Death penalty book examines Iowa's 46 executions

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Iowa’s death penalty ended Feb. 24, 1965, almost 46 years ago. But its reinstatement has been considered by the Iowa Legislature at least a dozen times since. And the hanging deaths of 46 men still intrigue historians and inspired Dick Haws, a retired journalism professor at Iowa State University, to write and publish “Iowa and the Death Penalty,” a book that examines every case.

“I think Iowa is blessed without capital punishment,” says Dick, 67, of Ames. “That isn’t why I wrote the book.”

Dick’s fascination with the death penalty began after Charles Starkweather of Lincoln, Neb., killed 11 people in two months and was executed June 25, 1959. And Dick wasn’t alone. The Starkweather story inspired Stephen King (His book, “The Stand”), Bruce Springsteen (His song, “Nebraska”) and a host of moviemakers (“The Sadist” in 1963, “Badlands” in 1973, “True Romance” in 1993, and “Natural Born Killers” in 1994 among them).

“Growing up in Nebraska, you assumed that capital punishment was the law of the land,” Dick says.

He learned otherwise when he came to Iowa to teach 30 years ago after a career that included working for newspapers in Lincoln, Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., and Kansas City. Mo.

On sabbatical from ISU about a decade ago, Dick researched Iowa’s death penalty and wrote the manuscript. When publishers, including University of Iowa Press and ISU Press, balked at publishing the book, contending it didn’t have a large enough market, he stored it. A year ago he decided to self-publish — the book is available at ($25 for the 328-page book or $9.99 for electronic download) and soon to be on Amazon.

As Dick dug through public records and newspaper accounts, one aspect of Iowa’s capital punishment stood out.

“The method,” he says. “Iowa never did anything but hanging, and look at how difficult that was to get right. And the difficulty they’re having with lethal injection now.”

Flip through the book, arranged in chronological order with one case per chapter, and you learn one man died almost instantaneously (his heart stopped after a minute) while another’s ruptured neck artery spewed blood as three witnesses collapsed.

That second example was Walter “Dusty” Rhodes of Iowa City, hanged May 7, 1940, after being convicted of the shotgun death of his wife, Mabel. One of Iowa’s more sensational cases, Rhodes was involved with another woman when he rigged a shotgun with dynamite that exploded and decapitated his wife when she fired it.

Iowa had more executions (four) in 1938 than any other year, including John Mercer who murdered Tipton grocer and vigilante Robert Sproat during a shootout. “Saved” by a Quaker woman, Mercer’s solitary grave sits along County Road F44 a couple miles east of West Branch.

Victor Feguer, who killed a Dubuque doctor, became the last man executed in Iowa (March 15, 1963) before the state ended the death penalty in 1965, along with New York, West Virginia and Vermont.

Because “Iowa and the Death Penalty: A Troubled Relationship 1834-1965,” is written around the facts in a journalistic manner, it’s a wonderful reference to Iowa’s history with the death penalty.

You learn how opinions went with the times, how sheriffs reluctantly pulled the lever, what the men ate for last meals.

“The people up close to the death penalty,” Dick says, “tended to oppose it.”

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