Life in Louisville in the years following the Civil War, and through the turn of the century, was as exciting as it was dangerous. The city continued to grow as important urban hub of culture and commerce, connecting the South with the Midwest and Northern states. As Keven McQueen proves in this collection of morbid tales of crime and depravity, life in Louisville certainly had a darker side. Journey back to a time when Louisville’s streets were filled with rail cars, its alleys populated by thieves, and its brothels hummed with activity. Whether it’s the tale of the marriage of a convicted murderer to a notorious prostitute, or the exploits the criminal duo dubbed Louisville’s Bonnie and Clyde, this is a true crime collection that is truly hard to believe.
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The Hanged Butcher's Alleged Rejuvenation
William Kriel, a rough-and-tumble butcher who lived in Louisville just after the Civil War, might have been as rich as a Vanderbilt had he spent as much time working as he spent drinking and beating his wife, Margaret Evans Kriel. She is described in various reports as being "delicate" and "one of the most amiable of women." The couple had been married fifteen years and had a son. William's butcher shop was on Green Street, and he was well known in town for his honesty. Clearly, he had a private side that few saw.
Early in March 1868, thirty-two-year-old Mrs. Kriel, who was suffering from an illness, decided that she had had enough of her husband's violence. She left him and moved in with her mother on Main Street. William responded with an alcoholic binge of several days' duration that was prodigious even by his degraded standards. On March 5, he dropped by for a visit, which means that he "abused her shamefully," as a press report phrased it. He came back on Saturday, March 7, and demanded to know if she was really going to leave him.
"No, I am not going to leave you," Mrs. Kriel replied, no doubt choosing her words carefully. "The doctor has told me I must go off [to the country] or I will never get well." This was not the answer he sought, and he protested his wife's show of independence by throttling her. A light bulb appeared over Kriel's head — or would have, had Thomas Edison developed it yet. He produced a gun and shot her two inches above the left ear. She died instantly in her elderly mother's arms and went on to a much greater reward than being the spouse of William Kriel.
The drunken butcher sat on the floor and had a first-rate idea: he pressed the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. A glancing shot tore off his scalp. At this unpleasant juncture, the dead woman's sister, Mrs. Rosa Tolbert, came downstairs to see what all the noise was about. A few weeks before, she had said in confidence that if she had a husband like William Kriel, she would kill him. Somehow, Kriel had gotten wind of the remark, and although the reproof was not unjust, he had been offended. When Mrs. Tolbert entered the room, he shot at her. She ran outside, and he gave chase, firing a second time at the side gate. Luckily, both bullets missed.
Kriel's gun was a six-shooter. Realizing that he had two bullets left, and not wishing to waste them, he shot himself twice more in the head. Thanks to the blind luck of the drunken — or perhaps because Fate wanted to save him for a far worse end — both bullets merely grazed his scalp. Soused though he was, the assassin knew he was in trouble when he saw a crowd gathering outside. He fled, but neighbors followed him and captured him at a pork house on Beargrass Creek. Strange to say, but Kriel appears to have been the only murderer in the entire history of nineteenth-century Kentucky who wasn't threatened with lynching. He was delivered to a jail cell, where it took him over a week to dry out. The two major city dailies, the Courier and the Journal — it was in the days just before they merged — ran repeated announcements stating that his death from delirium tremens was expected at any time. As late as March 19, twelve days after the murder, it was reported, "The condition of the prisoner is much improved, although he yet exhibits strong symptoms of mania-a-potu." During his lucid moments, Kriel said that Mrs. Tolbert had fired at him first and that he was merely returning fire when he accidentally shot his poor, dear wife — after placing the muzzle directly against her head! Needless to say, such statements did not bear analysis.
Margaret's March 9 funeral at the Shelby Street Methodist Church was one of the largest ever held in Louisville. Her mother, who had lost two of her Confederate soldier sons in the recent war, was insensible with grief. Reverend J.W. Cunningham preached a pointed sermon about the dangers of alcohol and wenching and urged husbands to be faithful and kind to their wives. The man who most needed to hear the sermon was unable to attend, however, since he was still gradually sobering up.
When Kriel was at last able to wobble into circuit court on March 18, a reporter said, "[H]e was very sensibly moved at the sight of the mother and sister of his murdered wife, who are to testify against him." He even burst into tears. The reporter speculated that the murderer was suffering from the pangs of remorse; this was possible, but it was equally likely that Kriel realized the testimony of his mother- and sister-in-law would put a noose around his neck.
While Kriel languished in jail, numerous attempts were made to release him on bail, somebody somewhere having decided that it would be a fine thing to let him walk the streets unencumbered. It was decided that he could have bail if he came up with $10,000 — in modern currency, nearly $157,000 — but to Kriel's chagrin, his relatives refused to risk their savings and property on his behalf, resulting in a chilly feeling between him and his kin that never thawed. When he realized he was not going to get bail, Kriel and his lawyers claimed he was insane. He had never been insane before, just mean, but evidently they hoped to confuse the concepts of insanity and drunkenness.
Kriel's trial lasted four days in January 1869. His victim's mother and sister offered straightforward, unshakable and moving testimonies about what they had witnessed on March 7, 1868. The best the defense could do was to bring in elderly J.W. Knight, who had been a doctor for fifty years. He stated:
The liquor used now-a-days not only intoxicates but deranges many who drink it. That has been my experience in this city. In 1812 and 1813 liquor did not hurt men; now it poisons many of them — affects the brain and the whole nervous system. Modern whisky has strychnine and fishberries in it, and deranges the mind. Men under the influence of this liquor, and who have been habitually drunk, are often so affected thereby that they do not know what they are doing.
Defense attorneys love to utilize the "blame the victim" strategy, but this may be the only known use of the "blame modern alcohol, which unlike the old kind makes men violent" strategy. Kriel's former attorney, Major W.R. Kinney, told the court that he had visited Kriel in his cell the day after his arrest, "and on speaking about killing his wife, he evinced the greatest astonishment." In any situation, "My client was too drunk to know what he was doing" makes a very poor argument for leniency. Perhaps Kriel's attorneys should have entered a plea of self-imposed insanity.
In the face of such a defense, the verdict was a foregone conclusion: guilty, with a recommendation of capital punishment. The date of execution was delayed four times by Governor Stevenson, and many thought Kriel would never pay the ultimate price for his crime. January 21, 1870, was at last chosen as the date when the butcher would be reunited with his wife in the unlikely event that they both went to the same place. The governor was inundated with petitions signed by kindly disposed persons who thought Kriel's life should be spared but whose generosity undoubtedly would have been strained had the same Kriel wanted to marry their sisters or daughters. The condemned man's attorney, General W.I. Jackson, presented the petition to Governor Stevenson and also consumed two hours of that official's valuable time arguing that his client's life should be spared. Jackson received a "patient and respectful hearing," but the governor was undeterred by sentimentality and refused to intervene. No one was surprised much, except Kriel, who genuinely expected his sentence to be commuted.
If Kriel spent his final days reading newspapers, he may have seen a frontpage story headlined "A Fearful Gallows Scene" in the January 20 edition of the Courier-Journal (by then the papers had joined forces). The article told in graphic detail of a bungled North Carolina hanging that resulted in the guest of honor managing to struggle his way back up onto the gallows platform.
The day before Kriel's scheduled hanging, General Jackson made a motion for a new trial on the grounds that he had just discovered more evidence that the prisoner was insane. His proof must have been unconvincing because the court refused to grant a new trial. When the prisoner realized that the end was really and truly at hand, he telegraphed the governor asking for a few more days to prepare himself for death. The governor must have felt that Kriel had had sufficient time to tend to spiritual matters because no response came.
A Courier-Journal reporter was granted permission to visit Kriel during his last night. The prisoner said that he would make his final statements on the gallows. He added that he knew absolutely nothing about his wife's murder — which may well have been true, considering the state of intoxication he had been in when he committed it. Then he availed himself of a lengthy oration in which he complained that the newspapers had prejudiced the community against him, said that the trial had been unfair, implied that witnesses against him had been bribed, admitted that his murdered wife's relatives all hated him for some reason and declared that he couldn't have killed his wife in the manner suggested by the prosecution. By the time he was finished, one would have supposed that everyone in Louisville was out to get him except his lawyers, whom he praised lavishly. He added that he believed in God and hoped that he would meet his Margaret in heaven.
The sheriff obtained all necessary paraphernalia: the rope, the cap and the coffin. The gallows was constructed on Fifteenth Street; at this time, executions in Louisville were still held in public.
The prisoner awoke bright and early on the morning of January 21 — proving that he had at least one good habit — and received final visits from his fourteen-year-old son and his brother, George. At 1:30 p.m., Kriel, forty-six years old and dressed in black, walked to the scaffold as ten thousand people scrutinized him for signs of weakness; society then considered failure to "die game" almost as big a disgrace as committing a murder, and of course Kriel would not want to ruin his social standing. A large number of the spectators were women, as always seemed to be the case. During the night, Kriel had become resigned to his fate, and he took his final stroll manfully. He was so calm that several onlookers believed he must have been drugged, a theory denied by his captors. His last request was that his sister receive his hat and pistol — the same weapon with which he had committed the crime for which he was about to be very dramatically punished.
The crowd was well behaved and thoughtful and even appeared to sympathize with Kriel when Reverend Perkins offered a prayer. "That moment was a solemn one indeed," wrote a reporter, "and brought tears to the eyes of thousands in the vast throng there who then, for the first time, truly realized the terrible position of the doomed man." No one was more solemn than Sheriff J.M. Martin, a longtime friend of the man he was about to execute; several of the policemen who accompanied Kriel to the gallows had been his schoolmates. After a couple of prayers from the prisoner's spiritual advisors — kept brief at his request — he was duly pinioned and capped. When the sheriff asked him if he had anything to say, Kriel replied, "No, it would only create talk." At precisely 1:34 p.m., the trap was sprung, and the butcher died instantly. The Courier-Journal eulogized him thusly: "Billy Kriel has at last paid the great penalty, but died believing that he had found forgiveness."
The Courier-Journal published a letter from a citizen calling himself "W," who complained that executions ought not to be held in public — ought not to be held at all, in fact. He was countered in print days later by "Justice"; their exchange indicates that arguments for and against capital punishment have not changed much in 130 years. The Courier-Journal agreed with "W" that hangings should be private but also agreed with "Justice" that "a few fashionable convictions and first-class hangings," especially among moneyed murderers, were necessary to keep society safe.
After the hanging, Kriel's relatives took his remains to the receiving vault at Cave Hill Cemetery to await interment, thus thwarting the intentions of Professor A.T. Keckeler, who had traveled from Cincinnati in hopes of procuring the murderer's head. On January 26, the Louisville Commercial published as fact a bizarre rumor that Kriel was not dead; he had only been strangled into unconsciousness by the rope. After he had been coffined and carted off to Cave Hill, so went the story, three men had opened the vault and carried the putative corpse to a "most skillful and learned surgeon." As a dozen medical students watched, the doctor restored him to life with a galvanic battery.
"What have you done? Am I alive?" asked the hanged one.
The Commercial's reporter wrote, "Justice had been satisfied by the public execution, though life returned. Why should [the students] deliver up what had so providentially and wonderfully been restored?" They gave their subject a change of clothes and money. Whereupon the resuscitated, resurrected Kriel made tracks out of the city and disappeared. To add credence to the tale, the Commercial pointed out that when a galvanic battery had been applied to the hide of Dave Caution, a Louisville murderer who had been hanged some years before, Caution sat up on the dissecting table, although unquestionably defunct.
Some people took the canard about Kriel's rejuvenation seriously, so the vault was opened. He was still in his coffin, right where the sheriff had left him. It is well that the rumor was unfounded.CHAPTER 2
The Dizzy Blondes Come to Town
If you could go back in time and roam the streets of Louisville in the fall of 1877, you would encounter many Civil War veterans in various states of disrepair, small boys who would someday fight in America's conflict with Spain and unblushing young women wearing the latest scandalous bodices and bustles.
You would be astonished at the murkiness of the city, which would have been illuminated with nothing more powerful than lanterns, fireplaces and gaslights. Thomas Edison would develop the practical light bulb in 1879, but Louisville would not be introduced to its first electric light until November 1881.
If the pervasive darkness did not astound you, the intrepid time traveler, the comprehensive bad odors might. Louisville, like most American cities, had a hit-or-miss approach to sanitation. Dead animals often festered in the public thoroughfares until their own mothers wouldn't recognize them, and huge piles of garbage and horse manure practically became local landmarks. This miraculous stench was also a hallmark of the nice people you would meet. The average person in 1877 — not just in Louisville but everywhere — bathed once a week, perhaps less if he could get by without it. There was no air conditioning and no antiperspirant, and all soiled and sweaty clothing had to be laboriously washed by hand.
On the other hand, if your travels through time left you depressed and disillusioned, you could always lift your spirits by walking into any drugstore and purchasing perfectly legal medicinal cocaine with the greenbacks of the correct vintage, which you wisely remembered to bring with you.
In 1877, Louisville was as upstanding a town as any, and more so than most, so a sensation resulted when a vaudeville act called the Dizzy Blondes came to town in November.
Like another musical act that would raise eyebrows ninety years later, the Dizzy Blondes were from Liverpool, England. The troupe originated in the late 1860s. Lydia Thompson was its manager and chief member. After wowing Great Britain, the Blondes opened at Wood's Theater in New York City on November 25, 1868. They immediately became the talk of the town — and New York is a very large and jaded town to become the talk of. Photographs of the Blondes dressed in "the classic garb of burlesque" were hawked everywhere, and their show played to full houses every night for thirteen weeks.
The Blondes, undergoing various personnel changes, took their act on the road and spent the next decade successfully playing in cities across America, including San Francisco and Chicago, where they cowhided Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times, not for publishing statements that reflected poorly on their tawdry entertainment, but for describing the dancers and singers as "beefy."
By their tour of November 1877, the act had expanded to include twenty young women, none of them the original Blondes. They played in North Carolina, where their act was decried as "the lewdest and most disgraceful public exhibition ever given in that state." Then the Blondes invaded Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the act was praised by a local paper, the Pantagraph. The Dizzy Blondes came to Louisville on the eighteenth and were scheduled to perform at a place called Library Hall the next night. I rather doubt that it was an actual library.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Louisville Murder & Mayhem"
Copyright © 2012 Keven McQueen.
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
1. The Hanged Butcher's Alleged Rejuvenation,
2. The Dizzy Blondes Come to Town,
3. Chestnut Street's House of Horrors,
4. Carrie McBride, the Pugilistic Prostitute,
5. Murder Will Not Always Out,
6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Pornographer,
7. What Came of a Marriage between a Murderer and a Prostitute,
8. Louisville's Bonnie and Clyde,
9. The Course of True Love, Etc.,
10. Striking a Blow for the Workingman,
About the Author,