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Murder On Asylum Road

(research by Deborah Silva)

Wednesday, July 9, 1919 — Mendocino County's celebrated law man, Sheriff Ralph Byrnes, was in Fort Bragg when he got the chilling news: a newlywed woman was found murdered in her own home in the Talmage district two miles east of Ukiah, out past the Asylum bridge. 

The body of Mrs. Herman Knaesche (23), bride of only three weeks, had been discovered by her husband at the McKinley place, where the couple have been making their home since returning from their honeymoon in southern California. Mrs. Knaesche had been shot twice, once through the side just below the heart, and the second time point blank to the back of the head. 

When Sheriff Byrnes and Coroner S.L. Rae reached the scene, they found the dead woman lying like a broken doll across a bed on the back porch. Nearby was a soldering iron, a box of shells, and a shotgun believed to be the murder weapon.

Judging from the blood trail, Mrs. Knaesche had first been fired upon as she reached the foot of the stairs inside the dining room, her killer pressing the barrel directly against her body before pulling the trigger. 

It then appeared that the victim staggered to the telephone, beneath which a large pool of blood had formed, and where she had perhaps tried to call for help. 

Mrs. Knaesche then lurched through a small bedroom and onto the back porch, where she collapsed across the bed where she slept on the hot nights common to summertime Ukiah. According to Dr. Rae, the victim could easily have walked that relatively short distance before succumbing to blood loss and the shock of what had happened to her.

While Mrs. Knaesche was dying on the porch bed from the first point blank blast, the shotgun was shoved against her skull and fired a second time, the powerful blast removing the back of her skull and leaving powder burns on her remaining skin.  

The bed, linens, floor and walls were in a ghastly condition, smeared and stained with blood, flesh, bone and brain. It was the diabolical detritus of a young life cut down with such savage abandon that gave pause to the sheriff, coroner and attending deputies.

Sheriff Byrnes noted the large white towel wrapped around the dead woman's head.

"Why would she have a towel around her head on such a warm day?" he wanted to know. "There's something queer about that. It will be worth looking into."

The sheriff's keen eye also noticed a man's footprints leading out of the side door of the ranch house. The footprints traveled to the front gate and back again. The line of footprints going out did not blur the line of footprints coming in. Seeing how the tracks were separate and distinct, Byrnes made a logical deduction.

"These tracks were made by a man wearing low black sneaks," said Sheriff Byrnes to his men, who were now on the look-out for possible suspects wearing the distinctive footwear.

Fingerprints were taken from the gun, the woman's clothing, the box of shells and the soldering iron, and were sent to San Francisco to be examined by police experts. 

What made the murder especially troubling for Sheriff Byrnes, who had experienced a Dickensian range of violence, thievery, and pathological darkness while a Mendocino County lawman, was that the well-liked young victim was born and raised in Ukiah. She was best known locally as Freda Beckley, before becoming Mrs. Herman Knaesche only three weeks before her gruesome murder. Freda was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Beckley, themselves intermingled with the prominent Keller clan, one of Ukiah's founding families. Freda's sister was married to the widely respected Hale Prather, the Mendocino county clerk.

Such was Freda's popularity that it was big news when this pioneer stock maiden tied the knot with Herman Knaesche, a naturalized American of German descent who had proudly fought in the U.S. Army against Kaiser Wilhelm's forces in France. Knaesche was born on January 9, 1891 in Bischosfwerda, Germany, a small town 25 miles east of Dresden, near what is now Poland and the Czech Republic. Herman immigrated with his mother and sister to Lawrence, Kansas, where he applied to become an American citizen. After sister Else married a man called Gustav Wolf, the combined Knaesche/Wolf family moved further west to Ukiah, where Herman was granted U.S. citizenship in 1913.

It seemed to all that Freda and Herman were a match made in heaven. She was the vivacious and talented scion of local nobility, while he was a grounded and respected veteran of the War to End All Wars. 

Described as happy, well-mannered and adventurous, Freda and Herman loved taking weekend camping trips with friends to Albion and the Lost Coast to explore the ancient redwood groves. The young couple also enjoyed a busy social calendar with the younger set of St. John's Church, where Freda taught Sunday School and sang in the choir, her beautiful voice noted for its range and clarity of emotion. 

A welcome home party was given on March 14, 1919, in Herman's honor when he returned from Europe, with a delightful evening of games, music and refreshments enjoyed by a throng of 70, including several kindred WW1 veterans, and friends from the Epworth League of St. John's Church. 

Soon after he and Freda had married. The wedding was a grand affair held at St. John's Church, with the bride's gown of white Georgette crepe embroidered in pearl beads. Her veil was held in place by a wreath of lilies of the valley and she carried a bouquet of the same lovely blossoms. Reverend Brink presided beneath an arbor of white wreathed with white roses, white sweet peas and delicate Shasta daisies that, according to one misty-eyed matron, shimmered like snowflakes too shy to blush.

As the organist played Mendelssohn's bridal march, the bride was given away by her father, C.J. Beckley, while Herman's brother-in-law, Gustavus Wolf, served as the best man.

Fast forward three weeks and now the young bride was dead, the newlywed’s home was a crime scene, and the citizens of Ukiah worried that a homicidal maniac was loose in their uneventful community. And Herman Knaesche, not long removed from the brutal trenches of France, was both grieving widower and prime suspect. 

Sheriff Byrnes and his deputies charged into the investigation, interviewing all potential suspects and witnesses, including Herman Knaesche. Was it possible that Freda was slain by a former admirer, or an escaped patient from the nearby Mendocino State Asylum for the Insane? Several vagrants, loners and random men regarded as suspicious, were hauled in for questioning. None, it was noted, owned a pair of low black sneaks.

A discharged asylum inmate believed to be infatuated with Freda was retrieved from San Rafael and questioned. But the former hospital resident's affections proved unrequited and innocent, and he was released after several witnesses provided him with ironclad alibis for the day of the murder. 

Deputy sheriffs learned that Indians working in a hop field near the Knaesche residence said that they heard screams coming from the house about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. The witnesses said it a woman's voice pleading, "Oh, Daddy, don't!" and "Please don't, Daddy!" One Indian said he believed that it was only a drunken argument, and prevented his companions from investigating.

None of the Indians heard the two shots fired into the bride's body, nor did they see anyone leave the house. 

The famously dogged Sheriff Byrnes soon learned that the screaming woman was Mrs. Christopher Becaley, a friend of Mrs. Knaesche. Mrs. Becaley had burst into frantic shrieking upon seeing Freda's perfectly kept living room profaned with her friend’s splattered blood. Mrs. Becaley had entered the house a short time after Herman Knaesche and Lineman Foster had left for Ukiah to report the murder, and thus had neither warning nor explanation for the macabre tableau she found.

Sheriff Byrnes and his team of able deputies began to assemble a rough picture of the circumstances:  Freda and Herman Knaesche had visited Ukiah the morning of her murder. After they returned home together, Herman made the short two-mile trip back to Ukiah to hire a repairman to look at a misfiring pump. 

In town, Knaesche met with Lineman Foster of the Snow Mountain Company, and Mr. Foster went immediately to the Talmage house to work on the recalcitrant machine. 

Instead of returning home straight away, Herman Knaesche went swimming above the asylum bridge for roughly 15 minutes. After his refreshing swim in the July heat, Herman claimed he went back into Ukiah to the Beckleys, the home of Freda's parents, where he expected his wife to be visiting after she'd finished her usual household chores.

But not finding Freda at her parents' house, Knaesche journeyed back out to his Talmage home, known locally as the McKinley place. He saw Lineman Foster working on the pump, and asked if he'd seen Freda. Foster said he'd seen no one, and Herman disappeared inside the house to look for his wife. A few moments later Foster heard a frantic shouting and saw Herman waving for him to come into the house where Mrs. Knaesche lay dead.

The two then went back to Ukiah to report the murder to the authorities. 

The First Interrogation

Sheriff Byrnes's first interrogation of Herman Knaesche lasted eight hours, during which time a tense crowd paced the sidewalks and corridors outside. 

When Knaesche was released after the lengthy grilling, Sheriff Byrnes made a short statement to the assembled journalists and agitated citizens: "We will talk to Herman Knaesche again. Herman is the husband of the murdered woman. They had been married two weeks. There is a big question mark after his name."

"All our efforts to cause Knaesche to change his story and incriminate himself were futile," the sheriff continued. "There was nothing for us to do but turn him loose. The case is now more of a puzzle to me than ever."

There were a few points that especially bothered Sheriff Byrnes. The first was the curious case of Knaesche's shirt when he was brought in for questioning. Knaesche said that the shirt he was wearing on Wednesday, when his wife was murdered, he first put on last Monday, two days before the slaying; it was the same shirt that Sheriff Byrnes found him in on Thursday. As Knaesche was a farmer, and regularly tended to livestock and worked outside on his homestead, Sheriff Byrnes believed that Knaesche would change his shirts daily, as it would be soiled considerably from his work.

Knaesche repeatedly told the sheriff that, before finding the body of his wife, he stopped for a swim in the river off Asylum Road. Upon investigating, the sheriff and deputies located two girls who were bathing in the river at the general time of Freda's murder. The girls reported seeing a man running along the riverbank, and Sheriff Byrnes subsequently found a man's footprints in the area described. Could the running man have been Knaesche? Did he go to the river not for a leisurely pre-murder swim, but in fact after he'd killed his wife, to wash the blood off his body and clothes, and also hide his bloody shirt?

The second critical point was the shotgun found by Freda's body. Knaesche was adamant that the gun was not loaded when he left home, and it is believed that the fingerprints on the gun and on the shell could only have been made by the slayer of Mrs. Knaesche. The fact that investigators found that two shells had been removed from the box of shotgun shells found on a porch shelf supported this theory. 

There was also the enigmatic matter of the soldering iron found near the victim's body. The metal tool was not used to kill or strike Freda, as her body showed no significant marks except the shotgun wounds. So why was it there?

Knaesche claimed it did not belong him, and must therefore be the property of the murderer. 

Funeral & Fingerprints

The funeral of Mrs. Knaesche was held on Saturday, July 12, 1919. both at St. John's church and the Ukiah cemetery. A number of women became hysterical and others fainted as the coffin was lowered into the grave. Herman Knaesche, thought by many to be the prime suspect in his wife's murder, attended the funeral of his wife, but not the services inside St. John's church. 

Not long after Freda Knaesche was laid to rest, the fingerprint analysis came back from the San Francisco experts, police photographer George Blum and Detective Sergeant Adolph Juel. 

Blum said that several clear prints were found, and all belonged to Herman Knaesche. The examination also indicated that the crystal-clear prints were made by someone handling the shotgun during the day on which Freda was killed, as earlier prints would have been degraded to the point of uselessness.

A fainter fingerprint was found on a discharged shell casing, which Blum and Juel determined also belonged to Knaesche. 

Knaesche had insisted to Sheriff Byrnes that the shotgun had not been left loaded. If so, then how could he explain that his fingerprints on both the gun and the spent shell casing?

The Second Interrogation

Sunday, July 13, 1919 - The next day Knaesche returned to the courthouse to meet Sheriff Byrnes and County Clerk Hale Prather, whose wife was Freda Knaesche's sister. This time the sheriff tightened the screws, subjecting the suspect to a grueling three-hour interrogation. At one point Knaesche nearly collapsed when he was shown a picture of his slain wife. The distressed Knaesche again denied shooting Freda, but said he would admit it were it not for the anguish it would cause his mother. This provocative statement raised the eyebrows of both the sheriff and Mr. Prather. 

At around midnight, Sheriff Byrnes said confidently to the suspect: "You know you killed that woman, and I know you did it. I am going to convict you, too. You can go home now. Come back in the morning." 

Mystery Condition

Knaesche dutifully appeared again at the county jail again the next day, this time for a third round of questions. This time District Attorney Hale McCowen Jr. was waiting with Sheriff Byrnes.

Opening a new line of questioning, Sheriff Byrnes asked Knaesche if there were any physical issues of a personal nature between he and his wife. Knaesche admitted that a physical condition was indeed discovered on their honeymoon, and that Freda had suggested she consult a surgeon and submit to a corrective operation. The couple’s wedding night had not gone well. Their marriage unconsummated.  

Sheriff Byrnes pressed on, suggesting that Knaesche and his deceased wife had "entered into a death pact," but that the cowardly Knaesche had failed to carry out his part of the bargain after being confronted by the gruesome sight of his wife's mangled corpse. 

Knaesche vigorously denied a suicide pact, arguing that Freda had a minor medical issue and nothing more. What made the operation necessary was described at the time of the inquest by Dr. S.L. Rae. But the doctor was adamant that the problem was not overly serious, and should not have caused great alarm, let alone a shotgun blast to the heart and head. It was later learned that Sheriff Byrnes believed that the mystery condition hung like a specter over the short-lived matrimony of the young Knaesche couple, though he never publicly shared his reasoning.  

Confession

Sheriff Byrnes wasted no time on fake pleasantries or mind games with the suspect this time: "Herman, you're going to admit it, for you know you did, and what is more, you know I can prove it."

"Well, let's hear what evidence you got against me," countered Knaesche. "I want to know that before I say another word."

The sheriff replied: "When I looked at the house on the McKinley ranch I saw tracks in front of it and on the side. The man who made those tracks, I said, wore black sneaks, and I was right. You know the shoes you had on that day, and so do I."

"What is more, Herman, we have the gun. There it is over on the table there... Let me show it to you. Do you see these fingerprints on the stock? We've had police experts examine them in San Francisco, Herman, and we know whose hand held that gun. You also know.

"We also have a man who saw a Ford automobile drive away from the McKinley ranch. I'll be honest with you. That witness is in my outside office right now. He couldn't identify you as you drove away, for he only saw your back, but he did identify the car, and you know who was in it... Further, Herman, we know that the towel around your wife's head was—"

"That's enough!" blurted Knaesche, slumping in his chair. “I did it, and I am ready to make a confession. I don't know what made me do it. It was a sudden impulse, but I couldn't resist it. And I loved Freda madly."

Sobbing, Knaesche then confessed in a sworn statement made in the presence of Sheriff Byrne and District Attorney Hale McCowen. 


Knaesche's confession is as follows:

I, Herman Knaesche, being first duly sworn, depose and say that I shot my wife, Freda Knaesche, at our home on Wednesday afternoon, July 9, 1919 at about 1:30 in the afternoon. I had been outside to feed some old peaches to the pigs and my wife had been outside for some purpose and we both came inside at about the same time.

The shotgun was standing against the table by the stove on the back porch. My wife said something about "Why is that gun there?" or "Why do you always keep that gun there?" It just struck me that she was awfully afraid of it, and I just had to pick it up, then I loaded it on the back porch.

She went into the kitchen... I followed her and caught up to her a little way from the stairs. She turned around just as I shot. I was standing then by the table. She didn't say anything. After I shot she just moaned. She didn't holler or scream. She then went out on that bed. I didn't shoot her again there in the kitchen. I turned away. I heard her open the screen door, and I just had to finish it. That was all. As I remember, her body was lying on the bed different from the [crime scene] picture. When I shot her the second time she wasn't looking at me. Her head was turned sideways. I was standing near her feet when I fired the last shot. I don't know what position her arms were in.

"After I shot her the last time it came to me what I had done and I dropped the gun.

"I don't remember getting the soldering iron. I must have gotten it before the last shot. I knew it belonged on the place. I just seen it before. The other night when I said that I hadn't seen it I didn't want to own up to it.

I didn't touch her after I fired the last shot. I couldn't stay there. I wanted to get away. After I dropped the gun on the floor I just ran outside and got in the car. I had the peaches on the bench covered up with the robe. I put them in the car and came to town.

As I came to town the first man I met was Bill, who teams for Mr. Beckley, near the Thomas place. The next person was Beckley, near the old Ward slaughterhouse. I then went to the Farmers Club. I saw other people around town, but I don't remember who they were.

I came up State Street and turned at the Cecille Hotel to go to the Farmers Club. I left the peaches at the club and then went to Burnights and bought a dollar box of candy. I bought the candy as an excuse to turn suspicion away from myself. I saw Mr. Foster in front of Mattern's bakery. I came from the candy store around by the bakery because I wanted to stay in town a little longer. When I saw Foster it occurred to me to speak to him about the pump.

I didn't do that for the purpose of having him there when I got back, but so that I could prove that I had been in town. After I spoke to Foster I... went swimming at the hole up above the bridge. I saw an Indian as I was coming from the swimming hole. He was carrying a box under his arm and was walking up the river.

Then I went to the Beckleys and carried in a sack of sugar for Mrs. Beckley [Freda's mother], as she had been laid up with boils. Mr. Beckley, Mrs. Beckley and his teamster were there. I then asked for my wife, and Mrs. Beckley told me she wasn't there. I carried the box of candy in at the same time I carried in the sugar. I put the sugar on the screen porch and started to go into one of the other rooms just to pretend that I expected to find her there. Mrs. Beckley then told me she wasn't there and I went out and got in my car and went back to the McKinley place. When I got home Foster was there fixing the pump, and I asked, "Have you seen Freda?" to which he answered, “No."

I then asked him something about the pump. I only remember asking once about Freda. I started to go in the back door, but it was locked. I then went around the side door of the house and went into the front side. I then went to where she was lying and called Foster. 

I opened the back door and Foster came in that way. I went back to where she was lying and Foster followed. I don't remember much what I did then as it came to me what I had done. Foster took me out and put me in his car and brought me to town, and I went to my mother's.

In making this statement I have not been influenced by any promises made to me by the sheriff or anyone else, nor by any threats of any kind nor by the use of force, violence or duress of any nature. I have made the statement because I saw I couldn't carry it out any longer, and I realized I was bound to get caught in the end. The sheriff hasn't abused me in any way and has treated me very nicely. I am not making this statement for any reason other than the tell the truth.

SIGNED: Herman Knaesche, 13 July, 1919, 

WITNESSED: Hale McCowen, Jr. District Attorney, County of Mendocino, State of California

After confessing, Knaesche was whisked away by automobile to the jail in Santa Rosa to prevent him from being lynched. The mood of Ukiah citizens was turning ugly and hungry for immediate justice. It was later discussed that Knaesche's impulse to murder might have been hereditary. His father died in an insane asylum in Germany after he had nearly killed Herman while the latter was a young boy.

Knaesche was sentenced to life in prison at San Quentin, where he seemed to spend a charmed incarceration, ingratiating himself with the warden, James Holohan. He worked in the warden's office as a clerk, and lived in the officers' quarters and took his meals in the officers' mess. He did not live in a cell block like the rest of the inmates and, in fact, the only thing he couldn't do was leave the prison grounds.  

After 17 years Knaesche was released on parole into the custody of Warden Holohan, and went to live on the prison honcho's farm near Watsonville. 

There was an immediate uproar from the citizens and law enforcement of Ukiah, as the parole board was legally obligated to notify them of any hearings concerning Herman Knaesche. Something sneaky had occurred. Ukiah never received notice, though carbon copies of parole hearing letters allegedly sent to Mendocino County officials were in Knaesche's files at San Quentin. 

Such was the outcry that Knaesche was put back in prison, and incensed Ukiah citizens demanded that the Asylum Road murderer be stripped of U.S. citizenship and deported. Eventually the courts decided he could keep his U.S. passport, but that he was to be deported. 

[Warden Holohan himself was soon forced from San Quentin for two reasons: 1) a destructive prison riot; 2) the discovery of a sophisticated counterfeiting operation inside the inmate print shop.]

It was December, 1937 when a dispossessed Knaesche took a ship to Manila, where he found work as a clerk in a sugar company. Four years later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the next day, December 8, 1941, they invaded the Philippines, quickly rolling over the light American and native forces. Knaesche spent the next four years in the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila, where conditions were miserable and brutish. 

When General Douglas MacArthur and his American troops returned, as promised, to liberate the Philippine Islands, Knaesche was still alive. After World War Two ended Knaesche lived for another five years in Manila, before returning to America in 1950 and making the Bay Area his home. He died at the VA hospital in Alameda and, as an honorably discharged veteran of World War One, is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery, in San Francisco's Presidio. 

5 Comments

  1. Thomas Allman March 12, 2021

    What a great job of research and writing! Thanks Deborah and Zach for doing such a great job. You both excelled with this article

    The Mendocino County Museum in Willits has (had?) a great exhibit on Sheriff Byrnes and his ability to find alcohol stills in the county.

    • Marmon March 12, 2021

      Look who woke up all of a sudden.

    • George Hollister March 13, 2021

      Sheriff Byrnes has a number of family descendants still living, and owning property in this county. Some read this paper.

  2. Mark Laszlo March 12, 2021

    Vivid, heart wrenching account of history, recent
    and feels more so.
    I suppose Herman Knaesche was a master printer.
    That did not have to be said for a reader to guess.

  3. Deborah Silva March 13, 2021

    Thank you, Tom Allman! Sheriff Byrnes was amazing. He served as the Sheriff for 20 years, by far the longest tenure of any sheriff in this county. I’d love to check out the Willits Museum exhibit once we open back up.

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