“The Tattooed Lady”
34-year-old Sideshow Performer
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned, Stabbed, Run Over With Car
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
September 30, 1947
By Nancy Bowers
On Tuesday morning, September 30, 1947, Howard Whitlock and Orville Crow drove to their jobs at Credit Island Park, a 450-acre recreational island in the Mississippi River in southwest Davenport.
Written September 2010
As the two men traveled the highway connecting the causeway to the island, they saw something about 30 feet off the road leading into the southwestern, or main, park entrance.
As they turned onto the entrance road, the object was no longer visible; but Whitlock and Crow got out of the car to investigate.
Lying in deep grass 30 feet off the entrance road and five feet south of an evergreen grove was the nude and battered body of a woman on her back. She was covered in tattoos.Davenport Police, headed up by Chief Reed Phillips, claimed the murder was one of the most brutal they ever saw. The woman was struck on the head, stabbed 19 times with an instrument that left small “x” marks where it pierced her skin, and thrown in front of a car and run over repeatedly.
Her clothing was scattered about and nearby was a tattered photo of a young child.
Tire tracks indicated the woman was slain elsewhere and dumped from a car that drove off the road into the grass.
☛ “The Tattooed Lady” Identified ☚
That same day in a downtown hotel, 42-year-old Clarence “Red” Saunders realized that, after going to a tavern at 9:00 p.m. on Monday night, 34-year-old Margaret “Peggy” Treese did not return to the room they shared.
When Saunders went to police to report her missing, he was shown the body and identified it as Margaret Treese’s.
Saunders said Margaret Treese arrived in Davenport in May of 1947 from Grand Island, Nebraska, but was originally from New Cumberland, West Virginia. She was a war widow whose first husband Elmer was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.
Saunders said he and Treese passed themselves off as married to live in the hotel, but he admitted she had “gone out” with other men and provided their names.
The night before, Treese was seen by other witnesses — the last about 12:30 a.m. — drinking heavily in seedy local bars. She was termed “a skid-row character” by one newspaper.
Red Saunders said Margaret worked part time in a Davenport laundry. Another acquaintance claimed she worked in the past as a “Tattooed Lady” in carnivals, circuses, and sideshows.
And that certainly seemed possible. Both of the victim’s arms and both legs and her chest were, as one newspaper noted, “fancily-tattooed.” Davenport Police tried to read Treese’s body like an address book, hoping to find her killer’s name, and recorded these tattoos:
- ☛ Her Social Security number
- ☛ Butterflies and various patterns
- ☛ “Stanley Dombriewicz true love” on her chest above an elaborate design of a snake with bared fangs
- ☛ “Peggy and Stan 1946” on her right arm and “Frank and James Stanley” on her left arm
- ☛ A large cross bearing the phrase “Rock of Ages” on her left leg above “Bill and Ezzie”
Red Saunders told police Margaret married a second time to Stanley Dombkiewicz in West Virginia but separated from him before heading west. That accounted for the inscription “Peggy and Stan 1946” and Dombkiewicz’s name tattooed with the phrase “true love.”
Law enforcement located 42-year-old Stanley Dombkiewicz working in a Buffalo, New York, restaurant and he confirmed marrying Margaret Treese in West Virginia on October 20, 1945. He said, however, that they argued and then separated shortly afterwards when she told him she was married before. He had not seen her since then.
Clarence “Red” Saunders was jailed until being taken to Chicago for a lie detector test on October 20. The examination cleared him, and he was brought back to Davenport and released from custody.
☛ Related Murder? ☚
Margaret Treese’s murder was the second Davenport homicide within three weeks. On September 7, the crushed and battered body of tree trimmer James John Winfield was found in a hobo “jungle camp” in undergrowth near a dump along the Mississippi River.
Treese and Winfield knew each other and “kept company in the same crowd,” according to Clarence Saunders. Winfield’s wife Marcella may have worked at the laundry with Margaret Treese.
Police speculated to reporters that Treese was on the verge of coming forward with information about the Winfield murder and was killed to “keep her from talking.”
In mid-October, 56-year-old former mental patient Pete Peterson, who once lived in a shack beside the Mississippi River, was taken into custody for questioning because he allegedly knew both Treese and Winfield. When it was established he was working as a carpenter on a Maysville farm at the time of the murders, he was released.
Howard “Jack” Homes, described as a “48-year-old Negro,” was arrested in June of 1948 for killing John Winfield. He was not charged with Margaret Treese’s murder.
☛ Confession ☚
In 1951, 28-year-old William Alfred Brinkley of Centerville, Iowa, was arrested for vagrancy in Salinas, California. He told police there he killed a Davenport woman in 1947 by running over her with his car. He was quoted as saying:
”I understand a man by the name of Simmons has been convicted of murder in the case and I want to get it off my conscience.”
When Davenport authorities were notified of the confession, they knew Brinkley was referring to the Margaret Treese murder and to Charles Saunders (not Simmons), whom they arrested but were unable to link to the homicide.
According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, R.W. “Doc” Nebergall, Chief of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation, worked with Davenport Detective Capt. Harold A. Thordsen and Scott County Attorney Clark O. Filseth to determine if “the confession was true or if Brinkley was a psychopath who liked to confess to unsolved murders.”
Brinkley was given a mental exam and evaluated. However, when it was learned that he did not know how to drive a car and confessed to Treese’s murder to get a free ride back to Iowa, no charges were filed.
During the next decade, what Davenport Police characterized as “dozens” of other men confessed to the killing. None of the confessions proved to be true.
☛ Nine-Year Secret Revealed ☚
On Thursday, November 29, 1956, an unidentified, middle-aged Moline, Illiniois, woman came forward to break her 9-year silence.
She told Davenport Police that while sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park early on September 30, 1947, she saw two men drive by with Margaret Treese in their car only a few hours before she was found dead.
The two men she named were “known police figures,” according to Police Chief Harvey A. Smith. However, Smith declined to say if authorities knew their whereabouts in 1956.
☛ Mystery Lingers ☚
The luridness of a naked, dead “Tattooed Lady” caught the attention of newspapers all over the country and produced headlines like “Davenport Sex Fiend Hunted.”
Despite the nationwide publicity, the “confessions” and the information belatedly supplied by the unidentified woman, the murder of Margaret Treese — “The Tattooed Lady” — was never solved.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Allegedly Confesses 1947 Murder At Davenport,” Mt. Pleasant News, December 18, 1951.
- ☛ “Body Is Found In ‘Hobo Camp,’” Mt. Pleasant News, September 8, 1947.
- ☛ “Confession Was Hoax,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, December 1, 1951.
- ☛ “Davenport Slaving Suspect Released,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, October 14, 1947.
- ☛ “Davenport Slaying Suspect Seized,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, October 13, 1947.
- ☛ “Death Seals Woman’s Lips,” (Middlesboro, Kentucky) Daily News, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Find Mutilated Body of Nude Woman in Davenport Park,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 30, 1947.
- ☛ “Five Iowa Murders Are Still Unsolved,” Estherville Daily News, October 13, 1958.
- ☛ “Highlights In News,” Portland (Maine) Press Herald, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Hunt Men Friends Of Slain Woman; Stabbed 10 Times,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Daily Mail, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Iowa News Briefs,” Mt. Pleasant News, December 19, 1951.
- ☛ “Iowan Breaks Long Silence About Slaying,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 30, 1956.
- ☛ “Lie Detector Tests Clear Man in Slaying of Woman at Davenport,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 21, 1947.
- ☛ “May Use Lie Detector in Davenport Slaying,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 8, 1947.
- ☛ “Men Friends of Slain War Widow Sought,” (Dixon, Illinois) Evening Telegraph, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Men Friends of Slain Woman Are Sought,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Names of Suspects Found Tattooed on Woman’s Body,” Portland (Maine) Press Herald, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Negro, 48, Will Be Tried for Slaying,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 13, 1948.
- ☛ “Nude and Mutilated Body of Woman is Found in Davenport,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, September 30, 1947.
- ☛ “Officers Seeking Widow’s Friends In Brutal Murder,” Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Police Question Friends of Woman Slain in River Park,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Reveals Name Tattooed on Body of Woman Found in Davenport,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Seeking Men Whose Names Are Tattooed On Widow’s Mutilated Body In Iowa,” (New Castle, Pennsylvania) News, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Suspect Held In Mutilation Death,” Mt. Pleasant News, October 14, 1947.
- ☛ “Suspects Hunted In Woman’s Death,” Paris (Texas) News, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Tattooed Woman’s Body Is Found: Murderer Sought,” Dunkirk (New York) Evening Observer, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Vagrant Says He Killed an Iowa Widow in 1947,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 18, 1951.
- ☛ “War Widow Found Brutally Murdered,” Sandusky (Ohio) Star News, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Woman Brutally Murdered in Iowa,” Neosho (Missouri) Daily Democrat, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Woman Knifed 19 Times By Killer,” (Huntington, Pennsylvania) Daily News, October 1, 1947.
- ☛ “Woman Slain; Davenport Sex Fiend Hunted,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, September 30, 1947.