As regular readers know, I do like to bring Sword and Scale some of criminal history’s more unusual cases. Toni Jo Henry was Louisiana’s only female electrocution. Martha Place and William Kemmler were the first woman and man to suffer legal electrocution. James Snook remains the only Olympic gold medallist ever to walk the last mile. And so on.
Today I’ll be recounting the singular story of Hans Schmidt, the only priest in American history to pay the ultimate penalty. Schmidt’s case was a media sensation at the time, both in New York and further afield. An outwardly respectable man of the cloth embroiled in an illicit affair that culminated in murder, a hung jury, a retrial and finally execution, Schmidt’s case was enlivened still further by speculation that it might not have been the first time he’d committed murder. So, with that in mind, let’s journey back to New York in the year 1913 and rediscover one of America’s most unusual murder cases.
Hans Schmidt was German by birth, born in Asschaffenberg in 1881. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1906 and immigrated to the US in 1909, being assigned to St. John’s Parish in Louisville, Kentucky. He didn’t stay there long. A rift with another minister saw him reassigned to St. Boniface’s Parish in New York (more on the possible reason for his reassignment later) and it wasn’t long before the rectory’s housekeeper, a recent immigrant from Austria named Anna Aumuller, began to catch his eye.
Soon she caught more than that, as Schmidt and Aumuller embarked on an affair, an illicit affair given his calling as a Catholic priest and especially when the pair weren’t actually married. Father Schmidt would soon fix the marriage issue, albeit in unconventional, sinful and quite possibly illegal fashion. There’s nothing unusual about Catholic priests performing a marriage service, but there is when they perform their own and do so in secret. Schmidt was already deviating somewhat from conventional religious practise. Soon, he would deviate much further (assuming he hadn’t done so at least twice before, but we’ll come to that later).
Schmidt, possibly as a result of his church’s desire to avoid scandal, soon found himself reassigned elsewhere in New York. That didn’t spell the end of his affair with Aumuller. Despite the obvious risk of discovery, the twosome carried on their assignations with more fervor than discretion. Sooner or late they would be discovered and something had to give. When Schmidt discovered Aumuller was not only pregnant, but had also given premature birth to his child, he decided that what had to give would be Anna Aumuller’s life.
On September 2, 1913 he murdered her. He slit her throat while she lay sleeping, then dismembered her body with a saw and dumped the body parts into the East River. So far, so standard for a murderer. At least it might have worked if some of the parts hadn’t been found. Now that they had been, New York detectives started making inquiries into whether Anna Aumuller had any enemies or anyone who might want her dead. It wasn’t long before they arrived at the church of Father Hans Schmidt. The initial visit was to question him about her disappearance. That soon turned into a charge of first-degree murder. An all-out media frenzy was about to begin.
The case was perfect tabloid-fodder. A disgraced priest, an unmarried mother, an illegitimate baby and illicit affair all topped off with a brutal murder that may or may not lead to a truly singular execution. Then as now the press loved it. New York’s papers vied with each other to produce the most sensational coverage of the case and they and their readers weren’t to be disappointed.
Schmidt’s trial began on December 7, 1913 with Judge Warren Foster presiding. Prosecutors James Delahanty and deacon Murphy squared off against a defense team composed of W.M.K Olcott, Terence McManus and Alphonse Koelble. The public gallery and press box were jam-packed. Olcott and his team didn’t deny that Schmidt had committed the killing. They couldn’t as it could be proved that the apartment where Aumuller had been murdered and dismembered had been rented only weeks before the murder by Hans Schmidt. They couldn’t disprove that Schmidt had a motive, means and opportunity, either. What they could focus on was a defense of insanity. Portraying their client as a madman rather than a cold-blooded murderer, showing him to be mad but not bad, might tip the jury towards either deadlock or an acquittal resulting in Schmidt heading for a cell in Bellevue psychiatric hospital rather than the Sing Sing death house. It was an almighty gamble, given that New York prescribed a mandatory death sentence of those convicted of first-degree murder but, with the array of prosecution evidence, it was probably Schmidt’s best and maybe only shot at avoiding a seat in Old Sparky.
And, almost unbelievably, it worked.
The jury deliberated for 34 hours before declaring themselves unable to reach a verdict on December 30, 1913. They knew that Schmidt had committed the crime but, and this was what the defense had been shooting for, they were unable to agree on whether or not he was legally sane at the time. This was not quite as good as it sounded, however. A hung jury isn’t an acquittal and, without an acquittal, New York was free to begin a retrial for Schmidt on the same charge. Schmidt’s lawyers couldn’t claim double jeopardy as the jury hadn’t declared him innocent, merely found themselves unable to agree on the extent of his guilt. With that in mind, the prosecution angrily declared their intent to hold a second trial within hours of the first one having ended. Schmidt would have to go through the same process again, with no guarantee that his lawyers wold be able to convince another jury in the same way. The death house door still loomed halfway-open in Schmidt’s mind.
The retrial began on January 19, 1914 and would end amid sensational banner headlines on February 5. Either the defense weren’t as effective or the jury weren’t as easily-convinced but, on February 5 the verdict was in. Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy. That may have been partly down to the summing up of trial judge Vernon Davis, whose appeal to the more practically-minded ran thus:
“If you are satisfied that the defendant purchased the knife and saw with which he cut up the body, thinking of using them as he did, and if you are satisfied that in the middle of the night he went to the flat, took off his coat and cut her throat, and then cut up her body, what conclusion do you come to? Use your common sense… your experience with men. Bear in mind, it isn’t every form of mental unsoundness that excuses a crime.”
The jury weren’t of a mind to excuse Schmidt’s crime and nor were New York’s appellate judges. Appeals were repeatedly filed and just as repeatedly denied. The death house door, once merely ajar, opened wider with every ruling by the courts. Finally, on February 18, 1916, Schmidt’s time and appeals ran out. The Governor didn’t call, either.
At 11pm that night Schmidt walked his last mile. He was escorted the few yards between his cell in Sing Sing’s death house, seated in the chair and the straps and electrodes were applied. ‘State Electrician’ John Hurlbut, new to the job and who would retire in 1926 after suffering a breakdown from performing 140 executions, awaited the Warden’s signal. The signal came. Father Hans Schmidt was certified dead moments later, remaining to this day the only Catholic priest executed for murder in the United States.
But it may well not have been his first or only murder. Aside from their discovering he’d rented a second apartment that he used as a counterfeiting workshop, police in Kentucky also suspected him of murdering a nine-year old girl whose death was similar to that of Anna Aumuller. Furthermore, German police in Aschaffenberg strongly suspected him for a murder committed there before Schmidt had left for the United States.
Was Hans Schmidt a multiple murderer? We’ll probably never know. And was he sent from Kentucky to New York in the hope of his avoiding further police attention? If so, it didn’t work. It certainly didn’t work for Kentucky janitor Joseph Wendling, who was convicted for the girl’s murder based on circumstantial evidence and bloodstained clothing. Wendling was the janitor of the building where the girl’s remains had been discovered, a building Schmidt was known to have easy access to at the time of the crime.