Cheryl Mullenbach

His real name was Ira Pavey, but he’d earned the nickname “Hard-Boiled” because of his tough demeanor and lack of emotion. And he never cracked — even as he went to the gallows.

It was Prohibition time and it was illegal for anyone to manufacture, sell, or transport alcohol. But Ira was head of a gang of bootleggers operating out of Sioux City. In March 1919 Ira and Red Burzette along with Mae, Red’s girlfriend, were headed north out of Sioux City on their way to Trosky, Minnesota, to buy a load of liquor. Trosky was a town well-known to bootleggers as a ready source for alcohol.

When they got near the town of Hull, Iowa, a few miles south of the Minnesota border they came upon a huge mud hole in the road with three cars stuck in the quagmire. A friendly farmer was pulling the cars out of the mud when Ira recognized the occupant of one of the south-facing cars. It was Claude Letner, a fellow bootlegger from Sioux City. Because Letner’s car faced south in the road, Ira and Red surmised Letner’s car was probably already heavily loaded with illegal booze from Trosky. It made more sense to take Letner’s supply rather than traveling all the way to Trosky to pick up a load.

Later that night Claude Letner was found sprawled in the dirt off a country road. He had a bullet in his head. His car was empty of 11 cases of whiskey that he had picked up in Trosky earlier that day.

Another bootlegger named Edwin Graves testified that Ira and Red Burzette (and Mae) had delivered 11 cases of whiskey to him. He said the bottles were “covered with blood.” He had also seen blood stains in Ira’s car.

A jury deliberated an hour and 45 minutes before finding Ira guilty of murder of Claude Letner. He was sentenced to death. (Red Burzette had been killed by Sioux City police in a shootout; it’s not known what happened to Mae.)

Ira’s mother tried consistently to petition the governor to grant clemency for her son. But he refused to grant her wish. On September 8, 1922, Emma Pavey and her two daughters, Fern and Bessie, traveled from Missouri to Fort Madison, Iowa, to see Ira before he went to the gallows. When Emma saw Ira she threw her arms around him and cried, “My darling boy, my darling boy!” The family ate Ira’s last meal — fried chicken — together.

It was reported that Hard-Boiled (or Emma Pavey’s “darling boy”) went to the gallows smoking a cigarette and joking with the guards. His final words were, “Tell mom ‘goodbye.’” He was hanged at noon — the first Iowan executed by the state in 12 years.

©Cheryl Mullenbach

Read other Iowa Stories and learn more about author Cheryl Mullenbach at

Type of work:

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *