Obsession: The Murder of Grace Reed

 

It was a beautiful evening, Grace Reed thought.

She stared out over the fields. She smiled. It couldn’t have been a more perfect evening. Of course, it didn’t hurt things that she was with Sam Moore.

Grace had known Sam for a while now. He was young, strong, and handsome. More importantly, he was quite taken with her. When he had asked her to come to evening church services with him, she was more than happy to go with him.

And now here they were, gliding down the road in his buggy, the wheels humming against the hard-packed dirt. Eleven years earlier, she wouldn’t have ever thought that such a perfect night would have ever been possible.

Grace had only been six years old when her parents had died, orphaning her and her sister, Ruth. Thankfully, her grandmother and aunt had agreed to take them in. With nothing left for them on the Nebraska plains, the young girls had been moved to Toledo, Iowa.

Life there was good, and Grace and Ruth were able to put away the sad memories of losing their parents.

By the time Grace was in her early teens, a family in Eastern Iowa had agreed to take her in. They would pay for her upkeep, schooling, and all other expenses in return for her helping around their farm. This arrangement would last until Grace turned eighteen, at which time she was free to do as she saw fit.

It was a great opportunity, and around 1904 the agreement was made official. Packing her belongings, Grace headed to eastern Iowa and the home of Ora and Nellie Drenter.

Ora Drenter had been born in Scott County in 1862, the son of John and Mary Drenter. He was the oldest son, and had started learning how to farm almost as soon as he was able to walk. Over the years, he grew skilled and strong, more than equal to running the farm himself.

One day, he managed to catch the eye of a young woman named Nellie McDowell. She played the organ at the local church, and had a reputation as being an excellent seamstress. Before long, the two started courting.

In 1894, Ora and Nellie married and settled onto their own farm not too far from the church where they had met. They worked hard, and in a few years their farms were one of the most successful in the county. Along the way, they were blessed with four healthy children who, like Ora had done, helped their parents with the various chores. In addition, Ora’s younger brother, Harry, was still single and lived with them, helping his brother run the farm.

By 1900, Ora had enough money to hire extra help to further ease their burdens. They hired a teenage girl, Emma Hansen, to stay at the home and help Nellie with the everyday household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, and tending to the children’s needs.

When Emma had moved on, Ora and Nellie had taken in Grace.

The Drenter’s treated Grace extremely well. She wanted for nothing, and they loved her just as much as they did their own children.

Grace became very popular among not only her peers, but also the older members of the community. She had many friends, as well as several boys her own age who wanted to court her. In a few years, Grace probably would have made an excellent wife for anyone, if that’s what she chose to do.

But there was plenty of time for that, she thought. Unfortunately for her, there was one man who wasn’t content to wait that long.

Despite being nearly twice her age, Harry Drenter had fallen in love with Grace. By the time she had arrived in Scott County, Harry had bought his own farm directly across the road from Ora’s. His farm was just as successful as his brothers, and he also had several friends throughout the county. But he was lonely. He had been on his own for far too long, and he was more than ready to start a family of his own.

After being around Grace, he decided that she was exactly what he wanted in a wife.

He fell madly in love with her, and he was determined to make her his. With his heart full of love and good intentions, he came to Grace and proposed to her. Grace was probably shocked at this, to say the least. She was only in her middle teens, while Harry was in his thirties. Having been raised alongside his nieces and nephews, Grace probably looked at Harry more as an uncle.

Like so many others, she had probably gotten along well with him, but that certainly didn’t mean that she wanted to bear his children. Much to his disappointment, she wanted nothing to do with him in that way. Politely, she refused his proposal.

This was a disappointing outcome for Harry. When he had played out the scenario in his head, Grace had always said yes. Regardless, Harry wasn’t giving up yet. Approaching Ora, Harry explained his predicament. He pleaded with Ora and Nellie both, begging them to intervene on his behalf. Harry wanted them to persuade Grace to take a chance with him, to tell her that he would make a good husband for her. And if that didn’t work, then he told them they should force her to do it.

Ora and his wife told Harry no. They agreed with Grace, and saw absolutely no reason they should talk her into marrying Harry. They also outright refused to force her into doing something that she was so dead set against.

Harry’s disappointment quickly turned into anger. He raged at his brother, but Ora stood his ground. Harry despised Ora for his decision, and their once friendly relationship turned bitter and hostile. For the next year, Harry sat on his farm, nursing his wounded feelings.

Soon, those wounds began to fester. His anger and rage slowly condensed into outright hatred. He began telling people that he was going murder both Ora and Grace one day. Finally, someone heard his threats and reported Harry to the county sheriff. A deputy came to the farm and arrested him, taking him to the nearby city of Davenport. When he was taken before the justice of the peace, Harry promised to leave Grace Reed alone in exchange for having all charges against him dropped.

Harry agreed, and he was released. However, that didn’t mean that he stopped hating his brother and his young ward. But he was also content to just tend to business on his farm and ignore everyone from across the road. In about mid-summer of 1906, Harry’s obsession with Grace Reed began to grow again.

It was during that time that Grace began to see Sam Moore. He was close to her age, and had grown up only about four miles away from the Drenter farm. When Sam came over to visit Grace, he would sometimes see Harry and talk with him. Sam had heard talk that Harry had threatened to kill Ora and Grace, but when he talked to Sam, Harry was always polite and friendly.

At least to his face.

Inside his house, Harry gave full vent to his resentment. His housekeeper, Hattie Goldsmith, often heard him talk about killing Grace and his brother. Harry blamed Ora and Nellie for Grace turning down his proposal. In his mind, they were somehow preventing him from marrying her. Hattie heard him say that after he had killed Ora and his wife, he would commit suicide.

For the most part, Harry was content to fume and rage about Grace’s refusal within in the confines of his own home. But when he saw Sam taking Grace to church that September Sunday in 1906, it pushed Harry Drenter over the edge.

All of the anger and resentment that Harry had been nursing for the past year burst like rotten fruit in the sun. Angrily, he stomped over to the wall where his Winchester shotgun hung.

Grace had rejected him. She had spurned him. That was just fine, Harry thought as he took down the shotgun. She wouldn’t marry him? Fine. If Grace Reed wouldn’t have him for a husband, then she wouldn’t have anyone. Ever.

As he started to walk out of his house, he noticed Hattie staring at him, wide-eyed. Stopping, Harry told her that if she told anyone what he was going to do, or tried to interfere in any way, he would kill her, too. Then, shotgun in hand, Harry stormed out of the front door and onto the porch. He sat down, waiting.

Hattie was terrified. She didn’t think for a minute that Harry has bluffing, and the last thing that she wanted to do was get in his way. She had little doubt that if she left the house, he would make good on his promise. With little other choice, she began to wait as well.

Sam and Grace sat in the well-worn pews at Summit Presbyterian Church, enjoying the service.

Built in 1859, Summit had always been meant to serve the spiritual needs of the people in that rural locality. Before that, farmers and their families had been forced to travel several miles to the nearest church, always subject to bad weather and even worse roads.

For the next several decades, generations of locals celebrated, mourned, and worshipped under Summit’s hallowed roof.

When the minister finished the sermon, the congregation began to file out of the building. Some of them started directly for home, while others gathered to socialize, catching up on each other lives as well as local gossip.

Sam politely helped Grace into his buggy, then climbed into the seat next to her. Taking the reins, he urged the horse forward and began the leisurely trek back to Ora Drenter’s farm.

As they drove, they must have talked and enjoyed the pleasure of each other’s company. Underneath it all, the teenagers were growing more comfortable with one another, growing closer.

The moments blurred into one another, and before they knew it, Grace and Sam were within sight of the farm. Their hearts must have sunk a little then. As perfect as the evening had been, it had to come to an end. As soon as he pulled into Ora’s yard and dropped off Grace, it would be time for Sam to return to his own home.

As they sat, lost in the moment, Sam and Grace saw Harry Drenter step out from behind a tree alongside the road. It was an odd thing for him to do, and they stared at him for a moment with a mixture of curiosity and surprise. When they saw him raise his shotgun, however, curiosity was replaced by terror.

Time seemed to slow down, and everything seemed to come into a sharp focus. Sam screamed at him not to shoot, instinctively ducking his head down and away. But Harry wasn’t aiming at him.

Carefully levelling the barrel at Grace, Harry squeezed the trigger. The shotgun roared, finding its mark with deadly accuracy. In an instant, half of Grace’s face was torn away in a spray of blood and gore. The blast killed her instantly, and her limp body slumped over in the buggy seat.

Some of the lead shot scattered wide, hitting Sam. The young man cried out in pain as his horse, frightened by the noise of the shotgun blast, began to bolt forward. It ran straight toward a ditch alongside the road, barely stopping in its attempt to escape.

The buggy overturned, and Sam half fell, half jumped clear. He hit hard, feeling something give in his side. He barely noticed as he came quickly to his feet, running for what he hoped would be the safety of Ora Drenter’s farm.

Sam knew that Grace was dead. Sam also knew that he wouldn’t be able to handle Harry by himself, especially seeing as how he was injured and Harry was armed. There was nothing more for him to do but try and get away.

Harry watched Sam run. He didn’t try to chase him, nor did he try to shoot the young man as he ran for his life. Harry had done what he had come to do. He had made good on his promise, and that part of his work that day was over.

Turning, Harry began to walk across the yard to his house. As he started to climb the front steps, he stopped for a moment. Thinking, Harry walked back out to the overturned buggy.

There, underneath, he could see the body of Grace Reed. Taking the reins of the horse, Harry wrapped them loosely around one of the buggy wheels. Now if the horse tried to walk away, the reins would gently pull tighter and stop it. Satisfied, Harry once again walked back up to the house.

This time, instead of going onto the porch, he walked around into his backyard. It was time to finish what he had started that day.

Ora Drenter had been sleeping when the sound of the shotgun blast woke him up. He lay there, propped up on one elbow. Still groggy, he was trying to figure out why someone would be shooting a shotgun at that hour when he heard someone banging on his front door.

Quickly, he got out of bed and went downstairs. There was a desperation to that pounding, like whoever was on the other side wanted more than anything to get into the house. Ora cautiously opened the door. There, on the doorstep, was Sam Moore nursing a bleeding arm.

Surprised, Ora brought him inside. It was obvious that Sam was terrified. He had been shot, although it didn’t appear life threatening. Making him sit down, Ora began to clean Sam’s wounds. The boy had some buckshot in his arm, as well as a few broken ribs. Sam would hurt for a while, but he’d live. Gently, Ora asked him what had happened.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Sam explained that Grace was dead. Harry had shot her to death as they rode toward the farm. The horse had bolted and the buggy overturned. With no way to defend himself, he had run to get help as fast as he could.

Ora was shocked. Granted, he and Harry hadn’t been on speaking terms for a while, but this was unbelievable. Despite their disagreement, Harry was still his little brother. How could he do such a thing?

Leaving Sam for a moment, he went over and called the police. Ora knew that it would take some time for them to drive out this far, but there was no way he was going to go and deal with his brother by himself. It was obvious that Harry wasn’t in his right mind anymore.

While they waited, Nellie and Ora also began to call their friends and relatives around the area. After they explained what was going on, several of the local farmers made their way over to the Drenter farm to see what was going on for themselves.

When they arrived, they found the buggy, and, underneath it, the body of Grace Reed. Working together, the farmers lifted the buggy off of the poor girl. Knowing that the authorities might want to see the body before it was moved, they left it alone.

While they were curious, they now knew for sure that Harry had snapped. He had already killed one person, and they didn’t want to find out if he intended to kill anyone else. As they gathered around the buggy, someone noticed that there was a person moving around inside Harry’s home. Thinking that it might have been Harry, they moved as close as they dared to get a better look.

It only took a moment to realize that it was the housekeeper, Hattie Goldsmith. One of them called to her, telling her to leave.

Hattie was still scared. She knew that Harry was still around. She had seen him walk to the back of the house with the shotgun. A few moments later, Hattie heard the shotgun go off twice more. This convinced her more than ever not to leave.

The farmers looked around the house. There was no sign of Harry. Reassuring her, they urged Hattie to come out of the house and over to them. Hattie mustered her courage, and walked quickly through the open door and directly to the assembled farmers.

At about 2 o’clock in the morning, Scott County Sheriff E.G. McArthur and one of his deputies, Van R. Rowe, arrived. Ora and Sam explained to them what had happened. Checking on Sam’s wounds one last time, Ora was satisfied that he was still doing okay. Leaving the young man in the care of his wife and children, Ora went out the front door with the sheriff.

They crossed the road, wary of the murderous Harry. They walked through the front yard, then around to the side yards. There was nothing. No sign of Harry. Still cautious, they made their way around to the back.

There, lying in the grass a short distance behind the house, lay Harrison Drenter. The top of his head had been blown away. After he had made sure Grace was dead, he had walked back to this spot and used his shotgun one last time to take his own life.

The community was stunned. What had driven Harry Drenter to murder Grace Reed?

Both Ora and Nellie agreed that Harry wasn’t in his right mind. But what had driven him to it? Was it the fact that Grace didn’t return his love, and probably never would? Or was it something else, something that had always been there, locked away in the recesses of his mind? With both of them dead, they weren’t able to do much more than speculate.

Harry was buried in the family plot at Summit Cemetery. Ora Drenter escorted Grace Reed’s body back to Toledo, Iowa. After her funeral was held at her grandmother’s house, Grace was buried in a local cemetery.

Sam Moore would recover from the wounds he suffered that day, and he would go on to live a long and happy life.

Time moved on. Crops needed planting and harvesting, and livestock needed to be tended to. Eventually the murder of Grace Reed faded, and world changed. The roads were covered in gravel or paved over, and slowly even the landscape changed a little.

But Summit Church remained, standing as strong and as proudly as it did on that evening over one-hundred and fifteen years ago. The site of so much joy, the church also stands as a silent memorial to the budding love of two young teenagers, and of the life of Grace Reed, whose life was cut so brutally short in an act of sudden violence.

 

Sources

A Terrible Tragedy Occurred Sunday Night Resulting in the Death of Harry Drenter and Grace Reed. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 9/3/1906.

Murder and Suicide Near Summit Church. The Daily Times, 9/4/1906

Bury Body of Murdered Girl. The Daily Times, 9/8/1906

Funeral of Harry Drenter. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 9/4/1906

Coroner’s Inquest Records

U.S. Census Records

Probate Records, 1831-1980; Indexes, 1834-1958; Author: Iowa. District Court (Scott County); Probate Place: Scott, Iowa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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