Fort Madison's Grand Old Pen

Monday, September 10, 2012

I offered my opponents a deal: "if they stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them". (Adlai Stevenson, campaign speech, 1952)


Betty Winterringer of the Northwest Iowa Genealogy Society reports that from 1883 through 1893 the Le Mars Sentinel reported on 15 murders and 12 suicides.

The earliest Plymouth County murder story I have run across was in 1872 when, "Richard Connolly, of Hancock Township, was killed by Frenchman Benoist, who was given one year in prison."

In 1891 Hayden McFarland crushed Anton Wanner's skull with a kingbolt, which connects the front axle of a wagon to the body. Ouch! Wanner (or Warner) was a Struble saloon keeper. McFarland was sentenced to 20 years in our state penitentiary, already 52 years old. It still houses our most violent criminals.

I believe that it would be money well spent to transport every eighth grader to a maximum security prison for a tour. Walking through a cell block of cursing, screaming felons might make kids think twice before they do wrong. I have spent time there -- observing, learning and inspecting! I've eaten meals with the general population in other prisons, but not at Ft Madison. There, for safety purposes it was in the warden's office.

A new 800-bed facility which will cost $130 million is under construction not far from that 174 year old facility. This new prison is on pace to be completed next January. More than 275 convicted killers will be moved from the current facility into the new prison, with more arriving to relieve overcrowding in other state prisons.

The new prison will be one of the most modern and secure in the United States. Iowa's pen is one of the oldest in the country. Older than Attica, in N.Y., Folsom (CA), Leavenworth, (KS), and San Quentin (CA). The famous Sing Sing, Ossining, N.Y., facility is only 14 years older.


Reporting the death of Arza Parker of Stanton Township in the late fall of 1885, the story in the Le Mars Sentinel, began; "A DASTARDLY MURDER." Putting out a newspaper in those days was very labor intensive, but newsprint must have been cheap! Lurid stories received a lot of space by both the Sentinel and Globe-Post in those early days. The Globe Post's Rome Starzl would later corner the local market on sensationalism.

Wife Harriet roused husband Arza from his sleep to investigate a worrisome noise from the barn, where he would meet his maker. At the request of the County, the Pinkerton's detective force was called in to investigate the Parker death.

The Sentinel continued, "An inquisition holden (sic) at Le Mars in Plymouth County, found that Parker came to his death by being pounded over the head with a pitchfork handle and also being stabbed in the head by the prongs of the pitchfork until dead, said fork was used in hands of a party unknown to the jury. The jury feel (sic) satisfied after hearing all the evidence in the case that Harriett Parker, wife of the said Arza Parker and Alice Parker, daughter of said Arza Parker are implicated in the murder of the said Arza Parker and would also advise the arrest of the said Harriett and Alice Parker as soon as the coroner sees fit." The coroner's verdict -- Murder.

"Alice is about fifteen years of age, of spare build, and not bad looking, and her appearance impresses on rather favorably, a Sentinel article reported." Of Harriet, the wife --"She is quite an elderly English woman of large frame, jet black hair, dark complexion, and rather course (sic) features." She was convicted.


Comedians have been relatively gentle toward President Obama but the knives are being sharpened. Q: If Nancy Pelosi and Obama were on a boat in the middle of the ocean and it started to sink, who would be saved? A: America! (comedian-Jimmy Fallon)


In future columns I will re-hash other Plymouth County murders, including a case unsolved to this day, that of Alta Marie Braun, age 12. She was viciously raped and murdered walking home from a circus.


Why is "abbreviated" such a long word?

Don Paulin,, 7557 30th Av, Norwalk, IA 50211 - 515-201-7236