The Wrong Man: Murder of Joseph Hair 1888

Murder Victim

Joseph Hair
26-year-old Farmhand

Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Mistaken Identity

Murder Scene and Date

John Kelly Farm
12 Miles South of Avoca, Iowa
Pottawattamie County
December 18, 1888


By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2015

location of Avoca, Iowa

location of Avoca, Iowa

During the winter of 1888, 26-year-old Carson resident Joseph Hair worked as a hired hand for wealthy bachelor farmer John Kelly 12 miles south of Avoca in Pottawattamie County.

On the night of Tuesday, December 18, the two men were inside the farm house when they heard a noise outside in the barn. Joseph Hair left to investigate.

When Hair didn’t return, John Kelly went out to find him.

Kelly discovered a horrible scene in the barn.

Joseph Hair was lying in a pool of blood; his face and head were battered beyond recognition. He was still alive, although unable to say what happened to him.

from the Burlington Daily Gazette

from the Burlington Daily Gazette

Nearby lay a bloody roller that carried the canvas on a harvesting machine. This was believed to be the weapon used to strike Hair.

Joseph Hair died on December 19 without regaining consciousness.

The Burlington Daily Gazette wrote of the homicide:

“No clue to the murderer has been found, but the theory is prevalent that he had lain in wait for Kelly, who carried money with him, and in the darkness killed the wrong man.

Public indignation runs high, and if caught, the assassin will be delt [sic] with in a summary manner.”


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



  • ☛ “Condensed Telegrams,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 20, 1888, p. 1.
  • ☛ Humeston New Era, December 26, 1888.
  • ☛ “Iowa News,” Muscatine Evening Journal, December 20, 1888, p.1.
  • ☛ “Iowa News Items,” Perry Chief, December 28, 1888, p. 6.
  • ☛ “Iowa News Notes,” Humboldt County Independent, December 27, 1888, p. 1.
  • ☛ “A Midnight Assassination,” Palo Alto Reporter, December 28, 1888, p. 2.
  • ☛ “A Mysterious Murder,” Burlington Daily Gazette, December 20, 1888, p. 1.
  • ☛ “News in Brief,” Jackson Sentinel, January 3, 1889, p. 2.
  • ☛ “News in Brief,” Jackson Sentinel, January 10, 1889, p. 6.

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