Saturday, February 18, 2023

An Affair of Blood and Mystery.

Mrs. Amelia Berry (or Berri) was a German widow living in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1864, her husband died, leaving her a sizable estate, including a drug store with a residence on the upper floors. Her brother, Edward Hofius, lived in California until 1870, when Amelia invited him to return to Jefferson City and reside with her. Mary Clarenbach, a niece of Amelia and Edward, also lived in the large house.

Around 8:00, the night of Sunday, June 11, 1871, neighbors heard gunshots from the drug store. They went inside and found Amelia Berry lying on the floor, mortally wounded. On the floor above, they found Edward, insensible, with a bullet through his brain. The room was in disarray, and some of the furniture was broken. Edward died soon after, and Amelia died around 11:00 the following night. 

The community was shocked by the tragedy. The story spread quickly, but the motive for the shooting was a mystery. Both brother and sister had always been respected members of society. Amelia was seen as kind and energetic and praised for her competence in running the drug store. Edward was steady, industrious, and sober. Both had always been on the best of terms with each other.

Two narratives circulated to explain the tragedy. One said that Edward wanted Mary to accompany him to a German picnic held on the outskirts of town that afternoon. When she refused, he became quite angry and went to the picnic alone. When he returned, he was under the influence of alcohol and still angry. He argued with his sister, then went upstairs and started breaking chairs. Amelia followed him upstairs, and the quarrel resumed. When she turned to leave, he drew a pistol and shot her in the back. He then turned the pistol on himself.

The other story said that Edward returned from the picnic and found Mr. Schirenberg, the editor of Fortschrit, a German weekly newspaper, there. Schirenberg had been paying some attention to Amelia, and Edward disapproved. The two began to quarrel and when it looked like it would turn violent, Amelia stepped between them and tried to stop it. Edward drew his pistol and shot, but the bullet intended for Schirenberg hit Amelia in the side. In a moment of desperation, after seeing what he had done, Edward rushed upstairs and shot himself. 

The next day, the coroner held an inquest on the shootings. Capt. Peisner, who lived next door, testified that he heard a loud quarrel between Edward and Schirenberg. As he went to see what was happening, he heard three shots fired in succession. On entering the drug store, he heard two more shots fired. Inside he saw Schirenberg assisting Amelia into her room.

Mary Clarenbach testified that Edward had returned from the picnic and did not want to eat the dinner Amelia had prepared for him. They began to argue. Edward said Amelia had not treated him like a brother and threatened to leave if she did not pay him the bonds that she owed him. The argument became more heated, and Edward drew his pistol and shot Amelia. He ran upstairs and made a great deal of fuss. Mary went up to try and take the pistol from him. He fired at her and missed. Then he pointed the pistol at himself and fired twice. The first shot missed him, but the second entered his eye and came out the back of his head. 

There had been no words between Schirenberg and Edward, Mary said, at the time Schirenberg was outside in the garden. 

The foreman of the jury wanted to hear testimony from Schirenberg and from Dr. Thompson, who had been present when Amelia updated her will, knowing that she was dying. The coroner refused, saying the neice’s testimony was sufficient to show how Edward Hofius died.

The jury rendered a verdict that Edward came to his death from a pistol shot fired from his own hand. However, three jurors, including the foreman, refused to sign the verdict. But, since they needed the verdict before burying Edward, they agreed to sign under protest. 

The resulting verdict did not satisfy the community; some believed that the manner of Edward’s death was open to doubt. A bullet was lodged in the wall near where the body was lying, and there was a mark on the wall showing that another bullet had glanced off. From the position of the mark, it did not appear that Edward could have fired the shot that made it. Some believed the shots had been fired by Schirenberg. A second inquest held the following day returned the same verdict.

The suicide theory was given some credence by a family history that was plagued by suicide. Amelia’s husband had died by his own hand, and another brother of Amelia and Edward had committed suicide in Switzerland. 

“Awful Tragedy,” Intelligencer Journal, June 17, 1891.
“Double Tragedy in Jefferson City, MO,” National Police Gazette, June 24, 1871.
“A Double Tragedy!!,” The Peoples' Tribune, June 14, 1871.
“A Dreadful Tragedy,” Warrenton Banner, June 27, 1871.
“Horrible Tragedy,” The Missouri Republican, June 14, 1871.


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