Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Murder on the Levee, or not: The case of Alva Imel

Back in the early 1920s, when Alva Imel was shot dead on Commercial Avenue, that area of Chariton known as the Levee was a rough and tumble kind of place, the sort that concerned mamas tried keep their boys (and girls) away from.

Immediately west of the C.B.&Q. depot and rail yards, a couple of blocks northwest of the square, a small business district had grown up --- initially to serve the hundreds employed by the railroad. There were small hotels, boarding houses, stores and cafes. Prohibition was in effect during 1922, but there were multiple routes around that inconvenience on the Levee, too.

Nothing of it remains --- other than the brick street, a house and a building now converted for use as a church. But many still remember when there was more.

Alva was a man of 32 who had put in 18 months of honorable service during World War I, a veteran of combat in France. He hadn't really settled down after that and at the time of his death was working with a grading gang. His father, Samuel Imel, lived in Chariton, but his mother, Virginia, had died during 1920. He was single and unattached.

"When he was himself," The Herald-Patriot reported after Alva's fatal encounter with A.E. Mullen, a special agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, "he was peaceable, steady and reliable and a good worker."

"Drink," however, "was his unfortunate weakness," according to the Herald-Patriot.

Several small bottles of a liquid refreshment called Jamaica ginger --- a patent medicine known informally as Jake that was mostly ethanol --- were blamed for the unfortunate encounter that cost him his life.

Among the reasons this case interests me --- a great-uncle of mine, Albert Mason, was on the jury for the second-degree murder trial that followed Alva's death.


Alva was shot dead near midnight on Dec. 1, 1921, so the Thursday Herald-Patriot had to wait a full week to scream the news in its headlines (top). No doubt the Tuesday Leader covered the death, too, but 1921 Leader files are missing.

Here's enough of the long and detailed Herald-Patriot story to give an idea of what had happened:

Alva G. Imel was instantly killed about midnight on Thursday by a revolver shot fired, point blank, at short range, by Special Agent A.E. Mullen, of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad. The fatal bullet struck Imel squarely in the nose, penetrated the brain and came out at the base of the skull. Imel fell like a log, dead, at the detective's feet. The death was immediately reported to the officials, the body taken to the Beardsley undertaking rooms, and Mullen placed under arrest.

The shooting took place in the street, south of the Burlington station almost in front of the Roach restaurant, and followed an altercation at the station when the special agent ejected Imel and his pal, Ralph Robinson, from the waiting room. Both Robinson and Imel were intoxicated, having spent the afternoon together indulging in numerous bottles of Jamaica ginger, said to have a large alcoholic content.

Three Shots Fired

During the entire fracas Special Agent Mullen fired three shots, one in the station, said to have been accidental, the bullet striking the wall, and two shots in the street. One bullet struck Imel in the right side of the neck, passing through the shirt collar. This bullet went through the neck, coming out on the left side just above the shoulder. The other bullet struck him right in the nose, passing through the brain and coming out the back of his head a little lower down. There were other bruises on the head, indicating that he had received one or more blows.

Story of Tragedy

On Friday a coroner's jury, consisting of G.C. Blake, J.T. Risser and Mike Gauss, was impaneled. The jury inspected the remains, finding them as above described. The hearing took place at the office of Coroner Brittell, a number of witnesses being heard. As brought out in the testimony the following is the story of the tragedy.

Alva Imel and Ralph Robinson, two "buddies," met at Jack's Place about 5 o'clock on Thursday afternoon. They had some money which they proceeded to spend for Jamaica ginger, getting four ounce bottles for $1 apiece. According to Robinson they spent $6 or $7 for this poison. They were too intoxicated to care for supper and about 10 o'clock in the evening drifted into the Burlington station and proceeded to make themselves at home. There is no evidence that they were particularly boisterous or objectionable.

Special Agent A.E. Mullen reached Chariton on Train No. 9 that evening, with his associate Mowry. They engaged rooms at the Cottage Hotel and Mullen went over to the station. According to one witness, Robinson spoke to Mullen and they shook hands. Mullen went into the ticket office and asked if the men had tickets. He was told no tickets had been sold. Knowing that passengers had been annoyed by men loafing in the station he went to the waiting room and told the men they must get tickets or leave the station.

There was some back talk and Mullen seized Imel by the collar, there was a struggle during which Mullen drew his gun. Either by intent or accident Imel was hit on the side of the head and the gun was discharged, the bullet striking the wall. After some further disturbance Mullen succeeded in getting the two men out of the station. On the outside blows were struck and threats made and considerable language used. Imel and Robinson went across the street and Mullen returned to the station.

A few minutes later Mullen, with Baggageman Gardner, crossed the street and met the men on the curb in front of the Roach restaurant. Conflicting stories are told as to what happened at this time. But there were words, further threats of arrest by Mullen and of revenge by the men. Imel struck Mullen and followed after him. Mullen drew his gun and fired at the approaching man. The bullet struck him but did not stop him and Mullen fired again. They were so close that one witness states the flame from the gun almost touched Imel's body.

The bullet struck Imel in the bridge of the nose, passing through his head and he fell forward towards Mullen. He did not move after striking the pavement. No attempt was made to remove the body until the arrival of Officer Shaffer. Mullen left the scene of the shooting and went to his room. Something of a crowd collected and Mullen was fearful that he might be mobbed. He was taken to the county jail.


The coroner's jury met on Friday morning and reached consensus that there was sufficient evidence  to suggest that Special Agent Mullen had not exercised sufficient restraint or caution and that Imel's death had been preventable without unduly endangering Mullen. Early in the afternoon, Mullen was arraigned at the Lucas County Courthouse on a charge of second-degree murder, then released on $7,500 bond.

Because of fear that friends of Imel might harm him, Mullen remained at the courthouse until early evening when arrangements were made to have Train No. 2 stop at the Court Avenue crossing, just off the southwest corner of the square, pick him up and continue on to Ottumwa where he was to remain awaiting trial.


Mullen's trial commenced on Monday morning, April 3, 1922, at the Lucas County Courthouse. By Tuesday afternoon, the 12-man jury had been selected: Alva Goff, George E. Ashley, Oscar Slater, Albert Pim, M.H. Avitt, Albert Mason, M.S. Connor, John H. Schreck, Mark Sellers, J.H. Joy, Robert Spencer and J.F. Harding.

Lucas County Attorney Charles F. Wennerstrum, who would go on to serve as chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, was chief prosecutor, assisted by Chariton attorney J.W. Kridelbaugh. Attorneys J.A. Penick and W. Collinson, of Chariton, led the defense --- with a strong assist from W.E. Mitchell of Council Bluffs, believed to have been retained by the C.B.&Q. Judge F.M. Hunter, of Ottumwa, was on the bench.

During the week the trial was in progress, the Herald-Patriot staff attempted to gauge opinion in Chariton regarding Mullen's guilt. The conclusion was that opinion was equally divided, roughly half believing that the defendant had used excessive force; the other half, believing Imel had, to put it bluntly, gotten what he deserved. Perhaps the jury was divided along similar lines --- none of these men would have been able to avoid some knowledge of the Imel's death.

A major victory for the prosecution was the judge's ruling that Mullen could not be considered a peace officer in Lucas County because he had never been deputized by the sheriff, as he had been in Wapello and Monroe counties. The defense, on the other hand, turned up a witness who testified that he had heard Imel express a wish to "get" Mullen prior to the night of the fatal encounter.

In reporting the verdict in its edition of April 13, The Herald-Patriot allowed that many were expecting a hung jury. However, after receiving the case at 5:30 p.m. on Friday the Jury deliberated for nine and a half hours, then returned at 3 a.m. on Saturday with a verdict of "not guilty" and Mullen was allowed to go free, cleared of all charges.

Alva had been buried in the Chariton Cemetery on the Sunday following his death. Some years later a military marker honoring his World War I service was erected to mark the grave.


Other stories of murder and mayhem on or near the Levee include the following: The murder of Charles Archibold, "Wild West" on the Levee and The tragedies of Johanna Towns & Miss Julia Murphy.

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