Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Mystery, murder and the Siam treasure (Part 1)

I started out last week to tell a tale of alleged murder, buried treasure and mysteries yet unsolved that was played out in Taylor County, some distance to the southwest of here, but launched in Lucas County during 1915 by attorney Walter Washington Bulman (left) and his client, Samuel Anderson. Then I got sidetracked. Now I'll try it again, but in a couple of installments.

I introduced Bulman last week --- a lawyer native to Allamakee County who launched his practice in Chariton during 1907. During the early summer of 1915, Bulman was approached by a potential client named Sam Anderson, age 72 and a recent widower, who had arrived in Lucas County three years earlier to live with his younger brothers, Robert, Henry and Wilson, at the fading coal mining camp of "new" Cleveland where the younger men were employed as teamsters.

This was not the original Cleveland, located immediately east of Lucas, but instead some two miles southwest in Section 21 of Jackson Township, now part of Stephens State Forest. The resurrected Cleveland was established after 1896 when the failed Whitebreast Fuel Co. reorganized and, during 1899, opened a mine named Cleveland No. 4 at that location. Although never incorporated, "new" Cleveland had a depot, a post office (discontinued in 1913), company store, saloons, boarding houses, churches, a school and a substantial population. But the mine closed during 1908, subsequent efforts to make it pay failed, and new Cleveland, like the old, just faded away.

The Anderson boys were ramblers and roamers, following opportunity to make a buck. And the decline of the mine had endangered their livelihood, probably causing Sam Anderson to look back a dozen years or more to a time when he had been living in Taylor County and had been hired --- but never paid --- to dig for buried treasure on the farm he was renting. His brothers, Henry and Robert, also had been involved in the digging operation, too, but to a lesser extent.

Those who hired Sam, he said, had promised him a fourth of any recovered treasure in return for his labor. By some accounts as much as $90,000 was involved.

Sam was convinced that he had located the treasure for his employers and that they had recovered it after he had been sent away --- but his share of the loot had not been forthcoming.

And so he approached lawyer Bulman in Chariton during 1915 with the idea of a civil suit against one of the three men who had hired him, Bates Huntsman, and Walter agreed. Lawyer and client signed a contract on  June 12, 1915, guaranteeing Bulman 25 percent of whatever amount the suit might recover and then Walter got right to work.

Before all was said and done, the investigation would lead to the arrest on murder charges of four well-known and generally respected southwest Iowa men --- including Sam Anderson's son-in-law --- in a case that had been simmering in Taylor County legend and lore since just after the Civil War.

In addition to an ancient double murder in Taylor County, the case involved a fatal shooting later in Missouri and even the James gang (some alleged). Not to mention the treasure.

Newspaper coverage of the arrests and preliminary hearing transfixed Iowans briefly during July of 1915. It was front-page news across the state and beyond because of the sensational allegations involved. It was also a time rife with "alternative facts" and an astonishing array of information, misinformation, disinformation and just plain factual errors found its way into print.


The setting for all of this excitement was the neighborhood of a tiny village in far southwest Taylor County's Polk Township called Siam.

Siam originally had been called Buchanan, but when the time came to launch a post office, that name already had been taken. So Buchanan's post office was named Siam instead and, gradually, the old name faded away. Missouri is three and a half miles across the state line to the south; the Page County line, a mile and a half to the west. Today, very little remains at Siam other than the Siam Church of Christ and a cemetery.

The farm where the treasure reportedly had been buried was about a mile to the northwest, known sometimes in the neighborhood as the "Klondike Farm" because of its reputation as a place where gold might be found. It was owned at the turn of the 20th century by David and Charlotte White, a prosperous farm couple who lived just to the west in Page County. Their daughter, Elizabeth, had married our Sam Anderson in 1866 in Illinois. The Whites had arrived in the area from Illinois during 1877 and were in no way implicated in older legends about the property.

Sam and Elizabeth and their large family bounced around a lot and never would achieve the level of prosperity enjoyed by her parents.

They had lived at Siam first during the early 1880s, then moved down into Nodaway County, Missouri. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century they were back, according to newspaper accounts, renting the 180-acre Klondike Farm from Elizabeth's parents.

Sam and Elizabeth's eldest daughter, Arlida, had married a young man named John Damewood in 1884, during the family's initial stay in Taylor county, and they still lived in the area. It seems unlikely that the murder charges eventually filed against John as the result of his father-in-law's allegations contributed to family harmony.


Here's the basic story that Sam told Bulman:

About 1903, he was hired by three men --- including Bates Huntsman and his brother, Dr. Charles R. Huntsman, now deceased, to dig for buried money on the farm he was renting from his father-in-law.

The men told him that the money was some they had received 30 years before for the sale of  Missouri land and that they had been so afraid at the time of the bands of robbers that infested the Iowa-Missouri border that they had buried the money in a locust grove on the farm.

They had, of course, prepared a map locating the site of the treasure --- but the map had burned when the cabin in which it had been hidden caught fire, and they had lost all track of the location.

As unlikely as the story sounds to 21st century ears, Anderson agreed to dig, in return for the promise of a quarter of any treasure that might be recovered.

Digging continued over the course of many months and in the process, Sam reportedly uncovered the skeleton of a boy, perhaps about 15. Then, he said, he found the location of an iron box containing the treasure.

But before it was recovered, Sam said, his employers sent him away. He was convinced that the treasure had indeed been recovered and the proceeds divided --- and that he had been cheated out of his share.


Operating from his home base at Chariton, Bulman apparently dived straight into the morass of southwest Iowa myth and legend surrounding what would become known by a larger audience as the Siam Treasure.

He quickly discovered that, had there been treasure of any sort buried on the White farm, it was stolen --- according to lore from a wealthy Missouri farmer and his youthful companion, both of whom allegedly had been murdered by border ruffians some 50 years earlier, during 1868 or thereabouts.

Because there was no possibility of recovering a share of stolen treasure, Walter canceled his contract with Sam Anderson on June 18, 1915, six days after he had signed it.

But like a bulldog with a bone, Walter just kept gnawing away on the case --- calling in the state attorney general's office and others to launch the full-fledged investigation that would result in arrests and murder charges a month later. It's not clear why Walter became obsessed, to the point of helping to prosecute the case, while receiving no financial benefit whatsoever from the proceedings. But he did.

--- To be continued

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