“Walking Corpse”: Suspicious Death of Nancy Duncan 1880


Nancy Duncan
Widowed Farm Wife
ca. 1820-1880
Cause of Death: Slashed With Knife
Motive: Family Neglect and Abuse

Body Location and Date

Rural Area, Loess Hills
Pacific Junction, Iowa
Mills County
June 6, 1880


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2013

Nancy Duncan's body was found just west of Pacific Junction

Nancy Duncan’s body was found
just west of Pacific Junction

Something troubling and unpleasant is the last thing travelers through the undulant natural beauty of the Loess Hills in southwestern Iowa expect to encounter.

But late on the evening of Sunday, June 6, 1880, passersby made a terrible discovery alongside a road west of Pacific Junction, Iowa, in Mills County.

A person wrapped like a bundle — enfolded in a quilt around which a cord was tied — had been carelessly buried under two feet of loose dirt and leaves close to low shrubs.

When the rope was released and the coverlet pulled back, it was seen that the body was an elderly woman who had been dead about two weeks. Likely, she died elsewhere; the Dubuque Herald reported:

“The body had evidently been transported some distance, as it was fly-blown.”

The woman was quickly identified as Nancy Duncan, a widow who most recently lived in Council Bluffs with her teamster son William “Bill” Duncan.

Nancy Duncan was last seen in Iowa in May when she left for Nebraska with Bill, who had contracted with an Otoe County farmer near Bennet to “break prairie,” the difficult job of plowing and preparing previously untilled sod for planting.

During an inquest on June 9, the Mills County Coroner revealed that Nancy Duncan’s left temple had sustained a severe injury, described by one newspaper as “a contusted spot.”

There was also an inch-deep wound at the jugular vein, as well as violent cuts and slashes on her head and neck. Although any of her wounds could have caused death, it was concluded that Nancy Duncan died from severe bleeding from the throat gash.

A verdict of “murder by parties unknown” was returned.

In mid-June, Iowa Governor John H. Gear offered a $500 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of Nancy Duncan’s killer.

☛ Hunt For the Suspect ☚

from the Sioux County Herald

from the Sioux County Herald

The person most widely suspected of the murder was Nancy Duncan’s own son, Bill.

Mills County Sheriff James S. Hendrie and his Deputy, Daniel A. Fairall, began searching for Duncan and gathering information about his activities.

The two lawmen learned that a few weeks after he left Council Bluffs with his mother, Bill Duncan visited his sister in Glenwood, Iowa, and told her their mother took sick in Nebraska and died suddenly and that he — according to the Waterloo Courier — had “placed her remains to rest in Nebraska for the present.”

Presumably, Bill’s sister believed that Nancy Duncan was given a proper burial and might be exhumed and reinterred in Glenwood at a later date. She had no idea her mother was unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road only four miles to the west.

Others who knew Bill Duncan reported that when he returned to Glenwood without his mother, he claimed he had been to Hamburg, Iowa, to collect money from rental property she owned there.

Mills County authorities wanted to hear from Duncan himself about what happened to his mother Nancy.

☛ Arrest and Incarceration ☚

In early July, Bill Duncan and 20 year-old day laborer Alex Kilts were arrested on the John M. Grace farm near Bennet, Nebraska, by a Council Bluffs detective named Jackson. They were taken to the Council Bluffs Jail and charged with murder.

The two were imprisoned at the time the U.S. Census was taken in Pottawattamie County and are recorded on the supplemental schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes as “prisoners” incarcerated for the crime of “murder.”

☛ Bill Duncan’s Account ☚

from the Atlantic Telegraph

from the Atlantic Telegraph

Bill Duncan swore his mother died of natural causes, not murder, and told his side of the story to investigators.

The Atlantic Telegraph -– relying on the Council Bluffs Globe for details — reported:

“Bill Duncan denies that he killed his mother. He says she died in Nebraska and that he started to bring her remains to Glenwood, Iowa, for burial and when near Pacific City the body began to emit such an odor that he and his pal, Alex Kilts, concluded to bury it. Bill was very much depressed with the thoughts of not being able to reach Glenwood with his mother’s remains.”

The Globe, however, could not resist a judgmental aside about Bill’s story:

“When the reader understands that Pacific City is but an hour’s drive from Glenwood he will begin to doubt the sincerity of Bill’s expressed regrets.”

In addition, Bill Duncan and Alex Kilts, according to the Globe, gave conflicting accounts of the burial. Bill said he was lying sick in the wagon when Kilts stopped, dug a shallow grave, and placed Nancy Duncan in it. Kilts, however, claimed that Bill Duncan was a full participant.

The Globe, in another sarcastic editorial intrusion, noted:

“One or the other of these twin saints has lied — it is probably immaterial which one.”

The two suspects said they knew nothing about the cuts, slashes, and other wounds on Nancy Duncan’s body and could not imagine how they got there.

The Atlantic Telegraph was indignant about the case; its editors published strong questions about the character of Bill Duncan and raised the fear he could escape punishment:

It is hard to conceive of a human being low enough and infamous enough to kill the woman who gave him life, but the facts and circumstances of the case in question point to Duncan as such an one.

In his defense he may be able to throw such a mystery about the affair as to create something of a doubt in the minds of the jury, and thus evade conviction. But with the circumstances as they now appear to the public, without an apparent or material link missing in the chain of evidence that he himself has woven, it hardly seems possible that a jury can find in the whole case one single question upon which to hinge the first reasonable question of doubt in favor of his innocence.

The language of a knife wound is stronger than the vulgar vernacular of Bill Duncan or Alex Kilts. The gash that marked the poor woman’s throat and disconnected the life-sustaining jugular vein is a volume of testimony in itself and Bill Duncan and Alex Kilts will require hours of conspiring reflection and thought to explain away that bold and irrefutable proof that it was the work of their own villainous hands.”

☛ What Really Happened? ☚

Dunbar, Nebraska

Location of Dunbar, Nebraska

Mills County Sheriff James Hendrie was determined to find the facts, even if they exonerated Duncan and Kilts.

The Nebraska City Press published the full text of a letter written in Glenwood on July 14, 1880 by Deputy Daniel A. Fairall on behalf of Hendrie to William Ryder of Dunbar, Nebraska:

“Dear Sir: An old lady by the name of Nancy Duncan was found buried by the road side [sic] wrapped up in a bed quilt. She was buried about the 22nd of May. Her son, Bill Duncan, and a young man by the name of Alex Kilts have been arrested and are now held in jail here for the murder of the old lady. The evidences are very strong against them here, but Bill Duncan says he can prove by you and others at Dunbar, that the old lady died about two miles from Dunbar. Now I want you to write to me at once, And let me know just what you know about this matter, if anything; also if there are any other persons that know anything about it. Have them write me all the particulars . . . .

If Duncan is guilty of murder we want to know it, and will see that he is punished as he deserves; if he is innocent, of course we want to know it in time, as it is not our wish that an innocent man should suffer. Now, find out, if you can, if anyone saw this woman after she was dead there, as he stated; also, if you knew of her being sick and everything concerning when they came there, when they left, etc., etc. He says they were camped about two miles from Dunbar. Yours truly, Jas. S. Hendrie, Sheriff By D.A. Fairall, Deputy.”

The Nebraska City Press obtained access not only to Sheriff Hendrie’s letter but to the response sent him by William Ryder, co-owner the Dunbar cheese manufacturing company Sweet & Ryder. Ryder was said by the newspaper to be a “perfectly reliable and responsible” person whose word was “unquestionable.”

Through Ryder’s response, it was possible to piece together a bare outline of the events surrounding Nancy Duncan’s death, which seemed to have occurred about May 19.

Historical photo of the Missouri River at Nebraska City

Historical photo of the Missouri River
at Nebraska City (from memoriallibrary.com)

Bill Duncan left Council Bluffs in early May with his mother in a wagon. They headed straight south and crossed the Missouri River at Nebraska City, a busy river port and railroad town.

From there, the Duncans traveled 11 miles west to Dunbar, a small village along the railroad in Otoe County’s Delaware Township. For about a week, they camped a mile northwest of Dunbar along North Fork Creek with two wagons, three horses, and two colts.

Dunbar residents who saw the Duncans at their campsite described an unusual party. With the mother and son were an 7-8 month-old child and a young man, later identified as 20 year-old laborer Alex Kilts, who appeared to be Duncan’s employee.

☛ “Walking Corpse” ☚

Concerned Delmar residents like William Ryder took an interest in the motley group, particularly the elderly woman and the young child. Worried that she was going hungry, local woman Kate Wogin brought food to Nancy Duncan.

When Ryder anxiously inquired about Nancy Duncan’s health, Bill told him she had suffered from “spinal complaint” after breaking several ribs a decade earlier.

Ryder visited the camp the night before Nancy Duncan died and later said, according to the Nebraska City Press:

“She was then a mere skeleton — in fact, a walking corpse, unable to stand alone. Others saw her.”

However, neither Ryder nor those other people who saw her thought that Nancy Duncan, as ill as she seemed, was near death.

After his mother died, Ryder said, Bill Duncan asked Kate Wogin and two other local women, Elizabeth Martin and a Mrs. Acker, to “lay her out.”

Bill Duncan left his livestock with William Ryder and asked him to notify farmer John M. Grace that he would soon return to begin the work he was contracted to do. Because Duncan had no funds to pay for crossing the Missouri River, Ryder gave him some money.

Then Duncan set off with his mother’s body in one of his wagons for the 40-mile trip to Glenwood, Iowa, which would have been about a two-day trip. At that point, Nancy Duncan had been dead at least a day-and-a-half.

After a quick round-trip, Bill Duncan was back in Otoe County, Nebraska, five days later. Presumably he took two days to travel to Mills County, where on May 23 he buried his mother beside the road near Pacific Junction. He went on to Glenwood briefly and then made the two-day trip back to Dunbar.

Duncan stayed at his previous camp site for three days before starting to break prairie at the John M. Grace farm near Bennet. That’s where, Ryder said, “He was arrested and carried off into Iowa.”

☛ Support for Bill Duncan ☚

from the Atlantic Telegraph

from the Atlantic Telegraph

In his letter to Mills County Sheriff James Hendrie, William Ryder stated emphatically:

“I do not believe that [Bill Duncan] murdered his mother. The neighbors who saw her, before and after death, do not believe it.”

Then, Ryder added a caveat with a tantalizing “if”:

“Besides if he murdered her, it was done in Otoe County, Nebraska, and he should be tried here.”

On July 28, The Atlantic Telegraph wrote that a Nebraska City Press reporter had gathered the known facts about the case from Dunbar, citing the town as the place “where the dark deed was committed (if the woman was murdered as claimed).”

The Telegraph said that Duncan had been dubbed “notorious” in Iowa but that if the facts gathered by their reporter were correct then he should be exonerated of the crime of killing his mother, “no matter what his past life has been.”

☛ Duncan and Kilts Are Freed ☚

from the Atlantic Telegraph

from the Atlantic Telegraph

On Saturday, July 31, 1880, a preliminary hearing was held before a Mills County Justice of the Peace in Glenwood. William Ryder and Dunbar Postmaster M. Newman traveled from Nebraska for the proceedings.

After all the known information in the case was brought forward, the court announced there was not enough evidence to hold Bill Duncan and Alex Kilts on the charge of murder and the two men were released.

☛ Unanswered Questions ☚

The Nancy Duncan case generates more questions than answers.

Bill Duncan and Alex Kilts claimed Nancy Duncan fell sick and died of natural cause; William Ryder contended that witnesses in Dunbar, Nebraska, saw her body and did not believe she was murdered.

How, then, did her body sustain the horrible wounds discovered by the Mills County Coroner who declared her death a murder?

The Loess Hills of southwestern Iowa

The Loess Hills of southwestern Iowa
where Nancy Duncan’s body was found.

Was she abused or neglected before her death, perhaps beaten or starved? Kate Wogin, the concerned local woman who brought Nancy Duncan nourishing food at the campsite was one of those who prepared her body after death. Did she not see or did she ignore signs of abuse or injury, if there were any?

Those who discovered the body in its shallow grave said it appeared not to have been moved or tampered with after the quick burial.

If the wounds on Nancy Duncan’s body were inflicted after death, were they made accidentally by grave-digging instruments during the burial of the body by Duncan and Kilts? Or was there intentional mutilation of the corpse?

Why did Bill Duncan dump his mother’s body beside the road when he was within an hour of his stated destination of Glenwood, where his sister lived and where he said he planned to have his mother buried?

Did he lack money for a proper burial? Did he fear a Glenwood undertaker might suspect murder if given a chance to examine the body and see marks or wounds?

Did he feel the very real and practical pressure of time in needing to return to Nebraska for the tilling job he had contracted for, as well as the possibility of losing money?

To whom did the child seen at the Dunbar campsite belong? Was there a young woman in the party that William Ryder did not see or know about?

Some inconsistencies likely can be blamed on inadequate reporting by newspapers or lack of accurate information made available to them. However, the general facts of the story are consistently presented article to article and, taken as a whole, are puzzling and disturbing.

Nancy Duncan died. She was transported in a wagon to Iowa. She was unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave for unfathomable motives.

Sadly, the details of what really happened will never be known and will forever remain a mystery.

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


  • ☛ “Bill Duncan Discharged,” Atlantic Telegraph, August 4, 1880.
  • ☛ “Criminal Matters,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, June 10, 1880.
  • ☛ Dani Jones Dixson, Personal Correspondence, October 30, 2017.
  • ☛ “The Defence [sic] Of Duncan,” Atlantic Telegraph, July 28, 1880.
  • ☛ “The Duncan Murder,” Atlantic Telegraph, July 7, 1880.
  • ☛ “Goings-On In Iowa,” Waterloo Courier, July 14, 1880.
  • ☛ “Late Iowa News,” Oxford Mirror, June 17, 1880.
  • ☛ “Murder Most Foul,” The Globe (Atchison, Kansas), June 10, 1880.
  • ☛ “Murdered by Her Son,” Dubuque Herald, June 8, 1880.
  • ☛ “Murdered By Her Son,” Freeborn Standard (Albert Lea, Minnesota), June 17, 1880.
  • ☛ “Murdered By Her Son,” Sioux County Herald, June 17, 1880.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

Comments are closed.

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