THE SELLSVILLE MURDERS- An unsolved mystery from 1908

The old Weisheimer Flour Mill is one of the few survivals from when the land across the river from campus was all farms and fields.


It was Central Ohio in the summertime. The middle of August 1908. The heat and humidity were oppressive. For the past couple days it had been trying to rain but the tiny showers were short-lived, evaporated quickly, and just made things more humid. Night brought no relief.

Ten year old Everett Kimbro was up early on that hazy and oppressive Sunday morning, August 16th. Because of the heat, he had slept fitfully the night before and when the sun rose and the temperatures started rising, he just couldn’t take it any more and quit the bed. His mother had sent him down to Neiderlander’s Grocery to fetch some things so they be ready for her when she began fixing Sunday dinner after church. The grocery wasn’t actually open Sundays but, if you knocked, old Mr. Neiderlander or his wife would sell you what you needed through the door.

Everett walked westward down the gravel road that was King Avenue west of the Olentangy River. King Avenue was the main street in Sellsville, a mixed race, semi-rural community on the northwest fringe of Columbus.

It was called Sellsville after the Sells Brothers who had based their traveling circus here until the oldest brother died and the others sold out to Barnum & Bailey. Everett could just barely remember being a little boy and going with his father to watch them train the elephants. It sure would be neat if they were still there...

The boy’s daydreaming was interrupted by the sight in the road ahead of him. A dead dog. Everett wondered whose it was and walked closer to see if he recognized it.

Then, just a little beyond the dog carcass, he saw her. Out in front of the Niederlander store, a woman was laying face down in the road--naked. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Everett rubbed his eyes and shook his head then looked again. She was still there.

His stomach churning, Everett creeped closer to the body. It was like he was moving through molasses. Conflicting emotions and impulses ran through him. He wanted to run away, to let some one else find the body and deal with it all. He was afraid that somehow they’d blame him, that he’d get in some kind of trouble, be arrested, jailed, maybe lynched. As he inched closer, he could see that the woman wasn’t breathing and that her side and the ground beneath her was all bloody. She was hurt and if somebody didn’t help her she’d die.

Everett walked right up beside the body and called, “Lady?” When no response came, he prodded the body with his foot. “Ma’am?” Still nothing. He stared at the side of her face. Then it came to him. Mrs. Neiderlander! It was Mrs. Neiderlander!

Everett turned to run into the store but then stopped. The front doors were shut but the glass in the right door was shattered, like somebody had come crashing through it. Maybe it was robbers that had killed Mrs. Neiderlander? Maybe they were still in there. Maybe old man Niederlander had gone crazy and finally killed his wife. They fought all the time. Maybe he was still in there with his big meat cleaver. Everett turned again and started to run for help to the house of Mrs. Neiderlander’s in-laws, “Old John” and his wife, but then thought better of it. Instead he ran to the nearby house of Sam and Anna Bird, black folks like himself.

Within a half an hour, the street was full of family, neighbors, and on-lookers. Someone walked down to the telephone exchange at 1st and Grandview and called the police and sheriff’s deputies and city police joined the assembly shortly. The authorities quickly the basic facts in the case.


Mrs. Neiderlander, laying face-down dead in the road had been repeatedly stabbed and also shot in the side. She had apparently struggled with her attacker as her short chemise was in rags--likely torn as he grabbed after her--and there were abrasions, finger and hand marks about her neck and shoulders from being grabbed and choked by her assailant as she struggled to get free. Most of the prints were of a left-hand, leading police to speculate that the killer might have been left-handed.

The double doors to the store were still locked but the glass in the right door had been smashed outward as if by someone bursting out of the store. Back inside the store, a big bloody pool on the floor marked the spot where her killer had caught Louise and stabbed then shot her. The killer had tried to to mop up the blood with a cloth but had given up, apparently in frustration at the size of the task. Police searched for a blood-soaked rag or mop but found none.

At the back of the store was a door to the outside and a stairs leading to the couple’s living quarters over the store. The door was locked but at the top of the stairs was an open window, facing south towards 5th Ave. A ladder was propped up against it. At the foot of the ladder lay a wood chisel that the killer might have used to pry open the window. This apparently was how the killer had won access to the Neiderlanders’ house and store. Some investigators questioned this, wondering how it was that the rungs of the ladder were free of footprints when the entire neighborhood was coated with a fine brown dust from the dry fields and dirt roads. The dust on the ladder rungs seemed undisturbed.

Upstairs was a tiny kitchen and an adjacent dining area. Down the hall from the window was the Neiderlanders’ tiny bedroom. There they found Mr. Neiderlander still in his bed, dead of multiple stab wounds and a single gunshot. It appeared that he had been shot as he slept and then stabbed for good measure. The attack must have been wild and angry. The plaster wall by the bed was scored by multiple knife slashes that had gone wide of their mark and the bed beneath Arthur Niederlander had collapsed under the fury of the attack. The springs were broken and the rails were bent. On a nightstand beside the bed, though, the book Louise had been reading lay undisturbed, still open to the last pages she had read. The oil lamp beside the bed still burned.

The police quickly put together a sketch of what had happened Saturday evening: The couple had gone into Columbus on the street car to shop. They returned to their home at approximately 11 PM. Sometime, Saturday night or Sunday morning, the killer had put the ladder against the house and entered the building through the upstairs window. He had attacked the couple as they slept, killing Mr. Neiderlander first. Louise fled the bedroom, raced through the kitchen and down the stairs with the killer running behind her. He caught up to her in the middle of the store, grabbed her, and the two struggled. He choked her into submission then stabbed and shot her just as he had her husband. Somehow she broke free from her assailant and, gushing blood, threw herself through the glass front door of the store and staggered onto the road before falling to rise no more.

All of the Neiderlanders’ neighbors had heard a woman’s screams sometime around 1 or 2 AM Sunday morning. Most ignored them, thinking that the Neiderlanders were just having another of their frequent shouting matches. Only one, J.W. Hoy, a carpenter building himself a home just east of the Neiderlander grocery, investigated. Hoy was wakened about 2 AM by an awful racket and, fearing thieves were making off with his tools, rose and armed himself. Hoy heard a woman’s screams coming from the Neiderlander store followed by a bright flash and the sound of a shot. He called out: “What the devil is the matter over there?” Silence answered him. He sat guard there for a long while but neither heard nor saw anything more.

The police inspected the dead dog lying near Mrs. Neiderlander’s body. It had been shot to death. No one in the neighborhood had ever seen the animal before. It hadn’t been there yesterday. Police were of a divided opinion as to whether the animal had been killed at the same time as Mrs. Neiderlander or not.

Back in the store, officers checked for signs of robbery. The store’s cashbox sat on the counter. Its lock had been broken and it had obviously been rifled through. Some money seemed to be missing although some change was left in the till. Upstairs, in the bedroom, a gold pin belonging to Louise was missing but there was still cash in Mr. Neiderlander’s coat and an expensive gold watch laying in plain sight on the dresser was untouched. Detectives concluded robbery was at best an afterthought to the murders and the thefts might have been commited only to divert attention from the real motive for the crime.
From the mattress in the bedroom, investigators dug out a slug from a .38. A matching bullet was embedded in the floor of the store where Louise had been shot. No murder weapon could be found. Not the gun and not the knife. Beneath the broken-down, blood-soaked mattress, investigators found a heavy soldering iron. Detectives could figure out no other reason for it being there except as a weapon the Neiderlanders might have concealed beneath the bed in anticipation of trouble.

Detective Gaston’s bloodhounds were next set to sniffing for the culprit’s trail. The dogs had difficulty picking up a scent because of the crowd that had been thronging the store all morning. When they did finally pick up a scent it was in the area of the foot of the ladder. The dogs followed a trail south from the house across fields and woods before losing it at busy West Fifth Avenue. Some detectives thought they could perceive a path through the cornfields and pasture.

Detectives searched for footprints but the milling throng of relatives, neighbors, and children who had gathered at the store had destroyed any possibility of recovering footprints. In the lot between the store and J.W. Hoy’s property. Police found relatively fresh footprints made by two different men but could not be sure they had anything to do with the crime.

Detectives thoroughly searched the grounds for the murder weapons or the bloody rags the murderer had used in his abortive attempt to mop up the blood in the store. None were ever found. Police even drained the Neiderlander’s well, thinking the killer might have deposited the weapons there. In response to neighborhood gossip, police also searched the homes of Neiderlander’s parents and brother for the weapons but found nothing.

City Coroner Jack A. Murphy provided the few remaining clues in the case. Arthur Neiderlander had been stabbed three times in the heart as he lay asleep in bed on his back. To finish the job, the killer had shot Arthur with a .38 revolver. The bullet had entered below the right nipple and exited from the left side of his back. Powder burns showed the muzzle of the pistol had been pressed against Neiderlander’s chest.

Murphy added a new puzzle to the case when he noted that Neiderlander had been asleep and put up no struggle. Why, he wondered, was the Neiderlander’s bed was broken down if Arthur Neiderlander had not fought his attacker? Was the force of the killer’s onslaught really enough to do this?

Louise had been killed downstairs. The killer had grappled with her, choked her into submission, and stabbed her. As upstairs, the killer directed three stabs to the heart but, as Louise squirmed and twisted to escape her attacker’s grasp, the blade missed its mark. To finish her, he rammed the muzzle of the .38 in her armpit and fired. The bullet passed downward throught Louise’s half-standing body, exited from the other armpit and embedded itself in the floor of the store.
Coroner Murphy contradicted one component of the police story of the crime. Louise had not risen from the bloody pool where she had been left to die, crashed through the door, and ran out into the street seeking help. The killer, for whatever reason, had picked Louise up carried her to the door, smashed it, carried her out into the street and deposited her there.

Murphy deduced this from the fact that her wounds would have killed her at once. Once she had fallen, she would not be physically capable of rising again. The killer’s knife thrusts had punctured her lungs and cut into several major blood vessels. The murderer’s bullet’s path carried it through her lungs, aorta, and heart. Louise was likely dead before her body hit the floor. No amount of adrenaline could chage the fact of her destroyed cardio-pulmonary system.
Additionally, Louise’s nearly nude body bore no wounds other than those her killer had inflicted. Surely, if she had crashed through a glass door in nothing more than a tattered chemise, her skin would show some cuts or scratches. Surely there would be bits of broken glass embedded in her hair skin, and the soles of her bare feet. None of these was the case.

Murphy also found a small puddle of Louise’s blood by the door to be significant. If she had been running, she would have left a trail of blood. There was no such trail. Unless she paused at the door, the blood would not pool there. Murphy reasoned that the killer had picked up Louise and carried her, stopping at the door long enough to smash it out. Where he paused, Louise’s draining life’s blood formed a puddle.

Sadly, the one piece of evidence that could have provided a definitive solution to the crime was not collected. The killer’s fingerprints were doubtlessly in abundance all over the crime scene--on the rungs of the ladder, on the window sill, on the cashbox, and on Louise Neiderlander’s neck. Unfortunately, fingerprinting was then in its infancy and was not yet an investigative technique in the repetoire of the Columbus police or the Franklin County Sheriff.

THEORY 1: The 5th and Harrison shooter

About 2 AM on Sunday, August 16th, an hour or so after the Neiderlander murder, Police Officer Albert P. Wright was patrolling the darkened streets and alleys of the upper middle class neighborhood that stood across the river from Sellsville, the section of Columbus that’s called Victorian Village today.

At the corner of Harrison and Fifth Avenues, a little more than a mile from the Neiderlander home, across the Fifth Avenue Bridge, Officer Wright spied a man prowling among the houses. He seemed to be trying to move steathfully, as if he did not want to be seen. Thinking he had come upon a burglar, Wright closed on the man and called to the him to halt. The man stopped in his tracks, stared at Wright for a  fraction of a second, and then went for the weapon tucked in his belt.

Wright went for his own weapon and the two exchanged shots. Wright got off just a single shot. It missed. The prowler fired three times. The first bullet struck Wright’s left side near the waistline. The second grazed his shoulder. The third disappeared into the night. The lawman groaned in pain and stumbled, grabbing at the prowler’s gun and trying to twist it out of his hand. Awakened by the gunshots, someone in one of the nearby houses called out to see what was the matter. Rather than struggle, the prowler threw down his gun and ran from the scene in a blind panic, leaving the patrolman bleeding on the ground. He was last seen headed east.

Neighbors rescued the fallen lawman and transported him to the hospital where his wounds were treated. He quickly made a full recovery.
Monday morning, police examined the firearm knocked from the prowler’s hand in an effort to learn if he was in any way connected to the Neiderlander murder. Officer Wright claimed that three shots had been fired at him but examination of the pistol found five shots had been fired from it in the past 48 hours. Had Officer Wright counted wrong in the confusion of the gun battle? Or could it be the case that the two missing bullets had been fired into Arthur and Louise Neiderlander? Chief of Police O’Connor found fresh powder burns in all of the chambers of the cylinder, suggesting that all of the shots had been fired within a short time of each other. Adding fuel to the speculation was the fact that the prowler’s revolver was a 38-caliber, the same caliber as the gun used in murdering the Neiderlanders.

Forensic science being what it was in 1910, ballistics analysis was not conducted. The bullets that killed the Neiderlanders were never scientifically compared with the bullets fired from the prowler’s gun. Speculation that the same gun fired all five bullets could never be anything more than just speculation.
Still investigators wondered. There had been no murders, shootings, or reports of gunshots in the area in the past two days. Where had the prowler discharged the two other shots?

Detectives also pondered why the prowler fired instead of surrendering to the law officer. The 1900s were an era of much greater respect for law enforcement and authority than the present day. It was highly unusual for suspects to shoot it out with police. What could the man have done that made him decide trying to kill a police officer was a better choice than stopping to answer his questions?

It may have been because the man was black. African-Americans didn’t fare well at the hands of police in 1908--especially those found roaming well-to-do white neighborhoods with a pistol tucked in their belt in the middle of the night. Maybe he’d had a previous run-in with police before and didn’t care for a repeat performance? It’s also possible the man had a record, was an escapee, or was wanted for some other crime. Then again, maybe he was urgent to flee because he had just committed a double murder.

Police put together a mug shot from Officer Wright’s description, distributed posters throughout the city, and alerted all stations and patrolmen to be on the lookout for the man. The story received heavy play in the Sunday papers and was mentioned in connection with the Neiderlander murders in Monday’s editions. He was never found. He had made a clean get-away.

THEORY 2: A robbery

Objects were taken from the Neiderlander home. Theft did occur. The store cashbox had been forced open and pilfered. Items of value had been snatched from the Neiderlanders’ bedroom--a gold pin Louise had borrowed from a neighbor--but in no systematic fashion. Arthur Neiderlander’s expensive gold watch had been left on a dressing table where it sat in plain view and all of the man’s cash remained in the pockets his jacket.

Some police speculated that opportunistic thieves had seen the ladder at the open back window of the store and used it to enter the building. As they were rifling the cashbox down in the store, Louise, who had been upstairs reading in bed, heard them and came downstairs alone to investigate. The robbers attacked and killed her there in the store. Thinking they might have disturbed her husband, the thieves crept upstairs and murdered Arthur in his sleep. Their robbery attempt in shambles, they randomly grabbed a few valuables and fled. Louise rises from the bloody pool and staggers out in to the street after help but collapses from loss of blood and dies in the ditch.

The major problem with this theory is one of simple logic. Most robbers, upon being discovered or facing imminent discovery, just flee. It is a rare thing, even these days, for a burglar to shoot it out with a homeowner. Typically, a burglar will only resort to force when the homeowner tries to forcibly detain him, when the homeowner makes an attempt on his life, or when the homeowner recognizes the burglar. None of these exceptional circumstances seem to apply in the Niederlander case. If Louise discovered burglars in the storeroom, she was an unarmed woman who posed no threat to them. Certainly the dozing Arthur Neiderlander was even less of a threat.

For this reason, police tended to dismiss the robbery theory.

THEORY 3: A domestic dispute.

Arthur Neiderlander was a quarrelsome, angry man who had frequent disputes and shouting matches with his family, friends, and neighbors. Far and away his favorite sparring partner, though,  was his young wife.

So bad was Neiderlander’s conduct as a spouse that his first wife had divorced him--something almost unheard of in the early 20th Century. Divorce rates at the turn of the century were on the order of 0.3 per 1,000, approximately one-twentieth of the current divorce rate. Divorce at this time in history guaranteed a woman religious condemnation, social ostracism, poverty, and a lonely life without the comfort of husband or children. So powerful were the religious, social, and economic sanctions against divorce that women contemplated it only in direst extremity. That Arthur’s first wife had found life with him unbearable enough that she took this drastic step speaks volumes.  So deep was her antipathy towards him that, despite continuing to live in Columbus, she never spoke to him again so long as he lived and refused even to attend his funeral. The grocer’s relationship with his new wife seemed to be no smoother.

Louise Freelander was a pretty young girl of just 16 years when Arthur Neiderlander met her in 1905. She had grown up in the tiny town of McCarthy in rural Vinton County, 80 or so miles SE of Columbus. They were married at her father’s Vinton County home that year and she had come to Columbus to live with her new husband.

The three years of their marriage had been rocky ones. Neiderlander’s noisy clashes with his new wife became legendary in Sellsville. She was a strong-willed young girl and would not stand for his bullying. Arthur, for his part, would not stand for a wife who would not stand for his bullying. The two went round and round.

It may be significant that the couple had no children. It’s possible that infertility or effective use of contraception accounts for this but neither is statistically likely. In the early years 20th Century contraception a secret and a scandal. Popular awareness of it was almost non-existant and many states and municipalities outlawed it. While patterns were changing, Margaret Sanger’s campaigns and the legalization of contraception were still decades in the future.

Such contraception as was available through old wive’s tales or clandestine sources was notoriously unrealiable. Consequently, for most American women, sex equaled pregnancy. That a young, healthy woman like Louise had no children after three years of marriage seems to indicate that sexual intimacy was infrequent in the marriage.

Neighbors fully expected that sooner or later, one of the constantly battling pair would kill the other. Shortly before her murder, Louise is said to have told neighbors that her husband had threatened her with a pistol. Close neighbors ignored the screams and other noises of the early hours of August 16 because they thought it was just the couple fighting again. From the moment they learned of the crime, most of Sellsville believed that the couple’s continual violent feuding had finally come to its logical end.

H.K. Williams, who lived two doors west of the Neiderlanders on King Ave., provided eyewitness evidence that the Neiderlanders had been fighting on the night they died. He testified that he had come home from the city about the same time as the Neiderlanders did  Saturday night and heard the couple having a heated argument on the streetcar. Other passengers also remembered the pair exchanging words. The battle continued as the man and his wife walked the mile or so from the streetcar stop at First and Grandview to their home. When the couple returned to their home, Williams said, Louise ran into the store before her husband, locked the door, and refused to let him in. Williams then saw the husband go to the side of the house where the ladder was kept and place it against the building at the rear, and climb to the upper window which he forced open, using some sort of tool. The ladder was probably left standing against the building and the window left open after Neiderlander entered.

Mrs. Mary Rhestrom, whose home on W. 5th Ave. was just across the field from the Neiderlanders, supported Williams’ testimony by firmly identifying the ladder as one Neiderlander used to perform work on the house. Another neighbor claimed to hear Louise scream “I’ll kill you, you __ ___!” at her spouse about the time the murder took place.

As soon as police arrived on the scene, neighbors were only too eager to relate their theory of the crime as a murder-suicide. Either Louise had murdered Arthur and then herself or Arthur had killed Louise and then shot himself. Police investigating the crime studied the marital discord theory before quickly dismissing it as impossible. Nothing about the crime scene was consistent with this interpretation. Few people commit suicide by shooting themself in the chest or armpit and no suicide follows this up by stabbing themselves in the heart three times. Murder-suicide also fails to explain why Louise was found thirty feet from the house lying in the ditch or where the murder weapons had gone, who had tried to mop up Louise’s blood, or why the store’s cashbox had been pilfered.

An alternate version of this theory that was explored was that Louise, in a rage, had killed her sleeping husband and then, shocked by what she had done, gone to confess all to her in-laws. The in-laws, in turn, murdered Louise. Police quickly ruled this hypothesis out. Arthur’s parents were elderly and far too frail to have manhandled 19 year old Louise in the way the evidence indicated. It also seems odd that they would have used the exact same weapons and exact same technique to kill Louise as used to kill Arthur. Furthermore, Martin Thacker, a life-long friend of Louise who had grown up with her in the house of her father back in Vinton County, was a boarder living in the house of her in-laws. Surely, he would have intervened or told police something. Finally, the elder Niederlanders emotional reaction to the discovery of the bodies was such as to make it highly unlikely that they were in any way involved in the crime. Just to be sure, though, police searched the house of Old John and his wife but found no evidence to indicate their involvement.

THEORY 4: A lover.

Affairs of the heart are a common, if not the most common, motive for murder. A second theory of the crime implicates a lover of the 19 year old Louise. Louise, police speculated, the unhappy young wife, took a lover. Determined to be together, they contemplated how to get her husband Arthur out of the way. Aided by Louise or perhaps on his own initiative, the young man stole into the house and murdered Arthur in his sleep. Afterwards, the lovers quarreled or he got scared and killed her too.

Police scoured Sellsville for accounts of any infidelity on Louise’s part. They found none. As far as could be determined, and in a gossipy small town that’s pretty far, Louise was absolutely faithful to her husband.

The only possible hint of an extramarital connection for Louise was with her childhood friend and in-law’s boarder, Martin Thacker. Like Louise, Thacker was just 19. Thacker had been raised by Louise’s parents back in McCarthy in Vinton County and the two were as close as brother and sister. Thacker told everybody, including the police, that he and Louise were relatives but this was not the case. When he first came to Columbus, Thacker boarded with Louise and her husband but an argument with Arthur over money lead to his leaving/being thrown out. Strangely, Thacker then moved in with Arthur’s parents across the street.

Police received reports from persons in the neighborhood that Thacker and his friend Sam Reveley, 24, a worker at Fifth Avenue Florists who boarded with Arthur Neiderlander’s brother Ed, two doors west of the store, had participated in an unusual exchange the afternoon following the murder’s discovery. Reportedly, Reveley called Thacker a murderer and Thacker responded that if he didn’t keep his mouth shut, he would “fix” him. On the strength of this story and both men’s connections to the Neiderlander family, police arrested them and brought the two in for questioning.

On the night of the murder, Thacker and Reveley returned late from seeing a show at the High Street Theater in the city with a small party of young men. After the show, the men rode the streetcar back to First and Grandview and then went their separate ways at about 12:30 AM. 

Reveley claimed to have passed the store on his way home at the time the crime occurred. He claimed to have heard a gunshot, seen a flash inside the store, and then heard the sound of something heavy, like a body, thudding to the floor. Reveley then claimed to have seen his friend Martin Thacker coming from the back of the store. Asked by police if he knew who killed Arthur Niederlander, Reveley answered: “I am not certain but I think it was the man with whom I walked home:Thacker, whom I saw leave the place at the rear.”

Thacker told police a very different story. After separating from the other lads, Thacker and Reveley walked together to Fifth Avenue and then parted company. Thacker says he went straight to the house of Arthur Niederlander’s parents where he boarded. Finding the old couple still awake, he inquired after the newspaper so that he could check the score of the Columbus vs. Toledo baseball game. He took the paper to his room, looked at the sports section, and then Mrs. Niederlander popped in to ask if he was done with the paper. He gave it to her and went straight to sleep, not waking until Mrs. Niederlander stirred him Sunday morning to tell him what happened.

On learning of the murder, Thacker rose dressed and rushed to the store but was intercepted by an unnamed party who told him not to go near the murder scene because he’d be arrested. Thacker heeded the advice and instead went to Fifth Avenue to use a phone to contact some of the Niederlanders’ relatives.
Three features of Thacker’s story struck police as curious. First, the baseball game Thacker claimed to have wanted to read about was still a week away. Second, the open window of Thacker’s room was just 25 feet from the window of  Arthur and Louise’s bedroom. Despite this, Thacker claimed to have heard nothing. This is all the more remarkable as Thacker was sleeping with his window open, for relief from the oppressive August heat. Finally, why was it that Thacker felt a fear of being arrested for the murder?

Unfortunately for police, the absence of physical evidence of Thacker’s involvement was complete. His room in John Neiderlander’s house was searched but no knife, pistol, or bloody clothes or rags were found. Also, Thacker bore no cuts, scratches, or bruises that might be consistent with the killer’s struggle with Louise. Old John and his wife did not report Thacker coming home with the torn and bloody clothes that the killer would surely have been wearing after struggling with her, then stabbing and shooting her at close quarters, trying to mop up the pool of blood in the dark, and carrying Louise’s copiously bleeding body thirty feet to the ditch in front of the store.

To investigate a possible romantic connection between Thacker and Louise Neiderlander, detectives traveled all the way to Thacker and Louise’s Vinton County home to inquire among the locals what if any romantic history might exist between the two. The trip was for naught. No love affair was unearthed. As far as could be determined from talking to the pair’s friends and relatives, the relationship was friendly but platonic. Thacker and Louise were more like brother and sister than lovers.

Finally, Reveley’s testimony against Thacker had problems that eroded its credibility. J.W. Hoy, who was investigating prowlers at the time and also claims to have seen the flash of the gun’s discharge, neither saw nor heard Reveley pass. In Hoy’s hyper-vigilant state it’s hard to imagine him not noticing Reveley’s passage. It’s also odd that after having seen and heard these strange doings, Reveley did not investigate but apparently went home and straight to bed, telling no one what he had seen and sleeping peacefully until the next morning when he was awakened by news of the murders.
In the end, police could find no evidence to tie Thacker to the crime. Ultimately, both he and Reveley were pronounced innocent and released.

THEORY 5: The obsessed admirerer

Pretty young Louise inadvertently attracted the attention of some socially inept admirer--what we’d call today a stalker. The stalker fantasized about Louise and cursed the marriage that kept him from her. If only she wasn’t married, surely he could make her fall in love with him.

The battles between the Neiderlanders were well-known locally and the stalkewr incorporated this into his fantasies. He imagined that if he could rescue her from her ogre of a husband, she would rush into his arms brimming with love and gratitude. The admirerer’s fantasy grows into an obssession. He whiles away the hours, daydreaming of how he will free his beloved Louise from her tormentor

The obssessed man murders Arthur but then is jilted by a terrified Louise who flees him. Confused and desperate to stop her from running for help, he grabs her, she struggles, and he kills her too. Distraught be what he has done and thinking he can yet save the hemmorhaging Louise, he scoops her off the floor and carries his fallen lady out into the street to get help. Perhaps startled by Hoy’s shouts or realizing that it was already too late, he dumed the body in the ditch and fled.


THEORY 6: The madman

Police made their first arrest within an hour of arriving on the scene. The man they arrested was a 36 year old, mentally unbalanced, local troublemaker named John Newkirk.

Newkirk came from a big family with some bad apples in it. His brother had been forced to flee the area a few years ago after serving time for hold-ups he committed in the Sellsville area. John himself was no stranger to the law, having been arrested a few months back for raging around Columbus’ Goodale Park firing his pistol. He claimed to be shooting pigeons. Fortunately no one had been hurt. The Newkirk’s neighbors in the “Barntown” (3rd Ave. & Morning) area were quick to inform police of John’s reputation as a reckless, irrational loner who flew into insane rages for no apparent reason and never forgot an offense. Newkirk was prone to making bloody threats of death against those he imagined had wronged him. He was viewed as dangerous and the farmers in the area steered clear of him.

In recent weeks, he seemed to have become crazier than ever. He had repeatedly threatened to kill his own parents and seemed to have an obsession with the act of murder. He appeared compelled to murder someone or something. It was just a matter of time, the neighbors all said.

For the past few weeks, police learned, Newkirk had been quarreling with the Neiderlanders. The quarrel had begun when Arthur Neiderlander’s bulldog bit Newkirk’s mother on the hand. Harsh words were exchanged between the members of the two families over the incident. Eventually, Neiderlander backed down and had the dog killed but this wasn’t good enough for Newkirk. As was his wont,  he seethed and fumed about the incident, steadily growing angrier and angrier. To some of his confederates, Newkirk confessed that he was going to kill the Neiderlanders.

On the day of the murder, John Newkirk’s greivance against the Neiderlanders was very much on his mind. That morning,  he had gone to see Reed H. Game, assistant Franklin County prosecutor, to demand that charges be brought against Neiderlander over the dog incident. Newkirk reportedly went berserk when told he could take no criminal action and would have to pursue satisfaction through the civil courts. So out of control was Newkirk that Game wondered if he should call police and have the man arrested. Eventually, he left and the attorney thought no more of the matter until he read about the murders and Newkirk’s arrest in Monday’s papers.

Newkirk’s incipient madness, also caught the eye of investigators. The Neiderlander murders were savage and bloody crimes. They were not orderly, efficient, and business-like executions such as might occur in the course of commiting another crime, like burglary. Whoever had entered the house that night had gone there with the intention of  shedding blood and of enjoying it. The killer had murdered a sleeping man in his bed, a man who could not possibly pose a threat to him--a completely needless act. Such was not the deed of a sane mind, they reasoned. The killer not only shot his victims but, having felled them with a gunshot, drew a knife and indulged himself by hacking at their hearts. The fact that each was stabbed exactly three times in the area of the heart suggested a ritualistic element to the crime that might be born of a diseased mind. The killer was clearly someone motivated by a bloodlust borne of anger and/or madness. Newkirk fit the bill on both counts.

Other evidence also directed police to Newkirk. The ladder leaning against the Newkirk’s back window was the paint-speckled upper half of a painter’s sliding ladder. John Newkirk’s father, Pardon, was a painter and at the Newkirk home, police found the lower half--just the lower half--of such a ladder. When put together with the ladder found at the Neiderlander house, the fit was perfect. The two halves of the ladder were a match. John admitted the upper half of the ladder belonged to his father but plead ignorance of how it came to be leaning against the Neiderlander’s home. For his part, Pardon claimed the ladder found at the Neiderlanders wasn’t his and that he had never seen it before.

Detective Gaston’s bloodhounds had followed a trail from the rear of the Neiderlander home, south to 5th Ave. Where the dogs lost the scent. This was approximately the same direction as Pardon Newkirk’s home on 3rd and Morning. Another nail in John Newkirk’s coffin.

Also pointing to Newkirk was the putty chisel found at the foot of the ladder that had been used to pry open the second story window. Detectives discovered that such chisels were in use at the Excelsior Buggy Factory on Olentangy River Road where John Newkirk was employed. Workman there could not be certain that the chisel found at the Neiderlander store was theirs but allowed that they used chisels just like it in the course of their work and that there were dozens of chisels like it at the factory. When questioned, both Newkirk and his father denied having ever seen the chisel before.

Police were excited to learn that John Newkirk owned a .38 pistol like the one which had killed the Neiderlanders but were disappointed when they discovered that John could not have had it on the night of the murder. Fearing his son’s increasingly wild mood swings and that he might hurt himself or someone else with the pistol, Pardon had secretly removed it weeks ago and given it to a neighbor named Morehouse for safe keeping. Police questioned Morehouse and found the unfired weapon still in his possession.

Newkirk proclaimed his innocence but lacked anything approaching an alibi for the night of the crime. The madman claimed to have spent the night of August 15 sleeping in switchman’s shack at the Hocking Valley Railroad crossing at Fifth Avenue near the banks of the Olentangy River. No switchman was on duty at the crossing and no railroad employees saw him there so Newkirk had no one to uphold his alibi. He had only his father and mother to support his claims but even they had to admit that they could not verify his whereabouts on the night of the murder.

The credibility of the entire Newkirk family was badly shaken by the discovery that they had been lying about John’s brother, the fugitive stick-up man Frank Newkirk. Frank had a long police record and had been ordered out of town some time ago after his involvement with a hold-up on 5th Avenue. Pardon Newkirk, had told the police that his fugitive son was in South Dakota but it was soon discovered that he had been seen in nearby Arlington Saturday and Sunday nights. Stake-outs of the Newkirk home lead to Frank’s arrest on Saturday, August 22. If Pardon Newkirk would lie for one son, why not for another?

Despite the presence of motive, strong circumstantial evidence against him, and lack of an alibi, most of the detectives did not believe in Newkirk’s guilt. There were just too many things that didn’t add up.

First of all, if the ladder had really belonged to Newkirk, would he have lugged the 20’ ladder all the way from his father’s home at 3rd and Morning, three-quarters of a mile away? If he he did, how did he avoid detection? Even at that late hour there was traffic in the neighborhood, on thoroughfares Grandview and Fifth Avenues, surely someone would have noticed and remarked on a man walking along with a 20’ ladder at midnight?

Besides that, even though mentally unbalanced, it’s hard to believe Newkirk would be so careless about leaving clues at the scene of the crime. Surely, even a madman would have sense enough not to leave a ladder and chisel belonging to his father at the seen of the crime. Suspending disbelief for a moment to allow that he might have left the ladder at the scene of the crime, it’s still unbelievable that he would subsequently acknowledge the ladder as his father’s while maintaining his innocence. No one was that stupid.

There were other problems with Newkirk as a suspect. If truly guilty, surely Newkirk would have cooked up a better and more detailed alibi than the sleeping alone and unobserved in a switchman’s shack story he told. Newkirk was crazy, not stupid.

Police were also impressed that Newkirk held fast to his shabby little alibi and his claims of innocence through the ordeal of a police “sweating.”  Long hours of tricky, repetitious questioning, accompanied by verbal and physical intimidation (and the occasional beating), under conditions designed to maximize the subject’s discomfort (heat, bright lights, no sleep, no restroom, no food, etc.), were usually sufficient to break any but the most hardened criminals. Surely a nutcase like Newkirk with the flimsiest possible alibi to hide behind would have given it up if he had anything to confess.

Unable to coerce a confession out of the suspect, police tried another tactic. Chief of Detectives Gaston went undercover as a fellow prisoner and had himself locked in with Newkirk on the night of Tuesday, August 18. He befriended the man and tried to prompt Newkirk to share what, if anything, he knew about the crime. The two talked into the wee hours of the morning but Newkirk said nothing to implicate himself. Come morning, Gaston walked away convinced of the man’s sincerity and his innocence.

Meanwhile, the biggest piece of circumstantial evidence against Newkirk collapsed. On Saturday, August 22, Neiderlander neighbors identified the ladder and chisel as belonging to the Neiderlanders and as having been placed there the night of the murder by Arthur Neiderlander after his wife locked him out of the house.

A fall-back theory of the crime held Newkirk an opportunist who had come upon the ladder and open window and siezed the opportunity to be avenged on his enemies. How he had just happened to be armed with knife and gun while out for a late night stroll presented a problem though.

In the end, with nothing but Newkirk’s threats to connect him to the crime, police gave in and admitted they had nothing. Even his threats against the Neiderlanders couldn’t be taken seriously. In the past few weeks, Newkirk had threatened to kill half of Sellsville. He said “I’m going to kill you.” the same way other people say “Good morning.” It meant nothing. It was the irrational utterance of an insane man.

Guilty or not, Newkirk was still a madman. The ordeal of arrest, interrogation, and jail had stripped away the last few tattered remnants of John Newkirk’s sanity. He was now absolutely, stark, raving mad. Newkirk was convinced that he was being pursued by persons or entities determined to destroy him. The Mafia, the Black Hand, relatives of the victims of an Athens County mine disaster, and ghosts were all numbered among his persecutors. He claimed to see them coming through the walls of his jail cell and alternated between cowering in terror in a corner and flailing wildly at his phantom attackers.

Alienists Drs. R.C. Tarbell and G.T. Harding were called in to examine Newkirk and certified his insanity. The declareed him to be suffering from a progressive, degenerative disease of the mind for at least the past seven years that had lead to his hallucinations, paranoia, and irrational rages. The alienists concluded that Newkirk was a danger to himself and others and should be committed.

Newkirk was finally released from the madhouse in 1925. After 17 years commitment, the authories claimed he had “improved.” He would have been about 53. What became of him afterwards, history does not record.

In January 1933, Harry E. French, Chief of Police at the time of the slayings, told his story to Frank H. Ward, Columbus Police Detective and author of a crime column for the city’s tabloid newspaper The Columbus Star. Looking back to the events of that summer twenty-five years ago, French had little to add. The clues were just as baffling and self-contradictory in 1933 as they had been in 1908. Nothing new had surfaced in the intervening quarter-century. French thought the police had probably gotten their man with John Newkirk but he wasn’t certain beyond doubt. Yes, Newkirk was a madman and armed and dangerous and yes, he had threatened the lives of the Neiderlanders and shown himself to be obssessed the imagined wrong they had done him but for every clue that pointed towards him there was just as fine a clue pointing away. As the interview ended, French mused: “ I wonder what a good defense attorney might have made of Newkirk’s case.”

THEORY 6: Mysterious parties unknown.

The late Stuart Holbrook, one of America’s most reknown commentators on crime as folklore, noted in his Murder Out Yonder (1941) that no crime ever obtains folklore status in America without the inclusion in the story of shadowy, mysterious parties unknown who just happen to be heard or seen by some witness in proximity of the crime scene. Typically, these parties have never been seen in the area before and are never seen again afterwards. To the extent they interact with anyone, they are terse, laconic, and cryptic. In their appearance and conduct they are almost reminiscent of the UFO mythos’ Men in Black, except that some of them are women. The Neiderlander murder is no exception to this iron law of folklore. It too has its mysterious strangers

A neighbor of the Neiderlanders, living approximately opposite from them on King Ave. recalled having been awoken about midnight Saturday the 15th by the sound of a buggy in the street outside. The buggy stopped in front of the Neiderlander store and the woman rose from her bed to see what was going on. Two men were its passengers. The darkness of the night concealed any details of their identity. She heard one man say to the other, “Do you think it will be safe to go in from the side?”

Thinking she was about to witness a burglary, the woman called for her sleeping husband. The men in the rig heard her and started to drive away to the east. Afterwards she watched out the window for a time. She believed that the men doubled back and pulled up at the rear of the store. But in the darkness she couldn’t be certain. She went to sleep and heard nothing of the crime.

Probability-wise, murder of the Neiderlanders by complete strangers was unlikely. Murder by strangers is rare and was even less common in 1908 than today. It happened but not often. Most people kill people for a reason and people don’t have reasons to kill persons they don’t know. Also, home invasion murders are a rare thing. Attacking unknown persons, who may be armed, in their home, which the defenders know and the killer does not, is too risky a proposition for most criminals. It’s also worth noting that thrill killers and psychopaths don’t usually travel in pairs. They are, by nature, solitary hunters. The buggy story just didn’t add up. Finally, none of the scenarios spun around the mysterious buggy and its passengers could explain why Louise’s killer picked up her body, crashed with it through the glass of the door, carried it 30 feet into the street, and dumped it into the ditch.
Eyewitness and physical evidence supporting the mysterious stranger theory was also in short suppply. Police investigated the neighbor’s tale but found it wanting. No other witnesses had seen or heard the mysterious buggy or its occupants. In the tall dusty grass around the back of the house, investigators had found no signs of a buggy’s passage. No wheeltracks. No hoofprints. No flattened grass. Two sets of unknown shoeprints were found in a muddy, low place near the Hoy property but there was nothing to connect them to the crime.


Old John Neiderlander and his wife lived on the neighborhood until their death sometime during the First World War. Their simple headstone stands in Greenlawn cemetary not far from the unmarked grave of Arthur and Louise. According to city directories, Neiderlander’s brother Edward and his wife maintained their residence on King Avenue until the early Twenties before moving south to Third Avenue and then, a few years later, quitting the city.

After the murder, the bloodstained store was never reopened but left empty and untended to slowly rot and decay for the next decade or so. It was probably demolished around the time Northwest Blvd. was built but no one noted the old ruin’s passage.

The city by and large forgot about the murder but, in Sellsville, it became the stuff of legend. For decades afterwards, the story was told and retold, growing more elaborate, dramatic, and mysterious with each retelling. The final versions bore little resemblance to what had actually happened. Schoolchildren of the area appended a ghost story to the Neiderlander legend. Supposedly a phantom woman in a bloody white gown could be seen, late on a ot August night, running from the ruins of the Neiderlander store, dashing across King Avenue, and disapppering at the spot where her body had been discovered.  In many versions of the tale the phantom was headless and some had her pursued by the fiery-eyed ghost of her husband, wildly swinging a meat cleaver.

As the Neiderlander murder was making the transition from true crime to folklore, the area was changing. In the Teens and Twenties, the growing city of Columbus annexed the area. The dirt roads and country lanes were straightened and paved, water, gas, electric, and sewer service were extended to the area, and developers turned the fields, farms, and forests of Sellsville into houses, apartments, and stores. Thousands of new residents poured into the area. The rural village became a streetcar suburb.  In 1927, work was begun on a new street, Northwest Boulevard, a hundred foot wide, four lane boulevard to provide a direct route between Upper Arlington and downtown Columbus. With the completion of the last leg of boulevard in 1937, the transition of the area from country to city was complete.