The mid 1800’s was a time of intense migration from Western Europe to the United States. Millions of immigrants made their way across the Atlantic to settle anywhere and everywhere.
They came for many reasons, but ultimately, they all amounted to one thing – to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Davenport, IA was a great place to settle during this time, especially if you were German. Home to a thriving German community that had been established in the 1840’s, Davenport had a strong economic base that offered jobs and opportunities. Perhaps best of all, you could speak German while learning to speak better English and learn American laws and customs.
In 1870, W. Koenig came there to seize some of that opportunity.
A school teacher by trade, Koenig came with his wife and two small children, ages two and four. He had been moderately successful in Germany, and he brought his silver and good furniture with him. Koenig was ready to take his success to new heights.
However, almost as soon as they came to Davenport, the Koenig family began to meet with misfortune.
Koenig himself couldn’t find work. He couldn’t speak English, and was unable to find work in his profession in either German or English-speaking circles. With a family to support, he had no choice but to turn to manual labor.
Koenig was unaccustomed to the hard physicality of the profession, and it took a toll on him. Worse yet, it didn’t pay very well and the family quickly spent the little money that they had brought with them.
Worse still, his wife grew ill and her health began to decline. She was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that rendered her all but blind. Her sickly condition left her unable to work or get around very well.
With their situation growing worse every week, the Koenig’s started to sell some of their silver and furniture, but it wasn’t worth as much as they had hoped.
They both became depressed. Having made the journey to America was hard enough, but now to meet with such abject defeat! Things seemed hopeless, and yet they plodded forward, still trying their best to make things work.
Along the way, Koenig had met a German tailor named Jacob Rohlfs. Although not wealthy, he lived comfortably. Koenig would come and visit him at his shop, and the two became friends.
On the night of August 20, 1870, Koenig had stopped in for just such a visit. At about 10 o’clock, the two decided to call it a night and left while Rohlfs went to bed.
Shortly before midnight, Rohlfs was awakened by the sound of someone pounding on his front door. When he answered it, Rohlfs found Koenig on his doorstep.
Probably somewhat upset at having been woken up, he asked Koenig what he wanted. Almost as soon as he asked, however, the tailor realized that there was something amiss.
Koenig was soaking wet from the waist down, and there was something troubling about his attitude.
“If I tell you something, could you wait until tomorrow to tell anyone else?” Koenig asked Rohlfs.
Not sure what to say, Rohlfs said that he would, and brought Koenig inside. After a moment, Koenig began to tell his story.
A Nightmarish Homecoming
After he had left earlier, Koenig had gone home to his rooming house near 2nd Street and Warren Street. He hadn’t expected anyone to be awake when he got there, so wasn’t surprised to find the front room dark and quiet.
Taking a candle, he lit it and made his way across the room. As he did, he noticed something on the floor. With horror, he realized that it was one of his children, lying motionless next to a bucket of water.
He began to look for the rest of the family. In the other room of the apartment, he found the other child, also dead.
Koenig began to search for his wife, the only one unaccounted for. He found her outside, sitting near the well. Distraught, he asked her about the children.
She looked at Koenig and told him that she had drowned them. Shocked, he asked why.
Mrs. Koenig explained that they had no money, no hope, no future. Her health was gone, he couldn’t find a job. It was better that they all die together than to go on living the way that they had.
Koenig ignored her. Instead, he grabbed his wife by the hand and brought her back into the house. Once inside, he carried his two children to his bed and tried desperately to revive them.
While he was doing that, his wife left out the door, seeking to drown herself in the well. Koenig brought her back in, then resumed his desperate attempt to bring his children back to life.
After a few cycles of doing this, however, Koenig finally allowed himself to accept the horrible truth – his children were dead, and his wife was to blame. As the shock came into him, all hope started to drain from him, and he abandoned himself to the depths of his despair.
His wife explained to him that all was lost. The only way out of their problems was to join their children in death. In his misery, Koenig agreed.
After some discussion, they decided to throw themselves into the well and drown. Koenig took his wife by the hand, and led her to the well. They stood there for a moment, then stepped forward and jumped in.
The couple fell eighteen feet into the water below. When they hit bottom, the Koenig’s laid down in the water to drown. His wife, with an almost inhuman will, held herself under the water until she died.
Koenig tried to follow suit, but he couldn’t do it. Gasping, he decided to shoot himself instead.
He slowly climbed his way out of the well, then made his way into the house to find his gun. But when he saw his children lying there, he couldn’t bring himself to commit suicide. Instead, Koenig determined that he should go tell Rohlfs about what had happened.
When Koenig was finished telling his story, Rohlfs was stunned. After gathering himself for a moment, he told Koenig that he needed to see for himself what had happened. Koenig agreed, and together the men set off.
When they got to Koenig’s house, Rohlf’s woke a few neighbors and told them what had happened, and with their help began to search the premise.
They found the bodies of the children in the house, and Mrs. Koenig in the well, just like Koenig had said. Rohlfs and the others climbed down and removed her body, placing it in the yard.
True to his word, Rohlf waited until the next day to contact the police. They came, arrested Koenig, and began their investigation.
A coroner’s inquest was held, and several people were interviewed. By the end of the testimony, they found Koenig innocent of killing his children, but determined that he should stand trial for helping his wife to commit suicide.
Ultimately, Koenig was found innocent and released. With nothing left here for him, he returned home to Germany.
A few years later, news arrived from Germany that Koenig had died. On his deathbed, he had made a shocking confession as to what had happened that terrible night.
He claimed that it was he and the mother together who had drowned their children, and then he had helped her commit suicide.
By this time, the matter was of little consequence. The two poor children were long dead, tragically cut short by their own parents. The wife had long since gone on to whatever punishment awaited her in the afterlife, and now Koenig himself had joined her.
Many people who came to America were able to seize hold of better opportunities for themselves and their families. They bettered their lot in life, and oftentimes helped to enrich their communities along the way.
But, like the Koenig Family, not everyone did, and were lost along the long road to success and prosperity.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.
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‘A Triple Murder.’ Daily Davenport Democrat, 8/22/1870
‘The Koenig Tragedy.’ Daily Davenport Democrat, 8/23/1870
‘Grand Jury.’ Daily Davenport Democrat, 11/26/1870
‘The Koenig Tragedy: A Deathbed Confession.’ Daily Davenport Democrat, 5/11/1872
‘History of Scott County, Iowa.’ Chicago; Inter-state Publishing Co, 1882
3 thoughts on “Midnight Tragedy: The Koenig Family Murder/Suicide of 1870”
Oh so sad ,but interesting to read.
Thank you for reading, Ethel!
Sooo tragic. Sad that America didn’t offer the opportunities this family expected. Thanks for showing us a grim chapter in our area history, John. Cyndy Bauer