The Mysterious Death of Fritz Ehrig – Part II

Click Here For Part One

It was on the morning of October 7, 1869 that the body of Friedrich “Fritz” Ehrig was found in the bottom of the cistern in the churchyard of St. Anthony’s Church in Davenport. Mr. Ehrig had been a well-respected and well-known local citizen. He was a married man with five young children, a successful store clerk, retired Secretary of the School Board, and member of several local fraternities.

Even more shocking was the Coroner’s Inquest that concluded Mr. Ehrig been murdered. Struck on the back of the head, rendered most likely unconscious, and then thrown in the cistern where he drowned. Who would do such a horrible thing to such an upstanding man?

It appeared there were no answers to who would murder Fritz Ehrig or why.

Two and a half years later, Davenporters opened their papers to astonishing headlines. A letter had been sent the Davenport Police Department from Sergeant Henry Strecker of the Toledo, Ohio Police Department. The letter was printed in the Davenport Daily Gazette on February 6, 1872 for the public to read.

Sergeant Strecker inquired if a man named Erich (Ehrig) had been murdered and thrown into a well in Davenport about two years ago. Strecker asked if there was a motive or a person who was considered suspicious. He also wondered if the murder was committed by the use of a cane. If yes, to please provide him with the details including information on a reward.

While the letter, of course, was a surprise. What followed in the Davenport Daily Gazette and the Daily Davenport Democrat was probably shocking to many.  

Though the letter provided no names as to who may have spoken to the Toledo, Ohio police about the murder; the Gazette and Democrat provided their own theory on the murder of Fritz Ehrig and the whispers that had apparently been going around Davenport for years.

According to the newspapers, after leaving his friend on the corner of Brady and 5th Streets on the night of his murder Mr. Ehrig may have been going to pay a visit to a widowed woman of “doubtful virtue” (later identified as widow Cora West) who lived with her children and a man named James Alcott*. The couple lived as husband and wife in an apartment on the northwest corner of Brady and 4th Streets neat St. Anthony’s Church.

Mr. Alcott, in 1869, worked for the Davenport Daily Gazette, as a printer. He had met Cora while working for a newspaper in Rock Island and moved in with her. A fight between the couple caused her to move with her children to Davenport where she made the “acquaintance of a number of men” before getting back together with Mr. Alcott and moving into the apartment at Brady and 4th Streets.

James Alcott worked both day and night shifts at the newspaper.

It was theorized that Mr. Alcott had returned home sooner than expected and found Mr. Ehrig visiting Cora. It was thought that he struck Ehrig in the head causing him to fall down a flight of stairs. Thinking he had killed the man, Mr. Alcott and Cora carried the body to the nearby church cistern and threw the body in.

Mr. Alcott continued working at the Gazette, probably printing stories of Mr. Ehrig’s murder and inquest, before suddenly leaving town with Cora and her children about one or two weeks later.

The family eventually moved to Des Moines, Iowa where he was hired by the Des Moines Register newspaper. Nothing more was heard from the couple until the fall of 1871 when Cora suddenly appeared in Davenport looking for James Alcott. She was said to have stated the pair had fought in Des Moines. Mr. Alcott had become drunk and enraged. In the process smashing all of their furniture before leaving town.

Cora left town after finding that Mr. Alcott had not returned to Davenport.

The Gazette stated that many employees had been suspicious of Mr. Alcott after the murder, but declined to say anything for fear of upsetting his family.

As for Mr. Alcott and Cora, it was unknown where they were living. The Gazette assumed that the person who spoke to the Toledo Police Department was the Mrs. West, but rumor had it that Mr. Alcott was still in Des Moines working as a printer.

It was assumed that once they were found, Mr. Alcott and Mrs. West would be arrested for the murder of Mr. Ehrig.

The murder of Mr. Ehrig continued to have unexpected twists and turns as the Davenport Daily Democrat printed on February 9, 1872 that the newspaper reporters had been misled on the case and owed Mr. Alcott an apology. The article even carried an interview from the Des Moines Register in which James Alcott denied being involved in the murder of Fritz Ehrig and he was tired of being followed about the matter.

After that, the case went quite once again.

Until April 1874.

On April 23rd, the Davenport Daily Gazette printed the Ehrig murder was once again being investigated due to the dedication of Mr. Ehrig’s friends who would not let the matter be forgotten. After the articles in February 1872, Mr. Alcott threatened to sue the Gazette for slander. He also indicated Mr. J. W. Hasson from the Gazette and Mr. S. S. Drake from the Democrat had started the stories of his involvement. Mr. Alcott also stated on the night of the murder it was Mr. Hasson who left work early from the Gazette office, not himself.

The Gazette reported it had received a letter from Missouri stating that James Alcott had left Des Moines and Cora during the winter of 1873. He was now deranged and penniless in Missouri. Not everyone believed that letter though. Many felt Mr. Alcott had it sent to throw everyone off his trail.

On April 20, 1874 a Mr. William Poole, a local grocer, was given a warrant to arrest Mr. Alcott and his wife in Des Moines. When he arrived, he found Mrs. West and arrested her, but Mr. Alcott was gone. Once the train arrived in Davenport, Mrs. West placed in jail.

It was learned that Mr. Alcott was in La Salle, Illinois and Police Officer William Niles was sent to arrest him.

And then the case took a turn – again.

The person who spoke to the police in Toledo, Ohio in 1872 was finally identified as Elizabeth Fritzfeldt. As a young German immigrant, she moved to Davenport with her sister and both were hired to work in the household of Dr. Rudolph Alberti and his family.

Now living in Toledo, Ohio and working for a new family, Elizabeth accused Dr. Alberti of the murder of Fritz Ehrig. After speaking with police, detectives were sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they located Dr. Alberti and brought him back to Davenport.

James Alcott was forgotten.

By April 30th, Dr. Alberti was in jail awaiting trial for the murder of Fritz Ehrig in 1869. His family followed him to Davenport and stayed with friends.

The new theory in the murder of Mr. Ehrig was that Dr. Alberti also intended visiting Mrs. West on the night of the murder. He and Ehrig ran into each other and a fight ensued. Dr. Alberti had pushed Mr. Ehrig and he fell down the outer steps of the apartment building hitting his head in the process. Panicking, Dr. Alberti and Cora disposed of the body in the cistern.

Dr. Alberti had been a physician in Davenport in 1869. He left the area soon after the Ehrig murder, sending for his family a few months later. Miss Fritzfeldt stated that the doctor had gone out the night of the murder and returned upset and had thrown a broken cane on top of cabinets in the kitchen. Elizabeth felt something was not right, so she stored the broken cane in her trunk. Elizabeth followed the family, but eventually left them and was hired into a new household in Toledo.

The trial of Dr. Alberti began about April 30, 1874. Dr. Alberti, his wife, and friends testified that Dr. Alberti had planned to leave Davenport several months before the murder. He had even sold items from his medical practice and begun packing before October 1869.  

Testimony during the trial reported that the doctor had been called out on a medical visit the evening of October 6 into October 7, 1869. He was known to carry canes and sometimes they broke. Dr. Alberti was acquainted with Mr. Ehrig and had gone over to the churchyard to offer assistance as he was passing by when the body was removed from the cistern. His offer of help was declined as the coroner had already been summoned.

The most interesting part of the trial was the questioning of William Pool, the grocer who had been allowed to arrest Mrs. West in Des Moines. He stated that on the day of the murder he found hair on the outer steps leading to the Alcott apartment. He collected the hair and compared it to Mr. Ehrig’s and it matched. He said some of the steps looked like they had been cleaned.

Mr. Pool did not testify in front of the Coroner’s Inquest in 1869.

No evidence was presented that Dr. Alberti knew Mrs. West, had fled the city, or knew anything about the murder of Fritz Ehrig.

A verdict of not guilty was quickly pronounced and Dr. Alberti went free.

As an afterthought, Mrs. West was released from prison as well as she was accused of being an accessory in helping Dr. Alberti dispose of Mr. Ehrig’s body. As Dr. Alberti was innocent, she would not be tried for her guilt.

And then, we believe, the case grew cold. Mr. Alcott was never arrested and brought in for questioning. We have not been able to find any evidence anyone was ever charged with the murder of Fritz Ehrig. It is a cold case indeed.

What happened to the people involved with this murder? We have a few answers, but not all.

Mrs. Ehrig lived near Fourth and Warren Streets for many years working as a laundress to support her children. She eventually moved with her children to Council Bluffs, Iowa. She died there, still a widow, on February 8, 1887. She is buried in a local Council Bluffs cemetery.

Dr. Alberti decided Davenport was just the place he wanted to live in after all. He moved back with his family and practiced medicine. He died in Davenport on January 17, 1898. His obituaries do not mention his involvement in the Ehrig case.

James W. Alcott was born in Vermont and had been in the Civil War. He lived as a single man, never getting back together with Cora West. He eventually moved into a home for disabled soldiers in Togus, Maine. He died May 1, 1905 and is buried in Togus National Cemetery.

Ellen Cora Carley West is last located in 1880 living in Des Moines, Iowa as a housekeeper in a house of ill-fame. A death record has not been found yet for her.

We will continue to look to see if this case was ever solved, but for now it appears to remain a mystery.

(posted by Amy D.)

*Spellings of the last name varied including Alcott, Olcutt, and Olcott in different newspapers and records.


  • com.
  • Daily Davenport Democrat, February 5, 1872. Front Page.
  • Daily Davenport Democrat, February 6, 1872. Front Page.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, February 6, 1872. Pg. 4.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, February 7, 1872. Pg. 4.
  • Daily Davenport Democrat, February 9, 1872. Front Page.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, April 23, 1874. Pg. 4.
  • Daily Davenport Democrat, April 29, 1874. Front Page.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, April 30, 1874. Pg. 4.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, May 1, 1874. Pg. 4.
  • Davenport Daily Gazette, May 3, 1874. Pg. 4.
  • Daily Davenport Democrat, May 4, 1874. Front Page.
  • Davenport Democrat, January 18, 1898. Front Page.
  • Davenport Daily Times, January 18, 1898. Pg. 3.

© The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library, 2007-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Mysterious Death of Fritz Ehrig – Part I

The morning of Thursday, October 7, 1869 probably seemed like a typical fall day to Patrick Higgins, Sexton of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Davenport. The church was (and still is) located on the corner of 4th and Main Streets.

In 1869, the property included the church, school buildings, smaller residences, and an orchard. From Main and 4th Streets, the property extended close to Brady Street to the east and 5th Street to the north. The area surrounding the church property was densely packed with businesses and residences.

About 6:00 a.m., Mr. Higgins headed out to the brick cistern located near the church’s school buildings (on the northeast side of the property). The Sexton noticed the cover he had placed on the cistern the evening before was pushed off to the side, but that was not unusual as the public was allowed to get water from the well pump or cistern as needed. What was unusual that day was the man’s hat laying near the cistern and the water spout that allowed rain water to run into the cistern was broken off.

Mr. Higgins was not overly concerned as he believed local boys had gotten into the apple orchard overnight and done damage to the cistern as well. He placed the hat on his head and began to draw several buckets of water from the cistern.

Soon after, Mr. Higgins showed the hat to Father Morris Flavin and mentioned the damage to the spout at the cistern. Father Flavin asked Mr. Higgins to go back to the cistern to check it. He feared a child may have fallen into the cistern overnight.

At about 9:00 a.m., Mr. Higgins took a rake and began to run it along the bottom of the cistern. He soon bought up the body of a man who was lying face down in the water.

Word quickly spread through the neighborhood and people began to fill the churchyard as the body was removed from the cistern. The man was quickly identified as Mr. Friedrich (Fritz) Wilhelm Ehrig, a well-known German immigrant who lived several blocks west near Fourth and Warren Streets. Everyone wanted to know how Mr. Ehrig ended up in the church’s cistern and was the prominent wound on the back of his head the result of an accident or something far more sinister?

Mr. Ehrig, by newspaper accounts of the time, was an upstanding citizen with many friends. He was born about 1832 in Naumburg, Saxony and immigrated to the United States in 1856. Soon after, he settled in Davenport with his wife Catharina. They had five children: Ottilie, Pauline, Antoinette, Fritz Paul, and Louise. The children in 1869 ranged in age from 11 to 2 years. Mr. Ehrig was a successful store clerk for Kelly & Wood Hardware. He was a Free Mason, an Odd Fellow, and had been Secretary of the School Board for many years before retiring from that position in the spring of 1869.

The coroner was called to the scene and he directed the body of Mr. Ehrig to be taken to the Odd Fellows Hall located on the west side of Brady Street, between 5th and 6th Streets. Several doctors examined the body at the Hall and a Coroner’s inquest began that afternoon into his death.

Several of Mr. Ehrig’s friends were called to testify on the events of October 6th and the early morning hours of October 7th. Mr. Ehrig had gotten off work about 7:30 p.m. the evening before. He and a friend went to the Odd Fellows Hall were they put on their garments and walked with others to hear a lecture at the Burtis Opera House. After the lecture the men walked their Rock Island Odd Fellows associates to the ferry and then returned to the Hall to store their regalia. About six men, including Fritz Ehrig, went on to Thode & Lanfeldt’s at 91 W. 2nd Street for sandwiches, wine, billiards, and conversation. It was about 10:00 p.m. when they arrived.

All those who spoke at the inquest agreed Mr. Ehrig was in fine spirits that night and not inebriated when they left the establishment about 2:00 a.m.

Thode & Landfelt’s was not far from Mr. Ehrig’s home near Fourth and Warren Streets. Mr. John Haley, who was with the group as they left the saloon, reported at the inquest that he had assumed Mr. Ehrig would walk home with him as they lived near each other. He was surprised when Mr. Ehrig not only did not head home, but also did not acknowledge his question about walking together.

Instead of heading west towards his house, Mr. Ehrig continued walking northeast with Odd Fellow members John Gundaker and William Coulter. Soon Mr. Coulter parted ways to head to his residence. Mr. Gundaker spoke with Fritz Ehrig for about five minutes at the corner of Brady and 5th Streets before he, Mr. Gundaker, went into his residence. The last image Mr. Gundaker had of Fritz Ehrig was of Ehrig walking down 5th Street heading towards Main Street.

Mr. Gundaker stated he did not see anyone else about on the street except for he and Mr. Ehrig.

The only unusual thing his friends noted during the inquest was Mr. Ehrig had expressed concern to several of them for three weeks prior to his death that someone did not like him. He even debated carrying a gun. He was about to tell one friend the name of the person when they were interrupted in the hardware store. Mr. Ehrig said he would tell him the name the next time he saw him. That was one week before his death. The friend was a farmer in Scott County and had not been back to town since that last conversation. 

The inquest ended on the evening of October 7th and resumed the next day at 10:00 a.m.

The second day of the inquest brought about further interviews with friends, but also reports from police who examined the scene and doctors asked to examine the body.

It was reported to the inquest that the cistern had about three and a half feet of water in it. It was about 18 inches deep and the opening about 17 inches in diameter. The mortar around the opening was slightly raised and the cover was heavy enough that if someone tripped on it the cover would not easily move. 

As for the body, a crescent shape mark was found on the back of the head. Sawdust was in the wound and some hair was missing. The doctors felt Mr. Ehrig was struck standing up. The blow did not fracture the skull, but could have rendered the man unconscious. There were abrasions about his face and on his knees as if they were scraped. There were also marks on his arms above the elbows that might have been caused by hands carrying him.

The doctors stated there was water in Mr. Ehrig’s lungs indicating he was alive when he entered the cistern. It appeared to the doctors that he drowned after entering the well in an unconscious state. He would have been able to recover from the blow to the head otherwise.

Mr. Ehrig was found wearing his full suit from the evening before. His watch, money, and work keys were still in his pockets. Nothing had been taken.

No blood or signs of a struggle were found in the churchyard. It seemed Mr. Ehrig was knocked unconscious elsewhere and carried into the churchyard.

As the inquest continued, the funeral of Fritz Ehrig took place from his home on October 9th. He was buried with full honors by the Masonry and Odd Fellowship. His funeral was attended by family, friends, members of the school board, Masons, Odd Fellows, Davenport City Council, and the Mayor of Davenport. Fritz Ehrig was buried in Lot 121 in the original section of City Cemetery in a plot owned by the International Order of Odd Fellows.

The Mayor and Davenport City Council posted a $1,000 reward for information on the murderer(s). The Odd Fellows added $500 to that reward.

On October 12, 1869, based on the evidence of those who were with Fritz Ehrig the night before his death, examination of the cistern and churchyard, and medical reports; Mr. J. J. Tomson, Coroner of Scott County, rendered his decision along with three jurors. The men  found that Fritz W. Ehrig was murdered at the hands of some unknown person or persons.

The question remained, who killed Fritz Ehrig and why. Was it the mystery man who Mr. Ehrig feared in his final weeks of life? Could he have encountered robbers on the way home? If robbery was the motive, why was Mr. Ehrig found with money, keys, and his watch still on his person? And finally, why did Mr. Ehrig walk east instead of west when leaving Thode & Landfeldt’s Saloon that night?

Years later, the mysterious death of Fritz Ehrig would once again make Davenport newspaper headlines. Only this time some secrets would be revealed. But would they be enough to bring a murder or murderers to justice?

Please visit our blog on October 31, 2017 for Part II.

(posted by Amy D.)

1868 – 1869 Root’s Davenport City Directory
Daily Gazette, October 7, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Davenport Democrat, October 8, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Gazette, October 8, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Gazette, October 9, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Davenport Democrat, October 11, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Gazette, October 11, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Gazette, October 13, 1869. Pg. 4.

© The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library, 2007-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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A Friday the 13th in October…1916

101 years ago today, in 1916, Friday the 13th also fell in the month of October.

The evening issue of the Davenport Democrat and Leader listed several unlucky ocurrences of the day under the following heading on page 6:

For one, the resignation of Victor L. Littig as coach of the Davenport Athletic Club football team over a disagreement with players “brought sorrow to his many friends and club associates.” According to a separate article in the same day’s paper, Littig felt members of the team were too anxious to be taught “shift formations and trick plays” while the coach preferred to “give the men a thorough course of football principles, keeping them to the simple style…”(p. 19).

Sadness over another sport led local Army recruiter Sergeant James Hutcheson to lose  “…money and hope because of the world’s baseball series.” He must have bet on the Brooklyn Robins, beaten 1-4 by the Boston Red Sox in the final game the day before. The World Series is also on the minds of area Cubs fans this Friday, October 13th!

The Democrat also reported transportation troubles: “Two traveling men missed trains and were compelled to postpone engagements in other cities,”and rain forced gubernatorial candidate Edwin T. Meredith and his entourage to ride the train to campaign stops rather than “make the jaunt by automobile.”

Automobiles were the cause of misfortunes on any day in Davenport, the same day’s paper said elsewhere (p. 4):

Politicians other than Meredith did not fare well that day, either. Workmen at the Bettendorf [railroad car] shops had been waiting for Republican speaker John H. Shirley to address them on the issue of the 8-hour workday. However, he was late, and congressional candidate M.F. Cronin, who was traveling through Bettendorf by train, assumed the crowd had gathered to hear a Democrat’s thoughts on the topic. He began to speak to the increasingly enthusiastic group of workers. Once Shirley finally appeared, Cronin stepped down, but the audience did not like what Shirley had to say and shouted for Cronin to continue instead! (p. 6)

Among other bad news in the Friday the 13th, 1916 paper was the opening announcement of this advertisement:

And the death of “one of the oldest residents of the city,” Mrs. Fredericka Kletty, at age 91:

Only Mr. Rice seemed to have had good luck that day:

Fortunately for everyone else, the following day promised this in Davenport:

We’ll have to wait until November 4th of this year for National Candy Day. In the meantime, the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center wishes you the very best of luck this Friday the 13th of October, 2017!

(posted by Katie)

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#familyhistorymonth at the RSSC Center

October is #familyhistorymonth!

One of our eagle-eyed volunteers spotted these photographs taken by the Gustav Dahms studio in Davenport (218 Brady Street from 1the 1870’s to approx. 1915) at an antiques store in Illinois. Although she purchased and donated them to the RSSC Center’s collection because they represent the work of a local photographer, we are also quite curious about the subjects of the portraits!

Can you help us find families for these young Davenporters?

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Genealogy Night at Davenport Public Library

October is National Family History Month.

We are kicking off the festivities with our semi annual Genealogy Night!

The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center will be open after hours on Sunday, October 1st to give genealogy researchers uninterrupted research time. It is an opportunity to take advantage of library, staff, and each other for hints and tricks.

Meet us at the 4th Street entrance (by the drive-up book return) at 3:00 pm. The rest of the library will be closed, but the Special Collections Center will stay open until 8:00pm

Food is provided. Cost is $10. Please call us at (563) 326-7902 so we know you are coming. We want to have enough food for everyone!

(posted by Cristina)

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The Vietnam War: Research at the RSSC Center

Have you been watching? Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part PBS documentary series The Vietnam War is generating a great deal of interest in our nation’s experience during the conflict. Satisfy your own curiosity by exploring sources available here in the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library.

Arlen Beck

Our collection of oral histories includes two sets of interviews with Quad-City area Vietnam War veterans:

In 2009, students from Davenport’s Intermediate Schools spoke with fifteen men who served in the armed forces during the war for the Iowa Stories 2000 Project (Acc#2005-02). The photographs posted here were collected for the display boards the students made to present what they had learned of the veterans’ experiences.

Barrie Gordon

Robert E. Brooks

In April of 2010, Cathy Ahrens’ students at Bettendorf High School recorded interviews with Vietnam veterans Robert J. Konrardy, Robert Van McQueen, Ken Nevenhoven, James Wilferd Peters, Norm Eugene Slead, Steve John Speth, and Jim Cumberworth, part of the collection Interviews with U.S. Military Service Veterans -Bettendorf High School (Acc#2010-17). 

The Fold3 History and Genealogy database, accessible online from home with your DPL card, offers several record sets in which an individual service member’s name may be searched:

Also available in Fold3 is a research guide on the Vietnam War:

Finally, the RSSC Center is the home of the library’s Government Documents collection. Publications on the history of the Vietnam War (D 221.2:V 67) are available by request at our service desk.

(posted by Katie)

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Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month 2017!

Hispanic Heritage Month 2017 begins today, September 15th! To celebrate, we are featuring a unique source of information about the Mexican-American community in the Quad-Cities area: materials from the Iowa Stories 2000 collection (Acc# 2005-02).

A little more than ten years ago, during 2006 and 2007, students from the intermediate schools in the Davenport Community School District conducted interviews with twenty local individuals of Mexican descent. These videorecordings have been transferred to DVDs (thanks to the Putnam Museum) and are now available for viewing at the RSSC Center. We are currently working to describe the contents of each interview and hope to provide online access to the recordings themselves in the near future.

Also in the Iowa Stories 2000 collection are items from the display boards the students created about each of their interview subjects. These are just a few examples:

Al Sierra grew up in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Cook’s Point in Davenport.

From Rita (Quijas) Navarro we learn of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church’s importance to the Mexican-American community in Davenport.

St. Mary’s Church in Davenport was influential in the life of Maggie Ortega, a more recent immigrant from Mexico.

Henry Vargas, born in Cook’s Point, was the first president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Iowa and worked for the equal treatment of Hispanic-Americans as a member of the St. Ambrose University-based Catholic Interracial Council and the Davenport Human Relations Commission.

The Iowa Stories 2000 collection also includes interviews with Irish Americans, German Americans and African Americans in the area.

Explore your own ethnic heritage with these and the many other resources available for family local history research at the RSSC Center of the Davenport Public Library!

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Back to School: A Letter from Immaculate Conception Academy, 1873 – Part II

This week we continue with our “back-to-school” theme, learning about the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center resources that help us place Immaculate Conception Academy student Ada Sala’s 1873 letter to her father, E.M. Sala, in historical context.

Imma Conception, Davenport, Iowa, Mar. 5, 1873

Dear Pa,

I received your kind letter and was so glad to hear from you, as it was the first letter I had from you since you were here.

We were examined last week, and I will get a certificate in all of my studies; when we receive our certificates I will send you mine, for I know you will be glad to see one.

Lizzie Blacksmith is coming to live with Mary, because she is not able to do her own work. I think I will write to her this week. Please excuse the shortness of this letter, as I have nothing more of interest. I will conclude with fondest love to all.

Your loving child,

Ada Sala

We are fortunate to have a photocopy of the registration records for Immaculate Conception Academy from 1867-1887 in our collection. Here we find Ada Sala listed among the 24 girls enrolling in September of 1872. The records indicate she is from Rock Island, Illinois. This suggests that Ada’s home base at that time was with her older sister Mary, whom we had previously found to be living in that city then (recently married in 1871 to Henry Boggess, pregnant with her first child Vinnie, and attended by her peer Lizzie Blacksmith from the Salas’ former residence in Lee County, Iowa) thanks to census and family tree information obtained via the Ancestry Library Edition database.

When Ada thanks her father E.M. Sala for writing, saying  “…it was the first letter I had from you since you were here,” we may imagine that “here” was with his other daughter and son-in-law in Rock Island. It is not likely that Ada lived with her sister’s family and traveled back and forth daily to the Academy, since she says “I think I will write to her this week” in reference to Mary. This and the fact that she writes using Academy stationery suggest Ada was one of the 61 “pupils in Boarding School” for the 1872-1873 year.

The registration records (the running title in the ledger is actually “Attendance during Academic Year 1872-73) show that the city of Davenport supplied the majority of the 97 “pupils in in Day School.” Ada’s fellow boarders were girls from LeClaire, Clinton, DeWitt, Iowa City, Wilton, Washington, Bellevue, and McGregor in Iowa; Rock Island, Moline, Geneseo, Prophetstown, Chicago, and several illegible places in Illinois, as well as Mississippi River towns in Wisconsin and Missouri.

Two publications available at the RSSCC, History of the Immaculate Conception Academy of Davenport Iowa…by Sister Mary St. Joan of Arc Coogan, B.V.M. (SC 371.0712 MAR) and Immaculate Conception Academy 1859-1958 (SC377.82 Imm), provide insight into the life of boarding school students like Ada Sala during the 1870’s.

The “Hill House”at Main and 8th Streets in Davenport was occupied by the members of the order that ran the Academy, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is unclear if the boarding school students also lived in the Hill House, but we do know that their classes were held in the “large frame building” just to the north along Main Street. To get there, they “ascended an outside stairway” so as to remain “religiously segregated” from the day students on the first floor (History, 75).

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

Ada likely received the certificates she mentions in music, drawing, painting, and needlework, as those subjects were available both in the 1860’s and and in the year 1875. The account book kept by Sister Mary Gonzaga McClosky suggests that the study of geography and natural science was also also possible: $20.00 was spent on maps and $199.65 on “Philosophical Apparatus” in 1873 (History, 77).  According to the author of  Immaculate Conception Academy:

“Students of the [18]‘70’s had their grades published in the [student newspaper] Portfolio. A twofold mark was registered: one for ‘excellence of deportment, amiability and politeness’ and another for examination averages (15)”

Students were also required to participate in daily “calisthenic exercise” for which the nuns sewed special “calisthenic suits” (History, 72). Otherwise, Ada and her peers would have worn “high-necked, long-sleeved, ankle-length black dresses” as a uniform (Immaculate, 20).

Ada Sala did not go back to school. Her name does not appear in the registration records after 1873, and in the 1880 Census we find her back in Grant County, Wisconsin, living with her father, his new wife Phoebe, and her younger siblings.

(posted by Katie)

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Back to School: A Letter From Immaculate Conception Academy, 1873 – Part I

At this time of year, as many students return to school, we thought it appropriate to share one of the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center’s latest acquisitions: a March, 1873 letter from a student at the Immaculate Conception Academy in Davenport to her father, E.M. Sala, in West Point, Iowa.

Imma Conception, Davenport, Iowa, Mar. 5, 1873

Dear Pa,

I received your kind letter and was so glad to hear from you, as it was the first letter I had from you since you were here.

We were examined last week, and I will get a certificate in all of my studies; when we receive our certificates I will send you mine, for I know you will be glad to see one.

Lizzie Blacksmith is coming to live with Mary, because she is not able to do her own work. I think I will write to her this week. Please excuse the shortness of this letter, as I have nothing more of interest. I will conclude with fondest love to all.

Your loving child,

Ada Sala

This letter raises some interesting questions about both the relationships among Sala family members and the experience of a student at the Immaculate Conception Academy in the early 1870’s. In seeking answers, we may demonstrate the use of some of the resources available here in the Special Collections department of the library. This week, we uncover some information about the family; next week, in Part II, we will discuss the Academy. Grab a pencil and paper — it’s time to be “schooled” in family and local history research!

Ada Sala is about 15 years old when she writes this letter to her father in 1873. We know this because we have searched her name in the Ancestry Library Edition database (available to patrons at all three Davenport library locations) and found her listed in the US Federal Census records for 1860 at age 2 and in 1870 at age 12. Therefore, she was likely born in the year 1858.

The census data for these years gives us further information about her father: his first name was Eli,  he was a physician by profession, and about 57 years old when he received Ada’s letter. We also learn that both he and his wife Susan were born on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border; the family included four boys and three girls; in 1860, they resided in West Point, Iowa, and by 1870 they had moved to Patch Grove, Wisconsin.

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

Historical Atlas of Wisconsin…Milwaukee: Snyder, Van Vechten & Co., 1878.

Wondering why Ada’s letter was addressed to only one parent, we searched Ancestry for “Susan Sala” to find that she had died on February 18, 1872, about a year earlier. This piece of information comes from the images of Grant County, Wisconsin (the location of Patch Grove) probate records made available on the database.

Information from Ancestry has also helped us to determine that the “Mary” Ada refers to in the letter as being “not able to do her own work,” was likely her older sister, then struggling with her first pregnancy. Marriage records from Grant County, Wisconsin show that Mary Sala married a Henry Boggess in Patch Grove in 1871. The 1880 US Federal Census shows Henry Boggess living in Rock Island, Illinois with his wife Mary and 6-year-old daughter Vinnie. A family tree created by an Ancestry user (another feature of the database) gives Vinnie’s date of birth as August of 1873 in Rock Island, five months after Ada’s mention of Mary’s difficulties.

Library of Congress Map Division

Was the “Lizzie Blacksmith” who Ada said was “coming to live with Mary” the Elizabeth Black Smitte from a German immigrant family living in Franklin (1870 US Census), the town adjacent to West Point in Lee County, Iowa who later married Joseph Greenwood (on September 7, 1873, according to county marriage records) in Rock Island, Illinois? Perhaps Lizzie and Mary had been friends from when the Salas lived in West Point, or Lizzie was otherwise known to the family (as a servant?) through Ada and Mary’s older brothers still living there? Again, with the many types of records it provides, the Ancestry database allows us to suggest these possible relationships.

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

We continue our lesson next week with a closer look at the Immaculate Conception Academy at the time when Ada Sala wrote her letter. Until then, please complete this homework assignment: visit the library and explore your own family history with Ancestry Library Edition!

(posted by Katie)

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Total Eclipse of the Sun: August 7, 1869

As we prepare for the upcoming solar eclipse, we thought we would take a look back at the Solar Eclipse of 1869 as viewed by Davenporters.

The last solar eclipse of the 19th century occurred on Saturday, August 7th, 1869. It was a clear, lovely day here in Davenport. The central line of the eclipse bisected Iowa, entering 18 miles south of the NW corner of the state and leaving it 2 miles north of the east extension of its southern boundary in Lee County. The belt of the country totally eclipsed was 158 1/2 miles wide at the NW corner of the state and 156 miles wide at the SE corner. The central line was near halfway between the northern and southern limits of the eclipse. The area covered by the belt of the total eclipse was 44,000 miles. Des Moines & Burlington were chosen by astronomers for observation, being at the center of belt totality.

In Davenport, special glasses made with smoked glass were sold for 5 to 10 cents each, according to size and perfection of coloring. Telescopic views of the eclipse were held at Dr. Hazen’s office over Harrison and Stark’s drug store. Admission cost 50 cents and as many people as could get in were admitted. The reflection of the eclipse was captured through a telescope and projected on a screen, and its several stages were accurately represented to a room full of spectators. 

Observations in Davenport were sponsored by the Davenport Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Professor Thomas Lighton/Leighton of Rock Island.  An observatory was established on the roof of the Davenport National Bank building. P. B. Jones’ Photograph Gallery

One telescopic camera was used by Paul B. Jones (magnifying power of 30 diameters) for taking photographs; the was other was used by Prof. Lighton (magnifying power of 150 diameters) for observation. The lenses were arranged so images could vary from 4 to 16 inches; negatives could be made in any size in-between. 

The cameras were mounted on a stand that could incline in any direction. This allowed observers to follow the sun without causing any jarring or shaking. The strong wood frame was mounted on Equatorial plates firmly fixed and edged with 630 teeth and a steel screw, which caused the upper plate to move freely. On top of the plates were two sweeps supported on two columns in which the telescopes were placed so that the equator could be followed in a single motion.

Every three minutes, Jones took an image on a 4-inch glass plate negative and immediately developed it. This resulted in 24 impressive photographs:

The eclipse began at 3:57:53pm, as the moon approached the sun from the Northeast quadrant. Spectators noticed an instant change in the atmosphere. Swallows and doves flew back and forth as a result of the unexpected darkness. The strange light caused a change in hue of forest on the island and trees to a darker green, then vapory yellow, then “so deep that shades were lost across the tops and the woods were of the deepest shade of green.”

At 4:20pm, half the sun was obscured. The landscape looked as it does in dim twilight. Swallows and pigeons disappeared. You could not see the people standing on rooftops. As the sun was reduced to a crescent, the crowd “observed protuberances on its shining surface and a shimmer on the disc of the moon itself in 2 or 3 places”.

The Davenport Gazette attempted to describe the totality:

“Darkness” was not darkness. The strange light produced was about of the degree of darkness prevalent at the interval between setting of the sun and appearing of the moon when that orb is in full. Yet it was far different, too: softer in effect upon senses, pervading landscape, and filling the atmosphere with a wonderfully delicate influence of grayish rosiness. 

In the Heavens, it was the light of earliest day when stars are going out. On Earth is was a light denser than that of the full moon, but less dark than that of moonless starlight – a combination of the two, with a sublimity, awful in character, that is never observed in either. 

Stars burst suddenly into view the instant the sun was hidden. Mercury […] came prominently into view right near the sun. Venus shone as one may see her whenever she is the evening star and Regulus, too came like the great star he is, a shining light in the heavens. 

And also the corona: 

The moon looked as if it were hung in the Heavens in bold relief, detached from all governing power. At its round edges there was the faintest tint of something that looked like struggling light. But all around it there was light. Now the corona was shaped like a many-cornered star; then it was round with almost even edges- but so beautiful in contrast with the black disc it glorified. There was a pinkish hue visible in it for a second, then a rainbowish appearance just one instant, and then it glowed in changes of hue. There was a superior brightness on one side at one instant, and then its glory was uniformly shaded, in a brief second to be radially striated.

The corona lasted just 63 seconds, starting at 4:57:27pm.

“There were loud cheers from spectators, some who saw Bailey’s Beads distinctly and a shooting of red light from the moon. 

The wildlife took notice of the unexpected change in light. Birds disappeared. Bats and night hawks came out. Flies nested on ceilings. Farmers reported that the sheep sought repose.

Before totality, not a cloud was visible anywhere. During the corona, multi-colored clouds illuminated the western half of the Horizon. They lay in streaks and were pink, light purple, and gray at first but soon exhibited about all the colors of the rainbow, though of light shade. 

The thermometer in the shade varied by 5 degrees, falling from 70 degrees to 65 degrees. The barometer was stationary during the whole of the phenomena, remaining at 29.62-100 from 4pm on Saturday until 8am on Sunday. There was no variation of magnetic current.”

The immersion of the moon occurred at 4:58:31pm.

“Instantly, all the Earth changed. The stars disappeared, and the hues of day were shed upon every object. The change was more sublime than the darkening. Birds came out and sang a welcome to daylight, trees assumed a natural hue. The moon seemed glad to get away and hurried off the disc of the sun more rapidly than she ventured to travel across it.”

The eclipse was over at 5:57:27pm.

In the weeks after the eclipse a “wild boy” was spotted a number of times in East Davenport, in the back of Judge Grant’s farm near Bettendorf. A hunter who spotted it described it as having “light sandy hair covering its naked body,” a “revoltingly ugly” face and “brutal appearance.” Could he had been suffering from the effects of the eclipse?

(posted by Cristina)


“The Solar Eclipse: it’s Importance to Science.” Daily Gazette, 07 Aug 1869, p. 4.

“The Solar Eclipse: Observations of the Phenomenon in Davenport,” Daily Gazette, 09 Aug 1869, p. 4.

“A New Peter The Wild Boy,”Daily Davenport Democrat, 24 Aug 1869 p. 1.

Photographs of the Eclipse of the Sun, August 7, 1869 Taken by the Academy of Natural Sciences, Davenport, Iowa. Griggs, Watson & Day, Printers, 1869

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