By the time the leaves fall off the trees and the weather starts dipping below 40 degrees, I love nothing more than to snuggle up on the couch with a mystery novel. There’s something deliciously sinister about being cozy under a blanket while you’re reading about deception, murder, and love stories gone wrong. I can’t be alone in this…right? It may be a little bit odd, but when Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around I’m still wrapped up in reading thrillers and mysteries – like The Shocking Story of Helmuth Schmidt: Michigan’s Original Lonely Hearts Killer. I first read about this book online while doing some local history research. Since moving back to Royal Oak, Michigan from Boston, Massachusetts, I have been more interested in studying up on the history of Detroit and its citizens. There’s so much talk about the revival of the city of Detroit and with that comes more interest in the people who built it up during its glory days of the early 1900s. With that, I discovered the author Tobin T. Buhk. He is a writer who specializes in historic true crime books that are primarily about cases in my home state. His methods of research are fascinating (i.e. volunteering at a county morgue) and thorough, which adds to the quality of his writing.
While I was reading up on the book and its subject, German immigrant Helmuth Schmidt, I discovered that besides being a Detroiter, he was also a Royal Oak resident…and the house where he murdered at least one of his wives in 1917 still stands just 3 short miles from our home and the neighborhood where I grew up. Well, once I found all this out I found the book at our library and put it on hold immediately! I was barely able to put it down (except for the fact that I’m simultaneously reading Devil in the White City, Unbecoming, and 5 months worth of TIME magazines…I have reading ADD). The story of Michigan’s “lonely hearts killer” or “Royal Oak Bluebeard” is simply fascinating. Helmuth Schmidt came to the United States already hiding secrets of his identity and murder from his life in Germany. While in New York, New Jersey, and finally Detroit, Mr. Schmidt advertised for wives in German-language newspapers claiming to be a well-off bachelor wanting nothing more than to support a wife and take her away from a life in the servant class. Of course, little did these women know that Schmidt used various names over a 5 year period to lure women to his home, swindle them out of their life’s savings, and then finally cause them to mysteriously vanish. The story is complex, but easily understood in Buhk’s book through pictures and documents from Detroit archives. With the backdrop of pre-WWI Detroit, there’s a real feeling of eeriness as you read it.
Of course, this didn’t keep me from driving to the house and creeping around the perimeter of the property at midnight on a weekend evening…shhh. The house sits right next to a high brick wall that backs up to I-696 near the Detroit Zoo. It has changed slightly from the drawing that is in Buhk’s book and if I could have I would’ve walked right inside to get a feel of the interior for myself. The primary murder that is covered in the book is that of Augusta Steinbach in March 1917. Authorities ascertained from eye witness testimony and a search of the home that Augusta was murdered, chopped up, and incinerated in the basement. What remained was either buried under the porch or put in the river that existed behind the house in those days. Shudder. It’s a case that is hard to read about at times, yet fascinating because it is about so much more than just murderer and victim. It is about Detroit, Oakland County’s justice system, prohibition, and our country’s early response to Germans during WWI. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in true crime or curious about Detroit’s complex history. Personally, I love reading or visiting anything historical and the fact that this story took place right in my seemingly sleepy little neighborhood…well, that was just a bonus. Happy reading!