The Devil She Knew

Grandma was tough as nails. Generations later, a family discovers the reason why.

One summer night in the early 1960s, my grandmother spotted my brother Charlie and me tossing rocks in the alley behind our house in Springfield, Ohio. Grandma Stella summoned us inside, pointed an index finger back at the gloomy passageway, and warned us that bad men lurk in dark alleys.

By then, Grandma was a widow in her 60s, still working as a hospital nurse and employing old-school practices such as bathing us in scalding-hot water—a ritual accompanied by fierce rubdowns with a bar of soap. She was protective and stern, nobody’s fool. Even though we were only kids, we could tell that seeing us play in the alley struck a painful nerve. With precious little preamble, she launched into a grisly tale that destroyed whatever Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of her turn-of-the-century youth we may have harbored.

Grandma was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1896. It was there, as a 6-year-old, that she was strangled and stabbed by a knife-wielding stranger. Charlie and I stood rapt as she described it: the blood running down her horrified face that startled the “kidnapper” (as she called him); her escape as she wrestled free and ran screaming for help. Grandma claimed that she bled so badly she left a trail of gore that guided her family back to the alley—and to her 4-year-old sister, Hattie, who lay unconscious after being struck by the attacker.

Then Grandma offered us proof. She leaned forward and parted the white hair atop her skull, exposing a gruesome 60-year-old indentation left by the attacker’s knife.

Her tale was mesmerizing. We were slack-jawed: She was the coolest grandma ever. Still, this terrifying revelation took a while to process. My brother and I kept it to ourselves. Surely our five siblings and parents already knew, we thought. Such a chilling piece of family history could not have been a secret.

But in the intervening years, the secret never came up and my memory of it faded. Until last December, when I was working out a plan to take my sister Pat to the once-German neighborhood in Hamilton where Grandma Stella Motzer Kennedy grew up. Pat is a nationally recognized quilt artist as well as our family’s obsessive genealogist, and I love joining her on field trips when she heads out to explore our European immigrant roots in Ohio. Pat and I were relating the plans for the Hamilton trip to our 90-year-old father when, apropos of nothing, I said: “Maybe we’ll find that alley where Grandma was stabbed on the head.”

They both look puzzled and took it as a humorless joke. Then they saw I was serious. “My mom never told me anything like that,” Dad insisted.

It turns out she likely never told any of her children; only my brother and I seem to have heard Grandma’s story. Had she made it up to scare us? Was the family thriller I had savored since childhood completely bogus?

Important events of the forgotten past often lurk on the Internet, so I turned to Google. A few keystrokes and there it was: a news brief in the September 25, 1902, edition of the Butler County Democrat, about an assault on young Stella Motzer. The incident, declared the Democrat, was “the most horrible and fiendish crime which was ever committed in the history of Hamilton.” Grandma Stella didn’t show us that wicked scar for nothing. It happened.

With a timeframe secured, Pat and I scoured microfilm of old Hamilton papers and court records. We discovered dozens of headlines in newspapers—not just in Ohio but nationwide—that confirmed Grandma’s account. But it was more complex and more grim than I could have ever imagined. Grandma went to her grave in 1970 having withheld from nearly everyone the horror she lived through—a hideous attack, followed by a traumatic trial. And then, in a bizarre twist to the tale, the discovery that she’d escaped evil incarnate.

Alfred Knapp, an early 20th-century serial killer, preyed on young women in Cincinnati and Hamilton
Alfred Knapp, an early 20th-century serial killer, preyed on young women in Cincinnati and Hamilton

Photograph Courtesy the Ohio History Connection

The newspaper accounts I found mirrored Grandma’s version of the crime, and the weeks of sensational coverage that followed painted a bigger picture: a manhunt with police and bloodhounds; the predictions of a neighborhood “fortune teller”; Hattie’s life hanging by a thread; rumors of an angry mob gathering at the jail; days of courtroom drama.

The case remained unsolved for nearly two years until a jailhouse confession elevated the crime to front-page news once again: Grandma’s real attacker was the handsome playboy Alfred Knapp—“Knapp The Strangler,” a serial killer whose crimes fascinated early 20th-century America. Born in Indiana, Knapp spent much of his adult life behind bars, but still managed to strangle five young women, including three females in Cincinnati in 1894, and his third wife in Hamilton in 1902. In August 1904, hours before he was strapped to the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Knapp voluntarily confessed in writing to also attacking Stella and Hattie Motzer. Grandma’s childhood nightmare was part of a grisly chapter of American crime history.

More than a century later, the gravel alley where Grandma fought free of Knapp is still there, now surrounded by boarded-up houses and empty lots. But a short stroll away on Central Avenue, newer apartments have taken the place of Koerber’s grocery store, where the Motzer sisters stood outside, gazing into the store windows on the warm evening of September 16, 1902. A smiling, 40-year-old Knapp approached them and promised candy if they followed him a few yards away into the alley off Central Avenue between Washington and Hanover Streets.

Why did the young girls follow a stranger into the alley? Besides the lure of candy, they perhaps had a false sense of security: Their own family lived next to Koerber’s, and their aunt and uncle lived just a stone’s throw from the alley on Hanover Street. It was a more innocent time, and they were, in the truest sense, at home in their surroundings.

Reading the newspaper reports, it’s clear that the attack was as brutal as Grandma had reported. Knapp made quick work of 4-year-old Hattie, knocking her unconscious with a blunt instrument. He grabbed 6-year-old Stella by the neck and stabbed her on the head with a “knife that she saw in the moonlight,” reported The Daily Republican-News, Hamilton’s local newspaper. Her fierce determination to get away led her mother to later tell a reporter, “We have always found it hard to hold her.” When the family found Hattie in the alley her state was grave. Newspaper headlines reported her “semi-comatose” and near death. It took several days, but eventually Hattie recovered.

Grandma’s escape and run for help had scared away the attacker and spared her sister’s life, but in the court case that followed it also led to her falsely accusing an innocent man. And this may be why she kept the lurid tale to herself for all those years.

Young Stella first said she was unsure of the assailant. But within hours of the attack, she blamed Joseph Roth, a 34-year-old horse cart vendor who regularly sold homegrown vegetables in the alley. He knew the Motzer family, and days before, happily bounced the Motzer girls on his knees. In the early morning hours after the attack, the Dayton Police claimed that two of their bloodhounds traced a scent from the girls’ clothing to the shanty home a half-mile away where Roth lived with his ailing parents. Despite his persistent and loud protests, Roth was arrested.

A trial in Butler County Common Pleas Court was set for March 1903. County Prosecutor Warren Gard, a future U.S. Congressman, handled the case for the state. But it was already on shaky ground. Shortly after the attack, Fred Koerber, owner of the grocery, had told police that the man outside of his store on the night of the attack was not Joseph Roth—whom Koerber knew—but a stranger. And a veteran Hamilton policeman told reporters that the bloodhounds did not sniff their way to the Roth house; rather, they were led there. The papers cited other Hamilton cops convinced of Roth’s innocence, adding to the mounting evidence that the state was prosecuting the wrong man. Then the discovery of a ghastly series of murders indelibly marked my grandmother’s conscience for the rest of her life.

Less than two weeks before Joseph Roth’s trial was set to begin, Alfred Knapp confessed to the strangling death of his third wife, Hannah, in Hamilton on December 22, 1902.

The details were sensational: Knapp had rented a horse and wagon, folded Hannah’s lifeless body into a wooden box, and carted it to the Great Miami River south of town, where he slid the box into the frigid water. When police finally caught up with him a few weeks later in Indianapolis, he had already remarried. On February 26, 1903, he confessed to not only Hannah’s murder, but to the strangulation deaths of four other females. One week after his confession, Hannah Knapp’s naked and decomposed body was found floating in the Ohio River near New Albany, Indiana.

By then, the Cincinnati police had long given up on three high-profile downtown murders from 1894—the same year that Knapp was living downtown in a Central Avenue apartment building with his second wife, Jennie. Now, from his Hamilton jail cell, Knapp practically bragged about the Cincinnati murders to reporters. On June 21,1894, he said, he had strangled little Emma Littleman and hid her tiny body under boards at a lumber yard near Gest Street. Then on August 1 of that same year, he strangled a former girlfriend named Mary Eckhart in a house on Walnut Street. His motive: He feared that Mary would tell Jennie that he had taken up with another girl, Hannah, who became his third wife.

One week after killing Mary Eckhart, Knapp said, he argued with Jennie while walking along the Miami and Erie Canal (now Central Parkway) on Liberty Street in downtown Cincinnati. “I sat her down on the bridge and choked her to death,” Knapp told reporters. Then, he tossed her lifeless body into the canal. The Cincinnati police inexplicably ruled both the Mary Eckhart and Jennie Knapp deaths as suicides.

“Knapp the Strangler” was dream copy for national newspapers, which compared him to London’s “Jack the Ripper.” He seemed to delight in detailing his methodology. “I always kill from behind,” he told The Cincinnati Times-Star. “I get them in front of me. Then, I clutch them by the throat, placing my knee on the back and bend them over. They struggle, but not long. They look into my face, but I don’t mind that…. Some kind of a desire to kill took hold of me, and I could not resist the temptation.” Just as cruel, Knapp could turn on melodramatic remorse when he felt the urge. When Herman Littleman, father of Emma, confronted the criminal in his cell, the Times-Star reported that Knapp broke into tears, telling him “I am as sorry that the child is dead as you are.”

Days before Roth’s trial began on March 10, 1903, Knapp bragged that he could help the accused. When this reached Roth’s attorney, Allen Andrews, he subpoenaed Knapp to testify. By then, local cops thought that Knapp was the only guy capable of the grisly attack on the Motzer girls. His anticipated appearance created such a mob scene in downtown Hamilton that police choreographed his transfer from the county jail across the street to the courthouse like Elvis Presley at a concert. Over protests from prosecutor Gard, Knapp took the stand. The judge told Knapp that he was not on trial for the Motzer crime, and he did not have to answer incriminating questions. Of course, that didn’t stop Roth’s attorney from asking them.

“Did you call at the home of Mrs. Motzer a few days after the assault, posing as a detective?” Andrews asked Knapp. The judge sustained Gard’s objection.

“Did you state that Roth was innocent and you could clear him?” Andrews asked. Again: Objection sustained.

Andrews tried to place Knapp in the vicinity of the crime that night, but Knapp claimed he had visited a nearby doctor. After a few minutes, he stepped down from the stand and a swarm of curious spectators followed him to the jail. Andrews had achieved his goal: Create further doubt with jurors as to Roth’s guilt by focusing on Knapp. Andrews mocked the use of Dayton Police bloodhounds as evidence (“This man can’t be hounded into the penitentiary!”), lined up strong character witnesses for Roth, and destroyed the prosecutor’s timeline that placed Roth at the scene.

The five-day trial must have been excruciating for Grandma’s family. Prosecutor Gard put young Stella, now 7 years old, through agony. He made her touch Roth’s shoulder in the packed courtroom, and then display her hideous scalp wound. She cried so hysterically the proceedings were delayed. After deliberating for just 20 minutes, the jury acquitted Roth. He wept, “thanked his liberators in his humble German way,” the Republican-News reported, “and hastened home to tell his old mother, sick and feeble.”

The paper pulled no punches speculating on the true attacker: “The verdict meets with the general endorsement of public opinion and there are many who think that despite his denial, it was Alfred Knapp in reality who committed the crime. It was the dastardly work of some fiendish degenerate and he seems to fill the bill.”

Four months later, in July 1903, prosecutor Gard redeemed himself with the high-profile trial in Butler County Common Pleas Court in which a jury found Knapp guilty of murdering Hannah Knapp, despite Knapp’s plea of insanity. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal, and Knapp’s electrocution was scheduled for August 1904.

Knapp remained defiant with reporters. “I will never go to the electric chair,” he told the Times-Star. “I still have friends in Cincinnati who will now come to the front and save me.”

When no savior appeared, Knapp made the best of his imminent demise. Hours before his electrocution at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus on August 19, he took out his accordion and played a lively rendition of “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” As the electric chair was prepared, Knapp produced one last written confession:

To Whom It May Concern: Joe Roth is innocent of the attack on the Motzer children on September 16, 1902. I done that myself, but there was no intention of committing rape on them. Now, I am doing this to clear Joe Roth’s name. I assaulted them myself. Alfred Knapp.

Then, it was showtime: 1,750 volts killed “Knapp the Strangler” in minutes. Prison warden W.D. Hershey declared the execution “the most successful I ever had.”

Afterward, Dr. H.H. Hoppe, a Cincinnati neurologist, examined the strangler’s brain and declared him perfectly sane. In an apparent publicity stunt, the Columbus funeral home charged with handling his interment opened at 6 a.m. so that more than 3,000 curiosity seekers, “of all ages and races,” could view Knapp “calmly reposing in a handsome casket of black cloth with silver handles,” the Republican-News reported. The Cincinnati chapter of the Daughters of America (Knapp’s mother was a member) showered the serial killer’s casket with flowers and white carnations.

Back in Hamilton, my grandma’s father, Charles Motzer, engaged in damage control. Reading the old news clips, I felt the embarrassment in his quotes as he raised the absurd possibility that Joseph Roth and the Motzer family could resume their friendship. He told the paper that he and his wife would apologize to Roth “for their misdirected suspicion,” explaining that even they had come to believe Knapp attacked their daughters.

The attack, the trial, and the public humiliation were capped by one more family tragedy. In January 1905, Grandma’s 35-year-old mother died suddenly, leaving seven children. I’m inclined to believe that the strain of it all contributed to her death—and I’m convinced it deeply affected my grandmother, who left her hometown as soon as she was old enough.

Grandma Stella finished high school, graduated from nursing school, and took a job at Springfield City Hospital. In 1923, she fell in love with and married one of her patients, Joseph Kennedy, my grandfather. My father, Charles Kennedy, was born a year later, and three children followed. They lived in a close-knit Irish-Catholic enclave called “Irish Hill” near downtown Springfield—the community where the Kennedy side of my family had lived since arriving in Ohio in the 1860s.

“Mom was one of the only college-educated people in our neighborhood,” my dad recalled. “They called her ‘the Nurse’ and relied on her for every ailment or bad accident.” Her husband, who spray-painted motors for a living, was stricken with tuberculosis and died in 1944, leaving Grandma Stella as the family’s sole support. In the early 1960s, she lived as a resident nurse in the Clark County Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Springfield. She died of a stroke in 1970; five years later, my father, a state hospital superintendent, reopened the Springview facility as a state-operated care center for the developmentally disabled.

Uncovering a dark secret can have healing powers. The Knapp discovery has helped my dad, a resident at Cincinnati’s Evergreen Retirement Community, better understand a mother who had all the technical skills of a caregiver but few of the nurturing qualities. She was a woman who sacrificed everything to build a life for her family, and yet she was not naturally affectionate; she seemed to lack any inner peace.

“When I was a kid, our visits to Hamilton were strange,” Dad recalled. “The Motzers were not happy people. They didn’t smile or laugh, or seem happy to see us. It makes sense now.” The revelation led Dad to reach out for a long talk with his lone surviving sibling, a younger brother. Their conversation ended with an emotional tribute to their mother. “I only wish my sister and brother had known this story before they died,” he said afterward.

My father now derives deep satisfaction in knowing about the daring escape of a 6-year-old girl from a seasoned serial killer in a dark alley. For him, that’s the bottom line: Grandma Stella always took care of business.

“What an evil son of a bitch that man was,” he said after reading the 112-year-old accounts of Knapp. “Mom got away when so many of these poor girls couldn’t. She fought free and she saved her sister’s life.

“And that part,” he added, “doesn’t surprise me a bit.”

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