The tragic death of Josie Dunn
By Kathi Kresol
When a woman’s body was found floating face down in the Rock River on July 6, 1925, the police realized they faced many challenges. There was no identification on the body and there were no witnesses to what might have happened to the young woman. Her long dark skirt was badly torn and when they turned her over to remove her from the water, they noticed that her mouth and nose were filled with mud from the bottom of the river. The body was collected by Coroner Fred Olson’s assistants and taken to be prepared for the inquest.
The body had been spotted floating about 30 feet from the west bank of the river. It was almost directly in front of the Rockford County Club and close to the skating rink of the Harlem Amusement Park.
As Coroner Fred Olson started his examination of the woman’s body, he found a purse with a rosary and a Catholic Prayer book. Several Catholic priests were brought in to see if they could identify the body. Two priests from St. Peter’s Church, Fathers F. F. Connor and M. J. Hoare were shocked to realize they recognized the unfortunate woman.
The dead woman was Mrs. Josephine Dunn and even though she was no longer an active member of their parish, they were well acquainted with her family.
While Coroner Olson was busy trying to identify the woman, other authorities were combing the river banks for clues. They discovered a picnic basket, a young boy’s cap, two stockings, a pair of shoes and a handwritten note.
“In the dark blue waters you will find me,” the note stated. It was signed Josephine. The authorities took the note to Coroner Olson along with the other items found on the bank.
By this time, phone calls had been made, one to Josephine’s husband, James Dunn. James was still at work when he received the news that his wife of two years was dead. The next call was made to Josephine’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Carroll. Josephine’s mother became hysterical when she received the news.
Mrs. Carroll would later give a statement to the police. Though her grief and her thick Irish accent made it difficult to understand her at times, the police were certain that Josephine’s mother had no idea what had taken place that day. Mrs. Carroll also claimed that she had a premonition that something terrible had happened to her daughter. She told the police of the nightmare she had during the night. Mrs. Carroll heard Josephine’s voice calling out to her for help. Mrs. Carrol became even more worried when she heard her daughter’s pleas several times during the day.
The police realized after speaking with Mrs. Carrol that Josie’s eight-year-old son Arthur was missing. They feared the worst and began to search the river.
The police next interviewed the dead woman’s husband, James. The couple had previous marriages and children with their former spouses. James had a daughter and an older son, Clayton. He and his wife had divorced and the children stayed in Chicago. Josie was married to a man named Grenke and the couple had a little boy, Arthur. Grenke had died in an accident a few years before. Josie met James shortly after her husband’s death and from all accounts, the two of them were very much in love. The only trouble in their marriage was Josie felt that James cared more for his 19-year-old son, Clayton, than he did for her and Arthur.
The police searched the couple’s apartment and found a note addressed to James. “Goodbye. I am going to end all my troubles and hope you will be happy. When I go I will take Arthur with me so you will have no burden but your own son if that is enough.” The horrible indications of what had taken place that day were too much for James and he collapsed.
Despite intense searching by the police, Arthur’s body was not recovered until the next day. His little body was found by several boy caddies from the Rockford Country Club. The boy that lifted the body from the water was only a few years older than Arthur. Fred Olson conducted the autopsy of the little boy and his verdict shocked the entire city. Marks around Arthur’s neck proved that he had been murdered by being held under the water.
The police and Coroner Olson used the autopsy findings and the interviews conducted with neighbors and family members to piece together Josie and Arthur’s final hours. They speculated that the two had breakfast and then Josie sent Arthur out to play in the yard while she wrote the suicide notes. Josie then called the boy in and promised him an outing. Josie packed a picnic basket and the little boy and his mother headed for the park. It would have been mostly deserted on the Monday morning as Josie led Arthur to the wooded area.
Josie somehow talked Arthur into wading in the river and police theorized she grabbed him by the neck and held the eight-year-old under the water. After the horrible deed was finished, she dove into the water pushing her own face into the mud.
Coroner Olson would rule the deaths a murder and a suicide caused by Josie becoming temporarily deranged due to constant brooding over imaginary troubles. Unfortunately, that was not the end of this tragedy. James was devastated by the deaths and Josie’s mother and father could not accept the Coroner’s findings. They believed in their hearts that James played some role in the deaths. The case was splashed in the papers for two more years while the families battled about the inheritance left by Josie. In the end, James prevailed in court but there were no winners in this case. Both families were tortured by thoughts of how these deaths could have been prevented and by questions that will never be answered.