An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Seventy

Above, Dutch soldiers on the frontier with Belgium, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-Nine

Andrew Stevens, October 1914

“I understand,” says Sheriff Tobin as he claps Mr. K on the back, “you had a wild adventure in Germany.”

“Much more than he anticipated,” says the Colonel. “Bullets riddling the automobile you’re driving does not fit any description of a relaxing vacation.”

Mr. K shakes his head. “We couldn’t set sail from Bremen, so we needed to cross into the Netherlands. There was a long line of automobiles at the border crossing, with little movement forward. Numerous automobiles were being turned back.”

“And you know how patient Otto is.” The Colonel winks at the Sheriff.

“Hettie pleaded with me to stay in line,” continues Mr. K. “She said there was no reason the guards would not let us pass. Emma? Emma, on the other hand, said we had a ship to board in Rotterdam. She didn’t care to wait for any boy-soldiers with exaggerated opinions of their importance to examine paperwork that was all in order.”

“And, of course,” inserts the Colonel, “who would dare defy Emma?”

“Did you try to pass the lines of cars?” asks the Sheriff.

“There was a farmer with a team of oxen harvesting hay in the field by the road. I pulled over, offered him some Deutsche papiermark and asked him if there was perhaps a shortcut through his farm. He hopped up on the running board and directed me through his field to a gate leading to a neighboring farm across the border.”

“That sounds a simple solution,” says the Sheriff.

By now, Mr. K has retold the frightening tale enough times that he chuckles about it. “Unfortunately, that put us back on the roadway within eyesight of the soldiers manning the crossing. They fired across the border, which sparked a few return shots from the guards in Holland. We all ducked down, and I kept driving, my eyes barely peering above the dash. No harm done, save to the doors of the automobile. And my eardrums from Hettie’s piercing screams.”  

“Well,” says the Sheriff, “we’re all happy you made it back safely. Maybe you could find a vacation spot closer to home. Corpus Christi maybe.”

“This war appears to be turning into a long one,” says the Colonel. “The Kaiser is not one to back down. And now, Portugal and Turkey are being drawn into the fray.”

“The whole continent,” says Sheriff Tobin, “is exploding like the boiler at the Roundhouse.”

“Any word about the progress of the investigations?” asks Mr. K.

Sheriff Tobin spreads his arms out wide. “That damn boiler was titanic in size. About the biggest in the entire country. Commissioner Starling identified boiler pressure as the main culprit.”

The Colonel taps a finger on the side of his forehead. “It takes no genius to reach that conclusion.”

“The gauge was destroyed,” continues Sheriff Tobin, “so there’s no way to determine whether the proper amount of water was inside. And we’ll never know how many men actually died there. The whole railyard was one messy giant pot of menudo. Unidentifiable body parts everywhere. A lot of the workers there that day were strikebreakers laboring under assumed names, meaning no one even knew who was on site.”

Mr. K lowers his eyes and shakes his head. “The widows must be lining up to file lawsuits.”

“While you were away, we donated generously to the Chamber of Commerce relief fund for widows and orphans.” The Colonel assures him.

“Sheriff,” asks Mr. K, “do you believe it was an accident?”

“Well, Otto,” answers the Sheriff, “if you mean do I think it was the strikers, no. Any man familiar enough with a boiler like that would know how many people would be injured if it blew. The strikers were mad enough to resort to some violence, but not enough to commit mass murder.”

“Our men would never commit such an act, Otto,” says the Colonel. “Even if you hadn’t acquiesced to giving them a raise before you left.”

“Gentlemen,” says the Sheriff, “I best skedaddle. Half my deputies are tied up at the courthouse. The courtroom is mobbed with the curious for the bail hearing for May and Victor Innes. I don’t want an incident like the one in Angleton yesterday. Judge Lynch meted the citizens’ punishment via automobile instead of by traditional horseback.”

“Governor Colquitt’s commutation fired up that Angleton crowd,” concedes the Colonel. “Changed that negro’s sentence to life instead of death for murdering a white woman. Angleton obviously objected.”

“Surely you’ve nothing like that on your hands downtown, Sheriff?” asks Mr. K.

“I hope not. One of my deputies seized a gun from the missing young women’s brother in the courtroom this morning.”

“They are merely missing?” asks the Colonel.

“The Nelms sisters are so missing they are presumed dead. Only about thirty years old, they left Atlanta in June; stopped in New Orleans; and vanished here. That Innes fellow was the divorce attorney for one of the sisters. The mother and younger brother have been hounding police departments from coast to coast to find the sisters. Innes deposited several substantial checks from the sisters in his account early this summer, and the brother tracked down the married scoundrels hiding out in Oregon. Despite no bodies, the Grand Jury here somehow indicted them for murder and conspiracy, and the bond hearing’s today. San Antonians are drawn to murder trials like flies to a corpse. You would think they all were related to these absolute strangers from Georgia.”

“Will the District Attorney be able to convict?” asks the Colonel.

“If the Inneses hire good attorneys, no. The couple rented a little house on Wilkens Avenue on the south side. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes, quite well,” replies Mr. K. “It runs between Hunstock and Presa. I pass by there all the time on the way to the Hot Wells. A peaceful neighborhood by all outward appearances.”

“Well, this bungalow,” continues Sheriff Tobin, “was sealed up tighter than a drum. Only things found there were a meat grinder, large lye-stained vats and cauldrons and a sliver of a slipper that possibly belonged to one of the sisters. The mother hired Carlos Bee and W.R. Munsen to assist the District Attorney, but throwing money at a weak case doesn’t guarantee the outcome.”

“No bodies, no crime?” asks the Colonel.

“Crime perhaps,” answers the Sheriff, “but no bodies, no conviction. Perhaps even no trial. That’s when I really need to worry about the mob. So, gentlemen, I’m off.” 

Mr. K waves a hand. “Andy, skedaddle, as the Sheriff says, as well. Time for you take a lunch break.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Mr. K seems in better humor lately. On most days prior to the Roundhouse explosion, he would fetch his carriage and leave for downtown at four o’clock for meetings, to inspect properties or join friends at the Travis Club. Afterwards, before he left for Europe, he tended to stew at his desk until six o’clock.

Sometimes, Andy observes him scowling at papers at his desk around midday. Something still is gnawing at him. Perhaps news from Mexico affecting his investments. Or the war abroad.

Yet, despite those issues and his harrowing experience in Germany, when four o’clock comes, he once again has a spring in his step as he leaves the brewery.

Footnotes

The Koehlers and their niece, Hettie Koethe, arrived at Ellis Island on September 21, 1914, after sailing from Rotterdam, Holland, aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam. A newspaper mentioned their automobile had been fired upon while they were in Germany, so the Author invented a more in-depth story.

With workers out on strike at the time of the Roundhouse explosion, rumors always swirled around about whether the boiler had been sabotaged. A pretty frightening prospect.

In mid-October, a mob in Angleton did seize Joe Durfee from the county jail and hang him from a tree after Governor Colquitt commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. During his term as governor, Colquitt pardoned about 500 convicts per year.

Without the bodies of Beatrice Nelms and Lois Nelms Dennis as evidence, the Inneses did not stand trial for murder in San Antonio. Following several years of legal battles, the couple finally was extradited to Georgia where they were found guilty of larceny by trust in 1916. Oh, and of course Otto Koehler knew where Wilkens Avenue was, as it intersects with Hunstock Avenue, the street where Hedda lived.  

Continue to Chapter Seventy-One

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