The train left Boston station in April 1906, headed for Chicago. On board were the infant, the toddler, the nanny and the children’s father, Professor Erich Muenter, a German language instructor from Harvard University. The two little girls’ mother was onboard as well. Leone (Krembs) Muenter was in her casket taking a one-way trip to her own funeral, and burial in her home town. She had passed from some sort of stomach ailment, ten days after giving birth.
The story may have ended there, but for Dr. Herbert McIntyre. The circumstances of Leone’s death didn’t add up. Dr. McIntyre ordered an autopsy. On April 27, Cambridge police issued a warrant for the arrest of Professor Erich Muenter for the murder of his wife, by arsenic poisoning.
Apparently, this “man of science” wanted to test his theory that you could literally see the soul passing, at the moment of death. Now, Erich Muenter vanished.
Eight years later, the European continent exploded in the ‘War to End Wars’.
US policy at this time allowed arms sales to any and all belligerents in the European war. With British dominance of North Atlantic shipping routes, for all intents and purposes this meant France and Great Britain.
German language professor Frank Holt was teaching at Cornell University in 1915. A naturalized citizen and committed German nationalist, Holt had ties with the secret German spy intelligence unit Abteilung IIIb, which was conducting a campaign of sabotage against US ships carrying munitions ‘over there’.
Frank Holt might have described himself as a ‘peace activist’, obsessed with the idea that arms themselves were extending the war. If arms exports were brought to a halt he believed, the war would come to an end.
Holt gave up arguing the point on July 2 and took a train to Washington DC. In his hands he carried a bomb, three sticks of dynamite attached to a timing mechanism, ingeniously designed to go off when the acid ate through the cork stopper.
Fancy the irony that, today as I write this, a 7-foot “non-scalable fence” surrounds the Capitol building, in Washington DC. In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about, with a bomb in your hands. At least while Congress was in recess.
Finding the Senate chamber locked, Holt placed his package under a telephone switchboard in the Senate reception room, with the timer set to go off around midnight.
The explosion when it came, was enormous. The room was torn to pieces while, across the building, a night watchman was blown out of his chair. Writing to the Washington Star newspaper under the pseudonym R. Pearce, Holt explained his intentions to “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war. This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”
The following day, a tiny little box on the front page of the New York Times attributed the explosion to ‘gasses’. The paper was hitting news stands as Frank Holt headed for Long Island, to the Glen Cove estate of “the Great Pierpont”, J. P. Morgan. Armed with two revolvers, a suitcase full of dynamite and a few anti-war newspaper clippings, Holt bulled his way through the butler who opened the door, and into the Morgan residence.
Pandemonium broke out in the home, as Holt turned his weapons on the four Morgan children. Mrs. Morgan tried to block the path to her husband but the millionaire financier lunged, tackling the much smaller man to the ground. Holt fired twice into Morgan’s thigh and groin, as the pair went down together. Pierpont twisted the gun from his grasp as Mrs. Morgan and a gaggle of household servants struggled for the other. All the while, the butler pounded the would-be assassin’s head with a lump of coal as Holt shouted “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war!”
A copy of the R. Pearce letter quickly tied Holt to the Capitol bombing, as former colleagues identified the long-since vanished, alleged killer of Leone Muenter. Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were the same man.
A colleague once described Muenter as “a brilliant man, a tireless worker, and a profound student. Night after night he would sit reading, studying and writing while his wife lay asleep in a room nearby.” The Harvard Crimson newspaper described him as “harmless on the surface…affect[ing] a scholarly stoop and a Van Dyke, and wore dingy, patched suits”. Fluent in seven languages he was the pale, bearded model of the junior faculty intellectual, complete with elbow patches.
For all his vaunted brilliance, Erich Muenter was nuttier than a squirrel turd. His intention as explained to police, was to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage, until the financier cut off loans to Europe. He told police of his intention to assassinate J.P. Morgan, as well. How the two objectives squared with one another, remains to be explained.
That Sunday morning, July 4, the J.P. Morgan shooting seems to have been front page on every newspaper in the world. On July 5, Erich Muenter took the brass ferrule from a pencil eraser, and slit his wrist. That suicide attempt was unsuccessful. The following day he scaled the bars of his prison cell and jumped, leaving his brains on the concrete floor, twenty feet below.
The day after his death, Police tracked down a trunk Muenter left in a New York city storage facility. In it were 134 sticks of dynamite, blasting caps, fuse coils, batteries, nitric acid, windproof matches, mercury fulminate and smokeless explosive powder. Three tin can bombs had been recently completed, and were ready to go. Inspector of Combustibles Owen Egan declared the find to be “the greatest equipment for bomb making ever brought to New York”.
That same day, the 2nd Mrs. Muenter received a letter from her dead husband. It said that an arms shipment headed for England would go to the bottom, that very day. Warned by wireless, the crew of SS Minnehaha frantically searched for the bomb, without success. Muenter’s bomb went off and touched off a fire, but it was far away from Minnehaha’s cargo of high explosives, and did little damage to the ship itself.
The vessel sustained little damage at the time but, in the end, the ghost of Erich Muenter had his way. The Harland & Wolff liner SS Minnehaha was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of 43, on September 7, 1917. There was one survivor.