Taking the Waters: Murder of Frank Callahan 1905

Murder Victim

Frank Callahan
34-year-old “Nervous Disorder” Patient
Cause of Death: Drowned
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Last Seen September 19, 1905
Des Moines, Iowa
Found in Des Moines River at Levey
Polk County
September 24, 1905


By Nancy Bowers
Written October 2010

Mason Hotel in Colfax, where Frank Callahan “took the waters.”

In 1905, 34-year-old Frank Callahan lived in Peosta, Iowa, with his parents. The Callahans were a prosperous, close-knit family with 9 children; they were well-known and highly respected in their community.

Frank Callahan stood 5-feet-7, weighed about 140 pounds, had brown hair, and kept his freckled face clean-shaven. He dressed well in suits of expensive material, shirts with celluloid collars, a soft black hat, and polished congress shoes.

From his watch chain dangled a gold disc inscribed “F.C.” His pockets always contained large amounts of money.

However, Frank Callahan’s outward appearance masked a troubled life. He was being treated with medication for a “nervous disorder.” Sometimes, he wandered in a confused state, saying unusual things.

☛ Frank Callahan Disappears ☚

So when Frank left Peosta for Colfax, Iowa, in September 1905 and checked into the Mason Hotel there, the Callahan family was pleased that he might get help. Colfax had a large resort industry centered on mineral springs that many considered healing to drink or bathe in — one went there to take “The Cure” or “Take the Waters.”

Frank Callahan was last seen at the Rock Island Depot in Des Moines

However, Frank failed to return home from Colfax. So his older brother Thomas, worried Frank might be wandering aimlessly, released Frank’s description to law enforcement agencies. His father John Callahan hired private detectives to search the entire state for his son.

Thomas Callahan learned that Frank disappeared from the Colfax Sanitarium on Tuesday, September 19, taking the 6:15 p.m. interurban rail car to Des Moines, where he was last seen near the Rock Island Depot about 9:00 that night.

Then Frank Callahan seemed to vanish, and Thomas feared Frank’s emotional problems made made him vulnerable to a predator.

☛ Body in the River ☚

On Sunday evening September 24, two small boys — Clarence Keeling and Harvey Keller — were swimming in the Des Moines River near Levey, a small community on the Burlington Railroad seven miles southeast of Des Moines.

They spotted something caught in the driftwood 30 feet from shore in knee-deep water. The terrified boys ran to get Clarence’s father Frank Keeling, who realized the two had discovered a human body. Keeling attached the body to a log with wire so it would not drift away and summoned Polk County Jail “Turnkey” William Perry Keeney and Polk County Coroner William Beck, who examined the scene by lantern light.

Although visual identification was impossible because of bloating, Keeney determined the general physical characteristics and clothing matched those of Frank Callahan. On the body were:

  • A gold watch chain charm engraved “F.C.”
  • A six-ounce bottle of medicine marked “For Frank Callahan, Peosta”
  • A small Catholic Testament inscribed “For Frank Callahan from Mrs. M. Callahan.”

Frank Callahan’s gold watch had been torn from its chain, his pockets were slashed, and his money was gone.

The body was taken to Patrick’s Undertaking Parlor in Des Moines, where Drs. Beck and Miller performed an autopsy. They found water in Callahan’s lungs and a bruise on his head, but decomposition was too advanced to determine if there were other wounds.

The coroner’s jury declared the death a murder, but the Des Moines Police claimed it was suicide.

☛ A Second Murder? ☚

Frank Callahan’s headstone, photo by Mustafa

The Callahan family and most Des Moines citizens believed Frank Callahan was robbed and killed by the same person who murdered Des Moines resident George R. Griswold only days before.

Both Callahan and Griswold were last seen near the Rock Island Depot, were struck on the head, had their pockets slashed with a knife, and were thrown in the Des Moines River. Click here to read about the murder of George R. Griswold.

In early November, Thomas Callahan announced a $500 dollar reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of his brother’s killer.

☛ Frank Callahan’s Life ☚

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was packed with mourners for Frank Callahan’s funeral (courtesy Dubuque County Genealogy).

Frank Callahan was born in Dubuque County, Iowa, in 1870 to Irish immigrants Margaret Hart and Jeremiah “Jerry” Callahan. He had four brothers — Daniel, John Joseph, Thomas, and Charles — as well as four sisters, Hannah, Margaret, Ellen, and Mary Callahan O’Connell.

Callahan’s funeral was held Wednesday, September 27 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Centralia (now Peosta). Rev. Father Tierney presided, assisted by several other priests.

The community could not remember a larger funeral in Dubuque County. The cortege to the church and cemetery contained 118 rigs and ran for over two miles.

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



  • ☛ “Another Body Found In Des Moines River,” Cedar Rapids Republican, September 27, 1905.
  • ☛ “Another Body Is Found In River,” Algona Courier, September 29, 1905.
  • ☛ “Another Body Is Found In River,” Altoona Herald, September 28, 1905.
  • ☛ “Callahan Demented,” Waterloo Daily Courier,” September 27, 1905.
  • ☛ Callahan Family Bible (Courtesy Jeanne Grant)
  • ☛ “Callahan Was Dead,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, September 25, 1905.
  • ☛ “Callahan’s Remains Buried,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, September 28, 1905.
  • ☛ Dubuque County Genealogy, IAGenWeb.
  • ☛ Dubuque Telegraph Herald.
  • ☛ “Found No Poison,” Elgin Echo, October 19, 1905.
  • ☛ Jeanne Grant, Personal Correspondence, March 2014.
  • ☛ “Looking For Lost Brother,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, September 22, 1905.
  • ☛ “Missing Man’s Body Found,” Morning Sun News-Herald, September 28, 1905.
  • ☛ “Notes From The Capital,” Roland Record, September 28, 1905.
  • ☛ “Probable Murder Case At Des Moines, Iowa,” Hamburg Reporter, September 29, 1905.
  • ☛ Railroad Depot, Charles A. Smith sketchbook, 1884.
  • ☛ Roland Reporter, November 2, 1905.
  • ☛ “Suicide Or Murder,” Waterloo Times-Tribune, September 26, 1905.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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