The Body in the River: A 1911 Murder in Fort Wayne, Indiana

When Steve Lanigan first saw the bloated shape floating in the St. Mary’s River, he wasn’t sure what it was. Neither was his companion, Joe Redmenski.

They had both played at the Fort Wayne dump before, but they had never seen anything like that. And that was what made it so much more exciting.

The dump was full of curiosities for young boys like Steve and Joe. Broken furniture, old clothes, and worn-out machinery lay half-buried under mounds of trash and rotten food. It was like the remains of a lost civilization, forgotten by the modern age. It was a great place to explore and have adventures, as long as you could stand the smell.

The shape seemed familiar, but the boys couldn’t quite figure out how. They had never seen anything quite like it, and their youthful curiosity demanded they solve the mystery of what was.

At first, they just stood back, asking each other what it could be. None of their answers satisfied them, and that left just one way to figure it out. They would have to go to the river shore and take a closer look.

As they grew closer, a new smell assaulted their nostrils, something like rotten fish. Even as used to the smells of the dump as they were, this new smell made their stomachs turn. A few more steps and they realized what it was – the body of a man. The clothes were soaked, the face bloated and misshapen.

The boys were filled with a sudden, base fear. Out of all the many things that they might have imagined they would find at the dump, a dead man floating in the river was never one. They ran, legs pumping, feet crunching in the snow and half-frozen dirt. They ran until they saw the first adult they could find.

The adult in question was William Ziemendorf, a local cement contractor. He was in the middle of negotiating the price for a load of sand from a few sand dredging workers when the boys ran up to them. They were red-faced and panting. They were both talking at once, shouting and pointing back at the river.

It took a moment for Ziemendorf to figure out what they were saying. When he finally did, he wished that he hadn’t. The boys were saying there was a dead man in the water, near the dump.

Brows furrowing, Ziemendorf calmed the boys as best he could and took them to notify the authorities.

A short time later, the police arrived. Along with them was the coroner, Abraham J. Kessler, along with an undertaker, Mart Ankenbruck. Together, they were able to get the body out of the water in about half an hour.

It had been in the water for a long time, and it was very bloated and decomposed. Fire plug caps had been wired around the body to weigh it down in the river. The corpse had deteriorated to the point that, as the authorities present cleaned the mud and debris from it, chunks of hair and skin came with it. Even for the undertaker and coroner, it was a sickening experience.

The corpse was wearing good clothes, but didn’t have any identification or money. While he had gloves on, he didn’t have a coat.

The unidentified man was taken to the county morgue for closer examination. It was obvious that the man had been seriously physically assaulted before his death. Both of his eyes were swollen shut, and his nose had been broken. His skull had been fractured in at least four places, resulting in long, deep gashes along his scalp. The back of his skull had been completely caved in.

Further examination by police revealed that the heavy fire caps that had been used to weigh down his body had been tightly wired and expertly wrapped. After consulting professional lineman who used similar wire in their line of work, it was concluded that the killer must have used heavy-duty pliers to do the job.

The wires were too tight to have been done with someone’s bare fingers.  It was also noticed that the remaining wire from the tie were nipped off cleanly, just like a professional would do.

It was obvious that the man had been murdered, and then the body weighted down and thrown in the St. Mary’s River. But who was he?

The only distinguishing marks on the body were tattoos on his arms. There was no identification in the clothing the man was wearing, but he did have a ring bearing the initials H.I.S. Beyond this, the police had nothing else to go on.

To help identify the dead man, arrangements were made to have the body laid out for display at the Schone and Ankenbruck funeral home. It had been cleaned up to the best of their ability, including sewing up the gashes on the head. Presumably some lengths were taken to mask the smell as well.

The body of Harry Sherwood. Courtesy of the Fort Wayne Journal-Sentinel

Hundreds, if not thousands of people made their way past the body. While some of them were probably trying to help the police in finding his identity, that many and more were no doubt just morbidly curious.

One after the other, they took their turn walking through the room to see the corpse, moving in through one door and out through another in a never-ending line. Men and women came separately and together, even bringing their children to see the grisly spectacle.

One woman came in with three small children, ranging in ages from three to five. She carried a fourth, an infant, with her. She was even so bold as to stop the entire procession in order to lift her children up so they could get an up close and personal view of the dead man’s face and wounds.

Thankfully, children not accompanied by an adult were immediately escorted from the premises.

Police were hopeful, but with so little to go on, it was going to take a little luck to find out who the murdered man was.

Ida Kirkham was worried.

Ida, along with her father and two siblings, ran a rooming house at 310 West Main Street in Fort Wayne. For the most part, they had no trouble with the five or six roomers they kept on a regular basis. They were free to come and go as they pleased (they were all adults, after all), as long as they were respectful and, more importantly, paid their rent on time.

Normally, Ida didn’t really pay too much attention to their comings and goings. But one of her clients, a very nice, handsome young man, had left and hadn’t come back. While that might not be all that unusual for some of her clientele, the young man had left all his belongings behind. Now that was unusual. The last time that Ida had seen him was around New Year’s Eve, a few months prior.

Ida had thought that the boarder, who was named Harry Sherwood, might have gone away on a trip, or maybe out of town for work or something. But as the days stretched into weeks, Ida began to feel uneasy about something. Something didn’t seem right, and she began to worry about Mr. Sherwood.

Then someone had told her about the body they had just found in the river. It couldn’t be Harry, Ida thought. But then again, could it be? Had something terrible happened to him? Ida wasn’t going to debate about it. She went to the telephone and called the police.

Later that day, Fort Wayne Police Chief Dayton Abbott and two of his detectives arrived at the house. Ida greeted them, then took them to Sherwood’s room. It was exactly as Ida Kirkham had said – all his belongings were there, but it was obvious that Sherwood hadn’t been there for a while.

Not seeing anything out in the open, the officers began to search the man’s belongings.

As Abbott opened a valise, he noticed a postcard. Examining it, he saw that it had a photograph of a man on one side. The man was clearly the individual they had pulled out of the river a few days prior. Showing the postcard to Ida, Abbott asked if this was Harry Sherwood. Ida nodded, and said that it was.

The body now had a name, and the police lost no time in learning more about him. They started with his roommate, Herman Muldoon.

After being taken to the undertakers, Muldoon was able to definitively identify the body as being that of Harry Sherwood. He also explained that while that was the name Harry had gone by in Fort Wayne, it wasn’t his real name. His real name had been Harold Shaw.

Muldoon explained that the two of them had worked together at the Anthony Hotel, a local establishment where Sherwood had been an electrician and he still worked in the mechanical department. They had quickly become fast friends, and eventually Shaw had told Muldoon a little about his life.

According to Muldoon, Shaw was originally from Boston, Massachusetts. He had enlisted in the United States Navy in 1903 and hadn’t been home since. It was during his time in the service where he had learned to be an electrician and had gotten his tattoos.

For unknown reasons, Shaw had deserted the Navy and had been running from Naval authorities ever since. That was the reason he had changed his name. He had chosen Harry I. Sherwood because not only were they his actual initials, but it sounded more like his real name, giving him less of chance to slip up using the false one.

According to Ida Kirkham, Shaw, or Sherwood, as she knew him, was an outstanding young man. She told police that he was always polite and friendly. Although she didn’t know for sure, Ida suspected that he was college educated.

Harold I. Shaw. Courtesy of the Fort Wayne Journal-Sentinel

Shaw was also well-groomed and seemed to be well off financially. He had paid his rent in advance and never seemed to be hurting for cash.

While searching Shaw’s belongings, police found three letters written to him from a woman living in Portland, Oregon. The language used in the letter suggested to police that the woman was highly educated, and that she cared for Shaw a great deal.

In addition, they also found letters that were from his sister, or at least someone saying that they were. Unfortunately, nothing in them gave any indication of who she was or where she was from. The envelope was also missing, so there wasn’t even a post stamp to follow up on.

At the Anthony Hotel, Shaw’s last known employer, the chief engineer of the building, James Gatthrob, told investigators that Shaw had started working there on August 26, 1910. By October, he had quit and moved to Indianapolis, allegedly to find work there. A few days later, he had returned and asked for his old job back. He was a good employee, so Shaw was immediately hired back on.

According to Gatthrob, Shaw was a self-styled ladies man. Shaw had personally related to him many of his adventures on the “flats,” the Fort Wayne red-light district. He intimated that there was one particular woman there who he was seeing regularly.

Not content to have just one woman, Shaw was very successful at romancing women in many other places, as well.

Just at the hotel, he had started becoming very friendly with at least a few of the female employees there, especially one named Alice Acton.

The Anthony had a strict no-dating policy between their employees. Shaw didn’t seem to care, and neither did Alice. Unfortunately for them, when the hotel management found out that they were seeing each other, both of them were fired.

Shaw took it in stride, and left town for Portland, Oregon. Presumably, he had left to see the woman that he had been corresponding with in the letters found in his rented room. Three weeks later, he had returned to Fort Wayne.

The last that he was seen by anyone was by James McPharland, one of the clerks at the Anthony Hotel. He told investigators that he had seen Shaw around January 15th. He had been crossing the street just outside of the hotel as McPharland was getting off work. They greeted each other casually, and then went their separate ways.

A.J. Kesler, the county coroner, believed that Shaw had been murdered somewhere in the area where the body had been found. The fire caps that had been used to weigh the body down definitely came from a city warehouse nearby.

Kesler also ruled out suicide. If Shaw had killed himself in the water, then some believed that the ice from the frozen river would have rammed into him, causing the wounds in his head. Kesler ruled this theory out, stating that, while the ice would have most certainly have caused bruising, it wouldn’t have caused the severe gashes in Shaw’s scalp.

Kesler had no doubt that Harold Shaw had been murdered. The question now was by whom.

After searching Shaw’s room again, they were able to find several address books. Several people from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were listed there. Not surprisingly, twenty-five of the individuals listed were women. Police immediately sent out inquiries to them, trying to find out more about Shaw.

Unfortunately, none of these inquiries provided investigators any leads.

In an effort to locate Shaw’s family, police reached out to newspapers in the Boston area, where he was supposedly from. Once again, no one was able to find any information.

They had more luck with the woman in Portland who Shaw had gone to visit in the Fall of 1910. Her name was Core Wickman. She worked as a stenographer and claimed to be a good friend of Shaw. She was able to confirm that he had indeed come to visit her, but he had returned to Indiana after a few days. Wickman believed that he had grown up around the Boston area, but knew little else past that.

Authorities finally seemed to have a breakthrough when they interviewed Charles Davis, another employee of the Anthony Hotel.

Davis was a large man with a physique that had been molded and hardened by a lifetime of hard physical labor. He also had an ill-temper, with at least one other employee outright terrified of him.

At first, Davis didn’t want to talk to the police. Investigators knew that Davis and Shaw had been friends after talking to Muldoon and other workers at the hotel. It was only through slow and careful questioning of Davis that he finally began to tell them what he knew about Shaw.

According to Davis, Shaw frequented Fort Wayne’s red-light district, known as the Flats. In particular, he was seeing a woman named Grace Richardson, who it was intimated was a prostitute in a brothel operated by another woman named Gladys Reed.

Davis claimed Shaw’s appetite for women was enormous. He explained that Shaw allegedly had seen women all across the county, all of whom he affectionately referred to as his “sweethearts.” In the Flats alone, Shaw had two women: Grace Richardson and another woman named Bonnie Moore, who lived just a short distance away.

He told police that Grace was an oddly jealous woman when it came to Shaw. She didn’t mind him seeing women outside of the Flats, but became very agitated if he went to another woman inside the Flats. Davis believed that she was after Shaw’s money, and cared very little about him personally.

Shaw was known as a big spender around the Flats, and Grace would rather have him spend the majority of his cash on her.

Shortly before his trip to Portland, Davis said that Shaw had gone to see Bonnie Moore. Grace found out about it and became very upset with him. To soothe her anger, Shaw said that he would take her away somewhere with him. This seemed to placate Grace and all was well.

Later, when Shaw came back from Portland, Davis said that he immediately went right back to Grace, and ended up staying with her for a while.

As much as this information seemed to shed light on the case, police were weary of Davis’ testimony. Both Chief Abbott and Albert E. Thomas, the head prosecutor of the case, were in particular, very skeptical. Davis had hardly been forthcoming about any of the information he gave, frequently telling investigators “I don’t remember.”

According to other hotel employees that were interviewed, Davis had been fired from the Anthony on January 13. That night, he had come into the hotel, seemingly badly beaten. Someone had given him a black eye and his clothes were covered in blood. He was obviously drunk.

When his co-workers came to help him, they noticed that Davis, outside of the black eye, didn’t have any other injuries. They concluded that the blood on his clothes must have come from someone else. That seemed to make sense when he told them that he had been ambushed by three men in the Flats.

Regardless of the circumstances, Davis had clearly shown up to work drunk. That was more than enough reason for the manager of the hotel to let him go.

Around the time they were dealing with Davis, police also questioned an Indiana Lighting Company worker named Albert Cook. Around January 1, 1911, Cook claimed to have fallen through the ice of the St. Mary’s River near where Shaw’s body was later discovered.

While James McPharland absolutely swore that he had seen Harold Shaw around January 15th, everyone else that police interviewed agreed that he had disappeared closer to New Year’s Day.

If Cook had been on the water near where Shaw’s body was found on what they theorized was the night of the murder, then he might have seen something. Or Cook might have been the killer himself. Unfortunately, after questioning him for several hours, police determined that Cook had neither seen nor done anything in connection with Shaw’s death.

While questioning various people who knew Shaw, police learned that Shaw had been known to carry a pocket watch. When he was found, the watch pocket of his vest had been turned inside out and the watch was missing. This lent more support to the theory that Shaw had been murdered while being robbed.

While the search for a suspect and the debate surrounding the circumstances of Shaw’s death continued, police were making definitive headway in other areas.

After making inquiries to the Department of the Navy, Chief Abbott finally received confirmation that Harold Shaw had been enlisted. He had served aboard the U.S.S. New Hampshire, but had deserted in the summer of 1910.

No one seemed to know the reason for the desertion. Shaw had been good at his job and received high praise from all his commanding officers.

The Navy also sent the Fort Wayne Police a detailed physical description of Shaw that included tattoos and scars. They were all a perfect match for the body at the Schone and Ankenbruck mortuary.

The undertakers themselves had heard that Shaw was from Salem, Massachusetts, not Boston. Contacting the Salem Police Department, they were able to confirm that was true and soon received information about Shaw’s family.

Harold Shaw was the son of William L. Shaw, a department store manager in Salem. While not exactly wealthy, the Shaw’s were certainly not poor, either. Harold didn’t have a very good relationship with his parents, and had left a job as a grocery store clerk to join the Navy. His sister, whose letter the police found among his belongings, was named Clara and lived in New York City.

The family apparently thought that Shaw was still in the Navy, and had no idea that he had deserted. Because William was set to have major surgery in Boston, they chose not to tell him for fear that it would upset him too badly.

Chief Abbott’s personal theory of the murder was that Shaw had gotten drunk one night and had wandered into the city dump. While there, he was seen by a group of tramps. They must have assumed that the well-dressed man had money, so attempted to rob him. When Shaw fought back, they ended up beating him to death and throwing the body in the river.

Others theorized that Shaw had been killed in the nearby downtown area, then taken by wagon to St.Mary’s River and tossed in. The problem with this idea was that the fire caps that had been used to weigh him down were usually kept in city warehouses. Still, the proponents of this theory believed that the killer or killers might have stolen some to sell as scrap, and then just used them to sink Shaw’s body because they were on hand.

Fire plug caps, like the ones seen on this fire hydrant, were used to weigh down the body of Harold Shaw in the St. Mary’s River. Courtesy of Google Images

While some claimed that Shaw had been murdered in the Flats, police didn’t put much stock in the theory. First of all, they would have had to cross Clinton Street, which was an extremely busy street during all hours of the day and night. The likelihood that someone would have seen them would be extremely high.

Secondly, police knew that there was an extreme rivalry between the various brothels of the red-light district. If it became known that a murder was committed in one and then covered up, the others would have no doubt taken advantage of that and reported it to the authorities.

A coroner’s inquest was held, but revealed very little. However, it did reveal one important detail. By his own admission, Charles Davis openly stated that he had bought it from Shaw in December.

While it seemed to be feasible enough, police were already suspicious of Davis and his attitude. It had been so hard to pry so much information out of him, but when it came to the watch he answered freely, with little to no hesitation. That seemed to be somewhat out of character for the man, and investigators decided to give him a closer look.

It turned out that Davis’ real name was Joseph Thompson. He had an extensive record of breaking the law, and had even served time at the Indiana State Prison for burglary. At some point he had started to go by the name Charles Davis and took a job working as a houseman for the Anthony Hotel.

A few days after the coroner’s inquest, Davis was brought in for questioning in regards to the watch. He stuck to his story though, insisting that he had bought the watch from Shaw the previous December. When asked what had happened to it, Davis said that he had pawned it in January for about $7.

Police went to the pawnshop where the watch was sold, where the owner collaborated that part of Davis’ story. He still had the watch, and gave it to the police.

Checking into another theory, that Shaw had been killed in the Flats, police went looking for Grace Richardson, the prostitute that he had been seeing. They found her staying in Marion, Indiana. She had gone there to file for a divorce from her current husband so that she could marry her current lover.

During questioning, Richardson admitted that she and Shaw had a relationship for some time. However, she denied that he had stayed with her when he had returned from Portland, contrary to Davis’ claims. She also said that he definitely hadn’t been murdered there, stating that she hadn’t even spoken to Shaw since shortly after he returned from Oregon.

Regardless of this new information, it wasn’t enough to pin the murder on Davis. Whether he had lied or had simply been mistaken, it did nothing to help investigators. Charles Davis was released.

After being contacted by the undertakers, Shaw’s mother decided to have Harold buried in Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne. William was having a hard time recovering from his operation, and she didn’t want to stress him further by making him bury his son.

At that point, the Shaw’s hadn’t even told William about Harold’s death, and let him think that he was still away in the Navy. Their plan was to have the body sent to Salem when he was in better health and better able to receive the news.

Had Harold been robbed and murdered by nameless tramps? Had he been the victim of one of his “sweethearts” angry husbands or fathers? Or did Charles Davis really kill him, and was just lucky that police couldn’t pin the murder on him?

Police kept trying to find Harold Shaw’s murderer, exploring every lead that became available. The suicide theory became popular again, and then was just as quickly dismissed for the same reasons it had been before. Within a few more weeks, the case had gone completely cold.

On March 14, 1911, Harold Shaw was buried in an unmarked grave at a funeral attended by only a very few people. His family never sent for the body.

Over one hundred years later, the murder of Harold Shaw remains unsolved. Like so many of us, he had many good qualities, but also flaws, as well. How he came to be beaten to death all those years ago will probably never be known.

The Fort Wayne dump was full of curiosities and treasures to see and explore. Broken furniture, old clothes, and worn-out machinery lay half-buried like the remains of a lost civilization, forgotten by the modern age.

Among them was Harold Shaw, broken by a fellow human being and callously discarded and forgotten. While his killer was never brought to justice, Shaw’s own story remains with us, leaving an enduring mystery that may never be solved.

 

Sources

Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929 [database on-line].
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/81531170/abraham-j-kesler

Year: 1910; Census Place: Fort Wayne Ward 7, Allen, Indiana; Roll: T624_339; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0054; FHL microfilm: 1374352

Year: 1910; Census Place: Fort Wayne Ward 4, Allen, Indiana; Roll: T624_339; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0041; FHL microfilm: 1374352

Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Say the Murdered Man Was Harold I. Shaw, An Electrician. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 3/11/1911.

Clues Fail to Disclose Murderer. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 3/12/1911.

Portland Stenographer Knew Shaw. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 3/13/1911.

Clues Point to Murder at the Flats. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 3/13/1911.

Davis’ Story Looks Flimsy. The Fort Wayne News, 3/13/1911

Coroner’s Inquest Probes Deep into Murder Mystery. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 3/13/1911

Davis, Detained, Clings to Original Story of Watch. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 3/15/1911

Dr. Abraham Kesler, of Board of Health, Dead. The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana), 9/15/1921

 

 

 

 

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