The “Menial Drudge”: Murder of Lovina Kneeskern 1876

Murder Victim

Lovina Peck Kneeskern
51-year-old Farm Wife
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Love Triangle

Murder Scene and Date

Frankville Township
South of Decorah, Iowa
Winneshiek County
April 28, 1876


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2012

In contemporary society, Lovina Kneeskern would be considered a battered spouse. She could go to a place of shelter and safety and find help through an agency or the courts.

But Lovina had no protection from domestic abuse before she died in 1876. Even those who knew about or witnessed the mistreatment failed to help her.

☛ “Hell Upon Earth” ☚

Frankville Township is south of Decorah in

Frankville Township is south
of Decorah in Winneshiek County

Lovina Kneeskern often had blackened eyes from beatings by her husband Aaron. He threatened her with butcher knives and once chased her from their house and through the farm fields threatening to hit her with his heavy boot.

And there was personal humiliation as well. In 1866, Aaron Kneeskern brought into their home a “second wife” — Eliza Ann Walker, a woman 15 years younger than Lovina.

Eliza Walker is listed in the 1870 Census as a member of the Kneeskern household, but her relationship to the head of the family — Aaron — was not provided, which is not the usual practice in a census.

Lovina was what one newspaper termed a “menial and a drudge,” while Eliza Walker was Aaron’s “preferred” wife.

Eliza Walker also abused Lovina. Neighbors once saw marks on Lovina’s throat left by Eliza’s attempts to strangle her.

Lovina often pleaded with Eliza Walker to leave the house and let her be. Sometimes Eliza actually left, but Aaron Kneeskern always brought her back.

There were four Kneeskern children when Eliza arrived; the oldest was 15. Lovina gave birth to her last child, Myra, while both women lived in the house.

Lovina had no recourse but to stay in the abusive situation. The only option for her was to move to the County Poor Farm, which she apparently felt would be more humiliating than living with the abuse.

Neighbors in Frankville Township, although aware of the unorthodox living arrangements and the physical violence, did not help Lovina.

☛ Sudden Sickness ☚

A hand points upwards on Lovina Kneeskern’s tombstone (photo David DeCou).

Other than her ongoing injuries from physical mistreatment, Lovina had no major medical problems besides an occasional headache.

Then at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, 1876, Lovina was suddenly seized with horrible, incessant convulsions and became unable to speak or swallow.

Aaron Kneeskern and “second wife” Eliza Walker took no action. When a neighbor learned Lovina was deathly sick, he contacted Dr. George A. Rogers.

When he arrived, Dr. Rogers could not help Lovina because she was “insensible” and unable to swallow medicine. Lovina lingered in this horrible state until 2:00 a.m. on Friday, April 28, when she died.

Dr. Rogers immediately suspected poison.

☛ Autopsy and Inquest ☚

from the Davenport Gazette

Initially, Aaron Kneeskern seemed anxious to learn the cause of his wife’s death. However, when the County Coroner and Dr. Rogers announced an autopsy, he became enraged and made threats against Lovina’s friends who had requested it.

Decorah physician Dr. W.F. Coleman helped Dr. Rogers with the post-mortem. They found that every organ in Lovina’s body was normal except the stomach, which they sealed in a jar.

Coroner Acles Haven Fannon convened an inquest at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and concluded it 23 hours later.

Doctors Rogers and Coleman testified about Lovina’s symptoms and the autopsy findings.

Then Aaron Kneeskern and Eliza Walker took the stand and insisted they were baffled by Lovina’s death. The Kneeskern children were also questioned, but they swore the household was happy and peaceful.

A local newspaper called the children “well trained” in protecting Aaron Kneeskern and Eliza Walker and speculated the children feared “the living” more than they wanted to help the dead.

One newspaper rebutted the children’s testimony of harmony in the household:

“For miles in all directions it is positively known to the contrary, and also known that Mrs. Kneeskern has dwelt there in mesery (sic), it being nothing but Pandemonium or a hell upon earth for her.”

The coroner’s jury ruled Lovina was killed by “narcotic poisons, administered by hands unknown.”

Although the death was declared a murder, there was not enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Sheriff Jacob Harrison Womeldorf to serve on a specific suspect.

☛ Belated Community Outrage ☚

When the coroner released Lovina’s body on Sunday, April 30, a funeral was held and she was buried immediately.

The Postville Review indignantly wrote:

“The citizens of Frankville and vicinity have allowed the performances to go on unmolested for some 10 or 12 years; oh! Shame! shame!, can it be possible that people living in a free and enlightened country, would allow such damnable work and influence to pass before the eyes of their children unmolested [and] unrebuked? It is time it was stopped. . . . Will we allow a woman to be abused for years and finally undoubtedly murdered? If justice is due, deal it out, deal not loosely with such a matter as we have before us.”

☛ Inspired to Murder? Life Goes On ☚

Winneshiek County was the scene of a similar death only months before Lovina died. Helen D. Stickles was accused but eventually acquitted of using strychnine to kill her husband John P. Stickles on January 4, 1876. Click here to read “Strictly Strychnine: Murder of John P. Stickles 1876.”

Was this case an inspiration for Aaron Kneeskern and Eliza Walker to get rid of Lovina?

Eliza Walker stayed on in the Kneeskern house; she insisted that she had “been in the family” before Lovina’s death and she would continue to be there afterwards.

On March 7, 1877, Aaron Kneeskern and Eliza Walker were married at Decorah by Justice of the Peace A.H. Daniels. Nine days after their wedding, Aaron’s and Eliza’s first child, Katherine, was born.

☛ Troubles With the Law

In 1878, Aaron Kneeskern was charged with “uttering a forged instrument.”

Judge Reuben Noble

This case was handled judicially through Fayette County Courts with Tenth Judicial District Judge Reuben Noble presiding. Kneeskern was found guilty and then asked for a new trial.

When Kneeskern failed to appear at a new trial hearing, he forfeited his $1,000 bail and was arrested on a bench warrant and placed in the Clayton County Jail.

Ultimately, Aaron Kneeskern was sentenced to the Anamosa Penitentiary for two years and fined ten dollars and court costs of $38.98. At the time of the 1880 census, he was an inmate at Anamosa.

It’s possible that Winneshiek County citizens and law enforcement believed that Aaron Kneeskern got away with murder and felt any punishment — however small — would be some justice for Lovina.

☛ Death Comes to Aaron Kneeskern ☚

In 1893, Aaron Kneeskern took ill with stomach cancer and suffered many months before he died on July 31, 1894. He was buried beside Lovina, the wife he mistreated and possibly poisoned.

When Eliza Walker Kneeskern — who lived in Lovina’s home and abused her — died in 1915, she was eligible to be buried in the Marshalltown Iowa Veterans Home Cemetery because of Aaron Kneeskern’s military service.

☛ Lovina Kneeskern’s Life ☚

Lovina Peck was born January 10, 1825 in Oswego, New York, to Margaret and Samuel Peck. She had four brothers: William Samuel, James, and Levi Peck, as well as one sister — Charlotte Peck Perry.

In 1852 in Oswego County, New York, Lovina married Aaron Kneeskern, the man who would make her life a hell on earth. They moved to Iowa about 1858 and settled in Bloomfield Township near Castalia in Winneshiek County.

Kneeskern, a Union veteran of the Civil War, worked variously as a farm laborer, a machinist, and a butcher and the couple had five children: Alwilda “Wilda” Kneeskern, James G. Kneeskern, Adlaid Kneeskern Wilson, Ella Kneeskern, and Myra M. Kneeskern Schoonmaker.

Lovine was laid to rest in Greenwood Centennial Cemetery in Castalia, Iowa. Even in death, Aaron claimed her as his and would lie beside her for eternity. Her stone is engraved:

“Lovina Kneeskern
Wife of Aaron Kneeskern
died April 28, 1875
Aged 51 yr’s 8 m’s, 18 d’s”

On the stone, a finger points upwards as though answers to her death lie in the heavens.

☛ Murder: Family Curse or Pattern? ☚

Forty-five years after the death of Lovina Kneeskern, the darkness of murder once again settled on the family.

Aaron’s and Lovina’s grandson B. Frank Kneeskern — the son of their daughter Ella, who married her first cousin John H. Kneeskern — committed double homicide, a sensational case that drew statewide and national attention.

Frank Kneeskern, a large-scale cattle buyer in Castalia, seemed to have it all: successful business, land, wife and child, as well as community respect and prominence.

But on December 11, 1921, Frank shot and killed Charles VanBrocklin, 21, and his strikingly beautiful 18-year-old wife Irene, the mother of a small son.

The young murdered couple lived in a dilapidated cabin in the Moneek area of Winneshiek County near Yellow River southwest of Frankville.

From the Postville Herald

The Postville Herald photo array at right shows the crime scene and the principals in the double homicide trial: victim Charles VanBrocklin, Elmer VanBrocklin, victim Irene VanBrocklin, Frank Kneeskern and his wife Alta and son John, and Irene’s mother Rachel Rice.

Locals believed Irene VanBrocklin was Frank Kneeskern’s mistress and the murders were the violent end to a love triangle.

At trial, Frank Kneeskern’s defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to shift blame for the murders onto Charles VanBrocklin’s brother Elmer.

Kneeskern was found guilty and there was wide sentiment he should hang. However, he was spared the death penalty and sentenced instead to life at hard labor in the Fort Madison Penitentiary.

Nine years later, Frank Kneeskern “confessed” his part in the double homicide to former Winneshiek County Attorney J.A. Nelson, although he did not present a narrative community members believed was complete or truthful.

Kneeskern said he came upon the VanBrocklins’ cabin while hunting and went inside when he heard quarrelling. He claimed he saw Charles VanBrocklin kill Irene with a shotgun and took the gun away from him. After VanBrocklin threatened him with an ax, Kneeskern said he fired on him, left, and later returned with a neighbor to “discover” the bodies.

Despite his appeals for clemency and new trials, Frank Kneeskern lived out his life in prison and died in an Iowa City Hospital in 1945 at the age of 63.


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


☛ David Jindrich contributed special research and correspondence to this article.☚


  • ☛ Dubuque Times, May, 1876.
  • ☛ “Great Excitement in Frankville!” Postville Review, May 3, 1876.
  • ☛ “Held Secret Nine Years,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, December 2, 1930.
  • ☛ “Iowa Condensed,” Davenport Gazette, May 8, 1976.
  • ☛ Jim Schultz, Personal Correspondence, October 2012.
  • ☛ “Kneeskern Found Guilty A Second Time Of Double Murder At Moneek,” PostvilleHerald, January 25, 1923.
  • ☛ “Kneeskern Maintains That He’s Innocent Wants New Trial,” Oelwein Daily Register, January 25, 1923.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Rice Talks on Kneeskern: Mother of Mrs. Irene VanBrocklin The Murdered Girl Quoted As Defending Kneeskern,” Decorah Public Opinion, November 15, 1922 (courtesy Jose A. Munoz).
  • ☛ “Nelson, Once Kneeskern Prosecutor, Puts Brand Of ‘True’ On New Story,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, November 28, 1930.
  • ☛ State of Iowa vs. Aaron Kneeskern, 1878.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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