The Cooler: Suspicious Death of David T. Todd 1887


David T. Todd
47-year-old Butter & Egg Commission Dealer
Civil War Veteran
Cause of Death: Chloroform
Motive: Unknown

Death Scene and Date

E.S. Todd & Company
115 Walnut Street
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
February 12, 1887


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2014

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

Not even a medium’s mysterious séance could resolve the perplexing 1887 death of 47-year-old Des Moines resident Capt. David T. Todd.

Before he died, Todd seemed to have a well-ordered life. He was a prominent and well-respected citizen who lived with his wife and their teenaged son and daughter in a fine house at 1030 Sixth Street. And his butter and egg wholesale business, E.S. Todd & Company, appeared to be thriving at 115 Walnut Street near the spot where the Polk County government building stands today.

In the late afternoon of Saturday, February 12, 1887, Todd took tea with his wife Emeline. Afterwards, he left the house for what he said was a business appointment.

It was not David Todd’s habit to stay out late; so when midnight came and went, Emeline Todd became worried and dispatched her 18-year-old son Albert Henry and a nephew to search for him.

☛ Cold Discovery ☚

On Walnut Street, the two young men found the Todd warehouse locked; so they located a Des Moines Police officer to help gain access.

As the trio entered the building, they found David Todd’s overcoat. And then his crumpled hat.

The Alton Weekly Democrat described what happened next:

“Proceeding to the cooler they found Mr. Todd stretched on the floor with his face downward and his hand raised over his head. A strip of white flannel cloth was bound tightly over the lower part of his face and tied behind his head. Removing this it disclosed a smaller cloth of coarse fowling, thoroughly saturated with chloroform and pressed over his mouth and nostrils. All the surroundings indicated that the man had been murdered, but for what purpose is a mystery, as the valuables about his person were not taken.”

Todd’s watch, with part of the chain still clinging to it, was found on a counter nearby. Money was scattered around the floor where the body lay.

Although the scene suggested a struggle took place, there were no injuries on Todd’s body.

Des Moines Police investigated the death, and Polk County Coroner I.W. Griffith convened a jury to hear evidence.

☛ Murder or Suicide? ☚

from the Perry Chief

from the Perry Chief

Some area newspapers felt to a certainty that the death was murder. However, the Perry Chief wrote:

“Opinions differ as to whether he was murdered or committed suicide.”

It was first reported that the door was locked and the key was pushed through the mail slot and fell onto the floor below, which would confirm that another person — a murderer — was on the premises and left. Later accounts said the door was found ajar, which would argue for the possibility of suicide.

Someone came forward to claim that Todd recently purchased chloroform.

Then within days, information was released that Todd was $22,000 in debt, $14,000 of which he borrowed in 1881 from his mother-in-law Caroline Judd. On February 18, 1887 — six days after his death — the Ackley Enterprise reported:

“Attachments this morning were levied in favor of the Los Angeles National Bank, California, for $888.50; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad company for $210; and Charles Hewitt for $442.99. The last claim represents that total amount of all debts due to the Des Moines jobbers, all the claims having been assigned to Mr. Hewitt. As the facts now stand the financial difficulties of Mr. Todd seem to have extended over a period of six years. During all that time he was carrying an indebtedness of $15,000 in excess of his assets.”

While the heavy load of debt might have spurred Todd to take his life, the Enterprise noted:

“He was, however, considered by the commercial agencies anything but a weak man.”

His indebtedness could have motivated suicide. In addition, he had suffered the loss of two young sons within nine years, which may have added to his burden of worry.

After the financial details were revealed, suspicions arose about the ill will of creditors.

☛ Voices of the Dead ☚

On April 2 — less than two months after David Todd’s death — the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists’ Association held a séance in Des Moines during which Mrs. Blodmett, a Davenport medium, appeared to communicate with six Iowans who recently died in violent ways, ranging from murder to being run over by a train.

What David Todd told Mrs. Blodmett was unfortunately not reported in the media, although his death was termed “a sensational suicide” in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette’s announcement of the séance titled “Voices of the Dead.”

☛ David Todd’s Life ☚

photo by Katie Lou

photo by Katie Lou

David T. Todd was born on August 7, 1839 in Highland, Madison County, Illinois, to Connecticut natives Sally Throop and Jehiel Todd. He had four siblings: William Earl Todd, Henry E. Todd, Mariette Rebecca Todd Giger, and Emily Todd Giger.

On September 19, 1862, David Todd enlisted in Company G of the Illinois 117th Infantry Regiment as a 1st Sergeant; was promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant on January 23, 1863; and then advanced to Full Captain on June 23, 1864. He was mustered out of the Army on August 5, 1865 at Camp Butler in Springfield, Illinois.

About 1867, Todd married Illinois resident Emeline S. Judd. The couple had four children: Albert Henry Todd, Florence M. Todd, Walter Todd, and Willis Todd. The latter two died as small children.

Before moving to Des Moines, Todd co-owned a butter and egg wholesale operation in Perry, Iowa; and before assuming complete ownership of the business in Des Moines, he partnered with T.B. Robinson in a shop at 504 Walnut Street.

David Todd Belonged to the Ancient Order of United Workmen Des Moines Lodge No. 18.

A large funeral procession accompanied his body to Woodland Cemetery, and he was interred in the Todd family plot. His military information is engraved on the tombstone along with the partially-legible words: “A —– Husband, A Loving Father, A True Friend.”

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



  • ☛ Ackley Enterprise, February 18, 1887, p. 4.
  • Des Moines and Polk County City Directory, 1886.
  • ☛ Humeston New Era, February 17, 1887, p. 1.
  • Illinois Roster of Officers and Enlisted Men.
  • ☛ “Iowa News Items,” Milford Mail, February, 24, 1887, p. 2.
  • ☛ “The Latest News,” Alton Weekly Democrat, February 19, 1887, p. 1.
  • ☛ “A Murder Mystery,” Carroll Sentinel, February 18, 1887, p. 4.
  • ☛ Mysterious Murder in Des Moines, Muscatine Evening Journal, February 14, 1887, p. 3.
  • ☛ “The News Briefly Told,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, February 18, 1887, p. 3.
  • ☛ Perry Chief, February 18, 1887, p. 5.
  • ☛ “Telegraphic Brevities,” Atlantic Daily Telegraph, February 17, 1887.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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