|"Parsons Daily Sun," August 12, 1893, via Newspapers.com|
It is a curious thing how some monsters, like Jack the Ripper or H.H. Holmes, linger in human memory to the point where they become dark legends, while equally prolific evildoers have a brief moment of fame, only to be quickly forgotten.
An outstanding example of the latter breed was Dr. Henry C.W. Meyer, aka Hugo Wehler, aka William Reuter, aka Schaffer, aka Oswald, aka Stoffen. In 1893, the good doctor and his colorful career of insurance fraud and murder made newspaper headlines across America, but today, it is doubtful that even most true crime writers know his name.
It is known that Meyer graduated from Chicago’s Homeopathic Medical College in 1878, but other than that little is known about his early years, aside from the fact that he married a Miss Kirehoff in 1877.
Meyer first caught the legal system’s eye in 1880, when he was working as an agent for Chicago’s Germania life insurance company. He used his job to issue fraudulent policies, and collect the premiums. When his little scheme was discovered, he fled to Denver, where he was arrested and brought back for trial. Oddly, he was acquitted, even though one of the men who allowed the use of his name in one of the bogus policies testified for the prosecution.
In 1881, a patient of his named Henry Geldemann suddenly died of undetermined causes. Meyer’s wife soon died as well, after which the doctor immediately married Geldemann’s widow Ida (gaining both their dead spouses’ sizable life insurance policies in the bargain.)
The police began to take an interest in the proceedings. Despite their suspicions, it was decided that there was not enough evidence for murder charges, and the doctor was set at liberty.
After his release, Meyer faced a dilemma: He now also wanted liberty from his new wife, but he wished to stay married to all that sweet insurance money. Like many a spouse in a similar situation, he decided there was nothing for it but to recall those words, “Till death do you part.”
Meyer hired an old boyfriend of Ida’s, Peter Bretz, to murder her. However, even though the doctor helpfully provided him with vials of poison to do the deed, Bretz got cold feet and went to the police. Meyer was tried on charges of conspiracy, but—proving the law often works in mysterious ways—he was acquitted. I have no idea what he told Ida about the matter, but the couple remained together for several more years, until his son from his first marriage suddenly died. Again, the police looked into this latest Meyer-related death, and again found insufficient reason to prosecute. Meyer—who truly seemed to have the devil’s own luck—ran off with an actress, which finally inspired Ida to file for divorce. Some months after that, Meyer returned to Ida and suggested they get back together. Clearly, he just couldn’t get that insurance money out of his heart. Mrs. Meyer, who must have been either the most obtuse or the most masochistic of women, agreed.
Predictably enough, the reunion did not last long. Meyer entered into an affair with a pretty young woman named Mary Dressen…and Ida’s health suddenly and dramatically declined. Ida, at long last getting a clue, cut off Meyer’s allowance and threw him out of the house. As soon as she broke up with her husband, her condition rapidly improved. Meyer shrugged, took up a new career forging checks, and married Dressen. He soon forged the name of his new father-in-law to a hefty life insurance policy…and the normally robust old man suddenly became very ill…
Fortunately, this forgery was detected by the authorities, and Meyer was arrested. With his son-in-law behind bars, the ailing Mr. Dressen immediately began to recover.
Meyer was tried for forgery, but acquitted. While awaiting his day in court, he made the most of his leisure time by brooding upon the subject dearest to his heart: Wholesale insurance fraud. He enlisted two fellow inmates, minor criminals named Gustave Baum (who was currently going by the name of “Ludwig Brandt,”) and Carl Mueller, in a plan that he assured them was both foolproof and lucrative. Meyer’s formula was this: Brandt would enter into a marriage with a woman who’d be in on the game. Then, he’d take out a large insurance policy on his own life. After a decent interval, Meyer would dose him with a liquid of the doctor’s own invention that would make Brandt appear to be dead. Meyer would bring in outside doctors to confirm the “death,” after which he would administer an antidote, forge a death certificate, and find a corpse to take Brandt’s place in the grave. Then, all the conspirators would collect the insurance money and live happily ever after.
As long as there has been life insurance, there have been many ambitious souls who have tried the “get someone to pretend to die in order to cash in” scheme. Almost inevitably, the ringleaders of these schemes begin to think how much easier and safer the project would be if they could arrange a genuine death…
After all the plotters were released, they went right to work. Meyer announced that he knew of the perfect woman to “marry” Brandt. He introduced Mary Meyer to his confederates, not mentioning, of course, that she was already his own wife. After she and Brandt went through a marriage ceremony, the groom took out a number of life insurance policies which totaled $8500.
It had been understood that the marriage would be in name only, but Brandt was quite taken with his attractive bride, and tried to persuade her to consummate their irregular union. It is said that Dr. Meyer’s annoyance with this led to what happened next, but it seems certain that he planned from the start that Brandt would not get out of this marriage alive. The doctor dosed the new “husband” not with some fictitious “secret potion,” but a mixture of antimony and arsenic which killed him on March 30, 1892.
The new “widow” was able to collect most of the policies, but several insurance agents correctly sensed something was up and sicced the detectives on the Meyer gang. Brandt’s body was exhumed, and when it was discovered he had been poisoned, the police went in full pursuit of Meyer.
The doctor and his surviving cohorts had fled, but after a well-publicized search, they were finally tracked down in Toledo, Ohio, where they were discovered to be in the middle of yet another scam. Meyer, deciding that the simplest methods were after all the best, had arranged for Mueller to marry a young servant girl, Mary Neiss. The plan was that she would take out insurance policies on her life, after which Meyer would poison her.
Unfortunately for Meyer, romance once again complicated his schemes. Mueller decided that he preferred his bride to the money, confessed all to her, and the pair escaped to Chicago. Meyer, not one to give up easily, somehow acquired the corpse of a young woman, and was trying to pass it off as that of Neiss when the law finally caught up to him.
Mueller was the star witness for the prosecution at Meyer’s December 1893 trial for Brandt’s murder. The court proceedings, already of the most sensational character, were enlivened even further when near the close of the trial, one of the jurors suffered a psychotic breakdown while sitting in the jury box and had to be committed to a mental hospital. It was noted that Meyer was grinning as the man was led away.
The jury was dismissed, and Meyer was re-tried.
Everyone following his trials fully expected to see the good doctor fry, particularly since it was widely believed Brandt had been only one of Meyer’s many victims. (Detectives solemnly informed the press that they believed Meyer had murdered at least half a dozen other people in the course of his various insurance frauds.) However, the jury delivered a verdict of only second degree murder. While there were eleven votes for the ultimate penalty, one juror stubbornly insisted on voting for manslaughter. Rather than have a mistrial, the jurors settled on the lesser verdict as a compromise. (As the “New York Times” commented afterwards, “with all the good luck Meyer has had in his troubles he never had such a stroke as when the jury found him guilty of murder in the second degree.”)
There was talk about charging Mary Meyer with grand larceny for her role in the insurance frauds, but I have found no evidence she was actually tried. Considering the odd turns justice took throughout this story, I would not be at all surprised if she was given her liberty.
Meyer spent the rest of his days in Sing Sing, where he was described as a mild-mannered man with an “almost visible aura of sanctity.”