Chester Newton “Chet” Van Horn
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Love Triangle
Murder Scene and Date
Van Horn Farm
Clear Lake Township
Cerro Gordo County
November 19, 1914
By Nancy Bowers
Written October 2011
In 1914, prosperous Cerro Gordo County farmer Chester Newton “Chet” Van Horn and his wife Charlotte lived four miles southwest of Clear Lake with their son David Chandler, 9, and their disabled niece Eunice “Tiny” Callanan.
On Thursday, November 19, Charlotte visited overnight at the nearby home of her parents, Michael and Mary Callanan, taking 19-year-old Eunice with her. David Chandler Van Horn stayed at a friend’s house.
The next morning, Charlotte asked a neighbor woman to drive her home. When the women entered the house about 9:00 a.m. on November 20, they found 41-year-old Chester dead on a bed in a second-floor room on the southwest corner of the house.
The bed clothes were smoothed and pulled up to his shoulder blades and his face was turned to the wall. He lay on his left side with his left hand beneath him. Lying loosely in his right hand was a revolver.
Blood from a bullet wound over his right ear trickled down his face and neck and then onto the bed. On a nearby table, an oil lamp was burning.
Charlotte Van Horn called in several neighbors — David S. Rummell, Mrs. Lambertson, and A.N. Verberg and his father — to see the body. Eventually, someone notified Cerro Gordo Coroner Dr. Norman W. Phillips, who examined the body and released it to Clear Lake undertaker and furniture dealer R.E. Williams.
A coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
☛ Murder, Not Suicide? ☚
Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Fred Marsh was not convinced by the coroner’s jury verdict, however, and employed Pinkerton Detective Charles Hedin to further investigate Van Horn’s death.
Hedin tracked down some interesting details.
A.N. Verberg told Hedin he was driving an automobile between Clear Lake and the Van Horn home just south of town about 9:00 p.m. on November 19. A horse-drawn rig came towards him; in the illumination from his car lights, Verberg could see two passengers — one Charlotte Van Horn and the other a man with his face concealed by a turned-up fur collar.
Robert Fletcher, the caretaker of the Outing Club of Clear Lake, told the Pinkerton Detective that on the night of the murder he was visiting a sick friend in town and saw Charlotte Van Horn and another person in a buggy as it passed under a street light at 9:00 p.m.
Hedin also learned that a revolver found with Van Horn’s body was ordered from a Chicago mail order company to be delivered to “Daniel DeVore” not long before Van Horn died. The package containing it was picked up and signed for at a Clear Lake rail express office.
Hedin and Cerro Gordo authorities believed that Charlotte Van Horn ordered the gun under an assumed name.
☛ Arrest is Made ☚
Murder charges were filed against Charlotte Van Horn by Justice of the Peace Stanberry and she was arrested on January 1, 1915 at The Retreat Sanitarium in Des Moines, where she had been a patient since her husband’s death.
Charlotte Van Horn was transported to Mason City and placed in the Cerro Gordo County Jail for a preliminary hearing.
At the hearing, hundreds of curious spectators crowded the courtroom. Many were frustrated at not being able to see Charlotte’s face under the veil she wore during the proceedings.
After his daughter’s arrest, Michael Callanan collapsed and was said by the Oelwein Register to be “seriously ill from the shock and old age.” Although he was not expected to recover, Callanan rallied to support Charlotte emotionally and financially.
On January 11, Michael Callanan and his son Ralph provided the bond of $7,600 which was set at the hearing; and the accused was released from jail.
☛ Veil Partially Lifted ☚
Then Charlotte Van Horn and her brother Ralph Callanan checked into Mason City’s famous Park Inn Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
That evening, the siblings sat in the writing room of the hotel while a Mason City Globe-Gazette reporter asked questions.
The only words Charlotte Van Horn uttered were, “Oh, I am so tired tonight.”
Otherwise, her brother Ralph did the talking while she sat silently or, when directly addressed, glanced towards her brother and waited for him to respond.
The reporter described her:
“A slight trace of the smile she seemed to be attempting to force came across her face as she looked up. . . . The deep lines in her face showed the confinement of the county jail and the strain of the preliminary hearing had told on the woman more than the indifferent attitude she assumed in the court room would indicate.
She wore no veil, which is another thing she has not done in public since her arrest. Her looks were that of a woman striving for a little human sympathy, which she had thus far failed to find. Her indifference manifested through the trial was gone and in its place was a languid attitude coupled with a longing for companionship.”
On February 1, two months after Charlotte’s arrest, a newspaper reported that Chester Van Horn’s brother Roland had also been charged with the murder, following accusations by Charlotte. The Waterloo Evening Courier wrote:
“An affinity case is alleged to have been the motive for the murder and sensational developments are expected.”
Roland Van Horn, however, was quickly released and his alleged involvement was never mentioned again.
When an indictment for first degree murder came down in March, Charlotte’s bond was doubled to $15,000, which her father and brother provided.
District Judge Edwards postponed the trial until late April. Charlotte Van Horn then returned to Dr. Gershom H. Hill’s sanitarium The Retreat at 28th Street and Woodland Avenue in Des Moines.
The Iowa Medical Journal described The Retreat:
“A large, quiet, homelike place for the care and cure of nervous invalids . . . . [It] is a comfortable place to rest, to be entertained, to take baths, massage, electricity and medical treatment.”
Because of her treatments, many speculated that Charlotte was mentally unbalanced and would use an insanity defense.
☛ Sensational Trial ☚
Jury selection in the murder trial began on April 27. Charlotte Van Horn, according to the Webster City Tribune, wore “a black sailor suit and . . . a small black hat with a thin veil over her face” and was accompanied to the courthouse by her father, brother, and son.
Attorney Daniel W. Telford assisted County Attorney L.A. Hill with the prosecution, and James E.E. Markley represented the defendant.
Witnesses A.N. Verberg and Robert Fletcher both testified to seeing Charlotte Van Horn riding away from the death scene in a buggy with a man on the night her husband was shot.
Defense attorney Markley belittled the make and model of A.N. Verberg’s automobile and questioned if the lights on it were strong enough for him to see who was in the buggy. Markley also was able to confuse Fletcher about which night he saw the horse and rig.
Those who saw Van Horn’s body at the scene — Mrs. Lambertson, David S. Rummell, and the Verbergs, as well as undertaker R.E. Williams — described the position of the body and the gun.
They all admitted to Markley they had not looked for powder burns. He also grilled them about oil left in the burning lamp, asserting that the amount could establish time of death.
As Markley closely questioned each witness about the location of the victim’s right hand and the gun, it was clear he would not use the anticipated insanity defense, but a suicide scenario.
The prosecution tried to establish that Charlotte Van Horn ordered the revolver found in her dead husband’s hand from a Chicago mail order house under the name “Daniel DeVore” and picked it up at a Mason City express office, signing that name.
A handwritten cake recipe was introduced by the prosecution and Mrs. Lambertson testified that she saw the defendant write the recipe. An expert claimed the penmanship matched that of “Daniel DeVore.”
However, the railroad express agent who dealt with the package could not swear absolutely that Charlotte Van Horn was the person who received it. Further, no witnesses could say she was seen with the revolver.
Because the gun purchase was a key element in the prosecution, the inability to directly tie Charlotte Van Horn to it caused the state’s case to collapse.
☛ Startling End to the Case ☚
Following a motion to dismiss by the defense, Judge Edwards took the case away from the jury and acquitted Charlotte Van Horn of the charges. The Emmetsburg Democrat wrote:
“The judge who presided declared that the evidence against her was not worthy of judicial consideration.”
The judge’s verdict came so suddenly that the courtroom was only partially filled with spectators. There was no overt reaction from those present, perhaps indicating a lack of public sympathy towards the accused.
Charlotte Van Horn, however, was described by the Cedar Rapids Republican as “overcome with joy.” Newspapers speculated she would return to the sanitarium and then live with her parents.
In 1940, she was 75 and resided with her niece Eunice “Tiny” Callanan at 3995 Menlo Avenue in Los Angeles, California. She passed away at the age of 81 on September 30, 1946.
☛ Chester Van Horn’s Life ☚
Chester Newton “Chet” Van Horn was born in Wisconsin in April of 1873 to Wisconsin native Louisa A. Clapper and Irish immigrant C.M. Van Horn. He had three siblings: Harry H. Van Horn, Clara M. Van Horn, and Roland Willard Van Horn.
On December 11, 1895 in Clear Lake, Iowa, he married Charlotte Callanan Brown, who was 11 years his senior, and they had one child, son David Chandler “D.C.” Van Horn. The couple assumed the care of Eunice “Tiny” Callanan, the disabled daughter of Charlotte’s deceased brother John.
He is buried in Clear Lake Cemetery.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Bond Double That Required Before,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, March 11, 1915.
- ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Atlantic News Telegraph, April 26, 1915.
- ☛ “Charlotte Van Horn Given Up To Sheriff,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 26, 1915.
- ☛ “Developments In Murder Case At Mason City,” Waterloo Evening Courier, February 2, 1915.
- ☛ Emmetsburg Democrat, May 5, 1915.
- ☛ “Father Of Accused Woman Seriously Ill,” Oelwein Register, January 13, 1915.
- ☛ Francis Van Horn, Personal Correspondence, January 2017.
- ☛ Iowa Medical Journal, Volume 17, Issue 4.
- ☛ “Mrs. Van Horn Found Not Guilty,” Cedar Rapids Republican, May 2, 1915.
- ☛ “Mrs. Van Horn Is Released On Bail,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, January 12, 1915.
- ☛ “Selecting Jury To Try Husband Slayer,” Webster City Tribune, April 30, 1915.
- ☛ “State News,” Humeston New Era, February 10, 1915.
- ☛ “Tell Of Finding Of Body And Gun,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, April 29, 1915.
- ☛ “Testify They Saw Wife Near Scene Of Murder,” Waterloo Evening Courier, April 29, 1915.
- ☛ “Trial of Mrs. Van Horn Postponed,” Cedar Rapids Republican, April 14, 1915.
- ☛ “The Van Horn Murder Trial Begins On April 26th,” Oelwein Daily Review, April 14, 1915.
- ☛ “Woman Accused of Murder,” The Iowa State Recorder, January 6, 1915.