This piece by David Sibray originally appeared March 14 in West Virginia Explorer. It is reprinted here with permission.
On the morning of March 18, 1932, Harry Powers dropped through the floor of the gallows at the West Virginia Penitentiary and hung for 11 minutes before a team of physicians pronounced him dead. His body hung motionless, lips as still as ever, never revealing his thoughts about the murders with which he had been charged.
Who was Harry Powers, one of the first men in modern history to be labeled a serial killer? His barbarity has inspired much speculation. The 1953 novel “Night of the Hunter,” and the 1955 film of the same name, starring Shelley Winters and Robert Mitchum, were based on the tale. As recently as 2013, Jayne Anne Phillips in her novel “Quiet Dell” examined the case anew.
Harry F. Powers was born Herman Drenth in the Netherlands in 1892. In 1910, at age 18, he emigrated with his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, fourteen years later, at age 32, allegedly after having lived overseas, he moved to Quiet Dell, near Clarksburg, West Virginia, under the name Harry Powers. There he began to assume the character of an Oklahoma oil-stock promoter, the first of several aliases he adopted. A year later, after having responded to her advertisement in “Lonely Hearts Magazine,” he married Luella Strother, who owned a farm and nearby grocery store.
But his taste for lonely-hearts correspondence wasn’t satiated by finding a wife. He began to take out his own advertisements, posting false information in an attempt, apparently, to capture the attention of lonely, wealthy women. Many wrote in response. According to the U.S. Post Office, letters poured into Clarksburg at a rate of 10 to 20 per day. At about this time, Powers built a garage and basement behind his home.
The Eicher Murders
Using the name Cornelius O. Pierson, Powers began writing to Asta Eicher, a widowed mother of three who lived in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago. His trap set, he went to visit her in June, during which the couple left on a romantic interlude while the children — Greta, Harry and Annabel — remained with Elizabeth Abernathy, a sitter. Several days later, Abernathy received a letter from Eicher that indicated Pierson would be back to pick up the children. Afterward, one of the children, young Harry, was seen briefly at a Park Ridge bank, into which he had been sent to withdraw a check on the Eicher account. Tellers, who believed the check to be forged, declined the transaction, after which Powers and the children hastily departed.
The Lemke Murder
Sometime later, Powers began to correspond with Dorothy Lemke, of Northboro, Massachusetts, and persuaded her to move in with him in Iowa, where he claimed to live, and to withdraw $4,000 from her bank. She apparently did not notice that Powers had asked her to send her trunks to Fairmont, West Virginia, in care of Cornelius O. Pierson.
Meanwhile, police in Illinois began to investigate the disappearance of Eicher and her children. They inquired into her last known contacts, among whom was Cornelius O. Pierson of Clarksburg. Police in Illinois and West Virginia soon realized that no one named Cornelius Pierson lived in Clarksburg, though the description matched that of grocer Harry Powers, who they then arrested as a suspect. Sheriff Wilford B. Grimm of Harrison County obtained a search warrant, and the horrors of Quiet Dell quickly began to unfold.
Grimm and his deputies found four rooms secreted beneath the Powers garage. The small bloody footprint of a child, a burned bank book, blood-soaked hair and clothing — these they discovered in the damp and shadow. A crowd gathered as police began to dig into a new-made ditch behind the house. There the bodies of all five victims were found rotting.
Thirst for Blood
After his arrest, hysteria ensued. On September 20, 1931, thousands surrounded the Harrison County jail where Powers was being held and demanded that he be given to the mob. The Clarksburg Fire Department was forced to employ tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The trial, in Clarksburg, began on December 7 and lasted five days. So many people were in attendance that the venue was moved to Moore’s Opera House. After being found guilty, Powers was transported to Moundsville for state execution.
According to a newspaper in Camden, New Jersey, the thirst for blood had reached theatrical proportions: ”Moundsville had taken on a holiday festive appearance in preparation for the execution of the man whose crimes startled the world. Outside the prison a crowd gathered along the curbs. Automobiles were lined up for blocks.”
Only five of Powers’ victims were ever identified, though some researchers believe there were more. Patterson Smith, who authored a 1988 review of serial killings, proposed that Powers might have killed more:
“Police estimated that before his arrest in 1931 he had killed fifty victims, although that number seems highly doubtful. He confessed to killing only those five whose bodies were found buried next to his “murder garage,” wherein he bound and gassed his victims and watched in delight as they died.”
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