Small Town Secrets: The Death of Olive Funk

 

 

The handgun glinted in the sun, shaking slightly with the ragged breaths taken by the woman holding it. She lay in the middle of the street, covered in dirt. The woman yelled at her attacker to stop, voice tinged with fear and anger. Her assailant, a wide-eyed, bedraggled looking woman, simply stared back at her, her hands curled into stiff claws. Un-afraid, she started to advance. In the next few moments, both of their lives would change forever, and a permanent scar would be left on the history of a small Iowa town.

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 Butler Township is located in northeastern Scott County. It is made of rolling hills that glide and swell across the landscape like waves on the ocean. The Wapsipinicon River flows through the northernmost portion of the township, and forms its border on that side. Like the rest of the county, the soil is rich and black, and yields good crops more often than not. Because of this, agriculture was prominent there, with only the river bottom land directly around the river still untouched by the plow and harrow.

In 1836, a man named Henry Harvey Pease, along with his partner, John D. Grafford, bought 500 acres of land in the region. Pease had been born in Massachusetts in 1794. From that time until he was fifteen years old, he assisted his father, a farmer, in the various tasks and chores of that trade. At fifteen, he entered into the fuller and dyers profession, apprenticing in it for six years.

Moving from Massachusetts, he went to New York, where his brother Daniel lived. He kept working as a fuller and dyer for a few years, but took the opportunity to travel throughout the area during that time. During that phase of his life, Pease seemingly had a restless spirit, liking to travel and see new things.

He eventually grew bored living in New York and moved west to Ohio, where he worked various jobs, including one as a teacher in a rural school. Still restless, Pease continued moving west to Indiana, where he started a school and began to teach there.

Unfortunately for him, Pease fell gravely ill for several months, leaving him bed-ridden much of the time. After he recovered, he moved back to Ohio and taught there for a few years before moving back to Indiana and teaching there.

Ready for another career change, Pease moved to Galena, Illinois, in 1827, where he mined lead for the next five years. In 1832, he moved again, this time to the thriving city of Dubuque, Iowa.

Dubuque was very much a mining town in those days, providing the region and the nation with lead. Like many such towns, it could be a rough and dangerous place. Stepping up to the challenge of preserving law and order, or at least keeping the noise levels to a dull roar, Pease became a deputy sheriff.

However, like many men of that era, he was not satisfied to wear only one hat. In addition to his various duties as a sheriff’s deputy, he also ran a general store with his partner, Warner Lewis.

In 1837, he returned briefly to Indiana to marry Nancy Britton, a young woman he had met several years before while living there.

By 1838, Pease had grown tired of living in Dubuque and longed to move once more. So, he packed up his worldly goods and moved south to a piece of land that he had purchased in Butler Township. Once there, he built the first cabin in that area.

Presbyterian services were held in the little cabin that same year, given by James and Alexander Brownlie, who were founders of the nearby town of Long Grove. But, like many pioneer locations, the cabin would host travelling ministers and preachers of other Christian denominations, as well, including Catholics and Methodists.

The cabin also became the first post office in the township, and Henry Pease became its first postmaster. At this time, the postal service in the state of Iowa was almost brand new, having started in Dubuque in 1833.

Individuals and families, who came here from other places, wanted a way to communicate with their families and friends back home. Various business owners also had a desire to communicate with their associates in distant locales.

In the early days of the post office, travel was, as it was in most other pioneer endeavors, difficult. There were no railroads, and hardly any roads to speak of. Rivers had to be forded or a ferry taken across them. Mail did not come regularly, but rather at random intervals. As travel depended so much on the weather conditions, it could take some time before any mail was received, and that is if it ever arrived at all.

The postmaster handled the mail, both shipping and receiving. The pioneer post office was usually some kind of store or even a house owned by the postmaster, and all mail was initially delivered to it. In pioneer times, people would travel great distances to collect their mail, as there was no delivery service directly to their homes at that time.

The postmaster was also responsible for the collection of postage fees. Official government acts regulated postage fees in the United States based on distance. Like many pioneer transactions, a person could either pay the assigned mail fee to the postmaster, or, if they could not afford it, the postmaster could, essentially, accept an IOU toward the time the person could afford the fee.

Over time, Butler Township began to grow. More people began to move into the region, mostly farming and raising livestock. Better roads were made, and a railroad line was to be built through the area. This line was to connect the cities of Iowa City and Clinton, Iowa, by 1882. One of the stations for the line was to be located on the eastern section of a new town that was in the process of being built.

The town was named McCausland, after one of its most successful local men, D.C. McCausland. His father, John C. McCausland, had travelled west and settled in Butler Township in 1855. John taught D.C. how to run a farm, which included how to handle livestock and various forms of farm equipment. In 1880, D.C. decided to buy his own farm within the township.

Like Henry Pease before him, McCausland was a civic-minded individual who had a keen interest in building up the region where he lived. After the town was built, D.C. opened the first general store there and ran it for several years. He also became McCauslands’ first postmaster in 1883.

By that time, the postal service had changed much since the days of Henry Pease. The railroad was now the primary method of sending mail, and it was much more efficient and successful than the pioneer methods of steamship and horse travel. As such the latter methods mostly faded away, replaced by the more reliable railways.

By 1900, the telephone had come to rural America, connecting people in those rural communities with far away neighbors in a way that they never had been before. For the first time, it was possible to talk with someone located in Davenport from the comfort of your own home or office in McCausland. But it still did not eliminate the mail service. Letters, business documents, advertisements, and catalogs continued to be sent all across the nation, and even the world.

At the end of 1899, the United States Postal Service instituted what was called rural free delivery service. Starting in Maryland, the service quickly spread across the nation. For the first time ever, rural families received mail at their own homes. No longer did they have to travel to a nearby post office to pick up their mail. In Iowa, there were nearly 300 rural routes across the state by 1901.

But McCausland, unlike some rural towns, kept their post office. By 1916, the building was still very much in use. The postmaster was now a postmistress – Mae Garber.

Mae Garber. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader

Garber had come to McCausland with her husband, Robert, around 1914 in order to take a position as postmistress. The couple came from South Dakota, where they had lived for several years. She was about 38 years old at the time. Mae and Robert had four children together. Her oldest two children, a son and a daughter, had already moved out on their own. The younger two were significantly younger and still lived with her.

Robert Garber, who had suffered from tuberculosis for some time, was finally committed to a specialized tuberculosis sanatorium in nearby Davenport. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the disease and left Garber a widow.

Mae survived alright, though. She had several family members in the region, several of whom were prosperous and respected land owners. Garber was also an intelligent, well-educated woman, especially when it came to the subject of music. Since she had moved to McCausland, she had even given several area children music lessons.

During this time, she met William Funk. Funk had also come to McCausland from South Dakota with his wife, Olive. The two quickly became friendly. Although they had never met before, perhaps having lived in South Dakota gave them a common bond that aided in them becoming friends. In 1915, Garber offered Funk a job as a rural mail carrier, which he readily accepted. What Garber may or may not have known is that Funk had serious problems at home.

William Funk. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader

Funk had met his wife in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. The two had fallen in love, and left for South Dakota, where they lived for several years. The couple eventually decided that it was time for a change, so they packed up and moved to McCausland, Iowa, in 1912. Sometime during their relationship, or perhaps even before, Mrs. Funk had developed a severe addiction to the drug morphine.

When exactly this started or how long it had been going on for will probably never be known. But, it is known that Funk took his wife to Davenport to receive treatment for her problem from the Neal Institute, one of several popular institutions of that time period that claimed to cure alcoholism and drug addiction. At the time, she seemed willing. And Funk, who loved her, wanted to help her any way he could.

The problem was that the treatment did not come cheap. William Funk did not have the funds to pay for the cure outright, so, after some consideration, he decided to resort to some fairly dire measures. He went to the bank and mortgaged both his house and the lot that it sat on in order to obtain the necessary funding. With this, he got the money he needed and took Olive to Davenport.

Home of William and Olive Funk. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader

When the treatment was over, Olive had been cured of her morphine addiction. Funk was ecstatic. He made the trip to Davenport port and brought her back home.

Soon enough, William had to leave her alone so that he could tend to his mail route. When he returned, he discovered that Olive was drunk. Although she had apparently kicked the morphine habit, she had replaced it with another – alcohol.

William demanded that Olive stop her drinking. For a while, she did. Olive made a real effort and stayed sober for several days. But, eventually her demons came calling again, and she once more took to the bottle. Drinking became one of her main focuses in life, and as a result Olive spent her nights drinking more often than not.

In the beginning, she had some men she knew bring her liquor from the local saloon right in town. William eventually caught on, and asked the men to stop doing it. They readily complied, and Olive was cut off for a time. But soon she found a willing butcher from nearby Princeton, Iowa, to supply her when he came through town once a week. Olive’s drinking was spiraling out of control.

William soon had enough. He had been a good husband and put up with the drug addiction. He had even mortgaged the house so that she could kick that habit. And what had she done? Become a drunk. And no matter how much he tried, or how much he pleaded, she would not quit. Enough was enough. William and Olive began to argue.

She blamed William’s friendship on Mae Garber for their problems. In Olive’s mind, there must have been something more to their friendship, something deeper. And she was not going to stand for it.

William had stayed with Olive all these years, steady as a rock. But now he was friends with Mae Garber. Now he wanted to argue with Olive and walk away from their relationship. Look at that week where he had done some plastering work at the postmistress’s house. Sure, he was home every night for dinner, but that did not matter.

During their heated argument, she accused William of having deeper feelings for Garber.

With those words, William finally snapped. He packed up a few things and left, leaving his angry, drunken wife to fume.

While Funk stayed wherever he could, some of the wealthy citizens of McCausland and Butler Township took pity on his poor wife. She had no job, and no apparent means of supporting herself. Charitably, they paid the rest of the mortgage on the house and lot that William had taken out for Olives’ cure. But that was not the problem that Olive had. Mae Garber was.

Tension simmered between the two women. Olive hated Garber because she thought that she had stolen away her husband. Garber was half-terrified of Olive and steered clear of her as much as possible. Ever since Olive had convinced herself that the postmistress was stealing her husband, she had become verbally and physically abusive toward Garber.

Once, while passing by Garber’s daughter in the street, Olive and reared back and smacked the young girl across the face without provocation. Another time, Olive had simply walked into Garber’s home, picked up a book, and struck the postmistress with it. The town constable had spoken with Olive about it, warning her to stop some of her behavior. But it did not matter. Olive would start up her abuse again eventually.

But in midst of these events, an odd thing happened. When asked about his wife, William claimed that he was not married to Olive. And it was the same when people asked Olive about her husband. It was an odd thing to say, but it is quite possible that people, even when they thought the answer was strange, simply thought that the Funk’s had decided to divorce, and thus no longer claimed the other as a spouse.

People took notice of the couple’s marital trouble. In a town as small as McCausland, where you were at least a passing acquaintance with most other people in the area, it was hard not to. People knew each other’s business, and knew the major problems effecting relationships around town. And the trouble between William Funk, Olive, and Mae Garber definitely made waves.

Although her house had been paid for, Olive eventually left in order to stay with friends. After a time, she asked the family if she could borrow a gun. Olive claimed that William and threatened her, and that she no longer felt safe. She wanted something to protect herself with. Understanding her situation, the family loaned her a shotgun.

On Friday, June 10, Olive went to the Garber home. Mae and her two young children saw Olive through their windows, stalking around their yard. Soon, she came up to one of the windows and peered in at them. Olive commanded the family to let her in, or else she would shoot through the door.

Mae was terrified. When she had looked, she had seen a shotgun in Olive’s hands. The postmistress quickly latched all of their windows and locked the front door. Then she blew out their lights so that the angry woman could not see them inside.

Frustrated by her lack of success, Olive fumed. She shouted at Mae that she would kill her. Then it occurred to her. Mae would have to come out sometime, and Olive knew just how to get to her. She threatened the family one last time, shouting at them that she would see them the following morning. And with that, Olive left.

The next morning, June 11, she ran into an acquaintance of hers, Celia Badger. Olive must have still been furious, or at least angry enough to cause concern in Badger’s mind. When Badger asked Olive what the matter was, Olive told her that she could not stand her current situation any longer. It had to come to an end, and she was determined to end it that very morning.

Later the same morning, a butcher from Princeton was in town going about his business when he saw something strange. Olive was hiding behind a hedge by the side of street across from her lodgings, obviously keeping a lookout for something. Another local man saw her doing the same thing. To one person who saw her doing this, Olive told them that she was sunbathing.

A short time later, Mae Garber and her two children came walking up the street. Garber carried some parcels in her arms. There were many people outside that day. It is likely that the postmistress greeted a few of them as she calmly made her way to the post office that summer morning.

As they walked, they started to come near the home where Olive had been staying the past few weeks. After the events of the previous evening, it would not be surprising if Mae approached the area with some trepidation. Just a few short hours before, Olive had been trying to get into her house and threatening to kill her. But Mae had something with her that might have given her a small amount of comfort.

When she was locked in her house, she was safe. She could lock the doors, and bolt the windows. Mae could take her children and hide inside, safe from Olive’s anger. But Mae had to work. She had certain duties as postmistress. She could not hide forever.

When she had taken her current position, Mae had procured a .22 caliber pistol in case the need ever arose for her to defend herself and the money that was sometimes kept at the post office. It had been at her house, and that morning she had decided to take it with her. Mae had no intention of using the gun, but just having it with her must have made her feel at least a little more secure.

As she moved along her way, Mae noticed something in some hedges next to the roadway. It was a woman! Why on earth would someone be crouched behind a hedge? And then she realized – it was Olive.

Olive stood up as she saw her rival approaching with her two children. She had waited so long, and now, like a hungry cat seeing a fat mouse, she came toward Mae. She shouted a few things, and then attacked. She struck at Mae, screaming and grabbing. The parcels that the postmistress was carrying fell into the dust. Mae was knocked down, and when she fell, she remembered the pistol she had kept with her parcels. She began to crawl as fast as she could toward them, while Olive retreated back a few steps.

When she reached them, Mae thrust her hands amongst them, desperately searching for her pistol. There it was! She grasped it and began to stand up.

Olive began her onslaught again, knocking the pistol out of Mae’s hand. She continued the assault, unrelenting. More blows were exchanged, and Mae fell a second time. Olive was quickly on the widow, kicking her and scratching at her face.

During the exchange, Mae once again found the gun. She grasped it and quickly rolled over, pointing the .22 at her assailant. Olive stood there, fuming, glaring at her rival.

Later, some would say that Olive was standing still, while others said that Olive started toward Mae again. Regardless of what they saw, there was a sudden, loud report that echoed across the street as the pistol fired. The bullet struck Olive directly in the chest, passing through her heart and into her spine. She stood there for a moment, then walked a few steps, and then finally fell into the dust.

All of this had happened right in the middle of the street, where people had been going about their daily business. As the altercation between Olive and Mae had commenced, several of them had stopped to watch. Most, if not all of them, had known about the trouble between the two women, but had probably not expected them to get into a fist fight in the middle of the street, let alone see one of them shot.

George Badger, one of these bystanders and one of Olive’s friends, ran to her as soon as she fell. Reaching her, he knelt down and scooped the wounded woman into his arms. Olive saw his face and recognized it. She looked at him, whispered his name, and died.

Mae stood up, the gun still in her hand. Calmly, she turned and began to walk away. The postmistress went directly to the home of a friend, Harry Carber. Once inside, she almost immediately broke down into hysterics. Later, the deputy marshal of the area dropped by the house and placed Mae under arrest.  She was till in a panic, and when she would not calm down a local doctor was called. He came by and gave Mae an injection of morphine to calm her nerves, after which she was allowed to rest. At noon, a sheriff’s deputy picked her up from the Carber home and took Mae to the county jail in Davenport.

Mae had been fairly calm during the entire car ride south, but when she saw the jail, she began to break down again. A few policemen had to assist her inside, where she spent the rest of her afternoon sleeping.

Almost immediately after the shooting, both law enforcement and the county attorney wanted to talk with William Funk. They felt that the man had some of the answers that they were looking for.

Funk admitted to them that he had told the truth when he explained to locals that he and Olive were not married. Although she was known as Olive Funk in McCausland, her real name was actually Olive Victar Adkins. They had lived together for nearly nine years, but had never been married.

He went on to tell them about Olive’s morphine addiction, the Neal Institute cure, and her subsequent descent into alcoholism. Funk explained that he had proposed marriage to Olive on several occasions, but she refused to marry him as long as she was an addict. That was part of the reason he had mortgaged the house and lot – he was making a last-ditch effort to cure her.

Funk also claimed that Mae was only ever an acquaintance, that there had never been anything more than friendship between the two. He had been to Garber’s home, yes, but that was initially a week-long plastering job for her. Funk had returned home to Olive every night for dinner. According to him, the only times he returned to the postmistress’ home was to drop off money orders for the post office. Funk also told them that Olive had never threatened Mae’s life.

But townspeople notice things, especially in small towns with fewer people to see. Several people had said they had seen Garber and William Funk together many times. The police continually asked Funk about this, and he became confused. But he would never admit to having any kind of relationship with Garber outside of what he had already claimed.

At the Scott County Jail, Garber was still recovering from the aftereffects of the shooting. She had suffered a tremendous strain, and was admitted to the hospital wing. When questioned, her voice was soft, barely above a whisper.

She related how she had seen Adkins behind the hedge, and how Olive had attacked her when she had her arms full and was with her children. Mae went on to explain how she had reached for the gun, which was tangled up in some stamps, and had pointed it at Adkins to scare her. Mae professed that she had not realized the gun had fired, and was surprised when Adkins fell to the ground and did not get back up. It had never been her intention to shoot Adkins, regardless of the night before or the subsequent attack.

Police also searched Olive Adkins’ belongings. They found the shotgun that she had borrowed from her friend, but it was unloaded and they did not find any shells for it. They also found two letters. One was an answer from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, stating that they had no marriage record for an Olive Victar Adkins.

The second was seemingly addressed specifically to Olive, although it was unsigned. It stated that the writer was tired of being bossed around by Olive, and that they were going to pay off the house, procure the deed to the property, and kick her out.

Soon after the murder, the county coroner, J.D. Cantwell, held an inquest at the McCausland Town Hall. The room was packed with people who were curious about what would come out during the questioning. There were several people who, finding there was no space for them, watched through the doorway or looked in through the windows.

One of the standout witnesses during the inquest was Mae Garber’s seven-year-old son, Lloyd. He told the assembled crowd about the poor relationship between his mother and Olive Adkins. The young boy went to relate the events of June 10 and 11. Lloyd also explained that Funk had not been at the house that night. He said that entire weeks would go by without Funk ever being there. The last time had been the previous week, when Funk had stopped by to borrow an umbrella.

Garber’s twelve-year-old daughter, Norma, corroborated her brother’s testimony.

However, although many facts matched up, there were some contradicting stories. An employee at the McCausland Savings Bank, who had watched the fight from the front steps, said that Olive Adkins was not attacking Garber when she was shot, but was rather standing still. Others had different versions of where Garber’s gun came from.

Also, several people around town claimed to have seen Funk and Garber together on several occasions. Many of Garber’s neighbors also stated that they had seen Funk at her home many times, including the night that Olive Adkins had tried to gain entry. And there were some who whispered of even darker rumors.

Some said that Adkins had an affair with Garber’s older daughter, who was married to a local man who ran the bowling alley in town. When the husband found out about it, he gathered his family and moved away. It was soon after that that Funk had approached Mae and befriended her.

But, rumor is not necessarily fact. People can whisper anything that they want, whether what they are saying is true or not. Regardless of whose side they were on, many people in town signed a petition banning both William Funk and Mae Garber from Olive Adkins funeral. They had probably had enough of the trouble caused by the relationship, and perhaps felt that Adkins at least deserved a peaceful burial.

The county attorney charged Mae Garber with second-degree murder. The trial was to be held in November of 1916. During that trial, many witnesses testified to what they had seen that day. By and large, their testimony put Garber in a positive light, and at the conclusion of the trial she was acquitted. It had once and for all been determined that the shooting had been done in self-defense, and that Mae’s actions were completely justified.

The little town moved on with life, as it always had. The peace and quiet so prevalent in the small town before the murder returned. What the residents thought of those involved with the crime was no longer relevant. The courts had found the former postmistress innocent, and besides, Mae Garber, her children, and William Funk had all moved out of town, which helped the residents to forget about the events of the summer of 1916.

Although it was the decision of the court and the ultimate opinion of the townspeople that Mae Garber did not willfully intend to kill Olive Adkins, there were still many witnesses that had seen Mae and William together. This included seeing them at Garber’s home. Could they have had a secret relationship that they did not want to talk about? Had William, fed up with Olive’s addictions, sought love elsewhere and found it with the postmistress?

There was no substantial proof of any of this, and, once it was found that there had been no premeditation in the murder of Olive Adkins, none of the murders mattered anymore. Eventually, Garber and Funk both moved out of McCausland, first Funk and then Garber and her two children.

Sometime later it was discovered that Funk had changed his name and moved back to Wisconsin. A short time after that, Garber moved to the same town, where the two were married. In a letter to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, Funk explained that they had moved to a place where they were respected, and, with new surroundings and a new name, they could start over.

William and Mae after their marriage in Wisconsin. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader

Had there been something between them in Iowa, or had they fallen in love after events had driven them closer together? Over one hundred years later, the truth behind that particular part of the matter will probably never be known.

All that can be known for sure is that a woman, driven by her personal demons and by jealously, attacked her rival, whom she blamed for stealing her precious mate, and was shot dead in self-defense on a long-ago summer day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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