The Inside Story of Chicago's Weird Wynekoop Mystery.
The Inside Story of Chicago's
Weird Wynekoop Mystery.

Chicago's Weird Wynekoop Mystery

The Inside Story of Chicago's Weird Wynekoop Mystery

by Merlin Moore Taylor

    WHEN Thomas J. Ahern, undertaker, rang the doorbell of the dreary old house at 3406 West Monroe Street, Chicago, around 9:30 on the night of November 21st, 1933, it was without any idea of why he was there except that over the telephone he had been asked by his old friend, Doctor Alice Lindsay Wynekoop, to come to her house at once. She would explain when she saw him, she had added.
    The undertaker was somewhat surprised when the door was opened to him by a petite young woman with carroty-red hair. It was most unusual for Doctor Catherine Wynekoop to be in her mother's house of an evening, since she herself, at twenty-four, was on night duty as Resident Surgeon in the children's division of the Cook County Hospital. In her solemn face and tightly compressed lips the undertaker read trouble, and her first words confirmed it.

Chloroform Mask

Police Officer Charles Thomas shown examining the chloroform mask that figured in the case.
    "Something has happened," she said. "Mother will see you in the library."
    She led the way down a dim, ill-lit hallway, permeated by the musty atmosphere that is found in all old houses, to where a light shone faintly through an open doorway.
    At the threshold Ahern paused and shot a questioning glance at the two persons beyond it -- the tall, spare woman, gray with her sixty-two years, whose summons to this place he had obeyed, and the equally gray, but tiny, woman who fluttered about the old Doctor's chair like

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Inquest Swearing In

Doctor Wynekoop, principal figure in this atrocity, being sworn at the inquest after her daughter-in-law had been slain.
an agitated sparrow. In their faces he saw again the signs of trouble he had read in the mien of Doctor Catherine Wynekoop, and he wondered what was amiss.
    He included both in his bow, "Good evening, Doctor; good evening, Miss Hennessey."
    Doctor Wynekoop said, "Good Evening," and indicated a chair, but Enid Hennessey, veteran teacher of John Marshall High School and known throughout the neighborhood as intimate friend and confidante of the old woman in whose home she had lodged for a decade, bobbed her head and seemed unable to speak.
    For a moment there was tense silence as Doctor Wynekoop peered at the under taker with penetrating blue eyes that age had not dimmed then ----
    "I watched Doctor Berger perform an operation this morning," she said, and when I came home Rheta was here. You've met Rheta, Mr. Ahern? My daughter-in-law. My son, Earl's wife. I sent her to do the marketing and when she came back, I went out myself intending to buy a few things, but walked around and looked in shop windows, so that it was after five o'clock before I returned. Rheta was gone."
    "She's missing?", asked Ahern.

Earl Wynekoop and Burdine Gardner

(Below) Earl Wynekoop, husband of the murder victim. He is shown here packing up at the Cook County Jail after he was freed of all charges connecting him with his wife's violent death.
(Above) Burdine Gardner, flour merchant of Indianapolis and father of Mrs. Rheta Wynekoop, victim in this sombre tragedy.
    Doctor Wynekoop refused to be hurried. "Rheta had said that she might go downtown to get some music, and I had told her that if she saw a picture show she thought she'd like, she might go in and see it. Naturally, I supposed she had done just that, so I went to the kitchen and started dinner. When Enid here" - she indicated the school teacher -- "came in about six o'clock we decided not to wait for Rheta. So we sat down and ate."
    Ahern, wondering where all this was leading, interrupted her: "What do you want of me?"
    Again his question went unanswered as Doctor Wynekoop continued: "Enid went to the drug store to get some medicine for me, and when she got back we sat and talked, and still Rheta did not come. So I called Mrs. Duncan, next door, and she said she had not seen Rheta after three o'clock when they met on the street as Rheta was coming home from marketing.
    "About eight-thirty I went to my office -- in the basement, you know -- and I found Rheta down there. She was dead, Mr. Ahern."
    "Come, I'll show you."
    Doctor Wynekoop pushed her gaunt frame up from the chair and turned to a stairway at the rear of the library. Ahern, closely following with Doctor Catherine Wynekoop and Enid Hennessey, saw from the head of the steps that lights were burning below stairs. Through the office and to the door of an adjoining room Doctor Wynekoop led the way, then she pushed open the door and stepped aside.
    Upon a surgeon's examination table lay a blanketed form and Ahern approached it with professional interest. Doctor Wynekoop followed and silently watched as he pulled the blanket down.
    Rheta Wynekoop lay upon her left side, her

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auburn-topped head pillowed upon her left hand, and even in death she had not lost her beauty. About her lips were tiny abrasions which might have been either scratches or burns.

Rheta Gardner Wynekoop & Death Room

(Left) Rheta Gardner Wynekoop, the attractive girl whom death marked for the leading role in this ghastly crime drama. (Below) Death room, showing crimson splotch on the operating table. Note clothes of slain girl in chair.
    "What was the cause of death?" asked Ahern.
    Still silent, Doctor Wynekoop stretched out a hand and pulled the blanket down further, exposing the dead girl's back, and it startled the undertaker a bit to discover that apparently she was unclothed. Then his eye was caught and held by something else -- a red-rimmed hole in the region to the left of her spine and about it the telltale marks of gunpowder.
    "Why, that looks like a bullet wound," he exclaimed.
    "Exactly, Rheta was shot to death."
    "Who? When? Why?" Questions fairly tumbled from the undertaker's lips.
    Doctor Wynekoop shook her head. "I don't know. It must have happened when I was out. Her neck was stiff when I found her. Rigor mortis already had set in."
    "Well, where are the police? Haven't you notified them?"
    "No," said Doctor Wynekoop sharply. "We don't want any publicity about this."
    "But this is murder," Ahern said sternly, "Of course the police must be notified. Where is the telephone?"
    Five minutes later Policemen Arthur Marsh, and Walter Kelly, notified by radio, arrived at the house in a patrol car. Hard on their heels came other policemen -- Supervising Captain John Stege, Captain Thomas Duffy, commanding Fillmore District in which the crime occurred, with his lieutenant, Sam Peterson; Chief of Detectives William Shoemaker and his deputy, William V. Blaul, Lieutenant Otto Erlanson and his homicide squad and a score of plainclothes men -- and, a short while later, a host of newspaper reporters and photographers.
    Thus was the curtain lifted upon Chicago's most sensational real life drama in years, one that was to keep the nation on tiptoe with its bewildering, kaleidoscopic developments.
    The setting was one to delight a writer of mystery thrillers -- an austere and sombre brick dwelling of the kind fashionable thirty years ago, tightly wedged in between its

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neighbors; weather-beaten and uninviting from the outside; inside, a rambling place of two stories, attic and English basement; sixteen, big, high ceilinged rooms furnished with ponderous pieces of antiquated style, heavy drapes and curtains, and the accumulation of years -- dark, dreary and gloomy. It had even a secret entrance, a sliding panel, a concealed button.
    And the cast of characters? They fitted the setting as a glove fits the hand.

Mrs. Vera Duncan; Clothing of the Slain Woman

(Right) Mrs. Vera Duncan, a neighbor of the Wynekoop family, probably the last person who saw the murdered wife alive.
The clothing of the slain woman, found in the operating room where she was killed. These articles played an important part in the evidence against the chief suspect.
    Doctor Alice Lindsay Wynekoop in her younger days not only had been renowned in her profession, even to outstripping her husband, Doctor Frank E. Wynekoop, of a family noted in medical circles, but a brilliant leader of her sex in other lines. Her interests, as revealed by yellowed newpaper clippings, had covered a wide range -- from better babies to woman suffrage, from the ethics of marriage to why middle-aged husbands go wrong, and, particularly, a devotion to little children which had turned her into a virtual one-woman home-finding agency.
    Then, around 1918, a serious operation led to her abrupt withdrawal from all that had absorbed her before. Her name ceased to appear on programs of medical meetings, parent-teacher conventions, political equality meetings, infant welfare sessions. It dropped from the public prints. Her private practice and her family became her sole interests.
    Many things came to sadden her. Walker, her elder son, head of a label company, had left her to marry and make his home in Glencoe, a suburb. Her only daughter, Catherine, with a brilliant future in the Wynekoop profession, found little time to visit her mother. Earl, her baby had been a disappointment. He had started upon the medical path, too, but had forsaken it for aviation and, al-

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though he held a pilot's license, put it to no good use. In all his twenty-eight years he had never held a paying job. His time was devoted to chasing will-o'-the-wisps which he never caught.
    Death's hand had been laid heavily upon the old house, too. Doctor Wynekoop's husband died in 1929. Mary Louise Wynekoop, an adopted daughter she had raised from babyhood, passed away in March, 1933; Augustus L. Hennessey, who had come with his school teacher daughter, Enid, to live with the Wynekoops a decade before, followed in May, and in August, Kate M. Porter, sixty-seven-year-old spinster, long another crony of the old doctor.
    Enid Hennessey had stayed on in a similar role after her father's death - a buxom little bespectacled woman, scarcely five feet tall, who bounced along in a sprightly manner, beloved by her pupils and, surprising, the "little mother" of the school football team.

Miss. Enid Hennessey; Dr. Alice Lindsay Wynekoop

(Below) A remarkable character study of Doctor Alice Lindsay Wynekoop, a woman of stone ruled by strange emotions, who might have stepped from an O'Neill drama.
Miss Enid Hennessey, veteran Chicago teacher, and confidante of Doctor Alice Wynekoop, in whose home she had lodged for a decade.
    In the rear of the basement dwelt John Van Pelt; like the two women, he was well past his prime. A painter by trade, he had retrograded into an odd jobs man. He had come into the household several years before when he had done a job of painting for Doctor Wynekoop, who found herself unable to pay him and offered him a "room". It was only a curtained off space in the boiler room, but Van Pelt accepted, and below stairs became his domain.
    It was into this setting and among these people that Rheta Gardner Wynekoop, daughter of an Indianapolis flour merchant, had been thrust at eighteen as Earl Wynekoop's bride. A talented violinist, just a year out of high school, where her record was excellent, she had caught Earl's eyes when she played at a medical sorority dance in her home city to which he had driven his sister. Over the objections of her family, Rheta had followed him to Chicago and married him, and gone to live with him in the dreary old Wynekoop home where, four years later, death was to come to her in violent form.
    Right from the start, police, swarming into the old house to investigate the killing, found things to confound and baffle them.
    The slender body of the dead girl on the table was garbed only in stockings and an underslip which had been pulled down to her waist. Her other clothing and her shoes lay in a heap at the foot of the table. Her right hand grasped a towel which, although damp, had no odor when examined.
    On the table, some two feet beyond her head and concealed by a piece of medicated gauze,

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was found a .32-caliber pistol. It showed signs of cleaning and oiling and its barrel had the acrid odor of recently discharged gunpowder.
    Strikingly significant things manifested themselves immediately. Three cartridges had been fired in the pistol, but Rheta had been shot only once!
    None of the girl's garments had been pierced by the fatal bullet. Obviously she had been unclad when she was shot!
    Captain Stege, taking command of the investigation, sent his men to go over the house from top to bottom, then with other ranking officers began to question Doctor Wynekoop, her daughter Catherine, and Enid Hennessey.

Miss Priscilla Wittle; Chicago Sleuths

(Above) Miss Priscilla Wittle, the diminutive red-headed salesgirl who gave information to the police in connection with the Wynekoop case.
(Below) Chicago sleuths-Sergeant Walter Kelly (left) and Lieutenant-Sergeant Stewart Moss-examine the lethal weapon used in the mysterious operating-room slaying.
    Doctor Catherine Wynekoop's story was brief. She had been on duty at the hospital when her mother had telephoned her to come home at once, that "something dreadful" had happened. Told what that something was, the younger woman had rushed to the house. Much telephoning had ensued -- to a Doctor Frank Chauvet, old family friend, who was treating a patient and could not come; at his suggestion, to Doctor George Berber, who that very morning had performed an operation with the assistance of Doctor Wynekoop, and who reached the house after the police; to Burdine H. Gardner, Rheta's father, in Indianapolis; to Walker Wynekoop in his Glencoe home; to Ahern, the undertaker; to old Doctor Wynekoop's brothers and sisters down state.
    "But not to the police," she was reminded.
    "The undertaker attended to that," she replied.
    "And your brother Earl?"
    "He left the city four days ago, last Friday, with Stanley Young, a friend, to drive west and take colored movies of the Grand Canyon for a railroad."
    Doctor Catherine said she had not seen Rheta's body until it was shown to Ahern, the undertaker.
    Enid Hennessey, not only reluctant but semi-defiant, insisted that she had known nothing of this. She had been in bed before the discovery of the body by Doctor Wynekoop, had not learned of the tragedy until, a few minutes before Ahern's arrival, she had been awakened and told what had happened by Doctor Catherine Wynekoop.
    "I did not come straight home after school, as usual, today," she said. "Doctor Wynekoop had asked me to attend to a little business downtown and it was almost six o'clock before I got here. Doctor Wynekoop was getting supper, although Rheta usually did that. She told me Rheta had gone downtown and not returned. We sat down and ate alone. Doctor Wynekoop put food on a plate and covered it to keep it warm for Rheta. Then she asked me to go to a drug store and get some sedative tablets, because she had not been sleeping well. I was gone for about three-quarters of an hour. Rheta had not come in, so the Doctor and I sat in the library and talked."
    "And what was the subject of your conversation?"

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    "A book I had taken out of the library for her -- 'Strange Interlude' -- and another book, 'The Forsythe Saga'. We discussed the psychology of the characters. Then Doctor Wynekoop telephoned Mrs. Duncan, in the next house, to ask if she had seen Rheta after they had met on the street in the afternoon. After that, not feeling well, I said good-night and went to my room."
    Upon old Doctor Wynekoop the police centered their questions. She repeated to them the story of her day's activities which she had told Ahern.
    "Why were you in the basement at the time you found the body?" she was asked.
    "Miss Hennessey had complained of indigestion. I went to my office to get some medicine for her. It was in the room adjoining the office proper. I pushed open the door, switched on the lights -- and saw Rheta on the table."
    "You moved the body?"
    "No, I put my hand on her neck. It was stiff. I knew whe was dead. I pulled down the blanket, saw she had been shot, covered her up and rushed back upstairs to telephone Catherine to come home. I was so upset I didn't know what else to do until she got here. I just sat down, too stunned even to think of calling Miss Hennessey."
    "You hadn't seen the pistol?"
    "No. I may as well tell you, though, that it's mine. It's been around the house for years. Some time ago my son Earl, had it cleaned and oiled and loaded, and gave it to me for protection; because while he was working at the World's Fair he slept down there and couldn't come home nights. I didn't know how to fire a pistol even, but to please him I took it and put it in a drawer in my desk. I looked a few minutes ago and six dollar bills that also were in the drawer are missing. See! That's the piece of brown paper in which I had folded them."

The Mystery Note; Miss Margaret McHale

(Below) The strange mystery note, one of the first clues officers uncovered in the shocking crime, that cast a sinister and murky glow on this baffling case that set all Chicago agog.
(Above) Miss Margaret McHale who also co-operated with investigating officers, as did Miss Wittle, in helping solve the sensational mystery.
    In the drawer also was a box of cartridges to fit the fatal pistol. Its appearance was new. Five cartridges of the original fifty were missing and two old ones had replaced them.
    "You think, then, that a thief shot Rheta?" Doctor Wynekoop was asked.
    "Somebody looking for drugs," agreed Doctor Wynekoop. "Twice before someone got into the house and took narcotics and small amounts of money."
    "You reported it to the police?"
    "Well, no. The amounts involved were small. It didn't seem worth it."
    "Doctor, how do you account for the fact that Rheta was undressed when she was shot?"
    "Well," said Doctor Wynekoop slowly, "the only theory upon which I can explain it is this: Rheta was much worried over her health. Every day she went downstairs to my office, where there were scales, took off her clothes and weighed herself. Perhaps she did so this afternoon while I was out, and was undressed

True Detective Mysteries   May 1934      13
when she was surprised by a thief and shot."
    "You think then, that afterwards he picked her up, put her on the table and covered her with a blanket?"
    "Perhaps remorse seized him and he tried to do something for her -- put her on the table and tucked the blanket around her, then saw that she was beyond help."
    "As a physician, you should know that a person who is shot bleeds freely. There was no blood on the body or on the blanket."
    "Sometimes a wound bleeds internally and hardly any seeps to the outside."
    A far-fetched theory, that, and one to which -- discovering that both front and rear doors of the basement were locked and that nowhere was there a single sign of a struggle -- the police did not subscribe for a moment.
    They led the three women on to talk of the slain girl, carrying on the accepted police formula of seeking clues in the every-day life of a murder victim. The picture which, perhaps unwittingly, was drawn was that of a "mouse-like creature" ... a reader of "heavy stuff" ... fond of her violin but dependent upon her mother-in-law for money to buy music ... virtually the household drudge ... worrying over her health but sick more of mind than of body ... crushed by the knowledge that the brilliant Wynekoops were inclined to look down upon her ... that even her ne'er-do-well husband felt superior to her ... that the fire of her romance with him had burned itself out almost before the honeymoon ended ... that she must continue to lie in the thorny bed that she had made for herself, since her marriage against her family's wishes would make it too humiliating for her to return home.

    EVENTUALLY, while the detectives continued sweeping through the house and poking into its dark and dusty corners, and while they were making their reports to superiors and orders were flowing over the telephone to check this thing and that thing, a policeman, standing guard over the room where Doctor Wynekoop, her daughter, and Enid Hennessey had finally been left alone, made a discovery.
    Enid Hennessey was listening over an extension telephone to everything that was going out and reporting it to Doctor Wynekoop!
    "These policemen will bungle this just like they did the Loeb-Leopold case," she said. "You know they couldn't solve that themselves."
    Was she expressing fear that the slaying would not be solved -- or hope?
    The police leaned to the belief that the school teacher knew a great deal more than she had told. Captain Stege openly charged that she was trying to impede the detectives and hamper the investigation and threatened to have her locked up. Whereupon, apparently frightened, she became more informative.
    She admitted, for one thing, that apparently Rheta's failure to come home in time to cook supper had irritated Doctor Wynekoop; at least, that the Doctor had said that "from now on, Rheta can go her way and I'll go mine."
    She admitted, for another, that after arising from the supper table she had been surprised to discover Rheta's purse and the hat and coat which she ordinarily wore when going anywhere but in the immediate neighborhood lying on a table in the hallway.
    "I called Doctor Wynekoop's attention to it," she added, "and the Doctor said Rheta must have worn her brown coat."

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    The police had heard of that brown coat from another source. Mrs. Vera Duncan, the next-door neighbor to whom Doctor Wynekoop had telephoned to ask if she had seen Rheta, had mentioned it. Mrs. Duncan, doing her own marketing, had met the younger woman a few blocks from their adjoining homes and had commented upon the fact that Rheta had varied her usual routine of going marketing late in the day.
    "Doctor Wynkoop is going out this afternoon and wants me to stay home in case there are any calls," Rheta explained.
    "It�s such a nice day and you�re through shopping so early. I thought that you might like to go for a walk with me," Mrs. Duncan told her.
    "Not unless the Doctor changes her mind about going out."
    "If she does, ask her if you can join me," Miss Duncan said as they parted.
    That, so far as the detectives assigned to canvass the neighborhood could learn, was the last time that anyone who knew her, except Doctor Wynekoop, had seen Rheta alive. At that time she had been wearing the same outer garments which had been found beside the table where her body lay - and her brown coat.

Doctor Catherine Wynekoop

Doctor Catherine Wynekoop, sister-in-law of Rheta Gardner Wynekoop, the murdered wife.
    THE coat assumed importance when the police found it - under a pile of newspapers in a dark closet opening into the room where the body had been found. Who had tried to hide it there? Rheta herself? Why? The slayer? Again, why? It bore neither bullet hole nor bloodstains.
    Other more significant discoveries quickly thrust the coat into the background, however.
    The Doctor�s desk had yielded some interesting papers. Two were unmailed letters. One, addressed to a Washington man, apparently an old family friend, ex�pressed a wish that he were at hand to advise on "the terrible situation which confronts this family." It hinted, too, that Doctor Wynekoop leaned to a belief in Spiritualism, since it spoke of going alone into her office, "recreating" her dead husband and having "a long talk" with him.
    "That is a purely personal matter," Doctor Wynekoop declared, "and it has nothing to do with this affair. It was written months ago."
    The police did not press her. They were far more interested in another missive, headed "Sunday Night" written in pencil in a feminine hand.
    "Precious," it read, "I�m choked - you are gone - you have called me up - and after ten 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 have - to spend an hour in real talk with you tonight - and I can-not - good-night."
    Doctor Wynekoop flared up when she was asked about what the police insisted upon calling a "love note." She declared that it was not a love letter in the accepted sense of the word. The police refused to be put off. They demanded to know to whom it had been written. In the end the doctor capitulated.
    "To my son," she said defiantly.
    "Your son!"
    "To Earl. Just the letter of a mother to a son whom she loves."
    "Have you notified him of his wife�s death?"
    Doctor Wynekoop said she did not know where to reach him, reminded them that they had been told that Earl and Stanley Young had left for the West to take pictures of Grand Canyon.
    "We are not forgetting it," she was told.
    "He left Friday of last week and this is Tuesday?"
    Instantly there was laid before her a telegram, dated that very day and sent from Peoria, Illinois . . . "Stanley having domestic trouble and leaving for home or somewhere."
    It was signed "Earl!"
    "We have checked on this telegram" Captain Stege said. "An effort was made to deliver it to you at four forty-five this afternoon, but although lights were burning both in the basement and on the first floor, there was no answer to the messenger's ring at the doorbell."
    "I told you I did not get home from my walk until five o�clock."
    "You received this at seven forty-five P. M. tonight?"
    "Neither you nor Miss Hennessey mentioned it."
    "Enid was at the drug store when it came. She did not know about it."
    "You deliberately let us be misled about your son. You chose to let us believe he was four days� driving distance from Chicago when you knew that this afternoon he was in Peoria, only a hundred and seventy miles away. Why?"
     "I didn�t see that it had anything to do with Rheta�s death. The telegram was sent, as you see, at three-forty-seven this afternoon. You know from Mrs. Duncan that Rheta was on the street at three o�clock."
    "We also know from Mrs. Duncan that a week ago, standing on the back porch, you told her that you were going to send Rheta on a long trip. What did you mean by that?"
    "That Rheta might go with Earl and Stanley Young on the trip to Arizona."
    "You yourself and others have told us that Rheta and Earl were not happily married; had not, in fact, lived as man and wife since a few months after they were married. It hardly sounds logical that she would accompany him on a trip intended to last some time when they had little to do with each other at home."
    "Earl would have done what I told him. Rheta�s health was bad. The trip would have done her good, and we Wynekoops take care of our own."
    "What did this telegram mean to you?"
    "That Stanley Young�s family troubles had delayed the boys on their trip, bring it to an end at Peoria."
    "We have checked on Stanley. He is not married. He has no family, therefore, no domestic troubles. That telegram states a lie! Why?"
    Doctor Wynekoop said that she did not know. The suggestion that it might have been sent with the intention of serving as an alibi, for her son�s whereabouts at the time of his wife�s murder - carrying with it the intimation that he knew the murder was to take place - enraged her.
    "Earl doesn�t need any alibi," she said. "He was not happy with Rheta, but murder is not the way out he would choose. You will find that he actually was in Peoria when that telegram was sent."
    Discovery that the police suspected her son of having guilty knowledge of the killing was not the only shock for Doctor Wynekoop. Working swiftly, efficiently, detectives had learned that, after leaving Chicago for the West on Friday, Earl and Stanley Young had experienced car trouble a few miles out of Chicago, had returned that same afternoon and had remained in the city until Tuesday morning, the day of the killing, before starting out again - but Earl had not gone to his home!
    They sprang it on Doctor Wynekoop unexpectedly and taxed her with having seen her son over the week-end, with having written what they continued to call the "love letter" after seeing him on Sunday.
    In admitting that she had seen Earl - and without his wife�s knowledge - Doctor Wynekoop also said that she had seen him on Monday night, that he had telephoned her to meet him at Sixty-seventh and Kedzie Streets, several miles from her home, and that she had gone there by street car and they sat for at least two hours in his car and talked.
    "Why did he not come home and talk to you there?" she was asked.
    Doctor Wynekoop had an elaborate explanation. Earl was "a sensitive soul." He felt that the neighbors were inclined to jeer at him because he appeared to be a misfit in whatever he did. He had hoped to show them by making a success of the Western trip that he was misjudged. To have been compelled to face them again so soon after his departure, fearing that they would not believe car trouble was responsible for his return, would have greatly humiliated him, she insisted, so, in the joy of having another opportunity to see him, she gladly had made the long, weary trip to the meeting place he had named.
    "And what did you talk about?"

    "JUST the sort of things a mother and son would talk about," Doctor Wynekoop said, but she refused to go into details.
    "Perhaps Earl will talk more freely," she was told. "The police at Kansas City have been asked to arrest him and Stanley Young."
    With that, to her, disturbing thought to muse upon, they left her to herself again for the time being. The reprieve from questioning did not last long, however.
    From Doctors J. J. Kearns and Thomas L. Dwyer, of the coroner�s staff, who had made a superficial examination of Rheta�s body, came the startling disclosure that the tiny abrasions upon her face near the mouth were a combination of bruises and burns.
    "Indications are," the physician reported, "that the girl was under an anesthetic when she was shot. It might be well to look for evidence to support that belief."
    Doctor Wynekoop was taken back to her basement office. Calmly she pointed

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out to the police what she knew they were seeking - a gauze anesthetic mask and an empty chloroform bottle.
    "If Rheta was under an anesthetic, those probably were used," she said. "I don�t recall having given an anesthetic down here recently, and I don�t recall having seen a mask or empty bottle about."
    The police carried off mask and bottle and along with them ashes found in a porcelain container to which they chose to attach possible importance - and for a reason.

Floor Plan of the Murder Basement

Drawing giving the floor-plan of the murder basement in the Wynekoop home, showing the various points of interest brought out in the story.
    In contrast to the generally dusty condition of the entire house, the floor of the room in which Rheta�s body had been found was strikingly clean. The ashes, police believed, might have resulted from the burning of rags which had been used to wash up blood which assuredly would have flown from the fatal wound unless, as had been suggested, all the bleeding had been internal.
    "Someone in this household holds the key to this murder," declared Captain Stege in the early morning hours.
    Early on Wednesday a new note was injected into the investigation with the arrival from Indianapolis of Burdine H. Gardner, father of Rheta Wynekoop.
    He went at once to the Wynekoop home where he was permitted to talk to Doctor Wynekoop in private. He left her in a state of high indignation.
    "The Wynekoops have been trying to prepare me for this for months," he charged flatly. "Doctor Wynekoop has repeatedly written and telephoned me that Rheta�s health was precarious and asked me to send money for her care, although the few letters I received from my daughter invariably were cheery until, after a silence of four months, she wrote a short letter that made me suspect she was not happy.

    "TODAY, as soon as we were alone, she said to me, �Don�t talk too much to the police. When you do, be sure and tell them that your daughter had not been well, that she had been ill considerable of late and don�t forget to tell them that her mother died of tuberculosis� - which is a lie, because her mother died in an asylum. I�m frank to say I don�t know why she gave me such strange advice, and I believe it is all a part of a plot to hide the truth. I think the Wynekoops know who killed Rheta, and why."
    Meanwhile, a quiet search was being conducted for John Van Pelt, the odd jobs man around the Wynekoop home. He was found in the home of Walker Wynekoop in Glencoe, but satisfied police that he knew little of what went on above his boiler room home in the old house and that, moreover, he had not been in Chicago since November 11th, ten days before the murder, when Doctor Wynekoop arranged for him to do considerable work in her son�s suburban home.
    Shortly afterward, Coroner Frank Walsh opened an inquest. Among others, Doctor Wynekoop was called to the stand. She had answered half a dozen questions when Coroner Walsh quietly asked:
    "How much insurance, if any, did your daughter-in-law carry?"
    "I know that she had no insurance," was the reply.
    "This inquest is adjourned," declared the Coroner abruptly.
    Pressed by reporters, he made a sensational revelation.
    "There would be no sense in going ahead if Doctor Wynekoop intends to lie," he declared. "She has said that Rheta carried no insurance. As a matter of fact, she carried two policies - one for five thousand dollars, and the other for one thousand dollars and carrying double indemnity for death by violence. Both were payable to Doctor Wynekoop as beneficiary, both were taken out within three weeks of the murder - and Doctor Wynekoop paid all the premiums!"
    The Coroner also revealed that Doctor Wynekoop previously had applied for a ten-thousand-dollar double indemnity policy on Rheta�s life which had been rejected by the company, and which had aroused such resentment in the physician�s breast that she had written the company vitriolic protests, in which she said that Rheta�s health was perfect and that there was no reason for rejecting the application.
    "And at the same time she was writing and telephoning Rheta�s father that the girl�s health was bad and her death likely to occur at any moment," he pointed out.
    Angered by this evidence that Doctor Wynekoop had told another untruth, Captain Stege ordered her and the other members of her household taken to Fillmore Street Station for more questioning. Late that night they were released under orders to return directly home and stay there, and policemen were placed on guard to see that the order was obeyed.
    It was one of these policemen who, the following morning, took Earl Wynekoop into custody as, carrying a suitcase, he dashed up to the house. Eluding Kansas City Police, he had boarded a train for Chicago, left it at a suburban station and made his way home without being recognized.
    Detectives promptly rushed the tall, nattily dressed youth, with a marked resemblance to old Doctor Wynekoop, to the morgue and confronted him with his wife�s body.
    The scene was singularly devoid of drama. Young Wynekoop steeled himself as a detective whisked off the sheet which concealed the face of the murdered girl. He shook his head as he bent" over for a long, lingering look at his wife, then he swung around and said hoarsely, "Let�s go."
    At the police station he was questioned by Captains Stege and Duffy and Assistant State�s Attorney John M. Long.
    "I certainly did not kill my wife. I do not know who did," Wynekoop said.
    Presently, however, he was telling police that his love for his wife had vanished within a few months after their marriage. "She was my mental inferior," he declared.
    He was admitting, too, that he had a sweetheart. He named her - Priscilla Wittle, twenty-three years old, employed as a salesgirl in a downtown store.
    Whisked from behind her counter into the maelstrom of a bizarre murder mystery, the diminutive red-headed Priscilla seemed eager enough to talk.
    "I met Earl about a year ago and we have been sweethearts ever since," she said. "We were not engaged but it was understood between us that we were to marry. He saw me Monday night before he left on his trip West, and he promised to write regularly and said he would be in a position to marry me when he got back. I thought it was a question of money, because I did not know until I read in the papers about the murder that he was a married man. Of course I don�t know anything about his wife�s death."
    Earl did not deny that Priscilla�s charms had had something to do with his return after he had made a start for the West.
    "Was it because you wanted to be with her that you did not let your wife know you had come back?" he was asked.
    "Partly," he admitted. "On the other hand, Rheta was intensely emotional. She was quite capable of making a scene when I tried to leave for the West again - and I don�t like scenes."
    "Your mother gave another reason. She said you feared the jibes of the neighbors."

    EARL shrugged that off. "Well, that also figured," he said," and mother must have guessed it. I didn�t tell her so."
    Priscilla Wittle�s claims to Earl�s affections went unchallenged only until the next editions of the newspapers were on the street. Then an irate young woman, Margaret McHale, appeared with the counterclaim that she was the girl that Earl Wynekoop intended to marry.
    "I met him at the World�s Fair where we both were working," she said. "He proposed to me seven times before I accepted him. Then he gave me a diamond ring. I never knew until today that he was Earl Wynekoop. He told me his name was Michael Wynekoop. He took me to his home once and introduced me to his mother as the only girl he ever had loved, and I showed her my engagement ring. Doctor Wynekoop said she liked me on sight and that she believed I was one girl really worthy of her son. I telephoned his home several times and asked for Michael, and his mother answered and called him to the telephone."
    Na�vely the young woman told why she believed that Earl really loved her.
    "He showed me a notebook in which he had listed the names, addresses and telephone numbers of fifty girls and told me he had given them all up for me."
    Young Wynekoop admitted the truth of her story.

    I HAD hoped to keep her out of this," he said. "I told you about Priscilla Wittle because I knew I would have to account for my movements and that you would find out I was with her the night before my wife was killed, but I didn�t think Margaret would be dragged into the spotlight."
     Police were astounded. From what they called her "love letter" to Earl, they had suspected that a stronger than ordinary bond existed between Doctor Wynekoop and her son. Here was proof of its strength. Not only had she forgiven and condoned his infidelity to his wife, but she had aided him in it!

77       True Detective Mysteries   May 1934
    "Did your mother buy the diamond ring which you gave Margaret McHale?" Earl was asked.
    The young man flushed. "No," he said in a low tone. "It was the ring which I gave Rheta when we became engaged. She thought she had mislaid it."
    Reporters hurried to report this latest development to Doctor Wynekoop and question her about it. A queer expression crossed her face. Dismay? Fear?
    "You tell Earl that if he loves me one scratch to keep his mouth shut," she said.
     The warning, if it ever had reached Earl, would have been too late. Already, under pressure, he had made damaging admissions - that he had discussed with his mother the unhappiness of marriage to Rheta, for one thing, the religion to which the Wynekoops subscribed frowned upon divorce; that his mother had told him she regarded his wife as a figurative millstone about his neck, standing between him and the success in life to which she believed him entitled.
    He also had explained the mystery of three exploded shells in the fatal pistol.
    "When I had the pistol cleaned and oiled I took mother out in the garage and tried to teach her how to shoot it," he said. "She got the hang of it, but she was awkward and to guard against accidental discharge as much as possible I put three loaded cartridges in the pistol with a discharged shell between each loaded one."
    And his mother had said she did not know how to fire a pistol!

    "EARL," Captain Stege told the harassed youth, "this thing has simmered down to a question of whether you or your mother killed Rheta. It couldn�t have been anyone else."
    At this stage it was decided that an effort would be made to get the truth by use of the so-called "lie detector," a machine which, by recording blood pressure and heart fluctuations, is believed to indicate when the person under test is lying.
    Doctor Wynekoop agreed when asked if she would submit willingly to being questioned with the aid of the "lie detector." Apparently she had heard of it, understood its working and did not fear it.
    Perhaps she also knew that, suffering from high blood pressure and irregular heart action, the result would not mean anything. At least she betrayed no surprise when, after a prolonged experiment, the operator of the machine admitted that her physical condition was such as to defeat the machine.
    Earl Wynekoop followed her example and submitted himself to the "lie detector" while being questioned for more than an hour. At the end of that time the operator told him hotly, "You�ve lied like hell and you know it. You know who killed your wife and you are trying to shield that person."
    The accusation caught young Wynekoop by surprise. "I fear, I fear -" he began, then shut his lips tightly.
    "Your mother had a motive."
    "Yes, she didn�t like Rheta," he admitted. Then, so suddenly that it took his questioners by surprise, he added. "I�m going to confess to lift suspicion from someone I dearly love."
    All along, the detectives had been firmly convinced that, although he was far from the scene, he had known that his wife was to be killed and when. They set themselves to have him name some person with whom he had conspired to kill his wife while he established an alibi one hundred and seventy miles away - and he swept them from off their feet by an entirely different story.
    "I killed my wife and I did it alone," he said. "When I came back to Chicago I stayed away from home until Tuesday. Then I went out there and into my mother�s office to wait for her, hoping to see her but not Rheta because of the scene I feared she would make. There were footsteps on the stairs, I thought it was mother - but it was Rheta. I stepped back out of sight. She disrobed and started to weigh herself.
    "In that moment the antagonism between us overcame me. I seized her and threw her upon the table. There was a bottle of chloroform at hand. I forced it to her nostrils. She became unconscious. Then I remembered the pistol I had given mother for her protection while I was gone. I got it and shot Rheta. Then I left the house."
    Police were frankly skeptical, but they pretended to believe it and asked for details which Earl supplied. In the end he agreed to reenact the murder as he said it had occurred in the operating room.

Murder Mansion

MURDER MANSION where the victim in the sensational Wynekoop mystery was found in the basement operating room of her mother-in law, Doctor Alice Wynekoop, well-known Chicago physician.
    Out to the Wynekoop home they sped in a car and there in the basement office young Wynekoop put on a dramatic scene, with Detective Bert Gray taking the role of Rheta Wynekoop. It was most convincing until the moment when Earl seized the detective and lifted him to the table. Then --
    "That�s enough," Earl was told. "You have laid him upon the table the wrong way. Your wife�s head was at the other end."
    "I may have forgotten that," he stam�mered, "but the rest is true enough."
    Refutation already was at hand, however. Stanley Young, his companion on the trip which had been ended at Kansas City with the news of Rheta�s murder, had been returned in custody as a material witness and now he was brought face to face with young Wynekoop.
     "Earl, you fool," he cried. "What do you hope to gain by these lies? You didn�t kill your wife. Why, I was with you almost every moment on Tuesday and I�m going to save you in spite of anything you say." He turned to the detectives. "Take us to Joliet and I will point out a filling station where we bought gas and made a slight repair upon the car. The attendants will remember us. Take us to Peoria. Filling station attendants there and the telegraph office from which Earl sent the telegram to his mother will not have forgotten us."
    A squad took him at his word and departed on the quest of identification intended to prove young Wynekoop�s confession to murder untrue.
    Meanwhile, delving into the financial status of Doctor Wynekoop had revealed that it was shaky. Her bank balance totaled twenty-six dollars. She owed thirty-five hundred dollars on a note which secured a mortgage on her home and she was hard pressed to pay even the smallest of current bills, although possessor of property - for which there was no sale - valued at sixty-five thousand dollars.
    The old Doctor snorted when this was mentioned. "My income runs around eight thousand a year," she said. "That is ample for all my needs."
    She could not, however, produce corroborating evidence that her income was even a small portion of that sum.
    Convinced that, whether she had killed her daughter-in-law or not, she at least knew who did, her questioners subjected her to a new and prolonged barrage of questions.
    The questioners emerged from the ordeal far more shaken than Doctor Wynekoop. "She is a woman of stone," said one. "Nothing we can do or say will shake her."
    They sent her to get some rest, because by that time Earl Wynekoop - his confession discredited by positive identification of him as having been in Peoria at about the hour his wife was slain - had been returned.
    It was pointed out to him that a strong case of circumstantial evidence had been built up against his mother.
    "Your wife was killed by someone in whom she had confidence," Earl was told. "Everything backs up the theory that she disrobed of her own accord and got upon the table herself, that she submitted to an anesthetic and then was shot. Who could that someone be except your mother?"
    Earl ran shaking fingers through his disheveled hair. "My mother would be incapable of that," he said but he did not say it with assurance. "Bring her here and question her in front of me and let�s get somewhere."
    The police agreed. They roused Doctor Wynekoop and brought her face to face with Earl.

    "FOR God�s sake, mother," cried the distracted youth, "if you did this thing because of the bond that is between us, confess it."
    The old Doctor eyed her son calmly. "I did not kill Rheta, Earl," she said.
    "Then," a detective bluntly said. "Earl himself killed Rheta. It lies between you two."
    They took Earl away then and concentrated upon his mother. Hour after hour her inquisitors hammered away at her with questions, and hour after hour she fought them back with denials. In the end it was Assistant State�s Attorney Long who worked an old trick upon her. Where the others were severe and harsh and condemnatory, Long sympathized with her, spoke gently and courteously and won her confidence. Night had turned into day and noon was fast approaching when Long said to her:
    "The coroner�s chemist�s report shows

True Detective Magazine    May 1934      78
there was chloroform in Rheta�s vital organs. Why don�t you admit you chloroformed her?"
    "All right," Doctor Wynekoop responded. "But how will I explain this part of it?"
    She formed her hand to imitate a gun and went through the motion of pulling the trigger.
    "Well, you shot her," said Long.
    "If I did, how will I account for it?" Doctor Wynekoop parried.
    "Well, maybe it was the chloroform killed her," said Long. "I don�t know. I want you to tell me the truth."
    Doctor Wynekoop stared at the wall.
    "Wait a minute," she requested. "Let me think."
    Then: "I don�t know but what your idea is all right. I�ll tell you all about it."
    "Rheta," she said, "had spoken of going downtown, but complained of a pain in the pelvic region. I told her to go down to the office, undress and get upon the table and I would give her a treatment.
    "I massaged her side and it was painful to her. I suggested that a mild anesthetic might alleviate her suffering during the treatment, and she acquiesced.

    "MY mistake was to permit her to pour some of the chloroform over the anesthetizing mask. She may have dropped too much on at once and caused her death right there, for she took several deep inhalations.
    "She grew quiet, and I found that her heart had stopped. After a hasty examination, I decided the girl was dead.
     "I was stunned. I realized my career was at stake. Suddenly I gave thought to the gun that was in my desk in the other room. In a flash I decided to make it appear as though the girl had been murdered in a robbery. Getting the gun from the drawer, I held the muzzle within five inches of her skin and pressed the trigger.
    "When the shot was fired, I nearly fainted from the sudden noise. My only explanation of the deed is that I was terror-stricken.
    I recovered my senses within a few minutes. I suppose, I realized something should be done. I wiped the gun of finger-prints and laid it near Rheta�s head. I don�t remember covering it with gauze. It was just an instinctive gesture, acquired from the surgical room, I suppose.
    "I wrapped the body decently in a blanket. Then I started upstairs. Suddenly my mind cleared and I thought I could make the whole thing look like a robbery.
    "I went back into my office - the waiting room - and stole my own six dollars out of the drawer.
    "Afterward I went upstairs and got my coat and hat and left the house. Going over to Madison Street I walked up and down for a long time - it seemed like hours."
    Captain Stege asked who was in the house at the time of Rheta�s death.
    "No one," was Doctor Wynekoop�s reply. "The house was empty except for Rheta and me."
    Jubilation over the "confession" was short-lived. The formal document signed by Doctor Wynekoop, couched in the detached language of medical science, proved upon close scrutiny to be rather a perfect defense than an admission of murder. It was based upon the acknowledged right of a physician to administer an anesthetic and in not one word was there an admission of an intention of killing her daughter-in-law.
    Nevertheless when, before the resumed coroner�s inquest that afternoon, Doctor Wynekoop insisted against advice of her attorney upon taking the stand and repeating her "confession" she was ordered held to the Grand Jury on a charge of murder.
    Almost simultaneously the Coroner�s office made its official report of the autopsy upon Rheta�s body.
    It was a terrific blow at Doctor Wynekoop�s defense "confession."
    Blood had been found in Rheta�s chest cavity. She was not dead when she was shot!
    Doctor Wynekoop learned of it in her cell, an hour later. Promptly she repudiated her statement, denied any knowledge of how Rheta had come to her death.
    "I was trying to save someone else," she said, obviously meaning, Earl.
    Her attorney, Frank Tyrell, was more elaborate.
    "Doctor Wynekoop told the story she did because it was suggested to her after almost seventy hours of brutal questioning by the police. There is not a word of truth in it."
    Indictment swiftly followed the Grand Jury�s recommendation and on January 11th, 1934, Doctor Wynekoop went on trial for her life in criminal court before Judge Joseph B. David.

    OUTLINING the case for the State, Prosecutor Charles S. Dougherty declared that Doctor Wynekoop regarded her daughter-in-law as a drag upon her husband, Earl, and that, not believing in divorce, she had sought to remove that drag by murder. At the same time she saw an opportunity to lift her pressing financial difficulties by insuring Rheta and making herself the beneficiary, thus collecting when the girl was dead.
    It was charged that she had carefully paved the way for the murder by arranging for Van Pelt, the odd jobs man, to be given work at the home of her son, Walker Wynekoop; by asking Enid Hennessey to go downtown on an errand rather than coming home directly from the classes she taught and by sending Rheta to do her marketing much earlier than usual in order that after she was killed there would be ample time to do anything to wipe out the evidences that Doctor Wynekoop was the slayer.
    The defense on its part offered in its opening statement the same story that Doctor Wynekoop originally told Ahern, the undertaker, and later the police, of finding Rheta slain by some unknown person.
    The battle centered around introduction as evidence of Doctor Wynekoop�s "confession" and, on the sixth day, Judge David admitted it, ruling that it was not a confession at all, but, in effect, an exculpation.
    Up to that time Doctor Wynekoop had withstood stoically in sight of her dead daughter-in-law�s garments, the table upon which she had died, the chloroform mask, the fatal pistol, the blanket with which the girl had been covered. She had pleaded attacks of illness frequently and out of court spent virtually all her time in the county jail hospital.

    THE ruling admitting the "confession" unnerved her. A great shock was to follow its introduction.
    Doctor Harry Hoffman, a psychologist attached to the jail, had taken the stand to describe the circumstances under which she had made her statement, he having been present throughout a great part of her examination.
    "When Doctor Wynekoop admitted responsibility for Rheta�s death, her story shocked me. As an old friend of her dead husband, long acquainted with her and her family, I was thunderstruck. I said to her, �Why did you do it?� and she replied. �I did it to save the poor dear!�"
    As the meaning which Doctor Hoffman attached to that reply penetrated Doctor Wynekoop�s consciousness, she started up from her chair, gave a little gasp and collapsed.
    Later from her cot in the hospital she issued a statement.
    "When Doctor Hoffman asked me why I did it, I believed he was asking me why I had confessed and my reply meant that I had taken the blame to save Earl from the torture of further questioning. I did not mean, as Doctor Hoffman implied, that I had killed Rheta to save Earl from further unhappiness in being married to her."
    Four days later Doctor Wynekoop was officially declared too ill to return to court and Judge David withdrew a juror and declared it a mistrial.
    "When she recovers, Doctor Wynekoop will be placed on trial again and sent to the electric chair," declared the State�s Attorney�s office.
    "Doctor Wynekoop never will live to face another court," her attorney asserted just as emphatically.
    Did Doctor Wynekoop kill her daughter-in-law? Or is she the victim of a damning chain of circumstantial evidence which she helped to forge herself through her anxiety to spare the son with whom she holds a bond that far outstrips ordinary mother love in its intensity?

    As we go to press Doctor Wynekoop is found guilty -- sentenced to 25 years.


Taylor, Merlin Moore, "The Inside Story of Chicago's Weird Wynekoop Mystery", True Detective Mysteries, Vol. 22, No. 2, (May, 1934): Pages 6-13, 75-79

Created December 1, 2001; Revised October 17, 2002
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