Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.
Visit her website at: www.cherylmullenbachink.com
“I want you to fetch me 385.00 dollars and I want it by 3 o’clock. If you tell anyone about the money I will get even with you.”
The words were written on cheap tablet paper and placed in a plain commercial size envelope. George Naeve, vice president of Crawford County State Bank in Denison, received the letter through the mail on June 25, 1913. He was instructed to get a rig, drive to a location in the country, and place the money in a package at the foot of a large tree “immediately across the Boyer River” south of the brickyard where a sign for Lamborn Drug company hung. The letter had been mailed at the Denison post office.
There were several theories floating around the community. Some thought the letters were sent by someone who owed money to the bank where George worked. Some believed the letter writer was a “youngster having a little innocent fun.”
George was a highly respected man in the community, and he was frightened by the letter. He immediately took it to Sheriff J.H. Cummings. The sheriff advised George to follow the instructions but to place an empty package at the location. He promised George that he and a posse would be nearby.
George did as instructed and returned to town after dropping the bogus package at the tree. Sheriff Cummings and his posse hid in high brushes and weeds, but no one ever came to claim the package. They stayed until late into the evening. Still no sign of anyone.
On June 28 George received a second letter. “Well I have been waiting for that money and it hasn’t come yet. Now I aint going to wait any more. I want you to fetch me 385.00 dollars and I want it by 3 o’clock. I want it across the bridge, the first tree with Lamborns sine on. Put it there and don’t stay long and if you tell anyone about the money I will get even with you. Now git a move on it and git that money out there.”
Now George was really scared, and so was his wife. The couple asked the sheriff’s department to provide an officer at their family home. For two nights an officer stayed with the Naeves, but no one bothered them.
In the meantime a postal inspector was summoned from Des Moines. C.E. Caine arrived and after interviewing several people, he revealed to the local newspaper he had three suspects.
The citizens of Denison were shocked when a well-known farmer named Andrew Bowling was arrested. Everyone thought of him as a good-natured fellow who had once served for a short time as city marshal.
Inspector Caine based his arrest on the fact that Andrew’s handwriting matched the writing in the letters. In the letters the word sign was spelled “sine.” When Andrew submitted his writing sample to the authorities he spelled sign “sine.”
Andrew told the sheriff that he had taken his family to town on the day in question, and they had seen a tramp sitting on the railing of the bridge. The tramp was writing on a piece of paper he said. When the Bowlings offered him a ride, the tramp “curtly refused” according to Andrew.
Andrew was taken to Council Bluffs where he posted $500 bond and returned home. He told the newspaper that he was shocked when the U.S. marshals showed up and arrested him in a cornfield at his farm. Flashing his renowned good-natured personality, he joked about the situation, saying if he was going to ask George for money, he would ask for a much larger sum than $385.
Even more baffling was the fact that while Andrew was in Council Bluffs for his hearing, George received a third threatening letter. It was identical to the second. The handwriting was similar in all three.
After two years of scheduled and delayed hearings, Andrew finally got his day in court. He was charged with mailing threatening letters and if found guilty faced time in the pen. But on September 29, 1915, after several weeks’ duration the jury reported it was deadlocked and could not reach a verdict. Seven jurors voted for conviction; four wanted acquittal. The judge dismissed the jury.