Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Murder of Herman Peetz in Rockingham, Iowa

Walter J. Hill received a 25-year sentence
for shooting and killing his one-time friend, 
Herman Peetz (pictured above) , at his
Rockingham  home.
(The Daily Times. November 25, 1918)
Walter J. Hill cursed the day he rented his house to Herman Peetz. At one time, the two men had been friends, but those days were long gone. Peetz didn’t appreciate anything Hill had done for him.

Hill rented his house to Peetz for next to nothing, and how did he repay him? With a bill for some petty work, he’d done in the back yard.


No. It wasn’t right. He would show Peetz.

Hill bought a .38 caliber revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition, then told his neighbor, H. E. Ashcraft, that he was going to "get" Peetz. 


Less than a week later, Hill shot Herman Peetz dead in his back yard at 423 Pearl Street in Rockingham (now the west end of Davenport).


In retrospect, the reasons for the shooting seemed petty or inconsequential. 


Hill leaned a ladder up against Peetz’s house and dragged a roll of tar paper up to the roof. Then he went home to get a hammer and nails. When he came back, he discovered Peetz had taken the ladder down and tossed it in the yard.

 Hill walked back to his house, reached into his pocket, and drew his gun. He rested it on his left arm to steady his aim and squeezed the trigger. Peetz fell to the ground.

Hill walked into the house, changed clothes, and started walking toward the Rockingham Car Line. Police arrested him a short distance away at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Rockingham Road. He told Officers Martin and Cuervorst that he was headed to the station to turn himself in.


Peetz was taken to Mercy Hospital in Davenport, where he died two hours later. The bullet had entered his left temple and tore through his brain. 


None of it made much sense. The men were long-time friends.


Walter J. Hill shot Herman Peetz to death at his
Rockingham, Iowa home on November 24, 1918.
The men were involved in a petty feud over moving
 a pump and swiping a few tomatoes. (The Daily
Times. November 25, 1918)
Hill met Peetz in September 1912 when they worked together in the Rock Island Railroad shops. The friendship started to fall apart after Peetz rented a house from Hill. He missed a few payments. After that, they argued over a freshwater pump in the back yard. When Hill didn’t get his way, he told everyone he would “get” Peetz.


“My husband and Hill used to be good friends,” Frieda Peetz told reporters. “Before either of them married, they roomed together. 


“The trouble started over the moving of a pump. My husband made some improvements about the place and told Hill he owed him $10 for his work. On November 1, Peetz refused to pay his rent because of the money Hill owed him. Hill didn’t waste any time taking revenge on his old friend. He had the sheriff serve papers on Peetz, that required the family to move by November 19.


Frieda told her husband several times that she was afraid Hill would harm him, but she never thought he would shoot him.[1]


After his arrest, Hill made a complete confession to Police Chief Packey Phelan. 


He put a ladder up against Peetz’s house so he could do some work on the roof. “I went back to my porch and got a roll of tar paper...I dropped the paper down a little heavy on the roof,” and Mrs. Peetz had a fit. 


“I came down off the roof to get my hammer and nails and went over to my house to get them. Peetz came and took my ladder and threw it back towards my house. I said, ‘By God, you put that up or I will.’ Then Herman Peetz turned a little sideways, to the right, and dropped his right hand to his side.”


Hill pulled his gun out of his pocket and fired. “The bullet struck Herman Peetz in the head. I think it struck him above the left eye. I saw the blood run from his head while he was lying on the ground. He fell as soon as I shot him.” 


Hill said he bought the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and a case of cartridges at Kunkel’s store in Davenport. He got them for protection, “because about three or four weeks ago, [Peetz] said that he would knock my brains out.”


When he heard the threat, Hill told himself, “Two can play that game. I was afraid of Herman Peetz.” 


When he shot Peetz, Hill did not know if he had a gun or not. He just knew he needed to protect himself.[2]


At the inquest, Mrs. Hill told Coroner Clarence Ebert that her husband told her several times that “Peetz needed watching.”[3]


All the witnesses except for Tom Hill, the defendant’s brother, testified that Peetz was shot without warning. Tom Hill said, “Peetz rushed toward his brother and placed his right hand on his hip as if to draw a gun.” That’s when his brother fired.[4]


The Davenport Democrat and Leader said Hill was wanted in Muscatine for bootlegging. He had just returned from Oklahoma and was overheard telling neighbors about the “way they kill ‘em off down there.”[5]


He purchased the gun on November 11 at Kunkel’s in Davenport, then bragged to his neighbor H. E. Ashcraft that he was going to “get” Peetz.


The papers had a field day explaining that “the immediate cause of the shooting was a petty matter which involved a ladder and a roll of tar paper.” Of course, there was more to it than that. The shooting grew out of an unfortunate series of events.[6]


Picking the jury was problematic. Some of the jurors were more difficult than others.

Henry Schroeder threw everyone off when he said when he read something he did “not always learn something from it.” He did not “necessarily learn love” from reading about it. The same was true with newspaper articles. None of them made a “lasting impression” on him.[7] One could only wonder if listening to the witnesses would make an impression on him, or if his mind would wander off to some other subject?


Another juror, Henry C. Dittman, told attorneys they did not need to worry about him being prejudiced by stories printed in the newspaper. He “was not interested in such matters.” Thrillers did not interest him.


The main questions the attorneys on both sides put to jurors were: “When would you kill the other man?” And, “At what point would you decide that it is kill or be killed?”


It was an essential point because Hill told detectives he was afraid of Peetz and thought he was going to get him. If that was true, the killing might be self-defense because “the law justifies homicide when there is no other way out if a man’s life is in danger.”[8]


Eight-year-old Ivan Ashcraft proved to be the most effective witness for the prosecution. He rode into the yard, astride his pony just as the incident began to unfold. Ashcraft watched Peetz take down the ladder and carry it over to Hill’s house. Then he saw Hill pull out his revolver. 


“He rested the revolver on his left arm to steady it,” said the boy, “and fired.” 


Peetz turned and fell forward. The cigarette he was smoking fell from his lips, and his head landed on it when he hit the ground. Ashcraft said he moved the cigarette to keep Peetz’s head from catching fire, then rode away.[9]


Hill testified that Peetz tried to attack him after returning the ladder, but every eyewitness except his brother swore the shooting was unprovoked. No one saw Peetz try to attack Hill.


Hill then switched tactics.


He said he lived in fear of Peetz, ever since Peetz told him he killed a man in Germany before coming to the United States. 


The county prosecutor reminded them that the murder was “deliberately planned” and “premeditated” and was, therefore, a first-degree crime.[10] Hill got off lucky. He should have been hung.


The day before he was sentenced, Hill changed his plea from not guilty to guilty of murder in the second degree. 


The defense attorney summed up his case then finished by asking for clemency or a light sentence, but County Attorney Henry Jebens would not have it. He told the jury that there was “too much gunplay” and too little regard for human life in Scott County. “In all my experience,” he nearly screamed, “I never saw so clear a case of first-degree murder.”[11]


Hill is a “dangerous character” and a “menace to society,” continued Jebens. Five years ago, he tried to “brain” his brother-in-law with a hatchet. “This fellow is a bad man, and he should get a heavy sentence.”


In late January 1919, Hill pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree and was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in the Fort Madison Prison.[12]


In making his ruling, Judge M. F. Donegan said the evidence did not support a light sentence. 


The Davenport Democrat and Leader said that when he heard the sentence, Hill turned to his wife and mother and flashed a big ass smile at them. The reporter tried to cover for Hill, saying he did it to “mask his real feelings,” but people had their doubts. 


Walter J. Hill got released from the Fort Madison Prison on August 20, 1929, after serving just eight years, nine months, and one day of his sentence. Honor time reduced his sentence.[13] Two years later, police arrested Hill again for chasing after his sister-in-law down the street with a paring knife while in a drunken rage. He received a five-day sentence for intoxication.[14]

[1] The Daily Times. November 25, 1918.

[2] Davenport Democrat and Leader. November 25, 1918.

[3] The Daily Times. November 26, 1918.

[4] The Daily Times. November 26, 1918.

[5] Davenport Democrat and Leader. November 25, 1918.

[6] Davenport Democrat and Leader. November 25, 1918.

[7] The Daily Times. January 29, 1919.

[8] Davenport Democrat and Leader. January 29, 1919.

[9] Davenport Democrat and Leader. January 30, 1919.

[10] Davenport Democrat and Leader. January 30, 1919.

[11] Davenport Democrat and Leader. January 30, 1919.

[12] Davenport Democrat and Leader. January 30, 1919.

[13] Davenport Democrat and Leader. August 20, 1919.

[14] Davenport Democrat and Leader. July 24, 1931.

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