Thecla Merle Gerken
23-year-old School Teacher
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Romantic Obsession
Murder Scene and Date
Jones and 9th streets
Sioux City, Iowa
June 27, 1917
By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2012
During school years Cuthbert, South Dakota, teacher Thecla Gerken saved up her money for regular summer vacations with Iowa relatives in Dyersville and New Vienna.
In the summer of 1917, however, the Woonsocket native set out for Sioux City instead. Thecla’s childhood friend Hazel May Stockland lived there with her husband of one year, Dr. Henry H. Hagedorn; and Thecla made arrangements to stay at their home.
Later, it was said Thecla made the trip against the wishes of her parents and stopped in Sioux City on her way to a new position in Dubuque.
☛ In The Big City ☚In Sioux City, Thecla — known as “Tec” to her family and friends — connected with another former Woonsocket chum, Mable Houlihan, and the two enjoyed the local social scene together.
On Tuesday, June 26, the girls attended a dance where they met two young men. The four got along and had fun, so the fellows promised to come by Mable’s house the next evening to escort them to another dance.
During the afternoon of Wednesday, June 26, a young man knocked at the Hagedorns’ house. Tec stepped onto the porch for a few words and came back in and shut the door, leaving him standing.
This may have been one of the young men breaking their date for that night or being told by Thecla that she and Mable weren’t going with them to the dance.
However it happened, the girls spent the evening together without male company.
☛ End of a Pleasant Evening ☚
It was a beautiful summer evening, so about 10:00 p.m. before calling it a night Mable and Tec walked downtown to get ice cream at 5th and Pierce. After their treat, they strolled north on Jones Street arm in arm.
It was more direct for them to turn off 5th Street onto Jackson and travel north, but Tec said she didn’t want to walk lesser-traveled, darker streets.
Instead, their path through the upscale residential neighborhood was well-illuminated by arc lights and a bright moon in a clear sky.
Three blocks along, a shabbily dressed young man walked towards them from 8th Street. He turned north onto Jones and followed behind.
Although he didn’t look at them and no words passed, the man left an impression on Mable, who noticed he wore a brown slouch hat, khaki trousers, and rubber sole shoes. He looked like a hobo or tramp.
Tec and Mable stopped on the southeast corner of 9th Street and deliberately let the man pass. As he went out of sight, they chatted awhile longer and then bid each other good night.
Mable went east on 9th towards her home at 922. Thecla continued north on Jones Street towards 10th where she could go a block or so east to the Hagedorns’ residence at 1017 — a walk of less than five minutes.
Alone for the first time that night, Tec crossed the intersection at a diagonal and walked in the street where it was lighter.
About that moment, 33-year-old stenographer Helen Eyland at 805 Ninth Street heard a man and woman talking near the gate of her home — 30 yards north of the intersection where Tec and Mable parted.
The conversation lasted two to three minutes and seemed low key until Helen heard a “reproving” question from the woman:
“George, why did you do that?”
Another neighbor, whose name the Sioux City Police did not release, also heard the conversation and said the woman loudly told the man:
“Don’t do that!”
☛ Gunshot Splits the Night ☚
While the man and woman talked, Mable was nearly home — she was just passing a north-south alley on 9th between Jones and Jennings. Then she heard Tec scream:
“Mable, come back. Come back quick, Mable.”
The shrieks that followed literally disabled Mable. She later said: “The last cry pierced the night. I was frozen to the spot for an instant. I was dumbfounded . . . .”
Then, a gunshot echoed through the still night.
A moment afterwards, Mrs. A.C. Hoskins of 914 9th Street heard someone running down the alley past her house. With each stride, thick material rubbed together; his footsteps were quiet and thudding, as though he wore soft-soled shoes.
Helen Eyland’s father Charles was having a restless night, so he was awake when the gun went off. Eyland rushed to the window and saw a young woman — bent forward or “crouched over” — stagger about 30 yards and collapse in the intersection. No one else was near her.
When Elmer E. Compton of 918 Jones Street and his guest H.H. Hubbard heard the gunshot, they ran outside and were first at the scene. The two men picked Tec up and carried her to the grass by the curb.
Quickly, they were joined by Anna Sanem of 918 Jones Street and Mable Barrymore of 709 9th Street.
By then, Mable Houlihan had gained control of her senses and rushed back to the intersection where she last saw Thecla. What had been a quiet spot only minutes before was filled with neighborhood residents.
She asked for her friend. A path was cleared and Mable saw Tec lying on her back, blood pouring from her mouth and a bullet wound in her chest.
An ambulance carried Tec to St. Vincent’s Hospital, but she was already dead. Her body was then taken to Wescott Undertaking, where the following morning Woodbury County Coroner Elmer A. Blood performed an autopsy with the assistance of Dr. B.C. Steward.
The post mortem showed Thecla was killed by a .38 caliber bullet which entered her right breast and traveled downward to her left, penetrating the pulmonary artery just above the heart.
☛ Early Investigation ☚
Chief of Police Harvey H. Hawman mobilized all his detectives to investigate the crime, which horrified a city usually unfazed by the violent and illegal behavior of a large criminal class.
But a young woman shot down in the streets of a good neighborhood was something else entirely.
Mable Houlihan, an unlikely suspect in any circumstance, was immediately cleared because those who helped Tec were at the site when Mable returned. And the angle of the bullet — downward from the breast — ruled her out because it was fired by someone taller.
In the light of morning on Thursday, June 28, detectives stood at the intersection of Ninth and Jones, inspecting the crime scene and getting a sense of the area.
Detectives carefully recorded every detail while Mabel Houlihan led them on the route to and from downtown that she and Tec took before the murder.
The Sioux City Journal reported Mable’s horror from the night before:
“The change from a live, jolly girl, seemingly without a single care to that of a cold, lifeless form was almost too great for me to bear. I don’t know how I bore up under the terrible strain. It must have been that I could not fully bring myself to realize that Thecla was dead.”
☛ Thecla Goes Home ☚
Tec’s uncle traveled to Sioux City to bring his niece’s body home to Woonsocket by train. He was accompanied by Hazel Stockland Hagedorn, the lifelong friend Tec stayed with in Sioux City, and her husband Henry.
When Tec’s body arrived at the Woonsocket train station about 3:00 a.m. on Friday, almost everyone in town was there — not out of curiosity but out of respect for a girl they all knew. They were subdued and quiet, many in tears.
On Saturday, during Tec’s funeral at the Woonsocket Catholic Church, Father Louis Joseph Schreiber told the congregation:
“Thecla Gerken died a martyr to her honor.”
Courtesy photo Ancestry.com Tec’s mother Elizabeth was inconsolable.
When Father Schreiber finished, Thecla’s Uncle Philip Albert Kogel, a wealthy farmer, dropped to his knees by her coffin and swore he would devote all his strength and worldly possessions to find justice for her.
A Sioux City Journal reporter assigned to cover Thecla’s funeral wrote:
“The night after the funeral the moon played over the waters of the little artificial lake at Woonsocket. The usual hum of the Saturday throng of the streets was missing. The town was in mourning and a pall hung over the places of business and amusement. Down a lane from the main section of town candles burned in the Gerken home; a big, white house, shrouded in silence. A mother who had taken no nourishment since the night the telegraph wires had clicked off the news that a girl had been foully murdered in Sioux City, lay prostrate, murmuring over and over: ‘My poor Tec; my poor girl! Who could have been so cruel?’”
☛ No Confidence in Sioux City Police ☚
The public knew the Thecla Gerken murder was beyond the capabilities of the Sioux City Police, who lacked experience and — according to some — were corrupt.
The Sioux City Journal predicted the police could not solve the murder and would allow it to go cold and be forgotten.
Police Chief Harvey Hawman defended his department, claiming the Gerkens discussed the murder with the media but not him or other officers and that the uncle who claimed Thecla’s body did not offer to assist in any way, almost as though he was avoiding them, which he likely was.
The chill between the Gerken family and the Sioux City Police began when officers questioned Tec’s character.
According to the Sioux City Journal, Chief Hawman said:
“If the people of Woonsocket could read letters which (I have) they might change their attitude concerning the discreetness of Miss Gerken.”
The community where Thecla grew up resented and distrusted the Sioux City Police so much they hired a private investigator to work the case.
☛ State Investigators Step In ☚
Because local police seemed ill-suited to solve the murder, Woodbury County Attorney Ole T. Naglestad and his assistant Don G. Mullan asked the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) to become involved.
BCI Director James Risden quickly arrived in Sioux City to head up the murder investigation. With him was Chief State Agent Oscar O. Rock, who earned acclaim for tracking down and convicting a dangerous gang run by Charles Ford.
To assist James Risden, Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner appointed Assistant Attorney General James W. Kindig — a former Woodbury County Attorney and future member of the Iowa Supreme Court.
In order to tamp down potential problems, Agent Rock pledged full cooperation with the Sioux City Police and acknowledged they were strapped for funds, whereas the BCI had money set aside to investigate high profile crimes which allowed tracking suspects out of state.
However, differences persisted between the two agencies. For example, Agent Rock and Director Risden disagreed with the police theory that Thecla was shot on the sidewalk and ran into the street.
The BCI men believed the bullet was fired from behind a tree in the parking (the grassy area between the curb and the sidewalk) on the east side of Jones Street, about 25 feet from where she fell in the intersection.
☛ Woonsocket Investigation ☚
There seemed no motive for the crime. Thecla Gerken had never been in Sioux City before and knew few people there, so it was unlikely she had made enemies.
Because of this, attention quickly turned to Woonsocket, where Tec grew up. The entire city of Woonsocket, distressed and baffled by the murder, was ready to cooperate with law enforcement however they could.
The Sioux City Journal wrote of the town’s determination:
“In vain, the bony finger of Fate in sinister mockery draws a veil of silence and forgetfulness over the awful Sioux City tragedy, which a few days ago left a South Dakota home in eternal shadow.”
On July 31, James E. Risden and James Kindig met for two hours with Sanborn County Sheriff H. M. Hopkins, acting Woonsocket Mayor Dr. H. E. Frankhauer, and South Dakota State Attorney L. A. Lawson.
Risden and the others closely examined Thecla’s life and friends. Every young male acquaintance was scrutinized, both those who had merely been callers in the Gerken home and those she had gone out with. Thecla’s girlfriends voluntarily came forward to describe every social event, conversation, and activity that might offer a clue.
BCI Director James Risden told Tec’s friends:
“All I can say is that I am still firmly convinced that the person who killed Miss Gerken was the one who passed the girls on the street a few minutes before the shooting. And it was not accidental.”
Director Risden, L.A. Lawson, and Sheriff Hopkins met privately with Thecla’s father John E. Gerken and her uncles Joseph and Phillip Kogel.
John Gerken pledged to do everything necessary to help find and prosecute Thecla’s killer. Gerken also hoped to stop gossip — the kind that runs rampant in small towns like Woonsocket — which the Sioux City Police stirred up.
In fact, family and friends said they welcomed even the most intense scrutiny into Thecla’s life because she had good character.
☛ “A Man In the Case” ☚
From the beginning of the investigation, all law enforcement agencies believed that Thecla’s murder derived, as one detective told the media, from a “man in the case.”
That assumption underlay every early theory proposed and investigated.
☛ Who was “George?” ☚
One neighborhood resident told investigators that just prior to the fatal shot she heard a conversation between a couple that ended with the woman calling the man “George.”
Many theories emerged about the shooter. Yet, in all the lines of investigation carried out by Woonsocket and Sioux City law enforcement, it was never said that any of the suspects focused on was named “George.”
☛ Boys From the Dance ☚
When word got out that Tec’s and Mable’s plans to go out with two young men had gone awry, there was speculation the men were angry enough to be violent. Or that a quarrel happened the night before at the dance.
That theory was fueled, too, by Tec’s speaking with and then stranding on the porch a young man who called at the house where she was staying on the afternoon of the murder.
Sioux City Police, however, said both young men were seen at a dance the night Tec was killed and their time was accounted for.
☛ Attempted Assault and Defended Honor? ☚
A young woman alone late at night on a lonely street can be a target for sexual assault. It was possible the person who passed the women lurked in the shadows and confronted Tec when she was alone.
Perhaps the overheard conversation was between her and a man intent on raping her; when she resisted and said “Don’t do that,” he shot her.
Congregants believed Father Louis Joseph Schreiber’s funeral sermon words: “Thecla Gerken died a martyr to her honor.”
When word circulated around Woonsocket that Thecla made her confession to Father Schreiber before she left for Sioux City, it was assumed she told the priest about her trip to the big city and assured him she would maintain her virtue.
The Sioux City Journal had called her killer:
“A foul assassin whose victim, a true disciple of Pollyanna, paid for her honor with her life.”
Agent Oscar Rock, too, believed that Tec might have been fighting off a sexual assault.
☛ Silencing Thecla ☚
James Kindig singled out a young man known to the Gerken family who was said by newspapers to be the “wayward son of a good family.”
Kindig believed he tried to rob Thecla that night — at first not realizing it was her — and when she recognized him, he shot her so she could not identify him.
He claimed there was a “positive case” against the man, who was kept under surveillance.
This theory relies heavily on coincidence and it seems unlikely a man intent on random robbery in a large city would accidentally pick out a person who knew him from their shared small town.
☛ Irrational Obsession? ☚
Towards the end of July, a new theory focused on a former male friend of Tec’s who was afflicted with what was described as “a strange variety of insanity” that ran in his family.
The supposition was the man had delusions — called “hallucinations” by the media — that his friendship with Thecla was a romance.
BCI investigators were tight-lipped about the man, except to say he was once a “caller” at the Gerken’s Woonsocket home.
Rock and Resdin tried to account for the man’s whereabouts on the night of the murder but discovered he had disappeared from his home and perhaps left the country.
Sending out a description, authorities set up a nationwide “manhunt” to apprehend him.
☛ Unwanted Or Spurned Suitor? ☚
Because she left home against her parents’ wishes, Tec might have been fleeing a “persistent suitor” her family and friends didn’t know about.
That man may have followed her to Sioux City and been the person Thecla talked to on the Hagedorns’ front porch before shutting the door and leaving him standing alone.
Pursuing this angle, James Risden traveled to Dyersville, Iowa, where Thecla often spent summer vacations. A man she met during one of those trips provided a tip that sent investigators back to South Dakota.
The suspect they sought was a South Dakota National Guard member at Sioux Falls who was seen in his khaki uniform shortly before Thecla left Woonsocket.
Mable said the young man who passed the girls right before the murder wore khaki pants.
Because that suspect visited Thecla’s school house at Cuthbert several times during the preceding winter, Risden and Kindig returned to Woonsocket for interviews at nearby Cuthbert.
Family and friends quickly denied any serious romance between the man and Tec.
☛ Look For the Woman? ☚When every possible male lead petered out, there were few alternatives left.
Because the public scrutinized each detail investigators made public, it was noticed that a complete description of the suspect who passed Mable and Tec on Jones Street was not released and that references were consistently made to a “person,” without revealing the gender.
A theory took hold that the “shabbily dressed man” was actually a woman disguised in male clothing posing as a teenage boy or a young tramp.
This seemed to fit a tip investigators received that the murder was the result of a love triangle in which the other woman mistakenly believed Thecla was her rival and had won the heart of the man, a former South Dakota resident.
☛ Accidental Shooting? ☚
Sioux City Public Safety Department head George E. Ward publicly announced his belief that Thecla was the victim of an accidental shooting — he used the term “mistake” — when she encountered someone on the street.
Ward, later a State Representative, was confident the person responsible would someday be driven by a guilty conscience to confess.
☛ An “Upstairs Window” ☚
The downward angle of the bullet which struck Tec and the absence of powder burns on her clothing made some investigators conclude the fatal shot was fired from a nearby upstairs window.
Mable Barrymore of 709 9th Street, one of the first neighbors to help Tec, said she was certain she sensed a “flash” and judged from the sound of the gunshot that it was fired from above street level.
The shooting, then, could have been a random violent act or the behavior of a deranged person. Or it could have been a completely accidental discharge of a gun with tragic consequences.
However, this theory doesn’t fit with Mable’s account of hearing Tec’s “piercing” screams before the gun was fired.
☛ Tec’s Deep Sorrow ☚
Tec’s sister Lucille told the Sioux City Journal that Tec faithfully kept a diary for 10 years in which she recorded all her activities and her every thought.
The diary abruptly ended on April 16, 1916 — the day her best friend Hazel Stockland married Dr. Henry H. Hagedorn and moved to Sioux City.
Tec’s last diary entry read,
“As usual I cried myself to sleep last night.”
Lucille attributed this grief to Thecla’s losing her best friend and companion to marriage.
At the time of her murder, Thecla was staying at the home of Hazel and Henry Hagedorn.
Perhaps, Thecla had strong feelings of love — or loss — for her married friend Hazel Stockland Hagedorn and made them known during her visit with her friend, which might have been an unwelcome turn of events for the Hagedorns.
Or were her strong feelings directed at Henry Hagedorn and her nighttime tears caused by seeing him marry her best friend?
☛ Murder For Hire? ☚
In early July, a new lead was pursued based on information from a woman who lived on the corner of 9th and Jones streets.
On the afternoon after the murder, she saw a “well-dressed man” and a “shabbily-dressed” man surveying the crime scene and talking. They particularly studied the spot where Thecla had lain in the intersection.
Before they parted, the well-dressed man handed the other a “roll of bills,” and the two parted company.
Law enforcement believed this scenario suggested a pay-off for the murder. But who would want Thecla dead? Who could gain from having her out of the way?
Police said they knew who the men were and had their photos; but like all other leads in the case, that one went nowhere.
☛ Case Goes Cold ☚
In spite of the investigative manpower devoted by the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the town of Woonsocket, the South Dakota Attorney General’s office and, even, the Sioux City Police, the case could not be cracked.
By August 22 — only two months after the murder — BCI agents admitted they couldn’t solve the homicide unless someone “came forward,” presumably with a confession.
From the beginning, some Iowans lacked confidence in the BCI and believed it existed only to enforce Iowa’s 1916 Prohibition law.
On July 17, the Anita News-Telegraph wrote:
“It is announced, with some gusto, that the ‘special agents’ of the office of Attorney General Havner are to try their hands at solving the mystery of the murder of Thecla Gerken at Sioux City. We congratulate the attorney general’s office [sic]. We did not know before that the ‘special agents’ ever caught any law violators except Bootleggers and those who trifle with the Red Light law. Our guess is the ‘special agents’ will have quite a time solving a murder mystery. Now, if it were some citizen drinking a bottle of beer they could spot the criminal first off. The bottle of beer kind of law violators is about their size.”
Whatever went wrong with the investigation and whoever was to blame for its failure, there was still no resolution for Tec’s family and friends nor justice for Tec through the judicial system.
Her story has been kept alive and documented by family historians and genealogists.
☛ Thecla Gerken’s Life ☚
Thecla Merle Gerken was born in January of 1894 in South Dakota, to Elizabeth Kogel and German-born Johannes Everhard “John” Gerken.
She had two brothers — Carl Dewey Gerken and Raymond Francis Gerken — and two sisters: Geraldine Elizabeth Gerken Flanagan and Lucille Ethel Gerken Davy.
Thecla was a 1913 graduate of St. Joseph’s School in Woonsocket. One of the highlights of her school career was acting in the play “The Rose of Plymouth.”
After graduating, she became a school teacher at Cuthbert, South Dakota.
Her funeral was held in the Woonsocket Catholic Church, and Thecla was buried in the adjoining cemetery. Afterwards, her sister Lucille Gerken spoke of great personal sorrow, telling a Sioux City Journal reporter:
“I cannot go home. It’s not the same anymore. I know I can’t go home. Everything I see reminds me of Tec. She is everywhere.”