The Ed Crampton Murders of 1921

No expects to see a life-sized hippo along an Iowa roadside.

A deer, raccoon, or even a coyote? Sure. But never a hippo.

Everyone who drives down Highway 30 between DeWitt and Clinton in Clinton County can’t help but see it. A leftover relic of a since-defunct landscaping business, the hippo has become a definitive landmark in the region.

Appropriately enough, the hippo also marks the road into one of the county’s least known towns: Malone.

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The Hippo Along Highway 30, Clinton County, Iowa. Author’s Collection

There are many people living in Clinton County that have never heard of Malone. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everyone knew where it was.

The story of Malone starts in the very early days of the county. In the mid-1800’s, railroads were a transportation powerhouse in America. At that time, farmers that didn’t live near major waterways had to transport their goods overland by wagon to an area that did. It could be an expensive undertaking, sometimes costing the farmer as much as they made from selling their crops.

Then the railroads came. Trains were more than able to transport large amounts of freight overland to viable markets. All that local farmers had to do was take their crop to the local depot and have it loaded onto a freight car. Now they were much better able to sell their crops at a profit instead of spending everything they had on transportation.

But the railroad engines couldn’t haul non-stop. They needed places where they could stop to refuel, or give their crew a break. These depots sprung up along the entire length of a given rail line, and often towns would grow up around them.

Malone was one such town, founded by the Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska Railroad in the 1850’s.

A stockyard was built there not long after the depot, and it became a popular place for people in the region to bring their livestock. As they grew and expanded, more people began to settle around it. Eventually, Malone grew into a full-fledged town.

A general store was one of the first things built there, followed by a grain-buying business. Railroad men liked the town, too. Soon, they were building houses there and moving their families in. A one-room schoolhouse was erected to teach their children.

By the 1920’s, Edward Crampton was living there with his family.

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Edward CramptonCourtesy of Central Community Historical Museum

Born in 1893 in nearby Elvira, Edward was one of seven children. When he was about 18-years-old, he married Lillian Henry. They had two children, but Lillian would sadly pass away when they were very young.

Later, Edward married a woman named Dona Thomas. He worked at the Clinton Corn Syrup Refining Company in nearby Clinton. He was known for being a hard worker, and the couple lived in a nice home in Malone. During his second marriage, Edward was blessed with two more children, Betty and Bonnie.

Edward Crampton seemingly led an idyllic life. He had a dependable job and had a nice family. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Crampton was a surly and unfriendly man. He was an awful husband who regularly beat Dona. Although he seemed to love his children, he only had one friend, a man named Thomas Mulholland.

A former carpenter for the railroads, Mulholland ran a general store in Malone. Having been made a widower twice, he lived with his sister. Mulholland was a kind man who was well liked in the community. It was a wonder to many that Thomas and Edward were friends. Thomas seemed to get along with everyone, but hardly anyone liked Edward.

If Edward enjoyed the company of Thomas above all others, he despised few men more than his brother-in-law, Robert Vale.

Vale was married to Dona’s sister, and lived nearby. Things had been alright between the two men until an incident in 1928 over eggs. What started as an argument over which one of them owned a particular batch of eggs quickly escalated into physical violence. In a fit of anger, Edward struck Vale hard, leaving a large gash on his face.

In August 1929, Edward gave Dona a particularly brutal beating. Hurting and angry, she decided that was going to be the last time he ever did that to her.

Mustering her courage, she went to the county courthouse and filed a petition for divorce. When he came home that night, Dona told him what she’d done. Then, Dona told him that he would have to leave. With that, she took the children and went to stay with her sister.

The next morning, Dona waited until she heard Edward get into his car and drive away. She still had things at the house for herself and the girls, and she didn’t want to risk a confrontation with him if she could avoid it. Satisfied that Ed had left, Dona went to the house to wash some laundry.

On the road, Ed gripped the steering wheel as he mulled over the previous day’s events. He’d had time to think some things through, and he had made some definite decisions about what he was going to do.

Instead of driving straight into Clinton, he turned off the road and headed toward the town of Low Moor, just a few miles away from Malone. The car hummed steadily as he drove the familiar route to his uncle’s house.

Stopping the car in front, Edward got out and went to find his uncle, George Crampton. After exchanging some pleasantries, Ed asked if he could borrow a shotgun. He explained Malone was having trouble with stray dogs, and that the men of the town had organized a hunt to get rid of them.

George understood. He didn’t see anything wrong with his nephew’s story and turned over the gun without hesitation. Thanking his uncle, Edward left. He then stopped and bought several shotgun shells. Satisfied that he had everything, he began to drive back home.

When he pulled up outside of his house, Edward must have been surprised to see his wife there. After all, she had just left him and filed for divorce. Dona had made her position very clear the day before. But now, here she was, hanging out laundry at the home they had made together. Perhaps, for a few moments, Ed allowed himself to hope that she had changed her mind and had decided to stay.

Getting out of the car, Edward walked toward Dona. After watching her for a moment, he began to speak.

Edward explained that he needed Dona to stay with him. He said that he adored his children, and loved them above all other things. The last thing that he wanted was to be separated from them.

Dona listened, but his pleading didn’t persuade her. She’d been abused and beaten for far too long, and she wasn’t going to live that way anymore. Meeting his gaze, Dona told Edward that she wasn’t coming back. It was over between them.

Edward nodded. There was no more talking to be done. Silently, he walked back to the car, reached in, and took out the shotgun. Without a backward glance, he began to walk down the street.

When Dona saw the gun, her whole world stopped for a split second. There was no good to come out of whatever Ed had in mind. With a sinking feeling, she ran after him. She pled with him to put the gun down, to think about what he was doing.

Somehow, Dona didn’t think that Ed would kill her, or at least she hoped not. Desperately, she kept lunging forward, trying to put herself in front of her estranged husband, or at least the shotgun he carried. Ed simply ignored her, stepping around her. Dona wasn’t sure, but it seemed like he was heading to the general store.

As he walked, Ed saw his brother-in-law, Robert Vale, coming down the street carrying a bag of chicken feed. Ed stopped and placed the stock of the shotgun to his shoulder. He fired, but missed. Quickly, he racked another shell into the chamber and fired.

This time, buckshot struck home, slamming into Vale’s hip. The man dropped to the ground, unmoving. Without taking another second, Crampton walked away, heading to Mulholland’s general store.

Thomas Mulholland was sitting just inside the screen door of the store’s entryway. When he saw his friend Ed, Thomas started to stand. Before he could get all the way to his feet, Crampton raised the shotgun, took aim, and pulled the trigger. The gun roared, hitting the old man square in the face.

Unbelievably, Mullholland was still alive and conscious, although obviously stunned and probably in shock. Slowly, he began to rise his feet. Edward racked the shotgun, took aim, and squeezed the trigger once more, this time striking his victim in the heart. Mullholland fell forward, dead.

Turning, Ed started back toward his house. Along the way, he noticed that his shoe had come untied. Stopping, Edward set the gun down, bent over, and tied his shoe. Taking the shotgun again, he went the rest of the way to his house. Going inside, he turned and latched the screen door behind him. Edward Crampton never said a word the entire time.

Inside, Ed knew he had one last thing to take care of.

Taking a stick, he walked to a corner and knelt down. Carefully, Ed firmly wedged the stock of the shotgun against the floor, placing the muzzle against himself. He took one end of the stick and put it through the trigger guard. With a deep breath, he thrust the other end forward.

The trigger was yanked backward. The sound of the shotgun was muffled by Ed’s own body as it tore through him, ending his life.

Authorities arrived a short time later. Vale, though wounded, was still alive. He was rushed to Jane Lamb Hospital in Clinton, where doctors performed emergency surgery to repair the wound in his hip. They were successful, and Vale settled in to rest and heal.

Meanwhile, Morton Lyon, the county coroner came and examined the bodies of Mulholland and Crampton. Investigators collected evidence and talked with witnesses. Although it was required to have a coroner’s inquest because of the nature of the crimes, it was more of a formality than anything else. Everyone knew what had happened, and that, with the death of Ed Crampton, justice had already been served.

A few days later, Vale’s wife, Susie, received an urgent call telling her to drop everything and come to the hospital. When she arrived, she was given the devastating news that Robert had taken a turn for the worse. He had contracted meningitis, and that, along with his injuries, were enough to send him into a downward spiral from which he just couldn’t recover. Robert Vale passed away at the hospital a short time later.

The people of Malone were rocked by Edward Crampton’s murder spree. They hadn’t liked the man, but they had never expected him to do something like this. Very little made any sense about it.

They could understand Crampton’s motivation to kill Vale. The two had feuded for months. But Mulholland? The old carpenter had never done anything to anyone, and by anyone’s reckoning was Crampton’s only friend in the world. It wasn’t like Mullholland had tried to stop Ed from shooting Vale and gotten hit accidentally in the attempt. No, when Ed killed him, he was just sitting at his store, minding his own business.

More curious still, why hadn’t Edward killed his wife, Dona? She had filed for divorce, and she was the one who was going to separate him from his beloved daughters. If he was suddenly going to snap and shoot someone, she made a more logical target. It’s not like he hadn’t had the opportunity. Still, Ed hadn’t, choosing to spare her multiple times on that fateful day.

No one had any answers. No one understood why Edward Crampton had committing those terrible crimes. For a while, everyone talked about it. They debated, and they conjectured. But, soon enough, the talk began to fade away. There were still crops to plant and livestock to move at the stockyard. Soon enough, the excitement quieted down as life in Malone, and the surrounding county, moved on.

Malone, as a town, continued to thrive for several more years. Then, just as many things seem to do, things began to slow down.

With better, more reliable roads and vehicles able to haul more freight for longer, semis began to gain popularity amongst farmers. As a result, the business at the stockyards started to dwindle.

By the 1940’s, the Malone stockyards closed for good. With those gone, families began to move away, and Malone slowly shrank.

Today, Malone is still a great town, if not a well-known one. The hippo stands quietly at the entrance of the road to the town, yawning contently at passing traffic on Highway 30. It stands as a sentinel to the town itself, nestled comfortably a short distance away from the steady traffic.

While life has certainly quieted down from the days of the thriving stockyards, the town is content. Very few traces of their most prominent business remain, having faded steadily with the passing of time.

Without a doubt, the horrible acts committed by Edward Crampton ninety years ago darkened their history. However, they seem to have left no lasting stain in Malone, the passing of time having scrubbed the town clean.


2 thoughts on “The Ed Crampton Murders of 1921”

  1. Bridget Arkenberg

    My husband is from Clinton, Iowa. We have driven past that Hippo many times on our way to see his brother in Cedar Rapids. With the death of his parents in 2014, and his sister moving to Georgia in 2019, we don’t have a reason to visit Clinton anymore. On my first trip to Clinton in 2003, I was introduced to the unique smell of the Clinton Corn processing plant. I will never forget that distinct aroma.

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