Alexander McGregor: Founder

Andrew Clemens: Sand Artist

River Pirate Doc Bell stole from packet boats and had a hideout in Sni Magill, rural McGregor, Iowa. The Times reported in 1858 that $5,000 of stolen goods were recovered from Doc Bell's boats. Initially some of the pirates were discovered and arrested, but the leader Doc Bell escaped and hid from the law for a few months.


I recently found a great piece of information: his first name! (The newspapers always called him “Doc Bell” or “J.L. Bell”). The 1860 Federal Census gives his name as James Bell. He was in Fort Madison penitentiary at the time, serving four years.


Newspaper accounts and court reports reveal he was married, but his wife and two children are not named in the accounts I've found. His wife was a “practiced gunner” and shot at the posse, led by Constables A.F. Kee and M.J. Brown, and Sanford L. Peck. The posse didn't fire at his wife, although Peck did hit Doc Bell himself, leaving Bell with an injury and subsequent scar running from his forehead to above his left ear.


The North Iowa Times reports, “Bell's appearance does not indicate a hardened character. One would suppose him to be a quiet, inoffensive citizen, but when necessary he evinces a sullen, bull-dog spirit, which at once proves him capable of coming to any excess in crime, and a man not to be trifled with. A young man with a family...Doc Bell was a well-made man about 25 years old, 160 pounds, sandy complexion, large red whiskers.”


Some of the stolen goods were marked – “J.Bell”. Doc Bell and his gang had three boats, and a carpenter named Ralph was building Bell another boat. It was the carpenter who led the constables to Bell's hideout at Sni Magill.

After being shot, Bell escaped from the McGregor posse. He traveled the country, evading law enforcement. S.W. Carpenter of Dubuque was employed to track down Bell. Carpenter found Bell at Pier Cove, Allegan County, Michigan, where he was running a counterfeiting ring. The scar from his forehead to above his left ear helped identify Bell. The Times reported, “It is thought this arrest will be the means of breaking up the gang as Bell is thought to be the master spirit among them.”


Dec Bell was brought back to Iowa for trial. Hundreds met him when he arrived back at the McGregor House.


Bell employed the best counsel at his trial. They made a vigorous defense. Scott, Odell, Noble and Drummond were for the prosecution. Pottery, Vanorman, Munson and Ben Samuels of Dubuque were for the defense. The trial lasted two days. Doc Bell was sentenced to four years in the State Prison, “imprisonment to hard labor.”

Contact Michelle at the McGregor Public Library, or 563-873-3318, if you would like to share information, or know more about the river pirate Doc Bell.

(sources: North Iowa Times: May 5, 1858, June 9, 1858, Dec. 25, 1858, Feb. 2, 1859. Clayton County Journal – reports of the District Court of May 17, 1858 and Journal article from June 10, 1858.)