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Stovepipe Justice

Roehl Family

Stovepipe Justice

An Unbelievable Discovery

To most of those living in south-central Minnesota, Monday, 28 January 1867 began as just another average mid-winter day. The sun was shining brightly, but daytime temperatures hovered well below zero degrees and the countryside was littered with the dirty remains of several months of snowstorms. When the northwest wind whipped across the now-empty fields just south of New Ulm, one could only describe the weather as bitterly cold. It was around noon on that day when farmer Joseph Schnoberich happened to glance toward the home of his closest neighbors, William and Gertrude Roehl. The Roehls lived about 100 yards away, but he immediately could sense that something was wrong. As he stood motionless in the cold snow outside his own cabin he forced himself to think about why he was suddenly so worried about his neighbors. Finally, he realized that the normal plume of smoke was not rising from the chimney and there was no sign that anyone was moving about the cabin. He remembered that William had left four days earlier on a 30-mile trip to Mankato, but Gertrude should have been there with her four small children.

Struck by the absence of any signs of life, Joseph quickly went to the Roehl cabin and knocked on the door. When no one answered, he immediately opened the door and went inside. The room was cold, dark, and silent. He thought to himself that the temperature inside must have been about 40 degrees. As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he could just make out the image of four small heads peering from under the covers of the bed. He immediately asked the children where their mother had gone. The children began to cry and five-year-old John blurted out: “A stranger killed her and carried her to the root cellar.” Sensing the near panic of the frigid children, Joseph quickly bundled them in warm clothing and took them back to his own cabin. He then went to the nearby home of his sister and brother-in-law, Thersea and Martin Leiminger. After a brief review of the situation, the two men went to investigate.

Before Schnoberich and Leiminger entered the Roehl cabin they could not have imagined the scene that would later be formally described: “Blood was splattered from the threshold of the door to the furthest window. Gertrude’s cold and lifeless body lay on the floor of the root cellar, with her arms outstretched.” The nearly nude body displayed the evidence of numerous wounds, rape, strangulation, and three severe blows to the head – two of which were certainly fatal skull fractures. The two men, shaken by the horror that they had discovered, summoned the authorities.

The Crime is Solved

Mr. Baasen (Brown County Attorney), Dr. Meschcke (Brown County Coroner), and Dr. Masser from Fort Ridgeley came to investigate and document the scene at the Roehl farm. Under supervised questioning, the children indicated that just as the sun came up on Sunday, “a stranger” with a club came to the bed where they and their mother had slept. Their mother was very frightened and screamed. She jumped out of bed and yelled for the children to run to the Leimingers, but the stranger slammed her violently into the corner and then carried her to the root cellar. He shouted to the children to be quiet. When he later left the house he told them he would return, but … “he never came back”. After the fire had gone out in the fireplace, the children huddled in bed under the covers to keep warm. It would be a full 24 hours before Schnoberich would come to the aid of the children. William Roehl was not expected back from his trip until sometime on Tuesday, so it is likely the children could have frozen to death if the alert neighbor had not taken the time to investigate. The German-Bohemian community was a very cohesive ethnic group and did everything possible to help the family through this disaster. Consistent with Bohemian tradition, on the following Sunday everyone from the community joined in a service at the Roehl cabin to offer sympathy and to bring food and gifts.

As news of the murder spread through the region, a likely suspect was soon identified. A 46-year-old itinerant farm hand, Anthony Schmidt, had worked for the Roehls for 5 months during the previous summer and had later complained about how poorly he was treated. On several occasions Schmidt had spoken openly about his hatred for William and his whole family and even threatened to do them harm. The authorities quickly agreed that Schmidt should be taken into custody for questioning. A $150 reward was offered for his capture and posters with his description were distributed around the region, but Schmidt had apparently vanished. After the funeral on Sunday, Farmer Weschke and Carl Sommer talked in the local drug store around noon and decided that they would form a posse and attempt to apprehend the killer. They were joined by John Grise and George Schneider and began to canvas the area for any information about Schmidt. Later that day they talked to someone who had seen Schmidt on Thursday near Fort Ridgeley. Immediately they rode to the Fort and began to question the local residents. Later that afternoon they took him into custody at the home of Mr. L Charen. Schmidt surrendered without resistance and confessed on the ride back to New Ulm that he had murdered Gertrude Roehl.

The Murderer’s Statement

On the next day the formal questioning of Schmidt was carried out before Justice of the Peace Roos and County Attorney Baasen. By that time, further investigation had established that Schmidt was originally from Woerstadt in Germany and had fled that country 12 years before when he was implicated in arson and the murder of a young man. He was known to have used the alias of “Andrew Heck” in nearby Le Sueur County and may have been involved in yet another murder in Renville County. Under questioning, Schmidt indicated that he had developed a deep hatred for the Roehl family during the prior summer when he had worked for them. Schmidt clearly felt that he was not treated well and had told others of his feelings toward the Roehls. But it seemed that he and William had resolved any issues at a friendly meeting on the Wednesday just prior to the murder. When William had suggested Schmidt come out to his farm for a day to do some work on their cabin, Schmidt was able to “brush away the crazy feelings”.

It happened that when Schmidt showed up at the Roehl cabin on Saturday, William was gone. Gertrude explained what Schmidt was to do around the house and everything went well until she asked him to remain until the following day to complete his assigned tasks. As Gertrude stood over him, a wave of anger flowed back into his body. He reluctantly agreed to spend the night, but then his desire to kill William kept him awake in bed that evening. He quietly observed Gertrude and the children asleep in their bed and that reinforced his hatred for the entire family. Then the thought came to him that perhaps he should kill Gertrude and the children instead of William. He thought that such a deed might be an even more cruel punishment than killing William himself. About midnight he began to think about how he could carry out this evil plan. At first he thought he would simply set fire to the cabin and disappear, hoping they would all die in the fire. But then he thought about it “still harder” and decided it would be better to kill them before setting the fire. Looking about the cabin for a weapon, he found a potato masher hanging on the wall by the fireplace. Using this wooden club, he then released his irrational anger on Gertrude in full view of the children.

After Gertrude was dead he turned his attention to the children. However, as he told the story, “dawn was breaking and the little ones would take a long time.” Confused and exhausted, Schmidt crept back to his bed and fell asleep for “roughly two hours”. When he awoke it was well past dawn and the anger he had held for the Roehl children was gone. He thought to himself: “It is really not right for the children to look at their dead mother lying nude on the floor.” So, he dragged the body into the root cellar and shut the door. He then proceeded to make a fire in the fireplace and gave the children some bread and water for breakfast. As he left the cabin he told them to stay in bed until he came back. He then went to another job near Fort Ridgeley and did not believe anyone would associate him with Gertrude’s murder.

Justice at the End of a Rope

Following his capture and confession, Anthony Schmidt was held in a small prison cell in the local prison until the next scheduled District Court. At night he would be bound hand and foot to reduce the chance of escape. On the evening of Sunday, 16 June 1867, Schmidt was informed that on the following day he would be transported to Redwood Falls for judgment. He showed no emotion or concern when he was given this information, but did ask for his lawyer, Mr. Dorman, to accompany him on this trip. He was assured that his request would be met. That night, under the cover of darkness, Schmidt somehow managed to free himself from the bindings. He removed all of his clothing and carefully tore his undershirt and shorts into long strips, which he then skillfully braided into a rope that was strong enough to hold his weight. Schmidt climbed onto a piece of furniture in order to reach the stovepipe that ran through his cell. He tied the rope around the stovepipe close to the wall, where it was strongly supported and then tied the rope around his neck. In the stillness of the night he quietly and calmly committed suicide. Guard Sheef entered the cell the following morning and found Schmidt’s lifeless body hanging from the stovepipe. With broad shoulders, a stocky build, bristly hair, and a smirking face, Schmidt presented the same defiant and brutal appearance in death that he had when alive. The Coroner’s inquest ruled that Schmidt’s death was a suicide and that justice had been served. Four and a half months after Gertrude Roehl was violently taken from her husband and children, the murderer’s body was quietly buried in an unspecified location.

A Tribute to Gertrude Roehl

In 2006 a poem was written as a tribute to Gertrude Roehl’s tragic death. The author of that poem, Casey Kayser, is a third-great granddaughter of the victim and has given permission to reprint that tribute here.

Ein Grausam Verbrechen
by: Casey Kaysar

Monday morning
the smokless chimney alerted the neighbor,
who found her in the cellar, wearing only a shred of underwear.
The children were shaking, peering from under the bed.
40 degrees in the bedroom,
there was no one to set the morning fire.

My uncle the genealogist tells me:
Fourteen hours of translation and The New Ulm, Minnesota Post headline
Ein Grausam Verbrechen
reads: A Terrible Crime.

January 27, 1867

Not June 1, 2005, the single woman who sleeps alone
in a New York City apartment,
victim of a fire escape, a nimble bastard
and a desire to feel the summer air.
Or a woman walking just a short way home, three Cosmos giddy,
the night breeze and the smell of a still-open pizza joint,
that in our world is small allowance, privilege to momentarily forget,
but can somehow
never be a right.

But January 27, 1867,

a Minnesota farm wife
whose husband had angered a former farmhand.
Him away on business, a Sunday morning,
her four children asleep in the bed with her.
A mild winter so far, but still
they curled together.

I can’t help but imagine when she first heard a rustling.
Just as the morning light broke,
she woke from the bed she shared with her children.
They say he stood there with a club, grabbed her
and carried her to the cellar.

Her neck striped with marks,
three severe head wounds, two skull fractures.
Blows delivered by her own potato masher
hanging from the wall.
After, he slept in their bed.

I wonder if she froze first
like I do?
If her fists tightened, nails
clenched too. Long and round, like mine.
Did her hands, raised over her head, look like my
grandma’s, my aunt’s, my mom’s, mine?

The murderer hung himself from a stovepipe in his cell.
Her husband died of jaundice a few years later.
the potato masher hangs in a New Ulm museum.
The children, I don’t know.

Our legacy is in all of us:
My dad the genealogist tells me about my great-great aunt, impregnated
in an illicit coupling in a boat.
Forced to wear black on her wedding day,
She never went near water again.

It’s more than the same cadence in a laugh,
a passed down anecdote,
but it’s a fear of water,
an aversion to potatoes.

I think of her when I walk alone,
smile at a stranger,
when I lock my door at night,
smell late-night pizza and almost forget.

Opinions and Footnotes

  • Much of the information presented in this chapter was taken from a series of German newspaper articles in the New Ulm, Minnesota Post, dated 1 February 1867, 15 February 1867, and 21 June 1867. These articles are available from the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, though the copies are not of high quality and required many hours to decipher and translate.
  • It was not recorded where Gertrude’s body was laid to rest. Certainly, the body must have been taken into New Ulm for the autopsy, but the funeral service was held in the Roehl cabin. It is possible she was buried on the family farm, but it is more likely that her grave is in St. Jacob’s Cemetery – just over a mile northeast of the cabin (see Figure 3-3). That cemetery remains today, but many of the stone monuments are broken and unreadable.
  • The Western Frontier possibly served as a convenient place for those with mental illnesses to escape the urban environment and live a more solitary life, thus reducing the potential for violent conflict with other people. Reading through this story from the perspective of modern psychiatry, it is clear that Anthony Schmidt (if that really was his real name) suffered from a bipolar disorder and was subject to severe mood swings, deep depression, and paranoia. He also seemed to display an unnatural interest in arson: When he left Germany he was linked to a suspicious house fire; his initial plan to kill the Roehls involved setting fire to their cabin; and his only request to his lawyer was that after his death someone should “burn his shanty.” As pioneers in nineteenth century Minnesota, the Roehl family would have had no way to assess the danger associated with hiring Anthony Schmidt to work on their farm. Nor does it appear that they consciously did anything to trigger Schmidt’s irrational hatred and violence. They were truly innocent victims of society.
  • This story also demonstrates the spirit of cooperation and empathy that was a regular part of the German-Bohemian community. Joseph Schnoberich was sufficiently aware of his neighbors’ activities to sense that something was wrong at the Roehl cabin. Without this intervention the four children would have likely frozen to death by the time their father returned the following day from Mankato. William’s neighbors brought gifts and food for the family and genuinely offered sympathy and support in their time of need. Their neighbors also took it upon themselves to search out the potentially dangerous murderer and bring him back to justice4-1 The weapon used to murder Gertrude Roehl is stored at the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minnesota. Pictures of the weapon were taken at that facility in October 2006. It is interesting to note that blood stains are still visible on the head of the potato masher. 
Mary Roehl Eising    Betty Roehl Hochgraber
These two pictures show two of Gertrude’s great-granddaughters: 
Mary Roehl Eising & Betty Roehl Hochgraber, holding the murder weapon 139 years after the crime.