Peace Destroyed: An Iowa True Crime Case

In 1914, Sherman and Kate Brown moved their family from the quiet countryside of Illinois to the bustling city of Davenport, Iowa. Their new friends described Sherman as a mild-mannered and hardworking family man who kept to himself. No one expected him to go on a hysterical rampage, destroying the peace and security of his family.

Sherman Brown

The Brown brothers, Sherman and John, were 3 years apart in age. Sherman, the oldest, was described as being an incredibly mild-mannered kid. (1) John, even though he was younger, was always the more ambitious of the two. (2)

They grew up in Illinois, where they lived not too far from the Starret farm. The families were very close. Sherman developed a particularly close bond with their youngest daughter, Kate.They eventually got married in 1902. (3) Two years later, they welcomed a baby boy named Irvin. (4)

The Browns were also close friends with the Chapman family their entire lives. (5) The Chapmans, like the Starrets, were farmers. And John set his sights on their young daughter, Nellie. The two were married in 1904 when Nellie was just 16 years old and John was 20. (6)

John and Nellie settled down in Centralia, Illinois, where they had three kids, Floyd, born in 1905, Roy born two years later in 1907 and Mildred born in 1910. (7) (8) (9)

By 1912, John moved his family to Davenport, Iowa and found work as a stoker at a local paper mill (10) Then, two years later in 1914, Sherman brought his family there as well. He, too, worked as a stoker. (11)

The couples — at least in the men’s eyes — couldn’t be happier. The women, however, were growing dissatisfied. (12)

Rifts in the marriages

Kate Brown

As the couples spent more time in Davenport, Kate grew more and more unhappy with her marriage to Sherman, and she began a relationship with another man. When the relationship started and who the man was, is unclear.

It was a warm summer day in 1915, when John discovered love letters that were addressed to Nellie. But after reading them, he realized they were meant for Kate. John immediately showed the letters to Sherman.

Sherman was distraught. He confronted Kate about them, and they broke up briefly before getting back together. (13)

Meanwhile, Nellie had decided to leave John. Why she did so was never made clear. 

The couple made arrangements for their two sons, Roy and Floyd to stay with John while their daughter Mildred lived with Nellie. (14) 

Sherman and Kate’s relationship continued to deteriorate and their reconciliation was short lived They broke up again a few months after getting back together. Kate moved in with Nellie into a rooming house Nellie had been renting. (15) Their son, Irvin, split his time between the two parents. (16)

Obsessed

Following the break-up, Sherman changed dramatically. Neighbors and friends noticed he was becoming more and more obsessed with Kate. And he was becoming preoccupied with what she was doing without him. (17) Every time Irvin would come back from spending time with Kate, Sherman would drill him about what she was doing and who she was with.

Kate, however, had moved on. When she wasn’t working, she was out on the town enjoying her newfound freedom, often accompanied by other men. (18)

As the weeks went on, Kate was showing no interest in getting back together. And Sherman was getting more and more desperate. He started visiting her at work, trying to convince her she should come back. When she said no, he went to her co-workers and asked them to try to convince her to get back with him and stop “running around” with other men. (17)

Sherman was becoming more and more obsessed. Kate and what she may or may not have been doing was all Sherman could talk about. (18) It was becoming all consuming. (19)

Do right 

Hallway where Nellie was shot.

December 21, 1915 started out like any other day. Sherman finished his shift at the Western Flour Mill, picked up his check then went to the grocery store to cash it. But then he took a detour to Lehman’s Second Hand Store. He bought a revolver and bullets, then continued home like any other day.

After returning home, he ordered Irvin to go downstairs; he didn’t want him to see the revolver.  After loading it he hid it in a trunk. He then took Irvin out to dinner. The two, according to Irvin, had a good time and he didn’t notice anything unusual about Sherman. (20) (19)

After dinner, they went back to their home where Sherman retrieved the revolver. He then took Irvin by the hand and led him to Kate and Nellie’s house.

Sherman — with Irvin, Nellie and her five-year-old daughter as an audience — begged Kate to come back to him so they could be a happy family again. Kate, like she had every other time he had asked, said no. She left the room and Sherman followed her. 

Outside, Sherman continued to beg Kate to — as he put it — “do right”. She once again told him she had no interest in getting back together. At that, he pulled out his revolver and shot her in the face. Kate let out a blood-curdling scream and ran away from him. Sherman followed her, firing off another shot. 

Hearing the commotion, Irvin ran out of the house to see what was going on. What he found was his mother, covered in blood, frantically trying to get away from his father. 

Sherman continued to fire shots at her as Irvin chased after him, begging him not to shoot her. (21) Kate ran around the house with Sherman close behind as a crowd of neighbors emerged from their houses to see what the commotion was all about. (20)

Kate darted back into the house into a small hallway. Nellie was waiting for her and as soon as Kate got into the house, Nellie tried slamming the door before Sherman could get in. Sherman was too close behind and was able to push back on the door. The two struggled, Nellie — with all her strength — pushed on the door, trying to keep him away from not only Kate, but her young daughter as well. (21)

Nellie had her back pressed against the door, using the strength of her legs to push the door closed. Sherman couldn’t get past her. He needed Nellie to get out of his way. She had nothing to do with any of this. It was Kate he was here to kill. So, he took a shot. Nellie dropped to the ground. He stepped over her lifeless body and continued his rampage towards Kate. 

Kate rushed to the phone. Sherman grabbed her arm and jerked her away from it. She begged him to just talk the whole thing over. He said no, put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He pulled the trigger several more times with the same results. 

Irvin had followed them back into the house and he was begging Sherman not to hurt Kate. Sherman shrugged and told him, “I’m out of bullets.” Then he turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger several times. He had used his last bullet on Nellie.

Gun empty, he grabbed his son’s hand and took him home. (20) (21)

A horrific scene

Inside the house that Nellie was shot.

Back at their boarding house, Sherman — gun in hand and covered in blood — was confronted by his landlord, Henry Fugate and his wife, Florence. Sherman told them he had just shot and killed Nellie and wounded Kate. 

Sherman was distraught. He threatened to kill himself several times, each time, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Irvin stood with him the whole time, begging him not to hurt himself.

Henry tried to convince him that the best thing he could do was turn himself in. Killing himself wasn’t going to solve anything. Sherman finally agreed. He then went up to his room and called the police and confessed to everything.

He sat alone in his room, waiting for the police to come pick him up. But he grew impatient and left to go to the police station himself. On the way, he met the cops on the street who took him into custody. (23)

Meanwhile, the police arrived at Nellie and Kate’s house to a gory scene. Nellie’s lifeless body was lying on the floor in the hallway in a pool of blood. She had a gunshot wound in the back of her head. Her daughter, Mildred, was wandering around splattered with blood. (14)

They found Kate in the kitchen covered in blood with several gunshot wounds to her head and one to her finger. When she saw the police she told them, “My goodness, get a doctor, I’m all shot to pieces.” (23)

Kate was rushed to the hospital and into surgery to remove the bullets. She had been shot a total of five times. The most serious of her wounds was the one to her face. The bullet entered at the base of her nose, traveled down and shattered her jaw. She had three more flesh wounds to the front and back of her head. And her right index finger was missing. (24) 

He did it, but it was her fault

At the police station, Sherman admitted to everything. He gave a detailed confession explaining everything that had happened leading up to him shooting Nellie. But he said he didn’t mean to kill Nellie. He was there to kill Kate. He had only meant to let off a warning shot to get Nellie out of the way.

While in jail, Sherman talked extensively with reporters, blaming everything that he did on Kate. He said if she had come back to him like he had asked, it wouldn’t have happened. In his eyes, Nellie was also to blame; she was the one who had encouraged Kate to leave him and “run around with other men”. (25)

John was flabbergasted when he visited Sherman in jail, saying, “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.” He told him there wasn’t anything he could do for him now. 

But — even though Sherman had shot and killed his wife — he was going to stick by him through it all saying, “a brother is a brother and all that.”

Throughout the entire night, Sherman showed little to no emotion about everything he had done. When John told him Nellie had died, Sherman was quoted as saying, “how is the other one?” Meaning Kate, his wife. When John told him she was in the hospital but was going to be okay, Sherman was indifferent. (26)

Laid to Rest

Nellie and her kids.

On December 23, 1915, Nellie Brown was laid to rest at the Oakdale Memorial Gardens cemetery in an unmarked grave. (27) (28). Her mother was so overcome with emotion she couldn’t bring herself to go to the funeral. (29)

Though her immediate family couldn’t make the trip from Illinois to Iowa, her father-in-law, John and Sherman’s father, George, came to town for it. (30) (27)

As Nellie was laid to rest, Kate was released from the hospital and was expected to make a full recovery. (30) (31)

Immediately following his wife’s funeral, John and their dad visited Sherman in jail to strategize his defense. (30)

Other victims

While talking to reporters, John expressed worry for his children. Saying they were the ones who were going to suffer the most from Nellie’s death. He said he and Nellie had been planning to get back together and they were going to be a family again, and now that obviously wasn’t possible.

But he figured he could keep on financially providing for them like he always had. (14)

Floyd, Roy and Mildred stayed with John for a short while, but they were all ultimately split up. Floyd moved in with John’s parents in Illinois, while Mildred moved in with Nellie’s parents, also in Illinois. (32) (33) Where Roy ended up is unclear.

Irvin, meanwhile, was taken to a juvenile home (modern day Child Protective Services) immediately after witnessing the shooting. (34)

The prosecution

Sherman was charged with first degree murder. So the prosecution had to prove he had planned to kill Nellie. This proved difficult because he had already admitted it wasn’t her he wanted to kill. He always maintained that Kate was his intended target and Nellie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got in the way. (35)

However, the prosecution argued that since he had intended to kill anyone at all, he should be found guilty of first degree murder. (36)

The Defense

Sherman’s attorneys dragged Kate and Nellie’s names through the mud. They set out to show how immorally they both had been living. They cited the fact that — although they were both separated from their husbands — they had relationships with other men.

They also claimed that Sherman didn’t even buy the gun thinking he was going to use it to kill Kate. Instead, he bought it for protection against a man who Kate had been seeing.

In fact, he didn’t even go to the house planning to kill her at all. According to the defense, it wasn’t until she refused getting back together with him that something in him snapped. He lost control of himself and went on a shooting rampage. This directly contradicted his confession made to police and the statements he made to local reporters the night of the killing. (37)

Against both parents

Irvin Brown

On the first day of the trial, Irvin was called to testify for the prosecution. From the night of the murder to that moment, Sherman had been stoic and emotionless about the entire ordeal. But the second he saw his son in the courtroom, he wept uncontrollably.

Irvin testified in detail to witnessing both Sherman chasing his mother around the yard and him killing Nellie. (36) 

He then testified again a few days later for the defense where he talked about the men Kate went out with. (38) Essentially, he was called to testify against both parents.

During a recess in the trial, Sherman and Irvin were able to talk. Sherman pulled Irvin into a hug and broke down in tears again. Irvin, though he was just 12-years-old and had witnessed his aunt’s murder and his mother’s assault, was the one comforting Sherman. (39)

The Verdict

The jury deliberated for 10 hours and returned a manslaughter verdict. The prosecution wasn’t happy, and they considered trying him for assault with the intent to commit murder. (40)

On February 25, 1916, Sherman was sentenced to 8 years of hard labor in the state prison and ordered to pay a $200 fine. (41)

Kate wanted to see Sherman one last time before he was transferred to the state prison and say goodbye. But the second she saw him, she broke down in tears and apologized for everything that had happened. Evidently, she felt guilty for what Sherman had done to Nellie.

She promised him that if the state decided to prosecute him for the assault he committed on her, she wouldn’t testify against him. (42)

The state ultimately decided against trying him for the assault and he was sent to Fort Madison penitentiary. (43) 

I beg your pardon?

In prison, Sherman was a model prisoner, where he was given the job as a dishwasher. (44) In 1920, just four years into his eight-year sentence, Sherman was given a full pardon by the governor, William L. Harding. (45)

The decision was very unpopular. Newspapers drew a comparison to a recent case of forgery in which a young Black man, Emil Thomas, was sentenced to 15 years for forging 66 dollars (about 1,200 dollars in 2022) (46) worth of checks. (47) 

“It is justice. The forger is paying the price — 15 years for the heinous crime of stealing money from his employer,” the Quad-City Times said, “Brown merely took a human life. But he has paid his price — four years. It is justice.” (45)

Not long after his release, Sherman filed for divorce from Kate. When or if the divorce was finalized is unclear. (48)

Aftermath

Kate, permanently scarred from her gunshot wounds, aimed to go on with her life. She stayed in Davenport for a few years and continued working at the Crescent Macaroni Factory. (49) Until changing professions and becoming a cook at a few different universities. (50) 

She eventually moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and lived with Irvin and his wife. (51) The family then moved to California. (52) Kate never remarried and died in 1960 at the age of 80. (50)

Immediately after the trial, Irvin moved in with Kate’s parents in Carlyle, Illinois. He eventually moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he found work as a truck driver. (53) After moving to California, he worked as a landscaper. He, his wife, Helen and Kate lived a quiet life, and he passed away in 1969 at the age of 65 as the result of a heart attack. (54)

After his release from prison, Sherman fell out of the public eye and no records can be found to confirm his whereabouts from 1920 until his death in 1939. (55) 

John moved back to Illinois in the 1920s where he married a widow named Melissa Brown and he became the step-father to her daughter, Ester. (56) The family settled down in Champaign, Illinois where John worked as a shoe repairman. (57) The couple remained married until his death in 1954. (58)

Mildred, the daughter who witnessed her mother’s murder, briefly lived with Nellie’s parents before marrying Fred Ladage at the age of 15. (59) The couple settled down in St. Louis, Missouri, where they had four children. (60) They remained married until his death in 1970. (61) Mildred passed away 6 years later at the age of 74. (62)

After living with John and Sherman’s parents, John and Nellie’s oldest son, Floyd, moved back to Iowa, where he was married to Velma Bohnsack. (63) The couple settled down in Davenport where they raised their four children. (64) They remained married until her death in 1979. (65)


Tragedy struck the Brown family again in 1985 when Floyd was brutally murdered by a young family friend and her boyfriend. He was 79 years old. (66)

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