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WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the Roaring 20s and the unsolved murder of Thaddeus Mitchell. Air Date: December 2, 2010
DES MOINES — The year was 1922 and Des Moines epitomized the roaring 20’s era. The war was over, the economy was recovering — and the whiskey flowed, despite the prohibition laws.
Forty-four-year-old Thaddeus Mitchell of Des Moines made his living because of that booze. And it may have led to his death.
Mitchell ran a very successful party taxi business — with six Cadillacs taking fares out and showing them a good time — often with illegal booze.
“The word would get out just like it gets out today. If someone knows where they could get illegal activity, or illegal things, the word gets around who can help them find it,” explains Pat Meiners of the Des Moines Historical Society, “and he knew where to find them.”
Whether it was illegal juke joints, speak easy’s or just a bottle of homemade moonshine, Mitchell was your guy.
He ran a taxi stand on Locust near fifth, “Kind of the south end of downtown. South of Court Avenue,” Meiners says, “that was called White Chapel. That was the vice area. Prostitutes. Gambling. Illegal liquor. We tend to think of that era as being good and wholesome. And really it wasn’t.”
On December 7th, according to articles in the Des Moines Register, Mitchell left his taxi stand to pick up a fare. The city was in the grip of an ice storm that made driving especially treacherous.
The next morning, police officer William Winburn, who lived on what was then Saint Joseph Avenue — it’s now Hickman Road — looked out his window and spotted Mitchell’s cab with Mitchell slumped over the wheel. The cab was near a pest house — an area most folks avoided.
“A pest house is where they sent people who had contagious diseases,” Meiners says. “Early in the century it would have been things like small pox. But it was also polio.”
Mitchell had been shot twice at point blank range. His jewelry and a roll of cash hadn’t been removed from the body. Empty .32-caliber shell casings were found in his car, along with a woman’s rubber overshoe and a man’s handkerchief. A woman’s hat was found outside the car.
Despite a lack of evidence, police quickly released a theory about what they believe happened.
According to the Des Moines Register, Mitchell “picked up a young woman and her sweetheart…a quarrel ensued over alleged relations between the woman and the taxi driver. His liquor-clouded brain maddened by jealousy, the woman’s companion is thought to have shot Mitchell from the rear seat.”
“I believe that was later, based upon what they learned about him, that was finally discarded,” Meiners says. “That’s because they didn’t believe he was that kind of person.”
In fact, according to newspaper accounts, Mitchell was trying to get out of the business. He didn’t feel it was something a married man should be doing.
So was he killed by a jealous boyfriend? Was it a fare that didn’t want to pay up? Or was it a hit by mobsters that didn’t want Mitchell out of the business? The fact is, we may never know.
“Maybe he wanted to get out of it because he had gotten too far involved,” Meiners speculates. “Maybe that’s why he was killed, because there was talk that he wanted to get out of it. Maybe he was a little afraid. I’m kinda conflicted myself on what it might be.”
Police doubt they’ll ever solve this case. The killer is likely dead. And police say the evidence has long since been disposed of.
If you have any information about this Iowa cold case please contact the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4864.