Asta Eicher must have been at least a little disappointed when Cornelius O. Pierson showed up on the doorstep of her Park Ridge, Illinois, home in the early summer of 1931.
The widow and widower — he from Clarksburg, West Virginia — had been corresponding for some months and apparently the two lonely hearts had established a warm friendship. They finally decided it was time to meet face to face.
A mother of three and a widow for the past four years, Asta was still a physically attractive woman, but as a widow with children she had more baggage than was acceptable in the early 20th century. Still, the man she knew as Pierson was just plain repulsive. Short, overweight and balding, with an unhealthy pallor and small, too-pale blue watery piggish eyes, Pierson, 39, looked nothing like Asta expected. It was clear that the photos he provided her were old, to say the least.
Asta did not know it yet, but there was a lot more about Pierson not to like. He was married, not the wealthy civil engineer he claimed to be, was carrying on relationships with many different women across the country, and, most importantly, was a sadist who was about to become a mass killer. His real name was Harry F. Powers — and that’s how we’ll refer to him.
Although not attractive to the eyes, Powers, who really lived in the small West Virginia town of Quiet Dell outside Clarksburg, seemed to have much going for him. In his letters to Asta he came across as an emotionally open, romantic widower in search of true love who only resorted to meeting women through lonely hearts magazines because his career kept him busy on large engineering projects around the country.
For a woman like Asta, whose only companions were her three children: Annabel, 14, Harry, 12, and Greta, 9, and a star-crossed bull terrier named Doodie, a man like Powers seemed to be a gift from Heaven. Her jeweler/silversmith husband left her financially comfortable, but during the cold, lonesome winters in suburban Chicago sterling candlesticks can only keep someone just so warm.
So it’s not surprising that she would fall for the saccharine lines of a man who claimed a monthly income of $400 plus some gas and oil royalties (Not counting the royalties, that’s an annual income of about $74,000 in current dollars).
“Women are the sweetest, purest, and most precious part of the human race. They sing the melody of human life. Any man who has experienced a mother’s affection, a wife’s self-sacrificing love or a sweetheart’s affection, knows that this is true,” one of his letters reads. “I am trying…to find the one — the only one — that can make home a paradise, a place of rest, a haven of content where loved ones await and to whom I can look forward with pleasure and anticipation. Who knows but what you may be that one?”
Once she tumbled for him, Asta’s days were numbered. She would find out that the place Powers had lined up for her was not a paradise nor a haven of content. It would be, however, a place of rest for her and her children, and a place of pleasure only for Powers.
Asta and Powers met in person for the first time in June 1931 when he came to stay at the Eicher home for five days. Neighbors reported later that Asta’s “eyes sparkled” when she told them the man who showed up with a huge bouquet of flowers was “an old friend of the family.”
After Powers left on June 27, Asta left the children in the care of a nurse and the next day headed “east” for a “business trip.” Five days later, the nurse, Elizabeth Abernathy, received a letter from Asta saying that she would be staying in the “east” indefinitely and that “Mr. Pierson” would be by to pick up the children.
Powers arrived shortly after the letter and closed up the house. He bundled the children into his car — without bothering to pack any clothes or any of their belongings. The Eicher family was never seen again in Park Ridge.
Several weeks later, Powers reappeared and hired a crew to remove the family’s furniture from the house. A policeman stopped Powers, who told the cop that he had purchased the home from Asta and that she and the children were now visiting relatives in Colorado. He indicated that he was planning to relocate to Park Ridge.
“I expect to be a resident of your beautiful city,” Powers allegedly said. “I am looking forward to meeting the mayor.”
Powers stayed in the house as the workmen removed the large household items, but disappeared soon after, leaving behind clothes, children’s toys, and housewares. Like the Eicher family, he was never seen in Park Ridge again.
The neighbors naturally became suspicious. Why would Asta have told them she was going east when she ended up visiting unknown relatives in the West? Why did she sell her home but not take any of her personal belongings with her? And just who was this “old family friend?”
A cursory investigation turned up a letter written by Greta to a friend, describing the wonderful vacation she was having in the Rockies, but the letter was postmarked Clarksburg, West Virginia. The police investigation showed that there was no man named Pierson who was licensed as a civil engineer in West Virginia, and that no one named Cornelius Pierson lived in or near Clarksburg.
The Clarksburg postmaster, however, did tell investigators that a man had rented a post office box under the name Cornelius Pierson and that the man received an extraordinarily large amount of mail. Most of the handwriting appeared to be by women. The postmaster said Pierson was known to him as Harry F. Powers.
Powers, it seems, was the ne’er-do-well husband of a local delicatessen owner named Letitia (Lulu) Powers. In reality, Powers was apparently a vacuum cleaner salesman whose less-than-successful career was subsidized by his wealthy wife. As an aside, Lulu was no stranger to violence. Her first husband, whom she divorced in 1914, was acquitted of murder after he claimed it was done in self-defense.
After a stakeout at the post office, local authorities arrested Powers and brought in for questioning. He claimed ignorance of the fate of the Eichers. He did have an explanation for his alias and for how he knew Asta and the children: He was a one-man matrimonial agency.
“There must be some mistake,” he told police. “Nothing has happened to Mrs. Eichert — at least as far as I know. I put her on a train for Denver weeks ago. I understood she was going to marry a man named Charles Rogers.”
The next step for the authorities was to take a look around the Powers’s properties. Of special interest was a strange windowless concrete garage-like structure located about a mile from the Powers home. If the term was better known at the time, the contemporary press would likely have called the place a bunker. Powers built the structure himself on top of the burned-out remains of his wife’s girlhood house. The brick chimney of the ruined home towered over the squat gray building that stood about 20 yards from a slow-moving stream.
Breaking into the building and not knowing what to expect, the cops were shocked to find that the building was divided into several small cells, each with a locking door. In the center of the bunker they found probable evidence of a crime: a large pile of women’s and children’s clothes — some bloody, others torn. In the basement of the building they found a trapdoor that opened into a dark, narrow tunnel that apparently led to the nearby creek. An unmistakeable smell emanated from the tunnel, but because it was nearly midnight, no one wanted to be the first to explore the hand-excavated cave.
“Unless I miss my guess, we’ve run into something,” said Police Chief C.A. Duckworth, stating the obvious. Most likely, the reporters present added a more ominous addition to his remarks: “Something the like of which this country hasn’t seen in a long, long time.”
Duckworth ordered the trapdoor nailed shut and stationed his detective, Carl Southern, to stand watch overnight. Kudos to Southern for his nerve, but since the story was quickly becoming front page news nationally, it’s probable he had company from reporters.
The digging required to solve the disappearance of the Eichert family would be done by county jail inmates (It’s not unusual for the law to bring out slave labor when it comes to heavy lifting).
Toward the end of the ditch the convicts came across the source of the smell. In four burlap bags the searchers found the bodies of Asta, Annabel, Greta, and Harry Eicher. Their heads had been crushed by some kind of blunt object, and Asta was blindfolded. All of them were bound with rope.
The search continued and Chief Duckworth realized he had an even larger problem than he expected.
Duckworth’s convict labor unearthed a bankbook belonging to Dorothy Pressler Lemke a few yards from the Eichert bodies. Further digging uncovered Dorothy’s corpse. Her head had been crushed in. Evidence found in the bunker showed that Dorothy, a widow from Northboro, Massachusetts, had been corresponding with Powers.
Dorothy’s story was not much different than that of Asta Eicher: Widowed, lonely and (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) “love starved” according to the American Weekly magazine, Dorothy began corresponding with the man she knew as Cornelius Pierson whom she met in a lonely hearts magazine. Soon he visited her in Massachusetts where, swept off her feet, she withdrew nearly $5,000 (about $75k in today’s dollars) from her savings and sold $8,000 in stocks. Then in July 1931, almost a month to the day after Asta Eicher disappeared, Dorothy told friends she was heading to her new beau’s large farm in Iowa.
She was never seen alive again.
Two additional pieces of evidence were brought to the surface from the makeshift crypt: a roll of film with photographs of Dorothy taken at her home in Massachusetts, and a Great War-era gas mask. Police surmised that the victims might have been gassed prior to being beaten to death with a hammer.
The only thing that remained was to determine the circumstances of the murders, and that was something that Powers alone could reveal. Duckworth headed back to the jail to question his prisoner.
Meanwhile, word of the discoveries spread quickly through the area and a vigilante group was also headed to the jail, intent on providing swift justice for Powers. It took police officers several hours of physical confrontation to dispel the gang.
Although he was shaken by the lynch mob, Powers was more than willing to confess to the killings. According to Duckworth he was neither proud nor ashamed of his actions. It’s not unusual for killers like Powers to enjoy regaling others with the details of their crimes, but Powers simply related what happened in the matter-of-fact way someone recounts the mundane events of a typical day.
Surely a man who would kill widows and children the way Powers did was insane, and he was examined by psychiatrists from around the country.
“There is nothing about his appearance which would arise the slightest suspicion that a volcanic and brutal passion lies beneath the surface of his outwardly pleasant personality,” said criminalist and lawyer Barrett O’Hara who, on behalf of the many newspapers covering the case, examined Powers in jail prior to his trial. “The Powers I saw in the cell was a different picture from the alleged fiend who wielded a hammer on a small boy’s head and gloated at the sight of running blood and the ghastly noises of the death rattle.”
Shortly before the trial, Lulu Powers leased the site of the murders to an anonymous huckster who erected a fence around the site and charged the curious 25 cents to have a look. However, within a day or so, a band of self-described “night riders” burned down the barrier as a warning to ghoulish gawkers to stay away. Their message was clear.
“The flames were carefully kept away from the ‘murder garage’ which will be used as evidence by the state in its effort to send Powers on a quick march to the gallows,” the local paper reported. Visits to the site quickly halted.
In court and on trial for the murder of Dorothy Lemke several months later, Powers repeated his confession from the stand. While (sadly) relatively tame by 21st Century standards for criminals, his words must have shocked the hell out of that West Virginia jury.
I took Mrs. Lemke to the garage at midnight and led her into the cellar. I told her to keep quiet and directed her to stand up. I gazed into her eyes and held her spellbound. I told her I was her master and she would have to obey my orders.
She closed her eyes and whispered that she was my slave and stood waiting my commands.
Then I beat her with all of my strength. I beat her until she was a mass of bruises. Still she had no will of her own and did not cry out.
After forcing Dorothy to sign several checks made out to him, he promised her that he would release her — after blindfolding her and tying her hands. He explained that the blindfold was to prevent her from leading authorities back to the garage.
“Blindfolded and hands tied behind her, I told her to rise,” he continued (using what grammar nuts call a “dangling modifier.”) “As she got to her feet, I drew a thin rope from my pocket, tied it around her neck and strangled her.”
Powers was equally cool while describing how he killed the Eichers.
I drove Mrs. Eicher to the garage and placed her under a hypnotic spell. Then I strangled her and buried her. She, too, had submitted without resistance or outcries to my beating. And she wrote a letter authorizing me to take charge of her three children…
I put Greta Eicher in one room in the garage cellar. Then I put Harry Eicher and Annabel Eicher into another room.
I walked thru Annabel’s chamber and killed the younger kids. Killed the brother and sister. I hit the little boy on the head with a hammer before putting the rope around his throat. They never made any noise or put up any fight. I killed the older girl. I didn’t have any trouble. They took it quietly.
Powers’s trial was held in a location that would make any egotistical murderer swoon. The county was in the process of building a new courthouse when the trial began in December 1931, so the case was heard in the 1,200-seat Clarksburg Opera House. While observers sat in the comfortable seats as opposed to the typical hard benches found in courtrooms, the judge, attorneys, witnesses, and the jury sat on the stage, which was lighted by limelight. The jurors deliberated Powers’s fate for less than 2 hours in a dressing room below the stage.
He was convicted and sentenced to death. On March 19, 1932, Powers, dressed in a powder blue suit that accentuated his too-pale blue pig eyes, walked in a steady pace up the steps of the scaffold and was hanged without comment.
The story of Harry Powers was adapted for the screen in the film The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum. In the 1950s it was unacceptable to portray a killer as a soulless psychopath, so the plot involves Mitchum using torture and threats against Asta to determine where her husband left a $10,000 fortune. In 2010, a semi-documentary, Romeo Must Hang, was produced about the case.
Oh, and why did we refer to the dog Doodie as star-crossed? Twice the pup was left homeless due to tragedy: Prior to being adopted by the Eicher family, Doodie was the only survivor of a family wiped out by a tornado. A brave neighbor of the the Eicherts adopted Doodie, who had been put up for auction with the rest of the Eichert family belongings.