Sin and Redemption: The Augusta Bartz Murder of 1896

   The grass was ready to turn from brown to green, and some of the trees had started to bud new leaves in anticipation of warmer weather.  Birds and other animals were building nests and dens. It was April 1896, and spring was returning to Iowa.

   All of this was lost on Herman Boek as he stood alone; face grim, thinking, and waiting. Boek had come to a decision, and was determined to carry it through to the bitter end.

   A few short months ago, Boek’s wife, Mathilda, had left him again. But this time, it was different. This time, she had filed for divorce. Going back to stay with her parents for a time was bad enough, but divorce? That was unacceptable. She belonged to him.

   Rage burned in Boek’s soul like a fire, consuming thoughts of mercy and reconciliation. No, he would have none of this. She had to pay.    

   Boek had plenty of time to think things through. It was Sunday morning near New Hampton, and he knew that the family was going to be at church. They had to pass through the crossroads close to where he now stood, and when they did, Boek was going to make sure that she paid.

   He took a deep breath of spring air, feeling it expand his chest, holding it in. The double-barreled –shotgun, the tool with which he would repay Matilda for her transgressions, felt good in his rough, stonemasons’ hands. He exhaled slowly, and continued to watch down the road.

   Soon, he could hear the sound of an approaching wagon. Boek became alert, his eyes widening a little and muscles tensing with anticipation. Yes, that was their wagon. It was Matilda in the middle, between her father, Michael Bartz, and her younger brother, Michael Jr.

   It was time.

   Boek walked into the middle of the crossroad, gun stock against his shoulder. He leveled the barrel at Matilda, and when the wagon got a little closer, he fired.

   The gun roared, striking the young woman square in the chest. Some of the shot hit her brother and father as well, but Herman didn’t care. They had allowed Matilda to divorce him, so it was only right that they should pay, too.

   Michael, who was driving, urged the horses forward and away from the murderous Boek. As they passed, Boek fired again, his second shot as true as the first. The wagon continued down the road, while Boek, satisfied, walked away.

Lynch Mob

   News of the shooting spread quickly. The Bartz family was very well liked, and the sheriff, along with several locals, began to comb the area, searching for Herman Boek.

   It didn’t take long for Boek to hear that people were looking for him. While some were satisfied letting the courts choose his fate, there were others that would see him swinging from a tree at the end of a rope.

    Boek must have feared being caught by these more murderous residents of the county, and so made his way to the county jail to turn himself in. Better safe behind bars than dead.  

   When he arrived, Boek ran inside and begged for sanctuary from the only person who was there – the sheriff’s mother. The older woman agreed.

   Not too long after, a group of people came to the building, looking for Boek. Somehow, they must have heard that he was in the area, and they were probably determined to see him pay for his crime that very afternoon.

   The sheriff’s mother took all of this in stride. She went to the cell where Boek was staying and told him to lie on the floor and not to make a sound. Once he had complied, she went to greet the mob at the front door.

   They demanded to know if Boek was there. She told them simply that her son was out looking for him, and that she had every confidence that he would bring Boek back with him at any time. They walked away, seeking Herman elsewhere. She had just saved his life.

   When the sheriff returned, he was probably pleased to see that Boek had turned himself in. However, he had news for Herman.

   It wasn’t Matilda that had been shot, but rather her younger sister, Augusta. Matilda had decided to stay home from church that morning, but had allowed Augusta to wear her hat and cloak.

   Although he first claimed that the shooting was accidental, Boek eventually admitted that he had thought it was Mathilda, and that he had made a mistake. Either way, young Augusta Bartz was dead by his hand.

Trial

   Boek was quickly put on trial for the murder of Augusta Bartz. His defensive team said that he was insane, and that it ran in his family.  

   The prosecution argued that after Herman and Mathilda had been married in 1892, Herman would leave his wife, and later his children, for extended periods of time. During those periods, he refused to provide anything for them, including food, clothes, or other basic necessities.

   Instead, Michael Bartz would make sure that his daughter and grandchildren were taken care of at his own expense. Soon after, Herman would return and take everything from the house and go live with his mother. Mathilda and the children had little choice other than to move into her parent’s home.

   Finally, Michael stepped in and got the young couple to reconcile. To help them even further, Michael helped them to purchase forty acres of land near New Hampton. The couple moved onto the new property and settled in.

   It didn’t take long for Herman’s true colors to show through again, however. He once again began withholding any kind of support for his family, and, to make matters worse, began to physically abuse Mathilda.

   The beatings were severe enough that once, while Herman was beating his wife, Augusta came up behind him with a club and struck him over the head, knocking him unconscious.

    In late 1895, Herman threatened to kill Mathilda by shot at her with his shotgun. The authorities were notified, and they arrested Boek on the charge of Assault to Commit Great Bodily Injury.

   For Mathilda, this was the final straw. She had put up with Herman’s abuse for long enough, and she was done. She took her children and moved back in with her parents. Shortly thereafter, Mathilda filed for divorce. The court granted it and awarded her custody of the children.   

   According to the prosecution, the murder wasn’t a hunting accident, or a sudden deranged whim of an insane mind. It was a determined, willful, and premediated killing at the hands of a sane and bitter man.

   Perhaps worst of all was the details of the crime itself.

   While Michael and Michael Jr. had been shot, they hadn’t been the main targets and were expected to make a full recovery. Poor, innocent Augusta, however, had lingered on at the Bartz home, mortally wounded from shotgun wounds in her chest and back.

   The family was left to care for her, aware of the fact that even though a doctor was on their way, Augusta was going to die anyway. They probably did all they could, but her wounds were so bad that she actually coughed up shotgun shot and pieces of her shredded clothing that had been dragged into her lungs as the shotgun blasts tore through her body.

   When the doctor did arrive, it was too late. Augusta passed away soon after.

    It probably wasn’t a surprise to Boek and his defense attorneys that he was going to be found guilty. Herman could very well hang for murder, so  he agreed to plead guilty on the condition that he would serve a life sentence. After all, life behind bars is still a life, and dead is still dead.  

   Herman Boek was convicted of First Degree Murder and sentenced to life in prison. Although there were many that would have preferred to watch him hang, the decision had been made.

Prison Life

    Boek was first sent to Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa, and then later to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa. After serving several years at these institutions, he was finally sent to the Woodward State Hospital near Boone, Iowa, where he worked as a trusty.

 

Iowa-State-Penitentiary
Iowa State Penitentiary, Fort Madison, Iowa. (Courtesy of Google Images)

 

   Trusty’s were prisoners who could be… well, trusted. They had exhibited model behavior, and could get along with both other inmates and guards. Trusty’s did several jobs, including laundry and groundskeeping.

   Boek had served his entire sentence, which amounted to over two decades by the time he was sent to Woodward, without a blemish. He was a model prisoner who was the very picture of rehabilitation. Unfortunately for him, this was not enough to earn parole. He had tried several times, and every attempt was unsuccessful.

   That is, until 1934.

Freedom

   Herman Boek was 74. He was old and bent from both age and life in prison, and he wanted to die as a free man. True, he had committed grave sins when he was a younger man, but he had lived a blemish-free life behind prison walls for several decades.

   After much deliberation, the state of Iowa decided to commute Boek’s sentence and granted him parole in 1934. He was to serve another year on probation, after which time he would be eligible for release.

   Probation wasn’t a problem for Boek. It was arranged that he would serve his probation period at Woodward, where he had already lived for so long. The only difference was that he was going to get a raise in pay.

   After nearly four decades in prison, one more year wasn’t a problem for Herman Boek. In 1935, he was granted an official pardon and became a free man.

 

Herman Boek and Dr Alton Smith
Herman Boek (Right) shakes hands with the acting superintendant of the Woodward State Hospital, Dr. Alton Smith. (Courtesy of The Des Moines Register)

 

   Although he could have gone anywhere and done anything, Herman didn’t want anything to do with a world that had changed so much while he had been in prison. He decided to keep his job at Woodward and remain in a place that he was familiar with. After a short visit with a relative in Minnesota, Herman Boek returned to Woodward, and quietly lived out the rest of his days there.

   Was he really rehabilitated? Some would have said yes, and others would have given a definite no. The fact of the matter was that at 75, Herman Boek was a free man, and could live out the rest of his days as he saw fit.

   Did he feel remorse for what he had done that spring day in 1896?

   Who can say? The question is ultimately up for the observer to decide.

   Ultimately, it remains that Herman Boek was alive. A life behind bars for forty years is still a life, and dead, as Augusta Bartz and her family learned, was still dead.

  

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