fire experience another fabrication?
Peter Apkins (1878-) claimed to
have attended the Iroquois Theater with a friend
(identity not reported) after arriving in Chicago the day before
the fire. The friend reportedly died at the
Iroquois and Peter spent nearly a year in the
hospital recovering from head injuries. Some
1911 newspaper stories reported his scalp had nearly been
torn off, others nearly burned off. Cranioplasty and an implanted plate
suggest skull fracture such as might have been
incurred by falling from a fire escape into Couch
Place or from being landed upon by another person
jumping from a fire escape or an upper balcony.
employing non-organic materials, i.e., metal skull
patching, has been around since 7,000 BC.)
If a hospital verified Apkins' extended treatment,
newspaper did not report it.
Apkins' name did not appear
in any Iroquois Theater related newspaper stories
1903-1907. Nor did Apkins, Apkin, Apkens, Apken,
Adkins, Adkin, Adken, Adkins, Appkin, Appkins,
Appken, Appkens, Abkin, Abkins, Abken, Abkens,
Apking or Appking. So I looked at Iroquois
references to Peter, Pete, Pieter, Petri, Paul
or P., at victims linked to Germany or Russia, and
for connections to pianos. Found nothing.
Chicago oddly silent
Curiously, Chicago newspapers
did not cover his 1911 criminal adventures. The story received
wide coverage in states that made home to his victims -
Indiana and Kentucky – and editors in Philadelphia, New Orleans,
Des Moines, Detroit, Omaha, Pittsburg, Winston-Salem and Little
Rock ran the story, but not Chicago. A piano tuner
turned bigamist-forger-murderer, who claimed Chicago
as his address and blamed Chicago's most
infamous disaster, eliciting comparisons to
Chicago's most notorious serial killer, H. H. Holmes, would seem to be
in the "gotta publish" category for Chicago
newspapers. Instead, on July 20-25, 1911 when
other newspapers published accounts
of the arrest of a
Chicago bigamist-forger-murderer, Chicago's Inter Ocean newspaper
covered a bigamist in London.
Apkins connection to Steger,
Apkins said he had relatives
in the village of Steger, IL but they were not
named. (One newspaper said it was his parents
so I looked at all 2,000 residents of Steger in the
1910 U.S. Census.
Lots of Russian Lithuanians, none named anything
remotely similar to Apkins.) Steger
is about thirty-five miles south of Chicago with a
population today of around 10,000 residents.
In 1911 it was only a twenty-year-old community with
a few thousand residents, a large proportion of them
employed in the piano manufacturing industry.
Sometimes called the "Piano capital of
the world," it was home to the Steger Piano
company, a twenty-three-acre manufacturing facility
with the capacity to produce sixteen thousand pianos
annually. The company's founder, John
Valentine Steger (1854-1916), was a German
immigrant, as were many of its employees. The
company recruited European craftsman, promising
housing. It would not have been difficult for
a relative to help Apkins get a job at the plant.
At his arrest in 1911,
newspapers reported that Starrs Piano was one of
several piano manufacturers who contracted with Apkins
for tuning. In 1910, a year before his
crime spree, he worked at Steger as a machine
operator. He roomed then in a boarding house
on 234th street with dozens of other Steger piano
factory workers. In the 1910 U.S. Census, one
of his fellow borders described himself as a tuner
but Apkins described himself as a machine operator.
Sometime in the next twelve months, Apkins became a
tuner circuiting Midwest piano retailers, including
Starrs Piano and Richmond
The Starrs Piano connection
no doubt contributed to his capture. Starrs
was located in Richmond, Indiana, a city then with a
population of around 20,000, directly east of
Indianapolis on the Indiana-Ohio state line.
The police chief in Richmond, Isaac A. Gormon,
headed the forgery investigation and made the
arrest. Two of Apkins' check forgeries
involved a Richmond furniture dealer. Bertha Kohler, Apkins' first wife,
lived in Richmond. Richmond's newspapers also published the most thorough and
accurate stories about Apkins' misadventures.
Even his nation of birth is
Some newspapers reported
Apkins was from Russia but most
reported the more probable Germany. On his 1918 WWI
draft registration he reported Germany was his native
country, with his father from Lithuania, then part
of Russia. (His father might have been the Pieter Japkins from Lithuania who immigrated in 1891 and
became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1898, in
Brockton, Massachusetts.) That said, in
the 1910 U.S. Census he reported he was born in
Lithuania Russia, came to the United States in 1884
and was a naturalized citizen.
System for romance
Apkins responded to and ran classified
advertisements in lovelorn sections of newspapers in
Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Connecticut,
Denver, Toledo, and Des Moines.
"Wanted - To correspond with poor
working girl or widow. One who needs a home and
companion. Object matrimony. Address Lock Box 75, Stegar, Illinois."
Newspapers reported that
Apkins spoke five or six languages, including Russian, German, English and Spanish,
but that he did not spend time crafting original prose.
He copied romantic passages from books, such as
romantic letters from Sheldon's
Twentieth Century Letter Writer, signed his name and enclosed a picture of
his arrest, in Apkins two suitcases were found hundreds of letters from women
responding to his letters and advertisements, along
with newspaper clippings on which he'd noted
the status of correspondence with twenty-one women
(one paper said only nine). His belongings
also revealed several aliases, including Peter
Turamkis, Peter Turansis, Fred Snyder, Anton Miller,
R. P. Apkins and Robert Schultz.
letters were those from the two women married in
May 1911. Bertha Kohler was cautious, writing
"Yes, I would like to know you
better. You may call." Bertha Rogers
Kohler, May 2, 1911
Lizzie Young, his
wife (more about Lizzie at right), had met him a
year earlier and they'd corresponded for several months.
She accepted his marriage proposal with a response that reads as if
she might have had her own book of romantic letters:
will be your wife. It will be the pride of my life
to shield you from all sorrow and give you all the
happiness that there is in the world. It will be
grand to bear the sorrows of life together. It will
make them seem easier for both of us. Will we live
in Richmond or Chicago?"
Reportedly the police
contacted Apkin's pen pals in Des Moines, Iowa, and
Petersburg, Virginia but none admitted to having
Married two wives
in a week. Bertha came first
and thirty-seven-year-old widow, Bertha E.
Rogers Kohler (1874-1943) of Richmond, Indiana
became acquainted via a newspaper advertisement and
letters (see above), perhaps not
meeting face to face until days or hours before their
wedding. In Richmond Apkins stayed with the
Darwin U. Atkinson family before the wedding.
Atkinson operated a second-hand furniture store that
sold sewing machines and probably pianos as well.
He cashed two of Apkins forged checks.
Bertha and Apkins married May 24, 1911.
Daughter of George and Serena Rogers, Bertha had
lost her husband,
Harold C. Kohler (18680-1902), nine years earlier
and was struggling to keep a roof over the heads of
their two children, sixteen-year-old Harold Jr.
Kohler and thirteen-year-old Mary
Kohler. Bertha had married Harold Sr. in 1894.
He had immigrated to America
in 1870 from Germany.
Prior to Harold's death
the Kohler family lived in Butler, Ohio northeast of
Columbus where Harold worked in a brewery.
After his death Bertha and their two children relocated to
Richmond, Indiana where she worked as a laundress.
She would later tell investigators that getting a
home was her primary objective in accepting Apkins'
marriage proposal. Peter and Bertha traveled west
across Indiana to Paris, Illinois, a city on the
Indiana-Illinois state line with a population then
of around 8,000. Judge Daniel V. Dayton and
deputy county clerk Daniel Holloran witnessed the
The couple traveled east back
to Indianapolis where Apkins left Bertha, saying he
was going north to Chicago to make arrangements for
their home and would be back soon.
Instead he drove south to
Lexington, Kentucky and married another women.
When he hadn't returned two days later, Bertha
headed back home to Richmond. Bertha never
heard from him again.
She spent the rest of her days in Richmond, living with
her daughter and eventually enjoying grandchildren born to her son. Apkins' next wife was not so
Then came Lizzie
Twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth Baxter
"Lizzie" Young of Nicholasville, Kentucky (1883-1911)
had met Apkins a year earlier while during a summer
visit with friends in
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For ten months afterward the
pair corresponded and in April, 1911 Apkins visited her in Nicholasville, KY where she lived with
her aunt and uncle, Lizzie and James Baxter. Lizzie Baxter (1850-1924)
was Lizzie's namesake and one of her many aunts.
(Lizzie's grandfather, Harden Horston Hunter, was
married five or six times and fathered over two
dozen children.) Lizzie lived with the Baxters
in 1910 and probably at the time of her marriage to
Apkins. Her mother, Lucy Hunter Young Bryant
(1855-1924), was living but doesn't seem to have
played a significant role in Lizzie's adult life.
Her father was dead.
Lizzie and Apkins' wedding
took place six
days after his marriage to Bertha Kohler, on May 26, 1911.
Reverend Isaac J. Spencer of the Central
Christian Congregational church conducted the
service. Afterwards the newlyweds traveled north to Cincinnati, Ohio for
Around midnight on May 28,
1911, two days after their wedding, at
the Burkhauser's Hotel in Cincinnati, Apkins
pocketed $110 and $200 in jewelry from his
bride, then beat, choked and poisoned her. Lizzie's screams
as she tried to escape through a window brought police. To their credit, when
refused to let them into the hotel room the officers climbed
a fire escape to gain entrance, thus bringing an end
to the beating. Apkins asserted that Lizzie's semi-conscious garbled
accusations about drugs, theft and being beaten were
brought on by hysteria at the imagined entry of a
burglar, resulting in insanity. At the
hospital she could not remember her name or that
she'd married. According to Lizzie's later reports Apkins had persuaded her to drink
alcoholic drinks at the hotel until she lost
consciousness. He wired Lizzie's family to tell them of
insanity (a gesture that seems out of character)
then traveled to Stirling, Connecticut, arriving May
31, 1911. An
unidentified woman there escaped becoming his third
wife by being away from home. She expected him
on a later date.
Lizzie's last days
Lizzie Baxter and Irene
B. Strode, Lizzie Young Apkins' cousin, traveled
to Cincinnati and and checked Lizzie into the Grandview
Sanitarium where physicians dismissed insanity and
concurred she had
been attacked and poisoned. Something caustic
had burned her lips and she was unable to eat, her
body bearing cuts and bruises from punching and
Lizzie's family took her home to the Baxter place on Tate's Creek Pike
in Kentucky where
her weight dropped from 120 to 80 pounds (one
newspaper reported 160 to 80 pounds) and she
spent the last month of her life in delirium.
Authorities attributed her August 17, 1911 death to
brain fever with fright as
the secondary cause. The type of poison was
not reported in newspapers but arsenic seems possible. As a
piano maker Apkins would have been familiar with
wood working products and arsenic is a wood
While Lizzie lay dying, Apkins traveled back to the Midwest from
Connecticut, passing through Youngstown, Ohio, Gary,
Indiana, Harvey, Illinois and landing in
Connersville, Indiana. He sent Lizzie a
postcard from Gary. Though not written in
English, her relatives reported it to police, giving
Gormon a clue as to Apkins' whereabouts. Richmond's Chief Gormon
made the arrest the night of July 19, 1911 when Apkins stepped
from an interurban bound for Richmond, possibly returning to Bertha.
The arrest in Connersville
came after a two-month
investigation said to have involved police in six
states and sixty banks, police in Richmond, Indiana
arrested Apkins for a $6 forged check. They
had evidence of a dozen other forged checks, each
for less than $25, using a half dozen names. Most of the checks
were notated as compensation for labor.
The first news reports about Apkins did not appear until July 20,
1911, seven weeks after the marriage to Bertha and
four weeks after Lizzie's death. By that date,
law enforcement had put most of the puzzle together
and later connected the big pieces,
that Apkins-the-forger was also Apkins-the-bigamist
and Apkins-the-wife killer. Chief Gormon
in Richmond knew Apkins was conning women before
Apkins married Lizzie. How? The chief
was concerned enough that he wrote to Lizzie to warn
her (but his letter arrived a day after she'd left
with Apkins) and he asked for help from two
detective agencies, Pinkertons and William R. Burns,
who searched in vain for Apkins for several weeks
before his arrest. Bertha may have come
home from her abbreviated honeymoon and gone to the
police but she had no way of knowing about Lizzie. Gormon knew Apkins was guilty
of more than forging a dozen checks totaling less
Chief Gormon's son, Elmer A.
Gormon, was head of the Michigan division of the
U.S. Secret Service and an up-and-comer with several
major solves to his credit. He was busy in the
spring of 1911 with a counterfeit coin case but I
can't help wondering if he gave his father a hand.
Richmond was just getting warmed up to prosecute
when Lexington presented requisition papers to
governor Thomas R. Marshall * of Indiana from
Augustus E. Willson of Kentucky, asking to
extradite Apkins to Kentucky. Lizzie's
relatives there were bringing pressure on
authorities to prosecute for manslaughter as well as
bigamy. States attorney John R. Allen went for
plate made him fuzzy
In the mid-January, 1912
bigamist trial, Apkin's court-appointed attorney, William Alpha Hubbard,
two years out of law school, blamed his client's
behavior on his Iroquois Theater fire injuries,
asserting that the plate in his skull caused
him to sometimes behave irresponsibly and suffer
memory loss. Apparently the memory problems
were intermittent. Though Apkins had previously
told police that he didn't consider his marriages
legal a Catholic priest had not officiated, by trial his
memory of marrying Bertha had disappeared
altogether. Lexington's Dr. Edward Maxwell Wiley
(1850-1915) testified that
though Apkins' injury had been in a vital area of the
brain, the plate could not effect Apkin's mental
condition unless the brain was in some way re-injured. (Presumably Dr. Wiley was
able to examine Apkins' head to verify the presence
of a skull plate but it is not known if Chicago
physicians verified the Iroquois injury story.) Speculation about why he did
not engage in serial marriage, forgery or violence
for the eight years between the head injury and 1911
was not published, nor did stories appear suggesting
that his crime spree began before 1911. It
suggests that something happened after Apkins went
on the road as a piano tuner, to change his perspective.
Piano's sold for around $600 ($15,000
inflation-adjusted), well beyond his budget. Perhaps
exposure to the more luxurious lifestyle of piano
owners triggered a hunger.
Kentucky took issue with bigamy
didn't buy the cranial plate defense. They
found Apkins guilty of bigamy and sent him to the
Kentucky State Reformatory in Frankfort, KY for two
years. While there he awaited a verdict from
the courts on whether the Jessamine county KY circuit
court had jurisdiction to prosecute him for
manslaughter. Lizzie had died in Kentucky but
the poisoning and beating alleged to have caused her
death took place in Ohio. His defense
attorney's argument was that if she was
poisoned, it took place in Ohio, not Kentucky, thus
Kentucky didn't have a case. The ruling came two months later. He could not
stand for Lizzie's death in Kentucky, only in Ohio.
took issue with forgery
Upon Apkins' release in 1915 from
the Kentucky prison, Indiana got its shot. He
was convicted of forgery and
served two years in the Indiana state prison in Michigan
Not prosecuted for Lizzie's
Ohio should have prosecuted Lizzie's death,
Kentucky the bigamy and Indiana the forgery but
Ohio was mum, Kentucky got grabby, Indiana bit
his ankles and by 1918 Apkins
was free, walking the streets of Chicago.
According to his WWI draft registration he worked
then for Edward
J. Fogarty and claimed
a Charles Carpus in East St. Louis, Illinois as his
closest relative. No such person by
that name in East St. Louis in the 1910 or 1920 U.S.