Fox Cities Murder & Mayhem

Fox Cities Murder & Mayhem

by Gavin Schmitt


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The safe and sedate Fox Cities have seen their share of horrible crimes. A must-read for fans of true crime and Wisconsin history.

Cold Blooded murder, kidnapping, prostitution, organized crime and other misdeeds shocked and appalled not just the community known as the Fox Cities, but the entire state of Wisconsin. Murderer Porter Ross tried to commit suicide by eating bedsprings. Wenzel Kabat mutilated and burned a man in order to take over his farm. The Appleton Butcher left dismembered human remains on a playground for children to find.

n this volume, crime writer and leading expert on the Milwaukee Mafia Gavin Schmitt turns his magnifying glass on the dark underbelly of small-town America. Revisit these skeletons in suburban closets that will have you looking over your shoulder as you read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781467138697
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing SC
Publication date: 11/27/2017
Series: Murder & Mayhem
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 622,069
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Gavin Schmitt was born, raised and resides in the Fox Cities. He has written seven books on local history and the history of crime in Wisconsin. Regarded as the foremost expert on organized crime in Wisconsin, Schmitt has been interviewed by various newspapers, as well as local, state and national radio programs. When not actively researching (which his rare), he enjoys a strong cup of coffee and watching obscure horror films.

Read an Excerpt



Our first story is one of crumbling marital relationships and the thriving temperance movement in Neenah during the 1870s. Whether or not alcohol was entirely to blame, the "demon drink" was certainly a factor in the lives of the Hesse family.

Magdalena Friese Hesse was born in Hanover, Germany, around 1834 and came to the United States around 1849. Some time was spent in both New York and Boston; in the former, she married and had two children, but this attempt at a family was a tragic affair. Both children died young, and her husband was a drunkard, leading to a quick divorce. Possibly through shame, despair or regret, he hanged himself within months of her leaving. While in Boston, Magdalena boarded with a wealthy family and essentially worked as a domestic. She was praised for her attention to detail. Wanderlust was within her, and Magdalena ultimately settled in Neenah around 1860.

Within a year of her removal to Neenah, Magdalena met young John Hesse, nine years her junior. He lived with his parents and siblings in a home much too small for everyone. Henry Hesse, his father, did his best to support the family on his salary as a butcher, and mother Henrietta Alles Hesse took care of her husband and seven children. John was a man of dark complexion, with black hair and dark eyes, and had a "most villainous cast of countenance" when under the influence of alcohol. He had been born in Germany and came with his parents from Crivitz in Mecklenburg–West Pomerania. (Crivitz in Wisconsin is named for the German city.)

The marriage of John and Magdalena produced seven children, though two died before reaching maturity. For John, the marriage was a step up in society. Magdalena was the owner of farmland valued at $6,000, far more than anything his parents had to offer. And, given the social mores of the day, although the farm was "hers," the property was now controlled by him.

In 1864, the family was proudly part of the Presbyterian Church, and on one occasion, John even loaned the princely sum of $800 to a local minister with the full knowledge that he might never get it back. Though the Hesse family was not known to be more committed to their religion than the average citizen, two of John's sisters married Huelster brothers. The Huelsters were elders in the church near Lomira. Anton Huelster earned a doctorate and served as a professor of theology. Unexpected by everyone, John was forcefully ejected from the congregation when he turned to alcohol. He grew to be a terror to his family and friends. Magdalena was allowed to continue her church attendance, but John was forbidden, and the church elders strongly encouraged a divorce. Soon enough, she agreed.

Throughout 1869 and 1870, John Hesse was becoming a nuisance not only to his family but also to the community at large. He was engaged in what the newspapers termed "debauchery" and was known to lock his children outside at night. On at least one occasion, he threatened Magdalena with a butcher knife. According to the press, "His inordinate passion for liquor has made him a brute." The city was "outraged and insulted" by Hesse and other "lawless creatures crazed with bad whiskey."

During one court incident in 1869, defense attorney Elbridge Smith asked the judge if he could speak to Hesse in private. The judge agreed, and the two stepped out the back door. When Smith came back in, the judge asked him where Hesse had gone. Smith allegedly replied, "I advised my client that his case was hopeless and the best thing he could do was to run." The newspaper makes no mention of the attorney being reprimanded for this stunt, an action that could rightly have gotten him disbarred. Smith, incidentally, was Neenah's first attorney, having passed the bar as early as 1849.

On January 1, 1871, Hesse was accused by his recently divorced wife of entering her home and assaulting her with a deadly weapon. He was arrested by a marshal named Ellis and brought before Justice Chester C. Townsend. Hesse was immediately transported to the county jail in order to allow him a few days to "sober off." Some confusion at the jail allowed Hesse to go free, and he roamed the streets of Oshkosh for a few days.

Within the week, he was back at his ex-wife's door, this time pleading his love to her and asking for reconciliation. She politely declined, and he became a bit more forceful, demanding her to make him dinner while he took a nap in her bed. Sheriff Ephraim Giddings, a Civil War captain in the Third Wisconsin Infantry, was called. Hesse was again brought before Justice Townsend, who charged him with breaking the peace and issued a bond of $800. Not having the money, Hesse was personally brought by Giddings on the evening train to Oshkosh and locked up under the watch of young Sheriff Ambrose H. Woodworth, only twenty-one years old. Giddings warned Woodworth that Hesse was vicious and seemed to be getting worse every day.

The local newspaper editorialized on January 7, "This community have felt themselves outraged and insulted of late, by a set of lawless creatures, crazed with bad whiskey, who for some reason have been allowed to pursue their own course, unmolested by officers, whom the public look to for protection from such outrages." While this suggested that multiple offenders were making a drunken scene about town, their singling out of Hesse could not have been more prescient.

By February 24, Hesse had sobered up and, according to Woodworth, began to act like a total gentleman, admitting to his bad behavior and taking the blame on himself. He further said that he could not control himself when under the power of whiskey. Woodworth felt that Hesse's repentance was "sincere." Jailer O.P. White was given fifty dollars by Hesse to put in the bank for his family and another thirty dollars for White to hold on to for anything Hesse might need while in jail. By sheer coincidence, that same day, the door was left open and unattended between one and two o'clock in the afternoon, allowing Hesse to slip out unnoticed. The sheriff had business to attend to in his hometown of Omro and was not around. Woodworth later testified that it "may look to many like carelessness or culpable negligence on my part," but he swore that no desire to let Hesse escape was intended. In his defense, he noted that Hesse had to break through a padlock, which in hindsight was clearly not strong enough. Another prisoner, a man named Wilson, later said the security was routinely very lax in the jail, with visitors often handed keys in order to visit their loved ones. Wilson himself had more or less a run of the jail, as he did odd jobs around the place such as bringing wood inside for the kitchen stove. Wilson even claimed that when the sheriff noticed Hesse was gone, he did not seem "anxious or uneasy."

That night and the following day, John stayed with his elder brother Julius and sister-in-law Lena. In later testimony, Lena admitted that John had actually told them how much he wanted to kill his ex-wife, but when he left them on the evening of February 25, he said he was done with her and was moving to California. In fact, he went instead to the tavern of August Melchert, where he drank with his friend, English-born mason Mathew Loomis, for two hours and urged his brother Julius to give him a revolver in case he had to fight off the police. Julius initially agreed, hoping to help his brother avoid arrest, and purchased such a weapon from gunsmith Hiram Harder for fifteen dollars. Julius ultimately changed his mind about helping John, however, when he stopped at home and Lena told him what the revolver was really for.

After years of threatening, John finally killed his ex-wife on February 25 in her own home, some time after nine o'clock that evening. Magdalena was held down, and with a knife, Hesse slashed her neck, severing her carotid artery and jugular — a quick and bloody demise. She was thirty-seven. All five children, ages thirteen months through nine years, were in the home at the time. Amazingly, none of the children was woken during the crime. Franklin, the eldest, found his mother at daybreak and immediately ran to the nearby home of Gorham Parsons Vining to get help. When Dr. Samuel Galentine was eventually called to the house, he found her lying on her back, near the stove. He later testified that the wound was so deep and violent that there was simply no way the injury could have been self-inflicted or accidental. Dr. George Washington Fay and a Dr. Potter assisted in the postmortem and concurred with the initial findings.

After the murder, John had gone to William Hesse's hotel within the village limits and hid out in an attic or garret. Unfortunately for him, he was seen by no less a citizen than Charles Benjamin Clark, who would become best known as the cofounder of Kimberly-Clark the following year. Clark saw Hesse crossing the street from the Pettibone Block to the Hesse Hotel and alerted a Mr. Holdbrook, telling him to get Sheriff Giddings. Clark, like Giddings, had been an infantry captain during the war. With a Mr. Whiting, a Mr. Williams, Isaac L. "Ike" Doton and William N. Conover, Clark surrounded the hotel until Giddings arrived. Inside was Henry Robinson, who said he had been there when John Hesse arrived and claimed that Hesse confessed to the murder, said he was glad that he did the deed and further wished he had killed his brother-in-law Henry Wildfang while he was at it, too.

Sheriff Giddings gathered a posse of local men and entered the hotel of William Hesse. While there, John apparently realized that his freedom was at an end and fired two shots from the attic. At least one struck himself and was fatal. With a makeshift spear provided by Conover, Giddings broke a hole in the ceiling and found the lifeless body of John Hesse in the attic. He had shot himself in the forehead, just above the bridge of his nose. William Hesse allowed Giddings to stay and finish his work but kindly asked the posse to return to their homes. Doton and Conover lowered the body to the ground with a rope and rested it on a bench.

On February 27, Henry Wildfang, falsely identified by the newspapers as Magdalena Hesse's brother-in-law, filed a claim in probate court, as Magdalena had died intestate and the farm property was in her name. With her husband also deceased and the children so young, a proper disposal of the real estate was needed. Wildfang was, in fact, John Hesse's brother-in-law, having been married to his sister Louisa. Magdalena's sister, Caroline Minck, came to town from Philadelphia to see to the welfare of the children.

Gathering at the Hesse home, Justice of the Peace James Conlon conducted an inquest on February 28, calling all those involved. His jury consisted of farmer Albert Huxley, supervisor Henry E. Huxley, brickmaker Jerome Bailey, John W. Halstead, Gorham Parsons Vining and David Wells. Their verdict, not surprisingly, was murder. Vining, interestingly, was the brother-in-law of Henry Huxley and one of Neenah's oldest citizens, having operated the government mill when the village was still known as Winnebago Rapids.

On March 4, funerals were held for both John Hesse and his ex-wife. Hesse's father attended both services, and it was said that John was buried "near the slough." The city paid J. Brennan five dollars for his services in digging the Hesse grave. Presumably, the grave has since been moved, as the slough is surrounded by houses today. Where John lies now is not known. Immediately following the burial, Dr. Christian Linde of Oshkosh filed a request to have the body exhumed for the purpose of dissection and to advance the interests of science. Despite being the oldest physician in Winnebago County and well respected, his request was denied. Henry Wildfang, on behalf of the friends and family of Mrs. Hesse, expressed his heartfelt thanks to the community.

At the funeral, Sheriff Giddings arrested Julius Hesse, brother of John, as an accessory in the murder of Magdalena Hesse. District Attorney A.A. Austin charged that Julius had provided his brother with a weapon and a place to hide while carrying out his dastardly deed. Unable to pay the $1,000 bond, he was committed to the county jail.

Toward the end of March, attendance was up at the local temperance meeting, no doubt due to the Hesse case, which put alcoholism in the spotlight. A rousing discussion of politics also took place, with suggestions that local politicians (namely, the sheriff) did not take the effects of alcohol seriously and that voters should be aware of this.

The temperance movement had a long history in Neenah-Menasha, with newspaper accounts of meetings going back at least as far as 1855. Hardware store owner William Pitt Peckham was an early supporter, and the movement announced its goal in no uncertain terms: "The utter annihilation of the manufacture, sale and use of everything that can intoxicate man as a beverage." They sought to cure Neenah of the "red-eyed, blossom-nosed rummies."

The aforementioned C.B. Clark was added as an officer in 1870. Under his watch, the movement broadened its goal beyond the destruction of alcohol; it also hoped to encourage stimulating conversation. Many speakers were brought in that year, including a Union Pacific Railroad official and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), who spoke on a proposed "Sixteenth Amendment." (She wouldn't live to see the Nineteenth Amendment adopted in 1920, fifty years later.) Newspaperman Horace Greeley came in 1871. Clark, along with George Bergstrom and Charles Howard, took the profits from selling tickets and established Neenah's first public library.

Hesse and the March 1871 temperance meeting were still on the minds of the people in April 1871, when local elections were held. It was a contest between the "Citizens Ticket" and the "Peoples Ticket," the former seen as the "law and order" crowd. Of course, those preaching law and order were victorious, with Judge Lyon and Constable Isaac L. Doton winning a majority.

The Hesse farm went up for sale in August 1871 and was said to contain one hundred acres of land at what is today the western end of Main Street. The property was situated one and a half miles west of the village limits. Of course, what was one mile west of the city in 1871 is now right back in the middle of Neenah.

Theodore Brown of Neenah sent the older Hesse boys to an Ohio orphanage, while Caroline Friese Minck of Pennsylvania (Magdalena's sister) adopted her namesake niece Caroline, who went by Carrie.

Interestingly, the younger Caroline eventually reunited with her older brother Franklin. Franklin Hesse married a Neenah woman, Caroline Krull, in 1882. A year later, they became territorial pioneers in the Dakotas, specifically in the area of LaMoure, North Dakota. Descendants of their nine children can still be found there today. Carrie grew up in Philadelphia and married John Freyberger in Brooklyn, and they found their way to LaMoure in 1889. The Freybergers never had children, but John was very well known and respected for his grain exhibitions, most notably at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1914. Representing his adopted state, Freyberger displayed a lighthouse constructed entirely of corn — an icon of pride hand-selected by Governor L.B. Hanna.

Since the time of the Hesse murder, the temperance movement grew both locally and nationally. On the local front, Neenah did become for a while a "dry" town, banning the sale of alcohol within city limits. Nationally, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president of the United States in 1876; he was the first president to ever be a complete nondrinker. (It is believed that Donald Trump has never drank alcohol.) One White House observer of the day noted that at Hayes's parties, "The water flowed like champagne."

One last note of interest: Albert Huxley, one of the men on the coroner's jury who declared Magdalena's death a homicide, met a similar fate less than ten years later. His son-in-law Louis Emmonds shot Huxley in the head before turning the gun on himself.


Excerpted from "Fox Cities Murder & Mayhem"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gavin Schmitt.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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

Acknowledgements 7

A Note on Sources 9

Introduction 11

Chapter 1 The Intemperate Murder of Magdalena Hesse 13

Chapter 2 Hammer the Hammerer 24

Chapter 3 The Chinese Riots 32

Chapter 4 The Strange and Sordid Tale of Porter Ross 38

Chapter 5 Wenzel Kabat: Murderer. Escape Artist, Statesman 62

Chapter 6 The Boo Gang 92

Chapter 7 The Kidnapping of Frances Webb 95

Chapter 8 A Hot Time at the Blazing Stump 103

Chapter 9 The Appleton Butcher 111

Appendix 123

About the Author 125

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