"...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, October 28, 2019

Murder in Muncie: The Curious Case of Fred Oland

Muncie Morning News, November 17, 1898, via Newspapers.com

On November 16, 1898, Muncie, Indiana was shocked when the body of 5-year-old Antonia "Andy" Bodenmiller was found in a gravel pit just outside of town, clumsily hidden inside a fruit box. Someone had shot him to death with a 32 caliber revolver. A short distance away from the body, a hole had been recently dug, suggesting that his murderer had intended to bury the body, but was frightened away before completing the job. The sense of horror only increased when two small brothers named Michael and Robert Betts, aged only 5 and 7, went to the police with a very unchildlike story: They claimed that they had witnessed a neighbor boy, 12-year-old Fred Oland, kill the other child.

When questioned, young Oland first said that while shooting at a rabbit, he had accidentally killed the boy. Afterward, he denied that this was what had happened, offering various confused and contradictory stories to explain the child's death.

The possibility that Bodenmiller had been shot unintentionally, by Oland or someone else, was shattered when the post-mortem revealed that the bullet had entered the child's head at very close range. For whatever unimaginable reason, someone had deliberately killed little Andy execution-style.

Fred Oland was arrested, and lodged in the county jail while the police struggled to make sense of this unsettlingly unusual situation. Young Fred responded by simply refusing to talk. This 12-year-old instinctively knew how to "lawyer up" like the most experienced adult recidivist. A contemporary newspaper account noted rather incredulously that "Just as he seems on the point of telling something, a hard set look comes over his boyish countenance, and he says nothing to the queries that are propounded. In the opinion of the officers the child has been coached by some one, and he is merely obeying instructions to say nothing." It was also recorded that whenever the murdered boy was mentioned, Oland paled and looked visibly frightened--an understandable reaction, whether he was guilty or innocent. The Betts boys continued to insist that Oland was a precociously cold-blooded murderer.

A search of the Oland house revealed a small revolver hidden in the outhouse. Another revolver was found inside the house, hidden behind a dressing table. The family could offer no explanation why these weapons had been concealed.

A grand jury was called, and after hearing the testimony of over 60 witnesses, the panel returned an indictment of murder against Fred Oland. He was released on $2,000 bail to await his trial.

In April 1899, the now 13-year-old stood trial, charged with "feloniously, purposely, and with premeditated malice" mortally wounding the Bodenmiller child. Oland's original confession was admitted as proper testimony. Aside from the testimony of the Betts boys, the evidence against Oland was purely circumstantial, but highly suggestive. Apparantly, blood had been found in several places near the Oland residence. Samples were taken, but, as one witness said, "in some unaccountable manner they had disappeared." (Newspapers reported that this man "was not able to advance a theory as to the disappearance.") Testimony was introduced asserting that young Oland was known to habitually carry a revolver, and that at about the time of the murder he had been seen shooting his gun near the gravel pit where the murdered boy was found.

When "Freddie" himself took the stand, we are told he "preserved a coolness which baffled the severe cross-examination by the state." The "Muncie Morning News" related that "He spoke slowly, his manner was collected, and his evidence was given in a direct and convincing way." Oland stated that the police had frightened him into making his initial confession. He claimed that he had never owned a revolver, had not seen Bodenmiller all the day of the child's death, and had no knowledge of who had killed him.

The mother of the Betts boys, somewhat surprisingly, testified for the defense. The "Morning News" quoted her as saying of her sons that "Mikey was not bright, and that neither he nor Robbie had the slightest regard for the truth, hence their statements were calculated to get somebody into trouble." Backing up her testimony was a Mrs. Agnes Cowgill, who boarded with the Olands. She asserted that "Mikey" Betts had been in the house all of the day young Bodenmiller was killed. However, other witnesses asserted with equal certainty that they had seen both the Betts boys playing in various parts of town at the time the shooting was supposed to have occured.

Mrs. Mary Nye, who lived with her family in the same building as the Olands, corroborated Mrs. Cowgill's statement. However, the prosecution was able to show that her testimony differed in some respects from what she had said before the Grand Jury. She answered defiantly that she could not remember what she had said back then, but she was telling the truth now. During her testimony, the prosecuting attorney interrupted her by exclaiming, "Mrs. Nye, don't you know that Fred Oland killed Andy Bodenmiller back of Oland's barn, and that your husband helped to dispose of the body; and do you not know that he afterward left the city, and is now absent because fearing a subpoena to appear as a witness in this trial?" Mrs. Nye admitted that her husband was out of town, (she said he had fled an affidavit in a liquor case,) but denied all the rest of the lawyer's statement.

Was the prosecutor merely picking these words out of his hat, or did he have some solid reason to believe this is what really happened? The newspapers did not say.

Either the jury did not find any of these witnesses convincing, or they simply could not bring themselves to convict a 13-year-old of murder. Oland was acquitted. He listened to the verdict with the same indifference he had shown throughout the whole investigation. After the decision was read, he picked up his cap, walked over to his parents, and said calmly, "I won't go to school till Monday. I want to rest until then."

And here our story ends. Young Oland evidently did return to school, and disappeared back into obscurity. He seems to have spent the rest of his life in Muncie. It would be interesting to know what his townspeople thought of him. As far as I know, he had no further brushes with the law. In 1908, he married a Lulu Acton, but before many years passed, the couple divorced. In 1915, he took Adeline Merkel as his second wife. This marriage also failed. Oland initially worked as a bartender, but as the world moved into the moving-picture era, became a theater owner in Muncie. He died sometime after 1940.

And the murder of little Andy Bodenmiller remained an unsolved mystery.

This is one of those cases where the newspaper reports, however complete they may have been, are irritatingly unsatisfactory. They give only facts, with no sense of the personalities involved. The intangible, but crucial questions remain unanswered: Before the murder, did Fred Oland show any sign of being the sort of deeply disturbed child who might be capable of cold-blooded murder? What sort of person was he after the trial was over? How trustworthy were the little Betts boys? Was there any reason to suspect some adult might have a motive to kill this innocent little child?

Lacking such background information, it is hard to say whether Fred Oland was a horribly wronged little boy, or a junior psychopath who got lucky.

1 comment:

  1. If the boy was crazy, he doesn't seem to have committed any more crimes as he grew older. Any murder without a suspect would have been laid at his door, so he probably did nothing untoward afterward, which merely intensifies the mystery. Poor Andy Bodenmiller.


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