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The Accidentally Deliberate Murder of Augusta Bartz

Fall is a transitional season.

The temperatures start to get a little colder, and the trees start to change their colors. They showcase the beautiful golds, reds, and oranges that the season is known for. It is also one of the many reasons Fall is also my favorite season.

About a week ago at the time of this writing, there was just a hint of Autumn chill in the air. Most of the day, people were walking around pretty comfortably in sweatshirts and jeans. There was a little bit of light rain, but that also was pretty manageable. A few hours later, a cold front blew in and dropped the thermometer to the lower 30’s. That light rain turned into two inches of snow by morning. That, inevitably, led into more yet snow the next day.

Halloween, the night when so many parents take their kids out trick or treating, was promising to be cold and nasty. Normally, everyone would just dress warm underneath their costumes and come out little worse for wear. Now, with temperatures in the 20’s, some city officials were looking into cancelling the festivities.

Thankfully, no one really thought it was necessary and everything went on as planned.

Sometimes in life, things look like smooth sailing ahead, but don’t turn out the way we think they’re going to when a proverbial storm rolls in. In 1892, an Iowa family learned that lesson in a very deadly way.

   It was a beautiful day in Chickasaw County.

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.

This was not lost on Michael Bartz and his two passengers as their buggy rode along the road to church. His son, Michael Jr., sat beside him, and his 16-year-old daughter, Augusta, sat alone in the back seat. They were dressed for Sunday service; Michael Jr. wearing dark clothing to his sister’s blue dress and plush cloak that she had borrowed from her older sister. Michael adored his children, and was happy for their company this fine day.

It must have been difficult to imagine anything negative marring their morning, and yet there  was Herman Boek, standing in the road. Michael didn’t care for Herman, and for good reason.

   Like Michael, Herman had been born in Germany, and then later immigrated to Iowa with his mother, Conradina, and stepfather, Michael Ross. A short, strong man, he had begun working as a stonemason.

Herman Boek
Herman Boek

Michael had first met Herman shortly after his arrival in Chickasaw County. He must have seemed a like a good-enough fellow, because he never seemed to object to the young man courting Mathilda, his oldest daughter. Nor did he seem to object when they were married in 1892.

Unfortunately, it was after they were wed that the problems began.

Like many new couples, the two would argue. Sometimes Herman would drink too much. But the real issue was that Herman would leave his wife for extended periods of time.

He worked with brick and stone, and as such it’s understandable that he would have to occasionally travel to where the jobs were. The problem was that when he left, he didn’t bother to provide for his wife and later his oldest daughter, Amelia.

No food. No money. No necessary goods. Not anything.

Of course, Michael and his wife, Henrietta, would step in and help them out. What else could be expected? Mathilda was his daughter, after all, and he certainly wasn’t going to let her or his beloved granddaughter starve.

It’s hard to know what Michael thought of all of this. He could have thought that Herman was being forgetful when he went off to work, or that he was being deliberately neglectful out of spite. Whatever his opinions were, he stepped in and helped as he could.

Finally, Mathilda and Herman split up. He went back to live with his mother and stepfather on their farm, while she moved back in with Michael.

Thoughts on marriage were different in the late 1800’s, and divorce was almost always a tool of last resort. Marriage, except perhaps in the worst cases, was always worth saving and preserving. Sometimes, though, they just needed a little push in the right direction before they got things figured out.

Michael Bartz took it upon himself to step in and get the young couple to reconcile. To sweeten the deal, he helped them to buy a 40-acre farm near the town of New Hampton. A hard-working family could easily manage a farm of this size, and perhaps sharing the chores on something that they could call their own would strengthen their bond and bring them closer together.

The couple moved onto the property, apparently with the understanding that Herman would take over the payments for it. In spite of having a second daughter together, this unfortunately didn’t happen. Almost immediately, the stonemason fell back into his old habits. Only this time, things got worse.

Not only did he stop providing any kind of support for his family, but when he was there, he would physically and verbally abuse Mathilda. Once, he decided to beat her in front of her sister, Augusta. The girl, though young, was not about to stand there and meekly watch as Herman beat his wife.

Taking a club, she walked up behind him and hit him as hard as she could. Herman fell to the floor, knocked cold by Augusta’s blow.

Finally, the final straw for the marriage came in late 1895. Herman threatened to kill Mathilda with his shotgun. The authorities were notified, and they arrested Boek on the charge of Assault to Commit Great Bodily Injury.

Although he was in jail for now, Mathilda knew it was only a matter of time before he was released. When he was, the cycle would probably start all over again. She had put up with Herman’s abuse for long enough, and she was done. She took her children and moved back to her parent’s farm. Boek was bailed out and promptly moved back in with his mother.

In November 1895, Mathilda filed for divorce. On February 22, 1896, the court granted it to her and awarded her custody of the children.

In later years, the Bartz family attorney stated flatly that Boek was personally informed that Mathilda had filed for divorce. Herman claimed that he had no idea, and that the whole thing came as a great shock to him. Either way, the divorce was both official and final. Their stormy marriage was finally over.

Despite his previous behavior towards his now ex-wife, Boek seemed to be greatly upset by the divorce. His mother and stepfather would later recall how he had acted insane when he found out that Mathilda had divorced him. That night, he was convinced that Conradina had taken his youngest daughter and hid her so that he couldn’t find her. His behavior was bizarre and terrifying.

As soon as this temporary insanity had struck him, it seemingly left. The next day, he returned to his normal, everyday behavior. Life seemingly went on.

   When the Bartz’s passed Herman on the road that day, Michael didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about him. He looked just as he always had. Still, that didn’t mean that he was happy to see his ex-son-in-law. The feeling must have been at least somewhat mutual, because neither spoke to the other as the buggy passed on its way to the church.

The church service was uneventful. At about 2 p.m., the Bartz’s climbed back into their buggy and started for home. As they rode, Augusta couldn’t help but tell her father how beautiful the day was. All was well with the world.

   Further down the road, all of nature’s beauty and fair weather was lost on Herman Boek as he stood alone; face grim, thinking, and waiting. He was waiting near the crossroads where he had seen the Bartz’s buggy pass by earlier. It was only a matter of time before they came back through on their way home.

The double-barreled shotgun felt comfortable in his rough hands. Herman had come to a decision, and today was the day that he was going to see it through. Like a hunter, he waited, eager for any sign or sound of his intended prey.

Eventually, his patience was rewarded. In the distance, he could hear the clatter of the Bartz’s buggy. Even through his drunken haze, he could still feel himself growing more alert with anticipation. It was time.

   As they approached the crossroads, Michael could see Herman, walking quickly through the field alongside the road. Before long, Herman had outpaced the buggy, and moved out ahead of them. When he got a certain distance out, he turned, and then began walking back toward the Bartz’s.

Before he reached the buggy, Herman stepped off to the side of the road, waiting for the family to pass. Michael and his children looked at him, curious as to what he was doing. That’s when they saw the shotgun.

When the front buggy wheels were about even with him, Herman raised the muzzle of the gun and fired at Augusta. As the lead shot slammed toward its target, some it it hit Michael Jr. first, leaving a vicious tear in his side. The bulk of it, though, struck home in Augusta’s chest.

The horses, frightened by the sudden gunfire, started to run. As they went past, Herman raised the shotgun to his shoulder, this time sighting down the barrel at the already wounded girl. He fired his second shot into her back, with a few stray shot pieces hitting Michael.

Michael, terrified that Herman would try to shoot them again, let the horses run the rest of the way home. He was desperate to get to his house and get help for his grievously injured daughter.

They took Augusta inside as gently as they could, and sent for a doctor. Two doctors, named Babcock and Gardner, answered the call. Both seasoned medical practitioners, they went immediately to tend to the injured girl.

Despite their experience, the two men must have been horrified at the girl’s condition. The bird shot had caused around one hundred and fifty wounds in her chest and back. As gently as they could, the men removed nearly fifty pieces before deciding that there was nothing else they could do.

Despite having a collapsed lung and extensive internal bleeding, Augusta Bartz’s mind stayed sharp. She knew that she was going to die, and told one of the doctors that. Sadly, he agreed.

Resigned to her fate, she summoned her family to her bedside. She asked for them to all pray together, first for her, and then for Herman Boek. Even knowing that she was dying and having looked her murderer in the face as he pulled the trigger, Augusta insisted on asking God to forgive him.

After the prayers, Augusta chose her pallbearers and picked out her casket. As she lay there, waiting to die, she coughed up pieces of shot and clothing that had been carried into her lungs. By morning, the brave and forgiving girl was dead.

News of the shooting spread quickly. The Bartz family was very well liked, and several locals joined the sheriff in searching for Herman. Little did they know that after murdering Augusta, he had walked back to New Hampton and turned himself in at the jail.

After he had been locked away in a cell, Herman confessed that he had made a mistake. He said that he thought that he had been shooting his wife, but realized that it had been his sister-in-law. Allegedly, Herman had thought that because Augusta had been wearing his ex-wife’s cloak.

Michael thought that Herman was lying. When they had passed by each other on the road that morning, the grieving father said that Boek must have seen that it was Augusta. She wasn’t wearing anything that would have obscured her face, and her and Mathilda didn’t really look alike.

When he had turned himself in, Herman had already confessed to the murder. There were also eyewitnesses who had watched him do it. When he was brought to trial, the question wasn’t necessarily if he was going to be incarcerated, but rather, where.

Boek was charged with first-degree murder. The prosecution believed that he had deliberately and willfully planned and carried out the crime. They believed that he was still angry at his ex-wife and her family after the divorce, and the attack was in retaliation for that. If he was found to be sane, then Herman would probably be looking not only a life sentence, but also the death penalty.

Herman’s defense contended that he was insane, and hadn’t been in his right mind during the murder. They further argued that mental instability ran in his family, so it was a logical conclusion that he might suffer from some from some of the same delusions as some of his ancestors.

If he was adjudged to be insane, then Herman wouldn’t be able to be held responsible for his actions. Through reasons of mental illness, he wouldn’t have been able to understand the difference between right and wrong. Herman would then more than likely be confined to a mental institution.

During his trial, the jury listened to Michael and Michael Jr. talk about how Boek had waited for them in the road with the shotgun. Drs. Babcock and Gardiner described the horrible wounds that Augusta Bartz had sustained.

Conradina and Michael Ross both testified that Herman had seemingly not been in his right mind the night that he was informed his divorce was final. His mother went on to explain that his birth father in Germany had suffered from mental illness.

Starting when Herman was only about four years old, his father would wander off. His brother, Herman’s uncle, would then have to go and bring him home. They said that the man had a bad memory.

Herman’s father would also speak gibberish to people, not making any sense to anyone. Further, he would open the front of his clothes and expose himself to whomever he saw fit.

Conradina’s own father, Gottlieb Boek, was an alleged alcoholic who suffered fits and dizzy spells.

After a few days, the defense determined that the trial was not going in their favor. In order to save their client from a death sentence, they talked Herman into pleading guilty. Having no desire to hang, Boek changed his plea and was convicted of First-Degree Murder.

Many people in Chickasaw County were still very angry, and the authorities were afraid that they might try to lynch Herman. To prevent this, they took him to Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa, as soon as the sentencing was complete.

Later, he was sent to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa, where he was incarcerated for a number of years. The entire time, he never got into any trouble and maintained a flawless prison record.

In about 1919, he was sent to the Woodward State Hospital in Boone County, Iowa. Herman continued to behave well, and got along with everyone there. As a trusty, an inmate granted special privileges for long-term good behavior, Herman used his skills as a mason to lay brick in many of the buildings there.

He was so well trusted that in 1927, the Governor of Iowa at the time, John Hammill, allowed Herman to visit his mother in Chickasaw County for Christmas. It was the first time that he had been to her home in thirty years. At the end of the time the Governor had allotted him, Herman dutifully left and returned to Woodward.

By 1934, Herman was 74-years-old. He had been in prison for most of his life. Now, he was an old man, and when he died, he wanted to do it as a free man. Herman had tried to get parole in the past, but had always been denied.

Late that year, the state of Iowa commuted Herman’s sentence, at long last granting him parole. The staff at Woodward were kind enough to allow him to serve out his probation period there. Herman would be doing the same tasks, but now he would do it at a higher rate of pay.

Herman was ecstatic. He planned to serve his probation, and then move to Minnesota and live with one of his stepbrothers. After being a prisoner for so long, Herman could last one more year.

The following year, he was granted a pardon and officially released. While he had initially had great plans, his attitude toward moving away had changed dramatically. He made a brief visit to Minnesota, and then returned to Woodward. Herman choose to live there the rest of his life, comfortable in a corner of the world that he was familiar with.

Herman Boek had made many poor choices when he was younger. He had a good wife, but had ruined his marriage by being abusive. He drank too much, and had been an absentee father and husband. Ultimately, he chose to murder an innocent girl because he was drunk and angry with his ex-wife.

Prison life, however, had seemed to agree with him. He was a model prisoner, even earning the respect of the Woodward Hospital staff. Herman’s behavior was rewarded when the state of Iowa declared that he had paid the price for murdering Augusta Bartz.

Perhaps the dying girl’s prayers that he would be forgiven had been finally been answered decades after Herman Boek took her life.

Was he really rehabilitated? Some would have said yes, and still 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 you to decide.

No matter what, it remained 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.

   You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every other week to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland. 

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