Under the Court Avenue Bridge: Murder of Charles Sanders 1954

Murder Victim

Charles Edward “Charlie” Sanders
67-year-old Painter and Paperhanger
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Court Avenue Bridge, Des Moines River
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
April 15, 1954


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2010

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On April 15, 1954 — the day before Good Friday — the decomposed body of 67-year-old painter and paperhanger Charles Edward “Charlie” Sanders was found in the Des Moines River under the Court Avenue Bridge in downtown Des Moines. He was identified by his son-in-law William Edward Graves.

Charlie died from a blow which fractured his skull; his wallet and cash were stolen.

Family members speculate that someone who knew Charlie had money from a recent job struck him on the head at his home while he slept, perhaps not intending to kill him. However when the blow was fatal, the robber disposed of the body in the Des Moines River.

Charlie Sanders’s body was found near the Court Avenue Bridge (courtesy bridgehunter.com)

Son-in–law Curtis Walker told Des Moines Police that Charlie’s family took him to a Des Moines hospital on Christmas Day 1953 after finding him in an apartment with a serious head wound. Walker said Charlie was the victim of a “slugging” the night before on the city’s east side and was unable to work for a month after that incident.

Family members also believed the investigation of Charlie’s death was inadequate and that the authorities and the public mistakenly regarded the victim as a bum or hobo murdered under a bridge, when he was actually someone greatly loved and missed by his large family.

☛ Charlie Sanders’s Life ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Gazette

Charlie Sanders was born July 25, 1886 in Carlisle, Iowa, to Emily Jane Clement and John Henry Sanders. His parents and grandparents immigrated to Iowa from Indiana and from Virginia before that. He was the third of four children.

On June 10, 1910, Charlie married Mabel Leona Burk in Knoxville, Iowa, and they had eight children. He was a painter and paperhanger who made a good living for his family, even during the Depression. They always had plenty to eat and there was a large and close extended family living nearby.

Charlie Sanders
(courtesy Sanders family)

Charlie was easy-going, kind, friendly, and happy. He was generous and always quick to make peace rather than to argue with others. He usually had an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth.

But like all lives, his had rough spots as well. His and Mabel’s first child, Irene, died at the age of 3 in 1917 and their son Ronald Munson Sanders lived only a month in 1929. Charlie’s mother passed away in February of 1935 and his wife Mabel died on New Year’s Eve of the same year. She was only 42. He went into what the family described as a “tailspin” after that, although he continued to work and be involved with his family.

Charles Edward Sanders was buried in Hamilton, Iowa. He was survived by his children — Carver Claude Sanders, Lillian Lorene Sanders Walker, Pauline Lois Sanders Du Bois, Gerald Fremont Sanders, Betty Jean Sanders Graves, and Donald Eugene Sanders — as well as his siblings Adelaide Dell Sanders Clough, Nancy Bell Sanders Shanks, and Walter F. Sanders.


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



  • ☛ Family of Charles Edward Sanders family, personal correspondence, 2010.
  • ☛ “Foul Play Suspected in D.M. Man’s Death,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 19, 1954.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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