How did one of Indiana’s pioneer investigators into STDs and rabies come to a gory end? The mystery of Dr. Helen Knabe’s death remains one of the great cold cases in Indianapolis murder history. So, too, are the whereabouts of her spirit in the afterlife. Did she really become a ghost lingering around the Athenaeum — or as it was called in her days, Das Deutsche Haus?
The sad tale of the doctor’s demise, which begins one autumn night barely a hundred years ago, is still occasionally told on the local ghost-lore circuit.
Future Indiana state bacteriologist Helen Knabe (pronounced k-NA-ba) was born December 22, 1875, on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. Her birthplace, known as Rügenwalde in German, was a popular seaside resort. After World War II, Rügenwalde, once Prussian, became part of Poland again and took the Polish name Darłowo. Helen’s father, a Prussian civil engineer, built bridges in Baltic seaports. Growing up on the wooded seacoast, Helen developed a love of nature and German literature during long walks. As she later put it, “One who has spent [her] youth near a large body of water will always love the water most of all, and I am no exception to the rule.”
Her decision to emigrate to more-or-less landlocked Indiana, then, is surprising. Women, she claimed, were not allowed into the professional practice of medicine in Germany. American women were just breaking into the profession. And at the time, Midwestern cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Milwaukee were some of the largest German-speaking communities in the world. Kurt Vonnegut, speaking about the year of his birth (1922), even described the Midwest as Central Europe in miniature: “One could almost say that Chicago was our Vienna, Indianapolis our Prague, Cincinnati our Budapest and Cleveland our Bucharest.”
Helen already had two relatives living in Indy. Her cousin Augusta Knabe had emigrated in 1884. Then there was Augusta’s stepfather, Franz Kropp. Born in 1845, Kropp appears to have been a former sailor from the German port of Bremen. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1867. In 1900, Kropp was employed as a laborer at a veneer works in Indianapolis, probably the Capital Machine Company on South Pennsylvania Street. His stepdaughter, who lived with him at 1151 Bates Street on the Near East Side, taught German in a public high school. Helene shows up on the 1900 U.S. census as a boarder living in their home, along with Franz’s 22-year-old son Carl.
The aspiring young immigrant enrolled in pathology courses at Butler College in Irvington, then earned her M.D. from Indiana Medical College in 1904. Situated directly across from the State House on Senate Avenue, at the turn of the century this forerunner to IUPUI’s med school was caught up — like its neighbor, the Central College of Physicians & Surgeons — in a grave-robbing scandal. It’s possible that Helen participated in dissections of illegally acquired corpses, nabbed on the sly from Hoosier cemeteries.
At a time when women were first breaking into the medicine, Dr. Helen Knabe was a trailblazing local medical pioneer. First serving as curator of Butler’s defunct Pathology Museum, she quickly rose to be supervisor of the pathology lab at Indiana Medical College, a professor of pathology, and deputy state health officer. In October 1905 she was appointed assistant pathologist at the Indiana State Laboratory of Hygiene — the first woman ever to hold that position. Two years later, at age 32, she became Acting Superintendent. Dr. Knabe contributed to the study of ailments like spinal anesthesia and typhoid fever and did research on bacteriology.
She was also the recognized local expert on rapid diagnosis of rabies, a horrific disease still “treated” largely by use of madstones, a holdover from folk medical practices. Since rabies is guaranteed to kill once symptoms appear, Dr. Knabe’s improved method of quickly diagnosing its presence in dogs, cats, livestock and humans was critical. As historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who knew her, wrote in his monumental History of Greater Indianapolis, “the system, effective above all previous methods, was introduced in Indiana by Dr. Knabe… Thereafter the heads of dogs suspected of rabies were accepted at the state laboratory of hygiene and by her examination of the same Dr. Knabe proved, by scientific methods, the widespread existence of this infectious disease in the state of Indiana.” She also helped administer the “Pasteur treatment,” the rabies vaccine developed by French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1885. Dr. Knabe’s fierce advocacy of muzzling all dogs in Indiana for two years in order to totally wipe out rabies is thought to have earned her enemies.
So did another public hygiene cause she took up — the prevention, diagnosis and cure of sexually-transmitted diseases. A colleague of hers suggested this might even have led to her grisly murder in 1911. Dunn, writing in 1910, makes no mention of her interest in STDs, which wouldn’t have been openly discussed in his fawning account of Indianapolis. Only after her murder did newspapers and women’s organizations begin to ask questions about the possible connection between her campaign public health officer, the threat to women’s safety from “perverts” (men who visited houses of prostitution), and her mysterious death.
On the night of October 24, 1911, Dr. Knabe went home to her apartment at the Delaware Flats at the corner of Delaware and Michigan Streets. (Today this is the Salvation Army’s Barton Center.) Knabe, who lived on the ground floor, was said to always sleep with her window open for better air — though the following morning her windows were found shut. There were two floors above her. An African American janitor, Jefferson Haynes, lived with his daughter and a housekeeper, Mrs. Fannie Winston, in the basement.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Haynes told police, he heard three screams, then footsteps. He decided not to investigate. The horrible discovery of what happened that night came when Katherine McPherson, Dr. Knabe’s office assistant, came in the morning. Going into the bedroom, McPherson found her colleague lying on a blood-soaked mattress, her throat cut “from ear to ear” –“a wound known to butchers as the ‘sheep neck,'” it was reported, supposedly indicative of the work of a surgeon or veterinarian, since the cut was meant to minimize the escape of blood. Helen Knabe was just 35 years old.
Newspapers and gossip exaggerated some of the details. The Huntington Herald‘s headlin — “found with her head nearly severed from her body” — wasn’t quite accurate. In addition to her fatal neck wound, she had been bruised on her thigh, suggesting she had struggled. Amazingly, while the coroner declared the cause of death to be murder, many police detectives held to the theory that she’d cut her own neck. The fact that no knife could be found wasn’t a obstacle: McPherson and family members waited over an hour to call the police. Many people had come in and out of the room.
Apart from the common suspicion of a “crazed negro,” no immediate motive was obvious. Jefferson Haynes was detained, but police found no incriminatory evidence against him. Over the next few weeks, friends — including, oddly, a veterinarian from Rushville who examined Knabe’s remains — spouted a plethora of theories.
One of the more ridiculous was that it was simply “suicide season.” In 1922, the Indianapolis News ran a “retro” crime piece about the city’s unsolved murders. It mentioned the strange fact — superficially borne out by the IPD’s “murder book” — that unsolved homicides “have usually occurred when the frost is beginning to bite.” How this squares away with “suicide weather” would take a little more logic to figure out…
A surprising number of IPD detectives, though not all, endorsed the absurd suicide theory. Levi Louderback, a detective for the Vandalia Railroad, was slightly less nonsensical when he suggested that a “monomaniac” — an old psychiatric term for somebody obsessed with one thing — killed Helen Knabe. Louderback gave details about “monomaniacs” sometimes become obsessed with things like stealing women’s shoes, implying that a man with a some type of fetish might have been the murderer. Yet other than a bloody silk kimono, nothing from Knabe’s apartment was reported missing. While there were also no public reports that she had been raped, words like “monomaniac” could be interpreted as thinly-veiled euphemisms for a rapist.
Dr. Mary E. Ash, a colleague, had a plausible, if scandalous, theory. Three days after the murder, Ash’s explanation was reported in the small-town Brazil Daily Times. Knabe, she thought, wielding a microscope, might have been killed for providing evidence of men’s extramarital affairs and their visits to prostitutes. After all, this was a time when women’s groups were helping shut down Indiana’s once-thriving red light districts. Ash’s theory seems not to have been taken seriously by Marion County investigators — for reasons, maybe, that are just too apparent.
The IPD’s apparent willingness to blow off this murder case angered Indianapolis women. With no progress made toward finding a culprit, the Local Council of Women, meeting at the Propylaeum on the Old Northside in December, started a private fundraising campaign to keep the investigation going. After this Jack the Ripper-style murder, women were scared. The Indianapolis News cited the touching story of a mother who was putting her son to bed. This was told by Margaret Hamilton, principal of Benjamin Harrison School:
“There is a feeling of fear among women and children,” she said, “A mother told me her little boy kissed her good night and said to her: ‘I hope no one will kill you in the night, mother.'” … Do you wish to live in such a community?” she asked. “Dr. Knabe was a woman who was self-respecting, and who lived not for herself, and should we say “how shocking” and do nothing? She left no kinsmen and no money, and we should apprehend the guilty one.”
With the money they raised, the women’s group was able to hire a private detective, Harry C. Webster.
One other woman — 19-year-old Ruth Campbell — offered her own fascinating story about the night of the Knabe murder. Ruth Campbell had previously lived in the Delaware Flats, then moved down to the Marina Flats at the corner of Alabama and North Streets, a few blocks away. (Today this is the Murat Theater’s parking lot.) That night, perhaps at the exact moment that Knabe was being killed, Ruth had a terrifying dream “where she saw a similar tragedy enacted.”
In dream science and spiritualism, these are known as clairvoyant or precognitive dreams. There are thousands of well-documented example over the centuries. In Campbell’s precognitive dream, she saw a female, aged between 30 and 35, hanging from a rope. The dead woman also appeared to have had her throat cut, since blood flowed out around the noose. If Campbell didn’t just make the story up, the coincidence is amazing at the very least, since even though “Mrs. Campbell does not remember ever having seen Dr. Knabe,” when she saw a photograph of Knabe the following day, Ruth recognized her as the hanged woman in her disturbing dream.
Dreams, of course, can give amazing insight into the waking world. Robert Louis Stevenson, after all, got the idea for his classic of medical crime fiction — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — from a powerful dream of his own.
Other odd twists in the tale followed. In early April 1912, just two weeks before the Titanic went down, a culprit was finally brought in. This was a 22-year-old sailor, Seth Nichols. Arrested in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for threatening a bartender with a pistol, Nichols had been arrested on a concealed weapons charge. He then volunteered that he’d been in New York in 1911, where somebody — he claimed — paid him $1,500 to go to Indianapolis to slit the throat of Helen Knabe. His mystery “boss” joined him in Indiana on the night of October 24, though Nichols claimed to have personally done the killing. Indianapolis police were skeptical. Nichols did, in fact, have a sister living in Indy. But he was also shown to have been a deserter from the cruiser U.S.S. Dixie. The police decided that he was concocting an elaborate tale.
Another dead-end story was about a “German revolutionist” who got into hot political arguments with Knabe, perhaps at Das Deutsche Haus, the German cultural center now called the Athanaeum and the Rathskeller. This lead, too, led nowhere.
The year 1912 led to a more promising — and sensational — arrest: that of Dr. William B. Craig and an undertaker, Alonzo M. Ragsdale. This twist, too, had strange details.
Dr. Craig was a 40-year-old Scottish immigrant and widower with a young daughter. He was also president of Indiana Veterinary College in Shelbyville. In December 1912, Craig was ordered to appear in court in Henry County on $15,000 bond. It had became clear that Dr. Knabe and Dr. Craig had had a turbulent romantic relationship. The two were said to have taken unchaperoned auto rides together. She insisted on marrying him. He refused. “A bitter quarrel” ensued. Craig sought to end something “that had become objectionable to him.” He abandoned her for a woman in Avon.
Alonzo Ragsdale was the undertaker who removed Knabe’s body from her apartment. He got indicted for having possession of the bloody silk kimono she was said to have worn on the night of her death. The suspicion was that Craig had paid him to remove it from the apartment.
Harry Webster, private eye, pressed the case that “sheep neck” wound bore all the skillful marks of a veterinarian, not an ordinary street criminal. This pointed to Craig.
Yet Webster finally had to admit that evidence against Craig and Ragsdale were circumstantial. Both men were acquitted in 1913.
Helen Knabe’s death remains officially unsolved. Yet speculative theories didn’t stop pouring in. After the Indianapolis Times ran a “retro” piece in the 1950s, Indianapolis journalist Donna Mikels Shea dug into this case many years later. Shea reported having a conversation with Ian Frasier, a retired art professor from Herron Art School, who had his own theory: Dr. Knabe was “bumped off” for carrying on a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old Indianapolis girl. That girl turned out to be no less than the future novelist, war correspondent, and friend of Ernest Hemingway, Janet Flanner. Flanner, in Frasier’s theory, was “immediately whisked away to Europe.”
There’s one more equally unsolved mystery. Does Helen Knabe’s ghost lurk around the Athanaeum? Paranormal investigators and leaders of ghost tours have made this claim, but it’s hard to vouch for. The Athenaeum wasn’t the site of her death. Equally elusive is a claim that part of the old building was once used as a dissection room for an area medical college. During the heyday of the German Turners (an organization of gymnasts and freethinkers), students from the Normal College of the North American Gymnastics Union took courses in various subjects in different buildings around town. Anatomy classes would have been typically held at Indiana Medical College, but an undocumented story has it that dissections were occasionally held in an auditorium at the Athenaeum.
This is a mystery. But if there were any female anatomy instructors there, chances are, Helen Knabe was one of them.
Her own remains were buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.