On Saturday afternoon, May 2, 1953, Walter M. Mayer of Santa Fe, N.M., stopped in Greencastle, Mo., to return a truck he had borrowed from a friend. Then he picked up the phone and called the sheriff, saying he’d shot a man in Bloomfield, Iowa, earlier in the day. He asked if the man had died. He had.
Mayer, 56, was one of the most prominent sheep and cattle men in the Southwest. Originally from Massachusetts, he had settled in Santa Fe in 1919 to recover from wounds he received fighting in France during World War I.
He had vast land holdings in New Mexico and a livestock headquarters in Greencastle, Mo. He had served on the Santa Fe City Council, and he and his wife, Katherine “Peaches” Mayer, were socially and politically active.
John Wisdom, 52, of Bloomfield, was a well-known Midwest Hereford raiser and livestock dealer. He once had operated one of the largest sheep and cattle yards in Des Moines. He also had a 900-plus-acre farm near Bloomfield in south-central Iowa. The Herefords he raised there were among the best in the area.
Wisdom hit hard times in 1950 when he was involved in a bankruptcy lawsuit brought against him in Des Moines by 27 Iowa livestock dealers and farmers. He listed debts of $411,918. Wisdom’s Hereford herd was sold. He then partnered with his son, John Wisdom Jr., in a business that concentrated on dealing in others’ livestock.
Some of that livestock belonged to Mayer. Wisdom was feeding a large number of sheep and cattle owned by Mayer at his Bloomfield farm. Wisdom sold some of them but neglected to give Mayer his full share of the sale.
When confronted, Wisdom offered to settle, but at thousands of dollars less than the amount due Mayer.
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Mayer consulted Ottumwa attorney R.E. White on May 1. White advised Mayer to accept Wisdom’s offer, so Mayer called Wisdom. They agreed to meet at Wisdom’s farm on May 2 to settle the matter.
The pair met near a vacant farmhouse on Wisdom’s farm. The 160-pound Mayer said he intended to accept Wisdom’s offer. But as they discussed the offer, Mayer said later, the 240-pound Wisdom became agitated and threatened to kill him.
When the angry Wisdom reached toward his hip, Mayer was concerned that he was reaching for a gun. Mayer, who always carried a .38-caliber pistol, pulled it and shot Wisdom twice.
turns himself in
Leaving Wisdom without checking to see if he was alive, Mayer got in a truck and drove off.
When he arrived in Missouri, Mayer made two phone calls from Granville Smith’s Spring Creek Ranch, near Greencastle, 25 miles northwest of Kirksville.
He called Bloomfield attorney Waldo Fimmen. He then called Adair County Sheriff G.E. Grossnickle in Kirksville and told him what had happened.
Grossnickle, County Attorney W.C. Frank and Missouri Highway Patrolman Sgt. Frank H. Wood headed out to the ranch. Mayer met them at the door. He asked the men if someone had died in Iowa.
When the sheriff said yes, Mayer turned over his gun. Mayer maintained a calm, quiet demeanor as he told the sheriff he had shot Wisdom in self-defense when Wisdom rushed and threatened to kill him. He said he wanted to give himself up. He was arrested and taken to jail.
When authorities arrived at the Wisdom’s Davis County farm, they found a briefcase near Wisdom’s body that contained correspondence between the two men. None of it showed any animosity.
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The Santa Fe cattleman was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $75,000 bond until his Oct. 29 trial. On Oct. 24, Mayer checked into an Ottumwa hotel.
As jury selection for the trial entered its third day, an auction of cattle and machinery at the Wisdom farm raised $16,518. That amount, along with $105,000 from the sale of the 918-acre farm, settled the late livestock dealer’s estate.
The trial began Oct. 29 and lasted until Nov. 24.
In his closing argument, Mayer’s attorney, R.E. White, told the jury to either find Mayer guilty or set him free. “This is a simple case in a way,” White said. “The one thing for you to decide is, did Walter Mayer shoot and kill John C. Wisdom in self-defense? That’s all.”
The state argued that Mayer was armed when he went to meet Wisdom. They said Wisdom was shot as he tried to escape over a fence after the men quarreled. The dead man’s son had testified his father never carried a gun.
A jury of three women and nine men deliberated for less than an hour and 20 minutes and took two ballots, both unanimously in favor of acquittal. They explained they were being cautious, rechecking exhibits “to assure ourselves we voted right.”
The next day, Mayer and his wife were in Ottumwa to discuss filing for dismissal of a $50,000 lawsuit that Wisdom’s estate had filed against Mayer for Wisdom’s “unlawful” death. They then headed home to New Mexico to spend Thanksgiving with their two sons.
Walter Mayer was 81 when he died Feb. 20, 1971, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. According to a son, Mayer had terminal cancer.
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