In the wake of talk about German occultists after the head of F.W. Murnau was stolen from his tomb, today we examine another Interesting Person, the learned Professor Erich Muenter, polyglot, German instructor at Harvard University, metaphysician, mad bomber, and murderer.
On 16 April, 1906, Mrs Leone Muenter died suddenly, just days after giving birth to a second daughter. Her grieving husband was equally precipitous about wanting to cremate her corpse and claim the insurance money. When he applied for a death certificate, doubts prompted the attending doctor to send her body for autopsy and remove her stomach for analysis. Inexplicably, Muenter was allowed to leave Cambridge and go to Chicago with his wife’s body and his two children, young Helen and the newborn Leone Jean. When the autopsy revealed death from arsenic, a warrant was issued for Muenter, who could not be found. At this, the family of the late Mrs. Muenter spoke up.
Investigation by the police into the career of Erich Muenter, the Harvard teacher of languages, reveals the fact that years past he has been regarded by relatives of his wife as a highly cultivated man of homicidal tendencies. Detectives have been informed of circumstances which they think supply the motive for the desire on the part of the professor to get rid of his wife so to have a way clear to renewed courtship of the daughter of a banker. Republic [Rockford, IL] 28 April 1906: p. 7
Walter Krembs, brother of the late Mrs. Muenter went further: he was adamant that Muenter murdered his sister.
“There is no doubt that he killed her and killed her after long plotting to get rid of her. This was his second attempt on her. The first was unsuccessful. It happened nearly four years ago, when he and my sister lived in Ingleside avenue in a flat with Prof. John M. Crowe of the University school and his wife. Little Helen had just been born, and Mrs. Muenster was still in charge of a nurse. Muenster waited till everyone left the flat, and the nurse, finding that her patient was getting on well, went down town, expecting to be gone a couple of hours.
“Muenter then turned on all the gas jets in the room where his wife and her new born baby lay asleep, closed up the windows and doors and went out in the front porch and waited for them to die.
‘If he had stopped up all the cracks he might have succeeded, but the smell of gas went through the house, and the woman in the flat below, alarmed, burst into the place and found my sister and her baby almost suffocated.
“Muenter himself was sitting on the front porch calmly smoking and waiting for them to die. He explained that it was an accident. He did not say why the gas was on in a well-lighted room in the middle of the day and why all of them should have been unlighted, but we accepted his explanation. We let it go, though now we know that it was nothing but an attempt to kill poor sister.” Boston [MA] Herald 30 April 1906: p. 4
Still another ominous sign was recorded by one of Muenter’s associates in Cambridge who wrote to a friend, “The friends of the Muenters are praying that their baby may be a boy, as they are afraid Mr. Muenter will be in a mood to do something rash if there is another girl in his home.” [Boston (MA) Journal 30 April 1906: p. 1]
Although a banker’s daughter would normally be sufficient reason for looking more closely at the husband, suddenly the papers suggested a more startling motive for murder.
MURDERED HER TO PROVE PET THEORY
Prof. Muenter of Harvard Wanted to See Soul of Departing Spirit Leave Wife’s Body in Form of a Vapor.
Loved Her Very Dearly, but Was a Great Slave to Science and Had Delved Deep into Ancient Lore.
Believed That Motherhood Period is Psychological Time for a Woman to Embark on Her Journey Into Unknown.
Boston, Thursday, May 10. That Erich K. Muenter, the Harvard instructor and mystic, administered a death potion to his beloved wife to test his cherished theory that at the instant of death the soul of a departing spirit may be seen leaving the body in the form of a vapour is the astounding theory that had taken shape here among many who were striving to solve the mystery that surrounds the death of Mrs. Muenter on April. 16.
Loving his wife dearly, Muenter was nonetheless a slave to science. He had delved far into ancient lore, and his researches in preparation of the thesis on which he hoped to secure a degree of director of philosophy had carried him so deeply into the mazes of German speculative thought and metaphysical reasoning that for six months prior to his wife’s death he seemed like a man bereft of all reason. His body had shrunk to wraithlike proportions and in his eyes there was an unintelligent glare.
Period of Motherhood.
Coupled with the theory that the departing soul could be seen taking its flight in a vapour-like apparition was the additional belief that the period of motherhood is the psychological time for a woman to embark on her journey into the unknown. Mrs. Muenter died shortly after a daughter had been born to her.
There is a cherished belief among a certain set of “mystics” that the period of motherhood is the psychological time for a woman to die. It is then that she has performed the highest function of her being, and to return to the presence of her maker at such a time is regarded as entering the spirit land in the same state of perfection as the spirit was clothed in when she came upon earth. Similarly, for a child to die at birth or within a brief time afterward is held as endowing the child with that perfection which could not be attained after contact with the world.
Muenter for the past year has been regarded as a mystic by his associates He has delved in all the mazes of ancient learning.
He had ransacked the Harvard Library for works extant on philosophy, ancient and modern; he had mastered all the works on alchemy, and was, in point of fact, engaged in writing a thesis on the insanity of German romantic literature at the time of his wife’s death.
Insisted Upon Cremation.
He was intimate with Kant and Schopenhauer, and he had made the works of the mad Nietzsche a special study. Who shall figure out the ideas that coursed through his mind as he toiled over his thesis by night, while the thought of the babe that was shortly to be born into the world and of his wife, mingled with his philosophical speculations and jumbled with the bizarre characters of that German romantic literature, the insanity of which he was labouring to define?
It is a belief also of a theosophical sect that only by fire can the spirit be cleansed and rendered worthy to return whence it came. The body, this school teaches, is but the envelope in which the spirit is held for the short time that it moves upon the earth. To free the spirit, the body must be consumed by fire, and not until the envelope, the shell, the clay mould in which the spirit has been imprisoned is completely consumed by fire can the spirit effectually escape. And Muenter insisted upon the cremation of his wife’s body. He proposed to have it done here. He did, in fact, have the remains cremated as soon as the body reached Chicago.
As the strange, weird, uncanny circumstances of the case are considered, the conviction grows that it is one not for the police court but for the alienists. What of the wonderful belief which was pursued even to the point of murder recently by Herrich, another scientist, who in the mad frenzy of insane science killed his wife that he might demonstrated the theory that at the instant of death an adept may see the spirit of the departing being float upward. Will this mysterious Harvard case develop another such horror? Seattle [WA] Daily Times 10 May 1906: p. 1
After cremating his wife in Chicago and leaving his children with his mother-in-law, Muenter vanished. Sightings of the elusive professor were reported around Illinois and in Wisconsin. From New Orleans, he sent an “insane” pamphlet claiming innocence to President Eliot of Harvard and his work associates. Some of his friends in Chicago said that they believed that he had not killed his wife and had gone off to commit suicide out of grief at the charges. Then the trail went cold. And the theory above was the one that remained in the minds of the public.
Looking further into the origins of the theory that Muenter killed his wife under the influence of mysticism, I found this article, which muddied the waters even further with talk of a cult:
SEE MYSTIC HAND IN MUENTER DEATH
New Theory That Woman Was Victim of Weird Metaphysical Cult.
HAS HEADQUARTERS IN ILLINOIS VILLAGE
Muenter Said to have Been a Member Along with Other Germans.
[Special Dispatch to the Sunday Herald.]
Chicago, Ill., May 12, 1906. That the mysterious death of Mrs. Erich Muenter was due to her husband’s membership in a strange cult is the strange theory brought forward by residents of Schaumberg Centre, a remote German village lying four miles northeast of Elgin, Ill., a point where the fugitive Harvard instructor was reported to have been seen.
Of the three radical German metaphysician who were thought to have been the leaders of this strange organization which is a combination of paganistic rites, belief in a deity and in the most advanced ideas of German metaphysics, one is dead and another is said by his family to be insane. The last is thought to be Muenter.
This creed is characterized by the abhorrence of its adherents for physicians and their ordinary practices [Muenter’s wife was a Christian Scientist], although certain peculiar drugs of their own are used; by belief in soul transmigration and indestructibility; by the use of a silver symbol about the size and shape of an ordinary pin, and by the exclusive use of the German language in their rites. [This may be a reflection of anti-German sentiment.]
If Muenter was as stanch a member of the strange religion as some believe, the authorities of three countries, who are in pursuit of a man believed to be the Harvard instructor, whose trail was lost late last night near the headquarters of the cult, believe that the death of Mrs. Muenter is at once explained and yet made even more mysterious. That she was the victim of the metaphysical derangement of her husband is the theory. Exactly what part was played in the strange tragedy by the peculiar beliefs of the follower of the Schaumberg metaphysicians is inexplicable, they say.
Forty years ago John Jopp, then about 50 years of age, with his wife and daughter, emigrated to America from Mecklenburg. They settled at Schaumberg Centre. Soon the neighborhood began to be astounded by reports of the marvellous cures which he made. For miles around the farmers brought invalids to test the “magic healing” powers of the man. Some he cured and some he did not, it is said. Naturally a superstitious people, the neighbors did not inquire into the reason for the cures. in time the belief began to take a more mystic character. Strange oriental rites of centuries ago were grafted on the mysticism of German metaphysics. Reports of the sect caused a stir of veneration and awe among the simple German farmers of the Schaumberg district. Among the young men attracted by the strange cult was one said to have been Muenter. Boston [MA] Herald 13 May 1906: p. 13
I am drawing a blank when it comes to finding a record of Jopp’s healing activities or his cult. And who is Herrich, (Herrick?) the other mad, wife-murdering scientist mentioned in the first article? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
How plausible is it that this was a metaphysical murder? I can only say that the papers noted that Muenter’s hobby was the invention of a universal language “by a combination of the Scotch dialect and German.” A man with that kind of mind might be capable of anything…
And now to the sequel:
Years later, on 2 July, 1915, the Reception Room in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol building was blown up just before midnight by “an infernal device.” One “R. Pearce” claimed responsibility in a letter to The Washington Times, adding that the explosion would be “the exclamation point of his career.”
The following day, while J.P. Morgan and his family breakfasted with the British ambassador, a shabbily-dressed man came to his Glen Cove, Long Island home and, pulling a revolver on the butler, forced his way into the house. The butler alerted Morgan who ran upstairs with his family, only to have the armed intruder follow and shoot Morgan several times. During the struggle the resourceful butler hit the shooter with a lump of coal as he was pinned by Mr. and Mrs. Morgan; he was tied up and arrested. Giving the name Frank Holt, he claimed responsibility for the Capitol bombing. He said that he never intended to hurt anyone, but merely wanted to kidnap the financier’s wife and children “to hold them as hostages in demanding that Morgan interests quit manufacturing arms for the allies.” [Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) 17 September 1920: p. 5] He was described as a “fanatic” and a “German sympathizer and crank” in the papers.
On the 7th of July there was an explosion on an Atlantic transport liner Minehaha. Fortunately the fire was contained after a two day struggle; the ship was carrying ammunition and explosives. Authorities had been alerted by a Mrs. Leona Holt, who showed them a letter her husband had written her, stating that he had planted a bomb on an Atlantic liner. Some papers reported that many other ships were found with timed explosives on board, which, if true, meant that Holt was a very busy bomber, indeed.
As the drama in the Atlantic was unfolding, Holt was in prison. An alienist called in to examine him labeled him a paranoiac: Holt thought that his crimes were fully justified in view of his “mission” to stop the world arming itself against Germany.
Less than an hour after the alienist’s visit, Holt tried to cut his wrists and puncture his throat with a pencil lead. Later he pretended to sleep and when his guard left his place in front of the open cell door, he climbed to the top cell tier and dove off, shattering his skull.
In the wake of Holt’s death and the investigation into his many crimes, it emerged that the man known as Frank Holt was, sensationally, the missing Erich Muenter. He had shaved off his beard, changed his style of dress, and gone to Mexico, where he worked as a bookkeeper. He came back to the United States and taught at several universities including the University of Kansas and Cornell. It emerged that several people at Cornell had recognized him, despite his attempts at changing his appearance, but these men chose to say nothing.
His list of offenses was long: trigamy [he had yet another wife back in Germany], assault, planting bombs, attempted murder, and murder. His career of crime and his lies and indignant rationalizations which emerged during the investigation, seems that of a calculating and sociopathic killer who not only was fond of the name “Leone” and its variants, but always loved the one he was with. Did he truly believe some mystic creed about the best time for a woman to die? It would have been the perfect insanity defense if he was caught. Did he plant the notion in the minds of colleagues, knowing it would be remembered after his wife was dead and he was off to a new life?
Spiritualists as well as Theosophists believed the soul could only be freed by cremation, but which “certain set of ‘mystics’ believed in a right time to die? I’m not familiar enough with the German metaphysicians to know what mazes of German speculative thought might apply. Or which theories Muenter might have twisted into justification/excuse for the deaths he planned.
“Holt” spouted noble sentiments in a self-justifying letter to his father-in-law,
“The slaughter must be stopped and we must stop helping it on. The people must rise to the realization of their best interests and demand an embargo on arms. Let us hope it will come soon. If not our children will suffer the consequences, if not our own generation.
“I have tried to do my duty, now the rest of the country must do theirs.”
Yet he did not scruple to slaughter his wife and might have succeeded in killing hundreds of others with his shipboard bomb. Brilliant linguist he may have been, but Muenter’s methods for ridding himself of an outworn wife did not rise above those sordid clichés: arsenic and gas. Even in his anti-war protests he could think of nothing better than the anarchist’s hackneyed standard: dynamite.
If he had been caught and tried in 1906, perhaps Muenter could have fashioned himself on the stand into a rarefied seeker after occult mysteries with a fascinatingly insane rationale for his deeds. At that date readers might have been avid for details about madness, German cults and maternal murder. In 1915, with a world plunging into war, the emphasis in the press was placed on Muenter’s explosive activities and his pro-German sympathies. Metaphysics had become irrelevant in the face of real, rather than occult horrors.
Muenter may have liked to think of himself as an Adept, but in the end, he was no übermensch, merely a commonplace suburban poisoner motivated by the usual suspects: another woman, insurance money, dissatisfaction with his life and family.
Muenter’s daughter Helen, the baby he had tried to gas, died sometime between 1906 and 1910. Leone, the new-born daughter left behind when Muenter murdered her mother, took her mother’s maiden name of Krembs. She was well-known in Chicago as a Democratic Party activist. Leone never married; perhaps she feared some hereditary taint.
Despite the revelations about Holt/Muenter’s crimes, Mrs. Holt, who had two children with her husband, Oscar, and Daisy Leona, had his body shipped to her home in Dallas, Texas and buried there. He was given a touching, fully choral funeral by his Methodist minister father-in-law. [Tulsa (OK) World 20 July 1915: p. 3] Not bad for a murderous metaphysician.
Further reading: A two-part article about Muenter’s dual life.
Muenter’s excuses for his actions and his version of the J.P. Morgan assault.
Details about Muenter’s murdered wife, Leone Krembs Muenter.
A brief bio of Muenter’s daughter Leone Jean Krembs
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.