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. On the first day of the trial after jury selection, June 12, 1959, the court made a field trip to the relevant scenes of the crime: The dead-end street where Edythe said the accident took place, the Klumpp home in Mt. Washington, and to Cowan Lake in Clinton County, where Louise Bergen’s body had been found.
In this deleted scene from Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal, (History Press, 2014), we travel with Edythe and the court:
Edythe’s attorney Foss Hopkins passionately objected to the jury going to Clinton County.
“We do not believe Lake Cowan has anything to do with this case,” he said. “Our client did take Mrs. Bergen’s body there in an auto trunk, poured gasoline on it and did try to cremate and disfigure the body. We are not denying it. It is a horrible, despicable situation. This is a first degree murder case and something that happened afterward, such as taking the body to Clinton County, I don’t believe has anything to do with premeditation or deliberation. I believe you will do irreparable damage to her by having the jury view the place where the body was burned. We will not object if the prosecutor can tie in the burning with the premeditation charge in the indictment.”
Judge Gusweiler overruled the objection, but warned the jury to not play detective or search for new clues.
“It is not the function of the jury to try and gather evidence,” he said. “The purpose of the visit is so that the jury might better understand the evidence and testimony it will hear later.”
On Friday morning, the trial of Edythe Klumpp began in earnest with the field trip. First they went to the courthouse basement to view Edythe’s ‘56 Chevy. Hopkins had objected to their seeing it since its seats had been removed and “it looks like a truck.” But the judge ruled that it was OK if there had been changes to the car since the crime was committed as long as the jury was informed of those changes.
Edythe stood back some 15 feet from the car, her back to a wall, and when the bailiff threw back the tarp that covered it, she showed her first sign of emotion in public, daubing tears from her eyes. She looked away from the jury when it walked by her after studying the car.
A large crowd gathered outside the courthouse to see them off. Edythe seemed to be pretending they weren’t there.
The defendant rode in an unmarked Sheriff’s car driven by a city detective. It was her first time in the outside world since she had been jailed in the middle of November, but she told reporters, “I don’t feel good.”
Her driver told reporters that she was “shaky” during the first leg of the trip and wished he had brought some smelling salts. As they visited the scenes, she seemed to lose the composure she had shown throughout the jury selection. She trembled and seemed close to tears at the Swifton Center. She refused to get out of the car when the tour stopped at Caldwell Circle, but sat inside and sobbed aloud. Hopkins tapped on the window and asked her if the car was parked where the jury was standing.
“No,” she said, “it was over this way farther.”
When the jury left, Hopkins asked her to get out of the car, and in calm, hushed tones she pointed out the place where the car was parked, “just about here, half way on the cement.”
When they got to her former home in Mt. Washington, she rode to the top of the hill in the deputy’s car while the bus transporting the jurors, unable to negotiate the dead end, dropped the jury off at the bottom. It turned out to be quite a slog for some of them; they were an elderly group for the most part.
Edythe said she was feeling better but stayed in the car and was soon sobbing furiously again. She had sold her share of the house to her ex-husband Bob Klumpp, who was now living there with their children. No one was home during the inspection.
Edythe did not make the long ride to Lake Cowan, with the judge’s permission, and returned to jail. Hopkins continued on the tour.
It was “a pleasant day for a drive in the hot sun,” he wrote. A group of swimmers and sunbathers paused in their play to gawk at the jurors as they disembarked, marching behind Prosecutor Hover toward the charred stubs of willows where the body had been partially cremated. They paused for a moment, then without a word from anyone, they all seemed to turn in unison and started walking back toward the bus. State Highway Patrolman Robert Dunbar was also on the scene. He was the only police officer still working on the case whose involvement began with the discovery of the charred body on the beach, although his role was now much diminished. He did not speak and no one spoke to him. After driving around other key spots–where the glasses case and shoe were found–the air conditioned bus went back to Cincinnati and the jurors were set free for the weekend.
Featured Photo: Cincinnati Enquirer, June 13, 1959.