- German Americans, Nativism, and the Tragedy of Paul Schoeppe, 1869–1872
The history of this “Schoeppe case” ought to be written and published….
The facts are familiar, but they should be put on record in historical form.—New York Observer and Chronicle, July 8, 1875
On January 28, 1869, Maria Steinecke, an unmarried, wealthy woman in her late sixties, died in her room in Mr. Burkholder’s hotel in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Steinecke, a native of Carlisle but resident of Baltimore, was in town to see Dr. Paul Schoeppe, a German physician in his late twenties, who had been in Carlisle for less than nine months. Steinecke had met Schoeppe in 1868, when, on a visit to her hometown, she consulted him for medical advice. Their relationship soon grew more intimate, and over the fall and winter of 1868 and 1869, Steinecke began to pay frequent visits to Carlisle and to Schoeppe. She was under his medical care when she suddenly died.
Her death did not initially arouse suspicions of foul play. However, it was not long before rumors began to circulate that Schoeppe may have had something to do with her demise. Steinecke was wealthy; her will specified that she leave her fortune of about $40,000 to a number of charities and a few relatives and friends. What raised suspicion was that soon after her death Schoeppe produced another will, which left the entire estate to himself and made him the sole executor. Steinecke’s signature on the short and clumsily written document looked nothing like those written on her other papers. The two witnesses who had cosigned the new will, moreover, were Schoeppe and his father, a Lutheran pastor serving a German congregation in Carlisle. It seemed as though either Schoeppe had duped the elderly woman into leaving everything to him, or he had forged the document altogether. When he refused to have her body disinterred and examined at his own expense in order to clear his name, the local authorities arrested the young physician and ordered the exhumation themselves.1
Parts of the victim’s intestines were sent for examination to William P. A. Aiken, a physician and professor of chemistry at the University at Maryland Medical School in Baltimore. By the time Aiken received the stomach, Steinecke had been dead for two weeks, making a detection of a number of poisons and medicine highly unlikely. Indeed, Aiken could [End Page 97] not find any evidence of morphine, which Schoeppe was believed to have administered to the victim. He claimed, however, to have detected a small trace of prussic acid, now better known as hydrogen cyanide, an extremely poisonous substance. The prosecution combined Aiken’s testimony with circumstantial evidence and an apparent motive—the prospect of a considerable bequest—to support a charge of murder in the first degree.2 The trial commenced on May 21; within two weeks Schoeppe was found guilty. In August 1869, after a motion for a new trial was denied, the young physician was sentenced to death. Paul Schoeppe’s trial was, as a Cincinnati daily later observed, “one of the most interesting cases that has been before the public for many years.”3
The young German immigrant’s trial, conviction, and subsequent struggle to preserve his life captivated the nation for several years, in large part because Schoeppe found allies in two powerful and outspoken communities: the medical profession and German Americans. Stunned by the news that a medical doctor was found guilty of murdering a patient under his care, the medical community took up Schoeppe’s cause first. Beginning in the summer of 1869, physicians and scientists from around the nation held meetings, launched scientific investigations, and issued reports that not only attacked Aiken’s conclusions but also raised more general questions about the reliability of medical forensics in criminal cases.4 For example, a group of leading medical professionals that gathered at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia published a detailed Medico-Legal Report, in which it argued, “There is much reason to believe that Steinecke died a natural death … and very little reason to believe that she died of any kind of poison.”5 The...