George A Thacher.

Why some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed online

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circumstantial evidence Branson's motive for kilhng Booth was
decided by the jury to be the fact that Booth caught Branson
with Mrs, Booth in the brush. The Oregon statute says, "An
inference must be founded on a fact legally proved."

To brand a man as a murderer and take away his liberty for
life, especially a young man who had always borne a good repu-
tation, on two inferences based on a third inference which "may"
have been true but which was at least open to doubt, is simply
to call suspicion circumstantial evidence. * The woman in the
case has two young children, Lora Booth, a girl of 12 years at
the time of the trial, who is being cared for by relatives, and also
a httle boy, Ermel, who is younger than his sister. The court did
not administer the oath to Ermel, as he was too young to realize
what testifying under the oath meant, but he promised to tell
the truth.

Of course it should be remembered that the community was
desperately exercised about this murder and Branson had been
accused and he could not prove that he was innocent.

To show the hysterical spirit which prompted this conviction
it is onlj^ necessary to give another case of a murder trial where
the community was not much interested and where the accused
persons were not convicted. In the spring of 1918 two men were
* Note : The question of proving a motive for a crime
where there is only circumstantial evidence, and the fur-
ther question of basing inferences upon inferences is taken
up at length in Chapter No. 11 on circumstantial evidence.

42 Why Some Men Kill

indicted for the murder of a woman found dead on the sidewalk
of Washington street, Portland. The two men and the woman
were in a room on the third floor of a building on Washington
street. All three were more or less drunk and they were quarrel-
ing and it is certain that either the woman fell out or jumped out
or was thrown out of the window. The facts were fully estab-
lished that the three were in the room and were drunk and were
quarreling. The inference was very obviously plain that the
woman might have fallen out of the window. Because of that
possible explanation the jury could not agree, and a second jury
also failed to agree, and so the case was dismissed.

In the Booth case there was no testimony to show that Bran-
son and Mrs. Booth were together in the brush. It was inferred
that they were because they had been seen going along the road,
one behind the other. The inference that Branson and Mrs. Booth
were in a compromising position was based on the inference that
they were together in the brush, and the inference that Branson
killed Booth was based on the inference that they were discov-
ered by Mr. Booth in a compromising situation.

Booth was killed in an open field. He might have been shot
from across the river or from a distance up the river. The shot
might have been an accidental one or it might have been fired
with the intent of killing Booth. From the circumstances there
were no legitimate inferences to be drawn either in law or in
logic, but evil-minded gossip suggested a motive and the jury
found Branson guilty of murder notwithstanding the eminently
fair charge of the judge to the jury after the evidence was in.


Nearly two years after the murder William Biggin confessed
to killing William Booth, and the investigation which I have
made shows that his confession is corroborated by the facts given
in the preceding chapters, but District Attorney Conner refuses
to admit his mistake in convicting Branson. Branson is in the
penitentiary under a life sentence for murder and Mrs. Booth is
also in the penitentiary.

Oregon has a democratic form of government, and every citi-
zen has a personal interest in the proper administration of the
criminal law and in procuring justice.

In a matter where the laws provide no remedy for such a
terrible injustice as the continued imprisonment of citizens

The Booth Murder 43

wrongfully convicted of crime, and where the actual criminal
has been discovered, nothing remains but an appeal to public
opinion to secure the pardon of these innocent persons by the
Governor, who has this judicial power conferred on him by the

An appeal to the public opinion must be made by responsible
citizens to be successful. For that reason the complete report of
the investigation of this case, including a brief of the testimony
given at the trial and the sworn statements of all witnesses who
have given important evidence, and also accounts by the w^arden
of the penitentiary, and others who have been concerned in this
matter, have been submitted to many citizens who are prominent
in the state. Thej' have read the complete reports and have had
the advice of a thoroughly competent lawyer. Afterwards they
have signed the following statement in order to get the whole
matter before the people of the state of Oregon.

The committee appeal to the voters of Oregon, irrespective
of party, to petition the Chief Executive of the state to pardon
William Branson and Anna Booth, who were wrongfully con-
victed of the murder of William Booth at Willamina, Yamhill
County, on October 8, 1915, and to restore them to the full rights
of citizenship.

The members of this committee have each read and consid-
ered carefully the report on this case, which includes a brief of
the evidence given at the trial.

In order to be fully assured of the merits of the report, the
committee secured the services of a lawyer of recognized ability
who has had experience as a prosecutor. This lawyer is widely
known, and he was employed and paid by this committee to
study carefully all the evidence given at the trial of William
Branson and Anna Booth, and to examine and weigh the report
on the case and to advise this committee.

His statement follows :

The undersigned was employed by Mr. George A. Thacher,
representing the committee, to examine the record of the trial
of William Branson, convicted of the murder of William Booth,
and to report his opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Branson,
based on said record.

I have examined the record, and the brief of the testimony,
as prepared by Mr. Thacher, and also his report. It is my opinion.

44 Why Some Men Kill

based on the record, and aided by the investigation of Mr.
Thacher, also aided by reading and considering the confession
of one Wilham Riggin, that neither Wilham Branson nor Mrs.
WiUiam Booth are guilty of the murder of William Booth. The
report, as prepared by Mr. Thacher, is so complete in detail, and
so well analyzes the facts that I suggest that it be made the basis
of any future action by the committee in presenting the matter
to the Governor. Mr. Thacher has devoted considerable time
and study to this case, and, in my judgment, he is correct in his

Respectfully submitted,

Frank S. Grant.

Chapter VI.

There is a little hamlet, five or six miles in a westerly direc-
tion from Scappoose, Columbia County, Oregon, which is known
as Schnitzcrville. In 1911 there were possibly a dozen families
living within a radius of a mile. There was no local postoffice
and the neighbors brought the mail for each other from the post-
office at Scappoose and placed it in a box at the cross-roads.
There was a logging railroad with a siding half a mile away and
the neighbors used the track in walking to and from Scappoose.
The country is broken and the wagon roads, which are more or
less impassable in the rainy season, wind around the hills and
through occasional stretches of timber.

Several families from Portland had undertaken to make
homes here and had begun to build small houses and to cultivate
little patches of ground. Among the number were two bach-
elors, Mr. Riley and Mr. Hassen; Mr. John Arthur Pender and
his wife, and Mr. Frank Wehrman and his wife and little boy,
Harold, four years old. Mr. Pender and his wife were living in
a tent until they could build them a house and were engaged in
raising ducks and chickens and geese. Messrs. Riley and Hassen
had a cabin close by, but they were at work in Portland and
spent only Sundays and holidays at their little place in Schnitzcr-
ville. Mr. Frank Wehrman and his wife had purchased a few
acres a mile away to the southwest and had built a small house.
Mr. Wehrman was a baker and worked in a bakery in Portland
but came home Saturday nights to spend Sunday. Mrs. Wehr-
man and her little four-year-old boy, Harold, spent all their time
in the new home. There were other neighbors, making a small
community with more or less common interests.

This part of Columbia County is an old but rather sparsely
settled section and was originally covered with heavy timber.

Among the old settlers is G. H. Sierks, who lived with his wife
and three children about half a mile from the Wehrman's in an
opposite direction from Schnitzcrville. The oldest of the chil-
dren was a young man named John G. H. Sierks, who was nearly
twenty-one years old at this time. John was feeble-minded and
vicious in his habits and showed such marked homicidal tenden-
cies that all the family lived in fear of what he would attempt
next. His father has told the story of his attempts to kill him

46 Why Some Men Kill

and different members of the family when he was thwarted or
angry. Two years later, on his father's complaint, John was com-
mitted to the institution for the insane where the records show
that he was regarded as a moral imbecile.

In the summer of 1911, John G. H. Sierks was at work on a
farm in Washington County, about twenty miles from his
father's home in Columbia County, going home for occasional
visits. This was the setting of surrounding circumstances when
on September 6, 1911, Mrs. G. H. Sierks and her daughter, Lena,
walked to Scappoose and brought word to the authorities that
something had happened in the little house where Mrs. Frank
Wehrman and her child were living while Mr. Wehrman was
at his work in Portland. Mr. Wehrman had been at home the
week before but had left for Portland Sunday afternoon. This
was Wednesday that Mrs. Sierks brought news of a tragedy, for
she had found on Tuesday, she said, that the Wehrman house
was padlocked on the outside and that a pool of blood had
dripped from the inside of the house to the ground and that she
and her daughter had looked through the window and saw Mrs.
Wehrman's body, with her limbs bare, and hanging over the side
of the bed, her feet (with shoes and rubbers on) touching the
floor. This information Mrs. Sierks admitted she had kept to
herself twenty-four hours before going to Scappoose to tell her
husband, who was at work there as a carpenter. (The Sierks
family said that John Sierks was not at home, but in 1916 Lena
Sierks, John's sister, said that John was at home a couple of days
before they found Mrs. Wehrman's dead body.) Mrs. Wehrman
was dead, the sheriff discovered, with her four-year-old child
lying dead in her arms. Both mother and child had been most
brutally murdered and the cabin locked with a padlock on the
outside to conceal the tragedy. The physicians testified that the
woman and the child had been dead two or three days when the
bodies were discovered.

There were no clues to the double murder except that three
shots had been fired into each body with a thirty-eight caliber
Colts revolver, which was held so close that the wounds were
badly powder burned, and a hatchet had been used on Mrs.
Wehrman's head.

As the result of a two-year struggle to convict Mr. Pender of
this crime, he was finally found guilty of murder in the first
degree and sentenced to be hung, though he did not own a Colts
revolver and there was no evidence to show that he was nearer

The Wehrman Murder 47

than a mile from the Wehrman cabin when the murder was com-
mitted. The jury could not agree at the first trial, nine months
after the murder, but two years after the murder Mr, Pender was
convicted. In 1914 his sentence was commuted to life imprison-


There was a newspaper in its wrapper and a small unopened
package containing a curtain made out of a flour sack, which
had been taken to the Wehrman cabin by someone from an
improvised mail box at Schnitzerville and had not been opened
at the time the bodies were found. Mr. Wehrman testified at
the preliminary hearing soon after the murder that the package
was at the house before he left for Portland on Sunday after-
noon, September 3, but no question was asked about the news-
paper. It was the theory of the prosecution that Mr. Pender
broke into Riley and Hassen's cabin close to his tent house after
or about 6 P. M., Monday evening, September 4, and broke open
the trunk and took the Colts revolver and visited Mrs. Wehrman,
taking her mail from the neighborhood box and the paper from
the post office at Scappoose, and made improper proposals to
Mrs. Wehrman, and upon her refusal went into an insane rage
and fired three shots into her body and three shots into her
child's body, holding the revolver so close that the wounds were
badlj' powder burned, and then took the hatchet and chopped
the woman's head open. Her body was left partially disrobed
with the bare limbs hanging over the edge of the bed. The
door was then padlocked on the outside and the tragedy awaited
discoveiy for several days.

There was no proof that Pender stole the revolver and later
returned it, or that anyone stole it. Riley and Hassen said that
their cabin had been broken into and the trunk opened but they
were contradictory in their testimony at the different trials as
to whether they discovered that the cabin had been broken into
"before" or "after" September 10. They worked in Portland and
visited the cabin on Sundays. They were also contradictory as
to whether the revolver was loaded when placed in the trunk. In
fact, there was no testimony about the revolver with any direct
bearing on the crime except that the Colts revolver bullets which
killed Mrs. Wehrman and her child were scratched, and it was
attempted to be shown that the revolver in Riley and Hassen's
trunk, which was a Colt, had gas pits in the barrel which would

48 Why Some Men Kill

scratch a bullet in a similar manner. It was also testified to by
some witnesses that Pender's face was scratched though other
witnesses had no recollection of this. There was foreign matter
found under the finger nails of Mrs. Wehrman's hands and some
brown hairs in her fingers. Pender's hair is black.

It was also testified to that Pender on a certain day had not
spoken to Mrs. Wehrman from which the inference was drawn
that he had previously insulted her. Finally the stories were
circulated outside of court that Pender was a Sadie and had
boasted of mistreating Filipino girls and then killing them when
he was in the army.

On this testimony Mr. Pender was convicted two years after
the murder and sentenced to be hung. To show how intelligent
men may be carried away by their horror of an awful crime I
will quote from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Oregon
affirming the death sentence.

Referring to the hopelessly contradictory testimony as to
whether Pender got the Wehrman paper in the post office on
Monday, September 4, Justice Ramsey, who wrote the opinion,
said it "tends to connect the defendant with the Iowa paper,"
etc. He then offers a theory as to what Mr. Pender did which
would have been proper for the prosecuting attorney, but is in-
conceivable for a supreme court review and opinion. "He (Pen-
der) may have taken the Bates package and have kept it until
he obtained the Iowa paper the next day, and he may have taken
the package and the paper to the Wehrman cabin on Monday
night as an excuse for making a call on Mrs. Wehrman, and the
murder may have been committed immediately thereafter." Jus-
tice Ramsey even went so far as to carelessly misquote testimony
to sustain a preconceived opinion.


It was the theory of the prosecution that Pender stole a re-
volver from a locked trunk in Riley and Hassen's cabin on Labor
Day evening after 5:30 or 6 o'clock and used it to commit this
murder. Riley and Hassen were at home Sunday and on Mon-
day until 5:30 or 6 o'clock when they left for Portland.

Justice Ramsey says of this matter: "A day or two before
the murder Riley and Hassen went away and locked the cabin.
This pistol was in the trunk in the cabin, and it was not loaded
when they left the cabin, and the trunk was locked. Some weeks
before the murder the defendant had this pistol borrowed to

The Wehrman Murder 49

shooi wild animals that bothered his chickens. He had it two
or three weeks, and returned it to Mr. Riley.

"A short time before the murder the defendant borrowed the
key of the cabin and had it for a short time, and a person, vis-
iting at his tents, slept in said cabin. He returned the key to
the owners of the cabin a short time before the murder."

Justice Ramsey also says: "The evidence tends to show that
when Riley and Hassen locked this trunk and the cabin and
went away, the pistol was in the trunk and unloaded. Nothing
that had been in the trunk was missing, but the pistol was loaded
when the sheriff found it. This fact tends to prove that someone
had been using the pistol and had returned it loaded."

As a matter of fact Riley and Hassen did not go away a day
or two before the murder and no one says that they did except
Justice Ramsey. They were at home on Sunday and Monday
and locked their cabin Monday night about 5:30 and went away.

As to the revolver being loaned to Pender some weeks before
the murder to shoot wild animals there is no evidence to show
whether it was some weeks or some months before the murder
that Pender had the revolver. This is referred to on pages 332,
350, 351, 365 and 366 of the transcript. Justice Ramsey's state-
ment is altogether gratuitous.

His statement that Pender borrowed the key to Riley and
Hassen's cabin a short time before the murder is in direct oppo-
sition to the testimony. On pages 333 and 365 is the testimony.
On page 365 Riley said he loaned the key to Pender once "a
long time before the murder." On pages 117-118 of the transcript
of the first trial Riley said the key to the cabin was loaned in
the spring to Pender. The murder occurred in September. Jus-
tice Ramsey has misquoted this testimony changing "a long time
before the murder" to a "short time before the murder."

The opinion of the supreme court affirming Pender's death
sentence has a number of entirely inaccurate stateinents like
the above, but there is this to be said of the members of the
supreme court, and that is that several of them who signed this
opinion were bound by ties of personal interest and association
to St. Helens and Columbia County. The sentiment in Columbia
County in regard to this murder was very bitter, and public opin-
ion demanded that somebody should be punished for it.

Chapter VII.

Comparatively little attention is paid by detectives and sher-
iffs to the minor details of a murder, though these often reveal
the character of the man who committed it. Sheriffs are too
apt to be elected to office because they are popular and good
"hand-shakers" and are more or less wise politicians. These
pleasant qualities are very necessary of course, but they don't
include any knowledge of feeble-minded or insane persons who
have homicidal tendencies. Very obviously in murder cases
where there is no direct evidence but only what is called "cir-
cumstantial evidence," persons who make a business of detecting
crime should be fully informed of the characteristics of all kinds
of criminals. For instance, the ordinary murderer is completely
satisfied when he kills his victim. He does not continue to assault
the dead body the way a baboon or wild animal would do. We
do know, however, that half-witted men sometimes commit mur-
der and that they act like wild animals. Dr. Goddard in his
"Criminal Imbecile" tells of a weak-minded young man who
killed his school teacher. He stabbed her body 24 times in order
to make a "good job of it."

In this Columbia County murder Mrs. Wehrman's body was
shot three times, the revolver being held so close that each time
the flesh was badly powder burned. The doctor said any one
of these shots would have killed her. Then the murderer picked
up a hatchet and smashed her skull with it. The body of the
child was also shot three times and the wounds were all badly
powder burned. Any one of the shots would have killed the

Here is circumstantial evidence of genuine value that a feeble-
minded man killed Mrs. Wehrman. Notice how this circum-
stantial evidence coincides with the facts. The Wehrmans had
nearer neighbors than the Fenders, and in one of them, the G. H.
Sierks family, there was a defective and thoroughly vicious
young man by the name of John Sierks. This young man accord-
ing to his own father had homicidal tendencies when he was
opposed and had tried on different occasions to kill different
members of his own family. He had a weakness for liquor and
guns and his sex habits were vicious. His ambition in life was

once expressed by him in a desire to kill the old son of ,

his father, and then he could get rid of the rest of the family and

The Wehrman Murder 51

inherit the property and get married and be somebody. He had
failed both in poisoning his brother and in killing his father
and was away from home and in Washington County, where he
was at work for Louie Schmidt near Helvetia, However, he went
home frequently and his sister Lena Sierks, who was removed
from her father's home in the spring of 1916 upon the request of
citizens and officials in Scappoose, has volunteered the informa-
tion, and repeated it, that her brother John Sierks was at home
two days before the Sierks family discovered the dead bodies
of their neighbors, Mrs. Wehrman and her child. For it was
the Sierks family who discovered the murder and who kept it
to themselves twenty-four hours, according to Mrs. Sierks' tes-
timony at the trials of John Pender for murder. Here are her
words: "It was the second (?) of September when I went to
the Wehrman's house, and the door was locked with a padlock;
I thought she was gone. I wanted to see what time it was, and
we looked into the wdndow, my daughter and L We saw Mrs.
Wehrman lying on the bed; she was bare, her legs were bare.
I went around the house. I saw some blood there, but I did not
know where the blood came from, so I went home. I thought
she was asleep. In the night I worried. I didn't know how it
came the door w^as locked from the outside; I worried all night
about the padlock. The next morning my daughter said, "We
shall go back again." We went back. We saw the door was
locked; we looked into the window again, and we saw her lying
the same way that she did on Tuesday. So I went around the
house alone, and I saw blood there, and then we went home
and notified Scappoose that something had happened there, and
notified the sheriff, and Mr. Grant he came out there and looked
after it."

The idea that John's mother could imagine that Mrs. Wehr-
man was asleep with her body partially naked hanging over the
bed so that the feet touched the floor, with the window blind
up so that outsiders could look in and tell the time by the clock,
is foolish. Then to say that she saw blood on the ground by the
house and that she did not know where it came from, adding,
"So I went home; I thought she was asleep," is evidently untrue.
Mrs. Sierks practically admits the untruth by saying she went
home and worried all night about the padlock which locked the
door on the outside, and the next day went back and looked at
the body and padlock and the blood and then "notified Scap-
poose that something had happened there."

52 Why Some Men Kill

Such a terrible murder must have made a great impression
on all the Sierks family and it is natural that John's childlike
mind remembered and repeated what his mother said to his
sister when they thought he was asleep — "John did that." They
knew from experience that John was quite capable of murder.

John Sierks was placed in the hospital for the insane by his
family before Mr. Pender's second trial in 1913. John explained
that he was in the hospital because his family thought he killed
Mrs. Wehrman and said he heard his mother say to his sister
Lena, "John did that."

About the first of January, 1915, John made a confession of
the murder and it is given in full in Appendix B. After he con-

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Online LibraryGeorge A ThacherWhy some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed → online text (page 5 of 13)