Deadly Relations

The rain began to fall steadily across Iowa. The weather was warm for early December, hovering right around the 40-degree mark.

All morning long and into the afternoon the rain came, as people did their chores and shopping, or watched it out the windows at school or work. Toward the afternoon, the winds began to pick up, bringing cold, biting air with it.

The thermostat began to plummet, and the rain changed first into sleet, then into snow by evening. The snow was thick and heavy, and soon began to pile up in the roads and sidewalks. The wind grew even stronger, shaping the accumulated snow into vast icy dunes across the state, sometimes upwards of ten feet high or more.

What had started as an almost Spring-like rain had turned into a full-fledged Midwestern blizzard.

City roads became treacherous, in spite of snow plows being brought out to fight the snow. Street car service was suspended in several larger cities, and trains were severely delayed by the drifts. In Waterloo, the snow became so thick across the tracks that one locomotive, Train No. 66, became stuck in the snow until rescuers could pull them out one car at a time. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

In the countryside, things were even worse. The roads were completely blocked, making travel impossible. Several telephone poles across Iowa and into Nebraska were pushed over by the blustering winds. In Muscatine, a city in the southeastern portion of the state, one of the radio towers of KTNT, a local station, was folded completely in half by a combination of the weight of the snow and the high winds.

The temperature finally bottomed out in the low teens. People across the state hunkered down to keep warm inside their homes, not daring to venture outside unless they had to. Some, however, had no choice. In Cedar Rapids alone, several families went to the Social Welfare League to get warmer clothes, shoes, or coal for their furnaces.

The next morning, workers at the Iowa Railway and Light Corporation used a blowtorch to thaw out their official thermometer. Once the ice and snow had been melted away, it had dropped to 12 degrees above freezing, meaning that the temperature had plummeted nearly thirty degrees since the prior afternoon.

While most people were able to ride out the sudden blizzard, not everyone was so fortunate.

On his way to go rabbit hunting, an Iowa City man found the frozen body of a man lying the snow in the eastern part of the city. The individual was later identified as 69-year-old John Murphy.

Born and raised in Iowa City, Murphy had been a professional plasterer, and was known for his ability and craftsmanship. He was well respected and generally liked.

The prior night, he had been visiting at the home of Louie Hayck. At about 6:30 p.m., he decided to brave the storm and take his leave. After all, this wasn’t his first snowstorm, and, his house wasn’t too far away. Saying his goodbyes, he hefted a lantern and set out into the swirling snow.

At first, he made good headway as he made it through the drifts. After a while, he began to sweat and breathe a little harder as he trudged along. More than likely, Murphy never gave his growing fatigue a second thought. He was nearly seventy and plowing through deep snow, just as fit as a younger man. Why wouldn’t he be tired?

Suddenly, Murphy felt a vice-like pain seize his chest. He couldn’t draw a deep breath. Gasping, Murphy staggered, then fell to the cold, hard ground. He wanted to stand up – knew he should get up – but just couldn’t summon the strength. Still struggling for breath, Murphy’s vision began to dim.

After a moment, he couldn’t feel the cold, and the crushing pain in his chest faded as a comforting, inky darkness closed in.

The coroner, J.H. Donohue, was called shortly after Murphy was found. He determined that Murphy, who had a history of heart problems, had overexerted himself and suffered a heart attack. It had either killed him outright, or it had weakened him to the point that he couldn’t get up from the ground and had died from exposure.

Either way, it was a sad end for a good man, and a small tragedy for his many children. Unfortunately, his family weren’t the only ones to suffer that cold December day.

 

The chill winter wind had blown into Jefferson County with a vengeance the night before, covering everything with a blanket of snow and ice. Sam McNeese, an 18-year old farm boy living near Fairfield, Iowa, had watched it happen from the comfort and safety of his family’s farm.

Sam McNeese
Sam McNeese. Courtesy of Des Moines Register

Sam still lived with his parents, hiring himself out as a farm hand to farms in the area while still helping out with the seemingly endless number of chores at home. He was a good worker, capable and dependable. Sam got along with most people, and didn’t have any real trouble with any of his employers.

Sam had no aspirations of moving into one of the larger cities nearby, or going off to college. He was quite content to stay in the area that he had known his whole life and work as a farmer. Someday, Sam probably hoped to either take over his parent’s farm or to buy one of his own, then settle down with a nice girl and start a family of his own. He wasn’t married yet, but there was someone that he had in mind.

As he busied himself with his farm work, his mother, Lillie, received a phone call from Louie Bruey, the man who owned the next farm down the road. Sam did a lot of work for the Bruey’s, so she wasn’t surprised when he asked her to send Sam over right away.

Louie explained that there was some kind of animal up a tree on his farm, and he wanted Sam to come over and help him with it. Lillie said that she’d tell him to come over, and that he’d be there in just a little bit. Louie thanked her and hung up.

Lillie hung up her own receiver and called for her son. Sam came, and she explained what was going on. Sam nodded, got his coat, and started walking toward his neighbor’s house.

Arrived at the farm, he went inside, finding the Bruey’s in the kitchen. Something about Louie’s demeanor seemed different. He seemed very upset. It must be some animal for him to be that angry over it.

Sam followed Louie into the living room, and was told to take a seat. Wordlessly, he complied, sitting down in an old rocking chair. Louie’s two daughters, Beulah, 17, and Edna, 14, came in and talked a little before returning to the kitchen.

Sam began to feel a little nervous. Even Beulah and Edna seemed to be acting strangely. There was definitely something off about this whole thing.

Bruey, who had gone into another room for a moment, came back in. Sam felt the strong urge to leave. Louie was more than upset – he was furious. He might not have been foaming or throwing things, but he was definitely mad.

For a moment, Bruey just stared at Sam, gathering his thoughts.

Life had been very hard for Louie. A year before, his wife of nearly twenty years, Marie, had died, leaving him to raises the two girls on his own. Beulah was older, so wasn’t as much of a worry. Before long, she’d be married and out of the house. It was Edna that worried him.

Young and pretty, she still needed guidance. Louie adored his daughters, and tried the absolute best that he could. But he still had to tend to his farm and other business dealings. Beulah tried the best that she could, but she was taking care of the house and her own matters at the same time. Edna was also a good girl, but he’d already had trouble.

Sam McNeese had been part of it.

At eighteen, Louie honestly thought that Sam wouldn’t be interested in Edna. They were four years apart, and that meant a lot at that age. Sam was a man, just starting out in life. Edna, on the other hand, was still attending the local one-room school. She was still a fair-sight away from getting married.

But Louie had been wrong. Edna, who was more than old enough to know who and what she found attractive, took quite a shine to Sam. Louie had noticed the way that his daughter was looking at his sometime farmhand, and decided to put an end to it.

One day, he took Edna aside and almost brutally told her to stay away from Sam. He was too old; she was too young. There will be more than time enough for that when you get older. Louie thought that had been the end of it.

Then, the night of the blizzard, his cousin, F.E. Bruey, had come to him, saying that he needed to know about something. Louie had no idea what it could be, but he gave his undivided attention when he was told that it involved Edna.

His cousin proceeded to explain that Edna was in a motherly way. The news had been making the rounds of neighborhood gossip, but no one dared to tell Louie, who should have been one of the first ones to know.

Louie was stunned. It was as if a bomb had just gone off beneath him. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to be told, but it sure wasn’t that.

Every father with girls that age secretly dreads those two little words. When they’re older and are more settled, they can be the most exciting thing in the world. But at fourteen? That was unacceptable. He could feel his blood pressure rise, the anger growing in him like magma in a volcano. He demanded to know who the father was.

To his dismay, the cousin told him that it was none other than Sam McNeese.

Louie felt his stomach roll. He should have seen this coming. He had seen this coming, and had tried his best to stop it. Louie knew that Edna had a crush on Sam, but he would have never expected it to be the other way around.

Thanking his cousin, Louie went to talk to his daughters.

Angrily, he confronted Edna and Beulah. Louie demanded that they tell him what had been going on.

He screamed and yelled, and in the face of his anger the girls became timid and frightened, almost like they had been when they were small and had done something wrong. But this wasn’t a broken dish or talking back to their mother.

Edna, eyes downcast, told him that she was in a lot of trouble. “I’m pregnant,” she said.

Edna, with Beulah supporting her, explained that she had been at home alone when Sam McNeese had crawled through her bedroom window. Almost before she knew what was going on, he had come over and forced himself on the young girl.

A deadly cold began to creep into his very soul as he listened to his daughter tell her story. He wasn’t angry anymore; he was beyond that. Laying a hand on Edna’s shoulder, Louie told his distraught daughter to stop fretting, that he was going to take care of everything.

The Bruey Family
The Bruey Family. Pictured here are Louie (left), Beulah (top center), Edna (center bottom), and Marie (right). Courtesy of the Des Moines Register

Louie didn’t sleep at all that night. How could he? He paced and he fumed. He knew what he was going to do, but he wasn’t sure exactly how yet. Then, as he watched the howling storm outside his window, a plan started to form.

As he stood there, glaring at Sam, the first part of Louie’s plan was already complete. The boy was here, in his house. Looking at him squarely in the eyes, Louie took the next step.

Slowly and calmly, he told Sam that he knew he had gotten Edna pregnant. Louie then explained everything that his daughters had told him. When he had finished, Louie asked the boy if what they said was true.

Sam wasn’t sure what the right thing was to say, or if he should even say anything at all. He just sat there, stunned. After a moment, he explained to Louie that yes, he had been with Edna, and that yes, he was the father of her child.

Louie didn’t say anything for a long moment that seemed to stretch into eternity. Almost in disbelief, he asked Sam if he even felt a little sorry for what he had done. Before Sam could say anything more, Louie stalked out of the room and into the kitchen.

There, Louie stepped past Beulah and Edna, who had been listening intently to the conversation going on in the next room. He barely paid attention to them as he took his shotgun from where he dept it and walked back toward the living room. Jaw set, Louie stopped in the doorway, raised the gun, and fired at almost point-blank range at Sam McNeese.

The shotgun’s roar was deafening in the enclosed space of the house the blast sent shot tearing into Sam’s neck, killing him almost instantly.

In the kitchen, Edna and Beulah screamed. They had no idea that Louie had planned on committing murder that day. He hadn’t ever even given the slightest inclination of it until he had taken the shotgun a few moments before. They honestly thought that all their father wanted to do was talk to the boy and hold hm accountable.

Seemingly satisfied, Louie lowered the shotgun and walked across the room to the telephone. Picking up the receiver, he called his sister. In those days, telephones often had party lines where multiple people in an area could listening on other calls. Louie was aware of this and wanted to keep his conversation as private as possible.

As soon as he heard his sister’s voice, he began speaking to her in French. Their family had originally come from France, and the language had stayed with the family. Louie explained what he had done so that she would know.

Hanging up, he then called the Jefferson County Sheriff, Charles Butcher. He told Butcher that he needed to come out to his farm right away.

The sheriff initially balked at the request. The Bruey farm was several miles outside of Fairfield. The blizzard the night before had rendered the county roads in that area nearly impassable, and Butcher was in no hurry to attempt to slog through the drifts to go there.

Louie listened, and then told him that he had just shot young Sam McNeese to death in his living room, and that the sheriff needed to come out right away. Butcher, needless to say, told him tat he would be there as soon as the roads would allow him to be.

At the McNeese farm, Lillie had heard the shot come from the Bruey farm. There was something about it that bothered her, and she asked her husband, J.R., to go over and find out what had happened. Grabbing his coat, he went out the door and walked through his sons tracks to his neighbor’s house.

Stepping briskly through the yard, J.R. knocked on the door. After a moment, Louie answered the door, still holding his shotgun. Before he could say anything, Bruey viciously told J.R. that he didn’t have a Sam anymore, because Louie had shot him.

Sadly, J.R. turned and walked toward home to tell his family the horrible news.

 

When he got off the phone with Louie, Butcher took a few deep breaths.

Louie Bruey was a successful and rather wealthy farmer. He was well-known and respected all over Jefferson County. The McNeese’s were, too, despite being much poorer. This had the potential to become very messy, and it was going to require his full attention.

After calling for his deputy, Butcher called both the county coroner and the county attorney, John Barwise, and explained to them the situation. Both said that they would go out to the farm with the sheriff. It wasn’t going to be an easy trip, but it was necessary that they get out there.

For the next three hours, the four men struggled down rural dirt roads that were choked with snow, ice, and mud. In some places, they detoured through farm fields or broke down fences in order to avoid the deeper drifts that had accumulated across the countryside.

Finally, they made it to the Bruey farm. They found Louie and his daughters inside, along with the remains of Sam McNeese, still in the chair where he had died. Louie knew that he was under arrest and asked if he could take his own team of horses back into Fairfield.

Louie had waited in his home next to the still-warm corpse of the man he had murdered. Because of the roads, Butcher wouldn’t have known what had happened until he was long gone. If he had wanted to run, he would have done it by then.

Butcher agreed, and the men waited patiently as Bruey hitched up his team of horses. With Bruey’s team leading the way, the party made their way carefully back to town across the frozen landscape.

In Fairfield, Bruey signed a written version of the confession that he had made to the Butcher and the county attorney. While not proud of what he had done, he seemingly wasn’t ashamed, either. For Louie, the murder seemed to have been like another distasteful farm chore, one that no one wanted to do, but still had to be done nonetheless.

When asked about the murder, Louie simply said, “If more fathers would do what I have done, there would be fewer young girls ruined.”

Although he was officially under arrest, Fred Raible, a cigar maker and Louie’ brother-in-law, posted his bond. Louie was a free man, set to appear in court at a preliminary hearing set to take place a few days later. Until then, he and Edna went to stay with the Raible’s in Fairfield.

News of the crime spread like wildfire. Despite Bruey’s statement, opinions of his actions varied.

Some people agreed with in and held up Edna’s pregnancy as a sign of declining moral values in the face of the changing societal norms brought about by the Jazz Age. According to them, the music and dances such as the Charleston were tearing the tightly woven fabric of American culture apart.

Others were horrified by what Louie had done. He had taken the law into his own hands, and had first planned, then carried out cold-blooded murder. Sam McNeese should have been turned over to the courts and his fate decided there, not by a shotgun blast in the Bruey living room. Now Louie had to face the jury, and, if some people had their way, should end up swinging at the end of a hangman’s rope.

Despite his upcoming trial, Bruey seemed to be in good spirits. He smiled and laughed with friends, giving every appearance that he felt he was completely justified in the murder of young Sam. But there were some people who were close to him that had noticed a few things about his demeanor, something that indicated to them that, perhaps, Louie was beginning to regret what he had done.

None of this mattered to Sam McNeese, who was buried on December 8, 1925, surrounded by a grieving family.

Nearby at the Raible home, Edna Bruey heard the church bells tolling for the funeral. Overcome with emotion, she started crying and screaming uncontrollably, running for the door. Her family caught her and held her, ignoring her pleas to go and be with her beloved Sam.

As Sheriff Butcher and other law enforcement officials were discovering, there was much more behind what had happened the day of the murder than any of them initially thought.

When questioned, both Edna and Buelah Bruey explained that Sam and Edna had started seeing each other two years prior, about a year before the girl’s mother had passed away. The two kept their courtship secret, at least from their parents. No doubt they figured – and probably correctly – that the parents wouldn’t approve because of Edna’s age.

The two found several opportunities to spend time together, with both of them attending the same one-room schoolhouse and with Sam working on the Bruey farm. Before long, the two had fallen madly in love with one another, and were soon doing what young people that age do when they’re in love. It was only a matter of time before Edna got pregnant.

Sam and Edna weren’t sure what to do, so they went to talk to his parents. J.R. and Lillie probably weren’t happy with the news, but they set their feeling aside and talked things out with the younger couple. They counseled that that they should get married and made the baby legitimate.

In many parts of the country during the 1920’s and even later in the 20th century, babies born out of wedlock were treated as outcasts, almost like there was something wrong with them. Their parents, especially the mothers, were treated even worse. There were many cases where others looked down on them like they were morally and spiritually inferior, that they weren’t any better than crack whores selling themselves for the next high.

J.R. and Lillie knew that this wasn’t the case. Edna and Sam were good kids, but they had put the proverbial cart before the horse. Edna was a sweet girl, and didn’t deserve the social stigma that would doubtless come from her being pregnant at only fourteen.

For their part, Sam and Edna were keen on the idea. This wasn’t the way that they had planned things, but they really were in love, and they had doubtless planned on getting married in a few more years anyway.

The problem was Louie Bruey.

He was an old-fashioned man who lived doted on his girls. After the death of his wife, Louie practically lived for them. They were his pride and joy, and approaching him about the marriage of his 14-year-old pregnant daughter was going to be a very, very, touchy subject.

Unfortunately, someone found out about Edna’s situation and started telling other people. The gossip spread, rumors going from one ear to the next like a virus. Eventually, word reached Louie’ cousin, who finally told Louie.

As predicted, Louie was enraged. When he confronted the girls, they were terrified. They had wanted to talk to him about this, but they had never bargained on him finding out through the rumor mill. They weren’t sure what to do, so they made up the story about Sam sneaking through the bedroom window and assaulting Edna.

They thought that Louie would calm down by the time he spoke with Sam, and that he would force the girl and the farmhand to get married. It was the result that they had wanted all along, just with a different course of action.

Not only did the McNeese’s and others back up this story, but investigators found several explicit love letters that Edna had written to Sam over the course of their courtship. John Barwise, the county attorney, stated that some of the material contained in them was so inappropriate that it couldn’t be reprinted by local newspapers following the story.

Louie Bruey had been led to believe that Sam McNeese had assaulted his daughter and gotten her pregnant. He had been completely ignorant of their relationship or that the sexual relations between the two had been consensual, at least in their minds. They wanted to get married.

Misinformed, Louie had decided to kill the man who had raped his little girl. Instead, he had actually murdered her one true love almost directly in front of her.

Murder is a hard thing to do. It takes an emotional and spiritual toll on most human beings, and can take some serious processing to deal with. Even a justified killing in pure self defense of an individual or their family against a rabid, slasher-movie style killer has an effect on the psyche.

Louie Bruey had helped to keep his emotions in check by telling himself that the killing had been justified, both to mete out justice and to preserve his daughter’s honor. Barwise understood this to a certain extent, and knew that the truth behind the situation might very well break the man and drive him to suicide.

He was already breaking down under the immense gravity of what he had done. Louie’s face took on a sickly appearance, and his hands shook. In spite of no one telling him the truth behind Edna’s pregnancy, he must have known something wasn’t right.

Edna cried all the time, and he had found out about what she had done the day of the funeral. No, something wasn’t right with this at all.

The preliminary hearing came and went, and the murder trial was set for the following February. Bruey was to spend the interim in jail.

Louie began to break down quickly. He had cried through much of the hearing, and barely ate anything at all in jail. He frequently told visitors and jailers that he wished he was dead. Maybe he had discovered the truth behind the Edna’s situation, and maybe his emotional stability was beginning to rapidly fray under the consequences of his actions.

Louis Bruey
Louie Bruey. Courtesy of the Des Moines Register

In late December, Beulah married a local man named W.P. Tomkinson. At least while Louie was in jail, the couple moved onto the Bruey family farm. Edna continued to stay with her aunt and uncle in Fairfield.

At the end of February, just as the trial was beginning to get under way, Louie Bruey was found hanging in his cell when his breakfast was brought to him. He was immediately cut down, but attempts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead. The coroner ruled the official cause of death as strangulation.

Having been in a deep depression since he was put in jail, Louie was placed on suicide watch. They were so worried about him ending his life that they handcuffed his hands behind his back when a barber shaved him.

Louie finally found an opportunity to take his own life when his sister visited him the night before. She brought him a basket of fruit with two towels in it, which jailers failed to remove.

The sensation was over. Louie was buried next to his beloved wife, his worry having finally come to an end. A higher power would now hold him accountable for the murder of Sam McNeese.

Everyone else was left to pick up the pieces. With everything in the case settled, everyone moved on with their lives as best as they could.

In 1926, Edna gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter. Eventually, she married someone who accepted her and her child and went on to live a very, very long life.

People make mistakes. We’re all fallible.

While people were sympathetic toward Louie Bruey, who had been deceived about the nature of his daughter’s pregnancy, next to no one agreed with the actions he took after the truth behind the matter was finally revealed.

Edna might had agreed to have sex with Sam of her own free will, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that she was only fourteen years old. It showed a horrible lack of judgement on the part of the young couple, but that also didn’t mean that Sam deserved to die for it.

Without a doubt, there could have been a better and peaceable resolution to the issue. But Louie Bruey saw only one solution, a solution that he later regretted to the very depths of his soul. Killing Sam McNeese was a dreadful mistake, and some mistakes can only be made once, and can never be fully rectified.

 

Sources

All Iowa is in Grip of Blizzard. The Evening Gazette, 12/5/1925

Winter Holds Entire State in Icy Grasp. Iowa City Press-Citizen, 12/5/1925

Girl Dies in Snow Tragedy. Iowa City Press-Citizen, 12/5/1925

Muscatine Hit by Cold Spell After Blizzard. The Muscatine Journal, 12/5/1925

Jefferson Farmer Murders His Daughter’s Betrayer. Quad City Times, 12/6/1925

Girl’s Father Kills Youth at Fairfield. Des Moines Register, 12/6/1925

Man Who Slew Girl’s Seducer Freed on Bond. Des Moines Tribune, 12/7/1925

Farmer Who Slew to Avenge Family Honor Out on Bond. The Daily Times, 12/7/1925

Killer of Boy at Fairfield Freed on Bail. Des Moines Register, 12/7/1925

Hold Funeral Today of Boy Bruey Killed. Des Moines Register, 12/8/1925

Hold Funeral of Farm Youth Bruey Killed. Des Moines Register, 12/9/1925

M’Neese Youth Was to Marry Seduced Girl. Des Moines Tribune, 12/10/1925

To Hold Bruey Murder Case Hearing Today. Des Moines Tribune, 12/10/1925

To Ask Death for Bruey As Killer of Boy. Des Moines Register, 12/11/1925

Bruey, Remanded to Jail, Without Bond, for Murder. Davenport Democrat and Leader, 12/11/1925

Louis Bruey, Slayer of Boy, Breaks Down in Fairfield Jail. Des Moines Register, 12/12/1925

Bruey’s Elder Daughter Weds. Des Moines Tribune, 12/18/1925

Strain Shows on Bruey. Des Moines Register, 1/25/1926

Bruey Murder Case Goes to the Grand Jury in Fairfield Today. Des Moines Register, 2/23/1926

Bruey Faces State’s Plea for Hanging. Des Moines Register, 2/28/1926

Bruey Hangs Himself in His Cell. Des Moines Register, 3/1/1926

health.clevelandclilnic.org

www.findagrave.com

History of Jefferson County, Iowa – 1912, Volume II, Pages 245-247

 

 

 

 

I am an author and historian who writes about long-forgotten and out of the way events and places. I love the bizarre, the unusual, and the downright weird. I write a regular blog at my website, www.johnbrassardjrcom.wordpress.com, and also manage a facebook page about things of historical interest called The Kitchen Table Historian.

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