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Suicide or murder? Death of Iowa veteran in Montana in 1921 raises questions

Big Timber, Montana (Tim Evanson/Flickr)
January 13, 2020

Josef Prusek had lived in Cedar Rapids since 1890. He built a two-story family home at 1601 N St. SW, where he died April 24, 1915.

At the time, his daughters Mary, Lillian and Harriet and son Milo lived in Cedar Rapids, but his son Joseph Jr., or “Joe,” had moved to Montana in 1914.

Joe staked a claim near Briley in south-central Montana near Big Timber.

He joined the Army’s 88th Division in 1917 during World War I and went to France. He was assigned to the 77th Division, where he was part of the Lost Battalion that was surrounded by German troops in the Argonne Forest.

The battalion was rescued Oct. 7, 1918, after enduring more than four days without food or water. Attempts to get water to the soldiers were met with sniper fire, so the troops subsisted on leaves. At one point, they were targets of friendly fire until a message delivered by homing pigeon alerted the Allies they were firing on their own.

Having survived that horrendous ordeal, Joe was discharged and returned to his Montana home. That’s where he was when, at age 32, he died from a gunshot wound to his head.

His body was found April 5, 1921, outside his Montana cabin.

Montana report

A telegram from Sweet Grass County reached the Cedar Rapids offices of attorneys Luberger & Lenihan, where Joe’s sister Lillian worked.

“All details concerning his death have been received and a message has been sent asking for particulars and to have the body sent here,” The Gazette reported.

Initial reports said Joe, suffering from shell shock, had committed suicide. But as more details emerged, questions arose.

Joe, who had gone to war strong and determined had returned home a changed man, according to the Montana report. Formerly affable, he had become highly nervous and sometimes delusional.

A neighbor, Carl Edner, told Sheriff G.B. Long that Joe had borrowed a post hole digger on a Friday. When Joe returned the tool that evening, he asked if Carl had heard anyone call him a “radical.” Carl said he had not.

Joe said, “Well, I don’t know what I will do. I will either leave the country or kill myself.”

Carl told Joe not to think like that and suggested he look for some other work.

No one saw Joe all weekend, and on Tuesday evening, Carl and another neighbor, T.E. Lewis, went to check on him. They found his frozen body in the woods outside the cabin with a bullet hole in his forehead. A .32-caliber revolver was lying between Joe’s knees.

When the sheriff and his deputies arrived, Joe’s dog was lying by his body. The dog was not aggressive but refused to leave his master.

‘He had done well’

A Montana paper said Joe, a bachelor, had been at his 300-acre ranch since about 1914.

“He had done well, owning his ranch, having no indebtedness and enjoying a good credit at the banks and business houses,” the paper reported. “ … His untimely end occasioned the sincerest regret among those who knew him.”

Joe’s body was shipped home to Cedar Rapids, arriving April 9. The Gazette’s page 1 headline proclaimed, “Bullet in Head Leads to Murder Theory in Death of Joe Prusek.”

Joe’s funeral was April 10 in the home of his sister, Harriett Surry, at 1402 Sixth St. SW. He was buried in Linwood Cemetery. Joe’s brother, Milo, was a Cedar Rapids fireman, and firefighters served as the pallbearers.

‘Had put up a fight’

Was Joe the victim of foul play?

“That is the question which local relatives of the man are asking and in order to answer, they are determined to leave no stone unturned. The body shows a bullet hole in the center of the forehead, but the knuckles on each hand are cut and bruised, indicating that the man had put up a fight,” The Gazette said.

The family turned to Linn County Coroner David W. King to answer their questions. King said his postmortem exam left no doubt: Joe had been murdered.

“A wound made by a large caliber bullet extended clear through the skull, there were no powder marks and the coroner expressed the opinion that it would have been impossible to have held a heavy revolver far enough away from his head to have left no powder burns. The bruised condition of the man’s knuckles indicated he had been in a fight,” The Gazette reported.

After the funeral, Milo and other members of the fire department went to Big Timber to investigate. Their effort to garner more information proved futile.

Joe’s will, executed in Cedar Rapids on June 17, 1918, named his sister, Lillian, as executor. He left his property in Sweet Grass County to her.

Joe’s last surviving sibling, Harriett Prusek Surry, died in Cedar Rapids in 2000 at age 105.


© 2019 The Gazette