Cause of Death: Undetermined, Set on Fire
Murder Scene and Date
West Side of Meriden, Iowa
January 18, 1925
By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2015
At 7:30 a.m. Sunday, January 18, 1925, residents on the west side of Meriden saw nothing unusual at the rickety shack where middle-aged bachelor Martin Cummins lived alone near the stockyards.
But by 8:00 a.m., the tiny structure was in ruins, consumed by a fire which spread swiftly through the crude, patched-together materials Cummins used to build it.
The fierceness and speed of the fire prevented neighbors from rescuing Cummins.
☛ After the Fire ☚
When the ashes cooled, Cummins’s burned body was found, overall buckles still on the shoulders and coat buttons lined up on the charred flesh.
Cherokee County Coroner G.A. Brink was notified of the death and he ordered the body taken for examination to Appleyard and Wallace Undertaking Parlors in Cherokee.
Unusual aspects came to light when the body was moved. The Le Mars Globe Post reported:
“. . . it was found that Cummins’s head, legs and arms were missing as though burned completely off. A bed spring was near, almost on top of the place where the head should have been. No sign of the legs or arms could be found and little or no signs of the head and teeth. The [torso] was charred but the flesh was not burned entirely off the bones.”
☛ Murder ☚
The shack was so small that Cummins’s bed was very near the stove. It was possible he built a fire before lying down and that the bedding caught alight, creating a fast-moving blaze he could not escape.
Yet, unburnt coal was still in the stove and in a hod nearby.
Also, a tub in the shack contained overshoe buckles, charred bones, and blood; a broken chair testified to a violent fight; and an axe found in the rubble could have served as a murder weapon.
The Le Mars Globe Post wrote:
“The natural conclusion of officers is to the effect that Cummins met with foul play and was murdered, that his limbs and head were severed from his body, saturated with coal oil and then were burned. Another supposition is that Cummins was killed following an altercation and that the shack was set on fire to hide all trace of the deed.”
The motive appeared to be robbery; a watch, some money, and a knife Cummins had in his possession the night before were missing.
☛ Inquest and Investigation ☚
The coroner’s inquest, held on Monday, January 19, ruled Cummins was murdered by an unknown person and his house was burned to hide the crime.
The investigation by Cherokee County Sheriff L.H. Sangwin and a Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) Special Agent named Scott focused on certain individuals in the community.
Local youth Paul Arrasmith, 17, and a 14-year-old boy signed a confession saying they attended a gathering at Cummins’s shack the night of the death. Those present included barber Harry Stratton, garage owner Walter Weise, and 29-nine-year-old Will “Bud” Powell. By 3:00 a.m., they said, all except Cummins and Powell had left the shack.
Harry Stratton was arrested and charged with furnishing liquor to minors. Although he and the others admitted to drinking, the autopsy showed no alcohol in Martin Cummins’s stomach.
Because he was the last person seen with the victim, Will “Bud” Powell — who had served time in the Cherokee County jail for rape, as well as a term in Leavenworth Prison — was arrested on suspicion of murder and held in jail.
After a preliminary hearing conducted by Cherokee County Attorney Lew McDonald, Powell was turned over to the grand jury. However, a search of his home failed to turn up anything connecting him to the murder and he was released after the jury found no evidence to implicate him in the crime.
☛ Similar Murder? ☚
Area newspapers drew parallels to another recent homicide. Twenty-one days before the murder of Martin Cummins, 25-year-old brick mason “Smitty” Smith was killed and set afire near the train station in Merrill 37 miles to the northeast. As in the Cummins case, cause of death could not be determined. The suspect used money stolen from Smith to buy a railroad ticket out of town and was never apprehended. Click here to read Smith’s story in “65 Cents.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Another Mysterious Murder By Burning?” Le Mars Globe Post, January 22, 1925, p. 1.
- ☛ “Cherokee Burning Is Called Murder,” Le Mars Globe Post, January 26, 1925, pp. 1, 4.
- ☛ “Loses Life In Mysterious Fire,” Hawarden Independent, January 22, 1925, p. 6.
- ☛ “News Of The Hawkeye State,” Chariton Herald Patriot, February 5, 1925, p. 2.
- ☛ “Northwest Iowa,” Milford Mail, January 22, 1925, p. 3.
- ☛ “Shack Burned By Slayer To Conceal Crime,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, January 21, 1925, p. 1.
- ☛ “Shack Burned By Slayer To Conceal Crime,” Mount Pleasant Daily News, January 23, 1925, p. 3.
- ☛ “Suspect Held For Investigation On Murder Charge Is Released,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, February 27, 1925, p. 1.