In October 1929, just weeks before the "Black Tuesday" stock market sell-off signaled the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States, Cerro Gordo County resident Charlotte Van Horn headed west with her son, Chandler, and niece, to find a new home and a new life in Los Angeles.
Not long before the move, Van Horn sold off a farm near Clear Lake that had belonged to her and her former husband, Chester "Chet" Van Horn.
For years, the couple, who were about a decade's difference in age, lived in a home 4 miles southwest of town until Chet was found dead after an apparent suicide on the morning of Friday, Nov. 20, 1914 by Charlotte.
An initial article from the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican said Chet died from a gunshot wound sometime during the night and Charlotte made the discovery after returning home from a night in town on Nov. 19. That narrative lasted little more than a month before Charlotte was arrested in Des Moines on New Year's Eve and charged with the first-degree murder of Chet.
That arrest kicked off a four-month whirlwind of coverage that swept up every corner of the state of Iowa. A simple perusal through Newspapers.com kicks up articles on the case from not just Mason City but Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities, Sioux City, Waterloo, Dubuque, Marshalltown, Ottumwa and Muscatine as well.
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Though some of the earliest articles about the arrest, such as one from the Webster City Freeman on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1915, do mention the murder charge, they also share an "existing consensus" opinion from around the time of Chet's death that he did in fact kill himself because of "domestic unhappiness" and frequent marital quarreling.
In May of the same year, an article from the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican relayed testimony from the trial that the Van Horns had not lived happily together for some time and were separated for about a year. What had previously been used to explain a suicide had since shifted to a possible motive for murder.
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That Freeman article let it be known that when Charlotte was arrested in Des Moines, she was being treated for a nervous breakdown at "Hill's Retreat" which was a private sanatorium established in 1905 by Dr. Gershom Hill and Dr. John Doolittle on property formerly owned by philanthropist James Callanan. When Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Fred Marsh brought Charlotte back to Mason City, she first went to Park Hospital.
A Des Moines Register article from Friday, Jan. 8, 1915, reported that after the adjournment of an initial court date, her brother, Ralph Callanan, said that he believed Charlotte had been "mentally unbalanced" for about half a decade.
A court exhibit from April 28, 1915 shows a deputy sheriff, H.W. Knapp, saying that he talked with Charlotte about Chet's death and that at no time when asked did she ever deny the shooting.
"When I first met her, she seemed to be cheerful and carried an ordinary conversation in an ordinary way," Knapp said. The coroner, Dr. W.E. Long, said that when he performed the autopsy Charlotte was there and didn't appear to show any emotion at all.
Around Jan. 8, Charlotte was able to secure the $7,500 needed for bail with help from her family. That sprung her from Cerro Gordo County and got her back to Hill's Retreat — but that freedom was fleeting.
A Monday, Feb. 1, 1915 article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted that Charlotte Van Horn went back to Mason City on Jan. 24 after having her bond revoked. It then ends with quite the piece of speculation: "Persons who live at Clear Lake, and know the Van Horn family, stated that she was friendly with her husband’s brother, but no evidence regarding these relations was brought out at the hearing."
The Rollo saga
The dateline in the Waterloo Courier is Tuesday, Feb. 2, 1915 in Mason City and Rollo Van Horn has been arrested on the charge of murdering his brother, Chet.
"He is supposed to have been arrested as a result of statements by Mrs. Charlotte Van Horn, widow of Chester Van Horn," the article states.
The piece then lets it be known that "an affinity case" is alleged to have been the motive for the murder. Per an Iowa court ruling from 1892, “The meaning of affinity is well established. It is the relationship which one spouse has because of the marriage to blood relatives of the other."
In what appears to be pre-trial testimony on behalf of the state, a Clear Lake-resident named May Yohn said that she boarded with the Van Horns from Friday nights to Monday mornings while she taught school and that she saw Charlotte with Rollo "a little" but Yohn couldn't say that she'd ever seen them alone together. A Mrs. Henrietta Hackett testified that she had known of Charlotte's relations with Rollo Van Horn for "some years."
Rollo's time in the barrel didn't last long. A story in the Humeston New Era from Wednesday, Feb. 10, 1915 reports that Rollo Van Horn was released from custody. "Lightning changes in the murder mystery of Chester Van Horn," was the summary of the developments.
Nancy Bowers, who wrote about the Van Horn case in 2011 for the Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases website and lists working for law enforcement in the credentials on that site, said that she took note of those lightning-fast changes, too.
"I believe I was surprised that the brother's possible involvement was so quickly dismissed," Bowers wrote in an email.
One of Bowers' greatest interests in the case with Charlotte was her presentation throughout the proceedings.
"As is often the case in contemporary crimes, the suspect became the focus of attention. I believe she carefully orchestrated that," Bowers wrote. "The veil to tantalizingly hide her face; the carefully-chosen, quasi-Sailor suit to suggest a childlike innocence; the move into a 'swanky' hotel; the dramatic protestations of weariness; the treatments at the 'nervous invalids'' home; etc. Neither she nor the press seemed inclined to mention the victim and the crime."
In that Marshalltown Evening Times Republican piece, however, the reporting does take time out to mention that Charlotte wore a veil continually and protested against publicity.
Bowers covers an episode in her story that finds Charlotte at a particularly weary time. Bowers retells a scene in the Globe Gazette where Charlotte and Ralph spent an evening sitting in the writing room of the Historic Park Inn and responding to questions from a reporter.
"The only words Charlotte Van Horn uttered were, 'Oh, I am so tired tonight,'" Bowers' piece recounts.
A respite at last
A reprieve of sorts did eventually come for Charlotte, at least as it relates to the case.
After less than a full week of the actual trial, Charlotte was found not guilty of the crime of murdering her husband Chet. Per a Sunday, May 2 article from the Sioux City Journal, Charlotte is said to have wept upon the reading of the verdict for the trial which officially lasted but a few days.
However, those few days did feature quite a few theories that the prosecutors tried to throw at the wall and get to stick.
Two state witnesses said they saw Charlotte and another person driving in the direction of the farm on the night that Chet died when she was supposed to have been in town celebrating a birthday. A.W. Vergberg said that on Nov. 19, 1914 she met Charlotte Van Horn going out of Clear Lake at about 8:30 p.m. A Mr. R.F. Fletcher said that a short time after 8 p.m. he saw Charlotte Van Horn and another person driving south past the Outing Club (which still exists on South Shore Drive).
"I have known Charlotte Van Horn for probably 25 years and am not mistaken that it was she at that time, as she passed under an electric light. The other I believe was a man," Fletcher said.
Another postulated that Charlotte had surreptitiously got a revolver in the mail and discarded evidence of that fact.
Authorities tried to make the case that Charlotte had acquired the gun under an assumed name though the connection only went as far as one witness, Floyd Grimm, saying they saw Charlotte with a small brown paper package on November 14 and another, a cashier named R.H. Patterson, testifying that on November 14 a woman did sign for package addressed to a "David E. Devera."
Mason City Police Sgt. Gregory Scott, who does history work for the department, said that looking back into old cases, even ones with some semblance of a resolution, can be difficult to do.
"Mostly people have just forgotten about them because of time. When you read these old reports, the street names are different because they changed the names so sometimes it's hard to find where the homicide happened," Scott said.
Fran Van Horn, a granddaughter of Charlotte's, wasn't aware of any details about the case at all until she saw Bowers' story a few years back. She said her father didn't speak much about that period of time in Charlotte's life.
"I know my dad and mum visited her in LA most weekends where she lived with my dad’s cousin, Eunice (who was the other child sent to the neighbor’s on the evening before my grandfather’s death), until she passed away," Fran wrote in an email.
She said that she's tried to find Charlotte's Los Angeles residence on Google Earth but can't and believes it was likely razed at some point in the past. The only details that Fran said her mom told her was that her grandfather died by suicide and that Charlotte took tap-dancing lessons later in her life.
None of that comes up in "20th anniversary" blurb that appeared in the Globe Gazette on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 1935. No stories about tap-dancing lessons, or theories of revolvers, or gothic descriptions of a woman cloaked in a veil. There's no mention of nervous breakdowns or speculative love triangles. The recap distills the most high profile period of Charlotte's life into a single sentence.
"Twenty years ago — Charlotte Van Horn was arrested at Des Moines yesterday and charged with the murder of her husband, Chester Van Horn, on Nov. 20, at Clear Lake."
Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Jared.McNett@globegazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @TwoHeadedBoy98.