Dynamite and Diphtheria: The Strange Trial of Lloyd Wintersteen
In the early hours of September 10, 1896, the sleepy town of Bloomsburg became of the center of one of the most spectacular and diabolic murder plots ever concocted by the human mind. Poison, dynamite and deadly microbes-- these were the tools used by Clifton Knorr, a disgruntled son of a wealthy businessman hired by a prominent local lawyer to murder a former Congressman and poison Clifton's own stepmother.
Levi Waller was a leading citizen of Bloomsburg during the second half of the 19th century. Waller, a highly-regarded lawyer and politician, was the son of a noted Presbyterian minister, while his wife was the daughter of Charles Buckalew, the American ambassador to Peru. In spite of Waller's success, or perhaps because of it, he had many rivals scattered throughout Pennsylvania. His chief nemesis was another successful lawyer by the name of Lloyd S. Wintersteen.
Waller and Wintersteen had hated each other for years. The tension between the rival attorneys began, it was said, in a social feud that later carried over into the state's courtrooms. Wintersteen's wife, Ada Brewer, ran in the same social circles as Waller, and the two wives apparently detested the very sight of each other.
Together with his partner, Colonel Samuel S. Knorr, Wintersteen and his law firm represented some of the largest companies and most influential citizens of the region, routinely squaring off against Waller and his clients. It was Col. Knorr who had taken Wintersteen, then a young man filled with ambition, under his tutelage and turned him into a talented lawyer. This close friendship led Knorr and Wintersteen to make several business investments together; the pair acquired controlling interest of the Bloomsburg Iron Company in 1887. They also owned significant interests in other local companies, ranging from the Bloomsburg Car Company and the Bloomsburg Brass and Copper Company to the Keystone Machine and Foundry Company.
However, it was Colonel Knorr and Lloyd Wintersteen's involvement in the Bloomsburg Iron Company that kicked off the strange series of events that would soon capture the interest of newspaper readers all over the country.
When Colonel Knorr passed away in 1889, Wintersteen gained possession of two-thirds of his partner's stock in the iron company. Wintersteen wanted to obtain the remainder of the colonel's shares, but there arose a significant roadblock-- the colonel's widow.
Although they tolerated each other at social gatherings, Wintersteen had never taken much of a liking to the colonel's new wife. He believed that the only reason she had married his aging mentor and business partner was so that she could get her hands on Samuel Knorr's fortune.
Widow Knorr decided to hire a law firm in order to protect her share of of iron company stock. Her choice of legal counsel was none other than Levi Waller.
To say that the lawsuit was bitter would be an understatement; Wintersteen and Waller had long despised each other as rivals, but now that Wintersteen's fortunes were at stake, the legal proceedings reached a whole new level of acrimony. Curiously enough, the law offices of both men were located in the same building, and the private resident of Levi Waller was directly across the street from the home of the late Colonel Knorr.
There was still another family member caught in the tempest-- the widow's stepson, Clifton Knorr. Though Clifton and his stepmother lived under the same roof, their relationship had always been strained. After the colonel's death, Ms. Knorr became quite stingy with the family fortune, cutting off access to her stepson. This infuriated Clifton. As the colonel's only son, he considered himself the rightful heir to his father's wealth. Clifton Knorr ingratiated himself to Wintersteen, who often gave him money when his stepmother would not. Before long, Clifton became Lloyd Wintersteen's unofficial personal assistant. The two men were bound by one shared trait-- a murderous hatred of Levi Waller.
The lawsuit over the widow's share of iron company stock and the division of the dead colonel's estate dragged on for months and it eventually became clear to Wintersteen by January of 1896 that Waller had the upper hand from a legal perspective. But, rather than resigning himself to his fate, Wintersteen vowed revenge. His immense pride would never allow him to accept defeat; for it was Colonel Knorr, the brilliant attorney, who had taught him everything he knew about the law. Losing the suit over his mentor's estate to his most hated rival was something Wintersteen simply could not accept.
The revenge plot was concocted in June. Clifton Knorr and Lloyd Wintersteen met and discussed a plan to blow up Waller's home, using dynamite, with the lawyer and his family inside. Knorr would be the one to plant the explosive; to sweeten the deal, Wintersteen offered the young man $200 and promised him an additional sum of $5,000 as soon as the equity lawsuit was vacated. Knorr agreed. By month's end, he had managed to steal five sticks of dynamite, along with fuse and blasting caps, from Armstrong's Quarry near Bloomsburg. Knorr hid these items under a sidewalk.
September 9 was chosen as the night to murder Waller and his family. The plans were finalized during a meeting between Knorr and Wintersteen in Wilkes-Barre. Wintersteen said that he hoped the dynamite would "blow Waller to hell". Knorr returned to Bloomsburg and, at 1 o'clock in the morning, placed the explosive charge on Waller's porch and lit the fuse. Only the cap managed to explode, thanks to a defect in the wiring. Waller, awaked by the bang, surmised that it was of no importance and went back to sleep. Knorr gathered up the five sticks of dynamite and departed, deciding to make a second attempt later that night. He returned to the quarry, smashed the lock of the tool house, and stole six additional sticks along with additional caps and fuse. Knorr's second attempt, however, also failed to produce the expected results. Although the front of Waller's home was blown off, none of the occupants were injured.
On Christmas morning of 1896, Clifton Knorr was arrested in Reading by Detective William Henderson and committed to jail while awaiting trial for the explosion. He was charged with "throwing an explosive device with intent to destroy property and also with intent to take life". While in jail, Knorr made a confession and implicated Wintersteen. On Thursday morning, December 31, Lloyd Wintersteen was arrested on the charge of being an accessory. A preliminary hearing was held and Knorr was called as a witness. He swore that Wintersteen employed him to blow up Waller's residence. On February 1, Knorr and Wintersteen were indicted by a grand jury under seven separate bills, charging them with attempted murder.
In his desire to turn state's evidence, young Knorr told the jury that Wintersteen had made numerous previous attempts to murder Waller-- as well as the colonel's widow.
According to transcripts of the proceedings, Knorr stated that Wintersteen first broached the subject of disposing of his rival in November of 1895. Wintersteen allegedly gave Knorr $10 to go to a neighboring town and purchase a revolver. Knorr was then instructed to loiter outside of Waller's home and shoot him as he made his way to his law office. Knorr claimed that he did as he was told, but discovered that Waller was out of town.
Wintersteen, said Knorr, then came up with a plan to murder the colonel's widow. In December, Wintersteen paid Clifton Knorr to purchase a bottle of poison. At the time, Knorr was living with his stepmother at 16 East Fifth Street, directly across the street from the Waller residence. On two occasions, Knorr claimed, he slipped poison into his stepmother's teacup, but each time the cup was removed by a servant girl named Dora Moharter.
When this plot failed, Wintersteen turned his attention to diptheria. Not taking measures to prevent it, of course, but to spread it. In January Wintersteen sent away to New York for deadly diptheria germs which were to be introduced around the house in such a manner that Widow Knorr could not fail to contract the disease. Knorr placed the order and traveled to New York to pick up the diptheria baccilli. (Apparently, in 1896, it was possible to order purchase deadly bacteria without arousing anyone's suspicion.)
Clifton Knorr spread the germs around the house and all over his stepmother's clothing, but she never contracted the deadly disease.
Dora Moharter Takes the Stand
Moharter, the servant girl, substantiated Knorr's confession when she took the witness stand. Dora, who had been employed by the Knorr family for nine years, said that in December of 1895, she had attempted to pour the widow a cup of tea, but found that there was a white powder at the bottom of the teacup. Without giving much thought to the mysterious powder, she threw out the cup and gave the widow a different one. According to Dora, on the following morning, while she was in the kitchen, the door leading to the dining room was open a crack. She saw Clifton enter the dining room and empty a white powder into another teacup. Dora disposed of this cup as well after Clifton left the room.
By now Dora was suspicious of the stepson's intentions but didn't say anything. Clifton left for New York the next day. He returned three or four days later. Dora, who had now worked up enough courage to confront the young man, asked him what he had placed into the teacup. At first he denied having put anything into the cup, but he eventually revealed to Dora that the powder was just something "to settle her stomach". The servant girl was frightened; a few days earlier Ms. Knorr had told her: "Dora, I honestly believe I am poisoned." Nonetheless, Dora Moharter never went to the authorities to report her suspicions.
A Hooker Named Sallie
One of the more memorable witnesses who testified against Wintersteen was Sallie Gast, who lived in a boardinghouse in Reading, at the same address where Clifton Knorr rented a room after moving out of the Colonel's home. Gast was known to offer her services from the same building and had a reputation as a madam and callgirl.
The Philadelphia Times described her courtroom appearance during the Wintersteen trial in May of 1897:
Sallie Gast, buxom and smiling, dressed in a pale lavender suit with white lace trimmings, and wearing a profusion of jewelry, came upon the stand at 10 o'clock. Nobody asked her age, but she looks to be 30 and very well preserved.
Gast corroborated Knorr's confession. She said she had first met Wintersteen three years earlier when Knorr brought him to the brothel on Cherry Street. Wintersteen had visited the establishment seven times in 1896-- three times before the explosion and four times after. Just a few days before the dynamite attack a letter arrived for Knorr and Sallie Gast opened it. There was money inside. She gave Knorr the letter, who read it, and then said to Sallie, "Here is ten dollars, Sallie; Mr. Wintersteen sent it and I must go away."
Gast told the jury that Knorr left the house and wasn't seen again until the Monday evening after the explosion. However, Knorr had sent Gast a letter from Wilkes-Barre saying that he would be coming home soon. When Knorr returned he told Sallie that "there is hell up in Bloomsburg". He said that Waller's house had been blown up and that he was a prime suspect. He implored Sallie to swear that, if anyone asked, he had never left Reading.
But, as the jury would soon discover, women of ill repute usually make terrible witnesses.
During cross-examination by Mr. Shields, one of the attorneys for the defense, Sallie Gast admitted that she was known by at least three different names and that she "obtained her livelihood by conducting a house of ill fame". Shields concluded his cross-examination by asking if she had anything against Lloyd Wintersteen. Sallie said that she did not. "Did you not swear at the preliminary hearing that you were sore at Wintersteen because he was trying to to take 'Cliff' away from you?"
"Yes, I suppose I did," was Sallie's response.
A Hopeless Entanglement
The trial continued to drag on for three weeks. On June 12, the jury was discharged. After thirty-five straight hours of deliberating, they could not agree on a verdict. It was one of the messiest and chaotic trials to ever take place in Bloomsburg; during the lengthy proceedings, three jurors had fallen ill-- two of them suffering nervous breakdowns. This left Judge Ermentrout with quite a conundrum on his hands.
Some might wonder why Wintersteen did not request a change in venue, since it was a certainty that virtually every witness, juror, attorney-- and even the judge himself-- was well-acquainted with both Waller and Wintersteen. However, this proved a brilliant stroke of genius by Wintersteen and his defense team consisting of Fred Ikeler, J.H. Jacobs, Colonel Freeze and Shields. The confusion and mayhem was all part of a deliberate strategy to muddy the waters of justice and produce a mistrial.
But while Ikeler, who led the defense team, stated that the judge's decision to toss out the jury was "practically a victory for the defense", another attorney on Wintersteen's team, Colonel Freeze, was irate over Judge Ermentrout's decision. He stated that not only should the jury not have been discharged, but that every juror ought to be put in prison for a month. Freeze did not care to go through a whole new trial.
A Bizarre Turn of Events
The second Wintersteen trial was set for September of 1897. Much to the relief of Colonel Freeze, the sequel would never take place. Immediately after a second trial was called, both sides scrabbled to reach some kind of settlement, which they did, and the drama was concluded. The terms of the settlement were quite bizarre.
Wintersteen and Waller had reached a gentlemen's agreement, whereby Wintersteen consented to leave Bloomsburg and never return. Wintersteen disposed of all his business interests and promptly moved to New York City, leaving Clifton Knorr to fend for himself. In December of 1898, Wintersteen left the country and went to Cuba to engage in a new business enterprise.
Lloyd S. Wintersteen died in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, New York, on June 3, 1935 at the age of 86. By the time of his death, he had accumulated a vast fortune in real estate development along the Hudson River. Ironically, the wealth he left behind in Bloomsburg paled in comparison to the empire he created in New York. Agreeing to leave Bloomsburg was perhaps the best decision he ever made. Also ironic was the fact that Wintersteen managed to outlive almost every other person involved in the infamous trial, including the presiding judge, prosecutor and both Waller and Knorr-- as well as all 15 of the attorneys who participated. The only person involved who was still living at the time of Wintersteen's demise was the young servant girl of the Knorr family. Dora Moharter passed away in 1938 at the age of 68.
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