Archive for 1910s

When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case


As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini.
His older brother, Charles, was profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.”
Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” (in keeping with the terminology then in vogue) or alcoholic.
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.


In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes.
One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
For his act he was convicted and executed.
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.

The Man in the Attic

Oesterreich murder trial

For years Fred Oesterreich was convinced he was hearing strange noises in his house but was always reassured by his wife, Dolly, that it was either his imagination or just some frisky mice.
It was odd, Fred thought, considering that the unexplained bumps in the night had followed him and Dolly not only through four houses in Milwaukee, where Fred operated a large apron sewing company, but to three more in Los Angeles, where the Oesterreichs moved in 1918.
Fred was apparently neither a superstitious nor a very curious man, because while he may have grumbled about the noises and the occasional disappearing item or empty humidor, he did nothing about it.
Dolly, whose given name was Walburga, felt neglected most of the time because Fred was always at his factory. As bad as being spurned felt, Dolly often preferred the loneliness to Fred’s company as he was a drinking man who like to get violent with his women when he was besotted. In 1913, the Oesterreichs were a childless, very wealthy and quite unhappy couple about to celebrate their 15th anniversary when the events that would culminate in Fred’s killing a decade later began.
It started innocently enough in Milwaukee on an average day when Dolly told Fred that her sewing machine was broken. Fred sent over one of the factory mechanics, a young man named Otto Sanhuber, described later in the memoirs of Beverly Hills Chief of Police Clinton Anderson as “a rather small man in horn-rimmed glasses.”
Another reporter was more descriptive, although it is a safe bet that the writer was operating with a bit of poetic license: “Little Otto stood just a smidgen under five feet, had a receding chin, buggy eyes and suffered from a severe case of acne. More often than not, his nose dripped.”
As is typical in stories like this, Dolly was attracted to the naive 17-year-old and soon Dolly was teaching Otto skills beyond sewing machine repair. He became a regular sight around the Oesterreich property, fixing Dolly’s frequently broken machine and performing other chores around the place for Fred.
“He had been popular with Mr. Oesterreich, too, until he took a trip to St. Louis with Dolly,” wrote Anderson. “After that, Oesterreich ordered Otto to stay away from both his door and his Dolly.”
As far as Fred was concerned, when Otto vanished after the confrontation the matter was closed. He and Dolly resumed their gloomy relationship, moving several times throughout their time in Milwaukee.
Near the end of the Great War, Fred looked to the west and opened another apron factory in Los Angeles. In 1918 he and Dolly settled in Southern California, upsizing their living arrangements as the business expansion proved more and more successful.
Fred occasionally complained about the cost of living in Southern California, as his grocery bill jumped significantly after the couple’s move from the Midwest. Dolly simply shrugged her shoulders and dismissed it like she did with his grumbling over the noises that she said were either mice or a settling house.
In August 1922, Beverly Hills police were called to the Oesterreich home by neighbors after a series of gunshots and a woman’s scream cut through the night. There officers found Fred lying on the floor of his living room, dead from three shots of a .25 caliber automatic. The autopsy showed that the gun was fired at very close range.
“The expensively furnished room showed evidence of a fierce struggle,” Anderson wrote. “An open French window, with the screen unlatched, suggested that the murderer had left the house hurridly.”
Locked in a walk-in closet, with the key on the ground in another room, was Dolly. She told investigators that she was hanging clothes in the closet when she heard a fight downstairs. As she turned to investigate, the closet door was slammed shut and locked. She could not provide any description of the killer or killers.
Further investigation revealed that while the house was disturbed, nothing was missing except Fred’s diamond-studded watch. Police were also confused about why a burglar would carry such a small firearm, “a gun more likely to be found in a lady’s purse,” one newspaper account said. Equally curious were the accounts of neighbors that they heard the Oesterreichs involved in a heated argument when the couple returned from an evening out.
Dolly OesterreichRigorous interrogation of the newly widowed woman yielded no leads. She acknowledged that she and Fred fought — frequently and loudly — but denied she had anything to do with his murder. Over the next few weeks police ran down their few leads, concentrating on discovering any secrets in Dolly’s background. There were none. No one who knew the couple or was friendly with either Fred or Dolly could shed any light on the possibility of a love triangle turned deadly. They had a reputation for bickering in public, but were never violent when others were around.
With no weapon, their main person of interest with a pretty solid alibi, and no sign of a lover, police let the case percolate — hoping for something helpful would brew up.
The Fates intervened about a year later when Captain Herman Cline, a Beverly Hills cop, dropped in on Herman Shapiro, the attorney handling Fred’s $1 million estate, to go over the facts of the case one more time. On Shapiro’s desk Cline saw a glittering, diamond-studded wristwatch. Shapiro confirmed that Dolly had given him the watch.
“Shapiro remembered a diamond studded watch had been taken from slain Fred’s wrist,” wrote crime reporter Max Haines. “When he mentioned this to Walburga, she smiled and said she had been mistaken.
“She found the watch under a cushion in the living room and simply wanted Shapiro to have it as a gift.”
Chief Anderson recalled in his memoirs that Dolly “had not considered it important enough to bother the police about.”
Of course the newspapers trumpeted the development, which prompted two informants to come forward independently with even more damning evidence against Dolly.
Each man had disposed of a small-caliber pistol at Dolly’s request, they both said. One of guns was later recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits, while the other was found beneath a rose bush at the man’s home.
Again, Dolly had a ready — if unbelievable — excuse:
“She explained the guns were old things kept around the house for many years,” Anderson said. “She had decided to get rid of them because, under the circumstances of her husband’s death, their presence in her home might prove embarrassing.”
It proved much more than awkward for Dolly. Although the newspaper reports do not say whether either gun was the murder weapon, their mere existence was good enough for the cops. In July 1923, Dolly was arrested for killing her husband.
“The District Attorney’s investigators hacked away tirelessly at her story, but without success,” Anderson wrote. “After they had tested and discarded every possible theory which might link her to the crime, the murder complaint against the widow was dismissed.”
Seven years passed and the case was all but forgotten when the Beverly Hills police received a strange phone call from attorney Shapiro. He and Dolly had apparently had a falling out and the attorney decided to tell police what he knew about Fred’s death. The attorney announced that he had a client who wanted to confess to the killing.
Investigators hurried to Shapiro’s office where they were met by the attorney and his client, Otto Sanhuber. The story he told borders on the incredible, but savvy readers who have been keeping track of the clues probably have an idea just what happened that August night in 1922.
It began back in 1913 when the broken sewing machine helped ignite a passionate affair between the handyman and the boss’s wife. When Fred fired Otto after the trip to St. Louis, Dolly was not prepared to give up her lover. Instead, she secretly installed him in a living space beneath the rafters in the attic of her home.
The arrangement continued for 10 years, through seven moves, including one across the country.
“Sanhuber ticked off four attics in Milwaukee and three in Los Angeles in which he lived before the murder ended his rent-free existence,” Anderson wrote. “When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1918, Otto had wanted to get out and join the army, but Mrs. Oesterreich wouldn’t hear of it.”
Sex and affection were the primary reason for the bizarre arrangement, but the relationship between Dolly and Otto evolved into something akin to a marriage.
“Through the years, every morning after the straight man of the house left for work among the aprons, Sanhuber would descend from his garret hideaway and help Mrs. Oesterreich with her housework,” according to one newspaper account. “At night he would steal back into his attic and read newspapers and magazines by candlelight until bedtime.”
One report — not confirmed in any other paper — said that Otto earned a small income by writing fiction for magazines: “To pass the time when he wasn’t performing at his specialty, Otto wrote adventure stories. Walburga typed them and sent them off to the pulps.” This should be taken with a grain of salt as the reporter also calls Dolly “a gorgeous woman with a figure that could wake a corpse,” and claims Fred was “filled with more holes than your average Swiss cheese.” The official account indicates Fred was struck three times.
Occasionally Dolly would join him in his strange studio apartment.
Otto said that on the night of August 22, 1922 it was business as usual in the Oesterreich house, which meant an argument between the drunken Fred and his wife while Otto hid in the attic.
This night, however, would start violent and escalate into killing. In his confession Otto said he was listening to Dolly and Fred argue when Fred became physically abusive. Enraged to the point of irrationality, Otto burst from the attic and shot Fred to death.
Dolly immediately took command and set the stage to look like a burglary. She then told Otto to vanish.
In the ensuing years Dolly moved out of her mansion to a luxury apartment where she lived comfortably managing her investments. Otto finally moved out, married, and got a job as a janitor. Eventually, the guilt of his crime made him contact Shapiro.
Dolly was again arrested for her husband’s murder and jailed awaiting trial.
Otto went on trial first in 1930, and tried to back away from his strange confession without success. However, the case would hold one final twist.
The jury did not take long to convict Otto, but instead of finding him guilty of murder, he was convicted of manslaughter. At the time the statute of limitations on manslaughter was seven years and Fred’s killing occurred eight years before Otto’s trial.
Otto’s attorney argued that he could not be convicted of manslaughter and thus could not be punished. The district attorney did not object and the judge ordered Otto freed.
Dolly went on trial several months later, defended by one of Hollywood’s elite attorneys, Jerry Geisler, who defended such notables as Errol Flynn (statutory rape), Busby Berkeley (murder), Benny (Bugsy) Siegel and Charlie Chaplin. Dolly took the stand in her own defense and put the blame all on Otto. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. The DA opted not to try the case again.
After the trial Dolly and Otto went their separate ways (Otto’s wife had vowed to stay with him through thick and thin). She lived in luxury to the ripe old age of 75, dying in April 1961. She left her multimillion dollar estate to her business manager whom she married two weeks before her death.
Otto’s fate is unknown.