History of Iowa

Written by Ex-Lieut. Governor Benjamin F. Gue

Horse Thieves ---Regulators of 1857


From 1840 to 1857 a region of country extending from the Big Woods in Jackson county through the eastern parts of Jones and Cedar and the western portions of Clinton and Scott counties, had been infested with suspicious characters who were believed to be connected with a gang of horse thieves, robbers and counterfeiters. Many crimes had been committed in that region and it seemed to be impossible to convict and punish those arrested and believed to be guilty. Those suspected generally lived in the sparsely settled sections where brush and timber enabled them to conceal their movements and secrete the stolen property, and hide from officers sent to arrest them.

In 1856 and 1857 a large number of horses had been stolen from farmers in that section of the state, causing much distress. Most of the farmers were poor men struggling to make new homes on the wild prairies and support their families while bringing the new land under cultivation. Common horses cost from $200 to $300 for a team, and the loss of a horse or a team in those days of general poverty meant deep distress, and often left the farmer without means to cultivate his land or save his crops. The hardships thus brought upon many hard working people became so serious that the neighbors at last determined to organize for their own protection. Frequent arrests had been made, but the employment of the best lawyers and the assistance of confederates as witnesses and jurymen had generally enabled the guilty parties to escape conviction and punishment. This emboldened the thieves to continue their depredations and exasperated the settlers to organize associations and band together to hunt down and punish the lawless men who were robbing them.

The people who thus organized became known as “ regulators ” or “ vigilance committees,’’ and eventually a large majority of the farmers in that section infested with thieves, became members of these organizations. The little country village of Big Rock, near the corners of Scott, Clinton and Cedar counties, was for some time the headquarters of the regulators. Here many meetings were held and plans laid for the detection and summary punishment of the thieves.  No records were kept of their proceedings and no member of the organizations has ever been known to divulge the full proceedings of their meetings, or the names of their officers or members. Hence it is exceedingly difficult to give anything like a complete and reliable history of their doings. 

Alonzo Page was a young married man who lived in a log house near the east line of Cedar county, about two miles southeast of the present town of Lowden on the North-Western railroad.  His house was built in the scattering timber called the "barrens," and he had a small farm under cultivation about it. He was an intelligent and industrious young man, and frequently worked out among his neighbors during haying and harvest. He had in some way incurred the enmity of a man named Corry, living over on Rock creek. Soon after the organization of the regulators,Corry joined them and circulated a report that Alonzo Page was connected with a gang of horse thieves. Believing the report, in June, 1857, some of the regulators rode over to the Page cabin and notified him that he must leave the country. When informed of the charge against him, Page solemnly protested his innocence and refused to be driven from his home. But he was told that he must go by a certain time or suffer the consequences. He consulted some of his neighbors, after the regulators had gone, and they advised him to pay no attention to the notice or threats. One night, sometime after, Mr. Page heard the tramp of horses and the voices of several men about his cabin. Looking out of the window he saw a large body of horsemen apparently surrounding his cabin.  Soon heavy raps came on the door and a demand that he should open it. He inquired what was wanted and got no satisfactory reply. Mrs. Page, who was in bed very sick, became greatly alarmed for the safety of her husband. There was no way to notify his neighbors or procure their assistance.  The heavy pounding on the door continued with threats that it would be broken down unless it was opened. Mr. Page went to the window and told the mob that his wife was very sick and that he could not permit her to be terrified by strange men coming into the house. He now realized his dangerous view of the threats that had been made at the former visit of the regulators, and prepared to make the best defense he could, for he felt , sure his life would not be safe if he went out in the dark among the mob. He barricaded the door as well as he could and loaded his double-barrel gun with buck-shot, determined to make the best defense in his power. The door was soon broken down by the regulators, and Page stood at the opening, gun in hand, to defend his home and wife the best he could. But as soon as he appeared in sight a rifle ball pierced his body and he fell in the doorway mortally wounded. The regulators then hastily retreated, leaving the dying man and his frantic, sick wife to their fate. It was not believed that the regulators engaged in this tragic affair went to the house intending to murder Mr. Page, and several of them declared that the fatal shot was fired by Mr. Corry, who instigated the raid on the house.  The regulators were led to believe that Mr. Page was connected with the horse thieves and they expected to be able to drive him out of the country; but conscious of his own innocence he refused to be driven from his home and died in its defense.

The next victim was Peter Conklin, who had committed many crimes in Johnson county and vicinity, and was believed to be a prominent member of the gang of horse thieves. A band of regulators was scouring the country near Yankee run, in Cedar county, on the 27th of June and came upon Conklin in the woods, on horseback. He fled, was pursued, overtaken, shot down and instantly killed.  There is little doubt that he was a desperado of a very dangerous character.

Charles Clute, a carpenter, living on a farm nine miles northeast of Tipton, fell under suspicion and suffered persecution, if not death, at the hands of the regulators. He married the daughter of Mrs. J. D. Denson, a widow, and for several years attended to her business. They kept a hotel and had a large farm,. The widow finally married J. A.  Warner and the two men worked harmoniously together at farming, building and hotel-keeping.  One day in the winter of 1856, a peddler named Johnson, stopped at the Denson house, and, being blockaded by a snowstorm, remained several days.  Some months later, Johnson came there again with a good team and left it to be sold by Mr. Clute.  Sometime after Johnson was arrested and taken to Wisconsin, charged with horse stealing. As Mr.  Clute had sold the horses for Johnson, some of his neighbors caused his arrest, charging that he was an accomplice of Johnson’s. But no evidence appeared against him and he was released. One night a gang of men came to the house, called him out, seized and bound him, conveyed him into the woods and gave him a terrible whipping. He was then released and returned home. Late in the summer Mr. Clute was again arrested, charged with selling stolen horses for Johnson, but no evidence could be found to sustain the charge and he was released. After the organization of the regulators in 1857, Mr. Clute’s old enemies moved against him again. As he and Warner were building a house in Scott county, the regulators seized them one day and took them across the Wapsipinicon river off into the woods, near the residence of Bennett Warren, and gave them a trial for harboring horse thieves, but again no evidence could be found to sustain the charge. But the regulators decreed that they must leave the country. They were compelled to witness the hanging of old Mr. Warren and then taken to Big Rock and kept at Goddard’s tavern overnight. Terrified by the tragedy they had seen enacted by the regulators the day before, they were intimidated into promising to leave the country. In a few days Mr. Clute disappeared and was never afterwards seen or heard of by his family.

When Johnson was brought to trial, it was proved that Mr. Clute was in no way implicated with him, and had no knowledge that the horses were stolen, and there is little doubt that he was entirely innocent of all charges made against him.  It was believed, by his friends, that he never got out of Scott county, but met his death at the hands of the regulators. On the other hand, many believed that Mr. Clute had become convinced that his life was in danger from the regulators, and that his only safety was in going to some distant state, and that he did so. But this does not explain the facts that his family never heard from him and were unable to find any trace of him in all the years that have passed since.


In 1857 there was living in Clinton county, about four miles northeast of Wheatland, near the Wapsipinicon river, a farmer named Bennett Warren.  He was about 60 years of age and an old settler in that region. He kept a sort of public house, entertaining travelers. Some in that vicinity suspected that he was in some way connected with the gang of horse thieves that was believed to infest that region. It was reported that strangers were frequently seen at his house who were believed to belong to the gang. The regulators were determined to make a terrible example of any person found guilty of stealing horses or harboring horse thieves.

On the 24th of June several hundred of the regulators had assembled and taken Mr. Clute and Mr. Warner from Scott county over into Clinton, to try them upon charges made against them.  Not finding any evidence against them, the regulators went to Warren’s house, seized him and organized a court of their own to try him on charges of being connected with horse thieves.  They selected a jury from their own number of twelve men, and went through the forms of a trial.  R. H. Randall, a well known, respectable and intelligent farmer of Clinton county, presided over all of their deliberations. Mr. Warren had no voice in the selection of the jury, was given no time or opportunity to prepare a defense or to procure counsel to aid or advise him. Witnesses were brought forward to convict him, but no chance was given him to bring witnesses in his own behalf.  It is not strange, that after such a trial, the jury found him guilty of all charges brought against him. The chairman then called upon all who were in favor of administering punishment to step to one side of the road, and all voted for punishment.  Then came a vote on the nature of the punishment.  There were two propositions made—one to whip him, the other to hang him. The vote was taken the same way as before. The accounts now disagree as to what followed. The history of Clinton County says:

At first the majority was largely for the milder punishment. Those who favored the extreme measure said:  What satisfaction will there be in whipping an old, gray-haired man? What good will come of it? We are here to protect our property and deter others from these crimes. As the Arguments progressed one by one, in knots of two and three, the people passed over the road so fateful to the doomed man, who was a silent witness to these proceedings, until a clear majority stood for the death sentence. A rope was then placed around Warren’s neck, and he was asked if he had anything to say. His only response was: “I am an old man, and you cannot cheat me out of many years.” The rope was then thrown over a limb, men seized it, and amid silence that was awe-inspiring, the signal was given, and Bennett Warren was ushered into eternity.

The body, cold in death, was then taken down by the executioners, carried to the house and left with his agonized wife and terror-stricken children, who were helpless witnesses of the fearful, merciless tragedy.

R. H. Randall, who presided at the trial, lived of Rock Creek where, for half a century, he has been known as a citizen of the highest standing, gives the following account of the tragedy: “ When the jury found Warren guilty, the question arose, what shall be done with him? Many motions were made and voted down, when someone moved that he be hung. When the vote was to be taken on this motion I requested all who were in favor of hanging to walk over to the east side of the road, and all opposed to go to the west side. Only a few went to the west side. I was astonished and did not indorse the decision. I got up on a wagon and began to tell my reasons for opposing the vote as best I could, for about ten minutes, and was making many changes of votes when a man came to me and said, “Randall, if you don’t stop that you will be shot inside of five minutes.” I replied, “one murder is enough, and ran out of sight.”

This statement of the judge who presided at the trial shows most conclusively that some members of that band of regulators were bloodthirsty and determined to take Mr. Warren’s life if they had to murder a member of their own company to bring it about.


In 1857, Edward Soper was a young man living three miles southeast of Tipton, and Alonzo Gleason was staying at various places in that vicinity, having no regular occupation. In the spring of that year these two young men, in company with three other bad characters, started out to steal a valuable horse belonging to Charles Pennygrot, who lived two miles from Lowden. They succeeded in getting the horse and with another they had stolen from near Solon, they started for Illinois to dispose of the property. By traveling nights for a long distance and then avoiding public roads, they got away without detection, crossed the Mississippi river, and went on to the Illinois river. Here they sold the horses and returned to Cedar county to resume their stealing. But the citizens had found strong evidence of their guilt and caused their arrest by the sheriff. They were taken to the old courthouse at Tipton on the 2d of July and confined in the court room on the ground floor, guarded by the sheriff, John Byerly, and twenty men.

In the meantime the regulators had been notified, and about midnight a large body of them rode into the village and surrounded the courthouse. They were well organized, forced the doors, and after a brief struggle overpowered the guard and seized the prisoners. They conveyed them to the farm of Martin Henry, south of Lowden, near where the valuable horse had been stolen. Here the regulators came in from every direction, until more than two hundred had assembled. They proceeded to organize a court, select a jury and then began the trial of the prisoners, who watched the proceedings in fear and trembling, remembering the fate of Page and Warren. They saw no hope of escape as the trial proceeded, and felt they were doomed.  After the evidence was presented the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. Then the two men, in the hope that their lives might be spared if the horses were recovered, made a full confession and told where the last horses taken could be found. But there was no mercy for them in the determined faces of the regulators. They now had horse thieves of whose guilt there was no doubt, and sentence of death was pronounced against them by almost a unanimous vote. Very little time was given them, and ropes were soon placed around their necks and thrown over the limb of an oak tree, while they stood in a wagon beneath. Soper was completely prostrated, crying and begging piteously for mercy. Gleason was firm, cool and reckless to the last. Two men held Soper on his feet, fierce men pulled on the ropes, the wagon was driven from under them, and two more victims were counted by the regulators.

The law-abiding people were horror-stricken over these deliberate and cold-blooded lynching’s, in which killing was the penalty not only for stealing, but for being suspected, where in some cases there was little doubt of the Innocence of the parties charged, as in the cases of Page and Clute.  Where were these horrors to end? Stealing was bad enough, but murder was infinitely worse. Who would be safe if law could be defied with impunity?  Any innocent person might be sacrificed by an enemy, as in case of Page.

A determined effort was made by Judge Tuthill to procure the indictment and arrest of the known leaders of the regulators. But witnesses and jurors were threatened with death if they should convict any of the members. When court convened in Tipton, hundreds of armed men came in from the country with stern determination to prevent the arrest or trial of any who had taken part in the lynching’s.

Citizens who condemned and denounced the crimes perpetrated by the regulators were visited by them, and warned that they must cease their talk, or they would be driven from the country, and for a time there was a reign of terror in that part of the state. Those who approved of the lynching, together with the large number who had taken part in them, were a vast majority of the people, and it soon became apparent that they would tolerate no punishment of the regulators.

The last victim was a farmer of Jones county named Hiram Roberts. He had long been suspected of being connected with the horse thieves, as he frequently was seen in Cedar County among the suspected parties. On the last of October in 1857, Roberts rode over to James W. Hamlin’s, four miles northwest of Tipton. The regulators hearing of his presence, quietly notified a large number of the members, who, at a fixed time, gathered at Hamlin’s and captured Roberts. He was taken into Jones county and placed in a barn belonging to George Saum, and left in charge of several men, who had been engaged in his capture. The regulators in large numbers retired to a grove near by to consult as to what should be done with the prisoner. After a while it became evident that another victim was to be sacrificed, and one young man who was strongly opposed to these murders by mobs, refused to be a party to the impending tragedy, and went to the barn to get his horse to ride home. Upon opening the door he was horrified to see Roberts suspended by the neck from a beam overhead by a rope, writhing in the agonies of strangulation. It was soon learned that the men left to guard Roberts, while waiting for the return of the main body, had tried, condemned, sentenced and executed the helpless prisoner.  Six of the prominent actors in the tragedy were arrested and bound over to appear at the next term of court at Anamosa. In the meantime the regulators held meetings and resolved to protect the accused members at all hazards. Witnesses disappeared; friends of the arrested were on the grand jury, and as the prisoners appeared at court, surrounded by several hundred armed regulators, no indictments were found and the perpetrators of the crime escaped punishment, as had all of their confederates in former efforts to enforce law. While public opinion was largely in sympathy with the regulators, there was a numerous minority of the best citizens who were firmly opposed to their defiance and disregard for law, and the summary lynching of persons suspected of crimes without giving them an opportunity to make a defense. It was believed that several innocent men had fallen victims to the lawless proceedings, and that no citizen was safe when law was openly defied. Their influence was making a strong impression in the community, and the regulators feared that the growing opposition to their lawless acts might result finally in their punishment. Some of them decided to proceed to intimidate the most prominent advocates of law and order.

Canada McCollough, a near neighbor of Alonzo Page, the first victim of the regulators, was a substantial farmer and one of the most highly esteemed citizens of Cedar county. He was confident that Page was entirely innocent of the accusations which cost him his life. He was outspoken in his denunciation of that cruel murder, and tried to have the guilty parties punished. The regulators waited upon him and warned him that he must keep quiet or leave the country.

McCollough was a fearless old pioneer, skilled in the use of the rifle, and a man who would defend his rights and speak his mind on all occasions. He lived in a good log house, owned a large farm and could neither be driven nor intimidated. He quietly set about preparing for defense. He had two good rifles and borrowed another of a neighbor and made portholes on the side of his house the outside door was on; and continued to express his opinion of the murderers of his neighbor.

One day he saw approaching bis house from the east, a large band of horsemen, all armed. He recognized among them several well-known regulators. His rifles were loaded and he stepped to the front door with one in his hand as the band halted in the road nearby. He recognized the leader, a man living near Big Rock, who rode forward near the gate.  McCollough ordered him to halt, and demanded to know what his gang wanted. The leader informed him that they had come to notify him that he could not be allowed to denounce them any longer, and that he must leave the country or take the consequences. McCollough told them calmly that he should defend his home to the last, that he had a right to express his opinions and should do so. That he was a law-abiding citizen, guilty of no crime, and that they knew it. He continued, “you know Mr. G. that I am a good shot; I have three good rifles here and plenty of ammunition. My family can load them as fast as I can shoot. You may be able to kill me as you did Lon Page, but I shall kill some of you first, and I shall not surrender.” Suddenly stepping back in the house, he raised his rifle, took deadly aim at the leader and said, “I will give you one minute to get out of my yard and if you attempt to raise your gun you are a dead man. You know I never miss my mark.” The leader knew the man who had the drop on him, and saw he meant what he said. He hesitated a moment, turned and rode back to his men. McCollough hastily stepped back, closed and barricaded the door and then his rifle was seen pointing from a porthole at the crowd. They consulted a while and then attempted to get him to promise that he would keep still in the future. But he stood firm for his rights as an American citizen and would make no concessions. His fearlessness convinced them that he had friends in the house who would stand by him, as they saw the muzzles of several rifles pointed from the portholes. The band now began to realize that they had determined men to deal with who could not be Intimidated. They knew also that there was a large number of law-abiding citizens whom they had sought to intimidate who had recently been consulting together for mutual defense and protection, and that if they got into a conflict with them it was very likely that Governor Grimes would order out the militia and arrest and severely punish them for their past transgressions. So they finally told Mr. McCollough that they would leave him now and give him time to consider the matter, and if they heard of any more denunciation from him that he must leave the country. They then rode away and never disturbed him again.

While the terrible deeds of the regulators must be condemned, the region in which they operated was entirely freed from further depredations of horse thieves from that time on. The gangs which had so long infested that part of the state were entirely broken up and thoroughly terrified by the fearful fate that had overtaken those suspected who had fallen into the hands of the regulators. And the regulators came to realize that their lawless combination and acts would no longer be tolerated.  All efforts to bring them to trial failed, and not a member of them was ever convicted or in any way punished for participating in the lynching of the seven men who became their victims.




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