Monday Mystery: The Girl In The Furnace

No one really wants to go down to the basement to re-light the furnace. The employee sent to do the onerous task in the police station of Lake Bluff, IL, in October of 1928, probably grumbled about dust, dirt, darkness, and inconvenience. And he probably forgot all about it when he found the girl, naked and burnt down to the bone, leaned up against the furnace downstairs.

Her name was Elfrieda Knaak, and at first she insisted, "I did it myself." It seemed conceivable that she'd started on her own -- metal clasps and bits of her dress were found inside the furnace, when it was examined, so she might have fed them in herself -- but both the doctors at the hospital and the police who found her were doubtful that she could have managed to get all of her limbs, and her face, into the furnace without someone to help hold her up. The furnace door was not large, and rather high off the ground. She might have gotten three out of four major limbs fed in one by one, but what would she stand on to burn the last?

Knaak claimed she was 'purifying herself' for her 'astral lover', a man named Charles Hitchcock. Hitchcock predictably said he knew nothing about any astral love affair. You can disbelieve him if you want -- many people did, and he allegedly both knew and used a nickname reserved for close friends and family as Knaak lay dying in the hospital -- but he had a perfectly solid alibi: A badly-broken leg had him confined to his house the night she was found. Even if you postulate he was some sort of evil Svengali who convinced her to do it, he couldn't have been there to help.

There was also the question of how Knaak had gotten into the basement in the first place. The Chief of Police himself had locked up the night before, and the unlucky employee had had to unlock the furnace room again to find her. When asked WTF, Knaak would only say the doors had been locked by "a mysterious hand," which exactly no one found helpful. The mysterious hand also apparently went with a pair of mysterious feet, since bloody, ashy footprints were found leading back up the stairs, away from Ms. Knaak.

Some of her effects were found several feet away from her, including a purse which contained a letter, addressed to her, from a "B. E. Lock". 'Lock' turned out to be Luella Roeh, a woman with whom Knaak had developed a curiously, almost bizarrely intense friendship centered around their mutual interest in "New Thought", a spiritual movement with various fuzzy ideas about God, loving others, and healing the self through mental focus and philosophy. I get the impression that, while they found Roeh somewhat odd and perhaps unbalanced, she offered no useful information on what on Earth Knaak might have been up to.

The police couldn't even pin down what Knaak was doing in Lake Bluff. She had spent the day in Chicago, and lived in Deerfield, some miles away.

Knaak survived for four long days, heavily drugged and continually urged to tell everyone what really happened. She stuck to her 'I did it myself' story for a day or two, then claimed that she had made a pact with another girl who chickened out after helping her burn herself. She finally admitted to having been attacked as she was on her last legs. She mumbled that "Frank threw me down" (or possibly "Frank turned me down"; interpretations differ), and claimed that there was a female accomplice who could explain everything, but expired before getting out anything else that anybody could understand.

None of that is even vaguely helpful, and might have been delirious rubbish. I will point out that even today, never mind in 1928, the only real way to give palliative care to terminal burn patients is to pump them full of such obscene amounts of morphine that they lose contact with the pain of their reality. She might have blamed aliens, except that UFOs wouldn't really be invented until WWII.

Websleuths, for once occupied with a case so old they effectively can't doxx anybody even by accident, actually dug up some interesting info, about the contents of the letter, the book Knaak's employer was publishing, Charles Hitchcock, and the local practitioners of New Thought.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries!



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