The Story of John S. Sandstrom

It was November 2014, and I was investigating documents in one of our manuscript collections, #X-09, that was described as having documents pertaining to building the Poor House in 1883. Among the documents was a petition signed by 38 people from Pleasant Valley Township requesting the Scott County Board of Supervisors to provide feet for John Sandstrom who had “recently lost his feet by freezing”.  I was immediately curious!

From Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Archive and Manuscript Collection #X-09

In case you are having difficulty reading the handwriting, it states in part “he has lived and been a resident of Pleasant Valley Township about 15 years, during that time he has proven himself to be ingenious, honest and a useful man. He is addicted to the use of intoxicating liquor we know but we think he will reform and we believe if he should be provided with feet he would yet earn his own living, and to this end we most earnestly pray your honorable body to furnish him with the same.”

I, of course, had two questions. Did the Board approve the request? If so, what would have been available in the line of artificial feet in 1883? A quick search brought up a patent for artificial limbs.

Marks, George Edwin. A treatise on Marks’ patent artificial limbs with rubber hands and feet. New York, A. A. Marks, 1889. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

So evidently there were options available for rubber feet. Did the Committee on the Poor make a recommendation?

A Gazette published on March 4, 1886.

Hmm. No further info regarding how that turned out. Oh well. Maybe I could find out how he lost his feet if I tried. More newspaper searching.

On trial for murder? What?? In 1881 there are articles about Sandstrom being sentenced by a Grand Jury. It seems that in the fall of 1880, Sandstrom was indicted for assault with intent to commit murder. The intended victim? Robert Carr whom he accused of being involved somehow in his divorce from his wife.

The Davenport Democrat (Davenport, Iowa), February 11, 1881.

Okay, this provides a few clues. John Sandstrom was an onion farmer. He’s divorced. Perhaps that document would tell me something more in depth. We have Divorce Packets in our collection, so I turned to those and found that his wife Mary/Maria had filed for divorce and asked for custody of their three children in 1879.  

Scott County, Iowa District Court Records-Divorce Packets

The handwriting here is challenging to read, but according to the first page of the petition, the couple married in Sweden December 18, 1864. Since that time John S. Sandstrom has become addicted to habitual drunkenness and treats her and her children cruelly. Page two continues with examples. He turned them out into the cold weather without sufficient clothing. She was compelled to go to the neighbors with her children for protection from his violence. He has drawn a knife and threatened to kill the plaintiff a number of times and threatened her. He has beaten the children and threatened their lives as well. She asks for alimony and sole custody of the children.

Divorce granted. She received right and title to personal property described in an attached writ in place of alimony. That amounted to 3 cows, 2 calves, 3 hogs, about 200 bushels of onions, a lot of wood, and household and kitchen furniture in Pleasant Valley Township. In other words, everything they owned. John didn’t show up for the hearing.

Really haven’t found what I wanted yet,  but know John S. Sandstrom’s seemed to have a weakness for alcohol.

So, divorced in 1879, in jail fall of 1880 into 1881. Next record I could check would be the Iowa 1885 State census. No luck finding John.  Mary and the kids were in Pleasant Valley Township living next to Louis Clemons, the very first person to sign the 1886 petition for the artificial limbs.

No luck finding out how he lost his feet, other than they were frozen and amputated per this article from the Davenport Weekly Republican, November 22, 1899.

Davenport Weekly Republican (Davenport, Iowa), November 22, 1899.

Okay, well he is doing well enough to establish a chicken ranch. Maybe he really did reform. The 1900 census lists him in Pleasant Valley as a head of household, so perhaps the ranching business worked out for him!

Oh, snap.

Davenport Democrat and Leader (Davenport, Iowa), March 17, 1907.

Poor guy. He just can’t stay away from that habit of wandering in the cold. Finally, information on how he lost his feet in the first place. The death record said Cause of Death was exposure while intoxicated. Pretty obvious I suppose. To be sure, I tracked down the Coroner’s Report in our collection.

Scott County, Iowa Coroner’s Reports

Witness testimony of Harvey Blackman states John S. Sandstrom was seen March 16, 1907, lying dead in the northeast corner of Dodds farm west of Valley City. He was lying on his back, his pants and artificial feet off… a bottle beside him greatly imply consuming whiskey. No marks of violence. Had no enemies that I know of. Was a hard drinker.

Witness O.G. Baumbagh states he saw Sandstrom Monday night. He was drunk. Offered me drink. Went toward home when he left me at about 5 p.m. did not see him alive since.

The funeral notice was brief.

The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), March 19, 1907.

I checked available records but could not find a location within the Pleasant Valley cemetery for him. He is likely in an unmarked grave. It seems sad. His neighbors tried so hard to help him, going so far as to petition on his behalf for artificial limbs, hoping against hope he could “redeem himself” and kick the liquor habit.

I looked for his family and found them in Marshalltown along with the newsiest article of all from the Evening Times-Republican in Marshalltown, Iowa from Monday, March 18, 1907.

He was tenant on a small part of the Clemons farm. The amputation was indeed done in a Davenport hospital after a drinking binge. Mr. Clemons must have been a kind soul to spearhead the petition, allow John to rent farmland, be a good neighbor in spite of all he had seen Sandstrom go through.

I take some comfort in thinking John’s daughter corresponded with him occasionally. The kindness of the postmaster in Pleasant Valley is also a ray of light.

I have often thought of John S. Sandstrom, the Swedish farmer with two artificial feet for these eight Novembers since I found him in that record. Now, you can, too!

(posted by Karen)

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