Cool-headed sheriff prevented mob justice

Apparently it didn’t take much to draw a crowd in 1890s Burlington.

A Jefferson Street dog fight, a sidewalk preacher, or a constable collaring an obstreperous drunk was certain to draw at least a few attentive onlookers.

But on a January night in 1898, Burlington’s fondness for sidewalk theater took a serious turn when the town nearly surrendered itself to mob rule.

That winter fear gripped the town. Doors that have never been locked were now bolted.

Children were closely monitored as they walked city streets and wives hesitated to conduct the simplest of errands once darkness fell.

Burlington’s descent to the dark side began on quiet Dodge Street where neighbors had grown concerned about the lack of activity at the house where the widow Fannie Rathburn and her 12-year-old daughter lived.

When the door was forced a horrendous sight greeted the would-be rescuers. Rathbun and her daughter lay dead on the cellar floor. The daughter had been sexually assaulted and both had been battered with an axe.

The news raced across Burlington and grew more disturbing with each telling. As the days passed, groups of armed men walked neighborhood streets and strangers that could not explain their presence were roughly handled.

Then came the news that Ad Storms had been arrested. Storms was identified as 28 years of age, a farmer in the Green Bay Bottoms and his connection to Mrs. Rathburn was that he supplied her with corn stalks that she fashioned into brooms that were sold about the town.

It was a tentative connection at best but Storms had been seen a few days before the crime delivering broom stalks to the Rathbun house.

And he was known as a frequent customer at some of the more disreputable taverns of the Lower Town.

It wasn’t much, but It was the best lead the police had, so Storms was brought in and then subjected to 23 hours of continued “intensive” questioning. Finally, he caved, and signed the confession he was offered.

The news galvanized the town. It made no difference to most that Storms was mentally challenged and that he had been mistreated by the authorities. He had signed and that was all the town cared about.

The town quickly grew agitated that Storms might escape punishment unless direct action was taken. Sheriff George Smith heard the rumors and he turned to the newspapers to caution the town.

“It has come to my knowledge,” Sheriff Smith wrote, “that an assault would be made upon the jail to mete out punishment to Ad Storms. My sworn duty as Sheriff is to protect prisoners placed under my charge … any attempt at punishment will be met with decisive action.”

It didn’t help. Pressure continued to grow and soon printed notices began to appear about the town.

“Every man in this city is requested to meet at corner of Summer and Dodge tonight,” read the call to action.

The town was stirred by the call to lynch law and on the night of Feb. 8 the mob formed.

The Gazette recorded: “Deputy Sheriffs and police officers mingled with the crowd and talked quietly and earnestly in their efforts to allay the bad feelings and turbulency. But all their efforts were unavailing.”

Charles Gallagher and E.A. Pruden had emerged as leaders of the mob and when they gave the orders to march, hundreds dropped into line.

“By the time the mob reached the railroad crossing, it was a surging mass of more than 2,000 people. The would-be lynchers marched in a column in the middle of the street headed by Gallagher and Pruden, one carrying a stick and the other a coil of rope.”

Years later, members of the mob would remember the torch lights reflecting off the plate glass windows of the downtown and the chants of the mob echoing down the streets.

When the mob reached the jail, they were met by Sheriff Smith who told them that Storms was not there. Then six members of the mob were granted entrance and they thoroughly searched the building to confirm Smith’s statement.

Upon hearing the news, the crowd became enraged, and all that night, bands of men searched the town. Doors were broken open, men stopped and roughly questioned, but Storms was gone.

The Sheriff, when he heard the mob had begun its march, had his prisoner transported by wagon to Wapello. There he was eventually tried and sentenced to life in prison.

At his trial, Storms admitted signing the confession but said he didn’t know what it was and the police had told him that if he signed he would be allowed to return to his home.

A few months later, in an unexplained move, Iowa’s governor came to the Fort Madison prison to meet with Storms and his attorney.

A few days passed, and there suddenly came a pardon based on Storms agreeing to leave Iowa and never return.

There were many in the community who believed Storms to be innocent, and a quarter of a century later, rumors were rife in the city that a former Burlington man had confessed to the crime while on his deathbed in California.

The details of the crime will remain uncertain, but later the town would count itself lucky that it had missed its encounter with lynch law.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Around Burlington: Sheriff’s plan saves suspect from mob

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