77-year-old Farmer, Landowner, Cattleman
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Murder Scene and Date
Downing Farm near Westgate, Iowa
January 4, 1933
By Nancy Bowers
It’s a common theme in Iowa cold cases: an elderly person living alone is murdered because they’re believed to have money and valuables hidden in their home. Many of these victims were hermits or eccentric misanthropes who craved isolation.
Written March 2012
But, Ashley Downing was different. At 77, the Fayette County farmer was no longer physically strong; but his health was good.
He turned a pitchfork handle into a walking stick for getting around his home and farm.
Those who knew him figured the pitchfork cane could be used as a weapon if needed, although that probably never occurred to Downing.
His wife left him in 1927 and then died in the Pacific Northwest. After that, Downing lived alone by choice in the farm home near Westgate about 8 miles northwest of Oelwein where he had resided for 55 years.
And although he was eccentric and almost never left his home, Downing was sociable and welcomed company, always happily greeting anyone who stopped by.
☛ A Man Unconcerned With His Wealth ☚Ashley Downing was incredibly wealthy. He owned the 240-acre homestead where he lived; 240 acres a mile to the south; 120 acres one mile west of Westgate; 120 acres of timber nearby; 90 head of cattle; two business buildings in Westgate; a home in Oelwein and another in Hazelton; a farm in South Dakota operated by a son; and a farm in Minnesota operated by another son.
His wealth was a well-known fact, and he was rumored to keep large sums around the house and farm. But Downing fretted little about bookkeeping. If he did have money stashed, he probably wasn’t even sure where it was.
Some people thought he worried too little about his finances. He loaned money and never pressured for it to be repaid, just accepting whatever small payments could be made.
Renters on his properties sometimes got as far as a year behind in their payments, but he never evicted them.
☛ Poultry Men Make a Discovery ☚
Between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4, 1933, Fremont Township resident Charles F. Plaster drove past the Downing farm and slowed down when he saw Ashley in the road in front.The two chatted before Plaster continued on home, knowing that Downing was headed inside for the nap he always took after noon chores.
At 4:15 p.m., poultry buyers John Bowling and Harry Leiser delivered a crate of chickens Downing ordered. They didn’t see him outside; and not wanting to leave the chickens without letting him know, they knocked on the east door of the house.
Getting no response, Bowling and Leiser went inside.
Just behind the door, which opened into a combination living room/kitchen, they found Ashley Downing dead on the floor.
The two men immediately summoned Fayette County Sheriff Henry J. Nehring and County Coroner Dr. W.A. Walsh, who arrived at the crime scene with County Attorney Martin M. Cooney.
☛ Crime Scene ☚
When authorities arrived, they found a gruesome site. Downing’s head was half gone and a woodpile close by was splattered with blood and brain matter. A charge of shot went through his face and lodged in the stack of wood.
He was wearing no shoes — they sat next to a chair where he’d placed his gloves.
It looked like Downing woke from his nap in the bedroom off the kitchen and went to stoke a stove in the middle of the main room.
As Downing bent over for stove wood, someone came up behind him and fired a shotgun into his head just above the right ear at such close range that Downing’s neck, shirt, and overalls strap were burned and blackened.
The room was rifled and disordered. Numerous financial notes, legal papers, and mortgages were scattered around the house, but there was nothing negotiable. A pocketbook appeared to be the only thing missing.
Investigators believed Downing was caught unaware by someone who came into the house and hid while he was napping or by someone who made himself known to Downing, who then began firing up the stove to warm the room for his visitor.
The murder scene soon filled up with law enforcement and neighbors and whatever evidence might have been there was trampled.
☛ Clues are Uncovered ☚
Fayette County Coroner Dr. W.A. Walsh set the time of death at between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4. A member of the neighboring Plaster family heard a shot about that same time. Ethel Gherken, the teacher at Galvin School, heard a shot — she thought about 3:00 p.m. — but dismissed it as someone hunting.A neighbor to the north, Myrtle Glew, saw a tall man walk diagonally southwest through the corn field across the road east of the Downing home about the time of the murder; however, he was not carrying a shotgun.
Investigators found shoe prints in that same field the next morning and followed them until they turned onto a road, where they were lost.
☛ Suspicious Activities ☚
Neighbor Charles Plaster reported that a few months before the murder he heard an automobile drive past Downing’s home and then a shot was fired. He looked out in time to see the car turn around and drive past again and then he heard two more shots.The next morning, Plaster checked on Downing and found three shells in the yard for which the old man had no explanation.
Even more ominous was that in 1931 Downing was held at gunpoint in his home by two men who took about $72, but didn’t find $3,000 hidden in a granary.
☛ Arrests Lead Nowhere ☚
The citizens of Fayette County wanted answers in the Downing murder.
And then on July 23, 51-year-old Fayette businessman Nels Louvring was shot down at the back door of his home as he returned with his daily receipts. Click here to read about the unsolved murder of Nels Louvring.
Two violent and unsolved murders within eight months were unsettling to Fayette County citizens, who demanded action. They wanted answers and to feel secure in their own homes and pushed hard on Sheriff Henry J. Nehring and other authorities to solve both homicides.Then, Fayette County Attorney Martin M. Cooney and BCI Agent A. A. Robertson arrested Lloyd Morgan in Queen City, Missouri; Morgan was investigated and questioned as a possible accomplice to Dagelau in the Downing murder.None of the three arrested men — Heller, Dagelau or Morgan — however, was tried for the 1931 robbery of Ashley Downing or for the January 1933 robbery-murder.
☛ Ashley Downing’s Life ☚
Ashley Downing was born in Palatine, Illinois, on June 25, 1855 to Canadian immigrant Macy Irene Brooks and Richard Cock Downing, a native of Launceston, Cornwall, England.
He had six siblings: John Richard Downing, Mable Downing, Jennie Downing Smith, Henry C. Downing, and twin sister Emma Downing Tonkinson.
Three of the Downing siblings moved from Illinois to Fayette County, Iowa; when Ashley was in his late teens, he joined them.
In 1878, Ella Jane Campbell of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, came to visit relatives and friends in Fayette County. She was introduced to Ashley Downing and the two were married at Maynard, Iowa, on June 13, 1878 by Rev. Woods.After their marriage, the Downings moved to the farm where Ashley lived out his life. Ella and Ashley Downing had four children: Ralph, Arthur, Roy, and Ethyl Downing Quinn.
Ella Campbell Downing left Ashley in 1927 to live with their daughter Ethyl in Tillamook, Oregon, where she passed away in 1931.
When he died, Ashley Downing was survived by his four children, 17 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Although Downing did not attend church, his funeral was officiated by Rev. L. W. Hauter — minister of the Oelwein Presbyterian Church — and he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Ashley Downing is Brutally Murdered,” Oelwein Daily Register, January 5, 1933.
- ☛ “Ashley Downing Obituary,” Parkers Prairie Independent (Minnesota), February 2, 1933.
- ☛ “Bring Back Youth For 1931 Robbery,” Sumner Gazette, August 10, 1933.
- ☛ “Farmer, Aged 78, Found Murdered In Fayette Home,” Waterloo Daily Courier, January 5, 1933.
- ☛ “Funeral of Ashley Downing Today,” Oelwein Daily Register, January 9, 1933.
- ☛ “Heller Held In Downing Death,” Oelwein Daily Register, January 31, 1933.
- ☛ “No New Developments in the Downing Murder,” Oelwein Daily Register,January 10, 1933.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Wealthy Oelwin Farmer is Slain,” Burlington Gazette, January 5, 1933.