I was recently able to locate the information needed to confirm the truth of an old family legend: the case of our grandfather Wilhlem Schmidt and the Orchard Booby Trap. This case went all the way to the State Supreme Court and eventually to the Governor of the State of Wisconsin. In a strange coincidence, about one week from the writing of this blog will be the 100th anniversary of these events taking place.
On August 4th 1913, Wilhelm Schmidt visited his apple orchard and realized that the apples from two of his early trees had been stolen. He had his son Albert post the orchard with placards stating “No Trespassing”, and also put up signs saying that the apples had been poisoned in an attempt to keep thieves out [they had not been poisoned]. About two weeks later he returned to his orchard and found that more of his apples had been stolen. He was, by his own admission, very angry about this. He went home and procured an old Army musket and set it up with a trip wire near a downed portion of the fence surrounding the orchard.
The mechanism of this trap was described in the court notes:
“The evidence shows that the defendant affixed a gun to stakes in his orchard loaded with powder and No. 3 shot, cocked, with a wire attached to the trigger of the gun, running back over a spool and then extending along in range with the barrel of the gun and for some distance in front of the muzzle and about eight inches from the ground, so that contact with the wire would be likely to discharge the contents of the gun against any person coming in contact with the wire. The gun was partly concealed where it was set by means of three old wash boilers set up at the sides and above.”
He then went to a farm near the orchard and told this neighbor about the gun in the orchard. He told the neighbor to inform anyone in the area to avoid the orchard because it was dangerous. He then went to the saloon he co-owned at the time and told the patrons he had set a gun in his orchard and that they should tell everyone to keep away.
Wilhelm later testified that the shotgun was set up merely to scare any potential apple thieves out of the orchard, not to kill anyone. This claim is reinforced by the fact that the gun was set to fire into the ground, that he had posted signs that the orchard was dangerous, and that he had warned neighbors and other community members about the gun in an attempt to keep people from going in the orchard.
On August 24th, 1913, about noon, a 17-year-old named George Kramer (b Mar 1896 in Illinois), who also lived in Weston, Wisconsin, was riding past the Schmidt family property with a younger brother and two other friends, Otto Habeck and Anton Kulpinski. [Note: Anton Kulpinski’s son Edwin actually married Helen Schmidt, who was Wilhelm Schmidt’s grand-daughter.]
The boys stopped their bicycles and went into the Schmidt family orchard to take apples from the ground under the trees there. While he was picking up apples, George saw the trip wire and lifted it up. This pulled the wire which was connected to the trigger:
“[He] received a large share of the contents of said loaded gun in his left thigh between the knee and the hip and in his left arm, above and below the elbow, and thereby he was seriously wounded…”
I spoke with George’s nephew Alvin Kramer who had some additional details:
“He was picking up apples when he saw a wire running along the ground. He thought he could take the wire with him and use it to snare rabbits or whatever. It looked like snare wire. So he grabbed it and that’s when the gun went off.”
Evidence presented in the trial strongly suggests that the gun was set up to wound, not to kill. I think the reason George was so badly hurt was that he crouched down to pick up the wire, putting himself directly into the blast that would normally have just struck his lower legs if he’d tripped over the wire as intended. Instead, he received the full blast in his arm, hip, and thigh. George was gravely injured by the shotgun blast. The papers reported that “[his] arm was paralyzed and the hip shattered to such an extent [that] grave doubts of his recovery are entertained.”
George was taken to Wausau Hospital where he was treated and eventually released to go home. William was charged with “malicious shooting” and freed on bail pending George’s recovery from his wounds. Unfortunately, two-and-a-half months later on November 4th, George died.
A coroner’s inquest was held to determine if George had died from the shooting wounds or from something else.
It was determined that he had died from complications from the shooting. Specifically, some shot had been missed and had likely carried bits of George’s clothing inside his body where it became infected. This infection spread to his blood [sepsis], which eventually caused his death despite last-minute surgery to try to save him.
George’s body was returned home to his family and after a funeral ceremony he was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Wausau in Plot 20.
Following the death, William was brought into court. His “malicious shooting” charge was dropped and he was immediately charged with 1st degree murder on the spot.
The trial took place in late February of 1914. Scans of the actual articles concerning the trial itself can be found in this blog. William was represented by the law firm of [Neal] Brown, [Louis A.] Pradt, and [Frederick W.] Genrich. [Trivia: Louis Pradt went on to become an assistant-attorney general of the United States under president McKinley.] The jury was instructed to decide between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or second-degree manslaughter.
William’s lawyers argued that he had set the gun only with the intent of scaring the boys out of his orchard, not to harm anyone. They also argued that, since George died 2.5 months after the shooting and he had been treated and released by the General Hospital, medical malpractice of some kind had been the main reason he died.
The prosecuting attorneys argued that William had shown “malice, deliberation, depravity of mind evincing disregard for human life, and intent to injure whoever would enter the orchard for the purpose of stealing apples.”
On the 28th of February Wilhelm was convicted by the jury of second degree murder and was sentenced to 14 years in the state prison.
He arrived in Waupun Prison just five days later on the 5th of March, 1914. He turned over his wedding ring as his only possession, and began his sentence.
Just after the trial one of the jurors received a threatening letter “in poor German handwriting” demanding that Wilhelm be set free or the juror would have his store “blown up”:
There was a motion for a new trial that was denied in March of 1914. An appeal was then filed stating that the trial should be overturned because of procedural errors, but the State Supreme Court found, in November of 1914 (Schmidt vs State, 159 Wis. 15), that no errors had been made. The sentence was upheld by majority opinion.
Justice J. Timlin, writing the dissenting opinion, argued that the statute against such “set guns” (sec. 4394) could be interpreted to apply to the Schmidt case since it had been set to protect crops. If what William had done was covered under that statute then William should receive a sentence for second-degree manslaughter, not murder. He also was uncomfortable with the directions given to the jury noting that the jury were essentially directed to find William guilty. The majority found that the statute did not apply, that the jury instructions were not improper, and that the stronger sentence was appropriate. [Trivia: The case is considered significant because it set a precedent for the legal definition of the phrase “or any other purpose”.]
A motion was made in October of 1915 asking that William be pardoned by governor Emanuel L. Philipp.
The result of this motion was recorded in the Proceedings of the Wisconsin State Legislature for 1917:
“William Schmidt – Convicted before the circuit court for Marathon county, on the twenty-eighth day of February, 1914, of the crime of murder in the second degree and sentenced to the Wisconsin state prison for the term of fourteen years. On October 14, 1915, sentence was commuted to ten years, for the reason that it was proven that Schmidt had no intention of committing a crime. He was charged with having set a set gun in his orchard for the protection of his fruit. On December 14, 1916, the case was reopened and a further commutation to nine years was granted, for the reason that physical condition of Schmidt is in such a condition as to demand medical attention. This commutation makes him eligible for parole in the near future.”
Wilhelm was eventually paroled on the 2nd of June, 1919, almost five and a half years after he was imprisoned. His final release was effected on July 22nd, 1919. He was finally able to return home to his wife and four sons and try to resume his life.
I was shocked to discover that this family legend was true, especially since the details as passed down to me by my grandmother were almost 100% accurate. I had a difficult time processing all the events, thinking about how hard it would have been for my family living in such a small town. All the whispers and gossip, and the things people would have said and thought about my grandfather being imprisoned for the murder of a local boy that everyone probably knew. It must have been incredibly hard on all of the Schmidts who were alive at that point. In fact, I feel this explains a lot of things about how my family acted and how “insular” they were in their living situation. I think they circled the wagons and moved on as best they could from that point on.
It had to have been tragic for such a small community to deal with the death of a 17-year-old boy who died because he wanted an apple during a bike ride. It must have seemed so senseless and unnecessary. I’m sure his family was devastated. I’m sure the Schmidts were also. George’s nephew told me:
“George’s mother kept the pants he was wearing the day of the accident. They were wool pants and they had these holes in them… bullet holes… holes from the… I guess it was buckshot. You could see the holes from his hip down the leg. When she died, my grandmother gave my mother those pants. My mother didn’t like the idea of keeping them around, so she burned them.”
The incident was also, obviously, very hard on my great-great-grandfather. I can’t pretend to know what his thoughts were, but I have a hard time believing that he imagined that a 17-year old boy would be killed by his contraption. As a result, he had to go to Waupun for several years in a time when things were probably pretty grim there. Clearly his health declined since his sentence was commuted to allow him to get medical treatment. He died in 1925 from stomach cancer at the age of only 62. The incident, trial, and prison sentence became only a whispered rumor that not everyone in my family had even known about.
Setting aside my personal feelings, as a genealogist I see a wealth of paths forward here to find even more information about Wilhelm Schmidt. I’m hoping to find more information from the court system, and potentially find notes from his lawyer which might have statements from Wilhelm himself.