“Very Maw of Death”: Murder of Officer Fred Widmann 1908

Murder Victim

Fredrich P. “Fred” Widmann
30-year-old Waterloo Patrolman
Killed in the Line of Duty
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Avoiding Arrest

Murder Scene and Date

Alley behind East 4th Street
Waterloo, Iowa
Black Hawk County
End of Watch: October 11, 1908


By Nancy Bowers,
Written October 2010

location of Waterloo, Iowa

location of Waterloo, Iowa

Officer Fred P. Widmann was a gentle giant, an imposing presence who patrolled Waterloo at night. His beat was the north side of East 4th Street from Water to Mulberry and then north into the residential area.

When the 30-year-old officer came on duty in the early hours of Sunday, October 11, 1908, he was thinking ahead to the afternoon when he and an acquaintance planned to take their “lady friends” up the Cedar River to picnic and gather autumn leaves.

But something else, too, crept into his thoughts, perhaps a premonition. He told the officers leaving duty that they could go home to their safe and lighted homes but he had to walk dark alleys, cluttered with boxes and trash where danger could be lurking.

At 3:00 a.m., Widmann stopped at the Police Station to report all was well at the Logan House Hotel at East 4th Street and Sycamore. He walked north towards Lafayette, crossed the street, headed east, and entered the alley between the Security Savings Bank and French’s Hide Store.

Postcard view of businesses facing E. 4th Street in Waterloo

Postcard view of businesses
facing E. 4th Street in Waterloo.

This alley — which ran behind businesses facing onto East 4th Street — was dark and cluttered, like all the downtown alleys. Some of the buildings were inset so that walls jutted out, creating hiding places.

About 3:10 a.m., as Widmann passed behind the East 4th Street stores, burglars breaking into the Coburn and Son Bicycle and Gun Shop saw him and opened fire.

Fred Widmann fell and was too badly injured to stand up. But he managed to empty his .38 Colt revolver in the direction of his assailants, who fled north up the alley and west on Sycamore Street.

People in residences and hotels in the area reported hearing as many as a dozen loud bangs. V.L. Simmons, a half block away, thought it was an explosion but could see nothing out his window. Others said it sounded like someone pounding a board on the side of a building.

Even the young woman planning to picnic with Fred Widmann on Sunday reported hearing the shots. She was already having a nervous and sleepless night, plagued by the feeling that a calamity was about to occur.

Fred Widmann dragged himself over 100 feet out of the alley to Lafayette Street and called out for help.

Crime scene sketch, Waterloo Daily Courier, 1908

At the police station a block away, Desk Sergeant J.W. Burbank, Emergency Officer Tom Hartmann, and Fowler Company watchman Joe McQuilkin heard the bangs but did not recognize them as gunfire.

When Hartman went out to investigate, he heard Widmann’s calls for help and rushed to him. Another man arrived in his night robe and several others from the Turk’s Club rooms a block away came, also.

Someone ran for a doctor, another hurried for a stretcher from the fire station, and a third organized a posse to find the suspects.

Back in the alley, Widmann’s empty gun was found where he’d dropped it. Likely, none of his shots hit the assailants because there was no trail of blood.

Widmann told Patrolman Hartman:

“Well, Tom, I guess he got me. He shot me twice in the stomach and I fired twice at him behind the boxes at Coburn’s.”

from the Semi-Weekly Reporter

from the Semi-Weekly Reporter

Widmann was carried on the stretcher to the Police Station and examined by Dr. J.A. Jerger, who could see the wounds were fatal and had him taken to Presbyterian Hospital.

Fred’s family rushed to his side. He said goodbye and advised them how to dispose of his property and conduct his business affairs.

When Police Chief E.A. Leighton visited, Widmann said something that brought tears to the eyes of the toughened police officers who gathered around his bed:

“Tell all the boys goodbye. I had bad luck, but I hope none of them will meet with the misfortune I did while performing their duty.”

When his mother’s sister Sophia Koepke Venter arrived at 10:30, Fred said, “Hello, Aunt.” Then he writhed in pain and became unconscious. His big heart stopped beating at 2:17 p.m.

Fred’s parents, a sister, and his brothers stayed by his bed until the end. The scene was recorded by the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier:

“. . . he calmly looked death in the face as he had faced the bullets only a few hours before. His was a remarkable example of fortitude in the face of the mysteries of the great unknown. His kindness in life was as unfailing as the water that springs up from a perpetual fountain and his gentleness and loving disposition are more commonly found in women than in men. He was always very tender towards his mother and sister, and disliked to see them suffer pain or sorrow . . . . While the relatives wept and expressed their inability to part with him, he consoled and comforted them. He said he knew life for him was of short duration as he could feel his strength fast ebbing away but said he was ready to go. The death-bed was one of the most pathetic that one could imagine. The dying officer bade his parents, brothers, and sister an affectionate good-bye, then closed his eyes forever upon the earthly scenes. The closing hours of his life were as calm as a summer’s dying day.”

Widmann’s body was taken to the Hileman and Gindt Funeral Home, where doctors Jerger and Sigworth performed an autopsy. Two bullets were found lodged against his spine, both .38 caliber. One struck the ribs on the left side of the abdomen. The second entered near the stomach; this wound was singed by gun powder, as though made at close range.

☛ Waterloo Says Goodbye ☚

On Tuesday, October 13, the Widmann family held a short prayer service at their home at 424 Florence Street home. Then Fred’s body was taken to the Emanuel Lutheran Church at Walnut and Vine streets for 2:30 services.

Long before that, the church was full and extra chairs were brought in. Many stood outside. City Hall and downtown businesses closed during the afternoon. The Mayor, City Council, other city officials, and the entire Waterloo Police Department in uniform attended.

After a service conducted by Rev. Theodore Wolfram, Fred Widmann was buried in Fairview Cemetery, his grave heaped with floral tributes. During the week, citizens visited the scene of the shooting to pay their respects; tributes came from all over the city. The Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier wrote:

“As a police officer, Fred Widmann was all that could be expected. He was kind and courteous, strong and courageous, and a gentleman at all times. Patrolman Widmann was a mixer and his friends were legion, not only among his immediate associates but along his beat. To know Fred Widmann was to be his friend. He was of an optimistic nature, the embodiment of courtesy and kindness, and always had a smile and words of good cheer for all. He was a great overgrown boy, with the boy’s sense of humor. His nature was such that he could not show anger, and even when reviled by men whom he had arrested he gave no sign that he was perturbed. He was a faithful, courageous, honest officer, anxious to do his work well and never shirking a duty. He might have slighted the alley that proved his death trap, and the public would not have been any the wiser. But he did not. He conscientiously patrolled the alleys each half hour — all of the alleys, those with obstructions in them as well as those that were clear. He walked up into the very maw of death and felt no fear . . . .”

A resolution of respect and condolence was unanimously adopted by the Waterloo City Council in which the person who shot Fred Widmann was termed a “dastardly assassin.”

Fred Widmann was the first Waterloo Police officer killed in the line of duty. A newspaper wrote that he died “a martyr to the call of duty and the cause of law and public protection.”

☛ Search for a Killer ☚

Governer A.B. Cummins offered a $500 reward (from Iowa Secretary of State Office)

Governer A.B. Cummins offered a $500 reward (from Iowa Secretary of State Office)

Illinois Central Railroad detectives gave orders for trains leaving Waterloo to be watched for “suspicious characters.” An order went out from the police that all “prowlers after midnight who cannot give a clear account of themselves” would be arrested in the city.

On October 15, Police Officer Robinson brought what the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Reporter called “a suspicious Negro” to jail. The newspaper reported that “the blackskin attempted to run, but was recaptured” and placed in a cell. He was Ben Williams, 40, of St. Louis and he carried a loaded .38 caliber revolver and papers showing he was a former convict. Even though police believed Williams had nothing to do with Widmann’s death, he was held for investigation.

A dozen other men were detained and questioned but all could provide an account of their whereabouts the night of the murder.

Officers in neighboring towns were also on the lookout. Two men were chased and shot at by Cedar Falls police but eluded capture. Three men were arrested and then released in Gladbrook after merely discussing the shooting on a train.

Mayor Doty ordered the alleys cleared of boxes, pallets, and “rubbish” where burglars could hide and also proposed lighting the alleys. He had two suggestions. They could be lit the same way thoroughfares were; Denver, Colorado, he said, had decreased burglaries and holdups this way. Or lamps could be strung through the alleys and operated from locked switch boxes. The police officers walking the beat could unlock the box, flip the switch, and light the dark alleyways to patrol them.

Iowa Governor Albert Baird Cummins first offered a $300 reward and then upped it to $500. The city of Waterloo offered another $500.

☛ Fred Widmann’s Life ☚

photo by Rick Chase, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

Friedrich Paul “Fred” Widmann was born in Fox Township of Blackhawk County on July 13, 1878, the second child of German immigrants Marie Koepke and Christ Konrad Widmann, who came to the United States in 1867. He lived in Fox Township until he was 16.

The Widmann family then moved to a farm east of Waterloo. After six years, they moved into the city and lived there eight years. Fred first worked in the coal business and then five years for Wangler Drug.

His physical size, his common sense, and his gregarious personality caused Mayor J. R. Rector to recruit him for the Police Department and he was hired on January 6, 1906. When new Mayor R.A. Doty was elected, Fred was retained on the job and was fourth on the seniority list.

At the time of his death, Fred resided at 424 Florence Street with his parents and brothers Gustav, Wilheim, and Walter. His sister Emma and her husband Charles Eichelberg lived in Blackhawk County; his sister Louisa was married to Jens J. Simms and was a resident of Manning, Iowa.

A large stone was erected over Fred’s grave, but eventually weathering and the passage of time made the lettering nearly illegible.

In 2002, Widmann’s niece Eunice Wilson (born after his death) and the Waterloo Police Protective Association cooperated with Fairview Cemetery to remove tree roots at Widmann’s grave, straighten his stone, and attach a plaque to retain the information about him that was slowly being lost. It reads:

OCT. 11 1908

In the Line of Duty

from Officer Down Memorial Page

from Officer Down
Memorial Page

Fred Widmann is one of 184 Iowa peace officers — as of September 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 Office Fred P. Widmann” or click here to view the page in Widmann’s memory on the website Officer Down Memorial Page.

☛ Bizarre Sidebar to the Murder ☚

On Saturday, December 26, 1908, 50-year-old Waterloo resident Louise Wolfe Sitterly Kelly ambushed and shot her son-in-law Fred Cordell, saying he had “ruined” both her daughters — his 24-year-old wife Mary “Mayme” Sitterly Cordell, 24, and 16-year-old Genevieve Sitterly, both of whom had children by him.

When police arrived on the scene, Louise Kelly, described by a newspaper as “comely for the life she had led,” told them she “had caught the man who killed Fred Widmann” and claimed Cordell confessed twice to her that he murdered the police officer.

Kelly became hysterical on the way to jail and once there sang hymns in her cell and held a “praise service” to God from whom she had sought strength to kill Cordell.

She had two regrets: that she was not dressed, as she planned to be, in “fine silks and satin” for her arrest and that she failed to kill Cordell, whose pocket knife deflected a bullet to his groin and whose heavy clothing absorbed the other shots.

Police determined that Louise Kelly’s actions were related to a child custody issue and a resentment of the way her daughters were treated. Fred Cordell was found to have no part in the murder of Fred Widmann.


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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