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Twelve-year-old Alta Marie Braun of Le Mars, Iowa, was raped and strangled sometime Monday evening, August 20, 1917, after going to the Yankee Robinson circus.
The following articles from the Le Mars Sentinel were posted on the Plymouth County Iowa GenWeb Project website by Braun family descendant, Glenna Rice, who notified ‘Iowa Cold Cases’ about the unsolved murder.
Alta Braun, the twelve year old daughter of Chris Braun, residing on Fremont street, was foully outraged and murdered sometime on Monday night. That the murder had been committed was not discovered until nearly eleven o’clock on Tuesday morning when her dead body was found in an alley near the Illinois Central railroad tracks between Cedar and Howard streets.
The gruesome find was made by Mrs. Herman Becker, after Mrs. Porsch, a neighbor, had told her that there was a dummy figure lying in the alley. Mrs. Becker went out into the alley and was horrified on seeing a corpse. She immediately notified the police and sheriff and Coroner Barnett, of Merrill, was quickly summoned.
From appearances the girl had been strangled to death. A black underskirt had been torn from her waist and wrapped in a roll around her throat with a tight knot under the chin. The body was prone on its back with the head towards the north, the arms and legs extended. There were bruises on her arms and side. Her corset had been torn open. Her limbs were covered with dust and marks on the ground in the alley showed where she had struggled with her assailant or assailants. Marks on her throat indicated where she had been seized in order to silence any outcry for help.
The body was removed to the Beely undertaking parlors and an inquest held on Tuesday afternoon. W.G. Munro, Lee Maynard and W.M. Barr were impaneled as a jury. The evidence given before the jury was by Dr. J.M. Fettes and the father of the child.
Chris Braun, the father of the girl, stated she had left home at 7:30 o’clock that night to go to the home of her grandparents, living in the west end of town, on High street, and from there proposed to go to the merry-go-round which was operating on Main and Seventh street in connection with the Robinson show.
Her father testified he had given her a dime to get two rides on the merry-go-round and then come home. In the afternoon her mother gave her a quarter, with which she bought some white stockings, which she was wearing when she was killed. She had a nickel tied in her handkerchief when the body was found. Braun said he arrived home himself at a little before 11 and went to bed, supposing the child was at home, as he said she had never failed to return at the hour she promised. In the morning he called her to get breakfast, as her stepmother is an invalid. Receiving no response, he went to her room and found the bed had not been occupied. He then telephoned to the homes of his father and his father-in-law and to the houses of some of her girl friends, and not learning her whereabouts, informed the police.
Dr. Fettes described the condition of the body. The face was swollen and of a blueish color and there were black and blue marks on her throat and arms. He also described the torn condition of her clothes and stockings. The jury asked as to whether the child had been outraged and the doctor said a fuller examination would determine that fact. Later Dr. Fettes and Dr. Larson made a thorough examination and established the fact that the victim had been ravished.
The coroner’s jury returned a verdict that the deceased had come to her death by strangulation at the hands of some person or persons unknown. The Yankee Robinson circus was in town on Monday and the sheriff and the police are working on the theory that the crime was committed by one of the employees or one of the tough characters usually in the wake of a circus.
Alta Braun was last seen alive between half past nine and ten o’clock on Monday night. She had been to the merry-go-round which was operating at the corner of Seventh and Main streets. It is learned from the police that she went to the Vienna bakery and purchased a five cent sack of candy and walked in the direction of her home with Mrs. T. Adney, who lives on Cedar street between Fifth and Fourth streets. The body of the child was found just two blocks from where she had parted with Mrs. Adney. The supposition is that she was waylaid on the track and dragged into the alley which is dark at that point. The streets to the north and south of the Cedar street crossing are well lighted.
It is stated that S.B. Tingley, who lives near the track on that street, was awakened by a noise. He and his wife had retired. They thought it was someone running past the window. They heard no outcry. Spilled candy was found near the spot, leading to the inference that the girl tried to run away and escape her pursuer.
The railroad crossing at the end of Cedar street is a lonely unfrequented spot. It is directly on the way to where the girl lived several blocks south at the corner of Tremont street.
Sheriff Maxwell made a trip to Cherokee on Tuesday following the Yankee Robinson show to that place and to Correctionville the following day but no developments have resulted so far.
A local man reported on Tuesday evening to Mayor McLain, that he had heard a negro at the merry-go-round make an obscene remark to a companion that he would “get” that girl before he left town but it is a question whether his remark applied to the victim. Mayor McLain furnished the man with funds to go to Cherokee, it being a few minutes before the time for the evening flyer to leave and told him to hunt up Sheriff Maxwell, who had gone to Cherokee earlier in the day and identify the negro.
The man, who had furnished the information, is stated to have said that he located the negro who made the remark and asked the Cherokee marshal to arrest him but that the officer refused to hold him unless Sheriff Maxwell made the request. The local man failed to find Sheriff Maxwell in Cherokee. The two went to Correctionville on Wednesday but the negro in question was not to be found.
The local authorities are pushing the case vigorously and outside assistance will be secured in tracing the crime. Public indignation runs high over the crime which has been the topic of conversation since the discovery of the body of the murdered girl. The city council met last evening to formulate plans for the raising of money with which to offer a reward for the apprehension of the murderer and it is thought the county will also offer a reward. Many citizens have expressed a wish to contribute towards a fund for a reward. In preparing the body for burial the undertaker found a man’s stickpin in the girl’s clothing where it had evidently fallen. It may furnish a clue.
The funeral of the girl was held yesterday afternoon at the home on Tremont street conducted by Rev. J.E. Benz, of the German Methodist church and was attended by a large number of people. Many floral wreaths and flowers were sent by sympathizers of those bereaved by the tragedy. The body was taken to Akron to be laid beside that of her mother.
Alta Braun made her home with her father, Chris Braun, and her stepmother, who is an invalid. She also leaves a little stepsister three years old. Alta Marie Braun was twelve years old on January 18 last, and was born in Colorado Springs, Col. From there the family moved to Akron where they lived for some years and moved to LeMars about a year ago. Mr. Braun is employed with the Hamm Petry Implement company.
Alta Braun was attending school here and was a member of the German Methodist Sunday school. She was well thought of by her school companions and a number of girls with whom she associated.
Investigations pursued by the sheriff and police force in the murder case in which twelve year old Alta Braun was strangled to death on the night of August 20, and whose dead body was found in an alley the following morning, have not so far produced any results.
Sheriff Maxwell, following the theory that the crime was the deed of a negro roustabout connected with the Yankee Robinson circus which was in town the night of the murder, after going to Cherokee on Tuesday, and rounding up a number of circus employees, went to Correctionville on Wednesday trailing the outfit.
On Thursday notification was received by the authorities here from the sheriff of Carroll county that he had arrested a negro at that place and was holding him for investigation.
Deputy Sheriff Jas. Sickler went to Carroll on Friday and took charge of the prisoner, taking him to Sioux City where he is held in the Woodbury county jail.
The negro on examination, said that his name is Edward Nelson, and readily admitted he had been employed with the Yankee Robinson circus, but had left the show and said he did not know the name of the town where he was when he quit the job. He protested his innocence of the crime. Nelson was found washing his clothes at the river near Carroll and was arrested by a Northwestern railroad detective. It was stated the man was washing blood off his overalls but this statement was later denied by the authorities and the man’s statement that he was washing off vermin from his clothing believed.
Sheriff Maxwell went to Sioux City again on Saturday and the suspect Nelson was put to a further examination. He told Sheriff Maxwell that another negro whose name Nelson said he did not know, had left the show at Cherokee. Nelson said this negro had a hand badly scratched and swollen.
E. Pearson, the LeMars man, who is credited with the statement that he overheard a negro remark on the night of the murder, “that he would get that girl,” failed to identify Nelson as the negro who made the remark.
Nelson is still being held in the Woodbury county jail, owing to his connection with the circus, and with the idea that he may tell something about other negro employees.
Contrary to the statements made in the Sioux City papers, Nelson was never brought to LeMars nor were there any mobs ready to lynch him as stated in those sheets. He was simply taken from Carroll to Sioux City for examination, no threats of lynching have been made. A desire has been frequently expressed that the murderer be caught and suffer the extreme penalty of the law.
The local authorities are working on other clues on the theory which it is stated is supported by Chris Braun, the father of the victim, that the [crime] was committed by someone in LeMars familiar with the habits of the girl and acquainted with the location of the ground where the dastardly outrage was perpetrated.
Half a dozen theories and numberless purported clues have been furnished the county attorney by well meaning volunteers.
The people of LeMars are looking to have the murderer brought to justice but are in no wise criticizing the movements of the authorities, who have charge of the case.
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No tangible clue has yet been found leading to the arrest of the murderer of thirteen year old Alta Braun, whose dead body was found in an alley in this city on the morning of August 21. The board of supervisors and the city council have offered $500 each to assist in the work of ferreting out the slayer. The authorities are working on clues but have nothing further to give out at present.
Learning that a negro, Charles Smith, had been arrested for a heinous crime similar in circumstances to that which ended the life of Alta Braun, Sheriff Maxwell was in Omaha on Tuesday, where the suspect is in jail. The sheriff and authorities at Omaha questioned the man and he admitted that he was in LeMars with the Yankee Robinson show on the day that Alta Braun was killed. He said he was working as a cook and quit the show a few days later because he couldn’t get any pay. The negro was not sure of the name of the place where he left the show and was not sure of the name, LeMars, but remembered the show was in a town on Sunday where a carnival had closed the previous evening.
E.G. Pearson, who heard a negro make a remark about “getting” some girl the night of the murder, saw Smith and said he was not the same negro. The negro who made the remark attributed by Pearson, is said by the authorities to have left the show at Creston and there trace of him is lost. The authorities in Omaha think that Smith is guilty of the LeMars crime as well as a similar crime near Florence, Neb.
Smith is held on charge of outraging and murdering Mrs. C.L. Nethaway, the wife of a farmer near Florence, on Sunday afternoon. The negro protests his innocence although he was captured shortly afterwards in the neighborhood where the crime was committed and had it is said, blood on his hat brim and shirt sleeves.
The weapon with which Mrs. Nethaway’s throat was cut, is a large deer bunting knife, stolen from the residence of Frank Milgate, whose house in the suburbs of Omaha was robbed on Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Fred Bascomb, living near the Milgate residence, has identified Smith as a negro who threatened her life on Saturday morning if she would not give him something to eat.
A woman named Mrs. Christine Anderson, aged 74, living in the same vicinity, was hacked to death with a knife on Saturday night.
Smith is being held pending investigation and microscopic examination of the blood on his clothing.
Ed Nelson, a negro, arrested at Carroll about ten days ago, in connection with the murder of little Alta Braun, 13 years old, in this city, was released from custody yesterday. Nelson was arrested the Saturday following the murder and taken to Woodbury county jail in Sioux City for safe keeping. The authorities have found nothing to incriminate him in the case. Nelson has been working for the Yankee Robinson Circus company and left the show at Correctionville two days after the circus was in LeMars and had wandered down to Carroll where he was arrested by a detective employed by the Chicago and Northwestern railroad.
No evidence has so far been unearthed to shed light on the murder. The authorities here and detectives are working on the case.
Alta Marie Braun was born Jan. 18, 1905, in Colorado Springs, Colo., to German immigrant Chris Braun and Lena (Davis) Braun. The couple formerly resided in Plymouth County, Iowa, and returned to live in Akron, Iowa, shortly before Mrs. Braun died in 1908.
Alta was just three years old when her mother died, but soon gained a half-sister when her father married Martha Bohlken — one of 12 siblings — Dec. 7, 1910, and the couple had a daughter, Verna Margaret, in 1914.
Martha was stricken with paralysis in March 1916, and Alta Marie took on additional responsibilities, including caring for her little sister.
On Aug. 20, 1917, Alta went to the Yankee Robinson circus, where she was raped and strangled sometime that Monday evening.
Memorial services were held in the Braun home Aug. 24, 1917. According to a Sioux City Journal article published Aug. 24, 1917, the girl was then taken to Akron to be interred beside her mother at the Riverside Cemetery.
Though Martha’s health had shown some improvement that summer, her stepdaughter’s tragic death took its toll. Martha began failing so rapidly she was moved to the home of her father, Siefke Bohlken, where relatives could better care for her.
On Dec. 23, 1917, just four months after Alta’s brutal murder, Martha died at her father’s home.
On Alta’s findagrave.com page, family genealogist Glenna Rice — who manages most of the Braun family pages there — said she still has many questions regarding the death of Alta’s mother and where she died and was buried. Rice said several family mysteries remain unsolved.