Monday, September 16, 2013

(37) Ira Griffiths Rawn

(1855 - 1910)

Florence Willis (1862 - 1944)

Sarah Elizabeth Rawn ((1879 - 1958)
Katherine Rawn
Florence Rawn 

Ira G. Rawn was bom in 1855 in a small town in central Ohio. At the age of 16, he got a job with a local railroad. Initially a telegraph operator, he went on to assume various duties, rising from train dispatcher to Vice President of the lllinois Central Railroad, one of the nation’s largest. He later became President of the Monon Railroad which ran from Chicago to Indiana. 

He married Florence Willis in 1880, and they lived in Cincinnati where they raised three daughters. When he died in 1910 of a gun shot wound to the chest, his death became a major news event, with murder, suicide and accidental death listed as possible causes. See Appendix 6 for details.

Ira G. Rawn’s rise to prominence in the railroad industry was an American business success story. He only had a common school education in his home town of Delaware, Ohio, a short distance from Columbus. At the age of 16 he went to work for the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis railroad, where over a 15 year period he rose to a superintendent position. He worked for the Kentucky Central Railroad for two years, as their master of transportation. ln 1887 he was hired by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, apparently in the Ohio area, where he worked until he was selected as General Superintendent of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1903. In 1905 he took over as the General Manager in charge of operations and continued in that post until he was appointed Vice President in 1907.

In 1907 the Illinois Central Railroad had approximately 40,000 employees and over 4,500 miles of track. As Vice President of Operations, most of those employees were under his jurisdiction and his responsibilities were substantial. It was also a prestigious position. The role of the railroads in America’s society at that time was one of tremendous importance. Neither air travel nor automobiles were yet competing with the railroads. For passengers, it was the only way to travel long distances and for businesses, including farmers, it was typically the only way to get their products to a market bigger than the local area. The railroads made plenty of money and were able to hire the best people. It was a compliment to anyone, especially someone with a limited education, to rise to the level of the Vice Presidency of a major American railroad.

In November of 1909, after six years with the Illinois Central, and over two years as Vice President in charge of operations, Ira Rawn resigned his position and accepted a job as President of thc Monon Railroad, also known as the Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville Railroad. lt was an unusual move on his part because the presidency of this smaller railroad was certainly a less important position than that of the Vice Presidency of the Illinois Central. We have no record as to why he made this change. We do know that the Monon headquarters was also in Chicago so he didn’t have to move. If anything he probably had more time for his wife and family, including his three grown daughters, who were each married and living in Chicago.

Source: Childrens Hour, 
January 1994

Ira, Chicago, 1905
Death By Gunshot In Chicago
Article by George C. Nickum Jr. (Nick Nickum)  Featured in The Children’s Hour - January 1994

In the Spring of 1910, news broke of a scandal at the Illinois Central Railroad. Several individuals were charged in a scheme to steal money from the Illinois Central through the use of certain railroad car repair companies. These companies had been formed by individuals who were employed in key positions at the Illinois Central Railroad and were able to have the railroad’s repair of certain railroad cars done by these outside companies. The repair bills were padded, the persons approving the payment of the bill being in on the scheme and, in fact, owning part of the company being overpaid. The name of these outside car repair companies were the Blue Island Car and Equipment Company, the Memphis Car Company, and the Ostermann Manufacturing Company. The scandal supposedly came to light after the head of one company gained notoriety by spending large sums of money and using $50.00 bills to light his cigars.

As Vice President of Operations Ira G. Rawn had responsibility for all the car repair work done on company railroad cars. Some time in the early summer of 1910 the attorneys for the Illinois Central Railroad, who had already filed suit against these Companies and certain officials, arranged to take his testimony to help gather evidence in the case. In the course of that testimony he stated under oath that he did not hold any stock in any of the companies involved and did not know of any Illinois Central official who did. He said the decision to send Illinois Central railroad cars to outside companies for repair, rather than have them all handled by the Illinois Central’s own shops, was a joint decision that he and the Illinois Central President, James T. Harahan, had made, after considering the limited capabilities of their local repair shops.

The Illinois Central Attorneys subsequently decided they wanted to ask more questions and additional testimony was scheduled, although postponed several times at Mr. Rawn’s request. It was finally rescheduled for July 26, 1910.

On the afternoon of July 20th, Ira Rawn left his Chicago office and took the suburban train north to the town of Winnetka, which lies along the shores of Lake Michigan, where the Rawns were renting a house for the summer. During this 45 minute train ride, Ira Rawn fell into conversation with a kind and neighbor and mentioned that he had been heard noises in the evening from his bedroom and was concerned that some attempt was being made to burglarize his house.

That evening he had dinner with his family including his daughter Florence and her husband David Bigelow, who had just returned from a trip to the East. His daughter Katherine and her husband Ralph G. Coburn were also there, staying with the Rawns. His daughter Elizabeth, and her husband Robert C. Brinkley, lived in a house close by, also in Winnetka, and dined that night with the family at the Rawns. Ira and Florence Rawn went to bed at approximately 11:00 o’clock. At about 1:30 a.m., both were awakened by noises. Ira Rawn got up and grabbed his revolver. His wife urged him to ignore the noises, suggesting he lock the door and stay upstairs. He ignored her, however, opened the bedroom door and proceeded down the stairway. Shortly thereafter Florence Rawn heard noises, including at least one gun shot, and immediately let out a scream.

She got up and went down the stairway, as did her son in law, Ralph Coburn, who was also awakened. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Ralph Coburn turned on the light. They found lra Rawn lying on his back, a bullet wound through his chest, with blood trickling from the wound. He struggled, turned over, tried to speak, but could not. The family sent out an appeal for a doctor but within a few minutes he was dead.

The grief stricken family called the police. Also called immediately was their daughter Elizabeth, who promptly came over with her husband, Rob Brinkley, from their home nearby. At some point the newspaper contacted the family and Ralph Coburn talked to them, He told them he was awakened by two shots and descended the stairs to find his father-in-law murdered.

The Chicago Tribune, a leading newspaper in this city of two million people, promptly reported the story on its front page, even putting out a special early morning edition with the story.  The next day, during the police investigation it was determined that the bullet that killed Ira Rawn came from his own gun and no other bullet was found. In addition, his night shirt was examined and found to have powder marks. The resulting conclusion was that he had been shot at very close range by his own pistol. Initial reports of blood on the sidewalk, presumably left by a wounded and fleeing burglar, turned out to be wrong, the spots not being blood. The following day the Chicago Tribune announced in a lead story on the front page that the police felt his death was suicide and speculated that Ira Rawn was about to be implicated in the car repair scandal, providing a motive for the suicide.

The family flatly refused to believe that he had committed suicide. They had already hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate on their behalf. They probably knew little about the car repair scandal, or the scope of Ira Rawn’s responsibilities while with the Illinois Central. However, his wife and daughters felt they knew him too well to believe he would either commit suicide or be a party to the theft of railroad money.

News of his death reached more than the citizens of Chicago. Two days after he died, the New York Times ran a lead article on the front page, reciting the details of his death and the claimed connection with the Illinois Central Car repair scandal. The newspaper gave various estimates of Ira Rawn’s wealth, suggesting he was worth between $1 million and $2 million. 

According to newspaper accounts, two of the six jurors held out for a long time for a verdict of suicide while two others held to the accident theory. Finally, they rendered a verdict at 3:00 that morning, which read as follows: 

“We, the jurors sworn on oath to inquire into the death of Ira G. Rawn at his home in Winnetka on July 20, find that he came to his death at 1:20 o’clock on the morning of July 20, from shock and hemorrhage caused by a bullet from his own revolver fired by his own hand, but whether this was accidental or with suicidal intent this jury is unable to determine, except that the location of the wound and the type of revolver render the accident theory less probable.”

It is disappointing that we don’t know more details of Ira Rawn’s death and the car repair scandal. Given our relationship to him, it would be nice to know whether he was or wasn’t a crook and whether he did or didn’t kill himself. We may not have to agonize over it like his widow and children did but it is still a nagging question. However, the reality is that we will never know. 

The pistol and box of bullets associated with the case, Chicago Daily News


  1. Very well-written post. I just learned about Ira Rawn today when I was searching for information to add to my railroad history website, The Rip Track. I am also an admin on Wikipedia and have created a page for him there. Do you have any more details on the sources for this post (i.e. citation details to original sources)? Thanks!

  2. Thanks Sean, the only original sources I have are a couple of old newspaper articles which I found online with a quick google search under his name. The article featured in this post was written by my great uncle for an informal family newsletter called the Children Hour that my mother published for a little while.

    1. Cool, thanks. The newspaper articles I used for the Wikipedia entry are all linked in the references section there. In all but one case, the links point to scans of the original newspapers. There were a couple books that mention him as well, and their links also appear there. I found one note that pointed to a more substantial article at the Monon Railroad Historical and Technical Society, but the article link for that didn't work. A friend of mine was treasurer of that organization; I'll see if I can get that from him for you too.