On Dec. 14, 1948, the body of Byron C. Hattman was found on the floor of room 729 in the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids. What followed was perhaps the most fantastic inquest and trial the city had ever seen, with spectators crowding the courthouse steps beginning at 5:30 a.m., hoping to secure a seat in the courtroom.
In her fantastic new book, “Murder at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Cedar Rapids historian Diane Fannon-Langton sheds new light on the case, thanks to an exhaustive look through The Gazette’s vast archive. With her considerable skill as a researcher coupled with her exacting writing style, Murder at the Roosevelt Hotel reads like an anachronistic long-form article, covering all sides of case in considerable detail, while balancing out the minutia with charming inserts about hotel rooms, phones, even door knobs of the day — and how they impact the case. No stone is left unturned in Fannon-Langton’s work, and Cedar Rapids readers, as well as history buffs in general, are all the better for it.
Fannon-Langton’s book begins the way any murder mystery should begin: with a body. Hattman is found by a hotel maid face down in his room, in a pool of blood. His wallet is empty, but police quickly determine this was no robbery. There are just too many oddities: Hattman’s expensive watch was still on his wrist. His glasses were missing. And in his car authorities found “a frame in which someone had mounted against cloth the neck vertebrae and the end part of the backbone of a chicken along with a message, “Lest You Forget,” in indelible pencil.”
Soon authorities learn of Hattman’s connection to Dr. Robert C. Rutledge, a St. Louis doctor, and his wife, Sydney, a mathematician. But was the attack premeditated? Was it justified?
More than a simple retelling of facts, Murder at the Roosevelt Hotel provides a remarkable snapshot of life in Cedar Rapids in the late 1940s: how juries lived in barracks for the duration of the trial; how a journalist could secure an extended jailhouse interview with a man on trial for murder. It’s an unflinching, independent assessment of the case that, at the same time, provides insight into the perspective, fear, and curiosity of Cedar Rapids residents.
Diane Fannon-Langton will sign copies of “Murder in the Roosevelt Hotel” from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids.