The Depression Dilemmas of Rural Iowa, 1929-1933

By Lisa L. Ossian | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
VIOLENCE
Gangsters, Bandits, Mad Men, and Suicides
Fear, Anger, and Death within a Troubled Landscape

“Where life, death, and imprisonment are
involved in so many lives, it is not safe to delve
too deeply. The truth will never be known except
by those who played the cards and their lips have
been sealed by fear and death.”

—an Iowa journalist in 1944 regarding the previous decade

With his rifle slung over his shoulder, John Kingrey, a 25-year-old several payments behind on his Model T, started to slowly walk one summer evening across the field from his father’s barn to the Keefer sisters’ farmhouse. Three mornings later on Saturday, June 20, 1932, local authorities discovered in the cellar the completely burned bodies of the two elderly sisters along with their missing stash of money. Detectives could only secure several fingerprints and collect four empty.22-caliber shells from the middle of the kitchen. What followed this “lonely tragedy in Marion County” would later be considered, however, the first “CSI” investigation and conviction in the nation based solely on ballistic evidence.1

Letitia Keefer, 70, and her younger sister, Jennie, 65, had lived and farmed together on their family homestead two miles northeast of Knoxville, Iowa, for over fifty years. The two sisters had hurried to finish their milking that summer evening, officials theorized, because a terrible thunderstorm threatened, and Kingrey therefore miscalculated his time alone in their house before the sisters finished the evening chores. When the siblings returned home early and discovered their thief, whom they certainly recognized as their young neighbor, Kingrey’s perfect plan was exposed.

Law enforcement speculated that Kingrey then shot both elderly sisters with his rifle, carried their bodies to the center of the kitchen, and doused

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