Poisoned Chocolate: The Nehlsen Murder/Suicide of 1910


Starting in about 1820 and ending at the turn of the 20th Century, cultural norms in Western Europe began to shift. At the same time, things were also changing in the United States. America began to experience an enormous influx of immigrants from the western portion of the European continent and the United Kingdom. All the immigrants and their families had their own reasons for coming to America. Sometimes, it was a single factor that drove them, while for others it was a combination of several.

For some, the unchecked religious freedom that could be found in the United States was an enormous draw, just as it had been for groups such as the Puritans before them. Others were fed up with having to simply deal with renting a small tract of land in Europe, and were tempted by the promise of having a large farm of their own, carved from the enormous tracts of land becoming available in the slow crush of American expansion toward the west.

In Germany, one such man was Nicolaus Nehlsen.

Nicolaus Nehlsen was a family man. He had a young wife, Margaretha, and three small children – Mary, Emma, and John. They were happy living in the old country, and they were proud of their German heritage. But, like many of his fellow countryman, his eyes turned toward the west and the United States of America.

There were opportunities for a man who worked hard in America. And there was plenty of land. A man could have as much good land as he wanted there, to work and make something of. It would not be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it would not be the hardest, either.

Nicolaus knew that money would be tight at first. But money was always tight when you had to spread it between a wife and three young children. And with all that land, they could grow as much food as they needed. Matter of fact, they would probably have more than enough land left over to grow crops specifically for profit. They would even have extra room to raise livestock.

Nicolaus could have gotten these ideas from anywhere. There were various accounts flooding into Europe extoling the various virtues of the United States. Some of this information came from family letters, sent from immigrants that had already traveled to America back to their families in the old country. Others were published accounts from settlers and travelers, writing about what they had seen and experienced. All of these were designed to bring people to the New World.

Wherever he had heard about it, Nicolaus was starting to think about making the move. He knew they would have to leave their family and friends behind in Germany, and the life that they had made there. But America had a large German population already, so he was sure that he could find some fellow German immigrants to fit in with. Besides, even if they did not find any, the opportunity was just too much to pass up.

For Nicolaus, or Nick, as he later became known, America must have truly seemed like the land of golden opportunity. After going through a brief period of discussion and deliberation with Margaretha, they made the decision to cross the Atlantic and settle in the United States.

Despite all of the dangers and hardships, Nicolaus and Margaretha had made up their minds. Saying goodbye to their family and friends, the young couple packed up their children and set out. All of them survived the journey, and set off across America to Scott County, Iowa, and their new home.

In many ways, Scott County was an ideal place for German immigrants to settle.

In 1848, a group of individuals from a place in northern Germany called Schleswig-Holstein had taken part in a revolution against the country of Denmark. Unfortunately for them, they lost. Knowing that things would get very bad for them if they remained in Schleswig Holstein, many of them boarded passage on ships and came to the United States, where they ended up in Scott County.

Many of these individuals, later called “Forty-Eighters,” after the year they launched their failed revolution, were extremely well educated and very liberal in their political views. They were opinionated, intelligent, and well-spoken. They were proud of their German heritage, and they brought it with them. The “Forty-Eighters” helped found German language newspapers, in addition to various cultural societies and institutions.

For those who had made the treacherous journey from Germany to Davenport in those following years, it must have been almost like coming back home. There were several German speaking people both in the city and outside of it. Newcomers were often taken into the community and welcomed. New immigrants had a support system consisting of people with a similar cultural background and mindset. The German community was strong, and they worked hard to create a sense of community amongst their fellow immigrants from back home.

It was this environment which the Nehlsens moved into. Nick and Margaretha probably felt a sense of belonging. For people that had left everything that they had known behind them, it gave them a real sense of stability in their lives to come into such a welcoming community. As they learned the English language better and adjusted to American culture, the Nehlsens always had a place to go that seemed comfortable and familiar.

The Nehlsens quickly found a farm along Utica Ridge Road, a rural road northeast of Davenport, Iowa. It was about 160 acres of rich Iowa soil, ready to be turned and planted by people with a will to do so. Nick had been dreaming of this opportunity since he and Margaretha had first discussed coming to America. And now they were here, ready to bring their dream to life in the farmlands of Scott County.

Over the next several years, the Nehlsens became very successful. The land was bountiful and provided not only food for their family, but plenty to sell as well. They bought livestock and began raising that, too. And it was not only the farm that grew.

Margaretha and Nick had seven more children in Scott County – Jacob, Otto, Peter, Louis, Dora, and Meta. The boys worked in the fields, learning farming and other skills from their father. The girls, on the other hand, learned cooking, keeping house, sewing, and several other skills that were mastered by farm wives of that day and age. Together, the men and women of the family divided the essential labor of the farm and worked together towards its overall success.

By 1910, Mary, the eldest child, had moved to Galesburg, Illinois. Their five sons were living at home, helping to tend to the crops, livestock, and various chores that go along with running a farm. Young Meta and Dora probably followed their mother around the house, taking care of things as they were able.

Young Emma, now nineteen, decided to go to a nearby farm to work as a housekeeper for a man named Glen Port. He only lived a short distance away from her family, so Emma was never far from home. While she was employed there, Emma had no issues with Glen or his family, and they were satisfied with her work.

During her employment there, Emma met Glen’s father, John Port. He was a fifty-year-old widower, and he apparently enjoyed Emma’s company. He would take her for buggy rides, where they would talk and become better friends.

Eventually, John Port left the immediate area and took up residence in nearby LeClaire, Iowa. About the same time, Emma quit working for Glen Port and became the housekeeper of another local man named Claus Willer.

Willer was in his middle forties. Like the Nehlsen’s, he had also emigrated from Germany. Similarly, he had also settled down in Scott County and quickly turned his hand to farming. Eventually, Willer married Amelia Oetzmann and settled into the comfortable routine of rural life. The couple never had any children, and Amelia passed away in 1908.

With no wife or children to help, Willer had to take care of all of the household duties in addition to his regular farm chores. In a time where many things had to be done by hand, it might have been difficult for Willer to take care of everything himself. So, he hired Emma Nehlsen to come to the farm and take care of all the cleaning, cooking, and washing.

Rural life could oftentimes be lonely. While there were neighbors who were relatively close by, there were several hours of the day when Willer would have been alone, toiling in the fields. Finishing his work, he would have come back to an empty house. Having a housekeeper would give him someone to talk to and interact with.

One night, Emma came to talk with Willer shortly after they had eaten dinner. She told him that she was quitting her position as housekeeper that very night, and asked Willer to pay the rest of her wages.

At first, Willer thought that Emma was joking, but the younger woman insisted that she was not and, once again, asked for her money. He was surprised, almost shocked, and asked her why. Emma informed Willer that she was going to go work for John Port in LeClaire, and that he was waiting for her at the end of the lane.

Willer collected himself, and then paid Emma the wages that he owed her. As he did, he asked Emma why she had not given him due notice and allowed him sufficient time to find a new housekeeper. Emma told Willer that she did not want him to tell her parents about her new arrangement with John Port. Her wages collected, Emma left the employ of Claus Willer, and moved to LeClaire.

While this might have normally been an acceptable arrangement, there was a general inclination toward the idea that Emma and Port were much more than employer and employee. If people asked, John would tell them that there was nothing happening. Emma was simply his housekeeper and nothing more. But still the idea persisted.

Whether he was or not, the family was scandalized, causing severe friction between the two families. Nick even threatened Port, telling him in no uncertain terms that Port would release Emma from his employ and return her home as soon as possible. If he did not, then Nehlsen would kill Port.

Claus Willer felt just as strongly. He had developed feelings for Emma. Maybe he had fallen in love with her, or maybe he was just lending support to the Nehlsen family, looking out for Emma as if she was his own daughter. Or, perhaps, Willer just wanted someone to talk to after coming in from the fields again and keep the loneliness at bay.  Whatever the reason, Willer’s feelings for Emma, whatever they actually were, spurred him forward into action.

Purchasing a handgun, Willer brought it home to his farm and began to practice with it. When he thought he had practiced enough, Willer rode to LeClaire to find Port. The older man must have been told, or somehow found out about it, because he wasn’t there. Dejected, Willer left town, still determined to bring Emma back. Willer returned to LeClaire several times, loaded pistol with him, but every trip ended fruitlessly.

After the last time, Willer was distraught. Emma was not going to come home. The man to blame, John Port, could not be found. Willer, who wanted so desperately to succeed in his task, could not win. So, he went back to his farm, where nothing awaited him. No wife, no children, and no Emma Nehlsen, housekeeper.

People stopped seeing Willer soon after that. He did not come into town to socialize or buy needed goods. No one saw him in the yard doing chores. No one saw him in the fields, tending to his crops.  Perhaps, after watching what the man had been through, people decided that he needed some time to nurse his losses and recover his inner balance.

But after several days without seeing him, some of his neighbors began to grow concerned. On April 21, 1910, some of them went to the Willer farm and began searching for him. The silence when they opened the door must have been oppressive. It was deep, only being broken by the sound of summer insects and the livestock. The good-hearted neighbor found Willer in his bedroom, dead. Apparently, after coming home for what would be the last time, Willer could not handle the stark reality of his life anymore.

The loneliness and the quiet had finally taken its toll. Willer had tried his best to fight it, but had lost. He had gone into his bedroom with a vial of laudanum and drank it down, ending his life.

Everyone was shocked at this turn of events. Nobody expected his outlook to turn so sour that he felt the only recourse available to him was suicide. The county coroner was consulted, and an inquest was held. The official result was that while it was clear Willer died from laudanum poisoning, officials were not sure why he had done it.

A few months later, in July, John Port decided to make an honest woman out of Emma, and he asked her to elope with him. Emma agreed, probably eager to shed her “housekeeper” role and take on a new one – that of Mrs. John Port. Plans were made, and the two apparent lovers moved to North Dakota, leaving all the drama and scandal of the past year behind them.

The Nehlsen’s were stunned. With nothing left behind, the only thing that they had of their dear Emma was the memory of their daughter. Obviously, they did not approve of the relationship. Nick was very open about his opinion, and it is very likely that Margaretha shared it as well. Perhaps knowing this, and knowing that they would never gain the approval of the family, the elder John and young Emma chose to move away rather than face years of disapproving looks and attitudes.

Losing a daughter to a man that they did not see as suitable for her was bad enough. But, with the added pain of Claus Willers’ suicide and all of the drama that had transpired before that, it must have left a stinging pain in the family. While it can be said with almost certainty that the elopement left a hollow ache amongst all the older family members, no one seemed to feel it more than Margaretha.

After Emma had left with John Port to go to the Dakotas, Margaretha’s mood had darkened. She would sit and think about the whole situation endlessly. She had even begun to dream about what had happened, talking in her sleep. Margaretha’s obsession with Emma and Port had seeped down into her subconscious, and now even her inner most mind strived to talk sense into her wayward daughter.

And then, like the sun emerging from heavy clouds in a gray sky, her mood suddenly brightened.

On the morning of August 3, 1910, Nick had to go to nearby Eldridge, Iowa to sell some of his hogs. Good cheer had seemingly returned to the home, and Margaretha seemed to be in good spirits. Margaretha was so happy that morning, carrying out her daily chores and tending to her youngest daughters. As her mood was brightened, the moods of Nick and the children probably were as well. Early that morning, Nick took his livestock and started driving them toward Eldridge, hardly a care in the world. Finally, things were looking up.

Nick returned home about mid-morning. Given the improvement in Margaretha’s mood and a successful sale, he was probably smiling, finally glad to have a little happiness in his life after the events of the past few months. One can only imagine and speculate what happened next. Perhaps he was like many other fathers who expect their small children to greet them at the door so he could embrace them in welcoming and loving arms. No matter what he expected, he was met only with a cold, stony silence.

Nick must have wondered where everyone was as he wandered into the kitchen from outside, looking for his family. Next, he entered the bedroom and found them.

They were lying on a white sheet that had been spread out on the floor. The children were unnaturally still and composed. The two young girls did not move. Their mother lay near them. A grim fear must have come to Nick’s mind, as he moved forward and laid his hand on them. As his bare hand touched their cold flesh, his fear became stark reality as he realized that his wife and two youngest children were dead.

The horror that Nicklaus Nehlsen probably felt in that moment must have been overwhelming. As his mind reeled, he might have noticed that Meta and Dora’s clothing had been laid out for them to wear. Coming suddenly to his senses, he ran out of the house and did not stop until he reached a neighbor’s house a half mile away. He tried his best to tell his neighbor, H.E. Sawyer, what he had seen in his bedroom, but he could not. Nick’s tongue was frozen by shock and fear. Sawyer poured cold water on Nehlsen, trying his best to bring his friend back to his senses. Finally, Nick described what he had seen.

Sawyer immediately took Nick back home so that he could verify the story for himself. He was horrified at the sight that awaited him in his neighbor’s bedroom.

The authorities were called and the bodies removed to the funeral home. After a short investigation and autopsy, strychnine was found in the stomach of one of the children, and three empty vials of the poison were found in the outhouse by the family home.

The conclusion was that sometime after Nick had left for Eldridge and the boys were all out of the house, Margaretha had gone into the bedroom and laid out the white sheet and the children’s good clothes, presumably for them to wear at their funeral. Then, taking chocolate that she had laced with some of the strychnine, she fed the poison candies to her innocent daughters.

Once they had succumbed to the vile combination, Margaretha carefully laid out their tiny bodies on the sheet. When she was finished, she consumed some of the same deadly sweets as she lay down next to the still forms of the girls so that she, too, could die.

In the aftermath, Nick and his sons finally took the time to speculate over what had caused their beloved mother to commit such a horrible act. At some point, their thoughts turned to Emma, John Port, and Claus Willer.

First there had been Margaretha’s deep depression. Her mood soured, and she dwelt on Emma’s behavior. Sometime along her dark inner journey, she must have made the decision to end her own life. But that still left the children, Meta and Dora.

There was some idea that, somehow, in her troubled mind, Margaretha was afraid that her wayward daughter Emma would come back and take them away. Or maybe, Margaretha just could not stand the thought of being away from her beloved little ones. Perhaps then, once she had made her decision, her mood shifted back and she was happy, knowing that her suffering would soon be over.

But while her inner torment may have come to an end, Nick’s had just begun. His wife of over twenty years was dead. His youngest two children were also gone, killed by their own mother. And he had no answers. Even though Nick was asked so many times, he was never able to give a definitive answer to that burning question – why? All he had were ideas, speculation, and three loved ones to bury.

The funeral was held at the Nehlsen home along Utica Ridge Road. Being successful farmers and having lived in the area for nearly two decades, the Nehlsen’s had many friends and associates. They began to arrive around the time the funeral services for the family were supposed to begin.

More and more people kept filing in, not stoping until several hundred were present. The house was full almost to bursting that August morning from the amount of people that had come to pay their final respects to Margaretha and her two daughters. Margaretha may have committed a horrible crime, but she had still been a good friend and neighbor to many of them.

After the funeral was finished at the home, the coffins of the deceased were carried out into three waiting carriages. Flowers from all the various guests covered the three coffins. There were so many that they had begun to mound against the front side of the caskets like a colorful snowdrift.

First one girl, and then the other, were each loaded into their own pure white carriage, each one pulled by two snowy white horses. Margaretha was loaded into a black carriage, attached to two coal black horses. Once the coffins were secure, the funeral procession was begun.

Margaretha and her daughters were to be interred at Pine Hill Cemetery, a cemetery north of of Davenport. From the Nehlsen farm to their final resting place, the deceased mother and her two children served as the centerpiece for a somber procession.

Once at the graveyard, the minister said some comforting words to those present. Then, one at a time, each coffin was lowered into the ground by the pallbearers. Both girls had one of their brothers as a pallbearer, but none of the family helped lower Margaretha.

Soon, all was finished, and the vast crowd departed.

In the end, it will probably never be known what tortured reasoning drove Margaretha Nehlsen to kill first her two youngest daughters and then herself. Perhaps it had to do with her beloved daughter Emma, who was linked to one mans’ suicide and who had caused such bitter disappointment by moving away with another man whom they did not approve of.

Or perhaps her decision had nothing to do with it at all. Maybe Margaretha, for whatever reason, just broke down inside one day, and began to conclude that suicide was the only way that she could find peace.

No matter what the underlying cause was, the cold, hard fact is that Margaretha Nehlsen fed her two young daughters chocolate candies laced with strychnine, cutting their young lives cruelly short. Their souls, full of the untapped and undetermined potential of life, were ripped shockingly away from the material world.

Maybe Margaretha, her poor soul tortured by unknown demons, finally found rest and peace under the well-kept lawns of Pine Hill Cemetery.












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