UNWANTED: A MURDER MYSTERY OF THE GILDED AGE
By Andrew Young
Pen & Sword Press (Westholme Publishing). 268 pages. £15.99. ISBN 978-59416-246-6
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Like any large conurbation, Greater Cincinnati had its seamy side, but it came as a shock when, in January, 1896, a fourteen year-old boy taking a short cut across a field to his place of employment, which was actually within the boundaries of Newport, stumbled across the body of a headless woman. The police were called, reporters arrived quickly, and so did crowds of people who trampled the area around the body and picked up anything that they thought might serve as a souvenir of the scene. Their macabre enthusiasm even extended to plucking bloodstained leaves from the bushes where the body was found.
There was nothing to immediately identify the woman. With the head missing it was impossible to circulate a picture of some sort, or even a description. Fingerprinting was then in its infancy and, in any case, would only have been of use if the dead person’s fingerprints were on file somewhere. The police were baffled. A post-mortem revealed that the woman was pregnant, and there were traces of large amounts of cocaine in her stomach. At that time it was believed that cocaine could help in inducing a miscarriage. It was initially suggested that she might have been a prostitute. The area where the body was found was known to be used by prostitutes and soldiers from a nearby army post. But checks on soldiers didn’t produce any useful information.
To add to the confusion, there were disagreements among officials who visited the scene of the crime, and also examined the body, about whether the woman had been killed in the field, or had died elsewhere and then moved. Bloodhounds were used to try to locate the victim’s head, and a nearby reservoir was drained, but to no avail. It had been noted that the head appeared to have been severed from the body with a certain amount of skill, and that suggested someone with a degree of medical knowledge. A Dr Kettner came under suspicion. He had a history of bigamy and one of his wives seemed to have disappeared. It looked like a promising scenario, but eventually came to nothing. There were other false trails as the usual oddballs, who turn up with wild ideas about crimes, came and went.
The breakthrough came not because of any police investigations, but
due to the actions of Louis D.Poock, the owner of a
Poock noted that the shoes were of good quality, and from his
knowledge of the shoe trade ascertained that they “had the
appearance of having been made by some manufacturer in
It was thanks to Poock’s efforts that information came to light that enabled the police to ascertain the woman’s identity, and eventually arrest her killers. What happened next is fully detailed by Young as witnesses, not all of them reliable, came forward, and evidence was accumulated. The case had attracted national interest and provided material for sensational journalism guaranteed to arouse emotional responses in readers.
The crime, its background in terms of the people involved, and the
activities of Poock and the police, obviously make for an
interesting story in itself. But Young is concerned to place what
happened in a wider context. As noted earlier,
On the other hand, the 1890s, even in areas such as Greater
Cincinnati, could always throw up examples of what might be called
“frontier justice”. When the killers were arrested in
Prior to the identities of the killers being established there had
been suspicions that tramps may have been responsible for the
woman’s death. There were wide concerns with regard to tramps, who
were seen as “an unsavoury group, prone to committing crimes”. Young
says that, “In 1896 there was nothing particularly romantic about
tramps. They were either hard-luck drifters or angry rabble; they
were a social problem that lacked a solution”.
And the “Great Panic” of 1893 had caused mass unemployment,
which increased the number of men wandering the country in search of
work. In 1894, Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy and eccentric
Some tramps were arrested in connection with the headless body crime, but were quickly released once it became obvious that they were innocent.
Fear of tramps was often aroused by reports of their habits and
activities by the press. Sensational journalism was the order of the
day, and it was certainly in evidence in connection with the
It’s more than probable that the police did eventually arrest the right people responsible for the death of the young woman involved. And she was young and only in her early-twenties. The fact of her pregnancy gives Young an opportunity to write about attitudes towards unmarried mothers, abortion, and sexual mores generally. The fluid state of American society at that time led to a mixture of restrictive social laws, written or unwritten, clashing with new ideas about women’s emancipation and mobility. Practices acceptable in cities were not necessarily tolerated in small towns and rural areas. And the age-old problem of relatively naïve young women being exploited by more-sophisticated men also played a part in what happened.
Unwanted is both an intriguing crime story and a social document with interesting things to say about aspects of American society in the late-nineteenth century. Andrew Young has dug up a wealth of primary documentation from newspapers and other publications of the period, along with informative general background material. He also writes clearly and to the point.