Hans Schmidt Trials: 1913 & 1914
Hans Schmidt Trials: 1913 & 1914
Defendant: Hans Schmidt
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: W. M. K. Olcott, Alphonse G. Koelble, Terence J. McManus
Chief Prosecutors: James A. Delehanty, Deacon Murphy
Judge: First trial: Warren W. Foster; Second trial: Vernon M. Davis
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: December 7-30, 1913; Second trial: January 19-February 5, 1914
Verdict: First trial: jury deadlocked; Second trial: guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: The question of sanity has always been a vexatious issue in the American courtroom. Here it would decide whether the defendant—a priest—would live or die.
On September 5, 1913, two youths walking along the New Jersey shoreline of the Hudson River stumbled across a package containing the headless trunk of a woman, severed at the waist. The next day, some three miles downriver at Weehawken, a second package was found, a pillowcase monogrammed with the letter "A", and containing the lower torso of the same woman, wrapped in a newspaper dated August 31. Despite the fact that both packages had washed ashore in New Jersey, jurisdiction passed to the New York Police Department. This decision was made because both parcels had been weighted down with a large chunk of schist, a grayish-green rock rarely found in New Jersey but very common in Manhattan, leading to the strong presumption that the crime had taken place in New York.
A preliminary examination of the body suggested a woman aged under 30, approximately 5 feet 4 inches in height and weighing between 120 and 130 pounds, and that she had been in the water a few days at most. An autopsy later revealed that the woman had given birth prematurely not long before she died.
Skilled detective work, tracing the manufacturer of the highly distinctive pillowcase, then studying that company's order books, led officers to a Manhattan apartment. The landlord said that the apartment had been rented two weeks earlier by someone called Hans Schmidt, ostensibly for a young female relative.
When officers let themselves into the apartment, they spotted bloodstains on the wallpaper and floor; stains that someone had struggled hard to remove, judging from the new scrubbing brush and six cakes of soap that lay by the sink. Inside a trunk they found a foot-long butcher's knife and a large handsaw, both recently cleaned. Another trunk held several small handkerchiefs, all amateurishly embroidered with the same letter "A" as on the pillowcase. A bundle of letters addressed to one Anna Aumuller led to St. Boniface's Church, on 42nd Street, where the 21-year-old German immigrant had worked as a servant in the rectory, until being discharged for misconduct. Mention of Schmidt's name brought another lead—St. Joseph's Church, 405 West 105th Street.
Father Hans Schmidt, aged 32 and German-born, almost fainted when police officers came to interview him. Just minutes later, racked by remorse, he unburdened his soul with a bizarre tale of having gone through a form of marriage with Aumuller—a ceremony conducted by himself for obvious reasons—only to then kill her, excusing himself on the grounds that "I loved her. Sacrifices should be consummated in blood."
That Schmidt killed Anna Aumuller was not in doubt when his trial began on December 7, 1913, but his defense team, lead by W. M. K. Olcott, was emphatic that their client had been consumed by a "blood lust" and, therefore, was not responsible for his actions. As support for this view they produced Dr. Arnold Leo, who had treated Schmidt and Aumuller some months before the tragedy.
Leo told the court that at their first meeting Schmidt had initially claimed to be a music teacher, but later admitted that he was a priest. "Schmidt told me that he was very much in love with the girl, and that he intended to give up the priesthood and marry her." Leo described how during one of his professional visits to see Schmidt at the rectory, the priest unaccountably became "wildly excited," then sprang across the room and grabbed a zither. After playing the instrument for a few minutes he stopped, sat down and began to talk calmly.
So far as the prosecution, which knew a great deal about the defendant's shady background, was concerned, Schmidt was a scheming con man, entirely responsible for his actions. The arresting officer, Inspector Joseph A. Faurot, testified that at first Schmidt had denied knowing Anna Aumuller, but had yielded when Faurot said, "Come now, tell us the whole truth about this thing."
According to Faurot, Schmidt admitted purchasing the knife and handsaw on August 31, then creeping into Aumuller's bedroom on night of September 2, while she lay sleeping, and slashing her throat. Quizzed about the obvious signs of experience in the dissection, Schmidt admitted that he had been a medical student before being ordained.
Assistant District Attorney James A. Delehanty wanted the jury to know more about what Faurot had discovered about Schmidt's background. Faurot detailed the extraordinary career of a priest who often posed as a doctor, in which capacity he had performed illegal abortions, a man who turned his hand to counterfeiting, someone who had aroused concern at several churches across America, and yet who had miraculously avoided censure.
Clearly Schmidt was peculiar, but was he mad? It would be up to the jury to decide.
After 34 hours of often acrimonious deliberation the jury came back on December 30, and announced themselves hopelessly deadlocked at 10-2 for conviction. Jury foreman William Ottinger, visibly exhausted, told Judge Foster, "Your Honor, we have voted many times, and we stood the same on the first ballot as the last," leaving the judge no option but to declare a mistrial.
One of the holdout jurors, William McAuliffe, afterwards claimed, "The other ten were willing to acquit the defendant on the grounds of insanity, except that they were afraid that he would go to Matteawan and get out like Thaw. So they thought the only thing to do was send him to the electric chair."
When defense lawyer Alphonse Koelble suggested that the jury be allowed to bring in a verdict of guilty to second-degree murder, Delehanty bitterly rejected the idea and declared that the state would try Schmidt again.
This trial began on January 19, 1914, and was essentially a carbon copy of the first, except that in his charge to the jury Justice Davis made a plea for some cold, hard logic:
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. [See Harry Thaw Trials]
The jury took this admonition to heart and, on February 5, 1914, after just two hours' deliberation, they convicted Schmidt of first-degree murder.
One week later the disgraced priest was sentenced to death, and after a lengthy appeal process he was executed on February 18, 1916.
The issues of mental competence raised in these trials resonate to the present day, as juries continue to wrestle with the conundrum of deciding whether someone is mad or bad.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Lunde, Donald T. Murder and Madness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
New York Times. See Aumuller, Anna, in the Nesw York Times Index, September 15, 1913-February 13, 1914.