A Death-Bed Murder Confession

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, June 17, 1934

A Death-Bed Murder Confession

By Howard Burba

 

     For seventeen long years everybody in Dayton wondered who killed pretty 18-year old Christine Kett.

     Then everybody found out—and forgot.  And for 50 years Dayton has been too busily engaged in attempting to solve other problems to keep this particular case in mind.  In other words, it you started out today to find someone who could tell you about the old Kett murder case from personal recollection you would find that you had tackled a difficult task.  Some few there are who recall it.  Even these will find memories of it somewhat hazy, so much has transpired within the 67 years since Christine Kett met a terrible death “at the hand of parties unknown” as the coroner said at the time

     Christine Kett was slain at a time when the whole nation was torn and bleeding after four years of vicious warfare.  Lee had surrendered and Lincoln had been assassinated but two years before.  Armless, legless men still wearing blood-stained uniforms of blue were numerous on Dayton streets.  The Civil war had been over but two brief years, and neither physical nor mental wounds had healed.  Tales of bloodshed had been told and retold for six tearful, trying years before Dayton was called to listen to the one concerning Christine Kett.  What could be more natural, then, that even a murder, committed in their own midst, should fail to impress the Daytonian of 1867 as strongly as it might have done had not the nation just emerged from a horrible war.

     On the cold and snowy afternoon of Jan. 11, 1867, neighbors of the family of Mrs. Christine Kett, residing on Oak st., were attracted by the screams of a youthful member of the family.  He appeared at their doors calling frantically to them to hurry to his home, that a terrible crime had been committed, that his sister, Christine, who at birth had been christened for her mother, was lying on the cellar steps of the Kett home, her head bashed in and blood besmearing her entire body. The lad was hysterical.  Neighbors doubted his story, yet hurried with him to the Kett home.  And just within the kitchen doorway a gruesome sight met their eyes.

     Lying across the top steps leading to the basement was the blood-soaked body of young Christine Kett.  In falling she had almost pitched headlong down the stairs, her head and shoulders hanging over the upper steps, the remainder of her body drawn up on the kitchen floor. Blood from a terrible wound in the head had coursed down the steps to the floor of the basement.  A fragment of her skull, matted with hair, could be seen near the bottom of the stairway.

     Physicians were called, though the little group of neighbors who stood by realized that life had long since left the body. Already the blood on the floor had become darkened.  It was apparent that crime had been committed some hours before the finding of the body.  Police had also been hurriedly summoned, and an immediate questioning of the girl’s brother, who had found the body, was commenced. He told how he had come home after having worked during the day for Dr. W. W. Webster.  There was no one in the house when he entered.  He passed through to the kitchen, and there made the discovery which sent him screaming for assistance.

     It was while the police were examining the body that Mrs. Christine Kett, mother of the girl, arrived at the house.  Noting the crowd congregated about the front door and in the yard, she instantly became hysterical, and roughly elbowed her way forward, apparently ignoring all attempts of her neighbors to extend sympathy and comfort.  She reached the kitchen, saw the mangled body of her daughter in a pool of blood—and her grief was pitiful.  She was finally pacified, and later on told of her movements during the day.  She had not seen her daughter, she stated, since early morning, and after a lunch at noon she had gone down town on a shopping tour, presuming the girl would return in time to look after the evening meal in the event she, the mother, should be detained.

     One of the neighbors, about this time, recalled seeing a suspicious stranger in the neighborhood during the morning.  Another suggested that he might have attacked the girl while she was alone in the house and, meeting with stubborn resistance since the girl was physically well proportioned and muscular, he had beaten her to death.

     But the appearance of a pistol, claimed by young Kett as his own, baffled the police.  The boy explained that he had not seen the gun since New Year’s night, when he fired it a few times, then separated stock and barrel, wrapped them in a woolen cloth and placed them in the bottom of his trunk.  There were small smears of powder on the girl’s cheeks.  These could not be accounted for, since there was no apparent bullet wound in her head or body, the wounds having beyond question been inflicted by a blunt instrument.

     Following the coroner’s examination, police arrested young Kett.  He succeeded in building up an alibi strong enough to warrant them in releasing him. A stranger who had been seen in the neighborhood was arrested.  He, too, succeeded in convincing authorities that he had at no time entered the Kett home, and that there could have been no possible motive on his part for committing such a crime.   So he was set at liberty and the police turned to other clews.

     In their attempt to solve the mystery they arrested a young man who had been keeping company with the girl and who was generally known in the community as her sweetheart.  Again a perfect alibi was established.  There was but one more person under suspicion—the mother.  Finally Mrs. Kett was taken into custody.  At police headquarters she told her story without a single deviation from the one she told a few moments after entering her home and viewing the dead body of her daughter.  She succeeded in securing her liberty, though neighbors were not fully convinced of her innocence.  They pointed out the quarrels between the mother and daughter had been frequent; that open threats by the mother had been heard on several occasions; that she was possessed of a violent temper and was physically capable of committing such a deed as now served to mystify the entire city.

     That was neighborhood gossip.  No one repeating it was in position to substantiate a single statement they made.  Police continued to run down every clew that might lead to a solution of the mystery.  The mother of the girl, apparently unable to reconcile herself to the tragedy, moved out west, and sought solace in a change of environment.  She was unable to find the comfort she sought, and after a few years returned to Dayton.

     Mrs. Kett lived on in Dayton until the year 1884.  In the meantime, citizens of Dayton had reached the conclusion that the mystery would never be solved.  At police headquarters the case had been filed away as an unsolved mystery, and no one anticipated as the records were filed that they would ever again be called forth from their pigeonhole.  For 17 years people wondered, at intervals, who really killed Christine Kett, and if the truth concerning the terrible crime would ever come out.

  And then on the 15th day of March, 1884, they had positive evidence of the truthfulness of the old maxim that “Murder will out.”  The murder of Christine Kett was made clear.

     That you may have the story just as Dayton citizens heard it 50 years ago, I have copied for you from the files of the old Dayton Daily Democrat the article detailing how all mystery concerning the murder of Christine Kett had been swept aside.  In its issue of March 16, 1884, the day following the actual solution of the mystery, The Democrat said:

     “The mystery surrounding the most horrible and fiendish murder which has ever been committed in this city. And which, at that time and ever since, has baffled the police, came to light yesterday by the deathbed confession of Mrs. Christine Kett, which was made to her youngest son, in which she acknowledged having committed the terrible crime 17 years ago.

     “That murder, which created wild excitement was after a most thorough investigation considered an unsolvable mystery which never would be revealed.  But ‘murder will out.’

     “That cruel mother, guilty of spilling her own daughter’s blood, has been leading a life of secret misery and torment, and could not go to her grave without relieving her guilty conscience.  Her death occurred last night and the confession was made just half an hour before she died.

“HISTORY OF THE CRIME

     “On the afternoon of Jan 11, 1867, at about 5 o’clock, the residents of this city were horrified to learn that the body of Miss Christine Kett, a bright, pretty German girl about 18 years of age, was found foully murdered at the residence of her parents on Oak st.

     “The discovery of the body was made by her brother, upon his return from the residence of Dr. W. W. Webster, for whom he was working at the time.  The girl was lying on the kitchen floor with her feet hanging down the cellarway and her body was covered with blood.  A revolver was found by her left side, and the right side of her head was terribly shattered.

     “Drs. Steele and Weis, who examined the body, found two gashes on the right side of the head, evidently made by some sharp instrument. Indications of powder were discovered on her face.  A piece of her skull was found in the cellar, and the room was splattered with blood and brains.

     “The pistol was recognized by her brother, who said it was his, but that he had not used it since New Year’s evening, and that after using it he had separated the barrel from the stock and placed it in a woolen rag in his trunk.  On looking for his powder flask, he found that it had been removed from where he had placed it, although it was still in the same cupboard.

     The girl bore an excellent reputation, had no troubles to vex her, and was of a lively and cheerful disposition.  The idea of suicide was, therefore, not probable.

“DR. H. K. STEELE’S STATEMENT

     “I examined the body of Christine Kett and found three distinct cuts on the right side of the head, two of them crossing each other at near right angles, and about four inches long each.  The cut commenced about one and one-half inches above the inner angle of the right eye, running back almost to the right ear, the other at right angles to it commencing near the top of the head.  The points of fracture of these cuts were burned with powder; pieces of the brains were scattered over the scalp, and the skull was fractured.  

     “The evidence of the discharge of powder proceeded obliquely forward and downward from its entrance toward the roof of the mouth.  I think the pistol must have been placed close to the head and the scalp wounds made by some sharp instrument, and from the amount of blood on the floor, she must have been killed before she was shot.  I do not think the pistol could have been used to make the cuts in the scalp.  She was not enceinte.

“HENRY K. STEELE, M.D.

     “Having assisted Dr. Steele, I fully concur I the statement made above.

“HENRY W. WEIS, M. D.

     “The police proceeded to work at once and attempted to unravel the mystery.  Marshal Hale spent several months in patient and exhaustive investigation of every rumor.  The slightest suspicion was examined into, but the more complete the examination, and the more the tragedy was pondered upon, the farther they seemed from solution.  Marshal Hale finally came to the conclusion the girl had killed herself.  He thought she had taken her brother’s gun to shoot rats in the cellar, had stumbled and set off the pistol, and when she fell, tumbled backwards so that she cut the gashes in her head.  The marshal thought he had struck the short-handled correct theory, and from then on practically abandoned the crime.

      “The house occupied by the Kett family had formerly been a brothel, and the family was often annoyed by persons who thought it to be of the same character still.  Another theory was that Christine was alone in the house when someone came, and she procured her brother’s pistol to defend herself.  A struggle ensued and the girl was killed.

     “However, none of these theories seemed to meet the case exactly and finally, upon the suspicion of the mother, a number of persons were arrested.  Among them were “Butch” Hughes, an acquaintance of the girl and well known in the city, the girl’s brother, and Anthony Goetz, a young man of excellent family and the young lady’s lover.

     “The crime, however, could not be placed on any of these and the murder remained a mystery until the confession of the mother.  She had never intimated to anyone her connection with the crime, but she was conscience-stricken and remorseful.  She left the house on Oak st. and moved to another quarter of the city.  Then she removed to Minnesota, and back again.  But she could find no peace.

     “Upon one occasion she became angry at her son and seizing him cried: ‘I have stained my hands with blood once, and I may do it again.’

     “For the past few months she has lived on Nassau st. next to her youngest son, and has been ill since Christmas. Toward the last she suffered an inflammation of the bowels, though her death was caused by a stroke of apoplexy.  At half past 12 last night, with death staring her in the face, Mrs. Kett summoned her son to her bedside and gave him the following confession:

     “On the morning of the tragic day her daughter and another lady left the house together.  She was baking bread and her daughter was to get the dinner at noon.  She did not arrive home until the middle of the afternoon, however, and when she returned Mrs. Kett became so enraged she seized a short-handled ax and hit her on the head.

     “The girl ran to the cellar door, but she was caught and fell on the spot.  After she saw that she had killed her daughter, she at once commenced to cover up her tracks.

     “She took her son’s revolver and powder flash, placed her daughter’s fingers in the flask, and smeared powder on her face.  Then she left the house and did not return until evening.

     “When she came back the house was full of people who broke the news of the foul murder to her.  She immediately pretended to be frantic with grief, and had a large number of persons arrested and charged with the murder.  She said that after she had committed the murder she regretted in exceedingly, and that the image of her daughter seemed to be haunting her wherever she went.

     “This confession was made to Mrs. Kett’s son, and she was careful that no one else was in the room when she made her disclosure. Just before her death, she charged her son not to reveal her confession until he was on his death bed. He intended to obey the dictates of his mother, but the thing weighted so heavily on his mind that yesterday he finally agreed to give the story to the Democrat reporter, as above.

     “Mrs. Kett was 64 at death, and had been married four times.  First to a man named Throm; then to Chris Fender, and then to John Kett.  Several years after the murder she was married to Louis Eisenstein. She lived but a very short time with the latter, as she was unable to get along with him.  Kett was a soldier and was killed during the war after two years’ service.”

     Conditions were different when Dayton people read that confession from what they were when they read the original story of the crime 17 years before.   War wounds had healed during the intervening years; visions of bloodshed and suffering were had at rarer intervals.  So there must have been, one would glean from reading between the lines of the old newspaper file, far more excitement over the death-bed confession of the mother who had buried her secret in the bosom for 17 years than there was over the crime itself.

     On the day following the publication of the confession, The Daily Democrat gave to Dayton citizens the final chapter in this unusual local tragedy.  It came in this brief article, found under a small heading on an inside page of the paper:

     “The confession of Mrs. Christine Kett, in which she acknowledged having murdered her 18-year-old daughter, Christine, with an ax 17 years ago, created a sensation when it appeared yesterday in the Dayton Democrat.    
     “There are hundreds of people who remember the tragedy perfectly.

     “Isaac Hale, marshal of Dayton at that time, says there was a strong suspicion that Mrs. Kett was guilty, and that her arrest was prevented only by her son, who stated that the young Christine was the only one who knew where he kept his revolver.

     “It appears that since the murder all the neighbors and German people generally, who were acquainted with Mrs. Kett were of the opinion that she murdered her daughter, and she was more or less excluded from their society.  There is a simple boy in the neighborhood, who upon meeting Mrs. Kett would say:

     “’You know you killed Christy, didn’t you now?’  This, although coming from a weak mind, indicates the tone of sentiment among people in that vicinity.

     “It is said that Mrs. Kett did not shed a tear at her daughter’s funeral, but stood like a stone at the grave while her pretty little girl was being lowered.  All the relatives expected a confession at her death, and many people were disappointed when, after the funeral, nothing was said of a confession.

     “Mrs. Kett is said to have been of sullen and almost vicious disposition of late years, while in appearance she had none of the gentleness peculiar to her sex.”