It was on the morning of October 7, 1869 that the body of Friedrich “Fritz” Ehrig was found in the bottom of the cistern in the churchyard of St. Anthony’s Church in Davenport. Mr. Ehrig had been a well-respected and well-known local citizen. He was a married man with five young children, a successful store clerk, retired Secretary of the School Board, and member of several local fraternities.
Even more shocking was the Coroner’s Inquest that concluded Mr. Ehrig been murdered. Struck on the back of the head, rendered most likely unconscious, and then thrown in the cistern where he drowned. Who would do such a horrible thing to such an upstanding man?
It appeared there were no answers to who would murder Fritz Ehrig or why.
Two and a half years later, Davenporters opened their papers to astonishing headlines. A letter had been sent the Davenport Police Department from Sergeant Henry Strecker of the Toledo, Ohio Police Department. The letter was printed in the Davenport Daily Gazette on February 6, 1872 for the public to read.
Sergeant Strecker inquired if a man named Erich (Ehrig) had been murdered and thrown into a well in Davenport about two years ago. Strecker asked if there was a motive or a person who was considered suspicious. He also wondered if the murder was committed by the use of a cane. If yes, to please provide him with the details including information on a reward.
While the letter, of course, was a surprise. What followed in the Davenport Daily Gazette and the Daily Davenport Democrat was probably shocking to many.
Though the letter provided no names as to who may have spoken to the Toledo, Ohio police about the murder; the Gazette and Democrat provided their own theory on the murder of Fritz Ehrig and the whispers that had apparently been going around Davenport for years.
According to the newspapers, after leaving his friend on the corner of Brady and 5th Streets on the night of his murder Mr. Ehrig may have been going to pay a visit to a widowed woman of “doubtful virtue” (later identified as widow Cora West) who lived with her children and a man named James Alcott*. The couple lived as husband and wife in an apartment on the northwest corner of Brady and 4th Streets neat St. Anthony’s Church.
Mr. Alcott, in 1869, worked for the Davenport Daily Gazette, as a printer. He had met Cora while working for a newspaper in Rock Island and moved in with her. A fight between the couple caused her to move with her children to Davenport where she made the “acquaintance of a number of men” before getting back together with Mr. Alcott and moving into the apartment at Brady and 4th Streets.
James Alcott worked both day and night shifts at the newspaper.
It was theorized that Mr. Alcott had returned home sooner than expected and found Mr. Ehrig visiting Cora. It was thought that he struck Ehrig in the head causing him to fall down a flight of stairs. Thinking he had killed the man, Mr. Alcott and Cora carried the body to the nearby church cistern and threw the body in.
Mr. Alcott continued working at the Gazette, probably printing stories of Mr. Ehrig’s murder and inquest, before suddenly leaving town with Cora and her children about one or two weeks later.
The family eventually moved to Des Moines, Iowa where he was hired by the Des Moines Register newspaper. Nothing more was heard from the couple until the fall of 1871 when Cora suddenly appeared in Davenport looking for James Alcott. She was said to have stated the pair had fought in Des Moines. Mr. Alcott had become drunk and enraged. In the process smashing all of their furniture before leaving town.
Cora left town after finding that Mr. Alcott had not returned to Davenport.
The Gazette stated that many employees had been suspicious of Mr. Alcott after the murder, but declined to say anything for fear of upsetting his family.
As for Mr. Alcott and Cora, it was unknown where they were living. The Gazette assumed that the person who spoke to the Toledo Police Department was the Mrs. West, but rumor had it that Mr. Alcott was still in Des Moines working as a printer.
It was assumed that once they were found, Mr. Alcott and Mrs. West would be arrested for the murder of Mr. Ehrig.
The murder of Mr. Ehrig continued to have unexpected twists and turns as the Davenport Daily Democrat printed on February 9, 1872 that the newspaper reporters had been misled on the case and owed Mr. Alcott an apology. The article even carried an interview from the Des Moines Register in which James Alcott denied being involved in the murder of Fritz Ehrig and he was tired of being followed about the matter.
After that, the case went quite once again.
Until April 1874.
On April 23rd, the Davenport Daily Gazette printed the Ehrig murder was once again being investigated due to the dedication of Mr. Ehrig’s friends who would not let the matter be forgotten. After the articles in February 1872, Mr. Alcott threatened to sue the Gazette for slander. He also indicated Mr. J. W. Hasson from the Gazette and Mr. S. S. Drake from the Democrat had started the stories of his involvement. Mr. Alcott also stated on the night of the murder it was Mr. Hasson who left work early from the Gazette office, not himself.
The Gazette reported it had received a letter from Missouri stating that James Alcott had left Des Moines and Cora during the winter of 1873. He was now deranged and penniless in Missouri. Not everyone believed that letter though. Many felt Mr. Alcott had it sent to throw everyone off his trail.
On April 20, 1874 a Mr. William Poole, a local grocer, was given a warrant to arrest Mr. Alcott and his wife in Des Moines. When he arrived, he found Mrs. West and arrested her, but Mr. Alcott was gone. Once the train arrived in Davenport, Mrs. West placed in jail.
It was learned that Mr. Alcott was in La Salle, Illinois and Police Officer William Niles was sent to arrest him.
And then the case took a turn – again.
The person who spoke to the police in Toledo, Ohio in 1872 was finally identified as Elizabeth Fritzfeldt. As a young German immigrant, she moved to Davenport with her sister and both were hired to work in the household of Dr. Rudolph Alberti and his family.
Now living in Toledo, Ohio and working for a new family, Elizabeth accused Dr. Alberti of the murder of Fritz Ehrig. After speaking with police, detectives were sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they located Dr. Alberti and brought him back to Davenport.
James Alcott was forgotten.
By April 30th, Dr. Alberti was in jail awaiting trial for the murder of Fritz Ehrig in 1869. His family followed him to Davenport and stayed with friends.
The new theory in the murder of Mr. Ehrig was that Dr. Alberti also intended visiting Mrs. West on the night of the murder. He and Ehrig ran into each other and a fight ensued. Dr. Alberti had pushed Mr. Ehrig and he fell down the outer steps of the apartment building hitting his head in the process. Panicking, Dr. Alberti and Cora disposed of the body in the cistern.
Dr. Alberti had been a physician in Davenport in 1869. He left the area soon after the Ehrig murder, sending for his family a few months later. Miss Fritzfeldt stated that the doctor had gone out the night of the murder and returned upset and had thrown a broken cane on top of cabinets in the kitchen. Elizabeth felt something was not right, so she stored the broken cane in her trunk. Elizabeth followed the family, but eventually left them and was hired into a new household in Toledo.
The trial of Dr. Alberti began about April 30, 1874. Dr. Alberti, his wife, and friends testified that Dr. Alberti had planned to leave Davenport several months before the murder. He had even sold items from his medical practice and begun packing before October 1869.
Testimony during the trial reported that the doctor had been called out on a medical visit the evening of October 6 into October 7, 1869. He was known to carry canes and sometimes they broke. Dr. Alberti was acquainted with Mr. Ehrig and had gone over to the churchyard to offer assistance as he was passing by when the body was removed from the cistern. His offer of help was declined as the coroner had already been summoned.
The most interesting part of the trial was the questioning of William Pool, the grocer who had been allowed to arrest Mrs. West in Des Moines. He stated that on the day of the murder he found hair on the outer steps leading to the Alcott apartment. He collected the hair and compared it to Mr. Ehrig’s and it matched. He said some of the steps looked like they had been cleaned.
Mr. Pool did not testify in front of the Coroner’s Inquest in 1869.
No evidence was presented that Dr. Alberti knew Mrs. West, had fled the city, or knew anything about the murder of Fritz Ehrig.
A verdict of not guilty was quickly pronounced and Dr. Alberti went free.
As an afterthought, Mrs. West was released from prison as well as she was accused of being an accessory in helping Dr. Alberti dispose of Mr. Ehrig’s body. As Dr. Alberti was innocent, she would not be tried for her guilt.
And then, we believe, the case grew cold. Mr. Alcott was never arrested and brought in for questioning. We have not been able to find any evidence anyone was ever charged with the murder of Fritz Ehrig. It is a cold case indeed.
What happened to the people involved with this murder? We have a few answers, but not all.
Mrs. Ehrig lived near Fourth and Warren Streets for many years working as a laundress to support her children. She eventually moved with her children to Council Bluffs, Iowa. She died there, still a widow, on February 8, 1887. She is buried in a local Council Bluffs cemetery.
Dr. Alberti decided Davenport was just the place he wanted to live in after all. He moved back with his family and practiced medicine. He died in Davenport on January 17, 1898. His obituaries do not mention his involvement in the Ehrig case.
James W. Alcott was born in Vermont and had been in the Civil War. He lived as a single man, never getting back together with Cora West. He eventually moved into a home for disabled soldiers in Togus, Maine. He died May 1, 1905 and is buried in Togus National Cemetery.
Ellen Cora Carley West is last located in 1880 living in Des Moines, Iowa as a housekeeper in a house of ill-fame. A death record has not been found yet for her.
We will continue to look to see if this case was ever solved, but for now it appears to remain a mystery.
(posted by Amy D.)
*Spellings of the last name varied including Alcott, Olcutt, and Olcott in different newspapers and records.
- Daily Davenport Democrat, February 5, 1872. Front Page.
- Daily Davenport Democrat, February 6, 1872. Front Page.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, February 6, 1872. Pg. 4.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, February 7, 1872. Pg. 4.
- Daily Davenport Democrat, February 9, 1872. Front Page.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, April 23, 1874. Pg. 4.
- Daily Davenport Democrat, April 29, 1874. Front Page.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, April 30, 1874. Pg. 4.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, May 1, 1874. Pg. 4.
- Davenport Daily Gazette, May 3, 1874. Pg. 4.
- Daily Davenport Democrat, May 4, 1874. Front Page.
- Davenport Democrat, January 18, 1898. Front Page.
- Davenport Daily Times, January 18, 1898. Pg. 3.
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