Wages in Gold: Murder of John Hill Beal 1893

Murder Victim

John Hill Beal
19 year-old Farmhand
Cause of Death: Struck With Heavy Rock
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Railroad tracks
2 miles south of Cherokee, Iowa
Cherokee County
November 17, 1893


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2011

location of Cherokee, Iowa

location of Cherokee, Iowa

In the autumn of 1893, 19-year-old John Hill Beal was working the harvest for a Cherokee County farmer near Quimby, a busy point of exchange on the Sioux Falls and Onawa Branch of the Illinois Central Railroad known for shipping butter, eggs, and produce.

By mid-November, the crops were in and Thanksgiving Day was approaching so John Beal was ready to return home to his family in Waterloo.

On Friday, November 17, he and his employer went to the Quimby bank and the farmer withdrew $35 in gold to pay Beal for his work.

Then John Beal set out on foot along the railroad tracks towards Cherokee, 10 miles away. Three miles into his walk, Beal stopped at the Perry farm to visit with their son, a Waterloo College classmate. When he got ready to leave about 4:00 p.m., the Perrys invited Beal to stay the night and ride into Cherokee with Mr. Perry the next morning.

But Beal said he wanted to keep moving so he could get to the Onawa station and board the Illinois Central train that went northeast to Cherokee; his plan was to ride to Fort Dodge and then go west to Waterloo, where his family lived.

He never made it home.

☛ Dead by the Tracks ☚

from the Sumner Gazette

On Saturday, November 18, Beal’s frozen body was discovered in a culvert near a ravine 20 feet from the train tracks. His skull was crushed over his right eye and his face was gashed, as though with a blade. Nearby was a blood-smeared and jagged 30-pound rock that matched the indentation in his Beal’s head.

It appeared that as the victim was attacked and pushed from the moving train, his valise got caught in the wheels and items scattered along the track. The grip was ripped to shreds, but Beal’s name tag was left intact

After they left the train, he and his attacker struggled near the tracks. Although Beal was armed with a revolver, apparently he was struck before he could get to his gun.

The revolver was about all the murderer didn’t steal. The killer took the dead man’s underwear and several outer shirts that tumbled out of the case.

And he stole Beal’s wages of 35 dollars in gold.

☛ “Highly Suspicious” Suspect and Would-Be Detective ☚

Cherokee County Sheriff Daniel “Dan” Unger headed up the investigation. Unger first assumed Beal was attacked by tramps on the train and killed when he refused to give up his money.

However, a description emerged of a man — not a transient tramp — seen near the crime scene around the time of the murder. Sheriff Unger traveled to Waterloo a few days after the murder to check out a suspect held there who matched the description, although wearing “different pantaloons and shoes.”

According to The Waterloo Daily Courier, the suspect — who stood out by appearing “highly nervous” — was spotted on a train by a deputy of a neighboring county who was escorting an insane man to Independence.

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

In searching the suspect in Waterloo, Sheriff Unger found 30 dollars. However, because the money was in bills and Beal’s wages were in gold, the man was released.

When Unger returned to Cherokee, he learned the man in Waterloo was likely the suspect being searched for; he had exchanged the gold for bills and bought new trousers and shoes, accounting for the missing five dollars. He also lived in Waterloo and knew John Beal was coming home and would have money on his person.

Unger then traveled to Chicago, where the suspect was believed to be, but was unable to locate the man.

A report circulated in early December that two other men were arrested in Waterloo; they had reportedly stopped at a farm house near the scene a short time before the murder. One man was from Waterloo (near where John Beal’s family lived) and the other from Dubuque. This report — later denied as rumor — started speculation that Beal recognized one of the people who robbed him and was killed because of that.

Iowa Governor Horace Boies offered a 500 dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of Beal’s killer.

Drawn by the large amount of money, a man came to Cherokee County alleging to be a “detective,” although his only proof was that he carried a pair of handcuffs and a revolver. Sheriff Unger allowed the man to work the case, hoping he could do some good, and gave him money for his “investigation” expenses. The “detective” claimed he arrested a man near Duncombe who later escaped.

Despite the reward, the work of Sheriff Unger, and the investigation by the private “detective,” no one was brought to justice for Beal’s murder.

☛ John Hill Beal’s Life ☚

photo by Louis

John Hill Beal was born October 5, 1874 in Franklin Township of Bremer County, Iowa, to Anna Hill and Willard Washington Beal, Sr.–considered “old settlers” in their community. He had two siblings — Arabella “Belle” Beal and Willard Washington Beal, Jr.

While attending Waverly High School, Beal lived with his aunt and uncle. Then he completed the “Commerical Course” and graduated from Waterloo College. He spent the early part of the summer of 1893 working on a farm near Lester before moving on to Quimby.

The funeral was held at the Beal family home in Waterloo on Tuesday, November 21 and burial was in Harlington Cemetery near Waverly in Bremer County.

Willard Beal, Jr. named his son “John Hill Beal” in honor of his brother; sadly, like his uncle, the boy died young, at the age of seven.

The Sumner Gazette wrote of John Hill Beal:

“He was a young man of splendid character and industrious habits and was highly though of by all his associates. . . . His tragic death is a severe blow to his parents, brother and sister and to his friends, and in their grief they have the sincere sympathy of all.”


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



  • ☛ “After A Murderer,” Waterloo Daily Courier, November 23, 1893.
  • ☛ “Around The State,” Pella Weekly Herald, December 8, 1893.
  • ☛ “Around The State,” Pocahontas County Sun, November 30, 1893.
  • ☛ “The Deal Murder,” Waterloo Courier, November 22, 1893.
  • ☛ Emmet County Republican (Estherville, Iowa), December 7, 1893.
  • ☛ “John Beal Murdered,” Sumner Gazette, November 30, 1893.
  • ☛ “Murdered At Cherokee,” Alton Democrat November 25, 1893.
  • ☛ “News Of The State,” Marion Sentinel, December 14, 1893.
  • ☛ “No Arrests Made,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 6, 1893.
  • ☛ “The Work Of A Tramp,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 20, 1893.

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