Our tale opens in Carver County, Minnesota, where there lived a "plain, honest German farmer" named William Wackerle and his wife Walburga. When the Civil War broke out, Mr. Wackerle enlisted in the Union Army, becoming a member of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He served for two years, after which he was discharged on account of a serious illness.
In 1867, Wackerle sold his farm for $3,000 and he and Walburga moved to Milwaukee. Shortly after this move, Walburga was able to nag her husband into insuring his life for $3,000 with the Aetna Insurance Company. Just for good measure, she got him to get a similar policy for $4,000 with Mutuel Life of New York. Walburga was the beneficiary of both policies.
After this, William began to doubt that Walburga desired to see him lead a long, healthy life. He abandoned his family and fled to California, leaving no forwarding address. However, Walburga was--as we shall see--a formidable woman who did not know the meaning of the word "quit." She tracked down her husband in Sacramento, and somehow--probably simply through sheer force of will--induced him to return back East with her.
The newly-reconciled couple moved to Quincy, Illinois, but no sooner had they settled in that William did another runner. This time, he managed to cover his tracks more successfully. Walburga was unable to find any trace of her runaway husband. At this point, most women would have sighed, shrugged their shoulders, and given up all hope of ever seeing their husband and his sweet, sweet life insurance again.
Walburga was not most women.
She interrogated her brother-in-law, John Wackerle, in the hopes of getting some idea where her spouse had gone. John gave her a false lead, telling her--incorrectly--that William had gone south. In 1873, Walburga was prowling around Shreveport, Louisiana, when she learned that the year before, a stranger had been run over by a train of cars on the nearby Texas Pacific Railroad. Walburga instantly decided that this man was her missing husband, and resolutely set out to prove it. After all, $7,000 worth of life insurance was at stake.
In February of 1874, Mrs. Wackerle visited the offices of the Aetna Insurance Company to deliver the sad news that her husband was no more, and how about if they cough up that money? The president of the company responded that Aetna had ninety days in which to investigate her claim. If William's death was proved to their satisfaction, they would, of course, then promptly pay out the policy. Mutual Life told her that as Aetna was investigating the case, they would be guided by that company's conclusions.
As "proof" of William's death, Walburga presented affidavits from two men stating that they had worked with a man named William Wackerle on the Texas Pacific Railroad, and had witnessed his fatal accident. She also had a certificate of death and burial. Unfortunately, however, this gave the name of the deceased as "Unknown."
Aetna had no reason to doubt that on December 25, 1872, a man was indeed killed on the Texas Pacific Railroad. They were far from being convinced, however, that the unfortunate soul was William Wackerle. An Aetna employee was sent to Shreveport to make enquiries. He learned that the men who gave affidavits identifying Wackerlie were both illiterate. When the affidavits made in their names were read to them, they both declared that these documents were falsehoods. All they had meant to state was that "a man" had been killed on the railroad, but they had no idea who he was. They had never so much as heard of any William Wackerle. Aetna learned that the dead man had been part of a gang of construction hands employed by the railroad. The reason why he had been run over by a train was that he had been lying in the middle of the track, dead drunk. As no one came forward to identify the corpse, it had been given an anonymous burial.
Aetna began to smell a rat. They continued their investigation, learning that the name of William Wackerle did not appear anywhere on the railroad's payroll. The paymaster for the Texas Pacific stated his belief that the deceased was actually a man named Frank Ettine. The foreman of the gang that had included the dead man also gave the victim's name as Ettine. He, too, had never heard of anyone named William Wackerle. It was also established that descriptions of the dead man did not at all match Walburga's descriptions of William Wackerle. The foreman stated that based on this, he told Mrs. Wackerle that the deceased could not possibly have been her husband. Walburga, however, was hell-bent on acquiring a corpse to present to the life insurance companies. Any corpse would do, apparently.
Aetna, however, spoiled her fun by determining that the dead man was not William Wackerle, but Frank Ettine, and accordingly refused to pay up.
Walburga--who was by this time residing in Hartford, Connecticut--was not the woman to take defeat this easily. During Aetna's investigation, she had launched an impressive PR campaign, telling all the leading citizens of the city of her woes. Here she was, a poor, helpless widow, waging this lone battle against the evil insurance companies. How she had battled! How she had suffered! Oh, the cruel injustice of it all!
The people of Hartford, having little idea of the facts of the case, ate her story up. Walburga began to be seen as a heroic martyr. Everyone agreed that it was just too horrible that such a brave, plucky little lady should be so wronged. She returned to Shreveport to "perfect" her claims against the insurance companies. Along the way, she gave many newspaper interviews describing her grievances. She was rewarded with many printed columns offering their sympathies to poor, mistreated Mrs. Wackerle, and bitterly denouncing those greedy, heartless insurance companies for refusing to give the suffering widow her due.
Walburga had devised an additional way to profit from her husband's death. It occurred to her that if she could claim that the man said to be "Frank Ettine" was, in fact, William Wackerle, she could not only claim the $40 in wages the railroad owed him at the time of his death, but sue Texas Pacific for damages.
The $40 had already been paid to a relative of Ettine's but when Walburga demanded the money, the railroad offered to pay her another $40 if she would sign a document releasing them from all liability. She scornfully refused, ominously warning the railroad that they would regret this attempt to defraud her.
Walburga came up with yet another way to monetize her husband's corpse. She learned that the federal government was paying a pension to discharged soldiers, if they applied within a certain time. However, this due date had already passed by the time she learned of it. Undaunted, Walburga marched into Washington and insisted on getting that money anyway, as the widow of a former veteran. Such was the power of this woman's personality that she somehow convinced--or perhaps "intimidated" is a better word--the Secretary of War into instructing the Committee on Claims to introduce a special act to Congress granting her this pension.
While this act awaited Congressional approval, Walburga filed suit against Aetna Life. It was, as you may have guessed, a very curious proceeding. Mrs. Wackerle's witnesses proved to all be of the "testimony for hire," variety. They were, as one contemporary account tactfully put it, "of questionable character...Several of the witnesses had uneviable reputations, and it was shown in court that they were not worthy of confidence." Aetna, in return, stated that they did not deny a man had been killed on the Texas Pacific Railroad, but they argued that there was nothing whatsoever to prove he had been William Wackerle.
Fortunately for Mrs. Wackerle, the jurors were a gallant lot, more interested in helping a poor lone widow than in something as boring as "hard evidence." They concluded that there was "some indirect testimony" that the dead man was Wackerle, and as Walburga insisted so strongly that he was her husband, they chose "to give her the benefit of the doubt." A verdict was returned in her favor. Aetna immediately filed an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Walburga's attorney urged Aetna to withdraw this appeal, suggesting that, for the sake of the company's reputation, they should resolve "not to pursue this poor woman any further."
The newspaper publicity, while almost unanimously in Mrs. Wackerle's favor, wound up causing her serious complications. A story about the case in the "New York Mail" caught the eye of a Joseph Weinmann, a resident of Fairbault, Minnesota. He served with William Wackerle during the war, and had known him well. He wrote to the "Mail," stating that he had important information about the Wackerle Mystery. His letter was forwarded to Aetna, and that company sent a representative to have a chat with Mr. Weinmann.
Weinmann said that William Wackerle was alive and well. He could prove it, too. Weinmann had been in correspondence with Wackerle, who was anxious to get his Army pension from the government. Weinmann produced the most recent letter from Wackerle, which read in part, "I would ask you to make some inquiries about my wife. Can you find out her whereabouts? She used to live in Quincy, Ill., and I have heard that she married again. I was insured in two life-insurance companies because she forced me to, and I did it to have peace with her, but it grew worse afterwards, and had I not left her I would be dead long ago. I left her everything--bed, clothes, and the money of my land, and what I had earned. I worked for my passage to California."
After reading this letter, Aetna wasted no time in sending Weinmann and a representative of their company to California. On arriving in San Francisco, they learned that the elusive Mr. Wackerle was in Humboldt, about two hundred miles away. When they finally caught up to the object of their search, Weinmann was able to assert that yes indeed, this was the one and only William Wackerle. William obligingly provided them with an an affidavit swearing that he was far from being dead, but very anxious to avoid any further run-ins with his wife, who, he believed, had planned to kill him for his life insurance. Additionally, Aetna discovered two men living in San Francisco who had known the Wackerles back in Minnesota. A meeting was arranged, and they too immediately recognized their old friend.
This new evidence enabled Aetna to get the Court of Appeals to grant a new trial. Wackerle came back East for the proceedings. He visited old friends and neighbors. Aetna gathered together twenty-five affidavits, all from people agreeing that the allegedly long-dead Mr. Wackerle was very much alive.
Aetna sought a meeting between the Wackerles, but Walburga refused. Finally, through a ruse, they were able to effect this reunion--one which, admittedly, was not enjoyed by either husband or wife.
William said to his wife, "Do you now say that I am not your husband, and that I am dead?" The indomitable Walburga huffed, "The courts of Louisiana will decide whether or not you are my husband; I want nothing to do with you." She then stalked off, fuming about having been tricked into this confrontation.
At the second trial, Aetna presented their tall stack of depositions, all from people who had known William Wackerle well, and all of whom agreed he was still very much alive. Walburga countered this by having the body of the man killed by the railroad exhumed. Although he had been dead for years, she unhesitatingly "recognized" this skeleton as all that remained of her husband. The teeth, she explained, were completely identical to poor William's. This court, less impressed by Walburga than the previous tribunal, gave a verdict for Aetna.
Walburga filed an appeal. It went through the justice system for some time until finally, in October 1880, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Their opinion commented, "The testimony conclusively establishes that Wackerle, the identical person whose life was insured, is still living, and unmasks one of the boldest and most scandalous schemes of fraud upon the defendant, the court and her counsel, ever conceived, and carried to the very verge of success. It is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed, that the judgment appealed from be affirmed at appellant's cost."
So, that must have been the end of the matter, you say?
Aetna may have now been in the clear, but there was still Mutual Life to face the Wrath of Walburga. She brought a separate suit against that company. The evidence presented was essentially the same as in the previous suits, but Walburga was now also saying that she had first learned of her husband's death from his brother, John Wackerle. She then went to Shreveport, where, in March 1874, she had the body exhumed, and was able to identify it as William through a broken tooth and his clothing. She swore that the man Aetna tricked her into meeting was a complete stranger to her. When John Wackerle was presented to her, she said that he too was an imposter. The real John, she sniffed, was a taller man, who looked completely different.
The disputed William Wackerle himself took the stand. He stated plaintively that he had left his wife because "he could not live with her in peace; he wanted some peace in his old age." At the close of his testimony, he was asked to write his name. The handwriting was shown to be identical to the unquestioned signature of William Wackerle on the life insurance applications that had been made so long, long ago.
In rebuttal, Walburga's lawyers presented a Dr. Moses Bassett, who had known the Wackerles when they lived in Quincy. He declared that the man now calling himself "William Wackerle" was not the man he had known back then. A druggist from Quincy, an ex-Governor of Minnesota, and the agent who had sold the Wackerles the Mutual Life insurance policy also asserted that the present William Wackerle was a ringer.
Some peculiar testimony was given about the body of the man killed on the railroad. The man had had a leg severed by the train, but when the body was exhumed in 1877, an examination found that no bones on the skeleton were broken. This discrepancy was never really explained.
After all the evidence had been given, the jury, after only a brief deliberation, found for Mrs. Wackerle. Either life insurance companies were remarkably unpopular in those days, or perhaps the jurors, as had happened in the previous trial, felt sympathy for the "grieving widow."
Mutual Life appealed the verdict, but a new trial was denied. In delivering this opinion, the United States Circuit Court commented that the case "was on both sides full of doubt, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Turn as we may in the analysis of the evidence, strange and irreconcilable aspects are presented.
"The first point to be established by plaintiff was the death of her husband. That rested on the testimony of several witnesses concerning the railroad accident and the identity of the person killed thereby. The evidence of the plaintiff and others as to the skeleton exhumed some four or more years after such killing, established to the satisfaction of the Court that the exhumed skeleton was not that of the man killed, supposed to be William Wackerle, on December 25, 1872. The Court directed the attention of the jury especially to that fact. Not that it was conclusive, but because it tended to show what weight should be given to the testimony. It may be that the exhumed skeleton was not that of William Wackerle, and hence the accuracy of plaintiffs testimony becomes questionable. Yet there was other evidence as to the death of the party killed, independent of the exhumation in 1877. It was therefore for the jury to decide whether, despite the mistakes as to the identity of the skeleton,William Wackerle was killed as alleged.
"The case as presented by the evidence was remarkable in many other respects, concerning which it is useless to comment. There are several depositions wanting which the Court has been anxious to read and analyze, but by some accident they have disappeared. Hence the Court has to rely on its memory as to their contents, and if a new trial is granted, after a long lapse of time, to supply the same.
"So far as the Court was justified in alluding to or commenting on the evidence, it pointed in its charges sharply against the plaintiff's claim, so far as the identity depended on the exhumed skeleton. Still, the jury reached the conclusion that the plaintiff's husband was killed in 1872, as alleged, and consequently that the person produced by the defendant, and claiming to be William Wackerle (husband of the plaintiff), was not what he pretended. The case was tried at great length, and the largest scope given to a searching inquiry. Its novel aspects induced the Court to admit every item of interest which could shed light on the subject.
"After full deliberation on the varied, inconsistent, and contradictory evidence, the jury reached a conclusion which was their exclusive province, and the Court does not feel justified in interfering therewith. The motion for a new trial is overruled."
Thus ended the Great Wackerle Affair. In a legal sense, at least, but not in the court of public opinion. The newspapers continued to argue whether or not William Wackerle was well and truly dead for quite some time afterward.
Wackerle himself--or, if you prefer, Zombie William, since in the eyes of the law, Walburga's husband was dead--added a postscript to the long controversy with a dignified letter to the "San Francisco Bulletin":
To the Editor of the Bulletin:
In the Weekly Bulletin of October nth, 1882, on the fourth page, appeared an article headed, "A Question of Identity," wherein it is made to appear that I have lent myself to personate a dead man in order to assist the Aetna and the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York to defraud a poor widow to receive an amount of $4,000 because of the death of her husband. I did not personate that husband, as it is given out. I am, or rather have been, the husband of the indefatigable Mrs. Wackerle, the same who applied to the companies above named for an insurance on his life for the benefit of his wife. Heaven be praised I am not that lady's husband any more, having long since been divorced, nor have I ever been that unlucky lover and unknown pedestrian who was run over by a railroad train in Texas in 1872, and furnished that lady a convenient corpse. The companies very properly refused to pay those policies on my life, because they always knew that I was not dead yet; and the Aetna Life Insurance Company was sustained in the refusal by the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana, I having furnished abundant proof of my identity.
Undismayed by this defeat, Mrs. Walburga Wackerle then tackled the Mutual Life Insurance Company, and obtained a verdict in her favor before an accommodating jury, who were sufficiently softened by her tears to award her a handsome amount of money out of the pocket of a heartless corporation. This verdict ought to extinguish me, and I am truly sorry for the New York Sun, who, under date of October 18th, 1882, and the Humboldt Times, who on the 21st of the same month favored me with such extended notices, that I am ill-mannered enough still to be among the living, the same William Wackerle who, in the year 1858, married Miss Walburga Schneider; lived with her to the month of June, 1871; co-habited with her during that time, raising a family of children. I was born and baptized as William Wackerle, married as William Wackerle, got divorced as William Wackerle, and will always remain so, in spite of my wife's studied refusal to recognize me, and the sensational romances gotten up by the Sun newspaper, wherein I am made to figure as a double-dyed villain of the blackest hue, who aided and abetted the equally double-dyed villainous corporation named the Mutual Life Insurance Company of the city of New York.
But the end is not yet, and before a higher tribunal the persecuted Walburga will be confronted by witnesses who know me from my earliest childhood; by witnesses from Eureka, Humboldt County, from Sacramento City and other places where we have been living, and who will unmistakably establish the fact that they knew us both as man and wife. Then she will probably take another tramp to Texas and elsewhere to hunt up further testimony, for she is not the kind of woman who willingly would give up a large money stake.
I do not deny that all the sensational stuff published has annoyed me. My acquaintance in a great many places of this State and Michigan and Illinois is large; my reputation has been good wherever I lived, and, valuing it more than anything else, I beg you would insert these lines at an early day, in order that all my friends and acquaintances and the general public may know that I denounce all infamous reports published against me as unmitigated lies, which it shall be my aim to unravel and lay bare even if the reputation of Walburga Wackerle as a heroine should suffer thereby. I likewise wish everybody, and the above-named journals especially, to know that my hiding-place is at a farm about twelve miles from Los Angeles City, in a district called the Azusa, which I acquired by dint of hard labor, and where I propose to live until I die for good and ever.
November 6th, 1882. William Wackerle.
And there the matter rested, more or less. Armed with this jury verdict as proof that her husband was indeed dead, Mrs. Wackerle persisted in her efforts to get her hands on the Army pension given to her "late" spouse. The Pension Bureau, however, ignored the court's decision and continued to send the money to the man who claimed to be William Wackerle.
The last we hear of our heroine was in 1899, when it was reported that Walburga Wackerle had been taken into custody in St. Louis as "a person of unsound mind."
A contemporary insurance publication noted dryly that this news must "come as a considerable relief to the officials" of the Pension Bureau.