Lies Told Under Oath: The Puzzling Story of the Pfanschmidt Murders and of the Surviving Son-Victim or Villain?

Lies Told Under Oath: The Puzzling Story of the Pfanschmidt Murders and of the Surviving Son-Victim or Villain?

by Beth Lane


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ISBN-13: 9781462076307
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/03/2012
Pages: 428
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.95(d)

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The Puzzling Story of the Pfanschmidt Murders and of the Surviving Son—Victim or Villain?
By Beth Lane

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Beth Lane
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-7630-7

Chapter One

Illusions of Peace

Saturday, September 28, 1912

The peaceful Illinois prairie kept deadly secrets that autumn Saturday. A white-frame farmhouse sat silently, concealed by its orchard. Chickens lazily scratched the dirt in the garden, and the leaves of carefully tended fruit trees stirred in an erratic breeze. Horses stomped and whickered in the barn but could not be heard from the nearby road. Neither the lively Pfanschmidt family, who owned and tended the place, nor their boarder, the new schoolteacher, was anywhere to be seen.

It appeared to early morning passersby that the family had gone to the city for the day.

Just a mile down the road, a little rock building known as Hibner School also rested silently, locked and shuttered at the edge of the fields as the buggy of mail carrier William Long clopped by. The stone walls of the one-room school drank in the pale sunshine; the wood stove, cold and still, awaited the teacher's match come Monday.

Mr. Long thought about the newly hired teacher, Emma Kaempen, and wondered how the plain-faced young city woman would fare in the country. Usually on Saturday mornings, Miss Kaempen arranged to make the hour and a half ride back to her family on the Payson/Quincy stagecoach. Or sometimes she would tie a rag on the mailbox and the neighboring farmer, Mr. Kaufman, would stop for her on his way to deliver his eggs and butter to the Quincy stores. That thirteen-mile journey spanned more than miles; it crossed boundaries of attitude and culture.

At the Pfanschmidt farm on this fall morning there was no flag on the mailbox, so the neighbor went on his way without stopping.

Mailman Long left the newspaper in the box by the road, since no one was waiting to gather it. Neither blonde, pretty Blanche nor her smiling mother, Mathilda, was there. There was no friendly wave from Blanche's father, Charles, usually hard at work in the fields. Mr. Long didn't expect to see the only other member of the family, a grown son named Ray, who worked in town.

All day the empty windows of the two-story farm house gazed blankly toward the road. There was, however, an odd odor tossed about by the unpredictable breeze. Woodcutter Roy Peter, passing the farm about 7:00 a.m., thought someone might have disposed of cholera hogs. This dreadful disease had been about the area recently, and the only sure way to stop its spread was to burn the diseased carcasses. Whatever the source, the smell was decidedly unpleasant.

That day, the neighbor's son, Gus Kaufman, chopped corn and cut weeds up near the Payson Road, just a hundred yards from the Pfanschmidt home. He saw only a quiet, peaceful farm. It was an uneventful day for him, the last such for a long time.

As the light wind changed direction, rippling the corn stalks in the fields, the nose-wrinkling smell appeared and dissipated, never revealing its source. Toward sunset, when the damp air quieted the breeze and made all odors more distinctive, the stench grew stronger. At least that's how it seemed to neighbor Peter as he made his return trip past the farm that evening.

Later still, about ten o'clock, a little shower settled the dust on the roads before the darkened farmhouse.

Chapter Two


Sunday, September 29, 1912

By two o'clock Sunday morning flames were staining the sky, bouncing dirty red among the clouds.

At the Schreck farm, a mile north of the Pfanschmidt place, a shrill noise disturbed a sleeping woman, who then roused her husband. Groggy, Henry Schreck stumbled to the loudly ringing wall phone. Calls in the dead of night were never good news, especially the single long peal of alarm spilling out of the crank phone.

He was galvanized awake by one word that first penetrated his sleep-shrouded brain: "Fire!" followed by, "Pfanschmidts!"

Rubbing his eyes, Henry peered toward the neighbors but saw only an angry red reflection in the sky. He jerked his shoulders into a denim shirt and pulled on pants as he made his way out the door, ignoring anxious questions from his wife.

Crossing to the wooden windmill, he forced his stiff and tired body to clamber up high enough for a decent view over the trees. But even from this vantage he could not tell if the flames were consuming a barn or the house.

Scrambling down, he threw a bridle on the closest horse in the barn and galloped bareback across the fields. The horse, unwilling to approach the flames, shied at some distance from the farmstead. Henry, figuring it was quicker to proceed on foot than to fight the rearing horse, jumped down. His horse spun in a circle and trotted back toward the safety of home.

"Charles! Tilde!" Henry bellowed the names of his friends against the awful clawing roar of the flames. His cries went unanswered.

The chimney bricks and the tin roof of the house had already collapsed, nearly leveling the two-story home. Henry circled the house. Only the fire spoke, using crashes and crackles and showers of sparks.

Scant minutes later, the four Lier brothers arrived from their farm to the north. John, the eldest, had left Quincy a few hours earlier, just after midnight Saturday and dozed as his horses carried the buggy home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He had been unhitching his team when the wind carried the scent of fire and jolted him awake. He roused his brothers, and they hurried through the night, following the beacon of the flames.

Another neighbor, Gus Kaufman, breathlessly arrived on foot just as Ben was tying the Liers' horses to the back side of the barn, out of sight of the terrifying flames.

"Where's Charles and Tilde?" he rasped.

"Don't know," replied Henry. "Best get on the telephone and try and find them. Maybe they're to town." The bleakness in his eyes belied his hopeful words.

John Wand was the next neighbor to arrive. His watch, illuminated by the blaze, showed 2:20 a.m. He angled his wagon across the drive, sealing off the lane where it ran closest to the house. He knew others would be arriving soon, the countryside roused by the efficient party-line alarms pealing through the night.

The house was now completely engulfed. The northwest corner was the last to be wrapped in the red-orange embrace of the fire. In short order, the timber frame was completely consumed by the fire's fierce hunger. Only a stove pipe protruded drunkenly from what used to be the kitchen. It leaned away from the silent dinner bell sitting forlornly atop its post in the backyard. The place smelled of ash and despair.

"They must not have been home," a voice said with the quiet determination of hope. "There was a porch roof both of those bedrooms gave on to. If they'd of been home they could have got out."

"Yeah," agreed a second voice. "Smoke couldn't have got 'em all. They must be in town."

"Go call Geisel—he might know where they are." Henry Geisel was the missing farmer's brother-in-law and lived just south of Quincy. Perhaps the family had spent the night there.

Phone calls were made in a flurry from a neighbor's house. The telephone party lines sang out their long and short rings, demanding answers. Since everyone on a party line listened in on calls rousing the countryside in the dead of night, news spread at the speed of speech.

John Lier gestured to Schreck. "Henry, I checked the barn. There's four horses in there, and they were awful thirsty. I don't think they were fed or watered yesterday. That big one was so skittish it climbed into the manger."

Henry saw there was still more. Lier continued: "The buggy's there too—settin' in the runway of the barn with a bag of sugar in it. And there's a wagon loaded with oats."

Almost in unison, shoulders slumped in defeat. Eyes searched the ground, vainly seeking some remaining hope for their friends. The men milled around in predawn, smoky-tasting gloom. Unequipped to fight the blaze, they waited while the unhampered fire burned the darkness for another interminable hour or two, until Henry Geisel finally arrived.

"We'd better pull the roof off," was all he said.

Geisel exhorted and ordered and organized the growing crowd into forming a bucket line from the cistern. Their efforts were surely no threat to the furnace raging through the ruins of the house, but it provided an outlet for the frustration and fear of the watchers. As the pale gray light erased the darkness, Moritz and Ben Lier climbed the telephone poles to harvest wires to use to drag the hot metal lid from the house.

Fred Schnellbecker and Ed Wand, from two neighboring farms, left the growing crowd of spectators and headed to the barnyard with a coal oil lamp to tend to the cows that would need to be milked—fire or not. But there were no cows to be found. It was another oddity to add to the growing number of unexplained and disturbing things amiss in the orderly homestead.

"Look at this." In the flickering light from the lamp, Fred pointed to the ground in the barnyard. "Looks like someone was here last night after the rain. There's a track cuts through the crust."

"Turned sharp on itself," muttered Ed. "Can't see where it stopped though."

"Don't look like a rubber tire track, does it?"

Ed answered with a negative shake of his head. "Nope. Must have been steel tires to make tracks that sharp."

Methodically working at the house ruins, the men used pitchforks to puncture the heat-brittle metal that had been the roof. Easing phone wire through the holes, they made loops to pull away the protesting strips. Uncovered embers flared flame red as the morning air reached them, but cistern water quenched their brief return and cooled them to ashes.

"Let's check the kitchen first. Maybe this thing started from a stove." John Lier and three men moved to the northeast side of the debris and began working at the roof, laying bare the flattened room below.

Soon two stoves were exposed to the dawn. One, an old-style cooking stove had collapsed into itself from the heat. The remains of a newer-model coal oil range had been warped by the fire, solder melting off some of the tubes. There was no sign of explosion from either one. It seemed they were not to blame.

"Look at this." One of the men held up a strange, contorted object. "Must of been a fork." He dropped it with a muted clatter onto a pile of silver-plated cutlery, now twisted by the heat and stripped of its shiny exterior. Little was now recognizable except metal and earthenware.

The flooring of the east room had collapsed. It exposed a forlorn jumble of goods lying on the cement cellar floor below, much of it home-canned jars of garden vegetables that Mathilda and Blanche had worked hard to put up against the winter. John Lier, poking through the debris, prodded at a charred mass not quite a yardstick long.

When he flipped it over, the underside revealed a scrap of blue hickory shirt and undershirt saved from the fire by what should have been the left hip. The lump had once been somebody.

"Where's his head?" gagged a voice as the stench released by turning the body rose to engulf them.

"Dig for the rest of him. Be careful!" John's voice cracked. It would prove to be a fruitless search. There were no arms, or legs, or head to be found. On the west side of the home, the search was faring no better.

Ben and the Wand boy had their backs to the fire, straining to wrest a long strip of roof iron free, but they whirled as one upon hearing a strangled cry.

"Who is that? Where's the body?" These words flew from a horrified Henry Miller, driver of a mule team freight wagon who had arrived before daylight. He had followed the red glow of firelight in the clouds for some time as he ferried his load from the little town of New Canton toward Quincy, and he had been among the first to arrive. All three men were mesmerized by the bizarre head that seemed to pop up out of the ruins, sightless eyes blazing at them.

"There's the rest." Ben pointed toward a torso that had a stump of a neck and most of one leg missing.

"There's more." The numb quiet that had fallen allowed the anguished tones to carry over the shriek of metal as the last two roof panels were dragged away with a groan. There on the remains of a smoldering mattress two bodies lay side-by-side. They were eventually identified by their braided hair.

Chapter Three

Dawn of Ashes

Sunday, September 29, 1912

As Sunday morning dragged on, the hushed and curious crowd at the fire grew until it reached into the hundreds. By some estimates more than a thousand people, which included most of the population of the township and many others from farther away, visited the site before sundown. Farmers, friends, and the curious came to see and to mourn their own.

The growing light revealed the ruin of what had been a south-facing two-story, white-frame home, with a porch spanning the front and shutters decorating the windows. Behind the house two barns still stood, a chicken house, granary, and windmill outlining a small barnyard with a garden nearest the home. An orchard of fruit trees grew to the south of the house on land bordering the Payson Road. The field west of the house was sown with wheat, and corn stood, almost ready to harvest, off to the east. This was the second year the Pfanschmidts had tried the new crop—wheat— losing most of it to the scourge of Hessian flies that first year. Charles had said that if it did not produce well that year, he would not plant it again.

At daybreak some men fenced off the curious tracks in the barnyard with a makeshift barrier of twine strung on boxes and boards, between the granary on the south and the chicken house on the north. Two battered wooden boxes were set over the impressions of horseshoe tracks to protect them from being disturbed by wandering visitors and scratching chickens.

Ray Pfanschmidt, son of the missing Charles and Mathilda and brother to Blanche, arrived as the tin roof was coming off amid groans and clanks. Alone in his tent at his job site north of Quincy, he had been awakened by his uncle, Henry Niekamp, and then taken in a futile rush to his grandfather's home in the German south part of the city. On the way he was told that his family had most likely perished inside his burned home. He numbly requested that the coroner be called, and collecting his aunt, Elizabeth Petrie, drove his little sorrel team of horses as fast as it would go all the eleven long miles to the farmstead. He arrived sometime before 7:00 a.m. Ray, not yet twenty-one years old, was a very handsome and ambitious young man. His fiancée, Esther Reeder, would arrive by midmorning to console him and share the horror.

The sheriff, the coroner, and other relatives of the Pfanschmidts began to arrive. The schoolteacher's father, Charles Kaempen, reached the fire about half past seven in Mr. Ed Buerkin's auto. Mr. Kaempen's own auto had picked that morning to decline to start.

In the midst of shock, speculation, and grieving, the wheels of officialdom began to search for answers. The Quincy chief of police pulled up in a motor car driven by a young man named Hiedbreder, accompanied by two employees of the State Street Bank. In an attempt to identify the buggy that created those tracks in the barnyard, Police Chief Lott and Ed Buerkin measured the distance between the lines it left in the dirt, using a piece of binder twine they found in the hay barn. Lifting the wooden box they inspected the shoe print left by the "off horse" pulling the buggy.

Where the lane entered the farm, Lott and Buerkin examined the track of the buggy as it came from the direction of Quincy and continued without a break or a stop in a tight circle all around the barnyard and out again, leaving the driveway and turning back to the north toward the city.

Ray, the last surviving member of his family, wandered about the grounds of his home in a sort of daze. To observers, his actions seemed disjointed and random. Ray noticed a burned and dented gasoline can out of place near what had once been the front door. He pointed it out to someone but later would not remember who he had spoken to. It would turn out to be Deputy Scharnhorst of Quincy.

Finally, Ray's fiancée, Esther Reeder, arrived under the protective gaze of her father, Daniel. The Reeder and the Pfanschmidt families had been friends as well as future in-laws. The Reeders also arrived in auto—this one driven by Casper Mast.


Excerpted from LIES TOLD UNDER OATH by Beth Lane Copyright © 2012 by Beth Lane. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Cast of Characters....................ix
List of Images....................xiii
Chapter 1 Illusions of Peace....................5
Chapter 2 Fire!....................7
Chapter 3 Dawn of Ashes....................12
Chapter 4 Autopsy....................16
Chapter 5 A Look at Ray Pfanschmidt....................21
Chapter 6 A Plague of Rumors Monday....................26
Chapter 7 Cold Trail and Cold Noses....................30
Chapter 8 Rest without Peace....................34
Chapter 9 The Inquest....................37
Chapter 10 Evidence in the Vault....................46
Chapter 11 News and Public Opinion....................49
Chapter 12 Ray Indicted....................52
Chapter 13 Jury Selection: Good Men Are Hard to Find....................73
Chapter 14 The Trial Begins....................78
Chapter 15 Forensic Evidence....................117
Chapter 16 Bloodhounds....................151
Chapter 17 The Prosecution Builds Its Case....................181
Chapter 18 Jailhouse Informant....................226
Chapter 19 Defending Ray....................238
Chapter 20 Ray Testifies....................251
Chapter 21 Cross Examination....................268
Chapter 22 A Strong Defense....................279
Chapter 23 Possible Perjury....................306
Chapter 24 Evidence Questioned....................323
Chapter 25 Closing Arguments....................337
Chapter 26 The Verdict....................352
Chapter 27 Justice Revisited—Verdict Reversed....................357
Chapter 28 The Second Trial....................368
Chapter 29 He Surely Can't Be Guilty....................380
Chapter 30 "A Wonderful Lot of Nerve"....................391
Chapter 31 Trial Number Three....................396
Selected Resources....................411

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Lies Told Under Oath: The Puzzling Story of the Pfanschmidt Murders and of the Surviving Son-Victim or Villain? 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was so spellbinding that it was hard for me to put it down. It was enticing as being from that area, the names are familar to me. Beth Lane does an exquisite job keeping the facts in order and telling how it was back then. Fantastic job Beth.
EllenParker More than 1 year ago
True Crime from 1912 In late September 1912, a father, mother, daughter, and the schoolteacher boarder are murdered at the Pfanschmidt farm outside of Quincy, IL. The bodies are discovered during a house fire, later believed to have been set a full day after the killings. Suspicion falls on the remaining son – twenty years old, engaged to be married, and sliding into financial trouble. Arson investigation, murder investigation, and forensics were sciences in their infancy at the time. Add an extended family divided in their loyalty to the suspect – Ray Pfanschmidt – neighbors, businessmen, and bloodhound handlers milling about the farm during and after the fire and you have a tangle of evidence which even modern methods would have difficulty sorting into sense. The narrative guiding the way through newspaper accounts and official court records together, held my attention. Which witness is lying? In which trial? Was the motivation money? Land?  I’ve heard of crimes of this sort before. At least one occurred near the small Midwestern town of my youth. But the multiple trials of the same defendant is what sets this apart from the average arson to cover murder case.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book does not develop the characters or form an interesting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago