The Unknown Murderer – The Police at Fault (II)

Part II (of two)

Nothing now remained which could throw any suspicion on Abraham Schmidt, and the court endeavoured to follow out the slight traces of suspicion against John Gabriel Schmidt and his half-brother Erhard Dürringer. The former, commonly called big Schmidt, was a married man of forty, with one child; the latter, generally known as little Schmidt, was twenty-seven, also married and had two children. Both were woodcutters, and lived together on excellent terms in the same house. Both were boon companions of Rupprecht’s, who was much in their company, particularly in that of John Gabriel, whom he familiarly called his Hans, and with whom he amused himself with all sorts of vulgar pranks and coarse jokes. This intercourse had, however, been interrupted a few months before Rupprecht’s death by a dispute between the quarrelsome jeweller and the overseers of the district, Friedmann and Götz. The last-named men were accordingly arrested on the suspicion that if they did not actually murder him themselves, they might have induced one of these woodcutters to become the instrument of their vengeance. The quarrel had arisen one evening when Friedmann, the two Schmidts, and several other persons were sitting together in a tavern, on which occasion Rupprecht used some very offensive expressions with regard to the other overseer Götz, accusing him of gross partiality and injustice in the administration of his office. Friedmann and Götz complained to the police, and the two Schmidts were summoned as witnesses. Rupprecht was condemned to an imprisonment of eight and forty hours on bread and water, and to make an apology to Götz. He endeavoured to revenge himself by bringing an action for defamation against Friedmann and Götz, which was still pending when Rupprecht was murdered.

But on examination these suspicions melted away, and Rupprecht appeared to have acted the part of a revengeful, angry, insulting foe, and the others that of quiet peaceable citizens. No one had perceived any bitter feeling in either Friedmann or Götz; on the contrary, they both expressed regret and indignation when they heard the manner of his death. Götz had been from eight till eleven on the evening of the murder at a tavern, where his manner was grave and quiet as usual; and both he and Friedmann were well known as just and upright men, incapable of committing any bad action, much less a crime of this magnitude. Finally, Rupprecht himself, when asked on the morning after his accident whether he did not suspect one of the district overseers of the deed, had distinctly answered “No.”

John Gabriel Schmidt and his half-brother Erhard Dürringer had the reputation of well-conducted, hardworking men, of spotless integrity, who only visited the tavern on certain days in the week, and then only for a few hours. Kunigunda Pfann gave evidence on oath that Erhard Dürringer could not have been at the Hell Tavern on the evening of the 7th February, as she had stayed with him and his wife from half-past eight till ten, and had only left their room as they were preparing to go to bed. This evidence was confirmed by the mistress of the house in which they lived, who inhabited the rooms above them. She stated that although she had not been in Dürringer’s room she was satisfied that he had remained at home, as Friday was not the day on which he and his half-brother went to the tavern. With regard to John Gabriel Schmidt she said, ” As I live up one pair of stairs, and he just above me, and I heard no one come down stairs after eight o’clock, and all was quiet in their room, I feel convinced that after that hour they were in bed. Besides, she was stirring till eleven, and even later, and she heard no suspicious knocking or ringing at the door.” Kunigunda Pfann, whose room was near the Schmidts’, said that as she was returning home at about half past eight, she looked up at their window and saw no light; moreover the key had been taken out of the door, as was their custom when they went to bed; neither had she heard any noise during the night. Martin Haas, the landlord, confirmed these statements, adding, “I take it for granted that the Schmidts were at home on Friday, as they never go out on that day.”

In order to leave nothing untried, two other woodcutters, whose names were Schmidt, were examined: they did not live in either of the streets mentioned by Rupprecht, nor even in the town, but in the suburbs. These two men, John and Godfrey, were nearly connected, and generally came to Nürnberg for work: and one of them was usually employed by Rupprecht’s son-in-law. But in this case also the inquiry led to the same result.

Thus, when every woodcutter of the name of Schmidt in the town and neighbourhood had been examined, it became evident that the court, by trusting to the unconnected words of the dying man, had suffered itself to be led in a totally false direction. His disjointed exclamations were but the expression of his vague, confused suspicions, or perhaps even mere (Egri somnia, engendered in his shattered brain by delirium. A man so severely wounded in the head as almost entirely to lose the power of speech cannot be supposed to be in the true possession of his faculties even when consciousness appears for a moment to return. It is not difficult to explain how his fancied suspicions were directed against the Schmidts, when we consider that so deep a gash, even if inflicted with a sabre, would feel as if it were made with an axe. The mere association of ideas would naturally connect a woodcutter with the axe, and every throb of the wound would recall to Rupprecht’s disordered imagination the image of the Schmidts, with whom he had lately quarrelled.

The judge, while carrying on the inquiry with the utmost zeal in a direction which eventually proved to be a wrong one, had not in the mean time neglected to follow up all other indications. He had from the first kept his eye upon John Bieringer and his wife, who was Rupprecht’s own daughter.

Rupprecht, soon after he was wounded, had exclaimed, “My daughter! my daughter!” which those who were present had interpreted as the expression of a natural desire on his part to see her; but which might have referred to the same event as the words he used shortly before “The wicked rogue! with the axe!” This supposition received weight from the circumstance that Rupprecht usually called his son-in-law “the wicked rogue.”

One of those who were present went, after fetching a surgeon, to Bieringer’s house and informed him of what had happened, and of Rupprecht’s wish to see his daughter. Hereupon Bieringer, with extraordinary coolness, said to his wife, ” You must go to the Hell Tavern directly; something has happened to your father; one really has nothing but trouble with him.”

When Rupprecht’s daughter saw him lying wounded, she wept, and lamented: but several witnesses thought that she did not show so much interest and sympathy for him as might have been expected from a daughter on such an occasion.

One witness asserted that soon after she had seen her father, disfigured as he was with blood and wounds, she asked for his keys, and said “she would look whether they were in his pocket, or whether the murderer had taken them to open her father’s lodging and rob it.” As soon as she recovered his keys, she went on before to his lodging.

The same witness further said, “When her wounded father lay in his own house, the daughter appeared not only composed, but even careless. When I went to see him on the following day, I observed that she showed great indifference to her father’s fate; she ate up, in my presence, a whole basin of soup which would have more than satisfied most people.”

Meanwhile she manifested the greatest anxiety to fix suspicion on John Gabriel Schmidt, and on the district overseer Götz. On the 8th February she suddenly exclaimed, that her father had named Schmidt as the murderer; adding, that it was likely enough, as this man was an intimate friend of Götz’s, who had been involved in a lawsuit with her father. This she repeated so often and so loudly, that the officer appointed to note down every expression that fell from the dying man, was forced to order her to be silent.

She further stated, at her examination on the 9th February, that her father, on coming to himself, had accused the woodcutter Schmidt of the deed; and added that, on her repeatedly asking who had struck him, her father had answered, “He was a big fellow.” As no one else had heard Rupprecht say this, it looked as if she had invented it in order to avert suspicion from her husband, who was of small stature.

On the following day, the 10th February, when the three woodcutters of the name of Schmidt were brought into the presence of the wounded man, she pressed the judge, when it came to John Gabriel’s turn, to allow her to be present, and to speak to him; saying, “This John Gabriel Schmidt was the man whom she alluded to in her yesterday’s examination; and that she wished to speak to him, and to remind him of the omniscience of God, as he might then, perhaps, confess. The others, she was sure, were innocent.

Bieringer, a well-bred and well educated man, of about five-and-thirty, was perfectly composed and unconstrained during examination; only once he started from his seat, complained of illness, and walked up and down; he then sat down again and quietly continued to answer the questions put to him.

The principal ground for suspicion against him was, the terms on which he lived with his wife and his father-in-law.

Bieringer’s domestic quarrels had occasionally been so violent as to draw together a crowd before his house; and his wife had once been sent to prison for eight and forty hours, in consequence of a complaint laid by her husband before the police. Bieringer accused her of violence of temper and love of finery; and her father of always supporting her against her husband. The imprisonment, it is true, had produced a wholesome effect, and Bieringer’s domestic peace had remained unbroken for some time. But the quarrel between Rupprecht and his son in-law was irreconcilable. Rupprecht would not see him; and on the very day before his death he had said to his maid, “Bieringer is a cursed rogue, who shall never come into my presence.” Rupprecht thought him a careless fellow, who worked less and spent more than he ought; and who, moreover, did not show him sufficient respect. He had long intended to make a will leaving his whole property to his daughter, and placing it entirely out of the reach of her husband. He had mentioned this plan to his daughter some months before. He had also told his fellow-lodger Hogner, who was more in his confidence than any one else, that “he would make a will, in which he would not forget his good friends, and would settle his money in such manner upon his daughter that his rascally son-in-law should not be able to touch it, so that his daughter might have something to live upon in case of a separation.” On Friday the 7th February, at about 3 P.M., only a few hours before he was murdered, he sent to his familiar friend Hogner, and requested him to “look out from among his papers some acknowledgments of debts, amounting to 1200 florins, as he must take them directly to the magistrate’s office. The search took up some time, as his papers were in disorder, and he requested me to come on the following Sunday, and sort them for him, as he wished to alter and arrange several matters, and to make a will. His maid was in the room at the time.” Had Bieringer been aware of this, he would undoubtedly have had the greatest interest in preventing Rupprecht from executing his intentions; and the circumstance that Rupprecht was murdered at ten o’clock at night of the same day on which he had talked about making his will, would no longer appeal merely as a strange coincidence.

But here again everything which at first appeared suspicious was explained away.

The hostess of the tavern proved that Rupprecht’s words, “My daughter, my daughter,” undoubtedly expressed his desire to see her. She stated that on seeing his dangerous condition, she cried out “Fetch his daughter,” whereupon Rupprecht repeated the words “My daughter.” Furthermore his sister Clara and his familiar friend Hogner testified that it was Rupprecht’s custom to send for his daughter every time he had even a pain in his finger.

This habit again accounted for Bieringer’s cool impatience when he told his wife to go to her father: he very naturally thought that matters were not so bad as they afterwards turned out.

The small sympathy which the daughter apparently felt with the fate of her father proves but little; not to mention that several other witnesses who had ample opportunity of observing her conduct stated the very reverse, and asserted that she showed great feeling.

The taking possession of her father’s keys was no more than what any other daughter would have done under the circumstances. They were essential to prepare for his reception in his own house. Moreover it afterwards appeared that she only took the keys at the suggestion of the physician, who suspected that some one might attempt to rob the house, in consequence of which suspicion, and at her request, two police officers accompanied her to her father’s house.

Her loud and eager announcement that her father had named the woodcutter Schmidt as his murderer, and her endeavours to fix the guilt on the so-called big Schmidt, would certainly have been suspicious, had not old Rupprecht realty named him. But her anxiety to force the man whom her imagination represented to her as the only possible murderer to confess his guilt, cannot surely be construed as evidence of her participation in the murder. Nor need we conclude that she put expressions into her father’s mouth about the murderer being a tall fellow in order to shield her husband; it is very possible that her father may have used them during the absence of other witnesses.

It is quite obvious that it was not her interest, while living on bad terms with her husband, to get rid of her father, who hated his son-in-law, and was her constant refuge and support against him, at the very moment, too, when she knew that her father was about to make a will which should secure her independence of her husband. Rupprecht’s dying intestate was as great a loss to his daughter as it was a gain to his son-in-law.

On further examination, everything was cleared up in Bieringer’s favour also.

Bieringer’s comparatively polished manners rendered him most unsuitable to his coarse father-in-law, whose avarice and meanness were shocked by his son-in-law’s more generous manner of living. Bieringer was considered by his fellow-citizens as a well-conducted and upright man, who loved society, without neglecting his business, and was not addicted to drinking or gaming. The chief cause of dissension between him and his wife was rather her love of dress and quarrelsome disposition than any fault of his. All who were acquainted with him said that they knew of no stain upon his honour or good name.

Even if Rupprecht’s intention to deprive Bieringer of all power over his daughter’s fortune appeared a sufficient motive for the murder of his father- in-law, it remained to be proved that Bieringer was aware of the project. But on examination it appeared the old man confided his thoughts to none but his friend and his daughter, who certainly could have no interest in betraying the secret to her husband. Neither his brother nor his sisters knew anything what-ever of the matter. It is true that on the day he was murdered his maid was present when he talked of making his will, but he mentioned it quite vaguely without entering into any particulars.

It was proved beyond doubt that Bieringer could not have committed the murder himself. On the evening of the 7th February he was at a tavern called the Golden Fish, distant full ten minutes’ walk from that frequented by Rupprecht. He was dressed as usual, and carried no weapon, not even a stick. Here he remained till a quarter past ten o’clock at night, and at half-past ten he came home and took off his clothes. He was found undressed by the man who went to his house in order to fetch his wife to her father. It was therefore impossible that he could have stayed at the Golden Fish until a quarter past ten o’clock, have murdered his father-in-law at a tavern some distance off, and be back in his own house, which was distant at least a mile from the scene of the murder, by half-past ten.

At the commencement of the inquiry the judge had endeavoured to discover with whom Rupprecht had dealings, and more especially who had been with him on the 7th February. The evidence given by Rupprecht’s maid seemed important. She stated that among others three trumpeters belonging to the regi- ment quartered in the town had been with Rupprecht on business on the very day of the murder, and had been told by him to call again on the following day: they did not return, having probably heard what had occurred. These three men were immediately arrested and examined. Although their depositions agreed on every point, and each one separately stated where they had been at the time of the murder, it nevertheless appeared as if one of these three trumpeters must be the murderer. One of them owed Rupprecht money, which he had no means of paying, and his two comrades had accompanied him to Rupprecht’s house, nobody exactly knew why. On the same evening Rupprecht received a deadly blow, and the wound presented the appearance of a sabre-cut inflicted by a practised hand.

But this was “like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere you can say it lightens.” Alibis were most clearly proved: two of them had been at their barracks, and the third had been sitting from eight till eleven in some tavern, whence he went straight to the hospital.

One means of detection, however, seems to have been forgotten. The physicians stated that the wound was to all appearance inflicted by a sabre, and it is probable that some discovery might have been made, had the arms of the garrison, and of the burgher guard, been examined on the morning after the murder. But when the court began the inquiry, it was already too late to hope for any results, even had this suggestion, made by the judge, been attended to. His colleagues were so completely possessed by the idea that the murderous blow had been inflicted by an axe wielded by a woodcutter, that they negatived a proposal founded on the supposition that Rupprecht had been killed by a sabre-cut.

Meanwhile two men, whose names were unknown, became the subject of inquiry. On the day after the murder, Rupprecht’s confidant and fellow-lodger, Hogner, laid information before the court as follows: “At about half-past five in the afternoon of the fatal Friday, Rupprecht came to me and requested me to allow his maid to spend the evening in my rooms, as two gentlemen were coming to him, with whom he wished to be alone. The maid came and stayed about an hour and a half, when Rupprecht returned and gave her the key of his rooms, saying that he was going to the tavern.” The maid confirmed this statement, adding that as she went down stairs to fetch her supper she had seen through the window which looks from the kitchen into Rupprecht’s room two young men, who were busied with something on the table. But this mysterious affair was soon cleared up: the two gentlemen were the regimental tailor and a shoemaker, the former of whom borrowed of Rupprecht the sum of 600 florins for three months, giving a bill for 650 florins, and leaving a large quantity of cloth as a pledge in Rupprecht’s hands. His friend the shoemaker merely acted as a witness in the transaction.

Several other men were arrested on divers suspicions, but all brought forward witnesses who completely disculpated them. The court was therefore forced to rest content after releasing Abraham Schmidt from his provisory arrest, and to close the proceedings until fresh suspicions should arise.

Ten years, writes Feuerbach in 1828, have since passed, and the manner of Rupprecht’s death is still involved in mystery.

Most likely the old usurer was murdered out of revenge or hatred by some disappointed suitor for a loan, or by a debtor who thought this the easiest way of paying his debt, and whose name was never known owing to Rupprecht’s habit of keeping no regular accounts and trusting chiefly to his memory. Not one even of his nearest relations knew the exact state of the old man’s affairs; even Hogner was only admitted to his confidence in cases of absolute necessity, when he wanted to have a note of hand looked out from among his papers, or to get them put in order. Thus probably the only clue to the discovery of Rupprecht’s murderer was buried with him.

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