Juliette Pranal Thomas
58-year-old Farm Wife
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Love Triangle
Murder Scene and Date
February 12, 1871
By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2013
The story of Juliette Thomas’s murder in Iowa began in another state, where an unusual — and ultimately deadly — relationship developed between her family and another one in her neighborhood.
Throughout much of the mid-19th century, Juliette and her husband Daniel Thomas raised their son Edward and farmed in Burnett in Dodge County, Wisconsin, near Beaver Dam.
Nearby lived John Fay, his wife Julia Ann Bessey Fay, and their 8 children. When John Fay passed away in September of 1868, Julia, then 49, was left alone to raise her children, the youngest of which was five.
There are no records to indicate the nature or extent of the association between the Thomases and the Fays in Wisconsin.
☛ Relocation to Iowa ☚
On January 8, 1869 — within months of John Fay’s death — Daniel Thomas purchased 183 acres from Albertus and Emma Gillett near Hazelton, in Buchanan County, Iowa, and the Thomas family moved onto the property.
Very shortly afterwards, the widow Fay turned up in Buchanan County, bought land from Daniel Thomas, and relocated her large family.
Somehow — possibly by the sale of land in Wisconsin or through an inheritance — Daniel Thomas came into a great deal of money.
With part of the funds, he built the widow Fay a new house, put up fences on her land, and constructed farm buildings.
And when Daniel Thomas went into Hazelton or Independence to buy provisions, Julia Fay rode with him and he accommodatingly paid for her many purchases.
Of course, there was talk around Hazelton about the two. However, no one was quite sure what the connection between the Thomases and the widow Fay was. Juliette Thomas did not seem to feel — or at least openly show — any distress about the relationship between her husband and the Widow Fay, so the neighbors looked the other way.
The liaison continued in that way for two years.
☛ Sudden Death ☚
In mid-February of 1871, 58-year-old Juliette Thomas experienced stomach cramps with severe intestinal spasms and distress. A doctor who tended her believed she had a passing illness and would improve.
But that was not to be, however; and on February 12, only days after the onset of her symptoms, Juliette Thomas died.
A funeral was held and she was buried. That same day, neighbors saw Daniel Thomas out riding with Julia Fay, conduct they thought suspicious.
And, although they had not involved themselves before in the curious relationship, the neighbors were troubled enough by the behavior to ask Buchanan County Coroner Dr. Hiram H. Hunt to investigate Juliette Thomas’s death.
After Dr. Hunt searched the Thomas home and found a bottle containing “sulphate of strychnia,” he ordered Juliette Thomas’s body exhumed and her stomach removed for examination.
The stomach was sent to Iowa City to be tested at the Iowa College of Medicine, which had recently been formed from the Medical Department of the State University of Iowa.
When a pathology report came back to Buchanan County showing that Juliette Thomas’s stomach contained strychnine, Buchanan County Sheriff George O. Farr arrested Daniel Thomas for the murder of his wife and placed him in the County Jail at Independence.
Although there was some small amount of speculation that Juliette Thomas might have taken the strychnine herself, it was generally believed that Daniel poisoned her in order to be with Julia Fay.
☛ Jail Tribulations ☚
To represent him, Daniel Thomas employed local lawyers Merritt W. Harmon, Jedidiah “Jed” Lake, and James Jamison — a former Buchanan County Prosecuting Attorney.
The defense attorneys sensed that the evidence — although circumstantial — looked bad for their client and decided to stall the proceedings for as long as possible.
But that technique proved dangerous and risky, even injurious, to their client, Daniel Thomas.
The Buchanan County jail was filled with hardened criminals and the 59-year-old Thomas was easy for them to push around.
Early in his incarceration, the other prisoners planned a daring jailbreak. But they didn’t want to include Thomas, so they knocked him out and left him behind. The escapees didn’t get far before being recaptured and brought back to the cell where they’d abandoned Thomas.
It was then that Thomas became a jailhouse snitch for Sheriff Farr.
After he informed the Sheriff about tools smuggled in for another proposed escape, it was deemed dangerous for Thomas to live with the men he’d betrayed; and he was moved to a room in the jailer’s house.
Daniel Thomas did not do well locked up. The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote that his confinement, in combination with “his feebleness and advanced years,” caused a serious decline in his health.
As he grew weaker, neither the prosecution nor defense made any request for a trial in the murder case — perhaps believing that his hellish life in jail was punishment enough.
So, Thomas languished there. As for Julia Fay, her life had gone on quite well without Daniel Thomas. Not long after Juliette Thomas died and Daniel was arrested, Julia Fay married widowed Buchanan County farmer Cyrus B. Voorhees.
☛ Taken to the Grave ☚
The priest from St. John’s Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy often visited Daniel Thomas, bringing religious tracts over which he pored.
During the last few hours of his life — on August 17, 1872 — Daniel Thomas, by then aged 60, asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church.
When he died, he took with him the secrets of Juliette’s death.
Although he was never tried for his wife’s murder, most local residents felt that Daniel Thomas would answer for his alleged crime on a grander scale and agreed with the Dubuque Daily Herald which wrote that Thomas would be:
“Called upon to appear before a higher tribunal than the one he expected to be arraigned before in [Buchanan] county.”
☛ Juliette Thomas’s Life ☚
Juliette Pranel was born in Pennsylvania in 1813. She married Daniel Thomas on October 28, 1834 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The couple had one child, Edward D. Thomas, born in Brooklyn, Ohio, on August 29, 1836. By the time of the 1850 U.S. Census, the Thomas family had moved to Burnett in Dodge County, Wisconsin. In 1869, Juliette, Daniel, and Edward Thomas relocated to Hazelton, Buchanan County, Iowa, where she lived until her death.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ History of Buchanan County, Iowa, with illustrations and biographical sketches. Cleveland: Williams Brothers, 1881.
- ☛ “Independence . . . A Murder Trial Taken to the Highest Tribunal,” Dubuque Daily Herald, August 20, 1872.
- ☛ “State Correspondence,” Dubuque Daily Herald, March 24, 1871.
- ☛ “Suspected Poisoning,” History of Buchanan County, Iowa, Vol. 1. By Harry Church and Katharyn Joella Chappell. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914.
- ☛ U.S. Census.