1908 postcard looking downstream on the Cedar River at Austin’s Bridge Street bridge (2nd Ave NE) south of the downtown dam. On the right near the bridge was where Keefe’s body was found in the river in 1903.

LOOKBACK: 1903 fishing trip leads to murder investigation for body in Cedar

By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District

After waking up on a Friday morning, Chris Nockelby grabbed his fishing pole and walked a few blocks to the Cedar River below Austin’s downtown dam.

Upon arrival, however, Nockelby’s plans for a relaxing day of fishing on June 26, 1903, changed quickly. Just upstream from the Bridge Street bridge (2nd Ave NE), he spotted a man’s body floating on the river’s west side. He quickly notified Ned Elwood, the Austin Fire Department’s horse team driver, who happened to be driving by.

Word went out to the police, coroner and undertaker about the body — later identified as 26-year-old Fred Keefe, a single farmer from Blooming Prairie.

Once at the scene, the undertaker — John Rustad, a local furniture store owner — borrowed Nockelby’s fishing pole and cast the line so the hook caught the clothes on the body and he could bring it ashore, the Austin Daily Herald wrote June 26, 1903.

A star on this 1905 map marks the approximate place in the Cedar River in Austin where a local fisherman found the body of Fred Keefe the morning of June 26, 1903. The crossing was Bridge Street or today’s 2nd Ave NE, just downstream from the downtown dam. Keefe, of Blooming Prairie, had been missing for a few days after seeing a friend the night of June 23 on Austin’s east-side Railway Street. A local jury decided Keefe fell off the bridge onto rocks and slid into the river but some suspected murder.

Questions and conflicting reports arose from the group at the scene, leading the Minneapolis Journal later that day to run the headline: “Circumstances Indicate That Fred Keefe Was Murdered at Austin.” Its story claimed “no one seems to know” when Keefe came to Austin.

Some locals would provide information on what Keefe was doing in town, and, while an Austin jury decided it didn’t think foul play was involved with his death, plenty of unknowns surrounded Keefe’s disappearance and fall into the river.

Owatonna’s The People’s Press called Keefe’s death “certainly a mystery” on July 3, 1903, days after an Austin jury ruled out homicide.

“He had no symptoms of a drowned man,” the Press wrote, “and the coroner said the body had not been in the water over six hours, and, again, the water where the body was found was very shallow and people who were fishing there Wednesday and Thursday saw no dead body.”

Headline in the June 26, 1903, edition of the Minneapolis Journal.

Local jury rules on cause of death

After the body was pulled from the river, it was taken to the Earl & Rustad’s furniture store downtown, where they had undertaking rooms. It was just south of the county courthouse at North Main and First Avenue.

Advertisement for Rustad’s store and undertaking services in the April 19, 1899, edition of the Mower County Transcript newspaper.

The victim’s face was “considerably cut and bruised” and his body’s condition led “many to suspect that he did not drown but was thrown in the river after he met death,” wrote The Irish Standard of Minneapolis wrote July 4, 1903.

A day after the discovery of a body “in the heart of Austin,” the Minneapolis Tribune ran a headline, saying, “Fred Keefe’s Condition Points to Murder.”

“There are marks of blows on his face and head, and the suspicions are strong that he was slugged by persons unknown and thrown into the river,” the Tribune wrote June 27, 1903.

The article noted doctors found little or no water in the man’s lungs and believed he was dead before he entered the river. Efforts were being made to find his relatives and friends.

“No one seems to know when he came here,” the Tribune wrote.

Bicycle trip from Blooming Prairie to Austin

Louis Umhoefer, however, seemed to know a lot about Keefe. Umhoefer, whose family ran a saloon on Austin’s east-side Railway Street (10th St NE), was a friend of Keefe and saw him in Austin at the saloon the night of June 23.

Umhoefer — reportedly the second man to identify Keefe’s body and one of the people at the river when the body was taken out — had traveled June 28 to Blooming Prairie to visit Keefe’s mother, the Owatonna’s The People’s Press wrote July 3, 1903. Umhoefer had stayed with Keefe and his mother three years earlier.

The newspaper reported Keefe left his mother’s home on a bicycle about 10 a.m. June 23, and traveled a few miles to the small town of Newry in neighboring Freeborn County — an area settled by immigrants from Ireland. There, he got a check for $15 from someone and rode into Austin to cash it.

Keefe went to Umhoefer’s saloon around 6 p.m. where he had a “pleasant meeting” with Umhoefer until about 10 p.m. Keefe then said “he believed he would leave his wheel there and go home on the freight train, which was due about 11:20 (p.m.).”

“The man (Keefe) was perfectly sober having taken but two small glasses of beer during the time he remained there,” the article stated.

After asking for the time, Keefe said he would go “up town and be in again on his way to the depot.” Umhoefer was not concerned when Keefe didn’t return because he knew the time was short for catching the train.

More than two days later (June 26), Umhoefer’s mother woke him that Friday morning to say the telephone girl next door said a man was found in the river and gave details on his clothing.

Umhoefer went to the river and immediately recognized Keefe.

Initial reports that an empty liquor bottle was found in Keefe’s pocket were “strictly false,” the Press reported. No one was found yet who had seen Keefe between when he left Umhoefer’s saloon and when his body was found in the river.

Headline in the June 27, 1903, in the Minneapolis Journal.

Day of discovery

Between 1892 and 1913, newspaper records show at least seven men — including Keefe — were found dead in the Cedar River in Austin. Four were found in the Cedar between the railroad bridge (southeast side of Austin Mill Pond) and the dam at Water Street (4th Ave NE); two others were found in the Cedar near the rail bridge on Austin’s south side (near 4th St SE today) and in a stretch of the river no longer in existence at today’s Austin Mill Pond.

As for the Keefe case in 1903, Nockelby, a 31-year-old Norwegian immigrant who worked for the Milwaukee Road rail company, saw Keefe’s face and body floating in the river when he got to his fishing spot. Others then gathered with him and word went out to “Coroner Hollister and Undertaker Rustad,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote June 26, 1903.

Hollister summoned a jury of men to examine the body at Rustad’s store, where it was “exhibited to hundreds but it was several hours after it was found before identification was complete.” On Keefe, they found an empty bottle, bicycle pump, a nickel and a note for two spools of silk thread, the Herald wrote.

An unidentified man from Austin’s Third Ward (likely Umhoefer) recognized the body as the remains of Keefe, the Herald wrote. The man said Keefe was in Austin on June 23 and left his “wheel” at the man’s place, saying he would go home on a train. Keefe borrowed $2 from the man, who never saw Keefe alive again.

“Just how Mr. Keefe met his death will probably never be known,” the Herald wrote. “It is a theory that he fell down the embankment as his face was more or less cut. The body had evidently been in the water but a short time.”

That same day, the Minneapolis Journal ran a story pointing at likely foul play with Keefe.

“There are marks and blows on his face and head and the suspicions are strong that he was slugged by persons unknown and thrown into the river,” the Journal wrote. “Physicians found little or no water in his lungs, and believe he was dead before his body entered the river.”

Jury members impaneled to hold an inquest on Keefe’s remains, however, determined Keefe was not murdered, the Herald wrote. The jury returned a verdict that Keefe died after accidentally walking off the approach to the Bridge Street bridge and falling onto the shoreline rocks below. This broke Keefe’s neck, and his body slid into the river.

1910 map showing in the lower right the shoreline of the Cedar River where Keefe’s body was found in 1903 just upstream from the East Bridge Street bridge. The nearby building was a German Hall in what today is the Riverside Arena parking lot.

Keefe’s mother — a widow with four daughters and another son — traveled by train the afternoon of June 26 from Blooming Prairie to Austin. Keefe’s uncles brought his body back that evening to Blooming Prairie for a funeral the next day. He was buried in Newry.

Several days later, the Mower County Transcript reported that Keefe had been drinking liquor in Umhoefer’s saloon and later was found in an intoxicated state on the east-side porch of a city council member, John Konovsky.

“This was the last seen of him alive,” the Transcript wrote. “The supposition is that (Keefe) fell over the approach to the bridge and struck on the rocks below, receiving fatal injuries. The jury brought in a verdict to that effect.”

On Saturday, June 27, Austin experienced another water-related death when a 16-year-old boy, Frank House, drowned in a swimming hole “in the second sand pit” near the Hormel plant. The boy and his father were out-of-towners who had been running a merry go round in Austin for about two weeks.

Swimming with his dad after dinner, the boy had dove into the water and never came back up.

“He knew very little about swimming and probably was taken with a cramp while in the water,” the Transcript wrote.

Keefe’s mother sues City of Austin for ‘defective’ bridge

In December 1904, Keefe’s mother, Mary Keefe, sued the City of Austin for $5,000 in damages for her son’s June 1903 death, the Blooming Prairie Times reported Dec. 15, 1904. Her legal claim was that the city’s Bridge Street bridge was “defective,” causing her son’s fall and death.

She hired attorneys from Owatonna and Waseca to handle her case.

“At the time of the death, the exact cause could not be ascertained although it was generally believed that Keefe fell from the bridge and was drowned,” the Times reported.

In June 1905 — just days before the two-year anniversary of Keefe’s death — a Mower County judge dismissed Mary Keefe’s lawsuit “on its merits for want of prosecution,” meaning either nothing had happened in the case for awhile or the plaintiff missed a hearing.

Present-day view of the Cedar River looking downstream from Austin’s downtown dam toward the 2nd Ave NE bridge (formerly East Bridge Street).

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