'They’re all dead, sir.' Double murder-suicide shocked Sioux Falls in 1893
Husband killed wife, mother-in-law, then himself in apparent money dispute
SIOUX FALLS — On an otherwise pleasant Sunday evening in 1893, a seven-year-old boy from Sioux Falls wandered into the home of a neighbor. Apparently shell-shocked, he managed to get out a few words about the horrific incident he had just witnessed.
“They’re all dead, sir.”
The young man was Sumner Lacey, the son of Harry and Clara Lacey. He had been at his grandmother’s home earlier in the evening when his father, whose controlling nature and financial instability had finally caught up with him, pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and shot his wife and his mother-in-law, Lydia Bunker, in the head.
The deed done, he walked calmly out the door of the home, sat down on a wheelbarrow, and put the pistol to his own head. Pulling the trigger, he ended his life and cementing the legend for one of the most shocking murders in the history of Sioux Falls and the newly minted state of South Dakota.
It is a story recounted in surprising detail in two editions of the Evening Argus Leader, a forerunner to the Sioux Falls newspaper of today, and involves clashing personalities, financial disagreements and a grisly ending that would leave its mark on South Dakota history.
The story of Harry Lacey and the murder of his family began on Oct. 26, 1873, when he married Clara A. Bunker in Muscatine County, Iowa. The couple later moved to Sioux Falls at a time when there was a considerable influx of new residents flocking to the soon-to-be new state. The account of the incident in the Evening Argus Leader notes that when the family arrived, Lacey himself was considered “plausible and competent” and was likely to make a name for himself in the world.
The time the Laceys spent in Sioux Falls was dominated by arguments over money, land dealings and personality conflicts, according to the newspaper report. The family had access to money, although it did not appear they were considered rich or upper class. A few years before the murders, Bunker had sold about 300 acres of an old homestead property at what is referred to as “two and one-half miles east of town,” bringing in about $40,000 in 1893 dollars.
In 2022 currency, that amounts to approximately $1,316,000.
Sometime after that sale, about $15,000 or $20,000 of the $40,000 was turned over to Harry Lacey and his brother, Edward, for an investment. Bunker, however, became suspicious and eventually demanded the money back. Lacey offered her securities in return for her request, but he could not produce the cash to pay her back.
It was this argument that apparently set the stage for the two murders and the suicide.
An argument over breakfast in December of 1891 continued that argument over money. At that time, Lacey’s wife sided with her mother and said the money ought to be paid back. Lacey then apparently became enraged, demanded his mother-in-law leave the house, struck his wife and brandished a revolver, threatening to shoot both his wife and himself. The incident resulted in Lacey’s arrest, and he was fined $50.
For much of the rest of the year, Lacey lived away from his family. Lacey apparently blamed the discord on Bunker, and that she had made his life “hell on earth.” He had also been heard to say that if things kept up as they had been, he would kill her and end his own life.
The situation grew serious enough that the pair filed for divorce in late 1891, but the two came to a resolution in summer of 1892 and the divorce never became final. The final stages of the crime were set up when, in spring of 1893, the family moved to a pair of homes east of town, with a peaceful truce being called between the parties.
That peace lasted a week before it came to a head with the murder-suicide.
Turn-of-the-century Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls itself was a different place in 1893 than it is today. It was a growing community in a new state, and one that was the subject to the social and economic instabilities of the time, said Bill Hoskins, museum director for Siouxland Heritage Museums in Sioux Falls.
“Sioux Falls was the largest city in South Dakota in 1893, and it was a new state,” Hoskins told the Mitchell Republic. “Sioux Falls was established when the Army abandoned Fort Dakota at the falls of the Big Sioux River.”
In 1870, the census showed less than 50 people in all of Minnehaha County. By 1880 the population of Sioux Falls was about 2,500, and by 1890 it had blossomed to 10,000 people. People from the east were moving west in search of fame and fortune.
“The '70s and '80s are huge boom years, and they’re not just boom years for Sioux Falls and Dakota, but boom years for the country,” Hoskins said.
The country had been in the midst of an economic depression in 1873, and the gold rush in the Black Hills essentially pulled the nation from the depths of it, Hoskins said. By the time the 1890s rolled around, economic turmoil was again ranging, and just a few months before the Lacey murders, the stock market took another hit.
“When you get to the 1890s, there’s a lot going on. And a lot of that is reflected in Sioux Falls. You had an economic crash of the stock market in May of 1893, and that crash had some real effects in Sioux Falls,” Hoskins said. “There were banks that closed or were fiscally embarrassed. (Then U.S. Senator) Richard Pettigrew had a dream of being a railroad baron that went down the tubes. And there was drought in Dakota. That all puts stress on the economy.”
The Friday and Saturday prior to the killings, Harry Lacey would be seen on the streets of Sioux Falls, visiting various locations and settling up bills and other affairs. He turned over a clock to a restaurant owner named Art DeGood to settle a small bill. He offered to pay a debt at another restaurant, the Knickerbocker, with his heavy overcoat. Roger Marson, the proprietor, refused to take the coat.
“You will need it,” the Evening Argus Leader quotes the owner as saying.
“No,” Lacey said. “I won’t want it any longer.” He then apparently remembered himself and noted he only uses the coat for riding.
He even stopped to settle a bill at the Evening Argus Leader office, and offered to pay the bill with books. The books were not taken but Lacey agreed to an arrangement whereby he would write a series of articles on irrigation, a subject with which he was familiar, for the paper.
Shortly after, he headed back to meet his family, who according to the archived newspaper lived “just east of the motor track, which runs north and south from the power house to the town. Just west of the track is the old Bunker homestead.”
Lacey and his wife were living together, and Bunker lived alone in the house “west of the track.”
Harry G. Lacey, who has lived in Sioux Falls for years, and who was known as a bright, competent, cool, desperate man, at 5:30 Sunday evening shot and instantly killed his mother-in-law, Mrs. Lydia Bunker, and his wife, and then putting the muzzle of a 38-caliber revolver to his head, blew out his own brains.
Harry Lacey arrived at his home, where his wife was visiting with a neighbor. That neighbor then left, with Clara Lacey also taking her leave and heading to her mother’s house. Lacey apparently read the newspaper for a short time before walking across the way and kicking in the back door to Bunker’s home.
As Bunker tried to pass from the dining room to the kitchen, Lacey fired a shot, hitting her behind her right ear, killing her instantly. Clara Lacey, who saw the raised weapon, attempted to grab the revolver, but Harry Lacey wrenched it from her and shot, the bullet striking her almost exactly where the previous one had hit Bunker. The incident was witnessed by seven-year-old son Abner Lacey and three-and-a-half year old daughter Lydia E. Lacey. It is their account of the incident that provides the known narrative of the event.
Frank Lacey, the oldest child, was apparently in town at the time of the shootings.
Lacey reportedly looked at his wife’s body for a moment, proceeded to walk outside and sit down on a wheelbarrow, and put the gun to his own head, pulling the trigger. This third and final shot from the gun struck him in nearly the exact same place as the it had struck the other two victims.
The initial Evening Argus Leader report suggested that Lacey was of sound mind when he committed the murders, though a jury decision would later dispute that.
“Harry G. Lacey, who has lived in Sioux Falls for years, and who was known as a bright, competent, cool, desperate man, at 5:30 Sunday evening shot and instantly killed his mother-in-law, Mrs. Lydia Bunker, and his wife, and then putting the muzzle of a 38-caliber revolver to his head, blew out his own brains. It was not the act of insanity; it was the deed of a desperate man, who fancied that he had been wronged by others, and it was evidently planned quietly and cooly — probably for some days,” the murder story lead sentence reads.
Aftermath, funeral and jury findings
The day after the killings, a reporter for the Evening Argus Leader visited the home where the murders took place. The three bodies were all lined up in coffins in the same room.
Sumner Lacey reported the murders to his neighbor, Elizah Jones, who was led back to the scene of the crime by the child.
“They’re all dead, sir,” Sumner reportedly told Jones, who discovered Harry Lacey dead with his hat still perched on top of his head. Jones suspected each death to be instantaneous
The reporter indicated that Clara Lacey and the children had all feared Harry Lacey and Bunker had remarked that she suspected the husband would “kill us all yet.” She had reportedly said Harry Lacey had said, in front of his family, that he proposed to live with the family until the money was gone and then kill the whole family.
The Evening Argus Leader dated Oct. 24, 1893 said a reporter for the paper had gone to the Bunker house the following day and witnessed the funeral.
“The bodies of the two murdered women and of the suicide have been buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the blood stains have been erased from the floor, the house has been put to rights by the neighbors, the blinds have been closed, and a solemn and awful stillness broods over the lonesome house, in which has been committed the most awful tragedy in the history of the state,” the reporter wrote.
“It is not known what disposition will be made of the house, but it will probably be torn down, as few people would dwell in a house which, in imagination, would always be peopled with blood stained specters. The two little children who saw the terrible slaughter are with ‘Papa’ Jones trying hard to forget, in play, a scene which will be stamped upon their minds forever.”
Despite a “considerable estate” left from Bunker, the children were expected to make their home with the neighbor, Jones, who appears to be referred to by both the first names “Elijah” and “Elizah” in the Evening Argus Leader reports.
“It is more than probable that all the children will make their home with ‘Papa Jones,' as the little tots call Elijah Jones, a big-hearted, fine-faced, thorough man,” the report states.
“Don’t worry about the children,” Jones said to the reporter while reportedly wiping a tear from his face. “They will be cared for.”
A coroner’s jury, composed of Alexander Stern, Abner B. Green and R.E. Vreeland, rendered a verdict stating Lydia Bunker and Clara Lacey came to their deaths by pistol shots fired by Harry Lacey, and that Lacey himself came to his death by a pistol shot fired by himself with “suicidal intent,” and that all the acts were committed by Harry Lacey while temporarily insane and in the state of frenzy.
None of the witnesses, Mrs. A.J. McCain, Elizah Jones nor Frank Lacey, indicated that they believed Lacey was insane at the time of the crimes, the paper reported. Frank Lacey testified that his father had abused his mother.
Today, 129 years later, the story of the killings remains barely as a memory. The three killed — Frank Lacey, Clara Lacey, and Lydia Bunker — share a single four-sided grave marker at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls, where it is listed in the cemetery directory as a notable historic point of interest.
The peaceful setting is essentially all that remains of a short, extremely violent few minutes that took three people from the world and left three children as orphans in Sioux Falls near the turn of the century.