Some have said that the most dangerous people that you can ever come across are people that have nothing to lose.
They aren’t going to lose any social standing. They’re not going to lose the respect or love of their family. They’re broke, so they’re not going to be losing anything financially. These individuals have everything to gain.
So, if they decide to climb aboard a transport ship to a new world, what risk are they really taking? They have nothing where they’re at. They can die just as easily on a sea voyage as they could at home. I mean, why not take the plunge and take that chance?
In the 19th century, there were many who did just that, making something of themselves and hardly ever looking back. But what about the people who did have something to lose?
They had stable lives, with sources of steady income that had made them at least moderately wealthy. Their friends, family, and professional connections were all right there, tying them securely down. Still, they might only be able to make it so far in the homeland. Social and societal constraints might be holding them back, keeping them from achieving as much as they would like.
But there, across the cold Atlantic, was a beacon of opportunity shining forth like a bonfire in the fog. In the New World, they might be able to achieve just as much as they already had, and maybe a lot more.
The mid to late 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, what they all wanted to do was to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The city of Davenport, Iowa was a great place for them to settle. While other immigrant groups, such as the Irish, had also successfully settled there, Davenport’s German community was especially strong.
In the late 1840’s a group of individuals from northern Germany had been forced to flee their homeland after a failed rebellion. Many of them were intellectuals and professionals that had wanted to make their home better. When they eventually settled in Davenport, that desire hadn’t been diminished.
They were determined to make their new city a better place, and used all of their considerable knowledge and drive to make that happen. They were instrumental in building a German community that embraced their new homeland while celebrating their cultural heritage.
German immigrants settling into the area later in the 19th century found themselves surrounded by people who shared the same language, culture, and customs as they did. Along with that, Davenport had a strong economic base that offered jobs and opportunities for many of these new arrivals.
In 1870, William Koenig walked into Davenport with his wife and two small children, ready to seize some of the opportunity that America promised.
Back in Germany, he had been a moderately successful school teacher. While certainly not wealthy, William did have some nice furniture and belongings, which the family had brought with them. Like so many immigrants during those times, Koenig and his family settled down and prepared to build upon their previous life successes and take them to even greater heights.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out the way that they had planned. Almost as soon as they arrived in Davenport, the family met with misfortune.
First, William couldn’t find work as a teacher. Part of the problem was the language barrier. He couldn’t speak English, which kept him from finding work in his chosen field, or anywhere else that would have required a certain fluency in the language. Worse still, William couldn’t find any decent jobs anywhere else, either.
He was between a rock and hard place. Desperate for a steady income, William began to look for any jobs that he could find. Unfortunately for him, they all involved low-paying manual labor, far from the better academic jobs he was accustomed to.
The hard physicality of his new profession took its toll on his body. He was unused to carrying heavy loads or using tools all day. His soft hands blistered and chafed, and his joints and muscles ached.
The Koenig family hadn’t brought very much money with them, and they quickly spent what little they had. The poor wages that William was earning didn’t cover their expenses, and the family soon fell into dire financial straits. This was further compounded my Mrs. Koenig’s poor health.
Soon after their arrival in Davenport, Mrs. Koenig suddenly took ill. Despite William’s best efforts, her health began to rapidly decline. A doctor diagnosed her with a degenerative eye disease that rendered her all but blind.
Mrs. Koenig’s sickly condition left her unable to get around the house very well without assistance, and there was absolutely no possibility of her working.
With their situation growing worse every week, the Koenig’s started to sell some of their nicer belongings to help pay their bills. When they took it in their finer silver and furniture wasn’t worth as much as they had hoped. While it had looked nice and gave the appearance of being expensive, the fact of the matter is that it was just average at best.
William and his wife soon settled into a deep depression. When they were in Germany, they had a good home and a dependable income. They had a good life. If Mrs. Koenig had gotten sick there, it might have been a blow to the family, but they would have been able to get through it.
But no. They had decided to give all that up, to gamble everything on the American dream. They had squandered all of their good fortune on a chance at something bigger and better, not fully appreciating what they had.
And now it was gone. The American dream had vanished when cruel reality had shattered their illusions and forced them to open their eyes. They rented cheap rooms, had no position, no money, and poor health. Things must have seemed hopeless.
However, in spite of everything, there was one bright spot in Williams life. In his short time in Davenport, he had been able to develop a friendship with a German tailor named Jacob Rohlfs.
On the night of August 20, 1870, William Koenig was visiting with Jacob at his shop. At about 10 o’clock, he left while Rohlfs went to bed.
Shortly before midnight, Rohlfs was awakened by the sound of someone pounding on his front door. Answering it, he found Koenig on his doorstep. Surprised and probably somewhat annoyed, Rohlfs asked his friend what he needed, but quickly realized that something was very wrong.
William was soaking wet from the waist down, and there was something strange about his attitude. He seemed far different from the relatively happy man that had left his shop such a short time before. William seemed distant, almost dazed.
“If I tell you something, could you wait until tomorrow to tell anyone else?” William asked.
Rohlfs stomach began to turn. What kind of a question was that? It was probably one that he didn’t want to know the answer to. But William was his friend, and was obviously in need of some kind of help.
Reluctantly, Rohlfs agreed to his friend’s request, and brought William inside. After a few tense moments, he began to speak.
William said that after he had left Rohlfs shop earlier, he had walked back to where his family was rooming near 2nd and Warren Streets. When he opened the front door, the rooms were dark. This came as no surprise. It was fairly late, and he hadn’t expected anyone to be awake when he got there.
Lighting a candle, William carefully made his way across the room. He assumed that everyone was asleep, and didn’t want to wake them.
As he did, he noticed something lying on the floor. It was too dark for William to quite make out what it was. Curious, he held the candle closer to it, allowing his eyes to adjust. Suddenly, he realized what it was.
There, lying motionless next to a bucket of water, was the unmoving body of one of his children. With a cry, he rushed to his child’s side, but it was far too late. The child was dead, apparently drowned in the bucket of water.
William immediately got up and started to look for the rest of the family. In the other room of the apartment he found his other child, also dead.
That still left his wife. He looked through the two-room apartment again, searching frantically. With her poor eyesight, she couldn’t have gotten far. William cried out for her, getting desperate. It was clear that she wasn’t inside the house, so he went out into the back yard.
There, to his relief, was Mrs. Koenig, sitting near a well that sat on the back side of the property. William crossed over to her, distraught. He asked her about the children, what had happened.
Calmly, she looked up at him and said that she had drowned them both.
“Why?” Mr. Koenig asked, shocked by her answer.
His wife explained that their situation was hopeless. They had no money. She was sick and he couldn’t find a good job. They were living in a poor apartment and might eventually even lose that. There was no future for them. It was better that they all die together than to go on living the way that they had.
William said nothing. He grabbed Mrs. Koenig’s hand and pulled her back into the house. Once inside, he carried his children to his bed and tried desperately to revive them.
While he was doing that, his wife went back outside. She had no intention of living, and had decided to commit suicide by drowning herself in the well. When he saw her start to walk out, William stopped his efforts to recitate his children and brought her back in. Back inside, he immediately went back to work on the two little ones.
This awful scene played itself out a few more times as Mrs. Rohlf tried to get to the backyard and William led her back inside.
After the last time, however, William finally allowed himself to believe what he had known all along – his children were gone, dead by their own mother’s hand. The hope that he had clung to so tightly began to slip away, leaving a terrible, aching despair in its place.
From where she sat, his wife spoke soothingly to him. She explained once again that everything that they had was lost. There was nothing left for them in this world. The only way that they could find an escape from their situation was to die and join their beloved children in death.
William, his soul feeling hollow in his grief, began to discuss the matter with his wife, talking it over as matter-of-factly as they would making a grocery list. Finally, they reached a conclusion.
The two would go to the well in the backyard and jump in, drowning together. The matter decided, William got up, crossed over, and took his wife by the hand. Gently, he guided her through the gloom and into the backyard, toward the well.
There, on the edge, he stared down at the dark, empty abyss that awaited below. Maybe they said a few last, loving words to each other, or perhaps they just stood, staring down at their fate. Whatever they did, it is certain that they both extended a foot outward and stepped out into the empty air.
Their stomachs lurched as they began to fall. There was a moment of complete weightlessness, like floating through the night sky. Then they hit the water below with a jolt. Remarkably, both of them were relatively unharmed by the impact. More surprising still, the water was shallow enough that they could stand on the bottom.
This was not what they had planned. They were supposed to hit bottom and sink into the well, drowning in its icy depths. Now William and his wife were standing in the cold water, wondering what to do next. They were both still determined to commit suicide, but options were much more limited at the bottom of the well.
Taking advantage of the only thing available, the Koenig’s laid down in the water. With an almost inhuman will, Mrs. Koenig held herself under the water until she died.
William said he tried to follow suit, but he just couldn’t do it. Gasping for air, he decided to shoot himself instead.
Slowly and deliberately, Koenig climbed his way up the wall of the well, and then went into the house to find his gun. The effort it took to climb out of the well had taken its toll, and William found himself too exhausted to lift his gun from where it lay on a high shelf.
As he lay there, he decided to go to his friend Jacob Rohlfs and tell him what happened. After the story had been told, he could take the gun and kill himself then.
When William finished telling his story, Rohlfs was stunned. After taking a moment to gather himself, he said that he needed to see what had happened with his own eyes. William agreed, and the two men left the shop.
When they got to the Koenig’s residence, Rohlfs woke up a few neighbors and told them what had happened. With their help, the tailor began to search the area for the Koenig family.
It didn’t take them long. Everything was just as William had said it would be. The bodies of the children were on the bed, and Mrs. Koenig was in the well. With some effort, Rohlfs and the others climbed down into the well, removed her body, and placed it in the yard.
True to his word, Rohlf waited until the next day to contact the police. When they arrived, they placed William under arrest and started an investigation into the events of the previous night.
The evidence pretty much spoke for itself. Both children had been forcibly drowned, and Mrs. Koenig had died by drowning, apparently in the well. Nothing physical contradicted the narrative presented by William Koenig.
That all started to change when the police and the coroner started their interviews during the coroner’s inquest.
One neighbor, Christina Peters, said that while Mrs. Koenig had told her that she wanted to go back to Germany, she still had a very positive attitude and bright outlook on life. She never showed any sign of depression or expressed a desire to commit suicide.
Claus Miller, one of the men who had helped remove Mrs. Koenig’s body from the well, said that he didn’t believe it was possible for the couple to have jumped into the shallow well without receiving some kind of injury.
Perhaps most telling of all was the testimony of Dr. Henry Wessel, Mrs. Koenig’s personal physician. He said that she was very positive, in spite of being told that she would never recover most of her eyesight. Wessel testified that she could see well enough to move around by herself in the daylight hours, but that it would have been extremely difficult to do so at night.
He also described Mrs. Koenig as being very weak physically. The doctor was of the opinion that she wasn’t strong enough to drown her children as they fought to get away.
The coroner’s jury found him innocent of the deaths of his children, but guilty of being an accessory to his wife’s suicide. William was taken back into custody to await his trial.
By the end of November 1870, he was found innocent of all charges regarding his wife, and was released. With nothing left for him either in Davenport or in America, William returned home to Germany.
Life in Davenport went on. People went to work, built their careers, and spent time with their families.
A few years later, news arrived from Germany that Koenig had died. While the memories had faded, there were still plenty of people who still remembered the awful events that had befallen his family that long-ago night. The news that accompanied Williams passing must have been especially shocking for them.
On his deathbed, he had confessed what had really happened to his wife and children that terrible night.
He said that he and his wife had drowned their own children together, and that after they had finished, he had helped his wife commit suicide. There were a few who had already suspected this, but there was never enough evidence to prove William’s guilt.
By this time, the matter was of little consequence. The two poor children were long dead, their lives tragically cut short at the hands of their own parents, who were also both dead now. They were beyond the reach of any mortal court, and any justice that may have awaited them was far out of any human hands.
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. But not everyone did, and were lost along the way.
A Triple Murder. Daily Davenport Democrat, 8/22/1870
The Koenig Tragedy. Daily Davenport Democrat, 8/23/1870
The Koenig Tragedy. Daily Davenport Democrat, 8/25/1870
Davenport Democrat and Leader, 11/26/1870
The Koenig Tragedy: A Death Bed Confession. Daily Davenport Democrat, 5/11/1872
2 thoughts on “The Koenig Murder/Suicide of 1870”
My goodness what a sad story! I wonder how many more of those have gone unnoticed and unwritten? A good read.
Sad! Hard to imagine such desperation & nobody to help them.