Replacement Killer

To the amateur criminal, some crimes appear so perfect in conception that they are tried over and over again. Presumably, the criminals erroneously consider themselves so ingenious that no one else could ever have thought up such a plan.
One of the most overused schemes is the “replacement body plot” where the unidentifiable remains of an innocent victim are used in place of the killer, usually as part of an insurance scam or as a means to disappear. DNA analysis and modern investigative techniques have made this a losing proposition from the get-go, but in the days before such tests it was a popular murder plot.
It wouldn’t do to call the scam tried-and-true because that implies it is ordinarily successful. This is doubtful. Of course, sometimes the plot works — just how often we’ll never know — most of the time, however, it fails miserably.
In 1925, Oakland con man Charles Schwartz, 45, thought he could get away with the doppelganger scam, but his apparently well-planned disappearing act quickly fell apart when he was tripped up by a couple of poorly timed events: an unexpected visit from a night watchman at his factory and a car accident that kept him from making a clean getaway eventually brought about his downfall.
An Alsatian, Schwartz arrived in California claiming to be a retired French Army officer and master chemist with a degree from the University of Heidelberg. In fact he had neither commission nor degree and his only scientific experience came as a poilu in the French army during World War I, when he was listed as a “chemical apprentice,” which most likely meant he did grunt work with deadly poison gas shells.
At the time of his crime, Schwartz was working as a chemist for a small company searching for what was then the Holy Grail of the chemical industry: a process for manufacturing artificial silk. He was essentially looking for a means to manufacture nylon, which Dupont researchers perfected in 1935. Little did anyone know, in reality the esteemed scientist was simply a confidence man. He may at one point have been seeking a means to create a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but at the time he disappeared Schwartz was concentrating on his con game.
A very secretive man for obvious reasons, Schwartz was paranoid about both his potential invention and being uncovered as a flim-flam artist. He claimed to have been the target of “agents” who were out to destroy him, but just how much truth there was to his assertions cannot be determined.
In June 1925, Schwartz was sued by a 22-year-old Swiss immigrant, Elizabeth Adam, in a “heart balm suit” for pretending to be an unmarried man named Stein who promised her marriage. Schwartz denied the allegations and contended that it was simply a blackmail attempt. He told the press that Adam was a tool of a foreign silk and chemical concerns who were also seeking artificial silk.
“This is merely a plot to discredit me in my business,” Schwartz said. “I defy them to go any further with the action.”
Just when Schwartz hatched his plan to fake his own death we can never know. There is some circumstantial evidence he was aware that some people were on to his con and that his elaborate fraud was falling apart. He had managed to secure cash loans with stock in his company, Pacific Cellulose, by assuring investors that he was on the threshold of a major breakthrough.
In reality he was nowhere near discovering anything remotely resembling artificial silk. Not only was he misleading investors by showing them real silk and claiming it was manufactured, at least one public demonstration was a total bomb. He also claimed one demonstration that never actually took place.
“When a year passed and nothing apparently was done toward putting the establishment in operation, the better informed residents of the community began to regard Schwartz’s word pictures as dreams,” said Emery Smith, president of the industrial inspection firm Smith-Emery & Company after the plot unraveled. “Those who shared that view doubtless were not greatly surprised to learn of the tangled mystery that was unearthed when the plant was wrecked.”
Schwartz managed to get Pacific Cellulose to insure his life for about $180,000 with a clause that included double indemnity for an accidental death. With that insurance money — much of which was payable to his wife — as a prime motivator, Schwartz set about faking his death.
Obviously, he needed a victim, and either through planning or serendipity, he encountered an old nemesis, Gilbert Barbe, and selected him as victim.
Barbe was a veteran of the Great War who was traveling the country as an itinerant preacher. For several months prior to arriving in Oakland, he was living with friends in another California town, spreading the Gospel and handing out religious tracts from an organization based in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
How the two men connected is also a mystery.
According to one account, Barbe and Schwartz knew each other and were former friends. They had a falling out over a woman, a friend of Barbe’s, told the press after the plot fell apart. Whether there is any truth in the statement cannot be confirmed. Regardless, at some point Schwartz met Barbe and killed him.
Around 10 p.m. on July 30, 1925, Schwartz was working alone in his chemistry lab in the warehouse that was the headquarters for Pacific Cellulose. He had just talked to the president of the company, H.R. Kleinjung, and reported an important breakthrough.
Shortly after that call, Schwartz telephoned his wife, Alice, to let her know he was heading home. She said there was nothing unusual about the call.
Within a few minutes of that final call, firefighters were summoned to the Pacific Cellulose plant by the night watchman, who had unsuccessfully tried to extinguish a blaze that began in Schwartz’s laboratory.
The watchman, W.E. Gonzales, had last seen Schwartz in the laboratory, mixing a highly flammable concoction that included a large dose of carbon disulphide.
Gonzales recalled later that his dog, which accompanied him on his rounds, ran into the lab and began sniffing and whining in front of a large closet. Schwartz ordered Gonzales to take the dog out and told the watchman to go to bed.
“I prowled around the plant for a time as is my custom. For some reason I was uneasy, however, and I was awake when I heard an explosion nearby,” Gonzales told police. “I ran out of my room to find that the laboratory of the plant was on fire.”
By the time Gonzales grabbed a fire extinguisher, the entire lab was engulfed and he summoned the fire department.
Map of Schwartz's labFirefighters put out the blaze only to find a badly charred body in the lab. Because Schwartz was the only person present according to Gonzales, the body was logically believed to be his.
The fire, however, had been put out before it had a chance to completely destroy the lab and there were indications that some sort of accelerant had been used to start the blaze. A burn trail from an outside door toward the lab established that someone had set the fire before fleeing.
Within 24 hours, despite an eyewitness examination of the remains by Alice Schwartz, investigators rejected the notion that Schwartz had died in the fire and set out to learn the identity of the man who did.
Fate had dealt Schwartz a bad hand. He previously purchased a train ticket to Southern California, and had left the plant with plenty of time to make his train. On his way to the station, however, Schwartz crashed his car and injured his leg. He was forced to abandon the car and limped to a nearby boarding house where he rented a room.
For the next week while police across the nation searched for him, Schwartz laid low in the house, where he was remembered later as a gentlemanly boarder. He even participated in a birthday party for one of the other guests.
Alice Schwartz was adamant that the body found in the embers of the factory was her husband, but police established through Bertillon measurements that not only was the man taller and heavier than Schwartz, the bone structure of his skull was radically different than what pictures of Schwartz showed.
When eyewitnesses described two men entering the factory in the early evening and identified one as Schwartz, the search was launched to determine who the other man was.
The only missing person who fit the description provided by eyewitnesses was an elderly Portuguese man named Joseph Rodriguez, who had disappeared a few days earlier. For the next day or so, police worked from the theory that Schwartz had murdered Rodriguez. They attempted to identify the body as Rodriquez’s by dental records, which had already disqualified the remains as belonging to Schwartz. The victim’s mouth showed that four teeth were missing, and that another tooth, that may have served as the anchor for a dental plate, had been damaged — possibly when Schwartz removed the plate.
“The dead man is not Schwartz said dentist A.J. Nielsen. “The teeth vary widely from Schwartz’s teeth.”
Nielsen told police that several days before Schwartz’s disappearance he was contacted to see if certain molds of his mouth had been destroyed.
“He seemed quite satisfied when I told him they had,” the dentist recounted. What Schwartz did not consider was the paper records Nielsen had in his possession.
Meanwhile, Dr. E.O. Heinrich, a Berkeley criminologist, examined Schwartz’s lab and issued a scathing report of his findings.
“There was no material on hand with which to make synthetic silk. There were no regular lights. Schwartz, when he worked at night, used an old gasoline lamp for light,” Heinrich told the press. “The chemicals, to my notion, were just put there for camouflage. There was no sign of the order one would expect a man with a scientific turn of mind…to insist on.”
Police located a series of letters from Schwartz to his wife, indicating that he eventually planned to resurface in Europe. In one letter, he instructed his wife, a native of Great Britain, to educate the children in England.
Other clues continued to bolster the theory that Schwartz had not died in the fire. Hair analysis using samples from the victim and some taken from Schwartz’s toiletries clearly indicated that the victim was not Schwartz.
The case suffered a major setback on August 3 when Joseph Rodriguez reappeared in Oakland alive and well.
“Rodriguez did not explain his reason for a sudden vacation other than to say that he felt it was his privilege to ‘bum around’ for awhile if he saw fit,” the Oakland Tribune reported drily.
When Rodriguez was eliminated as the victim, police began looking at clues left at the scene of the fire in the form of religious tracts. A witness came forward who claimed to have given a lift to a man who roughly fitted the description of the deceased several days before. His story led authorities to Los Gatos, California, where they located letters written by Barbe to persons with whom he stayed in that city. The handwriting on those letters was similar to scribblings found on the religious tracts. In addition, a friend of Barbe’s positively identified the burned body as belonging to his buddy.
Having identified the victim, the search for Schwartz intensified, and his picture was published in the local press. On August 11, 1925, when his temporary landlord identified his new lodger as Schwartz and notified police, the criminal chemist shot himself through the head.
Schwartz left some letters to his wife claiming that he had killed Barbe in self-defense and panicked. Those claims were rejected by authorities.
“I did not plan anything before this happened,” he wrote.
Schwartz’s death did provide some answers. Schwartz admitted killing Barbe two days before he started the fire, and took as many identifying documents and pictures from his home as he could to make tracing him more difficult. Returning to the lab on Thursday, July 30, he prepared Barbe’s body and the lab for the conflagration. However, he was surprised by the appearance of the night watchman and his dog, which delayed the fire. Finally, he missed his train to Southern California when he crashed his car trying to get out of town.
Because Schwartz committed suicide, the insurance companies refused to pay out on the policies. When his estate was finally probated, he had a net worth of $600.
Barbe, a veteran, was buried with military honors in the National Cemetery at the Presidio in San Francisco.