In the fall of 1916, New York housemaid Augusta Steinbach fell in love with a man she met through a matrimonial advertisement in her local newspaper. She traveled to Detroit to marry her correspondent, but in March 1917, she mysteriously disappeared. What began as a routine search for a missing person turned into a baffling case of deception, bigamy, and murder. Follow detectives as they unravel the tangled web spun by Michigan’s original lonely-hearts killer—a criminal mastermind the Detroit News dubbed “one of America's master outlaws.”
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The Domestic and the Suitor
New York City
February 3, 1917
It was a frigid morning in New York when Agnes Domaniecki said goodbye to her best friend Augusta Steinbach. She dreaded the moment when Augusta would leave for Detroit, where she planned to marry a man she had never laid eyes on before. It was the climax of a New World adventure that began three and half years earlier.
In the summer of 1913, about one year before Europe plunged into a conflict that would consume the entire continent, thirty-five-year-old Augusta Steinbach boarded a passenger ship — the Kronprinz Wilhelm — en route from Cherbourg, France, to New York. She made the journey across the Atlantic to her new home with a married couple from New York, Charles and Lina Weber. As the ship steamed west, she wondered what her new life in the United States would be like.
In the Old World, she made her living as a lady's maid. She began as a domestic in Berlin around the turn of the century, working among Germany's aristocracy alongside Agnes Domaniecki. Later, the two women drifted to Paris, where they worked as domestics until 1913. With war looming, Paris was no place for German natives, so the two decided to change their milieu. Agnes took a job as a lady's maid in Kingston, Jamaica, while Augusta moved to the Big Apple.
The Kronprinz Wilhelm arrived at Ellis Island on June 24, 1913. Shortly after her arrival, Augusta found work among New York's elite, eventually taking a job as a lady's maid for the wife of a wealthy New York banker named Edward Heidelberg, who lived on West Fifty- fourth Street. The Heidelberg family adored the shy but bubbly girl from the German countryside.
Augusta Steinbach enjoyed life among the affluent and liked to spoil herself with expensive clothes and jewelry, but the one thing she yearned for — a house and family of her own — eluded her. It wasn't as if she had gone unnoticed. She had chocolate-brown hair, blue eyes and a full-bodied figure that some men found irresistible.
In April 1914, thirty-year-old Agnes Domaniecki immigrated to the United States and joined Augusta in New York. Even though they didn't work in the same households, they spoke often, usually in German mixed with an occasional English word or two. They giggled about old times, gossiped about New York high society and discussed the war that raged in Europe. Augusta was particularly interested in the news; her four brothers had joined the German military machine, and her sister was a nurse in Constantinople.
Although an ocean away from the trenches, New Yorkers were never very far from the war. America remained officially neutral, but the conflict turned New York City into a place of intrigue. When hostilities began in the summer of 1914, imperial German authorities worried that munitions in the United States would go to their enemies. So they set up networks of saboteurs, which often included immigrants already in the German American community. Throughout the spring of 1915, their saboteurs went into action, hitting explosives caches along the northern New Jersey coast of New York Harbor.
In July 1916, sabotage on U.S. soil climaxed when German agents blew up a massive cache of ammunition stockpiled on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor. American manufacturers used the pier as a munitions dump for shipments en route to Europe. On July 30, the complex contained over 1 million pounds of ammunition. One barge alone carried 100,000 pounds of TNT.
The initial explosion, which occurred around 2:00 a.m., caused a tremor that rocked nearby Jersey City, New Jersey, and shattered windows in Manhattan. New Yorkers thought that an earthquake shook the city, but it was the "enemy within." This fear of subversives cast suspicion on all things German, but Agnes and Augusta endured these turbulent years together. To strangers, they may have appeared an odd couple; Agnes worried about things, while sanguine Augusta always found a reason to smile.
Sometimes, she and Agnes would deal out the Tarot cards to see if they could find a clue about what fate had in store for them. They mused about romance, courtship and marriage, but by the summer of 1916, neither had found a mate. Although she looked much younger than thirty-eight, Augusta was past her dating prime and considered an "old maid." Loneliness mixed with a little desperation caused her to begin sifting through the matrimonial advertisements of the New York Herald and the New York Revue for possible partners.
In September 1916, she found two advertisements, both in German, posted by gentlemen from Michigan:
Good-looking mechanic, 38 years old, five years good job; weekly-wages, $80; seeks to marry suitable person; only well- meaning offers requested. George Roloff, general delivery, Highland Park, Mich.
Gas inspector, 37 years old, without dependents, very respectable and very good-looking appearance; steady monthly income, $180; seeks a suitable lady, may be out of servant class, to marry soon. In explaining, offers of well-meaning persons requested. Herman Neugebauer, general delivery, Royal Oak, Mich.
On the surface, both suitors appeared to be a good fit for a middle-aged woman in search of hearth and husband. Each man was about Augusta's age and earned enough money to support a wife. Intoxicated by the possibilities, Augusta responded to both advertisements. Within days, she received responses from both Roloff and Neugebauer. After a brief correspondence, she chose Neugebauer as the best match and began a long-distance courtship.
During the fall of 1916, while soldiers exchanged hot lead from trenches burrowed into the soil around the Somme River in France, the pair exchanged a flurry of letters. Herman Neugebauer described himself as more than six feet tall and having a muscular build. He also said that he attended the University of Heidelberg before coming to the United States. He told Augusta that he worked as a toolmaker for the Ford Motor Company and that he had acquired several properties in the Detroit area, including a bungalow in Royal Oak, where he lived with his two sisters, who took care of his house.
He promised to buy Augusta an electric washing machine — a newfangled extravagance that saved American women countless hours scrubbing clothes on ribbed boards in steel washbasins. He promised to buy her a new wardrobe and, as a wedding present, a car that he would have painted blue. Augusta made promises, too. Although never married, she'd had years of domestic experience. She promised to be a good, faithful wife who would keep an immaculate house and make sure that meals were ready when he came home from work.
There were also other ways she would please him, and Augusta wasn't timid when came to describing her physical attributes. In one letter, she described, in lurid detail, what would make her such a pleasing spouse. But the racy prose landed in the wrong man's mailbox. The postman misread the name on the envelope and delivered it to Adam Nelgebar, a Detroit shoemaker. Unfortunately for Mr. Nelgebar, Mrs. Nelgebar retrieved the mail that day. The woman grew enraged as she read about how Augusta planned to please her husband and accused the confused cobbler of running around on her. She took the letter straight to a local attorney, George Dondero, who was well known among the area's German community, in part because he spoke fluent German. It took some time, but Dondero managed to explain the mix- up.
The correspondence became hot and heavy throughout January 1917, and by the end of the month, Augusta was hooked. She agreed to meet Neugebauer in Detroit. Agnes stood, dumbfounded, as her best friend broke the news that she was about to leave New York to marry a man she didn't know, had never seen and had never met. Agnes was distraught. "At first when Augusta told me about going so far away to marry a man she didn't know," she later recalled, "I begged her not to. I laid the cards for her — which is a custom we German girls have when we want to know about our future — and I saw black cards there for her."
But the pull toward Herman Neugebauer and the promise of her own family trumped the "black cards" in the deck, and Augusta went forward with her plans. She bought a wedding dress and packed it, along with her other things, in three large steamer trunks. She deposited two of the trunks in Schillinger's Reliance Warehouse on East Sixty-third in New York and told her friends — German domestics throughout the city — that she was going to Detroit to marry a wealthy man.
On February 1, she closed her bank account, withdrawing about $180. She also tried to cash in about $1,000 in German war bonds without success. Since she told Neugebauer that she had about $500 in cash, she borrowed $300 from Agnes. "I told her it was awful risky to go ahead," Agnes later said, but love-struck Augusta didn't heed her warning.
On February 3, 1917, she boarded a westbound train from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Detroit, dressed to the nines. Her ensemble included two diamond rings, a gold chain, a gold watch, a pearl necklace and a red handbag. She wanted to look her best when the train pulled into the station, where she would meet, for the first time, her future husband.
THE MOTOR CITY
February 6, 1917
In one of his last letters, Herman told Augusta what train to take and how she could recognize him at the station: his car would have an American flag on its fender. Neugebauer even sent a photograph of his automobile with the patriotic symbol over its tire.
Augusta stared out the window and watched the scenery change from cows milling about in fields to automobiles motoring past rows of houses against a backdrop of tall buildings. The train was headed toward the biggest boomtown in America.
By 1917, the Motor City had shifted into high gear. Almost 500,000 people lived in the Greater Detroit area, with a bulk of the city's laborers employed by the two dozen automotive companies that manufactured car parts. Many of them had moved to Detroit a few years earlier when Henry Ford offered a $5.00 wage for an eight-hour shift — almost twice the going rate. For laborers sweating through ten-hour shifts for a paltry $2.50, Ford's offer seemed like pennies from heaven. People walked away from farms and coal mines all over the Midwest and flooded Ford's Highland Park plant.
The Motor City had a real swinging side in the 1910s. Saloons quenched the thirst of the city's workers, while brothels catered to other needs. The establishments in the lower east side's red-light district kept their doors open all night to service all three shifts of workers.
In February 1917, however, the city's watering holes had just over a year left to live. The previous fall, Michiganders voted for groundbreaking legislation that would dry out the Great Lake State. The new laws came, in part, from concerns about workers' ability to do their jobs in a city with a tavern on every street corner, so Detroit's industrialists took steps to keep their workers from the bottle during their off-duty hours.
Henry Ford played an instrumental role in drying out Detroit. Concerned about the productivity of hung-over employees, Ford took drastic measures to sober up his workforce. Investigators from his "Sociological Department" — a division created to make sure that employees lived a positive lifestyle — made house calls to ensure that his factory workers stayed away from vice. If they didn't, they wouldn't earn the entire five-dollar wage.
Alongside the Michigan Anti-Saloon League and other impresarios who felt that booze affected the bottom line, Ford lobbied the state legislature for a legal measure banning the sale of alcohol. Lawmakers obliged by putting a prohibition amendment on the ballot in the fall of 1916. The law, which passed by a slim margin, prohibited the sale of alcohol in public places. Legislators later passed a measure that also made it illegal to import booze.
On May 1, 1918, saloons, beer halls and taverns would close their doors, and Michigan, in theory at least, would become dry — a year before federal legislation corked the nation's booze bottles. The talk in the city's saloons revolved around "near beer," or low-alcohol substitutes that some of the city's breweries planned to produce in lieu of the real thing.
By March 1917, Congress hadn't yet decided to enter the Great War, but in some ways, the Motor City was already involved. Many of the city's manufacturers had signed contracts with Allies to produce war matériel. Some Detroiters, eager to fight "the Hun," had even crossed the border and enlisted with the Canadian army.
The city's large German American community remained torn about the war. In the years leading up to the conflict, these citizens managed to embrace their ethnic heritage while at the same time blending into the American cultural landscape. Encouraged by the National German American Alliance — a nationwide coalition of German Americans who originally came together to promote German culture in the United States — they formed social clubs and read German-language publications like the Detroit Abend-Post. Some Protestant ministers gave sermons in German, and many schools offered German language classes.
When World War I began in 1914, an intense debate about America's involvement erupted. The arguments were never more passionate than inside the taverns and beer halls of the Motor City. Some German American Detroiters, buoyed by an intense pride in their heritage and in the juggernaut of Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, sympathized with their homeland and favored U.S. neutrality. Some of them even backed Germany's war effort by purchasing imperial German war bonds.
As the war progressed, however, Detroiters of German ethnicity came under fire from those who questioned their loyalty to the United States. Michigan industrialists launched Americanization campaigns. They required their workers to take classes in English and citizenship. The National Americanization Committee — an organization designed to counteract German nationalism and root out disloyalty among citizens — feuded with the National German American Alliance.
Meanwhile, newspapers ran highly biased war coverage. Graphic drawings of alleged atrocities committed by "Hun" soldiers appeared in half-page spreads, and reporters repeated whispers about alleged subversive activity.
The threat of sabotage hit home for the area's residents. Detroit sat at the industrial heartland of North America — a fact recognized by German operatives. During the summer of 1915 — at about the same time that agents targeted outgoing ships from New York Harbor — a gang of saboteurs led by Detroit machinist and resident Albert Kaltschmidt used the Motor City as a base in a conspiracy to dynamite Canadian factories involved in producing war matériel. They also plotted, but failed, to destroy the Detroit Screw Works, which manufactured shrapnel.
Kaltschmidt's most ambitious plan involved disrupting traffic between Canada and the United States by imploding the Port Huron tunnel. His scheme involved detonating a "devil car" packed with high explosives at a low point in the tunnel, but the plot never materialized.
A few months later, in December 1915, U.S. authorities discovered records of payment from the German military attaché to Kaltschmidt. The Justice Department didn't arrest Kaltschmidt because it hadn't yet uncovered evidence linking him with the destruction of U.S. property, but it kept a close eye on him.
Augusta was nervous as the train slowed to a stop at the station. She wrung her hands as she looked for a dapper gentleman standing next to a car with a flag draped over its wheel well, but Herman hadn't arrived yet. She sat down on a bench and waited. Someone left a copy of the previous night's Detroit Times on the seat. Augusta unfolded the newspaper and scanned the headlines as she waited for Neugebauer to arrive: "Ford Offers Plant to US; Will Manufacture Munitions at COST FOR USE OF THE GOVERNMENT, AUTO MAKER TELLS NAVY SECRETARY; Declares He's Ready to Use His Utmost Efforts in Country's Defense."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Shocking Story of Helmuth Schmidt"
Copyright © 2013 Tobin T. Buhk.
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
Part I. The Domestic and the Suitor,
Part II. "A Real Queer Case",
Part III. The Evil Eye,
Part IV. The Web He Wove,
About the Author,