Q: Do you have information on Edgar Washington McKenzie and Amy P. McKenzie who lived at 137 S. Douglas Ave. in Belleville and died Aug. 13, 1949, and Aug. 15, 1949, respectively? The family folklore is that it was a murder-suicide.
Karl Leiber, of St. Charles, Mo.
A: If only it were just fanciful folklore. An urban legend. A macabre family in-joke.
Instead, readers opened their local papers on Aug. 15, 1949, to find blood-curdling details of one of the most gruesome family tragedies in Belleville history.
Banner headlines in the News-Democrat read “Mrs. McKenzie Fights for Life: General Hauler Slugs Wife in Basement, Then Hangs Self.” The lead picture in the Daily Advocate showed Belleville Police Department Cpl. Andrew Kirkwood examining the the 2-pound sledgehammer Edgar had used to batter his wife and the rope he then employed for his own noose.
And to think it had started out — on the surface, at least — as just another “Ozzie and Harriet” kind of Saturday in the quiet east end neighborhood.
Ruth Humphrey, one of the couple’s two daughters, had arrived home earlier to wrap up her summer vacation before she would have to start another year of teaching in Zion.
“Mother had baked a cake because I was home,” said Ruth, 31, who had completed a short summer course at Normal University. “My father had been working out in the yard and tidying up everything.”
Her 17-year-old brother, Homer — with help from his father — had spent the afternoon cleaning and greasing his motor scooter. Then, he left for work at the nearby Green Teapot at 1002 E. Main St.
Their other daughter, Ethel Schonder, also had checked in and thought everything was normal. That morning she had found her dad in “excellent spirits” when he had moved a piano to her home on South Fifth Street.
“I talked to mother over the telephone about an hour before this happened,” she said. “She was in good spirits. We had made plans for a family gathering at our home on Sunday.”
Both daughters told the papers their father was quick-tempered and frequently became angry for brief periods but “he never carried any grudges,” Ruth said. “He was very, very good to mother and the children.”
But at a coroner’s inquest two days later, Ruth would tell how she had to beg for own life that day and that her father thought that when people became old and sick they should die rather than be a burden upon their children.
“He was a firm believer in the saying ‘Old and gray, always in the way,’” Ruth testified. “Mother was in failing health, and dad was worried about his health.”
Apparently, it may have pushed the 64-year-old general hauler over the edge late that Saturday afternoon. What set it into motion may have been a phone call he had received about 4:30 from a distant relative asking him to take a broken lamp to a repair shop. When his wife objected, they argued.
Still, even after the brief dispute, Edgar went upstairs to help Ruth continue unpacking. When they found they could not untie a rope around one particular box, her dad said he was going to the basement to find a nut picker to loosen it. When he hadn’t returned after 10 minutes, Ruth went to see what was keeping him.
“I walked to the kitchen and found a mop and a bucket of water. Mother had been cleaning the kitchen and I surmised that she and dad were in the basement looking for the picker.
“As I started down the basement steps I heard mother groan and moan. Immediately I sensed something was wrong. Then I met my father ascending the stairs and holding something behind him. I asked him, ‘Where’s mother?’ He said, ‘She fell but don’t get excited.’ I insisted upon going down to see her. Then he thrust forth his hand, holding a blood-stained hammer.
“He raised it as if to strike me, and I retreated. On the first floor, I begged him not to strike me and finally I reached up and grabbed the handle of the hammer. He did not resist strenuously, and I wrested it from his hand.”
She immediately fled the house and ran across the alley to a neighbor on Portland, who called police. Three minutes after the call was received at 5:38, officers Fred Johnson and David Beese arrived at the McKenzie home to find a pool of blood and one of Amy McKenzie’s shoes at the foot of the basement stairs. They then discovered the unconscious woman 25 feet away between some boxes and a cupboard, where he had dragged her by a rope around her neck.
Moments later, officers made the final grisly discovery: the body of Edgar McKenzie hanging from a rafter in a walk-in fruit cellar 5 feet from his wife. Also found was a note next to a blood-stained pencil: “Homer, Look in my cash book for papers and black bank book. I want Gundlach and Company (to handle the funeral).”
Having suffered a fractured skull and massive blood loss, Amy was rushed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. There she lay in a coma for two days before passing away at 10:15 Monday night. She had taught at Franklin School before marrying Edgar in 1915. Joint funeral services were held Wednesday morning, and both were buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery.
“I don’t know what got into him,” Ruth said, a thought that all who had known the couple likely were left to ponder.
What would you spend your life doing if you were a funambulist?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Anyone who might have told little George H.W. Bush that he’d never make it to first base in his life was clearly wrong. Not only did he become the nation’s 41st president, but he also played first base for the Yale University Bulldogs baseball team in 1947 and 1948. In 175 at-bats over 51 games, Bush compiled a .251 batting average with eight doubles, two triples, two home runs and 23 RBIs for a .354 slugging percentage. He also stole seven bases. During that time, he helped Yale to a 34-15-2 record and two post-season appearances, in which it went 1-4. To see the Bush baseball card (numbered USA1) that Topps issued in 1990, go to www.cardboardconnection.com and search for “George Bush.”