Unsolved: The death of Martha Kistenmacher

The evenings had just begun to get darker sooner due to the end of Daylight Saving Time on October 29, 1978. The darkness and colder weather of autumn had begun to take over, leaving the lighter evenings of summer just a memory for the next several months in Davenport, Iowa.

It was early evening on November 2nd when 74-year-old Martha Kistenmacher stepped out the front door of the older Victorian home where she rented apartment #3 at 1308 Main Street.

Hidden by the growing darkness, a young man rushed towards Martha to grab her purse. Martha, whose back was turned away, never saw the man face-to-face. She caught a quick glimpse as she fell to the ground of a dark jacket and a nylon over his face. The young man, most likely in his late teens, quickly ran towards Harrison Street. Martha could only call for help as she lay on the ground.

Neighbors quickly gathered and tried to assist Martha into the house. She was injured and an ambulance was called. In the Mercy Hospital (now Genesis East) emergency room, Martha was found to be badly bruised from her shoulders to her hips and had a broken shoulder. She was able to talk to the police to describe what she could see of her assailant along with a description of her brown purse that contained $25 in cash along with miscellaneous items.  

A shop owner soon recovered the missing purse in a dumpster at 1313 Harrison Street, near Martha Kistenmacher’s home address. The only thing missing from inside it was the cash. The November 4, 1978 morning edition of The Quad-City Times described the purse snatching in its police beat section.

The Quad-City Times, November 4, 1978. Pg. 3

This wasn’t just another purse snatching for the residents of Main Street, but a reminder of the tragic death of Clara Schiele who lived just a block away from Martha at 1416 Main Street. Clara was fatally injured during a purse snatching in front of her house on August 3, 1978. A witness in that case could only provide a general description of a young man, most likely in his late teens, with a stocking over his face and a dark jacket who stole Clara’s purse. Clara’s purse contained only $20.

Though Martha was about 16 years younger than Clara Schiele had been at her death, both women had much in common throughout their lives.

Martha Kistenmacher was one of 11 children born to Louis and Louise (Rochau) Kistenmacher. The family farmed in Blue Grass, Scott County, Iowa with Martha and her siblings attending the No. 5 schoolhouse in Blue Grass. We do know that Martha was a member of the Sunshine Workers of Blue Grass, a sewing group.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 13, 1920. Pg. 4

Martha’s mother, Louise, passed away in 1910. Her father, Louis, in 1920. Shortly after his death, Martha moved from Blue Grass to Davenport and worked briefly as a maid for the Leonidas Ramsey family at 834 Marquette Street. By 1923, Martha was listed as a store clerk. Martha worked in several clothing stores until her retirement after 25 years from Newman’s Women’s Clothing store at 121 W. 2nd Street in Davenport. She started at Newman’s on February 1, 1941, and retired in early February 1966.

The Times-Democrat, February 6, 1966. Pg. 29

Like Clara Schiele, Martha had never married and remained close to her family during her lifetime. Both women upon retirement lived on Main Street and kept active with family, friends, and social organizations. The residential neighborhood, near Palmer Chiropractic College and Davenport Central High School, was within walking distance of many smaller businesses. Buses ran frequently in the neighborhood, which allowed residents the chance to shop in busier areas as needed.

In a neighborhood where residents still sat on porches and visited over fences, it was shocking that not one but two elderly residents would be victims of purse snatchings in front of their own front doors.

The Quad-City Times, November 14, 1978. Pg. 1

After a week at Mercy Hospital, Martha was transferred to recover at Americana Healthcare Center. It was there, on November 16, 1978, that Martha Kistenmacher died unexpectedly from a blood clot in her lung that the medical examiner said was a result of her injuries.

Martha was buried on November 20, 1978, in Davenport Memorial Park alongside her parents and several of her siblings.

The Daily Times, June 4, 1962.

After Martha’s death, many residents of Davenport speculated if Clara and Martha’s purse snatchings were related or if two separate horrible incidents had happened on that quiet tree-lined street.

No one has been arrested for the purse snatchings and deaths of Clara Schiele and Martha Kistenmacher.

(posted by Amy D.)


  • AncestryLibrary.com
  • Find A Grave.com
  • The Daily Times, December 26, 1913. Pg. 5
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 13, 1920. Pg. 4
  • The Daily Times, April 27, 1937. Pg. 18
  • The Daily Times, December 13, 1937. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, June 4, 1962. Pg. 2
  • The Times-Democrat, February 6, 1966. Pg. 29
  • The Quad-City Times, November 4, 1978. Pg. 3
  • The Quad-City Times, November 14, 1978. Pg. 1, 4
  • The Quad-City Times, November 17, 1978. Pg. 6
  • The Quad-City Times, November 18, 1978. Pg. 3
  • The Quad-City Times, November 18, 1978. Pg. 15
  • The Quad-City Times, January 31, 1979. Pg. 3

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