The Coffee that Killed the Frog: Murder of Winfield S. Carpenter 1904

Murder Victim

Winfield S. Carpenter
50 year-old Carpet Weaver
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Family Quarrel

Murder Scene and Date

Boat House, Iowa River
Iowa City, Iowa
Johnson County
August 12, 1904


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2011

location of Iowa City, Iowa

location of Iowa City, Iowa

On Friday, August 12, 1904, 50-year-old Iowa City resident Winfield S. Carpenter was headed for a wood choppers camp when he stopped midday for a meal break in a boat house on the Iowa River.

He washed down the lunch he brought from home with coffee his wife Cora brewed and placed in a mason jar.

Shortly afterwards, Carpenter became ill, quickly deteriorated, and died. His last words to co-worker Harold Fitzgerald were that he was poisoned by something in his coffee.

Carpenter’s death not long after eating a homemade lunch seemed suspicious to investigators, more so because — according to the Emmetsburg Democrat:

“Carpenter recently figured in a lawsuit in which his wife was one of the chief witnesses against him.”

Johnson County Coroner Fredrick W. Sies ruled the death a poisoning by strychnine.

☛ Bizarre and Conflicting Grand Jury Testimony ☚

 Dr. Elbert W. Rockwood (from The Iowa Alumnus)

Dr. Elbert W. Rockwood
(from The Iowa Alumnus)

Coroner Sies asked State University of Iowa Chemistry Professor Dr. Elbert W. Rockwood to perform tests on Carpenter’s organs. Rockwood found enough strychnine in the stomach alone to kill several men.

A grand jury was convened to hear evidence in the death, with testimony taken behind closed doors without the presence of newspaper reporters. Assistant States Attorney Baldwin said he wanted the case presented without the taint of “sensational rumors” that permeated the community.

The Iowa City Daily Press detailed Rockwood’s description to the jury of his experiments with Carpenter’s stomach contents — which he administered to a frog:

“The little creature, an hour later, leaped from the table, in the agonies of tetanic spasms, and, almost before the chemist could reach out a hand to control it, the sacrifice was complete — for the little thing fell back, dead . . . .”

Although the amounts of the poison in Carpenter’s stomach were enough to kill him, Rockwood speculated that the victim might have died two hours after ingesting it from the sheer physical effects on his body, as the Daily Press reported:

“Convulsions do not come for some time after the imbibing of the deadly drug, but from ten minutes to a half an hour of these muscle-wrenching, respiration-barring spasms might be enough to kill a man from sheer exhaustion, if from no other effect.”

Carpenter’s wife Cora, who took in washing to supplement the family’s income, swore the coffee she put in her husband’s lunch was the same the entire family, including the children, drank that morning. And she claimed Winfield was suicidal.

from the Iowa City Daily Press

Winfield’s and Cora’s 16-year-old-son James also testified, although he seemed confused and overwhelmed by the official proceedings and gave conflicting statements.

James first said his mother made a fresh pot of coffee for his father after she gave herself and the children the first batch. Then he seemed to realize the implications of his statement and corrected himself, declaring that the entire Carpenter family drank from the pot of coffee and the remains were poured into a jar for his father’s lunch.

Also, James first said his father did not buy strychnine while the two were on a recent trip to Davenport but then changed his statement to claim he observed such a purchase and thought it could have been made with the idea of suicide — brought on by some state of “mania.”

Initially, James admitted his parents had “a heated discussion” the night before the death about digging potatoes in the family’s garden at 935 Johnson Street. Then under questioning, he denied that after Winfield claimed he was physically unable to perform the chore, Cora nagged him and said he looked strong and capable to her.

Some newspapers reported that Dr. Rockwood failed to find poison in the coffee.

☛ Jury’s Verdict ☚

Although some in Iowa City believed Carpenter committed suicide, the grand jury’s official report read:

“We the jury, find that the deceased came to his death by strychnine poison, the same being administered to him by some person or persons to this jury unknown.”

The suspicious death of Winfield Carpenter, deemed “puzzling” by regional newspapers, was never satisfactorily explained.

☛ Winfield Carpenter’s Life ☚

Winfield S. Carpenter was born in Pennsylvania in September 1853 to Martha J. Wall and Martin Carpenter. He had four brothers — John, Walter, Willis, and Franklin Carpenter — as well as two sisters, Annie and Clara.

By the time Winfield was 7, the Carpenter family had moved to Warsaw, Illinois.

Winfield Carpenter’s wife Cora outlived three husbands (courtesy

Carpenter relocated to Iowa City before 1880 and, in 1882, married Cora D. “Carrie” Hess. He worked various jobs, but was trained as a carpet weaver. Likely, he worked for

One newspaper deemed his life “troubled” and reported he had mania — using the term to suggest depression — but there are no extant reports to verify his problems or to prove if they were psychological or the result of living with a quarrelsome wife.

Burial took place in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, although Carpenter’s grave is not marked.

He was survived by Cora and their six children, who ranged in age from 2 to 19: Oscar S., James, Mabel, Edith, Beulah, Clara, and Mary E. Carpenter.

Almost exactly a year after Carpenter’s death, his widow Cora was bitten on the arm by a neighbor woman during an argumentative row. The Iowa City Daily Press wrote:

“[Cora Carpenter] will recover, if neither tetanus, blood poisoning, nor rabies ensues.”

On December 5, 1905, Cora Carpenter married Swiss-born Jacob Leonhard Gehring. He died only months later — on April 12, 1906 of what was termed “dropsy.” In 1910, Cora married a third husband — George Crippen, who passed away in April 1912 shortly before her children Clara and James died. Crippen and his brother managed Iowa City (IC) Carpet Company at 410 E. College Street, the place of business where Winfield Carpenter worked before his poisoning 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.



  • ☛ Cheryl Heinrich, Personal Correspondence, March 2013.
  • ☛ “Died Under Mysterious Circumstances,” Emmetsburg Democrat, August 24, 1904.
  • ☛ “Finds Poison Killed Him,” Greene Iowa Recorder, August 31, 1904.
  • The Iowa Alumnus, Volume 18.
  • ☛ Kasey Struble, Personal Correspondence, March 2014.
  • ☛ “Mystery Still Unsolved,” Semi-Weekly Iowa State Reporter, August 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “Poison Ended Troubled Life,” Iowa City Daily Press, August 16, 1904.
  • ☛ “The State of Iowa,” Parnell Iowa County Advertiser, August 26, 1904.
  • ☛ “Twenty Years Ago Today in Iowa City,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 18, 1925.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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