Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Possible Love Triangle
Murder Scene and Date
Des Moines County
July 25, 1893
By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2015
Tuesday, July 24, 1893 was the last day Louisa and Leonard Fritzsche planned to live in their rented one-story home on Burlington’s May Avenue, a short street between Maple and Angular. They were relocating their three children and belongings to another house.
The sparsely-furnished May Avenue home had a sitting room and kitchen. A third room contained a clock, two chairs, two beds on the north end with a window between them, and a window on the south.
The parents and two-year-old Jenny slept in one bed, while four feet away 8-year-old Joe and his sister Mary Louise, 5, slumbered in the other.
Each night the 19-year-old hired girl Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hoetz lay down with the two oldest children until Leonard Fritzsche came home from the saloon he operated, and then she moved to the sitting room lounge for the rest of the night.
Behind the house were a stable, woodshed, and privy. Two dogs were kept on the property — the larger, meaner one was always tied to a tree on the south; a smaller one roamed free.
For three years, Lizzie Hoetz had washed, ironed, cleaned, and babysat for the Fritzsches, following them from rented house to rented house.
☛ Vandalism and Violence ☚
As much as Louisa Fritzsche wanted Lizzie Hoetz’s domestic help, she more so welcomed the companionship because she was afraid to stay alone. Leonard worked late in his saloon at the corner of Third and Division streets, coming and going as he pleased at odd hours.
The May Avenue neighborhood was rough and unruly; many nights, vandals snuck around the Fritzsche house opening shutters and peering in. Rocks were hurled through windows.
The Swansons, the only Swedes in the German neighborhood, were particularly obsessed with the Fritzsches. They yelled curses like “We’ll get the dirty Dutch out of there,” “We’ll get rid of you,” and “We’ll fix you.” The Swansons harbored an ethnic bias towards the Fritzsches, who spoke German — he was Swiss and she was a native of the Alsace-Lorraine region.
☛ Domestic Turmoil ☚
Nor were things more calm inside the house. Louisa and Leonard Fritzsche frequently quarreled and fought.
In October of 1892, Louisa asked Squire Clark Marble to draw up papers to place Leonard Fritzsche under a peace bond. She told Justice of the Peace E.J. Edmonds that her husband beat and threatened to kill her. The matter was dropped, however, when Leonard swore he’d change his abusive behavior.
Neighbors later claimed that Louisa Fritzsche and Lizzie Goetz also quarreled, calling each other “fool” and other names in German. The women argued about Louisa’s nagging and scolding the children and how she tied Joe, the oldest, to a tree when he misbehaved. It was said Louisa could be heard bellowing at her children from a block away.
☛ November 1892: Escape ☚
So badly did Louisa Fritzsche want out of her situation that in early November 1892 she sold all the furniture to pay her passage back to “the old country.”
While Louisa was in Germany, hired girl Lizzie Goetz moved to her parents’ home and worked at the Union Hotel. Louisa wrote to Lizzie, addressing her in German as “Dear Friend.” Because Louisa did not correspond with her husband Leonard, he often dropped by to have Lizzie read her letters aloud, even though they didn’t mention him.
In the spring of 1893, Louisa wanted to return to the United States; Leonard sent her the fare and she was back in their Burlington home by May. Lizzie Goetz started working for the Fritzsches again.
☛ Two Months Before the Murder: A Burglary ☚
One early summer Sunday, the Fritzsche household picnicked in the country. When they returned at dusk, they found the house ransacked; drawers were opened and Leonard’s .38 caliber revolver — always kept on the clock shelf in the bedroom — was missing. The intruder seemed acquainted with the house and familiar to the smaller dog, which had not chased the robber from the yard.
☛ Three Weeks Before the Murder: Erie Forebodings ☚
Events took an even more disturbing turn on a Sunday near the end of June while Leonard Fritzsche worked at his saloon. The two women and the children were asleep in the bedroom.
Suddenly, a bullet whizzed through the open window past Louisa’s head, lodging in the headboard. Lizzie sat up and screamed for help, but no neighbors came. Just then, Leonard Fritzsche arrived home.
The next day Louisa complained of deafness in one ear and her hair on that side was singed red with powder burns.
Louisa asked her husband to report the incident to authorities; but Leonard refused and said he didn’t care, that it didn’t concern him.
She went to the police station herself but got no satisfaction. In fact, Louisa told Lizzie the officers laughed at her and refused to investigate.
And there was yet another odd incident. One evening Louisa claimed her coffee tasted bitter and caused stomach cramps. No one else complained after drinking the coffee, but she was certain someone — perhaps Lizzie — put poison in her cup.
☛ The Day of the Murder ☚
On July 24, 1893, Leonard worked at his saloon all day without coming home for the midday meal or supper.
While Lizzie stayed with the children and did chores, Louisa cleaned the house on Third Avenue where the family was moving. Then she washed dishes at Leonard’s saloon until 9:00 p.m. Leonard later said Louisa talked with patrons and seemed happy and upbeat. When she finished, he put her on a street car and gave her a bottle of wine.
☛ The Murder ☚
The details that survive of the homicide itself come from accounts by Lizzie, the only other adult present.
When Louisa Fritzsche got home, Joe and Mary, the oldest children, were asleep and Lizzie was rocking the baby.
The kitchen door to the backyard stood partly open; it and the front door had locks, but the keys were lost. The women usually placed chairs in front of the doors to block potential intruders. A lamp, turned low, was kept burning on the kitchen table overnight.
Lizzie lay down with the two oldest children in the bed on the northwest side of the bedroom and Louisa reclined beside the baby in the bed on the northeast side, both women with their heads towards the south.
The window on the south was blocked by the door which opened into the room. The window between the beds was open at the north end of the room; whether its shutters were closed or not later became a point of contention.
The two women talked until drifting off about 11:00 p.m.
Towards midnight, Lizzie said, a loud flash awoke her. Thick powder smoke filled the room.
Lizzie sat up in bed and asked, “Are you hurt?” but Louisa didn’t answer. Lizzie said she went to the kitchen for the lamp and as she came back to the bedroom, Louisa was sitting up in bed. She threw her hand to her breast and uttered “Oh, my.”
The children screamed and cried; Joe yelled, “What makes the smoke?” Lizzie took the baby in her arms and ran with the other two out the front door, yelling “Help!” and “Murder!” As they reached the middle of the street, neighbor Rosie Huppenbauer called out her window, “What’s the matter?”
When Lizzie yelled that someone fired a shot at Louisa, Rosie and her husband Charley dressed and came out; they went into the Fritzsche house, where the lamp still burned.
Rosie Huppenbauer saw that Louisa was dead and there was no reason to fetch a doctor; she called instead for the police and undertaker Charles Unterkircher.
As this drama unfolded, Leonard Fritzsche appeared on May Avenue. He saw neighbors standing in the street and around his house; Charley Huppenbauer and Ben Spitzmueller came towards him with the news that his wife was dead.
☛ Officials Arrive ☚
When undertaker Charles Unterkircher entered the house at 1:00 a.m., Louisa Fritzsche had been dead less than an hour and was not yet in rigor. Clothed in a gauze undershirt, she lay on the outside of the bed; her right hand was straight beside her, her left was flung out at an angle. Visible on her upper left arm was a gunshot wound, the flesh around it burned brown.
Sgt. G.J. Zorn was patrolling Jefferson Street when notified of the murder; he and officers Charles Anderson and O.J. Morrison reported to the Fritzsche house to investigate.
They encountered Leonard Fritzsche and Lizzie in the street. Crying and agitated, Lizzie claimed the shot that killed Louisa came through the north window where the shutters were open.
Checking outside that window, Zorn saw the tall grass below was not trampled down. Also, he found the shutters closed on the window, which was six or seven feet from the bed where Louisa lay.
From the powder burns on Louisa’s body, Zorn surmised the killing shot was fired within 10 inches of the body by someone standing next to the bed.
When Officer Zorn explained to Lizzie the shot could not have come through the window, she told him about intruders a few weeks before and suggested they had returned.
Sgt. Zorn found a little can in the bedroom containing five or six .38 caliber cartridges.
Charles Unterkircher, whose brother F.L. was the County Coroner, took Louisa’s body to the brothers’ undertaking establishment at the corner of Washington and Third.
☛ Arrests Made, Suspects Released ☚
Lizzie Goetz and Leonard Fritzsche immediately pointed fingers at the neighboring Swanson family who had harassed and intimidated the Fritzsches for over a year. They described the vandalism, verbal insults, and threats of violence.
Police roused the sleeping Swansons and searched their home for guns, turning up a shotgun and a .32 caliber revolver. Police arrested Albert Swanson and his 16-year-old son Charlie.
They also arrested Lizzie Goetz — because she was in the room when the shot was fired — as well as Leonard Fritzsche because of marital difficulties with his wife.
The four suspects were placed in jail.
☛ Searching for the Gun ☚
Burlington Mayor Peter Fawcett, Police Chief Dennis Murphy, and County Attorney George Tracy personally worked the investigation, searching the Fritzsche property for the revolver that killed Louisa.
Of particular interest was the outhouse; the men ordered the vault drained and the cistern pumped out. No gun was located, however.
A reward of $10 was offered to anyone finding the murder weapon.
☛ Coroner’s Jury and Autopsy ☚
Des Moines County Coroner F.L. Unterkircher selected a coroner’s jury of J.M. Lawrence; Rudolph Linder; and County Overseer of the Poor Samuel Smith. They convened at 2:00 p.m. on July 25 at the undertaking parlor.
The three men observed the autopsy performed by Dr. Henry F. Ewers and Dr. H.A. Leipziger, the latter an Iowa State Medical Society officer. The ragged fatal wound was photographed.
The autopsy revealed that a single .38 caliber bullet entered the fleshy part of Louisa’s upper left arm, passed into the left lung, severed an artery above the heart, and came to rest under the right arm. The physicians determined the wound could not have been self-inflicted and estimated that the killing shot was fired at a distance of six inches.
At the suggestion of County Attorney George Tracy and the two physicians, Samuel Smith was given the recovered bullet and charged with its safekeeping.
The jury took testimony from the Swansons; Lizzie Hoetz; Leonard Fritzsche; Burlington Police officers Anderson, Zorn, and Muckensturm; Mayor Peter Fawcett; County Attorney George Tracy; Police Chief Dennis Murphy; and several Fritzsche neighbors,
The jury determined that the Swansons did not own the proper caliber of weapon, that Leonard Fritzsche was elsewhere at the time of the shooting, and that the evidence against Lizzie Hoetz was circumstantial — although public sentiment singled her out as the likely killer because of quarrels with the victim and a whisper campaign that she had an affair with the victim’s husband.
Its verdict was that “[Louisa Fritzsche] came to her death by means of a shot fired from a revolver in the hands of an unknown party.”
All four suspects were released. The sudden exoneration of Lizzie Hoetz and Leonard Fritzsche seemed especially curious to the public.
☛ Louisa’s Funeral ☚
Louisa Fritzsche’s funeral was held in the Church of St. John the Baptist, which served the local German community. Gawkers filled the sanctuary; and, according to the Pella Weekly Herald, the sidewalks were “blocked with crowds of curious people anxious to see even the coffin containing the remains of the murdered woman.”
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“At the time of the funeral of Mrs. Fritzsche, Lizzie Hoetz was one of the chief mourners. The women present were so indignant at her brazenness in looking and weeping over the corpse for which [they believed] she was responsible, that they threatened to throw her out, and she left . . . for fear of bodily injury.”
Leonard, Lizzie, and the three Fritzsche children rode together in a carriage to the cemetery.
☛ Aftermath ☚
The day after the murder, Leonard Fritzsche moved his family and belongings out of the May Avenue House. Within a week, the Fritzsche children were sent to live in a Quincy, Illinois, orphanage. Fritzsche gave up his saloon and became a candy mixer and wagon driver for the National Biscuit Company.
Only a week after the murder, Lizzie Hoetz married George Washington Durth (Dirth); it was soon apparent she was several months pregnant. She gave birth to Edward Pearl Durth on October 21, 1893 nearly three months to the day of Louisa Fritzsche’s death.
Those suspicious of Lizzie and Leonard speculated he was the child’s father and that Louisa’s murder was planned so they could be together but that he changed his mind after the scrutiny surrounding the killing.
☛ Gun Recovered ☚
Six weeks after the murder, the A.P. and Christina Anderson family moved into the May Avenue house where Louisa Fritzsche was killed.
In the spring of 1894 — eight months after the homicide — Christina Anderson spotted a revolver on a beam inside the privy door. Her husband notified police and an officer took a lamp into the outhouse and stood on the seat to reach the gun down from a beam 10 feet overhead. A.P. Anderson believed the gun had been jarred down out of a hole by hammering when the outhouse roof was repaired.
The recovered gun was Leonard’s revolver; one cartridge was exploded.
A.P. Anderson searched the structure again, retrieving a gold ring, a small box, a baby shoe, and the sleeve of a dress.
The gun’s sudden appearance seemed odd to the investigators, who conducted a thorough search of the outhouse at the time of the murder, even draining the vault. Dave Robinson, who — hoping to earn the $10 reward — helped clean out the privy, swore he searched on the very rafter where the gun was found by the Andersons.
☛ The Case Reexamined ☚
Time passed and the Louisa Fritzsche case gradually faded from the public’s memory. But one law enforcement officer, however, believed he knew who committed the murder and set about to prove it.
In 1897, then Burlington Police Chief Edwin F. Greiner began to focus on the case and steadily gathered information for two years.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of Greiner:
“He has a penchant for solving forgotten crimes . . . . Since he began duties as Chief of Police he has ferreted out a number of old mysteries, which, if investigated by the police officers of that time with the same diligence as now shown by Chief Greiner, would have saved lots of trouble and worry.”
Greiner’s primary source of information was Joe Fritzsche, Louisa’s and Leonard’s oldest child, who was eight-years-old at the time of the murder. By 1899, Joe had spent six years in a Quincy orphanage and was nearly 15.
Leonard Fritzsche brought his son back to Burlington but then threw him out of the house. Because he had no work or prospects, Joe met with Chief Greiner at the Burlington Police Station, sleeping there until an officer found him a situation on a farm. Soon, Joe moved in with Greiner’s family.
At first Joe didn’t discuss his mother’s murder because he was afraid of his father, but he finally felt secure enough to tell Chief Greiner what he observed that night. His account implicated Lizzie Goetz Durth and his own father Leonard Fritzsche.
☛ First Arrest ☚
Acting on Joe’s information, police arrested Leonard Fritzsche on Sunday, November 12, 1899 and jailed him at the police station rather than the county facility. Chief Greiner grilled him in the “sweat-box” until 2:00 and 3:00 in the mornings.
Fritzsche soon cracked. He accused Lizzie Hoetz Durth of firing the shot that killed his wife, but also implicated himself in the act’s planning.
This confession corroborated intelligence Greiner gathered that Leonard told a co-worker Lizzie fired the shot and he was involved because he wanted to be rid of his wife.
☛ Grand Jury Testimony Released ☚
Leonard, however, told a different story to the grand jury. There, he shifted blame to the neighbors:
“The women folks of the neighborhood had trouble . . . . Swanson wanted to lick her several times. Every time I left at night, they broke windows and tried to scare her.
[On the night of the murder], I was in my saloon until ten minutes to twelve. I went home with Henry Lippe. He was pretty full and didn’t know where he was; I took him as far as Buttles’ grocery. I talked with Val Muchensturm and Charley Anderson the policemen.
I hadn’t had any trouble with my wife lately; I used to but we’d been getting along well lately. Had no trouble between Lizzie and my wife.
The deed must have been committed by neighbors who had it in for my wife, for burglars would have tackled me in the street or waited until I got home; Swanson didn’t threaten me but the women folks.”
The County Attorney then presented a parade of neighbors to testify about Lizzie Goetz Durth’s actions.
Anna Felt, who lived across the street, said she heard the victim and Lizzie quarreling the night of the murder and was awakened by cries for help between 11 p.m. and 1:00 a.m.
Rosie Huppenbauer testified that she, too, lived across the street and to the north. After hearing a shot that night, she got up and saw a lamp on the Fritzsches’ back porch and several minutes later heard Lizzie scream “Murder!”
She and her husband Charley entered the house and found Louisa dead, the room still filled with smoke. Lizzie told them an unknown person shot through the window while they were asleep, that when they went to bed the blinds were shut and when she awoke they were wide open. When Huppenbauer noted that they were open only a little way, Lizzie speculated, “Someone must have shut them since I went over to your house.”
Neighbor Mathilda Hult said she heard the shot and then someone cry, “Oh, my God!” followed by quiet for as much as five minutes; she saw someone leave by the back door down the steps to the woodshed or privy and then come back into the house. That’s when Lizzie screamed “Murder!”
Carl Abrahamson described the victim’s and defendant’s constant fights. He recalled an occasion when Louisa ran out of the house making a fist and yelling, “If you kill me, you will have to suffer for it.”
Ellen Swanson lived west of the Fritzsches and testified that Leonard and Louisa quarreled frequently. Albert Swanson and his son Charlie — who had originally been arrested in connection with the murder and then released — concurred that the two women argued violently three weeks before and that Lizzie cursed the victim.
J.P. Koehler, who lived across the back alley from Lizzie’s parents, recounted how when the victim was in Germany, Fritzsche was frequently at the Hoetz house and how he saw Leonard and Lizzie standing in the alley with their faces close together in a romantic way.
Lizzie’s aunt Salamine Eberle testified that her niece told her she “thought a great deal” of Leonard and that she was going to be his wife, even showing off Louisa’s gold ring and saying that she’d soon be wearing it as Mrs. Fritzsche.
☛ Lizzie is Arrested ☚
Lizzie Goetz Durth was indicted by the grand jury and arrested on Thursday, November 16 at her farm home five miles west of Gladstone, Illinois. To face the charges, she rode to Burlington in a buggy sitting beside her husband George Durth and holding her three-month-old son — and fourth child — John Henry.
Accompanying the Durths was Burlington Police Chief Edwin F. Greiner, who along the way tried to persuade Lizzie to confess to killing Louisa Fritzsche.
Lizzie, like Leonard Fritzsche, was questioned intensely; and, according to the Burlington Hawk-Eye:
“Under the sharp fire of questions admitted facts which the police claim prove conclusively that she committed the murder.”
On Friday afternoon, November 17, Lizzie was brought into Police Court and through her attorney William W. Dodge waved a preliminary hearing and pleaded not guilty. The courtroom was packed with curiosity seekers; but the accused sat quietly, holding her infant, and seemed to take little interest in the proceedings.
After the arraignment, a buggy carried her and the baby to the City Jail, where she was placed in a cell with an arrested prostitute. She was not allowed to see her husband.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“Mrs. Durth is a rather plain looking woman, not very well dressed and seemingly not overly intelligent and does not as yet appear to fully realize the grave import of the charges against her.”
In the same jail sat Leonard Fritzsche, Lizzie’s accuser and alleged co-conspirator. He was not charged in Police Court, and there was no arrest warrant or subpoena for him; he simply stayed incarcerated willingly, claiming that he didn’t want to leave until the matter was settled.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye questioned why Lizzie was to stand trial alone while “Her paramour, a self-confessed accessory to the crime, is still in confinement, but of his own free will. There is no charge against him and the police now say he is held only as a witness.”
After nearly a week, Fritzsche left the jail; the Burlington Hawk-Eye speculated he’d been granted immunity if he would testify against Lizzie.
☛ Trial ☚
When the trial of Lizzie Hoetz Durth for the murder of Louis Fritzsche began in mid-December of 1899, Judge Edward Withrow presided. Des Moines County Attorney Charles C. Clark presented the prosecution’s case, and former Iowa State Senator William W. Dodge represented the defendant.
The courtroom was crowded; spectators leaned forward expectantly as Lizzie Durth appeared at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 13.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye described the incongruous scene:
“The spectacle of a woman with an infant in her arms on trial for her life, confronted with the serious charge of terminating the existence of a fellow creature in cold blood, was witnessed in the district court this morning, when the case of the state of Iowa vs. Mrs. Lizzie Durth, charged with murder in the first degree, was called.
Mrs. Durth appeared in court carrying her baby, and took her seat just in the rear of Mr. Dodge, her attorney. She was dry-eyed and composed, and the baby slumbered peacefully on her lap during the whole morning session, at intervals breaking forth in fretful cries which sounded strangely out of place in the court room filled with serious-faced men. Mrs. Durth’s husband was present at his wife’s side, and both listened to the proceedings with the deepest of interest, although manifesting no particular emotion, not even when reference was made to the death penalty in interrogating the jury.”
☛ Jury Selection ☚
When jury selection was made that day, potential members were asked not just if they had formed an opinion about the case but also three other questions: Did they believe in the death penalty? Could they inflict the death penalty on a woman? Would the defendant’s having a nursing baby influence them?
Several were excused for having formed an opinion, others for either not accepting the death penalty or for believing that the defendant’s being a woman would impact them. All the others agreed they could consider the evidence fairly without regard to gender.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye described how B.A. Armstrong declared he could not set aside the sex of the accused, who often nursed her baby during the proceedings:
“While making his declaration he appeared to be considerably touched. His voice was husky and, as he looked at the defendant and her sleeping baby, a few tears were observed glistening in the corner of his eyes.”
The final jury selected was: James Eccles, Edward Boyer, Fred Williams, Clark Wasson, Henry Magel, Charles Butler, T.F. Davis, Henry Flaar, Elmer Bumgartner, T.F. Stevens, J.S. Fitske, and J.C. Wilson. Nine of the men were farmers; the others included a stationary engineer, a machinist, and a street car conductor.
☛ Opening Statements: The Prosecution ☚
The testimony phase of the trial began at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, December 15, 1899.
In his opening statement, County Attorney Charles C. Clark outlined the crime, stressing the strained domestic relations between Leonard and Louisa Fritzsche, as well as quarrels between the victim and defendant.
He hammered home the actions of Lizzie on the night of the murder, particularly that she went to bed in nightclothes but was fully dressed when she ran out crying for help.
The murder, Clark maintained, was planned for months so that lovers Leonard and Lizzie could be married. The first two attempts to kill Louisa — the missed shot and the poisoned coffee — failed. Then came the final plan to shoot the victim while she slept, he argued.
The defendant, Clark contended, retrieved the lamp from the kitchen to see by, knelt by the bed, shot the victim, put the lamp on the porch, hid the revolver, and brought the lamp back into the house.
☛ Opening Statements: The Defense ☚
In his opening statement, Lizzie’s attorney William W. Dodge called Greiner:
“An ambitious police officer seeking notoriety,” adding, “I will show . . . that there is a conspiracy to convict this woman and to let Leonard Fritzsche, the husband of the murdered woman, walk the streets a free man; yes, that great big ambitious Chief Greiner has picked out the weaker vessel to break, that this woman shall expiate the crime of killing Mrs. Leonard Fritzsche.”
To accomplish this, Greiner — Dodge alleged — alienated Joe Fritzsche from his father and brainwashed him for over a year to get him to testify against Leonard and Lizzie.
In addition, Greiner also attempted to bribe Lizzie into confessing and offered $250 to Leonard’s bakery co-worker to surreptitiously elicit information.
There was also, Dodge said, a flawed chain of evidence for the murder weapon. He suggested it was planted for Christina Anderson to find, along with items that would implicate Lizzie, and that it was then passed from hand to hand among former officers until it was stolen from Chief Greiner’s office.
William Dodge pointed out how the defendant married and continued to live in or near Burlington, starting a family and living an exemplary life; she willingly accompanied Chief Greiner from Illinois like a guilt-free person with nothing to fear.
And although it was true she was in the house at the time of the murder and was arrested for it the next day — along with three others — she was cleared and released by the coroner’s jury.
Dodge spoke directly to the twelve men:
“A very grave responsibility confronts you [as] the life of this woman is in your hands; if you find her guilty you consign her to the gallows or to imprisonment for life. The county attorney has well said that no human eye except that of the murderer saw this murder committed, but there was one eye, the eye of the Omniscience, that saw that cold-blooded murder committed. . . . Suspicion alone will convict no one . . . .
In behalf of my client, I shall only ask a fair and impartial trial. She seeks the protection of the law, that ark of safety to us all. . . . May that Divine Being, who watches the fall of every sparrow, guide your conscience and your judgment in reaching a righteous verdict.”
☛ Joe Fritzsche’s Testimony ☚
When the victim’s son Joe Fritzsche took the stand to testify against Lizzie, he recalled how his mother was kind to him and how she never whipped him; she tied him to a tree, he said, only because he tried to run away.
He described quarrels between his mother and Lizzie; the first shooting attempt — after which he found a bullet in the headboard; and the coffee incident, saying, “My mother complained it was queer and Lizzie took it and threw it in the slop pail.”
In recalling the night of the murder, Joe thought it odd that when Lizzie lay down with him and his sister she had on nightclothes but was dressed and wore an apron when she woke them to say their mother was dead. She held the lamp close so they could see the wound. Then she took them outside and at the yard gate, he said, she “commenced hollowing.”
He was positive, he testified, that he saw Lizzie standing beside his mother’s bed with the revolver and that when he tried to tell the police, she shushed him and told them to ignore him.
Joe described the relationship between his mother and Lizzie: “She ill-treated mother; sent her out for coal and wood in the coldest weather; she called her rough names — fool; they talked in German.”
He said his parents also quarreled and his father threatened to kill his mother.
☛ Leonard Fritzsche’s Testimony ☚
The prosecution next called the husband of the victim. However, Leonard Fritzsche did not — as the Burlington Hawk-Eye speculated he would — testify directly against the defendant, the woman many thought had been his lover.
He merely recounted the same details he’d revealed at the coroner’s inquest and at the grand jury sessions.
Of Leonard’s testimony, the Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“He was plainly ill at ease, avoiding the defendant and glancing furtively past her. Mrs. Durth, on the other hand, boldly eyed the witness as he testified, though she tapped nervously on the floor with her toe as he proceeded. His evidence seems to affect her but little. . . .”
Fritzsche described the previous attempts on Louisa’s life — the fired shot, the “poisoned” coffee. He said he never wanted Lizzie in the home and that her housekeeping was poor but that Louisa was afraid to stay alone, that no wages were paid except a small amount for washing, and that he believed Lizzie was the cause of their marital troubles.
He said he bought the .38 caliber revolver — which was later stolen when the family was out — because their coal was being pilfered; he told Louisa and Lizzie to fire it into the air to scare off thieves. His wife said she wouldn’t touch it, but Lizzie said she would shoot it if necessary.
Leonard identified the ring found in the privy as his wife’s wedding ring.
He denied any relationship with Lizzie.
☛ Chief Greiner’s Testimony ☚
Burlington Chief of Police Edwin F. Greiner testified that when he arrested Lizzie Goetz Durth at her home west of Gladstone, Illinois, she came willingly and expressed no particular surprise. He claimed that during the ride to Burlington she told him she was “criminally intimate” with Leonard Fritzsche, that she was pregnant at the time of the murder but that the child belonged to George Durth.
Greiner said she repeated her story about what happened the night of the murder, how the victim was shot, sat up and cried out; how she herself ran out of the house and yelled for help and went back in to find the victim had fallen over. And that she had not moved the lamp.
He described how the Burlington City Engineer test fired a .38 caliber revolver into a paper attached to four layers of “plush fabric” to see how close the gun would have to be held to create the powder burns seen on the victim’s body.
Greiner denied offering Leonard’s coworker $250 to gain his confidence to learn information.
☛ Doctor’s Testimony ☚
Dr. H.A. Leipziger, who helped perform the autopsy, questioned Lizzie’s story that the victim sat up and turned around after being shot, saying that the path of the bullet showed the aorta was severed and that death would have been nearly instantaneous.
☛ Testimony Not Heard ☚
Key testimony that the grand jury had heard was eliminated when Salamine Eberle, Lizzie’s aunt, was too ill to testify. She had been expected to verify a romantic relationship between her niece and Leonard Fritzsche.
☛ Lizzie Speaks For Herself ☚
On December 19, it was time to hear from the defendant. The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of her testimony:
“There was a mild ripple of excitement in the court room when Mr. Dodge announced: ‘Mrs. Durth will take the stand.’ An impressive quiet was apparent while the accused woman was taking the oath, and she responded with a simple ‘yes’ when Judge Withrow administered the oath. She answered questions composedly in a low voice, but which was distinct in every corner of the court room. Her examination deepened the favorable impression she had evidently made on the jury, and though she contradicted almost every witness for the state, the county attorney was unable to shake her testimony.”
Lizzie talked about the murder, saying there was trouble with the neighbors that day. She described being awakened by the shot and said that when she carried the lamp from the kitchen into the bedroom Louisa fell over on the bed and her eyes rolled back in her head. She said she then went out and hollered for help for 10 or 15 minutes but no one came. She went back inside and shook the victim, thinking she had fainted because she did not see the blood at first.
She didn’t hear anyone running away and the dogs didn’t bark.
Lizzie claimed there was no revolver in the house at the time of the murder because it had been stolen weeks before while the family picnicked. She insisted she had never fired or handled a gun in her life and said she didn’t hide one in the privy.
As for the ring found with the gun, she claimed it was not hers but that Louisa had a similar gold ring which she never wore. The ring disappeared about a year before the murder. Louisa thought the children took it; when angry, she accused her husband of stealing it.
In an effort to discredit Chief Greiner’s investigative techniques, Lizzie’s attorney William W. Dodge guided his client through the sequence of events surrounding her arrest. She said Greiner told her about the articles being found in the outhouse behind the former Fritzsche home and said that they had worked up a case against her.
During the buggy ride to jail in Burlington, she testified, Chief Greiner asked her to admit killing Louisa and being put up to it by Leonard Fritzsche, telling her he had arrested Fritzsche, who shifted the blame on to her. She replied, “I said I didn’t see how he could do that, because I was innocent.”
Then, according to Lizzie, Greiner tried another approach, claiming he was her friend and saying that if she wanted to go home to her family she should admit what she did; he offered to pay her $1.25 per day and mileage if she’d say she killed Louisa Fritzsche. Her protests of innocence fell on deaf ears as she claimed she was as innocent as the baby in her arms.
She denied a relationship with Fritzsche and told the court she was on good terms with Louisa, that they were like sisters who treated each other kindly. And if there were words that sounded harsh, they were said in jest not in anger.
She denied going out the kitchen door or to the backyard or placing the lamp on the rear steps and bringing it back into the house.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote: “She made a capital witness for herself and her straightforward statements, her suppressed manner and quiet dignity inspired not only confidence but compassion.”
Dodge queried his client, as reported by the Hawk-Eye:
“‘I’ll ask you whether or not you shot Mrs. Fritzsche that night,’ questioned Mr. Dodge.
‘No, Sir, I did not,’ emphatically replied Mrs. Durth.
‘Do you know who did shoot her,’ Mrs. Durth’s counsel continued.
‘No, Sir. I do not,’ [the] defendant returned just as emphatically.”
☛ In the Jury’s Hands ☚
Closing arguments were made on Thursday, December 21. Des Moines County Attorney Clark spoke for 30 minutes, urging the jury not to be swayed by the fact that the defendant was a woman with a nursing baby.
According to the Burlington Hawk-Eye:
“[Clark] said he did not like the task of prosecuting such a case and realized the hard position of the jurors, but the person murdered was also a woman and had home and children to live for, and she and society were entitled to be considered.”
Judge Withrow spent 15 minutes giving instructions and the jury retired to deliberate at 9:45 a.m.
The first ballot was taken at 4:00 p.m.; the result was 8 to 4 for acquittal; the second ballot was 10 to 2; at 1:30 a.m., the count was 12 to 0. Jurors later said that the judge’s instructions allowed no other course than acquittal.
Although Judge Withrow left word that he should be called if a verdict was reached before 3:00 a.m., the jurors showed consideration for the judge, attorneys, and defendant and didn’t disturb them. A newspaper wrote of their actions: “Accordingly, as one of them said, they turned to spinning yarns and otherwise passed the time away till morning.”
The Burlington Hawk-Eye described the scene as the not guilty verdict, signed by foreman Fred Williams, was read by the clerk:
“The court room scene on the reading of the verdict was an interesting but not a dramatic one. The defendant and her baby were, as usual, the central figures of interest, but Mrs. Durth did not betray any anxiety, and the baby, of course, was as blissfully and innocently unconscious of this momentous period of its young life as had always been.”
Judge Withrow thanked the jury, making it clear he concurred with the verdict. Even when he told the prisoner she was free to go, she seemed not to understand until her attorney explained it to her. Her husband collected the baby and its belongings; the family left the courthouse, retrieved Lizzie’s items from the jail, and went to the home of her mother, where she would spend Christmas before returning to Gladstone.
Before leaving the courthouse, Lizzie expressed through William W. Dodge her gratitude to the newspapers for treating her with fairness and gave thanks for being freed from the terrible charges.
The public, although aware of unresolved inconsistencies in the case, appeared to agree with the verdict.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ Boiler Maker and Sheet Metal Worker, Volume 9, p. 22.
- ☛ “Brevities,” Humeston New Era, January 3, 1900, p. 2.
- ☛ “Brevities,” Iowa State Bystander, December 29, 1899.
- ☛ “Charges Conspiracy,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 16, 1899, p. 7.
- ☛ Des Moines Daily News, December 18, 1899, p. 2.
- ☛ “The Durth Murder Trial,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 21, 1899, p. 19.
- ☛ “Durth Trial To-Morrow [sic],” Burlington Evening Gazette, December 12, 1899, p. 1.
- ☛ “Iowa Items Of News,” Pocahontas County Sun, December 28, 1899, p. 6.
- ☛ “Makes Final Report,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 19, 1899, p. 13.
- ☛ “Mrs. Durth Acquitted,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 23, 1899, p. 6.
- ☛ “Mrs. Durth Denies,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 20, 1899, p. 13.
- ☛ “Mrs. Durth On Trial,” Burlington Evening Gazette, December 13, 1899, p. 1.
- ☛ “Must Suffer Alone,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 11, 1899, p. 6.
- ☛ “Mysterious Shooting,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Daily Tribune, July 27, 1893.
- ☛ “Mystery Of A Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 16, 1899.
- ☛ Pella Weekly Herald, August 4, 1893.
- ☛ “The Proof Of Crime,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, November 23, 1899, p. 15.
- ☛ Waterloo Courier, August 2, 1893.
- ☛ Weekly Sentinel, December 25, 1899, p.1.
- ☛ “Woman Acquitted of Murder Charge,” Emmetsburg Democrat, December 27, 1899, p. 8.
- ☛ “Woman Acquitted of Murder Charge,” Jefferson Bee, December 28, 1899, p. 7.