Henry William Chavis
55-year-old Ames Canning Company Owner
Cattle and Grain Farmer
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Murder Scene and Date
Chavis Farm Home
Highway 69 (now S. Duff Avenue)
1 mile South of Ames, Iowa
November 7, 1948
By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2010
In the early hours of Monday, November 8, 1948, 55-year-old Ames businessman Henry Chavis was gunned down behind his rural Story County home.
For decades, this unsolved murder has baffled and intrigued area residents.
The Ames Historical Society receives more queries about the Chavis murder than almost any other historical event, even though the jurisdiction of the case is Story County rather than Ames.
Theories and suspects were plentiful in 1948, but no one was charged or brought to justice.
☛ The Canning Czar ☚
In 1936, Indiana resident Henry Chavis bought the Ames Canning Company. He moved his wife Gertrude and daughters Doris and Loreyne to Ames and the family lived on Duff Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard with large, impressive homes.
Soon after moving to Ames, Henry Chavis became one of the premiere businessmen in the city.
Hundreds of local residents were employed by the Ames Canning Company, which opened in 1918 to process corn and sent most of its products that year to feed U.S. troops fighting in WWI.
After buying the operation, Chavis expanded the company’s products and sped up the process until the factory could turn out two hundred and forty cans per minute.
The company canned and distributed the brands Ames, Iowana, Collegian, Lulu Belle, and Pride of Ames. During WWII, chicken was canned to send overseas as part of the Lend-Lease Act.
☛ Gentleman Farmer ☚
The immediate post-war years were very good for Henry Chavis.
In 1946, the Chavises — whose daughters were then married — moved to a large farm one mile south of Ames in Washington Township of Story County.
The four-bedroom home was fully modernized and considered impressive for the times. It sat on the west side of Highway 69, which Duff Avenue became as it left the then-city limits.
Today, the location of the Chavis farm is within the Ames city limits in a bustling commercial hub at South 16th Street and South Duff Avenue, where Old Chicago Restaurant, Grand Stay Residential Suites, and Deery Brothers Motors (formerly Benson’s Motors) are located.
In addition to running the canning company, Chavis farmed nearly 300 acres and maintained a large barn and hog house. He fed refuse from the canning operation to his livestock.
☛ “Not a Warm Man” ☚
Henry Chavez was well-known to Ames residents. With his dark hair slicked straight back, large amounts of cash in his pockets, and a six-hundred-dollar diamond ring on his left hand, he was an imposing presence. He belonged to important business and fraternal groups at the heart of the town.
However, Chavis had few friends and was not well-liked. Townspeople thought he put on airs and felt superior to them. “He was not a warm man,” a newspaper wrote after his death.
Chavis strode into Chamber of Commerce meetings, had his say, cast his vote, and left. He conducted business with quick decisions and little conversation. He always got his money’s worth and was described by a newspaper after his death as “a brisk man with a dollar.”
Henry Chavis was popular, however, with female canning company employees. Gertrude often dropped into the factory to check out the young women and monitor her husband’s behavior.
Gertrude Chavis — a petite, chain-smoking, stylishly-dressed brunette — had two passions: gambling in early Mob-run Las Vegas casinos and bowling.
☛ Bowling and Free Mason Drills ☚
Sunday, November 7, 1948 was moderate for early November, with temperatures in the upper 40s and lower 50s. It was overcast all day. The humidity was high and snow fell a few days later.
The Chavises were enjoying some down time. The busy canning season had ended and the harvest on their own farm was finished.
They shared lunch and then Henry dressed in his Masonic uniform, complete with a newly purchased sword, and left the house.
At 3:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Gertrude drove with two friends to Marshalltown, 40 miles east of Ames, for a bowling tournament. On the way home, the ladies had a flat tire that required fixing.
Gertrude said when she got back to Ames at 9:00 p.m. Henry was not home, so she went to a movie. Returning at 11:00 p.m., she parked her car in the garage behind the house. Seeing Henry had not yet returned, Gertrude retired to her upstairs bedroom.
At 1:30 Monday morning, a coughing fit woke Gertrude. She checked on Henry again and — assuming he was still not home — went back to bed.
Authorities said they knew where Henry Chavis spent Sunday afternoon and night, but did not make the information public. It was leaked, however, that Chavis was in Des Moines during the day and then seen about 10:00 that night at an establishment along Highway 30 (“The Lincoln Highway”) between Ames and Boone.
In recent years, a life-long Ames resident told the author that Chavis was one of several regulars at a Sunday card game in a paint store in the now nearly abandoned town of Ontario a few miles west of Ames and that Chavis was unpopular with the other players.
☛ Death at the Back Door ☚
When Henry Chavis returned to his farm in the early hours, he parked his 1941 Chevrolet between the house and the garage, where he usually did. But it was not a usual homecoming. Someone had followed him or was lying in wait.
He probably saw the person in the headlights when he pulled into the driveway, because he got out of the car in a hurry, leaving his top coat on the seat and not locking the doors, as was his compulsive habit.
The waxing crescent moon shone very little light through the heavy overcast, but Chavis could see well enough to look straight at the person who meant him harm and may have even walked towards him.
As the first shot was fired, Chavis threw up his left arm to shield his face. A bullet tore through the arm and lodged in his left shoulder. Chavis spun around and was shot in the mid-back. He fell face down.
Then his assailant executed him with a shot through the back of his head that exited his throat.
The killer turned the body over, took Chavis’s wallet, and disappeared.
For the rest of the night, Henry Chavis lay on the ground near a tree and two piles of sand only 12 feet from his own back door.
Gertrude Chavis said she slept soundly — hearing nothing unusual — in her second-floor bedroom, the farthest spot in the house from the murder scene.
☛ The Morning After ☚
About 7:00 a.m. on Monday, the Chavis’s maid Nellie Aller arrived for work in a taxicab driven by local movie projectionist “Red” Dinsmore.
Aller and Dinsmore discovered Henry Chavis dead behind the house and notified Ames Police.
When Patrolman Arlie Schumer reported to the scene, he sent for Chavis family physician Dr. Joe Fellows. When the doctor arrived, he asked Schumer to turn the body over and, seeing that Chavis was deceased, called for a hearse.
When authorities went inside to notify Gertrude her husband was dead, she collapsed and had to be sedated by Dr. Fellows.
Local morticians drove Chavis’s body to Adams Funeral Home.
☛ Bullets in the Sand ☚
The Ames Police cordoned off the scene with string attached to small wooden stakes and then combed it for clues.
Officer Schumer spotted an empty cartridge from a .32 caliber gun and two unfired shells in a pile of sand near where Chavis fell.
Monday evening’s Ames Daily Tribune featured a front-page photo of Schumer at the rear of the Chavis house pointing to the spot where he spotted the bullets.
An extensive search for the murder weapon yielded nothing.
Curious spectators had already swamped the yard and house, trampling on any other evidence that might have existed.
Coroner Daniel G. “Guy” Mills of McCallsburg and Story County Attorney Edward J. Kelley took over the scene for Story County, whose sheriff was Gus Hall. Investigators from the Iowa Bureau of Criminal were also on hand.
D.W. “Doc” Nebergall, Chief of the BCI, headed up the State’s part of the inquiry. He was known as “the J. Edgar Hoover of Iowa” and was credited with bringing scientific methods to the Bureau, even stocking its lab with his personal equipment.
Nebergall was once Story County Sheriff, so he was on familiar ground.
Doc Nebergall dug up the spent cartridge Patrolman Schumer located and took it to Des Moines for analysis.
Authorities questioned Gertrude Chavis and her daughter Doris Chavis Rehnblom. The other daughter, Loreyne Chavis Hagen, was on her way to Iowa from California.
☛ Broken Finger and Bruised Hand ☚
When BCI physician Julius Wiengart autopsied Henry Chavis on Monday afternoon at Adams Funeral Home, another bullet was discovered in his abdomen.
The bullets at the scene and the one retrieved at autopsy were from a .32 caliber automatic, the type of gun the Chavises recently reported stolen.
A coroner’s Jury of three prominent Ames businessmen met in the Council Chambers of City Hall to hear investigators’ testimony and then viewed the body at Adam’s Funeral Home.
The undertaker showed the jury Chavis’s right hand. It was bruised and the index finger broken.
The jury ruled that Henry Chavis was killed “by person or persons unknown.”
☛ Widow’s Short-Lived Reward ☚
On November 30, Gertrude Chavis issued a notice in newspapers:
“[$2,500 reward for] information leading to the arrest, conviction, or affirmation by the highest appellate court of the person or persons who shot and killed my husband, Henry W. Chavis, on the early morning of November 8, 1948.”
Her offer was good, however, only until May 30, 1949.
☛ Lie Detector Tests ☚
In early February 1949, Chicago resident Leonard Keeler, inventor of the lie detector machine, flew to Iowa and administered tests to ten people, including Gertrude Chavis and other family members.
Keeler said this was done “primarily to weed out suspects and to clear up rumors and verify findings.” But, whatever was learned through the lie detector tests was not made public.
☛ Fixation on the Murder ☚
Ames citizens obsessed over the murder, and everyone had a theory about it. The media was preoccupied, as well, and covered the crime for months.
In September 1949, the Des Moines Tribune offered $1,000 to induce “secret witnesses” to provide information on the murder, promising total anonymity to anyone with details.
☛ Business Deal Gone Sour? ☚
In official speculation about the murder, the word “grudge” came up frequently.
There were dozens of people in the community who felt they got the short end of the bargain when doing business with Chavis.
An Ames Police officer told a newspaper:
“If we questioned everybody in town who has said at one time or another he would like to clip Chavis in the chin it would take months.”
☛ Robbery? ☚
Because Chavis’s wallet was missing, the crime looked like a robbery; but the County Attorney believed it was taken only to create that impression.
Gertrude said Henry might have had two-to-three thousand dollars on his person, part of that a $1,100 check. However, two sources claimed the check was cashed six days before the murder.
If the crime was a robbery, why was the expensive diamond ring Chavis always wore still on his hand?
To answer that, Gertrude Chavis announced to the media that her husband wore the ring for many years and could not get it off over his knuckle. He was even considering filing it off, and the undertaker had to use nippers to remove it from the body to return to her.
☛ Something More Personal? ☚
One official investigating the homicide stated:
“It seems that [the] third bullet was fired by someone who had a vicious mad on for Mr. Chavis.”
That statement made the crime seem personal.
Gossip was rampant about Chavis’s love of the ladies, fueling speculation that a jealous husband murdered him.
Because his right index finger was broken and his hand bruised, it’s possible Chavis was in a fist fight earlier in the evening and someone followed him home to even the score or continue the scuffle.
Did Gertrude, tired of his philandering and — acting alone or in league with a husband Henry had wronged — shoot Henry or hire someone to kill him, promising the cash on his body as payment?
Gertrude admitted to a newspaper reporter that her marriage was less than ideal. She said she and Henry slept in separate bedrooms, went their own ways, and shared little about what they did.
☛ Death With Money Benefits ☚
In January 1949, Gertrude Chavis and her daughter Loreyne Chavis Hagen — the sole stockholders in the canning operation — sold it to the Minnesota Valley Canning Company for $100,000. The plant then operated in Ames under the Green Giant name until closing in 1957.
On February 18, 1949, twelve hundred people — many, a newspaper noted, “lured by curiosity” — attended an auction at the Chavis place to bid on agricultural equipment and household furnishings. The crowd was described as “swarming” over the farm.
Gertrude and her daughter Loreyne earned $15,000 from the sale.
A total of $115,00 was realized from the death of Henry Chavis.
☛ Did the Mafia Murder Henry Chavis? ☚
The Story County Sheriff’s Office believed the murder was committed by organized crime and gambling interests because Chavis recently obtained a court order to restrain Gertrude from gambling.
Las Vegas, Gertrude’s favorite gaming spot, was controlled by the Mafia in 1948. And the method of execution — two shots to the body and then one to the head — was the standard mob hit.
Perhaps Gertrude owed money to a casino and plotted to have her husband murdered — or killed him herself — to use his insurance and other assets to pay her debts.
Or was Henry’s death a message from the Mob to Gertrude?
☛ Along the Muddy Banks of Squaw Creek ☚
Two years after the murder, when it seemed that the investigation was cold, a chance discovery heated it up.
On Monday, April 17, 1950, two local boys — Cole Foster and Boyd Larson, both 11 — were scrambling along the banks of Squaw Creek as they often did.
The stream meanders through Ames and then flows east and under a bridge on Duff Avenue known now by locals as “Carney Bridge” because Carney Salvage was once located on the east side.At this spot, about a quarter mile directly north of the Chavis home, the two boys found a .32 caliber Colt automatic embedded in the mud. The boys had accomplished something investigators had not been able to when they dragged the creek immediately after the murder. Cole and Boyd turned the gun over to Ames Police and hoped a reward would make them rich. Local authorities gave the gun to the Iowa BCI where investigators speculated the gun was buried by the killer and eventually washed free by the flowing creek waters.
Because the gun was rusty and corroded from mud and water, authorities were not sanguine about its yielding any clues.
The ever-scientific Doc Nebergall, however, took the gun to his BCI lab and soaked it in various solutions. He raised serial numbers matching those of the .32 caliber Colt the Chavis family reported stolen before the murder.
In mid-June 1950, Nebergall fired two bullets from the gun into a five-foot-long box packed with cotton. He invited the press to watch and declared he’d never seen a gun in such bad condition fired before.
The test-fired bullets and those found at the scene and in the body were sent to an unspecified lab for comparison, but Nebergall said the results would not be released to the public.
Ivan Shalley, Story County Sheriff in 1950, announced the gun was the first real clue to the murder. Story County Attorney Ed J. Kelley, too, thought the discovery of the gun was an asset to the investigation, although he told Des Moines Register reporter William G. Brown that the pistol could be “one of the good clues that we have been looking for — or it could be just a bubble.”
The gun itself, as well as the bullets from Henry Chavis’s body, the ground, and the test-firing are kept in the long-term evidence vault at the Story County Sheriff’s Office.
Still, the weapon found by the young boys was Chavis’s gun. That much is known. And it would have been available to Gertrude or other family members. One of them could have taken it — causing Henry Chavis to report it as missing or stolen — and then shot him or given it to someone else to use as the murder weapon.
☛ Law Enforcement’s Own? ☚
Although everyone in Ames had a theory about the Chavis murder, the Charles Van Patter family, who lived on the farm directly south of the Chavises, had a suspect.
The Van Patters believed a member of their own family — Harry Mills, nephew of Charles Van Patter — killed Henry Chavis because Chavis was having an affair with Harry Mills’s attractive wife Veva.
Harry Mills served as Story County Sheriff from 1941 to 1944 and was well-known to area law enforcement, who may have been reluctant to prosecute him.
Mills became Sheriff after a 1941 shoot-out on property to the southeast of the Chavis farm during which Story County Sheriff Charles V. McGriff was gunned down while serving a commitment order on Ames Tourist Camp owner Gunner Overland.
It will never be known if Harry Mills killed Henry Chavis. He died suddenly three months after the murder and his widow Veva immediately left Iowa and never returned.
☛ Gertrude Chavis: Life Goes On ☚
In 1950, a plat shows the Chavis farm co-owned by Gertrude, her daughter Loreyne Hagen, and her son-in-law Ralph Hagen.
In 1950, Gertrude built the El Rancho Motel just south of her home, perhaps naming it after the famous early hotel and casino in Las Vegas where she gambled.
In 1967, she sold the house and farm for commercial development. The motel was razed about 35 years later.
Gertrude Chavis did not remarry after her husband’s murder. She stayed active in Ames league bowling, was an officer in the local women’s bowling organization, and was made a permanent member of the Women’s International Bowling Congress.
Gertrude died August 4, 1968 and was buried beside Henry in the Ames Cemetery.
Two months before Gertrude’s death, lightning struck the building that once housed Henry Chavis’s canning company and it burned to the ground.
☛ The Life of Henry Chavis ☚
Henry William Chavis was born July 24, 1893 in Benton County, Indiana, to Lizzie Grobe and William Chavis. He had a younger sister, Mary (or May) Chavis.
On October 4, 1914, he married Gertrude L. Thomas in Fowler, Indiana. The couple had two daughters, Doris Grace Rehnblom Page Ouimet and Loreyne Mae Hagen.
Chavis managed a canning company in Indiana before purchasing the one in Ames in 1936.
In Ames, he was active in Masons, Shriners, the Joshua Chapter of Ascension Commandery (Knights Templar), and Za-Ga-Zig Shrine.
He served on the Agriculture Committee of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and was President of the Iowa-Nebraska Canners Association and Director of the National Canners Association.
Chavis’s funeral was held Thursday afternoon, November 11 at First Methodist Church in Ames, and he was buried in the Oakwood section of Ames Municipal Cemetery.
When she passed away, Gertrude was buried beside him.
☛ Author’s Update: March 2014 ☚
On Monday, March 24, 2014, Cole Foster — who as an 11-year-old found Henry Chavis’s gun along Squaw Creek — agreed to meet me in Ames and recreate that discovery.
The day was barely a month shy of the 64th anniversary of the date when Cole and his friend Boyd Larson (now deceased) had a great adventure.
Monday, April 17, 1950 was an overcast, humid spring day, with temperatures at 70 degrees by mid-afternoon. The trees were just beginning to bud and the earth was coming back to life after a long Iowa winter.
Our day together in 2014 was chilly, with the type of wet cold a southern Coloradan like Cole feels to the marrow. Snow fell all morning and came again in a blinding squall towards evening.
Fortified by coffee, confections, and memories-laden conversation, we drove south on the South Duff corridor through heavy traffic and the clutter of big box stores, turned west into what was once Zenor’s dairy farm and not long ago a corn field. We drove behind an Applebee’s, a State Farm Insurance office, and a Red Lobster before stopping at the far edge of a concrete parking lot.
Once out of our cars, we headed down a slope of mud and dead weeds and scrubby undergrowth to a spot nearly unchanged from the days when a young Cole Foster and his friends played along the banks — sometimes fishing, sometimes shooting sparrows with a .22, sometimes just heaving rocks into the eastward drifting creek, which Cole told me was flowing at about the same level in 2014 it was on the day he discovered Henry Chavis’s gun in 1950.
At the creek’s edge, Cole pointed and said, “That’s where we found it.” Sure and certain.
What’s remarkable is that we learned the spot where the gun was found is at least 50 yards from the Duff Avenue Bridge that spans the creek, the place from which I had speculated Henry Chavis’s killer threw the gun into the water.
But that scenario has to be ruled out – it would not have been possible to heave the weapon that far from the bridge.
An alternate theory is that the killer shot Henry Chavis, walked across the gravel road which is now 16th Street, followed a wagon or cow path on the Zenor Dairy Farm to Squaw Creek, and threw the weapon down the bank.
But where was the killer’s car? Was it parked still at the Chavis farm to which he or she returned? Was it left along the gravel road for a quick getaway?
Or was the killer on foot the entire time? That scenario allows for a Chavis family member to have lain in wait for the victim, walked across the dairy farm fields to dispose of the gun, and returned home without the need to travel in a car.
Another possible scenario would involve parking the car on the bridge and walking 50 yards down the bank, but the risk of being seen by a passerby would have been high.
It was exhilarating and informative to share these memories with Cole Foster and I extend to him my sincerest thanks for helping to bring to light another important aspect of this historical unsolved murder.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “1,200 Attend Chavis Sale; Nets $15,000,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, February 18, 1949.
- ☛ “Ames Canning Co. Sold for $100,000,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, January 19, 1949.
- ☛ “Ames Man Killed In Own Yard: Henry Chavis, Head of Canning Firm, Is Victim of 3 Bullets,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 6, 1948.
- ☛ “Auction Equipment On H. Chavis Farm,” Oelwein Daily Register,” February 19, 1949.
- ☛ “Ballistics Tests Will Be Made With Chavis Gun Found by Two Ames Boys,” Ames Daily Tribune (from the collection of Cole Foster).
- ☛ “Believe Chavis Recognized Assailant,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, November 11, 1948.
- ☛ “Canning Factory To Start 1937 Run Early Next Week,” Ames Daily Tribune, August 4, 1937.
- ☛ “Chavis Gun Found,” Ames Daily Tribune (from collection of Cole Foster).
- ☛ “Chavis Likely Saw His Killer Before Death,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 11, 1948.
- ☛ “Chavis Murder Gun Fired, Is ‘Definitely’ Established,” Nevada Evening Journal, June 1950.
- ☛“Chavis Services Set For Thursday: Money and ‘Grudge’ Are Death Angles,” Ames Daily Tribune, November 10, 1948.
- ☛ “Chavis’ Ring Not Taken as He Was Slain,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 10, 1948.
- ☛ Cole Foster, Personal Correspondence and Conversations, March 2011 and March 2014.
- ☛ “Continue Search for Gun Used in Murder,” Ames Daily Tribune, November 9, 1948.
- ☛ “Denies Arrest Made In Henry Chavis Case,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 27, 1949.
- ☛ “Find Pistol of Slain Chavis” by William G. Brown, Des Moines Register, April 18, 1950.
- ☛ “Gun Found; May Be Clue In Chavis Case,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, April 18, 1950.
- ☛ “Henry Chavis Murdered: Shot Three Times,” Ames Daily Tribune, November 8, 1948.
- ☛ “Inspecting Gun Owned By Chavis,” Mount Pleasant News, April 18, 1950.
- ☛ “Iowan Found Shot To Death At Farm Home,” Oelwein Daily Register, November 8, 1948.
- ☛ “Lie Detector Tests Used In Unsolved Iowa Murder,” Nebraska State Journal, February 6, 1949.
- ☛ Miscellaneous papers, Ames Historical Society.
- ☛“Mrs. Chavis, 73, died,” Ames Daily Tribune, August 5, 1968.
- ☛ “No Tests With Chavis Weapon Until Next Week,” Ames Daily Tribune, April 22, 1950.
- ☛ “Offer Reward For Tips Of Slaying,” Sheboygan Press, September 6, 1949.
- ☛ Personal Correspondence, Dennis C. Wendell, 2009.
- ☛ “Question Several in Chavis Murder,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 11, 1948.
- ☛ “Ring Had to Be Clipped Off Hand Of Ames Victim,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 13, 1948.
- ☛ “Says Robber Could Not Have Taken Off Chavis’ Ring,” Waterloo Sunday Courier, November 14, 1948.
- ☛ “Still Hold Hopes Of Connecting Gun With Chavis Death,” Nevada Evening Journal, May 22, 1950.
- ☛ Story County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and Deputy Rodney Bunn.
- ☛ “Test Shots Fired From Chavis Gun,” Ames Daily Tribune, June 16, 1950.
- ☛ “Tests on Chavis Weapon Continue; Not Fired Yet,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 28, 1950.
- ☛ “Think Chavis May Have Seen Assailant,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, November 12, 1948.
- ☛ “Two Bullets Fired from Chavis Gun,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 16, 1950.
- ☛ “Uncertain As To Firing of Chavis Gun,” Des Moines Register (from collection of Cole Foster).
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Widow of Slain Ames Canner Offers Reward,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, November 30, 1948.