“Trio of Thugs”: Murder of Officer Rolland P. Smith 1901

Murder Victim

Officer Rolland P. Smith
23-year-old Night Marshal
Killed in the Line of Duty
1878-1901
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Avoiding Arrest

Murder Scene and Date

Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Tracks
Station Street
Chelsea, Iowa
Tama County
End of Watch: December 5, 1901

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By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2013

location of Chelsea, Iowa

location of Chelsea, Iowa

In the early 20th century, Chelsea, Iowa, was a small, safe town whose only excitement was provided by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad trains that steadily chugged through the heart of the business district.

So 20-year-old hardware clerk John Albert “Bert” Compt expected only a sociable good time when he went out to meet friends on the cold early-winter night of Friday, December 5, 1901.

Before daybreak, however, Compt would undergo personal terror and survive a tragedy that devastated the little town of Chelsea for years to come, the facts of which read like a crime dime novel.

☛ Night Terror ☚

Early postcard view of Station Street in Chelsea, Iowa.

Early photo of Station Street in Chelsea, Iowa.

In the early evening, Bert Compt rehearsed with an amateur theatrical group and afterwards escorted a young woman home. It was about 1:00 the next morning — December 6 — by the time he finally made his way towards his parents’ house.

As he walked along snow- and ice-lined Station Street, Chelsea’s main north-south thoroughfare, Bert Compt was suddenly accosted by three heavily-armed, masked men near the spot where the Chicago & Northwestern tracks cut diagonally across the street.

One of the men — termed “a trio of thugs” by the Des Moines Daily Leader — demanded to know if Compt was the Chelsea Night Marshall. When Bert said he wasn’t, the man cursed him and ordered him to stop lying. In the escalating tension, Bert reached for a revolver he carried in his pocket.

The men overpowered Compt and dragged him to the grain elevator north of the train tracks. To the west of the elevator were the stock yards and to the east, the Chicago & Northwestern Depot.

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

The trio gagged Compt, bound his hands and feet, and tethered him to a large pile of lumber under a ramp. Although he couldn’t see them, Compt could hear the men discussing their plans to break into the Chelsea State Bank and blow open the safe.

One man stayed behind to keep Bert Compt under control, and the other two headed towards the bank. As he lay in the dark fearing for his life, Compt heard two gunshots and then the footsteps of his guard running in the direction of the sound.

Compt realized that the would-be bank robbers had encountered 23-year-old Chelsea Night Marshal Rolland B. “Rollo” Smith making his rounds and could only imagine what happened between the desperate men and Marshal Smith, who was new to the job.

Also hearing the gunfire was the night agent at the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad depot next to the elevator where Bert Compt was tied up.

When the agent hurried to investigate, he found Marshal Rolland Smith on the ground near the railroad tracks, shot twice. Despite a gaping wound in his head, Smith was still breathing, although unconscious and unable to speak.

The shot to his head was fired at such pointblank range that it left powder burns. The closeness of both shots to his body indicated Marshal Smith was attempting to arrest the would-be bank robbers when they opened fire.

The night train agent rang the fire alarm bell which was used to alert Chelsea townspeople of emergencies.

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

As residents gathered, someone found the terrified Bert Compt and released him from his restraints. Compt was badly shaken but he said he could provide a general description of the men who tied him up, although he wasn’t certain he could identify them because they’d worn masks.

It was discovered that the suspects stole a railroad handcar from the station tool shed and headed west along the tracks. As they fled out of Chelsea, they dropped their safe-cracking tools.

Mayor Edward S. Yeisley, a local grain dealer, recruited a wagonload of heavily armed men and set out in pursuit of the escaping suspects.

The station agent telephoned other area train station night operators as well as law enforcement about the shooting of Marshal Smith and the three suspects on the loose.

The stolen handcar was later found abandoned on the Chicago & Northwestern tracks at the small postal station of Long Point northwest of Chelsea in Richland Township.

It looked like the fleeing men then traveled on foot a short distance north to the tracks of the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad and walked along them to a steep grade west of Gladstone in Otter Creek Township where trains slowed down. Investigators believed the escaping men jumped onto a freight going east at that point.

☛ Posses and Searchers ☚

When the news about Marshal Smith and the escaped suspects from Chelsea arrived by telephone at Tama — 12 miles to the east — a church bell was rung to signal alarm. Tama County Sheriff Benjamin Buchanan broke the 100 responding men into small posses to search for the suspects.

As word spread outwards from town, farmers in rural areas armed themselves and went looking for anyone out of place or suspicious.

☛ Death of Marshal Smith ☚

from the Des Moines Daily Leader

from the Des Moines Daily Leader

Chelsea townspeople, including at least one doctor, quickly responded to the scene and tended Officer Smith. But nothing could be done because his wounds were so devastating, and he died about 6:10 a.m. on December 6 without regaining consciousness.

The town was in a state of stunned and outraged mourning. Because the young husband and father of a six-month-old son was so well-liked, authorities feared the possibility of a lynching should the suspects be found.

Waterloo Daily Courier captured the general sentiment:

“If the murderers are apprehended and their guilt established nothing less than the death penalty will be accepted. Smith was a good citizen and thoroughly fearless and there is no doubt that he met his death while attempting to protect property and in the active discharge of the duties of his office.”

☛ Reward Offered ☚

Iowa Governor Leslie M. Shaw issued a reward in the Smith murder case (State of Iowa)

Governor Leslie Shaw issued a reward in the Smith murder case (State of Iowa).

On December 10, 1901, Iowa Governor Leslie M. Shaw issued the following proclamation:

“Whereas I have received intelligence which satisfies me that the crime of murder has been committed in the county of Tama, whereby John B. Smith [sic], an officer of the peace of the town of Chelsea, came to his death on Friday, the 6th day of December instant.

Now, therefore, in the furtherance of the cause of public justice, I, Leslie M. Shaw, Governor of the state of Iowa, by virtue of the authority in me vested by law, do hereby offer a reward of $250 for the apprehension of the persons, or either of them, guilty of such crimes, and their delivery to the authorities of said county the same to be paid upon conviction.”

In addition, the City of Chelsea offered $200, the First National Bank $100, and the Chelsea State Bank $50; private contributions brought the total reward in the case to $850.

☛ First Set of Suspects: Vagrant Hobos ☚

Three hobos were arrested for vagrancy and then released on the morning of December 6 at Keystone, Iowa, about 17 miles northwest of Chelsea in Benton County.

When word of these men reached Tama County Sheriff Buchanan, he telephoned Keystone authorities to re-arrest and hold the trio.

Bert Compt was taken to Keystone to look at the hobos — two of whom matched the general description of the killers — but could not identify them as the men who restrained him and shot Marshal Smith.

☛ Second Set of Suspects: Hobo Gang Leader and a Peg-Legged Assistant ☚

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

In the month following the shooting, Pinkerton Detectives seeking the substantial reward and Chicago & Northwestern Railroad investigators steadily worked the case.

The first trail they followed led to Illinois, where they arrested a man named Herzog and another named Burns, whose first names were not reported in newspaper accounts.

Herzog was a machinist who worked in Tama for several months before the shooting. Burns, according to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette:

“Had been popularly known as the head of the notorious Burns gang which has been generally connected with numerous petty thievings and burglaries in the neighborhood of Tama and Toledo [Iowa].”

After the murder of Marshal Smith, both Herzog and Burns went missing from a spot they normally frequented known as “Hotel de Bum.” This sunken, circular embankment near the Tama water tower provided shelter to passing hobos and tramps who congregated there to cook food and sleep between trains.

Burns used the available pool of transients as his own private gang for criminal purposes.

In addition, the bullets that killed Smith were said to have an unusual shape, and authorities alleged they were fired by a gun that once belonged to the former Tama City Marshal, who sold it to Herzog.

Also, Herzog walked on a wooden leg with spikes on the bottom to keep him from slipping.

Investigators discovered marks in the snow and ice around the spot where Bert Compt was restrained which they thought matched impressions left by Herzog’s peg leg.

Authorities admitted that if Herzog had been left to guard Compt, then he could not have shot Marshal Smith. Also, they believed that neither Herzog nor Burns was the mastermind of the robbery but had been recruited as accomplices by an experienced safecracker.

However, both men were able to provide alibis and authorities released them.

☛ Third Set of Suspects: Roving Safecracking Gang ☚

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

During the fall and winter of 1901, banks throughout central Iowa and northern Missouri were being robbed by a wandering gang of safecrackers who employed similar methods for each job: targeting banks in small towns where law enforcement might be limited to one officer, using the rail system to move in and out, and working in a small group centered on one skilled safe blower. This was the method used by the men who killed Marshal Rolland Smith in Chelsea.

Iowa and Missouri law enforcement could see the pattern in the gang’s activities but were unable to catch the perpetrators.

And then the gang went a bank too far. On the late night of January 6, 1902, they entered a financial institution in Camden Point, Missouri, broke into the vault, and rifled its contents.

Although it was early in the morning and the streets were empty around the bank, it happened that the bank’s cashier was out late. When he walked past the building and heard activity inside, he notified local authorities who gathered a posse and encircled the bank.

The robbers inside could hear sounds outside the building and knew they were surrounded. They ran out, their guns literally blazing, past the posse, which shot back. No law enforcement or citizens were hurt, but one of the escapees was struck by a shotgun blast.

The bank robbers ran to the nearby railroad depot where they escaped on a train handcar — just as the suspects in the Rolland Smith murder had done – and headed west towards Kansas.

The Missouri bank robbers were captured at the Leavenworth Terminal Bridge over the Missouri River

The Missouri bank robbers were
captured at the Leavenworth Terminal
Bridge over the Missouri River

When they crossed the Missouri River — about 18 miles southwest of Camden Point, where they had been flushed out by the posse — authorities were waiting at the east end of the Leavenworth Terminal Bridge to arrest them.

The suspects were identified as Harry Edwards, James Thornton, George McDonald, and Sam Page, a.k.a. Cliff Ellis. Page was a well-known burglar from Des Moines, where he’d been arrested in 1901 for breaking and entering but was not convicted. At the time of his arrest, Page was suffering from a serious head wound sustained as he ran from the Camden Point posse’s gunfire.

Several newspaper accounts termed the group “The Brady Gang,” although none of the arrested men had that surname.

Justice was swift for the roving bank robbers. On February 3, 1902, less than a month after they were arrested, they were tried in Platte City, Missouri; convicted; and sentenced to 10 years in the Jefferson City penitentiary.

After the trial, Missouri authorities notified Tama County authorities, who traveled to Missouri. According to the Des Moines Daily News, Iowa law enforcement “positively identified [the men] as those who robbed the bank at Chelsea and killed Rollo Smith.”

Harry Edwards was said to be the gang member who shot Marshal Rolland Smith. However, that identification failed to hold up, and neither he nor the other men in the gang were brought to trial in Iowa.

☛ Fourth Set of Suspects: “Chicago Blacky” and the Bigamist ☚

from the Rolfe Reveille

from the Rolfe Reveille

Iowa law enforcement believed there were two other members of the bank robbery gang still at large — John Linn, a.k.a. “Chicago Blacky,” and P.H. “Pat” Harrington, who was wanted not only for robbing banks but also for having two unsuspecting Iowa wives, one in Algona and the other in Ogden, as well as two in Minnesota.

Tama County Sheriff Benjamin Buchanan traveled to Ft. Worth, Texas, to arrest John Linn, who proved to have an alibi during the time Officer Rolland Smith was killed.

Word was circulated through Iowa for law enforcement to be on the lookout for Pat Harrington. The search was centered on Fort Dodge, where he acquired a reputation as a pickpocket while he lived there and worked at the Hecht oatmeal mills. Harrington had, indeed, returned to Fort Dodge and was located there working as a railroad laborer for the Great Western Road.

Wright County Sheriff Harvey A. Duer

Wright County Sheriff
Harvey A. Duer

Harrington was arrested in Clarion, Iowa, in late May of 1902 for the murder of Officer Rolland Smith by Wright County Sheriff Harvey A. Duer. Tama County Sheriff Buchanan traveled to Clarion to bring Harrington back to stand trial in Toledo, the Tama County Seat.

Hopes of solving the murder of Officer Smith faded, however, when Tama County could not make a case against Harrington either. The Dubuque Telegraph wrote on August 4:

“The Tama County officers have been satisfied for some time that Harrington was not the man wanted, as it had become quite evident that he would be able to prove an alibi as to the Chelsea murder.”

So certain was Tama County Sheriff Buchanan that Harrington was not involved in the Chelsea murder, he allowed the inmate to be a “trusty” in the jail and to move about freely.

However, Harrington’s legal problems were not over. He was wanted in Freeborn County, Minnesota, for highway robbery and bigamy.

from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald

from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald

In early August of 1902, Sheriff Ole P. Floson of Albert Lea, Minnesota, arrived in Iowa to take Harrington back to that state; Iowa Governor Albert B. Cummins agreed to honor the Minnesota warrant.

About 5:00 p.m. on August 3, 1902 — 15 minutes before Sheriff Floson arrived to arrest him on the Minnesota warrant — Harrington sensed something was in the works and when jailers went to turn him over, they found he’d escaped.

Forty men with rifles, shotguns, and dogs searched all night for Harrington, but he appeared to have walked into a field of tall August corn near a wooded area and disappeared. The Dubuque Telegraph Herald described the situation:

“[Harrington] thought that Iowa was better than Minnesota and ‘silently folded his tent.’ He was traced to the timber in the southeastern part of the town, and from thence all track of him, was lost.”

☛ Rolland B. Smith’s Life ☚

photo by Colette Harrison

photo by Colette Harrison

Rolland B. “Rollo” Smith was born November 28, 1878 in Black Hawk County, Iowa, to Pennsylvania natives Lydia Casebeer and Samuel Smith. He had nine siblings: sisters Mary Elizabeth, Nora E., Emma Belle, Elizabeth Jane, and Ellen Fanny as well as brothers Norman C., Austin E., Franklin W., and Arthur W. Smith.

At the time of the 1900 U.S. Census, Rolland Smith, enumerated as “Roll,” was living on his father’s farm in Orange Township of Black Hawk County and working as a farm laborer.

The year and a half which followed the census brought significant changes to Smith’s life.

In addition to taking the job as Chelsea Town Marshal, Rolland Smith married Ada Elizabeth Doty on September 12, 1900 in Brooklyn, Iowa. Their son William Abel Smith was born the following June.

Rolland P. Smith’s funeral was held on Sunday, December 8, and he was buried with Masonic honors in the Hartwick Cemetery in Jefferson Township of Poweshiek County, Iowa.

Feelings of anger and resentment about the cold-blooded murder of Officer Rolland Smith were mixed with strong emotions of pity and sympathy for his young widow and baby son, as expressed by the Des Moines Daily Leader:

“[Officer Smith] was a young man of bravery and with a high conception of duty. He was married about a year ago and leaves a wife and babe. Mingled with the mutterings against the murderers are heard words of sympathy for those suddenly bereaved, and it is believed that some general action will be taken to make the family of Marshal Smith as comfortable as possible, now that their bread-winner has been taken from them.”

☛ In the Line of Duty ☚

Rolland P. Smith is one of 184 Iowa peace officers — as of late 2013 — to die in the line of duty and one of 104 killed by gunfire.

Click here to view the article “Iowa Department of Public Safety Peace Officer Memorial Page Remembers Officer Rolland P. Smith” or click here to view the page in Smith’s memory on the website Officer Down Memorial Page.
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Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ “An Officer Shot,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, December 6, 1901.
  • ☛ “To Answer For A Murder,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, May 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “To Answer For Murder,” Semi-Weekly Iowa State Reporter, May 30, 1902.
  • ☛ “Arrested for Murder,” Waterloo Daily Courier May 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “Bank Crooks Kill Officer,” Humeston New Era, December 11, 1901.
  • ☛ “Bank Crooks Kill Officer,” Anita Republican, December 11, 1901.
  • ☛ “Believed To Be Robbers,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, January 3, 1902.
  • ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Des Moines Capital, May 28, 1902.
  • ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Des Moines Daily Leader, May 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “Charged With Murder,” Humeston New Era, June 4, 1902.
  • ☛ “Chelsea Marshal Killed By Robbers,” Cedar Rapids Republican, December 6, 1901.
  • ☛ “Chelsea Marshal Killed By Masked Robbers,” Cedar Rapids Weekly Gazette, December 11, 1901.
  • ☛ “Clues Found In Chelsea Crime,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 1, 1902.
  • ☛ “Details Of Chelsea Murder,” Semi Weekly Iowa State Reporter, December 10, 1901.
  • ☛ “Details of Crime,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 7, 1901.
  • ☛ “Details Of The Crime,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, December 10, 1901.
  • ☛ “Details Of Chelsea Murder,” Semi-Weekly Iowa State Reporter, December 10, 1901.
  • ☛ “Harrington Escaped,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, August 4, 1902.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Sioux County Herald, June 4, 1902.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Rolfe Reveille, June 6, 1902.
  • ☛“Iowa Officer Shot,” Marble Rock Journal, December 12, 1901.
  • A History of Tama County, Iowa, Volume 1. Compiled and Edited by J.R. Caldwell. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1910.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Monticello Express, December 12, 1901.
  • ☛ “Jailed On Murder Charge,” Davenport Tribune, May 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “Killed An Officer,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, December 9, 1901.
  • ☛ Milford Mail, December 12, 1901.
  • ☛ “A Murderer Captured,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, May 29, 1902.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Humboldt County Independent, December 12, 1901.
  • ☛ “Night Marshall Killed,” Davenport Daily Leader, December 6, 1901.
  • ☛ “Offer Reward For Capture,” Cedar Rapids Republican, December 11, 1901.
  • ☛ “Offers Reward For Chelsea Murderers,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 10, 1901.
  • ☛ “Officers Sure Of Their Man,” Cedar Rapids Republican, May 30, 1902.
  • ☛ “Robbers Kill An Officer,” Des Moines Daily Leader, December 7, 1901
  • ☛ “Suspects Are Released,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 9, 1901.
  • ☛ “Suspected Thug Arrested,” Waterloo Daily Courier, May 30, 1902.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Was Out On A Man Hunt,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 1, 1902.

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