Thecla GerkenCourtesy photo Sioux City Journal
Thecla M. Gerken

Thecla Gerken


Thecla M. Gerken
23 YOA
Corner of Ninth & Jones streets
Sioux City, Iowa
Woodbury County
June 27, 1917


Information Courtesy the Sioux City Journal, the Dyersville Commercial, and a compendium of newspaper clippings researched and written by Tom Larson.

The story, in brief: 

On Wednesday night, June 27, 1917, Thecla M. Gerken of Woonsocket, South Dakota, was shot and killed while out for a walk with a friend in Sioux City, Iowa.

Gerken, 23, was accompanying Miss Mabel Houlihan, 922 Ninth Street, on a walk, and the girls walked arm in arm up Jones Street. Gerken was staying at the home of Dr. H.H. Hagedorn at 1017 Jones Street. As they neared Eighth Street, the two girls said goodbye, and then parted for night.

Miss Houlihan turned up Ninth Street toward her home, and Miss Gerken appeared to have crossed the intersection of Ninth and Jones street diagonally from the southeast to the northwest corner and walked a short distance up the west of the street. Miss Houlihan had gotten almost to the alley when she heard her friend scream, followed by a shot. “Mabel, come back!” she heard Miss Gerken scream. Houlihan said some people on the street pointed toward her friend, who lay on her back, blood streaming from her mouth and a bullet hole in her breast.


TOM LARSON researched and wrote the following compilation:



Sioux City, Ia., June 28.–The murder of Miss Thecla Gerken, twenty-two years old, of Woonsocket, South Dakota, who was shot last night, by an unknown person, while going to the home of a friend, whom she was visiting, remained a deep mystery today. The entire detective force is working on the case, but has not uncovered a good clue.

One theory is that the girl was shot by a man who was deranged. Miss Gerken had only a few friends here and is not known to have had any enemies here.

Miss Mabel Houlihan, who had been accompanying Miss Gerken prior to the shooting, was unable to shed much light on the mystery. It is known, however, that the two women had met two young men the night before the murder. The two men arranged for a date the following evening, but Miss Gerken and Miss Houlihan did not keep the date. It was not known whether or not the men were involved in the crime.

Relatives and friends in South Dakota are unable to shed any light on the cause for her murder. She is survived by her parents and two brothers and two sisters.


Sioux City, Ia., June 28.–Sioux City police are working on a theory that a man named “George,” who was heard talking to a woman on the east side of Jones street, near Ninth, shortly after 11 o’clock last night, is the murderer of Miss Thecla Gerken of Woonsocket, S.D., who was shot down in the street by an unknown assassin late last night. Miss Gerken was a guest in the home of Dr. and Mrs. H.H. Hagerdorn. A few minutes after parting with her chum, Miss Mabel Houlihan, she was found dying at the corner of Ninth and Jones streets. The wound caused by a 38-calibre revolver was in her right breast. The couple had just returned together from downtown.

It is generally believed that Miss Gerken had been talking to a man after she had parted with her girl companion. Two persons, whose names are withheld by the police, heard an indistinct conversation. They heard only one sentence, “George, why did you do that?” and they were spoken by a woman’s voice. Miss Houlihan declares she heard her companion scream before the shot was fired. She had just parted from her and was near her home about two blocks distant.

Miss Gerken was born in Woonsocket, S.D., and had spent practically her entire life there. She is survived by her parents and two brothers and two sisters. Relatives and friends in South Dakota are unable to shed any light on a cause for her murder. She was a school teacher.


Sioux City, Ia., June 30.–The mysterious murder of Miss Thecla Gerken of Woonsocket, S.D., who was shot and killed here late Wednesday night was no nearer a solution today. The trend of the police investigation leads the officers to believe that there “was a man in the case.” It is known, they say, that the girl left her home against the wishes of her parents and stopped in Sioux City on her way to Dubuque, where she had secured a position. Police believe that this new evidence may mean that she left her home to avoid a persistent suitor, of whom neither her family nor her friends had knowledge.

Autopsy Discloses 38-Calibre Bullet.
Police Active in Tragedy. No Arrests as Yet.
Miss Thecla Gerken, mention of whose death was made in the Commercial last week, was murdered by an unknown man in Sioux City, shot to death on the street after she had left a girlfriend, with whom she had been spending the evening. The Journal of Sioux City, in reference to the tragedy, says:

“Police are working on the theory that a man referred to as ‘George,’ who was heard talking to a woman on the east side of Jones street near Ninth street shortly after 11 o’clock Wednesday night, is the murderer of Miss Thecla Gerken, of Woonsocket, S.D.

Miss Gerken, at the time of the unsolved tragedy, was a visitor in the home of Dr. and Mrs. H.H. Hagedorn. Miss Gerken, a few minutes after parting from her friend, Miss Mabel Houlihan, was found dying on the corner of Ninth and Jones streets. A wound caused by a .38 calibre revolver was in her right breast. 

The story of the conversation between a man and woman, as told by Miss Helen Eyland, 805 Ninth street, was corroborated yesterday when a man told a corresponding tale to Chief of Police H.H. Hawman. The chief withheld his name. It is generally believed by the officers that Miss Gerken was talking to a man after she had parted with Miss Houlihan at the southeast corner of Ninth and Jones street.

Two Tell of Conversation.
The conversation between the man and the woman, according to the two stories, took place on the sidewalk near the west gate of the Eyland home about thirty yards north of the corner at which the girls parted and lasted about three minutes. No loud talk was heard, but both listeners were too far away to understand the words, with the exception of one sentence spoken by the woman.

‘George, why did you do that?’ apparently were the only words understood, and they were spoken by a woman’s voice. An instant later the listeners heard a scream and a shot. They declared that the words were not spoken loudly, and to the best of their knowledge, they were spoken in a reproachful manner.

Scream. Then Shot.
Both the listeners and Miss Houlihan, who declares she was about fifty yards from the place of parting, agree that the scream was heard before the shot was fired. This gives insight to the theory that the murderer frightened Miss Gerken before he shot her. The man who gave this information to the police said he rushed to the window and saw Miss Gerken run south on Jones street on the east side, until she was within a few feet of the west side of the street, when she fell. He declared that she ran in a crouching manner as if attempting to retain her balance. She probably ran thirty feet or more, he said.

The body of Miss Gerken, accompanied by her brother, Henry Gerken, who arrived late yesterday afternoon, and Dr. and Mrs. Hagedorn, was sent to Woonsocket last night. Mr. Gerken was unable to throw light on the mystery. This was Miss Gerken’s first visit to Sioux City, he said.

Autopsy Was Held.
The autopsy over the body of Miss Gerken was held yesterday afternoon at the Wescott undertaking establishment, conducted by Coroner Elmer Blood and Dr. B.C. Steward. Dr. Steward reported that the bullet entered the right breast and took a downward course to the left, penetrating the pulmonary artery just above the heart.

The girls had been down town and were returning home. When they passed the corner of Eighth and Jones streets, [words in article apparently deleted by printer]. They decided to permit him to the corner walking west in Eighth street. He turned north in Jones street and followed the girls to Ninth street before separating.

Miss Houlihan told the police that little notice was taken of the man as he passed, but that she still retained a vivid recollection of him, as his appearance rather impressed her.

Remembers Youth Passing.
The youth appeared to be about 18 years old, Miss Houlihan said, and was poorly dressed and appeared to be a tramp. He wore a brown slouch hat and khaki trousers and rubber sole shoes. He did not even glance at the girls as he passed. No further notice was paid him after he had crossed the street.

The girls had parted and Miss Houlihan said she had gone less than fifty yards when she heard a terrifying scream. It was followed by the piercing cry, ‘Mabel, come back!’

‘The last cry,’ Miss Houlihan said, ‘pierced the night. I was frozen to the spot for an instant. I was dumbfounded but mechanically rushed back and found some people in the street. I asked for Thecla. Someone pointed to the street. There I saw Thecla lying on her back with blood streaming from her mouth and a bullet hole in her breast.

‘The change from a live, jolly girl, seemingly without a single care to that of a cold, lifeless form was almost too great for me to bear. I don’t know how I bore up under the terrible strain. It must have been that I could not fully bring myself to realize that Thecla was dead.

Heard Man Running in Alley.
‘Neither Thecla nor I had ever seen the man who passed us at the corner and if he was the murderer I cannot possibly conceive of any reason why he should have killed her.’

The theory that Miss Gerken was shot down in cold blood by an unknown man is practically substantiated by the reports given the police by people living in the neighborhood who said they heard a man running.

Mrs. A. C. Hoskins, 9[?]4 Ninth street, said she heard a man run past her house in an alley shortly after the shooting. She said he ran almost noiselessly and his feet made thuds on the ground as if he wore rubber soled shoes. There was a swish at each stride as if he wore large trousers of heavy material.

The alley runs north and south between Jennings and Virginia streets. The man was running east in the alley between Ninth and Tenth streets to the alley in which Mrs. Hoskins heard the fugitive running. He was headed for the railroad yards they say.

Detectives yesterday went to Ninth and Jones to view the spot where Miss Gerken fell and to attempt to shed some light on the case from that angle.

Mr. and Mrs. Jos. Loes departed for Woonsocket, S.D., last Thursday night where they attended the funeral of the late Miss Thecla Gerken, of whose death mention is made elsewhere in this paper.

Sioux City, July 2.–The investigation of the killing of Miss Thecla Gerken, Woonsocket, S.D., school teacher, assumed sensational possibilities this morning when detectives began working on a new theory, which, it is declared, gives every promise of an eventual solution of the mystery.

Detectives employed on the case admitted they were working on a new “lead,” but declined to give up any details of the information thus far gathered. It is known that a woman who lives on the corner of Ninth and Jones streets has told police she saw two men talking near the scene of the slaying on the afternoon of the tragedy.

The men, according to the story, surveyed ground adjacent to the spot where Miss Gerken was killed, and, just before parting, one handed the other some money, apparently a roll of bills.

One man was well dressed. It is believed the police know who this man was.

The other was shabbily dressed, and answered, in part, the description of the shabbily dressed boyish appearing, short man, who passed the girls on the street a few minutes before the fatal shot pierced the young school teacher’s breast.

Although they are said to be investigating this story, it was evident at police headquarters this morning that the theory concerning the “upstairs window theory” has not been abandoned. In fact this seems to be the Pet” of all those now being followed, as the police were continuing their rigid search for weapons in the neighborhood which might have fired the shot.

It was freely admitted that the authorities are as far, if not farther, away from a solution of the mystery today than ever.

Not much weight is attached to the idea that the girls attended a dance or a quarrel grew out of their failure to keep an alleged appointment on the night of the killing. As was stated Thursday, the girls had met two young men who made an engagement to go to a dance. The engagement was not kept. The police know these young men, and are satisfied they know nothing of the shooting.

Sioux City Police and Detectives Unable to Get a Clue.
Uncle Swears Vengeance.
Sioux City, Ia., July 10.–Why was Thecla Gerken murdered?

Who was the fiend that killed her?

In vain, the bony finger of Fate in sinister mockery draws a veil of silence and forgetfulness over the awful Sioux City tragedy, which a few days ago left a South Dakota home in eternal shadow.

The murder of this fair, young girl on the public streets may remain forever a mystery–the police and the other investigators have given it up as insoluble–but an uncle of the victim of the assassin’s bullet is determined in his pursuit of the murdered and on bended knee beside the grave of his beloved niece pledged his strength and his fortune to a mission of justice, which also is rightful vengeance.

The good people of this section–everywhere, of course–shocked and horrified by the mysterious crime, devoutly hope his arm may be strengthened and his footsteps quickened to overtake and strike the foul assassin whose victim, a true disciple of Pollyanna, paid her honor with her life.

Shot by Assassin!
On the night of June 27, two young women, with the clear, sane joy of living, were walking homeward on Jones street, in one of the best residence districts of this city. They stopped at the intersection of Jones and Ninth streets to say “good night.”

The moon was brilliant and riding well up in a cloudless sky. The girls parted and each slowly turned toward home–then a scream and a pistol shot.

One of the girls, Thecla Gerken, staggered from the parking into the street, calling “Mabel, come back! Quick, Mabel,” then fell beneath the arc light.

When the other girl arrived her companion was dead, uttering no word to shed light on the attack or to give a clue to lead to her assassin’s capture.

Mabel Houlihan, the victim’s companion, under the most careful questioning has been unable to lift the veil from what now the authorities declare one of the unsolvable mysteries that periodically arise to baffle the police and detectives of all cities.

The Victim’s Vacation.
Thecla Gerken, the slain girl, was a native of Woonsocket, S.D., and had spent her entire life in that little town. She was a school teacher and had saved her year’s earnings to take a trip to the city and spend a vacation with her former chum, Mrs. Dr. H. H. Hagedorn, near whose home she was killed.

While in Sioux City she met another former chum, Mabel Houlihan, and the two spent the majority of their evenings together. Evidence given by Miss Houlihan and other friends of the dead girl show she never had a known enemy, nor a jealous suitor. So far as has been gleaned there is an absolute lack of that element always searched for by the detective–a motive.

Mystery Elements.
Sioux City police are baffled and are letting the case slip into the realm of forgetfulness that brands it one of the unsolved mysteries of the city–and Sioux City has many.

Every person connected with the girl’s life has been investigated. There has come to light a story of the woman who saw two men talking for an hour on the street corner on the afternoon before the killing. One was said to be well dressed and the other a hobo type. The well dressed man is said to have passed the other a roll of bills. Neither of these have been found.

One neighbor heard the shooting and then heard a man run through an alley. No trace of the man has been found.

A jeweler’s engraver rushed to the back door immediately after the shot. A man leaped a fence in front of him and he gave chase for more than a block, but was outdistanced. The man escaped.

Women reported they heard a man and woman quarreling just before the shooting. The woman was heard to say, “Don’t do that!” Then came the scream and the shout. The woman could not swear the quarrel was at the same spot as the shooting. Miss Houlihan heard no such quarrel.

Chum Exonerated.
Miss Houlihan was relieved of all responsibility by the fact that two men from a neighboring house reached the dead girl the moment she fell to the ground. At that time Miss Houlihan was still more than fifty feet away on her way back. Also the bullet which killed Miss Gerken went downward into her breast and must have been fired from a point well above her heart, unless she were heading down. Furthermore, [?] as there were no [?] marks and .38 calibre pistols [?] much powder.

The police department [?] works slowly. [?] had through no effort being made to get in touch with facts concerning the immediate past of the dead girl, who had left her home but a week before the shooting.

The only investigation made in Woonsocket, the home of Thecla Gerken, was made through the Sioux City Tribune sending one of its own reporters to that point. The only police investigation was one short letter asking the chief of police of Woonsocket.

Sioux City police are willing apparently to let the case drop, but Woonsocket declares that if it is within the financial and physical power of the men and money of the town the slayer will be brought to justice.

Uncle Swears Vengeance.
At the funeral of the girl, her uncle, Philip Kogel, wealthy retired farmer, knelt over the coffin and swore vengeance, saying that he would see the murderer was run to earth though it took his last day of life and his last dollar of money.

The declaration came as Father Schreiber had concluded his funeral sermon, saying that “Thecla Gerken died a martyr to her honor.”

Just what the priest may have meant was not disclosed. But it is known that Thecla Gerken confessed to Father Schreiber a few days before she departed for Sioux City.

When the body of “Tec” Gerken was brought to Woonsocket for burial the entire population of the town was at the depot, even though it were 3 o’clock in the morning. It was not a curiosity seeking crowd, but a somber, weeping crowd, for every man, woman, and child in Woonsocket knew her as the town’s happiest girl.

Her Diary’s End.
One of the most touching sidelights connected with the life of the young woman came from her younger sister and confidante, Lucille Gerken.

The night after the funeral the moon played over the waters of the little artificial lake at Woonsocket. The usual hum of the Saturday throng of the streets was missing. The town was in mourning and a pall hung over the places of business and amusement. Down a lane from the main section of town candles burned in the Gerken home; a big, white house, shrouded in silence. A mother who had taken no nourishment since the night the telegraph wires had clicked off the news that a girl had been foully murdered in Sioux City, lay prostrate, murmuring over and over.

“My poor Tec; my poor girl! Who could have been so cruel?”

And they cannot understand at Woonsocket. The home that once rang merrily with the song and laughter of the “happiest girl in Woonsocket” has been converted through the bark of the assassin’s bullet into a tomb of sorrow. The moonlight nights that used to mean to two fond sisters all that moonlight nights in a small town should mean, is now worth no more than the rainy, the dark, and the somber.

“I cannot go home,” said Lucille Gerken as she faced the great white moon. “It’s not the same anymore. I know I can’t go home. Everything I see reminds me of Tec. She is everywhere.”

Cried Herself to Sleep.
And then Lucille poured out the story of the life of her sister. She had every detail of all she had done since she was old enough to remember. She even gave the pages of her diary running over a period of ten years. This book had been closed on the sixteenth of April 1916, the day upon which her best friend Hazel Stackland had been married to Dr. H.H. Hagedorn, at whose home the girl was visiting at the time of her death.

The last message in the diary said “As usual I cried myself to sleep last night.”

This action was explained by Lucille to be due to the grief Tec felt at losing a lifelong companion.

There is at hand every thread of the woof and warp of the life of Tec Gerken but there is so far no solution to her death mystery.

And now the family waits, the Sioux City police are inactive, and the discussion of the crime is dying out.

Miss Houlihan Assists.
Detectives Scout Idea That Shooting Was An Accident.
Sioux City, Ia., July 18.–A telephone conversation between a young man and his sweetheart who lives in the neighborhood of Ninth and Jones streets, may hold the key to the solution of the mysterious killing of Miss Thecla Gerken, Woonsocket, S.D., school teacher.

It is known that Oscar O. Rock, chief of state police, and James Risden, state detective, who arrived to work on the Gerken case, have discovered some new evidence, which at its inception, appeared plausible enough to warrant a rigid investigation of the fact discovered.

Neither Mr. Rock nor Mr. Risden would discuss the result of their preliminary investigation. It is known, however, that they spent a good share of the day and most of last night in the neighborhood of Ninth and Jones streets.

Miss Houlihan Aids.
With Miss Houlihan, 922 Ninth street, girl chum of the slain school teacher who was with the victim a moment before the killing, the detectives went carefully over the entire route taken by the girls on the night of the killing. Every detail was gone thoroughly over again and again. 

Mr. Rock stated from what he had learned that Miss Gerken was not shot on the sidewalk, but in the middle of the street. The shot, he said, apparently was fired from behind a tree in the parking on the east side on Jones street, a bare 25 feet from the spot where Miss Gerken fell.

On this point both Mr. Rock and Mr. Risden were agreed. The police advanced the theory that Miss Gerken was shot on the sidewalk, and ran into the street. It developed that a few moments before parting with Miss Houlihan, Miss Gerken had refused to walk up a side street on their way from town, for the reason that she was afraid. Rock said if Miss Gerken was afraid of a dark sidewalk on another street, while in company with Miss Houlihan, it is reasonable to assume she would not walk alone on a sidewalk as dark as the one on the east side of Jones, at Ninth.

Expect to Solve Mystery.
Further than to give their ideas on how and the exact whereof of the tragedy, the state detectives refused to discuss their inquiry. Both asserted they are confident the mystery can be solved. And both declared that so far, the case had not offered any of the baffling aspects the Sioux City police admit it holds for them.

“We are confident,” said Mr. Rock, “that the case can be cleared up. Work of the right sort, we believe, will help toward clearing up a lot of muddled points in connection with the murder, and perhaps run the slayer to earth. We may fail, of course, but we will at least make an effort–a real effort.”

The state men are prone to accept the accident theory advanced by Geo. Ward, head of the public safety department. Mr. Ward feels certain Miss Gerken was the victim of an accident; either this, he asserts, or the victim of a mistake. Some time ago the councilman declared he confidently expected the slayer would come in and surrender some day. While admitting the possibility of the accident theory, the state men declared there are many other “lines” which should be followed, in any event.

State Agent Rock Says Possibility That Girl Died Martyr to Her Honor.
Sioux City, Ia., July 25.–The investigation of the Gerken murder mystery today developed into a man hunt, with a former friend of the slain school teacher as an objective.

State agents working on the case, it became known this morning, have satisfied themselves that the solution of the mystery depends upon the finding of the young man, who is described as having been subject to a rare phase of insanity.

Oscar O. Rock, chief state agent, and James Risden, state detective, sent here to investigate the murder after the police had failed, were bending their efforts toward a search for the suspect, who it is feared, may have fled the country.

Circumstantial Evidence.
Although nothing but circumstantial evidence has been gathered against this young man thus far, the investigators, it is said, feel certain what they have learned about him demands almost thorough inquiry of his past, also of his whereabouts on the night Miss Gerken was shot to death at Ninth and Jones streets.

His whereabouts at present are not known, and inasmuch as he is said to have disappeared from his home town in South Dakota, the state agents are believed to be exerting unusual efforts to locate him as soon as it is possible to do so.

Neither Mr. Rock nor Mr. Risden would discuss the probability of an immediate arrest in the case this morning, and they declined also to give up any of the information they are known to have assembled against the suspect. Further than to admit the young man once had been a “caller” at the Gerken home in Woonsocket, and that he is subject to inherited insanity of a strange variety, the state’s men refused to talk on this particular incident.

County Officials Give Aid.
Ole T. Naglestad, county attorney, and James W. Kindig, assistant county attorney, were at work with Rock and Risden again today. For three days and nights the investigation has gone on incessantly, it was learned this morning. The investigators, believing they have hit a “hot trail,” have stopped since, but few hours for either rest or food.

Expected and promised aid from police headquarters has not yet been offered the state agents. Mr. Rock said this morning he would not press for aid upon Chief Hawman.

Other clews, pointing in different directions from the one leading toward the South Dakota young man, have not, however, been abandoned.

“We are running down everything that seems plausible,” said Mr. Rock.

Mysterious trips out of town by Risden and Naglestad during the last 48 hours are regarded as bearing significantly upon the search for the murderer. They went somewhere yesterday, returned during the night, and disappeared again today. It was emphatically denied by Mr. Rock that they had gone to the Woonsocket home of the dead girl.

Start Accident Theory.
Accident theories advanced by the police at the outset of the first investigation, and readvanced Monday by George Ward, superintendent of public safety, have been abandoned by the state men. They declare they have convinced themselves Miss Gerken’s murder was premeditated; that the slayer lay in wait for her at the alley just north of Ninth and Jones; and shot her down while she pleaded for mercy.

No motive has been discovered. Unless the object of the man hunt launched today committed the crime, Mr. Rock believes the murderer intended [?] Miss Gerken [?] as plausible; a probability that Miss Gerken died just as Father Schreiber, pastor of the Catholic church at Woonsocket said she died–“a martyr to her honor.”

The suspect, known to be subject to [?], had some strange obsession concerning the dead girl, and it is declared that, if he killed her, he did it while laboring under an hallucination he is known to have labored under before.

Scores of South Dakota School Teacher’s Friends Granted Interview to Detectives.
Woonsocket, S.D., July 31.–This town, the life long home of Thecla Gerken, paused in its work today to pledge to James E. Risden, Iowa state detective, the hearty cooperation of every man, woman, and child to the state of Iowa’s new investigation of the mysterious killing of the young school teacher in Sioux City, June 27.

The authorities here tonight are awaiting the coming of some one who would delve into the mystery, literally opened up their arms to Risden and threw every resource the town possessed at the coming of the Iowa investigator.

“We believe,” said L. A. Lawson, state attorney, “this case can be solved and we further believe that if it is possible you can do it. Anything you want is yours, anything we can do will gladly be done.” The state’s attorney together with Sheriff H. M. Hopkins and Dr. H. E. Frankhauer, acting mayor, met with Risden this morning. They were closeted in conference for fully two hours. This afternoon none would discuss what had occurred in the room, but Risden asserted tat from what he had learned it is very evident that Woonsocket has been busy trying to solve the mystery itself. He said he had obtained information which may prove of value during the next 24 hours. With the memory of the work accomplished by Risden and his associates on the Bishop case still fresh, the city where Miss Gerken spent her life seems to have put a new zeal into its determination to avenge the slaying.

Out on the streets Risden is the topic of conversation and the wild rumors of a month ago have been revised in a whirl of gossip which is humming everywhere. They have gone again back to the day 23 years ago when the dead girl was born here and they have traced her life up to the day she left here to spend her fatal vacation in Sioux City with her childhood companion, Mrs. H. H. Hagedorn. The fellows who called at the Gerken home since she was old enough to receive company have been carefully scrutinized by vivid memories in a rapid search for a motive. So far as is known, none has been found–Risden doesn’t tell what he knows. It is known that the investigators plan on a roundup of several persons who it is believed may be able to throw some light on the case or give information which will aid materially in clearing up a lot of questionable points that are, it is plain to see, worrying the authorities at this time.

Scores of Miss Gerken’s best friends, her intimate girl associates and the boys with whom she was known to have gone places with, were requested by Risden and State’s Attorney Lawson this morning to grant them an interview. At noon the office of Mr. Lawson was crowded with friends of the murdered girl, many of whom had come voluntarily to tell all they knew which might aid in capturing the slayer.

“All I can say,” said Mr. Risden, after talking with several friends of the slain school teacher, “is that I am still firmly convinced that the person who killed Miss Gerken was the one who passed the girls on the street a few minutes before the shooting. And it was not accidental either.” The authorities it is known have an accurate description of this person, and will throw a dragnet across the nation to apprehend him. They have not made public this description. Whether the murderer is a man or woman, they refuse to divulge, so secretive is the work progressing.

Seek Woman Slayer Gerken Murder Case.
Relatives Anxious to Have Mystery Cleared.–To Avenge Crime and Clear Name of Girl.
Sioux City, Ia., Aug. 1.–James W. Kindig, assistant attorney general of Iowa assigned yesterday as chief criminal prosecutor by Attorney General Havner arrived in Woonsocket yesterday morning and began his new work on the Gerken case. With James E. Risden, Iowa state detective, Mr. Kindig started early this morning running down some new evidence obtained, the details of which the investigators are keeping secret. The coming of Kindig is considered significant here as it is believed the state investigators have hit what is known in criminal circles as a hot trail.

The arrival of Mr. Kindig, says the Sanborn County Herald-Times, published today, makes it plain that the state of Iowa is sparing no pains or expense to apprehend Miss Gerken’s slayer. Woonsocket can well feel confident that if it is physically or financially possible, the Iowa authorities will avenge the dastardly crime.

The “Shabbily Dressed Man.”
Woonsocket, S.D., Aug 1.–A bare thread of evidence, picked up late by James E. Risden, Iowa state detective, may hold the solution of the Gerken murder mystery. The thread points toward a woman as the slayer of Miss Gerken.

That there is a possibility, vague as yet, of course, but nevertheless important, that the “shabbily dressed man” who passed Miss Gerken and Miss Houlihan at Ninth and Jones streets a few minutes before the shooting was a woman disguised in man’s clothing, was admitted by investigators this morning. Mr. Risden refused to discuss the new theory in any way.

It is known, however, that the new theory was deemed so important yesterday that the investigators swerved suddenly from the course they have been pursuing and are now trying to assemble other evidence that will substantiate the “woman theory.”

It is also known that the unknown informant told a story which involves a love affair of another couple and if substantiated it will be discovered that a jealous woman shot Miss Gerken in the erroneous belief that the young school teacher was the successful rival for the hand of a man who had lived in South Dakota.

Mr. Risden would not deny or affirm his conviction on their theory. He denied, however, that he had discovered anything that had changed his mind on the why and the who of the murder.

Another significant circumstance which some people here hold to substantiate the “woman theory” is that the state agents have not at any time made public the description they have obtained of the “shabbily dressed man,” who passed the girls just before the shooting. Neither have they taken occasion to declare the description is of a man or a woman. They admit only that they have a “very good description of the person who passed the girls.”

Interest in the state investigation is keen. Although there is no daily newspaper here to herald the coming of Risden, yet it was passed from mouth to mouth in as speedy a manner as it might have been in a town where “extras” are flashed out in the streets every hour. Last night not only the city folks, but the entire countryside knew Risden was here, and the volunteers [of help] the state detective received from scores of citizens goes only to indicate the humble earnestness this section manifests in its clamor for a thorough inquiry of the killing.

The town wants to help. Business men who want to aid have cast their businesses aside for the time being, and have thrown not only themselves but their resources at the command of the Iowa detective. Yesterday afternoon in a room at the hotel Risden met with John E. Gerken, father of the murdered girl; Jos. Kogel, her uncle; Paul Kogel, another uncle; L. L. Lawson, state’s attorney; and H. M. Hopkins, sheriff of Sanborn county. The purpose of the gathering was not divulged.

Afterward, however, it was learned that Mr. Gerken had again pledged himself together with the other men in the room, to avenge the death of his daughter, if it was physically and financially possible to do so.

The family feels that the mystery should be solved for twofold reasons. The first, of course, being to avenge the crime and the second to clear up a lot of questionable points which flung themselves against the character of the girl, as a result of the preliminary inquiry conducted by the Sioux City police. The friends and relatives say they do not fear the most searching inquiry into Thecla’s past life; in fact, they declare they welcome it, because they are certain the truth when found will forever still the mouth of gossip.

Detectives Certain That Man Who Passed Girls On Street Is Guilty.
Sioux City, Ia., Aug. 4.–Upon the memories of two Sioux City women will rest the decision of whether or not the Gerken mystery will ever be solved.

Photographs of a suspect now under surveillance, are being hurried to Sioux City today by Janes W. Kindig, assistant attorney general, while Jas. E. Risden, state detective, is seeking to uncover more evidence to substantiate a startling story, gathered here yesterday from friends of the suspect.

There are two women in Sioux City who say they will never forget the “shabbily dressed man” toward whom every accusing finger now points. Evidence obtained by Risden and Kindig during their investigation dovetails in such a way that they are now positive the man who killed Miss Gerken was the “shabbily dressed man” who passed the school teacher and Miss Mabel Houlihan on the corner of Ninth street but a moment before the fatal shot was fired on the night of June 27.

Arrests Are Expected.
The state investigators are on the trail of a man who, according to every bit of evidence assembled thus far, resembles in nearly every detail the description of the man who passed the girls. They have his photograph, and if identification is made, he will be arrested.

The information which led the authorities here has not been divulged by the investigators; nor will it be until, as Mr. Kindig said this morning, “We have made a positive case against him. It is understood, however, that the state men are decided on the theory that if the suspect now under surveillance is guilty, he killed Miss Gerken in an attempt to rob her, when he discovered he had been recognized. The young man is known to the Gerken family in Woonsocket and is what his friends declare the ‘wayward son of a good family.’ ”

Follow Other Clews.
While all efforts are being bent toward substantiation of evidence incriminating the young man, the state investigators have not, by any means, ceased work on other clews. The case now has narrowed to a point, which should aid materially in developing rapidly the few remaining theories. Mr. Kindig and Mr. Risden have just about convinced themselves the motive was robbery, although would indicate the motive was jealousy, or revenge.

The jealousy theory is based upon the story of a jealous woman, whom it was deduced shot Miss Gerken by mistake, thinking she was killing the successful rival for the man she once had been engaged to marry.

Revenge Theory Unlikely.
The revenge theory, considered farfetched, but nevertheless, accepted as significant, is based upon the story of a man who was subject to hereditary insanity and who had suffered hallucination concerning his acquaintance with Miss Gerken.

“We may never avenge this murder,” said Mr. Kindig this morning, “but one thing is certain, we will run down every single bit of evidence and we’ll not leave a stone unturned in our wake.”

The trails which will be followed may lead to all parts of the United States and perhaps into the Dominion of Canada and Mexico. From the abundance of information the state men have gathered they feel confident they will be able to dovetail enough to bring about an eventful solution of the mystery.

Risden and Kindig do not tell what they know. They have mapped out a systematic campaign and, if the murderer is now in the States, it is certain these men will hound him to justice. For they are determined. A little story told by Mr. Risden last night may indicate the interest and determination he holds in running Miss Gerken’s slayer to earth.

“I have four daughters myself,” he explained. “I was home just before being assigned to the case. My wife read the story of the killing and the subsequent stories which followed. It touched her mother’s heart so when I left, she told me, ‘Jim, if you ever worked in your life, do it now. Remember it could happen to our daughters.’ ”

Man Who Passed Girls Before Murder Wore Khaki Uniform It Is Learned.
The search for the slayer of Miss Thecla Gerken, the school teacher, who was murdered at Sioux City, brought James E. Risden, state detective, to Dyersville Wednesday. The state agent spent the day here interviewing several young men, friends of the slain girl, with whom she had become acquainted during her several visits here with relatives. She had spent some time in Dyersville during her vacation the past number of years. It is said that one of the young men was believed to possess information which in some way may aid in the work of apprehending the murderer. Mr. Risden returned to Sioux City Thursday afternoon.

A dispatch from Sioux City says that Oscar O. Rock, chief state agent, returned to Sioux City last night to give his personal attention to the beginning of work from which important developments are expected. He conferred with Ole T. Naglestad, county attorney, and James W. Kindig, assistant county attorney, who aided Risden in the South Dakota inquiry last week.

What was decided upon in the meeting was not divulged. It is known, however, the state has planned a campaign which is to be worked systematically and, if necessary, for several years in a final effort to capture the murderer. The trail of the slayer of Miss Gerken has led to Sioux Falls. A young man who visited the Gerken home in Woonsocket several times in the early spring and who, it is declared, may be able to throw valuable light on the mystery, is being sought. His name the authorities decline to reveal.

Whether an arrest is expected soon both James E. Risden, Iowa state detective, and James W. Kindig, assistant county attorney of Woodbury county, who recently was appointed chief criminal prosecutor for Iowa, would not say. They admit, however, that the “lead” which took them to Sioux Falls was one that demanded prompt attention. It is known the young man they seek has been a member of a South Dakota National Guard unit and was wearing khaki clothing just before the dead school teacher left Woonsocket. The man who passed Miss Gerken and Miss Mabel Houlihan at the corner of Ninth and Jones streets just before the shooting wore khaki according to every description the authorities have been able to obtain.

What bearing he may have on the killing, Risden will not discuss. With Kindig, late last night, the detective was busy interviewing a half dozen persons in and around Woonsocket. One trip was made to Cuthbert, the town where Miss Gerken taught school. The man being sought today is known to have visited the little school house at Cuthbert several times last winter, but it is asserted there was no serious love affair between him and the slain girl.

Only Hope Now Is That Murderer Will Tell Some One of Deed.
Sioux City, Ia., Aug. 22–J. E. Risden, state detective, returned last night from Woonsocket, S. D., where he has been engaged for the last two days in running down “odds and ends” of clews in connection with the murder of Miss Thecla Gerken at Ninth and Jones street.

“About our only hope now is that the man who murdered Miss Gerken will tell someone who will give us the information we need,” Mr. Risden said. He added that Oscar Rock, chief agent, would be in the city Monday to look in to some matters relating to the case. Mr. Risden would not say whether Mr. Rock’s return is caused by new developments in the case.

Mr. Risden, who as well as going to Woonsocket, visited Mitchell and Parkston, asserted that he could not find any motive which prompted the murder of Miss Gerken. Then he declared that he wished he could spend a week in Mitchell to look into some additional information which he had run across there.

The state detective declared that practically all the clues that the state has have been run down without any results. He said, however, that he did not intend to leave the case but would remain here as long as Attorney General Havner would allow him.

Mr. Risden will confer with County Attorney Ole T. Naglestad and Assistant Attorney General J. W. Kindig concerning the case.

Click here to read a recounting of Thecla Gerken’s murdery mystery
that appeared in the Sioux City Journal magazine section on Sunday, March 22, 1942.

Note. This is a .jpg image file.

Thecla Gerken gravestone

Courtesy Tom Larson

The murder of Miss Thecla Gerken remains a mystery to this day. She was buried in the family plot at the Catholic cemetery on the outskirts of Woonsocket, South Dakota. Her gravestone stands next to that of her father, John E. Gerken.


The background leading to the discovery of Thecla Gerken and her murder itself bears telling: In 1978, when I first began research into our family history, I came across an entry in the military diary of my grandfather, Ewald F. Gerken, who wrote, on June 28, 1917, “Learned that Tecla Gerken was shot in Sioux C.”

I presumed this to be the Thecla Gerken who was the daughter of William and Carolina (Wuebbelt) Gerken of Dyersville, Iowa, and a first cousin of my grandfather. This Thecla Gerken, later Mrs. Clem Bruggeman, was, in 1978, living at Dyersville, and she was just shy of her eighty-first birthday. I went to visit her on June 12, 1978, and one of my questions to her was if she had ever been shot. She wondered in amazement at the question, so I explained about the diary entry, and she finally came to realize that I had her confused with another Thecla Gerken. She then told me that this other Thecla Gerken had been shot and killed, and that the murder had never been solved. This Thecla Gerken was a second cousin of my grandfather Ewald Gerken, likewise a second cousin of Thecla (Gerken) Bruggeman.

This sent me into further research about Thecla Gerken and her murder, and both the Dubuque newspapers and the Dyersville Commercial carried coverage of the case. The Commercial, especially, carried extensive articles as Thecla had visited her relatives in Dyersville and New Vienna, Iowa, more than once during her summer vacations; one such visit occurred in late July and early August in 1915.



Thecla Gerken article

Courtesy The Sioux City Journal


  • Newspaper Accounts of the Murder Myster of Thecla M. Gerken (1894 – 1917), by Tom Larson
  • The Dyersville Commercial
  • “Thecla Gerken’s Rendezvous with Death,” by Neil Miller, The Sioux City Journal, Sunday, March 22, 1942
  • The Gerken-Larson Heritage: The 19th and 20th Centuries – A Family History, by Tom Larson
  • Find a Grave Memorial for Thecla Merle Gerken


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