The Work of a Fiend: The Attempted Abduction of Hattie and Stella Motzer

In this deleted chapter from The First Celebrity Serial Killer: Confessions of the Strangler Alfred Knapp, who makes a brief appearance at the end of this narrative, True Crime Historian Richard O Jones explores the attempted abduction of two little girls on the streets of Hamilton.

The whole Southeast Side of Hamilton was alarmed and horrified the Tuesday evening of September 16, 1902, when “some brute wearing the mask of man” dragged Stella and Hattie Motzer, ages 6 and almost 5, into a dark alley.

With great indignation and florid prose, the Evening Democrat speculated that the brute had “the intent to outrage and desecrate the sanctity of the little temples which God had created for the indwelling of pure womanhood, choke and beat them until both were gravely and perhaps fatally injured and then becoming frightened, the devil incarnate fled, leaving one of his little victims lying in the weeds of a vacant lot to die for all he knew.”

The event started around 6:50 p.m. on a clear night with a nearly full moon,  when Hattie and Stella, daughters of the butcher Charles Motzer, were standing in front of Koerber’s Grocery at Central Avenue and Washington Street next to the family meat market. A man coming out of the shop noticed them looking into the show window. He told the girls that if they went with him, he would get them some candy. The girls innocently followed.

As they walked by an alley running to the west of Central Avenue, between Hanover and Washington streets, directly behind the house and office of Dr. Krone. The man grasped both girls by the throat and dragged them through one alley and into another that intersected until he reached a vacant lot covered with weeds.

Behind the cover of the high weeds, he struck Hattie, the younger child, with something blunt and threw her to the ground. He grabbed Stella again and drew a knife, cutting the girl on the head, leaving a three-inch long knife wound on the top of her head and a v-shaped end on her forehead, but recovered enough of her wits to start running as soon as his hands were free of her. She fled screaming and covered in blood to the home of her aunt and uncle Jennie and Gottlieb Motzer, 240 Hanover St. The crying child tried to tell what happened and Jennie understood enough to make a dash to the alley, where she found baby Hattie staggering, bleeding and screaming. Jennie scooped her up into her arms and the child immediately fainted. The whole neighborhood heard the alarming screams and rushed into action, and an angry search began for the assailant. Rumors went out that the girls were dead.

By the time Captain Lenehan and Officer Cameron from the Hamilton Police Department arrived, the assailant was nowhere to be found.

Aunt Jennie and some neighbors carried the girls home. They slipped in and out of consciousness, both bleeding and badly choked. Hattie was in worse condition than Stella, though Stella bled profusely from the cut.

Doctors C.A. Shaeffer and T.D. Sharkey came to tend to them and declared their condition serious, recovery doubtful. The doctors worried that even if Hattie were to survive the wounds, her mind might be damaged.

Hamilton may have had its share of thuggery and murder in its 110-year history, but assaults against young girls were unheard of, and so as news of the crime spread through the neighborhoods, people started to gather by the hundreds. The climate was right for a lynching, but the villain, fortunately for himself, had managed to slip into the dusk. The police had no good clue, only what could be gleaned from the terrified Stella, that he was not a large man and he wore a hat.

So Director of Police Mason phoned Dayton to arrange the use of bloodhounds. The last CH&D train of the night had already left Dayton, so a special car had to be arranged to bring the animals and two handlers to Hamilton. They arrived at 1:15 a.m. and went immediately to the scene of the assault. The Motzer provided police with the clothes the girls had been wearing. The dogs took a sniff and immediately picked up a scent.

Named Bones and Queen, regional heroes with three convictions to their credit and a reputation for never letting a man get away, the dogs set out on a winding trail, followed by several police officers and a large crowd of angry neighbors. They first went to Aunt Jennie’s house. Their handlers urged them forward. The animals went down South Avenue, circled around a house there, then proceeded to Peck’s addition, an area of frequently-flooded small farms in Fairfield Township, not yet a part of the city of Hamilton. They circled twice around the house of the Roth family on Paskel Avenue. The dogs went through the open door and straight for the room of Joseph Roth, a gardener and formerly a conductor on the city street cars. Queen, pausing only to take a quick sniff at some clothes hanging on a wall, jumped up onto Joe Roth’s bed with him in it.

Trembling and frightened at the commotion, Roth said, “What do you want?”

“You,” said Officer Harrington, weapon drawn and pointed at the man. “There’s your man, Captain.”

Roth started swearing at the policemen, calling them “toughs” and telling them to get out of his house.

“Don’t swell up or we’ll take you down,” Roedel said.

“All right,” Roth said. “I ain’t afraid to go down with you.”

Officer Ernst Fischer stayed at the front of the house while the dogs went up the backstairs. While they were waiting for the police wagon to take the prisoner to the police station, Ernst asked him what had gone on between him and Motzer. Roth said nothing.

“Why, you are friends, aren’t you?”

“Yes, we’re friends,” Roth said in a heavy German accent. “Why? Is there anything the matter with Motzer.”

Police arrested him and took him immediately to the police station, confiscating a Barlow knife in the hip pocket of his pants, the large blade covered with rust or blood. They also found a shirt with a red stain about the size of a dime. Roth said it was catsup. Police gave the shirt to Dr. Mark Millikin for analysis.

The thin, emaciated 36-year-old bachelor with a small black mustache sat trembling wide-eyed in his cell in a state of abject terror. His jailers thought he might be losing his mind.

When questioned by a reporter, Roth became greatly excited and denied any wrongdoing, claiming he wasn’t really sure what he was being accused of except that the men in the adjoining cells were talking about an assault on a little girl.

“Why should I want to harm a little child?” he said. “I worked for 10 years to get my home in Peck’s Addition and now I’m locked up and my old father and mother are lying at home ill.”

He said he had been home all evening and nowhere near the alley or that part of town where the girls were assaulted.

Neighbors claimed otherwise, however. Talk around Southeast Hamilton was that Charles Motzer and Joe Roth had a long-standing grudge. Scuttlebutt was that Motzer had hired Roth to do some garden work, then gave him a good beating for some unknown improper conduct at the Motzer home, and that Roth vowed to get even. Bertha Glinze, the daughter of Motzer’s neighbor, said she saw Roth lurking around near the butcher shop on Monday, the evening before the assault, and was beckoning the Motzer girls over to where he stood.

On the other hand, Stella knew Joe Roth, so why wouldn’t she have just said who it was rather than try to describe him?

Roth’s parents lived in the bottoms of Peck’s Addition, the poorest part of town, but within sight of the Lindenwald streetcar line. It was buried in the cornfields and shaded by a few weary trees, standing alone and secluded, far removed from nearby homes. “The place is the picture of loneliness,” the Republican-News reported, “and its atmosphere is one of loneliness.” The color of the house was “suggestively red,” the inside “would be but another story of abject poverty, of denial and sacrifice.” Both mother and father were indeed very ill, and complaining that Roth had refused to get a doctor for them. Roth’s father had been in bed for days and the mother too feeble to take care of any of the rooms, “and the result can better be imagined than described,” the Sun reported, such a filthy condition that the City Health Department sent a woman down to clean the place. The father, John George Roth, 64, would soon be removed to Mercy Hospital to live out his few final days. He would pass away from “general debility” on Oct. 3.

The outraged city still seemed to be in the mood for a lynching all day Wednesday, and men began to slowly gravitate to the police headquarters, where Roth was being held, and the county jail, where all prisoners eventually go. Talk in the downtown shops seemed to favor a lynching, too, as all manners of cowardly and degenerate deeds were now being rumored about Roth, that he must have been the man who had exposed himself to children that one day down along Crawford Run, and that his father was so ill because Joe had beat him senseless and broken two of his ribs. Realizing that the knots of men standing around town in earnest discussion could be a menace to the safety of the prisoner, police made preparations to ensure his security. The jail was riot-proof, much more secure than the police station, but it was two blocks away and across High Street, East Hamilton’s main thoroughfare.

When he met with reporters that afternoon, Roth was still perplexed.

“What I am doing in this dirty old place, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t see why they keep me locked up here and don’t give me a chance to prove my innocence. Why don’t they let me go home and tend to my old father and mother who are both ill in bed? I wouldn’t run away. Why should I when I ain’t guilty of anything. And then our little home is down there in Peck’s Addition and why should I want to leave? I wouldn’t go away if I had murdered a man even. I would stay and take the consequences. I’m not lying to you either, gentlemen. I wouldn’t stand here and lie to you men about a matter like this because I was raised different. I was brought up a Christian and I hate a lie. I had rather go to the penitentiary than tell a lie to you.

He said that after getting a plowshare sharpened in town on Tuesday afternoon, he went home about 4 p.m.

“After supper I sat on the steps and smoked a cigar until bed time,” he said. “I don’t remember whether I saw the little Motzer girls last evening. I know their father well — we are related — and I don’t see why he don’t come down here and get me out, for he knows I wouldn’t do anything like they say I did.”

He said that he was asleep when his dog, who slept at the side of his bed, woke him by running up and down the stairs and he heard the commotion of the bloodhounds and their pack of humans. He got up to look out the window, saw them moving away from the house around the corn crib. He went back to bed. A few minutes later, the commotion grew closer again and his dog ran back up the stairs and into Roth’s bedroom, followed by Queen, the female bloodhound.

“The dogs and men made an awful fuss,” he said. “I asked them to keep quiet as my father and mother were ill and then they ordered me to dress and took me to the Columbia Carriage works and from there in the patrol up here to the station. I don’t see how the dogs happened to come to my house unless they followed my dog in as they were going by.

“I tell you I’m not guilty, men, and I wish they would give me a chance,” he said.

At 7 p.m., officers closed the big double doors of the patrol wagon room at the city building so that the crowd that had gathered along Market Street could not see inside. Sheriff Peter Bisdorf, a man known for his cool head and easy demeanor, and a police officer quietly escorted Roth from his cell, out the rear of the building through the stables and into an alley. The trio moved quickly, sticking mostly to the alleys to avoid the pockets of men, and into the jail through the stables at the rear.

By 8 p.m., the crowd had swelled to several hundred. Sheriff Bisdorf knew the prisoner was secure, but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t get the crowd riled up enough to try something, so he called in all his deputies to guard the jail and stationed 20 police officers in the streets surrounding. The sheriff’s wife and children, who were frightened at the noise the mob made, were whisked away from their home adjacent to the jail to his parents’ house as an extra measure of safety.

Bisdorf had his deputies put out all the lights in the building and occasionally spoke authoritatively to the crowd. He remained cool and calm, but made it clear that any attempt for the crowd to move on the jail would end in a disaster. Bisdorf was a popular sheriff because he was a man of determination and integrity, and he would have protected the county property from a disorderly mob without hesitation. The people in the crowd knew him and knew not to mess with him. A few subversive allies spread the word through the crowd that Roth wasn’t in there anyway, that he had been taken to Dayton for safekeeping.

There was some talk of “taking care” of Roth, but the evidence against him wasn’t that strong, and he was generally a well-liked person. Except for a couple of fights, he hadn’t been in any real trouble, and he had been on the wagon for several years. He had shown fondness for children when he was a conductor on the trolley, but not so much as to peg him as a degenerate. The family had been on the Peck’s Addition farm for ten years and Joe did a lot of side labor for money as well as selling produce and chickens.

Some loudmouths spouted off about how a “necktie party” was usually conducted in Kentucky. About that time, the huge form of Lew Morner, an innkeeper in the nearby town of Venice, and a group of ten other big farmers from out that way crossed Court Street and went inside Tieman’s saloon next to the jail.

“There goes a posse to help the sheriff,” someone said loudly, and not much more was said about lynching.

Some of the younger men in the crowd started making humming noises, like an angry wind, the Democrat said, which may simply have been intended to frighten the prisoner.

It takes an instigator to turn a crowd into a mob, however, and since no one stepped forward to take leadership to challenge Sheriff Bisdorf and launch an assault, the crowd melted away nearly as slowly as it had gathered. By midnight, the streets around the jail were deserted except for the regular business of a weeknight in downtown Hamilton, which wasn’t much.

Hattie Motzer remained in a semi-conscious state through Wednesday evening, and even seemed to weaken. Dr. Shaeffer told the Motzers he was not hopeless, but said Hattie was in a precarious condition, but her mind seems to be gone. She occasionally roused enough to take a drink, then relapsed into a coma.

Dr. Shaeffer also called on the elder[1] Roths in Peck’s Addition. Mrs. Roth was somewhat better, but Mr. Roth was in bad condition and would probably die in a few days. Dr. Shaeffer called a nurse from the City Health Department to tend to them full-time. The nurse was Cora Armstrong, and she lived in Peck’s Addition between the Roth and Motzer homes. She said that Joe Roth was at her house between 6 and 7 p.m. Tuesday evening to leave his laundry and that when he left, he went toward town. Others are stepping forward, too, to say that Roth was in the city on Tuesday night, contrary to his claim to have been at home.

Police were not taking the bloodhound chase as proof positive of Roth’s guilt, however, even though they ran the same route a second time following the arrest. Queen and Bones were reported to have national reputations and their handlers believed them to be infallible, but a bloodhound’s testimony was not usually admissible in court. Only two judges in the country had ever allowed it. Police were told that a dog can follow a scent as old as 30 hours, so there was the possibility that they had tracked Roth’s scent from another time. Lenehan spoke to the old woman who lived in the house on South Street that the bloodhounds had circled. She told him that at around 8 p.m. Tuesday, a man went through her yard and frightened her. She called out, “Who’s there?”, but no one answered.

So police continued to work the case because even if Roth did it, they needed proof. Mrs. Dolf, who lived near Roth, said that she saw him about 4:50 p.m. Tuesday, contradicting his claim to have been home after 4. She said she remembered it distinctly because she remarked at the time, “Beer Can has a new hat.” Beer Can was the name the neighbors had for Joe Roth, even though he hadn’t had a drink in many years. She said he was going home at the time, and she saw him stop at Ebert’s shop.

Roth would say that he was, indeed, in Ebert’s shop buying some boiled ham, but insisted it was closer to 4 p.m.

Not everyone was trying to put a noose on Joe Roth, however. A saloon keeper on Central Avenue said that he served drinks to two strangers Tuesday evening after the assault. He heard one of them say, “Oh well, one of them is not hurt bad and the other will get well. You can just skip out and it will blow over in six months when we get back.” As they parted, one man said, “I’m going over into Kentucky,” and the other said, “I’m going to cross the river in the First Ward.”

It wasn’t much of a clue, but it was still a clue.

People still gathered outside the jail on Thursday, mostly younger men, but by the dozens, not hundreds, and no one made any suspicious moves.

Fred Koerber, the man who owns the Central Avenue grocery from which the Motzer girls were abducted, said that he remembers a strange man looking into his store window Tuesday evening as he was turning on the lights. The man then came in and bought something, but Koerber didn’t remember what it was. It may have been candy, as whatever it was, it was sold from the case.

Police took him to the jail to take a look at Roth. Koerber said it wasn’t the same man. The fellow he saw was smaller and had lighter hair and a light, stubby mustache.

The Motzers said they could not think of a reason why Roth would attack the little girls. Anna Motzer said she “never liked the actions of Roth,” but never had any real trouble with him. She said there was no long-standing feud between them, but three weeks earlier, Roth came around with some chickens he wanted to sell, but he wanted too much and she refused to buy them. She said there were no hard feelings from that. Joe was frequently around the neighborhood, passing time on the platform in front of the Motzer’s butcher shop and romping with the neighborhood children. In fact, just three weeks prior to the incident, Hattie fell asleep in Roth’s arms out there, and he exhibited a gentleness toward her that made the idea of him performing violence against them all the more incredulous.

Hattie seemed to come around a little bit on Thursday and took some nourishment. She spoke a few words with Dr. Shaeffer, but then lapsed back into a semiconscious state. As she was getting dressed that morning, Stella told her mother that their attacker was “the man with the white horse and red wagon who brings us tomatoes.” That is, Joe Roth.

The men in the Central Avenue saloon turned out to be a couple of chuckleheads talking loudly to get reactions from the people in the bar. They changed their tune soon enough when their shenanigans earned them a call from the police. But another saloon keeper, Joe Resch said that Roth had a couple of whiskeys in his place Tuesday afternoon, which was unusual because it had been several years since he had last taken a drink that anybody knew.

On Thursday night, with Roth still sticking to his story that he took laundry to Cora Armstrong and was home shortly after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, officials decided to put the sweat on him. Mason, Lenehan, Bisdorf, County Prosecutor Warren Gard and Joseph McNeely made every effort to grill him until he tripped himself up, but to no avail.

Over the weekend, Hattie made a miraculous recovery. By 1 p.m. Sunday, before her family left on a mission to identify her assailant, she was sitting up in a chair, her mind clear, laughing and playing like normal.

With no new developments and Stella Motzer now fully on the mend, police arranged an assembly of 15 men–police, press and prisoners–in the private office of the mayor around 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, for the inspection of Miss Stella Motzer.

Anna Motzer and Dr. Shaeffer accompanied Stella into the room. There was a long, oppressive silence as everyone seemed to expect that she would immediately point out her assailant. But after an awkward moment, Butler County Prosecutor Warren Gard finally asked, “Is there anyone here whom you saw Tuesday night?”

“Little Stella stood silent,” the Democrat reported. “Her eyes passed half way round [sic] the semi-circle of standing men then dropped to the floor. She had not seen Roth, who stood but a few feet from her looking intently at the child, slightly nervous but still willing to have the little one see his face and say the word which would fasten the crime on him or declare him an innocent man. He did not flinch nor attempt in any way to evade the eyes of little Stella. In fact, he seemed anxious that she should see him.

“The girl stood motionless and silent for fully five minutes.

Her mother attempted to speak to her. “Look around,” she said, but Capt. Lenehan stopped her.

“Don’t talk to her,” he admonished. “Let her alone.”

But before long, even he couldn’t take the suspense. “Walk around and look in their faces,” he said.

“Obeying the captain, Stella walked slowly around the room casting a glance into the face of each man. When she reached Roth, she looked at him as he faced her squarely. There was no indication of fright or excitement as she looked into the face of the man, but slowly walked over to where she had stood in front of her mother. A death-like stillness filled the room.”

It was Lenehan who spoke again: “Is there anyone in here that you know?”

She pointed her finger at Joe Roth.

“Him,” she said.

“Who is he?”

“Joe Roth.”

“Did you see him Tuesday night?”

The girl nodded her head.

Joe Roth seemed to maintain his calm, a marked contrast to the nervous and frightened man the police arrested in the wee hours of the morning less than a week ago. After another tense silence, Prosecutor Gard led the girl from the room to speak with her privately.

“I’d like to speak to her,” Roth said. “May I ask her some questions?”

No one responded to his request.

“Who told you to say it was Roth?” Gard asked her outside the room.

“I seed him myself,” she said, according to the Democrat. “I know.”

“Did he come out of the story before he talked to you?”

The girl nodded.

“Did he give you anything to go with him?”

The girl shook her head.

In spite of the lack of evidence and the tentative (to say the least) identification of the assailant by the 6-year-old victim, Joseph Roth was formally charged with two counts of assault with intent to commit murder. His bond was set at $1,000, and unable to post, he was returned to the county jail.

Despite the reports of their initial disbelief over Roth’s alleged part in the assault on their daughters, as days passed the Motzers became more convinced that Roth was the man, and became even more convinced after seeking the advice of Josephine Kopp from Cincinnati, a leader in the Psychic Research Society and the Spiritual Endeavor Society. Motzer invited her to give a second opinion as she had been told a week prior to the assault on her daughters by a local fortune teller Mrs. Bouldress, who lived on Hanover Street, that a great calamity would visit her family in a short time, and that a man who was considered a warm friend would prove to be their most bitter enemy and that she should not allow him to come into the house. She said that within “two days, two weeks or two months” officers of the law would have business at the Motzer house. Bouldress said the sorrow would come through the children, but she could not foretell the exact nature of the disaster. At the time, Anna paid no attention to the idle talk of fortune tellers, but recent events had made a firm believer of her.

Kopp said that on Tuesday night, the assailant had picked up one of the children by her clothing and threw her against a fence. She said the authorities unquestioningly had the right man and his guilt would be proven beyond doubt at a later date.

Kopp’s reading made a profound impression on Anna Motzer, and she was determined that Joe Roth should pay for his crime.

On Monday, after the indictments were filed, a man who said his name was Bevis called on the sheriff’s office to speak to the prisoner, but was refused. The man went on to the Motzer home, asking questions. Anna Motzer treated him cautiously because he acted so strangely. He told her, for instance, that he was a private detective and that she would see him around as he conducted his investigation, but he would not recognize him as he was a master of disguise. He assured her, however, that he would give her a sign to let her know it was him.

On Sept. 29, Roth’s attorney Allen Andrews posted bond for him and allowed him to go home to his sick and dying parents. His father was so ill that Roth accompanied him to Mercy Hospital, where he would die within a week.

When Captain Lenehan delivered the accused wife strangler Alfred Knapp to the Butler County Jail in March, 1903, Roth was still awaiting trial.

Was Joe Roth guilty? What role did the wife strangler Alfred Knapp have to with the case? Read about the surprise witness at Roth’s trial and a stunning revelation from the Ohio Penitentiary Death Row in Confessions of Alfred Knapp, due Spring 2015 from History Press.




[1] The newspapers continually described the Roths parents as “aged” and “elderly,” but they were all, in fact, in their early 60s.