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Patrolman Fred P. Widmann was shot and killed by burglars on Wednesday, October 11, 1908, while walking his beat. Widmann was the first Waterloo officer to die in the line of duty.
Widman was 30 years old and had served with the Waterloo Police Department for two years. No suspect was ever apprehended and his murder remains unsolved.
Widmann’s niece, Eunice Wilson, pieced together an account about her uncle’s murder from Waterloo Courier archives and her private collection, which she has made available on the Iowa GenWeb Project website under Black Hawk County’s history. Also included is a 2002 article written by Courier reporter Jeff Reinitz.
Bleeding and lying on the ground in a back alley, Night Patrolman Friedrich “Fred” P. Widmann inched up the revolver and fired blindly in the direction of his unseen attackers.
His police whistle — the turn-of-the-century equivalent of today’s police radio — and his flashlight broken by the bullets that seconds earlier toppled him by surprise, the 30-year-old tower of a lawman crawled south out of the moonlit alley and onto Lafayette Street.
It was 3:10 a.m., and at police headquarters a few blocks away, Emergency Policeman Tom Harman and Watchman J.K. McQuilkin heard moaning. They followed the sound to the wounded officer reclining on one elbow.
“I am getting cold, and I have awful pain in my stomach,” Widmann said, according to newspaper accounts at the time.
A quick examination at the police station determined the wounds would be fatal.
“Tell the other fellows that I wish them good luck, though I have had bad luck,” Widmann told [then] Police Chief E.A. Leighton from his hospital bed.
And so 11 hours later, on Oct. 11, 1908, Widmann passed away at Presbyterian Hospital. He was the first police officer in Waterloo killed in the line of duty and only the third person to be murdered in the city since it incorporated in 1868.
More than 90 years later, the killing remains a mystery. Although they likely have met their own end with the passage of time, Widmann’s killers escaped and were never brought to justice.
Investigative records of the shooting are no longer around. The alley, which runs parallel to Park Avenue and East Fourth Street between Mulberry and Lafayette streets, is still there, although some of its buildings and the tenants have since changed.
Widmann, an overgrown man with a boyish charm, came from a German family. He grew up in Fox Township and a farm near Raymond and was a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church. He worked in the coal business and spent six years at Wangler Drug Co. before joining the police department in 1906.
The Waterloo Police Department had 13 regular officers and one special agent.
Widmann walked the night beat, responsible for an area from East Fourth Street between Water and Mulberry streets and northwest into the residential district.
Most nights a bulldog named Togo accompanied Widmann on his rounds. Togo belonged to a wealthy family and often slipped from his kennel to tag along.
But Togo wasn’t around on Widmann’s last patrol. Police at the time speculated the outcome of the ambush might have been different had the four-legged partner been on the beat and smelled the criminals or attacked, marking them with bite marks for later identification.
Instead, Togo’s owner had sent the dog to a friend in Osage to break it of the habit of hanging around the police station.
Around 2:30 a.m. on that fatal Sunday, Widmann and Harman, who had been promoted to emergency policeman months earlier after holding the night beat taken by Widmann, passed through the alley behind Coburn & Son — an East Fourth Street gun and bicycle shop — and saw nothing out of the ordinary.
At 3 a.m., the two stopped to eat at a restaurant two blocks away on Sycamore Street. Harman talked about continuing rounds with Widmann, but one finished eating first, and they ended up going in different directions.
Widmann apparently retraced his path and returned to the alley behind Coburn & Son.
Harman patrolled the alley between East Fourth and Fifth streets in the direction of City Hall. He was at City Hall only a short time when he heard Widmann’s moans.
In the haze of pain and surprise, Widmann thought he squeezed off two shots at his assailants, but he had emptied all six chambers of his .38-caliber Colt revolver. People nearby reported hearing as many as a dozen shots ring out.
The mortally wounded officer didn’t see the gunmen who ambushed him, and all of his shots apparently went wild.
Police believe Widmann stumbled across a pair of burglars trying to break in the back door of Coburn’s store.
One of the thieves had drilled a square 5-inch hole in the door with a brace and bit. Authorities speculated the second man — the shooter — was acting as lookout between piano boxes in a blind area of the L-shaped alley and ambushed Widmann.
Another theory was that the lookout escaped to the north at the first sign of the officer, and the driller hid in the boxes and opened fire when he thought he was cornered.
The gunman was so close the shooting left powder marks in Widmann’s wounds, according to one account. One bullet stuck the mouthpiece of his whistle and the point of his pencil and then entered his left rib. The second shot — the one that proved fatal — hit his abdomen and pierced his intestines and several large veins and arteries. A third slug grazed his right hand between his thumb and finger where he was apparently holding his flashlight.
Doctors recovered a .38-caliber bullet from his body.
A Cedar Rapids man who was walking from the train depot to a relative’s house reported seeing two men run out of the alley and cross Mulberry street. From there they continued northwest through what is now Lincoln Park on to Park Avenue and then to Franklin Street in the direction of the Illinois Central freight yards.
Within minutes of the shooting, all Waterloo officers were put on duty to search for the killers. They were joined by a posse of citizens, sheriff’s deputies and railroad detectives.
Officer Tom Morris took a group and dashed to the San Souci bridge in hopes of heading off the attackers. They found no one and worked their way down river looking for possible hiding places. Over the rest of the day, 15 to 20 tramps and others were taken to the police station, but most could prove their alibis.
Mayor R.A. Doty authorized a city reward of $200 and telegraphed the governor’s office in hopes of getting the fund up to $1000 or $2,000. Local businesses and residents also contributed. Alderman Sam Vale started the ball rolling with a $50 donation, and Hope C. Martin added $25, according to newspaper accounts.
The days following the shooting were tense for local authorities. Lawmen kept their weapons at hand and felt obligated to shoot to punctuate their command to fleeing suspects. On Tuesday an officer fired at a man running in the area of Commercial and West Seventh streets. Two of the bullets failed to fire and three others missed as the man disappeared.
According to one newspaper report, over the following week so many shots had been fired at suspicious characters ammunition was in short supply and the chief had ordered more.
A few days after the ambush, an officer tried to stop a suspicious man early in the morning. Following a brief foot chase, police caught the man, a 40-year-old ex-convict from St. Louis, and found a loaded .38-caliber revolver on him. The gun was in a holster marked “grand jury exhibit, State vs. Joe McKinnie.”
Police at that time said they didn’t think the Missouri man was connected to Widmann’s death.
Officers chased and fired on two men in Cedar Falls, but they escaped. Authorities stopped three men in Gladbrook, but they were released after it was determined they could not have had a role in the crime.
Days turned to weeks, and police were not able to unearth any clues to reveal the identity of the culprits. Widmann couldn’t give a description of the man who fired at him from the boxes, and the burglars took their tools and weapons when they fled.
Tombstone restored for first Waterloo officer killed on job
January 1, 2002 | Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
Waterloo police honored one of their fallen brothers recently by restoring his tombstone.
Burglars armed with a handgun cut down night patrolman Friedrich “Fred” P. Widmann, 30, as he walked his beat Oct. 11, 1908.
His funeral was a citywide affair that packed the church. Stores closed for the day in memorial, and a tall stone was erected in Fairview Cemetery to mark the grave of the tall lawman.
But almost 100 years of wind, rain and snow weathered the headstone. The name and dates of birth and death carved into the rock are still legible, but the rest of the inscriptions — a design at the top and passages in German on the sides — faded until they were unreadable.
“It bothered me so because his headstone was such a mess,” said Eunice Wilson, 78, of Waterloo.
Widmann died unmarried and without children. Wilson, a niece born after his death, is his only relative still living in the area.
A tree sprouted next to Widmann’s resting place, and, as it grew, it tilted the headstone. The tree’s roots entangled smaller grave markers of other Widmann relatives nearby.
Wilson, the family historian, couldn’t afford to fix the damage herself.
“My golly, if I wanted to get that done, it would cost almost $1,000 for the headstone and digging it up,” she said. “The roots from a tree were all up around it and the two little headstones beside it were buried in roots. What do you do?”
Without enough money to repair or replace the stone, Wilson came up with the idea of placing a metal plaque on the rock. It was the only thing she could think of that would keep.
Wilson approached Capt. Eric Gunderson of the Waterloo Police Department to inquire about metal signs in front of the station. She said she just wanted to know where to buy a similar one.
After hearing about the condition of Widmann’s headstone, the captain brought the matter up with the Waterloo Police Protective Association, the officers’ union. Union members voted to pay for the plaque.
“I went there and asked them how much I owed for it. They said don’t worry about it,” she said.
Gunderson said the plaque is special because it notes that Widmann died in the line of duty. The original headstone didn’t mention this, or if it did, the writing has worn off.
Fairview Cemetery staff also helped with the restoration.
They took out the tree and ground up the roots before adjusting the headstones so they were level.
Waterloo officers are planning a memorial service later this year to mark Widmann’s death and officially unveil the plaque, Gunderson said.
Friedrich Paul “Fred” Widmann was born July 13, 1878, to Conrad and Mary Dorothy (Koepke) Widmann.
In addition to his parents, Fred was survived by two sisters: Emma F. (Widmann) Eickelberg and Louisa (Widmann) Simms; and three brothers: Gustav, Wilheim, and Walter.
Fred was buried at Fairview Cemetery in Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa.
If you have any information about Fred Widmann’s unsolved murder, please contact the Waterloo Police Department at 319-291-4340 ext. 3 or Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers at 855-300-TIPS (8477). Tips may also be sent with TipSoft or by texting the word CEDAR plus the information to CRIMES (274637). Message and data rates may apply. Text STOP to opt out at any time. Text HELP for more information.
Anyone with information leading to an arrest may be eligible for a cash reward.
Anonymous tips may also be sent through the Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers Confidential Web Tip Information System.