Cullen Mob Mile run to commemorate Iowa’s last lynching

Photo provided Charles City’s old Main Street Bridge, also known as “Cullen’s Bridge”, was the setting for the last known lynching in Iowa nearly 111 years ago when a mob extracted alleged double murderer James Cullen from out of his jail cell and hung him from one of the bridge’s trusses.
Photo provided
Charles City’s old Main Street Bridge, also known as “Cullen’s Bridge”, was the setting for the last known lynching in Iowa nearly 111 years ago when a mob extracted alleged double murderer James Cullen from out of his jail cell and hung him from one of the bridge’s trusses.
By John Burbridge sports@charlescitypress.com

CHARLES CITY — On January 9, 1907, a mob numbering more than 300 converged to break James Cullen out of the Floyd County Jail.

But they were by no means going to provide him freedom or sanctuary.

Instead, they took Cullen to the nearby Main Street Bridge and hung him from one of the trusses.

The event is the last known lynching in Iowa.

Though such extreme vigilantism has for the most part been purged from the arc of civilization, strains of lynch-mob mentality rear up on occasion — especially amid social media posts.

If anything, by organizing the “Cullen Mob Mile” run, Bethany Kois hopes to convey a message that, while commemorating an infamous piece of Charles City history, society should curb thirsts for vengeance in favor from circumventing the justice system.

“The process currently in place is far better than mob rule,” she said. “Though some court and jury rulings may not always go the way people want, we should still trust the justice system.

“(The lynching) was a dark time in our history. We should never go back to mob justice.”

An avid runner, Kois sought a need for a local winter event to quell the post-holiday cabin fever doldrums. Thus, she came up with the “Mob Mile”, which will take place Jan. 13, the weekend after the 111th anniversary of the lynching.

The race will incorporate a little theatre.

“We plan to get one of Charles City’s top cross country runners to dress up as James Cullen,” said Kois, whose race will benefit the Charles City cross country program. “He will start the race, and the registered runners [playing the part of the ‘Mob’] will chase him to the finish.”

The mile course will start in the parking lot of the Floyd County Courthouse before traversing across the walking bridge — near the site of the old Main Street Bridge — before finishing at The Pub on the Cedar.

Before the start of the race — or chase — a brief storytelling of the tragedy will take place.

One thing that should be noted is Cullen did not initially run from the law or even from the mob. After stabbing his younger wife to death, Cullen scuffled with his 16-year-old stepson, who managed to fight Cullen off while sustaining superficial wounds, but was shot to death by Cullen when he tried to flee the family residence to get the local marshal.

After confessing to a neighbor about killing his wife and stepson — the alleged murderer claimed that they both were planning to kill him as a means to seize his property — Cullen shot himself but survived before being treated and taken to jail.

Recent events didn’t bode well for the 65-year-old Cullen, who was a wealthy contractor and tank builder, but was an unpopular figure among city folk due to his violent temper and teetotaling hubris.

There were a rash of death penalty-nullifying insanity pleas as of late, including one that saved Greene resident Louis Busse after he kicked his pregnant wife to death.

The possibility that Cullen would also procure a deft insanity defense to save him from the death penalty and possibly spring him to freedom apparently did not sit well with more than a handful of locals. Thus, several masked men ambushed Sheriff W.W. Schermerhorn at the courthouse and eventually got the drop on the guards. Then a gang toting a heavy railroad rail and a sledge hammer went to work on the jail’s door and then on the wall of Cullen’s cell. A big man, Cullen put up a fierce fight but was vastly outnumbered and couldn’t prevent himself from being extracted and hanged.

Kois plans to organize a series of historical-themed races, including the Hart Parr Harvest full marathon in memory of the since-departed tractor manufacturer that helped highlight Charles City’s place on the map.

“We’re planning on doing that in October,” Kois said. “We’ve never had a marathon here. It’s going to be the first.”

Cullen Mob Mile

Jan. 13, 12 p.m.

Start: Courthouse parking lot

Finish: The Pub on the Cedar

Registration: Will start Dec. 11 at the Charles City Family YMCA, 800 Hulin St. Fee is $25. Proceeds to benefit the Charles City cross country program.

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