The Mysterious Death of Fritz Ehrig – Part I

The morning of Thursday, October 7, 1869 probably seemed like a typical fall day to Patrick Higgins, Sexton of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Davenport. The church was (and still is) located on the corner of 4th and Main Streets.

In 1869, the property included the church, school buildings, smaller residences, and an orchard. From Main and 4th Streets, the property extended close to Brady Street to the east and 5th Street to the north. The area surrounding the church property was densely packed with businesses and residences.

About 6:00 a.m., Mr. Higgins headed out to the brick cistern located near the church’s school buildings (on the northeast side of the property). The Sexton noticed the cover he had placed on the cistern the evening before was pushed off to the side, but that was not unusual as the public was allowed to get water from the well pump or cistern as needed. What was unusual that day was the man’s hat laying near the cistern and the water spout that allowed rain water to run into the cistern was broken off.

Mr. Higgins was not overly concerned as he believed local boys had gotten into the apple orchard overnight and done damage to the cistern as well. He placed the hat on his head and began to draw several buckets of water from the cistern.

Soon after, Mr. Higgins showed the hat to Father Morris Flavin and mentioned the damage to the spout at the cistern. Father Flavin asked Mr. Higgins to go back to the cistern to check it. He feared a child may have fallen into the cistern overnight.

At about 9:00 a.m., Mr. Higgins took a rake and began to run it along the bottom of the cistern. He soon bought up the body of a man who was lying face down in the water.

Word quickly spread through the neighborhood and people began to fill the churchyard as the body was removed from the cistern. The man was quickly identified as Mr. Friedrich (Fritz) Wilhelm Ehrig, a well-known German immigrant who lived several blocks west near Fourth and Warren Streets. Everyone wanted to know how Mr. Ehrig ended up in the church’s cistern and was the prominent wound on the back of his head the result of an accident or something far more sinister?

Mr. Ehrig, by newspaper accounts of the time, was an upstanding citizen with many friends. He was born about 1832 in Naumburg, Saxony and immigrated to the United States in 1856. Soon after, he settled in Davenport with his wife Catharina. They had five children: Ottilie, Pauline, Antoinette, Fritz Paul, and Louise. The children in 1869 ranged in age from 11 to 2 years. Mr. Ehrig was a successful store clerk for Kelly & Wood Hardware. He was a Free Mason, an Odd Fellow, and had been Secretary of the School Board for many years before retiring from that position in the spring of 1869.

The coroner was called to the scene and he directed the body of Mr. Ehrig to be taken to the Odd Fellows Hall located on the west side of Brady Street, between 5th and 6th Streets. Several doctors examined the body at the Hall and a Coroner’s inquest began that afternoon into his death.

Several of Mr. Ehrig’s friends were called to testify on the events of October 6th and the early morning hours of October 7th. Mr. Ehrig had gotten off work about 7:30 p.m. the evening before. He and a friend went to the Odd Fellows Hall were they put on their garments and walked with others to hear a lecture at the Burtis Opera House. After the lecture the men walked their Rock Island Odd Fellows associates to the ferry and then returned to the Hall to store their regalia. About six men, including Fritz Ehrig, went on to Thode & Lanfeldt’s at 91 W. 2nd Street for sandwiches, wine, billiards, and conversation. It was about 10:00 p.m. when they arrived.

All those who spoke at the inquest agreed Mr. Ehrig was in fine spirits that night and not inebriated when they left the establishment about 2:00 a.m.

Thode & Landfelt’s was not far from Mr. Ehrig’s home near Fourth and Warren Streets. Mr. John Haley, who was with the group as they left the saloon, reported at the inquest that he had assumed Mr. Ehrig would walk home with him as they lived near each other. He was surprised when Mr. Ehrig not only did not head home, but also did not acknowledge his question about walking together.

Instead of heading west towards his house, Mr. Ehrig continued walking northeast with Odd Fellow members John Gundaker and William Coulter. Soon Mr. Coulter parted ways to head to his residence. Mr. Gundaker spoke with Fritz Ehrig for about five minutes at the corner of Brady and 5th Streets before he, Mr. Gundaker, went into his residence. The last image Mr. Gundaker had of Fritz Ehrig was of Ehrig walking down 5th Street heading towards Main Street.

Mr. Gundaker stated he did not see anyone else about on the street except for he and Mr. Ehrig.

The only unusual thing his friends noted during the inquest was Mr. Ehrig had expressed concern to several of them for three weeks prior to his death that someone did not like him. He even debated carrying a gun. He was about to tell one friend the name of the person when they were interrupted in the hardware store. Mr. Ehrig said he would tell him the name the next time he saw him. That was one week before his death. The friend was a farmer in Scott County and had not been back to town since that last conversation. 

The inquest ended on the evening of October 7th and resumed the next day at 10:00 a.m.

The second day of the inquest brought about further interviews with friends, but also reports from police who examined the scene and doctors asked to examine the body.

It was reported to the inquest that the cistern had about three and a half feet of water in it. It was about 18 inches deep and the opening about 17 inches in diameter. The mortar around the opening was slightly raised and the cover was heavy enough that if someone tripped on it the cover would not easily move. 

As for the body, a crescent shape mark was found on the back of the head. Sawdust was in the wound and some hair was missing. The doctors felt Mr. Ehrig was struck standing up. The blow did not fracture the skull, but could have rendered the man unconscious. There were abrasions about his face and on his knees as if they were scraped. There were also marks on his arms above the elbows that might have been caused by hands carrying him.

The doctors stated there was water in Mr. Ehrig’s lungs indicating he was alive when he entered the cistern. It appeared to the doctors that he drowned after entering the well in an unconscious state. He would have been able to recover from the blow to the head otherwise.

Mr. Ehrig was found wearing his full suit from the evening before. His watch, money, and work keys were still in his pockets. Nothing had been taken.

No blood or signs of a struggle were found in the churchyard. It seemed Mr. Ehrig was knocked unconscious elsewhere and carried into the churchyard.

As the inquest continued, the funeral of Fritz Ehrig took place from his home on October 9th. He was buried with full honors by the Masonry and Odd Fellowship. His funeral was attended by family, friends, members of the school board, Masons, Odd Fellows, Davenport City Council, and the Mayor of Davenport. Fritz Ehrig was buried in Lot 121 in the original section of City Cemetery in a plot owned by the International Order of Odd Fellows.

The Mayor and Davenport City Council posted a $1,000 reward for information on the murderer(s). The Odd Fellows added $500 to that reward.

On October 12, 1869, based on the evidence of those who were with Fritz Ehrig the night before his death, examination of the cistern and churchyard, and medical reports; Mr. J. J. Tomson, Coroner of Scott County, rendered his decision along with three jurors. The men  found that Fritz W. Ehrig was murdered at the hands of some unknown person or persons.

The question remained, who killed Fritz Ehrig and why. Was it the mystery man who Mr. Ehrig feared in his final weeks of life? Could he have encountered robbers on the way home? If robbery was the motive, why was Mr. Ehrig found with money, keys, and his watch still on his person? And finally, why did Mr. Ehrig walk east instead of west when leaving Thode & Landfeldt’s Saloon that night?

Years later, the mysterious death of Fritz Ehrig would once again make Davenport newspaper headlines. Only this time some secrets would be revealed. But would they be enough to bring a murder or murderers to justice?

Please visit our blog on October 31, 2017 for Part II.

(posted by Amy D.)

1868 – 1869 Root’s Davenport City Directory
Daily Gazette, October 7, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Davenport Democrat, October 8, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Gazette, October 8, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Gazette, October 9, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Davenport Democrat, October 11, 1869. Front Page.
Daily Gazette, October 11, 1869. Pg. 4.
Daily Gazette, October 13, 1869. Pg. 4.

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