The Wynekoop Murder Case - 1933.|
THE WYNEKOOP CASE--1933
by Craig Rice
"The long arm of coincidence bends a lot of elbows--"
John J. Malone
IT WAS November, 1933. I was working for a radio station, and among my many and various chores was the writing of a thrice-weekly, half-hour mystery drama. Late on Monday night, November 20th, I had been sitting at the typewriter beating my brains out for an idea. Towards morning, I came up with one - having a beautiful young woman found murdered on an operating table.
Tuesday morning I turned the script over to the stenographic department, and promptly forgot all about it.
Wednesday morning the producer called me into his office. He handed me the morning paper and said, "Are you psychic, or do little birds tell you these things?"
I looked at the paper. The body of beautiful, red-haired Rheta Wynekoop had been found on an operating table in the basement surgery of her mother-in-law's home.
The newspapers, of course, didn't put it quite so bluntly. Adjectives described the victim: "talented young violinist" - the mother-in-law: "Dr. Alice Wynekoop, prominent Chicago physician and clubwoman" and the house: "a gloomy old mansion on West Monroe Street. . .”
The story of Rheta Wynekoop's murder was a sensational one from the beginning. Elderly Dr. Alice Wynekoop was a prominent Chicago physician, clubwoman and social service worker. Rheta was young, beautiful, red-haired and a talented violinist. Her husband - Dr. Alice's son - was a handsome young Lothario who had never been able to earn enough to support his wife. Dr. Alice's daughter, Dr. Catherine Wynekoop, was a highly respected member of the staff at Cook County Hospital.
Those circumstances alone would have been enough to make the story an exciting one. But there were plenty of other details to make it dramatic from its very beginning. Rheta Wynekoop had been found face down on an operating table in Dr. Wynekoop's basement surgery, wrapped in a heavy blanket, shot through the breast. On the table, near her head, lay a revolver covered with a cloth. There were chloroform burns on Rheta's face. On the floor, at the foot of the operating table, lay Rheta's clothing.
Even before the really dramatic and fantastic details were known, it was obvious that the newspapers had hit the jack-pot. Then, through the weeks that followed, while story and speculation ran wild, little by little the history of the gloomy old mansion on Monroe Street became known. Gloomy old mansion! Let's go back, just a bit--
About noon, on a warm Chicago summer day in the year 1904, a new and happy little family arrived to take up residence at 3406 West Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois. They were moving into a house which had just been completed, and whose construction they had watched with loving interest. Dr. and Mrs. (also Dr.) Wynekoop were bringing two baby sons into this new home.
During the first few years that followed, one of the baby sons was taken by death - but in recompense another son and a daughter were added to the household. Later on, another daughter was added, by adoption.
There must have followed days and months and years of childish prattle and laughter. Picture books. Mud pies with the usual resulting smudgy faces and hands to be washed many times a day. And playmates - yes, there must have been playmates to add to the houseful of children at 3406 West Monroe Street. Then came school days, with the young Wynekoops trudging off every morning, happily filled with
tasty and nourishing breakfasts, carrying well-stocked lunch pails - and a new little one to start in the "Baby Grade" every year or so for quite a time.
Alice Wynekoop's children gave her many happy years. Walker, the eldest, became a respected business man in a Chicago suburb; married and had two children of his own. Catherine, the youngest of Dr. Alice's own brood, studied medicine, eventually taking up surgery.
Of the adopted child, Mary Louise, who died young, we know little.
Although Earle was older in years than his sister Catherine, he seemed to be the baby of the family. Imagine him a not-too-well little boy, handsome, but just a bit on the whiney side-and demanding his own way in everything; adoring his mother, who saw to it that he was always given his way.
During the years when she was bringing up her children Dr. Alice Wynekoop was also practicing medicine, along with her husband, Dr. Frank Wynekoop. He died, however, before the job of raising all the children had been quite finished.
Dr. Alice carried on with her practice. She joined clubs - The Women's City Club, and others; she did charity work, most of it for children, in hospitals and clinics. She founded a sorority for the purpose of aiding women medical students in need of financial assistance. She maintained her office in her home, in a basement suite built for that purpose, accessible from West Monroe Street.
It was while Catherine was just finishing her medical training and after Walker had married and settled in Wilmette, Illinois, that Earle met Rheta Gardner, on a visit to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she was one of the entertainers at a concert. After his return to Chicago, he started a correspondence with her.
Scarcely a year later, Earle persuaded Rheta to come to Chicago, and asked her to marry him. In spite of the fact that Rheta was eighteen years old, Dr. Alice, Earle's mother, insisted that the young couple obtain the consent of Rheta's
father (Burdine H. Gardner, an Indianapolis flour and salt merchant). It was given, somewhat grudgingly, and Mr. Gardner even attended the wedding.
The marriage of the two very young people was the occasion for a family party. But Rheta refused to spend her wedding night in the old mansion on Monroe Street. After a night in a hotel the young couple left for a honeymoon.
It must be remembered that Earle was not earning his own living and certainly was unable to support a wife. The only solution was for Earle and Rheta to live with Dr. Alice in the house which she and her husband had built more than twenty-five years before. During the honeymoon therefore, Dr. Alice redecorated and refurnished a suite of rooms on the second floor to be ready for the young newlyweds.
Perhaps at this point, we'd better pause and try to picture the house at 3406 West Monroe Street. It shouldn't be too difficult to imagine it, since there are many like it still standing in Chicago, good substantial stone houses. Three stories, an English basement and a flight of stairs leading up to the first floor. Inside a lot of fine, expensive - and probably dusty - millwork, thick heavy doors and costly hardware, antiquated and inconvenient lighting fixtures which had once been the pride of the family, leaky faucets, slow drains and clawfooted bathtubs.
How about the people who lived in the house? There was, of course, Dr. Alice who was (a) a benevolent, warm-hearted and unfortunate woman, (b) an eccentric and peculiar character, or (c) a ruthless woman, who would murder her helpless daughter-in-law for a small life insurance policy depending on which interpretation of her behavior you read. There was her daughter, Dr. Catherine Wynekoop, at that time not yet a full-fledged doctor. There was Mary Louise, the adopted daughter, a shadowy little figure - it is difficult to imagine even what she looked like. A Miss Catherine Porter - a woman of about Dr. Alice's age - was rooming there and being treated by Dr. Alice for cancer and heart disease. She shared a two-thousand-dollar bank account with her doctor and devoted friend. There were also Miss Enid
Hennessey, a middle-aged school teacher and her aged father. Of Miss Hennessey, more later.
From every indication it appears that Rheta was not a happy bride. And the events following her marriage were hardly reassuring ones. Miss Porter died. Mary Louise died. Miss Hennessey's father died. Dr. Catherine left the household to become a resident physician at Cook County Hospital.
But worst of all, Earle was away from home most of the time. Later it was learned that he was interested in other women and that when, in the summer of 1933, he finally found a job at the Chicago World's Fair, his drinking and the friends he made were of great concern to his mother. They must have been of concern, also, to his unhappy young wife.
For Rheta was unhappy. What wonder - a young wife, practically deserted by her handsome husband, and left to the companionship of a devoted but aging mother-in-law and a middle aged school teacher. Their conversations must have been highly educational, but very dull for young Rheta. She was given to introspection. Her mother had been confined in an insane asylum when Rheta was only seven years old, and had finally died there, some ten years later, of tuberculosis. It was this not very pretty picture which must have led Rheta to fear that she, too, had tuberculosis, and to instill into her mind the dread of many other diseases.
Rheta must have been afraid of a lot of things. Loss of her young husband's love. A lifetime spent in the old mansion on Monroe Street. Illness. Even insanity. But she couldn't have been afraid of murder, because according to the evidence, she was killed by someone in whom she had implicit trust.
At about ten P.M. on the evening of November 21st, Arthur R. March, a police officer in charge of Squad Car 15, received a radio call directing his car to go to 3406 West Monroe Street.
"We went directly there and were met at the front door
by a lady who told us to come inside. . . . The lady we met first we later found to be Miss Enid Hennessey, a school teacher and roomer there. When we got inside we met the defendant, Dr. Wynekoop. She was seated in a chair in the library. Mr. Ahearn, an undertaker, was there. We asked the defendant what happened. She said, 'Something terrible has happened; come on downstairs and I will show you.' We went downstairs.
"When we got down, the basement was lighted and there was a light inside the operating room. Mr. Ahearn, myself, Officer Walter Kelly, Officer Wm. Tyrrell and I believe Miss Hennessey came with us. In the operating room we observed the body of the girl lying on an operating table."
The printed transcript of any evidence makes the scene of a crime seem like a rather calm and quiet place. In this one the sensitive and melancholy Rheta Wynekoop becomes, impersonally, "the body" or "the deceased." In it Dr. Alice Wynekoop, who may have been a financial conniver, a family dictator and cold-blooded murderess - or a sick, bewildered and frightfully distressed old woman - becomes just as impersonally "the defendant."
All calm, all routine, all official. But can your imagination reconstruct the scene? Dr. Alice Wynekoop must have been terrified and possibly hysterical. The school teacher, Miss Enid Hennessey, must have been - well, at least a little nervous.
And a house where a murder has been committed tends to be full of people, most of them policemen. Sooner or later it's full of reporters.
Probably every light in the house was turned on. As for the policemen - well, let's try to estimate from Officer March's testimony:
"Officers Walter Kelly, myself and Officer Wm. Tyrrell were the first squad there. Lieutenant Peterson came in about five minutes after. A great many police officers came in. The coroner's office was there and another squad. There were maybe four or five other policemen there that night. Five or six minutes after about two squads came."
There must have been a crowd outside the house, too. That many policemen can't arrive in any neighborhood without attracting curious onlookers. There probably hadn't been that much excitement on West Monroe Street since the Chicago fire.
Later, at the trial, Dr. Catherine testified that her mother; Dr. Alice, didn't sleep a wink after the police left. To which one can only add, "And no wonder!"
No arrest was made that night, though there was the customary long period of questioning and the necessary homicide squad procedure of photographing and finger-printing. Dr. Alice advanced the theory that a burglar was responsible for the crime. She declared that there had been thefts of drugs and money from the house. But to Captain John Stege, the manner of Rheta's slaying didn't agree with the theory. Suicide was ruled out immediately by the angle of the shot and the chloroform burns on the girl's face.
There were a lot of things Captain Stege wanted to know - and the newspapers wanted to know the same things. For instance, where was Earle Wynekoop on the night of the murder and why was he away from home?
Presumably Earle was on his way to the Grand Canyon on a color photography job, accompanied by a friend named Stanley. But there were rumors that Earle had been in Chicago not more than a day before the crime.
At this point Earle became more interesting to the newspapers than Dr. Alice. He was a tall, handsome brunet. He was taken into custody - after his arrival by train from Kansas City - along with an attractive young girl, whom he had met while employed at the World's Fair. She had known him as Michael Wynekoop and he had told her that he was unmarried. She was released, however, and vanishes forever from the story.
Earle stated that he had started west for Arizona some time before his wife's murder. He was cooperative in the matter of newspaper interviews. He gave as his opinion that Rheta had been murdered by a moron. He added other and even more interesting details regarding his married life. The
marriage, said Earle, was a failure. Rheta at one time had attempted to poison the family by putting iron filings and drugs in the food. She had tuberculosis, Earle added, according to the newspaper story, and was mentally deranged.
He boasted of having fifty girl friends listed in his date book.
In the meantime, while Earle was making wild and far from helpful statements to the press, Dr. Alice Wynekoop, aged sixty-three, frail, sensitive and with a serious heart condition, was being ruthlessly questioned for an almost uninterrupted period of twenty-four hours.
During those hours, there was other material for newspaper stories. So many people crowded around the "gloomy old mansion" on West Monroe Street that the police in charge asked for another squad to come and help keep order. Burdine Gardner, Rheta's father, came from Indianapolis, and, dramatically, took his daughter's body home for burial. He had a few statements to make to the press, regarding the mansion on Monroe Street - (it was he who first described it as "gloomy and old-fashioned"); and regarding Dr. Alice - ("She struck me as a most peculiar person").
Other things helped to enliven the daily papers. A lie-detector test on Dr. Alice: unsuccessful because of the elderly woman's blood pressure condition. An interview by Dr. Harry Hoffman of the Behavior Clinic in one of the city's more sensational newspapers.
But the top story was Dr. Wynekoop's confession.
Earle Wynekoop was in custody by that time. There are varying reports of what occurred before the confession was made. According to one, Dr: Alice met Earle in the jail and he said to her, "For God's sake, mother, if you did this on account of the bond of love between us, go ahead and confess." Dr. Alice then answered - grim-faced, according to the same report - "But Earle, I did not kill Rheta." Earle, exhausted from a night of grilling, sobbed, "Mother, mother -" Fortunately, the newspaper account breaks off at this point.
Just exactly how Dr. Wynekoop's statement was obtained is difficult to imagine from either the newspaper stories or
the transcript of the trial. It is safe to assume, I think, that; guilty or not guilty, Dr. Wynekoop was tired and worried beyond endurance at that time when it was made. It has been said that Dr. Alice was told that Earle had confessed to the crime.
However, here is the way Captain John Stege described, at the trial, the scene in the police station at about 10:30 on the morning of November 24, 1933.
"She was lying on a couch in Captain Duffy's office with an overcoat over her. I said 'Good morning, doctor.' She said, 'Good morning, captain,' and I said, 'Did you have any breakfast?' She said, 'No, I don't want any, but I would like some coffee.' I told Officer Donoghue to go out and get her some coffee. Dr. Hoffman was in the room. She said to me, 'Captain, what would happen if I told the story about killing Rheta?' I said, 'Doctor, I don't want any story from you. All I want is the truth.'"
No matter how the confession was obtained, it kept the papers happy for another few hours. As introduced at her trial it read as follows:
"Rheta was concerned about her health and frequently weighed herself, usually stripping for the purpose. On Tuesday, November 21, after luncheon at about one, she decided to go down to the Loop to purchase some sheet music that she had been wanting. She was given money for this purpose and laid it on the table, deciding to weigh herself before dressing to go downtown. I went to the office. She was sitting on the table practically undressed, and suggested that the pain in her side was troubling her more than usual. I remarked to her since it was a convenient interval . . . for an examination, we might just as well have it over. She complained of considerable soreness, severe pain and tenderness. She thought she would endure the examination better if she might have a little anesthetic. Chloroform was conveniently at hand, and a few drops were put on a sponge. She was allowed to pour a little more on the sponge. She breathed it very deeply. She took several deep inhalations. I asked her if I was hurting her and she made no answer. Inspection revealed that respiration had stopped. Artificial respiration
for about twenty minutes gave no response. Stethoscopic ; examination revealed no heart beat. Turning the patient quickly on her side and examining posteriorly as well as anteriorly, there was no sign of life. Wondering what method would ease the situation best to all and with the suggestion offered by the presence of a loaded revolver, further injury being impossible, with great difficulty one cartridge was exploded at a distance of some half dozen inches from the patient. The scene was so overwhelming that no action was possible for a period of several hours."
If Dr. Alice's confession was the truth, that last sentence is probably at least a close contender for the world championship of understatement.
In all good mystery stories a confession ends the case. In the case of Dr. Alice Wynekoop, the confession was hardly more than a beginning. The coroner's jury reconvened and recommended that Dr. Alice be held for murder, immediately. The jury did not believe the confession was the truth. The verdict of the coroner's inquest was that Rheta had died from gunshot wounds, hemorrhage and shock. And Assistant State's Attorney Charles S. Dougherty stated that he believed most of Dr. Alice's confession was false and that Earle should be charged as an accessory.
Earle helped out at this point with the statement that "the only part of his mother's confession that was true was that Rheta used to go downstairs frequently to weigh herself. That all the rest was a pack of lies told by his mother to save him because she thought he might be in danger."
Dr. Alice then stated that if Earle loved her he should keep his mouth shut. But the damage had been done.
Assistant State's Attorney Charles S. Dougherty made the statement that he believed Dr. Alice had made up her mind to murder Rheta when she had a secret meeting with Earle the Sunday night before the murder.
No one actually knows what was said at that meeting, nor likely ever will. Yet it must have been highly important and probably highly dramatic. For, after her return home, Dr. Alice wrote Earle a frantic note.
Sunday night -
I'm choked - you are gone - you have called me up - and after 10 minutes or so, I called and called - no answer - maybe you are sleeping - you need to be - but I want to hear your voice again tonight - I would give anything I had - to spend an hour - in real talk with you - tonight - And I cannot - Goodnight.
Dr Alice never mailed that note. Later (according to the testimony of Police Lieutenant Samuel Peterson) she explained that she wrote it when she was hysterical, and wanted to calm down before she sent it.
State's Attorney Dougherty, who also wanted to know why Dr. Alice had waited almost five hours after Rheta's death to call the police, a doctor, or anyone, felt he had a case.
As far as motives were concerned - First there was the "other girl." Girl? Judging from Earle's now famous date book, with fifty girls listed, and his diary, kept in code, in which he listed their qualifications, physical and otherwise, she was only one of many. But Dougherty singled out one and declared that she was the only girl Earle had ever loved. Earle had given her a diamond ring, said to be the one he had previously given to Rheta as a pledge of their engagement. For religious reasons neither his family nor hers believed in divorce.
That was one motive. Dr. Alice had wanted to insure the happiness of her adored son, by ridding him of an unwanted wife. As clinchers, however, the State's attorney added two other motives. Dr. Alice was deeply in debt, and she had taken out insurance policies on Rheta's life. Finally, said the State's attorney, Dr. Alice wanted to get rid of a person she considered unfit to live.
Earle, at this point, made five obviously false confessions, culminating in a wild story of how he had slipped into the Wynekoop home on Tuesday afternoon, lain in waiting for his wife, seized her; thrown her on the operating table, killed her and fled by plane to Kansas City. He tried to re-enact the
crime, but made so many mistakes that the entire story was discounted.
Finally it turned out that Earle's alibi was correct and there was not a doubt that he had been miles away at the time of the crime.
The Wynekoop case stayed very much in the headlines. On November 28th; Dr. Alice was seriously ill, with a bronchial cough and high blood pressure. From her bed in the prison hospital she repudiated her confession and denounced the police; declaring that she had confessed only after sixty hours of questioning, during which time she had no food save for one cup of coffee. Two days later she stated she did not think she would live to stand trial, and that was why she had made the confession.
Earle promptly announced that when he got out of jail, he would take up the investigation and prove his mother's innocence.
The trial was set for January, but in the meantime the Wynekoops kept in the public eye. On December 2nd, the Wynekoop family hired a private detective to solve the mystery. Apparently nothing ever came of his investigation
Early in December Rheta's body was exhumed in Indianapolis, and the doctors announced there was no trace of chloroform.
On December 14th, Earle ran over a nine-year-old boy with his automobile, and his sister, Dr. Catherine, was with him at the time.
Dr. Alice's brother-in-law, Dr. Gilbert Wynekoop, was adjudged insane by a jury trying him for attacking a nurse, and was sent to St. Luke's hospital for the insane.
Neither of the last two items had anything to do with the murder of red-haired Rheta, of course, but they did help keep the newspaper readers from forgetting the Wynekoops.
By the time the trial opened, Chicago was in a state of high excitement. Dr. Alice, looking exceedingly frail, was carried into the courtroom. The jury was quickly chosen - good, solid citizens: a sporting-goods sales manager, a book-keeper, a streetcar motorman, a mechanic, a photo engraver, and so on.
The avid audience which had been waiting all these weeks for the Wynekoop trial was not disappointed. It was a highly dramatic show. Policeman March gave his testimony. During it, while the People's exhibits were being identified and arranged by the witness in the manner he first saw them on the night of Rheta's death - the operating table, pillow, blanket, thirty-two calibre Smith & Wesson revolver; blood-stained sheets and pillow case - Dr. Alice collapsed. Then for a time the public was as interested in "Will Dr. Alice Wynekoop live?" as in "Is Dr. Alice Wynekoop guilty?" When - according to one newspaper - she was so weak that she could not hold up her head, she protested a postponement, declaring that she wanted her name cleared before she died.
However, there was a postponement, and in the latter part of February, Officer March picked up where he had been interrupted. The rest of the People's exhibits were identified and admitted.
This first scene of the first act of a murder trial is usually fairly routine, standard stuff and Officer March's testimony does not appear to have been otherwise. But he was followed by a witness who is one of the most fascinating figures in the case, Miss Enid Hennessey. Fascinating, because in spite of the newspaper clippings and the transcript of the trial, she remains a shadowy, undefined figure, although she played one of the principal roles. It is hard even to imagine how she looked, acted, spoke and thought.
At the trial, she told, in considerable detail, her version of what happened in the Wynekoop mansion on the day of Rheta's murder.
"On November 21, 1933, I probably arose at about a quarter to seven.
"I had breakfast in the house with Dr. Wynekoop. I don't remember whether Rheta had breakfast with us or not. I don't remember whether I talked to her that morning. I left the house about eight o'clock and went to the Marshall High School. I completed my teaching duties and signed out about three-fifteen. I went to the Loop. I remained there until a little after five and went home. I got to 3406 West Monroe
Street just about six o'clock or a little after. When I came into the house I saw the defendant in the kitchen.
"The defendant and I were very good friends. When I came in Dr. Wynekoop put on pork chops to fry and when they were ready we had dinner. I guess it was a little after six. Rheta was not there. She had gone down town to get some music.
"When we sat down at the table we talked about Rheta. At the end of the meal Dr. Wynekoop went to the telephone; she was worried about Rheta. She had told me that if Rheta saw some moving picture that she liked, she would stay and see it. She said that she had left the house before Rheta did. I think she said she left the house about two-thirty or three.
"I had noticed Rheta's coat and hat on the table in the library and remarked about it. I said, 'Here is Rheta's coat and hat,' and Dr. Wynekoop answered, 'She probably wore her good coat and hat to the Loop.' I talked with Dr. Wynekoop after dinner. She had asked me to go to the drug store to have a prescription refilled and to get her some tablets.
"The drug store is situated at Madison and Kedzie Avenues. That store did not have as many tablets as she wanted so I stopped at the drug store at Homan and Madison and got a full bottle. After I completed my purchase I went back home. I arrived home about a quarter after seven, I should judge; perhaps half past. I sat down in the library with Dr. Wynekoop and we talked for about an hour.
"We discussed at least two books while sitting in the library. One was Strange Interlude and the other was The Forsyte Saga. I don't know the author of Strange Interlude; I am not familiar with it. I had procured a copy of it from the public library for her. I haven't ever read it.
"During the course of our conversation we discussed my hyperacidity. She said she had something in the office that she thought I could use. . . The glass case where she kept drugs was inside the operating room. She never got the medicine for me."
Dr. Wynekoop never got the medicine for Miss Hennessey, because the body of Rheta Wynekoop was lying face down on the operating table in the basement surgery, covered with a blanket, her clothing lying about on the floor, a blood-stained towel at her mouth and a pistol near her head.
Now here rises an interesting situation. According to Dr. Alice's confession, Rheta's murder took place sometime early in the afternoon on that tragic Tuesday in November. There are her words - remember them? - "The scene was so overwhelming that no action was possible for a period of several hours."
Yet, according to Miss Enid Hennessey's testimony, here we have Dr. Alice preparing dinner shortly after six, apparently in normal health and spirits. A good substantial dinner, of pork chops, cabbage, potatoes, a salad, peaches and cookies. A place was set at the table for Rheta. Later in the evening there was an undoubtedly leisurely discussion of Strange Interlude and The Forsyte Saga. And Dr. Alice was sufficiently self-possessed to suggest a medicine for her old friend's hyperacidity.
If both Dr. Alice's confession and Miss Hennessey's testimony were correct; if Dr. Alice cold-bloodedly murdered Rheta that afternoon and then proceeded with the normal routine of getting dinner, and chatting with her friend - well, "What a woman!" For, from what we know of Dr. Alice, she was nervous, in delicate health, even hysterical at times. (Remember that note to Earle!) To have murdered her daughter-in-law, cold-bloodedly or any other way, and then appeared her usual self at dinner time and in the evening, must have taken a little doing. Yet, according to the case against her, that is exactly what she did - and it is interesting to reflect, at this point, that Miss Enid Hennessey appeared as a witness for the prosecution.
Dr. Alice didn't call the police, the undertaker, or the coroner's office. She didn't need to call a doctor to make certain that Rheta was dead. She called Dr. Catherine, then on duty in the Children's Department of Cook County Hospital, and said, "Something terrible has happened here . . . it is Rheta . . . she is dead. . . . She has been shot."
So, let's look at a little of Dr. Catherine's testimony at the trial (keeping in mind that Dr. Alice had previously been sufficiently calm and collected to prepare dinner and hold a
conversation with her old friend Miss Hennessey about books).
"I noticed her gait was a little unsteady, her hands were trembling, her face was flushed. I helped her to a chair in the dining-room and rushed out in the kitchen for stimuli. I put a teaspoonful of aromatic spirits of ammonia in water and had her drink it.
"Mother said she just groped her way up the stairs, that on the way everything was black, she felt dizzy, that the next thing she knew she was at the telephone calling me. I went up to the room and called Miss Hennessey. She came down. After that mother called Mr. Ahearn."
Dr. Catherine Wynekoop's testimony regarding her mother's behavior on the night of the murder came much later in the trial, she being a witness for the defense. But perhaps we should consider it now, remembering Dr: Alice's own description of her reactions to Rheta's death in her "confession and Miss Hennessey's description of the early evening.
By all means, let us not draw any conclusions from these excerpts from testimony. But I cannot omit one comment: if both of them are true, and there is nothing to suggest that they are not, and if Dr. Alice did murder Rheta, then the stage lost one magnificent actress when a young girl named Alice Lindsay decided to study medicine!
As the trial continued, there was no doubt that Dr. Alice was far from well. She was brought in for each court session in a wheel chair, and a physician was constantly within call. This created a bit of a legal argument, during which curious, non-legal minded citizens wondered if the ill and elderly Dr. Alice was being tried for murder, or for the state of her health.
This is a gruesome thing to be remembering, but it comes back to me now, how during the trial betting ran fairly high as to whether or not Dr. Alice would survive it. If you cared to bet that she would, you could get some remarkably fine odds. A bartender in East St. Louis offered thirty-to-one. And it is one of the great regrets of my life that I didn't take him up on it.
Following Miss Enid Hennessey's testimony, and some routine testimony regarding the scene of the crime, the State called the grief-stricken father, Burdine H. Gardner, to the stand.
Now there are some cynical people who have suggested that his appearance was intended, deliberately, to appeal to the sympathy of the jury, in view of the fact that his testimony contributed little that was not already known. Far be it from me to believe that "The People of the State of Illinois" would do such a thing! Had it not already been agreed that Dr. Alice's wheel chair should be kept out of sight of the jury, and that no "Physician, medical person or nurse" should be in attendance on her in their presence, in case "the incapacity of the said defendant might arouse the sympathy of the jurors?"
Burdine Gardner testified that his daughter had been in ill health, and that her mother-in-law had been worried about her. He added one highly plaintive note.
"I did not hear any more from the defendant until I learned my daughter was dead. I was first informed of her death by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who called me just before midnight on November 21, 1933."
Those Chicago reporters - they simply attend to everything!
He was followed by a witness with a lovely name - Veronica Duncan. She lived next door to the Wynekoops, and was evidently a friend of the family. She also was evidently a girl who liked fresh air and exercise, judging from a few excerpts from her testimony.
"She (Dr. Wynekoop) commented on the pleasantness of the day and asked what I was doing that afternoon. I told her I thought I might go for a walk, and suggested that Rheta go along
. . .I . . . had suggested that Rheta come over to get me to go for a walk. . .
She (Dr. Wynekoop) told Rheta she could go for a walk with me if she wanted to. . .
"I talked with her (Rheta) about going for a walk . . .
"I told her that I wanted to go for a walk with her . . .
And finally, "Dr. Wynekoop suggested that I ask Rheta to go for a walk with me.
The walkative Miss Duncan's testimony established little save that apparently Rheta had been not only alive but in sufficiently good spirits to be carrying a bag full of groceries at three o'clock on the day of her death, and that at seven o'clock in the evening, Dr. Wynekoop had been anxiously calling Rheta's friends to learn where she might be.
There followed the introduction of People's Exhibit 28 - Dr. Wynekoop's statement to police Captain Thomas J. Duffy, made on the night of November 21st, in which she suggested that Rheta might have been the victim of a burglar. Thomas J. Ahearn, the undertaker and old friend of the Wynekoop family, testified to having been called by Dr. Wynekoop after the discovery of the body, and told of his calling the police department. Followed a parade of life insurance agents, establishing a possible motive for the crime.
More police testimony, regarding the scene of the crime. Lt. Samuel Peterson, who "took charge of the revolver," People's Exhibit 3, and turned it over to the coroner the next day at the inquest. I can find no mention of fingerprints on the revolver in the transcript of the trial; we must assume there were none clear enough for identification. And finally, Captain John Stege, who told of his examination of the Wynekoop mansion and of his questioning of Dr. Alice. This, of course, was leading up to admitting her confession as testimony, "whereupon the jury were excluded and objection made to proferred statement or confession."
After considerable argument, and a number of wildly speculative newspaper stories, the confession became People's Exhibit 32. It was followed by a cross-examination of Captain Stege, who obtained the confession. The cross-examination was, naturally, a bit on the acrimonious side, and dealt almost entirely with the manner in which it had been obtained.
Following all this fuss over People's Exhibit 32, which was Dr. Alice's confession that she had fired a shot into Rheta's body after the latter's accidental death from chloroform, the State settled down to proving that the confession was false,
and that Dr. Alice’s financial condition was such that she would cold-bloodedly murder her daughter-in-law for her insurance.
Nothing was said, however, about Earle's "other girls" or (if that had been the motive) "other girl." In fact, Earle - who did not testify - was almost conspicuously ignored during the trial.
The State having called a number of medical experts to prove that Dr. Alice's confession could not have been the truth, the Defense opened with testimony to prove that it had been obtained by duress.
The Chicago Sunday Examiner, for November 26th, had carried a featured interview with Dr. Harry Hoffman, head of the Behavior Clinic of the Criminal Court of Cook County (who had testified for the State). The reporter, Austin O'Malley, had done a remarkably good job of it, and it became Defendant's Exhibit 2. It, and the testimony regarding it, indicated that Dr. Alice had been tired, ill and upset at the time the confession was made. Guilty or innocent, that information about her should not have surprised anyone.
The Defense then went on along the line that Dr. Alice didn't need Rheta's insurance money, that she was too fond of Rheta to murder her for it if she had needed it and that "the general reputation of Dr. Alice Wynekoop for being a peaceful and law-abiding citizen is good."
Again and again that line appears, during a parade of character witnesses. A woman writer and lecturer. A professor of history. A social worker. A newspaper publisher. Director of a private school. The list seems endless, and always the same testimony: "The general reputation of Dr. Alice Wynekoop for being a peaceful and law-abiding citizen is good." A minister. A former Health Commissioner of the City of Chicago. A member of the school board. A prominent clubwoman. Others.
This is one of the fascinating and curious facts about murder trials. One of the most enchanting murderesses I ever personally encountered was a woman whose "general reputation, etc." was almost phenomenally good. In that case, however, the defendant was acquitted, although no one
doubted that she had cold-bloodedly shot her victim while he lay sleeping. One of the jurors confided in me, some time later, "After what her lawyer told us about him, we figured the so-and-so got what was coming to him."
On the other hand, a young woman was convicted, wrongly, of murder and nearly went to jail for life, because she was proven to be "of dissolute character, one who consorted with immoral companions."
The Defense testimony does give us a new picture of Dr. Alice. Consider a few excerpts from the testimony of her younger sister. "She was born at Onargo, Illinois. . . . Our father was a farmer. . . . She attended the country school and then went to a seminary in Onargo . . . after she completed her course, she went to Northwestern University, to the Women's Medical School . .
And the parade of character witnesses does show us the Dr. Alice Lindsay Wynekoop who studied the practice of medicine at a time when well-brought-up young girls were studying china painting, who did social work, taught, helped other woman medical students, was prominent in club work, all without neglecting her duties as a wife and mother.
Excerpts from the testimony of members of Dr. Alice's family give a picture of her relationship with Rheta entirely different from that indicated by the State's case. "She was very much interested in Rheta and extremely fond of her. . . we talked about her future some . . . Earle had no regular employment. My sister (Dr. Alice) supported him, and also his wife Rheta.
From the testimony of Walker Wynekoop, Dr. Alice's son: "She was worrying about the way Earle was treating Rheta. She was worried about the crowd he started to run around with down at the World's Fair. My mother asked me to talk to him. I did talk to him about his conduct."
And Dr. Catherine: "I never heard my mother speak an unkind word to Rheta. Whenever my mother bought me a dress, she also bought one for Rheta."
At last came the moment the newspapers and their readers had been waiting for. Attorney W. W. Smith announced, "The next witness, Judge, is Dr. Alice Wynekoop."
Her story, too, describes the little farm girl who grew up to be physician, teacher, social worker, club-woman, and mother. It tells of the meeting of Earle and Rheta, of their correspondence and marriage, of Rheta's ill health, of Earle's restlessness, of Earle's departure for the Grand Canyon. It gives another picture of Rheta, seen through her mother-in-law's eyes. "She was fearful of tuberculosis, but there were no indications of it at all. . . . Rheta was always of a very quiet, retiring disposition. . . . I sent her to a violin teacher. . . she sometimes took one lesson, sometimes two, and sometimes would miss a week or two. . . . In the last month Rheta was rather melancholy, she was of a somewhat morbid disposition . . . I discussed with her about going into the open air and taking exercise. I discussed this often."
After testifying as to burglaries that had taken place in the old house on Monroe Street, Dr. Alice told her story of what had happened on November 21, 1933. It had begun like any other day. She rose at about eight o'clock and had breakfast with Rheta. She then went to a hospital where one of her patients was to be operated on.
"I walked home, arriving at perhaps one o'clock. Rheta was waiting for me at the door. She said, 'I didn't know what time you would be home, mother, so I waited lunch.' I suggested after luncheon that I would like her to do her shopping early. She went shopping and returned between half past two and three. I think she cleared the table and dressed. When she went shopping, I really don't remember what she wore, but, contrary to her custom, she left her wraps in the library when she returned."
So far, a rather pleasant, ordinary family day. Rheta had met Veronica Duncan on the street and been invited to go for a walk, but instead she wanted to go downtown and purchase a certain piece of music. (There was a court recess during the telling of the story when Dr. Alice became ill, the jury was sent out of the room, Dr. Catherine administered medicine to her mother, and the jury was finally allowed to return.)
Dr. Alice left the house about three o'clock, according to her story. She walked for a bit, window-shopping. "It was
an unusually beautiful day, pleasantly warm." She dropped in at a postal station and bought stamps. She paused at a hardware store. She took a street car to the hospital and examined her patient, who was sleeping. She went home, and entered by the upstairs door.
There was no sign of Rheta. Dr. Alice took off her wraps, went into the kitchen, found groceries on the table, and began preparing dinner.
The rest of Dr. Alice's story has been told and retold by Miss Enid Hennessey, the police, and Dr. Catherine. She denied, emphatically, every detail of the "confession." She denied that she was in so serious a financial condition that Rheta's insurance would be important to her. There were other collapses during her testimony; each time the jury was excluded until she had been revived.
The trial dragged on. Cross-examination, re-examination of Dr. Alice. Other witnesses. Still no one knew exactly what had happened to pretty, melancholy Rheta Wynekoop. But at last the jury returned its verdict, on March 6, 1934. "We find the defendant, Alice L. Wynekoop, guilty of murder, in manner and form as charged in the indictment, and we fix her punishment as imprisonment in the penitentiary for the term of 25 years. We further find from the evidence that the said defendant, Alice L. Wynekoop, is now about the age of 63 years."
Everything possible was done to get the aging Dr. Alice a new trial. Nothing worked. She was sent to the Woman's Reformatory at Dwight, Illinois.
That should have ended the matter. But for naturally inquisitive minds, there are still questions. If Dr. Alice did murder red-haired Rheta, was it for rather a smallish amount of insurance money, or so that her adored son could marry again? (He never did.) Or was it for some motive that has never been told? What accounts for Dr. Alice's very calm behavior at dinner, if she knew that Rheta was lying dead, in the basement surgery? Especially when contrasted with her near collapse at the time of the discovery - if it was a discovery - of the body?
Perhaps, now that so many years have passed, one should not ask questions. Yet there are so many questions that fairly cry out for answers. First, of course, is, did the elderly Dr. Alice Wynekoop murder her lovely, melancholy young daughter-in-law? If so, just how did she commit the crime, and exactly why? Did she - being innocent - make the famous confession because she believed her adored son Earle murdered Rheta - and in that case, what led her to believe him guilty?
The alibi Earle tried to repudiate proved him unquestionably innocent. In that case, if Dr. Alice did not murder Rheta, who did?
Who did - and why? I leave it to you to do the speculating on the basis of the confused and confusing known facts in the case
One wonders, sometimes, what happens to the people involved in stories as tragic, and as famous, as the Wynekoop Case. The real tragedy, I think, comes afterwards. In this case -
Dr. Alice is still in the Woman's Reformatory at Dwight, Illinois.
Dr. Catherine is a successful woman physician, associated with the Children's Clinic of Cook County Hospital.
Walker Wynekoop, the businessman, stayed on in business and brought up his family, despite the shadow on the family name.
The last I heard about Earle, he was working as a garage mechanic. That was several years ago.
Yet one imagines - a stranger, meeting Dr. Catherine:
"Oh yes - aren't you the Dr. Catherine Wynekoop who?" Or, someone meeting one of Walker Wynekoop's children: "Wynekoop are you any relation to the Wynekoops of the murder trial. . . ?
Perhaps houses suffer, too. The house at 3406 West Monroe Street, built to be a home for a young and happy family, must have suffered in the years when it was pointed out by bus drivers and pedestrians as the scene of the Rheta Wynekoop murder. Perhaps, under such circumstances, the house
might even have been glad when a little item appeared on page 26 of a morning paper. . .
"The gloomy old mansion at 3406 West Monroe Street is being torn down now--"
Rice, Craig, Chicago Murders, "The Wynekoop Case - 1933",
edited by Sewell Peaslee Wright,
Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1945, p. 119-142.
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