The Unknown Murderer – The Police at Fault (I)

Part I (of two)

IN the year 1817 there lived in the town of M. a goldsmith of the name of Christopher Rupprecht. He was between the ages of sixty and sixty-five, and in easy circumstances. He had been twelve years a widower, and had but one child living, a daughter, married to a furrier named Bieringer, a brother and two sisters. Rupprecht could neither read nor write, and therefore kept no accounts either of his trade or of the money he lent out at interest, but trusted entirely to his memory and to the assistance he occasionally received from others in arranging and drawing up his bills. He was a man of vulgar mind and coarse habits, fond of associating with people of the very lowest class, and of frequenting alehouses, where his chief delight was in slang and abuse, and where he suffered himself to be made the butt of the roughest jokes and the most vulgar witticisms. His ruling passion was avarice, and his favourite business the lending money at usurious interest. Though rich, he deprived himself of necessaries, and was glad when his sister or his daughter sent him a dinner; and for a long time after his wife’s death he kept no servant, in order to save food and wages. Two days before the occurrence which caused the present inquiry, he had taken one into his service. Hard, morose, and repulsive, as a miser is apt to be, and at the same time crotchety, violent, and ready on the most trifling occasion to use abusive language, he kept most of his family at a distance. His daughter and his sister Clara visited him regularly, but his brother, with whom he had a law-suit, and his other sister, avoided his company; he had also quarrelled with his son-in-law several months before, and had ceased to see him from that time. He was cross-grained and quarrelsome, continually at law with his neighbours, and on bad terms with a number of people, though no one could be pointed out as his declared enemy.

For about a year he had been in the daily habit of frequenting a small beer-shop, commonly called the Hell. To this place, which was scarce fifty yards distant from his own house, Rupprecht went on the 7th February, at half-past eight in the evening, in his dressing-gown and with a leathern cap on his head. The party assembled there consisted of eleven respectable burghers, who sat talking and drinking together till about half-past ten, when Rupprecht called for another glass of beer, and the host left the upper parlour where his guests were assembled, and went down into the tap to fetch it. As he was going up stairs with the beer, and had almost reached the top, he heard the bell over the street-door, and on asking what was wanted, he was answered in a strange voice by the inquiry whether Mr. Rupprecht was there. Without looking round, the host answered that he was, and the stranger requested him to desire Rupprecht to step down to him for a moment. The host delivered the message to his guest, who instantly rose and left the room. Scarcely a minute had elapsed, when the other guests were alarmed by hearing loud groans like those of a person in a fit of apoplexy. They all hastened down stairs, and found Rupprecht lying just within the door, covered with blood which was pouring out of a large wound on his head. About a foot and a half from the body lay his cap, cut evidently by a sharp instrument. He was only able to mutter the words “Wicked rogue! wicked rogue! with the axe!” When asked whether he knew who had done it, he made an effort to speak, but no one could understand what he said. The guests carried him into the parlour, where he began to moan and mutter unintelligibly. Excited by the questions of one of the guests as to whether he knew the man, he distinctly said “My daughter! my daughter!” which was understood to mean that he wished to see Madame Bieringer: she was accordingly informed of what had happened, and brought to the house by one of those present; but Rupprecht apparently did not recognise her; he was insensible, and lay moaning like one in a fit, with his head drooping upon his breast and his limbs paralysed.

The physician and surgeon attached to the Criminal Court were sent for, and found a wound four inches long, which had penetrated the skull. This they attributed to a blow from some sharp heavy instrument according to all appearances a large sabre, wielded by a practised hand.

The Hell Tavern stands in the end of a narrow dark alley, from which there is no outlet. The side on which is the door forms an angle with the opposite house, so deep that no light falls into it by night. Two stone steps lead up to the house-door, of which one wing only opens, and is provided with a bell. Outside the door, on the left of these steps, is a stone bench. The hall within is small, narrow, and little more than six feet high; the wound could not therefore have been inflicted upon Rupprecht in the hall, as space and height were required to give force to the blow. It would moreover have been madness to attempt the deed in a passage which was lighted by an oil-lamp, which, though dim, would have enabled the victim or a passer by to recognise the murderer. In the hall, too, Rupprecht coming down the stairs would have met his enemy face to face, and must have seen him prepare for the attack, from which he might easily have escaped by running to the rooms above.

Supposing the wound which slanted downward, and had evidently been inflicted from behind to have been given during Rupprecht’s flight up the stairs, those who ran down on hearing his screams would have found the wounded man on the staircase, or at any rate close to the foot of it. But he was found just within the house-door, and it is far more likely that, after receiving the wound outside, he tottered back into the hall and fell there, than that he should have attempted to reach the house-door after being wounded in endeavouring to escape up the stairs.

Again, the wound was on the left side of the head, and the dark corner we have before mentioned is on the left hand of any one leaving the tavern. The probability therefore is that Rupprecht received the wound on the very door-step. In this case he had but to totter one step back to fall on the spot where he was found. It would have been scarcely possible for one in Rupprecht’ s condition to retain sufficient strength to crawl up the steps from the street into the hall.

On the other hand, it would have been impossible for the murderer, standing in the street, to have struck Rupprecht from behind, while he stood on the doorsteps. This difficulty is, however, completely removed by the stone bench on the left of the door, which we have already mentioned.

Thus all circumstances combine to make us conclude that the occurrence took place as follows: As soon as the murderer had requested the landlord to send Rupprecht down to him, he went into the dark corner on the left, mounted the stone bench near the door-steps, and stood there in readiness to strike. Rupprecht went down stairs, expecting to find some one who wanted to speak to him on business, and seeing no one in the passage, went outside the door and turned to look down the street after the man who had sent for him, when he was struck a well-aimed heavy blow from the stone bench behind him.

Nothing was found on or near the spot that could throw the slightest suspicion on any one, nor could any person present form a conjecture as to the author or the motive of the deed.

Something, it was hoped, would be learnt from the wounded man himself when he should have recovered consciousness. On the evening of the following day, the 8th of February, the judge and two other officers of the court accordingly visited him, and found him sensible. He frequently said “Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” and when he wished for something to drink, he pronounced the word beer plainly enough. Conceiving him to be in a fit state to give information, the judge asked him the following questions, which were thus answered by the wounded man: Who struck you the blow? ” Schmidt.”What Schmidt? “Woodcutter.” Where does he live? “In the Most.” With what did he strike you? “Hatchet.” How did you recognise him? ” By his voice.” Does Schmidt owe you money? He shook his head. What then could have induced Schmidt to do such a thing? “Quarrel.” As Rupprecht was unable to speak connectedly, no questions were asked about the nature of this quarrel. But when the first and second questions were again put to him, he distinctly repeated the words ” Schmidt woodcutter.” The judge ordered that an officer of the court should be in constant attendance on the wounded man, in order to gather every word that might fall from his lips. In this man’s presence Rupprecht continually repeated “Schmidt woodcutter,” whenever any one, his maid-servant, his daughter, his sister, or his son-in-law asked him who the murderer was. Only when his sister Clara asked him if he knew who had struck the blow, he muttered something apparently in the negative.

The first though not the sole object of the judge now was to discover the Schmidt of whom Rupprecht was thinking. But in this town, as everywhere else, there were a vast number of people called Schmidt, several of whom were woodcutters. Three of these especially engaged the attention of the court: the first was a certain Abraham Schmidt, who lived in the Hohes Pflaster, and who, it was rumoured, had once been taken up with a band of robbers and been sent to the House of Correction. The second was one John Gabriel Schmidt, commonly known as “big Schmidt” who lived in a street called the Walch, and had formerly been on friendly terms with Rupprecht, whose favour he had lately lost by some evidence which he gave against him in an action for defamation. The third was big Schmidt’s half-brother, distinguished from him by the name of “little Schmidt:” he also lived in the Walch, and was one of Rupprecht’s acquaintance.

This seemed to point out the direction in which investigation should be made. On the 10th February the physician announced that Rupprecht had been trepanned the day before and was now sensible, and a commission of inquiry with two witnesses accordingly went to his house. The judge seated himself beside the bed and greeted Rupprecht, who opened his eyes, looked about him, and distinctly answered “Yes ” to the judge’s question whether he knew him. The judge, convinced by this and other appearances that the wounded man was in the possession of his faculties, desired him to remember that, when asked about his wound, he had always mentioned a name in connection with it, told him that the commission was now come to take down his deposition in the presence of witnesses, and adjured him to reflect upon the danger in which he lay, the infinite knowledge and justice of God, and the awful consequences of every false word. Then came the following questions and answers. “Do you know who struck the blow?” Rupprecht repeatedly moved his right hand, imitating the motion of striking, and answered “Schmidt.” “Have I understood you aright? did you say Schmidt?” “Yes.” “Who is this Schmidt?” “Woodcutter.” “How do you know that it was Schmidt, since it was dark?” Rupprecht endeavoured to speak, but could not utter a sound: he then moved his right arm with increased vehemence. “But there are several of that name; can you tell me whether you mean the big or the little Schmidt?” Rupprecht made vain attempts to answer this and the question where the Schmidt lived to whom he referred. When asked whether he lived in the Walch, the Schütt, or the Most, Rupprecht was silent. At last, when asked whether Schmidt lived on the Hohes Pflaster, he distinctly answered “Yes.” Hereupon he sunk into a state of stupor, and the inquiry had to be postponed.

As equal suspicion attached to the three Schmidts above named, Abraham, as well as the big and the little Schmidt, were arrested that evening; and notwithstanding the alarming condition of the wounded man, they were severally taken to his bed-side on the chance that the murderer might be recognised by Rupprecht, or that fresh cause for suspicion might appear against him on the occasion. Rupprecht appeared sensible, but could not open his eyes, so that the main object entirely failed. Both the big and the little Schmidt appeared perfectly unembarrassed: the former exclaimed several times, “Poor Christopher! how ill you have been served poor fellow, many’s the good jest we have had together. He must have owed you a powerful grudge who could serve you so.” He likewise called to him repeatedly, ” Christopher! Christopher! your Hans is here.” Abraham Schmidt behaved far differently: when asked whether he knew the man in bed, he at first answered “I do not know him,” but immediately added, ” That is Mr. Rupprecht, I know him well; what is the matter with him?” When asked why he at first said he did not know him, he answered, “Because that is Mr. Rupprecht.” He was then desired to give a proper answer, but only exclaimed, “I can give no answer; I did not do it; ah! good Lord! I did not do it; I am not the man; as I hope for mercy, I am innocent. I am a poor woodcutter. You may ask my neighbours, my wife, and my mother. On Friday night I was cutting pegs at the house of my mother-in-law till eleven o’clock, and on Saturday and Sunday I was at home.” On being asked at what hour he had gone home on Friday night, he said, “I stayed until past nine with my mother-in-law.” When the manifest contradiction in his statement was pointed out to him, he only repeated “From nine to eleven.” These strange contradictory answers and the agitation and confusion exhibited by the prisoner, together with the circumstance that Rupprecht had that morning mentioned Schmidt on the Hohes Pflaster, seemed to point suspicion towards Abraham Schmidt, who was accordingly placed in arrest.

The following morning, at about five o’clock (the 11th February), Rupprecht died, without having recovered his speech or consciousness.

Meanwhile suspicion strengthened against Abraham Schmidt. The police handed the hatchets belonging to the three suspected men into court, and that of Abraham Schmidt was spotted apparently with blood.

On his examination he stated that he was about six-and-thirty, a Lutheran, and the son of a nailmaker, and that he had at first learnt the trade of pinmaking, but that finding it insufficient for his support, he had become a woodcutter. He had been married five years, and had had two children, of which one, a boy a year and a half old, was living. He had once been in prison, about twelve or fifteen years before, for carting some stolen vegetables into the town for other people. He asserted that he was perfectly innocent of the murder of Rupprecht, whom he had neither known nor seen. Hereupon he was reminded that when the wounded man was shown to him, he had at first said that he did not know him, but had immediately after recognised him as Rupprecht: how was this? He then replied, “I do not know why I said that, and I said it was Rupprecht directly, but I never saw him in my life before.” He was asked how then he had recognised him, and answered that ” every one was talking of the murder, and that he had heard of it at the public-house.” Whenever he was questioned as to where he was on Friday evening at the time of the murder, he invariably involved himself in contradictions. The judge questioned him as follows: “Where were you last Friday?” ” I went to the house of my mother-in-law at nine o’clock in the morning, to help her to cut pegs. I dined with her, and did not leave her house till nine o’clock at night, when I took my little boy home, went to bed directly, and did not get up again until seven o’clock on Saturday morning.” “When did your wife leave her mother’s house?” “At ten o’clock.” “Why did you not go together?” ” Because she was still at work, and as the boy would not go to sleep, she asked me to take him home, which I did.” “At what o’clock then did you go home on Friday?” “At nine o’clock.” “Yesterday you said it was at eleven; how is that?” After some hesitation, “I don’t know what you want of me; I went home with my wife at eleven.” “Just now you asserted that you went home at nine?” “All my neighbours can testify that I always come home at nine.” “That answer will not suffice; first you say nine, and then eleven: which is the truth?” “At nine o’clock, with my wife and my child. No, my wife stayed a little longer with her mother.” “Who took the child home?” ” I took him home with me at nine o’clock.” ” When did your wife come home?” “After ten o’clock.” “How do you know that?” ” Because she always comes home at that time; I was asleep when she came, and can’t tell exactly when it was. I did not wake, though I sleep in the same bed with her and the child.” “Have you a key of the house?” “Yes, but my mother has got it.” “How then did your wife get in?” “My wife took the key with her.” “You said at first that your mother had the key the whole night through?” “Yes, it lay upon the table.” “Then your wife could not have used it to let herself into the house?” “So I said, for my wife went home with me and put the boy to bed, and then she took the house-door key and went back to her mother.” “How long did she stay there?” “Till eleven.” “You said before that she came home at ten?” “I was asleep, I can’t tell whether it was ten or eleven when she came home.”

At first the accused did not seem embarrassed, and answered readily, but appeared anxious to avoid entering into details; and on being told that he contradicted himself, he grew impatient, hesitated, coughed, and stamped. He did not encounter the searching gaze of the judge, but looked down or on one side.

The same evening Rupprecht’s dead body was shown to him, and he was asked whether he recognised it. “This,” he answered, “is Mr. Rupprecht. I can swear to you by my conscience and my honour, and to Almighty God by my hope of salvation, that I never injured this man; for I never saw him before in all my life.” “You say you never saw him before now; how then do you know him?” “I heard of him from the people here and in the public-house, besides I saw him yesterday. My heart and my soul are free from guilt: I never harmed this man. I am in your power, and you may do with me what you will, I am a child of innocence.”When the accused first entered the room, he appeared much oppressed and overcome, but while asserting his innocence his firmness soon returned.

The person of the prisoner had been carefully examined when he was first taken to prison, but no stain of blood was found upon his body or his clothes. His house, and that of his step-mother, were rigidly searched, and in them were found tokens of great poverty, but not of crime.

He accounted for the blood on his hatchet by saying that his hand was chapped with the cold, and had bled the day before, and that this might have caused the stains. But these stains were close to the blade, and it was his right hand which was chapped, whereas in chopping wood the left hand would naturally be nearest to the blade of the axe, while the right hand grasped the handle. On further inquiry, however, the accused was found to be lefthanded, which solved the difficulty.

A comparison of the axe with the wound and the cut in the leathern cap rendered it, to say the least, very doubtful whether such a weapon could have been the one employed: the edge of the axe was only three inches and one-third in length, while the wound measured four inches, and the cut in the cap nearly four inches and a half; and an axe cannot be drawn in striking.

As the murderer had called to the landlord of the tavern to send Rupprecht down to him, the trial was made whether Abraham Schmidt could be recognised by his voice as the assassin. The landlord at first doubted the possibility of such a recognition, as he had paid no particular attention to the voice at the time, and the subsequent fright had driven all recollection of it out of his head the experiment could, however, do no harm. The judge sent for Schmidt into the audience-chamber, while the landlord was placed in an adjoining room, where he could hear, but not see, the prisoner. He declared without hesitation that Schmidt’s voice was much rougher than that of the person who came to his house on the night of the 7th February, which was like the voice of a woman.

The witnesses who were examined as to where the prisoner was when the murder took place, in great part removed the suspicion which he had raised against himself by his confused and contradictory statements. His mother-in-law, Barbara Lang, said that “Schmidt, with his wife and child, had come to her at half-past seven in the morning, as they usually did when he had no chopping to do, in order to save fuel and candles. They stayed all day, and at half- past nine or a quarter to ten he went away with his little child and his wife, who lighted him home. The latter returned and stayed with her another hour or hour and a half, making pegs.” The wife’s account did not exactly tally with this in point of time, as she said that they left Barbara Lang’s house at a quarter to nine; but in other respects her statement agreed with her mother’s, with the further addition that “when they got home she waited while her husband undressed and went to bed with the child, as she wanted the lantern to light her to her mother’s house and back again home. When she returned, at about ten, she found her husband asleep, and woke him, as he took up too much room in the bed. He asked what o’clock it was, and she told him it was ten. He certainly did not leave her side after that.” She added, “This is as true as that my poor child is now at my breast,” she had brought the child into court with her. The woman in whose house the Schmidts lodged confirmed this statement in every particular.

The discrepancy between the assertions of the several witnesses as to the time when Schmidt and his wife returned to their lodgings is easily accounted for, when we consider that they were poor people who had no clocks or watches, and that it was in the month of February. It is true that there was an interval of about an hour between the time of Schmidt’s coming home and his wife’s return. But the distance from the Hohes Pflaster to the Hell Tavern is above a mile, and a murder requires some preparation. Here, however, was a commonplace, good sort of man, who passed the whole evening with his old mother-in-law, employed with his wife in cutting pegs to earn a crust of bread returned home with his child in his arms, his wife carrying a lantern, and went to bed with his child whom we must then suppose to have jumped out of bed the moment his wife’s back was turned, to have seized an axe, and leaving his child, to have hastened to the spot where he committed a murder remarkable for cunning and cruelty, hurried back into bed, where he was found shortly afterwards by his wife, fast asleep. All this, too, without any one in the house hearing any noise, and without leaving a trace of the murder on his person. The only way to account for this would be to suppose the wife to be an accomplice, a supposition for which there was not the slightest foundation. The evidence of one Anna Keinitz, an old woman of seventy-eight, proved that on the 8th of February Abraham Schmidt was in all probability ignorant of the murder committed on the previous evening. Returning from market she passed Rupprecht’s house, where she heard the news. On her way home she stepped in at neighbour Barbara Lang’s to warm herself, and found Schmidt and his wife were cutting pegs, as he had no chopping to do. Anna Keinitz related what she had heard. Schmidt asked her who this Rupprecht was? She answered that he lived near the butchers’ stalls; and the mother-in-law added, “It is Rupprecht who so often comes to the tavern do not you know him?” Schmidt replied carelessly, “I do not.”

On the 9th February, Schmidt was at a tavern called the Sow, where several guests were discussing the murder. Schmidt said nothing, and showed no embarrassment; his manner was, as usual, quiet and reserved.

The evidence of the two men who by turns watched the dying man, completely overthrew one of the chief causes of suspicion against Schmidt. They stated that when the maid or Rupprecht’s daughter asked the wounded man where Schmidt lived, he answered indifferently, “On the Hohes Pflaster,” or “In the Walch.”

Schmidt’s bad repute, owing to a vague recollection of some former transgression which vulgar exaggeration had magnified into a great crime, disappeared on further inquiry. All who were questioned about Abraham Schmidt’s conduct his landlord, his neighbours, and the superintendent of police of the district described him as a very poor, hard-working, peaceable, good-natured man, and a good husband and father.

His strange conduct in the presence of the dying man, and his contradictory statements, were thus accounted for. According to his mother’s testimony, he was hard of hearing, timid, and awkward. The smallest trifle made him lose all presence of mind, and he was often so confused as to say the very opposite of what he meant about things the most familiar to him. “I believe,” said the magistrate of his district, ” that there is not any one in my whole district who is so blundering. For instance, he seldom calls any one by his right name; and when he does not understand what is said to him, or cannot express his meaning, he is apt to be angry.” And this poor blockhead he knew not why or wherefore was suddenly dragged into the presence of a dying man, whom he found himself accused of having murdered, and, while agitated and dismayed by a scene so strange, solemn and terrible, questions were put to him about the most minute and trifling circumstances questions the drift of which he was too stupid and confused to understand.

The contradictory statements which he made concerning many important details, were manifestly the result of the prisoner’s habitual confusion of ideas and defective memory. His recognition of Rupprecht, joined to his declaration that he did not know him, would have appeared perfectly consistent had he possessed the power of expressing himself intelligibly. Without having ever seen Rupprecht he must have guessed that the wounded man lying before him could have been none other than the Rupprecht whose accident was in every one’s mouth.


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