By Kathi Kresol
The evening of April 28, 1909 was initially discussed because of the storm that swept over the area. Folks in the village of Winnebago would remember exactly where they were that evening because of the fierce thunderstorm that brought almost continuous lightning and torrential rains.
That storm would also play a part in the worst crime in the history of the little community though no one would realize it for almost 24 hours.
Margaret Grippen was a widow who lived in a farm house on Bluff Street near the northeast edge of town. Both Margaret and her husband, Demas were considered pioneers of the village and well loved. Their property contained an 80-acre farm and a two-story house. “Uncle Demas” as the townspeople referred to him, was known to be a helpful and very generous neighbor.
The couple had three children, two girls who died too early and their son, Demas Junior who lived in Iowa with his wife, Blanche. When Demas died in 1895, Margaret was left all alone in the house they had built on Bluff Street.
On that night in April, Margaret was visiting the old farmer McDougall. She visited the farmer to order a chicken and some milk. McDougall offered to deliver the items the next day and loaned Margaret a coat to wear home because the storm was sweeping into town.
Another neighbor would report that she spotted Margaret walking home when she looked through the window at the storm. The time was 6:30 p.m. The neighbor could not know that she would be the last person to see Margaret alive.
The next day McDougall stopped by Margaret’s house several times to deliver her order before he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if she had seen Margaret. Mrs George Ades was surprised that Margaret did not answer and offered a skeleton key that she knew would open the front door of the Grippen home. Margaret had borrowed it several times since she noticed her house key was missing.
McDougall and Mrs. Ades opened the front door and later they both would state that they noticed reddish brown stains smeared all over the walls and then they noticed the body on the floor. At first, they thought Margaret had fallen and they rushed toward her. As they neared the body, Mrs. Ades started to scream.
When Sheriff Collier arrived from Rockford, the whole horrible truth was disclosed. The 68-year-old woman entered the home and went to the second floor to shut a window that she had left open. When she returned downstairs there was someone waiting in the darkness of her living room.
The intruder rushed her and hit her several times with a large conch shell that sat on a shelf. Margaret fought hard for her life and battled the intruder up and down the hallway. The attacker grabbed a pair of scissors and caused tremendous damage to the poor woman’s hands as she defended herself.
Finally, Margaret fell onto the floor where the savage attack continued. She was stabbed 38 times in the face and chest before the maniac went into the kitchen for another weapon. This time he carried a flat iron that he used to beat Margaret’s head so badly that no one would be able to identify her.
The attacker tried to cover up his crime by placing a kerosene lamp next to Margaret’s body and a shawl over the chimney. He probably thought that setting a fire would destroy the perfect fingerprints that he left on the glass of the lantern along with any other evidence. Thankfully, the shawl never caught fire.
After cleaning up in the kitchen, the killer walked past the body in the hall and out the front door. He used a key to lock the door behind him. He dropped the key in the front yard on his way through the yard. The storm covered all the noise of the attack and kept any would be witness in their homes.
The man who slaughtered the beloved widow slipped away, most likely on the railroad that ran close to the home. The only real evidence found were those fingerprints left on the lamp.
Experts came from all over to try to solve this heinous crime and to match the fingerprints. Though over 400 different fingerprints were collected and compared, no match was ever made. The murder of Margaret Grippen remains unsolved.
Margaret was buried in the Winnebago Cemetery next to her beloved daughters and her grandson.
Kathi Kresol, the author of the Voices the Grave column and the recently released book, Murder and Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois will present at the Dead Guys Festival on Saturday, February 13 at the Veterans Memorial Hall from 12:30-4:30 p.m. Other speakers include Steve Litteral, Executive Director of the Tinker Swiss Cottage who will be sharing his research on the massacres of the Black Hawk War and the award winning filmmaker, John Borowski. Borowski will discuss his research into the serial killer, H.H. Holmes. The tickets for the festival are only $5 per person in advance and $10 at the door. Tickets can be purchased at hauntedrockford.com.