This is the 100% true story about my great-great grandmother, who murdered my great-great grandfather. All of the quotes, unless otherwise noted, were taken from contemporaneous newspaper accounts. Journalism was . . . pretty nuts in 1910.
Anyway, if you think your family has skeletons, get a load of mine.
My father’s family, the Calcaterras, consist of a pretty tenuous handful of connections whom I saw only occasionally while I was growing up and whom I rarely if ever see now. And that’s the side of the family I’m closest too. Those are the people I thought of as my extended family when I was a child. My mother’s family — the Kniffens — were a complete mystery.
My maternal grandparents were alive for my entire childhood but I rarely saw them. I saw my aunts and uncles even less. My mother would call her parents and siblings on occasion and would send birthday and holiday cards, but there were no family gatherings. We’d only see them if someone was passing through our town or if we were passing through theirs and then only for an hour or two at most. It wasn’t due to any great rift or family argument. It just sort of happened that way. For much of my childhood we lived far away from them. The Kniffens were just very different from the people my mother and father became after they got married. Over the years, everyone was living their own, mostly separate lives.
Recently, however, I came across some documents which complicated the story I was told about the Kniffens. Documents which illuminated much about my mother’s family that had mostly been kept in darkness: A brief set of genealogical records which reveal a Kniffen family tree with far more than its fair share of dead branches and a single news clipping which revealed when, exactly, the roots of the tree were poisoned.
This handful of papers caused me to dig deeper into the mystery that was my mother’s family. For the past several months I’ve pored over news reports, public records and genealogical information. I’ve spoken with relatives I did not know I had until very recently and who did not know about me. It uncovered secrets my relatives took with them to the grave but which could not stay buried forever. My research did not bring anyone back from the dead, but it introduced me to the ghosts which have haunted the Kniffen family for more than one hundred years.
The haunting began on a cold morning in Detroit Michigan in December of 1910.
I. December 19, 1910
Albert Wendt was awoken by a knock at the door of his modest home on LeMay Avenue on Detroit’s east side just after 5 o’clock on the morning. It was his next-door neighbor, Nellie Kniffen. Wendt knew Mrs. Kniffen, but not well. Wendt’s sons were older than Nellie’s brood of four and they did not play together. Frank Kniffen and his wife had moved into their own small cottage on LeMay Avenue less than four years prior, three of their four children already in tow, but Wendt spoke little to them. Frank was a streetcar conductor on the Jefferson Avenue line of the Detroit United Railway, working odd hours. Nellie, a housewife, kept mostly to herself. Wendt often heard arguing coming from the Kniffens’ house, but that was not unusual in this working class neighborhood. It was not Wendt’s business.
It had stormed overnight and several inches of fresh snow covered the ground. Nellie was wrapped in blankets. Whatever had brought her out in this weather at this hour was surely pressing.
“There’s something wrong in our house,” Nellie said.
“What is it?” asked Wendt.
“Somebody battered up my husband.”
Wendt hurried next door to the Kniffen home. Nellie followed him, though she did not hurry.
Nellie Kniffen was born Eleanor Haskett on May 14, 1874 in the town of Simcoe, Ontario, on the north coast of Lake Erie. She was the youngest of nine children born to Robert and Margaret Haskett. The Hasketts emigrated from Ireland — Robert from Tipperary, Margaret from Cork — in the late 1840s in the wake of the Great Famine. Both landed and were processed within a year of each other in New York, and then both made their way to Canada, meeting and marrying in Newmarket, Ontario in 1850. They settled in Simcoe just before the birth of their third child in 1856. They, like many other Irish immigrants in Canada, became farmers, first as tenants and then as landowners in their own right. The Hasketts became moderately prosperous for their generation of immigrants.
How Frank met Nellie is lost to history, but it seems their marriage was a hasty union, necessitated by Nellie becoming pregnant. They married on September 29, 1897 in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the home of Nellie’s older sister Tillie, the only Haskett sibling to have left her hometown. There they stayed until their first child, a daughter named Pearl, was born on June 18, 1898. While that makes for barely nine months, it was not then uncommon for a marriage license to be backdated or a date of birth fudged in order to dispel any question of legitimacy or scandal. As it was, the fact that the wedding took place in Nebraska while the rest of the Hasketts and all the Kniffens lived in Norfolk County suggests the event was not blessed.
Nellie and Frank returned to Simcoe soon after Pearl was born, where Frank worked on the Haskett Farm and Nellie raised Pearl with the help of her parents and siblings. In March 1900 their second child, a son named Thomas Roy, was born. A year later Nellie had a third child, a girl, who was stillborn. Whether the young Kniffen family wore out their welcome in the Haskett household or, alternatively, merely wanted to stake out on their own is unclear, but soon after the stillbirth Frank, Nellie and their two children emigrated to Detroit where Frank took a job with the Detroit United Railway. Their third child, Francis David Kniffen, was born in Detroit on June 2, 1902. The Kniffens lived in an east side apartment before purchasing the house on LeMay Avenue in early 1907. Nellie was pregnant again, giving birth that November to their fourth child, baby Helen. In late 1909 Nellie became pregnant for a final time. She gave birth to a baby boy on June 2, 1910. He was premature and died three days later. The death certificate cited “malnutrition” as the cause of death Neither the baby’s birth nor the baby’s death would ever be mentioned in the wake of the events set in motion on December 19, 1910.
When Wendt arrived next door he found Frank Kniffen in his bed. He was more than merely battered — his head had been bashed in beyond all bloody recognition. Blood spattered the wallpaper above the headboard. The sheets, blankets and mattress were soaked through with blood, which had begun pooling on the wooden floor. Frank’s body was straight and stiff, still in a sleeping position. He had put up no struggle. The first blow no doubt crushed his skull, killing him instantly. Many additional blows had nonetheless followed. There were likewise several puncture wounds on his arms and torso, inflicted by knitting needles which lay on the floor next to the bed.
Wendt walked out of the bedroom and was met by Nellie, who had been joined by her eldest daughter, the 12-year-old Pearl.
“Is he dead?” Pearl asked. Wendt said nothing, but was shaken by the matter-of-fact manner in which the child had asked the question. He would later describe her to the newspapers as “unconcerned.”
There was no telephone in the Kniffens’ home, so Wendt returned to his house, where he made two calls. First to his physician, Dr. H.A. Lounsbury, who lived close by, and then to the police. Wendt would later say he wasn’t sure why he called Lounsbury, as it was clear that Frank was beyond saving, but he was happy to have Lounsbury’s company as he awaited for police to arrive. In the meantime, Nellie sat quietly in the small sitting room of her home with Pearl as Dr. Lounsbury examined Frank. Ten-year-old Tom, eight-year-old Francis David and three-year-old Helen were still asleep in the bedroom in the back of the house.
Detectives Richard Stenson and John Smith of Detroit’s Fifth Precinct arrived with a squad of officers soon after being summoned. As police fanned out to search the home and yard, the detectives spoke with Nellie. They would later describe her as “the coolest and calmest person in the vicinity,” and said that “she told her story without a tremor.” A devout Catholic, Nellie punctuated her story with references to God and Jesus and made the sign of the cross on several occasions. Police made note of the fact that the walls of every room of the house were adorned with holy pictures and images.
Nellie explained to police that she and her husband had visited their priest, Father Stapleton of the Church of the Annunciation, early the previous evening. When they returned, Nellie left the three youngest children in the charge of Pearl as Frank went to sleep before his early morning shift. Nellie went out, boarding a Jefferson Avenue streetcar — Frank’s line — towards downtown. Their meeting with Father Stapleton had been contentious, she said, and had concerned marital matters. Riding the streetcar calmed her. She did it often, usually going downtown, where she’d take a walk and get a cup of tea or, occasionally, a drink. She told police that this time she didn’t make it downtown, however. Her nerves were settled by the time she got as far as Fischer Avenue, so she turned around and came back home. When she got home she went to Frank’s bed and awakened him to let him know she was home. She said he turned over to kiss her and then went back to sleep. Not wanting to disturb Frank before his early shift, she slept in the back bedroom with the children.
“About three o’clock this morning I heard Frank moaning,” Nellie told detectives. “At about 5 o’clock I called Mr. Wendt.” She gave no explanation for why she waited two hours, though she later said that she checked on Frank at about 3:30.
“I don’t know what made me wake up,” she said, “but I did. He was lying there with the bed clothes pulled back from his neck. I spoke to him, but he didn’t answer. I felt of his hand and it was icy cold. Then I called my oldest daughter Pearl. They say it was some time before I went to the house of our neighbor, Mr. Wendt. I went just as soon as I could get my clothes on.” She made no mention of blood or her the violence in the next room.
Meanwhile, officers continued their search. There was only one door to the home from the sidewalk and there was no sign of forced entry. A purse with cash still inside of it was found in the room where Frank’s body was found. If an intruder had killed Frank, robbery was not an obvious motive.
A search of the backyard proved more fruitful. There police found an axe in the woodshed behind the home. There were bloodstains on the handle and blade, though some effort had been made to wipe it clean. Bloody rags, which police believed to have been used to wipe the axe, were found in the kitchen sink. Footprints were found leading from the home to the woodshed and back again in the freshly fallen snow. Police said that the footprints matched the size and shape of Nellie’s slippers exactly. Detectives Stenson and Smith were already suspicious of Nellie, given her unnatural calm and seeming indifference to the murder of her husband. The axe, the footprints and the lack of any other apparent explanation for the crime settled the matter in their mind.
As Detective Stenson prepared to arrest Nellie, Pearl woke up her siblings, starting with her oldest brother Tommy.
“Papa is dead,” Pearl said.
“Who killed him?” Tommy asked.
Detective Smith confronted Nellie. He already knew the answer to Tommy’s question.
“You killed him. Why did you do it?” Detective Smith asked.
“I certainly did not!” Nellie replied
Pearl Kniffen would not yet join her siblings in the Shelter Home. For the next several hours she would be held in custody along with her mother, as Captain McDonell of the Detroit Police Department theorized that Pearl knew the facts of the killing.
“Pearl is the smartest girl for her years I have ever met,” Captain McDonell told a Detroit News reporter. “She is the most cunning child I ever questioned.” McDonell was determined to hold her until one of them broke. If either of the Kniffen women were going to break, however, it wasn’t going to be Pearl.
“I know what you want,” Pearl shouted at police detectives soon after being brought in for questioning. “You want me to say something, then you will split up my words and make them mean something else!” That afternoon’s edition of the News said that, as of press time, Pearl “hasn’t dropped her world-wise demeanor.” She never would. Police held her in jail, in a cell next to her mother’s, for two days. Eventually, she would join her siblings at the Shelter Home, having said nothing about the crime.
During her first interrogation, Nellie flatly denied killing Frank.
“As far as killing my husband, all that I can say is that I never did it,” Nellie said. “You say that my slippers fit the footmarks leading to the woodshed, but it isn’t true. I wasn’t out that night. Somebody else did it.”
Police asked her if Frank had any enemies.
“He used to have on the car line,” Nellie said. “One night he came home and told of a Negro who had pulled a knife on him.” Police had no record of anyone pulling a knife on a streetcar conductor. Nellie then told police that Frank had a wandering eye and that he would become violent when she confronted him about it.
“One night he came home and told me of a woman he had met on the car. He said that when he went to collect her fare she looked up at him, smiled and taking hold of his hand held it for several minutes. This made me mad and we had a quarrel.” They were violent quarrels, with Nellie claiming that Frank knocked her to the ground on a number of occasions. “We used to throw things at each other,” Nellie said. “He struck me and hurt me very badly at different times.”
Nellie’s story of jealousy and violent arguments did not move the police and they did not believe her denials. She was formally charged soon after arriving at the police station and brought before Judge Edward J. Jeffries. While Judge Jeffries traveled in elite social circles — circles which would one day help his son Edward become the mayor of Detroit — he was considered a radical for his time. In his own political career he had leaned heavily on votes from blacks, immigrants and the poor, describing himself as “the personal bodyguard for the downtrodden.” A poor and frazzled immigrant like Nellie Kniffen typically would have found a sympathetic audience with Judge Jeffries, possibly even being granted bail, even for a violent crime, but Nellie gave Judge Jeffries nothing to work with. She remained silent in his courtroom, refusing to respond to any questions put to her. Judge Jeffries entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf and she was taken away.
Neither Pearl nor Nellie said a word about what happened, but Frank Kniffen’s coworkers on the streetcar line were eager to share what they knew with police and with reporters. While none of them had ever been in the Kniffen home themselves, they nonetheless began to paint a portrait of a man repeatedly victimized by an irrationally jealous and deranged woman.
Frank’s coworkers said that Nellie was convinced Frank was having affairs with women who rode on his streetcar. One recounted a story Frank had told him about a letter which had been delivered to the Kniffen residence the previous summer. Nellie assumed the letter to be from a woman based on the handwriting. It was not addressed to either Nellie or Frank, merely listing the address on the envelope. It opened with the greeting, “My Dearest,” and the body of the letter lacked enough specificity to determine who it was intended for. Frank assumed it to have been mistakenly delivered and threw the letter away. Nellie did not believe him. A violent argument ensued with both Nellie and Frank delivering and receiving multiple blows. After the fight, the conductors and motormen from the streetcar said that Nellie became “insanely jealous,” and began to ride on Frank’s streetcar during his shift. For weeks she boarded his car with him each morning, watching her husband’s interaction with other riders closely, taking him home for lunch and the spending the afternoon on his car with him once again.
Other men from the streetcar line believed that if anyone had a cause for anger or jealousy it was Frank, not Nellie. Frank was reported to have recently complained to a coworker “that his wife was not at all domestic, that she was an exceedingly poor housekeeper, and had been in the habit of spending a great deal of her time, including many evenings, downtown.” About three weeks ago, one man told reporters, Nellie was late in getting home and Frank went downtown to hunt for her. After a long and fruitless search he returned at two in the morning only to find that she had returned home in the meantime. Another fight ensued, lasting so long that he was late for work and was told not to take his streetcar out that day.
The gossip from coworkers was one thing, but police and reporters heard far more from two other men. Two men whose ethical obligations to Nellie Kniffen would seem to to counsel against their speaking at all. Such obligations, however, served as no impediment to either her doctor or her priest.
“She suspected her husband of familiarity with other women,” Nellie’s personal physician, Frank Kelley, told reporters. “This was absurd. Kniffen was a man of quiet habits, did not seek society, seldom spoke, and spent most of his time at home when he was not on duty. He was very kind to her and bore with her when she became excited under the thought that she was unfaithful.”
Doctor Kelley shared more than his conversations with Nellie. He told reporters about Nellie’s medical and psychological history, saying that “she was very suspicious” while he was treating her. “She would listen for chance remarks by her nurses,” he said, “and would attribute all sorts of peculiar meanings to them. This kept her in a state of constant worry. I found it necessary to be very diplomatic, for she would attach unnatural importance to the slightest remark or action.”
Doctor Kelley said that Nellie would leave his care on multiple occasions to consult other physicians, only to become suspicious of them before coming back to him. “Mrs. Kniffen is very peculiar,” Kelley said. “Her ailments, in my estimation, are not serious enough affect her mind dangerously, but I do not doubt that she is mentally deranged.” He concluded by noting, seemingly in passing, that he had performed “an operation” on Nellie the previous June, “after which she appeared more cheerful.” He said Frank “found it easier to get along with her, at least.” Neither Kelley nor the news reports went into detail as to the nature of the operation.
Nellie’s priest, Father Stapleton, who Nellie and Frank had visited the night before, echoed Doctor Kelley’s claims of Nellie’s suspicions.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kniffen came to see me last night,” Father Stapleton told police and reporters. “I thought it peculiar that they should come in the midst of such a storm. She was much disturbed and very suspicious,” the priest said. “She thought he was going to take her children away from her.” Father Stapleton said that this was not the first time Nellie had come to him with this concern, but that he considered it “an absurd delusion” on her part. Father Stapleton said that Frank was “the best sort of man” who wanted nothing but what was best for his family, Nellie included. The priest said that while he believed that Nellie had “some physical ailment that has affected her mind,” she was calm when the Kniffens left his home the night before.
Then he said this:
“I know – and I am the only one who was told of it – that she tried to kill her husband several months ago. He told me how she had kept him up till very late, and that he had become more than unusually tired and sleepy. It was after midnight when he retired. She remained up. When she thought he was asleep, she brought grease and smeared his body with it. Of course this awakened him, but he pretended to be asleep. Then she lighted a paper and shoved it under the bedclothes, close to his body. He jumped up and extinguished the flames, but the bedclothes had already been scorched.”
If there was any doubt in the minds of the police or the public as to Nellie’s guilt, Father Stapleton’s story of Nellie’s first attempt on Frank’s life put them to rest.
“With eyes bulging, she asked how long she was to be held in ‘this horrible place.’” wrote The Detroit News. Nellie had not been tried, let alone convicted, but the circumstances of a long incarceration fascinated her.
“My God, is state’s prison like this?” she asked, falling back against the wall of her cell. “If it is, I think I will never be able to stand it. How do they treat you in prison?!” The matron of the jail said some words in an effort to calm her, and she seemed to relax somewhat. She continued to discuss the matter of incarceration for some time, though now she did it in decidedly more matter-of-fact terms.
“How would they treat me if I was sent to Eloise or Pontiac?” she asked rhetorically of a nearby mental hospital and prison, respectively, cracking her knuckles as she did so. “Heavens, I hope they don’t send me to Ionia,” Nellie offered, referring to the Ionia State Hospital which had, until recently, been known as the Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals. “It must be a terrible life up there,” Nellie mused. “My husband told some of his friends during the past few months that my mind was affected, but search as I could I was unable to find that he had made any efforts to place me in an institution for the feeble-minded.”
Nearly every utterance Nellie made going back to to the discovery of the murder caused police and the press to believe that she was suffering from some form of mental illness. Her own reference to her husband’s suspicions of her “feeble-mindedness” inspired reporters outside her cell to ask her if she believed she was mentally ill.
“I’m not out of my mind,” Nellie offered cautiously. “But my husband used to say that it was hard for me to remember some things since I underwent an operation about a year ago. He told me I would speak to people on the street whom I did not know, thinking that they were someone else. That may be true, but I don’t think so, and was sure that I knew them at the time I spoke to them.”
Nellie admitted to absent-mindedness, however, offering that she would lay things down and forget where she had put them. “Oh, well, I may have been forgetful,” she said, “but I’m not out of my mind, and never was.”
Reporters decided to test Nellie’s memory.
“Where do you live?” she was asked.
“On-on . . .” she hesitated a moment as if trying hard to think. She eventually replied, “on LeMay avenue.”
“Where abouts?” they challenged.
“Why at-at-at . . . now, isn’t that funny. I only left there yesterday,” she smiled, “childlike,” according to reporters, at her inability to come up with the answer. It took several moments before she remembered that it was 375. In light of her confusion, police attempted to have her examined by a doctor assigned to the jail. Nellie was not cooperative.
“Oh, do not let him see me. You mustn’t bring him in here!” she cried. “He wants to examine my head and they are trying to send me away to an asylum. Don’t let him come near me. I won’t see him!” Police kept up their questioning, but Nellie admitted no more on her second day in jail than she had on her first.
The third day would be more fruitful for police. And would mark Nellie’s final and unquestionable descent into insanity.
“Now, as a matter of fact, you killed your husband, didn’t you?” Sheriff Gaston asked.
“Sure,” said Nellie. She said it quickly and without much thought. In earlier questioning she was deliberate in her answers, appearing to give them much consideration. But if Sheriff Gaston found her immediate response unusual he didn’t allow it to stop his line of inquiry.
“Why did you do it?” he asked.
“Oh, did I say I killed him?” Nellie said, shocked at the words that had escaped her lips. “I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Your daughter was in the room with you at the time you did it,” Sheriff Gaston insisted.
“No, she wasn’t,” Nellie said. A moment passed. “After I did what?”
“After you killed him.”
“Oh, I don’t remember anything about it.”
“Your daughter saw you do it?” Gaston asked, attempting to trip her up for a third time. Nellie parried a bit better, but only momentarily.
“She didn’t. She only heard him moan.”
“You had some quarrel that night.”
“Yes, a little one. He was mad because I had taken the baby out in the snow. When I went into his bedroom he was angry because the baby’s clothing had been wet by the snow.” Sheriff Gaston knew by now that that Nellie was on her guard for questions but was more susceptible to plain statements with which she was quick to agree or correct, whether or not it was to her detriment.
“Then you put on your slippers and went for the ax.”
“No, I had my high top shoes on. Frank got them for me.”
Sheriff Gaston said nothing. The silence in the jail cell hung for several moments. Whether Nellie knew it or not she was confessing to murder, in bits and in pieces.
“What did you kill him for?” Sheriff Gaston asked.
“Oh, because I . . . I,” she hesitated, on the verge of tears. She offered her final denial. “Oh, I didn’t!”
“What did you do after he was struck?” Sheriff Gaston asked. A long silence hung following the question. Eventually it was interrupted by nothing more than the barest whisper.
“. . . I leaned down to kiss him . . . but his face was all blood.”
Sheriff Gaston left Nellie’s cell. The reporters remained just outside as Nellie sat on her bed in silence. After several minutes she spoke again, seemingly to no one.
“I had a curious dream last night. I was locked in an asylum with Harry K. Thaw. He was crazy when he killed a man, but I’m not crazy,” she said. “When I woke up I asked the matron why I was in the same place as Mr. Thaw. She wouldn’t answer me.”
Harry K. Thaw was the spoiled and profligate son of a Pennsylvania coal baron who, four years prior, killed the world famous architect Stanford White. Thaw’s murder of White, fueled by an intense jealousy and hatred of the man gave rise to the so-called “Trial of the Century.” Two trials, actually, extending through 1907 and 1908, each of which dominated newspapers and became a national obsession. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. He was sentenced to incarceration for life at a hospital for the criminally insane, where he was granted comfortable accommodations and privileges not available to the institution’s general population. He would eventually be declared sane in 1915, and released.
Nellie may have been descending into madness, but her belief that she and Harry Thaw would not be held in the same sort of place was spot on. Under no circumstances would a poor immigrant housewife in east Detroit ever get the same sort of treatment afforded the wealthy son of a Pennsylvania coal baron, no matter the circumstances of their crimes nor the relative depths of their respective insanity.
“Frank will be so glad to see you,” Nellie said. “He was just talking about you the other day,” she said as she threw her arms around him and hugged him. After their embrace Stephens produced some fruit from a bag and presented it to Nellie. She took it happily and then placed it under the blankets on her cot.
“I will save it for Frank’s lunch. He does like fruit for his lunch. He will enjoy this.”
Such moments of happiness, however deluded they may have been, were few and far between for Nellie now. The prison matron told reporters that Nellie had been in a wretched state for most of the time since her final interrogation by Sheriff Gaston a few days before. She called for her dead husband constantly and sobbed for her children. At night she raved that her head had been split open.
It was left to Wayne County Prosecutor Philip T. Van Zile to determine what to do with Nellie He had three options. He could prosecute Nellie in criminal court, hoping that her current state would pass before she was brought to trial, after which, if found guilty, she would be imprisoned for life (Michigan outlawed the death penalty upon becoming a state in 1837). Alternatively, he could bring an action in probate court, which dealt with the mentally incapacitated, separate and apart from their actions or crimes, under the assumption that they knew not what they did. In that case, the accused could return to their former life once their sanity had been regained. A third option was the recorder’s court, which dealt with the criminally insane, providing for incarceration in a mental hospital until the accused was deemed fit to stand trial, at which point he or she would be turned over to the criminal court.
In 1910 a woman in Nellie’s state would almost always be dealt with in probate court, as the assumptions of the time held that women who committed violent crimes were suffering from an incapacitating hysteria as opposed to some manner of criminal insanity. Probate court would be considered especially appropriate for a woman with small children, as it would be hoped that, once she was restored to good health, she would be able to resume her role as a mother. Nellie’s case was sent to recorder’s court, however, primarily for political reasons. A few years before, a man named August Stemelin threw his young son to his death off Belle Isle Bridge and into the Detroit River while, according to The Detroit News, “laboring under a religious hallucination.” His case had been handled in probate court, after which he was sent to an asylum for a brief period before being allowed to go free once he was deemed sane. Prosecutor Van Zile’s office had taken considerable criticism as a result of the Stemelin case and he was loath to take any course of action which would result in an axe murderer roaming free.
Soon after Christmas, Van Zile appointed a panel of three physicians to examine Nellie, which would in turn report to the recorder’s court. One of the physicians, a Dr. J. B. Kennedy, realized soon after taking the assignment that he had met Nellie the year before when Frank Kniffen hired him to perform an operation on Nellie in an effort to deal with her unpredictable and agitated behavior. This was the same operation Dr. Kelley mentioned to the press the day of Nellie’s arrest. As he noted then, Nellie had routinely switched doctors when she did not like what they told her, and Frank sought out Kennedy when Nellie grew displeased with Kelley. Due to poor communication, however, both Kennedy and Kelley showed up to the operation, each thinking they were hired to perform it. They ended up doing it together, with Kelley taking the lead and Kennedy assisting.
Dr. Kennedy’s realization that the woman before him was his erratic patient from the year before cemented his view that Nellie was insane. His colleagues on the panel agreed with him, concluding that Nellie had been insane for two years and would never be fit to stand trial. On December 31 a short hearing was held in which the Judge William F. Connolly accepted the recommendation of the panel. He ordered Nellie to be sent to Ionia State Hospital the following week. The asylum to which, ten days before, Nellie had desperately hoped she would not be sent, as “it must be a terrible life up there.”
Early on the morning of Friday, January 6, 1911, Nellie was taken from her cell in the county jail to make the 130 mile journey to Ionia, accompanied by Sheriff Gaston, a prison matron and, for the last time in her life, newspaper reporters. They described her as “a raving maniac” who was “in a rage for the entire trip.” While boarding the train, Nellie struck the matron with a “severe blow to the face, causing a swelling.” Sheriff Gaston was forced to shackle Nellie, wrists to ankles. The shackles remained on until she was behind the locked doors of Ionia State Hospital, the former Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals.
On the return journey to Detroit, Sheriff Gaston said Nellie’s case was the worst he had ever encountered.
“I want my muzzer. I do. And I wanna dolly and I want my little kitty an’ -an’ I want my daddy,” Helen told reporters from The Detroit News who, somehow, had just as much access to the Kniffen children at the Shelter Home as they had to Nellie in the county jail.
“Baby Helen may get the dolly for Christmas,” the News reported. “It is even possible that in time she will acquire a new kitten; Baby Helen will never see her daddy again, though, and Baby Helen’s mother may never again soothe her little girl to sleep when she cries for fear of the dark, as she does every night at the Shelter home.”
After pleading for her mother, Helen — described as “a slip of a thing, with straight tow hair and big gray-blue eyes” — turned to the matron of the Shelter Home, demanding to be held. The matron picked her up and cuddled her. She said that Helen spent most of her nighttime hours in these first few days in a matron’s arms.
During the daytime things were easier for Helen. Then she would join her brothers, Tommy and Francis David, who seemed to play happily with the other 18 children in the Shelter home, which they were said to enjoy exploring. They talked of a Christmas party which was to be held on Monday the 26th. Helen continued to hope for a doll and a kitten. Francis David told reporters that he wanted a “train on a track – a real one that will go.” Helen and Francis David did not yet know anything of the murder. Tommy, who was told by his older sister Pearl that their father was killed on the morning of the crime, made no mention of it.
After being released from police custody, Pearl joined them in the Shelter Home but she did not discuss her father’s death or the investigation. The other kids at the home were unaware of the Kniffens’ circumstances, but visitors would ask to have the children of the slain streetcar conductor pointed out to them. Soon after Christmas the public’s fascination with the Kniffen children began to fade and the matter of what would happen to them became the priority of the day for The Detroit Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Frank’s estate, which consisted of a few hundred dollars of equity in the house on LeMay Avenue and two life insurance policies, amounted to about $2,500 and would, in theory, be split for the children’s benefit. In reality they were left with nothing. The house, made notorious by a bloody murder, would sell for less than what was owed. The insurance companies would fight payment for a time, arguing that Nellie, and not the children, was the named beneficiary, and that since she killed the insured she should not stand to benefit. Eventually they settled, paying $750 on $1,750 worth of coverage, which was given to an assistant prosecuting attorney who had been named the children’s interim guardian. The prosecutor, in turn, gave the money to Father Stapleton, Nellie and Frank’s priest, who had agreed to see to the children’s well being until they found permanent homes. No one knows what happened to the money after it reached Father Stapleton’s hands, but it never reached the Kniffen children.
Of more pressing concern was the matter of who would raise the children. An uncle of Frank’s had claimed his body, sending it back to Simcoe for burial, but no member of the Kniffen family would come forward to care for his children. Frank’s mother had remarried following the death of Frank’s father in 1902 and neither she nor her new husband showed any apparent interest. Frank had three younger siblings, but none of them stepped forward to take the children either. It was left to Nellie’s family, the Hasketts, to take them in. For reasons that are lost to history the children would be separated. Sisters Pearl and Helen were taken by their cousin, A.E. Stephens, to Lincoln Nebraska where they would be raised by Nellie’s sister Tillie and her husband Howard Bradden. The boys, Thomas and Francis David, would be sent to Simcoe where they were raised by Nellie’s sister Catherine and her husband Andrew Jeffry, who worked on the Haskett family farm.
Pearl and Helen’s upbringing would prove to be a fairly conventional one. Howard Bradden was a plaster contractor who owned his own business and his own home in a middle class area of Lincoln. At the age of 18 Pearl married a man named George Horst. They continued to reside in Lincoln where, eleven months later, Pearl gave birth to a daughter, Delores. A second child, Delaine, was born the following year. In the 1920 census Pearl was listed as a housewife, George a printer. As her children grew up Pearl worked as a maid and then, in the final two decades of her life, a school cafeteria worker. She died in Lincoln in July of 1967, at the age of 69.
Helen married twice, first to a mechanic named Albert Sehnert in 1929. After divorcing, Helen went to work as a proofreader for the Lincoln Star. In 1938 she married again, to Ernie Gross, a reporter for the Star. In 1940 Ernie took a job with the Buffalo Evening News. Ernie served in World War II from 1943 to 1945, and then returned to the newspaper. Helen gave birth to a son Terry in 1947, and a daughter Eileen in 1950. According to Terry, their upbringing was a standard, 1950s middle class affair. Helen and Ernie were divorced in December 1967. After her divorce Helen worked as a bank teller and a student loan examiner for the State of New York. She was in poor health in her later years, suffering from respiratory problems. She died of a heart attack on July 8, 1981.
There is no suggestion that the DSR knew that Bus was the son of their murdered employee. He simply applied for the job and got it. His first assignment after becoming a conductor was on the Jefferson Line, the same line his father worked. While working the Jefferson line in 1925 he would meet Anna Sepelak, a waitress at a diner near a streetcar turnaround where Bus would take his lunch. The two would marry the following year and go on to have five children. Bus retired in the 1960s, a few years before streetcar service in Detroit ended in its entirety. He died in Dearborn, Michigan in June of 1983, at the age of 81.
Nellie and Frank’s oldest son Thomas did not take as well to the Haskett farm as his brother did, and looked for any opportunity to leave. During World War I Thomas, then only 15, ran away to Toronto and attempted to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, hoping to see combat and lying about his age. At five feet seven inches tall and barely 130 pounds, however, he didn’t fool the recruiters and was sent back home to Simcoe. The following year he met a girl, Alice Cartwright, who had come to live and work on the Haskett farm as part of the University of Toronto’s Farmerette program which sent young women to help out on farms which had lost manpower to military service. Alice was an immigrant from Staffordshire, England, who had come to Canada at the age of 10.
Thomas was smitten, in no small part because she came from far away. Thomas and Alice were married in Toronto on October 18, 1918. Thomas would attempt to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force again in early 1919, but was again rejected, this time due to a post-war drawdown of manpower. After this second rejection Thomas’ craving to go someplace new abandoned him. He and Alice moved to Detroit, where he took a job as a maintenance worker at a paint factory. Alice gave birth to their first child in January 1920. Six more children would follow between then and 1935. Thomas worked at the paint factory for the rest of his life. While his wife was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, he was an atheist, having become disillusioned when he learned that a Catholic priest had mismanaged his father’s estate. Thomas died in Detroit in 1964 at the age of 64.
Pearl, who told nothing to police following her father’s death, maintained her silence about what happened that morning for the rest of her life. She never told her husband or her children about Nellie and Frank, saying only that her parents died when she was young. Helen said nothing about her childhood either, telling her husbands and her children that her parents had died in a ferry accident in Detroit in 1910. While Helen and Pearl remained in contact as they grew up and had families of their own, none of their children were aware of the Kniffens in Detroit or the real story of Frank and Nellie until after their mothers’ deaths, when they were contacted by distant relatives who found them in the course of genealogical research. Their knowledge of the murder came from copies of death certificates and old newspaper articles. “My mother was a total secret,” Helen’s son Terry Temescu recently told me. “She had no past.”
Thomas told Alice about how he got to Simcoe and, having lived with the Hasketts when she met Thomas, she knew the circumstances of his childhood. Neither of them, however, told any of their children about it as they were growing up and none of them, in turn, told any of their children. The most that was ever said about Pearl and Helen were occasional references to “some aunts out west.” Thomas and Alice’s children were frequent visitors to Bus and Anna’s house and vice-versa. By the 1930s it was a large family. There were enough people around that absent relatives were not a thing that came to mind all that often.
Bus and his wife Anna, who also knew the whole story, were a bit more forthcoming. But only a bit. By the 1930s they had told their children that their grandmother Nellie “lived in a hospital,” though they did not say it was a mental hospital. They never spoke of Frank or the murder. Once, in the late 1930s, their eldest child, Marie, went with Bus and Anna to Ionia to visit Nellie. Marie, who is now approaching 90, was not yet a teenager at the time. She recently told me about meeting her grandmother.
“She was pretty,” she recalls. “And calm. She and my mother and father made small talk about the children. About things in the news. There was nothing to suggest that she was mentally ill. You wouldn’t have known that she and my father were bound up in such a tragedy.”
She didn’t talk to Nellie during the visit, nor did Nellie speak to her.
“Children were to be seen and not heard in those days,” Marie said. “We accepted what our parents told us. It didn’t occur to me to think of the trip to Ionia as anything other than a family visit to see a sick relative in the hospital.”
Nellie died on April 26, 1944 at Ionia State Hospital, her home for the previous 33 years and three months. The cause of death was chronic myocarditis, which she was said to have been suffering for three years. Under contributory causes was listed “manic depressive psychosis,” which she was said to have suffered for 33 years. Thomas and Alice claimed Nellie’s body. She was buried in Oakview Cemetery in Royal Oak, Michigan. There was no funeral. Her grave is unmarked. Per Michigan law, the records of her stay in Ionia were destroyed in 1964.
I knew virtually nothing about this infamous chapter in my family’s history until I stumbled upon those genealogy records and that first news clipping. For the past few months I’ve been learning about Nellie and Frank and all that happened since December 1910, making up for all of the time in which the Kniffens were a mystery to me.
While Nellie’s murder of her husband forever altered the course of the Kniffen family, keeping the murder a secret and refusing to grapple with its implications may have done just as much damage as those axe blows did to Frank. The four generations of Kniffens which followed Nellie and Frank bore a legacy of shame, grief, alcoholism, tragedy and mental illness which they rarely if ever attempted to confront. For four generations Kniffen men and women either grew up without a past, like Pearl and Helen’s children did or, in the case of Thomas and Bus’ descendants, grew up with far too much of one. That past, or lack of it, has weighed heavily on many of the people in my family.
Nellie and Frank’s oldest son, Thomas, was old enough to remember the events of 1910 and tried desperately, but in vain, to escape his family and the places where he grew up. While it’s impossible now to say what specific effect that had on him, he ended up a deeply unhappy man — and a functioning but obvious alcoholic — who died relatively young. Thomas and his wife Alice’s second son, Gilbert would die of measles at the age of three. Their fourth son, Gerald, would be killed by an accidental gunshot to the chest at the age of 12. As with Frank’s death, these deaths were rarely if ever discussed in the Kniffen household. Thomas learned at a young age that such things were best when thought about least.
Thomas’ third son Melvin, my grandfather, found his adult life to be no easier than his father did. His first wife, my biological grandmother, suffered from what, with the aid of hindsight, appears to have been multiple untreated mental illnesses. She would nearly drink herself to death by the early 1950s and have one more child, a boy, who was stillborn, before abandoning Melvin with three small children, including my mother. Years of unspeakable hardship followed in which my mother and her siblings were constantly on the move between the homes of relatives and, at times, lived in church-run shelters and orphanages while my grandfather tried to make ends meet as a truck driver. He would eventually marry the woman I would call my grandmother and they would quickly have two more children. Theresa began drinking when the babies were small and would herself suffer from alcoholism for the rest of her life. To my family, all of these were merely things which happened and which, in keeping with the habits of their elders, were not to be examined or discussed.
Trouble continued into my mother’s generation. My mother’s youngest brother, Mark, drank himself into liver failure and death at the age of 47. Her oldest brother, Mel, has struggled with alcohol abuse his entire life and, as I write this is in the hospital, suffering from liver failure of his own.
And then there is my mother’s oldest sister, Donna.
Donna was a brilliant and engaging child who, no matter how hard things got in the orphanages or group homes, served as a stabilizing force for my mother and their brother. A rift developed, however, between Donna and my grandfather’s second wife almost immediately after she moved in. It was a particularly sharp one, which eventually resulted in Donna running away from home at the age of 16. She committed a number of crimes of increasing severity and was eventually deemed incorrigible by the juvenile justice system. Her father and stepmother were at turns hostile or ambivalent. There would never be a true reconciliation with them.
Donna got married to a charming petty criminal at the age of seventeen and over the next four years they would have three children. In that same time her behavior became increasingly erratic, and she began to develop clear signs of mental illness. She would stay up for hours cleaning the house in a manic state, followed by periods when she would sleep for days. On occasion she would become aggressive and even violent, lashing out in rages at strangers or visiting family members. By late 1970 she was pregnant with her fourth child. At the same time the law caught up with her husband and he was sent to prison. Donna was already unable to properly take care of her children as it was and a fourth on the way with no help at all put her in dire straits. In some ways Nellie Kniffen’s circumstances were repeating themselves 60 years later.
My mother would buck the Kniffen tradition of ignoring family members in crisis and come to her aid.
My mother had managed to navigate her childhood as well as anyone could under the circumstances, staying out of trouble and keeping away from booze. She did not stick around long after graduating high school, however, and in 1967 eloped with my father, who had just accepted a job opportunity in Alaska. I often wonder if she worried for a time if even that was not as far away from her family as she’d like to be. Eventually, though, they returned to Michigan where my mother reconnected with Donna. My parents had been trying, unsuccessfully, to have a baby. When they became aware of Donna’s predicament they offered to adopt hers. They took my brother Curtis, my biological first cousin, home from the hospital in March of 1971.
After Curt’s birth Donna would run away again, leaving her other three children in the care of her husband’s relatives, unpredictably drifting in and out of their lives over the next decade. At around this time she began to suffer from paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations. She would make intermittent appearances at my parents’ house and my mother, the only person in the family with whom Donna remained on good terms, would take her in. One time she showed up in the dead of Michigan winter, barefoot, wearing cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, soaking wet from the snow. On other occasions she’d show up under the influence of drugs. My mother would do her best to take care of her older sister and looked into getting her medical or psychological care but she’d usually leave again before much could come of it.
On a crisp fall evening in 1976, Donna showed up again. My mother, as always, opened the door for her older sister and made her a hot meal. My father was gone, working the second shift. After dinner the two of them sat at the kitchen table making small talk while my brother and I, ages five and three, played in the living room. Donna got up to make a cup of tea but, before reaching the stove she turned around and, with no warning whatsoever, grabbed my mother by the neck from behind, wrestled her to the ground and attempted to strangle her. My mother was not a physically imposing woman but she managed to fight her sister off, motivated by a fear of what Donna would do to my brother and me if she had managed to kill her. Donna was taken away by police and, eventually, confined to a mental health facility. She would soon be released, however, and would disappear for nearly a decade. In the 1980s she made a few more appearances, each time the worse for wear, both physically and mentally.
While my mother had every reason to wash her hands of her older sister, she never did. She attempted to get her help each time Donna showed up on our doorstep. She eventually succeeded. Donna’s days on the streets ended in the mid-1990s, when my mother got a bed for her in a mental health facility. For the past 20 years she has lived in group homes. She’s heavily medicated and only tenuously and intermittently connected to reality but, at almost 70, she’s no longer a threat to herself or others. My mother now lives in Ohio, but drives the 200 miles to visit her whenever she can, taking Donna on outings to purchase clothes and sundries. When she leaves the group home to go to a store or a restaurant, she claims that total strangers are her friends. She sees old friends and relatives who have been dead for years.
When I began researching Nellie Kniffen’s story, I could not help thinking of my Aunt Donna. A housewife taking a streetcar downtown in the middle of the night for a drink in 1910 was an act of defiance. So too was a teenager running away from home in 1963. Was Nellie’s apparently newsworthy poor housekeeping in 1910 merely the depressive side of the coin and Donna’s frantic cleaning in 1969 the manic side? Was Nellie’s paranoia and were her hallucinations and delusions akin to Donna’s? If, on that evening back in 1976, Donna had caught my mother asleep and unaware as Nellie did Frank in 1910, would she have killed her, like my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I’m not a doctor or a therapist and mental illness is not an area of my expertise. But I do wonder what would’ve happened to Donna or to others if things had gone even slightly differently. I also wonder what would’ve happened to Nellie, Frank and the rest of my family if someone were able to help her — or at least stop her — like my mother did Donna.
All I know for sure is that the Kniffens have experienced more than one family’s share of untimely deaths. No small number of people who have suffered breaks from reality and sanity. There have been many who desperately needed parental figures but did not have them. The stories of some of those people have been suggested to me but remain largely unknown. The stories of some of them are still ongoing. The stories of others are not mine to tell. Some of that which has been befallen the Kniffens is directly attributable to what happened on the morning of December 19, 1910. Some of it is only indirectly related. Some of it has nothing to do with it at all.
I suspect, however, that everyone in my family is living a different life, in one way or another, than the one they would’ve lived had the axe never have fallen.
Thanks to Marie Ferrin, daughter of Bus Kniffen, for sharing the story of her visit to Nellie at Ionia. Marie passed away in early 2018. I was glad I got the chance to know her, even if it was just a little bit, before she died.
Thanks to Terry Temescu and Eileen Gross-Krivokopich — the cousins I never knew I had — for their recollections of their mother, Helen.
Thanks Tto Delane Smith-Thompson and Della Shafer for their extensive genealogical research which served as the gateway to my understanding my profoundly complicated family.
Thanks to Michael Leffler for his help with census records and death certificates. Genealogical research is a weird world and it helps to have a guide.
A big, big, big thanks to Rob Neyer for his keen editing eye. If there are typos or grammatical errors in this story, they were added after Rob looked it over. I’m really, really bad at that stuff. He’s really, really good.
Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to thank my mother, Lezlie Calcaterra.
Most people who discover infamy in their family would try to deny it, like her father and grandfather did, and would try to hide if from their kids, but my mother confronted it. What’s more, she thought it was neat and shared it with me, setting me off on this project.
Most people who grew up as my mother did would end up damaged, jaded or both, but she transcended her circumstances to become the most balanced, positive and optimistic person imaginable. For her entire life my mother has been a source of strength, aid and comfort for everyone fortunate enough to know her and she has never asked for anything in return.
I would not be the person I am if not for my mother’s love, guidance, example and support. It is because of her that, for the first time in four generations, my particular branch of the Kniffen family is living a better life than the generation which came before it.
© 2017 Craig A. Calcaterra
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