George Whitbeck pointed to the patch of grass where he had found the body that morning.
The photographer for one of the local papers had asked him to pose for a picture, indicating the place where it had been. He did his best, standing still, feet together, pointing.
When he had driven onto Credit Island that cool September morning, George, or Howard as he usually went by, was probably thinking about all the things he had to do as a park employee.
An island in the middle of the Mississippi River between the cities of Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, Credit Island had been a recreational area for local residents for years. It was a place where you could have a nice picnic while the kids swam or fished in the river.
The corpse had stood out against the green grass, the pale white skin almost gleaming by contrast. Howard saw it as he drove by, realizing instantly what it was. He slowed the car down, and turned it around to go back. As he got out, another employee, Orville Crow, who had been following a short distance behind Whitbeck, also stopped.
After taking a moment to look at the scene, the two men went to the park superintendent, Henry Hennings, and told him what they had found. He immediately called the police.
When investigators arrived, even they were shocked at level of brutality of the crime. Many had seen their fair share of murders and violent crimes, but this was on another level.
Along with the detectives, the county coroner, Frank C. Keppy, had arrived on the scene to examine the body.
It was female, and looked to be somewhere in her thirties. She was nude except for her shoes. She had been badly beaten, leaving a large gash on her forehead. The woman had also been stabbed multiple times. Tire marks on the victim’s body indicated that she had been run over with a car at least four times.
Blood covered the scene, as well as the victim. Her clothing, consisting of a light blue dress with floral designs and a dark blue jacket, was found scattered around her body in an approximately 25-foot radius, also covered in the victim’s blood.
The clothing had been severely torn, leading investigators that sexual sadism might have been a motivating factor in the crime.
At that time, Credit Island was a notorious lover’s lane after dark. The area was fairly remote, with plenty of trees to shade an amorous couple from any prying eyes. Was it possible that the woman had come here with someone and an intimate encounter had gone horribly, dangerously wrong?
Police theorized that the killer had wanted the woman to be found. They had left her in plain sight; George Whitman had spotted her just driving in to work. Besides, if they had really wanted to dispose of the body, all they would have had to do was drag it to the Mississippi River only a very short distance away.
In addition to not having an idea who the murderer might have been, investigators didn’t know who the woman was, either. There was no kind of identification found in the area, and no one recognized her as maybe a regular hiker or worker in the area.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the victim was that she had a number of tattoos, a highly unusual characteristic for women in the 1940’s.
Two names, “Frank and James Stanley,” were tattooed on her left forearm, and on her left upper arm was another name, “Richard,” centered in the middle of a heart.
On her right forearm was a social security number, along with a name and date: “Peggy Stan, 1946.”
Two more tattoos were on her left leg, one with two names, “Bill and Ezzie,” and a phrase, “Rock of Ages.”
On the victim’s chest was a snake tattoo, along with one final name “Stanley Dombkiwicz and True Love.”
Plaster casts were taken of the tire treads found at the scene, the clothing was bagged and taken for evidence, and the body was taken to the Everson and Anderson mortuary to be autopsied. Nothing more could be learned at the scene, and investigators started the grinding task of not only finding a violent murderer, but also the name of their victim.
Meanwhile, about six minutes away, Clarence Saunders woke up from a sound sleep. Groggily, he reached across the bed for his girlfriend, but only found an empty pillow. Blinking, he sat up, surprised. Peggy wasn’t there.
He and his girlfriend, Margaret “Peggy” Treese, shared a room together at the Standard Hotel in Davenport, Iowa. The room wasn’t much, but it’s what they could afford. Honestly, it probably would have been a lot worse if they hadn’t decided to share the room.
It was completely by chance that he had met up with Peggy again.
They had met a few years previously when they both lived in Wyoming. Life had taken them in separate directions, until they met up again in Davenport. Neither one of them had much money, so they decided to pool their resources and get a room together at the relatively low-rent Standard Hotel.
The Standard had a strict policy that only couples who were married could share a room. That was only a minor inconvenience for Clarence and Peggy. They told the manager that they were married, and the Standard didn’t probe any deeper than that. Sure, it wasn’t true, but people had to do what they had to in order to get by.
Standing up, Clarence yawned. Absent-mindedly scratching his chest, he looked down at the empty bed. Vaguely, he remembered that he and Peggy had gone to bed fairly early the night before, around 9 p.m.
As he had just been drifting off to sleep, he had felt the bed shift and heard Peggy move across the room. Looking up, Clarence saw that Peggy had begun to get dressed again.
“Where are you going?” he asked, curious.
Peggy told him that she just wanted to go down to the bar for a little bit and she’d be back in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Clarence said, “Okay,” and immediately went back to sleep.
Now, looking at the bed, he wondered where she was. He wasn’t especially worried, though. It wouldn’t be the first time that she hadn’t come home.
They were adults, and they had lived plenty of their life before they had known each other, both before and after Wyoming. He smiled as he began to dress, remembering one night when Peggy had gone home with a man in Rock Island.
She had spent the night there, but had accidentally left some of her clothes there. She didn’t have the most extensive wardrobe, but what she had was hers. Peggy wanted to get them back, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember where the guy lived.
So, Peggy had called Clarence and they had spent the afternoon driving around Rock Island, hoping that she would see something that looked familiar. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember anything about the guy’s home. Ultimately, they had to go home without Peggy’s clothes, but it had been a nice drive.
Peggy loved the nightlife, to drink and to dance. They were adults, and, despite what they had told the Standard’s manager, they weren’t married. Far be it from him to stop her going out.
Still, there was something that was bothering Clarence, something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was this feeling that something was off about her absence this time, and he just couldn’t shake it.
Instead of ignoring it, Clarence finished getting dressed and headed out to look for Peggy.
Most of the bars and taverns that she liked to go to were nearby the Standard, in an area that locals called Skid Row, an area in the 400 block of Davenport’s Second Street that was notorious for its rough and sometimes criminal element.
The bars there were mostly seedy and run-down, with a clientele to match. Their patrons were mostly blue-collar workers, many of whom had either had previous run-ins with law enforcement or were just good at keeping their illegal dealings away from the police.
As Clarence walked there, a few of those names popped into his head. Just as quickly he wondered if any of them had seem Peggy. She was probably fine, he thought. She knew the dangers down there just as well as he did, and was more than capable of taking care of herself.
Still, Clarence just wanted to make sure.
One by one, he stopped in all the bars that he knew Peggy liked to go to. He asked the bartenders and other workers if they knew where she was. None of them did. None of the regulars that Clarence talked to did, either.
With nowhere else to look, he started walking back to the Standard. He had hoped to put his ill-feelings at ease, but instead had only managed to worsen the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. All he could do now was hope that she would show up at their room sometime later.
When he got to the hotel, one of the hotel employees stopped him. They asked Clarence if he had heard about the body that had been found that morning on Credit Island. Somewhere in the back of Clarence’s mind, warning bells started going off. The employee continued, saying that an announcement had been made over the radio. From the description, it sure sounded a lot like Peggy.
Clarence took a deep breath. He hoped that wasn’t true. He hoped that the woman was nothing like Peggy, and that his girlfriend was just passed out drunk at someone’s house. Still, he had to make sure. He had to set this damn feeling at ease.
He left the hotel and headed toward the nearest police station.
When Clarence arrived, he told one of the officers that he believed that he had known the woman who had been killed on Credit Island that morning. To his immense surprise, he was told that the police had been expecting him. Unbeknownst to him, the same person at the Standard Hotel who had told him about the crime had already called police and told them about Peggy and Clarence, and how the description of the body fit Peggy.
Clarence was escorted to a few detectives, who asked if he would be willing to identify the body. He nodded, and the three men left for the mortuary.
When they arrived, Clarence was taken straight back to the corpse. As soon as he saw it, he knew. It was Peggy. It was definitely Peggy.
The apprehension that had filled him since he had gotten up that morning left him, gradually replacing the void it left with sadness. After a few moments, the detectives asked him if he could answer their questions about Peggy. With a sigh, Clarence nodded and said that he would.
Clarence told them that he was an ex-convict who had served time for robbery in both Colorado and Nebraska. Lately, he had been making a living by painting houses and trimming trees. He explained about how they had met in Wyoming, and that they were living together at the Standard, in spite of the fact that they weren’t married.
He said that he knew Peggy was a war widow from New York, and that her husband had gotten killed in World War II. Clarence believed that it was during her time there that she had gotten many of her tattoos.
To the best of Clarence’s knowledge, Peggy had dated at least two other men in the area. One of them was the man with whom she had spent the night in Rock Island with. Clarence remembered that he drove a brown Chevy and was on the tall side.
Police didn’t believe that Clarence had anything to do with Peggy’s death. It seemed that he had told them the truth as best as he knew it. But while he hadn’t allowed them to close the case, Clarence had given authorities more information than they had that morning.
While detectives were questioning Clarence Saunders, an autopsy revealed that the damage to Margaret Treese’s body was even more extensive than had first been believed.
Her skull had been crushed, leaving a large gash in her forehead. She had been stabbed 19 times, and both of her lungs had been punctured. The police theorized that a screwdriver had been used to do the stabbing.
As if this weren’t enough, several of her ribs had also been broken and there were numerous bruises found over her body. Also, despite first appearances, Keppy determined that Peggy Treese hadn’t been raped.
While both types of injuries had been enough to kill her, Keppy eventually listing a “crushing injury” as her cause of death.
With the information they received from Saunders, detectives began to canvass the area of Skid Row, talking to anyone and everyone they could about Peggy Treese. Eventually, a much clearer picture of the events on the night of the murder began to form.
After Peggy had left Clarence at the Standard Hotel, she went to Bush’s Tavern. Police already knew that she was a regular to this bar and others on Skid Row, and their conversations with the locals confirmed that.
Peggy seemed to be in an excellent mood that night. She came in to dance and have a good time, much to the delight of the male patrons of the bar. To show their appreciation, many of them bought her drinks.
The bartender at Bush’s Tavern, Ambrose Horton, wasn’t happy about Peggy’s behavior at all. The establishment had a strict no-dancing rule, and it was his job to make sure that the rules were obeyed.
Several times over the course of the next few hours, Horton told Peggy to stop the dancing. She ignored him and carried on anyway. Besides, none of the men seemed to mind.
Finally, Horton had enough. At about 12:30 am, he told Peggy that she had to leave. He’d given her plenty of chances, but she wasn’t listening. It was time to go.
As she gathered her things, one man said something to Peggy. She got angry and the two had a minor argument, after which she walked out the door. However, the man just let her go and didn’t follow her.
Unfortunately, the events at Bush’s Tavern didn’t do much to reveal any potential murder suspects. However, a conversation with one of Peggy’s friends might have.
While talking to a detective, the friend said that he had seen Peggy and Clarence together in another bar the afternoon of the killing. He wasn’t exactly sure what happened, but the friend clearly saw Peggy slap Clarence hard across the face and then go storming out of the bar.
Police hadn’t really counted Clarence Saunders as a suspect. He had not only told them nothing but the truth as far as they could tell, but he had actually sought them out. These were hardly the actions of a man who has just committed a brutal murder.
Still, there was always the possibility that he had killed Peggy. According to some people police talked to, Saunders could be a jealous man who hated seeing Peggy with other men. Could he have seen her dancing that night and flown into a jealous rage, ultimately killing her?
Detectives weren’t sure, but they didn’t want to take the chance of releasing a killer, either. They decided to keep Saunders in custody, just in case.
In the meantime, they were eager to question a Rock Island man named Francis Shelby. A veteran of the Second World War, Shelby had been arrested the night of the murder for groping women in Rock Island. At the time he did this, he had been carrying a large knife.
During the interview, Shelby said that he had gotten the knife in England. While his behavior certainly made him a tempting suspect, investigators quickly realized that, while he was certainly a pervert, Shelby probably didn’t have anything to do with the Treese murder.
To make sure, investigators also checked the plaster tire tread marks taken from the murder scene at Credit Island with Shelby’s car. They didn’t match.
Undaunted, police moved on with the investigation.
They were able to confirm that Margaret had been a war widow. Her husband’s name had been Elmer Treese, and he had died while he was serving in Europe.
Police in Buffalo, New York, were able to track down one of the names tattooed on Treese: Stanley J. Domkiewicz. A 42-year-old restaurant worker, Domkiewicz explained that he had been briefly married to Margaret Treese in 1945. It didn’t last long.
When Peggy had explained that she had been married before, the couple had a falling out. After one last argument, she left him and Stanley had never seen her again.
With the autopsy revealing everything that it could, the remains were released to the care of Margaret’s parents in New Cumberland, West Virginia, where she was buried.
Almost a week after the murder, police found their next promising suspect, a man named Pete Petersen.
The 55-year-old Petersen was known to patronize Skid Row bars, and had told people that Margaret Treese had robbed him once after he had gotten drunk. When police asked Clarence Saunders about Petersen, Saunders told them that he knew Petersen.
Saunders went on to explain that Petersen had told him about the alleged robbery once. Petersen ended the story by stating, “If I catch up with her, it will be just too bad.”
Unfortunately, police soon discovered that Petersen had been working at a farm about five or six miles northwest of Davenport at the time of the murder. Petersen was released, and the search continued.
Since the day after the murder, Clarence Saunders had been held in custody. They knew they couldn’t keep him forever, but they wanted to make sure that they weren’t going to release a murderer back into the world. Arrangements were made for Saunders to take a lie detector test in Chicago.
The test showed conclusively that Saunders was neither lying or hiding anything, and the Davenport police were able to release him with a clear conscience.
There were a few more tentative leads that came over the next few months, but they led nowhere. For the next four years, the case went cold.
Then, in 1951, a man in Salinas, California confessed to the murder of Peggy Treese.
A man named William Brinkley had walked into a police station in Salinas and told the front desk sergeant that he wanted to turn himself in for the murder of Margaret Treese. Brinkley said that his conscience had been bothering him for a while, and that it was time to talk.
He told detectives that he had been living and working in Davenport in 1947. He had just happened to meet Peggy in a bar one night. After they had danced together for several songs when she told Brinkley that they should go for a drive.
Brinkley didn’t have a car of his own, so he went outside and started checking vehicles until he found one with the keys still in the ignition. Jumping in, he started it up and drove back to pick up Peggy.
They drove around for a while, finally ending up at Credit Island. They parked, and Brinkley made his move. Peggy, however, wasn’t interested in having sex with him and told him to drive her back to the city.
Brinkley said he flew into a rage. He grabbed a pipe that had been in the front seat of the car and hit her in the head with it as hard as he could. Stunned, Treese could do little as Brinkley took off her clothes and stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth. He then strangled her with her own blouse.
Brinkley said that he had then raped Treese and run over the body multiple times before leaving the island. He abandoned the car and went back home.
The next morning, the murder was on the front page of the local papers. Still, he kept his normal routine for a few more weeks, although he drank more than he usually did. Finally, he left the city. Now he was in California, years later, confessing his crime.
Detectives in California called detectives in Davenport and gave them a full report over what had transpired with Brinkley in Salinas.
While a confession and a subsequent closing to the Treese murder would have been fantastic, detectives weren’t about to take any chances.
They didn’t know who William Brinkley was. Was he a viable suspect, or was he just some kook who had something to gain from making a false confession?
Not only that, there were discrepancies in his confession that just didn’t hold up against the known facts from the case. Detectives began to take a cautious and careful look at Brinkley’s confession.
Brinkley had been an inmate at an Iowa state mental hospital for eleven years, being released in 1943. The next year, he was arrested for being found in a parked car with another man and two underage girls.
In 1949, he was arrested for vagrancy in Davenport, and then again in Redwood City, California earlier in 1951. After he had been released from his 30-day vagrancy sentence there, Brinkley had immediately come and made his confession in Salinas.
That he had been a former mental patient and was possibly a sexual deviant attracted to underage girls lent some credence to his confession. However, Davenport detectives who were well acquainted with the details of the Treese murder were much more concerned about the discrepancies in Brinkley’s confession.
One major issue was that while Brinkley had confessed to hitting Treese in the head with a pipe and running her over three or four times with the car, he said that he had never stabbed her.
Treese had been stabbed nineteen times with a screwdriver or similar instrument, collapsing both of her lungs and causing enough damage that the county coroner thought it had been more than enough to kill her.
Also, the autopsy showed that Treese hadn’t been sexually assaulted, despite Brinkley’s claims.
While police were examining these issues, a surprise phone call dropped a bombshell in the case.
A woman claiming to be Brinkley’s sister-in-law had heard about his arrest and called Davenport detectives. Having read excerpts of his published confession, she was surprised to see that he had claimed to have driven Treese around. According to the sister-in-law, Brinkley couldn’t drive a car.
California detectives took Brinkley to a car and asked him to take them for a drive. After some hesitation on his part and some additional pressure from the police, Brinkley finally broke.
He confessed to having lied about the entire thing. He couldn’t drive a car, meaning that he couldn’t have taken Peggy Treese for a drive. Brinkley also said that he hadn’t killed her, and only confessed to having done so because he was hoping that he could get a free ride back to Iowa at the expense of the state.
William Brinkley was the last viable suspect that authorities ever had in the case of Margaret Treese. The years stretched into decades, and the case only grew colder and colder. There were no more confessions, no more suspects.
Now, seventy years later, the murder of Margaret Treese remains unsolved. While there have been numerous advances in forensics and investigative technology, there have been no new leads in the case for anyone to follow up on.
Perhaps, one day, new information will lead police toward an answer, and the question of who Margaret Treese’s murderer is will finally be solved.
“Margaret Beatrice Treese” – Iowa Cold Cases – Margaret Treese
“The Tattooed Lady: Murder of Margaret Treese 1947” – by Nancy Bowers, Iowa Unsolved Murders
“Woman is Slain at Credit Island” – The Democrat and Leader, 9/30/1947
“Police Seek Sex Fiend in Brutal Murder” – The Daily Times, 9/30/1947
“Davenport Police Question Friends of Ms. Margaret Treese in Effot to Find Lead to Identity of Slayer” – The Daily Times, 10/1/1947
“Police Pursue New Leads in Search For ‘Slayer’ of Tattooed Lady” – Democrat and Leader, 10/1/1947
“Woman Who Died at Hand of Fiend May Have Sensed Death, Companion Reports” – Democrat and Leader, 10/2/1947
“Locate Slaying Victim’s Former Husband in East” – The Daily Times, 10/2/1947
“Police Unable to Obtain New Leads in Murder Probe” – The Daily Times, 10/3/1947
“Probe Argument In Which Slain Woman Took Part” – Democrat and Leader, 10/3/1947
“Nab Ex-Mental Patient In Trese Murder” – The Daily Times, 10/13/1947
“Suspect in Murder Of ‘Tattooed Woman’ Picked Up by Police” – Democrat and Leader, 10/13/1947
“Pete Petersen Released by Police Following Quiz in Treese Slaying; Cleared of Suspicion, Says Chief” – The Daily Times, 10/14/1947
“Free Petersen After Quiz in Murder Cases” – Democrat and Leader, 10/14/1947
“Lie Detector Test Clears Saunders of Complicity in Murder of Margaret Treese” – Democrat and Leader, 10/21/1947
“Men Implicated in Mystery Note With Treese Slaying Presents Air Tight Alibi” – Democrat and Leader, 10/27/1947.
“Local Authorities Await More Facts Before Acting to Return Confessed Killer” – Morning Democrat, 12/18/1951
Confessed Slayer Having Hard Time Convincing Police Here He Really Killed Tattooed Woman. The Morning Democrat, 12/19/1951
“Police Say Brinkley Wanted Free Ride Back To Iowa, Story of Murder Is Hoax” – The Daily Times, 12/21/1951
“Find New Evidence in Murder” – by Jim Arpy, Morning Democrat, 11/30/1956
“A bookshelf of Q-C mysteries – ‘Who killed the tattooed lady?’” – by Jim Arpy, Quad City Times, 8/19/1984
“Follow-up File: Violent Murder of ‘The Tattooed Lady’ remains mystery after 71 years” – by Thomas Geyer, Quad-City Times, 9/23/2018
State Historical Society of Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa; Iowa Death Records