Saturday, October 16, 2021

Michigan Double Murder.

A very anxious and excited man arrived at the jail in Ann Arbor, Michigan, around midnight, October 22, 1871. He told the jailer he was unwell and wanted to sleep in the jail that night. The jailor decided it was in everyone’s best interest to give him what he wanted. As he locked the cell door, the man burst out crying but would not say why. The following morning the jailor released him. 

The man, Henry Wagner, went to see his brother August and declared that he thought he had murdered his wife. “I don’t know what I have been doing,” he said, “I don’t know whether she will live or not.” They went to the police and gave Officer Leonard the key to Wagner’s house so he could check on the wife’s condition. 

Wagner’s wife, Henrietta, ran a fancy store with her partner Mary Miley. Henry, Henrietta, and Henrietta’s 3-year-old son Oscar lived in the back room of the store. What Officer Leonard saw when he opened the door to their room nearly froze his blood. Mrs. Wagner lay on her side in her nightdress; her head was a mass of pounded flesh and bone. Around her, spatters of blood and clots of bloody gore covered the walls and nightclothes. Nearby laid a bloody hatchet—she had been beaten with the blunt end. After several minutes, the officer heard a slight rustling in the bed. He pulled back the covers to find little Oscar covered with blood; his head had been smashed, but he was still alive. Leonard notified the coroner and arrested Henry Wagner. Oscar died a few hours later.

The Wagners had come to Ann Arbor from Germany about three years earlier. At the time, they were unmarried; Henrietta was the ex-wife of Henry’s older brother, Oscar’s father, who was still living in Germany. Henry and Henrietta married the previous July, but at times it was an unhappy marriage—they would have serious arguments, sometimes ending in violence. Despite the fighting, Henry declared he had always loved his wife very dearly. 

24-year-old Henry Wagner related what had occurred the night of the murder to a reporter who visited him in jail:

“For the past two or three days, we lived most happily; she never seemed to love me so much. Last night she went to bed, I don’t know what time. I said to her good night and went to the bed to kiss her when she spit in my face and kicked me, saying, go away, you are a crazy man, and I can’t live with a crazy man. I said to her, give me my money, and I will go. She said nothing to this. I then went and got the money and started to leave, when she jumped up and said, ‘I will cut you in pieces before you go with that money.’ That made me very angry, and I took the hatchet from the wood-box and went toward her, she jumped at me and called me a dog, and told me to leave the house. I kept brandishing the hatchet to frighten her. She and the child both cried fire and murder, and as she clutched me by the throat, I hit her accidentally. She fell right down and said, “Oh my,” and groaned. When I saw what I had done, that she was hurt so she could never get well, I thought I would put an end to her life and struck her several times. After this, I remember nothing. I seemed to see my wife before my eyes all the time. I don’t remember striking the boy at all. I remember putting out the light and locking the door. I went out in the street, but I could not go anywhere I did not see my wife just as I struck her, lying before my eyes. I came down to the jail, but I could not sleep or eat. I don’t know what I shall do.”

At the inquest the following day, August Wagner testified that the trouble between Henry and Henrietta was due to the child. Henrietta had been the prostitute of their older brother in Germany. They had several children together, and he called her his wife, but they were never married. He believed that Henry was Oscar’s father, but Henry did not acknowledge this.

Mary Miley testified that Henry was very jealous of Henrietta and the trouble between them began about two weeks after their wedding. Mary said he had willed Henrietta all his property, including money still in Germany. A written contract giving her all his money, some $3,000, was found in Henry’s pocket, torn in two.

The newspapers speculated correctly that Henry Wagner would try “the insanity dodge” at his trial the following March. Friends, coworkers, and clergymen testified that Henry always seemed excited and uneasy, speaking in a disconnected manner, frequently disparaging his wife’s character. August Wagner said that the family always considered him of unsound mind.

The defense had no professional witnesses to give medical testimony as to the state of Henry Wagner’s mind, but the prosecution did. Professor Palmer, a specialist in insanity, visited Wagner in jail several times and conversed with him. He testified that Wagner did not show any signs of insanity or anything to indicate homicidal impulse. Drs. Lewitt and Kapp also examined Wagner and agreed that he was perfectly sane.

The jury deliberated for two hours then found Henry Wagner guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in solitary confinement and hard labor.

“Ann Arbor,” Detroit Free Press, March 14, 1872.
“Conclusion of the Wagner Murder Case,” Detroit Free Press, March 16, 1872.
“The Double Murder At Ann Arbor,” Jackson Citizen Patriot, October 24, 1871.
“Minor Telegrams,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 24, 1871.
“Murder of a Wife and Child,” Illustrated Police News, December 21, 1871.
“A Startling Murder,” Vermont Union, November 3, 1871.
“The Trial of Henry Wagner,” Michigan Argus, March 22, 1872.
“The Trial of Wagner,” Michigan Argus, March 15, 1872.
“The Wagner Murder,” Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1872.


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