Delilah Fails appears to have been a true sociopath, rare among her gender. She used her "charms" and talents to exploit others, and appeared to have little conscience about the wreckage she left behind. In prison parlance, she was a “heat wave.” Wherever she went, trouble wasn’t far behind. Ask John Lewis, who was sent to the Anamosa Penitentiary in 1893 for seducing the sexually precocious 17-year old. Ask any number of local Waverly men who carried on affairs with the voluptuous, attractive young woman, and found themselves in divorce court shortly thereafter.
You can’t, however, ask Jerome Kern. After all, Delilah shot him dead in cold blood.
In her rambling confession to the August 23, 1897 murder, 22-year old Delilah claimed that the much-older Kern had been “using” her sexually since she was 13 years of age, that they had intercourse often, and that the married Kern became extremely possessive of her. He spread vicious lies around town about her, she said, and managed to thwart any of her attempts to break free of him. When Delilah started an affair with Kern’s 18-year old son, Will, and they talked of marriage, the elder Kern reportedly became jealous of his own son. He wanted Delilah “all to himself,” according to one account, and refused to allow the marriage.
Delilah admitted that it was her idea to kill Jerome Kern, and she found a willing accomplice in young Will, who apparently had few qualms about killing his father. On the day of the murder, the elder Kern was lured into a local woods with the promise of Delilah’s sexual favors; instead, he received three bullets to the back from Delilah’s borrowed revolver, after which she and Will poured kerosene over the body and set it alight. The burned body was found the following day. Delilah made efforts to cast suspicion elsewhere, planting a phony note in Jerome’s jacket pocket, making it appear that Jerome feared for his life from John Lewis. No matter – the sheriff and prosecutor figured things out and Will readily confessed. Delilah quickly followed suit. She concluded her written confession thus:
“Down there in the woods when I killed Jerome, he was not forcing or trying to force me, but I had made up my mind to kill him. When I first began to think of killing Jerome I began to pray to God to give me strength to carry this through and kill [him], if it was his will, and after I did I prayed that he forgive me and I thought he had forgiven me, because I didn’t keep thinking of it. I don’t know, I think I was born to do all this.”
Delilah was convicted of Murder and sentenced to 20 years. Will received 12. They shared a train ride to Anamosa on December 13, 1897. According to the newspapers, the curious lined up along the train route, trying to catch a glimpse of the suddenly-famous murderess.
Will Kern completed his sentence in March 1905 and lived out the rest of his life in quiet obscurity, working as a tailor. He married and had several children, and there is no evidence he ever committed another crime. He died in 1953.
Delilah’s life continued to be eventful. She apparently fell in love with another convict while at Anamosa, one Frank Bunn, also known as James L. Firman. After his release from prison he took up residence in the Fails home in Waverly, where he petitioned loudly for Delilah’s release. He made quite a nuisance of himself around town, was arrested on a weapons charge, and was eventually run out of town.
When Delilah was paroled in 1904, she took a job in Cedar Rapids as a domestic for a prominent family. When her employer came home one evening he found Delilah bound and gagged, the “victim” of an apparent robbery. Numerous items of value were missing. Police were suspicious, however, and after intense interrogation, Delilah admitted she had staged the robbery, and led authorities to the stolen goods. Frank Bunn was in the Cedar Rapids area at the time, and police figured he was involved in the “robbery,” but Delilah refused to implicate him. It is noteworthy that Delilah married Bunn around this time.
Delilah’s parole was revoked and she was returned to the Penitentiary to finish her sentence. She discharged May 8, 1909 and returned to her father’s home in Waverly.
A few months later Delilah, while picking wild grapes in a farm pasture, was attacked by a bull. Her dog managed to occupy the bull while Delilah crawled through a fence to safety. As the Bremer County Independent reported, “When it isn’t one thing it’s another, and Delilah seems to get her share of them.”
When she was 41 years old, in 1916, Delilah’s husband, the ex-con James Firman, sued one Henry Woodford for $5500 “for the alienation of his wife’s affections.” The suit claimed that the couple had been happily married until Delilah went to work for Woodford and committed “many indiscretions” with him, “all brought about by Woodford’s unusual control over her.” Woodford was a wealthy man, and a cynic might speculate that Delilah’s “indiscretions” were calculated to get a share of that wealth. If so, she succeeded, as Woodford provided her with $50,000 in property upon his death.
In 1917, Delilah married L.D. Roberts, a man of modest means and ten years her senior. In 1925 she deserted him. In his 1931 divorce petition, Mr. Roberts stated that Delilah had refused his numerous requests to move back in with him, and that he wanted an alimony judgment of $18,000 rendered against her. Exactly how the suit turned out is unknown.
Delilah died in Waverly in 1950. She had apparently reverted back to her first married name, as her obituary calls her “Nellie Firman.” Surviving her was one son, John Lewis.