The Czech Marble Cutter: Murder of Matej Straka 1878

Murder Victim

Matej “Matthew” Straka
45-year-old Stone Cutter
Le Grand Quarry
Marshall County, Iowa
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Deserted Road
4 Miles West of Chelsea, Iowa
Tama County
August 29, 1878


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2013

location of Chelsea, Iowa

location of Chelsea, Iowa

After his immigration from Bohemia in the late 1860s, Matej Straka made a good life for himself and his family as a marble cutter at the Le Grand Quarry in Marshall County, Iowa, and lived in the small unincorporated community of Quarry about 10 miles southeast of Marshalltown.

He was sometimes called “Matthew,” the Americanization of his Czech first name.

Straka was doing so well in his new country, in fact, that he was able to save enough money to purchase land in adjoining Tama County near Chelsea.

☛ Brutal Murder: Differing Accounts ☚

Straka boarded a train at the Quarry Railroad Station on August 27, 1878.

Straka boarded a train at the
Quarry Depot on August 28, 1878.

On Wednesday, August 28, 1878, Straka boarded the Chicago & Northwestern train at the Quarry Depot and headed to Chelsea.

What happened to Straka over the next two days was reported in newspapers of the time and then again five years later in the 1883 History of Tama County, Iowa.

Aside from the basic fact that 45-year-old Straka was murdered and robbed, the two sources provide differing details, foremost that the history book incorrectly identified victim Matej Straka as “Michael Straka.”

According to newspaper articles, Straka traveled to Tama County to make a payment on the land he was buying, whereas the history book says he traveled to Chelsea to purchase a team of horses.

The Dubuque Herald described Straka as a “sober, honest and esteemed citizen.” The History of Tama County, Iowa, however, records that the victim went to a Chelsea saloon on August 28, got “recklessly drunk,” showed off the several hundred dollars he was carrying, and then stayed overnight at a friend’s house near town.

Postcard view of Chelsea, Iowa

Early postcard view of Chelsea, Iowa.

The two versions agree that in the mid-afternoon of Thursday, August 29, Straka was walking alone on a deserted road four miles west of Chelsea when a stranger stepped out of the nearby woods into his path, pulled a large revolver, and shot him pointblank.

As Straka lay gravely wounded, the robber rifled his pockets and took $250, overlooking, however, the victim’s pocketbook containing $100.

from the Dubuque Herald

from the Dubuque Herald

Straka lay helpless for hours on the seldom-used road, going in and out of consciousness.

Newspaper accounts report that ultimately a passerby found him and was able to alert others, who carried him to a place where he could be cared for. The History of Tama County records that Straka crawled to a nearby house, where residents took him in and tended his wounds.

In both versions, Straka described the man who shot and robbed him, but the details he provided were not specific enough for investigators to locate a suspect.

Straka lingered in terrible pain until the morning of Friday, August 30, when he died.

☛ Great Outrage ☚

Matej Straka's tombstone was inscribed in Chezc (photo by

Straka’s tombstone is inscribed in Czech (photo by louis).

Whatever the specific details of the victim and the crime, there was great consternation about the robbery-murder, which took place in broad daylight.

The History of Tama County Iowa termed it a “foul and dastardly act” and the Dubuque Herald wrote that it was, “The most diabolical murder and robbery . . . committed in central Iowa for many a year.”

The sense that a lynching might occur if the culprit were caught was captured in an Alden (Iowa) Times article:

“The whole population is aroused and in hot pursuit of the villain, but with some four hours start, it is doubtful if they capture him, but if they do so great is the excitement, he will be very apt to swing.”

☛ Matej Straka’s Life ☚

Matej Straka was born in Bohemia in 1833 and was married there to a woman named Barbara, who was born in 1840. The couple had a son Frank in 1862 and a daughter Mary in 1865, both born before the family immigrated to the United States.

Straka was buried in the Holy Trinity Cemetery in Otter Creek Township of Tama County.

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



  • ☛ “Chapter XLI: Events of Interest,” History of Tama County, Iowa. Springfield, Illinois: Union Publishing Company, 1883.
  • ☛ “Crimes and Casualties,” Dubuque Herald, September 1, 1878.
  • ☛ Gravestone Records of Tama County, Iowa.
  • ☛ “News, Note, and Notations,” Iowa State Reporter, September 4, 1878.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Personal,” Alden (Iowa) Times, September 6, 1878.

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