “Goes To A Higher Judge: Man Suspected of Wife Poisoning Dies of Deep-Seated Disease,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 13, 1897, p. 1.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pella Advertiser, April 17, 1897.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas County Sun, April 15, 1897.
  • ☛ “News Of Iowa,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 7, 1897.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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