Hamilton native, author and historian Richard O Jones was interviewed on the radio last week by Lee Hay, host of “Around Cincinnati” on WVXU to discuss his latest book, “The First Celebrity Serial Killer: Confessions of the Strangler Alfred Knapp,” detailing a 1903 murder case.
By Richard O Jones
For the Butler County Historical Society
A few weeks ago, I was toasting the last episode of the television series “Justified,” based on characters by the crime writer Elmore Leonard. The hero is a federal marshal, Raylan Givens, and in the seven year run of the show, he became my favorite TV tough guy.
A day or two later, I was looking something up in Stephen D. Cone’s Biographical and Historical Sketches: A Narrative of Hamilton and Its Residents (1896) , and stumbled upon a passage reminding me that Hamilton had its own tough guy marshal back in the day, a slave chaser named John C. Elliott.
His earliest claim to fame was as the man who most likely killed the founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith while his tribe was making its way West. Having been expelled from Ohio and Missouri, the Mormons founded the city of Nauvoo in Illinois in 1839. By 1844, the city had grown to over 15,000, bigger than Chicago at the time, and Smith’s popularity was such that he decided to make a run for the Presidency of the United States.
Richard O Jones is the founder and editor of HEY! Hamilton! and secretary of the board of trustees for the Butler County Historical Society.
Now Available from History Press:
The First Celebrity Serial Killer in Southwest Ohio: Confessions of the Strangler Alfred Knapp
“But I think my wife is dead and
I suppose I shall go to the chair for it.”
– Alfred Knapp while in jail
Just before Christmas of 1902 Alfred Knapp strangled his wife in her sleep. He put her body in a box and sent the box floating down the Great Miami River, telling everyone that Hannah had left him. When the truth came out, Knapp confessed to four other murders. Newspapers across the Midwest sent reporters to interview the handsome strangler. Despite spending most of his adulthood in prison, he had a charming, boyish manner that made him an instant celebrity serial killer. True Crime Historian Richard O Jones examines the strangler’s alleged crimes, the family drama of covering up Knapp’s atrocities, and how a brain-damaged drifter became a media darling.
When Alfred Knapp signed a confession to the murder of five women and girls, Hamilton officials found themselves in the center of a media storm. They did not seem too sure how to handle it. Here Chief of Police Gus Kuemmerling and Mayor Charles Bosch posing for a photo with their hands on the strangler’s shoulder. Bosch lived next door to the strangler on South Fourth Street when his wife went missing and was the only one able to get Knapp to confess. The guy reading over his shoulder is Director of Police Charles Mason. Behind the mayor is Sheriff Peter Bisdorf, and in the back row Deputy Luke Brannon and Detective Thomas Lenehan, the man who arrested Knapp in Indianapolis in the middle of the night. Seems like the only person missing was Warren Gard, the boy prosecutor (he was 29 at the time).
The story of the Hamilton Strangler also features a soap opera of family drama, pitting two sisters against each other. Sadie Wenzel (above, although she looks about 15 in that picture but was in her mid-30s in 1903) stuck by her bother’s side and got into a public squabble with sister Mamie and her husband Edward King, who had told Hamilton police that Alfred had probably murdered his wife.
Related Stories about the Hamilton Stranger from True Crime Historian:
Stories About Historical Hamilton Crimes:
Images of America: Hamilton’s Industrial Heritage, a new book by local historian Richard N. Piland, pays tribute to Hamilton’s industrial history.
Since its founding in 1791, Hamilton has been an important center of activity in the region. After Ohio became a state in 1803, the city became an agricultural hub and county seat. The town’s location on the Great Miami River attracted a variety of millers who powered their businesses with the river’s current and by the late 1830s, dozens of mills dotted the landscape.
Things picked up in 1845, when the Hamilton and Rossville Hydraulic Company diverted the river’s flow through town and developed a system that supplied cheap water power to area mills. The hydraulic generated enough horsepower to attract mills that produced paper, flour, cotton, wool, and machine shops. Other early businesses included sawmills that cut lumber for constructing homes and businesses, planning mills that made flooring and weather boards, cotton mills that made yarn and fabrics, grinding mills that broke stone, and foundries that melted iron for castings.
By the 1860s, Hamilton was a leading producer of farm implements such as reapers, hay rakes, harvesters, and plows. The advent of steam engines brought a shift in production, and the population of skilled artisans and workingmen in the community brought new factories to the city. By 1900, Hamilton was “the greatest manufacturing city of its size in the world” and produced a staggering variety and diversity of products for the world’s markets.
Hamilton’s factories became the preeminent leaders in their business segments and the standard by which their competitors were judged. In the 1940s, Hamilton was home to several of the world’s largest industries. The Champion Paper Company was the world’s largest coated paper mill. More than half of the world’s safes and vaults were made by the Mosler and Herring-Hall-Marvin safe companies, giving the city its reputation as the “Safe Capital of the World.” Niles Tool Works was one of the largest machine tool manufacturers, Hooven-Owens-Rentschler was one of the largest Corliss engine builders, and Estate Stove was one of the largest stove makers in the world.
Images of America: Hamilton’s Industrial Heritage, Piland’s fourth book for Arcadia Publishing, is scheduled to be released May 4, includes more than 200 vintage photographs and highlights many of the companies that manufactured paper, safes and vaults, engines and vehicles, machine tools, foundries and many other products.
Piland will have a book signing from noon to 4:00 pm on Saturday, May 9, at the Butler County Historical Society, 327 North 2nd Street, Hamilton, 45011.
He is a 35-year resident of the Hamilton area and former college professor and owner of a local community survey research firm.
Hamilton Evening Journal, April 19, 1923
By Richard N. Piland
It was surprising to learn recently that there was an earlier Butler County Historical Society. On June 14, 1901, a call was issued to people interested in forming a historical society to attend a June 18 meeting held at the county courthouse. At that first meeting officers and directors were elected and several committees were formed to develop a constitution, secure meeting space and lobby for the support of county commissioners.
The six men who formed the first Butler County Historical Society were community leaders of such stature that it is surprising the organization was not continued.
By Richard O Jones
True Crime Historian
William Hobbs was passed out drunk when company started arriving.
The Smith Street house was dark when Charles Vincent Rose, 24, came calling at 11 p.m. He was family, the first cousin of Hobbs’ common-law wife, Helen Schindlebower, so he started to climb in a bedroom window. Hobbs roused at the intrusion and gave Rose a key and told him to go around to the door. Formerly of New Miami, Vince Rose had hitchhiked to Hamilton from his home in Metamora, Indiana, where he worked on his stepfather’s farm. He had come to visit with a bottle of whiskey. Rose sat up with him. The cousins, who were raised together by Rose’s mother, talked and played the phonograph while Hobbs slept in the next room.
Schindlebower said that she and Billy had spent the afternoon and early evening of April 11, 1937, drinking beer in a Hamilton saloon. Around 7:30 or 8 p.m., they went to visit Hobbs’s sister Pearly Farthing and her husband on Lane Street drank some more beer. Hobbs also took the occasional hit off a pint flask of whiskey. By the time they left at 10 p.m., Hobbs was so drunk that his brother-in-law had to help him to the curb. Schindlebower took him home and put him to bed.
Shortly after midnight, John Agnew, 34 and a father of three children, arrived. He and Hobbs had been planning a burglary and he was angry that Hobbs was asleep. “Don’t be so lazy,” he chided the sleeping fellow. “Get up and we’ll go out and make some easy money.”
Hobbs, 32, dragged himself out of bed and went into the kitchen, Agnew close behind. Rose and Schindlebower could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Hobbs walked back into the front room and told Rose to put on his coat, they were going to take a ride and make some easy money. Hobbs returned to the bedroom to get dressed while he and Agnew argued some more, Agnew objecting to taking Rose with them.
“The kid’s alright,” Hobbs said angrily. “I know him and we need a third man.” That put an end to that argument, but then Schindlebower started in on him. He was still drunk, she complained; he didn’t need to be going anywhere. Hobbs ignored her.
“We should take a gun,” Agnew said. Hobbs told him his place had been broken into a couple of weeks prior and someone stole his shotgun, so his .32 revolver was at a friend’s house for safekeeping. Rose said that he had a gun, but Agnew ignored him, saying they’d go get Hobbs’s.
They walked over to Walnut Street where Agnew had parked his car and rode to Rose Bolser’s house on South Eighth. Hobbs retrieved his gun and 18 cartridges in a tobacco bag. He loaded his gun and handed the rest of the bullets to Rose. They all had several drinks of whiskey while they were there and Rose bought a pint to go from Bolser, who had a record of moonshining and selling untaxed liquor.
When they got back to the car, Agnew explained they were going to the National Dairy out on Middletown Pike. They had a safe that was small enough for three men to carry out and open later. On the way, Agnew pointed out other places that were easy enough to knock off, including Mike Vertich’s Café.
When they got to the dairy, the lights were on. They hadn’t been expecting that, so they kept driving and talked about the other places they had passed. They decided to go back to Vertich’s Café at 548 North Third Street, where they could break in through a back window. Agnew parked the car on Vine Street and stayed at the wheel while Rose and Hobbs went to check things out.
They stood on the cellar door to open the back window, but it was locked. The two started to open a gate to get to the other side of the building where they could try the other windows and maybe even the front door if they had to. Just as Hobbs pushed open the gate, we saw a car stop suddenly and a man jumped out with a flashlight in his hand and started toward us,” Rose would later testify as a state’s witness. “He yelled and I ran toward an abandoned automobile which was standing on the lot and then headed up an alley. I heard four shots from a heavy caliber gun and three from a lighter gun as I was going through the alley.
“I made my way back to where the car was parked and Agnew asked me what had happened. I told him there had been some shooting and urged him to drive away. He asked me what had become of Hobbs and I said he probably had been shot. We waited for about a minute and a half and as we were starting to drive away, Hobbs ran in front of the auto and hopped in.
“Agnew drove out the Middletown Pike and on the way, Hobbs said that he had fired three shots and asked me if I had done any shooting. I told him no and he broke open his gun and emptied out three shells… Hobbs remarked that he believed he had shot someone but had not looked to see who it was. Hobbs said that after he shot, the man ran like a turkey. Agnew laughed.”
The three men drove around a while longer, then parked and drank the whiskey Rose had bought from the Bolser woman. When the bottle was empty, Agnew dropped the others off a few blocks from Hobbs’s house.
“You don’t know me, kid,” Agnew said as Rose got out of the car.
The engine was running
Hamilton City Police Patrolmen Herschel Seward and Levi Justice finished their shift at about 4 a.m. on the morning of April 12, 1937. They were taking Cruiser 6 to the city garage, Seward driving and Justice following behind in his private car.
They saw fellow officer Arthur Sponsel’s car parked in the middle of the street near Vertich’s Café. The left front door was open and the headlights on. Sponsel had gotten off duty a couple of hours earlier, had delivered Cruiser 8 to the city garage, a block further to the north at 2:45 a.m., and picked up his own vehicle.
“When I saw Arthur’s car, I believed he had run out of gasoline and that he had probably returned to the garage,” Seward said, but he was not there when they dropped off Cruiser 6. “After leaving the police car at the garage, Justice and I returned to Sponsel’s auto.”
The car engine was still running. They noticed the beam of a flashlight low in the parking lot, about 25 feet east of North Third Street. It illuminated a .38 caliber police revolver. Four feet beyond, in the darkness at the side of the building, they found Patrolmen Sponsel face-down, slain, a bullet through his heart.
Built his home
Patrolman Arthur Sponsel was a World War I veteran, having served in England and France. He was known as an “air bird,” although he had never flown on any missions. The war ended before he finished his training. He worked as a carpenter after the war and built the family home on Forest Avenue. He joined the police force on March 19, 1931. He would have been 37 on his next birthday.
Police Chief John C. Calhoun said that the department lost “one of its most efficient officers.”
“Arthur was a gentleman both on and off duty and none was more fearless in the face of danger,” the chief said. “Every member of the department respected Sponsel as an officer and a friend.”
He left a wife, two sons, his mother, one brother and five sisters.
Just three weeks before his death, he’d had a close call at the Blue Goose Inn at Dixie Highway and Minor Avenue when a 23-year-old man pointed a shot gun at him and told him to raise his hands. Instead, Sponsel took two shots at the suspect, wounding him in the left shoulder and taking him and a companion into custody.
“Patrolman Sponsel was one of the finest officers in the department,” said City Manager Price. “He was efficient, used every precaution in the performance of his duty but he never flinched in the face of danger.”
Forced off the road
Patrolman Sponsel’s gun contained four spent cartridges. A search of the scene uncovered only one meager clue: a .32 bullet embedded in the side of the restaurant, on the northeast corner. There was a stripped automobile in the parking lot. Police considered the possibility that Sponsel had noticed someone stripping the car and went to investigate.
In interviewing witnesses, including a pair of night watchmen at the nearby Niles Tool Works, police first surmised that six shots had been fired. The newspaper reported that police were looking for a man taller than the 5-foot, 10-inch patrolman as the bullet entered the body near the heart, piercing that organ and the left lung, before traveling downward and coming to rest lodged in the left hip. They also considered the possibility that the shooter might have been a fugitive from justice, or that Sponsel had interrupted a hold-up. None of these theories would prove to be true.
Alexander Thomson, chairman of the Champion Paper Company and president of the Chamber of Commerce offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the man or men who killed Patrolman Sponsel. The Butler County Commissioners and other citizens contributed until a pot of $5,850 was at stake.
Police soon began receiving tips, many of them false leads but some pointing toward William Hobbs, a local thug. Hobbs was known as a small, mean man who stood 5-foot, 3-inches and weighed all of 115 pounds. On Wednesday, Chief John Calhoun put a shadow on Hobbs night and day. On Sunday, an officer followed him to Rose’s house in Metamora when Hobbs and Schindlebower got a ride there from a friend named Ralph Baines. Baines and Rose Bolser would both lay claim to the reward money. Further tips implicated John Agnew and Vince Rose, but Hobbs was pegged as the shooter, and police wanted to make sure he still had the gun.
Bolser would testify that Hobbs had come back to her house late Monday morning after Sponsel’s death to return the gun and ask her to keep Rose’s revolver, too. He had been awakened by a friend named Bob Beaver, who told him that–as early rumors had it–a night watchman had been shot. Bolser had heard about the shooting, too, and refused to take the guns. Hobbs had already been drinking, and apparently knew he was in trouble. He buried his gun in the backyard of a home in the Belmont addition, where he had helped build some houses, and returned the other gun to Rose.
When Hobbs went to Metamora the following Sunday, he told Rose to ditch his gun. “My gun hasn’t done anything,” Rose told him and said he was keeping it in his dresser drawer.
The next afternoon, Monday April 19, one week after the murder of Arthur Sponsel, Hobbs loaded up Baines’s car with his belongings and headed south on Dixie Highway to Mansfield, Kentucky. Police were ready for him and made chase, a posse of nine officers in two automobiles, Chief Calhoun himself driving lead. They overtook Baines in Fairfield and Calhoun forced Baines off the road. Officers swarmed the car and arrested Hobbs, Schindlebower and Gaines, and confiscated Hobbs’s .32 revolver. At the same time, other officers were on their way to Metamora to arrest Vince Rose and to John Agnew’s house, where he was apprehended.
Hobbs and Rose readily confessed to the crime, saying that they didn’t know that Hobbs had killed a cop until they read about it in the papers.
Vince Rose did not testify in Hobbs’s trial, but was a state’s witness in the trial of John Agnew, who was found guilty by a jury. Rose pled guilty to second degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison. Hobbs, the shooter, would pay the ultimate price for his crimes.
The last mile
William Hobbs spent his last day on earth constantly and calmly smoking cigars, pausing long enough to take a last meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn. He had gained 52 pounds during his confinement. Sitting on his bunk, he had just lit a fresh cigar when guards notified him that it was time to “walk the last mile,” 8:45 p.m., July 6, 1938. He merely shrugged and hopped off the bunk. Two death row inmates greeted him as he passed, but Hobbs ignored them. He just puffed on his cigar all the way into the death chamber. He kept his eyes downcast, not looking at the witnesses, handing his cigar to a guard as two others strapped him in. Three jolts from Old Sparky ended his life, making him the 209th murderer to be electrocuted in the state of Ohio.
Sources: The Hamilton Journal-Daily News, April 12, 1937, to July 7, 1938.
We should probably create a new category for this post, maybe “Hmmmm… Okay….”
The Public Theatre in New York is currently running “Hamilton”, a hip-hop musical about the life of our city’s namesake, and it’s apparently headed for Broadway.
Here’s a promotional video montage:
From the creative team behind the Tony Award-winning In The Heights comes a wildly inventive new musical about the scrappy young immigrant who forever changed America: Alexander Hamilton.
Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda wields his pen and takes the stage as the unlikely founding father determined to make his mark on a new nation as hungry and ambitious as he is.
From bastard orphan to Washington’s right hand man, rebel to war hero, loving husband caught in the country’s first sex scandal to Treasury head who made an untrusting world believe in the American economy, HAMILTON is an exploration of a political mastermind.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Eliza Hamilton, and lifelong Hamilton friend and foe, Aaron Burr, all attend this revolutionary tale of America’s fiery past told through the sounds of the ever-changing nation we’ve become.
Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail directs this new musical about taking your shot, speaking your mind, and turning the world upside down.
The former Champion International/SMART Paper plant has been featured in a photography blog called “Abandoned.”
Some of the images are stunning, some not so much, but the page also has a good history of the plant, worth checking out.