The Woman Who Bought Her Own Tombstone: Murder of Sarah Tracy 1935

Murder Victim

Sarah Delphine Tracy
79-year-old Scrubwoman
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Northern outskirts of Maquoketa, Iowa
Jackson County
February 17, 1935


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2012

location of Maquoketa, Iowa in Clinton County

location of Maquoketa, Iowa in Clinton County

On the northern outskirts of Maquoketa in 1935, Sarah Tracy — a widow of three years — lived alone in a two-story frame house. She seldom let anyone else inside.

Everyone regarded her as an eccentric but harmless “scrubwoman.”

Sarah worked hard all her life cleaning Maquoketa offices and businesses, including the Jackson Sentinel. In her late 70s, she cut back on her jobs because of physical limitations but had money she steadily saved through the years — not even her family knew how much.

Sarah distrusted banks and concealed a lot of money in her clothing, stockings, and shoes. The rest was hidden in her house, which she kept securely locked.

In the weeks before her death, Sarah traded in old, large-sized bills at a Maquoketa bank for newer currency and made certain there were no gold certificates among her stash that needed exchanging.

☛ Premonitions ☚

Sarah Tracy was murdered in this house where she lived alone and hoarded her money. (Dubuque Telegraph)

Although she kept money in her house, Sarah was afraid of having other valuables there. When her grandson Martin gave her a watch after returning from WWI, she asked Mann Jewelry to store it and return it to Martin when she died.

Sarah cleaned for lawyer E.D. Schoenthaler and confided to him a strong fear — a premonition — that “something terrible” like robbery or murder would befall her.

In 1934, she told Schoenthaler prowlers smashed her bedroom window with a two-by-four; she scared them off with a corn knife but asked the lawyer if she could legally shoot the next person who tried to forcibly enter her home.

Because of her premonition, Sarah picked out her casket, bought a plot, put up a headstone for herself at Mount Hope Cemetery, and gave Schoenthaler $225 for her funeral expenses.

☛ Premonitions Fulfilled? ☚

Sarah’s daughter Daisy Probst lived one house to the north. On Sunday morning, February 17, 1935, Daisy checked on her mother and found the front door locked.

Assuming Sarah was in Maquoketa, Daisy went home. Later in the day, the house was still locked. When Daisy peered through a window, she saw her mother sprawled on the kitchen floor.

Items on Sarah Tracy’s kitchen table: shoes, a bloody newspaper, an empty whiskey bottle, kerosene lamp, and bed bricks (Dubuque Telegraph).

When authorities arrived, they found Sarah Tracy in a large pool of her own blood. In one hand, she clutched strands of dark hair. She had been struck with an automobile crank she kept to break up coal for her stove.

Her purse was tossed aside in the kitchen; it had been emptied of the money, personal papers, and deeds she stashed there.

Newspaper reporters were allowed inside to cover the story and described the house as “dingy.”

On the oilcloth-covered kitchen table were Sarah’s shoes, a bloody newspaper, an empty bottle of whiskey, a kerosene lamp, two bricks she heated to warm her bed, and an alarm clock.

In a frantic hunt for hidden money, the killer tore Sarah’s clothes open and rolled down her stockings, leaving bloody smudges as he worked. He searched her shoes and then put them on the kitchen table.

Then he wiped blood from his hands with a newspaper and left it near the shoes.

☛ Coroner’s Jury Rulings ☚

On Sunday evening, Jackson County Coroner Dr. John W. Jordan convened a coroner’s jury of John Jarso, Dr. Harry Sharp, and newspaper correspondent Bessie B. Moyle.

A nephew, grandniece, two grandsons, and attorney E.D. Schoenthaler testified. All agreed that Sarah Tracy feared robbery and never allowed strangers inside the house.

Time of death was ruled as early Saturday night. Sarah never deviated from a set routine of winding her alarm clock before going to bed between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. The clock was not wound Saturday night, and Sarah’s daughter Daisy saw a light burning — perhaps the kerosene lamp on the kitchen table — when the house was usually dark.

The coroner’s jury ruled Sarah Tracy was killed by “a person or persons unknown” during a robbery and called for a complete investigation by state and county authorities.

Vigilantes Help Investigators ☚

Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation Chief Park A. Findley traveled to Maquoketa to coordinate the investigation.

BCI Agent Joe Burke and Sheriff Leo Heinecke examine the bloody spot where Sarah Tracy’s body was found (Dubuque Telegraph).

Findley assigned agents Paul Gruber and Joseph “Joe” Burke to work with Jackson County Sheriff Leo Heinecke and County Attorney Leroy C. Schroeder.

The “Jackson County Vigilantes,” organized by local plumber Deward A. Joles, guarded Sarah Tracy’s home while authorities did their work.

Investigators concluded the killer was someone Sarah Tracy knew and felt safe with, as Sheriff Leo Heinecke told the Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune:

“She was very suspicious of strangers and would never admit one. But [she] admitted someone before she was killed.”

Heinecke and Schroeder compiled a list of people Sarah Tracy trusted, telling newspapers they were certain “local talent” was involved. Several individuals singled out this way were questioned but had alibis.

Fingerprints on the bloody automobile crank were the most promising clue. Those and the bloody newspaper were sent for lab examination, although no report concerning results was made public.

On February 21, 1935, Sheriff Heinecke told the Dubuque Telegraph :

“We’re suspecting everybody. There are only a few clues, but we are trying to get as much out of them as though there were hundreds of them. On top of that, the clues are meager, necessitating a most intensive investigation before any arrest can be made. However, I am certain that we are making progress in the right direction. We’re operating close at home for the present, questioning everyone who was friendly with Mrs. Tracy. At present, most of the finger prints [sic] we found are constituting the basis of our investigation and then again they might lead us down a blind alley.”

☛ The Money Sarah Tracy Died For ☚

from the Dubuque Telegraph

A few days after the murder, Sarah Tracy’s daughter told investigators where her mother kept her money. Acting on her information, they turned over a dishpan sitting on the kitchen floor.

Under the old dishpan was $1,898 — a $5 gold piece and $600 in old, large-sized bills. The killer overlooked it because it was so ordinary.

After this discovery, authorities knew the killer got very little money from killing the old woman.

In March, Sarah Tracy’s financial affairs were made public. She owned real estate valued at $250 and personal property worth $1,000. Lacking, however, was a will to distribute the estate.

☛ Sarah Tracy’s Life ☚

Sarah Delphine Green was born in September 1856 in Farmer’s Creek Township of Jackson County, Iowa, to Pauleen Philena Gould and William Green.

photo by Pam and David Jindrich.

She had nine siblings — brothers Benjamin Franklin Green, Joseph Green, Halsey Green, George A. Green, Eugene Green, and Eli Green — and sisters Margaret “Maggie” Green, Orilla Arillia Green Tracy, and Eva J. Green Kenney.

On July 2, 1875, she married James G. Tracy in Iron Hill. The couple farmed and had four children: Addie Celestine Tracy Manning, Daisy Tracy Probst, Lilly Belle Tracy, and Willis Tracy. Addie and Lilly Belle preceded their mother in death.

Services were conducted on February 26 at Buchner’s Funeral Chapel by Rev. H. H. Dill of the Methodist Church, and Sarah Tracy was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in the plot and under the gravestone she had purchased before her death.

☛ Killer Never Caught ☚

Although State Agent Joe Burke and other investigators repeatedly promised the public a quick arrest, no one was ever charged in Sarah D. Tracy’s murder, which Burke said was:

“one of the most brutal [crimes] ever to occur in Jackson County.”


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. ☚


  • ☛ “Aged Maquoketa Woman Meets Brutal Death,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 18, 1935.
  • ☛ “Aged Woman Slain, Robbed,” Oelwein Daily Register, February 18 , 1935.
  • ☛ Erlene Best Bremmer, Biographical Information.
  • ☛ “Elderly Scrub Woman Is Slain For Her Fortune,” Carroll Daily Herald, February 18, 1935.
  • ☛ “Expect Arrests In Murder Case at Maquoketa,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 19, 1935.
  • ☛ “Expect Arrests In Tracy Murder Before Close of Week; Face Many Angles In Tracing of Clews [sic],” Jackson Sentinel, February 19, 1935.
  • ☛ “Fingerprints May Be Clues In Murder Case,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 21, 1935.
  • ☛ “Hoarded Funds Found Under Kitchen Dish,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 20, 1935.
  • ☛ “Murdered Woman Kept Her Money In Dishpan,” Monticello Express, February 28, 1935.
  • ☛ “Mutilated Body Found In Kitchen; Robbery Motive,” Jackson Sentinel, February 18, 1935.
  • ☛ “Officers Await Two Reports in Maquoketa Case,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 24, 1935.
  • ☛ Oxford Mirror, March 21, 1935.
  • ☛ “Second Attempt To Rob Murdered Woman,” Oelwein Daily Register, February 19, 1935.
  • ☛ “Sheriff Denies Any Arrests in Maquoketa Case,” Dubuque Telegraph, February 22, 1935.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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