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During the Great Depression, Joseph Payne happened to be in a Chariton, Iowa, grocery store where a woman and child stood ahead of him in line. The woman had lost her husband, had no job, and needed food to feed her child. She tried to purchase a few basic grocery items.
She didn’t have enough money, the store clerk told her, and would have to put some of the items back.
Payne did not hesitate to act; he not only paid for all the woman’s groceries, but handed her some additional cash — “to be used for her and the child,” he said.
Payne was not a wealthy man, but had never married, had no children of his own, and didn’t drink; he owned his own home at 15th and Armory, where he’d lived alone 40 years, and used what extra money he had to help others.
He’d recently retired from his chosen profession — that of a brick maker and brick layer — and his family often bragged about “Uncle Joe” and all he’d accomplished, including the two mausoleums he’d built in the Chariton Cemetery.
Payne’s life came to an abrupt end shortly after the Depression ended. Not surprisingly, his last words conveyed forgiveness for those who took his life.
Sometime on or before Saturday, Oct. 13, 1945, some boys broke in to Payne’s Chariton home. They’d heard a rumor, they said, that he didn’t use banks and kept all his money hidden in his house.
It wasn’t true, Payne told them. He kept his money in the bank.
The boys didn’t believe him. They tied him up and beat him repeatedly in efforts to get him to confess where in the home he’d hidden all his money. They tore the house apart, punching holes in walls looking for any hidden cash.
Somehow, while the boys ransacked the home, the 72-year-old Payne freed himself. He stumbled out of the house and ran. At 9:30 p.m. that Saturday night, Payne arrived at the Cooper Barber Shop, requesting a shave.
According to a Chariton Herald-Patriot article published Thursday, Oct. 18, 1945, the barber noticed evidence of cuts and bruises about Payne’s head and he appeared to be in a dazed condition. The barber stated Payne need assistance in putting on his coat before leaving the barber shop that night.
No one saw Payne again until a call came into the sheriff’s office on 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, 1945. The caller, Paul Wright, cited a man in distress seated on the running board of a truck parked in Dannen elevator shed near the railroad tracks.
The sheriff’s office found Payne’s body, chilled and his clothes quite damp. Assuming the man was simply drunk or in need of medical care, they took him to the county jail where they provided warmth and medical attention.
Around that same time Sunday, officials received a call from L.H. Busselle regarding some clothing he’d found in his yard. Investigating officers identified an overcoat and cap as belonging to Payne, and found a spot in the yard indicating a struggle. About $200 in cash lay scattered about this area.
Several hours later, after unsuccessful attempts to rouse Mr. Payne at the jail, officials feared he had pneumonia and transferred him to the Baker Nursing Home. Nursing home staff said Payne apparently had been out in the weather from 10 p.m. Saturday until the time officers found him Sunday afternoon.
The pneumonia set in, and Payne awoke from his coma only momentarily on Wednesday, Oct. 17. “Please don’t be too hard on the boys,” he said, before passing away around noon without ever naming his attackers.
The Chariton Police Department, and — because the body was found by railroad tracks — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated the homicide.
According to Payne’s great-great-niece, Terrie Thompson, the FBI paid a visit to Payne’s niece, Doris Caroline Payne McMains, and asked she sign paperwork allowing them to conduct an autopsy. McMains, fearful her uncle’s body would be mutilated, at first refused.
Thompson said the FBI told McMains the autopsy was necessary in order for them to capture the boys and pursue justice in Payne’s murder.
McMains agreed to the autopsy, but then years went by and no arrests were ever made. McMains passed away in 1965 without seeing her uncle’s killers held accountable for the crime.
Thompson said her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother never got over Joe’s unsolved murder.
“They believed it would be solved. This was a man who would have given [the boys] the money if they would have asked,” Thompson told Iowa Cold Cases. “He was kind and loving … not a wealthy man or powerful … just a good man I wish I could have met.”
Thompson said she began researching her great-uncle’s case in the 1970s, and spoke with a detective at the Chariton Police Department. The detective, said Thompson, told her she could look into the case but advised against it.
“I talked to some people in town who knew about murder and knew who did it,” Thompson told Iowa Cold Cases in September 2013. “But they were scared and would not give me any names.”
Thompson said she was told the boys had parents in Chariton who were “influential,” and that because Joseph Payne was an old man and a nobody, and because the boys were “young” at the time, that the boys “deserved a life.”
When Thompson’s mother discovered her daughter had been asking questions around town and looking into the murder, she panicked and asked Thompson to stop.
“She was afraid they might come after me if they knew I was getting close or looking into it,” Thompson said. “I stopped [researching the case] because of her.”
All other family members died awaiting answers and justice, said Thompson. She said that being Joe’s only remaining family member left alive has only reinforced her determination to seek out the truth about her “Uncle Joe’s” unsolved murder.
He, too, she said, deserved a life.
Joseph Ernest Payne was born Aug. 11, 1873 in Galesburg, Ill., in Knox County to William Payne and Caroline (Rowe) Payne.
In addition to his parents, Joseph Payne was preceded in death by his two sisters, Elizabeth “Lillie” Payne and Harriet “Hattie” Payne Klinger.
Survivors included a niece, Mrs. Doris McMains, of Des Moines, a nephew, John Brown, of Chillicothe, Mo., and their immediate families.
Joseph Payne and his family members are buried in the Chariton Cemetery in Chariton, Lucas County, Iowa.
If you have any information about Joseph Payne’s unsolved murder, please contact the FBI’s Omaha Field Office at (402) 493-8688, email Omaha@ic.fbi.gov, or contact the Chariton Police Department at (641) 774-5083.