116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa Gov. George W. Clarke, who took office in 1913, was asked in 1915 to pardon brothers Frank and Nate Rainsbarger.
The brothers had been convicted of murdering Frank’s father-in-law, Enoch Johnson, on Nov. 18, 1884, in Hardin County, about 45 miles west of Waterloo. They’d been in prison almost 30 years for a murder many thought they did not commit.
Clarke at first was inclined to deny the brothers clemency. But curiosity led him to investigate the notorious case.
The governor became so interested in the particulars that he rode the 20-mile route — in a horse and buggy — that the Rainsbargers supposedly took to kill Johnson, from Cleves to Gifford and back. He found it couldn’t be done in the time prosecutors had claimed at the brothers’ trials.
He was convinced the Rainsbargers were innocent. With an abundance of caution, though, he decided they would be on probation for three years. If they passed those years without incident, they would be pardoned.
It took 18 months before the conditional pardon came through.
In central Iowa, the Rainsbargers were compared to the Jesse James gang. At least news stories claimed that — most of them originating in the local newspaper, the Eldora Herald.
But time would reveal the paper’s editor, James S. Ross, was on the payroll of a counterfeit ring and was being fed information by William Hiserodt, the ring’s apparent leader, according to a 1992 article in The Palimpsest, the history journal published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Thefts, robberies, disappearances and murders were all connected to the Rainsbargers, even though facts often contradicted those claims and instead pointed to criminals in nearby Steamboat Rock, Abbott and Eldora, the article stated.
Then, in 1884, Enoch Johnson was arrested for counterfeiting. Johnson’s daughter, Nettie, insisted that her husband, Frank Rainsbarger, bail out her father.
After Johnson was released, his body was found on the road from Gifford to Abbott. It was at first believed his death was an accident, but the evidence, including a cracked skull, pointed to murder.
Nettie was furious about her father’s death and persuaded authorities to arrest Frank, her husband, and his brother Nate for murder. They were taken to the Marshalltown jail.
It was the state’s theory the brothers had planned to take out life insurance policies on Johnson, dress a cadaver in his clothes and stage a runaway horse and buggy accident during which the cadaver would be thrown into the river. When the decomposed body was recovered, it would be unrecognizable, and they would collect $16,500 in insurance, enough to move and start again somewhere else.
Other strange events further pointed the brothers toward prison.
Henry Johns, the brothers’ wealthy brother-in-law, was shot while traveling to his farm near Abbott with his son and a hired hand. Before Johns died, he identified Hiserodt, the counterfeit ring leader, as one of his assailants.
But it was the Rainsbargers’ brothers — Finley, Manse and William — who were arrested for Johns’ murder and taken to the Eldora jail. That night, a masked and silent mob broke into the jail and killed Finley and Manse. William had posted bail and escaped the massacre.
Frank and Nate Rainsbarger were convicted in separate trials in 1887 of murdering Johnson and were sentenced to life in prison. Frank’s trial was in January. He was sent to the prison in Anamosa on March 15. Nathan’s trial was in November. He was sent to Anamosa on Dec. 10.
The brothers became model prisoners and trusties at the prison. Frank was in charge of the prison carpenter shop and the only inmate allowed to keep a dog. Nate was a pattern maker in the machine shop.
In 1906, they petitioned Iowa Gov. Albert Cummins for a pardon. It was denied.
In 1908, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Silas Weaver took the unusual step of petitioning the state parole board, asking that the brothers be released because he believed they were innocent.
“After more than two years of investigation of the case and close observation of their conduct and demeanor, their unhesitating frankness and clearness of statements in consultation with counsel, the consistency of their story and their denials, with facts of which I had independent knowledge impressed me very deeply with the belief which I still retain of their innocence of the alleged crime,” he wrote the parole board.
In anticipation of their release, the brothers had made wooden souvenirs in the carpenter shop to sell to help pay their legal costs.
The parole board denied their release.
In 1911, Iowa Gov. B.F. Carroll denied clemency to the Rainsbargers, declaring a life sentence should be commuted only in the most extraordinary circumstances and that the brothers didn’t qualify.
Frank’s hospitalization at the prison in 1913 led his supporters to call for his release on humanitarian grounds. That, too, was denied, and he recovered.
In April 1915, Nate and Frank were allowed to leave prison to see their sick sister, Mrs. Henry Johns. She died while they were there, and they were allowed to stay and attend the funeral.
On Aug. 25, 1915 — 28 years after their imprisonment — Gov. Clarke pardoned the brothers.
“The Rainsbargers, deprived of their liberty nearly 30 years ago for a crime which probably a majority of the people of Iowa never believed they committed, today for the first time in a generation breathed the air of freedom,” The Gazette reported.
“The announcement of a conditional pardon, signed by the governor and stamped with the great seal of Iowa, was made by this newspaper yesterday. Today, Charles C. McCloughry, the warden of the reformatory, opened the prison doors and carried out the state’s decree.”
By then, Nathan was 64 and Frank was 58.
By December 1916, Nathan was living in Marshalltown and working for the Western Grocer Co. mills. Frank did contract work near Ackley.
Frank died in Abbott on Nov. 15, 1926. Nathan was 88 when he died at the home of his niece, Mrs. Frank Poland, in Marshalltown in 1940. Both are buried in the Steamboat Rock Cemetery.