Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Drinking Party Gone Wrong
Murder Scene and Date
2 Miles East of Carlisle, Iowa
July 24, 1925
By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2011
On July 22, 1925, Warren County farmer George Patterson cut hay in his fields two miles east of Carlisle, Iowa, and created a large strawstack.
Nearly 20-feet-tall, the stack stood just beyond a ditch along a gravel road at a steep grade referred to by locals as “Watts Hill.”
Two nights later — on July 24 — Palmyra resident Ross Kerr drove by the stack at about 11:15 and saw a man run from the field, jump into a Ford roadster, and drive quickly away. Just then, the haystack caught fire.
Kerr sped to the Patterson house and told George the hay was ablaze. There was nothing to be done about it, so the fire was allowed to burn itself out.
☛ Gruesome Discovery ☚
On Sunday, August 9, locals Earl Leverich and Harlan Cain drove past the location. Leverich spotted something that made him stop the car. He and Cain walked back to the burned spot and kicked through the ashes.
Under the charred rubble they found the burned body of a woman, her skin and clothing consumed by the fire.
Leverich and Cain got back in the car and rushed to Carlisle to find Warren County Coroner and local druggist J. Elmer DeFord, who drove to the scene.
After a quick glance at the body and items near it — a half-consumed bottle of ginger ale, a bottle of alcohol, and some sandwiches — DeFord declared the death the result of a party gone bad.
Broken weeds and grass showed where the body was dragged from the road to the haystack.
DeFord took all the items found at the scene back to his Carlisle drugstore.
After inspecting it there, he concluded the body was a woman — aged 20 to 25 — who was 5-feet-4 and weighed between 110 and 130 pounds. Her partially burned-off hair was reddish-auburn. According to the Alden Times, DeFord believed “her features bore marks of refinement.”
Her death was brutal. The woman’s skull was fractured in four places with a hammer or heavy club.
There were only three clues to the woman’s identity:
- ☛ Her reddish/auburn hair.
- ☛ Her dental history — the heat caused two of her upper front teeth to drop out; they were false and had been attached to pegs in her mouth.
- ☛ And her jewelry — a necklace of glass beads made to look like pearls and a brooch.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen provided a description of the brooch as:
An “old-fashioned oval silver brooch similar to those worn half a century ago [and] . . . under the glass covering the surface . . . [was] a painted butterfly with its wings spread.”
☛ What Witnesses Saw ☚
Wadia Huckleberry, 43, of nearby Carlisle, told investigators she saw an automobile with a Polk County license parked near the strawstack the night of July 24.
When she got home, Huckleberry heard about the fire, which could be seen from Carlisle. She believed a man was behind the wheel and another person was in the car, but she could not discern if it was a woman or another man.
Huckleberry told reporters covering the story:
“They looked funny to me but I hurried on because it was dark and I was afraid.”
Walter Fleming told Coroner DeFord he saw four men in a Model T Ford sedan near the haystack between 9:30 and 10:00 the night of the fire.
Hartford farmer Frank Robertson said he saw a man working on a car engine on the road close to the stack that night.
Although neighbors around the Patterson farm reported that “petting parties” made up of young people were common on the road over the summer of 1925, authorities felt the motive for the murder was deeper than “petting high jackers” preying on an unsuspecting couple.
☛ Investigation ☚
Because it was believed the woman was killed somewhere else and dragged into the strawstack, both Polk County and Warren County officials worked the case.
However, no nearby jurisdictions listed a missing woman fitting the description of the body.
By then, word had spread throughout Iowa and the entire country about “The Strawstack Murder.” Warren County Sheriff Claude M. Morris received inquiries from anxious families nationwide who had missing daughters matching the victim’s description.
Detectives from across Iowa offered to assist. James Risden — a state Agent who later became the director of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation — worked the case and Iowa Governor John Hammill asked for a special instructional session for police officers involved in the process.
☛ “The Strawstack Murder” Sideshow ☚
Coroner DeFord cleared out a case in his drugstore and put on display the skull, bones, teeth, and hair from the murdered woman’s body. Next to them, he arranged bits of charred clothing, the imitation pearls, and the brooch.
After DeFord received an anonymous threat that the items would be stolen and he would be killed, guards stood by around the clock to protect the artifacts.
And DeFord kept careful count of how many persons came to the drugstore to look at the remains of the murder. His final count was over 40,000 people — some trying to identify bits and pieces of missing daughters, wives, and sisters, but most drawn simply by morbid curiosity.
The site of the murder also became an attraction, with locals combing the fields and road for clues. Carlisle insurance agent Hugh Patterson found a pickaxe with blood and auburn hair on the handle. However, DeFord said the pickaxe did not match the injuries on the dead woman.
☛ Solution to the Haunting Crime? ☚
In 1937, 12 years after the murder, hopes rose that the Strawstack Murder was solved. A woman in Salinas, California, reported that her estranged husband Clarence Gift, from whom she was contemplating a divorce, murdered a girl in Iowa and burned her body in a haystack.
Iowa authorities traveled to California and interviewed 37-year-old Clarence Gift at his Salinas boarding house. Gift voluntarily accompanied them back to Iowa.
Eye witness Frank Robertson could not identify Gift as the man he saw working on his car the night of the murder. Also, Gift established that he was employed at a Kansas City transfer company at the time of the killing.
After two days of questioning, Clarence Gift was released and provided a train ticket back to California.
☛ Investigator Suicides, Coroner Moves, Mystery Remains ☚
Local rumors said that the authorities knew who the Strawstack victim was and who killed her, but that money changed hands to insure silence about the case.
Sheriff Claude M. Morris killed himself within months of the murder. And Coroner DeFord quickly moved from Carlisle to Adel, where he opened a combination furniture store and funeral parlor and became Dallas County Coroner.
Carlisle townspeople remember that the teeth, bones, and other artifacts were brought out for display again during a town festival some years later.
No one knows, however, where they are at present, although the counter from DeFord’s drugstore in which they were displayed is owned by the Carlisle Area Historical Society.
Click here to visit the Carlisle Area Historical Society and view a montage of photographs about the Strawstack 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.
- ☛ Alden Times, August 20, 1925.
- ☛ Carlisle Area Historical Society.
- ☛ Carlisle Area Historical Society members Caroll Gates, Melody Kirk, Carol Murphy, Jerry Randleman, Mary Sue and Rob Van Ryswyk, personal interviews, June 2011.
- ☛ “Charred Body Of Girl Found,” Sioux County Index, August 21, 1925.
- ☛ “Officers Searching For Two Persons In Connection With Murder Of Girl At Carlisle, Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 12, 1925.
- ☛ “The Strawstack Murder,” Bill Schooler, Sr., Carlisle Citizen, April 2, 2009.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Woman Burned In Hay Stack [sic],” Oelwein Daily Register, August 11, 1925.