With wealth comes privilege and peril
Editor’s note: This column was originally published on January 3, 2018.
It was the afternoon of Wednesday, February 17, 1892, and Robert H. Rankin was on top of the world. The son of wealthy fruit grower and former mayor of Monmouth, Nathaniel Rankin, he was a successful farmer himself, raising award-winning Poland-China pigs at his ranch in Maple Grove, half a mile south -west of Monmouth.
At 32, he was still single, but he drove into town that day to set up a March 9 wedding date with his fiancée. He then continued to the CB&Q depot and bought a ticket to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he planned to buy some good stock from a farmer named WP Young.
Although he was recently confined to bed with a case of “the flu”, Rankin recovered and felt healthy. Impeccably dressed, he wore a diagonally black suit and overcoat, plush cap, white turn-down shirt, and plum tie with an aged gold leaf figure. He was carrying a Moroccan newspaper, a silver watch and about $50 in cash.
Boarding the train, he walked to the smoking car, where he spoke with an acquaintance named OB Preston, from Biggsville. Two or three other men were in the car and continued to drive west to Burlington, after Preston landed at Biggsville. When the train reached Burlington, Rankin was not on board. The train waited half an hour in Burlington, then headed west.
A week later the Rankin family became concerned about Robert’s continued absence and wrote to Mr Young at Mount Pleasant, who replied that he had never appeared on his farm. The Rankin family, led by Postmaster George C. Rankin (Robert’s brother), launched a search, employing two detectives and circulating photographs and a pamphlet nationwide.
Officials suspected foul play, given Rankin’s reputation. According to the Chicago Tribune, he “was a man of good habits, did not drink alcohol, was of a withdrawn nature, attentive to business, and highly regarded”.
On Feb. 24, a stuffed cork was found at the Cascade Lumber Mill in a whirlwind on the Iowa shore, about a mile under the Burlington Bridge. This matched the cap Rankin wore when he left home, branded with the store in Monmouth where Rankin bought clothes. Whether by assault or accident, it now seemed likely that Rankin was dead.
In the summer of 1892 that followed, a number of armed robberies were committed by a gang of desperadoes near what is now Gulfport. In October, a 19-year-old tough guy named William Higgins, who lived in the area, was jailed in Oquawka for a murderous assault. While in jail he confessed to Deputy Sheriff and Monmouth Town Marshal Alex B. Holliday that during the previous winter a Dan Waters and an associate came to his cabin and told him that they had killed a man near the Burlington Bridge and asked him to take the body to Big Island, a mile below the Burlington Bridge and bury it in a cave there. He said he refused to do so, but offered to lend them his boat. When they returned, he said, they reported that they had buried Rankin on the island. Higgins described the location to authorities and after three days of searching the cave was found, but no bodies.
On November 22, an auction was held at Robert Rankin’s farm to get rid of his cattle, including an imported Percheron stallion, which had won the show’s premium at that year’s Warren County Fair , and 30 pigs of the Poland-China breed.
On December 16, Dan Waters was arrested for Rankin’s murder, as was a man named Henry Peyton, apprehended in East St. Louis. He responded to the description given by Preston of one of the three men who were in the smoking car with Rankin when the train left Biggsville.
Waters claimed he had never heard of Rankin’s disappearance, but Peyton said the matter was often discussed in Waters’ cabin and that Waters and his wife often accused a John Block of knowing all about it. The crime.
John Block was a desperate character whose headquarters was in East Burlington (Gulfport). He was arrested around this time for a felony of highway robbery, for which he was convicted, and sentenced by Circuit Judge Robert J. Grier of Monmouth to the penitentiary.
On December 29, the grand jury declined to indict Waters and Peyton for Rankin’s murder, but did indict Block. Because Rankin’s body had not been found, however, the state’s attorney knew he could not be convicted and decided to dismiss the charge, especially since Block was already convicted. at the penitentiary.
Although the case never went to trial, officials speculated that Rankin was lured to the Carthage Junction platform at the Illinois end of the Burlington Bridge as the train pulled over for the bridge. He was then murdered and his clothes stripped of all valuables. The body, they believed, was hidden in a barge near the bridge until the following night, when it was moved to a safer location.
In case you’re wondering if I’m related to the murder victim, the answer is yes – by far. My fifth great-grandfather was Robert’s great-grandfather, making Robert my third cousin, four times distant.
Jeff Rankin is editor and historian of Monmouth College. A long-time resident of Monmouth, he has been researching local history for over three decades.