John Desens Killed by Neighbor

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John's Farm

John’s Farm

On a June day in 1907 John Desens was working on his farm in Clark County, Wisconsin near the town of Greenwood, when he noticed that something had eaten his grain.  He did not own any cattle and the only cattle nearby belonged to his neighbor Fred Zell.  John was walking his horses out to the pasture, when he saw his neighbor, Fred, on the road.  John called to Fred and said, “Your cattle have been eating my grain.”  Fred asked him, “How can you say my stock is eating your grain?”  John replied, “Come and see for yourself, you can see the grain is eaten off.”  Fred yelled to John, “You son of a bitch.  You come on the road and I will fix you!”  John said, “No, I don’t want to fight, I am an old man, and all I ask of you is to keep your stock out of my grain.”  John heard the gate open, and the next thing he knew Fred had him by the throat, choking him, and pushed him up against the fence post.  John took out his knife and tried to cut himself loose.  He cut where ever he could.  John fell and Fred fell on top of him. John didn’t want to get his eyes cut so he managed to roll over.  John woke up lying in the field and an officer was talking to him.  John said to the officer, “Leave me lie here a little longer and I will die.  I do not want to go to jail.”  The office told him that he wasn’t going to take him to jail, but to a doctor.  When the officer found John, he had been cut and bleeding.  John stated that his side hurt and asked for some water.  The officer got him some water and noticed that John was covered with dried blood and flies.  The officer also saw that there was blood oozing from John’s leg and at first thought that John had been shot.  He ripped the pant leg and saw that he had a gash on his leg.  The officer and some other men got a wagon, filled it with hay, got some blankets from John’s house, and took him into town to the doctor.  Later that day the officer got a call to take John to the local hotel.  He had taken Fred Zell there earlier that day.  There was only one room available so he put John in the same room as Fred.   This was in place of a hospital as there was no hospital in the town.  Two days later John went by the officer’s house and said he was going to walk home.  The next day Saturday the officer and district attorney went out to John’s house.  They showed him a knife they had gotten from Mrs. Zell and asked him if that was his knife.  John said that it was like his except that he had a piece of wood in it so that he could open it easier and this one had the tip of the blade broke off and a small piece of the blade was bent over. A week later on July 6, 1907 John succumbed to the stab wounds in his chest and died alone in his house.[1]

Fred Zell was seriously injured and it took him months to recover.  His hand was almost severed from his arm.  Fred did recover, but didn’t regain full use of his hand.  Fred died in 1932.  A newspaper account said that Fred Zell was resting his arm on the gate talking to John about the cattle when all of a sudden John started cutting Fred’s hand. [2]

When I first ran across this story, I had two newspaper accounts and a mention of it in a book.[3] [4] [5] I didn’t know if John Desens was my great-great grandfather or not.  His wife had the same name as my great-great grandmother (already deceased at this time) and his one son (also already deceased at this time) had the same name as a sibling of my great grandfather.[6]  I sent for John’s death certificate hoping that the informant would be some relative that I knew, but it did not list an informant.[7]  Then last summer I made a trip to Clark County Wisconsin.  I asked to see the probate file, but it was no longer kept there.  It was now in the state archives.  I then asked to see the criminal file for Fred Zell because the paper said most likely he would be charged with John Desens death.[8]  I had to pay $5.00 and they would search for it at a later date and send it to me.  Then I asked to see land records which I was able to see.  The Land records gave a legal description and I was able to locate the farm on a current day map, but it didn’t give me any clues to if this was my ancestor or not.  A few weeks later I received the criminal file.  There appears to be pages missing, but there are 21 pages of testimony from the officer who found John Desens lying in his yard that day in June.  So I only have John’s story through the officer. [9]

Fred Zell’s story is missing.  Although, the paper had Zell’s story about how John went after him first.[10]  In the end the court did not charge Fred Zell with John Desens death because lack of evidence as to who started the fight.[11]  I have some questions and they were not answered in the court documents to my satisfaction.  John was 74[12] years old and Fred was 46.[13]  It seems to me that Fred would have the advantage being younger and most likely be stronger than John.  If John cut first almost severing Fred’s hand, how could Fred have stabbed John?  Did Fred have a knife on him to stab John, or did he get John’s knife away from him and use it on John?  How did Fred get back to his farm or get help?  Why was John left to die? It sounds like he was left lying there in the field for a long time because of the dry blood and flies on him.  He was in and out of consciousness.   Paper also said Fred Zell was the worse of the two,[14] yet he lived for 25 more years.[15]  I think if the investigation was done today that they would be more thorough.

I sent to the state archives for John’s probate file and right on the first page is the evidence that John is my great-great grandfather.  It lists my great grandfather Carl Desens at 111 Washington Street, Forest Park, IL as his son.[16]  An interesting side note about the probate file.  Fred Zell was suing John’s estate for $5000.[17]  All of John’s 80 acres were only worth $1200.[18] He did not have much else and had some debts that needed to be paid out of the estate.[19]  Fred Zell received $1.00.[20]  I find this story very sad.  Although I never knew my 2nd great grandfather, I felt sad that he was left in the field to die.  I felt anger at the neighbor for his part in this and the fact that he was younger and probably stronger, and frustration at district attorney for not investigating it better.  There are so many unanswered questions.

I visited John’s grave when I was up there last summer, however at the time, I was not sure if he was my ancestor or not.  I also did not have all the details of the crime.  I would like to go back and visit his grave again and take some flowers.  I want him to know that someone cares.  That I care!


John Desens Tombstone

Copyright © 2015 Gail Grunst

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[1] Criminal file for Fred Zell, Clerk of the Court, 517 Court Street, Room 405, Neillsville, Wisconsin 54456.  Sent by Elizabeth Frost, Deputy Clerk to Abigail Grunst.

[2] Neillsville times(Neillsville, Clark County, Wis) July 11, 1907.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marshfield Times ( Marshfield, Wood County, Wis) July 17,1907

[5] Hub of Clark County (1853 – 1934)

[6] United Church of Christ East Cemetery Index(formerly the German Immanuel Evangelical & Reformed Church) Warner Township, Clark County, WI, Compiled by Stan and Janet Schwarze.

[7] Death Record of John Desens, Pre -1907 Wisconsin Death Record County Clark, Volume # 01 Page # 438. Filed at the State Historical Archives of Wisconsin, Miroforms room, 816 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706

[8] Marshfield Times ( Marshfield, Wood County, Wis) July 17,1907

[9] Criminal file for Fred Zell, Clerk of the Court, 517 Court Street, Room 405, Neillsville, Wisconsin 54456.  Sent by Elizabeth Frost, Deputy Clerk to Abigail Grunst.

[10] Neillsville times(Neillsville, Clark County, Wis) July 11, 1907

[11] Criminal file for Fred Zell, Clerk of the Court, 517 Court Street, Room 405, Neillsville, Wisconsin 54456.  Sent by Elizabeth Frost, Deputy Clerk to Abigail Grunst

[12] Death Record of John Desens, Pre -1907 Wisconsin Death Record County Clark, Volume # 01 Page # 438. Filed at the State Historical Archives of Wisconsin, Miroforms room, 816 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706

[13] Obituary of Frederick W. Zell.  Greenwood Gleaner (Greenwood, Clark County Wisconsin) August 25, 1932.

[14] Marshfield Times ( Marshfield, Wood County, Wis) July 17,1907

[15] Obituary of Frederick W. Zell.  Greenwood Gleaner (Greenwood, Clark County Wisconsin) August 25, 1932.

[16] Probate file for John Desens filed in the McIntyre Library at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 103 Garfield Ave, Eau Claire, WI 54701.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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About Gail Grunst Genealogy

Gail has been researching her own family since 1979. Her research has taken her back to 1800 Belgium and 1800 England. Gail has worked in a library for the last 20 years and has answered genealogy questions for patrons and helped patrons with their research. In addition to her degree in Library Media Technology, Gail has a two degree in Basic American Genealogy Research from the National Genealogy Society. She has done volunteer work for various Genealogy Societies. Gail teaches several Classes in Genealogy for the Round Lake Area Library, and would be happy to conduct a class for your organization. If interested in a class or if you would like a one-on-one consultation, please contact Gail. Please enjoy Gail's family History Blog

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