“The Peaceable Negro”: Murder of John Allen 1864

Murder Victim

John Allen
Employee of the Demoine [sic] House
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Drunken Aggression

Murder Scene and Date

Ensign Livery Stable
Walnut between 2nd & 3rd
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
July 8, 1864


By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2011

It was a senseless, tragic murder perpetrated against an innocent victim. And although the crime was witnessed in broad daylight, the killer was never brought to justice.

☛ Drunk and Deadly

Looking east from the Walnut Street Bridge, 1866 (from bridgehunter.com)

Looking east across the Walnut Street Bridge, 1866 (from bridgehunter.com)

In 1864, Des Moines was a tough frontier town. The photo at left looks east across the Walnut Street Bridge towards the roughhewn structures on Walnut where Ensign’s Livery Stable — the murder scene — was located.

During the summer of 1864, Company K of the 10th Iowa Volunteer Infantry was taking a veteran furlough in Des Moines after seeing heavy service in the deep South.

Des Moines saloons offered plenty to drink, and many of the soldiers over-indulged.

On Friday, July 8, 26-year-old Private John McRoberts was drunk and quarrelsome as he staggered along Walnut Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street. Although an Indiana native, McRoberts lived in Des Moines before joining the Union Army in 1861 and was familiar with the city.

from the Des Moines City Directory, 1866

from the Des Moines City Directory, 1866

He first tried to pick a fight with local carpenter Samuel A. Robertson and then threatened to shoot him. Seeing that McRoberts was angry and out of control, Robertson walked away quickly.

As McRoberts stood in front of Ensign’s Livery Stable, a black man named John Allen — described by newspapers as “peaceable” — walked towards him on the sidewalk.

from the Weekly Hawk-Eye

McRoberts hailed John Allen, who stopped to see what he wanted and then moved on. While many witnesses watched horrified, McRoberts drew his pistol and shot Allen in the head. The victim fell dead instantly.

Initially, the victim was identified incorrectly “as a negro [sic] named Brown.”

The authorities immediately arrested John McRoberts and placed him in jail. He was indicted for murder by a grand jury.

However, justice was never served. In recording sensational crimes in the city and county, the 1898 Annals Of Polk County, Iowa And City Of Des Moines wrote this about the murder:

“[McRoberts] was never placed on trial, found guilty and hung, as he should have been. He escaped or was quietly released and hurried off to the army, then in the field. After the close of the war and his discharge from the army, it is said, the reckless murderer visited Des Moines, and no effort was made to apprehend him. The man he wantonly murdered had been long buried and forgotten.”

John Allen worked at the Demoine House in Des Moines

John Allen worked at the Demoine House in Des Moines

Less than a month after the murder — on August 4, 1864 — the 10th Iowa Volunteer Infantry reported for duty at Kingston, Georgia, and was sent on an expedition against Rebel forces at Mill Place.

John McRoberts survived the war. He married, had a large family, and moved west, dying in Idaho in 1908.

☛ Life of the Victim

Little is known about John Allen, including his burial place, except that he worked at J. Carroll’s establishment the Demoine [sic] House located at First and Walnut in Des Moines.

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


  • 1866 Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa, City Directory.
  • ☛ “Death By Shooting,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, July 9, 1864.
  • ☛ “ex parte McRoberts,” A source-book of military law and war-time legislation, United States, War Department Committee on Education.
  • ☛ George Goltz, Personal Correspondence, July 2011.
  • ☛ “Our State,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, July 23, 1864.
  • ☛ “Peaceable Negro Killed,” Chapter XXII: Crimes, Annals Of Polk County, Iowa And City Of Des Moines, 1898.
  • ☛  Regimental History of the 10th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, 1866 Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Iowa.
  • ☛ U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles.

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