August is always hot in Iowa.
The sun beats down mercilessly, baking the ground and raising shimmering mirages from the asphalt highways. Worse is the humidity, filling the dry air like water fills a sponge.
The only thing that does seem to like the oppressive, unrelenting heat is the corn. Some farmers say that the heat is good for the corn, and makes it grow better. Corn growth aside, the end of August also means that change is on the way. The hot, steamy days signify that Summer is winding down, and that it isn’t going to take long for the barometer to start dropping.
But in 1937, there was something else in the air. It was something that no one could see, or smell, or touch, but it was there. Its seeds had already been sown, and by August they would begin to bear rotten fruit.
Of course, most Iowa farmers were just happy to make a living in 1937.
The entire country was in the middle of the Great Depression. Crop and livestock prices were low, and farmers were struggling hard. A decade before, many of them had worked so hard to make a profit and better their farming operations. By 1937, they had to fight just to keep what they had.
While men toiled in the fields, farm women worked just as hard, if not harder, than the men did. They not only cleaned the house and cooked the meals for the family, but grew and prepared most of it, as well. During the Depression, women worked even harder, by necessity becoming small-scale entrepreneurs.
Excess production goods, such as butter, that the family couldn’t use was either sold for cash or bartered for other goods in order to reduce their own household expenditures. Furthermore, women manufactured goods such as handwoven rugs. Others offered babysitting services, catered meals, and took sewing jobs around their area. Some even raised canaries or cats.
Their endeavors had a big payoff. Their production efforts have been estimated to account for about half of the average farm homes budget. In spite of all their struggles, women were just as determined to fight for the farms they had helped make.
They took pride in their accomplishments, knowing that they had done so much more than their due diligence in making sure their families and farms survived. There was a certain happiness that came with that, a joy in knowing that your best efforts were doing so much.
But Elsie Nollen wasn’t happy.
Elsie was a 30-year-old farm wife in Denison, Iowa. Her and her husband, Albert, had been married since 1924. They were young then, and happy. He was a farmer, and she was content to settle into that life with him.
The couple had six children – Orvin, 11; Wilbert, 10; Pauline, 7; Earl, 6; Leona, 4; and Viola, 2. For the most part, they were healthy and strong. The one exception was little Viola, who had an eye condition that would one day cause her to go blind. Still, there were worse things.
Like Albert’s drinking. And on August 28, 1937, he was in a mood to drink.
The couple had made a trip into Denison that afternoon. As soon as they got out of the car, he left his wife to do whatever errands there were while he went to the bar. He stayed there the entire time. The couple had been fighting most of the day, and that didn’t make things any better.
Later that day, Albert tried to sneak back into Denison. He wasn’t done drinking yet. Much to his disappointment, Elsie caught him in the act and told him that she was coming with him. Albert protested, but she insisted.
Once again, he went to the bar as soon as they reached town. At around 11 p.m. he finally left.
When he went to find his car, it was gone. Assuming that Elsie had taken it and gone home, Albert got a ride from one of his neighbors and drinking companions, Jack Schlie.
On the way, the two stopped somewhere else to drink more. Schlie dropped Albert off at his farm at about 2 o’clock that morning. As soon as Albert stepped into the darkened yard, he knew that something was off.
The family car was parked right next to the house. It was never parked there. Not only that, but the engine was also running hard, like someone had the accelerator to the floor.
Stumbling across the darkened yard, Albert made his way to the front door. As he opened it, a cloud of smoke rolled out. Coughing, he went inside. He could hardly see, so he tried to light a match. It went out. Albert tried again, but it went out, too.
Carefully, he made his way into the front room of the house. Through the window, there was just enough light to make out the forms of three of his children. At first, Albert thought that they were sleeping. But after a moment, he realized that they were all dead.
Horrified, he made his way into his bedroom to find Elsie. There he found her and the other three children, also dead. Leaving the room, he called the police.
A short while later, C.A. Greene, the county sheriff, arrived at the Nollen farm with his men.
They discovered that a discharge hose from a washing machine had been attached to the exhaust pipe of the car, then put through a downstairs window. The sash had been brought down on it, and then any spaces stuffed with rags. All of the rest of the doors and windows in the house had been sealed tight.
The car had been started and the accelerator stuck down, discharging clouds of carbon monoxide into the Nollen home. With everything sealed so tightly, the gas had nowhere to go. It didn’t take long to build to deadly levels, suffocating the family.
Inside the farm mailbox was a six-page note written by Elsie Nollen.
In it, she confessed that although she loved Albert and he treated her well when he wasn’t drinking, he was a violent drunk. She claimed that he had beaten her on several occasions during their marriage and didn’t seem to care much for the children.
Elsie said that she had tried her best to be a good person and to live a good life, and to raise her children to be good and decent people. However, she felt “that this family is not going to be raised up right and I think it is a shame to let them grow up and live such a life.” Try as she might, Elsie didn’t believe that she would ever change his ways.
With no hope for the future, she had decided to commit suicide and take her family with her.
Albert told the sheriff everything that had happened that day, including the fighting with Elsie and the drinking. However, he vehemently denied the letter’s accusations against him.
It didn’t matter now, anyway. Everyone was dead. Elsie had carried out her plan with deadly efficiency.
Normally, the four oldest children slept in an upstairs bedroom, but three of them were found lying on a quilt in the front room. Police later speculated that while they might have been made to do so by their mother, there could’ve been some other reason why they had chosen to sleep there.
The two youngest, Viola and Leona, went to bed with their mother in her bed. They were found there together, the two having fallen asleep in Elsie’s arms. Even in the depths of her despair, Elsie had tried her best to make sure that her children died as peacefully as possible.
Out of the six, only Orvin, the oldest of the children, seems to have woken up during the ordeal. Realizing that there was gas in the house, he had struggled his way to his mother’s bedside before succumbing to the effects of the carbon monoxide.
After the coroner, John Gottburg, had arrived and officially confirmed the cause of death, the bodies were removed to a funeral home in Denison.
The murder of six children was shocking enough, but people were even more shocked that their own mother had done it. And such a mother! Elsie Nollen was known around the area as being a hard-working woman who loved her family. People could hardly believe it all.
The funeral was held a few days later on August 31, 1937. The coffins were lined upside by side in the church. While the family took up most of the space inside, hundreds of more visitors endured the blistering August sun on the lawn outside in order to pay their respects.
Because of the large attendance, the Rev. L.M. Grisby, a Methodist pastor, used a public address system to make sure that everyone could hear him as he delivered his eulogy. When the services were concluded, the attendees gradually made their way past the coffins in single-file.
After everyone had a chance to pay their final respects, the coffins were loaded into five hearses and driven to Zion Lutheran Cemetery, where thirty pallbearers carried the Nollen’s to their final resting place.
No matter how sad the event was, the hard-scrabble times of the Great Depression didn’t relent for tragic deaths. Everyone continued to struggle to pay their mortgages and keep food on the table.
While most people tried to do that through honest means, there were some who chose to use more illicit methods.
Girness McAninch had grown up in Iowa. When he had met his wife, Alma, he had been a 24-year-old farmer and she had been a pretty 19-year-old woman. They had their oldest child, Ray, just after they had gotten married.
Girness hadn’t stayed a farmer and had frequently changed jobs over the years. Along the way, the couple kept having children. By the time they settled down in Norwalk, Iowa, in December of 1936, they had seven: Ray, Cora Belle, Geraldine, Gail, Morris, Max, and Richard.
The strain took a toll on Alma. It was hard enough just raising seven children, but Girness never stayed at one job for too long. There were even stretches of time when he hadn’t worked at all. She tried to do her best, but they had been poor even before the Depression had hit. The years of strain took a toll on Alma, giving her an air of almost-perpetual worry.
In January 1937, Alma was pregnant with the McAninch’s eighth child. While leaving the house one day, she slipped on a patch of ice. She fell hard, and the resulting shock caused her to lose to the baby. After that, her attitude became even worse.
Alma would sit and stare, unresponsive, for hours at a time. She ignored almost everyone, including the children. When she did talk, Alma would frequently threaten to commit suicide, even telling the children that she would have already done it if it hadn’t of been for them.
That summer, Girness was arrested for a petty crime. While in custody, he told the sheriff about his wife’s mental state. He explained that he was concerned that she would hurt herself and, possibly, the children. As a precaution, the sheriff went to the McAninch home and confiscated the family shotgun.
In October, Gail, who was 11-years-old, wanted to go rabbit hunting. Not having a shotgun of his own, he went and borrowed one from a friend. For the next few weeks, Alma, who was a skilled marksman, used the shotgun to shoot cans in the family’s backyard.
On October 30, 1937, Girness was arrested again, this time in connection with a coal mine robbery in central Iowa. Strangely, Alma didn’t seem to care. On the contrary, she suddenly seemed happier than she had been in a long time.
That morning, Gail started to plan his hunting trip, but his mother had used all of the shells. Undaunted, he went and borrowed six shells and brought them home.
It was the night before Halloween, and Ray and Gail wanted to go out and have a good time, but they were reluctant. Ever since their mother had started talking about suicide, they had stayed close to home in order to keep an eye on her.
But that day Alma was so happy. She told Ray and Gail that she thought she was starting to feel better, and that they should go out that night and have fun. Not seeing anything wrong, the boys agreed.
At about 8 o’clock that night, they returned home to check in on their mother. Alma was still in excellent spirits and was just about to put the younger children to bed. Satisfied, Ray and Gail left again.
A few hours later, the oldest daughter, Cora Belle, went to visit the neighbor who lived across the street. They were delighted when she came over and playfully pretended to scare them while wearing a Halloween mask. After they had all had their fun, Cora Belle returned home.
At 11 p.m., another woman in the neighborhood, Mrs. Black, brought Morris home. He was only six, and he looked up to his older brothers. Black had brought Morris to her house so that he wouldn’t tag along with Ray and Gail. Everything seemed fine, and she went back home, happy to have helped all the McAninch boys have a good time that night.
Close to midnight, Ray and Gail went back home for the second time. As they entered the living room, they were talking about their impending hunting trip.
An oil lamp was burning on the table, bathing the room in a warm glow. Next to the lamp was an open Bible and a note scrawled on a piece of paper. Assuming the note had been left for them, Ray and Gail began to read it together.
It was written in their mother’s handwriting. It read:
“Ray and Gail:
You will find us dead this morning. Don’t get excited. Go to Anderson’s and tell them about it. Then get the doctor. Then have Mr. Galloway to come and get us while you are at Andersons. Phone Mrs. Weeks and have her get word to grandpa and Aunt Faye. Bury us in the Webb cemetery. You boys can stay with Aunt Faye until Dad gets out. Tell Dad I sure want him to go straight for you boys’ sake. I have stood all I can take and best to take the kids along. All that saves you boys is no more shells. Have Ellis go to Des Moines and tell Dad. Goodbye and good-luck to you always. Tell Dad I think best for you boys to move in with grandma. Take this note and let him read it.
As they did, their blood ran cold. Memories of Alma talking about suicide came crashing back to them. Wendell Anderson was a neighbor and a friend. He’d welcome the boys at almost any hour, especially in an emergency. Mr. Galloway ran the funeral home in Norwalk. Was this some kind of sick joke, some kind of Halloween prank done in bad taste?
Suddenly, the house seemed too still, too quiet. The boys had been talking when they came in, so they hadn’t noticed it. Something seemed very, very wrong. About then they noticed something on the davenport across the room.
Something was lying on it, covered by a sheet. As they slowly crossed the room, they noticed that it looked like two small forms, almost like oversized dolls. They held their breath as one of them reached out and cautiously grabbed the covering. Hesitantly, they began to pull it back.
Lying underneath were the bodies of two of their brothers, Max and Morris. They had been shot in the head, the blood still running down from silver dollar-sized wounds in their foreheads. There could be no mistake they were dead.
Ray and Gail’s minds went instantly to the rest of their family. They had to know if they were alright.
They began to search the house, starting with the small bedroom adjoining the living room. There they saw Alma lying on the bed with the borrowed shotgun in her hands. Without thinking, Ray lunged forward to grab it, but just as quickly realized that it was already too late. Even in death, her hands still held the shotgun to her own forehead.
Next to her was the body of their 2-year-old brother, Richard. He had also been shot.
Ray and Gail ran upstairs to check on their sisters, Geraldine and Cora Belle. They found them in their bedroom, both dead from gunshot wounds to the head.
The note was true. Their mother had killed everyone, then herself. They couldn’t hardly think. It was all just too horrible to contemplate.
The boys didn’t know what to do. They were terrified, their thoughts racing. It was all too much. They had to get out of the house. Leaving as fast as they could, Ray and Gail ran to their next-door neighbor, Josephine Snyder.
When they got there, the boys told her the story. She could hardly believe it. She didn’t want to believe it. But after taking one look at the boys, Snyder knew that it was true. Snyder thought for a moment, then called the local doctor, C.A. Willett.
After hearing what had happened, Willett called the police, and C.H. Mitchell, the county coroner. He then left and went to the McAninch home.
The police arrived soon after and began their investigation. While Willett and Mitchell examined the bodies, they began searching the house and questioning Ray, Gail, and everyone in the neighborhood.
It was clear to everyone that Alma had been the killer. She had apparently waited for all of the children to go to sleep, and then had probably written the note. After she was done, Alma picked up the shotgun and went from room to room. Each child was killed with one shot to the head at close range.
One detail that disturbed the authorities the most was that the shotgun was a single-shot .410. That meant that after every shot, Alma would have to open the gun, reload it, and then fire again. Not only was the act incredibly cold-blooded, but none of the children appeared to have woken up during the murders.
They were all relaxed, just like they were sleeping. Even when the gun had taken the lives of someone right next to them, the loud blast didn’t wake them up. There was absolutely no signs of struggle or resistance.
Stranger still, none of the neighbors had heard anything. At that time, Norwalk only had a population of 350. It was a quiet town, especially at that time of night. The authorities thought for sure that, in the midnight silence someone would have heard six shotgun blasts in a residential neighborhood. Yet not a single person had.
While some tried their best to offer some kind of explanation for this, such as the skulls had acted as a kind of silencer, no definitive answer was ever given. In the end, it didn’t matter. Six people had just died in a senseless tragedy, and the surviving family members were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Girness was released into the custody of his brother the next morning so that he could take care of the funeral arrangements. When he saw Ray and Gail, he broke down into near -hysterics. Roy also broke down, clinging to his father. Gail was almost completely silent, still in shock from the horrors he had just witnessed.
A few days later, four hearses and two private vehicles carried the coffins of Alma and her five children to the Spring Hill Methodist Church in Spring Hill, Iowa. Alma had grown up there, and she, per her final instructions, had wanted to be buried there.
Nearly five-hundred people crammed the small church and the yard outside during the service. Afterwards, 32 pallbearers carried the McAninch family to a 7 foot by 20-foot grave for burial.
When the last words were said and services were concluded, everyone left and went their separate ways. While most returned home to their families, Girness was taken back to jail. Ray and Gail were taken to their aunt’s house.
By the end of November, Girness pled guilty to breaking and entering in the coal mine theft, and was sentenced to serve six months in jail. When he was released, he moved in with his mother in Des Moines.
Ray joined the Navy during World War II, and moved to California. After living there for several years, he returned to Des Moines in the 1970’s, earning a living as an electrician. Gail joined the Army, and eventually returned to the Des Moines area. He got married, started a family, and enjoyed every moment he had with them.
Back in Denison, Albert Nollen was alone. While Girness McAninch still had his two sons, Nollen’s family were gone. He kept living in the area for a while, but in 1938, he married a Nebraska woman and started his life over. They started a new family of their own and eventually moved to Oregon.
The Great Depression was a strain on everyone who lived through it, leaving a lasting mark on them – and the nation – for decades to come. The memory of the struggles they endured never left them.
For some, like Albert Nollen, Girness McAninch, and his sons, Ray and Gail, those times were even worse. They had experienced something that most would struggle to endure even in the best part of their lives.
While so many fought off natural disasters, hunger, and poverty, these people faced a threat from within their own families, something so dark and sinister that they probably wouldn’t have ever thought it could happen. But it did.
An unspeakable tragedy took away what mattered the most to them, and there was little else they could do but move forward and piece their world back together the best way that they knew how.
Mother Kills Six Children, Self. The Des Moines Register, 8/30/1937
Mother Kills Six Children, Ends Own Life. The Gazette, 8/30/1937
Mother Kills Self and Children. Picture, The Des Moine Tribune, 8/30/1937
Here a Mother and 6 Children Died. Pictures, The Des Moines Register, 8/30/1937
Pastor Voices Tribute to Mother’s Love at Rite’s for Seven. The Des Moines Tribune, 8/31/1937
2,000 Attend Rites for Mother and Children. The Des Moines Register, 9/1/1937
Albert Nollen (1901-1977) – Find a Grave Memorial
Elsie Marie Joens Nollen (1906-1937) – Find a Grave Memorial
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Iowa Department of Public Health; Des Moines, Iowa; Series Title: Iowa Marriage Records, 1923–1937; Record Type: Marriage
Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames; Iowa State University Press, 1996.
Mother Kills 5 Children, Herself. The Des Moines Register, 10/31/1937
Grieving Father Views Bodies of 6. The Des Moines Register, 11/1/1937
Before McAninch Funeral Paster Ponders ‘Why Slaying?’ The Des Moines Tribune, 11/2/1937
500 Mourners Attend Rites. The Des Moines Register, 11/3/1937
Norwalk Mother and Five Slain Children Buried in One Huge Grave. The Des Moines Register, 11/3/1937
Father Back in Jail Here. The Des Moines Tribune, 11/4/1937
McAninch, 42, Is Indicted. The Des Moines Tribune, 11/9/1937
Pleads Guilty, Gets 6 Months. The Des Moines Register, 11/17/1937
Raye K. McAninch. The Des Moines Tribune, 5/4/1982
United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls. Imaged from Family History Library microfilm.
The National Archives At St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; World War Ii Draft Cards (Fourth Registration) For the State of Iowa; Record Group Title: Records of the Selective Service System; Record Group Number: 147; Box or Roll Number: 149
Iowa Department of Public Health; Des Moines, Iowa; Series Title: Iowa Marriage Records, 1880–1922; Record Type: Marriage
Year: 1940; Census Place: Des Moines, Polk, Iowa; Roll: m-t0627-01197; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 100-143A
Year: 1930; Census Place: Highland, Palo Alto, Iowa; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 0013; FHL microfilm: 2340406
Gail Lavern ‘Bud’ McAninch (1926-2006) – Find a Grave Memorial