LOOKBACK: Man fakes death in 1919 leading to major search in icy Cedar
Financial issues led Austin businessman to stage drowning to allow him to flee to Iowa but train workers helped find him
By Tim Ruzek, CRWD outreach coordinator
Dynamite exploded in the Cedar River’s icy waters at Austin Mill Pond in March 1919 as police, firefighters and citizens searched desperately for the body of a local businessman and socialite.
Marcus Evans, who ran the Manhattan Oil Co. in Austin and was part of local businessmen groups that included George A. Hormel, was missing and believed to have drowned himself in the Cedar.
Evans had left a note at his home, saying his body would be found at a boat landing on a bend of the Cedar River, just upstream from Austin Mill Pond. That spot was where a local family rented boats on the Cedar although this stretch no longer is there today by the old YMCA after being filled in during the 1960s to reroute the river.
At the landing, Evans had cut a hole through river ice that was about a foot thick by using his axe, which was found there. His hat was floating in the river in the hole, and his overcoat, which he left on a nearby fence, had a note pinned to it, saying he chose that spot for its quietness.
The Mower County Transcript-Republican newspaper ran a headline on March 12, 1919, declaring that Evans had ended his life in the river.
An all-out search of the Cedar had started after Evans’ wife and friends reported what they found along the river. The “fire alarm was sounded and 23 of the men responded as well as a great many of our citizens,” the Rochester Daily Post and Record reported.
Searchers continued late into the night, ending around 3 a.m. March 12, 1919, and starting again six hours later. That second search continued all day March 12, with men cutting long strips of ice from the river to aid the search.
Crews kept dragging the Cedar River in hopes of finding Evans’ body.
“Men worked until far into the night trying to locate the body, and many holes were cut in the ice but, up to 2:00 PM Wednesday, no trace could be found,” the Transcript wrote March 12, 1919.
“The deepest sympathy of the community goes out to Mrs. Evans who is prostrated over the sad affair,” the Transcript stated.
But not all believed Evans had died.
A headline in the Rochester Daily Post on March 14, 1919, stated: “Man Disappears; Leaves Note; But Friends Believe Him Alive.”
The Post wrote that shortly before 10 p.m. March 11, 1919, searchers had “been at work dragging the river for the body of Marcus Evans but there are many who do not believe that he took his life.”
Water was high in the river, carrying away most of the ice.
“It looks as though there is no chance of finding the body unless the water gables are raised and the mill pond drained,” the Transcript reported March 19, 1919. “This will probably be done before the end of the week if the body is not found.”
Disappeared after returning home to close draft to furnace
On the day he disappeared, Evans played checkers for most of the afternoon at Abe Usem’s office. Evans reportedly had $200 on him.
That evening, Evans and his wife (a well-known singer locally but always referred by media as “Mrs. Marcus Evans”) left their home along 2nd Avenue Southwest (West College Street) for a social gathering at the home of W.L. French.
The Evans, who moved to Austin circa 1913 from the Iowa City area, also were noted in newspapers for hosting similar social events, including one in February 1919 that the Transcript detailed as entertaining “35 members of the Home Builders Class of the M.E. Church” with sherbet and cake served after the business session, games and social time.
On the way to the French home on March 11, Mr. Evans told his wife that he needed to return home “as he had neglected to close the draft to the furnace,” the Rochester Daily Post reported March 14, 1919.
Mrs. Evans waited for her husband at a friend’s home but eventually got worried and went home. That’s where she found a note left by her husband saying he had gone to the river.
She called friends and went to the boat landing, where they fond the hole cut in the river, his belongings and the other note.
Some wondered if Evans’ disappearance was related to injuries he suffered months earlier in October 1918 when he fell from a work wagon and struck its oil tank’s pipes with his back, causing bad bruises and sprains.
At the time, the Transcript reported Oct. 23, 1918, that Evans was “laid up with a badly sprained back.”
In 1919, the Post recounted the injury, saying it caused Evans to be “partially paralyzed” for some time.
“His friends say that this affected his brain. They say that for several days he has not seemed like himself as he was always a jolly fellow whom all liked to meet,” according to the Post on March 14, 1919.
Evans spotted flagging down Iowa-bound train south of Austin
More than a week after Evans’ disappearance, the Rochester Daily Post ran the headline “Man Still Missing” on March 20, 1919, but reports were surfacing about him being seen alive.
The Post reported that Evans’ disappearance had led “many people, in fact the great majority who did not believe that he committed suicide but wrote the note with the sole purpose of misdirecting the search he was sure would follow his flight.”
As for those who didn’t believe that theory, the newspaper wrote, they “have been tireless in their search of the river.”
“Beyond the discovery of his coat and hat, an ax he took from home and the note he pinned to his coat, no trace of him had been found until today, and possibly there is no trace this time.”
A Chicago Great Western train conductor going south from Austin the night of March 11, came forward with a story that a man flagged the train near the Riley Brooks farm south of Austin, near the town of Varco (a “ghost town” today several miles south of the city on the east side of the Cedar River).
This man gave his name as “Roberts” and said he had been working for the Brooks farm, according to the Post.
Later, the conductor entered the toilet on the train car and found Manhattan Oil Co. tags with the name “Evans.” The conductor didn’t think much about that until learning later about the disappearance of Marcus Evans in Austin.
On March 21, 1919, the Post reported that Evans indeed had not drowned himself in the Cedar River but that theory was “now believed beyond a doubt, for the reason that trainmen have identified a picture of Evans as that of a man who boarded their train at a lonely spot the night of the disappearance.”
A Great Western train was stopped by a man using a flashlight at the Varco train station.
“He entered the smoker. He was perspiring profusely when he boarded the train,” the article stated.
On March 26, 1919, the Transcript also reported that train workers had identified Evans by a photograph as a man paying fare to Omaha, Nebraska. The story stated Evans flagged the train at Varco the night of his disappearance.
With Varco being about 5 miles from Evans’ home in southwest Austin, it seems likely that he planted the scene of his disappearance along the river (about a mile north of his home) earlier in the day before heading south to catch a train.
Evans found alive in Iowa
A few weeks after his disappearance, Marcus Evans was found alive in southwest Iowa and reunited with his wife.
In early April 1919, local newspapers reported that Mrs. Evans — after hearing the train workers’ stories — had phoned relatives near Omaha, Nebraska, who thought they could find him. She sent word that she would come there.
Marcus Evans, looking unwell and remorseful, met Mrs. Evans in late March at a train station in Iowa, near Omaha.
On April 4, 1919, the Lyle Tribune published a letter from Mrs. Evans about the whole ordeal, citing financial problems for her husband’s actions.
“I spent the night talking it over with him. I wanted to know what made him take the desperate step he did. He told me all about it; and now I want to say to the public, who shared my anxiety, that it was the farthest from his thought or intention to do anything dishonest. He found himself in a financial tie-up, asked a few of his close friends for financial help but was refused; so this was the only way he could see out; for he felt sure that his folks would square up matters to the last dollar so he could make a new start and repay them in full later on.”
“He feels and expressed the deepest regret for the anxiety and expense he caused the people of Austin as he had no intention of being such a burden to them. Knowing the circumstances as I do now, I want to say to everybody that I do not blame him the slightest, in spite of the awful suffering through which I passed. His aim was to make it the easiest possible for me. Now, since the knowledge of his financial tie-up, makes it impossible for me to blame him, may I now ask the people, who know little about it, to be less harsh in their condemnation and to forgive him, if in their judgement, he acted foolishly and in any way wronged them? For he felt that he was in a financial vise that would squeeze the life out of him before he could adjust matters satisfactorily and honestly while the plan he chose would give him a chance to make good without sacrificing everything he had.”
“I want to express my deepest gratitude personally to all the friends as well as the gratitude of my people, for their unselfish and most kindly interest in me; and to say to those who spread false and unsavory reports about Mr. Evans, that I forgive them all and so much the more easily because I know that he will make good. I believe you would not doubt any of my statements, if you could see his haggard physical conditions as the result of the unspeakable suffering through which he has passed.”
On April 9, 1919, the Transcript reported that Mrs. Evans and her son had left Austin to move into her sister’s home in Iowa. It’s not clear if Mr. Evans joined them.
By summer 1919, friends told the Transcript (Aug. 6, 1919) that Marcus Evans was living in Bloomington, Illinois. There was no mention of his wife and child.
The Evans’ home at 700 W. College St. (2nd Ave SW) sold months later to a local reverend.