Friday, June 09, 2017

The ghastly 1877 murder of Joseph Burton

Back in 1877, Joseph Burton --- a widely known and respected Albia-based marble cutter and manufacturer of tombstones --- stepped off a train in Chariton on the evening of June 20, spent the night at the Depot Hotel, then caught the morning southbound for Leon, hoping to collect a debt from a former business associate.

His ghastly murder two nights later in the rural depths of Decatur County provided sensational fodder for newspapers across the state during the summer weeks that followed.

Burton was a man most likely of middle age, born into slavery, probably in Missouri. He arrived in Iowa during 1863, perhaps in flight from that slave state, was joined in Albia after the Civil war by his mother, Dicy, and other family members, and prospered.

The Chariton Patriot of Wednesday, June 27, reported his death under the headline, "A Ghastly Murder: A Man's Brains Knocked Out and His Body Horribly Mutilated; the Murderer, Conscience-Stricken, Confesses His Crime." Here's the report:

Last Wednesday, J. Burton, a colored man of  Albia and well known there as a marble dealer, came to this place and spent the night, and on Thursday morning took the train for Leon. His business in that section was to see a white man named John Soll (actually, Saul), who lived with a widowed mother on a farm 11 miles south of Leon. Soll had formerly worked for him and taken orders for gravestones in Decatur county, and after delivering the work failed to make returns. He started to visit Soll on Friday, and was never again seen alive.

Late Saturday night, Soll appeared at Leon and delivered himself to the authorities and confessed that he had had an altercation with Burton, and had killed and buried him, and conscience stricken, he sought to relieve his mind of the dreadful secret by an open confession. He was placed in jail and on Sunday the officers proceeded to the scene of murder and found the body buried in the barn yard, as Soll had stated.

The murderer used an ax and split Burton's head open at the first blow, and then tumbling the body into a hole not large enough to hold it, he deliberatedly cut off his victim's legs near the body and bending them over the back, raked up the dirt and hid the ghastly, mutilated form from sight.

When the officers returned to Leon and confirmed Soll's statement, much indignation was expressed and for a time it was thought an attempt would be made to lynch the murderer. The pockets in the clothes of the murdered man were found turned inside out, and it is claimed that the murderer obtained money, variously stated from ten to two hundred dollars, but Soll denies getting anything.

Burton had lived in Albia for a number of years and was reputed to be quiet and inoffensive and the last man to provoke a quarrel. His remains were taken up and interred at the county poor farm five miles below Leon.


The Waterloo Courier of July 11, 1877, reported additional details of the slaying, citing as its source at Waterloo resident named John D. Smith, identified as a cousin of Joseph Burton and an employee of A.B. Thomas.

It appears, The Courier reported, that Joseph Burton, the murdered man, was formerly in partnership with his murderer, John Saul, as marble cutters at Albia, Monroe county, but they had dissolved partnership and Saul was acting as agent.

On the 20th of June, Saul wrote to Burton to bring some grave stones to the residence of a man named Wallace, a brother-in-law of his, who lived about 12 miles from Leon. Burton did so, and on the night of Friday, June 22d, he and Saul slept in a barn on the farm of Wallace. Some time during the night, Saul got an ax and struck Burton on the head, breaking his skull and killing him instantly. He then threw the body from the window to the ground, about 30 feet, then taking it, he dragged it to a slough where he had previously dug a grave and attempted to bury it. In order to do so he was compelled to cut off the legs.

In the morning, Wallace asked him where Burton was, and he said he had gone; but on going to the barn the blood on the ground disclosed the crime, and Saul confessed. He was taken to Leon and confined in Jail. He assigned no reason for the deed, but it is thought that as he was owing Burton, he conceived this way of paying his debt.


Despite Saul's confession, there apparently was a trail during a special August term of Decatur County Court and Saul was sentenced at its conclusion to a life term at the State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.


During late July, 1903, some 26 years later, Joseph Burton's mother, Dicy, died in Albia and her obituary in The Albia Union provided a few additional details about the murdered man and his family:

There passed away in this city last week, a very aged colored lady, Mrs. Dicy Burton, aged l03 years. She had been a member of the Methodist Church since she was l2 years old. She was sixty-five years a slave. Born in Halifax County, Virginia, she saw two of her own children sold away in slavery and one of them, a daughter, she never heard of afterwards. At the time of her death, she was making her home with her daughter, Mrs. Monroe Davis. Mrs. Burton came from Virginia in l828. Her maiden name was Comer. She married in Missouri and came to Iowa after the war in l865.

Her son, Joe Burton, preceded the family, coming from Missouri to Iowa in l863. He went from here to Leon on a business trip some years ago and while there was assaulted and murdered by one John Saul. Mrs. Burton was until her final sickness, which lasted several months, an active member of the Methodist Church of Albia.


A year later, during May of 1904, Decatur County was riveted by the details of another sensational murder, that of W.E. Bracewell by John F. Hayden. During the reporting process in that case, details of earlier murders in the county were reviewed and on June 2, The Leon Reporter noted regarding Burton's murderer, John Saul, that "after serving sixteen years and one week of his sentence, Gov. (Horace) Boies pardoned him and he was released, being now a resident of Osceola."

The Decatur County Home Cemetery presumably was established soon after 1866, when the home was established, but only 18 graves dating from the first decade of the 20th century are marked. According to the Decatur County Genealogical Society, a ledger containing burial information about others was burned when the county home was closed and sold during 1975.

So Joseph Burton, a creator of tombstones himself, presumably rests in an unmarked grave in the old and now abandoned cemetery, his only marker a virtual one.

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