The Murder of Joseph Henry Loveless

The skeletal remains of a murder that took place 103 years ago have been positively identified as Joseph Henry Loveless from Fairmont County, Idaho. Loveless had been arrested for murdering his wife with an ax. He escaped the St. Anthony jail in Idaho and while on the run, he was murdered, dismembered, and dumped in the Buffalo Cave near Dubois, Idaho, in 1916. His remains were identified in 2017, and his murder remains unsolved.

Buffalo Cave – Civil Defense Caves System – Dubois, Idaho

On August 26, 1979, retired Fairmont County Sheriff Earl Holden was contacted after the torso portion of a man was discovered by a family exploring the Buffalo Cave, which is part of the Civil Defense Cave System. Clark County sheriff’s deputies searched in and around the area with a metal detector but discovered nothing further. The county medical examiner at the time believed that the remains had been there 10-years or less due to the condition of the remains. The torso was wearing a red sweater which was in great shape. Sheriff Holden believed the remains were possibly a gambler from over sixty years prior. Police could not identify the Buffalo Cave John Doe.

In 1991, an 11-year-old girl discovered the limbs of an unidentified person. She had been hunting for arrowheads in the Buffalo Cave when she found a pair of dismembered hands in a burlap sack that had been sticking out of the cave sediment. Idaho State University’s Anthropology Department became involved in trying to learn any further details. A DNA profile matched the hands of the Buffalo Cave John Doe torso that had been discovered 13 years prior. The Idaho Museum of Natural History and Idaho State University conducted a dig of the area, yet they didn’t find anything further.

Attempts to Identify the Remains

In 1997, investigators had the remains transferred to the Idaho State University’s Department of Anthropology to aid in garnering any further information. From 1997 to 2007, Faculty and students of the ISU Anthropology Department studied the remains.

In 2007, Florence Dickens, an anthropology student, wrote an extensive report regarding the remains. Between 2008-2010, Dickens returned to the Buffalo Cave with two of her trained cadaver dogs in an attempt to discover further clues.

In 2015, professors at the Idaho State University’s Anthropology Department returned to the Buffalo Cave and undertook an extensive in-depth excavation. Nick Pulmer from ISU did a scan of the cave system.

Then, in 2017, Idaho State University’s Anthropology Department submitted a bone sample taken from the victim’s femur to DNA Solutions for analysis. DNA Solutions sent the DNA they developed to Authrum for DNA sequencing. Investigators then submitted the DNA into CODIS, NameUs, and NDIS databases to discover any possible genetic matches.

In March 2019, ISU professors, Dr. Amy Michaels and Dr. Samantha Blatt, reached out to the DNA Doe Project with the consent of Deputy John Clements. At the time they submitted the case, investigators believed the remains belonged to a male with reddish-brown hair, approximately 5 ft. 5 in to 6 ft 1 in. They estimated his age to be between the ages of 18-45. They believed he was of European ancestry. His specific cause of death could not be determined, but anthropologists believed he had likely been dismembered post-mortem due to the fact his dismembered hands were discovered in a burlap sack. This would have made it easier to transfer the body to the cave if he had been killed in another location. They found further evidence of several tool marks on the remains that happened during dismemberment. Investigators determined they were looking at a homicide.

DNA Doe Project Team Effort

Anthony Redgrave, Case Manager and Team Leader for Clark County DNA Doe Project, recounted the details surrounding the case. Redgrave stated it took fourteen volunteer genetic genealogists, 15 weeks and over 2000 hours of combined efforts before a possible family group and specific individual were identified. The team uncovered more than several thousand possible links. They narrowed down the results to approximately 250 DNA matches to the victim’s family lineage. Of those 250 matches, there were 31,730 individuals that made up the specific pedigrees of those family trees.

The DNA profile was also sent to Aerodyne Research’s, Dr. Gregory McGoon, who developed the sequence that was uploaded to GedMatch. The process took approximately 48 hours to upload. On October 28, 2017, the team from the DNA Doe Project that had been working on the case drew their conclusions based on their genetic genealogy research. On November 5, 2017, the DNA Doe Project submitted the preliminary report that outlined a possible identity to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office discovered an 87-year-old living grandson residing in California who submitted a DNA sample to be used for direct DNA comparison to the discovered victim.

Joseph Henry Loveless Identified

The remains discovered in the Buffalo Cave were positively identified as Joseph Henry Loveless by a separation of 3 generations from Loveless and the living grandson. Redgrave explained that Joseph Henry Loveless was born Dec 3, 1870 in Payson, Utah Territory. His parents were Joseph Jackson Loveless of Indiana and Sarah Jane Scriggins of Massachusetts. The couple came to the Utah Territory as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Through historic documents that had been preserved at the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, investigators learned that Loveless had several aliases. They discovered additional information in news articles in historic newspapers of the era and geographical area. The aliases that Loveless commonly used were Walter Cairns, Walter Currans, and Charles Smith. He had an extensive criminal record as an outlaw and bootlegger with an angry disposition.

In 1899, when Loveless was 28 years old, he married Harriet Jane “Hattie” Savage in Salt Lake City, Utah and the couple had one daughter. In 1904, Harriet filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion and failure to provide for the family. She was granted the divorce that same year and records indicate that Loveless failed to attend the court proceedings. In August 1905, Loveless married Agnes Octavia Caldwell in Fremont County, Idaho. The couple had four children between 1906 and 1914. Genealogical records state that Caldwell had been born in 1880 in Malad City, ID.

In March 1914 and December 1914, Loveless was arrested for bootlegging because Fremont County had exercised the “Dry Option Law” making the county a “alcohol dry county” before the federal prohibition laws were in effect. In some newspaper reports, Agnes Caldwell had an alias of Ada Smith and was identified as a possible bootlegger, as well although that has never been confirmed.

Loveless made several escapes from jail by hiding a small saw blade in his shoe, which he would use to saw through the jail bars. In March 1916, using the alias of Walter Cairns, Loveless was in police custody and being transported by train. He convinced the train to stop where he attempted another escape. Police apprehended him and put him in jail. Loveless remained in custody for a short time before to escaping again.

The Murder of Agnes Caldwell Loveless

On May 5, 1916, Agnes Caldwell Loveless was murdered with an ax while in the presence of at least two of their children. On May 11, 1916, Loveless was arrested under the alias police knew, Walter Carins, for her murder. Police did not realize Walter Carins was Loveless, who was also Charles Smith.

At the time of his arrest, Loveless had been living in a tent on the outskirts of town. On May 18, 1916, once again, Loveless escaped from jail by sawing through the bars of his cell with a small saw blade he had hid in his shoe. Police records confirmed the facts surrounding the identity of the murderer. Police had never found Loveless after his last escape from the St. Anthony, Idaho jail.

Records also positively identified Joseph Loveless, Walter Cairns, Walter Currans, and Charles Smith as the same man.

Genetic Genealogy Challenges

Redgrave explained that one of the major challenges in identifying Loveless was due to large families being created during that period in history. In the geographical area that Loveless’s parents had settled in polygamy (having more than one spouse/partner) and endogamy (intermarriage between a small group of related people) were both a known specific practices for religious and geographically small communities of that era and area. These two principals made the DNA signatures from those families appear differently. This also adds to the account of possible half-cousins intermarrying, even several times removed and the impact that it had in researching the possible associated pedigree’s. Another shocking discovery was the fact that the environment and conditions of Buffalo Cave added to the extended preservation of the remains, which affected the timeline of the victim and his identification markers.

Another fact which added to the mystery was that Loveless had a headstone in the family plot, located in the Payson City Cemetery, Payson, Utah. There is no death date on his gravestone so investigators contacted the cemetery. Cemetery staff reported that there was no interment date listed for Loveless in their records and that his gravesite did not contain his body (cenotaph).

Case investigators were unable to find a picture of Loveless, so they had a composite drawing developed based on photographs of direct lineage family members and descriptions gathered from historical documents. Genealogy researchers could also use the original wanted poster to uncover characteristics of Loveless. The wanted poster described him wearing blue ribbed overalls over a red sweater and black pants. The remains found in the Buffalo Cave were dressed in a white shirt with blue pin-stripes, under a maroon colored sweater and dark colored pants. The similarities between the two have led investigators to believe that Loveless was murdered, dismembered, and hidden in the Buffalo Cave shortly after his escape from jail. 

The Aftermath

Clark County Sheriff Bart May stated in the press conference that the death of Joseph Henry Loveless will remain open because Loveless’s murderer and his cause of death have not yet been determined. May publicly thanked the hundreds of people and scores of organizations that had worked on this case over the years.

The official press conference that was held by the Clark County Idaho Sheriff’s Office can be found here.

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