The Erich Muenter Saga (Part 1 of 2)

It began with a suspicious death on April 16, 1906.  The dead woman was Leona Krembs Muenter, wife of Harvard lecturer, Erich Muenter.   Muenter, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1899 was described as a tall, thin, and somewhat excitable man who spoke with a noticeable German accent though he insisted he had been born in the United States (other records indicate he was born in Germany in 1871).  He and Leona Muenter already had one child together and her medical problems apparently began following the birth of her second child on April 6, just ten days before her death.   While Muenter insisted that Leona's frail condition was due to her not recovering from childbirth, the two women he had called in on the case were alarmed by what they saw on examining her.

 While the women were not medical doctors (they preferred to advertise themselves as “faith cure” healers), they were hardly ignorant either.   Realizing that their patient was seriously ill, they called in more conventional medical doctors who prescribed a strict treatment regimen.  When Mrs. Muenter failed to improve, the doctors withdrew from the case believing that the faith healers were sabotaging the treatment.   Though likely right about the sabotage, they were completely wrong about who was responsible. 

All of which became apparent enough after Leona Muenter’s death when her husband abruptly packed up his two children and fled to Chicago.  His reason for fleeing became obvious enough when an autopsy determined that she had died of arsenic poisoning.  Apparently her husband had been systematically poisoning her for some time though no suspicions were raised until after her death.  By that time, Erich Muenter had disappeared completely and even his family members in Chicago had no idea of his whereabouts. 

From what would be pieced together later, Muenter had fled to Mexico where he would live for a few years while working as a cook and an accountant (other accounts suggest that he had been living in Texas instead).   Although he seemed safe from arrest, this was apparently not enough for him and he managed to re-enter the United States and enrol as a student at Polytechnic Institute in Fort Worth, Texas under his new name of Frank Holt.   That he managed to do all this without a passport and without raising any suspicions seems like an amazing testimonial to the lax borders of the time.   There was definitely no question that Holt was brilliant and he completed four years of undergraduate work in record time.  Quickly rising to the rank of professor in the languages department, Muenter/Holt moved on to teach German at Oklahoma State University and then on to several other prominent colleges.  By 1912, he was back in the Ivy League lecturing at Cornell.

As for what became of his two children, I have no idea since they seemed to vanish from the historical record by this time.   The most charitable assumption was that he left them with family members in Chicago though there is no actual record of this.  What is recorded was that “Frank Holt” somehow  managed to acquire a new wife along the way.   This new wife, Leone Sensabaugh, was the daughter of a prominent Dallas minister and they had apparently met while he was still in Fort Worth.   That she came from a good family likely contributed to Frank Holt’s general air of respectability and helped advance his academic career.

Though he would claim to be a professor at Cornell, he never received tenure and likely never moved past the rank of lecturer.  Still, the professional community was small enough for at least one former colleague to suspect that Frank Holt was really Erich Muenter and inform the head of the department.  Aside from denying him tenure, the university apparently saw no need to take any further action. 

Everything changed with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  While the United States would not enter the war until 1917, there was still considerable anti-German feeling which made “Frank Holt” even more of an outsider than before.  Though insisting he was born in the United States, Holt still spoke with a distinct German accent which aroused suspicion despite his being careful to hide his pro-German beliefs.  Many prominent Americans were already pushing for U.S. entry into the war, including financier J.P. Morgan who had lent millions to the Russians and the British to promote the war effort.   For all that he insisted he was a pacifist, Holt was outraged and wrote numerous letters to newspapers denouncing Morgan's use of his wealth to promote the war against Germany.

Whether due to pressure from Cornell or simply to move closer to his wife’s family in Texas, Holt accepted a position at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.   At the same time, the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by a German warship on May 7, 1915 made American involvement in the war all but inevitable.   Or so Frank Holt assumed.  While his wife was getting settled in their new home in Texas, he rented a bungalow in New York City under the name of “Patton”.     After buying as much dynamite as he possibly could (it was a much simpler time), Holt used the bungalow to put together his own quiet campaign against the U.S. government.   Building the first of what would be several bombs, he traveled to Washington, D.C. on June 2 and managed to plant the bomb in the reception room of the Senate Capitol building (he couldn’t plant the bomb in the Senate chamber itself as he had originally intended). 

The bomb went off at 11:23 PM EST that same day.  Though there were no fatalities, the Senate reception room was destroyed and the blast even caused some damage to the Vice President’s office.  Police later discovered that the bomb had been rigged to explode using the ingenious method of having acid burn through a cork (low-tech, but effective).  Holt heard the explosion while at the train station where he was boarding a train back to New York City.    In a letter he wrote to D.C. newspapers (which he signed “R. Pearce”), Holt took credit for the explosion which he intended as a statement about the supplying of arms to the war effort in Europe.  “I, too, have had to use explosives (for the last time I trust).  It is the export kind, and ought to make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war and blood money.”   The letter ended by saying that the explosion “is the exclamation point to my appeal for peace.”

But the bomb was only the beginning for Holt

To be continued


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