The White-Spotted Woman: Suspicious Death of Kate Slifer 1903


Kate Poleen Slifer
21 year-old Farm Wife
Cause of Death: Chloroform
Motive: Unknown

Death Scene and Date

Henry and Amanda Slifer Farm
Melrose Township
Grundy County, Iowa
December 19, 1903


By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2014

location of Grundy Center

location of Grundy Center

Kate Rodd and William E. “Will” Slifer met at sixteen and were afterwards seldom apart; their Christmas Eve 1902 wedding was what rural folks call “a country marriage,” one of wholesomeness and devotion.

In December 1903, they were 21 and lived with Will’s parents Henry and Amanda Slifer in Section 7 of Melrose Township in Grundy County. They were part of a community of Brethren or Dunkards, a quiet-living, German protestant sect which practices simple devotion and a unique form of immersion baptism.

That land between Eldora and Grundy Center was a garden spot of productive farms operated by hard-working folks like Will’s parents and Kate’s folks Thomas and Agnes Rodd.

Will, a farmer and amateur photographer, seemed to adore his beautiful young wife and his parents were said to idolize her as well. Kate was so dedicated to Will that she accompanied him into the farm fields to work.

Kate helped Will’s mother Amanda and his sister Mary with household chores, sewed, and doted on her little dog, a pet allowed in the house to sleep in the Slifers’ bedroom.

☛ Kate’s Affliction ☚

Kate Slifer

Kate Slifer

When she appeared in public, Kate was primly dressed — collar turned up, ribbon around her throat, bangs or hat veil covering her forehead, and gloves on both hands.

Her attire and personal look were not, however, a fashion statement. Instead, Kate was trying to conceal bright, white spots on her skin.

A physician diagnosed the spots as Vitiligo, a progressive but painless and harmless autoimmune skin disorder in which the melanin disappears, leaving smooth white areas that spread over the entire body, permanently changing the color of the pigment.

Kate was obsessed and embarrassed by the spots and frightened because she feared they indicated some inner problem, perhaps insanity.

She worried Will would love her less because of them; before their wedding, she wrote a letter and they talked together about the disfigurement. Will seemed to accept the condition as just part of who Kate was.

Will later claimed the couple discussed the spots again two weeks before Kate’s death. When she said she could not bear it if they spread further and “would do as others have done” by taking her own life, Will believed her words were hyperbole and asked, “What would your folk think if they heard you say that?”

☛ Marshalltown Outing ☚

location of Marshalltown

location of Marshalltown

As the holidays and the Slifers’ first wedding anniversary drew near in late 1903, Kate made small presents for others and seemed in positive spirits to her own family, the Rodds.

According to Will — from whose later testimony the details of the day and night of December 19 were made known — Kate even proposed a Christmas outing to Marshalltown. It was a long, arduous trip — 35 miles in mid-December — but they planned an overnight visit with his Uncle Robert on the way home to break up the distance.

On the morning of Friday, December 19, 1903, Will and Kate set out from the Slifer farm in a rig, arriving in Marshalltown about 12:30 p.m. The usually talkative Kate, Will said, was quiet during the long trip.

Their horse was colicky, so Will stabled it for feeding and care.

The couple ate at a restaurant and then walked to the Ten Cent store, where they browsed together for 20 minutes before Will left to check on the horse.

He did not hurry back, he said, but window-shopped and gazed at Christmas items on display.

Postcard view of downtown Marshalltown

Postcard view of downtown Marshalltown

When Will returned to the Ten Cent store, Kate was gone. He said he stood outside it for a few minutes and then crossed the street to watch construction workers at a building site.

Then Will located Kate at the sewing machine store owned by his cousin Harvey Hoffa. Some weeks before, Will picked out a machine for Kate’s needs; but that day, she wasn’t interested in looking at it and said she could get along using her mother-in-law’s for the time being.

The couple then visited a tea and coffee house, where Will bought Kate Christmas candy and chestnuts. But she showed no interest in the treats.

The couple retrieved their horse and rig and started driving into the cold wind. Will tried to jolly Kate and urged her to eat the candy, but she refused it again and said, “Will, let’s not go to Uncle Bob’s tonight — let’s go home.”

She pled a headache, put her head on Will’s shoulder, and fell silent. Will tried joking, which Kate usually enjoyed; but she seemed in no mood to laugh.

At each crossroads or schoolhouse during the northward trip home, Kate raised her head to ask how far they’d come and how much longer the trip would be.

☛ The Night Ends in Death ☚

Will said they reached the Slifer farm between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. He let Kate out of the buggy. Usually, she went into the barn while Will put away the horse; but when he asked her to, Kate said “No, not tonight.” Instead she walked along the path to the house. He caught up half-way and they went together inside, where everyone else was in bed.

In the kitchen, Kate reached into the glassware cabinet for a tumbler and then filled a cup with water from the pantry.

Will followed Kate upstairs to their bedroom and removed his hat and coat. When he gave some of the candy to her dog, it yelped and Kate said, “Don’t make the dog bark – you’ll wake everybody in the house up.” On the other side of wall partitions were sleeping the rest of the family: the elder Slifers and Will’s siblings Jacob and Mary.

Will put the candy he bought on the dresser in the room; Kate’s glass and cup were on the nightstand.

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

Will lay on their bed and Kate stood before her mirror; her reflection seemed tired and worried to him. When he got out of bed and asked what was troubling her, Kate laughingly replied, “Oh, nothing.” Will fondled her and lay back down.

After Kate came to bed and fanned out the kerosene light with a newspaper, she embraced her husband as was their usual routine, and said, “Will, tell me good night.”

Will said he was not asleep long when the dog’s fussing wakened him. Because Kate was a light sleeper, he scolded the dog. As he turned over, he felt a cold wetness in the bedclothes where Kate had vomited. Will called out her name, but she didn’t answer.

When he got up and relit the lamp, he saw Kate’s skin was pale, her face purple-tinged. Will fell on his knees by the bed and embraced and kissed Kate, but he knew she was dead.

He pulled on his trousers, shirt, and stockings; went to the top of the stairs; called out for help; and then ran downstairs choking and sobbing. By then, the entire Slifer family had awakened and was gathered on the first floor.

Will cried out to his father, “Papa, Kate is dead” and threw himself weeping onto a couch. Will’s brother Jacob went up to the bedroom; Kate looked so peaceful he could not believe she was not just asleep.

☛ Gathering Around the Dead ☚

Neighbors and extended family were telephoned and began arriving at the Slifer farmhouse about 2:00 a.m.

Rev. Silas Gilbert and Ed Allen were the first neighbors to arrive. They heard Will ask, “Oh Papa, what do you think caused Kate’s death?” Thomas Slifer’s reply was “The long drive in the cold might have [caused it].”

Except for Will, everyone went upstairs to view the body.

Undertaker and Conrad, Iowa, newspaper reporter F.W. Alexander came to the Slifer home at 4:00 a.m., but could not begin his work until an inquest was held.

Between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., just about daylight, Slifer family physician Dr. M.H. Thieland arrived to examine Kate’s body. When he pulled the undisturbed bed clothing back from her shoulders, he found her cold and stiff.

Dressed in a union suit and white nightgown, she lay on her left side with the left arm partly under her body and the right arm drawn up and folded across her breast; there were no signs of a struggle. Dr. Thieland saw vomit on the bedclothes about 12 to 18 inches from Kate’s mouth, as well as on her arm, chin, and shoulder.

Thelien pronounced Kate dead, citing the probable cause as heart failure.

☛ Surprise Discovery ☚

At 8:00 a.m., Kate’s sister Clara asked Will for photos of the couple and he told her where to look upstairs for proofs of recently-taken pictures.

As Clara searched, she saw on the bedroom dresser a note, over which Will’s collar was draped, and a small bottle marked “chloroform” with the label of a Marshalltown druggist.

The note read:

“I take this to end my troubles. Good-bye to all.”

Clara hurried downstairs to share her discovery with the others, who went back up with her.

Neighbor Ed Allen, who took over the crime scene to provide continuity among the physician, family, undertaker, and coroner, placed the note and bottle in his pocket to give to Grundy County Attorney F.W. Reisinger.

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

When Allen brought the bottle downstairs, he handed it to Will and asked if he’d ever seen it before. Will said “Oh, my God no” in a voice weak from crying.

No one else who went into the room — relatives, undertaker, neighbors — had seen the items before this moment. Ed Allen found candy on the dresser (and even tasted it) but did not notice the note and bottle.

By then, Grundy County Coroner Frank Conner had arrived to conduct an inquest, using three quickly-appointed jurors among the men in the house, to hear testimony.

Will swore he had no knowledge of the poison but identified the handwriting in the note as Kate’s.

The inquest found that, given the evidence of the bottle and the note and Kate being otherwise healthy, she died from chloroform poisoning.

Then undertaker F.W. Alexander treated the body with Rex Embalming Preparation in a process known as “cavity embalming,” which preserved the body for a short time, rather than permanently.

Ed Allen cleaned up after the coroner — making a bundle of the blankets, sheets, pillow case, and Kate’s clothing, which he took to an outbuilding on the property. Allen also found a cloth tucked between the mattress and springs.

When he brought Kate’s body downstairs, Alexander asked Will if he wanted one more look before she was covered up and Will said, “I feel better when I don’t see her.”

☛ Final Goodbyes ☚

Kate's parents Thomas and Agnes Rodd

Kate’s parents Thomas and Agnes Rodd

Will did not return to the bedroom he shared with Kate until the next day. Instead, he lay on a lounge in the lower part of the house and played with Kate’s little dog. Some said they saw him crying; Kate’s family said he made no sound at all.

Kate’s first funeral was held in the Slifer home at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 22. Will sat beside the casket but didn’t look at the body until after the service.

Kate’s parents did not attend the memorial but carried out their own at a church six miles away. During the second funeral, Kate’s mother asked Will to look at Kate but he didn’t, although he later claimed he hadn’t heard her request.

When Sexton Charlie Keefer lowered the casket at Sneller Cemetery, Will cried out to see Kate one more time but Keefer said it was too late and that Will would have to let her go.

☛ Will Is Arrested ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

As their failure to attend the funeral at the Slifer house indicated, the circumstances of Kate’s death did not sit well with her family, particularly her brother Asa Rodd.

Some neighbors, too, rejected the notion of suicide and felt at any rate it would’ve been impossible for Kate to vomit so heavily or kill herself next to her husband without waking him.

Lacking any other motive, people in the community gossiped that Will was seeing another woman or that he was in love with the daughter of a local farmer.

On Wednesday morning, December 23, Will was arrested by Grundy County Sheriff W.E. Morrison on a first degree murder warrant sworn out by Asa Rodd. According to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, “Slifer showed no signs of emotion or alarm when the warrant was read to him.”

The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:

“The arrest has caused considerable excitement as both Mr. and Mrs. Slifer are from respectable and well-to-do families. They had been married a few days less than a year at the time of her death and had apparently been very happy together.”

☛ Exhumation and Autopsy ☚

State Chemist Sherman Macy

State Chemist Sherman Macy

On December 29, 10 days after her death, Kate’s body was exhumed and another autopsy was performed by Grundy County Coroner Frank Conner and Dr. F.P. Butler of Whitten.

The Sioux County Herald wrote,

“Suicide was accepted for a time, but a postmortem examination developed some strange things about the woman’s body.”

The medical men agreed she died from chloroform but doubted a suicide theory because her internal tissues were not damaged as they would have been if she’d swallowed the drug.

Kate’s organs were sent to Des Moines for examination and analysis by Prof. Charles N. Kinney and State Chemist Sherman Macy.

☛ Indictment ☚

At Will’s arraignment before Justice of the Peace C.E. Butler on January 7, Iowa State Chemist Sherman Macy had not finished his analysis; by mutual consent, the preliminary hearing was moved to January 18.

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

At that hearing, Grundy County Attorney F.W. Reisinger laid out the case against Will Slifer, who waived examination. He was bound over to the grand jury and released on $15,000 bond put up by his father Henry.

The Semi-Weekly Iowa State Reporter wrote:

“The state early in the day established a good case and despite the fact that all proceedings were behind closed doors, portions of the work leaked out amongst the immense crowd gathered to learn what they might of the case . . . . The proceedings were not completed until late last evening, and the sensation produced by the returning of Slifer to jail was very profound, arousing interest in Grundy Center and all over this section of the state.”

On February 12, 1904, the grand jury indicted Will Slifer for the first degree murder of his wife Kate; he was denied bail and was held in jail until the September term of court.

☛ Sensational Trial Begins ☚

Anticipation was great and the courtroom was crowded and noisy as District Court Judge A.S. Blair of Manchester gaveled the Slifer murder trial into session.

from the  Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

The case against Will Slifer was presented by Grundy County Attorney F.W. Reisinger with assistance from Attorney General Mullan of Des Moines, Charles W. Pickett of Waterloo, and C.E. Albrook of Eldora.

Will’s defense was offered by attorney A.N. Wood of Grundy Center, with assistance from the high-powered law firm of Dawley, Hubbard & Wheeler in Cedar Rapids.

On September 13, a jury of ten farmers, one machinist, and one clerk was selected; they were told to prepare for a long stay in the court and jury rooms.

Among the mostly female spectators who crowded into the courtroom and among newspaper readers, there was great interest in the appearance and demeanor of defendant Will Slifer.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette wrote of him:

“[Slifer] is a well appearing, quiet-natured young man. He has almost a feminine complexion, his cheeks being rosy and his skin generally is very white. His attire is faultless and there is every indication in his makeup of his being of cultured rearing. He sat almost in one position throughout the proceedings yesterday, there being not once a betraying of any nervousness on his part. His dead wife, it is said, was of equal admirable bearing, and was also of excellent parentage.”

Calling him a “genius,” the Courier praised Will Slifer’s photographic abilities, saying:

“By trade Slifer is a photographer, and there is a large quantity of his handiwork extant, which shows unmistakable marks of genius. The best known of these is what is called ‘the corn picture’ This picture is ingeniously contrived, being three ears of corn enlarged so that they look like huge saw logs loaded on a common lumber wagon. The art comes in by minimizing the wagon and magnifying the ears of corn. The picture had elicited commendation from high artistic sources and indicates that Slifer is a man of artistic talent.”

The doctored photo, also called “Gathering Corn in Iowa” gained wide distribution, initially through a Des Moines bank calendar, but was not copyrighted and brought Will no money.

☛ The Prosecution: Murder, Not Suicide ☚

Testimony began on September 14, with the state setting out to prove that Kate did not kill herself by swallowing chloroform but was murdered by her husband through forced inhalation of the drug.

Grundy County Coroner Dr. Frank Conner testified he found no irritation of the victim’s throat, esophagus, or stomach at the December 29 autopsy.

Marshalltown physician Dr. F.W. Powers, a graduate of the Medical College of New York and member of the Iowa State Board of Health, testified that if the drug were swallowed, the throat, esophagus and all mucous membranes would be irritated.

Powers was asked a hypothetical question: what did he make of the evidence: a young woman cold and dead two hours after retiring, a bottle of chloroform, vomit on the bedclothes, and absence of irritation in the esophagus or stomach 10 days later at autopsy?

Powers said those details proved the young woman died of involuntary inhalation of chloroform, not from swallowing it — in other words, her death was a murder not a suicide.

Des Moines physician Dr. O.J. Fay, an expert in chloroform use, testified the drug could easily be administered to a sleeping person without waking them. Several other Des Moines physicians agreed.

No prosecution witness stated that Kate could have chloroformed herself.

from the Anita Republican

from the Anita Republican

Robert J. Vogel, a clerk at Howard’s Drugstore in Marshalltown, swore that Will Slifer bought the chloroform on Saturday, December 19, the day the Slifers were in that city, saying he needed it to kill a dog.

Vogel positively identified the bottle, label, and cork and testified it was the only chloroform he sold that day and that no laws required a signature to purchase it.

Vogel’s testimony was the strongest part of the prosecution’s case and could not be shaken, even when the defense tried to get him to say during cross-examination that the chloroform was purchased by a man who looked like Will but was wearing a different type of hat.

☛ Handwriting: Kate’s or Will’s? ☚

To bolster its contention that Kate was murdered by Will, the prosecution called witnesses to testify about the handwriting on the note beside the chloroform bottle, hoping to prove that Will, not Kate, wrote the alleged suicide message.

Mildred Lamb, Kate’s former teacher had writing samples from school assignments, as well as a letter from Kate written a month before her death.

Lamb swore that the alleged suicide note was not written by Kate, that the “ts” were crossed differently and there were other inconsistencies.

Orville Kline of Toledo testified he’d known Will Slifer for 16 years as a neighbor and fellow pupil and that the “suicide” note bore resemblance to a letter from Will in his possession.

State Bank Examiner Mike Buchanan and a Mr. Cole, Assistant Cashier of the Des Moines Savings Bank, also testified that the penmanship did not match Kate’s based on their experience in handwriting identification.

In cross-examining these witnesses, the defense focused on a suicidal person’s state of mind and how that might affect the handwriting to make it uneven and different from their normal penmanship.

The State rested on Tuesday afternoon, September 21.

☛ In Defense of Will ☚

The defense methodically denied each aspect of the prosecution’s case.

Waterloo Daily Courier

Waterloo Daily Courier

It began with the contention that Will forcing Kate to inhale the chloroform would have caused coughing and noises which would’ve awakened Will’s brother and sister in the next room, whereas she would have quietly gone to sleep if she’d swallowed it of her own volition.

Will’s attorneys said they could prove Kate bought a first bottle of chloroform six weeks before and either purchased a second bottle on December 19th during the Marshalltown trip or sent “some man” to buy it for her, a man who looked like Will.

Defense expert Dr. D.S. Fairchild, a 27-year railroad surgeon, flatly denied prosecution medical testimony that swallowing chloroform would cause corrosion of internal tissues.

In addition, the defense contended that an irritated red spot was found on the stomach during autopsy and that the embalming arrested the corrosion process before more extensive damage occurred to the tissues.

The defense noted a lack of motive for Will and recited a tribute to the couple’s love and devotion — a dramatic statement that caused Will, his family, and many courtroom spectators to weep aloud.

Kate, however, the defense said, did have a motive to kill herself: she was a young woman proud of her appearance who believed the Vitiligo’s white spots destroyed her beauty and may have  been leprosy or an indication of mental illness.

Will’s mother Amanda Slifer refuted testimony by Kate’s cousin that the victim was happily making Christmas presents and a new dress and bought two pieces of china in the days leading to the death. Instead, Mrs. Slifer insisted that Kate was increasingly despondent and distressed by a white spot on her head and, although she bought material for a shirtwaist, did not sew one.

☛ Defense Trump Card ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar
Rapids Evening Gazette

On September 26, the defense entered into evidence what the Tri-City Star termed their “trump card”: a letter from Kate to Will supposedly written on the morning of her death.

How this letter came to light was nearly as surprising as the appearance of the letter itself.

One morning following Kate’s death, Will was putting on his clothes and felt something in the toe of his stocking. He pulled out a piece of paper on which was written:

“Seek and ye shall find.”

While Will was in jail before the preliminary hearing, Slifer family members searched the house and found another bottle of chloroform in Kate’s trunk, one bought in October of 1903.

Then just as the trial was winding down, Will’s brother Jacob discovered a letter behind a picture frame on the couple’s bedroom wall. This missive, which became known as the “farewell letter,” read:

“6:30 a.m. December 19, 1903 – My Darling Will: No doubt by the time you find this letter you heart will be very sad, but I want to tell you that on the 29th of October I bought a bottle of chloroform. I have used it for a purpose which I shall not tell, but I will this very night, when we get back from town and you go to sleep, swallow the remaining contents of the bottle.

You, dear Will, shall know nothing of this until you find me dead. I have loved you dearly. You have been too good to me.

Tell them all good-bye for me, and sometime, darling, come over there where they shall all be spotless and you will be welcomed with loving arms by your loving KATE”

Will’s sister Mary testified that Kate did not appear for cooking and other chores on the morning of the day she died; defense attorneys speculated she was in the bedroom writing the farewell suicide note during that time.

The recital of this letter brought Will to near hysteria, and he begged that it not be read aloud any more than necessary.

Again the State brought in expert witnesses — E. Fitzgerald who taught penmanship at the Teachers College in Iowa Falls and W.E. Rathbone, Cashier of the First National Bank of Eldora, among them, to declare that the handwriting was not Kate’s.

The defense, however, forced the witnesses to admit they were not experts on forgeries.

☛ Will Slifer Testifies ☚

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

from the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier

A great, breathless silence fell on the courtroom when Will was called to testify in his own behalf. His ever-present family silently encouraged him.

The Waterloo Daily Courier noted:

“Slifer is a young man only about twenty-three [sic] years of age; he is smoothly-shaven and has a handsome boyish countenance. No one to look at him would think he would be guilty of any such crime as is charged against him.”

But, the strain of the trial and his incarceration were showing in his thinness and hollow eyes. Still, his family insisted that he slept the sleep of the innocent each night, without disturbances or bad dreams.

Will recited the details of December 19th, the day and night of Kate’s death, while an engrossed courtroom absorbed each word.

Will swore he did not buy the chloroform nor write the note or letter, that he and Kate were a loving couple despite her despondency about her skin condition.

☛ Dramatic Ending ☚

After testimony from 104 witnesses, including 46 experts, closing arguments began at 11:00 a.m. on September 27.

The Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier wrote of the prosecution’s summation by Charles Pickett:

“[He] never was more eloquent or earnest in his life and arrayed the evidence in the most plausible and convincing manner possible by an adroit attorney. Mr. Pickett will certainly do his part to accomplish the conviction of the defendant.”

In his closing statement, defense attorney Charles Wheeler made a final plea:

“In behalf of the defendant I ask you, gentlemen of the jury, to give this boy the consideration you would a son.”

Judge Blair read the jury instructions and then the 12 men filed into the deliberation room at 3:15 p.m. At 7:30, they announced they had reached a verdict.

Will faced the jury with teary eyes, weak and apprehensive. The foreman, O.W. Beckman, rose and said:

“We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty.”

The Waterloo Daily Courier described the courtroom atmosphere:

“There was a hush as of a gathering storm, and then the storm burst in all its fury in the form of cheers, hand-clapping, and shouted congratulations to the defendant.”

Will’s young male friends cheered loudly and sympathetic young women wept. Will’s sister Mary swooned and had to be carried to a friend’s home for medical attention. Will’s mother, too weak to attend the court session in person, also needed a physician’s tending after being told of her son’s acquittal.

Will swayed on his feet as the verdict was read and then sat down stunned, seeming not to understand that he was free and appearing reluctant to leave the courtroom, as though savoring the moment. Then, with tears streaming down his face, he arose and shook hands with the jurors and thanked them.

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

The verdict — based on a lack of motive and on the farewell letter supposedly written by Kate and hidden behind the picture frame — was met with wild enthusiasm in the town square, where hundreds of people were gathered.

Will was marched by the crowd to the hotel where defense attorney Charles Wheeler was staying, and Wheeler was encouraged to make a speech. Will was asked to orate, as well, but was too weak to speak.

Elation turned to anger at those who testified against Will during the trial; the Semi-Weekly Reporter described a small mob of Will’s angry friends who were anxious to exact revenge.

Will spent that night at the home of friends before returning to the Slifer farm, where he could shun publicity, as was the Dunkard lifestyle. A few months later, however, Will and his father attended the St. Louis World’s Fair to celebrate his new lease on life.

☛ Travesty or Tragedy? ☚

Opinion was divided over unanswered questions that the prosecution raised.

What of the druggist’s testimony that Will bought the chloroform in Marshalltown? By Will’s own account of the day’s timeline, he had the opportunity to buy the drug during the time the couple was separated.

And how had Will slept through his wife’s swallowing chloroform and vomiting violently without being awakened?

And what about the testimony that the handwriting in the suicide note and the conveniently-discovered farewell letter was not Kate’s? The jurors made no doubt that the letter was the deciding factor in their decision of not guilty — a letter, which in yet another strange twist in a case full of strange twists — was stolen from the County Attorney’s office a month after the verdict.

A great amount of sympathy extended through the community for Will, however. Referring to a popular playwright of the late nineteenth century, the Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:

“No need of realism in literature and on the stage. [Henrik] Ibsen could furnish nothing more tragic and realistic than the Slifer trial at Grundy Center, which ended with the acquittal of the accused . . . .

That a man lose his wife whom he adores is no uncommon occurrence; that he should be charged with the murder of her for whom he would gladly have given his own life, that is the height of tragedy. What can recompense this man for the sufferings that he has undergone. Doubtless everyone who was trying to convict him thought he was doing his duty, but what of the man who was charged, and, as it appears, wrongfully charged with the awful crime. Even if no one be to blame, even if it be considered wise and just to charge a man with a crime without establishing some reasonable motive, the Slifer case remains a shocking tragedy.

☛ Kate Slifer’s Life ☚

photo by

Kate Slifer’s tombstone

Kate Pollen Rodd was born October 24, 1882 in Whitten in Hardin  County, Iowa, the youngest child of Agnes Whitwood of New York state and Canadian native Thomas Rodd.

She had six siblings: Nellie Louisa Rodd Snovel, Thomas Arthur Rodd, Mary Agnes Rodd Haskin, Susan Edith Rodd Moore, Calvin Asa Rodd, and Clara Maebell Rodd Hoffa.

On December 24, 1903, she married William E. “Will” Slifer. She was buried in Sneller Cemetery in Grundy County on the day before her first wedding anniversary.

William H. “Will” Slifer died in Denver, Colorado, on November 5, 1969 at the age of 87.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the interests of candor and empathy, I note that, like Kate Slifer, I have Vitiligo. As the spots expanded some 20 years ago, my skin became light all over the body so that, interestingly enough, the original spots cannot be discerned. Although I understand that others with this autoimmune disorder can be disheartened about their skin condition, it has not been a source of concern to me.


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


Selected References

  • ☛ “Are Taking Evidence,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 15, 1904.
  • ☛ “Arrested For Murder,” Jacksonville Daily Journal, December 24, 1903.
  • ☛ “Arrested For Murder,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 24, 1903.
  • ☛ “Acquitted Of Murder,” Semi-Weekly Cedar Ralls Gazette, October 4, 1904.
  • ☛ “Charged with Murder,” Logansport Reporter, December 24, 1903.
  • ☛ “Charged With Wife Murder,” Davenport Weekly Leader, December 29, 1903.
  • ☛ “Continues Slifer Case,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 16, 1904.
  • ☛ “Defendant on Witness Stand,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 26, 1904.
  • ☛ “Defense Rests In Slifer Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 27, 1904.
  • ☛ “Did Slifer Murder His Young Wife?” Cedar Rapids Republican, September 13, 1904.
  • ☛ “‘Experts’ In Slifer Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 20, 1904.
  • ☛ “Experts On Stand,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 22, 1904.
  • ☛ “Experts Testify,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 17, 1904.
  • ☛ “Exhume Body of Mrs. Slifre [sic],” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 30, 1903.
  • ☛ “Grand Jury In Session,” Waterloo Daily Courier, February 10, 1904.
  • ☛ “Grundy County Woman Suicides,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 23, 1903.
  • ☛ “Find No Motive for Murder, Tri-City Star, September 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “Happenings In Iowa,” Greene Iowa Recorder, December 30, 1903.
  • ☛ “Hearing Postponed,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 8, 1904.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, January 19, 1904.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 12, 1904.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Semi-Weekly Iowa State Reporter, January 22, 1904.
  • ☛ “Held For Wife Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 25, 1903.
  • ☛ “Iowa News And Notes,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, October 2, 1904.
  • ☛ “More Experts In The Slifer Case,” Cedar Rapids Republican, September 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “Murder Trial In Grundy,” Semi-Weekly Reporter, September 16, 1904.
  • ☛ “Mysterious Death,” Hull Index, January 15, 1904.
  • ☛ “Mysterious Death,” Sioux County Herald, January 13, 1904.
  • ☛ “New Points Introduced,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 19, 1904.
  • ☛ “Postpone The Examination,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, January 7, 1904.
  • ☛ “Sensation In Slifer Trial,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, September 24, 1904.
  • ☛ “Sensational Evidence In Slifer Trial,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “A Short Session,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, September 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Acquitted,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, October 4, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Acquitted Of Murder Charge,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 30, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Bought Deadly Drug,” Anita Republican, September 21, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Bound Over,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, January 20, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Case Is To Come Up,” Davenport Daily Leader, February 9, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Case Is To Come Up,” Waterloo Daily Courier, February 8, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Case Will Come Up For Trial Next Week,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 6, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Held For Murder,” Pocahontas County Sun, February 18, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Is Held Without Bail,” Des Moines Capital, January 20, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Is Indicted For Wife Murder,” Des Moines Capital, February 15, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Jury Is Selected,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 14, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Murder Case Called,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 12, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Murder Trial Set,” Des Moines Iowa State Register, September 9, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Murder Trial Set,” Semi-Weekly Reporter, September 9, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Murder Trial Set,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 7, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Returns To Old Home,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 5, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer Was On Stand,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 26, 1904.
  • ☛ “Slifer’s Case Stirs A County,” Cedar Rapids Republican, September 9, 1904.
  • ☛ “State of Iowa vs. W.E. Slifer,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 10, 1904.
  • ☛ “State Rests Slifer Trial,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, September 23, 1904.
  • ☛ “State Rests in The Slifer Case,” Cedar Rapids Republican, September 21, 1904.
  • ☛ “Statements And Testimony,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 15, 1904.
  • ☛ “Testifies In Son’s Behalf,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 24, 1904.
  • ☛ “To Defend In Murder Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 15, 1904.
  • ☛ “The Woman Was Chloroformed,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 30, 1903.
  • ☛ “Writing Experts,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 19, 1904.
  • ☛ “Young Farmer Held For Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 28, 1903.

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