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When "Kayser the Miser" Shuffled Off

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, June 28, 1931



By Howard Burba


     People have a way of forgetting.  Take the best-known character in the city of Dayton today; someone who is known on sight to every man, woman and child in the city; someone whose appearance on the down-town streets is as common as a street car. Forty years from now you’ll have to search with a fine-tooth comb to locate someone who can recall him.  That explains why history is so interesting.

     It was that way with old “Kayser the Miser.”  Fifty or sixty years ago he was a youthful city’s best-known character, and furnished a goodly part of the population with its daily smile.  Forty years ago he died.  Today you can find, if you have lots of time and plenty of patience, gray-haired men who recall him as one of their boyhood memories.  And when they do recall him they’ll probably exclaim:  “Why I hadn’t thought of him in 40 years!”

     As I get the story of old “Kayser the Miser,” for that was the appellation by which he was known to youngsters and grownups alike 40 or 50 years ago, he was the town scavenger.  Anything that nobody else wanted or would have was the very thing old Kayser retrieved and carried home.  The city dump—and there was one in those days where beautiful Riverview Park is now located—was his choicest hunting grounds.  Here he was to be seen every day, fair weather or foul, for a quarter of a century.  Some even went so far as to assert that his ghost haunted the old “dump” for long years after “Kayser the Miser” had passed out of the picture.

     Kayser was born in Germany, in 1812.  Aside from that, his life was a closed book.  No one in Dayton ever took the trouble to recall when he came to this part of the world or why.  He spent years gathering junk and garbage before he really became classified as a unique character, and an object of interest locally.  Dayton just woke up one morning to find old “Kayser the Miser” driving a dilapidated old wagon, to which was hitched a horse in keeping.  The wagon had been patched to the point where no semblance of its original appearance was distinguishable.  The horse had, from all accounts, accepted its place in life as philosophically as its owner.  The outfit as a whole, consisting of the bony old horse, the dilapidated old wagon, the silent old man and his imbecile son, Oscar, became the most familiar picture that daily passed before the eyes of local people.

     For years Kayser, with his wife, a daughter and the imbecile son, lived in a little house on Cass st., near Wayne av.  There was a sort of shed-like stable at the alley end of the lot, and here Kayser kept his horse, his wagon, and two or three cows.  These he maintained on the daily accumulation of garbage which he gathered as he drove through the alleys and across the dumps.  If the horse ever enjoyed a measure of oats or a fork of hay, no one ever felt sure enough of the fact to chronicle it in Kayser’s history.

     The horse, the imbecile son, the wagon and its “slop” barrels and the gruff, unspeaking driver were inseparable companions.  Out of the garbage cans of his fellow-townsmen he mined a fortune.  What others threw away he turned to profit.  Yet he trusted no bank with the profits of his thrift.

     Just as he had become a town character, so his residence became a shrine for the curious.  After a few years of salvaging bottles and jugs, hats and shoes, and objects of every description, the Kayser barn became so overrun with junk there hardly remained a place for the cows and the horse.  He built a second structure—out of lumber and nails he had salvaged.  The tin roof that covered it came from the same source.  This, too, becoming filled, still another outhouse was hammered together.  When he died there were five of these outhouses, in addition to the barn, and every one of them crammed to the roof with junk.  The whole represented almost a quarter of a century of scavenger work in practically every foot of the city.

     He sold some of his junk, though just how much neighbors never seemed able to estimate.  They did know that he had a dime handy whenever he wanted a drink of liquor—and that, it has been claimed—was quite often.  It was his wife and daughter who looked after the cows, and also after the money that accrued from the milk and butter which they marketed.  That there was money coming into the Kayser exchequer from some source there could be no doubt, since his daughter made several trips to the parental birthplace in Germany.  In fact, she had just returned from a trip abroad a few weeks before her father, with no more sheds to hold his junk, went into one of them and hanged himself.

     The exact date of old Kayser’s departure from his accustomed haunts is set down by local newspaper files as high noon of Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1892.  That it was an event of more than passing interest from a news standpoint is evidenced by the fact that announcement of the event occupied the first column of the first page of The Evening News, the heading itself extending down for a distance of half a column and reading as follows:

ENDED!  The Wretched Close of a Miserable Life---Fritz Kayser, the Miser, Shuffles Off This Mortal Coil

He Hangs Himself With a Cotton Rope in One of His Many Outhouses—Although Worth Thousands of Dollars He Loved to Live In Squalor.—After a Life of Eighty Years, Most Of It Spent In Amassing Wealth, He Commits Suicide.—A Quarrel With the Daughter, Whom He Had Educated In Germany, Causes Him to Compass His Own Destruction.—A Curious Multitude Visits the Wonderful and Curious Shop in Which He Lived.  Suicide Frequently Threatened by Deceased—the Aged Slop Cart Driver’s Strange Collection of Odds and Ends.

     “Kayser the Miser is dead!

     “A life spent in saving money and getting money at the price of every comfort and every refinement is ended!

     “Old Kayser was an example of how wretchedly a man can live even when possessed of thousands.

     “The neighbors say the family quarrelled frequently.  However this may be, it is certain that after a family row at noon today he deliberately went into one of the five out-houses on his lot and hanged himself with a cotton rope to a rafter.  He was even sparing in the size and amount of the rope, and only used enough for his deadly purpose.  The rope was cut in pieces and preserved as relics by the curiosity seekers.

     “The son, Oscar, found his father and notified his sister.  Soon the neighborhood was alarmed.  The police appeared on the scene, Sergt. Keller and Officer Merkle, arrived in a few minutes and Dr. Meyers, the coroner, and Dr. Schiebenzuber, were called.  The coroner cut the suicide down and the body was laid in the front room of the old curiosity shop, which he had made his home for years past.

     “The family had just finished their dinner.  Kayser told his daughter Lizzie, that he was going down on Fifth st. to attend to some business.

     “Kayser had been drinking considerably during the morning, which made him use very rough language.

     “She said: ‘Now father, you had better not go down there for you know you will get sick.’  He said: ‘I do not have to be bossed!  I am going to shorten my life.’  Going toward the stable he secured a long plank.  His son and daughter thought he just wanted to scare them, as he had done on several former occasions by making such threats.

     “His daughter then went to the house and commenced clearing up the dinner dishes.  After awhile she asked her brother, Oscar, who was sitting in the room where his father went to.

     “Oscar then went to the barn and saw the pitiful sight of his father hanging with a rope around his neck, dead.  He went into the house and said: ‘Why, Liz, papa is dead.’  She immediately went to the barn and found that her father had meant what he said.  She gave the alarm, and in a short time the yard was filled with people from all parts of the neighborhood.

    “Coroner Meyers cut the rope and with the assistance of some neighboring men they carried him into the front room.”

     Then began such a ransacking such as few if any other Dayton home ever has undergone.  The daughter, believing that her father had concealed money somewhere in the junk which had accumulated over the years, found it necessary to call for police protection until she could investigate.  Curiosity seekers from all parts of town found their way to the house in which were curios of every description, though all of them practically worthless. Never before had such a display of junk greeted human eyes in this part of the country.

     The daughter failed, however, in her search for hidden wealth.  Yet she was far from penniless, since it developed a little later that “Kayser the Miser” had really placed more faith in his native land than in the land of his adoption, since he had invested in realty in and around Berlin.  Later investigation showed the property abroad to be worth something like $100,000.  It consisted of about 12 houses and two business blocks.

     Commenting on the crowd that quickly gathered about the premises, and the difficulty experienced by Officers Keller, Merkle and Boes in keeping them from running rampant over the place, the newspaper of that date said:

     “After the news had spread throughout the neighborhood that Kayser had hung himself a considerable crowd of curious people gathered around the house and seized the opportunity to make a tour of inspection of the premises.

     “The yard is literally full of the most wonderful collection of old rubbish ever seen in one spot at one time.  Certainly old Kayser was a picker-up of trifles.  He had no less than five out-houses of different sizes and shapes in the yard in which were stored rags, old bottles, old shoes, broken chinaware and, in fact, everything that is generally relegated by careful housewives to the junk heap.

     “The house was no less a curiosity than the yard and out-buildings.  The rooms were crowded with all manner of curiosities, and it seemed positively certain that Kayser never threw anything away.  By his gathering propensities he amassed a considerable fortune, and owned considerable real estate here in Dayton, as well as at least $100,000 worth in Germany.  It is also stated on good authority that he owns a flouring mill and other business property in Sweden.  All together this property is supposed to be worth by the most conservative estimate at least $200,000.  Some people contend he is worth half a million.  Although possessing so much wealth it did him no good; for he was never seen in any other dress than his accustomed rags.

     “He lived in filth and squalor; he dared disease in microbe-breeding nastiness and rarely seemed to suffer from contact with the dirt.  Cleanliness of person or his surroundings was an impossibility in such an occupation and he must have been possessed with an insane desire to collect slop. For even after his fortune was sufficient to enable him to live comfortably and in cleanliness he refused to be parted from his dirt and discomfort.

     “Old Kayser’s real estate alone was assessed for taxes at $29,593, and is worth twice that sum, or at least $60,000.  He owned the lot at the northwest corner of Fifth and Wayne; the lot at the northeast corner of Fifth and Walnut; a corner lot at Wayne av. and Eagle st., besides five other lots on Wayne av., two lots on Cass st., and 15 acres of fertile land in Harrison tp.

     “The great question now seems to be how will the old fellow’s collection of junk be disposed of?

     “The Humane Society should look after Kayser’s cows.  They are three in number, and there is a small calf.  They are penned up in a tight, stuffy little stall, and must positively be in suffering to be so imprisoned.  It would nauseate the strongest-stomached man to enter the place.”

     For days following the suicide a detail of police was on duty about the place on Cass st., fending off  the curious and the souvenir hounds.

     And then one day the city sent out all of its available garbage wagons.  In a few hours the treasured collection that “Kayser the Miser” had been long years in accumulating had been restored to the place from whence a large part of it had come—the city dump.