Josiah M. Pratt
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Love Triangle
Murder Scene and Date
Pratt Farm Home
Elm Grove Township
Near Yetter, Iowa
June 25, 1905
By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2012
In the early years of the 20th century, Josiah M. Pratt was a well-regarded farmer living a mile-and-a-half south of Yetter in Elm Grove Township of Calhoun County.
In early summer of 1905, 33-year-old Pratt began having stomach problems that continued for weeks. He complained of “burning” pains and said his feet and hands felt numb and cold; his eyes were very blood-shot.
Three physicians examined Pratt and all said he suffered from acute gastritis. They also said later that Jennie Pratt telephoned saying he was terribly ill but when they arrived he was improved.
During Pratt’s illness, the farm work was carried on by 26-year-old hired hand William Spurgeon “Will” Persing, who had worked for Pratt since the previous winter.
Persing also gave Josiah Pratt’s wife Jennie moral and — some thought — emotional help while her husband was laid up.
☛ Josiah Pratt’s Death ☚
During the third week in June, Pratt became incapacitated by his symptoms. By June 22, he was sinking quickly.
That day, Jennie Pratt rode into Yetter to buy “medicine,” even though Pratt’s family strongly opposed her leaving while her husband was so ill. Jennie kept secret what she bought.
The day before Josiah’s death, Pratt’s mother Elizabeth and others urged Jennie to hire a specially-trained nurse; she resisted until Pratt himself rallied enough to say he wanted one.
On Saturday, June 24, Josiah Pratt said his body was on fire and then deteriorated into a state approaching death.
In the custom of the times, neighbors took turns staying in Pratt’s room as “watchers” to his death, which came in the early hours of Saturday.
☛ What the Death “Watchers” Saw ☚
In addition to seeing Josiah’s death, watchers and family witnessed alarming behavior from Jennie Pratt and Will Persing. They were seen hugging and kissing. And Jennie clasped Will’s hand at the foot of the bed while watching Josiah die.
Minutes after Josiah’s death, watchers discovered Jennie and Will lying on a bed in an adjacent room.
When the Yetter Savings Bank opened on the morning of Pratt’s death, Will Persing was there to ask cashier E.A. Richards about a $1,000 life insurance policy that named Jennie as the beneficiary.
In the afternoon, Will and the newly-widowed Jennie Pratt traveled together to Lake City.
Watchers and the Pratt family told authorities about these suspicious events and Pratt’s relatives persuaded Yetter Mayor John B. McCrary to treat Josiah’s death as a murder and to ask the Calhoun County Attorney to investigate.
☛ Funeral Procession Interrupted ☚
The widow Pratt made plans to bury her husband on Monday, June 26. She employed undertaker W.E. Jones, who embalmed Josiah Pratt through the arteries and placed a very small amount of embalming fluid in his mouth.
After the services, the funeral procession left for the burial. As the cortege neared the cemetery, Calhoun County Sheriff Abraham L. Riseley, County Attorney Marion E. Hutchison, and County Coroner Dr. Alva C. Norton halted it.
The three men seized the body from the minister and placed Will Persing under arrest for murdering Josiah Pratt.
As Will Persing was arrested and taken away, Jennie Pratt became hysterical.
After an autopsy by Dr. Alva Norton and a preliminary inquest, the funeral cortege was allowed to resume its trek to the cemetery.
☛ Poison Discovered ☚
During the autopsy, Pratt’s stomach was removed and sent with other organs to Dr. A.L. Linn of the Iowa State Board of Health in Des Moines. Linn opened the stomach for examination by State Chemist and Des Moines Chemistry professor Charles Noyes Kinney.
Jennie Pratt told her dead husband’s family she knew Kinney would find something suspicious in Josiah’s stomach because she spilled fly poison water that soaked two tablets she later gave him.
Kinney, in fact, did find large quantities of arsenic in Pratt’s stomach, but he had to make certain it was not from embalming.
Sheriff Riseley obtained some of the fluid used by the undertaker and took it to Professor Kinney in Des Moines, who found no match with the stomach contents. In addition, Kinney declared that the small amount of embalming fluid in the mouth could not have gotten into the stomach.
Kinney ruled that arsenic was introduced into Pratt’s body before death.
On July 5, a formal inquest was held in Rockwell City and Kinney told the coroner’s jury that of the 60 to 75 stomachs he examined in similar situations during his 18-year career, Pratt’s was the most extensively damaged.
The jury also heard corroborating evidence from neighbors, friends, and members of the Pratt family who believed Josiah Pratt was slowly poisoned over time so Jennie could be free for a relationship with Persing.
The coroner’s jury ruled:
“Josiah M. Pratt came to his death by reason of poison administered to him by William Persing and Jennie Pratt.”
☛ Arrest of the Widow ☚
After the arrest of William Persing and her husband’s funeral, Jennie Pratt stayed noticeably quiet at home with her mother Mattie Coons and her two daughters, 11-year-old Cressie and 9-year-old Pearl.
On the evening of July 6, Sheriff Riseley arrested Jennie at the Pratt farm. Calm and unconcerned, she kissed Cressie and Pearl goodbye and asked her mother to take good care of them.
Placed in the jail where Will Persing had been held since June, Jennie showed no emotion when told he was in the same building.
However, when authorities informed Persing Jennie was under arrest, he protested, “She is innocent. She never poisoned Pratt.”
Persing also maintained he did not poison his employer either.
However, Persing faced more than the murder charge. Through the extensive publicity, Des Moines Detective W.W. Adams read about Persing and believed he was wanted for the June 18, 1902 rape of Polk City resident Ed Bryant’s 15-year-old daughter. Adams said that if Persing were released on the murder charges, he would be brought to Polk County to face rape accusations.
Persing denied the rape, also.
☛ Legal Preliminaries ☚
Jennie Pratt hired James M. Parsons, a well-known and successful criminal attorney from Rock Rapids, where she once taught school.
On July 9, 1905, Jennie Pratt and William Persing were scheduled for a preliminary hearing before Judge John F. Fouts but opted for a change of venue to the court of Rockwell City Justice of the Peace Thomas Tennant.
They were bound over to the September grand jury with a bond of $2,500 each.
Jennie Pratt furnished the money and moved to Rock Rapids to live with her mother until trial.
☛ The Worm Turns ☚
Will Persing, however, could not make his $2,500 bail and remained in jail.
Soon, Will’s protests of Jennie’s innocence were replaced by accusations that Jennie told him she desperately loved him; and when Josiah Pratt got sick, she begged him to stay at the farm with her if he died.
Persing was adamant that he fended off Jennie’s advances and explained to the Graettinger Times:
“You see, I’m engaged to marry a girl at Fonda and it wouldn’t be the square thing to go back on her. I intend to marry the girl yet if I get out of this fix.”
Will also told the newspaper that if Pratt was poisoned, he knew nothing about it.
☛ Preparing for Trial ☚
The September grand jury indicted Jennie Pratt and Will Persing for murder, and in November their case was assigned to the January 1906 term of the District Court.
Calhoun County Attorney Marion E. Hutchison prepared the case against Pratt and Persing. Jennie Pratt was defended by James M. Parsons and J.F. Lavender; Persing hired R.C. Gray and W.C. Gray.
The attorneys requested separate trials, with Jennie Pratt tried first.
☛ Newspaper Coverage Mirrors Divided Opinion ☚
The sensational trial attracted newspaper reporters from many large Midwestern cities. The details were reported nationwide in newspapers in Ohio, Indiana, California, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
Local newspapers also covered the trial and took strong positions for and against Jennie Pratt as the trial proceeded.
The Rock Rapids Review, her hometown newspaper, wrote that Jennie Pratt’s mother was “prostrated at her home . . . .” and that:
“She believes her daughter innocent, but the strain of the terrible ordeal through which her daughter is now going is too much for one her age. . . . The sympathies of this community are with the defendant and those who are intimately acquainted with her cannot be brought to believe that she could be guilty of such a dastardly crime. The Review is always with anyone in distress and sincerely hopes that Mrs. Pratt may be able to completely vindicate herself.”
But the Palo Alto Reporter did not hold back when it wrote on January 11:
“Smiling into each other’s eyes as the struggles of the man they are alleged to have put to death, grew weaker and weaker, openly and brazenly making love at his bedside while they calmly measured his heart beats and reckoned the time which his vitality could withstand the ravages of the deadly drug they are alleged to have secretly administered him. Mrs. Josiah Pratt and Will Persing stand accused of the most dastardly crime that has ever come to the notice of the Calhoun County courts.
Step by step yesterday the state endeavored to prove that Mrs. Pratt did not only murder her husband but that in the hour of his struggles for life she basked in the sunlight of her lover’s smiles and actually laughed for joy when faint articulation ceased and she [k]new that he was dead.
J.E. Morris testified that within thirty-six hours before Pratt’s death he saw Persing pass the defendant and slap her familiarly on the hip and that she did not resent it but smiled back at him.
“‘Mrs. Pratt was called about 30 minutes before the end came,’ testified William Brown, another neighbor. While she stood there, she held the hand of Persing until her husband died. When I told them he was dead, she leaned her head on Persing’s breast and said, “Oh.” They stood that way until I told them they had better retire. She went away with dry eyes.’”
Because Calhoun County citizens had formed such strong feelings about the case, the jury selection was long and difficult.
☛ The Prosecution’s Case ☚
As the trial started, County Attorney Hutchison argued there was “undue intimacy” between Jennie Pratt and Will Persing and their actions “were indiscreet at times, to say the least.”
Josiah’s mother Elizabeth Pratt gave a dramatic description of her son’s death and told the court that after he passed away she asked her granddaughter to tell Jennie to stop pursuing Persing and “to let up for the children’s sake.”
Vetter Drug Company owner S.L. McMickles testified that Jennie Pratt and Will Persing bought poisonous flypaper as well as a grain of arsenic at his business 36 hours before Josiah Pratt died. During that time also, Jennie’s daughter Cressie bought 8 sheets of flypaper from the store.
Hutchinson noted that both defendants prepared beverages for Josiah Pratt while he was ill and had an opportunity to poison him.
Supervisor John J. Cody testified Jennie told him about spilling flypaper water on tablets she gave Josiah.
Dr. A.M. Linn of the Iowa State Board of Health, stated that arsenic introduced before death killed Josiah Pratt. When asked by the defense if the arsenic could have be self-administered by Pratt, Dr. Linn agreed it was possible.
In his testimony, State Chemist Charles Noyes Kinney said he found arsenic in the stomach, spleen, and kidneys that was inconsistent with the undertaker’s embalming fluid.
☛ The Defense ☚
The defendant’s attorney James A. Parsons countered the prosecution, stressing that Jennie’s previous good character was a matter of record and that she and Josiah had a good relationship during their 14-year marriage.
Parsons argued that Josiah Pratt was sick for weeks and Jennie’s purchase of arsenic was made only two days before his death, long after he became critically ill.
The prosecution’s claims about arsenic were rebutted by a State University of Iowa Chemistry professor.
And, although could he not name specific disorders under cross-examination, a local doctor stated that Pratt’s death was due to a number of diseases.
The defense attorneys insisted that farmer Josiah Pratt and hired hand William Persing felt no animosity at any time and that Persing had no reason to kill his employer for the love of Jennie Pratt because he was engaged to be married on July 30, a fact that Jennie knew.
Josiah Pratt’s young daughter Cressie testified, and then Jennie Pratt took the stand in her own defense.
Jennie testified she was not in love with Will Persing and, therefore, would not have killed her husband to get him out of the way for Will.
Pratt’s family, she said, urged authorities to charge her with murder because they didn’t like her.
☛ Hung Jury ☚
After hearing three week’s of testimony and careful deliberation, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict: 10 voted for acquittal and 2 jurors — W.C. Guenther and E.A. Griffith — voted for conviction.
Jennie Pratt’s face twitched nervously before the verdict. When it was announced, she said nothing but shut her eyes as if praying.
The Buffalo Center Tribune wrote this about Jennie Pratt as she left with her attorney:
“Her face became radiant as she passed out into the open air and evidently felt that she was practically a free woman.”
☛ No New Trial ☚
The murder trial was continued until the next term of court in March.
However, Calhoun County officials decided that the divided citizenry made it impossible to get a unanimous verdict at a second trial, which would likely be long, difficult and expensive.
Therefore, the County Attorney entered a nolle prosequi that released the defendants from the charges.
☛ Afterwards ☚
Jennie had been free on bond since July, but Will Persing was incarcerated for the full nine months after his arrest the day of Josiah Pratt’s funeral.
Within an hour of being released from custody, Persing obtained a license to marry Mina Esther Fox of Fonda. The two were wed at her father’s home by Justice Thomas Tennant, who presided over preliminary hearings in the early stages of the murder charges. Mina’s and Will’s son Donald was born in 1905 while his father was in jail.
There is no record that Will Persing was ever charged and tried on the alleged 1902 Polk County rape charge.
Persing went on with his life, living in Iowa; he and Mina had six children.
On November 19, 1907 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Jennie Pratt married 49-year-old widower George N. Miller, who had five children from his first marriage.
After George N. Miller passed away, Jennie moved to California to live first with her deceased daughter Cressie Pratt Artz’s family and then with daughter Pearl Pratt Burns. Her date of death and place of burial are unknown, although family members speculate she may have died between 1933 and 1940.
☛ Controversy Lingers ☚
For years afterwards, Josiah Pratt’s death stirred local controversy and was even detailed in the historical account Past and Present of Calhoun County. Everyone had an opinion about whether Pratt died of murder or natural causes.
The Des Moines Daily News asked in a glaring January 12, 1906 headline:
”IF THE WOMAN DID NOT KILL PRATT, WHO DID?”
The answer will never be known.
☛ Josiah Pratt’s Life ☚
Josiah M. Pratt was born in Auburn, Sac County, Iowa, in October 1871 to Elizabeth Slaught and George Nelson Pratt. He had one sibling, Judson W. Pratt.
In 1891, he married Jennie L. Coons and they had two daughters, Cressie Velma Pratt (Artz) and Pearl E. Pratt (Burns).
He farmed near Vetter in Elm Grove Township of Calhoun County.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Accused of Murder,” Palo Alto Tribune, Wednesday, July 5, 1905.
- ☛ “Both Cases Are Dismissed,” Emmetsburg Democrat, March 14, 1906.
- ☛ “Fly Paper Used to Kill Pratt,” Des Moines Daily News, January 6, 1906.
- ☛ “Finds ‘Free’ Arsenic,” Carroll Herald, July 12, 1905.
- ☛ “Hawarden and Vicinity,” Hawarden Independent, July 20, 1905.
- ☛ “The Hawkeye State,” Graettinger Times, July 20, 1905.
- ☛ “The Hawkeye State,” Rock Valley Bee, January 19, 1906.
- ☛ “Laugh As Their Victim Dies,” Le Mars Globe-Post, January 10, 1906.
- ☛ “Lays Death to Arsenic,” Marble Rock Journal, January 25, 1906.
- ☛ “Mrs. Pratt To Be Tried,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, January 6, 1906.
- ☛ “Mrs. Pratt’s Trial,” Rock Rapids Review, January 11, 1906.
- ☛ “Murder Case Jury Disagrees,” Washington Post, January 18, 1906.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Oxford Mirror, November 23, 1905.
- ☛ “Poison Was Used Before His Death,” Algona Advance, July 13, 1905.
- ☛ “Poison Was Used Before His Death,” Sioux Valley News, July 13, 1905.
- ☛ “Poisoning In Embalming,” Pomeroy Herald, January 18, 1906.
- ☛ “The Pratt Case,” Past and Present of Calhoun County: a record of settlement, organization, progress, and achievement, Beaumont E. Stonebraker, 1915.
- ☛ “Pratt Jury Disagrees,” Austin (Minnesota) Daily Herald, January 19, 1906.
- ☛ “The Pratt Jury Fail To Agree,” Buffalo Center Tribune, January 26, 1906.
- ☛ “Says It Was Not Poison,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, January 15, 1906.
- ☛ “Theory Of Murder Given A Denial,” Oakland (California) Tribune, January 13, 1906.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “A Woman Bought Poison,” Emporia Gazette, January 6, 1906.
- ☛ “Watched Deadly Poison Destroy Life Of Victim,” Palo Alto Enterprise, January 11, 1906.
- ☛ Wayne Neuburger, Personal Correspondence, February 2016.
- ☛ “Woman Denies Both Charges,” Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune, January 13, 1906.