It is indisputable that Rheta Wynekoop was murdered. However, the circumstances surrounding her death are so peculiar that there is still some doubt whether the person tried and convicted of her slaying was really guilty.
The twenty-three year old had been married for five years to a spoiled mama’s boy named Earle Wynekoop. As Earle found the concept of steady work distasteful, the couple lived in the Chicago home of his widowed mother Dr. Alice Wynekoop, a well-known and very highly respected physician. The marriage was an unhappy one. Earle drank, openly played around with numerous women, and largely ignored his pretty young wife. Rheta soon became neurotically depressed. She had married Earle against her parents’ wishes, which undoubtedly only acerbated her misery. There are few things more painful than an act of defiance that backfires on you. She was bored, melancholy, and obsessively worried about her health.
This dreary household limped along quietly until the night of November 21, 1933, when the police were informed that Dr. Wynekoop had discovered Rheta’s body in her basement surgery. Young Mrs. Wynekoop was lying face-down on an operating table, mostly unclothed, but wrapped in a heavy blanket. It was estimated she had been dead for at least six hours. She had been shot through the back. A gun, which, it was later established, belonged to the doctor, was on a table by Rheta’s head. There were also chloroform burns on her face. One of the numerous oddities about her death was the fact that, although the gun had been fired three times, the young woman had been shot only once. The extra bullets were never found.
The angle of the gunshot, as well as the burns, ruled out suicide. Dr. Wynekoop suggested to police that Rheta had been murdered by a burglar in search of the drugs and money kept in the house. The chief investigator was dubious of this theory. It looked to him that the young woman had been killed by someone she knew. This line of thought led him straight to the playboy husband, Earle. He was told that Rheta’s husband was on his way to the Grand Canyon for a photography job, but he was also aware of gossip that Earle had been seen in Chicago the day before his wife’s death.
Earle was soon arrested (he was in the company of his latest mistress, who had no idea he was even married.) He strongly denied having anything to do with Rheta’s death, proposing that she had been killed by a stray lunatic. He went on to say that his late wife had once tried to poison the entire family, and was quite insane. He also boasted of having over fifty girlfriends, and, all in all, made it quite clear why any woman married to him would be deeply depressed indeed.
Meanwhile, his mother was being subjected to even more rigorous questioning. The frail sixty-three year old was interrogated for a near-continuous twenty-four hours, culminating in a confession to Rheta’s murder. It is not clear how her statement was obtained. Some accounts say she only admitted guilt after being told her son had confessed. Others state she was simply worn out. In any case, the story she told was this: On the morning of the 21st, Rheta complained of a pain in her side, so Dr. Wynekoop brought her to the basement surgery for an examination. At the young woman’s request, the doctor gave her chloroform, which unexpectedly killed her. When Alice realized Rheta was dead, in an effort to “ease the situation best to all,” she decided to simulate a murder by shooting the corpse.
The sort of thing that could happen to anybody.
The coroner’s jury didn’t buy it. The inquest had ruled Rheta died of a gunshot wound, not chloroform. The police believed Dr. Wynekoop had, for whatever reason, deliberately killed her daughter-in-law, with her son acting as accessory. It turned out that two days before Rheta’s death, Dr. Wynekoop and her son had a secret meeting. It is unknown what was discussed at this rendezvous, but it was evidently something quite extraordinary. Afterwards, the doctor wrote Earle a hysterical, semi-coherent note telling “Precious” how she longed to hear his voice again and have a “real talk” but “I cannot.” And why, the police wondered, did Dr. Wynekoop wait for hours after Rheta’s death before telling anyone about it? And what to make of the fact that only two weeks before her death, Rheta’s life had been insured on a double-indemnity policy for $5,000—with Dr. Wynekoop paying the premiums? Did this extremely devoted mother try to help her son by ridding him of an unwanted wife?
Earle told police that his mother’s confession was “a pack of lies” given only because she thought he was in danger of being charged with the crime. He made an effort to convince police he was his wife’s murderer. He also, for reasons known best to himself, admitted that his mother disliked Rheta and saw her as a millstone around his neck, but their religion forbade divorce.
Dr. Wynekoop told her Precious to just shut up already.
It was soon established that Earle had been many miles away when his wife died, and he was released from custody. Dr. Wynekoop retracted her confession, declaring that it had been forced out of her by the police. She said that after hours of merciless questioning, she felt she wouldn’t live long enough to stand trial, so she confessed to just get everyone to leave her in peace.
Alice Wynekoop stood trial in January 1934. It was, even for the long and peculiar history of Chicago crime, a remarkable spectacle. This elderly, ailing woman, who had long been known in her community as a physician, social worker, teacher, community leader, and advocate for women’s rights was very plausibly accused of the bizarre, cold-blooded murder of her own daughter-in-law. It all produced in the spectators an uncomfortable mixture of horror and titillation.
One of the most interesting witnesses was Enid Hennessey, a friend and patient of Alice who was boarding at the Wynekoop home. She said the day Rheta died seemed perfectly normal. A little past six in the evening, she returned home from her teaching job to find the doctor fixing dinner. Rheta was not there, and Alice expressed some mild concern about her long absence. After going out to do some errands, Miss Hennessey settled in the Wynekoop library with Alice, where they chatted about literature and other unremarkable topics.
It is a strange picture indeed she painted. If Dr. Wynekoop had anything to do with her daughter-in-law’s death, she knew perfectly well a corpse was lying in her basement. Yet, if Miss Hennessey can be believed, her friend the doctor was the picture of placidity.
One senses the Wynekoop household was a highly unusual one even before Rheta’s death.
Hennessey complained of indigestion, which sent the doctor down to her basement office to get some medicine. And there she found Rheta. When Alice finally “discovered” the body, her first call was not to the police. She phoned her daughter Catherine, who was also a doctor. “Something terrible has happened here,” Alice told her. “It is Rheta…She has been shot.”
Catherine testified that when she reached the family home, her mother was shaken and obviously unwell. It was only then that the undertaker and police were called.
After a good deal of squabbling between the attorneys, Dr. Wynekoop’s confession, describing Rheta’s accidental death from chloroform, was allowed into evidence. It was the contention of the State that this statement was a complete lie. According to the prosecution, the doctor, strapped for money, heartlessly killed the young woman for the insurance. The defense countered by claiming the confession had been given under duress, that Dr. Wynekoop had no need for such blood money, and that the defendant had a general reputation as “peaceful and law-abiding.” They also introduced witnesses who testified to the doctor’s fondness and concern for her son’s unhappy wife.
When Dr. Alice herself took the stand, she told a story far different from her confession. She described November 21 as a perfectly calm, normal day in her household. At about three in the afternoon, she went for a walk and completed some minor tasks. When she arrived home, there was no sign of Rheta, but saw no reason for worry. She then began to fix dinner. The rest of her narrative was essentially the same that had been told by Enid Hennessy and Catherine Wynekoop. She continued to maintain that “drug fiends” must have broken into her basement surgery and killed Rheta.
The trial came to its end without any definitive evidence proving who had killed the troubled young woman. Still, the jury evidently found little trouble coming up with a verdict of “guilty.” Alice Wynekoop was sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary. After fifteen years, the then seventy-nine year old woman was granted parole. She died two years later.
The Wynekoop murder is one of those irritatingly confusing cases with many lingering uncertainties, brought about largely by the fact that little told by any of the witnesses can be trusted. Although the most obvious solution to the mystery is that Alice Wynekoop did indeed kill her daughter-in-law, this still does not explain what would inspire this hitherto exemplary woman to commit such a deed. Was she a remorseless sociopath in disguise? Or did she believe that Earle killed his wife? Contemporaries all agree that she idolized this son to a rather unhealthy degree. Did this extreme mother love inspire her to “take the rap” for him? Considering that Earle’s alibi was judged to be unimpeachable, we are left wondering: If Dr. Wynekoop didn’t kill poor Rheta, who did, and why?