Clara Belle “Belle” Sutliff
28-year-old School Teacher
Cause of Death: Botched Illegal Abortion
Motive: Termination of Pregnancy/Love Triangle
Murder Scene and Date
Oxford Mills, Iowa
Near Oxford Junction, Iowa
February 12, 1897
By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2012
In the mid-winter of 1897, 28-year-old Oxford Mills school teacher Clara Belle Sutliff was confined to bed with a serious illness. As her symptoms worsened, so did her spirits because Belle — as she was always called — had a secret at the heart of her sickness.
On January 13, 1897, Belle summoned Dr. F.E. Cook to the small house where she lived with her younger brother Will.
From her sick bed, she frankly described her symptoms to Dr. Cook. And as she did, a shocking story emerged.
For two years she had been in an elicit relationship with local physician Lacy Kindred Bobo, a 36-year-old husband and father of a small daughter.
The affair began when she paid a bill in his medical office for his treatment of her measles.
In the late fall of 1896, Belle discovered she was pregnant.
When she told Lacy Bobo, he gave her medicine — he said it was the strongest possible potent — to abort the fetus. Belle showed Dr. Cook three medicine bottles labeled with Bobo’s name and said she took doses from them.
When the medication failed to produce an abortion, Bobo several times used an instrument — which Belle described to Dr. Cook — to terminate the pregnancy.
After that, Belle’s pain and other symptoms made her believe something went wrong. But when she shared her concerns with Lacy Bobo, he callously told her to consult another doctor.
☛ Dr. Cook’s Actions ☚
Dr. Cook knew if he treated Belle he could become entangled in the legality of an abortion performed when the life of the mother was not threatened.
To protect himself, Cook told Belle he wanted to call in long-time Oxford Mills physician Dr. George R. Moore, who had an impeccable reputation. But Belle refused, insisting on privacy to protect her teaching position.
Dr. Cook diagnosed blood poisoning, and said he would treat her only if she wrote and signed a statement declaring the abortion occurred before he saw her as a patient.
Belle Sutliff wrote this sentence, which her brother Will witnessed:
“This is to certify that Dr. Cook is called to treat me for an abortion performed by Dr. Lacy Bobo.”
Before he left Belle’s home, Dr. Cook warned her not to take any more of Bobo’s medicine; afterwards, Will Sutliff secured the bottles in his trunk.
With Cook’s remedies, Belle improved just enough to return to teaching. She did not want anyone to become suspicious.
☛ Falling Back Into Illness ☚
Although she was back in the classroom, Belle was weak and not recovered. As she came and went from the schoolhouse, she had to navigate winter ice. One day she fell, badly bruising her hip.
Later at home, Belle had painful cramps and bleeding followed by the delivery of a fetus.
Although that should have been the end of her troubles, Belle continued to get sicker. She assumed something was wrong because of an unexpelled placenta.
☛ Alone and “Without Protection” ☚
Belle’s mother Jane Sutliff died in 1894 and her father William, a Civil War veteran, left home years before and was believed to be in a soldiers home.
Her younger brother Will offered emotional support, as did her sister Mary Eva Bumgarner and husband Ed, who lived in Oxford Mills.
Despite the understanding of her family, however, Belle felt alone in her predicament with nowhere to turn and no recourse for her medical problems.
☛ Cautionary Tale ☚
As the days passed, Belle doubted she would recover and decided to tell her story as a warning to other women who could fall victim to Lacy Bobo’s seduction.
In spite of her weakness and fatigue, Belle wrote a 16-page declaration stating she was made pregnant by Lacy Bobo on October 10, 1896.
The statement — dated January 19, 1897 — was later partially reproduced in the Monticello Express, which edited out passages the newspaper termed “too broad or suggestive for publication”:
“I wish to make the following statement to my friends while I am in my right mind.
[Dr. Bobo] tried every way with medicine and instruments to produce abortion, but to all appearances at the time seemed to fail to act, but shortly after the last operation he performed I fell on the ice. I then had a miscarriage and gave birth to a child weighing one pound, but the afterbirth failed to appear, which made me quite sick . . . .”
I yielded to him like one in a dream of which fact I am heartily sorry, now. I have no respect for him, none whatever. He knew I was unprotected and alone in the world and he has left me to suffer.
I hope he will be dealt with by law before he ruins other women. I think too much of those of my own sex to see them ruined and suffer as I have, and go unscathed. I must say no more or I shall be tempted to pen such anathemas against him that will be dreadful to read against any man be he ever so dreadful.
(Signed.) Belle Sutliff”
Below her name was a note penned by Belle’s brother:
“I write my name below to prove that the signature is Belle’s own handwriting.
(Signed.) Will Sutliff”
Belle gave the statement to Dr. Cook, the physician who treated her when her lover Lacy Bobo rejected her.
☛ Another Doctor is Summoned ☚
Her symptoms continued and on February 1, Belle sent for Dr. George R. Moore, the physician Dr. Cook wanted to bring in earlier.
Belle repeated to Moore what she told Cook: that she had been “ruined” by Bobo. She also provided dates when he tried to induce an abortion and the locations where those attempts were made.
Because he knew Lacy Bobo as a prominent citizen and fellow physician, Dr. Moore at first doubted Belle’s story. However, an examination confirmed she had undergone an abortion.
Moore told Belle that she was ill not from a retained placenta, as she believed, but from a serious infection caused by piercings of her uterus during the abortion attempts.
Because Belle she was critically sick from “blood poisoning,” Dr. Moore warned that if she had made any false accusations she should withdraw them, but Belle refused to recant.
After leaving Belle, Dr. Moore confronted Lacy Bobo, who admitted “illegal intimacy” with Belle but denied being the father of her fetus or trying to abort the pregnancy.
☛ End Draws Near ☚
On February 2, professional nurse Mary C. Chapman came to care for Belle, who suffered high fever, chills, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, extreme nervousness — all symptoms of a septic infection.
Two days later, Belle was visited by Amelia “Millie” Lathrop; she and her husband George were known for their compassion to the community’s sick and needy.
When Millie Lathrop returned to Belle’s home on February 6, the young woman was very ill, but she gathered her strength to tell Millie about the affair, the pregnancy, and the abortion attempts. Belle also told Millie her long written statement was a declaration to prepare for and accept death.
She said Bobo told her he loved her. She knew she should hate him after what he had done to her, but she still loved him.
Millie Lathrop’s husband George came to cheer Belle, but there was no cheering to be done. Instead, Belle gave George Lathrop instructions for disposing of her property.
Gradually, Belle’s organs failed one by one, and her heart stopped at 2:15 a.m. on February 12.
Nurse Mary Chapman was with her till the end, as were her brother and sister.
☛ What The Autopsy Showed ☚
On the afternoon of Belle’s death, Dr. Michael F. McMeel, a physician from nearby Lost Nation, performed an autopsy while Jones County Coroner Dr. Thaddeus B. Kent and Dr. George R. Moore observed.
When McMeel opened Belle’s body cavity, he found a horrible infection, evidenced by large quantities of gas and puss.
He determined Belle’s uterus was punctured in two places and that those wounds caused the infection that killed her.
☛ Inquest and Arrest ☚
Jones County Coroner Dr. Thaddeus B. Kent convened an inquest immediately after the autopsy.
Dr. George R. Moore told the coroner’s jury Belle’s body showed symptoms of both medicinal and instrument abortion attempts.
After describing her sister’s illness, Mary Sutliff Bumgarner verified the signature on the statement about the affair and abortion as her sister’s. She also identified her brother Will’s signature on the same document.
Millie Lathrop — an irreproachable witness — recounted Belle’s story of the affair with Lacy Bobo and his abortion attempts.
Very quickly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death resulting from a “criminal operation” performed by Lacy K. Bobo.
As soon as the verdict was announced, Bobo was arrested for second degree murder.
☛ Shock Turns to Disdain ☚
Dr. Lacy K. Bobo — an 1889 graduate of the University of Louisville Medical School — enjoyed a good standing in the community. So, at first he had little trouble raising a $5,000 bond.
However, as inquest details spread through town — particularly about Belle’s dying declaration — public sentiment turned against him.
Also, everyone knew Belle Sutliff had a spotless reputation and was beloved by her students.
Some of Bobo’s bondsmen surrendered him. And although his bond was reduced to $3,000, he couldn’t raise it and remained in custody.
☛ Preliminary Hearing ☚
On February 13, Lacy K. Bobo was brought before Justice W. H. McMillan at Wyoming, Iowa, for a preliminary hearing.
Presenting the evidence against him was Jones County Attorney Marshall W. Herrick, assisted by Charles E. Wheeler of Cedar Rapids and Oliver J. Felton from Oxford Junction.
By that time, Bobo had a high-powered legal team in place to defend him consisting of James W. Jamison of Cedar Rapids, as well as Oxford Junction lawyers Dallas D. Rorick and Julius C. Cantonwine.
Lacy Bobo vehemently denied the charges against him.
Bobo conceded the bottles Belle possessed bore his label and signature but claimed they contained harmless fluid when he gave them to her for what he termed “kidney disease.”
However, Belle’s brother Will produced the three bottles he had stored in his trunk and gave them to the Court for testing.
The Monticello Express wrote of Bobo:
“His guilt is not to be presumed, but the evidence introduced at the coroner’s inquest, if unexplained, makes him the victim of a pretty dark cloud.”
The preliminary examination lasted from February 13 to February 26.
Then, Justice D.L. McMillan held Bobo over to the Grand Jury under $2,500 bond, which he was able to produce.
☛ Lacy Bobo’s Public Relations ☚
The possible charges carried significant penalties. If found guilty of giving drugs or using instruments to cause abortion, Lacy Bobo would be sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. He would serve an even longer sentence for second degree murder.
So Bobo went into proactive mode with the media and, therefore, the public.
He darkly suggested blackmail and conspiracy by his “enemies” who he said were jealous of his successful practice. He claimed Belle’s fall on the ice caused the abortion and, then, the infection.
Bobo had supporters, although most were merely sympathetic to his wife, who was described by the Monticello Express as “half frantic.” His champions pointed out the accused man was “prominent in church and social affairs,” according to one newspaper.
☛ Grand Jury ☚
Jones County Attorney Marshall Herrick presented the same evidence before the grand jury as he did in the preliminary hearing.
By this time, the medicine bottles bearing Bobo’s label had been analyzed by Dr. Alvin Brainard Poore, who said they contained extract of Cotton Root, an abortion-inducing agent.
Bobo’s defense was to blame the victim. He and his attorneys claimed Belle lacked moral character and told lies and they insisted her fall on the ice caused her miscarriage and infection.
Also, Bobo said he was not with Belle during times claimed by the prosecution.
In addition, he tried to blame Dr. Cook for the abortion by producing a complicated trail of documents he said showed Belle paid Cook a significantly larger amount than for a mere house call.
He claimed Cook took Belle’s declaration and held onto it until she died before giving it to Dr. George Moore.
Still, the grand jury was not convinced by Bobo’s arguments. Many of the jurors believed no one would make false accusations when they were dying, as Belle Sutliff did.
Then a newspaper printed an account of Lacy Bobo’s life. Born in Tennessee and raised in Kentucky, he suddenly appeared in Allamakee County, Iowa, where a “scandal” forced him to leave town. Then he relocated to Oxford Mills.
☛ Trial ☚
Lacy Bobo’s trial for second degree murder began in early June. It was held on the second floor of Shaw’s Block, which Jones County then used as a courthouse.
Judge Thompson presided and one hundred witnesses were subpoenaed.
Again, Charles E. Wheeler and Oliver J. Felton assisted Jones County Attorney Marshall W. Herrick.
Bobo’s new legal team included the firms of Jamison & Smyth and Ellison, Ercanbrack & Lawrence, in addition to individual attorneys Dallas D. Rorick and Julius C. Cantonwine.
During jury selection, it was obvious that everyone in the pool had heard of the case or read newspaper articles about it.
However, in order to obtain a 12-man jury, Judge Thompson ruled that knowing about the case or even having formed an opinion about guilt or innocence would not disqualify a potential juror.
The men selected were W.E. Dutton, E.M. Harvey, George H. Lane, Timothy Milan, Arthur Peck, D.E. Glenn, J.W. Lamey, Horace G. Ames, A.E. McConaughy, Elmer E. Overley, S. Glick, and Lewis Kohl.
Seemingly untroubled by the accusations against him, Lacy Bobo arrived in court with his 30-year-old wife Hattie and their four-year-old daughter Bettie.
The Algona Upper Des Moines described Bobo and his wife of eight years sitting side by side:
“Dr. Bobo is six feet tall, of commanding figure, with an intelligent countenance, pleasant and agreeable manners and up to the time of this unfortunate occurrence bore an excellent reputation both as a physician and a man.”
The Monticello Express wrote:
“Mrs. Bobo is a neatly dressed and pleasant appearing woman . . . . Dr. Bobo, who is a fine looking man, under forty years of age, appears to have no uneasiness. He seems the least interested of any one present and displays an unusual amount of nerve.”
During arguments, Judge Thompson ruled out testimony from four witnesses — including Millie Lathrop — who said Belle told them Bobo was the father of her child, which he tried to abort.
However, Belle’s 16-page dying declaration about her affair, pregnancy, and Bobo’s abortion attempts was admitted.
The first witness, Mary Chapman — who nursed Belle Sutliff in her last days — described how the young woman declined and died.
Dr. Michael McMeel, who performed the autopsy, told of finding a large bruise on Belle’s hip from her fall.
But most significantly, McMeel described punctures through the inner and middle walls of her uterus and declared the cause of death as an inflammation of long standing due to abortion.
Dr. Alvin Brainard Poore of St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids — who analyzed the medicine Bobo gave Belle — showed the jury the bottles of medicine that Bobo gave Belle to drink and said they contained extract of Cotton Root, a known abortifacient. Then Dr. Poore held up a bottle of alcohol in which Belle’s uterus floated.
Defense attorneys grilled Dr. Poore about “germology,” infections, and other matters; but Poore, a graduate of New York University Medical College, held his own and never wavered.
Positive testimony about Belle was heard from Oxford Mills school principal J.M. Soko and her brother-in-law Ed Bumgarner.
Then Dr. F.E. Cook was called to describe his medical treatment of Belle. The defense wasted no time trying to discredit Cook, hoping to pin the abortion on him.
Dr. Cook swore he never spoke to Belle until he was called to her house on January 13 and diagnosed an infection caused by an abortion.
A recess followed Cook’s testimony.
☛ Drunken Juror ☚
During the recess, Bobo’s attorneys told Judge Thompson they were approached by Charles Barker and a known convict named Ralston. The two had gotten juror Timothy Milan drunk the night before and convinced him to hang the jury. Barker and Ralston wanted $100 for their work.
When court reconvened, Judge Thompson fined juror Timothy Milan $50 and sentenced him to 15 days in jail for being drunk on jury duty and for talking about the case, which was contempt of court.
The trial went on with only 11 jurors, and the two men who tried to fix the jury quickly disappeared.
☛ Defense of Lacy Bobo ☚
The defense then took its turn. They asserted that January 12 was the date the any abortion procedure was performed; this would have been the latest day possible before Dr. Cook examined Belle on January 13 and saw that she had an abortion.
Lacy Bobo’s wife Hattie took the stand to testify her husband was with her all night on January 12, made breakfast the next morning, and stayed home into the early afternoon. She knew this was true because her maid was not there that day.
Bobo’s attorneys asserted that Belle recovered from her initial illness enough to go back to school for a week, suggesting she miscarried and died from her icy fall.
To prove that Belle died from causes other than an abortion, they brought to the stand six men deemed “medical experts”: Dr. Austin H. Johnson and Dr. J.M. Ristine of Cedar Rapids; Dr. Lymon Joseph Adair of Anamosa; Dr. Charles Morris Luckey of Baldwin; Dr. John A. White of Olin; Dr. Wilbur of Anamosa; and Dr. John W. Cogswell — Professor of Obstetrics in the College of Homeopathic Medicine at the State University of Iowa.
All the physicians were asked the hypothetical question of how Belle died; all replied she died from her fall on the ice and from the harsh cold.
When cross-examined, however, they were asked to assume the facts laid out by the defense were true. All then said they would attribute Belle’s death to the use of instruments to induce abortion.
Lacy Bobo himself then testified briefly, swearing he did not perform the abortion. When the prosecution questioned him further, his denial became more emphatic.
The testimony concluded at noon on June 9 and the afternoon was devoted to closing statements by Prosecutors Marshall W. Herrick and Frederick O. Elison. James W. Jamison summed up for the defense, and then Charles E. Wheeler offered a rebuttal for the prosecution.
The jury began deliberating at 3:00 p.m. on June 10. Within 90 minutes, they returned with an acquittal of Lacy Bobo for the death of Belle Sutliff.
☛ Power and Position ☚
Court watchers believed Lacy Bobo’s defense successfully raised doubt while the prosecution had an uphill battle from the beginning.
Lacy Bobo had powerful and well-known attorneys on his team. Dallas D. Rorick was a former member of the Iowa Legislature. Several of the defense attorneys were law partners with judges; one practiced law with a Congressman.
In a small town like Anamosa, prominent names — like those of the defense team — or powerful position carried great influence.
Prosecution attorney Charles Wheeler blamed this fact for the jury’s refusal to punish Bobo, as well as the newspapers which had doggedly covered the case. Wheeler told the Cedar Rapids Gazette:
“We not only had to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond reasonable doubt, but we also had to protect one of our own witnesses [Dr. Cook] against whom the defendant has a good case.”
The case was “good” in the sense that it was easy to shift blame to another physician who had treated Belle.
☛ Blaming the Victim ☚
All of Bobo’s powerful defense attorneys are described in historical biographies as being staunch Christians and members of fraternal brotherhoods that promote charity.
Yet, they had no qualms about blackening the name of a young woman who lived a spotless life of service to children until she was seduced by a married man, whose actions ultimately killed her.
Belle’s candid and specific statement about her affair and abortion were admitted at trial and read aloud.
Jurors no doubt were shocked by an account which the Daily Iowa Capital deemed “unfit to print.”
The Monticello Express, without explanation about whom it was directed at, ended one account of the trial with a single sentence: “‘The wages of sin is death.’”
☛ Realities of 19th Century Abortion ☚
Nineteenth century women lacked accurate information on family planning. And they had little recourse when becoming pregnant out of wedlock, as Belle did, or being in a situation unfavorable to having a child.
In 1897, abortion was legal in Iowa only if the life of the mother depended on it.
Most abortions were attempted by pregnant women themselves or by midwives.
“Medicinal” herbs available in drugstores as “menstrual aids,” could be steeped and drunk as tea. The most common were Pennyroyal, Rutin, Tansy, and Cotton Root — which is what Lacy Bobo gave to Belle.
Sticks of Slippery Elm were often inserted into the body, but this could cause infection.
The more invasive methods were crude and used instruments the women had in their homes: knitting needles, hair pins, kitchen utensils, crochet hooks, scissors, and button hooks.
The risk of bleeding to death was high and the unsanitary conditions and damage done to internal organs — such as nicking the bowel — led to infections and death.
Belle Sutliff was caught in an untenable position. She had no husband, her lover was married, and her ability to support herself depended on an unblemished reputation.
She turned to the father of her child, a medical doctor who should have been able to help her.
Instead, he performed a botched abortion that killed her. While she was critically ill in her last month of life, he turned his back on her.
☛ Belle Sutliff’s Life ☚
Clara Belle “Belle” Sutliff was born in 1868 in Johnson County, Iowa, to Jane G. Young and William Harrison Sutliff, a stone mason who served in the Union Army.
She had two siblings, Mary Eva Sutliff Bumgarner and William Edward Sutliff. There were also five step-siblings from her mother’s first marriage to Miles Haddon Corbett: Ellsworth M. Corbett, Rhodella Corbett, John Haddon Corbett, George Corbett, and Celia C Corbett.
The Sutliff family lived in Scotch Grove Township after Belle’s birth and then moved to Oxford Mills.
Belle studied teaching and then returned to her hometown to instruct students in the local school. She was described by the Daily Iowa Capital as “one of the most popular Oxford Mills school teachers.”
Through her own industry and hard work, Belle saved money to buy a small home to provide a place for herself and her younger brother Will to live.
She met Dr. Lacy Kindred Bobo in 1894 when he treated her for measles. Shortly after that, the illicit affair began that ultimately led to her death.
Belle is buried near her mother in the North Madison Pioneers Cemetery at Center Junction.
☛ Life Goes On For Lacy Bobo ☚
After his acquittal of murdering Belle Sutliff, Lacy Bobo stayed in Jones County, living in Oxford Junction for several years.
In 1910, he was a physician at the Iowa Sanitarium in Maquoketa, where he lived with his wife Hattie daughter Bettie.
He maintained a private practice in Maquoketa that apparently catered to women patients. An ad with the text below appeared in the Jackson Sentinel on October 2, 1914:
Sometime after 1914, Lacy and Hattie Bobo moved to Dallas, Texas. A contributor to a genealogy site has stated that Hattie was a “graduate nurse” and the couple “founded Forney hospital.”All available censuses and other historical material before 1914 provide “home maker” as Hattie’s occupation.
Historical records about a hospital named Forney are not available. Whatever Lacy Bobo did in Texas was accomplished in a small time frame between 1915 and 1917.
On September 20, 1917, Lacy Kindred Bobo — then 58 — died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in Grove Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas. Hattie Bobo lived until 1942.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Bobo’s Trial,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 19, 1897.
- ☛ “The Case Against Dr. Bobo,” Monticello Express, February 25, 1897.
- ☛ “Case of Murder,” Daily Iowa Capital, February 19, 1897.
- ☛ “Celebrated Case Against Dr. Lacy Bobo of Oxford Junction Before Grand Jury,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 9, 1897.
- ☛ “A Criminal Operation,” Monticello Express, February 18, 1897.
- ☛ Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929.
- ☛ “Dr. Bobo Acquitted,” Monticello Express, June 10, 1897.
- ☛ “The Bobo Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 11, 1897.
- ☛ “Dr. Bobo Held,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 1, 1897.
- ☛ “Dr. Bobo Held To the Grand Jury,” Monticello Express, March 4, 1897.
- ☛ “Dr. Bobo On Trial,” Algona Upper Des Moines, June 9, 1897.
- ☛ “The Dr. Bobo Trial,” Monticello Express, June 10, 1897.
- ☛ “Dr. Bobo Was Not Guilty,” Iowa State Bystander, June 11, 1897.
- ☛ “A Conspiracy,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 3, 1897.
- ☛ “Evidence Seems Strong,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 23, 1897.
- ☛ “Fresh Court News,” Monticello Express, June 3, 1897.
- ☛ History of Jones County, Iowa, R. M. Corbit, Editor-in-Chief. Vols I & II. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1910.
- ☛ “Is Under Arrest,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 15, 1897.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas County Sun, June 11, 1897.
- ☛ “Professional Cards,” Jackson Sentinel, October 2, 1914 (posted by Ken Wright, Jackson County GenWeb).
- ☛ “Sensation in Bobo Trial, “Buffalo Center Tribune, June 17, 1897.
- ☛ University of Louisville Library Digital Collections.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Will Be Hardly Fought,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 19, 1897.