Teatotaling Klanswoman: Murder of Myrtle Cook: 1925

Murder Victim

Myrtle Elizabeth Underwood Cook
51-year-old Homemaker
President, Benton County W.C.T.U.
President, Benton County Women of the KKK
1874-1925
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Personal Assassination

Murder Scene and Date

703 3rd Avenue
Vinton, Iowa
Benton County
September 7, 1925

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By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

location of Vinton, Iowa

location of Vinton, Iowa

Myrtle Cook’s murder stirred up the entire state of Iowa, not only because of its violent nature but also because it involved two controversial organizations and was connected to the most divisive social issue of the time.

In 1925, Myrtle Underwood Cook, 51, lived at 703 3rd Avenue in Vinton with her 16-year-old adopted daughter, Gertrude, and her 65-year-old mother-in-law, Elizabeth Cook.

Myrtle’s husband, Clifford Beeson “Cliff” Cook, a former member of the Iowa National Guard, had not lived with his family for nearly five years. Cliff was first a long-distance drayman, who hauled gravel at Osage and St. Ansgar. Then he worked in Waverly and Sioux City at the Gas and Electric Company and was a salesman for the American Monument Works.

Cliff later said that, although separated by distance, he and Myrtle exchanged letters twice a week, that he went home to Vinton “once every fortnight” when he lived in Waverly, and that Myrtle came to visit when he “sang in the Baptist choir.”

☛ Dry Crusader ☚

Myrtle Cook

Myrtle found plenty to do in Cliff’s absence, however. She was the formidable President of the Benton County Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a job she was obsessive about.

Iowa had been “dry” since 1916, well before the national law went into effect in 1920. So Iowans were ahead of the prohibition game and skilled at making and distributing strong drink, which did not go down well with women like Myrtle.

She gave speeches outlining the evils of alcohol at W.C.T.U. meetings, attended state events, and organized local women for her cause.

White arrow points to window through which Cook was shot (Davenport Democrat & Leader)

White arrow points to window through which Cook was shot (Davenport Democrat & Leader)

But she did more than that. As a “dry crusader,” she waged her own vigorous war against “John Barleycorn.” She learned the names of imbibers, wrote down license numbers of cars hauling liquor, and kept careful notes on all her observations of what went on in Vinton.

All this was duly reported to Prohibition agents and local authorities, who showed little interest in Myrtle’s “research.”

Contemporary view of the Cook house
(photo by Tammy Yocum Paddock).

Her actions were not welcomed by all citizens either, especially those who wished to drink and those who made and provided that drink.

On July 6, 1925, Myrtle’s house was “rotten-egged” by five young boys who authorities believed were paid by local bootleggers and owners of “blind pigs” — places where liquor was sold illegally.

She herself had a strong premonition that her crusade would result in more than just vandalism. On the morning of September 7 — the day of her murder — Myrtle showed a letter from W.C.T.U. headquarters commending her efforts in prohibition enforcement to Marie Ruhl, wife of Benton County Sheriff Whitfield Ruhl. She told Mrs. Ruhl her activities made her “a marked woman” and said:

“I believe this work will be the end of me yet.”

☛ Shocking Crime ☚

In early September, 1925, 42-year-old Cliff Cook, as usual, was absent from Vinton, but not because he was working. He was out of a job and left Sioux City to return home. He said he left on Sunday, September 6 with the plan of arriving in Vinton on Labor Day, September 7. However, muddy roads caused him to stay Monday night at Grundy Center 50 miles northwest of Vinton. By Tuesday morning, September 8, the roads were passable and Cliff drove on.

As he approached his house, he saw flowers on the front door and thought his elderly mother had died. His daughter Gertrude ran out to the car and said, “Mama is gone.”

The night before, Gertrude Cook — while she sat composing a W.C.T.U. speech — was shot through an open window in her home. The bullet went through her arm and pierced her heart.

It seems that Cliff was the last person to learn about the murder, which was causing a sensational stir in Vinton.

☛ Dramatic, Surprising Funeral ☚

A cross was burned at the grave of Myrtle Cook after her Klan funeral (photo Dean Close, Vinton Today).

Businesses and all activity in Vinton shut down for two hours during Myrtle Cook’s funeral on September 10 at the First Methodist Episcopal Church (her own Christian Church was too small to accommodate the crowd).

Anna Gordon, W.C.T.U. World and National President, arrived in Vinton for the ceremony.

Rural pastor Rev. A.A. Wright, a known Klan member, preached a sermon praising Myrtle’s work with the W.C.T.U. and her prohibition efforts. He was assisted by the pastor of the Christian Church, Rev. Clarence S. Kleckner, who had moved to Vinton only three days before and was unaware of what he was getting into.

Then Rev. Wright announced to the many mourners that Myrtle Cook also held the highest office in another Benton County organization: The Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK).

Myrtle Cook’s grave
(courtesy Dean Close, Vinton Today).

This should not have come as a shock to the congregation, as 100 masked and robed Klansmen appeared at the church and six — wearing full attire — carried her casket down the aisle.

Rev. Wright compared Myrtle to Jesus Christ in her suffering and George Washington in her patriotism, saying:

“She was the personification of true Americanism and represented those deep instincts and qualities of our race which has [sic] led us to high achievements.”

Afterwards, Myrtle was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in a Klan ceremony with — according to the Sioux County Index :

“the Ku Klux clergyman laying the murder to the bootleggers in a red hot Ku Klux sermon.”

At the cemetery, even though it was broad daylight, a cross was burned at the head of Myrtle Cook’s grave.

☛ W.C.T.U. and the KKK ☚

By present standards, Myrtle Cook’s simultaneous membership in W.C.T.U. and KKK seems puzzling, but in 1925 it apparently was acceptable and even, to some, desirable.

The groups shared similar goals: upholding prohibition, wiping out bootlegging and alcohol consumption, insuring the traditional home, promoting patriotism, advancing Protestantism, and agitating against foreigners — whom they considered a negative influence because of their Catholic and Jewish faiths and their purported fondness for alcohol.

However, not everyone approved of the Klan and there was push-back, both from those who felt the Klan’s racial and religious views were unacceptable and from those who resented the Klan’s stance on prohibition.

The night of Myrtle’s funeral, two men wearing caps pulled down and handkerchiefs over their faces invaded the Vinton home of Rev. Clarence S. Kleckner, the new-to-town minister who assisted at Myrtle’s funeral. Although the minister was not home, the men gruffly interrogated his wife Lula about whether he was a member of the Klan.

When authorities arrived at the Kleckner home, they set loose bloodhounds that followed the men’s trail for two miles to a place where they apparently got into a car. Rain had washed out tracks and foot prints.

In the days following, one newspaper described Lula Kleckner as “in serious physical condition as the result of the intrusion and the shock it caused” and said that “she had been troubled with a nervous complaint and had been allowed to sit up for a short time each day.”

☛ Investigation ☚

from the Davenport Democrat & Leader

from the Davenport Democrat & Leader

Myrtle Cook’s murder — termed by many an “assassination” — incited state-wide interest from the office of Iowa Governor John Hammill on down. The state offered a $500 reward for information.

Governor Hammill became involved after receiving a letter from Myrtle Cook’s mother-in-law (who became President of the Benton County W.C.T.U. after Myrtle’s death); she claimed Vinton authorities had not supported Myrtle’s anti-alcohol efforts nor enforced the laws. She urged Hammill to give the town “a good old cleaning up.”

While they may have done little to assist Myrtle’s prohibition work, the city did investigate the murder, as did Benton County Attorney J. David Nichols and Sheriff Whitfield Ruhl.

BCI Director James Risden (photo Iowa DPS).

James E. Risden, Chief of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation, came to Vinton to work the case with agents George W. Atkins and H.M. Stoner. T.L. Kendall — said to be “a state secret service man” — represented Des Moines law enforcement.

Authorities not only interrogated the young men who rotten-egged the Cook home in July but also suspected bootleggers and known operators of establishments where liquor was available.

Even former Des Moines Police Chief John B. Hammond worked the case as a self-styled “independent dry crusader” and “vice fighter.”

The W.C.T.U. offered a $200 reward for information about the murder.

☛ Coroner’s Jury ☚

An inquest was convened by County Coroner Claud L. Modlin, a local undertaker.

Twenty-seven witnesses were interrogated in closed session. When the press objected to this “star chamber” process, one press representative was allowed inside each day to share information with the rest; all details had to be verified by Coroner Modlin.

Myrtle’s husband Cliff Cook testified for one entire day. He seemed nervous beforehand and his eyes were described by one newspaper as “swollen and bloodshot.”

He recounted his years spent in other towns, his jobs, his letters (with half his wages enclosed) and visits home.

He said the only insurance the Cooks had was two $1,000 policies on him, both payable to Myrtle, and reported they owed $3,800 on two Vinton properties.

Clifford B. Cook, husband of Myrtle Cook, in his Iowa National Guard uniform (courtesy Waterloo Evening Courier).

Cook recounted learning of his wife’s murder and said he “vaguely” recalled inspecting the bullet that killed her.

He swore he had not drunk alcohol nor played pool, billiards or poker “for a number of years” and did not play games of chance for money because his wife objected. All these activities would, of course, have been anathema to a loyal W.C.T.U member like Myrtle. He said he joined the Ku Klux Klan in Sioux City about six weeks before the murder.

He also said his mother told him Myrtle whispered the name of her killer as she lay dying, the name of a prominent young man in the community. Cliff claimed the man had a “motive” but refused to reveal his identity unless sworn for a jury trial.

This whispered identification came as a shock to investigators, as others at Myrtle’s deathbed swore she uttered only five words:

“Save me. Oh save me.”

The Cooks’ 16-year-old daughter Gertrude was asked to verify statements made by her father.

Another much-anticipated witness was local day worker Charley Perefield, who had gotten drunk on Labor Day and made vague death threats while intoxicated. Perefield refused to say anything to the coroner’s jury, but no one really believed he was guilty anyway.

The inquest concluded without a verdict but recommended that “the probe be continued as to C.B. Cook.”

As early as September 14, The Davenport Democrat and Leader speculated that Myrtle Cook was murdered either by her husband or by “a liquor or drug addict . . . in a half-crazed condition.”

Investigators dug further into Cook’s story and alibi and also investigated 39-year-old Mrs. Hester Drake Sieling, who lived in the same Sioux City boarding house where Cook stayed and whose name came up in the inquest.

☛ Grand Jury Meets ☚

Hester Sieling was identified
as Cliff Cook’s lady friend.

Acting on the recommendation of the coroner’s jury, a grand jury studied the Cook murder.

Cliff Cook was once again grilled, as was Hester Sieling concerning their relationship and Cook’s whereabouts on the night of the murder.

During their session in October, the grand jury did not indict Clifford Cook for murder — although it did return 16 liquor violation indictments against other individuals — but charged him instead with perjury for giving conflicting testimony at the coroner’s inquest concerning his private life in Sioux City, the timing of his wife’s murder, and his insistence that his wife whispered her killer’s name as she died.

Rev. W.W. Williams, pastor of the Morningside Christian Church in Sioux City which Cook regularly attended, rushed to Cook’s defense, claiming investigators used the “third degree” on Cook to make him appear to be lying.

Ultimately, investigators could find nothing contradictory in Cook’s story or alibi, although they found it “not entirely satisfactory.” He was not charged with his wife’s murder.

By the 1930 Census, Clifford Cook had married Hester Sieling and the two had moved to Yakima, Washington, where he was a state highway inspector and she was a nurse. Her daughter Alice lived with them. When he registered for the WWII draft in 1942 at the age of 59, Cliff was living with Hester at 1917 E. Street in Vancouver, Washington, and was working for the Periodical Publishing Company out of Portland, Oregon.

Clifford Cook died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on September 13, 1951. Seven days later, Hester died in Washington; at the time, she was Chaplain for the Woman’s Relief Corps.

☛ Martyr For The Cause? ☚

From October 27 through 30 of 1925, the state W.C.T.U. convention met at the First Presbyterian Church in Sioux City. The State President announced beforehand that the convention would be a memorial to “our martyred comrade, Myrtle Cook” and that the entire meeting would “surely be a great inspiration to those who uphold law and order, purity and the downfall of the liquor element.”

At the convention, memorial services were held for Myrtle Cook and she was placed in the group’s pantheon of heroes alongside Rev. George Haddock, who became the first Iowa prohibition martyr when murdered in 1886 (his killer was caught and convicted).

The Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, W.C.T.U. passed a resolution petitioning the national group to hire a detective to solve Myrtle Cook’s murder.

☛ Life of Myrtle Underwood Cook ☚

Myrtle E. Underwood was born in Benton County in June 1874 to Ensign and Martha Beatty Baker, who were farmers. She had two brothers — Paul A. and Ray W. Underwood — and they survived her.

Myrtle married Clifford Beeson Cook on July 27, 1910. They adopted a daughter, Gertrude, who was born in 1910 in Minnesota. In 1926, Gertrude sued to be declared an heir to money inherited by Myrtle from her father Ensign Underwood’s estate.

☛ Who Murdered Myrtle Cook? ☚

Myrtle Underwood Cook (courtesy Vicki Ward)

Myrtle Cook is often mentioned in scholarly works about the W.C.T.U. and is invariably proclaimed to have been assassinated because of her prohibition work. Most, however, overlook her Klan affiliation.

Newspapers of her time began a debate which could still be held today. The September 25, 1925 edition of the Sioux County Index stated:

“The public would like to know whether it was a bootleg murder or an anti-Ku Klux murder, and that seems still uncertain.”

There is a third possibility as well. Myrtle may have been killed by a husband who shared little of his wife’s life, felt constrained by her rigid views, and wished to be free to marry someone else.

The mystery and the questions endure.

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

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References

  • ☛ “Arrests At Vinton,” Oelwein Courier, September 10, 1925.
  • ☛ “Ask W.C.T.U. To Sift Iowa Crusader’s Death,” Waterloo Evening Courier, September 21, 1925.
  • ☛ “C.B. Cook Quizzed in Vinton Crime,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 9, 1925.
  • ☛ Dean Close, Vinton Today.
  • ☛ “Developments In Vinton Murder Expected,” Oelwein Daily Register, September 14, 1925.
  • ☛ “‘Eggers’ Held in Vinton Mystery Murder Probe,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 10, 1925.
  • ☛ “Grand Jury Has Adjourned to Oct. 12,” Oelwein Daily Register, October 2, 1925.
  • ☛ “Grope Blindly For Clues In Vinton Crime,” Davenport Democrat And Leader, September 9, 1925.
  • ☛ Le Mars Globe-Post, October 26, 1925.
  • ☛ “Mystery Baffles Police Probers,” Waterloo Evening Courier, September 12, 1925.
  • ☛ “Name, Whispered On Deathbed, May Solve Cook Case,” Waterloo Evening Courier, September 14, 1925.
  • “News :: Who murdered Myrtle Cook? Vinton’s 1925 cold case still intrigues historians,” Dean Close, Vinton Today, October 19, 2011.
  • ☛ “Pastor Aids Cook Defense,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 2, 1925.
  • ☛ “Perjurer?” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 2, 1925.
  • ☛ “Put Under Probe,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 1, 1925.
  • ☛ Tammy Yocum Paddock, Personal Correspondence, October 2011.
  • ☛ “To Question Husband Of Slain Woman,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 11, 1925.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Vinton Foster-Child Sues As Mother’s Heir,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 3, 1926.
  • ☛ “‘Whisper’ Clue In Cook Death Being Probed,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 14, 1925.
  • ☛ “Will Memorialize Mrs. Myrtle Cook,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 6, 1925.

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