116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One hundred years ago, a man described as an “eccentric, inventive” genius holed up in the Cedar Rapids Carnegie Library with a gun. He killed one Cedar Rapids police officer and injured two others, before being taken into custody.
At his sentencing, John C. Broeksmit blamed the police for that outcome.
When Broeksmit was 10 years old, he already showed a precocious talent for mechanical and electrical engineering.
As he grew older, he set up a workshop in a large garage behind the family home at 827 Sixth St. SE for his creations, which included a generator, an electric car, batteries and rectifiers, a device that converts AC current to DC.
He also eventually wired the garage to prevent anyone from entering.
Broeksmit went to college for five years at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. In 1895, he was admitted to the Armour Institute in Chicago, for advanced study in electricity, and his mother, Caroline, moved to Chicago to be with her son. His father, Peter, the freight auditor for the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway, had died in 1883 when John was 6.
After his school, Broeksmit returned to Cedar Rapids, In 1915, he started carrying an automatic pistol in after, he said, a gang in the neighborhood of the Jan Hus Memorial Presbyterian Church, then at Ninth Avenue and Seventh Street SE, began harassing him.
Six years later, on July 29, 1921, Broeksmit, then 44, left his home in Oak Hill, intending to catch a streetcar to visit a female friend in Kenwood Park.
He was walking toward the streetcar as boys were playing ball on the sidewalk. He was hit in the head by a ball.
“I turned and asked who struck me. One of them admitted it,” Broeksmit would say later. “I went toward the boy, intending to ask for an apology or get punishment. He advanced toward me in a threatening manner. I saw he was larger than I was, and I pulled my revolver to intimidate them.”
Calling the cops
Broeksmit then got on the streetcar, where the motorman alerted police that a man with a gun was on board.
Detective Alfred A. Mikota met the streetcar at Third and Third SE. Broeksmit asked Mikota to step aside so he could get off. Mikota did and then learned that Broeksmit was the one with a gun.
Mikota and Patrolman William Milke pursued Broeksmit. At the post office, Milke drew his gun and ordered Broeksmit to halt.
Instead, Broeksmit fired his gun at Milke and fled, heading up an alley. He cut through the Third Avenue Virginia restaurant and headed toward the Carnegie Library on Third Avenue and Fifth Street SE, entering through the front door.
Two other police officers — Francis Wilson and James H. Bailey — joined Mikota and Milke at the library, along with Frank Redmond, a police officer with the Rock Island Railroad.
No one in the library had seen Broeksmit as he entered the library and gone downstairs to a washroom, where he found the door was locked. He ran upstairs to the second floor, trying doors as he went, but all were locked. He hid behind a pillar and saw Officers Milke and Wilson coming up the stairs, followed by Mikota and Bailey.
Milke and Wilson spied Broeksmit behind the pillar and aimed their guns at him. Broeksmit shot at Milke.
Wilson fired at Broeksmit, who turned and shot Wilson, emptying his revolver. The bullets hit Wilson once in the chest and three times in the head, killing him.
Redmond, the railroad officer, heard the empty gun clicking and subdued Broeksmit. He and Bailey took Broeksmit to the police station, none of them knowing, until they reached the station, that Wilson had been fatally wounded.
“I didn’t know I killed him until at the police station,” Broeksmit said. “They told me I had killed a man.”
Prison for life
Broeksmit was taken by public trolley to the county jail in Marion on Aug. 2, where he stayed until his Sept. 12 appearance before a grand jury. While in jail, he had few visitors and spent most of his time reading books on electricity.
He was found guilty of second-degree murder.
At his sentencing, Broeksmit said Wilson’s death was “the fault of the police. They could have investigated the complaint and then gone to my house and arrested me without guns and a mob at their heels. ... They seemed to want a gunfight, and they got it and got the worst of it.”
Broeksmit was sentenced to life in prison and was taken to the state penitentiary in Fort Madison on Sept. 13.
“Broeksmit in his stony calm seemed entirely reconciled to spending the rest of his life behind bars,” The Gazette reported.
Wilson had not yet passed the officer’s exam at the time of his death and did not qualify for a pension. Nevertheless, Mayor J.F. Rall announced the city would provide a pension to Wilson’s family.
Wilson’s widow, Christina, remained in Cedar Rapids with her son and daughter. Her son, Albert, became a police officer in 1929.
Broeksmit died at the Fort Madison penitentiary on May 24, 1940, at age 63.