Archive for 1930s

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.

Always Read the Fine Print

Louis Gosden, murderer

WALTER NEFF
Not if there’s an insurance company in the picture, baby. So long as you’re honest they’ll pay you with a smile, but you just try to pull something like that and you’ll find out.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there’s a death mixed up in it, you haven’t got a prayer. They’ll hang you as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar, baby.
~”Double Indemnity,” Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

When Louis Gosden was on trial for the strychnine poisoning of his third wife for the insurance money, he probably realized his days were numbered when his only supporters turned their backs on him.
 
During his 1935 trial in Oakland, Gosden was warmly greeted by his elderly parents every time he appeared in court until the last day of testimony. It was then that they learned that Louis probably had them on the short list for murder until a better target came along.
 
One of the key prosecution arguments at the trial was that Gosden forged his late wife’s signature on an accidental death insurance policy. Gosden denied this assertion, so Deputy District Attorney Warren Olney sought to hammer home the point by proving Gosden previously forged his parents’ signatures on similar policies.
 
Courtroom observers could clearly see a change come over the older Gosdens when Olney showed them each insurance policies on their lives and asked if the signatures were valid. Both answered that the signatures were forgeries.
 
“Gosden has been accustomed to greet his parents at the end of day’s court session, but last night the greeting was refused by his parents, Mrs. Lucy Gosden and Nick Gosden, who had also testified on behalf of his son,” the Oakland Tribune reported. “Both parents brushed by their son without sign of recognition, even when he raised his manacled hands in his customary salute.”
 
An unemployed plumber, Gosden killed his wife of five years, Laura, on November 20, 1934 at their home in Oakland, California. As one might expect, the motive was money, but there was a sideshow featuring a pregnant “girl-bride” and a “criminal operation” (i.e., an abortion).
 
There was also a great irony: Gosden killed two women for the insurance payout and never received a nickel, even though the deaths were not ruled suspicious at the time. It turned out that Gosden did not read the fine print and confused accidental death policies with ordinary life insurance.
 
This was not the first time Gosden, 31, lost a wife due to sudden illness. In 1928, his second wife, Vivian, died under mysterious circumstances in Sunnyvale six months after their marriage. Gosden’s first marriage was annulled in 1925 after four years.
 
Details of how Vivian, who was 17 when she married Gosden (His first wife was also 17 at the time of their marriage), died are vague, but the similarities between her death and that of Laura are remarkable. By all accounts both women were healthy up to the time they were stricken, which indicates Gosden had not been giving them poison over a long time period. Both were dead within hours of being poisoned. No medical aid was called until 20 minutes before each died and both times Gosden told the first responders that he did not call earlier because his wife did not want him to leave her side. Gosden also told doctors that both wives had gone into convulsions after eating.
 
Gosden ParentsVivian’s death certificate issued by her attending physician listed double pneumonia as the cause of death. This same physician testified at Gosden’s trial and after learning more of the facts and circumstances surrounding her death, admitted he was in error in issuing the certificate, and that he was of the opinion that Vivian Gosden’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. It is not fair to be too critical of the attending doctor for assuming Vivian died of pneumonia. The poison prevents the proper operation of the chemical that controls nerve signals to the muscles. When this signal does not get through, muscles throughout the body have severe, painful spasms.
 
Strychnine poisoning’s effects also include nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing in common with pneumonia. Considering that people who are exposed to large amounts of strychnine have trouble breathing within 15 to 30 minutes of ingestion of the poison as their muscles weaken and combined with the other symptoms, a physician who is not expecting foul play could easily call it pneumonia. Vivian’s doctor said he had not been told of her muscle spasms, which would have caused him to investigate further.
 
Approximately a week before Vivian died, Gosden took out accidental death policies on himself and his wife. It is clear that Vivian knew of the policies because her signature was on the various forms and the insurance agent testified that Vivian did not want to take the physical exam because she was pregnant. That decision came back to haunt Gosden; when he went to collect on her life insurance Gosden learned that the policy had never been in force because there was no medical examination.
 
Having wasted money on an invalid insurance policy and now without a potential victim, Gosden began looking at his parents as potential targets and forged their signatures on accidental death policies. It was probably simplicity, rather than familial love, that prompted Gosden to find a more suitable victim in the form of a new wife.
 
Things were going well for the family until Gosden lost his job as a plumber in August 1934. When he lost his position, his bank account had been reduced to slightly over $50. However, Gosden took out two policies of insurance on September 5, and one on September 8, 1934, paying premiums of $19.75. These policies were all on Laura’s life with Gosden as the beneficiary. Two of these policies were payable in case of accidental death, and the other was payable in the event of death due to natural causes.
 
There is some uncertainty as to whether Laura knew, or at least realized, about any of these policies, or that she signed all three, or any, of the applications.
 
“This question is not of any material importance, as we view this case,” wrote the California Supreme Court in upholding the conviction and sentence. “The fact remains that Gosden either with or without the knowledge of his wife procured policies of insurance upon her life payable to himself as beneficiary, and these were secured only a short time before the death of his wife.”
 
Three weeks later, Gosden purchased strychnine from a local drug store under the assumed name of L. N. Larsen and listed a fake address. The druggist’s register showed that the purpose of his purchase of the poison was to “kill a kitty”.
 
At the time of his arrest Gosden first denied the purchase of the strychnine, but later admitted that he bought some to kill rats at his father’s home in Sunnyvale. He testified at the trial that he used the strychnine to exterminate the rats, but that he did not tell either his father or mother what he was doing.
 
“I did not tell my father because I thought he might object to having poison put out,” Gosden testified at his trial. “I told my wife what I was going to do and she told me not to give my right name when I bought the poison. I asked her why I should not and she said ‘it’s better not to.'”
 
He told his defense attorney, a very young Melvin Belli, that he did not tell the police he bought the poison because, “I figured if I did they might try to frame me.”
 
A short time after his arrest a small bottle, corresponding in size and shape with the bottle in which the druggist sold the strychnine to Gosden, and in which there had been strychnine, was found under Gosden’s house. Gosden testified that his wife knew of his purchase of the poison and had access to it.
 
According to his testimony, on the day of Laura’s death she was in usual health but became ill about 7 p.m. At about 10:30 p.m. she said she was getting worse. Gosden said he suggested that he get a doctor but she would not let him. A little later in the evening Gosden went for a doctor but returned without one, stating that the stores were all closed at that hour of the night. The Gosdens had no telephone in their home and evidently Gosden wished to have it appear that he endeavored to find a telephone at some of the near-by stores to be used in telephoning for a doctor.
 
A witness who lived next door to the Gosdens, testified that she went into her bathroom at about about 11 p.m. From her window she saw Gosden and his wife in the kitchen. She could hear indistinctly their conversation.
 
“After Gosden returned from his unsuccessful search for a doctor, which was about 11 o’clock, Mrs. Gonsalves heard Mrs. Gosden tell her husband to go across the street to the Cereghinos and phone for a doctor,” the appellate decision reads. “Again she told him to hurry and get a doctor. Gosden left the house, but instead of going for a doctor stood outside under the kitchen window listening to the groans and cries of his wife. He walked back and forth in the shadow of the house, but in plain view of Mrs. Gonsalves, for about an hour.”
 
About two hours later, Laura herself called her neighbor, who rushed to the Gosden home.
 
Immediately on hearing this Gosden went into his house and said to his wife: “What did you want to bother that woman for?” Laura replied that she had to have somebody. The doctor arrived at the Gosdens’ house in about ten minutes. He remained with her until the time of her death, which occurred about one-half hour after his arrival.
 
On the day of his wife’s death Gosden called an undertaker and ordered a $500 funeral, offering as evidence of his ability to pay the cost of the funeral first one and then the other of the two accident policies.
 
Lydia SanbornOne can imagine Gosden’s shock when the undertaker rejected the policies because they were payable only in case of accidental death, while Laura’s death certificate listed pneumonia. However, a helpful employee of the funeral parlor “helpfully” suggested that they could say she died after eating tainted tuna fish. Unfortunately, that meant an autopsy, so Gosden had now killed two women for the insurance money, gotten away with the murders, and still not collected a dime.
 
It was the last of Gosden’s teenage lovers who brought about his downfall.
 
Lydia Sanborn, a 17-year-old bride of just two months, had come back to Oakland from Calaveras County to get her marriage annulled, when she met Gosden. Again, details are lacking about how the two connected.
 
When I met Mr. Gosden, I was working in the neighborhood where he lived with his wife,” Lydia told The Oakland Tribune. “When his wife died, I went over to see if there wasn’t something I could do. Later he offered me the job as his housekeeper and I accepted. Before long we were living together as man and wife.”
 
At some point in the relationship, Lydia became pregnant and Gosden helped her procure an abortion. When the operation required medical attention, Lydia was arrested for delinquency and spilled the beans telling everything she knew, which was not very much except that Laura had died a painful death.
 
Gosden was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was while he was in jail that authorities exhumed the body of Laura Gosden and discovered the unmistakeable signs of strychnine poisoning.
 
From there it was basic gumshoe detective work. Once Vivian’s body was exhumed and strychnine found, it was pretty much over for Gosden.
 
His feeble attempt to blame Laura’s death on her suicidal tendencies was easily shot down and the jury quickly convicted him.
 
He died on the gallows in San Quentin on June 19, 1936.