“Violent Excitement”: Murder of Robert Lee Clingan 1883

Murder Victim

Robert Lee “R.L.” Clingan
52-Year-Old Merchant and Postmaster
Civil War Veteran
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Clingan Store/Post Office
Polk City, Iowa
Polk County
July 10, 1883


By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2015

location of Polk City, Iowa

location of Polk City, Iowa

The streets of Polk City were pitch black that night — Tuesday, July 10, 1883. Those few residents who were out and about could only hear voices and see vague forms.

At 10:30, 52-year-old Postmaster R.L. Clingan was closing up his mercantile store and post office for the evening. As he busied himself in the middle of the store, his clerk D.C. Hanger removed the cash box to take out the day’s receipts.

Just then, two strangers appeared at the front door; they drew revolvers and said, “Good evening, gentlemen.”

D.C. Hanger ducked down behind the counter. Clingan pulled out his own weapon; but before he could use it, one of the men fired at him. The sound of the shot blasted through the still night. Clingan fell behind a counter, uttered a moan, and died. The two assailants fled without taking anything.

The Ames Intelligencer wrote of their flight:

“The alarm was instantly sounded, but the night was dark, and though the footsteps of the retreating villains could be heard several blocks away, they were not seen after getting twenty steps away from the store. They ran to the northwest.”

☛ Inquest and Investigation ☚

from the Alton Review

from the Alton Review

An inquest was quickly convened while Clingan’s body still lay in the store. It was discovered that a .44 caliber bullet passed through the victim just below the left collarbone, killing him instantly. The bullet was found wedged in paper boxes on the shelf behind where Clingan stood.

The shooting was deemed a “dastardly act” perpetrated by unknown suspects.

Members leaving the Odd Fellows Lodge shortly before the shooting observed two strangers on the street, but the intense darkness prevented their seeing the men well enough to provide a description.

There was seemingly no motive for the killing because money or merchandise were not taken.

Posses armed with shotguns and pistols searched the area around Polk City but came up empty-handed.

Two horses were stolen near Sheldahl seven miles north of Polk City, possibly by the killers, and were tracked east in the direction of Cambridge.

The Perry Pilot quoted a dispatch from Polk City:

“Our town was thrown into a violent excitement [last night] by the cold-blooded murder of R.L. Clingan . . . .”

☛ A Similar Murder? ☚

Robert Stubbs was murdered a year before Clingan.

Robert Stubbs was murdered a year before Clingan.

The senseless murder of R.L. Clingan was made more puzzling and sinister because it was the second homicide of a prominent Polk County Citizen within 15 months.

The Ames Intelligencer wrote:

“Mr. Clingan . . . bore an excellent reputation in the county as a businessman and as a gentleman, and has been postmaster here for the past eight years. It is not known here that he had an enemy, and the deed is, if possible, more mysterious than the murder of Mayor Stubbs over a year ago.”

Polk City Mayor Robert Wadsworth Stubbs, 36, was shot dead in a home invasion on April 15, 1882 in the presence of his pregnant wife by two men who were not identified or apprehended (click here to read “Death Comes to the Mayor”).

The incident greatly stirred up the city and left a lingering sense of fear and anger.

Now it seemed that history was repeating itself.

☛ Vigilante Justice? ☚

For four days in mid-July, a posse tracked two suspects — Benjamin Gates and William Hardy — and finally cornered them at Elkhorn Grove in Shelby County. A gun fight ensued during which Gates was killed and posse members Benjamin Craig and J.W. Maddy were wounded, Maddy fatally.

It was said that Benjamin Gates confessed before dying that he and William Hardy killed both R.L. Clingan and Mayor Robert Stubbs.

Some in the crowd of men agitated to lynch Hardy but he successfully begged for his life. He was taken instead to the jail in Harlan, a town 110 miles west of Polk City.

from the Sioux County Herald

from the Sioux County Herald

In the early morning hours of July 24, a crowd of between 50 and 100 men rode from the southeast to Harlan and tied their horses along the bank of the West Nishnabotna River. They were said to move with military precision, suggesting veterans were leading the group. They had come to lynch William Hardy.

The group marched to the jail and demanded keys from the deputy on duty. When he refused, they forcefully took them and went to Hardy’s cell.

Sioux County Herald described what happened next:

“[Hardy] met his executioners calmly at the door, not a muscle or tremor showing that he had the least fear. A noose was put around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. The cell doors were then unlocked and the men quickly formed in line without disturbance, the prisoner being placed under a strong guard.

The fire alarm soon awoke the whole town and at the same time rang out William Hardy’s death warrant. Volley after volley of shots were heard in the direction of Chatburn’s Mill, and the crowd which followed the lynchers . . . found the dead body of the victim in the river just below the bridge, riddled with bullets and marks of a rope around his neck. The supposition is that he was thrown from the bridge and at the same time shot.”

☛ Unanswered Questions ☚

For most Polk City residents, the deaths of William Hardy and Benjamin Gates at the hands of vigilantes resolved both the Stubbs and Clingan unsolved homicides, despite the lack of a legal process.

Yet, many questions linger.

Did the suspects’ deaths close both cases? Were Hardy and Gates the true killers of R.L. Clingan and Robert Stubbs? Could Gates’s confession be believed given the circumstances of vigilantism? Would the men have been found guilty in a court of law where testimony could have been heard and a defense presented?

Because these questions can never be answered, a cloud of doubt will always cover the homicides.

☛ Life of R.L. Clingan ☚

photo by Roxanne Riggan

photo by Roxanne Riggan

Robert Lee Clingan was born November 30, 1830 in Richland County, Ohio, to Mary V. Hewitt and James Clingan. He married Elizabeth Morrison and the couple had six children: Myrta K. Clingan, Ann May Clingan, Charles Clingan — who died at the age of 10 two years before his father was murdered — Huett Nash Clingan, Fay Morrison Clingan, and Nellie E. Clingan.

On September 27, 1861, Clingan enlisted in Company G, Iowa 13th Infantry Regiment. He was mustered out on November 1, 1864 at Louisville, Kentucky, at the rank of corporal.

On July 13, 1883, a G.A.R. post was assembled at Minburn, Iowa, and 32 Union veterans were enrolled. By a unanimous vote it was named the “Clingan Post” in honor of the murdered man.

The Perry Pilot wrote:

“A set of resolutions were unanimously adopted expressive of the sympathy for the widow and orphans of the brave soldier and beloved comrade.”

R.L. Clingan is buried in the Polk City Cemetery, where fellow murder victim Robert Wadsworth Stubbs also rests.


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



  • ☛ Ames Intelligencer, July 14, 1883, p. 8.
  • ☛ Ames Intelligencer, August 11, 1883, p. 8.
  • ☛ “Another Iowa Lynching,” Sioux County Herald, August 2, 1883, p. 2.
  • ☛ “Another Startling Murder at Polk City,” S.E. Armstrong, Perry Pilot, July 11, 1883, p. 5.
  • “Death Comes to the Mayor: The Murder of Robert W. Stubbs,” by Nancy Bowers, Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases, 2011.
  • ☛ “From Minburn,” Perry Pilot, August 1, 1883, p. 5.
  • ☛ “Home and Abroad,” Alton Review, July 13, 1883, p. 3.
  • ☛ “The News,” Iowa Postal Card, July 19, 1883, p. 2.
  • Roster & Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of Rebellion.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

Comments are closed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,