Unquiet House: The Murder of Bessie Moore

Bessie smiled to herself as she carefully wrapped her cookie dough in a large piece of wax paper. The paper made a thick crinkling sound as she manipulated it around, taking care to preserve the star shapes that she had already cut out.

The afternoon light filtered through the windows of her small apartment, washing everything in the brightness of the midday sun. It may not have been a brand-new house in the suburbs, but it was hers.

Bessie frowned. Maybe if things had turned out better between her and her husband, then her life would be different right now. Maybe she would be living in one of those nice houses. But that was a lot of maybes.

Facts were is that they hadn’t worked out, and Bessie and her husband had been separated for years. No house would have been worth staying with him to her, and she was happier for being apart.

Taking her package, Bessie looked around to make sure that she wasn’t forgetting anything. She was headed to a friend’s house to bake her cookies, and was looking forward to an afternoon of baking and, maybe, just a little gossip. Satisfied she had everything she needed, Bessie turned and went out the front door.

As she headed down the stairs that led down into the main part of the tavern, the familiar bar smells came to her, stale beer and cigarette smoke. She started thinking about various chores and tasks that needed to be taken care of. She’d worked there for years, looking after the place during the day and taking care of the cleaning.

When the first bullet slammed into her chest, Bessie probably didn’t quite realize what had happened. Her ears rang from a sharp cracking sound that was loud as thunder inside the silent tavern. Caught completely by surprise, she brought her hands up, her wax paper package flying into the air, its contents spilling onto the ground.

More pain blossomed in her chest as four more bullets found their mark, blood starting to flow freely as Bessie’s vision began to dim. Everything seemed strange as she felt herself falling, almost like it was in slow motion. Somewhere in the recesses in her mind, Bessie realized that she had landed heavily on the floor that she worked so hard to keep clean.

Bessie lay on the floor, her eyes becoming glassy as she exhaled one final, ragged breath as her world faded to black.

 

 

Arnold Retzlaff’ shoes crunched on the snow as he walked purposefully toward Web’s Tavern. The 38-year-old candy and popcorn salesman was there to make a routine delivery, and he didn’t want to make his customer wait.

Smiling, he pushed open the door and stepped inside.

“Hello!” he called.

After blinking a few times, Retzlaff’s eyes began to adjust to the gloom of the tavern’s interior. He didn’t see anyone, so he called out again.

“Hello?” he said. This time it came as more of a question. Maybe they had stepped out for a few minutes, but left the door open.

Retzlaff walked toward the bar, his eyes scanning the room as he went. As he did, he saw a woman lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs leading to the second story of the building. She lay motionless, surrounded by what looked like Christmas cookies.

Thinking that she must have fallen down the stairs, Retzlaff ran over to her.

Taking her gently by the shoulder, he shook her, asking if she was alright. As he did, Retzlaff saw the blood on the woman’s chest. It was obvious that she had been shot, and just as obvious that she was dead.

Standing up, he went into the next room and called the police.

Officers arrived a short time later. The woman was identified as Bessie Moore, a middle-aged woman who had worked at Web’s Tavern for the past four years and lived in the upstairs apartment. $136 had been stolen from the bar, leading the police to initially think that Bessie had perhaps interrupted a robbery and been killed in the process.

Bessie Moore. Courtesy of the La Crosse Tribune

 

The La Crosse county coroner, Dr. George Reay, arrived and took charge of Bessie’s remains, taking them away for autopsy.

As they were searching outside for any evidence pertaining to the murder, police noticed a set of tracks that clearly showed someone running away from the tavern. Stanley Olsen, the sheriff of La Crosse County and the man in charge of the investigation, immediately sent for bloodhounds to be brought to the scene.

These footprints could very well belong to the murderer, and as near as anyone could tell they had been made very recently. There was a good chance that they might be able to catch their culprit by that evening.

George Brooks, a local bloodhound trainer and handler, brought one of his dogs and got to work almost as soon as he had arrived. Sniffing around the tracks, the animal had caught the scent of whoever had left them and was off, Brooks running closely behind.

While they tracked their quarry through snow drifts and down city streets, the sheriff, coroner, and members of the local press followed along behind them in their cars, eager to catch the killer.

Unfortunately, the bloodhound eventually lost the trail, despite several efforts by Brooks to help the dog find the scent again.

Disappointed but undaunted, investigators continued their inquiries.

While the tavern owner had confirmed the amount of money that had been taken, police noted that only paper money had been taken by the supposed thief, while several rolls of coins were left behind, untouched. The robbery also had a very deliberate feeling to it, like the thief knew exactly where everything was.

It appeared more and more likely that the thief in the tavern that day was there specifically to kill Bessie Moore.

According to everyone that they talked too, Bessie Moore didn’t have any enemies to speak of. She was well-liked and had a good work record.

So why? Why murder a woman who everyone seemed to like?

The autopsy revealed that Bessie had been shot five times in the chest by a 32.-caliber firearm. Four of the rounds had passed cleanly through her torso, while another was found lodged inside her body. Investigators found a sixth bullet lodged in a door frame close to the body.

Dr. Reay also discovered that Bessie Moore was about five-months pregnant.

Dr. Reay and a fellow pathologist, Dr. Martin Sivertson, theorized that Moore had possibly been murdered by the lover who had gotten her pregnant. Perhaps the man was married and feared scandal, or maybe he found about her pregnancy and decided this was the best way to get out of his situation.

Either way, the killer had waited until Bessie was alone, shot her to death, then tried to make the crime look like a random robbery.

While this was a good motive for the murder, police were short on suspects. It was a sound theory that the killer was the father of Bessie’s unborn child, but no one seemed to have a clue who that father could be. Until they found some lead in that direction, police had to simply keep digging.

The one suspect lead that they did have came from reports of a man who had been hitchhiking in the area. Allegedly, he had tried to buy .32-caliber bullets from a store in a nearby town shortly before the murder.

Gun experts in Chicago, Illinois, were able to determine that this caliber of firearm was very unusual, and that only three companies in the entire nation manufactured it. This would make it easier to find both the murder weapon and the suspect.

While police looked for her killer, Bessie was buried after a quiet service in the town where her parents lived.

Soon, police were able to obtain positive identification from firearm experts that they had found the murder weapon. The bullets found at the crime scene were a definitive match for a firearm taken from a local 16-year-old named Jack Heberlein. Allegedly, he had been visiting relatives in the area around the time of the murder.

Heberlein claimed that he had bought the .32-caliber revolver at a sporting goods store in La Crosse several months before the murder. Having definitive proof that the firearm in his possession was the gun that had killed Bessie Moore, police took both Heberlein and his 25-year-old brother into custody.

Both of them had access to the firearm, which potentially meant either one of them might be the killer. While the brother was released after being questioned, the police found some of the answers that Jack had given them were suspicious.

A few days later, Heberlein, along with another 16-year-old who was of interest, were taken to Chicago and given lie detector tests. The tests administered to Heberlein indicated that he wasn’t telling the entire truth, so he stayed in jail. The other youth, like Heberlien’s brother, was set free.

After a few days, the authorities were satisfied that Heberlein hadn’t killed Bessie Moore. However, it was determined that he could be used as a material witness in the case, and continued to be held in custody on a $5000 bond. Heberlein paid the bond in mid-January 1947, and was finally released.

With no more leads or suspects to follow up on, the trail of Bessie Moore’s killer went cold.

About six years later, authorities finally seemed to have a breakthrough in the case.

In 1953, a man named Donald Steele was arrested for trying to pass bad checks. While he was being questioned about that, he confessed to the murder of Bessie Moore.

 

Donald Steele. Courtesy of the La Crosse Tribune.

 

Steele, a married man with five children, claimed he had been having an affair with Bessie Moore for nearly a year when she told him that she was pregnant. Moore begged him to leave his wife and marry her instead.

Steele had absolutely no interest in being married, let along being a father. He didn’t seem to want the children he already had, let alone any new ones. After some deliberation, he had decided to kill her.

He told the sheriff that he had asked to borrow a gun from a friend of his, saying that he wanted to go do some target practice. Steele then took a taxi to Web’s Tavern, where he shot Moore to death. Afterwards, he ran to a different part of the city, returned the gun, and then promptly left town.

Although the story sounded believable, the county sheriff and district attorney needed solid evidence to support Steele’s confession, so they started to investigate his past.

They confirmed that Steele had indeed been married with five children. In spite of having a family to support, he shunned them. Still in his twenties, Steele was a known drunk and vagrant.

In 1945, his errant ways finally caught up with him and he was arrested for charges related to his drinking and vagrancy. The court had mercy, however, and he was released on probation.

Just a few months later, Steele had already violated his probation and was sent to Waupun State Prison. While there, his wife divorced him on ground of domestic abuse that she had suffered at his hands.

While all of this might have served to support a murder case against Steele, there was one fact that could not be refuted: records clearly showed that he was in prison during the time of the murder. There was absolutely no way that his story was true.

After Steele’s fake confession, the case went cold again. While the police never completely gave up on the case, there’s only so much investigators can do without any leads. Other crimes happened, and the police had to divert their energy to solving them.

Life moved on. However, Bessie Moore did not.

 

 

In late 1980, the Kiesling family purchased Webb’s Tavern and set about renovating it. Bessie’s old apartment was still upstairs, long vacant from any occupants. Or so the Kiesling’s thought.

As they worked, members of the family could clearly hear activity going on above them. The daughter of the family, Shelly, remembers that they “…continually heard footsteps and doors opening and closing.” Like so many people faced with the unknown, they turned to humor to lighten their unease. They knew all about Bessie’s murder, and joked that it was her ghost still “living” upstairs.

The Kiesling’s weren’t the only ones to experience strange things on the property.

 

Webb’s Tavern, circa 1946. Courtesy of the La Crosse Tribune.

 

One night, a policeman was near the bar after it had closed when something moving inside the building caught his eye. Looking closer, he could clearly see someone moving around behind the bar. The officer knew that the building was locked up for the night, but there was still the possibility that it was the owner working late.

Calling the Kiesling residence, the officer must have known the answer to his question as soon as Mr. Kiesling answered the phone. Explaining the situation to him, the officer asked Kiesling to come down and open the bar for him so that he could see what was going on. Concerned, Kiesling agreed.

Kiesling arrived a short time later, unlocked the door, and the officer went inside.

He found nothing. There wasn’t anyone in the building, not even in the apartment upstairs.

The policeman couldn’t explain it. He hadn’t seen anyone leave while waiting for Kiesling, and they hadn’t seen anyone move past them when they went inside. But he knew – he knew – he had clearly seen someone walking behind the bar.

The owners figured that the officer had seen Bessie.

After running the establishment for a few years under a new name, the Coach House Bar, the Kiesling’s decided to take advantage of the ample living space in the upstairs apartment. Selling their house, they moved in with their other daughter, Cathy.

While it was fun to joke about Bessie, the Kiesling’s were still the owners, and Bessie would either have to leave or learn to share.

During the move-in process, the family discovered a horrific, rotten smell in the room that Cathy was given for a bedroom. They couldn’t smell it outside the room, but it was almost overwhelming inside. It got so bad that Cathy begged her father to see if something had died in the attic above.

However, as soon as they had retrieved a flashlight and were about to climb into the attic, the smell completely disappeared. Once again, the family laughed it off, believing that Bessie was just playing a practical joke on them.

Regardless of any alleged paranormal activity taking place on the site, the cold, hard fact remains that an innocent woman was brutally murdered on the property. For nearly seventy-five years, the crime has remained unsolved.

Perhaps, one day, someone will step forward with new information, or something will be found that will help police close the books on Bessie Moore’s case.

Until then, if we’re so inclined, we may choose to believe that at least Bessie seems to have kept her sense of humor and is making the best of her afterlife.

 

 

     Sources

 

Conduct Search for Slayer Here. La Crosse Tribune, 12/18/1946, p.1

Love Theory Enters Murder of Waitress in La Crosse. The Journal Times, 12/19/1946

Still Seeking Clues in La Crosse Murder. News-Record, 12/20/1946

Hitchhiker is Being Sought in Shooting. The Daily Tribune, 12/21/1946

Question Many Persons Here. The La Crosse Tribune, 12/21/1946

Call Persons For Inquest. La Crosse Tribune, 12/23/1946, p.1

Experts Identify Gun as Weapon Fired at Waitress. The Journal Times, 12/28/1946.

Release Suspect in Case; Another Youth in Custody. The La Crosse Tribune, 12/29/1946

Officers Still Holding Youth. The La Crosse Tribune, 1/2/1947

Detain Youth As Witness. The La Crosse Tribune, 1/4/1947

Officer Still Probe Slaying. The La Crosse Tribune, 1/14/1947

Public Debate. LaCrosse Tribune, 11/30/1948, p. 4

Finish Probe Of Confession. La Crosse Tribune, 1/22/1953, p. 26

Hoax Seen in Confession of Bessie Moore Murder. La Crosse Tribune, 1/15/1953, p.1

The National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Draft Registration Cards for Wisconsin, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 595

The La Crosse Tribune; Publication Date: 23 Sep 1986; Publication Place: La Crosse, Wisconsin, United States of America

Parlin, Geri. Ghost Stories: Dead but not gone. La Crosse Tribune, 10/29/2007

 

 

2 thoughts on “Unquiet House: The Murder of Bessie Moore”

  1. Your posts are always interesting & well researched. However, it’s sad that justice doesn’t always happen, such as for Bessie Moore.

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