Killer Priest: The Crimes, Trial, and Execution of Father Hans Schmidt
The duality of man's existence, so masterfully portrayed in Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), is a recurrent theme in Western literature. Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad, explored the alleged evil nature of man in Heart of Darkness (1902), one of the twentieth century's most enduring and enigmatic novels. While Stevenson declares that "man is not truly one, but truly two,'' Conrad surrenders man's soul over to evil with little resistance and illustrates what could happen when he confronts his dark inner self. In Man Against Himself (1938), Dr. Karl Menninger interpreted the situation in slightly different terms. "Love and hate, production and consumption, creation and destruction, the constant war of opposing tendencies would appear to be the dynamic heart of the world,'' is how he describes that conflict.
Edward Hyde was Dr. Jekyll, in a sense, without the allegorical mask. Once he drank the experimental potion, Dr. Jekyll "transformed'' into Mr. Hyde, the emotional opposite of what he was in reality. Of course, there was no authentic conversion since Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll buried under the subconscious strata. This alter ego, symbolized by the repulsive Mr. Hyde, is described as animalistic, hairy and ugly, a primitive creature whose appetitesare out of control and dangerous. Stevenson used the word "troglodyte,'' a cave dweller. Those primal traits, which allegedly exist in every human being,
can only be brought under control by society's laws and restraints. Without them, according to Stevenson, man is a beast. Eventually, Dr. Jekyll did not require the potion to turn into Mr. Hyde; the transformation occurred involuntarily. In time, the evil side of his psyche overcomes the good. And even more ominous, Dr. Jekyll disappears forever, leaving only his evil counterpart behind.
Conrad, on the other hand, may have seen evil as central to man's nature and, ostensibly, at the core of his soul. This pessimistic view, epitomized by the rapid descent of Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, leaves little room for optimism. But it is important to remember that Kurtz, in the beginning of the story, was an honorable man. He arrived in Africa with noble intentions, guided by the belief that civilization could offer a better way of life to the natives. His deterioration began when he became immersed in the ivory trade
and was corrupted by undefined cruelties that he witnessed and, later, participated in. Having come face to face with evil, Kurtz was consumed and eventually destroyed by it.
This disturbing theme was explored once again in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), in which the violent clash between good and evil takes place in isolation, far away from the calming effects of civilization and society. Golding, whose experiences in World War II undoubtedly affected his thoughts on the power of evil, employed a simple plot to illustrate his hypothesis. A group of innocent children left alone on a deserted island, without adult supervision, eventually descend into savagery and barbarism. The author's lesson may be that evil lives inside the soul of mankind and absent any restraint, he will revert back to the primordial savage. Again, the fragile balance of man's existence gave way to temptation, struggle, and, ultimately, final defeat.
The crimes of Father Hans Schmidt were many. The murder of Anna Aumuller, of which he was convicted in 1914, was so gruesome and satanic that it is sometimes difficult to believe he was, in fact, a Catholic priest. The daily revelations of his sexual perversions and debauchery, aptly reported in the New York press, shocked the public and reverberated all the way to the steps of the Vatican. Schmidt was a classic psychopathic personality, egotistic, self-absorbed, and oblivious to the feelings of others, much in the tradition of killers such as Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, or Ted Bundy.
The story of Killer Priest is true. Details were gathered from a wide variety of sources, which included a voluminous library of newspaper reports from the New York papers the Sun, the Evening Telegram, the New York Times, the New York Press, and the New York Herald, as well as the Courier-Journal and xiv IntroductionTimes of Louisville, Kentucky. Much was learned from the court testimony of dozens of participants in the Schmidt trial, which held New York City spellbound during the winter months of 1913 and 1914. Sworn depositions from family members also provided valuable insight into the defendant's childhood development. His sister, Elizabeth Schmidt-Schadler, was particularly observant of her younger brother's pathological obsession with blood at a very early age. She was also aware of his sexual attraction to her when he was a boy, a trait that may have had a pivotal influence on his fixation for St. Elizabeth, the patron saint of Hungary. And finally, hundreds of pages of several sworn statements taken from Father Hans Schmidt provided a unique opportunity to hear the voice of the defendant himself, who seemingly never tired of discussing his life of crime and debauchery. Through this abundance of material, the author was able to faithfully reconstruct the events of September 1913 to a very high degree of certainty. However, despite all of this documentation, questions still linger over the activities of Father Hans Schmidt. Was he also responsible for the murder of little Alma Kellner in 1909? Were there other murders as well?
Without the existence of a handwritten confession, it will never be proven if Father Schmidt was the Louisville murderer. Though the man convicted of that killing, Joseph Wendling, served twenty-six years in a Kentucky prison, he claimed innocence until the day he died. Curiously, when Schmidt was questioned about Alma Kellner after he was arrested in New York, he replied, "I never heard of her!'' That would have been impossible since her disappearance was front-page news in Louisville for months and she was a student at the Catholic school when he visited in August 1909. The Louisville diocese assisted in the police investigation as well, so it could not be feasible that he never heard her name. Some startling coincidences also exist between the two killings, such as Alma Kellner's body that was found yards away from the altar where Father Schmidt once prayed. One can only imagine the reluctance of Louisville officials to reopen the case after they had expended so much time, effort, and money to convict another man for that murder. That said, there simply is not enough evidence to convict Father Schmidt of the killing of Alma Kellner.
His guilt or innocence in that murder will be left to the reader to decide. Of course, it is impossible to know exactly what was said in conversations that took place, for example, in the privacy of someone's home or in an isolated cell-block. For that, some literary license had to be taken in order to maintain reader interest and story continuity. But the author is confident that in each and every instance, the words used in the narrative are supported by the evidence and dictated by common sense. For example, it is safe to assume that after his arrest, when Father Schmidt had conversed with his lawyer, they undoubtedly discussed the details of his case. When detectives canvass a Introduction xvneighborhood, whether in 1913 or in 2005, they are sure to ask questions of the people they find at home. It is in these types of situations that some additions and speculations were made. But in no occasion were the essential facts of the case altered or disturbed in any way.
In reality, Father Schmidt had two trials. The first took place in December of 1913, just three months after his arrest. That trial resulted in a hung jury or "jury disagreed,'' as it was described in the official record. The vote was 10–2 for a guilty verdict. The second trial began in January 1914, which is described at length in this book. Since the same witnesses testified in both proceedings, and defense and prosecution teams were identical, only the second trial is addressed here. Obviously, it would be repetitive to describe both trials, which were carbon copies of each other. Luckily, an official record still exists for the January trial, which was reviewed by the New York State Court of Appeals. That review also includes two separate depositions given by Father Schmidt on February 15 and March 13, 1914. Though not completely truthful, those depositions, as well as a final statement taken in October 1914 at Sing Sing, provide hundreds of pages of the defendant's words describing his thoughts and actions on the events of September 1913.
The trial record was also the source material for reconstructing the early life of Hans Schmidt in Germany. Testimony by his sister, Elizabeth, his brother, Karl, and his father, Heinrich Schmidt, furnished important clues to the nature of his childhood experiences and the origins of his psychological development. Clergy who served with Father Schmidt in the Mainz seminary, as well as those at the Church of St. Boniface and St. Joseph's Church in New York City, described his rather curious attitude toward Catholic dogma.
Though he considered himself a blessed child, Hans Schmidt was disrespectful and dismissive of church tradition. Virtually every person with whom he served had strong reservations about Schmidt's fitness and viability as a Catholic priest. That may help explain why his ordination at the seminary at Mainz took place in private in the bishop's quarters. There was no ceremony and no guests. By then, Schmidt had already been arrested (on forgery charges) and his reputation as a sexual philanderer with both men and women was well known in local inns and taverns.
The astute reader will notice that there are discrepancies in statements made by some participants in the story. Often, they are at odds with each other and sometimes, they tell different versions of the same event. Sometimes, these statements were honest mistakes; other times, people deliberately tried to mislead investigators. It is important to remember that in murder cases, then and now, there are strong motives for people to blatantly lie, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Their goal is usually to minimize their involvement and, therefore, their culpability.
tried to mislead investigators. It is important to remember that in murder cases, then and now, there are strong motives for people to blatantly lie, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Their goal is usually to minimize their involvement and, therefore, their culpability.
He was a Catholic priest and a killer. Hans Schmidt, ordained in Germany in 1904, arrived in the United States in 1908 and was assigned to St. John's Parish in Louisville, Kentucky. Arguments with the minister resulted in Schmidt's transfer to St. Boniface Church in New York City. There he met beautiful Anna Aumuller, a housekeeper for the rectory who had recently emigrated from Austria. Despite his transfer to a church far uptown, Father Schmidt and Anna continued a romantic affair and, in a secret ceremony he performed himself, they were married. When he discovered she was pregnant, Father Schmidt knew his secret life would soon be exposed. On the night of September 2, 1913, he cut Anna's throat, dismembered her body, and threw the parts into the Hudson River. When the body was discovered, he was arrested and charged with the murder. A media circus ensued, as the New York papers became fascinated by the priest and his double life. After feigning insanity during his first trial, which ended with a hung jury, Father Schmidt was eventually convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. He remains the only priest ever executed for murder in the United States.
The public fascination with cases involving husbands suspected of murdering their pregnant wives predates Scott Peterson and Mark Hacking. When the press learned that Father Schmidt was suspected of killing his pregnant wife, it generated the kind of flashy headlines and gossipy speculation similar crimes elicit today. The case provided a spectacle for the media and captured the imagination of a city. Not only did Father Schmidt kill his young, pregnant bride, but further investigation proved that he had a second apartment where he had set up a printing press and counterfeited $10 bills. In Louisville, the dismembered body of a missing nine-year-old girl was found buried in the basement of St. John's church, where Schmidt had previously worked. In addition, German police wanted to talk to Father Schmidt about a murdered girl in his hometown. Though he was never charged, it was strongly suspected that Father Schmidt committed these murders as well. On February 18, 1916, Father Schmidt was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison. This book tells this tale in vivid and lively detail and looks at the man, the crime, and the attention both received in the popular press and the city at large.
Table of contents :
Series Foreword......Page 10
1 The Chapel......Page 18
2 The Sixth......Page 22
3 Alma......Page 36
4 Into the Cellar......Page 42
5 The Pursuit......Page 50
6 At Dawn......Page 60
7 Cliffside Park......Page 66
8 Weehawken......Page 72
9 Faurot......Page 78
10 The Rectory......Page 88
11 Muret......Page 96
12 Stigmata......Page 106
13 Bellevue......Page 116
14 In the Tombs......Page 124
15 Trial......Page 138
16 Close Union......Page 148
17 Jeliffe......Page 158
18 Zech......Page 168
19 The Sacrifice......Page 178
20 Sing Sing......Page 186
21 Death Row......Page 198
22 Appeal......Page 208
23 Execution......Page 214
24 Freedom......Page 222
Killer Priest: The Crimes, Trial, and Execution of Father Hans Schmidt
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