Seasonal crimes
Winter - Bathsheba Spooner (1778)
Spring - Warren Lincoln (1923)
Summer - Mary Blandy (1751)
Autumn (well, late Summer) - Walburga Oesterreich (1922)

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A crime for Winter: A Chilling Tale - the Spooner murder
Revised 17-August-2002
© 2002 E. J. Wagner

During the intensely stormy winter of 1778, 30 year old Tory sympathizer Bathsheba Spooner of Worcester Massachusetts decided to arrange the murder of her elderly husband, Joshua.  His politics irritated her, even as his wealth intrigued her.  Mrs. Spooner selected two British soldiers retreating from the Revolutionary war to accomplish her project.  With the aid of a Spooner servant and family friend they dispatched Mr. Spooner by plunging him into a well.

As so often happens in crimes of this sort, the hired pair took to drinking in a tavern not far from the scene of the crime and bragged about the conspiracy.  Since they were wearing belongings of the deceased, their tale was readily believed, and they and others involved with the crime were arrested and tried for murder.

The trial was the first in American jurisprudence in which a claim of insanity was made.  Bathsheba, her lawyer claimed, was clearly mad.  The jury rejected the plea, and the four defendants were sentenced to hang.  Bathsheba then “pleaded her belly,” claiming that she was pregnant, and therefore exempt from hanging.  A group of midwives examined her and denied the pregnancy.  Another group of midwives disagreed, saying Bathsheba was “quick with child.”

Since the expert witnesses could reach no agreement, the court decided the matter by compromise.  The hanging was ordered to go forward, but Bathsheba was allowed to ride to the event.  An autopsy was performed, and a five month fetus was discovered in Bathsheba Spooner’s corpse.

Spooner Well

Joe Klimavich - Selectman of Brookfield Massachusetts - kindly wrote to inform me that Bathsheba Spooner was actually a resident of Brookfield, rather than Worchester, although the latter town was the site of her well-attended hanging.

The infamous well which served as the engine of Mr. Spooner’s demise, is identified by a granite marker.  In summer, the stone is so richly covered by poison ivy that it is difficult to approach.

Mr. Klimavich forwarded this photo, for which I thank him.

It is frequently asserted that Bathsheba Spooner was the last woman hanged in Massachusetts, but recently available evidence discloses other claimants to that role.

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A crime for the Spring: A Cautionary Tale - The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring
© 2002 E. J. Wagner

In the spring of 1923, in Aurora Illinois, a retired criminal lawyer named Warren Lincoln found his domestic situation intolerable.  It included a tyrannical, teetotaling wife and her fitness-obsessed, live-in brother, Byron.

Lincoln tried to solve the problem by shooting the two.  He neatly removed the heads.and burned the rest of the remains in the greenhouse furnace (he was an ardent gardener).  The blackened residue was ground and mixed with fertilizer.

He placed the heads in a large window box and covered them with lime, which he had heard quickened decay.  He topped the lime with earth, then with the fresh fertilizer.  He finished the arrangement with a new and interesting group of hybrid sweet peas which he had developed.  He kept the window box on his front porch.

Nine months later, a suspicious Chief of Police inspected the window box and found very well preserved evidence. Warren Lincoln was mistaken about lime, as a number of criminals were before him.  A conviction and life sentence followed.

Contemporary reports say the sweet peas were quite spectacular.

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A crime for Summer - A Modest Murder
© 2002 E. J. Wagner

In August of 1751, attorney Francis Blandy died at his home in Henley on Thames, England, following several weeks of digestive upheaval.  A widower, he had been nursed throughout his ordeal by his 26 year old daughter, Mary.

Servants in the household were quick to inform the police that Mary had been seen seasoning her father’s gruel with “a white powder,” that one of the maids had tasted the gruel and become sick, and that Mary had asked for and received her father’s forgiveness as he lay dying.  (It should be noted that it was an old custom for family to ask forgiveness of the dying - most likely to avoid future haunting.)

Searching for a possible motive, the police discovered a tortured romance.  Mary was enthralled with a Scottish Captain, William Henry Cranstoun, whom she had met when he was a house guest of her father.  Cranstoun was taken with Mary, perhaps influenced by the lavish 10,000 pound dowry which was rumored to accompany her.

At first blush, all had seemed well, but Francis Blandy began to resist his daughter’s engagement.  He could forgive Cranstoun for being twice his daughter’s age.  He could overlook Cranstoun’s being ugly, as he was also the son of a Scottish peer.  But he found totally off-putting the discovery of Cranstoun’s wife and children.  Even a promised divorce failed to sway the angry papa.

Mary claimed the powder she had placed in her father’s food had been sent to her by the Captain as a “special” mixture designed to soften her father’s heart.  Unimpressed, the police charged her with murder.

In one of the first trials in which medical evidence was given in a poisoning case, Dr. Anthony Addington appeared for the prosecution.  He did not analyze the organs of the deceased, but based his testimony on primitive tests on a substance given to him by the police.  There was no attempt at maintaining or recording chain of custody.

Addington decided the powder was white arsenic because “This powder has a milky whiteness, and so has white arsenic; this is gritty, and so is white arsenic.”  Upon this evidence, Mary Blandy was convicted and sentenced to hang.

At her execution, still insisting on her innocence, she asked the hangman “not to hang me high - for the sake of modesty.”  He thoughtfully complied.  Cranstoun, who had prudently left for France, entered a monastery and died shortly afterwards.  The will of Francis Blandy disclosed that his estate did not contain 10,000 pounds for a dowry.

It was not until 1832 that the Scottish chemist James Marsh developed an accurate test for arsenic.

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A crime for Autumn (well, late Summer) - You’ll Never Guess What’s In The Attic
© 2003 E. J. Wagner

In 1903, Fred Oesterreich, an apron manufacturer and resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, thought he heard strange noises coming from the attic above his bedroom.  He mentioned this to his wife, Walburga, who replied she heard only the scurrying of mice.

Fred persisted in his complaints, and finally Walburga faced him with the fact that his intake of alcohol had become prodigious, and suggested his brain had been affected.  Walburga insisted that Fred have a medical checkup.  After the examination, the doctor concurred that the problem was an auditory delusion due to excessive drinking.

Fred didn’t cut back on the drink, but he did stop mentioning the noises.  Even though he still heard them.

Over the next nine years the Oesterreichs moved their home four times, finally settling in Los Angeles.  In each of the houses they occupied, Fred evidently thought he heard noises in the attic.  Walburga often noticed him staring at the ceiling with an alarmed expression, but he said little.  The drinking continued.

On a hot August night in 1922, neighbors were startled to hear screams and shouts coming from the Oesterreich house.  Gunshots followed.  Thoughtfully, the neighbors called the police.

Entering the house, the police discovered a male corpse on the living room floor.  It had been shot through the head and chest.  Screams came from a bedroom closet which was locked, the key on the floor.  Walburga, released from the closet, at once identified the body.  “It’s Fred!” she exclaimed.  “He’s dead!”.  This was certainly true, and an investigation followed.

Walburga explained that she and Fred had returned from an evening out and had surprised a burglar, who had shot Fred in a struggle, and had locked her in the closet.  An expensive man’s watch, studded with diamonds, was missing.

Weeping, she described an idyllic relationship with her late husband.  Fred’s estate was worth over a million dollars, a fact which made Cline, the detective on the case, suspicious, but he could find no evidence that this was anything but a burglary gone bad.

At first, Walburga’s behavior was that of a mourning woman.  She sold her house, and moved into a smaller one.  She hired attorney Herman Shapiro to deal with business matters.  She dressed in melancholy black.

But as time passed, suspicious incidents seemed to slither about the widow.  She gave Shapiro a watch which looked amazingly like the one she claimed was stolen.  She asked a friend to dispose of a 25 caliber revolver in the La Brea tar pits, the same caliber as the gun which had shot Fred.

Walburga was arrested.  She sent for Shapiro, and told him to tap three times on the attic door of her house.  The attic proved to hold a gentleman named Otto Sanhuber who confessed he had been Walburga’s lover for many years.

The relationship began in 1903 when Otto was only seventeen, and had arrived at Walburga’s residence to repair a sewing machine.  He had lived in the attics of all Walburga’s houses since then.  Whenever Walburga moved her home, she took Otto along, much as one might take a favored household appliance.  He passed the time between erotic encounters by writing adventure stories and attending to household chores.

He confessed to Shapiro that he had shot Fred after he overheard Fred quarrel violently with Walburga, and threaten her.  Sanhuber, taking legal advice, left for Canada.  Walburga was let go for want of evidence.

Seven years later, Shapiro, having quarreled with his client, and knowing that Sanhuber was back in Los Angeles, told the whole story to Cline.  The extraordinary pair of lovers was arrested.

Otto, tried first, was found guilty - but only of manslaughter.  Since the statute of limitations for that crime had expired, he was released.  Walburga explained on the stand that the killing was Otto’s fault, and that she had lied to investigators only because of a delicate reticence about her private life.

The jury could not reach a verdict regarding Walburga.  The District Attorney gave up.

Looking back, it seems clear that

1. In a homicide, a hunch is not as useful as a thorough search of the crime scene.  If the Oesterreich home had been examined carefully, the gun, the watch, and Otto Sanhuber would have been discovered.

2. Drinking as much as Fred did can be risky.

3. If a physician diagnoses auditory delusions, get a second opinion.

4. Otto was able to hide successfully because he was five feet tall and weighed one hundred pounds.  One must therefore conclude that in romance, sometimes size does matter.

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This page was last revised on 23-March-2007.

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