Oddly affectionate doctor had taken out two
life insurance policies on son's wife just weeks before the murder
By David J. Krajicek - New York Daily News
A Chicago undertaker summoned to a physician’s
office took one look at a corpse on an exam table and diagnosed
what should have been clear to the doctor.
“This is murder,” he said. He picked up the
phone and dialed police.
It was the curtain-raising scene on Nov. 21,
1933, to one of the strangest cases from the American true crime
The dead woman was Rheta Gardner Wynekoop, 22,
who had left her family in Indianapolis at age 18 to marry Earle
Wynekoop, scion of a Chicago medical family.
Earle’s father, Dr. Frank Wynekoop, had died in
His mother, Alice, a graduate of the
Northwestern University Women’s Medical School, was a pioneering
female physician. She was a prominent suffragette who advocated
for women and children.
Stern and bony with long braided hair, she
practiced medicine in a basement office in a forbidding, 16-room
brick mansion on Chicago’s West Side.
It was there that the undertaker found Rheta
Wynekoop dead, clad in stockings and a slip gathered at her waist.
A single bullet had pierced her back. The killer left the
.32-caliber revolver beside the body.
When police arrived, Dr. Wynekoop suggested
that Rheta might have been killed by a robber. But she also
admitted that the gun was hers.
Earle Wynekoop, who was on a train trip to the
Grand Canyon, was flagged down in Kansas City and informed he was
By the time he got back to Chicago, the case
had gone around several bends.
Detectives learned Dr. Wynekoop had taken out
two insurance policies on Rheta weeks before the murder. She stood
to collect $12,000.
Meanwhile, shopgirl Priscilla Wittle made
headlines when she stepped forward to announce that she was Earle
Wynekoop’s fiancée. And a day later, Margaret McHale, who worked
at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, made even bigger headlines when
she said she, too, was Earle’s girl.
McHale had a diamond engagement ring to prove
it — the same love stone Earle had given to Rheta Gardner in 1929.
McHale bragged that Wynekoop had tossed his little black book of
50 names when he met her at the fair.
But there was one other woman to reckon with.
In Dr. Wynekoop’s desk, police found an
unmailed note. It read:
“Precious: I’m choked. You are gone. You have
me called me up — and after ten minutes or so, I called and
called. No answer. Maybe you are sleeping. You need to be, but I
want to hear your voice again tonight. I would give anything I
have to spend an hour in real talk with you tonight — and I
Alice Wynekoop said that she wrote the
billet-doux — to her son. But she squawked when police
characterized it as a love note.
It was “just the letter of a mother to a son
whom she loves,” the doctor said.
A Chicago shrink, Harry Hoffman, suggested that
Dr. Wynekoop had “an accentuated affection for Earle.”
Rheta’s father, Burdine Gardner, an
Indianapolis businessman, said his daughter complained that the
romantic embers of marriage had gone cold on the honeymoon.
She said her mother-in-law loomed over the
relationship. It didn’t help that they lived together in the
mansion, and that Alice supported the young couple.
He said, “The evidence would seem to indicate
it was due to a revulsion on her part against certain abnormal
tendencies in him.”
No one ever spelled out what those deviations
But Burdine Gardner told cops Alice Wynekoop
had for months been warning of his daughter’s “precarious” health.
He figured the murder was a kooky family job.
“I believe that they had been planning to get
her out of the way for a long time and that this seemed a good
time to do it,” Gardner said. “I believe Dr. Wynekoop murdered her
… for the convenience of her son.”
It came to light that the doctor had a
financial motive: She was broke.
Amid mounting circumstantial evidence, Earle
Wynekoop suddenly announced to police, “I killed my wife and I did
But police were able to confirm that Wynekoop
was out of town at the hour of the murder, and soon, Alice
Wynekoop made her own confession.
She said she had administered a chloroform
anesthetic while treating Rheta for pain.
“She grew quiet, and I found that her heart had
stopped,” Dr. Wynekoop said. “I was stunned. I realized my career
was at stake. Suddenly I gave thought to the gun that was in my
Two thousand gawkers clamored to attend her
trial in January 1934. Dressed in mourning black, she was wheeled
into court — too frail to walk, she said. The proceedings were
postponed a month while she recuperated.
Dr. Wynekoop testified, repudiating her
confession in a “half-strangled voice,” as Newsweek put it. But
she convinced no one.
Prosecutor Charles Dougherty said Earle knew of
his mother’s “dark design” for murder. He said, “She had brought
down upon herself in one frantic moment of greed or unnatural love
the edifice of the career she had built for 30 years.”
The jury convicted Wynekoop of murder but
spared her life. Sentenced to 25 years, she served just 14. She
survived until 1955, dying at age 84.
Doctor Killed Son's Wife
Crime with Prison the Penalty
in the Doctor's Office
went to my office I found Rheta on the operating table. She was
Lindsay Wynekoop, 62 years old, respected citizen, physician, and
veteran of the suffrage and other women's movements of two decades
ago, finished speaking.
Alice, may I view the remains?" replied Thomas J. Ahern, the
family undertaker, who followed Dr. Wynekoop down a flight of
steps into her basement office.
grim, old-fashioned operating room, on an antique operating table
cushioned with worn black lether, [sic] lay the blanketed figure
of a pretty red-haired girl. It was that of Dr. Wynekoop's
daughter-in-law, Rheta Wynekoop.
notified the police?" Ahern asked politely.
answered Dr. Alice with an imperious gesture. "I don't want any
this is a murder," said the rotund undertaker, and walked
upstairs, picked up a telephone, and called the police.
Revolver Beside the Body
Arthur R. March and Walter Kelly of Fillmore street station were
cruising in a squad car when the radio command came to go to 3406
West Monroe street, where a murder was reported.
It was "a
mild, clear evening," March later testified, on that night of
Tuesday, Nov. 21, 1933.
9:25 o'clock when Undertaker Ahern received a telephone call from
Dr. Wynekoop summoning him to her home. It was 9:55 o'clock when
members of the squad car detail arrived at the Monroe street
address, an old dwelling of red brick, grimy with the years'
accumulation of soot.
policemen hurried up the four stone steps leading to the porch and
rang the bell, which sounded emptily from within. The door was
cautiously opened and the slightly protruding pale blue eyes of a
short, dumpy little woman peered at them.
stepped inside. Behind the little woman, who was Miss Enid
Hennessey, teacher in the John Marshall High school and for ten
years a boarder in the sixteen-room house, was the gaunt, gray-haired
figure of Dr. Wynekoop.
Wynekoop received the policemen imperturbably. With her were
Ahern, the undertaker, and Dr. John M. Berger of Oak Park, who had
known Dr. Wynekoop more than fifteen years. She had summoned him
after she found the body.
group filed down the stairs to the basement--the policemen, the
woman doctor with her intelligent face and frank manner, and the
short, bustling woman with her suspicious blue eyes, the doctor,
and the undertaker.
basement, containing eight rooms and two hallways, were the
doctor's office and operating room. They passed by the office with
its old-fashioned roll-top desk, stuffy lether [sic] upholstered
furniture, and thick medical books and entered the operating room
across the hall.
operating table they saw Rheta Wynekoop's body lying on its left
side, her face on a small pillow. Covering the slight figure of
the 23-year-old girl was a blanket, neatly folded the long way and
tucked about the body as if by gentle hands.
March removed the blanket. The body was nude save for a pink slip
rolled about the waist, a chemise, and stockings. Above this wisp
of underclothing was a wound in the back over which blood was
clotted. Blood was oozing from the mouth and dropping to the
floor. The two sheets on the operating table beneath the body were
saturated with blood, as were her garments.
towel, damp, was under the mouth. Beside the pillow, was a
.32-caliber revolver, wrapped in gauze. Near by were a folded
sweater, a brown skirt, a pair of woman's shoes. A handkerchief
lay on the operating table near the body. Dr. Wynekoop herself
pointed out a chloroform bottle on a nearby washstand. An
anesthetic mask was in plain view. Policeman March touched the
body. Rigor mortis had set in. Warmth leaves the human body from
three to six hours after a death.
to Robbery as Motive
WYNEKOOP said she had found the body at 8:30 o'clock that night.
She called her daughter, Dr. Catherine Wynekoop, then 25-year-old
resident pediatrician at the Cook County hospital, and told her to
come home. Dr. Catherine replied that she was busy. Dr. Alice said
that something terrible had happened. "What, mother?" the younger
woman asked. Her mother said, "Rheta has been shot and is gone."
Dr. Catherine hurried home. At 9:30 they knocked on Miss
Hennessey's door and told her Rheta was dead.
elderly woman physician told police it "must have been done by
someone looking for money." She showed an open drawer in her desk
in which a box in the rear held currency and stamps. This had been
looted, she said, of $6.
admitted ownership of the gauze-enveloped revolver beside the
body. In a box behind her cash box was another. There were unfired
cartridges in it.
received the revolver from her son, Earle, Rheta's 24-year old
husband, she admitted, before he departed for the Grand canyon,
Arizona, with a companion to take color photographs. He had gone
away on Nov. 13.
before her home had been robbed, she told the police. On Oct. 20
thieves had broken in and taken $100. Both times drugs were taken.
She had not reported these incidents, she said, because she knew
"money couldn't be identified." To reporters she said that it was
out of consideration for Rheta and her delicate health that she
did not report the matter, as policemen about the house would
upset the girl.
drawer, although open, appeared in order. The windows and doors
leading from the outside into the basement were all closed, and
the doors were locked.
Find Love Letter
pile of other papers in Dr Wynekoop's bedroom on the second floor
of the gloomy old house police found a letter in feminine
handwriting. They were looking for evidence which might shed light
on Rheta's life, although Dr. Wynekoop assured them that Rheta and
Earle had lived happily together with her since their marriage in
1929. It appeared to be a love letter, and the police considered
she might have an admirer unknown to her mother-in-law. Dated
"Sunday night," and written in pencil, the letter read:
I'm choked. You are gone--you have called me up--and after ten
minutes or so I called and called. No answer. Maybe you are
sleeping. You need to be, but I want to hear your voice again
tonight--I would give anything I have--to spend an hour in real
talk with you tonight--and I cannot--good night"
call to the slain girl's father, B. H. Gardner, a respected flour
and salt broker of Indianapolis, confirmed Dr. Wynekoop's
statement that Rheta was a sensitive girl, a trained violinist,
who had little social contact outside the life which went on in
the Wynekoop home, where she cooked and helped with the housework
and pursued her interests in music.
At 1 a. m.
Dr. Wynekoop revealed a telegram to the police after they had
learned of it from other sources. It was from Earle and was sent
from Peoria at 3:47 p. m. the day of the murder. It had been
received at the house by Miss Hennessey at 7:55 o'clock. W.
Russell O'Banion, Western Union messenger, had delivered it.
Previously, at 4:27 p. m., John Brennock, another messenger, had
called with it. He had no response when he rang the doorbell,
although he had seen lights burning in the basement and on the
It was not
until the next day that Dr. Wynekoop revealed that the mysterious
letter was written by her to Earle. She said with flashing eyes
that it was "a love letter from a mother to her son." Later
psychiatrists were to find it significant, and at least one
declared it indicated a possible "Œdipus complex," or at any rate
an exaggerated maternal feeling.
Developments were swift the next day. From Kansas City came word
that Earle had been there when he learned of his wife's death that
morning and had set out at once for Chicago. Stanley Young of
Chicago, a nephew of George E. Q. Johnson, former United States
district attorney, who was Earle's companion on their interrupted
trip to Arizona, provided Earle with an ironclad alibi.
City Young revealed also that Earle and his mother had held a
secret rendezvous the evening before the murder. For some reason,
Young said, Earle had not wanted Rheta to know he was in Chicago.
Rheta thought he already was on his way west. Actually they had
left Chicago at 8 a. m. Tuesday, the day of the murder, stopping
in Peoria and continuing to Kansas City. Dr. Wynekoop admitted
that she had met her son the previous night at 67th street and
Kedzie avenue and talked "about his trip."
Wednesday morning an inquest was begun in Ahern's undertaking
rooms, 3246 Jackson boulevard. Coroner Frank J. Walsh briefly
questioned the elderly Dr. Wynekoop.
have any insurance?" Coroner Walsh asked.
her manner one of intelligent cooperation, the witness replied:
she had no insurance. She tried to obtain policies from several
companies, but the negotiations fell through."
Walsh leaned toward reporters near by and whispered that Rheta had
been insured for $5,000 with the New York Life Insurance company,
that the policy had a double indemnity clause in case of death by
violence, and that Dr. Alice Wynekoop was the beneficiary. Another
double indemnity policy for $1,000 named Earle and Catherine as
the mother-in-law had obtained the larger one against the girl's
life a month before the murder and had herself paid the first
premium. This she did despite her grim financial situation. At the
time she owed her grocer, her butcher, and the family undertaker.
There was a $3,500 mortgage on the Monroe street home, and on Oct.
31 she had a bank balance of only $26.
undertaker's unpaid bill was for the funeral of an adopted
daughter, Mary Louise, who died in March, 1930.
1910, at the peak of her career, Dr. Wynekoop had addressed the
Mothers' congress and Parent Teachers' association convention at
Rockford and urged that every family adopt one child, as she had
done, as an "act of humanitarianism" and a "duty toward the race."
This was in reply to a widely published statement by Olive
Schreiner, novelist, who was much in vogue then, that one child
for each family was sufficient. Dr. Wynekoop, for her speech,
received considerable publicity, a picture of the then beautiful
woman physician and her four curly haired children being published
other deaths had occurred in the Monroe street house in four
years. Dr. Frank Wynekoop, husband of the woman physician and,
like her, a former professor at a medical college which later
became the University of Illinois medical school, had died of
heart disease New Year's day, 1929. The deaths of Miss Hennessey's
85-year old father and Miss Catherine Porter, a spinster of Dr.
Wynekoop's age and a patient of hers, who left her $2,000,
followed that of Dr. Frank Wynekoop.
Alice Undergoes Quiz
inquest Dr. Wynekoop was taken to the Fillmore street station and
questioned by Captain Stege. She repeated her claim that she had
"loved Rheta as if she were one of my own." She related her
actions the day of the murder. She said that after lunch she went
to shop on Madison street, arriving home at 4:30 o'clock.
Hennessey came in about 6 o'clock and they ate dinner, leaving
some of the food for Rheta, whose place was set at the table. It
was at dinner, Miss Hennessey said, that they discussed Eugene
O'Neill's drama, "Strange Interlude," a drama dealing with the
overweening mother love of a strong willed woman. Dr. Wynekoop
asked Miss Hennessey if such "trash" was given students to read.
then sent Miss Hennessey to a neighborhood drug store on an
errand. Returning, Miss Hennessey noticed Rheta's coat, hat, and
purse on a chair. She called Dr. Wynekoop's attention to them, and
the doctor replied that Rheta had another coat and hat and
probably had worn them.
Wynekoop and Miss Hennessey then talked of the latter's condition
of hyperacidity, and Dr. Wynekoop said she would get some medicine
for her. She went downstairs but did not return at once, Miss
Hennessey went to her room. It was at that time, Dr. Wynekoop said
(8:30 p. m.), that she discovered Rheta lying on the operating
Veronica Duncan, a pretty brunette who lived next door at 3408
Monroe street, had seen Rheta Wynekoop alive at 3 p. m.
after the inquest, Thursday, Dr. Thomas L. Dwyer, then coroner's
physician, announced the results of his post-mortem. He found that
chloroform had been administered to the girl, causing burns around
the mouth. He said the lungs were filled with blood, showing that
when the bullet had entered her body she was still alive.
Dwyer's report stated that no holes were found in the girl's
clothing, and that first-degree powder burns surrounded the wound,
meaning she was shot with the muzzle of the weapon pressed against
"Apparently she had taken off her clothes," said Captain Stege,
"probably as she sat on the edge of the operating table, and
dropped them at her feet. She had then lain back, as if submitting
to an examination. While in that position, apparently, the killer
placed her under an anesthetic, turned her half way on her face,
and fired the shot. Finally the killer, in an apparent fit of
remorse, tried to stanch the blood flowing from her mouth, and,
seeing she was dead, wrapped her body in a blanket."
long hours of questioning Dr. Wynekoop maintained that she had
obtained the insurance policies, which she now admitted, only
because of her anxiety that Rheta be assured her health was good.
Rheta, she said, was morbidly worried over her condition, as she
was underweight, and her mother had died of tuberculosis.
Wynekoop, tall, well built; auburn-haired, and well dressed,
returned to Chicago Thursday morning. He first visited the
mortuary and viewed the body of his wife.
unhappy in my married life." he said, "and mother knew it"
Unhesitatingly he admitted keeping company with other women. Some
of these were questioned by the police. From one they learned he
had kept a notebook with fifty names and addresses of girls he
considered attractive, classifying them methodically as to their
his extramarital sweethearts said that he posed as unmarried. He
apparently had played the rôle of a Don Juan while employed at the
World's Fair. To an attractive girl employé of a concession he
gave a ring which police believed to be the engagement ring he had
given his wife. This young woman, learning Earle was married,
reproached him with the fact. He admitted it.
me he married her [Rheta] and found out later that her mother and
aunt had died of tuberculosis," she told the police. "He said the
matter was out of his hands, that it was in his mother's. I asked
him where she was, and he said she was put away. He didn't say
girl he had proposed marriage. Still another girl had kept a
midnight date with him the night before the murder.
the day the police questioned Earle. At 10:45 o'clock that night
they again took his mother into custody. She was at the mortuary,
where she had gone to say a last farewell to Rheta.
and his mother in adjoining rooms the grilling proceeded. Dr.
Alice's inquisitors applied the lie detector. She said scornfully:
"I have high blood pressure, it will not work." They found this
detectives, police officials, and three psychiatrists matched
their wits in vain against the weary but still unfaltering mind of
the woman. She was aged, ill, she had slept almost none since the
night before the murder, Monday. This was Thursday night. At 6
o'clock Friday morning they gave up for the time being and she was
taken to the Racine avenue station to sleep in the women's
comparatively fresh, then broke. The first trace of it was when he
blamed Rheta, as mothers will, for my unhappiness, and its barely
possible that she might have had a motive for--but no. No! My
mother could not have done that."
then, what about yourself?" Captain Stege pressed. "It was your
mother or you. Speak up."
sobbed wildly, "I will sign an iron-bound confession to save the
one I suspect."
Wynekoop was allowed to sleep until 7:30. As she was leaving the
Racine avenue for the Fillmore street station a reporter told her
it was rumored that Earle had confessed. Clasping her hands
together, tears filled her eyes.
the happiest moment of my life," she said.
interpreted this to mean that she was happy because she thought
Earle had sacrificed himself in the belief he was saving her. To
another reporter she said, "I never touched Rheta save in love."
Fillmore street she was led by her captors through the crowd of
reporters and police. Dozens of cameras flashed. Her face was
impassive. She appeared weary and shaken. Her face lighted up on
seeing Earle, but fell as the haggard youth, his eyes bloodshot,
his hair disarrayed, approached her and pleaded:
sake, mother, if you did this thing, confess. It will be better
for us all."
compassionate gesture she clasped her tall son and caressed him
soothingly, Then, as Captain Stege beckoned, she straightened up
proudly and marched into the examination room.
inquisitors tried to arouse her to confession by insinuating that
Earle might be accused, but she shrewdly eyed them and remained
adamant. The morning wore on. They tried a gentler tack, Captain
Stege suggested that she might have had Rheta undress and that
perhaps she was examining her "when someone fired that shot."
left in the room alone with Dr. Harry A. Hoffman, director of the
Criminal court behavior clinic. She was lying down there in the
captain's office when Captain Stege returned. He asked her if she
had had breakfast. She said she had not, and he ordered coffee.
she asked, "what would happen if I told my story?"
want any story; I want the truth," he told her.
tell it if you will shut the door," she said.
Stege described the scene later from the witness stand:
together, the three of us, and Dr. Wynekoop put her hand on Dr.
Hoffman's knee and he put his hand on her hand. She told us that
Rheta had not been well, that she had been suffering from some
abdominal ailment. She took Rheta downstairs for an examination."
Wynekoop said the examination became painful to Rheta and she
suggested giving chloroform to deaden the pain. The girl was
allowed to pour some on a sponge, she said, and hold it to her
nose. She talked to the girl, and after a while no response came
from her. She felt her pulse and could detect none. She vainly
applied a stethoscope to her heart. Then, indicating it was to
save her professional reputation, she shot her. That was about
4:30 p. m.
Stege asked her if it was a voluntary statement and if she would
dictate and sign it, and to both questions she replied in the
affirmative. Her strange confession, if confession it was, was
dictated in the formal, stiff language she insisted upon. The
principal part of it was:
concerned about her health and frequently weighed herself, usually
stripping for that purpose. On Tuesday, Nov. 21, after luncheon,
about 1 o'clock, she decided to go down to the loop to purchase
some sheet music that she had been wanting. She was given money
for this purpose, and laid it on the table. She decided to weigh
before dressing to go downtown. I went to the office.
sitting on the table practically undressed and suggested that the
pain in her side was troubling her more than usual. She complained
of considerable soreness, also severe pain and tenderness. She
thought she would endure the examination better if she had a
little anesthetic. Chloroform was conveniently at hand and a few
drops were put on a sponge.
breathed it very deeply. I asked her if I was hurting her and she
made no answer. Inspection revealed that respiration had stopped.
Artificial respiration for about twenty minutes gave no response.
Stethoscopic examination revealed no heart beat.
what method would ease the situation best of all, and with the
suggestion offered by the presence of a loaded revolver, further
injury being impossible, with great difficulty one cartridge was
exploded at a distance of some half dozen inches from the patient.
The gun dropped from the hand.
Germans say 'the hand,' indicating the possessive case. The scene
was so overwhelming that no action was possible for a period of
to be allowed to break the news of the confession to her children,
but she was taken back to the Racine avenue station. Later in the
day the inquest was held at the county morgue. The jury returned a
verdict that Rheta died of shock and hemorrhage from a bullet
fired in her back. They recommended that Dr. Wynekoop be held to
the grand jury on a murder charge and that her accomplices, if
any, be arrested and held on similar charges.
Collapses at Trial
ON JAN. 11
the selecting of a jury to try Dr. Wynekoop began in the Criminal
court of Judge Joseph B. David.
15, 1934, the state, represented by Assistant State's Attorney
Dougherty, began the presentation of its evidence. As the hearing
proceeded Dr. Wynekoop suffered five heart attacks, but the climax
came as she collapsed after Dr. Hoffman's testimony. Dr. Hoffman
had testified concerning the scene in the Fillmore street station
when Dr. Alice made the statement which she later signed.
have any conversations with her after that?" Assistant State's
Attorney Dougherty asked.
her why she did it," Dr. Hoffman said in a low, vibrant voice.
"Her answer was, 'I did it to save the poor dear.'"
Wynekoop's collapse resulted in a mistrial. Less than a month
later, on Feb. 19, she again went on trial, before Judge Harry B.
Miller. She had passed her sixty-third birthday in jail on Feb. 1.
She was brought into court in a wheel chair.
March and Kelly testified. Ahern was an important witness. Miss
Hennessey was a militant and indignant witness for the state.
Another unwilling state's witness, an old friend of Dr. Wynekoop,
was Miss Julia McCormick, elderly agent for the New York Life
Insurance company. She testified she had written a $10,000 double
indemnity policy on Rheta's life a month before her death, which
her company had change to $5,000. She conceded that in all her
negotiations with Dr. Wynekoop over the policy she had not seen
agents testified that Dr. Alice had approached them regarding
policies for Rheta, but that their companies declined to issue
them. Police officials took the stand, and the slain girl's father
was a tragic figure in the witness chair.
not appear in court during the trial, but Catherine and Walker,
another son, came to their mother's aid in dramatic testimony.
required only a few minutes to determine Dr. Alice's guilt,
members later reported. They retired at 6:15 p. m. March 6, 1934,
and were agreed on the verdict at 7:15 p. m.
"We took a
vote on 25 years," said a juror. "Ten hands went up, and, with a
little urging, the other two. We had reached our verdict."
Dr. Alice is confined in the hospital, where it was found she was
suffering from hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and pulmonary
Virginia, "Wynekoop Murder!, How Woman Doctor Killed Son's Wife,"
The Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Monday, 28 January 1935, p.