Eulalia Smith had been worried about her husband since that Lundgreen man had called her. There was just something not right about that phone call.
Looking out the window of their home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, an anxious look crossed Eulalia’s face. Lundgreen – whoever he was – had told her that Percy wanted him to call her. Percy wanted her to know that he was going to be gone for a few days to buy cattle in Kansas.
Why couldn’t Percy call her himself? And what was so urgent about getting these cattle that couldn’t wait? They’d been married for years, had four children together. Eulalia knew Percy’s habits like she knew her own hands, and this was completely out of character for him.
Going to Kansas wasn’t strange; he’d just come back home that week from a purchasing trip down there. But Percy had told her he was going. She knew about it. He had planned out the entire trip and she had helped him pack. Eulalia knew where he was at and about when he was coming back.
No, there was something not right about all of this. Still, maybe he had decided to start some new habits now that he was almost sixty. Eulalia had her doubts.
Picking up the phone, she called her eldest son, Richard, and told him about Percy. Richard agreed that it was strange behavior for his dad and asked when the last time she had seen him.
Eulalia said that Percy had left that morning to maybe buy some cattle from a local farmer named Corliss Bruntlett.
Earlier the previous day, Bruntlett had knocked on the Smith’s door. Although he was younger than her husband, Bruntlett looked older. He was of medium height and build, balding with gray and white hair.
When Eulalia answered the door, he told her that he was a local farmer, and he had 60 head of cattle for sale. He had heard Percy bought livestock, and wanted to see if they couldn’t come to an agreement.
She told him that she was sorry, but Percy wasn’t home at the moment. But he would be back later that afternoon if he wanted to come back. Bruntlett thanked her, then left.
Later, after Percy had come home, Bruntlett came back and talked to him. Smith said that he might be interested, but he’d have to see the cattle first. He asked where Bruntlett’s farm was and said that he would come out early the next morning.
Bruntlett said that would be fine but explained that road leading to his farm was muddy and could be hard to navigate. If Smith wanted, Bruntlett could come pick him up and drive him out there.
Smith said that would fine. The two men set the pick-up time at 7 a.m., shook hands, and Bruntlett left.
The farmer had come and gotten Smith as promised. That was the last anyone had heard from him.
Richard asked where the farm was supposed to be at, and Eulalia told him it was about four miles outside of Council Bluffs. It turned out that it wasn’t too far from Richard’s own farm, and he said that he’d go out and talk to this Bruntlett.
A short time later, Richard pulled into Bruntlett’s yard. He introduced himself, and asked if Percy was still around. Bruntlett shook his head, saying that he had already bought the cattle and had left for Omaha earlier that morning.
Later that evening, when Percy still hadn’t been heard from, Richard went back to the Bruntlett farm. Bruntlett told him the same story, and that Percy wasn’t there.
When he still hadn’t called anyone by the next day, Eulalia called the police. Every fiber of her being screamed that there was something wrong, and she wasn’t going to just ignore that feeling.
The Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Department started looking for him right away. Percy had been a successful farmer and livestock dealer his entire life. He was well-respected and had no real enemies.
They talked to Percy’s friends and neighbors, but none of them had seen him, either. As far as everyone knew, except for the mysterious Lundgreen whom no one had ever met, the last person to have any interaction with Percy was Corliss Bruntlett.
That day, the 50-year-old farmer was questioned by Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jack Tyler and County Attorney Don Jackson about the last time he had seen Smith.
Bruntlett explained that he had purchased some cattle from a farmer in Norfolk, Nebraska for $9,400. He and his wife, Elma, a woman 24-years his junior, along with their three small children were planning to move to Creston, Iowa. He had just agreed to buy a new farm in that area and the couple had decided to sell off all their property before leaving.
He had heard that Smith might be interested in buying his new cattle, and so had approached him the day before. Sure enough, Smith had been, and the two men had gone back to Bruntlett’s farm.
Smith liked the stock, and had written Bruntlett a check for $9,800. After the sale, he had driven Smith to Omaha, Nebraska, directly across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, so that Smith could hire someone to come out and pick up his new cattle.
Bruntlett dropped him off, then drove back home. Later that morning, Smith had come back and picked up his new purchase in three hired trucks. He had left with the last truck, and that was the last Bruntlett had seen him.
The authorities followed up on his story but couldn’t find anyone who had seen or talked to Smith, let alone rented him three cattle trucks and the men to help load the livestock. One of Bruntlett’s neighbors also confirmed that, while they had seen cattle trucks the previous day, it had been in the evening.
This was long past the time that Bruntlett said that Smith had loaded the livestock and left. They also said that they had only seen two trucks, not three.
However, while Omaha police couldn’t locate Smith, they did confirm that Bruntlett had been in Omaha on December 8, and had sold 25 head of cattle at the South Omaha stockyards that night. They had been delivered in two trucks, right around the time that his neighbor had seen the trucks leaving the farm.
Even though Bruntlett’s story had never changed during the questioning, there were things about his story that didn’t make sense.
Smith owned two cattle trucks of his own. Why would he go to Omaha and spend the extra money to hire separate cattle trucks when he could have handled the job without hiring any extra help?
There was also the phone call that Eulalia Smith had received from the mysterious “Mr. Lundgreen.” Who was he? And why hadn’t Percy made any mention of him or the trip to Kansas to anyone?
As far as the authorities could find, the disappearance of Percy Smith started and ended with Smith leaving with Bruntlett on the morning of December 8.
This made him their chief suspect. On December 11, Max Studer, an agent with the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, joined the investigation. He questioned Bruntlett, and, once again, his story never changed.
During the questioning, Bruntlett exhibited erratic and strange mood swings. Sometimes he would sneer or growl at the investigators. Other times, he would refuse to answer any of their questions, turning around in his chair and staring at the wall, unspeaking.
No one admitted to selling Bruntlett any cattle in either Iowa or Nebraska, and Bruntlett, for whatever reason, couldn’t produce either a sales receipt for them or remember the name of the farmer he had bought them from.
Because there was no evidence of sale, this indicated that the $9800 check was obtained through the commission of fraud.
On December 11, authorities filed an injunction against Corliss Bruntlett that froze all his assets. preventing him from spending any more of the $9,800 allegedly given to him by Smith than he already had.
For their part, authorities didn’t believe that he had ever sold the 60 head of cattle because he had never had them to begin with. They had reason to have their suspicions.
While looking into Bruntlett’s background, they had discovered that he had been in and out of prison for a good part of his adult life.
His first major sentence had been for his role in a Carroll County, Iowa bank robbery in 1921. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment but had served just ten years and been given parole in 1931. In 1933, Bruntlett was sentenced to two years in the Minnesota State Prison for grand larceny. Once again, he was granted an early release after 11 months.
In 1935, Bruntlett was sent back to prison again, this time for five years at the Iowa State Penitentiary for receiving stolen goods. He was released only three years later. Finally, in 1938, he spent five months at the Guthrie County, Iowa jail for obtaining money by false pretenses.
When authorities questioned Bruntlett’s wife, Elma, she informed them that she had never seen Smith at their farm. Nor had she seen the 60 head of cattle that Corliss had allegedly bought in Nebraska, or any of the trucks that he said Smith had hauled them to Omaha with.
This cast serious doubt on Bruntlett’s story.
Investigators began to suspect that something bad had happened to Percy Smith, and that Bruntlett had something to do with it. The last place that everyone seemed to agree he had been on Bruntlett’s farm, so they started there.
During their search, police found a .22 caliber rifle, a bloodstained corn knife, and a few wooden boards stained with what they thought could be blood. They also searched through a large, burned patch of yard, where they discovered pieces of bone and a button. They also found pieces of unidentified bone on other places on or near the property.
When asked about the bone fragments and the burned area, Bruntlett said he had burned the bodies of a hog, a few skunks, and a calf in that area on December 8. The button had come off a pair of overalls he had burned in the same pile. He said he had used the knife to kill chickens and had borrowed the gun from one of his neighbors to kill pest animals on the farm.
When investigators asked Elma, however, she said that Bruntlett had never burned any of his clothes that day.
On December 13, investigators took Bruntlett to Norfolk, Nebraska to see if they couldn’t find the farmer he said he had bought cattle from. Nothing jogged his memory, and the investigators decided to head back to Council Bluffs.
On the way back, Bruntlett, as erratic as ever, had a change of heart.
He told Sheriff Tyler and Agent Studer that there had never been a farmer in Norfolk. He had lied about buying the cattle. When Tyler and Studer had asked him why he had done that, Bruntlett, for the first time, decided to tell them the entire chilling truth of what had happened to Percy Smith.
Bruntlett explained that he was deep in debt because of a gambling habit. He had lost a great deal of money, especially over the previous three months since he had agreed to sell his farm.
Making matters worse, he needed to come up with a $5000 payment for his new farm by February 1, 1948. Being so far in debt, he was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
The worry and stress ate away at Bruntlett for months. It plagued his thoughts through the day, and he couldn’t hardly sleep. Finally, he became desperate enough to formulate a dire plan.
Bruntlett needed someone who had money. After asking around a little and some deliberation, he settled on Percy Smith.
On December 7, he decided to put his plan into action.
That day, he went to the Smith home in Council Bluffs and lied to Smith about having 60 head of cattle for sale. There was never any livestock; he just needed a reason to get the man alone on his farm.
When they got there on the morning of December 8, they immediately went out to look at the cattle. Letting Smith move ahead of him, Bruntlett ducked into a small building and took the .22 caliber rifle that he had secreted there.
Pointing the rifle at Smith, Bruntlett told him that if he didn’t do exactly what he said, then Bruntlett would kill him right there. He told Smith that he was in sore need of money, and he knew that the older farmer had a lot of it.
Keeping the gun trained on Smith, Bruntlett instructed him to write a check for $9800 out to him. He made sure that Smith included a note that said it was for “60 head,” meaning the cattle he was supposed to buying from Bruntlett.
When he had finished, Smith held the check out for Bruntlett. As Bruntlett reached for it, Smith shot forward, grabbing the barrel of the gun. For a few desperate moments, the two men fought for control of the rifle.
With a terrific pull, Bruntlett managed to wrest the gun away from Smith. He took a few steps back to create some distance, leveling the barrel at the older man. Smith, instead of remaining compliant, began carefully moving toward him.
Bruntlett told him to stop, to keep away. Smith stalked forward undaunted, seemingly fixed on taking the rifle back.
With a loud report, the gun fired. A small red hole appeared in Smith’s forehead, and he sank to his knees, groaning and mumbling as blood began to run down his face. Without hesitation, Bruntlett fired a second shot into Smith’s head.
Smith immediately went quiet and fell the rest of the way to the floor, dead.
After catching his breath for a moment, Bruntlett carefully laid the gun aside, and, taking a firm grip on both of Smith’s hands, dragged him to a pile of corn cobs.
Covering Smith’s body with the cobs, Bruntlett poured kerosene over the pile and the bloodstains left where Smith had fallen over. Then, stone-faced, he lit it on fire.
Bruntlett watched as flames leaped upward and started to lick at the body. After a moment, he added some wooden boards, burlap sacks, and more cobs. He wanted the fire to burn as hot as he could make it.
Leaving for a moment, he dragged back some animal carcasses and threw them into the fire. Bruntlett was hoping that the fire would burn higher and hotter, but the flames remained lower than he liked. He stood by, watching the fire and periodically adding kerosene to the flames.
After he decided that it was finally burning well enough, Bruntlett went inside and ate a casual lunch. When he finished, he got into the car and drove to Omaha.
From there, he called Eulalia Smith and told her that his name was Lundgreen. He explained that Percy had asked him to call her and say that he’d be gone on a cattle buying trip to Kansas, and would be back in two or three days.
Hanging up, Bruntlett drove back to Council Bluffs and hired two trucks to ship 25 head of cattle to Omaha. He then went to the Council Bluffs Savings Bank and cashed the check that he had forced Smith to write.
After making some other transactions there, he closed his account and went back to his farm.
To his disappointment, the fire had burned down and much of Smith’s body was still intact. He had wanted the fire to burn it down to ash, with maybe a few bones left. Pursing his lips, he cursed under his breath. He needed to get rid of it, but this didn’t seem to be working.
After thinking about it for a few moments, he had an idea. Maybe Smith’s body was too big to burn like that.
Taking a corn knife – a long, heavy knife used to cut down corn stalks – and some more kerosene, he stood over the body for a moment, deciding where to begin. Setting down the kerosene, he stepped as close as he could to Smith’s body and made his first cut. Blood ran down the blade as he began to butcher the half-burned corpse into smaller pieces.
When he had finished, he poured more kerosene over the remains and watched it burn.
He was in the process of doing this when Richard Smith had come to the farm the first time. Bruntlett met him in the yard and told him that Percy had already left earlier that day, when all the while his remains were burning nearby.
Bruntlett watched his car pull out of sight, then went back to stoking the fire.
It had surprised him when Percy had come back later that day. He didn’t want them to see what was in the fire, so he threw water on it to put it out. He had to have noticed the black smoke rising from his earlier visit. If they saw it again, then it might lead to them asking questions about things Bruntlett didn’t want them to ask about.
He went out and talked to Richard again, and once again gave him the made-up story about Percy going to Omaha.
As soon Richard left, Bruntlett went back to check the body. There was more of the body burned than there was before, but there were still small parts of it left. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to restart the fire and risk having Richard Smith stop by for a third visit.
Gathering up what was left of Percy Smith’s remains, including much of the ashes, Bruntlett spread them through a nearby cornfield. With any luck, they’d rot away completely or be carried away by animals.
Corliss Bruntlett was placed under arrest for the murder of Percy Smith, and investigators descended on the Bruntlett farm. The nature of their search had changed somewhat this time, because now they knew without a doubt that Smith’s remains were supposed to be there.
It didn’t take them long to find evidence confirming Bruntlett’s story.
Several bone fragments were uncovered, including teeth, pieces of skull, and spinal vertebrae. Investigators found more bloodstains, along with clothing remnants. Dr. Cleveland S. Simkins, the head of the Creighton University Department of Anatomy, and the FBI were able to confirm that they were, without a doubt, human.
Investigators also examined Bruntlett’s bank accounts. Although he had claimed that he had killed Smith because he had lost a substantial amount of money gambling over the months leading up the murder, the authorities found no large monetary losses during that time that supported his claims.
This indicated to them that Bruntlett might not have been as desperate as he had said, and the murder of Percy Smith might be more calculated than he let on.
While legal proceedings were started against Bruntlett, the remains of Percy Smith were laid to rest in Council Bluffs.
Nearly 400 people attended his funeral, overflowing the funeral home and pouring outside. A public address system was hooked up so that those who couldn’t get inside could still hear the service.
Bruntlett had hardly any money, so the court assigned David E. Burrows, a young Council Bluffs attorney, to represent him. He pled not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder, and settled in to await the coming trial.
It would never get there.
On February 3, 1948, Bruntlett changed his official plea from not guilty to guilty. Dressed in a brown suit with a green and white striped shirt, he stood in front of District Judge Harold E. Davidson and said he was guilty of the murder of Percy Smith.
His face showed no emotion, with the exception that his cheek and fingers would occasionally twitch. Now he would face not the jury, but the judge’s decision for sentencing. For the murder of Percy Smith, Bruntlett would receive either life in prison, or the death penalty.
The next morning, the judge spent the day listening to the testimony of several witnesses, including Eulalia Smith and Sheriff Tyler. The last one was Bruntlett himself.
During his testimony, he broke down and began to cry. As tears flowed down his face, Bruntlett told the assembled court room that he was incredibly sorry for what he had done. He explained that he didn’t approve of killing, but “circumstances” had led to the murder.
Burrows tried to make a case that Bruntlett was mentally impaired at the time of the crime. Evidence was presented that showed he had been in a poor mental state for several months, and had allegedly suffered two strokes when he was younger.
He also was able to provide documentation that Bruntlett had served time in mental institutions in Iowa and Minnesota.
Judge Davidson considered everything that he had heard, and then rendered his verdict.
He said that while Bruntlett had been treated in mental institutions in 1933, he had been completely sane and rational when he had killed Smith. Looking over the evidence, Davidson had concluded that Bruntlett must have been planning out the murder since the end of November.
He labeled the death of Percy Smith a “…cold, calculated, premeditated murder.” The only acceptable punishment was death. Corliss Bruntlett was sentenced to hang on February 18, 1949.
Bruntlett was remanded to the custody of the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Department until he could be transferred to the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.
On the way, he showed no remorse for his crime, nor did he shed any tears like he had in the courtroom. On the contrary, he confided in his police escort that he thought his punishment was far too harsh. Bruntlett felt that he should have been charged with manslaughter, not murder.
When 1949 came, his execution date was delayed.
His attorney appealed Judge Davidson’s decision to the Iowa Supreme Court, arguing once again that it was possible his client had been mentally ill during the commission of the murder. The original ruling was upheld.
Next, Burrows, working in conjunction with Father H.V. Bongers, the Catholic chaplain for the Iowa State Penitentiary, filed a petition with William S. Beardsley, the governor of Iowa. As governor, Beardsley could either commute Bruntlett’s sentence, or he could assign a new date for his execution.
On April 28, 1949, Bongers and Burrows appeared at a hearing to personally represent their petition to Governor Beardsley. They argued that Bruntlett was, at the very least, a psychopath hovering between the lines of sanity and insanity. They also suggested that Beardsley conduct another psychiatric evaluation of Bruntlett to support their findings from an independent source.
Beardsley agreed to do that, and sent Dr. Charles Graves, the Iowa state director of mental hospitals, to examine Bruntlett in prison. His findings were the same as two other psychiatrists that had seen him: Bruntlett was completely sane.
After careful review, Beardsley upheld the death sentence, setting the new date for execution as July 6, 1949. By pure coincidence, it was also Bruntlett’s birthday.
At first, he resented the idea. Bruntlett became bitter and angry at the thought of dying on the same day that he was born. He discussed the matter with Father Bongers, using him as a kind of sounding board to vent his frustrations.
Eventually, Bruntlett seemed to make his peace with the idea. He told the priest, “I guess that day is as good as any.”
Alone on death row, Bruntlett’s last days passed rather uneventfully. As the date came closer, Bruntlett became more and more nervous, almost to the point of not being able to function normally. He couldn’t read or concentrate on anything. About the most he was able to do was sit and listen to baseball games on the radio.
Even then, Bruntlett would chain smoke continuously during the broadcast, occasionally showing signs of nervousness or even, on some occasions, letting out yells of frustration.
On the morning of July 5, the day before the execution, Sheriff Jack Tyler came to the prison from Pottawattamie County to read the death warrant to Bruntlett. Contrary to his previous demeanor, he seemed to be in a great mood that morning. He asked Tyler to sit and visit with him for a while.
Later that day, Bruntlett was moved from his cell to the prison inspector’s office.
All the furniture had been removed from the room except for a bed and two chairs. When he got there, he wanted to see the gallows where he would be hung the next day, but the request was denied.
He was given a new brown suit to wear the next day. He was also served his last meal, a chicken dinner followed by cake and ice cream.
After dinner, he talked with his priest, telling Bongers how sorry he was for murdering Percy Smith. In his last moments, Bruntlett offered no excuses or lies about his crimes. He finally seemed to be willing to take responsibility for his actions, blaming his gambling.
Father Bongers remained with Bruntlett through the night, praying with him and helping him to prepare for his end.
At 5:56 a.m., he was walked to the gallows by two deputy wardens at the prison. In contrast to the days leading up to the execution, Bruntlett was calm and composed. Only when he saw the gallows themselves, a wooden structure that had been painted green, did he falter slightly.
Sixty witnesses were present to watch Bruntlett hang. One of those was District Judge Harold Davidson, the man who had condemned him to this fate.
The wardens grabbed Bruntlett’s arms and carefully assisted him up the stairs to the scaffold platform. Once there, the two men began to strap Bruntlett’s legs together. Father Bongers approached, whispering something to him. Bruntlett nodded, then crossed himself and shook hands with the priest.
The wardens then strapped his arms and removed his glasses. Bruntlett’s lips moved in constant prayer until hidden from view by a black hood placed over his head. Finally, the noose was slipped around his neck and adjusted into place.
Nearby, Jack Tyler stood by the lever that would release the trap door and send Bruntlett to his death.
Although it was his legal right to appoint one of his deputies to perform the task, he had chosen to do it himself. He felt that it was part of his duty as a sheriff to do it, and he didn’t think it was right to simply hand it over to someone else because he didn’t want to accept that.
The word was given at 6:01 a.m., and Tyler pulled the lever, opening the trapdoor beneath Bruntlett and sending him to his doom. Fourteen minutes later, two doctors pronounced him dead.
Afterwards, Bruntlett’s body was claimed by his brother, Erwin, who took the remains back to western Iowa for burial.
Haws, Dick. Iowa and the Death Penalty: A Troubled Relationship 1834 – 1965. United States; 2010.
Farmer Held for Questions in Smith Case. Council Bluffs Nonpereil, 12/10/1947
Bruntlett Funds Tied by Injunction. Council Bluffs Nonpereil, 12/12/1947
Claim Bruntlett Not Telling All. Council Bluffs Nonpereil, 12/13/1947
Bruntlett’s Wife Refutes Story Details. Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 12/13/1947
Await Report on Knife in Smith Case. Council Bluffs Nonpereil, 12/14/1947
Bruntlett Confesses Shooting and Burning of Percy Smith; Will Face Murder Charge. Council Bluffs Nonpereil, 12/15/1947
Bruntlett Admits Killing Farmer, Burning Body. Evening World-Herald, 12/15/1947
“Mom and I Gave Up Hope Thursday,” Smith’s Son Says of Slain Father. Evening World-Herald, 12/15/1947
‘Bruntlett Shows No Remorse.’ Evening World-Herald, 12/16/1947
Grand Jury Given Case of Bruntlett. Evening World-Herald, 12/17/1947
FBI Judges Bones Human. Evening World-Herald, 12/18/1947
$9,800 Returned to Smith Family. Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 12/20/1947
Burrows Will Defend Bruntlett. Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 1/28/1948
Bruntlett Makes Plea of Guilty. Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 2/3/1948
Five Testify in Bruntlett Hearing Here. The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 2/4/2948
Bruntlett Sobs He’s Sorry Now. Morning World-Herald, 2/5/1948
Hanging Fate for Bruntlett. Evening World-Herald, 2/6/1948
Death Edict to Be Appealed. Omaha World-Herald, 2/10/1948
Bruntlett Thinks Death Too Severe Penalty for His Act. Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 2/11/1948
Denies Clemency To Bruntlett, Sets Hanging July 6. Des Moines Tribune, 6/6/1949
Bruntlett Due to Be Hanged on Birthday. Des Moines Register, 7/3/1949
Bruntlett Hanged At Fort Madison. Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7/6/1949
Bruntlett Shouts in Death Cell. The Des Moines Register, 7/6/1949
Bruntlett Dies Calmly. Des Moines Tribune, 7/6/1949
State Historical Society of Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa; Iowa Death Records, 1888-1904
ear: 1940; Census Place: Hardin, Pottawattamie, Iowa; Roll: m-t0627-01198; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 78-11
Eulalia M “Dolly” Capel Smith. Findagrave.com
Percy J. Smith. Findagrave.com