The Poisoned Family: Rhode-Elefson Murders 1948-1949

Murder Victims

Lucy Ann Kemp Rhode
72-year-old Farm Wife
1876-1948

Alonzo Lyman Rhode
75-year-old Farmer
1873-1949

Winifred Audrey Rhode Elefson
47-year-old Music Teacher
1901-1949

Cause of Deaths: Poisoned
Motive: Obtaining an Inheritance

Murder Locations and Dates

Tabor, Iowa
Fremont County

May 31, 1948
April 28, 1949
August 22, 1949

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By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

location of Tabor, Iowa

location of Tabor, Iowa

The Rhode and Kemp families had been prosperous farmers and prominent residents of Fremont County since settling there in the mid-1800s.

The families merged in 1896 when Alonzo Lyman Rhode and Lucy Ann Kemp married. The couple had four children — Wayne, Winifred, Bernice, and Harold.

Lyman Elefson
(from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil)

Life was good to them and their farming ventures. As the Rhodes aged, they knew there would be caring family close by to look after them.

They were particularly proud of their grandson Lyman Harvey Elefson — son of their daughter Winifred — who had excelled academically at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Lyman — a slight, bespectacled and mild-mannered young man — studied psychology and drama, read books on political theory, and engaged in weighty discussions at Don’s, the closest thing Iowa City had then to a gathering place for what Lyman Elefson considered the intelligentsia.

☛ Things Go Wrong ☚

In 1948, things started to come apart for the Rhode family.

Lyman Elefson at left performing in a university play (from The Hawkeye).

Lyman Elefson fancied himself a progressive thinker and longed for the intellectual and political stimulation he could not find in rural Fremont County or at the State University of Iowa. He moved to New York City, where he hoped to find like-minded people.

However, things didn’t work out in the big city for Lyman. On February 1, 1948, he sent his grandfather Alonzo three telegrams saying he had been robbed and was “starving.”

His mother’s brother Wayne Rhode wired Elefson money to come home, met him at the train depot, and let him stay in his home until March 2, 1948. Wayne Rhode later said Elefson had with him a suitcase full of books on communism and crime.

Then, Lucy Rhode had a stroke and Lyman Elefson took up residence at the family farm to help out. He liked to putter around the kitchen and cook for his grandparents.

☛ Death #1 ☚

Lucy Kemp Rhode, first victim

In mid-May 1948, Lucy Rhode fell ill with severe stomach symptoms her physician could not diagnose. After two weeks of intense pain and violent vomiting, she died on May 31, 1948.

Lyman Elefson stayed on at the Rhode farm after his grandmother’s death. His grandfather, Alonzo, was in good health and continued to farm.

☛ Death #2 ☚

Alonzo Rhode, second victim

Then on April 16, 1949, 75-year-old Alonzo Rhode fell sick with stomach complaints. He, too, had severe pain and vomiting and was taken to a Hamburg hospital, where he died on April 28.

At the time of her father’s death, 47-year-old Winifred Rhode Elefson was teaching in Alaska. She returned for Alonzo’s funeral and stayed at the Rhode farm with her son Lyman.

Winifred was widowed in 1941 when her husband Harvey Hobson Elefson — father of Lyman, an only child — died in Moline, Illinois, at the age of 43.

After her father Alonzo’s death, Winifred accepted a teaching job in California; when she underwent a physical for a health certificate that summer, she was deemed in good health.

☛ Death #3 ☚

Winifred Rhode Elefson, third vicitm

In mid-August before moving from Iowa to California, Winifred began to feel sick. She told a family member she had never felt anything like this illness and that her throat was burning and she was vomiting severely.

On August 18, Winifred was placed in an Omaha hospital, where she died on August 22. Her death certificate listed acute appendicitis as “a contributing cause” of death, but her symptoms were very similar to those her dead parents suffered.

At his widowed mother’s death, Elefson inherited $15,000. Of that, $10,000 was from 80 acres of the Rhode farm and money Winifred inherited from her parents; she also had a $5,000 life insurance policy.

As her executor, Lyman placed newspaper announcements saying he would settle her debts and he told family members he now had a “small fortune.” They often found him studying a plat of the land surrounding the Rhode farm, making notes about each property owner.

☛ Two Other Victims? ☚

After his mother Winifred’s death, Lyman went to live with his step-great-grandmother, 88-year-old Tabor resident Anna Kemp, the second wife of Lucy Kemp Rhode’s father.

Then, Anna Kemp, too, was rushed to the hospital violently ill with stomach complaints; however, efforts to save her were successful.

After nearly everyone in Lyman Elefson’s family was dead within a year’s time and another relative had become ill with the same symptoms the others had, authorities looked closely at the 1941 death of his father, Harvey Elefson in Illinois.

One attending physician said Harvey Elefson’s death was due “to complications”; another said it was a “throat infection”; and a third specified “complications resulting from typhoid fever.”

Later, investigators learned that Lyman Elefson was the only person with his father when he became ill.

☛ Looking for Poison ☚

Sheriff Christopher and Agent Gregerson compare notes (from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil).

Some in the community saw a suspicious pattern of deaths and illnesses in the family and they approached Fremont County Sheriff A.S. “Al” Christopher with their concerns.

Sheriff Christopher quietly investigated with assistance from Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agent Bob Gregerson. The two worked with Fremont County Attorney Harold Martin to piece together a case.

On October 1, the bodies of Lucy and Alonzo Rhode were exhumed and autopsies performed by Dr. W.J. Reals of Omaha. Reals found that Alonzo Rhode died of “acute inflammation of the large and small intestines.”

Reals turned Alonzo Rhode’s organs over to Iowa State Toxicologist Wilbur Teeters, who discovered arsenic and mercury in Alonzo’s liver, kidney, and bowels. Teeters concluded he was killed by a slow-acting poison consumed in small doses.

Test results on Lucy’s body were not released. Winifred’s body was cremated, eliminating any chance of toxicology tests.

☛ The Suspect: “Pink, if not Red” ☚

The investigative spotlight was turned on 22-year-old Lyman Elefson, who was with all three deceased victims when they became sick and with his step-great-grandmother when she took ill.

Elefson was a puzzle and a source of speculation in the community. Many deemed him a Communist, which in those “Red Scare” times was a strong condemnation.

Iowa City Police spokesperson O.A. “Ollie” White declared that he investigated Elefson and concluded he was “pink, if not red.” More significantly, a former acquaintance told investigators that Elefson said:

“[he] wanted to be free in this world and rid of all his relatives.”

Sheriff Christopher asked Wayne Rhode — the brother of Winifred Rhode Elefson and son of Alonzo and Lucy Rhode — to sign a murder complaint against Lyman Elefson, who was then living in Omaha and taking shorthand classes at a business school.

Lyman Elefson was frequently in Fremont County attending to his mother’s estate. On November 30, 1948, he was stopped on a highway three miles south of Tabor and taken into custody and held in the Fremont County Jail on charges of murdering his grandfather, Alonzo Rhode.

Omaha Police searched Elefson’s room and found among his other possessions three items which especially caught their notice:

  • ☛ a lock of brown hair streaked with gray
  • a hypodermic needle
  • a book by Karl Marx
  • books with circled passages about people dying

When State Agent Gregerson asked Elefson why he marked the book passages, the reply was, “Because they were ‘funny.’”

☛ Legal Proceedings ☚

Lyman Elefson, dressed in slacks and a ski sweater, was calm when brought in front of Justice of the Peace G.T. DeFreece on December 3.

Before the hearing, he told reporters he slept well the night before, denied he killed anyone, and said he trusted the justice system.

Lymon Elefson, posing with a Fremont County deputy (from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil).

While Elefson sat and doodled, his attorney entered a “not guilty” plea. After testimony and arguments by attorneys, Elefson was held without bond for a preliminary hearing on December 12.

Elefson agreed to pose for a newspaper photograph taken with a deputy; his only stipulation to the photographer was:

“Let us sit as though we were talking intelligently.”

At the December 12 hearing to decide if Elefson should be bound over to the grand jury, State Toxicologist Dr. Teeters testified:

“There was enough arsenic to kill that person [Alonzo Rhode] and many more.”

Elefson’s Defense Attorney, Warren C. Schrempp of Omaha, acknowledged there was poison in Alonzo’s system but said there was no proof how it got there and it might have been taken accidentally through medication.

After the arguments, Elefson was bound over to the grand jury that would meet in Sidney, Iowa, and bail was denied.

Elefson reading Life magazine in a pose he specified to the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.

While waiting for the grand jury to convene in January, Elefson allowed himself to be interviewed frequently at the jail — speaking in a precise and studied manner — and photographed in poses he specified and requested. He said he once saw a photo of a seated woman looking up from a book and particularly liked that angle.

He paid for a Christmas tree to decorate his cell and enjoyed a turkey dinner with trimmings on December 25.

In early January, his lawyer requested Elefson be freed on a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied by District Judge Charles Roe of Council Bluffs. Elefson remained in jail, unable to make his $20,000 bail.

When the grand jury met in February, 1950, County Attorney Martin asked it not to return an indictment against Elefson because of lack at that time of “sufficient evidence”; he wanted to leave the case open for further investigation.

The grand jury returned a “no bill,” which granted Elefson his freedom on February 13, 1950.

The charges were never re-filed and no one was arrested for the murders of Alonzo Rhode, Lucy Kemp Rhode, or Winifred Rhode Elefson.

☛ Elefson Fights Back ☚

Lyman Elefson found support at the malicious prosecution trial from his aunt and uncle on his father’s side (from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil).

In November 1951, Lyman Harvey Elefson filed a $108,000 damage suit against his uncle, Wayne Rhode, claiming he “maliciously” caused him to be arrested for murder when he “knew the charge to be false and untrue.”

In September 1952, Elefson withdrew the false arrest charges and reduced the damages to $78,000.

During that trial, Wayne Rhode’s wife Inez testified that neither she nor Wayne had heard Winifred say she wanted to be cremated and were surprised when she was.

When Inez encouraged Elefson to have an autopsy on his mother Winifred to learn what caused her death, he replied:

“If you want to find out what my mother died of why don’t you dig up Grandmother and Grandfather?”

By that time, Elefson was again living in New York City. He returned to Iowa for the trial and was supported in court by his father’s sister, Eva Isabel Elefson Williams, and her husband Thomas Williams.

The case was heard in the Federal Court in Council Bluffs. After several days of testimony, Judge William Riley abruptly halted the case and instructed the jury to find in favor of Wayne Rhode and against Lyman Elefson.

☛ Lives of the Victims ☚

Wayne Rhode was sued by Lyman Elefson for malicious prosecution (from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil).

Lucy Ann Kemp was born March 7, 1876 in Tabor to Elmira M. and George Kemp. She had three brothers: John W. Kemp, James H. Kemp, and Daniel B. Kemp.

On her twentieth birthday in 1896, Lucy married Alonzo Rhode in Tabor and they had four children: Winifred Rhode Elefson, Wayne Albert Rhode, Bernice Geneva Rhode McMahill, and Harold Thomas Rhode.

Alonzo Lyman Rhode was born near Tabor in Fremont County on August 18, 1873 to Sarah Catherine Taliaferro and Daniel Thomas Rhode. He had 9 siblings: Dora B. Rhode Delaney, Clara May Rhode Plank, Orrin W. Rhode, Curtis Thomas Rhode, Jefferson Albert Rhode, Pearl K. Rhode Garvin, Ruby Rhode, Margaret Alice Rhode Kempton, John Richard Rhode, and David Daniel Rhode.

Winifred Audrey Rhode was born in Tabor on December 17, 1901 to Lucy Ann Kemp and Alonzo Lyman Rhode. She married Harvey Hobson Elefson in Suffolk, Massachusetts, in May 1926 and their only child, Lyman Harvey Elefson, was born in 1927. Harvey Elefson was an insurance agent at the time of his 1941 death.

She taught music school in Iowa and Alaska schools and, at the time of her death, was preparing to take a teaching position in California.

☛ Life Goes On for the Suspect ☚

Records show that in 1955 Lyman Harve  Elefson was living in Hartford, Connecticut. In the city directory, he was listed as living at 12 Congress Street and as being an employee of the Institute of Living mental hospital. In 1995, he was a resident of Whitman, Massachusetts. As of February 2014, his name does not appear in the Social Security Death Index.

On February 19, 2014, I received an anonymous tip that a “Lyman H. Elefson” was residing in Independence, Missouri, near Kansas City.
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Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ “Character Check on Young Elefson,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 6, 1949.
  • ☛ “Charge Youth with Murder of Grandfather, Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 4, 1949.
  • ☛ “Check 4th Poisoning in Family,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, December 5, 1949.
  • ☛ “Elefson Has Christmas Tree in Cell,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, December 24, 1949.
  • ☛ “Elefson in Move to Get His Freedom,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, January 6, 1950.
  • ☛ “The Elefson Philosophy: Justice Will Be Done,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 18, 1949.
  • ☛ “Elefson Suit Is Moved to Bluffs,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, January 25, 1952.
  • ☛ “Elefson Will Sign Habeas Corpus Writ,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 24, 1949.
  • ☛ “Fight for Life Begins Monday for Tabor Youth,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 11, 1949.
  • ☛ “Iowa Student Charged With Murder as Officials Seek More Evidence in Deaths of 3 Relatives,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, December 5, 1949.
  • ☛ “Lyman Elefson Freed From Murder Charge,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 14, 1950.
  • ☛“Lyman Elefson in Appeal to Supreme Court,” Mason City Globe-Gazette,” January 18, 1950.
  • ☛ “Name Collegian As Murderer In Poison Spree,” Racine Journal Times, December 5, 1949.
  • ☛ “Open Hearing for Elefson in Sidney Court,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 12, 1949.
  • ☛ “Quickie Headlines,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, September 28, 1952.
  • ☛ “Seek Poisoning Evidence In Tabor Deaths,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, December 5, 1949.
  • ☛ “Set Bail Bond at $20,000 for Lyman Elefson,” Estherville Daily News, January 6, 1950.
  • ☛ “Strike Snag on Elefson’s Bond,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, January 11, 1950.
  • ☛ “Touch Of Christmas In His Jail Cell,” Mt. Pleasant News, December 23, 1949.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Withdraws False Arrest Charge,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, September 25, 1952.
  • ☛ “Youth Held in Poison Deaths is ‘Pink if Not Red,’” Carroll Daily Times Herald, December 6, 1949.

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