Strictly Strychnine: Murder of John P. Stickles 1876

Murder Victim

John P. Stickles
Farmer
Ca. 1841-1876
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Love Triangle

Murder Scene and Date

Stickles Home
Near Decorah, Iowa
Winneshiek County
January 4, 1876

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By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2014

location of Decorah, Iowa

location of Decorah, Iowa

When he arose on Tuesday, January 4, 1876, Winneshiek County farmer John P. Stickles felt strong and healthy, as he always did.

But by the end of the afternoon, Stickles lay dead — his body bluish, his pupils fixed — after suffering a sudden onset of seizures, convulsions, and labored breathing.

By the next day, sentiment around the community was riled up and debate had begun about Stickles’s unexpected and abrupt illness, which bore the classic symptoms of poisoning.

Winneshiek County Coroner Acles Haven Fannon convened an inquest and a three-man jury concluded John Stickles was poisoned.

Marcus Hatfield examined Stickles's stomach

Marcus Hatfield examined Stickles’s stomach

Authorities sent Stickles’s stomach to Chicago for examination by Dr. Marcus Patten Hatfield of Wesley Hospital. Hatfield’s report left no doubt as to the cause of John Stickles’s death: he had consumed strychnine.

Once poisoning was confirmed, debate raged about whether the administration of the strychnine was a deliberate act of murder or an accidental overdose of a medicine administered by John Stickles’s wife Helen.

The Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye wrote:

“It is feared that somebody will get into trouble when the affair is investigated a little further.”

☛ Trials and Acquittal ☚

Judge Reuben Noble

Judge Reuben Noble

At the March 1876 session of Winneshiek County’s grand jury, 35-year-old Helen D. Stickles was indicted for deliberately poisoning her husband, largely on circumstantial but very persuasive evidence.

Helen Stickles’s trial began in late June of 1876 in Winneshiek County, with District Court Judge Reuben Noble presiding. The History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties called it “one of the most stubbornly-contested trials ever held in the [area].”

Public opinion was strongly against Helen Stickles, and great excitement and emotion surrounded the event.

Winneshiek County Attorney O.J. Clark was assisted in the prosecution by John T. Clark; and Helen Stickles was defended by prominent attorneys C.P. Brown and Cyrus Wellington, who was later elected District Attorney for the 10th District.

The nine-day trial –- followed closely by residents — resulted in a hung jury; seven jurors voted for conviction and five for acquittal.

J. Ellen Foster defended Helen Stickles (from the  Library of Congress)

J. Ellen Foster defended Helen Stickles in her second trial (from the Library of Congress)

On April 2, 1877, Helen Stickles’s second trial for murdering her husband John began in West Union in Fayette County on a change of venue.

One of the first female lawyers in the state of Iowa — J. Ellen Foster of Clinton County — was added to the Stickles legal team.

To the great chagrin of the population of Winneshiek County, Helen Stickles was acquitted by the second jury of poisoning her husband John.

After the trial, Helen married Henry T. Shufelt, a close friend of the Stickles family, who became particularly supportive of her during her legal troubles.

The couple moved from Winneshiek County to Sheldon in O’Brien County in the northwestern part of the state, where they owned and operated a large hotel.

According to the History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties, word later came back to Decorah that Helen Stickles Shufelt attempted to kill herself with poison after being accused by her husband Henry of “too much hilarity.” Helen’s stomach was pumped, however, and she lived.

☛ Inspiration for Another Murder? ☚

Many in the community felt that the John Stickles case inspired another poisoning murder in Winneshiek County.

On April 28, 1876, 51-year-old farm wife Lovina Kneeskern — who was repeatedly brutalized by her husband Aaron and by another woman who lived in the Kneeskern home as a second wife — also died of poisoning.

Although Lovina’s death was declared a murder, there was not enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Sheriff Jacob Harrison Womeldorf to serve on a specific suspect, and the victim never received justice.

Click here to read “The Menial Drudge: Murder of Lovina Kneeskern 1876.”
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Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties, Iowa. W.E. Alexander. Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Company, pp. 214-215.
  • ☛ “Iowa Items,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, January 13, 1876.
  • ☛ “Local and Other Matters,” Postville Review, June 21, 1876.
  • ☛ “Local Items,” Postville Review, March 31, 1877.
  • ☛ “Mere Mentions,” Postville Review, June 28, 1876.
  • ☛ “Mere Mentions,” Postville Review, July 5, 1876.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Stickles Acquitted,” Postville Review, April 7, 1877.
  • ☛ “News Items,” Iowa Liberal, April 18, 1877.
  • Physicians and Surgeons of the West, edited by Harry Gardner Cutler. American Biographical Publishing Company, 1900, p. 517.
  • ☛ Postville Review, December 9, 1876.
  • ☛ “The State,” Cedar Rapids Times, July 6, 1876.
  • ☛ “State Items,” Waterloo Courier, April 11, 1877.

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