Podcast Episode 5: “Fire”

Our fifth episode is all about fire: whether to clean up a murder, evict some unwanted guests or cleanse away those pesky sins, our subjects all turn to the flames for assistance in their deadly and bizarre schemes.

Clean By Fire

reporter alma scarberry climbing in a furnance

Reporter Alma Scarberry demonstrates how difficult it would have been to climb into a furnace on your own, source.

charles hitchcock posing in bed with crutches

Charles Hitchcock poses in bed with his crutches for a newspaper photo, acting out his alibi, in the Elfrieda Knaak murder case, source.

Our first story explores the strange case of Elfrieda Knaak. Elfrieda was a reserved Sunday school teacher who worked in book sales. Her death by self-destruction with a furnace…in a police station…roused everyone’s interest. From reporters reenacting the scene to the supposed cause of her despair (a married man named Charles Hitchcock) posing for a photo shoot acting out his alibi, the case had so many twists and turns it was never really solved. Officially, Elfrieda’s death was named a suicide but the public and the police remained resolutely unconvinced, we explore why.


  1. Love Torture Burns Kill Miss Knaak”, The Daily Independent (Murphysboro, Ill.), 2 November 1928.
  2. Coroner’s Jury Investigates Knaak Case” by Paul H. Karnes, The Brainerd Daily Dispatch (Brainerd, Minn.), 10 November 1928.
  3. Death Seals Lips Of Girl Burned In Strange Love Rite”, Shamokin News-Dispatch (Shamokin, Pa.), 2 November 1928.
  4. Shows How It Was Almost Impossible For Miss Knaak To Burn Self In Furnace Mystery” by Alma Scarberry, The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala), 5 November 1928.
  5. Says He Burned Elfrieda Knaak”, The News-Herald (Franklin, Pa), 5 December 1928.
  6. Says He Faked Confession To Disgrace Kin”, Republican-Northwestern (Belvidere, Ill.), 7 December 1928.
  7. Police Promise Furnace Death Will Be Solved”, The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana), 15 August 1929.
  8. Reopen Probe Into Furnace Death Girl”, Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), 15 August 1929.

An Axe & A Fire

ray pfanschmidt

Ray is on the left in the front row. Blanche, his sister, is right in back of him next to Emma, the school teacher that boarded with his family. His fiancée, Esther, is on the right in the second row, source.

In the early 1910’s, a series of axe murders was committed across five midwestern states. Many Americans speculated that the crimes were being committed by one person, a maniac traveling from state to state. When there was a fire at the Pfanschmidt home in Illinois, the clean-up revealed that everyone in the house had been hacked to death with an axe before the fire. The only surviving member of the family, Ray, lived in a tent near his work on the railroad tracks. He was immediately arrested and public judgement across the country was split. Many thought he was guilty, others thought it was the axe murderer. In this story we present all the circumstantial evidence the jury heard about Ray’s movements and behavior, would you reach the same conclusion?


  1. Evidence Taking Closed Tuesday”, The Decatur Herald, 16 April 1913.
  2. Accuses Son of Crime”, The Sheboygan Evening Press (Sheboygan, Wis.), 1 October 1912.
  3. So Smooth He Fooled A Prosecutor”, The Wichita Beacon, 18 December 1916.
  4. Ray Pfanschmidt Is Given Death Penalty”, Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Ill.), 21 April 1913.
  5. Paranormal investigator stabs self during visit to Iowa ‘Ax Murder’ house where 8 killed” by Sasha Goldstein, New York Daily News, 10 November 2014.
  6. Lies Told Under Oath” by Beth Lane, iUniverse, February 2012.
  7. Ray Pfanschmidt To Get New Trial”, Dixon Evening Telegraph (Dixon, Ill.), 21 February 1914.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
  9. Tri-State murder case still unsolved today” by Rajah Maples, KHQA News, 24 November 2015.
  10. Slippery Youth Fools Officers”, The Salina Evening Journal (Salina, Ks.), 20 December 1916.
  11. Pfanschmidt Gets 2 Years”, The Wichita Beacon, 23 January 1918.

Suffragettes vs. Soap

Edith Rigby being arrested

Edith Rigby is roughly arrested by the police, source.

Edith Rigby was part of a suffragette group that had turned militant and kept the police busy. In the early 1910’s, Edith was the leader of a group of Preston Suffragettes in the UK. Edith organized and acted in many demonstrations for women’s rights. One of her most famous vandalizations, for which she was only the organizer and not a participant, was the tarring and feathering of a prominent statue of Earl Stanley. It was an act of protest after the Earl’s son, the 16th Earl, opposed votes for women. Despite efforts to clean the statue, traces of tar are said to still remain today.

However, in this story we discuss another one of Edith’s demonstrations in the name of women’s rights: the total burning of Sir William Lever’s home. We talk about why Sir William was one of her more curious targets and what happened when she confessed.


  1. Women Burn Mansion” by Associated Press, Harrisburg Daily Independent (Harrisburg, Pa), 8 July 1913.
  2. Arson Squad of Militants Still Decidedly Active”, The Winnipeg Tribune, 8 July 1913.
  3. Dramatic Story of Militant Suff”, The Evening Kansan-Republican (Newton, Ks.), 11 July 1913.
  4. New light shed on 100-year-old mystery of one of Bolton’s most notorious historical events”, The Bolton News, 6 July 2013.
  5. Centenary of ‘controversial’ suffragette fire to be marked”, BBC News, 6 July 2013.
  6. Suffragette Gets 9 Months”, The Ottawa Daily Republic (Ottawa, Ks.), 30 July 1913.

Newspaper Clippings

Fiery Eviction

Berlin in 1929

Berlin in 1929, source.

The story of WWI is a familiar one. The Treaty of Versailles was so ruinous to Germany’s economy that it was one of the main contributing factors of WWII. During the first war, the British blockade had already handicapped the German economy and the government did not speed recovery by printing huge amounts of currency to pay for reparations. But by the end of the 1920’s, thanks to loans and industrial expansion, the German economy was rebounding and experiencing the “Golden Twenties.” Perhaps that is why Mr. Stemmler, who we follow in this short story, was so angry his tenants would still not leave!

Source: Ejects Tenants By Fire”, New York Times, 3 January 1929.

Cold Feet in the Furnace

elfrieda knaak

No one was expecting a copycat of Elfrieda’s (pictured here) death, source.

When Elfrieda Knaak from our first story died the public was horrified that someone could harm themselves so brutally. They certainly were not prepared for copycat “crimes” of a similar and terrifying nature. We quickly look at one of those copycat crimes and attempt to discover the unclear reason behind it.


  1. Girl Loses Nerve After Thrusting Head in Furnace”, The Coshocton Tribune (Coshocton, Oh.), 17 February 1929.
  2. Evanston Girl Thrusts Self Into Furnace”, The Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, Ind.), 15 February 1929.
  3. Young Chicago Woman Attempts to Kill Self Similar to Elfrieda Knaak”, The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, Nd.), 16 February 1929. 

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