Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Franklin County Hangs a Prussian General

Twenty-five-year-old Arthur Duestrow was a young man of leisure living off his inheritance when he killed his wife in St. Louis on Valentine’s Day Eve of 1894. Son of a wealthy St. Louis businessman, Arthur had always had everything he wanted, but this time even the best lawyers money could buy wouldn’t save him from the gallows.
Arthur had wed twenty-five-year-old Albertina Leisse when he was just twenty-one, and married life seemed to have an ameliorating effect on him at first. Wild and rebellious since his early youth, Arthur seemed to settle down after the marriage.
Arthur and Tina moved into a stately home at the edge of the exclusive Compton Heights district, and the couple appeared happy. After a couple of years, though, about the time their son, Louis, was born, young Duestrow resorted to his old ways. He enrolled in the Missouri Medical College and appended the title “Doctor” to his name, even though he failed to graduate and never practiced medicine. Instead, he spent his time frequenting saloons and carousing with women of questionable virtue.
His demeanor toward his wife turned nasty, and he took Clara Howard, a young woman who kept an “immoral resort” near downtown St. Louis, as his mistress. He visited Clara on the snowy morning of February 13, 1894, and left about noon. Wending his way home, he hit several saloons along the route.
When he reached the Duestrow residence, Tina’s servant girl, Katie Hahn, met him at the door with two-year-old Louis in her arms. “You damned bitch,” the drunken Duestrow swore at the girl as he brushed past her.
Duestrow continued his rampage when he entered the house, calling both Tina and Katie names and accusing his wife of keeping a whorehouse. He tried to hit Katie, but his wife intervened. “If you hit anybody,” she said, “hit me.”
Duestrow promptly struck his wife several times, knocking her against the bed. He picked up little Louis and went madly down the stairs but soon came back with his revolver in his hand. Another angry argument erupted between Tina and her husband, and Katie, who’d run upstairs to her third-floor room, heard gunfire and heard Tina yell that Arthur had shot her. As Katie dashed back down to the second-floor landing, she saw Tina lurch to the floor. The “doctor” then raised the little boy up and placed the revolver against his son’s heart. Panic-stricken, Katie turned away, but she heard two more shots ring out in quick succession as she hurried down the steps to give an alarm.
Duestrow made a halfhearted attempt to kill himself, but the bullet barely grazed his head. He then turned himself in.
Investigators rushed to the Duestrow home and found the little boy dead with two gunshot wounds. Tina Duestrow had been shot three times and was in critical condition.
Duestrow claimed the shooting was all an accident. When he arrived home, he said, he started to toss his revolver up to his wife on the second floor but she yelled for him not to, because it might go off. He went up the steps, where Tina met him and reached for the weapon. As he handed it to her, it accidentally discharged and kept going off on its own.
Unconvinced by his fantastic story, the police took Duestrow to the city jail, where he spent the night ranting and raving that he couldn’t have killed his baby. A few days later, Tina died also.
Duestrow got a change of venue to nearby Franklin County, and his trial for first-degree murder was set for January 1895. Duestrow’s lawyers filed an insanity plea, and a hearing to determine Duestrow’s competence to stand trial began. Both sides called experts as well as ordinary citizens who had known Duestrow throughout his life to testify as to the defendant’s sanity. Defense witnesses testified to Duestrow’s bizarre behavior, such as his claim to be a Roman Catholic cardinal, while state witnesses said his only eccentricities were laziness and drunkenness.
The sanity hearing ended in a hung jury, but a second hearing in the spring found the defendant competent to stand trial for the murder of his wife. However, the trial, which took place from late July to early August also ended in a hung jury.
At his new trial in early 1896, Duestrow was found guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to hang, and the prisoner was taken back to St. Louis for safekeeping. The execution was postponed when Duestrow’s lawyers appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.
In January of 1897, the high court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and the new execution date was set for February 16, 1897. On the morning of the 15th, Duestrow, now claiming to be Prussian general Count Brandenburg, was taken from St. Louis to Union. The next day, Duestrow walked onto the platform without hesitation and placed himself on the trap. The sheriff tied Duestrow’s arms and legs and, addressing him by name, asked him whether he had any final words to say.
“I am not Duestrow,” the prisoner replied. He then bid farewell to Countess von Brandenburg.
Duestrow dropped to his death about 1:00 p.m. Afterward, his body was placed in a coffin to be turned over to his sister, Hulda Duestrow, for burial in St. Louis. Hulda had estranged herself from Arthur after his crime and he had denied even knowing anybody named Hulda Duestrow, but she had her brother’s body buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery near the son he had killed.
This post is condensed from a chapter in my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.


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