The Day a Public Enemy Came to Davenport

It probably started as a routine patrol for Officer Elmer Schlueter on June 14, 1934. It was a warm summer morning at about 10:30 a.m. Officer Schlueter, a twelve year veteran of the Davenport Police Department, was patrolling the levee area near LeClaire Park when something out of the ordinary caught his eye.

It was a well-dressed man in a gray checkered suit carrying a large briefcase. He seemed out of place when Officer Schlueter approached him. Schlueter asked to look in the briefcase. The man handed it over and Officer Schlueter began to look through its contents.

Suddenly the man drew a gun and managed to disarm the officer. He forced Schlueter down the path leading to the Municipal Baseball Stadium. At that moment former Alderman and current secretary-treasurer of the Davenport Baseball Club, Al Schultze, was driving towards the men from the stadium. The armed man stopped Schultze’s car, forced Schlueter and himself into the back seat and ordered Schultze to drive. They headed along Rockingham Road west towards Buffalo.

Officer Elmer Schlueter and Al Schultze would soon learn they had been kidnapped by Joe Palmer, murderer and part-time member of the Barrow Gang. The gang had made headlines starting in 1932 for not only bank robberies, but murder as well. Barrow members Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker had been shot and killed on May 23, 1934 in Louisiana. The remaining free gang members were doing their best to avoid arrest. They were wanted in several states for their numerous crimes.

Witnesses immediately alerted the Davenport Police Department to the kidnapping. The police department was faced with two scenarios. The first being this was “just” a kidnapping that had taken place. The second scenario was the possibility this was part of a larger heist. With all officers on alert searching for the kidnap victims would other criminals be waiting to stage bank robberies in an unprotected city?

The police department split its resources sending some officers to cover local city banks while all others went out in force to find the missing men. The Scott County Sheriff called on their Vigilantes to go to county banks to cover them in case of attempted robberies.

Soon Mr. Schultze’s car was located on the side of the road near Blue Grass. It was then reported that Walcott veterinarian, Dr. W. H. Fitch, had never returned from a call he made to the Bernick farm in Blue Grass. He was last seen driving a Ford coupe about 10:45 a.m.

By 2:00 p.m. a report was made of a car matching Dr. Fitch’s driving rapidly west on Route 6 near Walcott. Officers immediately started in pursuit and cities along the way were notified to be on the lookout.

Davenport Police Chief Sam Kelly ordered all officers not on duty to head to Blue Grass and Walcott. They searched all wooded areas along the roadside to see if they could find the victims. All they found were veterinarian supplies and a briefcase. Even a local airplane was put into service to fly over the county to try to spot either the car or the men. No trace could be found.

Finally, at 3:45 a.m. on June 15th a call came into the Davenport Police Department. It was Officer Schlueter. He, Al Schultze, and Dr. Fitch had been released by their kidnapper in St. Joseph, Missouri. Both The Daily Times and The Davenport Democrat covered the story of their ordeal.

Al Schultze reported that Palmer was not happy with the condition of his car and soon after they got into Blue Grass Dr. Fitch was waved over while driving towards Davenport. Palmer soon had Officer Schlueter, who stood about 6 feet tall, placed in the small trunk of Fitch’s coupe. He locked the trunk and then ordered Fitch and Schultze into the car. Palmer made one of the men drive the car while he sat in the back with the remaining man. He kept a gun pointed at the man sitting next to him and told the driver if he made any wrong moves the other man was dead.

The route Palmer made the men drive headed west to Iowa City and then on to Washington, Kansas. They then back tracked into Iowa and headed towards St. Joseph, Missouri.

During the trip, Palmer made sure his kidnap victims saw the two .45 caliber automatic pistols he carried. He told the men they were gifts from Clyde Barrow who he spoke of in glowing terms. Palmer had no love for Officer Schlueter, or any other police officers. He mentioned several times during the kidnapping he should “do something” to Schlueter, but never followed through on the threat.

Of the three kidnapped men, Schlueter suffered the most physically during the ordeal. He was forced to lay on his side in the cramped trunk with the lid pressing into him. Breathing was difficult in that position and the heat from the sun hitting the car’s metal frame caused the small area to become a sweltering prison.

Suddenly, just after 3:00 a.m. Joe Palmer had the driver stop the car. He said he would let them have the car if they would return directly to Davenport. The men readily agreed. Palmer robbed the men of their money ($135 from Dr. Fitch, $93 from Al Schultze, and $1 from Officer Schlueter), but returned $15 to help them make the trip back to Davenport. Then Joe Palmer simply walked away.

Officer Schlueter, Mr. Schultze, and Dr. Fitch located police officers within 15 minutes of being released. Palmer was soon caught and taken into custody.

While being questioned in St. Joseph, Joe Palmer stated he kidnapped Officer Schlueter fearing he had seen a gun that was inside the briefcase. If Palmer was taken into custody he feared his identity would be discovered and he would be returned to Texas where he faced not only an escape charge from a jailbreak in early 1934, but the killing of a guard in the process.

Palmer asked to be taken to Davenport to face kidnapping charges. The sentence for that would be less than what he faced in Texas. Instead, he was returned to Texas where he was put on trial before being sent to the electric chair on May 10, 1935 along with fellow Barrow gang member Raymond Hamilton.

The families of Elmer Schlueter, Al Schultze, and Dr. Fitch were relieved when the men drove into town the evening of June 15th. The newspapers carried banner headlines of their return. Soon, life seemed to quiet down and the headlines were about other local stories.

The Barrow Gang’s crime spree ended in 1934 with the death of Clyde and Bonnie along with the arrest of many of its members. Officer Schlueter would return to work and eventually retire from the Davenport Police Department on July 16, 1946 after 24 years of service.

The early 1930’s were filled with gangs crisscrossing the United States stopping in small towns to rob banks or hide out. We feel certain that the people of Davenport were glad that no event like the day Joe Palmer came to town happened again.

(posted by Amy D.)

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