“Do you mind?” Katharina Schreiber asked. With that, she removed her shoes. “These things are killing my feet.”
Her hand-painted tan satin evening shoes fell to the floor of the cabin, exposing slender ankles covered in white silk stockings. One of the shoes came to rest on its side, revealing the label inside: “By Marshall Field & Co., Chicago.”
The sight of the Marshall Field & Co. name brought images of Mallie drifting back into my mind. Barely a year before during our vacation in Chicago and our visit to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, I had accompanied her on a shopping trip to Marshall Field’s. Mallie had purchased a hat, some kid gloves, and a blouse all festooned with the Marshall Field & Co. label.
I took another sip of my Scotch and leaned back from the table, prudently averting my eyes from Katharina’s stocking feet. I had the strange sensation that Mallie was watching me. I could almost hear her voice and her unique manipulation of the English language: “William, I may be out of print, but that’s no excuse for you to behave like a cad. You best not try to make a mash of this widow lady!”
That’s exactly what she would say if she were here, I thought. I felt suitably chastened and suddenly uncomfortable sitting alone with Katharina in her cabin. I cleared my throat and watched Katharina pick up her shoes and pad over to her wardrobe with them. For the first time, I took in Katharina’s evening dress. As always, she was dressed immaculately.
She was wearing a pale sage-green silk bodice jacket trimmed with a beige soutache braid. Her gored taffeta skirt was a combination of pastel beige and green. I smiled at my inherent knowledge of women’s clothing and still had a grin on my face when Katharina returned to the table and settled into the chair opposite me.
“What is so amusing?”
“Oh nothing, really. Well, to be truthful, my mother has a dressmaking business, and growing up around her, I learned a lot about ladies’ clothing. I was just admiring your ensemble. That’s a gored taffeta skirt you’re wearing, isn’t it?”
“My, you are a man of many talents, Mr. Battles . . . More?” She poured another two fingers of scotch into my glass and did the same for herself. I was amazed that she was drinking the whiskey as fast as I was.
“That will do it for me for tonight . . . Any more of that stuff and I won’t be able to make much sense of what you want to tell me.”
Katharina swirled what remained of the scotch in her glass. Then she finished it off.
“I’d better get to it then . . . Let’s see. Well, I guess I should begin with why Heinrich and I left Germany for Chicago . . . oh, I don’t think I mentioned that, did I?”
“No, you didn’t . . . Is that where your husband, uh, passed away . . . Chicago?”
“You mean did I kill him in Chicago? Yes, I did.”
I squirmed in my seat. I felt my stomach churn, and at that moment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear more from the widow Schreiber.
“Are you at all familiar with recent German history and politics and the country’s push to become a colonial power?” Katharina asked. The tone of her voice indicated she already knew the answer.
“Not really . . . though I did learn about Otto von Bismarck and the creation of the German nation in one of my university history classes.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t think so . . . most Americans are ignorant . . . or perhaps I should say, not fully apprised of current affairs in Germany.”
“I would agree,” I said, not wanting to appear offended.
“Well, since the recent resignation of Georg Leo Graf von Caprivi as Germany’s chancellor—”
I shot her a confused look. Katharina stopped in mid-sentence and sighed. She obviously needed to provide me with a short course of recent German political history.
“Caprivi succeeded Bismarck in 1890 and reluctantly supported Germany’s existing colonial empire but refused to engage in any new attempts of colonization,” she continued. “That resulted in a lot of political infighting between Germany’s business and financial elite and those who were and are convinced Germany should never become a colonial power like Great Britain or France. There were some people in Germany who didn’t like that policy. However, others, such as the influential Society for German Colonization and a large number of businessmen, including my husband, were not happy. Caprivi’s successor and current chancellor Choldwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst is more amenable to German colonial expansion.”
It was a lot to take in, and I wasn’t sure why Katharina was telling me all of this.
“What does all that have to do with your husband’s death?” I asked impatiently.
Katharina sighed. “It’s a bit complicated. Heinrich was heavily involved with some very powerful men in Germany who were and still are behind Germany’s efforts to create some new overseas colonies. Many in Germany, my husband included, felt Germany had been too slow to seek colonies in Africa and Asia and now wanted to make up for it. They wanted and still want to annex more territory. Heinrich was a member of the powerful Gesellschaft für Deutsche Kolonisation—the Society for German Colonization.”
Katharina paused and looked at me, wondering perhaps if I was about to nod off.
“Go ahead . . . I’m still with you.”
She looked annoyed but continued, explaining that the German government didn’t want to be officially involved, so annexations were proceeding by government grants of charters to private companies.
“Heinrich traveled to America to convince German American businesses and commercial organizations to work with a few select German companies to invest in and essentially take over places like Samoa, the Caroline and Mariana Islands, and even the Philippines,” Katharina said. “Their base to do this is Kaiser-Wilhelmsland in the northeastern part of New Guinea—or what the Germans call Deutsch-Neuguinea. The German New Guinea Company has established several large plantations there, and under a secret arrangement with the German government, the company is tasked with seeing what new territories the nation can add to its collection of colonies.”
“You mentioned the Philippines,” I said. “Isn’t that a Spanish colony?”
“It is, but there is considerable unrest there against the Spanish. Moreover, Dr. José Rizal, the greatly admired Filipino nationalist, journalist, and novelist, apparently supports German intervention to oust the Spanish and turn the Philippines into a German protectorate. Dr. Rizal spent several years in Germany studying ophthalmology and has many friends there.”
“I still don’t see—”
“I am coming to that,” Katharina said, anticipating my impatience. “My husband and my brother Manfred often argued about Germany’s colonial ambitions. Manfred was opposed to any kind of colonialism—German, American, or otherwise. He has spent a lot of time in Asia in places like French Indochina and the Philippines—places, Mr. Battles, where you are apparently going.”
“Please, call me William or Billy, but not Mr. Battles,” I insisted.
“I could never refer to you as Billy, so William it will be. Well, William, as I said, my brother and Heinrich argued heatedly about the topic of colonialization. My husband insisted that European nations like England, France, and Germany were bringing civilization to underdeveloped lands in Asia and Africa. My brother replied that bringing civilization was just another phrase for economic and political exploitation.”
I took a sip of what remained of my scotch and leaned back in my chair.
“Your brother may have something there . . . reminds me of what we did with the Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche Indians in Kansas. Except, instead of exploiting them, we took their lands and pushed them onto reservations.”
Katharine nodded. “Well, this arguing went on for weeks. My brother would often interfere with Heinrich’s attempts to get support from American companies and other business groups for Germany’s ambitions in Asia.
“Once, during a meeting at the Deutsch-Amerikanischer Bürgerbund (the German American Civic Association), when Heinrich learned of Manfred’s interference, he slapped my brother and actually challenged him to a duel. If what happened next hadn’t been so tragic, it would have been ludicrous. Instead, the day after this incident, while Heinrich and I were visiting my parents, Manfred referred to Heinrich as a Saupreuße.”
“Saupreuße . . . it means Prussian swine,” Katharina explained. In Germany, it is a terrible insult. Heinrich became enraged. He grabbed a fireplace poker and struck Manfred on the head with it. The blow knocked Manfred to the floor. I was horrified. Though I knew firsthand that Heinrich had a terrible temper, I never thought he would behave that way. I thought the altercation was finished and walked to my brother, who was writhing on the floor and bleeding from a terrible gash in his scalp. But Heinrich was not finished. First, he shoved me to the floor and struck Manfred at least three more times, hitting him in the chest and arms. Manfred was barely conscious. By now, my father and mother had intervened, but Heinrich pushed my mother onto the couch and shoved my father to the floor next to me, knocking the wind out of him.
“My father was struggling for breath. ‘Gun . . . gun . . . ,’ he gasped at me while pointing to a small table near the fireplace. ‘Get . . . the . . . gun, Katchen.’
“I ran to the table, opened the drawer, and found a .38 caliber revolver. I took it and pointed it at Heinrich. I ordered him to stop hitting Manfred, but he kept on thrashing him with the poker. Finally, I screamed and pulled the trigger . . . not once, not twice, but three times. Each shot struck Heinrich, and he fell to the floor. I dropped the revolver and ran over to him. Heinrich was trying to speak, but he couldn’t. Instead, he looked at me in shock. Then he was gone.”
Katharina stopped talking and turned away, a pained expression on her face. Then she sighed heavily, closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Before I could comfort her, however, she dabbed at her eyes with a lace hanky, poured herself another two fingers of scotch, and gulped it down.
“Now I must confess something to you,” she said in a flat, monotone voice. “Even though I killed my husband, I didn’t feel much remorse about it.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded and slowly stroked the mustache I had recently sprouted.
Katharina went on to explain that she and her husband had not been happy together for several years, and on this trip back to Chicago, she told her mother and father that she wanted to get a divorce. Neither of them was in favor of that solution, but they agreed to support a separation of some kind.
Katharina then returned to the matter at hand—the killing of her husband and the vicious beating of her brother. She explained that after Manfred regained his senses, her father called his close friend, a district police captain. The captain “took care” of everything, which meant that the baron’s body was removed from the house and placed on a street several blocks away where the death was recorded as a robbery/murder.
“Didn’t you tell him what had happened? I mean it was a matter of self-defense, after all.”
“We told him exactly what had happened. But the captain was a politically shrewd man. He explained that because my husband was a member of German aristocracy, it could get awkward if people learned he was killed in the home of one of Chicago’s most prominent families. And it would be especially scandalous because I was not only that family’s daughter but also the wife of the deceased.”
“Yes, I can see how that might complicate things.”
“In Chicago, it pays to know the right people and the captains who run the precincts and districts are the people to know,” she continued. “Of course there is a pecuniary cost for such friendships, but I won’t bore you with those details.”
We were both silent for several moments while all that she had told me sunk in. Finally, I asked the pregnant question of the evening.
“How is it that you need my help? It seems as if you and your family have resolved the matter quite . . . uh . . . skillfully.”
“Ha! That’s what you think. You don’t think the baron’s family and their political friends in the German government were going to let this episode just evaporate in the wind do you?”
Katharina explained that after she, her family, and the captain conceived and committed to memory a plausible story about the baron’s death, she played the role of the distraught widow. She accompanied her husband’s body back to Germany, where a lavish funeral was held at the family estate in Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” Katharina said. “I had such conflicting feelings. You have to understand, I once loved this man, or at least I thought I did. On the one hand, I felt unbearably guilty about shooting him. On the other, I felt unfettered and free. Going through the mourning process in Germany with such contradictory emotions was grueling.”
A few weeks after the funeral, as Katharina was preparing to return to Chicago, the State Police of Mecklenburg-Schwerin began questioning her about the baron’s death. It was no secret in Germany that Katharina’s union with the baron was a troubled one. The couple often argued, servants in the estate told German police. In addition, on at least two occasions, the baron, who had a violent temper, had struck Katharina, leaving embarrassing bruises on her face.
“It was if the German police knew what had happened in Chicago, though there is no way they could have—at least I don’t think they could have,” Katharina said.
I wondered if someone from the Chicago Police Department might have spilled the beans.
“It is not likely . . . Of course, in Chicago, if enough money is brandished about secrets can become a highly prized commodity.”
She went on to explain that the German police interviewed her for almost a week, often asking the same questions again and again, obviously trying to see if her story wavered. Finally, one day, she simply refused to respond to any more inquiries and threatened to call on the American ambassador in Berlin. The threat worked, the police backed off, and Katharina took the next ship home from Bremerhaven.
However, she didn’t return alone.
“I knew I was being watched and followed, but I just wasn’t sure which passenger was doing it,” she said. “When the ship docked in New York, I sent a telegram to my father, and he hired a New York police detective to accompany me back to Chicago on the train. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, the detective determined that I was being followed, not by one person, but by two—both German.
“When we had to change trains in Pittsburgh, he asked the police there to detain the two men on some pretext or other until the train pulled out of the station. When I got to Chicago, I spent one night with my parents, and the next day, I took the train to San Francisco. I found out later that the two men arrived a day after I left. They spent the next two weeks talking with our neighbors, members of the Deutsch-Amerikanischer Bürgerbund, and the police, including the district police captain who had helped us.”
The two Germans waved a lot of money at police, and anybody who might know the truth about the night Katharina’s husband was killed. There were no takers. Meanwhile, Katharina’s brother, by now mostly healed from the beating he had absorbed, returned to the Philippines and his lumber export business.
“I spent several months in San Francisco living with my mother’s sister and her family,” Katharina said. “After a while, I began to feel safe, and I actually began to forget what had happened in Chicago. My husband’s family contacted my father and told him that I had an inheritance but that I would have to return to Germany to claim it. I told my father to decline it. How could I possibly take money from the family of the man I had killed?”
At that point, I stood up from the table and looked at my pocket watch. It was after eleven, and we had been talking almost continuously for two hours.
“I can understand that.” I managed to hold back a yawn.
“Can you? Really?”
“I imagine it was a sense of guilt or shame or—”
“No, it was not that. I want to get as far away from that family as I can. They are powerful in Germany, and I am convinced they will follow me to the ends of the earth to find out what actually happened to Heinrich.”
“Do you really believe—” Katharina interrupted me before I could finish.
“Yes, I do. And when my brother wrote and suggested I join him in the Philippines, I didn’t think more than two minutes about it. I wanted to get as far away from Germany and Chicago as I could, so I booked passage on the SS China and prepared to feel free again . . . except . . .”
“Except I know someone is following me again . . . I just don’t know who.”
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