The Christmas Eve Brawl: Murder of Charles Johnson 1901

Murder Victim

Charles Johnson
35-year-old Saloon Owner
Cause of Death: Stabbed
Motive: Drunken Mob Action

Murder Scene and Date

Johnson Saloon
East Fifth and Court Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
December 24, 1901


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2010

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On Christmas Eve of 1901, holiday revelers celebrated in Charles Johnson’s saloon at the corner of East Fifth and Court Avenue in Des Moines.

Charlie’s brother William tended bar; another brother, Andy, helped out as Charlie freely imbibed with the crowd.

To protect against robbery and drunken customers in a tough area of Des Moines,  Charlie kept a gun behind the bar and William carried one in his pocket.

Fred Saunders, Morris Shea, John Coyle, William “Billy” Smith, Hugh “Slim” O’Donnell, and a one-armed man named Jim Lally drank in the saloon most of the day.

Despite the holiday and because of the liquor, there was a quarrelsome mood in the place. Tensions already ran high between Billy Smith and Charlie Johnson. Smith incorrectly thought Johnson conspired with a foreman at the packing house where he worked to extort a $10 bar tab from Smith by withholding his wages.

East Fifth near Charlie Johnson’s Saloon

Some of the men wanted Charles Johnson to give them a free bottle of whiskey to celebrate the holiday — to “set the drinks as a Christmas treat.” But Johnson was not about to give away his liquor.

The men — egged on by Slim O’Donnell — called Johnson “tight-fisted” and shouted rude names. Charlie Johnson threw a beer bottle at Slim and grabbed the gun behind the bar and threatened to shoot before his brother William Johnson wrested it from his hand.

William Johnson went home for supper, and when he returned about 7:00 p.m. the same men were in the bar as earlier except for Jim Lally and Slim O’Donnell, who William Johnson later told authorities was “a sort of beggar and a nuisance around the saloon.”

Charlie Johnson told his brother he’d physically thrown O’Donnell out after the fracas over the free whiskey and said not to let him back in. But O’Donnell returned, was put out by William, and then returned fifteen minutes later only to be evicted again.

from the Des Moines Daily Leader

Some of the other men took O’Donnell’s part and left to agitate outside the door. When it came time for patron James Kane to leave the saloon for home, he was afraid of being hurt by them.

In an official statement to police, William Johnson said:

“My brother [Charlie] said he would go out and drive them away. I told him, no, that I would go. Slipping my revolver in my pocket I stepped through the door. [Slim] O’Donnell was about thirty feet from the saloon. I told him to go away and he threw a brick at me striking me on the arm. I then ran up to him and we grappled. I knocked him down and kicked him a little and he said he had had enough. My brother who followed me from the saloon was standing near the door when I returned.”

The angry crowd pelted the Johnson brothers with “beer bottles, brick-bats, and frozen clods,” according to the Des Moines Daily Leader.

Word spread through the pool halls and other saloons in the area, and patrons poured onto the street to watch the brawl. When the angry crowd scattered away from Johnson’s, the gawkers went back to their drinking.

William Johnson described what happened next:

“[Charles] told me he was hurt and when we carried him inside I found that he had been struck in the breast with a knife. We removed his clothing and afterwards sent him to the hospital where he died. I tried hard to get Charles to tell me who hit him but he refused. He seemed to think he was not fatally hurt and it may have been for that reason that he did not want to disclose the name of the man who struck him. I am sure he knew the guilty party and would have told us had he known his dangerous condition.”

Charles Johnson was carried to Mercy Hospital and lived for seven hours after the attack, but he refused to tell police who stabbed him. He died on Christmas Day of blood loss from a slash to his face and two knife wounds — one above and the other below the heart.

Johnson’s Sendoff

photo by Katie Lou

photo by Katie Lou

Charles Johnson’s funeral, held two days after Christmas and termed “impressive” by newspapers, was held at the Church of the Visitation at East Ninth and Walnut in Des Moines. Floral displays flanked Johnson’s casket and bouquets layered the top.

Many in the crowd were members of the Ancient Order of Foresters, to which Johnson belonged; and fellow lodge members Charles James McElwaine, James Coyle, Andrew Callahan, John McNamara, and Charles McBridge acted as pallbearers.

The 35-year-old bachelor was buried in St. Ambrose Cemetery. On his stone are engraved the words: “May His Soul Rest In Peace.”

☛ Brawlers Charged ☚

In early January, murder charges were filed against principal suspect William Smith, but also against Morris Shea, John Coyle, and Hugh “Slim” McDonnell — essentially every man involved in the fight except Jim Lally, who had only one arm and was considered harmless. None could make bail and all went to jail.

Charges against each man were gradually dropped until only Billy Smith and Morris Shea remained behind bars.

George Yeager investigated the murder.

Testimony emerging at the coroner’s jury, the grand jury, and a preliminary hearing was consistent with Des Moines Police Defective George Yeager’s assessment that the murder scene was a “tumult.”

Everyone present in the saloon was called to testify.

Hugh “Slim” O’Donnell, the man whose agitation for a free drink set the fight and the murder on course, claimed he didn’t know who stabbed Charlie Johnson because he was too busy that night fighting off William Johnson and was so “badly shaken up” he required a doctor’s care for days.

When Andy Johnson — who followed his brothers outside and engaged in the melee — was asked to identify his brother’s killer, he pointed to a man with a mustache and shouted:

“There, there is the murderer of my brother! He is the man who plunged the knife blade into my dead brother’s breast.”

The problem was that Andy identified W.J. Craig, a butcher who lived on East Court Avenue, and not Billy Smith. What confused Andy Johnson was that on the night of the murder, Billy Smith had a mustache but had shaved it before trial. All of Andy’s testimony was completely undermined by the mis-identification.

Also called to testify were passersby and those who lived or worked near the murder scene, like a Mrs. Turnipseed, who said she saw William Smith run across the street and join in the fight leading to Johnson’s death.

Thomas E. Dowden described how someone came into his pool hall at East Fifth and Court that night shouting that a big fight was in progress at Johnson’s saloon across the street. Dowden rushed outside, he said, and saw Charles Johnson and Morris Shea fighting under the streetlamp. Shea was getting the worst of it and fled. Billy Smith then grappled with Johnson and ran off; at that point, Johnson had blood on his face. Dowden was certain the man with the knife was “tall” like Smith and was not Slim McDonnell or Jim Lally.

However, Conrad Gegner, who kept a saloon a block north of Johnson’s, testified that Smith left his place of business about 9:30 the night of the murder with a Christmas turkey under his arm, saying he was headed home. Gegner admitted Smith drank in his establishment after a long day of hauling coal but insisted he was not drunk.

That testimony was reinforced by Con Scanlon, described by the Des Moines Daily News as a “butcher’s boy” who lived at 107 Southeast Second Street. Scanlon said when he stopped in Gegner’s Saloon on the night of the stabbing, Billy Smith, Slim O’Donnell and John Coyle were there. They all went out to watch when someone brought news of the fight at Johnson’s but returned inside afterwards. Rock Island Railroad employee Thomas Traverse gave similar testimony.

A. Mrs. Casson told about walking past the area and seeing William Smith run across Fifth Street towards Charlie Johnson and the other brawlers. But, she said Smith did not “mix in” the melee and swore she was unable to identify any of the other men involved.

And Billy Smith’s brother Bert testified both of them were on the other side of the street watching the fight together.

Why Billy Smith?

from the Des Moines Daily News

Billy Smith looked good for the murder because he had been at Charlie Johnson’s saloon that night and was identified by several eye witnesses as the stabber. In addition to a grudge against Johnson, he had a criminal past.

Smith was recently released from the penitentiary for robbing and assaulting a New Virginia, Iowa, man — a “ruralist” waiting for a train — who was duped by Smith and his cronies into following them into the “jungle” of South Fourth Street. When the man resisted robbery, Smith beat him on the head; but the victim had a pistol in his pocket and was able to shoot Smith in the stomach.

Although the bullet bounced around inside Smith, causing 16 separate intestinal wounds, he miraculously recovered. The Des Moines Daily Leader described how Smith healed:

“Dr. Kelleher, afterward commenting on Smith’s survival, stated that his recovery was due to the fact that at the time of the shooting he had eaten nothing for twelve or fifteen hours and that his stomach was filled with alcohol. The liquor operated to prevent inflammation, there being no food to ferment and, strange as it may appear owes his recovery to the liquor he imbibed. The tragedy Tuesday night would imply that he continues to place great store by the remedy that stood him in such vital emergency.”

Iowa Governor Leslie Mortier Shaw — later United States Secretary of the Treasurer under Teddy Roosevelt —  commuted Smith’s long prison sentence, a controversial action among Shaw’s detractors and those who thought Billy Smith was a dangerous “highwayman.”

Governor Shaw’s commutation of Billy Smith’s sentence caused controversy.

So, Des Moines citizens had no problem seeing Billy Smith as a murderer, but weren’t so certain about Morris Shea.

☛ Fighting Attorneys and a Startling Verdict

When the case went to trial, Smith and Shea — friends before the Johnson murders — chose to be tried together and were held in the same jail call.

The murder trial itself proved almost as sensational as the crime, with Polk County Attorney John McLennan and defense attorney William A. Spurrier nearly coming to blows — a newspaper called their sparring a “sensational tilt” — before being separated by the Court. The men quoted Shakespeare at each other and McLennan asserted that Smith wasn’t the only criminal sitting at the defense table — all the while the Judge shouted, “Gentlemen, Gentlemen — please.”

The next day, the charges against Morris Shea were dismissed for lack of evidence.

After the announcement, Shea giddily told a Des Moines Daily News reporter:

“Let me get outside that door. Makes a fellow feel like a man instead of a dog to walk around with an officer at his track. I was scared to death though for fear they would send me up for that crime. I was innocent but it looked dark.”

Smith, looking “gloomy and despondent,” shook hands with Shea and said, “I am glad you are out of it, Morris.” Both had tear-filled eyes.

With Billy Smith as the sole defendant, the defense and prosecution continued to bicker and attack each other. Then at 8:30 p.m. on April 30, 1902, the jury returned a not guilty verdict and Smith was set free.

It appeared defense attorney William Spurrier’s strategy was successful. He argued that chief witness and billiard parlor owner Thomas E. Dowden carried an old grudge against Billy Smith and conspired with the Des Moines Police Department and County Attorney to “railroad” Smith as “an easy mark” because of his criminal past.


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



  • ☛ “Charles Johnson Killed,” Des Moines Daily Leader, December 26, 1901.
  • ☛ “Chas. Johnson Murder Case,” Des Moines Daily News, December 28, 1901.
  • ☛ “Evidence Against Smith,” Des Moines Daily Leader, December 29, 1901.
  • ☛ “Failed To Warrant Detention,” Cedar Rapids Republican, May 1, 1902.
  • ☛ “Five Men Held To The Grand Jury,” Des Moines Daily Leader, January 3, 19 02.
  • ☛ “Funeral of Murdered Man,” Des Moines Daily News, December 27, 1901.
  • ☛ “Highwayman, Paroled by Gov. Shaw, Is Now Suspected of Murder,” Des Moines Daily News, December 26, 1901.
  • ☛ “Johnson Died With Sealed Lips As To The Identity Of His Slayer,” Des Moines Daily News, January 8, 1901.
  • ☛ “Johnson Murder Trial,” Des Moines Capital, January 8, 1902.
  • ☛ “M’Lennan Is Attacked,” Des Moines Capital, April 28, 1902.
  • ☛ “Morris Shea Placed Under Arrest,” Des Moines Daily Leader, December 27, 1901.
  • ☛ “Morris Shea Walks Out Of Court Room [sic] Free Man This Morning,” Des Moines Daily News, April 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “O’Donnell Claims Ignorance,” Des Moines Capital, February 17, 1902.
  • ☛ “Shea Is Turned Loose,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 30, 1902.
  • ☛ “Smith and Shea Held,” Marian Sentinel, January 16, 1902.
  • ☛ “Smith Found Not Guilty,” Des Moines Daily Leader, May 3, 1902.
  • ☛ “‘There Sits The Man Who Stabbed Him,'” Des Moines Daily News, January 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Trouble Arose Over a Bar Bill,” Des Moines Daily Leader,” December 28, 1901.

Comments are closed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,