Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Murder in the Family

I have known for most of my life that my great-great-grandfather’s death was an unsolved murder, and since adulthood have heard it said among the family that his son probably did it. Naturally, such rumors are calculated to intrigue. I have long entertained a certain morbid curiosity on the subject, but found little information on my own. The information I did have consisted in his name: John Stephen CRAIG; his estimated birth information: Apr 1859 in Scotland; his family unit: wife Martha Mulvena RUBENALL (whom he married on 26 May 1886 in Denison, Crawford, Iowa), sons Matthew, Harry, and Dewey, and daughter Mary Josephine; and the following death information: died 21 Feb 1917 on 16th St in Omaha, Nebraska, and buried 26 Feb 1917 in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery of the same city. Now, as for names and dates that appears fairly complete. However, I knew there was a story for this man, and one that might prove quite interesting.

Finally I gave in and sent away to the Omaha Public Library for some research on my behalf. Although the internet has been a godsend to genealogists, there are still some things that must be done offline, and this, it seemed, was one of them.

Yesterday I received the lovely, creased envelope bearing my address in my own handwriting. This was it! I was finally going to read about my ancestor’s murder in the words of the local reporter. I slit open the envelope and pulled out four sheets of paper. The first was a cover letter; the other three were articles from the Omaha World Herald in 1917.

It is an odd sensation to find oneself delighted while reading about the violent death of one’s own great-great-grandfather, but delighted I was. At last I was reading first-hand information, not family rumors that might have been exaggerated through the years. For the first time I learned which son was suspected of his death. I learned that he died near 10th St, not on 16th St. Perhaps most remarkable, because it was the first time I heard of it, I learned that his wife had left him and possibly remarried.

But let’s back up just a bit, and I’ll share the articles themselves with you.

The first appeared on the front page of the Evening World-Herald on the day following his death.
Craig is Found Dead; How Killed Mystery.
Murder or Accidentally Killed by Train, Ask Police; Investigating.
Body Found Frozen Beside Little Used Track; Well Known Expressman.
Mystery surrounds the death of John Craig, aged 62, an express driver, whose body was found early this morning within a short distance of his home at Tenth and Paul streets, with mortal wounds about the head.
“I’ll die by violence some day,” was the fatalistic remark of Craig a short time ago, and his prediction was fulfilled. He had lived in Omaha nearly forty years, and for a long time past, had led the life of a hermit in a one-room wing of the 3-room shack he called hime [sic]. There are rumors that he had considerable money. He had an express stand at Fifteenth and Harney streets, and ran a little store at Eleventh and Paul streets.
For about two years he had been separated from his wife, who is now said to be remarried and living in California. Two sons, Matt and Harry, live in Omaha, as well as a married daughter, Mrs. Henry Stroesser. Matt and the daughter say they have not seen their father for some time past, and have had nothing to do with him on account of family troubles. Harry, the second son, could not be found.
Neighbors say that Craig came home as usual about 5:30 last evening, and put away his horse. He was not seen again until his body was discovered by Ole Jackson, colored, living at 2528 Patrick avenue, and Lewis Lesslow, Tenth and Seward streets. The body lay beside a commercial spur track leading from the Union Pacific yards across Eleventh street to the rear of the T. G. Northwall company building.
Half a dozen large boards which Craig had evidently been carrying when he was killed lay beside the body.
Murder or accidental death are the two theories on which the police are working. The fact that the dead man’s clothes were not disturbed, and that about $7, his watch and some personaly [sic] papers were not taken from the pockets, would indicate that he was not killed by robbers, say the police.
The position of the body beside the railroad tracks leave it possible, it is added, that the man was struck by a freight car being switched in or drawn from the spur track during the night. The body was frozen stiff when found.
The body is at Taggart’s undertaking rooms. An inquest is considered likely.

It certainly creates an image to read that John CRAIG “had led the life of a hermit in a one-room wing of the 3-room shack he called hime [sic],” that “for about two years he had been separated from his wife,” and that his children “have had nothing to do with him on account of family troubles.” And when he is quoted as predicting “I’ll die by violence some day,” I can’t help but wish that the reporter had elaborated, if only to tell how he learned of the prediction. He couldn’t have learned it from John himself!

Also, it is somewhat chilling to read such a dispassionate account of the condition of the body, when the body belongs to one’s relative. I have always found such descriptions much more unsettling than the gaudiest thing that gothic literature could invent, because there seems to be such a disconnect between “the body” and the person it once was. Gothic literature, at least, preserves the horror of the viewer.

The second article appeared the following day, but by now the story has been relegated to the second page of the newspaper.

Son Held as Police Probe Craig’s Death
Official Suspicion Aroused by His Story of Whereabouts Wednesday Night.
Sees All Three Newspapers, but Ignorant of Father’s Death, He Says.
Harry Craig, son of John Craig, 62, recluse, who was found dead with his head mutilated in a field near his hut at Tenth and Paul streets yesterday morning, was arrested by Police Detectives Dunn and Gaughan late yesterday, and is held without bond while the police investigate further his father’s mysterious death.
The police declare that they have nothing tangible to connect the younger Craig with his father’s death, but his story of his whereabouts the night before aroused their suspicions.
Harry Craig told the detectives that he saw three newspapers yesterday, but knew nothing of his father’s death, which was prominent on the first page of all the papers.
He said that he left the Millard hotel, where he washes dishes, at 6:15 Wednesday evening, wandered about town, and returned at 10:30, going to bed. Craig’s roommate told the police that he did not notice Craig until a few minutes before 6 o’clock in the morning. According to the police, young Craig was at a loss to tell exactly where he had “wandered about” earlier in the evening.
The police are now convinced that Craig was murdered. No cars are switched at night on the tracks near which the body was found, so he could not have been killed by a passing train. The blow on his head crushed his skull badly. Money and jewelry on his person were not touched and the padlock on his shack was not broken, so robbery could not have been the motive.
The police learned that Harry Craig had quarreled with his father recently and that they had been seen frequently together. According to the meager information they gathered of the family, Harry Craig blamed his father for trouble between himself and his wife.

So it was Harry who was suspected of his father’s murder. I have very little information on Harry CRAIG: only that he was born in February 1893 in Omaha. I do not even have the name of his wife. These CRAIGs have been difficult to research because it is a rather common surname—and paired with common Christian names—in a densely populated area. The problem is not that I cannot find a record for Harry CRAIG, it is that I find too many records and am unable to differentiate between them.

It seems that the trouble between Harry and his wife must have been serious, since they don’t appear to be living together. The article speaks of Harry’s roommate at his home. The idea of a parent causing trouble between a child and his spouse reminds me of the family rumor regarding John’s wife, Martha. It has been said that she had more than motherly feelings toward her son-in-law, Harry STROESSER. Whether that caused problems in her daughter’s marriage, I don’t know, but I can easily see how it could. These CRAIGs are definitely turning out to be an interesting bunch.

The third, and most enigmatic, story appeared in the morning edition of the newspaper on 24 Feb 1917. It is no more than a blurb way back on page 15, and a confusing one at that:

Deny Story of Arrest.
Denial of the statement that Harry Craig, son of John Craig, the expressman whose body was found along railroad tracks near his home Thursday morning, was arrested at the Millard hotel Thursday evening, was made last night by Harry Stroesser, carpenter employed by the city, and by Matt Craig, son of the dead man and brother of the man in jail. Stroesser is a brother-in-law of the Craig boys.

What does that mean? It says that Harry STROESSER and Matt CRAIG denied the statement of Harry CRAIG’s arrest. But what are they denying about it? They can’t deny that he was arrested; he is identified as “the man in jail.” If he weren’t arrested, how would he end up in jail? Are they denying that the arrest took place at the Millard hotel or that it took place Thursday evening? The most probable assumption would be that they are disputing his identification as a suspect, but if that is the case, the reporter has expressed it dismally.

Although I have long known that it was an unsolved murder, I find it frustrating to end on a mystery. Somehow I expected at least some closure. And I can’t help but wonder if my great-great-uncle got away with murder—and even more, if his brother and my own great-grandfather were accessories after the fact.


“Craig is Found Dead; How Killed Mystery.” Evening World-Herald [Omaha] 22 Feb 1917: 1.

“Son Held as Police Probe Craig’s Death.” Evening World-Herald [Omaha] 23 Feb 1917: 2.

“Deny Story of Arrest.” Morning World-Herald [Omaha] 24 Feb 1917: 15.


  1. Oh wow! This IS a mystery. I wonder if the last article meant that they were denying he was arrested for the murder? (Maybe they were claiming that Harry just happened to get arrested for another crime?)

    This is fascinating stuff! Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could find some of Harry's descendants and hear what they have to say?

    1. Yes, I would love to hear how the story has been related in Harry's branch of the family! I don't even know if he had kids, though, so there's still a lot more research to do. I do know that Matthew had kids, and I think it would be interesting to get the story from his branch of the family as well.

      I was also thinking it would fascinating if I could get my hands on the police records regarding this case, if they still exist. I'll have to look into that.