Friday, October 09, 2015

The tragedies of Johanna Towns & Miss Julia Murphy

One hundred and twenty years have erased the memory of Chariton's most deadly crime of passion  --- when a young man drew two pistols on an early August mid-morning during 1894 in a busy neighborhood known as "the levee," killed one young woman, fatally injured her sister, wounded their mother, then took his own life.

The only reminder is this lovely monument in Calvary Cemetery that marks the graves of the two sisters --- Julia Murphy and Johanna (Murphy) Towns --- as well as their mother, also Julia Murphy, who joined them in death 16 years later.

The senior Julia Murphy, born Julia Mullin during 1830 in County Clare, Ireland, had arrived in the United States with her parents and siblings at age 16, locating in Louisa County. She had married James Murphy there and they became the parents of four daughters --- Johanna, Mary, Nora and Julia --- before he vanished from their lives.

By 1880, the senior Julia had acquired a building located just west of the C.B.&Q. Depot, northwest of the square, and was supporting her daughters by operating a boarding house there. As the years passed, daughter Mary became Sister Sacred Heart of the Community of the Humility of Mary in Ottumwa, Nora married J.W. Dalton during November of 1892 and Johanna married F. P. Towns during September of 1893.

The Daltons established their own home, but Towns' work with the railroad took him to Ottawa, Illinois, during the summer of 1894 and so Johanna moved in with her mother and sister, Miss Julia.

According to eye-witness accounts, Mrs. Murphy and daughter Julia were sitting on the back porch of the boarding house at mid-morning on Aug. 8, 1894, and Johanna was standing in the kitchen door when one of their boarders --- also for five years a suitor of Miss Julia --- walked up, exchanged a few words, then drew two pistols and began firing.

Here's an account of the tragedy, published two days later --- in The Chariton Democrat of Aug. 10, 1894.


"On Wednesday morning, about 10:25, a terrible tragedy occurred at the residence of Mrs. Julia Murphy, nearly opposite the depot, and as a result two lives have gone out and two more are hovering between life and death. The cries of Mrs. Murphy and the sound of pistol shots soon brought a crowd  upon the scene and there a horrible and ghastly sight presented itself, one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Stretched upon the kitchen floor in front of the door leading into the dining room was the lifeless body of Mrs. Johanna Towns, daughter of Mrs. Murphy. Lying near her with her head and arms resting on the stove was Julia Murphy, another daughter, who was groaning and suffering with a bullet wound in the back. Leaning against the door was Mrs. Murphy, who had been shot twice.

"The murderer, Win. D. Jenkins, had fled to his room upstairs and locked the door. It was thought best to make an investigation before breaking into his room as it was not known whether he had committed suicide or was prepared for resistance to a capture. A small transom above the door offered a means of gaining an insight into the room. Geo. Robbins looked through the transom and told the bystanders Jenkins was lying on the bed. It was then surmised that he was dead, and the door was broken open. Jenkins was dead, having sent a bullet through his brain. In one hand a revolver was clasped and lying on the bed near him was another one. He was lying straight on the bed, his head propped up with two pillows, and presented the appearance of being asleep.

 "Mr. J.C. Malone, the expressman, was an eye witness to the tragedy. He was going toward the depot and noticed Mrs. Murphy and daughter Julia sitting on the back porch while Mrs. Johanna Towns was standing in the doorway; Jenkins was standing with his hands behind him, about ten feet from them, and appeared to be talking to them. Suddenly he drew two revolvers and aiming first at Mrs. Towns, sent a bullet through her heart, killing her almost instantly. He then shot Miss Julia, the bullet entering her back about two inches below the shoulder blade and passing through the spinal column, paralyzing her entire body below the wound. Two shots were then directed at Mrs. Murphy, one of them piercing her right thigh, the other entering her abdomen, the wounds being about eleven inches apart.

"Jenkins then replaced the revolvers in his pockets and with his head down walked around the house, through the front door and upstairs to his room. There he bolted the door, took off his coat and vest and hung them up, and then took the empty shells out of his revolvers and threw them on the floor and replaced them with cartridges. It is supposed by that that he conteplated showing fight, but realizing what he had done he put an end to his own life by shooting himself, the ball entering his head near the right temple.

"After being shot, Miss Julia Murphy succeeded in crawling into the house where she was found. She is fatally injured and the doctors say her life is a question of but a few hours. Mrs. Murphy is also seriously injured and while she may recover the chances are against her.

"Mr. Towns, the husband of the dead woman, was in Ottawa, Illinois, where he has been employed all summer, and was immediately telegraphed. He arrived in the city Thursday about noon and his feelings can better be imagined that described. The funeral services of Mrs. Towns were held yesterday afternoon at five o'clock at the residence of Mrs. Murphy and were conducted by Father Leonard. A large concourse of sorrowing and sympathizing friends were in attendance and followed the remains to their last resting place in the Catholic cemetery. Besides the mother and the sister who are wounded and the husband, two sisters, Mary of Ottumwa and Mrs. Nora Dalton, of this city, are left to mourn their great loss and have the heartfelt sympathy of every person in the community.

"The only motive that can be assigned for the deed is jealousy. Jenkins had been boarding at Mrs. Murphy's for several years and was desperately in love with Miss Julia Murphy and had been keeping company with her for about five years. They had been engaged to be married and the ceremony would probably have been performed several months ago had it not been for a difference in their religious beliefs, she being a devout Catholic while he was a Protestant, which led to a disagreement.

"For several months, Jenkins had been drinking but not to excess, and on that account Miss Julia had broken the engagement. About a month ago a quarrel occurred between Jenkins and the Murphy family and he was told that he must take his meals some other place. Since that time he has been taking his meals at the Bates House but still retained his room at Murphy's.

"Jenkins has told several persons that he was engaged to a young lady in Indianola, and that they would be married about the first of September. Whether this was true or not is not known, but it is plain to be seen that his affections were centered upon Miss Murphy. He was insanely jealous and forbade her keeping company with other gentlemen. On the evening previous to the tragedy she accompanied a young man to the home of his parents in the country, this probably aroused Jenkins' anger. Rumor says that she had been riding with the gentleman once before and that Jenkins told her she had gone once, she might go twice but she would never go the third time. On the morning the crime was committed Jenkins had been drinking heavily and was intoxicated. Crazed with anger and drink he went to the house of Mrs. Murphy and committed the terrible deed.

"Mrs. Murphy and family moved here from Louisa County and located in Whitebreast township in 1875. After living there for four years they moved to Chariton where Mrs. Murphy has since conducted a boarding house. They were among the most estimable people in Chariton and were liked and respected by all with whom they became acquainted. The sad affair has caused many heavy hearts and has cast a gloom over the entire community.

"Winfield Jenkins has held the position of night baggageman at the depot for about six years and has always been considered a reliable, industrious and praiseworthy young man. That he was capable of such a deed as has just been described was little thought by anyone who knew him. If there were any extenuating circumstances let the parties concerned have the benefit; and may the mantle of charity be thrown over the whole affair. Let no one forget the scriptural commandment to 'judge not lest ye be judged.'

"Mr. Jenkins belonged to the order of United Workmen and the members of that body took charge of his remains, which were shipped Thursday morning to Lacona, his former home and where his father and brothers reside. A delegation of Workmen accompanied the remains to Lacona and attended the funeral services which were held yesterday afternoon.

"A coroner's inquist was held upon the bodies of Mrs. Johanna Towne and Winfield Jenkins on Wednesday afternoon."


Miss Julia lingered for three weeks, helpless and drifting in and out of consciousness, before she died  as a result of her wound on Oct. 1, 1894, and was buried beside her sister, Johanna, on Oct. 3.

Their mother, Mrs. Julia Murphy recovered --- but slowly. The boarding house was sold and she accompanied the Dalton family first to Ottumwa, then to St. Joseph, Missouri.

She died in St. Joseph on Sunday, Oct. 16, 1910, of injuries sustained in a fall down the basement stairs of her daughter's and son-in-law's home. Her funeral Mass was celebrated the Tuesday following at St. Patrick's Church in St. Joe, then her body was brought by train to Chariton and buried beside her daughters at Calvary.

The obituary of that week in The Chariton Herald characterized her as a "grand, good woman" who "bore all the trials and tribulations which fell to her lot in an uncomplaining manner and strove to live an honorable, upright life."

In addition to her daughters, Sister Sacred Heart and Nora, she was survived by a brother, Dan Mullin, of Walnut, Kansas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And some of the news reports would have us think this sort of event is a new phenomenon.

Bill H.