Archive for 1930s

Cold Feet

Porter and Giancola

If the groom is going to be murdered on his wedding day, we expect the killer to be a jilted lover driven to madness by a broken heart or a rival suitor of the bride who cannot stand to let another take his place. In these cases their crime is motivated by jealousy inflamed by passion. We do not expect that the woman who arranged the murder to be the groom’s sister who wanted him killed for the insurance money.
 
For doing exactly that Marie Porter holds the dubious place in history of being the first woman to die in Illinois’s electric chair. It is an honor she well deserves.
 
For acting as the actual triggerman in the 1937 murder, Angelo Ralph Giancola, 21, preceded Porter to the chair. His story is not new: A weak young man duped into committing murder by a stronger-willed older woman. He is unique in the annals of crime as the only killer whose case of poison ivy proved to be fatal.
 
For his lesser role in the plot, John, Anthony’s younger brother, received a sentence of 99 years.
 
The crime committed by the 38-year-old, 250-pound widow and her young lover was so heinous that even the state’s governor, staunchly anti-death penalty, refused to commute her sentence as he had done for every other woman condemned to be executed.
 
At their sentencing, the judge said the crime shocked the conscience.
 
“If there ever was a more deliberate, premeditated, cold-blooded and atrocious murder. I’ve never heard of it.” Judge Dick A. Mudge said in passing sentence. “I have earnestly, but in vain, examined the record to find some mitigating circumstance in connection with this crime.”
 
The seeds of Porter’s plan to kill her younger brother, William Kappen, were planted back in 1935 when Porter’s husband was gunned down by her father during an argument. The old man was judged insane and taken to an asylum. Porter collected a decent insurance settlement on her husband’s death, but with four children to feed and clothe, she was soon facing the threat of poverty. For reasons known only to herself she chose murder as the answer to her problems.
 
Her criminally insane elderly father was not much help — as a potential victim — so she began looking at other relatives. After careful consideration she settled on William. Her brother had never married and named his poverty-stricken sister as the beneficiary of a $3,000 life insurance policy (A bit more than 50K today).
 
In the early days of 1937 Marie became involved with the bricklayer Giancola, taking the young man as her lover. Almost immediately, she told police, she began planting the idea that Kappen needed to be “put away” (the term is hers).
 
Her main argument, to which Giancola testified at their trial, was not that they would live like royalty on a one-time 3-grand payout, nor was it that she would use the money to support her four daughters, the eldest of whom was 15. Instead, in between lovemaking sessions Porter said Kappen had been relying on her support for years and now it was time to pay back.
 
“I carried my brother through the Depression,” she later told police. “And when he told me he was going to get married, I didn’t want him to, because he still owed me a good sum of money.”
 
Once Giancola surrendered to her coaxing, the pair started researching various ways to kill Kappen. After her arrest for her brother’s murder, Porter discussed the mechanics of the crime with cold dispatch.
 
“We discussed drowning him but this didn’t seem advisable, for Bill was a good swimmer,” she said. “We also thought about pushing him off a bluff at Riverview Park. That was several months ago.”
 
On July 4 police in Belleville, Illinois, on east side of the Mississippi about 15 miles from St. Louis were alerted to the body of a man on a deserted stretch of road. Clues at the scene made it obvious that the man had been kidnapped.
 
“The man had dressed hastily, for he wore no underclothing,” a reporter in the American Weekly wrote. “Two blood-soaked handkerchiefs were found in a poison ivy weed. The gun was not found.”
 
St. Louis had a very active underworld at the time and the crime had all of the earmarks of a gang rubout. Thus the case was treated for about 24 hours by investigators, until a jilted bride came forward with a mysterious tale.
 
Irene Traub was the wife-to-be of Bill Kappen who, the day before, was left at the altar of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in St. Louis. She said she had not spoken to Bill since July 2, the day before the intended wedding. There was nothing in his demeanor that indicated he was getting cold feet.
 
Irene told police that after the initial tears had passed, her sadness turned into anger and she was determined to find Bill and hold him to account. At least that was her plan until she read in the paper that Illinois police had the body of an unidentified man whose description matched Bill’s.
 
Before taking her fears to the police Irene went to Bill’s apartment to see if it held any clues to Bill’s actions. The scene in the flat fit the clues at the crime scene the way a key fits its lock.
 
“Neatly pressed, the bridegroom’s wedding suit was laid out on the bed which had either been freshly made or not slept in the night before,” reported American Weekly.
 
Bill was interrupted in the process of getting ready for a bath. The tub was half-filled with water, but the washcloth and soap looked undisturbed.
 
One clue was difficult to explain, however. Bill was not a smoker, but several cigarette butts were crushed into the carpet in his bedroom. This indicates someone else was in the apartment, of course, but were they lying in wait or did they arrive after Bill?
 
If the killers were waiting to kidnap Bill, why was he allowed to start a bath? If he had been in a long conversation with someone he knew, why had he dressed so quickly? Why would he allow someone to grind out their cigarettes on his rug?
 
Irene was taken to the morgue where she identified Bill’s body.
 
Police quickly established that Kappen was in no way connected with St. Louis organized crime and had no known enemies. There was only one person who would benefit from his death and that was his sister, Marie Porter.
 
She was brought into the station for an interview that quickly turned into an interrogation. The cops had done their homework in a very short time and confronted Porter with their knowledge of her young lover, and said he was being interviewed in a nearby room. If they had hoped this would loosen her tongue they were sadly mistaken.
 
Down the hall Giancola was quite uncomfortable, and not just because of the bad case of poison ivy that was driving him crazy. It was his scratching that really broke the case wide open because it unquestionably put him at the scene of the crime and was something he could not explain away. One does not simply walk around urban St. Louis and catch a case of poison ivy.
 
Confronted with this, Giancola gave his first confession which was mostly bogus.


I met Mrs. Porter on the night of the murder and she gave me $10 to hire an automobile. She told me to drive to Kappen’s home. I waited outside and half an hour later she and Bill came out together. She got in the back seat and Bill got in front with me. We stopped at a roadside tavern for some drinks. Bill was getting worried, for he was going to be married the next morning. We told him we would get him back in time. As we drove out toward Belleville, Mrs. Porter called to Bill. As he turned around I heard a shot and he slumped over toward me…

Parts of the confession are truthful: he explained that he caught the poison ivy after using the handkerchiefs to wipe blood off his hands and clothes, and the murder occurred where he said it did — at least in the geographic sense.
 
The immediate destruction of the relationship between the widow and the bricklayer, forged with such fragile bonds, probably happened like Giancola said.
 
“She told me if I said anything it would be too bad for me,” he confessed.
 
There was no blood in the car and the amount at the scene indicated Bill was standing beside the car when he was shot point-blank. No witnesses could be found who could place Porter with either Bill or Giancola.
 
This looked as if it was going to be one of those cases where guilt could be established everywhere except in a court of law.
 
Murderers must lack two emotional traits to be successful. They must not possess any moral compunction against killing and they must not fear being caught and punished. Those who kill know this by consciousness — without thinking about it at all — while the rest of us shake our heads in bafflement. But one thing that people who play close attention to crime instinctively know, but which killers do not count on, is that murder brings on feelings of guilt and a never-ending feeling of impending doom.
 
In this case, those unexpected emotions proved too much for one young man to bear, and in an attempt to ease his conscience, Giancola’s brother, John, whom police had not even considered as a suspect, appeared at the detective bureau and promptly confessed everything.
 
John not only implicated himself in the crime, he said his brother pulled the trigger while he stood by as a willing participant. The motive was $800 promised by Porter. The timing was the forthcoming nuptials.
 
“Last Friday night she said she couldn’t wait another day because Bill was going to get married,” he confessed. “He would probably sign over his insurance to his wife. Mrs. Porter said she would bury her brother and give us $800 out of the insurance money.”
 
Giancola and Porter quickly folded and confessed.
 
At trial the goal of the Giancola brothers was to make sure Porter shared whatever fate was in store. Both men took the stand, confessed their guilt, pointed a finger at Porter as the ringleader and threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
 
Porter’s “They Acted Alone” defense was a miserable failure and three guilty verdicts were returned. Appeals were quickly dismissed and the punishments were allowed to stand.
 
The executions were placed on hold after the mother of Giancola, desperate to save her son’s life, convinced the lieutenant governor who was acting as temporary governor in the absence of his boss that she had new evidence that would save her child. The new evidence — Porter gave Giancola a sexually transmitted disease — was not enough to tilt the scales of justice in the young man’s favor.
 
On January 27, 1938, the governor of Illinois said he could not find any justification for granting clemency to “stolid Mrs. Marie Porter or to Angelo Ralph Giancola, the handsome youth she hired to kill her brother,” the Associated Press reported.
 
The next day, shortly after midnight, Giancola and Porter died, one after the other, in the electric chair. From start to finish the executions took under an hour. The two condemned prisoners, who had not seen each other since the trial, made similar statements expressing remorse for their crime and praying for God’s mercy.

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.