When a Killer of Women Stalked the Upper East Side
"STENOGRAPHER GIRL WANTED AT ONCE"
Manhattan 1910. A postcard requesting a typist arrived at the mailroom at the Merchants and Bankers College on Madison Avenue. It was diligently forwarded to a recent graduate of a stenography class, 15-year-old Ruth Amos Wheeler.
Ruth had just completed a six-month course a week ago; she was eager to find employment. Merchants and Bankers College proudly guaranteed job placements to graduates to entice young women away from a life of domestic service.
Ruth had been a polite and hardworking student. Having lost her father John, a railroad engineer, in a train accident, life was a struggle. She lived with her mother Emily and her two older sisters Pearl and Adelaide with their uncle Edwin Amos Wheeler, the neighborhood butcher.
The widow Wheeler supported the family as a dressmaker who did fine needle work for ladies. She understood the importance of educating her children, all members of the family had to work. Ruth was her youngest, the baby of the family. Like her sisters, Ruth was a pretty girl; she was petite with small delicate features, blue eyes, and long red hair.
On a sunny morning on March 24th, 1910, excited and dressed in her Sunday’s best to make a good impression, Ruth left the family apartment on W. 134th street for her first job interview.
When Ruth didn’t return later that day, her mother became concerned. Ruth had never been out of the house alone past six in the evening, and it was getting dark. Canvassing the neighborhood turned up nothing, the girl seemed to have vanished into thin air. Her oldest sister, 28-year-old Pearl, a department store bookkeeper, called on the school to find out where Ruth had been sent to. The return address on the postcard let Pearl to a run-down tenement building on the Upper East Side, on 224 E. 75th street. Pearl felt a knot in her stomach; it made no sense to her that a tenant in this decrepit walk-up could afford to employ a stenographer.
When she knocked at the door of the top-floor rear apartment a scantily clad young woman answered. The girl denied knowing anything about a typist and tried to get rid of her, but Pearl elbowed her way into the apartment, calling her sister’s name.
There was no sign of Ruth. A young man was lounging in bed looking at her with a cold stare. Pearl noticed an unusual double spring lock at the front door and started to become panicky. The exchange became increasingly hostile, Pearl tried to leave but couldn't disengage the latch. Only when she yelled that she had brought a policeman who was waiting for her downstairs, the woman opened the door for her and let her out. Pearl fled the apartment and went straight to the local precinct.
She found a sympathetic ear in an officer who immediately followed her back to the apartment but found it had been hurriedly emptied and abandoned.
The cold water flat was rented to a Katie (Kaetchen) Mueller, a barely 18-year-old German girl who worked as a kitchen helper for meager six dollars a week at Jugerman’s Bakery, a popular German coffee shop in Harlem. Her unemployed live-in boyfriend, an arrogant pasty 19-year-old fella, was mostly known by the neighbors for having abnormally thick earlobes and dressing like a dandy.
His name was Albert Wolter, and he would soon become a household name all over America.
Officers searched the vacant apartment for any sign of Ruth but came up empty-handed. There was no trace of the girl. After quizzing the neighbors about Katie Mueller’s place of employment, officers followed her from her work to a tenement on E. 105th street where her boyfriend had rented a room under a false name. The officers confronted Albert Wolter about the Wheeler girl, but he angrily denied knowing anything. When his trunk was searched, a stash of pornographic cards and a little black notebook was found. It was filled with over a dozen women’s names and physical descriptions.
Ruth Wheeler was the last entry. Enough cause for the police to suspected foul play. The officers arrested Albert Wolter on suspicion of abducting the girl.
Three days after the disappearance of Ruth Wheeler a former neighbor of Katie Mueller on E. 75th street alerted the police of a grizzly find. She noticed a discarded bundle of burlap on the fourth-floor fire escape, next to the flat Wolter and Mueller had hastily vacated. Her husband kicked the refuse off the fire escape into the backyard of the building. Sensing something strange about it, he went downstairs to unwrap it. To his horror, he discovered it contained body parts; a dismembered charred torso with a human head burned beyond recognition.
The Saddest News
The newspapers broke the devastating turn of events on March 27th. “Little Ruth finally found.”
The Wheeler women learned of Ruth's death by overhearing newsboys hawking the special evening edition in front of their Harlem brownstone. The sisters were brought in to identify the charred remains. Adelaide recognized remnants of a strand of turquoise glass beads still embedded around the neck of the corpse.
Wolter was indicted on first-degree homicide charges, and in less than five days a Grand jury was assembled.
The detectives searched Katie Mueller’s apartment again and found that the fireplace had been recently repainted. A modest little gold ring engraved R.A.W. was recovered from the ash bucket. A shop girl from a nearby hardware store recalled selling a jar of paint to a flirty Albert Wolter on the day Ruth went missing. A subsequent examination of the fireplace of Wolter’s rooms on 105th street revealed remnants of several lady’s hair combs, hat pins, and small human bone fragments, several ladies umbrellas were found on the premises.
The police spread a wide net for Katie Mueller, now wanted as a material witness. She was found sitting on the stoop of 122 E. 105th street, trying to read a newspaper clipping about the crime in English, a language she was struggling to learn. She had been fired from her job at the bakery when the Jugermans read about her in the papers.
At the 67th street police station, Katie volunteered a detailed account of her relationship with young Albert, whom she tearfully defended as a goodhearted and sensitive boy who could not hurt a fly. He was a feeble looking young man, standing only 5’2” tall and weight 125 lbs. She denied any knowledge of any crime or aiding her boyfriend in anything illegal. Katie was not a suspect; the bakery confirmed her solid alibi.
Katie described her life as a struggling immigrant, mistreated, homesick and lonely, flattered by Wolter’s borderline obsessive attention to her and gladly worked long hours to support him. Before working in the bakery, she had been a live-in servant for a doctor's family on Fifth Avenue. Albert made her quit.
Downtown, in a holding cell in the tombs, Wolter turned out to be very difficult to interrogate. He was cold, evasive and obnoxious to the detectives and seemed bored and unconcerned.
His elderly father, Albert Wolter Sr., a respected gray-haired German, crushed by the news of his son's crime, pleaded with him to cooperate with the law. Wolter Sr. had moved the family two years ago from Danzig to New York. Albert was born to his mother Anna out of wedlock. His father had left for New York to work at Steinway & Son's Manufacturers as a piano tuner. Steinway Hall on E 14th street was a grand showroom for the finest concert pianos and a prestigious cultural institution. It was at the time the second largest music hall in the land and permanent home of the Philharmonics until their move to Carnegie Hall. The elder Wolter saved up for years to bring Anna and young Albert to America. When the family was reunited at last, Albert Sr. immediately married Anna to make things right. He had even secured a job for young Albert and was deeply ashamed when his son was fired for stealing from his employer.
Albert Sr. had tried tough love and banned his son from the family residence at 120 E. 53rd street over his thieveries and lack of work ethic. Eventually, he disowned him over his alarming womanizing. Albert's mother was soft on her boy and occasionally gave him money because he had convinced her he had found honest work as a hospital attendant.
On Wednesday, March 30th,1910, little Ruth Wheeler was quietly buried in her family plot in Maple Grove Cemetery in New Jersey. Only close family attended, the time and location kept secret.
the hunt for a serial killer
The search for the other girls in Wolter’s black notebook proofed difficult. Newspapers suggested young Albert had fallen in with a gang of white slavers, violent men who forced vulnerable women into prostitution. Police were dispatched to houses of ill repute to check for any missing girls but were met by a wall of silence. The police checked a number of tenements in which Wolter and Mueller had rented rooms and discovered that Wolter had always sent and received an abnormally large amount of post cards. One janitor reported Albert frequently had girls visit when Katie was at work.
The trial began April 12th, 1910 and caused a nationwide sensation.
Medical examiner Holzhauser testified that Wolter had attempted to strangle Ruth with a cord and wrapped her unconscious body in his nightshirt, doused her with kerosene and shoved her standing upright into the small fireplace. To make her fit into the narrow chimney, he broke her arms and legs by bending them over his knee. Ruth was still alive when he set her on fire; her lungs showed traces of soot. The medical examiner could not determine if the 15-year-old had been sexually assaulted.
Remnants of the nightshirt were exhibited in trial, positively identified as Wolters, gifted to him by his mother who had embroidered it with the initial W.
A handwriting expert matched several cards received by business schools to Wolter’s entries in his black notebook.Two of Katie Mueller’s neighbors testified having seen Ruth Wheeler enter the building, the janitors' wife recalled giving her directions to Mueller’s flat. Nobody had seen her leave. Mueller’s neighbor across the hall reported a terrible odor that lingered all day.
A sensational trial
The grief-stricken Wheeler women made solemn and dignified appearances in court, describing what Ruth had been wearing on the day of her disappearance and identifying items for the prosecution. A stark contrast to Wolters behavior which was arrogant, rude and aloof.
Wolter still insisted on his innocence and that he never met Ruth. He testified had only written her name in his notebook because his friend Fred, a waiter in Coney Island, wanted to open a school for typists. He could not provide any information about this Fred’s whereabouts. The jury didn't buy it. Wolter’s parents publicly announced they would not pay for his defense.
Other girls came forward, testifying they had received cards requesting a typist, including two graduates from the Merchants and Bankers College who had also been sent to Wolter’s address by the school. One became hesitant when she saw the building and refused to enter; the second girl went home to consult her father who forbade her to go.
The star witness recants
Eventually, Wolter's stubborn defender and only alibi Katie Mueller started to crack. Whippet-thin, stoic and deeply distrustful of the law she froze in terror when questioned on the stand. The press wasn’t kind to Katie calling her a pretty simpleton, stating that “Her mind and her personality are as dull as her hair.”
When reality set in and her infatuation with her boyfriend started to fade, she began to cooperate with Assistant District Attorney Moss but only after he swore to her to treat her fairly. Kate recalled returning home from work at 7 pm and finding a riled up Albert painting the fireplace. She testified he had often sent cards to schools and when they argued over it, he assured her it was just meant as a joke. She recounted his alibi and testified that on the day of the murder he had not stopped at the coffee shop for a free meal as he usually did.
On April 23rd, the day after beloved Mark Twain passed away, Wolter was sentenced to death. The Grand Jury took less than an hour to deliver the guilty verdict, only 30 days after the murder. ADA Moss had kept his promise to the citizens of New York of a speedy justice.
Death by electric chair
Albert Wolter never confessed or showed any remorse and tried to appeal the verdict. He was executed in Sing Sing for the rape and murder of Ruth Wheeler. He was 20 years old.
Katie Mueller found redemption with the help of an unexpected ally. Assistant DA Moss and his wife were social reformers and offered Katie a place in their household. Not long after, Moss sang her praised as a good woman who had turned her life around when shown kindness and given an opportunity. Only a few months after the Wolter trial, Katie married a man of good reputation with the enthusiastic approval of ADA Moss.
Was Albert Wolter a babyfaced serial killer? We will likely never know. Further investigations of Wolters black notebook turned up nothing. The entries were too vague and only turned up a few transient boarders or recent immigrants. Life was cheap; plenty prayed on the vulnerable. Between January to March 1910 alone, over 50 women and girls had been reported missing at New York City police headquarters. Forensics was still in its infancy; it would be another year until fingerprints would be accepted in court.
Ruth Amos Wheeler's murder caused a nationwide outrage, the newspaper frenzy of the trial only to be outdone by another terrible tragedy that occurred a year later: the sinking of the Titanic.