"HOUSE OF WEIRD DEATH"
The street where the Wynekoop Mansion was once located, in a beaten and forlorn area on Chicago’s west side, is now a scene of silent desolation. The weather-beaten old homes here stand with an almost ghost-like presence that hearkens back to days of past elegance. The Wynekoop Mansion was destroyed many years ago, but its memory and reputation still lingers today... best remembered for its notorious nickname, “The House of Weird Death”.
The mansion was built in 1901 by Frank and Alice Wynekoop. They closely supervised the construction, planning to turn the red-brick home into a safe and loving environment for their family. Soon however, the house was said to be “cursed”. Frank and Alice’s daughter, Marie Louise, died there and Dr. Gilbert Wynekoop, Frank’s brother, scandalized the family when he attempted to strangle his estranged wife in the house during their divorce proceedings. He later went insane and had to be institutionalized. However, despite the grim whispers about the house in the neighborhood, no single event affected the house like the death of Rheta Wynekoop in 1933.
Dr. Alice Lindsay Wynekoop was an early advocate of women’s rights and promoter of the suffrage movement. In addition to being a graduate of the Women’s Medical School at Northwestern University, she was also a pillar of the community and was much loved and admired for her charitable deeds and work on behalf of those in need. She was also a civic leader and a pioneer in the movement for children’s health. She was also, quite possibly, a killer.
The pride of Dr. Wynekoop’s life was her son, Earle, a lazy, good-for-nothing leech who was a continual source of embarrassment to the family name. Still, Alice couldn’t see through this because in spite of his many faults, Earle was quite charming and attentive to his mother. At the age of 27, Earle was still living in his mother’s fashionable West Side brownstone at 3406 West Monroe Street. He resided there with his young bride, an attractive redhead, Rheta Gardner Wynekoop. Earle had been a bad choice for the young woman. He was rarely home and had fallen out of love with Rheta, a well-to-do heiress from Indianapolis, shortly after the honeymoon.
Rheta was now forced to make the best of a bad situation, stranded in Alice’s dark and gloomy mansion, pining away and playing her violin. She was an accomplished musician and hoped to one day pursue music as a career.
Meanwhile, the only thing that Earle was pursuing was a string of young women. His “black book” contained the names of more than 50 young women that he had wooed and bedded during the 1933 World’s Fair. The handsome rake had proposed marriage to several of these poor and lovesick young girls, who worked at concession stands on the fair grounds. He escorted them about the grounds, buying them food and small trinkets and whispering of the future they would have together. He took special care to avoid areas of the fair where his other “sweethearts” might be working. According to author Richard Lindberg, when the details of Earle’s many affairs were later revealed, his numerous “fiancees” accused him of making love to them in strange ways that were “shocking and repulsive”.
No matter what Earle was up to with these young women, it still does not easily explain the death of Rheta on November 21, 1933. According to Earle’s version of events, he was motoring west to photograph the Grand Canyon for the Santa Fe Railroad when he was notified of his wife’s death.
The weird circumstances beyond the beautiful Rheta’s death would puzzle detectives for months and years to come.........
Police officers from the Fillmore Street Station were summoned to 3406 West Monroe Street and there they found Rheta lying facedown on Dr. Alice’s emergency operating table in the basement. She was partially nude and she had a bullet wound in her back, just under her left shoulder. Next to the body, they found a chloroform mask and the murder weapon. Three shots had been fired from it and it had been left just over the girl’s head.
When questioned, Dr. Alice continually changed her story, confusing the police, the coroner and even members of the household.
Many wondered if the beloved doctor might be incoherent and upset over the girl’s death. Rheta’s father, Burdine H. Gardner, rushed to Chicago when he heard the news. With her strange behavior still apparent, Dr. Alice advised Gardner to tell others that his daughter’s death was from complications of tuberculosis! He would later state that he found the living arrangements at the Wynekoop house to be rather odd, and Dr. Alice even more so.
Word soon spread of the murder and a crowd began to gather outside of the house. Dr. Alice, another son, Walker, her daughter Catherine, her sister-in-law, Jesse, and Jesse’s daughter Frances were all transported to the police station. The detectives also brought along Enid Hennessey, a spinster schoolteacher who rented a room in the mansion. Confused by the large and eccentric collection of characters who lived in the house, they simply began questioning all of them. They turned out to be a bizarre group, each one fiercely loyal to Dr. Alice. When detectives hinted to Miss Hennessey that Dr. Alice may have been responsible for Rheta’s death, she became hysterical and began screaming, “It’s a lie! It’s a lie!”. She stood faithfully by the doctor through the trial that followed and even invented an alibi to protect her friend.
Dr. Alice came up with her own stories. She claimed that “drug fiends” had been responsible for the murder. In recent months, her basement office had been broken into and drugs had been stolen. She suggested that Rheta may have caught them in the act. Detectives grilled Dr. Alice for hours at the police station, but she refused to break. Finally, one of them came up with a clever plan. They had just learned that Earle had taken out a $5,000 life insurance policy on Rheta. This, they told the doctor, pointed to him as the killer!
Her concerns for Earle finally caused Dr. Alice to break. She confessed that it had been she, not Earle, who had pulled the trigger, but only after Rheta had already expired from deadly anesthetic. Wynekoop explained that she had been about to perform a painful surgical procedure on the young woman (possibly an abortion, although it was never said). She said that she has asked Rheta herself to pour some chloroform into the mask to ease the pain of the surgery but the dosage had proven to be too much. Minutes later, the girl had lapsed into a coma. Fearing public humiliation and a ruined reputation, Wynekoop had panicked and had fired the fatal shot into the girl. She would blame the crime on imaginary “drug fiends”.
The sensational confession raised doubts among the detectives. They still believed that “charming” Earle had masterminded the crime and his mother had taken the blame for it to save her “little boy”. Love letters between the mother and son revealed a relationship that went well beyond the norm. Psychiatrists of the time believed that an “Oedipus Complex” existed between the two of them.
Hearing of his mother’s confession, Earle quickly returned to Chicago and stormed into the police station. He told detectives that he had actually been in Chicago at the time of the murder and had killed Rheta. He had taken the life of his wife and then had left with one of his many girlfriends! Now, the police had two confessions to deal with, although Earle consistently failed the lie detector tests that were given to him. The state’s attorneys still believed that Dr. Alice was responsible for the murder. They did not believe her story and stated that she was deeply in debt and hated her daughter-in-law for making her son so miserable.
Earle’s confession was ignored and charges were filed against Dr. Wynekoop. After being brought to trail, the case dragged on for weeks, attracting great public attention. Nearly six months after the weird murder, a jury returned a verdict of guilty against the doctor. The press and the public were strongly divided over whether or not justice had been served with the verdict. Dr. Alice was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was granted parole from the Women’s Reformatory in Dwight in 1949. She was 79 years old at the time and she died two years later, her life and reputation destroyed.
Earle, who struck and killed a little boy with his automobile during his mother’s trail, faded out of the public eye. Richard Lindberg last received word that he worked as an auto mechanic and believes that he is most likely dead by now.
The “House of Weird Death” is now long gone. For years, rumors about the house circulated. It was considered by many to be haunted and stories went round that the ghostly strains of Rheta’s violin could sometimes be heard coming from the ruins of the building. How much of this story was true and how much legend is now a mystery. The neighborhood itself, the Fillmore district, is now a crime ridden area and where the graceful mansions once stood, only empty lots remain. Rheta Wynekoop, along with the rest of this strange clan, is now long forgotten.... and if her ghost still walks here, it walks alone.
COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.