The “Inoffensive, Harmless Man”: Murder of John Murphy 1904

Murder Victim

John “Jack” Murphy
41-year-old Saloon Custodian and Porter
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

N. 6th and Concert streets
Keokuk, Iowa
Lee County
November 27, 1904


By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2011

Keokuk, Iowa mapIn Keokuk on Sunday, November 27, 1904, sunrise came at 7:07 a.m.

So it was still pitch dark at 6:00 a.m. when 41-year-old John Murphy left the house where he lived with his widowed mother and siblings at the corner of 12th and Canal Road near the Des Moines Rapids Canal on the Mississippi River.

John — described by a newspaper as a “happy-go-lucky character” — cleaned a downtown Keokuk saloon every day and wanted to get that job done before going to Mass at the Church of All Saints.

from the Tri-City Star

At the corner of Sixth and Concert streets — only two blocks from the Keokuk Police Department — Murphy encountered a man who fired a gun once into his chest.

Although mortally wounded, Murphy walked west half-a-block to William Sinton’s stable at 523 Blondeau Street.

Before he fell backwards on to the ground, he told the night watchman there:

“I have been shot.”

Keokuk Police were quickly notified and took Murphy’s body to the Station House, where he died without saying anything else.

Several residents saw the shooting but said it was too dark to make out the gunman’s features.

from the Pella Chronicle

Bloodhounds belonging to a man named Daley were brought to track the shooter, but by then too many other people had passed through the scene for the dogs to obtain a scent.

The murder appeared to be entirely unprovoked, although some in the neighborhood said they heard two men arguing just before the gun went off.

photo by Valerie Lafrenz

photo by Valerie Lafrenz

Iowa Governor Albert B. Cummins offered a $200 reward for the apprehension of Murphy’s killer.

John Murphy was born on the day after St. Patrick’s Day in 1863 to Keokuk residents and Irish immigrants Mary O’Neil and Michael Murphy. He had seven siblings — Sarah Murphy Wadden, Thomas Michael Murphy, Michael Harry Murphy, Patrick J. Murphy, Mary L. Murphy, Katherine B. “Katie” Murphy, and Maggie F. Murphy.

The Anita Republican wrote of Murray:

“The dead man worked around the saloons of the city and was an inoffensive, harmless man, who had no enemies. There seems no reason whatever for his murder.”


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



  • 1901-02 Keokuk City Directory, transcribed by Carol Salli, Lee County IAGenWeb.
  • ☛ “Death On The Way To Mass,” Tri-City Star, November 29, 1904.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 13, 1904.
  • ☛ “Of Interest In Iowa,” Morning Sun News-Herald, December 22, 1904.
  • ☛ “Of Interest In Iowa,” Parnell Iowa County Advertiser, December 9, 1904.
  • ☛ “Officers On Trail Of A Murderer,” Tri-City Star, November 30, 1904.
  • ☛ “The State Of Iowa,” Lime Springs Sun,” December 15, 1904.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Want Stranger Who Killed Jno. [sic] Murphy at Keokuk,” Anita Republican, November 30, 1904.

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