Centennial murder of Jewish man in Erie sparks new interest
A 100-year-old unsolved murder is receiving renewed attention thanks to the victim’s granddaughter and some locals interested in preserving the story.
The case, which was “a case that has been whispered from generation to generation,” has long captivated Kipp Dawson, she said on a May 19 show with The Battle for the Homestead Foundation.
With the help of Chatham University associate professor Lou Martin and his students Zoe Levine and Claire Rhode, Dawson finally learned more about the death of his grandfather, Polish-born Herman Martius.
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On April 5, 1922, Martius’ body was discovered in his ransacked dry goods store on West 18th Street in Erie. Reports showed that an ax was used to deliver two blows to the back of Martius’ head. At the time of the murder, Martius’ wife, Beatrice, and their children, Milly and Ruth, were visiting family in New York. Upon her return to Erie, however, local police accused Beatrice and a male friend of having an affair and plotting the murder for insurance purposes. The newspapers went wild. When Beatrice and her friend were exonerated, the media followed another possibility: perhaps some like-minded communist friends of Martius committed the crime. Without proof, however, that theory also failed, and the story largely disappeared from print, Dawson said.
Decades after the murder, Dawson interviewed his motherthe daughter of Beatrice, on the circumstances surrounding the death of Martius.
Dawson said his mother told him that Beatrice – who at the time of the murder was a 26-year-old Jewish immigrant and not yet a US citizen – had gone to the mayor and asked him to plead with local authorities to find out who killed her husband.
The interaction, according to Dawson, led to the mayor leaning over his desk and telling Beatrice, “If you were my own daughter, I would tell you the same thing: it’s impossible to find the criminal.” The best thing for you and your children would be to sell your store and get out of here because it’s not safe for you here.
Beatrice took the mayor’s advice and, accompanied by her two young daughters, left for Los Angeles.
Dawson knows little about the trip, she said, but according to the family’s story, a community of “stiles” offered shelter and food along the way. Finally, after reaching California, Beatrice found earthlings, like those in Erie, and started over with her young offspring. “They were received into a similar community in Los Angeles, where my mother was carried in the warmth of solidarity and a family determined to carry on – Yiddish theater and socialism, determination and love. In a way, I can tell you a lot of the story because I’m a product of that story,” Dawson said.
Martius’ murder remained largely a family tradition until 1990, when Dawson visited his grandfather’s grave. With the help of Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, Dawson located the headstone, which read “Herman Martius innocently killed April 7, 1922”.
Reading a diary entry from 1990, Dawson said, “Standing and kneeling beside me and looking behind me at a patch of grass still wide open, I could sense the presence of the mourners, his comrades and friends, and my grandmother who paper the reports had to be escorted away from services when she broke down.
Dawson said the same community that supported her grandmother “was able to support her throughout her life.”
In turn, Dawson’s grandmother returned the favor – much like she had before Martius was murdered. Beatrice, like her late husband, had supported Bolshevik communist efforts to overthrow Tsar Nicholas II. But even after reaching the United States, the Martiuses maintained political ties. Herman Martius served as treasurer of the Erie branch of Friends of Soviet Russia and in that capacity raised funds for famine relief in the new Soviet Union, said Claire Rhodes, a Chatham graduate who researched the murder while in college.
Rhodes pointed to a report from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Investigation (a precursor to the FBI) and said the group was tracking socialist activities when Martius was killed.
Because of the Red Scare and fear of far-left immigrants, “it was a very tense time to be a radical,” Rhodes said.
Along with the murder of Martius, anti-Semitism was also increasing, said Chatham associate professor Lou Martin.
Citing research conducted by John Craig, professor emeritus of history at Slippery Rock University, Martin said that in June 1921 – a year before Martius was murdered – the Ku Klux Klan sent a recruiter to Pittsburgh who, at in turn sent a recruiter to Erie.
The latter left Erie in February 1922, shortly before Martius’ murder “but he had been actively recruiting for several months,” Martin said. Then in April 1922, the same month that Martius was killed, “the Klan made a public appearance in western Pennsylvania with a series of burnt crosses.”
Across the United States, there was increased violence against Jews, and in Erie it was no different, said Zoe Levine, a former Erie resident and Chatham graduate who also researched the murder of Martius while at university.
“Much of this happened because of the ostracism of American Jews by non-Jewish elites, including the forced Americanization on American Jews,” Levine said.
Even within the free and democratic United States, Martius was in danger because of his heritage and political views.
“We can assume that the rise in anti-Semitism, nationalism and anti-socialism may have caused this targeted attack,” Levine said.
Martius’ murder remains a mystery and the killer is unknown, Rhodes said, but “I will leave that to your own decision or judgment.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be contacted at [email protected]