"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 30, 2013

Otto's in the Attic; or, Hell, Dolly!

Walburga Oesterreich, 1930, via Wikipedia

Throughout human history, many people have been "kept men" or "kept women" who provide sexual and emotional services for others.

They just usually aren't kept up in the attic.

Let me introduce you to Walburga "Dolly" Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber, a couple whose romance was, well, just made for this blog.

This utterly cracked love story began some time around 1912, with a Milwaukee apron-factory owner named Fred Oesterreich. Fred, although financially well-to-do, was an unsatisfactory sort--loud-mouthed, overbearing, crude, and often intoxicated. His wife Dolly could have put up with all that. What she could not tolerate was the fact that Fred was also lousy in bed. Mrs. Oesterreich, a woman of healthy physical appetites, berated her husband so loudly and violently about his conjugal deficiencies that neighbors occasionally were compelled to summon the police.

It was not surprising that Dolly would find solace in a lover. What was surprising was that her choice for that role was a worker in her husband's factory, Otto Sanhuber. Sanhuber was an orphan who could not say for sure who his biological parents were, or even when he was born, but he thought his birth name was "Otto Weir" and that he was about 17 years old.  Otto was meek, painfully shy, friendless, under five feet tall, and generally resembled a bespectacled, woebegone cod.

As Pascal once wrote, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Dolly eyed this unprepossessing boy and saw many hidden possibilities. According to most accounts of this case, one day, she summoned Otto to her home to "repair a sewing machine." When he arrived, he found the lady of the house wearing nothing but a silk robe. She led him off to her bedroom to inspect the damaged appliance.

Well, the result was, Otto soon got to work all right, but not on the machine. Dolly, to her delight, discovered that her instincts were correct. Between the sheets, the cod proved to be a stallion.

All went well for some months. Otto continued to sneak over to the Oesterreich home whenever the husband was away. Dolly continued to congratulate herself on her excellent taste in men. Fred continued to drink and bluster. Everyone was happy.

The first sign of trouble appeared when a busybody neighbor informed Fred that his wife was having a suspicious amount of trouble with her sewing machine. When Mr. Oesterreich questioned Dolly about her visitor, she calmly asserted that such stories were all lies.

Dolly now realized she had to act fast to avoid having her secret life come out. She did not want Fred to learn what she was up to, but she most certainly did not want to give up Otto. If only she could keep her toy boy close at hand, but safely out of sight...

And then she thought of her house's attic.

There was a small cubbyhole in the attic, conveniently above the master bedroom. It could only be entered via a small trap door in the ceiling.  Dolly decorated it with a cot, a table, a chair, and other household items. She told Otto to quit his job at the apron factory. And one day when Fred was safely out of the way, she installed her lover in his new apartment, right above the Oesterreich bed.

Otto obediently settled in to his new hermit existence. As he was to plaintively explain years later, Dolly "was the first person in my life to give me love and affection."  When Fred was away, Otto would come down and attend to the housework--he took great pride in his talent for washing floors, preparing food, and doing laundry--but he never went outdoors. When the ostensible "man of the house" was in residence, he remained immured in his little attic cave.

Otto spent his time in seclusion devouring adventure novels that Dolly got him from the local library. He lived in a strange dream-world, immersing himself in tales of travel and derring-do that could not be more different from his voluntary virtual premature burial. Reading such stories so fired up his imagination that he began writing some of his own. Dolly typed them up and sent them off to the pulp magazines under a pseudonym. They began selling, too. The attic recluse soon had a career in the world of pulp fiction.

Otto was still perfectly happy. So was Dolly.

Fred, on the other hand, feared he was losing his sanity. He'd occasionally hear strange noises coming from the direction of the ceiling. Food he could swear he had seen just a short time before would suddenly be gone. His cigars began disappearing. Once, when he was in the backyard, he swore he saw a face in the attic window.

Dolly would sigh and suggest her husband consult a doctor.

Fred eventually became so rattled that he insisted on moving to a different house. Dolly selected one with a generously-sized attic. When the Oesterreichs changed addresses, so did Otto. Poor Fred continued to think he was hearing mice--mighty large mice--and his food and cigars continued to vanish, but his wife's broad hints about delirium tremens and the probability that he needed professional help ensured that he kept his complaints to a minimum.

One night, the Oesterreichs came home unexpectedly early from a party. Fred caught Otto in the kitchen, eating a leg of lamb. Assuming Sanhuber was just an ordinary--if particularly brazen--burglar, he gave the intruder a sound thrashing and threw him out.

The next day, the now-homeless Otto secretly met with Dolly. As usual, Mrs. Oesterreich had a plan. She gave him his earnings as a writer and told him to use the money to go to Los Angeles. They would keep in touch via a post-office box, and she would persuade her husband to move there as soon as she could.

As usual, Otto did what he was told. He took the next train for the City of the Angels, where he got a job as a janitor in an apartment house. Rather than enjoying his new-found freedom, he was a baby unwillingly torn from the womb. He missed his quiet, safe little cubbyhole, and the private little world he had built with his literary work and with Dolly.

Fred agreed that he could use some California sunshine, and by 1918 the Oesterreichs were gracing Los Angeles with their curious presence. Fred bought a controlling interest in a garment factory downtown. Dolly found a charming residence featuring an attic room right above the master bedroom. And very soon, Otto was contentedly snuggled away in his new cave.

The little household hummed away nicely until the night of August 22, 1922. Neighbors heard ominous crashing noises coming from the Oesterreich house. When these sounds were followed by several gunshots, they called the police.

When officers arrived at the home, they were greeted by the dead body of Fred Oesterreich on the living-room floor. He had been shot several times with a .25-caliber revolver. They found the hysterical Mrs. Oesterreich locked in a closet in the master bedroom.

Dolly told the police that she and her husband had arrived home, and surprised a burglar. The intruder shot her husband, and then imprisoned her in the closet to prevent her from summoning help. As far as she could tell, all the criminal had taken was her husband's diamond-studded watch.

Detectives seem to have sensed from the beginning that there was something a little off about Mrs. Oesterreich's story--not to mention something a little off about Mrs. Oesterreich herself--but lacking any way to disprove her account, Fred's murder seemed fated to remain unsolved.

Shortly after becoming a widow, Dolly hired an attorney named Herman Shapiro to help her sort out her late husband's estate. The two soon became lovers.  She gave the lawyer a present: A diamond-studded watch. "It had been my dear husband's," she said.

Dolly put her home up for sale--too many burglaries, and all that--and bought a smaller one in another part of the city. It had a lovely attic, which made Otto very happy.

One day, she gave another of her gentlemen friends, Ray Klumb, a large envelope. When he looked inside, he saw it contained a 25-caliber revolver. Dolly explained that she kept it for self-protection, but since "dear Fred" had been killed with a similar gun, it might be awkward if the police found it in her possession. She asked him to get rid of it for her.

Like our old friend Madalynne Obenchain, Dolly Oesterreich was one of those women with a gift for getting men to do the most damn fool things. Klumb asked no questions, and obediently threw the gun into the La Brea tar pits.  (Sources give differing accounts of what became of this gun.  Some say it lies hidden in the tar pits to this day.  Others claim it was eventually found by police, but by then the weapon was too damaged to be able to positively connect it to Fred's shooting.)

The Chief of Detectives, Herman Cline, still felt in his bones that Mrs. Oesterreich had something to do with her husband's death, but he couldn't prove it. That is to say, he couldn't prove it until nearly a year later, when he somehow discovered that Herman Shapiro was sporting a diamond-studded watch. When Cline learned where Shapiro had obtained the item, he wasted no time charging Dolly with murder.

When she was put under arrest, Dolly stoutly denied everything, and demanded to see her lawyer. She privately told Shapiro to go to her bedroom and knock three times on the trap door in the closet. She explained that "a half-brother of mine who's a sort of a vagabond" was up there. Shapiro was to tell him that she had to go away on a business trip, but she would see him soon.

When Shapiro rapped on the trap door--it would be entertaining to know what was going through his mind at the time--Otto emerged. When he heard Dolly's message, Sanhuber sighed and commented, "It's too bad that she has been so upset over something that I did."

Well, the cat was now well and truly out of the bag. Shapiro had no difficulty getting the entire story out of Dolly's housemate. On the fatal night, the Oesterreichs had come home drunk and, as usual, quarreling violently. Otto feared for his lady-love's safety, and decided he had had about enough of Fred Oesterreich. He got Dolly's gun and, like a hero straight out of his beloved adventure stories, confronted her husband.

"Unhand this lovely woman!" Otto declared.

I earnestly hope he really did say that.

Fred, unimpressed by Otto's gift for dialogue, lunged at him. Otto panicked, and without thinking, shot his assailant.

Otto and Dolly realized their only hope was to make it look like a robbery. Dolly took Fred's watch and hid it in some couch cushions. Then, she locked herself in the closet and shoved the key through the crack underneath the door, while Otto fled to the sanctuary of his cubbyhole.

Shapiro was merely a civil attorney. He immediately realized that a crime this weird needed expert attention. He hired for Dolly the services of Frank Dominguez, one of the best criminal lawyers in the city. He told Dominguez to go to Dolly's house, and tell the guy hiding in her attic to get lost, pronto.

By this point, leaving the cozy security of his attic was probably the last thing Otto wanted to do, but he obediently skedaddled off.   He changed his name to "Walter Klein," and eventually settled in Vancouver.  Dominguez then presented a pretty little fait-accompli to the District Attorney. With no witnesses, no confession, and no weapon traceable to the killing, there was really no case against his client, right?

The authorities felt they had no choice but to set Dolly free. She settled down without Otto, but with the compensatory delights of Fred's substantial estate. Otto married, and eventually returned to Los Angeles. He got another job as a night janitor in an apartment house, which suited him, as his years in attics left him with a distaste for the light of day. He and Dolly had finally parted ways, and the story seemed over.

Well, with people like Otto and Dolly, the story is never really over. By 1930, Mrs. Oesterreich and Shapiro had a falling-out.  (Among other things, he learned she was cheating on him with her business manager, Ray Hedrick.)

Hell hath no fury like a L.A. shyster scorned.  Shapiro went to the District Attorney, claiming that the Widow Oesterreich was threatening his life. He wished, he said, to make a formal affidavit about the death of her husband. He told everything he knew about Dolly--which was plenty--and by the time he finally finished dishing the dirt, she and Otto were both indicted for murder.

Incidentally, the police had some other issues they were eager to discuss with Dolly.  In 1927, Fred Oesterreich's apron plant in Milwaukee had burned to the ground.  Investigators determined the fire been due to arson, and law enforcement had reason to believe that Fred's widow had commissioned the blaze in order to collect the insurance money.

Not content with having grassed on his old flame, Shapiro also filed a suit against Dolly, claiming that she had violated an agreement to assign to him her insurance claims in that matter of Fred's incinerated factory. Hedrick's wife, Geneva, brought her own legal charges against Mrs. Oesterreich, for alienation of affections.

Dolly, dauntless as ever, denied everything. Meek little Otto, on the other hand, told the grand jury exactly the same story he gave Shapiro all those years before. Perhaps he was feeling nostalgic for his cubbyhole, and figured a jail cell would be an acceptable substitute. He was put on trial first. His lawyer persuaded him to retract his confession, so the only evidence against him put before the jury was Shapiro's account of the murder, which the defense scornfully dismissed as a fantasy invented by Dolly's disgruntled ex-inamorato.

Sanhuber was found guilty of manslaughter.  This left everyone with an interesting legal problem on their hands. Fred Oesterreich had been shot eight years before Sanhuber went on trial. The statute of limitations for manslaughter ran out after three. Thanks to that delay in the course of justice, conviction be damned, the justice system had no choice but to let Otto go.

After his release, Sanhuber permanently disappeared from view, probably headed for the nearest available attic.

At Dolly's trial, the defense presented by her attorney, the famed Jerry Geisler, was simple: Otto was to blame for everything. After Fred's death, she had not come forward with the truth because explaining her unconventional private life might have been, well, a bit embarrassing.

Dolly Oesterreich was just too much for the jury. They found themselves unable to reach a verdict. The DA, hoping against hope, kept the case against her open for six more years until he finally gave up and dropped the charges.  (The arson allegations--which also included some vague talk of bribery and blackmail--never stuck, either.  Some crooks just have the devil's own luck.)

Dolly lived uncharacteristically quietly in Los Angeles until her death in 1961, at the age of about 81.  She had married her "longtime sweetheart" Ray Hedrick just two weeks earlier, so he wound up with what was reported to be Dolly's multi-million dollar estate.

Please don't ask me to provide a moral for this story.  I have not the slightest idea what it might be.


  1. You really couldn't make this sort of thing up! Such a weird story - on all levels!

  2. Wow, quite the story. There must have been a movie made about this. The trouble is that Hollywood never thinks the truth is interested, so it would have been ruined by screenwriters - who just aren't this imaginative. Dolly must have been surprised when she was sent to Hell afterward. She probably thought she could talk her way out of anything. By the way, do you think Sanhuber and Shapiro look alike? I wonder what the rest of Dolly's boyfriends looked like...

    1. There was a TV-movie about the case a few years ago, starring Neil Patrick Harris (?!) as Otto. There was also a feature film at some point. I haven't seen them, though. There's no way they could possibly top the real story.

    2. totally agree on the similarities between Shapiro and Stanhuber....thought at first Otto had just put some weight on. all in all, bizarre. what weak men these were. never underestimate a woman with a healthy sex drive!

  3. Thanks for this genuine day-brightener. Love the image of Otto reading and then writing his own pulp fiction in the attic.

  4. I actually heard this story via the Murder Dollhouse comic zine. I can't find where on the http://murderdollhouse.com site you can buy it or take a look at it anymore, but if you write to the guy he'll probably send you a copy. Fun stuff. Here's an image of the cover somebody put online:


    1. Oh, good God, that cover.

      I'll see if I can track down a copy. Thanks!

    2. This was a great story! I researched this and couldn't find Shapiro's picture -- glad to see it here -- another George Clooney, huh? Fred and Dolly had a young son (Raymond) who died young (scarlet fever as I remember). Also, only two shots were fired by Otto who had TWO .25 guns. Dolly gave one gun to Roy Klumb to hide (indeed in the LaBrea Tar Pits), the other she gave to a widower who lived next door to her new house. They played cards together and she charmed him into hiding the second gun -- he buried it in his rose garden. When the news came out about the first gun being found, he went to the police with the second. That gun was also rusted out after 11 months in the ground. Otto got married AFTER the twin trials in 1930 and took the last name of the librarian he married. The movie "Man in the Attic" was a botch job made in Canada (with Neil Patrick and Anne Archer -- the characters had different names and the facts were allllllllllll wrong). And Shirley MacLaine played a completely different character in an unrelated movie (to the crime) called "The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom." It took place in London (Carnaby St.) when it was fashionable and the Beatles were hot.

    3. Did Otto get married a second time? All the accounts I've seen of the case refer to him having a wife at the time he was put on trial. (There is a photo of the two of them in this post.)

      If he changed his name yet again, that would explain why no one seems to know anything about the rest of his life.

  5. Is there a photo of the house where the murder happened?

    1. I doubt the house is still standing, but this forum has a couple of photos of it. (Scroll down a bit.)


    2. Here, try this link to the individual post. http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost.php?p=5926187&postcount=10646

  6. "...She led him off to her bedroom to inspect the damaged appliance. Well, the result was, Otto soon got to work all right, but not on the machine..." - LOL!


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