Dr. Helene Knabe: Revictimized in Death

J.P. Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City (1910).

See Part I to learn about the unparalleled professional accomplishments of Dr. Helene Knabe.

Who entered Dr. Helene Knabe’s rooms at Indianapolis’s Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear? The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine.

Officials followed a variety of leads regarding the gruesome crime. The first person on the list, suspiciously, was an African American janitor named Jefferson Haynes, who lived below her. Second on the list was a Greek prince who was seen mailing a letter near her apartment. This absurd line of inquiry continued for months by the very people who should or could have advanced the case more quickly. Police Chief Martin Hyland reasoned that she committed suicide because at 5’6″ and 150 pounds, he believed her strong enough to ward off any attack or to take her own life.

Martin Hyland

Also problematic, evidence was left in a room where anyone could access it. Although fingerprinting was in its infancy, officials ignored a bloody fingerprint, despite Dr. Knabe having no blood on her hands. Police and some physicians believed despondency over her unproven sexual preference or financial situation caused her to take her own life. Even Detective William Burns, known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, publicly stated that based solely on the evidence in the newspapers, he believed she killed herself.

Local, state, national, and even some international press ran stories about Dr. Knabe. Indianapolis newspapers were surprisingly fair in their coverage and published editorial and opinion pieces that were overwhelmingly complementary of Dr. Knabe and her professional achievements. Although these newspapers interviewed people who believed Dr. Knabe got what she deserved, they did not give these sentiments undue attention or sensationalize them.

Thankfully, the coroner, Dr. Charles O. Durham, determined that Dr. Knabe was murdered. Dr. Durham noted she had defense wounds on her arms and he was adamant that she could not have made both cuts. He also noted several factors he considered “strongly presumptive of murder,” including the position of the hands, which had been closed after death; the absence of a plausible suicide weapon; and the fact that many witnesses had seen a man that night around the apartment building.  Dr. Durham’s findings negated rumors regarding Dr. Knabe’s sexuality and finances, which police felt could have contributed to her death by her own hand.

Dr. Knabe’s cousin and assistant, “Scene of Knabe Murder and Principals in Trial,” Palladium Item (Richmond), November 28, 1913, accessed Newspapers.com.

In response to Dr. Durham’s findings, female doctors who were Dr. Knabe’s friends actively tried to help find her killer. They hired private investigator Detective Harry Webster at their own expense, through donations, and at the detective’s own expense. Almost fifteen months after her death, two men were indicted by a grand jury, based on Detective Webster’s findings. The prosecution believed that Dr. William B. Craig was engaged to Dr. Knabe, a fact he vehemently denied, and that he wanted out of the relationship. As Dean of Students, lecturer, and financial stakeholder in the Indiana Veterinary College, he would have been very familiar will zoology and the “sheep’s cut,” which is the type reported to have killed her.

Dr. William B. Craig, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Craig met Dr. Knabe in 1905 and maintained a friendship, at the very least. He recommended her for the position as Chair of Hematology and Parasitology in 1909 at the veterinary college. Shortly before her death, Dr. Craig and Dr. Knabe seemed to be in the middle of an ongoing dispute. Dr. Knabe went to the IVC to see about changing her lecture time with Dr. Craig so that she could attend her course at the Normal College. Dr. Craig became enraged when a colleague asked for his answer and he said “Oh, f—! Tell her to go to hell!” and he stormed out of the room. The night before Dr. Knabe died, Dr. Craig’s housekeeper overheard them arguing and she heard Dr. Knabe say, “But you can continue to practice and so can I!” Police had a letter in their possession in which Dr. Knabe told a friend she was getting married. Dr. Knabe confided to a friend she was getting married to a man with an “ungovernable temper.” At the time of her death, Dr. Knabe, an accomplished seamstress and dressmaker, commissioned a costly dress, indicative that she was getting married.

Alonzo Ragsdale, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The second man indicted, Alonzo M. Ragsdale, was an undertaker and Dr. Knabe’s business associate. Dr. Knabe often joked with Ragsdale that when she died, she would be sure to give him her business. And so she did. Augusta appointed Ragsdale undertaker and estate executor. He was accused of concealing evidence against Dr. Craig in the form of the kimono Dr. Knabe was wearing at the time of her death. It was said he had laundered it in an effort to rid it of blood stains.

In the words of Ms. Frances Lee Watson, Clinical Professor of Law at IUPUI, “She was screwed from day one.” Dr. Knabe was never treated as a victim; she was treated as a villain. Society in general could not understand a woman wanting to work in a field that was sometimes unpleasant and coarse. In the media and by some of her peers, Dr. Knabe was chastised for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Her character was summarily attacked because she expected equality with her peers, male or female. Because she was a 35-year-old woman, who was a physician living in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—Dr. Knabe was automatically judged unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, who in addition to being indicted was also an unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed her to be an unsuccessful, pauper physician.

The truth was Dr. Knabe had many revenue streams from jobs that she loved: practitioner, instructor, and artist. She planned to continue her work and make herself even more financially stable. By looking at her financial records, Dr. Charles Durham proved that she was financially sound, bringing in over $150 per month. The public did not know for many months that Dr. Knabe chose to send most of her disposable income back to her uncle because he was no longer able to work.

Shelby Republican, December 4, 1913.

None of these facts mattered. The defense attacked Dr. Knabe’s personal character in the courtroom, claiming she was an aggressive and masculine woman. The character witnesses, who sought to discredit Dr. Craig, suddenly moved out of state or could not be found. A key witness who positively identified Dr. Craig changed his story, and Dr. Craig’s own housekeeper, who had signed an affidavit stating she saw him return late and leave early with a bundle of clothes the night Dr. Knabe died, refused to come to the courthouse.

Consequently, the state’s case fell apart and after nine days the prosecution could not make a connection between Dr. Craig and the evidence. In an unusual move, the judge stepped in as the thirteenth juror and instructed the jury to acquit Dr. Craig. Normally a judge provided this instruction only when a technical error was committed, which was not the situation in this trial. He did rule that the prosecution had proven Dr. Knabe had been murdered, but that they had no real evidence against Dr. Craig.

Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the charges against Ragsdale were dropped. No one was ever convicted of Dr. Knabe’s murder. Oddly enough after the trial, Ragsdale declared Dr. Knabe’s estate insolvent without collecting all debts. Many of her personal items did not sell and their whereabouts were undocumented. The probate records submitted over three years to the courts contained erroneous calculations that went unnoticed and several hundred dollars were not reconciled.

Dr. Knabe was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill. Over the years, newspapers have revisited her case, but in 1977 her case file was destroyed in a flood.  Unfortunately, the sensationalizing of Dr. Knabe’s death has obscured her legacy as a tenacious, committed, and savvy physician in a field dominated by men.

* To learn more about the tragic case of Dr. Knabe, see She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe and “She Sleeps Well; Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe.”

Justice for a G-Man: The FBI in College Corner

In August 1935, Special Agents Nelson B. Klein and Donald C. McGovern from the Cincinnati office of the FBI began investigating convicted criminal George W. Barrett, the “Diamond King,” for his suspected involvement in a number of motor vehicle scams in Ohio and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Justice had Barrett under surveillance since 1931 for dealing in stolen automobiles. In “Barrett v. United States,” in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, heard on March 17, 1936, the court provided details on Barrett’s criminal activities, stating:

His method was to buy an automobile, obtain title papers for it, steal an automobile of similar description, change its motor numbers to correspond with those on the purchased car, obtain duplicate title papers, and then sell the stolen car to some dealer.

In each instance, Barrett sold the stolen vehicles with papers purporting to show that the sales were legitimate.

Special Agent Nelson B. Klein. Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation at “History – Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Special Agents Klein and McGovern learned that Barrett was in Hamilton, Ohio after a recent car deal there with the Central Motor Company, but neither they nor the local police were able to question him before he left the area. Acting on a tip, the G-Men – a term used to describe government men, particularly the federal agents working under J. Edgar Hoover – suspected Barrett might travel to College Corner at the Ohio-Indiana border, where Barrett’s brother lived. They drove there on August 16, 1935 and spotted Barrett near the residence of his brother’s home, along with a vehicle matching the motor number of an automobile involved in one of Barrett’s recent schemes. Klein telephoned the sheriff’s office in Hamilton for assistance in arresting Barrett, and he and McGovern parked their car and waited. Before Sheriff John Schumacher and Deputy Charles Walke arrived, Barrett returned to his car with a package in which he had hidden a gun.

Special Agent Donald C. McGovern. Courtesy William Plunkett, The G-Man and the Diamond King, page 37.

Barrett went to unlock his car door, but as Klein and McGovern started their vehicle and began to approach, he abruptly turned and started walking away. Fearful that he was trying to flee and would elude them again, Klein jumped out of the FBI vehicle and called out to him to stop. Barrett ignored the calls and continued walking down a nearby alley with Klein in pursuit.

Once back in the open, the “Diamond King” opened fire, striking Klein numerous times. Klein returned fire and succeeded in hitting Barrett in the legs, but the federal agent succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

In the days following, newspapers across the country reported on the gun battle that had ensued in College Corner. On August 18, 1935, just two days after the shooting, the Indianapolis Star reported that Barrett would stand trial in Indianapolis and would be taken there as soon as his wounds allowed. Although College Corner falls right along the Indiana-Ohio line, agents confirmed that Klein had fallen dead on the Indiana side. The Richmond Item reported: “the trial, to be held in the Indianapolis Federal Courtroom, will be the first murder trial ever conducted in the Southern Indiana District Court.”

[Zanesville, Ohio] Times Recorder, August 17, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press, August 17, 1935, page 2. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item, August 31, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Federal officers transferred Barrett from the Hamilton, Ohio hospital to the City Hospital in Indianapolis on August 21. On August 26, the [Hamilton] Journal News reported on the recovery of one of the automobiles Barrett reportedly stole and transported over state lines from San Diego to Hamilton. Barrett allegedly changed the motor and serial numbers of the car before selling it to a garage in Hamilton. Jurors wasted no time in indicting Barrett for the murder of Special Agent Klein and for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.

George W. Barrett. Courtesy Find a Grave.

Passed in 1919, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act – also known as the Dyer Act – helped supplement individual states’ efforts to combat automobile theft in the country. In the fall of 1919, newspapers reported that the practice of stealing automobiles was on the rise throughout the U.S., especially in some midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Indianapolis News claimed that over 22,000 automobiles were stolen in eighteen western and midwestern cities in 1918. Other articles put the number closer to 30,000. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, who introduced the legislation, argued that the losses amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while also causing hefty increases in automobile theft insurance.

Stolen vehicles reported by Representative Dyer. Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1919, section 2, page 13. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The act sought “to punish the transportation of stolen motor vehicles in interstate or foreign commerce.” In accordance with the law, anyone who knowingly transported or caused to be transported a stolen motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce could be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both. Those found guilty of violating the law could also be punished in any district through which the guilty party transported the vehicle. According to former Special Agent William Plunkett in The G-Man and the Diamond King:

The BOI (later the FBI) gained more influence in 1919 with the passage of the Dyer Act . . . now it could prosecute criminals who’d previously evaded the Bureau by driving across a state line. More than any other law, the Dyer Act sealed the FBI’s reputation as a national investigative crime-fighting organization.

Federal officers arrested many professional automobile thieves in the 1920s and 1930s after the law went into effect. In many instances, these criminals were wanted for other offenses, including murder. Prior to the passage of the act, federal agents did not have the authority to pursue such criminals and had to let local and state authorities try to handle the rising number of cases. In some instances, local authorities caught and successfully imprisoned criminals and gangsters of the period, only to see their prison sentences expire or have them escape and commit more dangerous crimes. This was particularly true in the case of notorious gangster John Dillinger. In the early 1930s, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks, plundered police arsenals, killed a police detective in Chicago, and fled the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934 after being held to await trial. The FBI’s website states:

It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.

After Dillinger violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the FBI became actively involved in his capture.

Indianapolis Star, December 4, 1935, page 3. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Both the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act and a recently passed 1934 law making the killing or assault of a United States officer a federal offense punishable by death sealed George Barrett’s fate. His trial began on December 2. According to The Tennessean, he was only the second man to be tried under the new law providing for capital punishment in the killing of a federal officer. Edward Rice, defense counsel for Barrett, argued that Barrett had been warned days before Special Agent Klein’s killing that Kentucky outlaws were after him and might pose as officers. As such, Barrett maintained that he acted in self-defense out of fear for his life. However, during his time on the witness stand, Special Agent Donald McGovern testified that Klein called out to Barrett and clearly identified himself and McGovern as federal officers.

On December 8, the Indianapolis Star reported that the jury only took fifty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. With no qualification calling for life imprisonment, Barrett was to be hanged. District Attorney Val Nolan stated “I think this is the greatest victory for law and order ever achieved in the state of Indiana.” Electrocution replaced hanging in Indiana several years earlier, but because Barrett’s sentence would be carried out under federal law, U.S. criminal code specified death by hanging.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

On March 18, the Indianapolis News noted that George “Phil” Hanna, an expert hangman, would lead the execution. Known as the “Humane Hangman,” Hanna had participated in close to seventy previous hangings in an interest to see them done correctly, without additional pain or suffering to the condemned. Barrett hanged at 12:02 am on March 24, 1936 in the Marion County jail yard, and was pronounced dead ten minutes later. Despite the late hour, fifty people reportedly traveled to the jail yard to witness the hanging.

Nelson B. Klein gravestone. Courtesy Find a Grave.