Remembering Joseph Williams

His 1900 murder galvanized the community

For 95 years, Williams’ headstone went unmarked, the family citing a lack of financial resources as the reason. In February 1995, Williams’ granddaughter, Mary Bannon, bought a headstone for his grave. At the time of his death, members of the community helped pay off his home mortgage and cover burial expenses.

For all intents and purposes, Joseph Williams (1855-1900) lived a typical working-class life at the start of 20th century Marshalltown. When he confronted a group of men whom he thought had harmed two young girls, his advocacy on their behalf cost him his life. Nearly 118 years after his death, the Times-Republican revisits his story, in honor of Black History Month.

The late afternoon of Aug. 27, 1900, had not brought with it any indication of trouble. At least at first. Williams, 49, an African-American man who labored as a self-employed truck gardener and drayman (a person who drives a low, flat-bed wagon pulled by horses or mules), found himself traveling along Eighth Avenue, making his product deliveries. Two young white females ran into the road, followed by a group of what the newspaper accounts described as “drunken hobos.” Williams flagged a fellow drayman, James Clem, who was traveling in the opposite lane, to also stop and offer his assistance. The girls, Rosa Buhrer, 15, and Mary Khile, 12, by that time, had run toward the nearby Marshall Canning Company. Being outnumbered, Williams and Clem left the scene and each proceeded to phone the authorities. Clem went to the canning company, while Williams went home to grab his .38 caliber revolver. He did not survive the scuffle.

As was described in the September 1994 edition of Marshalltimes: “By the spring of 1900, Marshalltown’s Hobo Jungles had proliferated from the favorite encampments along Linn Creek east of Third Avenue to points further east. And as tramps, yeggs and bums were routed from the original jungles, they sought shade in small groves of trees near the creek and across the tracks from the Canning Company.”

According to the Aug. 28, 1900 edition of the Evening Times-Republican, “Joseph Williams, a highly respected colored man of this city, has reversed the usual order of things, and has sacrificed his life in what he considered an effort to protect the persons and the honor of two white girls who were in the clutches of a gang of drunken tramps in the southeastern part of the city. Williams, after rescuing the girls, was foully murdered within a few blocks of his own home, while making an effort to notify the police and secure the arrest of the tramps — was shot to death with his own revolver … The man doing the shooting was slightly in the lead of the others. Two more shots were sent after the fleeing negro, but they missed him, and by that time the man with the gun had reached a point within six or eight feet of the colored man. He stopped for a moment, raised the smoking weapon again, and Williams, having tripped and fallen, begged him not to shoot again. The tramp did not heed his pleadings, however, and with truer aim this time, set another ball from the .38-caliber revolver, striking the colored man directly over the right kidney.”

He died minutes after being shot.

Several passersby and employees of nearby businesses witnessed the crime. A.T. Birchard, manager of the canning company, phoned Sheriff Shoemaker, who arrived on the scene along with his son, Special Deputy Will Shoemaker. The sheriff offered a $25 reward for the shooter’s capture, while Mayor Frank G. Pierce offered a $100 reward. As night fell over the city, more law enforcement agents (and members of the public) got involved in the search efforts for the shooter.

“Every tramp and suspicious stranger found within and without the city was rounded up during the early part of the evening, a total of 35 arrests being made by the sheriff’s officers, the police and constables and by the citizens who had taken part in the search. As fast as the arrests were made, the men were herded into the Third Avenue station and about midnight were placed in the county jail,” the T-R chronicled.

Just days after her spouse’s death, concerned townspeople rallied to aid his nine-month pregnant wife Margaret and their six children, who found themselves in financial straits. Mr. C.T. LaPlant took up a collection to secure the deed to the family’s homestead situated on a half-acre tract of land on Ketchum Street (today Turner Street). The Colored Odd Fellows fraternal order covered the funeral expenses. He was buried in an unmarked grave, in a single plot, at Riverside Cemetery.

“Being left a widow with children in those days, when the man was usually the only breadwinner in the home, had to be a pretty precarious situation,” said Dorie Tammen, who serves as general manager of Riverside Cemetery. “It may have meant that some of the children had to work from an early age to help support the household. So I love the fact that the community of Marshalltown raised the money to pay off the mortgage on the Williams’ home.”

It was the sheriff’s son who ended up arresting the primary suspect in the case — John Gray — who was hiding out at the Bartley saloon on South Third Avenue.

Buhrer and Khile positively identified Gray as “the man in black” they had seen attack Williams, while other eyewitnesses were not as certain, and suggested some culpability also belonged to a second man who was described as “sitting on a beer keg when the trouble commenced.”

The T-R described the second assailant, Pat Dunn, thusly, “He is a typical hobo, not very intelligent, and not as vicious as Gray.”

Dunn was arrested while attempting to board a Great Western freight train. Two days later, the coroner’s formal inquest began. The jury decided there was enough evidence to hold both Gray and Dunn for the crime, as witnesses said both men had been armed, but Dunn had done the shooting. Eight of the eyewitnesses viewed the men in a lineup. Six named Gray as the shooter, while the other two cited Dunn. The county attorney filed first degree murder charges against both men. As the T-R reported, the trial was initially delayed until the fall “after several jurors who had expressed hostility toward both hobos and black people were excused.”

That November, both Gray and Dunn were convicted of manslaughter, and received the maximum sentence of eight years of hard labor at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.

According to that initial T-R article, the girls, along with another eyewitness, Miss Streeter, offered a different perspective of the events.

“Misses Buhrer and Khile says that two colored girls who are larger than they are who are employed at the cannery had been abusing them, and that one, after they left the factory, slapped Rosa Buhrer in the face. For this act the tramps, including Gray, interfered in behalf of the white girls, and before Williams and Clem arrived the colored girls had disappeared from the scene. The interference of the tramps in the smaller girls’ behalf is the only extenuating circumstance on their part in the whole affair. Williams, however, from his dying statement made to several, including Miss Streeter, was under the impression that the tramps had insulted the white girls. Miss Streeter says when Williams went past her on his way to the cannery office he exclaimed: ‘They have done it! They have done it!’ adding that they had insulted the white girls and that he resented it. Whether they did so or not the girls do not say, but owing to their youth they may not have understood the proposals of the tramps.”

Life continued on for Williams’ widow and family. She gave birth to their seventh child, a son, David, just three days after his death. David went on to serve in World War I.

“According to family members, Mrs. Williams continued to feed hobos even after her husband’s murder by hobos. What a kind and forgiving human being she must have been,” Tammen said.

For 95 years, Williams’ headstone went unmarked, the family citing a lack of financial resources as the reason. In February 1995, Williams’ granddaughter, Mary Bannon, bought a headstone for his grave. It reads:

Joseph C. Williams


Marshalltown Hero

Gave His Life For Others


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or