The Circle of Life…and Deadly Intent

Recently a colleague used the phrase “going down the rabbit hole” and I laughed about it, thinking that happens a lot with family history research. In honor of October’s designation as Family History Month, here is a recent experience illustrating how easy it is to go down the hole head first!

I was researching the rural schools in LeClaire Township, Scott County, Iowa trying to figure out the schoolhouse names, the numbers associated with them, and their locations. I was focused on the schools near Argo and was using an online newspaper database we subscribe to in Special Collections. I found a rather devastating story about a car exploding outside a school near Argo while it was filled with children and visitors attending a Thanksgiving program Tuesday, November 23, 1926.

Upon further attention to detail, I realized it was actually Criswell school in Lincoln rather than LeClaire Township. But it was too late. Now I had to learn all I could about this incident. Fortunately, no one was injured aside from the bumps and bruises of hurriedly exiting the school when the explosion rocked the building and the windows of the schoolhouse shattered.  

A Ford coupe belonging to John Andrew Spies was demolished according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader newspaper, and cars parked alongside had windows broken. The coupe’s doors were smashed and the roof was blown off per the Daily Times. Parts of the bombed machine penetrated the radiator of a nearby parked car and torn bits of the coupe were lodged high in a tree directly in front of the schoolhouse.

The homemade bomb was a molasses can packed with burlap, paper, and black powder with a piece of binding twine soaked in kerosene for a fuse.

Despite the terrifying event, Miss Edna Smith, a teacher at Criswell School No. 5, completed the program, and her fifteen pupils and the crowd remained.  Smith had been teaching at the rural school near Argo for three years.

The motive for the bombing appeared to be jealousy over Spies’ attentions toward the young teacher, particularly the fact he had driven her to this event. Howard Drenter, a local farmer, had set his own intentions on the young lady. They had dated previously and he had asked her to accompany him that evening. She declined as she was going with Andrew Spies. In fact, they were engaged.

Unbeknownst to many, Drenter had been sending the young teacher harassing letters for several months, threatening her and suggesting he “meant business”. Smith was advised to return the engagement ring in one note, which finally brought her to the authorities for protection. Drenter was charged with making malicious threats and malicious destruction of property after the school incident.

Parents and neighbors were understandably distraught. An armed guard was brought in by the sheriff when school began again on Monday. However, it was too much. Parents refused to send their children to school, so Edna Smith resigned from her teaching position at Criswell on December 7. The innocent cause of the bombing attack felt that her resignation might calm the hysteria and bring some closure for the students and their parents.

Handwriting experts testified that Drenter’s handwriting was a definite match for the threatening notes to Edna Smith. Howard Drenter pleaded guilty to the two charges and paid fines and costs in addition to reimbursing Spies for the loss of his auto the following April.

In May 1927, they were in the news again when Miss Smith reported Drenter was telephoning her home and making veiled threats, demanding she reimburse him for damages to his own auto from an incident several years ago when she hit a telephone pole while driving at a time they were “keeping company”. He also accused her of “being in league” with newspapers in connection with the auto bombing at the school and that she received part of the $1,200 fine he had paid the previous month. Drenter was arrested and jailed. Bond was posted and he was released. In July the extortion charges were dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Edna Smith went on to marry John Andrew Spies in May 1928 and lived a long a productive life, continuing to be active in education for nearly fifty years. She passed away in 1988.

Drenter seems to have pulled his life together, for he finally married in 1938, just months after Rose Boege was divorced, and helped raise her then eight-year-old son.  He continued farming and died in 1978. Oddly the dates of their marriage license and certificate are November 23rd and 24th – the same dates he had chosen to deploy his bomb in a fit of jealousy eleven years before. Coincidence?

Howard Drenter’s jealousy over a young woman held an eerie similarity to a tragic event twenty years earlier involving his uncle, Harrison “Harry” Drenter. Howard would have been an impressionable eight-year-old in 1906 when Uncle Harry murdered Grace Reed, injured her male companion Samuel Moore, and then committed suicide all in the name of unrequited love and jealousy.

It happened not far from Criswell School again, and the neighbors, some of whom would have been present for both events, are reported to have been living in fear that something horrific would happen all summer. Samuel Moore had picked up seventeen-year-old Grace Reed in his buggy to take her to Sunday evening services at Summit Presbyterian Church on September 2, 1906. Grace was a hired girl for the Ora Drenter family and was described as a beautiful young lady.

Harry Drenter, bachelor brother of Ora, lived on the farm adjoining and wanted Grace Reed to be his wife. She had declined his previous advances and proposal and Ora and wife supported her choice, believing she was young and should not be forced into a marriage against her will. This caused a rift between the brothers, and Harry had even threatened to kill his brother and his family.

That Sunday evening, Harry’s resentment became unbearable. He hid behind a tree near the road between his farm and his brother’s waiting for the buggy to return from church. He stepped from behind the tree with a shotgun and fired, immediately killing Grace and wounding Samuel Moore. He then returned to his own farm and took his own life with the same weapon.

Samuel Moore crawled to the farmhouse of Ora and authorities were called.

The sensational murder-suicide was printed with salacious details in the newspapers. What didn’t get as much press was a small piece that appeared in the Rock Island Argus on September  4, 1906 claiming that Harry Drenter had threatened another girl several years earlier.

More research proved that to be true. September 11, 1902, a marriage license was filed for Harry Drenter and Frieda Martens in Scott County, Iowa.  The September 17th and 18th local newspapers reported that Drenter, the bachelor brother, became enamored of the young woman working at his brother’s home as a domestic. [Sound familiar?] He proposed marriage and the eighteen-year-old girl, Frieda Martens, declined. [Really familiar?] He threatened to kill her by hanging or by revolver and said he would poison himself.

Refusing to accept her answer Harry went to town to obtain a marriage license. With the assistance of Mrs. Drenter, Frieda fled Lincoln Township and headed to her home in Milan, Illinois while he was gone. She pressed charges and Harry was arrested, then released on bond. [Again, familiar?] He promised not to bother Frieda anymore.

Grace Reed took Frieda’s place as hired girl and romantic interest soon after.

Harrison “Harry” Drenter was buried in Summit Cemetery in the family plot just a few miles from his farm and the scene of the crimes he committed that September night.

Was it happenstance that his encounters with both Frieda and Grace occurred in September? Or was there a reason?

How much of that fateful night in 1906 was forever held in the mind of eight-year-old Howard? Did that somehow impact his relationships with women and cause him to act out in 1926 with Edna Smith? Was November a month that was somehow symbolic to him?

Were any of Howard’s nieces or nephews in attendance the night of the bombing outside Criswell School? What impact did that have on them?

We’ll never know the answers to all these questions, but I sure went down the rabbit hole with this family’s history when I was trying to research school locations!


Grace Reed’s body was taken to her grandmother and sister in Toledo, Iowa where she was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. Ora Drenter accompanied the body.

Samuel Moore recovered from his injuries and married in 1916. He had two children and passed away in 1967, sixty-one years after the horrible night when his companion Grace was killed.

Edna Smith and John Andrew Spies were married fifty-one years until his death in 1979.

Howard Drenter married Rose Boege four months after her divorce in 1938. They were married forty years until his death in 1978.

Rose Drenton’s 1980 obituary ends with “Mrs. Drenter was sister-in-law of Wilbert O. Drenter, rural Davenport, who was shot to death Monday night by police officers who were seeking to arrest a man in his home on a drug warrant.”  Here we go again……………………….

(posted by Karen)


Federal and Iowa State Census Records

1905 Scott County Atlas – The Iowa Publishing Co.

Quad City Times 3 Jan 1980 p 6                  Obituary of Rose Drenter             

Quad City Times 20 May 1988 p 9              obituary of Edna Spies

The Daily Times

                24 Nov 1926 p1

                13 Jul 1927 p 6

                18 May 1928 p 12

                 3 Sep 1906 p 5

                4 Sep 1906 p 6

                8 Sep 1906 p 1

                19 Oct 1906 p 5

                 5 Mar 1907 p 14

                21 May 1907 p 4

                29 Apr 1902 p 8

                18 Sep 1902 p 9

                19 Sep 1902 p 9

Davenport Democrat and Leader

                24 Nov 1926 p1

                29 Nov 1926 p 13

                8  Dec 1926 p 1

                15 Feb 1927 p 15

                 1 Apr 1927 p 1

                24 May 1927 p 3

                3 Sep 1906 p 10

                4 Sep 1906 p 11

                17 Sep 1902 p 6

                19 Sep 1902 p 7

Rock Island Argus           

                4 Sep 1906 p 2

                19 Sep 1902 p 5

                20 Sep 1902 p 2

AncestryLibrary  [subscription database]

                Iowa State Department of Health Return of Marriage Spies/Smith 1928  

                Scott County Iowa Marriage Record Book No. 45   p 371   Drenter/Boege 1938

                Scott County Iowa Wills and Probate Records   #6286 Grace Reed

                Iowa Marriages Scott County      Drenter/Martens 1902

Find a Grave []   

                Drenter family plot          Summit Cemetery           Scott County, Iowa

                Reed, Grace        Woodlawn Cemetery     Toledo, Tama County, Iowa

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