Depths of Despair: A Murder/Suicide Plot in Iowa

 

Mary was gone, and there was no bringing her back.

William Stewart stared out the window, letting his mind wander through the past. Mary and her family had come from Germany and settled in the area around LeClaire, Iowa, in the eastern part of the state.

When he had met her, Mary’s name had been Mary Rathje. It was the most amazing name that he had ever heard. The only problem that he had was that he thought Mary Stewart sounded a lot better. The two had fallen in love, married, and never looked back for a second.

They had gotten a farm and worked hard to make a life for themselves. Over the next ten years, the couple continually grew the farm business. Early on they were blessed with two children, Pearl and William.

There had been hardships to be sure, but they had been happy. And William always had his Mary.

And then, a few days before Christmas in 1918, the unthinkable happened. At the young age of 33, Mary passed away.

William was beside himself with grief. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. They were supposed to grow old together. They were supposed to watch the children grow up, get married, and start lives of their own.

Instead, William had found himself standing over Mary’s grave. None of those things were ever going to happen. The dream was over.

As the finality of it all slowly began to sink in, William felt himself slipping into a deep depression. He sent William and Pearl to live with his brother and his family near Charlotte, Iowa, a small town in the next county to the north.

William’s brother, John, had several children of his own. William must have felt that his own children would have a much better time living with their cousins in the fresh air of the Iowa countryside away from him and his perpetual melancholy.

He moved off of the farm where Mary and he had built so many happy memories and bought a house in the much larger city of Davenport, Iowa.

To help with expenses, William decided to take on a few boarders in his new home.

After a brief interview, he took on George and Maggie Long, a married couple. In an extremely generous gesture, William gave the Long’s the majority of the house, while he took a smaller area. To the casual observer, it would seem that William was the boarder instead of the other way around.

As the days stretched into weeks and then months, William’s thoughts continued to grow darker and darker.

At first, he might have been able to push them aside. They were just small thoughts that just kind of popped into his head, like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond. Mostly William probably just ignored them.

In the early days just after Mary’s death, no one would have been surprised that William was feeling sad, lonely, and maybe even a little angry. Those feelings were perfectly natural, and with Mary being so young and in the prime of her life, who wouldn’t have had those feelings?

The problem was that those little ideas that kept bubbling to the surface of William’s mind were sticking like glue. Instead of simply popping and just vanishing back into the ether, they lingered. The more of them that there were, the darker William’s moods became, and the worse his thoughts became.

Perhaps it was this lingering sadness and grief that drew Maggie Long to William Stewart. In no account is there any mention of trouble in her marriage. It is very possible that there was, and that there was already an existing rift between Maggie and George.

Whether there was or not, it is a fact that, for whatever reasons led them there, William and Maggie began to feel a deep attraction toward one another. Eventually, the two began to have an affair.

George eventually found out, and he almost ended the marriage. But somehow, the Long’s found the determination to give their union another try, and the couple stayed together. However, they decided to stay in the same house, with George living under the same roof as his wife’s lover.

Perhaps even stranger, the three of them all seemed to be okay with the situation. They continued their lives like nothing had happened, and seemingly continued to get along as friends.

William, however, continued to decline. The affair had done nothing for his mental state.

Grief soon turned into obsession. William wouldn’t – couldn’t – let go of Mary. Instead of moving on with his life and focusing on his children and what the future would bring, he yearned to be with Mary every second of every day. He dreamed of her every night, and the longing intensified.

William’s mental state began to affect his behavior. His moods, while generally dark before, now became erratic. One minute he would be his normal self, and the next he could be angry, or even manic.

The people who interacted with him the most had noticed his melancholia, a more widely known term for depression in the early 20th century, had not only worsened, but had seemingly driven him completely insane.

There can be little doubt that many of them wanted to help him, but they just didn’t know how. Psychology was still a young science, and the pioneers of the field were just beginning to make consistent breakthroughs.

In 1917, Sigmund Freud, one of the premier pioneers in the field of psychology in the modern era, had just put forward the idea that psychoanalysis could possibly allow a patient to work through underlying causes of loss that were, in turn, causing their downward spiral into their self-destructive tendencies.

Other scientists of the time disagreed with him, instead feeling that depression and its destructive behaviors were caused by some kind of disorder of the brain itself. A generation before, the men who instructed these doctors used such methods as induced vomiting, enemas, and prolonged immersion in water to treat the patient.

After nearly a century of successful treatments of various mental disorders through psychotherapy, it is easy to dismiss those early doctors as barbaric and ignorant. The truth, however, isn’t as cut and dried.

The majority of the doctors in that time were highly educated men and women who, just like the physicians of the modern era, genuinely cared about their patients. These were the treatments that their mentors had trained them in, and the ones that the very top minds in the medical field had researched and recommended.

They were trying to help but didn’t realize that their methods were just not working. With that in mind, it is highly doubtful that even had William sought help for his condition that he would have received an effective treatment.

Things finally began to come to a head in the early summer of 1920.

William had made a trip to Charlotte and picked up his two children. They must have been excited to see their father. Time always seems to move so much slower for the young, and it must have seemed like ages since they had been together.

For his part, William seems to have been acting stable and relatively normal. Perhaps he even seemed happy as he listened to little William and Pearl tell him all about the adventures that they had been having on their uncle’s farm.

When they arrived in Davenport, William told the kids to go into the house and play while he took care of a few things outside. They dutifully obeyed, and William went about his work.

At some point, he happened to run into one of his neighbors. William seemed pleasant enough, and the two engaged in some small talk. From there, the flow of the conversation deepened, and they began to talk about the children and what they had been doing lately.

As they talked, William must have started to feel more and more comfortable. He relaxed and decided to really open up to his neighbor.

Very openly, he began to talk about how he was missing his dead wife and had decided to join her in death. He would feel bad about leaving his beloved children behind, so he had decided to kill them first.

The declaration had come so suddenly and so smoothly that it took the neighbor a few moments to realize just what they had been told. Smiling awkwardly, they asked William to repeat what he had said.

Laughing a little, William made his statement again. He was going to kill his children and then commit suicide later that night. That’s why he had gone to pick them up that day. It was time to go see their mother, and the only way that could happen was to die.

William didn’t want them to suffer, so he had gone out and bought a revolver. It would probably be the quickest, most humane method.

The neighbor didn’t know what to say. William brought the conversation to a close, and then went back inside. The neighbor stood on the sidewalk for a few more seconds, their mind desperately trying to process what they had just heard.

It must have been a joke, they thought. Just a sick, sick joke. But what bothered them was that William hadn’t given them any indication that he was kidding. That man had seemed damn serious about his plan.

The neighbor knew that they couldn’t just blow that conversation off. They began to walk again, faster now. They had decided to go to the nearest police station and tell the authorities. If it turned out to be nothing, then they were just overreacting and there would be no harm done.

But if William really had been serious – and the neighbor had a sinking feeling that he had been – then someone had to protect those kids. And the neighbor knew that if something did happen to the children and they had done nothing, then the guilt would be absolutely unbearable.

At the station, the police listened carefully to the neighbor’s story, then immediately took action. They sent three officers to William’s house to check on him and the children.

When they arrived, they knocked and announced their presence. They received no answer.

Worried about the children and fearing the worst, the officers forced open the front door. As they thundered into the house, they saw a very surprised-looking William sitting in the living room. He was unarmed and seemed perfectly fine.

But there was no sign of the children, and the officers wouldn’t rest easy until they had found them. While one of the officers, a man named Werner, talked to William, the other two began to search the house for William and Pearl.

William calmly told Officer Werner about his plans. He spoke so openly about it that Werner must have been a little surprised by the man’s candor.

William told all: about Mary’s death, buying the gun, killing the kids, committing suicide, everything.

Just as William was finishing his story, one of the other officers cried out from upstairs. For a split second, Werner feared the worst. Fortunately, the officer called down that both children were alive and unharmed. They were sleeping upstairs, oblivious to their father’s plan.

Relieved, Werner asked William where the gun was. For the first time since they had arrived, William stopped talking. When asked again, William remained tight-lipped. Try as they might, none of the officers could get him to tell them where the revolver was.

It was clear that William was a sick man. If Werner left him alone that night, William might still carry out his plan. Even worse, if they did take William away, what was to keep him from shooting his children on the chance that he was released? They couldn’t in good conscience leave the residence until they had that gun.

Eventually the officers took William upstairs as they searched for the firearm. They weren’t about to let him out of their sight.

As they talked, one of the policemen noticed that William’s eyes kept wandering to the same corner of the room that they were in. After watching him do this several times, they began to carefully search that area.

There, laying on a rafter, was the revolver.

The three officers arrested William and took him to the police station while the children were taken into temporary custody by children’s services.

On May 27, 1920, the day before the killing was to take place, William penned what he must believed to be his last note. Although he had an envelope addressed to his brother John, it was empty.

The note was addressed to a friend of William’s named Ralph Speer. It said:

Helo (sic) Ralph.

I suppose you will be surprised when you open this letter, but I think it was the best thing I can do. I have been thinking about it now for a year. I dream about Mary night after night. I could never be happy with any other women. Ralph, hear (sic) is ten dollars for you to give John Stewart (his brother) for to pay for digging the graves. Try and get John Henry Mahlman. Get Mr. Horrigan for the undertaker. John’s address is Charlotte, Clinton County, Iowa. Tell John to take everything in the house. John works for a man by the name of Joe Cranie and lives two miles south of Charlotte. I have sold everything but the chairs, dishes and sewing machine, a bed and trunk. Goodby (sic). You will find a letter in my coat pocket for John Stewart in the trunk. Get it and keep it for him until he gets here.

The same day, the day that William had planned on having himself and his children on an undertaker’s table, he was brought before a local judge. During his night in jail, he had apparently had a change of heart.

He said that he no longer wanted to commit suicide. He wanted to return to being a farmer and just wanted his children to be with him.

William appeared rational and demonstrated a sound understanding of his rights under the law. His behavior was far from that of someone in the throes of insanity.

Almost shockingly, the court seemed all in favor of returning Pearl and young William to their fathers’ custody. However, those plans were put to a stop when neighbors interviewed during the hearing told the judge about William’s affair with his tenant, Maggie Long.

When this was brought up, the judge decided that the home wouldn’t be a good environment for the children to be in.

William asked the court for a continuance of his hearing, explaining that his lawyer would be out of town for a few days, and he wanted to consult them before he did anything else. William’s request was granted.

Next, he was brought before a special county board, called, appropriately enough, an insanity board, to determine if he was of sound mind. After interviewing him, the board judged that William was completely sane.

A few days later, the second hearing was held. With a different judge presiding, witnesses were brought forward to give their testimony.

Nothing was held back, and all of William’s secrets were laid bare for the assembled court to hear. His increasingly strange behavior, his marriage, his affair with Maggie Long, everything.

When they were called, Maggie and George told the judge that they had known that William had planned to commit suicide. They seemed to take William’s declaration in stride. When William had told them that he wanted to take his own life at exactly 3 in the morning, they had allowed him to borrow an alarm clock at his request.

The Long’s stated that William had only wanted to commit suicide, not murder his children. He had brought them to Davenport not to kill them, but only because he wanted them nearby when he died.

When interviewed, William now agreed with what the Long’s had said. Despite what he had told police, the neighbor, and had written in the note, he was now adamant that he had never planned to murder the children. His plan all along was just to commit suicide.

He told the court that he was feeling much better now, and that he simply wanted to have his children returned to him and go back to being a full-time father. He explained that he and his brother, John, planned to buy a farm together in LeClaire and work it together with their families.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge told the court that they would take everything into consideration.

Ultimately, in an almost unbelievable turn of events, William and Pearl were returned to their father. With William being judged to be sane by the county commission, along with his passionate declaration that he no longer felt like taking his own life, the judge had decided to grant his request.

To everyone’s relief, William was good to his word. He eventually remarried and raised his children to adulthood. Both William and Pearl married and had families of their own, living quietly until passing away as grandparents. William Stewart himself passed away quietly of natural causes in 1952.

 

Sources

Police Block Father’s Plot to Slay Babes. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 5/28/1920

Buys Gun to Kill Himself and Children. The Daily Times, 5/28/1920

Stewart Says He Wouldn’t Kill Children. The Daily Times, 5/29/1920

Drops Suicide and Pleads for His Children. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 5/30/1920

Beckons From Dreamland the Husband Avers. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 6/4/1920

Ancestry.com. Iowa, U.S., Deaths and Burials, 1850-1990 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014.

Year: 1910; Census Place: Le Claire, Scott, Iowa; Roll: T624_422; Page: 10A; Enumeration

Year: 1900; Census Place: Le Claire, Scott, Iowa; Roll: 458; Page: 16; Enumeration District: 0142; FHL microfilm: 1240458District: 0154; FHL microfilm: 1374435

Year: 1920; Census Place: Davenport Ward 3, Scott, Iowa; Roll: T625_512; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 157

Iowa Department of Public Health; Des Moines, Iowa; Series Title: Iowa Marriage Records, 1880–1922; Record Type: Marriage

Davenport Deaths: William J. Stewart. The Democrat and Leader, 6/15/1952

Schimelpfening, Nancy. The History of Depression: Accounts, Treatments, and Beliefs Through the Ages. Verywellmind.com, 4/19/2022 (Medically reviewed by Amy Morin, LCSW)

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