Friday, August 17, 2018

A Trifling Quarrel Ends in Murder

The April 12, 1881 Iowa death registration for my third great-grandfather, John Flynn, was recently digitized. To my great delight, the record identified his birth county in Ireland: Clare. 

But just as I was about to book my travel to the Emerald Isle, I glanced at the cause of death and stopped cold. Was I looking at a victim of a potentially sinister attack?

John Flynn was killed by a "Wound upon the head, inflicted with a cinder or clinker when drunk."

Was John Flynn murdered

Stop the Presses!

A member of the Iowa Genealogy Network on Facebook turned up an important clue - a clipping from the Cedar Rapids Times dated June 16, 1881.

I soon discovered another snippet published two days later in the Ackley Enterprise. 

Murder Most Foul

I was shocked. I had no idea that I had a direct ancestor who was murdered. What were the circumstances of the quarrel between Flynn and Maddigan? Neither paper divulged the details of their "trifling affair."

I knew Maddigan was sentenced to ten years in "the penitentiary." But which penitentiary, and did he serve all of that time?

Ancestry has a collection titled, "Iowa, Consecutive Registers of Convicts, 1867-1970." It includes the "convict registers from three Iowa state penitentiaries: the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison, established in 1839; the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa; and the Iowa State Reformatory for Women in Rockwell City."

I found no Michael Maddigan (or Moddigan) among the records. Did he serve his time elsewhere? Where are those convict registers kept and are they available for review?

Next up was FamilySearch, which has a collection titled, "Iowa Deaths and Burials, 1850-1890." In these records, I found a transcription of the death registration for a Michael Maddigan who died in Des Moines on November 8, 1882 - about 17 months after the newspapers reported he was sentenced to penitentiary.

Unfortunately, an image of the original death record is only viewable in a family history library. I need to get a copy of this death register to see if there are more clues that would help determine whether this Michael Maddigan was the same as the man who was imprisoned for murdering John Flynn.

Shattered Families

Among Iowa's probate files, I found a package for the settlement of the estate belonging to the Michael Maddigan who died on November 8, 1882.

His widow, Nancy, struggled to make ends meet for years as the probate process dragged on. A guardianship petition named the four young children left without their father: Mary, Patsey, John, and Margaret. What became of them?

Michael Maddigan Iowa Probate Package

Of course, the devastation to my own Flynn family was equally severe. John's wife, Margret (Fahey) Flynn, had already pre-deceased him, leaving him the sole parent to provide for their children. With John's death, Lawrence, Carrie, Julia, Margaret, Anna, Ida, and John Flynn Jr. (my second great-grandfather) were all orphaned.

My branch of the Flynn family was severed and forgotten with the adoption of John Flynn Jr. by an O'Connor family, who changed his surname.

Imagine how these children must have suffered because of the violent quarrel. Again, I found myself wondering what was at the heart of the dispute between John Flynn Sr. and Michael Maddigan.

Finding His Day In Court

The 1881 court records from the trial could shed some light on the attack. But where were they located?

Earlier this week, I spoke with a staff member at the Iowa State Historical Society who told me that the records would be with the Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines.

I spoke with the Clerk's office at the Polk County Courthouse. They agreed to look into my query. After a precursory search of the records, I received a call today letting me know that nothing was found.

Really? Nothing at all?

Given how my genealogy has been so well-served by Iowa's robust records, count me skeptical. Let me loose in those courthouse archives, and we'll see who comes back with nothing!

Are you a family historian well-versed in Iowa research and collections? I welcome any recommendations on next steps for locating the surviving court records that will help me find John Flynn's day in court.


  1. How awful! What records would you be looking for? There may never have been a trial---he might have plead guilty and received a lighter sentence (ten years seems light for killing someone). There should in theory be a record of the sentence, but that won't tell you more than you already know. I wonder how far back police files are kept. There might be a police report that gave more details.

    Good luck!

    1. Ultimately, I'd like to know more about the argument that escalated to murder. It seems to me that the best place to get that information is court trial records, or maybe sentencing information. You make a good point that there may have been no trial if Maddigan plead guilty.

      I heard from the Iowa Historical Society today that they have several newspapers on microfilm for Des Moines covering April 1881: the "Iowa State Leader," "Iowa State Register," and "Plain Talk." If no court records survive with the sordid details I'm after, then I bet these papers might.

      Ancestry's collection of registers of Iowa convicts is a great database, which includes - from the records I saw - information on the crime, sentence, bio data on the prisoner, and when the prisoner was released. If I could confirm which penitentiary Maddigan was sent to, then I could try and locate the register book that includes him. And potentially learn more about his ultimate fate (did he die in prison in November 1882?).

      Also good point on the police files. I'll have to ask about whether these exist still.

  2. I hope the newspapers have some coverage---good luck! Keep us posted.

  3. Mike, contact me. I'll go to Family History Library and see if I can find death certificate for you

    1. You don't have to tell me twice! Sending you an email now. Thank you :)

  4. I had a very similar shock when I realized that the 3rd husband of my 3rd great grandmother, found in the 1880 mortality schedule. It was barely legible but clearly the cause of death,unnoticed before, said murder! I'd never found a newspaper account of anything like this before but surely..after finding a snippet here, a snippet there, I put key terms into google books and hit pay dirt! The case was sent to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which is printed. There was an entire chapter devoted to this case.It seemed like with every clue I found, several more appeared out of nowhere! All this after I first went to the courthouse, where I was told, "All that stuff is down in the's smelly, wet and full of varmints..Nobody goes down there..."

    1. Wow! What a discovery. You give me hope, Rochelle. Little by little, each new clue sheds light on other sources of information that paint a complete picture. I’m sure the full story is out there, waiting for me.