A deleted scene from Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal, due to drop September 16, 2014, by History Press.
After a trio of young duck hunters stumbled upon the charred body of Cincinnati resident Louise Bergen near the beach at Cowan Lake, November 1, 1958, suspicion quickly fell on Edythe Klumpp, a 40-year-old divorcee who was living “as man and wife” with the victim’s estranged husband, Bill Bergen. Edythe confessed to burning the body, but claimed Louise’s death was an accident. Not even her attorney, noted Cincinnati criminal lawyer William “Foss” Hopkins, believed her, but the jury found her guilty of first degree murder with no recommendation for mercy. It was an automatic death penalty.
Her jaw tightened, but Edythe Klumpp sat straight-faced and still — “the face of a woman who has seen her obituary in print,” Margaret Josten wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Foss Hopkins seemed “stricken” to observers. His jaw dropped open and he clasped his forehead.
After Frank Judge Gusweiler polled the jury and adjourned court, the room erupted into chaos. Bailiff William Wiggeringloh grabbed Edythe’s right arm, Deputy Frank Alf her right. She got to her feet as if in a trance and muttered, “Let’s get out of here,” as the two men ushered her out of the room and to the Hamilton County Jail.
“As always, we have felt this a correct verdict,” said Hamilton County prosecutor C. Watson Hover to a crush of reporters and photographers, forgetting for the moment, perhaps, the disappointment he felt at the Lyons verdict. “We were sure from the opening statement that we were going to prove Mrs. Bergen met her death by premeditation. We were sure that this defendant would be found guilty as charged.”
“I am crushed,” Hopkins said to reporters. “This isn’t a question of being a bad loser. I have lost before. I have had confidence in the defense. It must be that I should have been a little more eloquent in putting it across to a jury.”
He would certainly appeal, he said, and certainly file a motion for a new trial.
Unlike the others on the prosecution team, assistant prosecutor Melvin Rueger seemed more contemplative than celebratory as he stood in the back of the courtroom with Ohio Highway Patrolman Robert Dunbar, the only police officer who had worked on the case from the beginning.
“It’s just another case finished,” Rueger said. “It doesn’t make me feel elated. It is a serious responsibility to carry on a fair trial.”
Dunbar agreed: “I feel everybody made the best effort he could, not because it was a big case but because justice had to be done.”
The commotion was beginning to settle down, the television crews packing up when Wiggeringloh returned to the courtroom. He seemed confounded, sweat pouring from his face.
“I’ve never seen anyone so cold in my life,” he said. “I expected her to collapse and I was prepared for it, but there was nothing.”
Edythe said it was shock and fatigue, not a cold personality, that left her emotionally drained and simply unable to react.
“I was so shocked I couldn’t believe it,” she told the Post in a July 4 interview. “I don’t know how to explain exactly how I felt. I never dreamed they would come out with guilty. It thought it would be manslaughter. I really thought acquittal, but at most manslaughter. The state’s story was full of lies… Actually, they didn’t prove a thing. I thought Hopkins had proved my case and I thought the jury would be intelligent enough to see through the state’s case.”
The trip to the garage tipped the scales in favor of conviction, an unnamed juror told the Post later.
“Some of the men thought Mr. Hopkins’ contention that the skull was crushed when the lid was slammed was possible,” the juror said. “We were afraid when we went down there there would be a lot of people around and we wouldn’t be allowed to put the skull where we wanted to and have someone get in the back seat. But when we got down there, we could do as we pleased. We were alone and we tried everything we wanted to.”
Experiments using the skull to explore where fractures might take place as Hopkins described “convinced everyone that what Mr. Hopkins said was not possible and that got us over the hump. When we asked to have the testimony read when Mrs. Klumpp first met Sonny Bowen, the gas station attendant, we were discussing premeditation. One of the men was not convinced the prosecutor had proved premeditation and was arguing for second degree. He changed his mind… There never was any discussion of a manslaughter verdict.
“We were pretty intense all the time. It was strenuous and at the end we were just about done for.”
Another anonymous juror interview in the Enquirer on July 4, said that the panel sought a “logical” reason to vote for mercy, but couldn’t find one.
“We discussed it long,” the juror said. “We kept saying if the evidence had shown any indication at all, that she was merciful to Mrs. Bergen, then we would have to consider mercy.”
The jurors reported that the first ballot had a majority voting for mercy and one voting for second degree murder. It took six ballots before reaching not only reversed the majority, but achieved unanimity.
“I don’t think I got a fair trial,” Edythe told a reporter that evening in jail. “I was certainly not expecting such a verdict because I am not guilty… I don’t know what I will do now.”
Her jailers gave her sedatives to help her rest, and in an interview next day wondered how those who put her there–prosecutors and jurors–were able to sleep nights.
“They know I’m not guilty,” she said the following afternoon in her cell, her voice nearly inaudible among the clanking and banging sounds of the jail. Her famed blond hair had lost its tight curls and she was wearing a blue jail uniform, quite a contrast from the housewife chic look she first presented.
She and Hopkins had already started talking about the appeals, and that she was going to stick with him and he with her.
“I was not disappointed in Mr. Hopkins,” she said. “He did all he could–and he proved his points and backed up everything he said with evidence. I’m completely satisfied with his work. And he helped me here today when I was feeling bad. And I was feeling awful bad after the verdict, but he told me he thought public opinion was switching to myself and that would help in a new trial.
“You know, I’ve always believed in God,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “But last night after I came back from the courtroom, well, I guess I faltered a little. You know, thought some bad things. But I’m all right now. He will give me strength. I didn’t kill her and somebody will believe me.
“We’ll keep fighting.”
In his memoirs, Hopkins wrote that when the courtroom finally cleared the night of the verdict, he lingered, sitting alone at the defense table facing an empty jury box. He was soul-searching, trying to regroup himself and rededicate his efforts to the challenge lying ahead, to either free his client from the electric chair or to watch her die.
“There are some times in one’s life, owing to happenings and circumstances beyond one’s control, when one must be alone,” he said, “How long I sat there, I do not know. I was startled when I heard a voice inquiring if I was going to stay all night.”
It was Al Schottelkotte, the famed Cincinnati anchor and news director of WCPO-TV, who asked Hopkins if he had any comment.
Hopkins said he could only manage a shrug. He was thinking of Hover’s comment as he left the room: “Thank God that’s over.”
“How wrong you are,” Hopkins thought to himself. “It’s only just begun.”
I will be reading other “Lost Chapters and Deleted Scenes” from “Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress”, 7 p.m. August 21, 2014, at Miami Hamilton Downtown as an EXTRA! Edition of my “Yesterday’s News” series. No charge.