by Robert A. Waters
On the evening of February 9, 1937, in Iowa City, Iowa, a thunderous explosion rocked the home of Walter and Mabel Rhodes. Walter, crouching behind a basement partition, escaped unharmed. Mabel wasn’t so lucky—her head was blown almost completely off. Walter had succeeded with his plan to get rid of his wife, but would go to the gallows because of it.
Walter H. “Dusty” Rhodes had a problem as old as the institution of marriage: an attractive girlfriend and a wife he loathed. He decided to eliminate the unwanted spouse, and came up with a unique plan.
A part-time quarry worker, Rhodes had repeatedly lied to his mistress, also named Mabel—Mabel Skriver. He told her that divorce proceedings were under way, and that as soon as he was legally free, he would marry her. Skriver fell for his lies, and for six months the couple met in secluded spots where their passion could be temporarily sated. But soon enough, the second Mabel began to press her paramour for a wedding date. Since he had never even filed for divorce, Rhodes was in a pickle. It was then that he concocted his diabolical plan to have his wife kill herself.
In his job, Rhodes worked with explosives. So one night he replaced the gunpowder in a shotgun shell with dynamite and chambered the shell into his antique gun. The clever Rhodes knew the gun would detonate like a pipe bomb when the trigger was pulled.
The next day, he took Mabel out shooting. But his plan fell apart when she insisted that he shoot first. Rhodes and Mabel got into a heated argument, and went home without either of them firing a shot.
Soon, the second Mabel issued an ultimatum to Rhodes. Get a divorce or we’re done.
On the evening of February 9, Rhodes asked his wife to come into the basement. He stated that the firing pin of the shotgun didn’t work, and asked Mabel to try it. She aimed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger, causing a massive explosion.
When the sheriff arrived, he immediately became suspicious. The blast was like nothing he’d ever seen. Most of Mabel’s head was gone, her right hand was missing, and her left hand and left shoulder were badly mangled. The sheriff’s misgivings arose further when he found no pellets in the wall (Rhodes had removed them from the shotgun shell to pack in more dynamite). But even more worrisome was the shotgun breach which had passed clean through the basement ceiling, the first story floor, and had become embedded in the first-floor ceiling.
The sheriff sent the shotgun and its components to several firearms experts. All agreed that dynamite had caused the death of Mrs. Rhodes.
Soon the sheriff interviewed the second Mabel, and learned of the sordid lies that Rhodes had fed her. Investigators also discovered that the suspect had recently taken out a double indemnity life insurance policy on his wife.
Under pressure from investigators, he quickly confessed. Rhodes was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
On May 7, 1940, Rhodes went cringing to the gallows at the Fort Madison penitentiary. According to Dick Haws’ book, Iowa and the Death Penalty, “the eight-foot drop ruptured an artery in Dusty’s neck. A river of blood saturated his white pants and shirt and dripped onto the sawdust beneath. Three of the hundred-plus witnesses collapsed. Rhodes was pronounced dead after 12 minutes.”
Before dying, Rhodes handed reporters a 500 word treatise that, among other things, blasted the death penalty as immoral. Not one word of his statement mentioned the immorality of blowing his innocent wife to bits.