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The Unsolved Murder of Margaret Treese

Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I’m excited to present a guest post by John Brassard Jr. John is an author and historian from Eastern Iowa with an avid interest in historical true crime cases. He has a degree in History from Iowa State University, and is the author of Murder and Mayhem in Scott County, Iowa. He has a fascinating blog you should check out if you love historical true crime cases. 

You can find John on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to discuss your thoughts on this case or to chat about true crime!  

Enjoy the guest post ~ Christine

Clarence Saunders woke up alone, which surprised him.

His lover, Margaret “Peggy” Treese, shared a room with him at the Standard Hotel in Davenport, Iowa. They had gone to bed the night before around 9 p.m., but it didn’t take long for Peggy to get out of bed and get dressed.

Clarence Saunders

Photo of Clarence Saunders
Source: Democrat and Leader

Clarence, curious, asked her where she was going. Peggy replied that she was going out to the bar and would be back in about 15 minutes. Saunders acknowledged her, then went back to sleep.

That morning, he had expected Peggy to be there. But, this wasn’t the first time that she hadn’t come home after going out, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. Saunders still remembered the time when she had spent the night at a man’s house in nearby Rock Island, Illinois

Peggy had left some of her clothes there and wanted to get them back. The problem was that she couldn’t remember where the guy lived, so she and Saunders had driven around Rock Island in the hopes that something would jog Peggy’s memory. Nothing had.

But there was something about her being gone this time that bothered him. Saunders dressed, and then made his way toward the taverns. 

Although people had seen her that night, no one was sure where Peggy had ended up. 

With a sinking feeling, he returned to the Standard, where one of the hotel employees told Saunders that they had just heard on the radio that an unidentified body had been found that morning. From what the broadcaster had said, it sounded like Peggy. 

The Former Standard Hotel, Now the German American Heritage Center

Photo of the former Standard Hotel, now the German American Heritage Center
Source: Wikipedia

Fearing for the worst, he left and began to make his way to the police station.

When Saunders arrived, he discovered that they were expecting him. The Standard Hotel had already called them and told them that the body might be Margaret Treese. Because Saunders knew her, they asked him to identify the body. Steeling himself, he agreed. 

That morning, a woman’s nude body had been found by park staff on Credit Island, an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. She had been beaten, stabbed, and run over multiple times with a car, her bloodstained clothing strewn about the area.

Margaret Treese Crime Scene, Credit Island, 9/30/1947

Margaret Treese Crime Scene Photo
Source: Democrat and Leader

The body had a number of tattoos, a trait that was highly unusual for most women to have in 1947. Although most of them were names, there was also a snake, a cross, and even a social security number. 

What police didn’t have was a name for their victim, something they were hoping Saunders could provide. 

After being taken to the mortuary where the body had been taken, Saunders was able to give detectives the answer they were looking for. There, on the table, was his friend Peggy. 

Now that they knew who she was, police needed to learn as much as they could about her in order to catch her killer. They immediately turned to Saunders, who cooperated to the best of his ability. 

He told them Margaret was a war widow whose husband had died in World War II. To the best of his knowledge, she had gotten most of her tattoos when she had lived with him in New York

Saunders had met Peggy when they had both lived in Wyoming. After running into each other again in Davenport, they had decided to pose as a married couple so that they could share a room at the Standard.

While the detectives were appreciative of Saunders help, they also considered him a potential suspect, and took him into custody while they continued their investigation. 

Police had taken as much evidence from the crime scene as possible, including the victim’s clothing and plaster molds of the tire tracks. 

An autopsy revealed that, in spite of being nude, Peggy hadn’t been raped. She had been stabbed 19 times with a screwdriver, which had collapsed both of her lungs. Peggy also had a fractured skull and several broken ribs. Because more than one of her injuries could have caused her death, the coroner was unable to pinpoint the exact one. 

After questioning several people, detectives were gradually able to reconstruct some of the events from the night Peggy was murdered.

After leaving the Standard Hotel, Peggy had gone to Bush’s Tavern in an area the locals knew as “Skid Row.” It was known for seedy bars and rough clientele. It was also a place that Peggy frequented. 

She had been in a great mood, and had spent nearly two hours dancing with the male patrons. Although they didn’t seem to mind, the bartender gave her several warnings that dancing wasn’t allowed there. Finally, he got tired of being ignored and kicked her out. 

After questioning several people on Skid Row, and having repeatedly questioned Saunders, police also began to have more insight into Peggy’s personality and life. 

She was known as being tempestuous. She could be dancing and letting men buy her drinks for most of the night, only to end up stealing money from them after they were drunk. 

Besides Saunders, Peggy had at least two other lovers, including one who had taken her to Rock Island in a brown Chevy on several different occasions. This was possibly the one she and Saunders had gone looking for. 

Saunders remembered one incident where he had seen her talking to two men by their car. He couldn’t hear their conversation, but when Peggy had come back over to him, she seemed genuinely frightened by something they had said. Try as he might, she wouldn’t tell him anymore. 

According to some, police already had the right man in custody. 

Some people described Saunders as a jealous man who didn’t like seeing Peggy with other men. A friend of hers had even witnessed an argument between the two of them the day before the murder. Peggy had slapped Saunders across the face and then stormed out of the bar, with him following closely after.

Although Saunders may have been a good suspect, he wasn’t the only one. 

Around the time of Peggy’s murder, Rock Island police had arrested a man named Francis Shelby for sexual assault. While he initially looked like a great suspect, the tire tread molds taken at the crime scene didn’t match the tread on Shelby’s car, ruling him out. 

Thinking that one of the names tattooed onto her might provide a viable suspect, detectives spent considerable effort investigating them.

One of them, Stanley Dombkiewicz, turned out to be Peggy’s ex-husband. He was living in New York and told police that they had been married toward the end of 1945, but hadn’t gotten along well. Peggy quickly had enough and left Stanley for good. He hadn’t seen her since then. 

Shortly after the murder, detectives learned that a 56-year-old carpenter named Pete Petersen had allegedly threatened Treese. They quickly brought him in for questioning. A former mental patient, Petersen admitted that he had known her and that she had robbed $60 from him. It quickly became apparent that he hadn’t killed Peggy, however, and he was released. 

After being held on suspicion of murder for nearly two weeks, Saunders was taken to Chicago, Illinois and given a lie detector test. It showed that he was telling the truth, proving his innocence. He was returned to Davenport and set free. 

For Davenport detectives, Saunders was their last suspect. They had reached a dead end, and the investigation quickly went stone cold. 

Over the next several years, police followed up on every lead that presented itself, but none of them ever went very far. Then, in 1951, they received their first promising lead since Pete Petersen. 

In Salinas, California, a man named William Brinkley had confessed to killing Margaret Treese when he had lived in Davenport in 1947. 

William Brinkley

Source: Morning Democrat

He said that he had met Peggy in a bar that night. After spending some time dancing, she told William that they should go for a car ride. Not having a car of his own, he went outside and stole one that was parked nearby. 

They drove to Credit Island, where Brinkley claimed that Peggy wanted to go back to Davenport without having sex with him. 

Angry, he hit her in the head with a pipe that was in the car. He then raped her and drove over her body several times before leaving and abandoning the car back in the city. 

While the confession sounded good, police quickly noticed several flaws in Brinkley’s story, especially when he wasn’t able to answer certain questions about the case. 

To test his story, they asked Brinkley to show them how to drive a car. When pressed, he quickly recanted his story and admitted that he didn’t know how to drive. He had made up the murder confession so that he could get a free ride back to the state of Iowa. 

Unfortunately, there were no more leads after Brinkley. Over 71 years later, the murder of Margaret Treese remains one of Davenport, Iowa’s most gruesome and infamous unsolved murders. 

Margaret Treese

Photo of murder victim Margaret Treese
Source: Morning Democrat

Although the chances of ever discovering Margaret Treese’s killer grow slimmer every day, there may be some hope left. 

If you know anything, please contact the Davenport Police Department at 563-326-7979, and help bring her murderer to justice. 

Sources

“Margaret Beatrice Treese” –  Iowa Cold Cases – Margaret Treese

“The Tattooed Lady: Murder of Margaret Treese 1947” – by Nancy Bowers,  Iowa Unsolved Murders 

 “Woman is Slain at Credit Island” – The Democrat and Leader, 9/30/1947

“Police Seek Sex Fiend in Brutal Murder” – The Daily Times, 9/30/1947

“Davenport Police Question Friends of Ms. Margaret Treese in Effot to Find Lead to Identity of Slayer” – The Daily Times, 10/1/1947

 “Police Pursue New Leads in Search For ‘Slayer’ of Tattooed Lady” – Democrat and Leader, 10/1/1947

“Woman Who Died at Hand of Fiend May Have Sensed Death, Companion Reports” – Democrat and Leader, 10/2/1947

 “Locate Slaying Victim’s Former Husband in East” – The Daily Times, 10/2/1947

“Police Unable to Obtain New Leads in Murder Probe” – The Daily Times, 10/3/1947

“Probe Argument In Which Slain Woman Took Part” – Democrat and Leader, 10/3/1947

“Nab Ex-Mental Patient In Trese Murder” – The Daily Times, 10/13/1947

“Suspect in Murder Of ‘Tattooed Woman’ Picked Up by Police” – Democrat and Leader, 10/13/1947

“Pete Petersen Released by Police Following Quiz in Treese Slaying; Cleared of Suspicion, Says Chief” – The Daily Times, 10/14/1947

“Free Petersen After Quiz in Murder Cases” – Democrat and Leader, 10/14/1947

 “Lie Detector Test Clears Saunders of Complicity in Murder of Margaret Treese” – Democrat and Leader, 10/21/1947

“Men Implicated in Mystery Note With Treese Slaying Presents Air Tight Alibi” – Democrat and Leader, 10/27/1947. 

“Local Authorities Await More Facts Before Acting to Return Confessed Killer” – Morning Democrat, 12/18/1951

“Police Say Brinkley Wanted Free Ride Back To Iowa, Story of Murder Is Hoax” – The Daily Times, 12/21/1951

“Find New Evidence in Murder” – by Jim Arpy, Morning Democrat, 11/30/1956

“A bookshelf of Q-C mysteries – ‘Who killed the tattooed lady?’” – by Jim Arpy, Quad City Times, 8/19/1984

“Follow-up File: Violent Murder of ‘The Tattooed Lady’ remains mystery after 71 years” – by Thomas Geyer, Quad-City Times, 9/23/2018

Interested in unsolved murder cases? Check out the killing of Dana Bradley and the slaying of Sarah Stout.

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