Celebrated Criminal Cases of America: Dabner and Seimsen

The “Gas Pipe” Murderers.

Never since the days of the fa­mous Vig­i­lance Com­mit­tee in 1852-56 were the cit­i­zens of San Fran­cisco more ter­ror-stricken by the crim­i­nal el­e­ment than dur­ing the five months fol­low­ing the great earth­quake and fire in April, 1906.

Be­cause of the vast amount of tax­able prop­erty de­stroyed it was de­cided that all branches of the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment must econ­o­mize, and the po­lice force was tem­porar­ily re­duced about one-fifth by forc­ing mem­bers to take a leave of ab­sence. The crim­i­nal el­e­ment was quick to take ad­van­tage of the sit­u­a­tion, and the re­sult was that a se­ries of most atro­cious crimes were com­mit­ted.

Some of our most promi­nent cit­i­zens were beaten and robbed on the streets, and fi­nally the des­per­a­does be­came more blood­thirsty and mur­dered mer­chants and bankers in their places of busi­ness in broad day­light.

On the night of July 10, 1906, Coro­ner Le­land was as­saulted and robbed by two thugs at the cor­ner of La­guna and Vallejo streets.

Owing to a re­mark­able chain of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence an ex-con­vict named James Dow­dall was ar­rested for this crime, par­tially iden­ti­fied by Dr. Le­land, and con­victed. He was sen­tenced to fifty years’ im­pris­on­ment.

Jo­hannes Pfitzner was the son of Adolph Pfitzner, the Chief Ar­chi­tect to Em­peror William of Ger­many. The son left home to make his own way in the world, and im­me­di­ately after the big fire opened a small shoe store at 964 McAl­lis­ter street.

On the af­ter­noon of Au­gust 20, 1906, he was found on the floor of his store in a dying con­di­tion, his head hav­ing been crushed in by a win­dow weight, which was found near the body. About $140 and his gold watch was miss­ing. It was ev­i­dent that he was in the act of try­ing a pair of No. 8 shoes on some man when the fatal blow was struck.

At 3:10 p. m. on Sep­tem­ber 14, 1906, a lit­tle boy named Robert An­der­son and his sis­ter, Thelma, en­tered the cloth­ing store con­ducted by William Friede, at 1386 Mar­ket street.

See­ing no one in the front part of the store the chil­dren went to the rear, which was Friede’s work­shop and where cus­tomers tried on cloth­ing. Here they found Friede lying in a pool of blood, his head being bat­tered to a pulp. His tape mea­sure lay be­side him, his pock­ets were turned in­side out; his watch, con­tain­ing a pic­ture of his fam­ily, was miss­ing, and the money drawer was empty. The wounded man died the next day with­out hav­ing re­cov­ered con­scious­ness.

There was no ev­i­dence to show what in­stru­ment was used in com­mit­ting this as­sault. On the fol­low­ing day Friede’s watch was found on Mar­ket street, near Do­lores.

At 12:30 p. m., Oc­to­ber 3, 1906, a Japan­ese named Yazo Ki­tashima en­tered the Japan­ese bank, known as the “Kim­mon Ginko,” lo­cated at 1588 O’Far­rell street, but fail­ing to re­ceive any re­sponse to his calls he pro­ceeded to Pres­i­dent M. Mune-kato’s of­fice in the rear. Here he found the Pres­i­dent and A. Sasaki, a clerk, lying on the floor, their heads hav­ing been beaten al­most to a pulp.

Nearby was a piece of one and one-quar­ter inch gaspipc about four­teen inches in length and wrapped in a piece of or­di­nary wrap­ping paper. It was cov­ered with blood and ev­i­dently was the weapon used in com­mit­ting the as­sault.

After ren­der­ing the bank at­taches help­less, the as­sailants took all the money in sight, about $2,800. Mu­nakato died two hours after the as­sault, but Sasaki, after months of suf­fer­ing, fi­nally re­cov­ered, but his mind al­ways re­mained a blank re­gard­ing the cir­cum­stances lead­ing up to the as­sault.

Gov­er­nor Pardee took cog­nizance of the un­prece­dented num­ber of atro­cious crimes being com­mit­ted in San Fran­cisco, and on Oc­to­ber 12, 1906, he of­fered a re­ward of $1,500 for the ar­rest and con­vic­tion of the mur­der­ers of Pfitzner, Friede and Mu­nakato.

On Sat­ur­day evening, No­vem­ber 3, 1906, three men en­tered the jew­elry store con­ducted by Henry Behrend, at 1323 Steiner street, and after mak­ing a pre­tense at pur­chas­ing jew­elry as­saulted him. One man took about $75 from the till, an­other held Behrend, while the third rained blows on his head with an iron bar, Behrend re­sisted and dodged the blows. This caused the man who was hold­ing him to place one hand on the side of his head to hold it still so that the third man’s blows would be ef­fec­tive. The next blow struck one of the fin­gers of the man who was hold­ing Behrend and al­most cut it off. The rob­bers be­came alarmed and fled, with the ex­cep­tion of the man who was wield­ing the iron.

Notwith­stand­ing the fact that Behrend’s face and head were cov­ered with his own blood, he bravely held on to this man until Of­fi­cers John T. Con­lon, William Lam­bert, James Welch and W. F. Brown, a fire­man, ap­peared and took the as­sailant into cus­tody. The cry that one of the “gaspipe” men had been cap­tured spread like wild­fire, and the great crowd which as­sem­bled in front of the jew­elry store were con­tin­u­ally ut­ter­ing cries of “Lynch him,” and con­sid­er­able dif­fi­culty was ex­pe­ri­enced in dis­pers­ing the in­dig­nant cit­i­zens. The rob­ber was taken be­fore Chief Dinan and Cap­tain of De­tec­tives Duke. He at first re­fused to dis­cuss his iden­tity, but upon being told that he would be shown at mid­night to every po­lice­man in the city for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion he ad­mit­ted that his name was Loi­iis Dab­ner and that he resided at 1786 Union street. He also ad­mit­ted that his room­mate was John Seim­sen, whose fa­ther was at one time a very wealthy cit­i­zen in Hon­olulu. Dab­ner claimed that Seim­sen had noth­ing to do with the as­sault just com­mit­ted. Upon mak­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion it was learned that the de­scrip­tion of Seim­sen tal­lied with that given by Behrend of the man who held him, and Behrend fur­ther­more stated that the man who held him had a wounded fin­ger.

Some days pre­vi­ous, Seim­sen, who had posed as the heir to a vast es­tate in Hon­olulu, se­cretly mar­ried Miss Hulda Von Hof­fen, whose fa­ther con­ducted a jew­elry store on Union street near Buchanan. Seim­sen had an ap­point­ment that evening with his wife, who was still liv­ing at her fa­ther’s home.

Sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ments proved that Seim­sen was ac­tu­ally the as­sailant whom Behrend de­scribed as hav­ing a wounded fin­ger. As it was nec­es­sary for Seim­sen to ex­plain this in­jury to his wife, he stated that he had been “held up” and that be­cause his di­a­mond ring could not be read­ily re­moved the high­way­man at­tempted to cut his fin­ger off.

His wife tele­phoned the de­tails of the al­leged rob­bery to her fa­ther, against the wishes of Seim­sen. Shortly after re­ceiv­ing the mes­sage Mr. Von Hof­fen met Chief Dinan and Cap­tain Duke, who were en route to Dab­ner and Seim­sen’s room, and in­formed them of his daugh­ter’s mes­sage.

The of­fi­cers pre­tended that they had heard all about the “rob­bery” of Mr. Seim­sen, and stated that they had lo­cated the ro­Doers and were look­ing for Mr. Seim­sen to iden­tify them. Mr. Von Hof­fen was highly elated, and bade them wait at his door, as his daugh­ter had tele­phoned that they were on the way home. Presently Seim­sen ar­rived with his wife, and the of­fi­cers said: “Well, Mr. Seim­sen, we have the men who robbed you and we want you to ac­com­pany us to the sta­tion to iden­tify them.” Seim­sen stated that he would call the next day. As he moved his hand to­ward his hip pocket the of­fi­cers closed upon him and re­moved a big pis­tol from his pos­ses­sion. He then said: “Well, I guess it’s all up,” and con­fessed to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the rob­bery that night, but de­nied hav­ing taken part in any other crime. He was at once iden­ti­fied by Chief Dinan as an ex-con­vict who had served four years for steal­ing some in­stru­ments from a Hawai­ian mu­si­cian.

Within a few days the po­lice gath­ered an abun­dance of ev­i­dence against the pair, even as­cer­tain­ing where the $2,800 taken from the Japan­ese bank was spent. Dab­ner’s fa­ther was a highly re­spected cit­i­zen of Petaluma, Cal., and on No­vem­ber 6, 1906, in com­pany with Cap­tain of De­tec­tives Duke and De­tec­tive Wren, he vis­ited his son. At this time he de­manded proof that his son had com­mit­ted mur­der, and the ev­i­dence was laid be­fore him. Being con­vinced of his own son’s guilt he begged him to tell the truth. The boy still pro­fessed to be in­no­cent, but when ad­di­tional ev­i­dence was dis­closed, he fi­nally weak­ened and made the fol­low­ing re­mark­able con­fes­sion:

“On the night of July 10, Seim­sen and I held up Coro­ner Le­land at the cor­ner of Vallejo and La­guna streets. I know it was Dr. Le­land be­cause we got pa­pers and checks from his per­son giv­ing his name. We sent the check, gun­metal watch, chain and Ma­sonic em­blem back to him in a past­board box, by mail. We got the past­board box at the candy store at the cor­ner of Union and Oc­tavia streets. I in­closed a note to Dr. Le­land in my own hand­writ­ing, and wrote the ad­dress on the box.

Seim­sen said to Le­land: ‘Throw up your hands,’ and pointed a gun at him. Le­land at­tempted to wres­tle, and he got hold of the gun. Seim­sen held the gun with one hand and used the other to go through him, and I went through him on the other side. We got over a hun­dred dol­lars. I am al­most sure we took ei­ther a five or a one dol­lar green­back. Seim­sen or­dered him to walk down the street. Seim­sen and I ran across the lot where the refugees built their fires.

We jumped the fence and went through a pri­vate yard and out the front way. We saw a fel­low stand and look at us, but we kept run­ning. We left two old black over­coats, three-quar­ter size, two slouch hats and a few of Le­land’s keys in a chicken house back of an empty house on Fil­bert or Green­wich street, be­tween Buchanan and La­guna. We stayed in the chicken house about half an hour and then went home.

We were in court as spec­ta­tors when James Dow­dall was con­victed for this crime and also when he was sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment.

On the night of Au­gust 18, my­self, Seim­sen and Harry Sut­ton, an ex-con­vict, went out on Pa­cific av­enue and Buchanan street. We saw a tall, stout man, with sandy mus­tache, com­ing east on Pa­cific av­enue. He had some parcels in his hand. Seim­sen jumped out and told him to throw up his hands. Harry Sut­ton went through one side of him and I went through the other side. Seim­sen hit him with a black jack, but the lead flew off and it did not hurt him. We got $5 from him. We each took $1, and drank up the re­main­der. This man, whom we learned through the pa­pers was J. H. Dock­weiler, a civil en­gi­neer, ran to a house, rang the bell and yelled ‘Po­lice.’

One Sat­ur­day night in the month of May, Seim­sen and I went into E. E. Gillon’s hard­ware store, on Point Lobos av­enue, on the north side. I pre­tended to want to pur­chase a knife. He showed me one and I threw out $20, and he threw back the change. Seim­sen then threw the gun up at him and or­dered him to throw up his hands and throw up the money and face about. I took $38 of his money. Seim­sen then or­dered him to the back part of the store. Seim­sen watched him awhile and we then walked away. We laid low for a while and then took the car and went hoqie.

On the day of the Pfitzner mur­der, Seim­sen and I looked in the show­case of the store and went down the street and then came back to the store. Seim­sen tried on a pair of shoes the first time, but com­plained that they were too dear, and we went out. We walked around the block and came back. We both went in the store and I tried on a pair. When he was try­ing on my shoes Seim­sen hit Pfitzner on the head with a win­dow weight and he fell to the floor. I then put on my own shoes and held the door at the same time, while Seim­sen went through Pfitzner. Seim­sen got about $100, which we di­vided at our home on Union street. We threw Pfitzner’s watch in the water at the foot of Fill­more street.

Seim­sen and I passed Friede’s place on Mar­ket street the day of the mur­der. At this time there was a ‘run’ on the Hi­ber­nia Bank, so we watched the de­pos­i­tors leav­ing, in­tend­ing to fol­low up any one who looked to be worth the while, but not see­ing any­thing that looked ‘good’ we passed back by Friede’s. We were look­ing into the store, and Seim­sen said he thought this was an easy place. We went in and Seim­sen told me to try on a suit. Friede was mea­sur­ing me for a pair of pants when Seim­sen hit him on the head and knocked him un­con­scious with a gaspipe that I picked up. Seim­sen then went through his pock­ets and I went through the till. I took all the money I found in the till, which I di­vided with Seim­sen at our home on Union street, where we went im­me­di­ately after the as­sault.

Im­me­di­ately after we killed Friede in the back part of his store a cus­tomer came in the front part, and fear­ing that he would come to the rear and dis­cover our deed, I pulled the shop tag off the new coat which I then had on, took off my hat, and pre­tend­ing to be a clerk, walked out be­hind the counter and asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted some ‘can­vas for lin­ing.’ I in­formed him that I was a new clerk and was not fa­mil­iar with the stock, and asked him to please call later, which he agreed to.

Friede’s money was ev­i­dently in an old-fash­ioned money drawer which slid under the counter and could only be opened by some­one hav­ing a knowl­edge of the com­bi­na­tion under the drawer which were ma­nip­u­lated with the fin­gers.

I re­al­ized that if I pressed the wrong keys and at­tempted to open the drawer the bell would ring, which would prob­a­bly be heard in the next store, as it was only a tem­po­rary build­ing with thin board par­ti­tions, and we were forced to op­er­ate very qui­etly. I rea­soned that Friede, being fa­mil­iar with the com­bi­na­tion and using it many times a day would press only en the proper key, and that the key would show the ef­fects of con­stant usage, whereas the oth­ers would prob­a­bly be dusty. I there­fore lit a match and get­ting under the counter it was ap­par­ent at a glance which keys of the com­bi­na­tion had been used, so I pressed them and the drawer con­tain­ing the money flew open.

On the morn­ing of the Japan­ese bank rob­bery, Seim­sen and I left home to­gether. We had planned the day be­fore to rob the Japan­ese bank on the fol­low­ing day at noon. Seim­sen went into the bank on the day pre­vi­ous to the mur­der. When he came out he told me that he had rep­re­sented him­self to be a man of busi­ness and that he in­tended to de­posit money there.

On the day of the rob­bery we hung around the bank for a while, and after we saw the clerks go away to lunch we went in. Seim­sen stepped in front and told the Japan­ese in the front part that he wanted to see the man­ager. Then Seim­sen and I went back to the man­ager’s of­fice. Seim­sen saw the man­ager was writ­ing, and as the other Jap was not look­ing, he (Seim­sen) hit the man­ager over the head with a gaspipe which I got at Con­vey’s store on Union street, near our house, and which I wrapped in a piece of paper I got in the same store. I got this pipe the night be­fore the as­sault.

After Seim­sen knocked the man­ager out I called the other Jap back to the rear of­fice, ac­cord­ing to our orig­i­nal plan. When he came back, Seim­sen hit him over the head sev­eral times and he fell.

The Jap who was called from the front started to get up, and I hit him my­self with the pipe on the head, and he fell again. Seim­sen then went through the till and we got about $2,800, partly in sil­ver and partly in gold, which we put in a satchel. Not being able to find any­thing else but checks we left.

We then went to Seim­sen’s horse and buggy, which we left stand­ing on Web­ster street, be­tween O’Far­rell and Geary, and drove to Van Ness av­enue, where we met Seim­sen’s wife.

We sep­a­rated, as he said he was going to take his wife out for a drive. I then took one of the Von Hof­fen chil­dren in my buggy out to the Pre­sidio, and I brought her home in about two hours.

Dur­ing the time I had the Von Hoffen child out rid­ing and until 7 o’clock that night I left the satchel con­tain­ing the money in a sack of oats where we kept our rig. About 7 p. m. I came and got the satchel con­tain­ing the money and took it to the room oc­cu­pied by my­self and Seim­sen. We counted it that evening and left it in our closet. On this evening I took the horse and rig to Con­lan’s sta­ble, on Green­wich street, near La­guna, and sta­bled it there. It was a sor­rel horse with a white face and legs, and the buggy is now at Worst’s paint store.

Seim­sen and I spent $246 of the sil­ver which we took from the Japan­ese bank at Macey’s Jew­elry Com­pany, 1700 Fill­more street. We also spent about $200 in sil­ver at Paul Garen’s jew­elry store, 1558 Fill­more street. We spent $165 at the Hub cloth­ing store, on Fill­more street. At Heller’s, on Van Ness av­enue, Seim­sen spent $95 and I spent $50. Seim­sen also spent $75 at Alexan­dra’s, on Van Ness av­enue, near Sut­ter street. Seim­sen spent $150 at Alexan­dra’s for a locket, watch and di­a­mond en­gage­ment ring for his wife. All of the money above men­tioned was taken from the Japan­ese bank.

This and all state­ments and con­fes­sions made by me this date (No­vem­ber 6, 1906), to Cap­tain Duke, in the pres­ence of my fa­ther, are free and vol­un­tary and with­out threats or promise of re­ward.”

“(Signed), LOUIS DAB­NER.”

Seim­sen, on being con­fronted by Dab­ner after the con­fes­sion, at first de­nied that the state­ments were true, but he fi­nally weak­ened and ad­mit­ted that it was the truth and signed his name to it. Seim­sen then ex­plained how Friede’s watch was found at Mar­ket and Do­lores streets.

He stated that Dab­ner and he boarded a Mar­ket street car im­me­di­ately after the as­sault and stood on the rear end. When they reached Do­lores street he no­ticed a watch hang­ing to a but­ton on his vest. He opened it, and see­ing that it con­tained a pic­ture of a group con­sist­ing of his lat­est vic­tim, a lady and baby, he con­cluded that the ring of the watch be­came caught on the but­ton in some in­ex­plic­a­ble man­ner while search­ing the body. He then threw it into the street.

De­tec­tive Gus Harper was im­me­di­ately de­tailed to sub­stan­ti­ate the con­fes­sion in re­la­tion to the rob­bery of Dr. Leland, and as it was proved be­yond all doubt that the con­fes­sion was true, the mat­ter was laid be­fore Gov­er­nor Pardee, who granted a par­don to Dow­dall.

Seim­sen and Dab­ner were tried for the mur­der of Munakato. Dab­ner pleaded guilty. Seim­sen pleaded not guilty, but the jury lost no time in find­ing him guilty, as every state­ment in the con­fes­sion was proved to be true. Both were sen­tenced to be hanged, but an ap­peal was taken to the Supreme Court, which handed down a de­ci­sion on April 27, 1908, in which the rul­ings of the lower court were af­firmed.

On July 31, 1908, both men were hanged from the same scaf­fold at San Quentin. Dab­ner’s fa­ther died shortly be­fore the ex­e­cu­tion, and Pfitzner’s fa­ther died soon after hear­ing of his son’s tragic death.

It was learned that the third man in the Behrend rob­bery was Harry Kear­ney from Sacra­mento, who is now in prison in Wash­ing­ton for a sim­i­lar of­fense.

Dow­dall has since been re­turned to State prison for com­mit­ting a bur­glary.


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