“IN these uncertain times”, one can find themselves taking to Google a lot for something to do… Given my nature, one of the things I’ve been fruitful in searching for is simply “Waupaca County Cold Cases.”
If you have an interest in true crime and the like, but do not have access to television then the internet is a great place to learn about things.
Some time ago, I came across an article from The Waupaca County Post published in 2005 by a woman named Sharon Van Ryzin detailing one of the most fascinating and twisting journeys I’ve ever sunken myself into.
It was about an unsolved double murder-suicide in 1931 that to this day I’m not certain I could write a better story about.
I went back to look for it recently, only to find the link to it led me to the dreaded 404 dead end. Luckily, I managed to locate it on the Wayback Machine Archive and it would be my pleasure to share it here with you verbatim so it can remain somewhere on “the real internet”. Enjoy.
Waupaca County Post
October 27, 2005
Does Unsolved Mystery Haunt Old Barn?
By Sharon Van Ryzin, Post Staff Writer
If ever a place should be haunted, it’s the old barn at Thompson’s Nursery after what happened there 74 years ago.
It was a hot summer night, Saturday, June 20, 1931. At 10 p.m., all was well. Local revelers kicked up their heels at a square dance thrown by Harold Douglas to christen his newly built barn. By 11 p.m., two men were dead, victims of a vicious plot.
Carey and Cindy Thompson own the barn now. It stands prominently on the grounds of Thompson’s Nursery on White Lake Road, mid-way between Weyauwega and New London. Shortly after they bought the old Douglas farm, they began to hear stories from neighbors about the dreadful incident.
Richard Douglas, Harold’s son, was a very young child at the time of the murders and did not personally know the gory details. He did, however, contribute a copy of an April 12, 1936 Chicago Times Sunday edition feature story by Peter Levins, who penned a colorful report of the crime. Through subsequent research, the Thompsons unearthed old articles published in the Weyauwega Chronicle over the course of several months in 1931 and 1932.
Here is the tragic tale, pieced together from those accounts:
Louse Hoffman arrived at his home in New London about 9:30 p.m. on June 20, after a hard day’s work at the Hatton Lumber Mill. He and his wife, Kathryn, planned to attend the barn dance, and he hurried to get ready before their friends, Henry Kopitzke, Ed Riske, a couple by the name of Poppy and some others, came to pick them up.
Before collecting the Poppys, according to a witness, Kopitzke and Riske were tossing back a few drinks at Oppor’s saloon in New London, and Kopitzke bought a half-pint of whiskey to take along to the party. Since Prohibition was not repealed until 1933, these acts were illegal, but no mention was made of that in either newspaper.
Riske allegedly drove the car when he and Kopitzke went to get the Hoffmans. They all motored on to the dance together. Little did they know, as they blithely made their way down White Lake Road, that three would soon die and one would be charged with murder.
All were said to be in “high spirits” at the hoedown, and it looked as if they would do-si-do till the cows came home. Mere moments later, the merriment took a dark turn.
According to Levins’ article in the Chicago Times, “Kopitzke was dancing with Mrs. Hoffman when he abruptly left the floor in a paroxysm of pain.” He lurched out to the steps of the farmhouse porch.”
The Weyauwega Chronicle reported, “Almost at the identical time, Hoffman, who was sitting out the dance, was similarly attacked. Within five minutes Hoffman lay dead. Kopitzke who had been taken outside, died two or three minutes later. The horrified dancers were thrown into an uproar; the music was silenced and all grouped around the suffering men as they writhed in the throes of death.”
Waupaca County Under-sheriff James O. Hanson was getting ready for bed at 11:30 that night when a call from Dr. F.J. Pfeiffer of New London made it necessary for him to go out to the Douglas farm where, Pfeiffer said, two men had died in a peculiar manner. According to the Chicago Times article, Pfeiffer told Hanson, “it looks like bum liquor or poison. They’re stiff as boards right now and still warm.”
Witnesses were questioned well into the night. The Chicago Times had this quote from Hoffman’s wife: “As far as I now, my husband and the others had nothing to drink on their way here. I haven’t any idea what could have caused his death, and I don’t know who could have been responsible for it or who could have wished it.”
Evidence collected at the scene included 14 bottles, one of which was half-pint, containing varying amounts of liquor. Eleven of these were forwarded for analysis to the state toxicologist at Madison. The remaining three were sent to Dr. E.L. Miloslavich, a noted pathologist in Milwaukee, along with the victims’ vital organs.
Levins’ account in the Chicago Times claimed the men’s stomachs contained “enough strychnine to kill 40 persons! And the half pint bottle had yielded a test of .011 of the same poison in less than a thimbleful of whisky.”
The heinous crime sent the rumor mill into full swing, from Weyauwega to New London and beyond. Some said Riske was a “real ladies’ man” and had fallen for Kathryn Hoffman. It was even suggested that he had offered to give her $50 so she could get a divorce, during a time when her husband was away.
There are conflicting accounts as to where Hoffman spent the time he was said to be gone. The Chicago Times article had him in Arkansas looking for a job. “Neither the widow nor friends,” it stated, “could tell the investigators much about his associations while he was in Arkansas, but here was something that had happened since he returned.
“He had received death threats several times!”
The Weyauwega Chronicle reported that Hoffman had been “confined in Waupaca on a charge of abandonment” during the time Riske was alleged to be having an “intimate friendship” with Mrs. Hoffman.
Apparently, the violent death of her husband coupled with speculation about her alleged infidelity sent Kathryn Hoffman into a deep despair. A front-page, above-the-fold article in the July 8, 1931, Weyauwega Chronicle informed the readership that, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 5, her body was found floating in the Wolf River by clam fishermen.
The Chicago Times report of the same incident was more graphic, explaining how, in the course of the Hoffman-Kopitzke murder investigation, Under-sheriff Hanson had reason to talk with New London’s chief of police, Harry Macklin:
“As he pulled up in front of the Macklin home, Mrs. Macklin ran out of the house crying:
“’You’d better hurry over to the Hoffmans. Mrs. Hoffman is gone!’
“’Gone? Gone where?’
“’Nobody knows. Harry’s over there now.’
“The under-sheriff drove to the Hoffman home, where he found Chief Macklin talking to Elizabeth Reihl, a relative of the missing woman, who lived with her. She was in a highly nervous state. She had been to a Fourth of July dance, she said, and had not arrived home until about 3 a.m.
“’When I came in I saw a light in Mrs. Hoffman’s room,’ she said. ‘I went in and found her sitting on the edge of the bed, getting dressed. I asked her what was wrong and why she was getting dressed at that time in the morning. She said, ‘It is raining and it is so damp that I am cold and I am putting some clothes on.’ I thought nothing more of it and went to bed.’”
“Hanson and Chief Macklin searched the rooms and found a note which Mrs. Hoffman had left on her bureau. In this she admitted intimate relations with Ed Riske and declared her belief that he had poisoned her husband. She denied, however, that she had anything to do with Hoffman’s death.
“The officers found footprints behind the house. They led through a cabbage patch and a small pasture to the riverbank.
“The footprints led directly into the water, indicating the Mrs. Hoffman had deliberately walked to her death.”
Riske was, by this time, already the prime suspect in the barn dance murder investigation. Tips led the authorities to search the home of Charles Specht in New London, where Riske had rented a room.
Levins’ account of that search in the Chicago Times related how Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hidde, daughter and son-in-law of the Spechts, helped officers in their quest:
“Both Mr. and Mrs. Hidde said that they had seen a bottle containing strychnine on the top pantry shelf. Mrs. Hidde admitted she had taken the bottle down and replaced it on the top shelf ‘out of the way’ only a day or so before the murders. Later she and her husband had noticed that the container had been moved again. She had then placed it behind a loose board, where it was finally found.”
That article also reported that a witness had come forward saying he saw Riske waiting alone in the car when the rest of the party went in to get the Poppys on the way to the dance, implying that Riske had plenty of time to lace the liquor with poison.
The Weyauwega Chronicle reported on July 8, 1931, that, following an inquest conducted by Coroner Adam Schider and District Attorney L.D. Smith in the Grand Theater at New London on Monday, July 6, Riske was placed under arrest, charged with the murder of Louis Hoffman.
In his testimony, as reported in the Chicago Times, Riske admitted to “being intimate” with Hoffman’s wife and to offering her $50 to obtain a divorce, which she declined. He denied seeing the vial of strychnine, admitted being with Hoffman just before his death and testified that he thought both Hoffman and Kopitzke were drunk.
Both the Chicago Times and the Weyauwega Chronicle reported Oppor, the saloon keeper, testifying that Riske had called him on the morning after the murders saying, “Remember, Oppor, we did not have any liquor here and you didn’t sell us any.”
“Although he coroner’s jury returned a verdict to the effect that Kopitzke and Hoffman met death by unlawful means at the hands of a party or parties unknown,” the Chronicle article said, “the tangled web of circumstantial evidence woven at the hearing warranted authorities in holding Riske for trial.”
The Chicago Times story said Riske then “made no comment but made haste to retain Attorneys Wendell McHenry of Waupaca and Walter Melchoir of New London.”
Riske’s trial began before Judge Byron P. Park on Nov. 2, 1931, in Waupaca. It was, according to the Weyauwega Chronicle, the first murder case to be tried there in 16 years, and the courtroom could not accommodate all the curious citizens who wished to attend.
The Chicago Times said, “Prosecutor Smith, outlining the state’s case, asserted that Kopitzke left the half-pint of whisky in the car when they stopped at the Poppy home, and that the defendant had plenty of time to place poison in the bottle.
“However, Prosecutor Smith did not indicate that he had a witness who SAW Riske place the strychnine in the liquor.”
According to the Weyauwega Chronicle in its Nov. 11, 1931, edition, the defense contended that Hoffman had been poisoned by his wife. Riske was on trial for the murder of Hoffman only, since the judge had previously ordered Kopitzke’s name “stricken from the information.”
The Chronicle reported that, at one point, the jury was deadlocked. After being ordered by the judge to return to their deliberations, they came back the following day, after 16 hours, with a note to convict. Riske was found guilty of first degree murder. The article said he “heard the verdict with little display of emotion. He wrung his hands and fidgeted in his seat.”
The defense asked for a new trial, and Judge Park granted the request, stating the prosecution had not proven Riske to ever have been in possession of the poison.
According to the Chicago Times article, “Early I January 1932, word reached the authorities that Edward Hidde had been telling friends that if he were called as a witness in the second trial he would “tell plenty”. On Jan 21, while working as a farm hand in Manawa township, he was seized with convulsions at 8:15 a.m. and died at 1:30 p.m.
“Analysis of his vital organs showed that apparently he had died of natural causes.”
Riske’s lawyers were granted a change of venue for the second trial that was subsequently heard in Wautoma. On Sept. 30, 1932, that jury returned with a verdict after 19 hours of deliberation, and Riske was acquitted.
Levins of the Chicago Times wrote, “Thus the Barn Dance Murders of Waupaca County remain unsolved and unavenged.”