Friday, April 21, 2017

A Murder Most Foul: The Killing of Etta Demascek

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff

Did Alexander Demascek pay to have his wife killed?  That question had Schenectady abuzz during the summer of 1892.

Around noon on June 14, 1892, "the comely" Mrs. Etta Demascek was murdered in her home on Rotterdam Street in Schenectady.  A 12 year old girl, Gussie Frisch, heard a blow, a scream and what she described as a crunching sound “like a butcher cutting meat”.  She saw a man run out of the house, past a group of men on the Scrafford Hotel stoop and escape. 

View of the Scrafford Hotel in 1905. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The first suspect was a former boarder in the Demascek house, John Feltheimer.  He was accused of
the murder but quickly cleared when he was able to prove he was at his job at the locomotive works.  He decided to take on the search for the killer and had himself sworn in as a special officer and headed to New York City.  He apparently was successful because a month later, on July 16th, his information led to the arrest of Cornelius (Cornel) Loth, a 25 year old Hungarian immigrant, for the crime.  Loth was living and working in New York although he had previously spent time in Schenectady.  From the information Feltheimer gave the police, Alexander Demascek was also arrested for complicity in the murder of his wife.  

Cornelius Loth, The Confessed Murderer. 
Cornel Loth at first protested his innocence but then made a full confession to District Attorney Naylor and Assistant Police Chief DeForest.  He said that since February of 1892, Demascek was imploring him to kill his wife.  He gave Loth money on several occasions and promised a larger amount after Etta was killed.  Loth said he refused to do it, but on June 13th took the midnight train out of New York to Schenectady.  He arrived at 7:55 am on the morning of the 14th and immediately went to the Demascek house.  Mrs. Demascek knew him from his previous time in Schenectady and invited him in.  Her husband wasn’t at home but they chatted all morning in the middle room while a plasterer was at work in the adjoining kitchen.  At noon the plasterer left the house.  Mrs. Demascek asked Loth if he would like some lunch and gave him some bread and butter.  She said she was tired and went into the front room to lie down on the lounge and told him he could wait for her husband.  He could see her from where he was seated.  After about five minutes, he picked up his club from the bed where he had placed it and went into the front room. The club, which he had brought with him, had a polished brass knob at the top the size of a doorknob and a handle about two feet long.  When he entered the room he ran at Etta and struck her on the head with the club two or three times.  She screamed and fell to the floor.  He then went into the kitchen, got a butcher knife, returned to the front room, cut her throat and then stabbed her once or twice in the breast, leaving the knife by her side.

Loth said he heard a rap at the kitchen door, grabbed his hat and club and ran from the house.  He ran through the streets, across the Glenville Bridge where he threw his club into the Mohawk and returned to the train station where he caught the 1:33 pm train back to New York.  DA Naylor reported that Loth told the story “as calmly as though he were reading a newspaper report of another man’s crime”.

In late July, a grand jury was convened to determine whether there was enough evidence to go forward with a trial for both Loth and Demascek.  Loth’s confession alone was was enough evidence for an indictment but there wasn’t as much evidence against Demascek. Demascek retained the Honorable A. A. Yates to defend him. 

Andrew A. Yates was one of Schenectady's leading attorneys in the 1800s. More information can be found about him at
Jacob Lockwood, who was one of the first to find Etta’s body, described Demascek’s demeanor when he returned to the house.  He said Demascek was called home from his job at the Edison Works where he was working as a machinist.  When he arrived he viewed the bloody body of his wife for about a minute and a half then turned around with a smile on his face.  Yates questioned whether he could be certain it was a smile or an expression of pain.  The witness said he could not swear to the point but the expression appeared to be a smile to him.

Other witnesses testified to abuse the 27 year old Alexander Demascek inflicted upon his wife.  Under questioning, Demascek admitted to beating his wife but only “two or three times”. He went on to describe numerous occasions of abuse. He said he whipped her two times but could swear it wasn’t six times as one of the witnesses described.  He also beat her once on Veeder Avenue with his hand to her face.  He threw her on a bed the previous summer and hit her on the face two or three times.  He beat her once in Europe and beat her once with a piece of iron which was “about a half pound”.  He beat her again on Centre Street and on Rotterdam Avenue.  He also beat her on Veeder Lane.  Demascek, who was German, was questioned through an interpreter and it was reported that he was “voluble and clever” in his answers.  A smile “rested on his lips almost constantly and he lit up with eagerness answering questions”.  He also testified that he wasn’t legally married and he and Etta just lived together.

Cornelius Loth testified that he came to Schenectady on October 6, 1891.  He knew Demascek and his wife and was in their house frequently.  He said that Demascek gave him money on several occasions and told him how his wife caused him trouble and stole his money.  He begged and cried on many occasions for Loth to kill his wife.  Loth said he left Schenectady on Easter, April 16th 1892, and didn’t hear from Demascek again except receiving a letter from him. The letter pleaded for Loth to kill his wife and promised to forgive his debts and give him a large sum of money.  Loth said that he burned the letter after he read it.  Under questioning, Loth could not say that the handwriting on the letter was definitely Demascek’s.  Demascek later said he could not have written the letter because he was illiterate and could only write his name.

Judge Yates successfully argued the case for Alexander Demascek saying all evidence, especially Loth’s confession, was third party and nothing could be proved.  Although the prosecutor felt there was enough evidence against Demascek to move forward, the grand jury refused to indict him and he was released from custody.  Loth was indicted and held for trial.

In mid-November Cornelius Loth was arraigned on the murder charge before Judge Kellogg.  He pled not guilty but did not have counsel.  He said he had no money and no friends in a position to help him.  Judge Kellogg advised the members of the Schenectady Bar Association to appoint someone to defend him.

By November 17th, attorney A. J. Thompson consented to act as counsel for Loth.  Thompson said that in view of his confession, there was no doubt to his guilt but there was some doubt as to his sanity.  He said that Loth was “unquestionably insane” and would like to have an examination of his sanity done as soon as possible.  He said that Loth substantiated his confession one day and denied it the next.  He reported that “if Loth did the murder at all, it was for plunder but the plan was spoiled by the arrival of the little Frisch girl who interrupted him at his deadly work”.   One of the stories Loth told Thompson was that John Feldheimer, the special officer, offered him $100 to confess to the murder.  Feldheimer promised he would obtain counsel for him to secure his acquittal and then would send him back to Hungary. 

Thompson felt the only plea left was insanity although there was no further mention of such a plea. It is unknown as to whether Loth had a mental examination.  Thompson and District Attorney Naylor arranged the trial to be held during a special session of circuit court on December 19th.  Subsequently, the trial was moved to the current session of the Schenectady Court of Oyer and Terminer (a state court that had criminal jurisdiction over felonious offenses) and began November 20th leaving little time for preparation.  With the honorable Justice Landon presiding, twelve men were selected for the jury, most from Glenville and Duanesburg. 

During the trial, five witnesses, including little Gussie Friesch identified Cornelius Loth as the man they saw running from the Demascek home.  It was reported “a lively time was expected when Alexander Demascek took the stand” but he only continued to deny any complicity in the murder and testified he was unaware of Loth’s plan. 

The only testimony on Loth’s behalf was his own.  He again accused Demascek of giving him money
to kill his wife.  He insisted he didn’t do it.  He testified that a man by the name of Leichman, who lived in New York City, committed the murder but had since fled to Hungary.  The jury didn’t buy his story and on November 29th, returned a verdict of murder in the first degree.   On December 3rd, 1892 Cornelius Loth was sentenced to death.

Electric Chair from Sing Sing Prison, similar to
the one used at Dannemora. Dannemora's electric
chair was decommissioned in 1970. Photo courtesy
of the New York History Blog,
Loth was moved to the Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY where it was reported he was a model prisoner.  The day before his execution was passed quietly.  He retired early and slept fairly well.  He dressed in a new cutaway coat and trousers provided for him to die in.  Two French priests from the village arrived to confer with the prisoner and spent a half hour with him.  Loth ate little of his breakfast of eggs, meat, bread and coffee and showed signs of nervousness.  

He was led to the death chamber by guards with the priests following.  He was taken into a room with
an electric chair at one end surrounded by three guards and three physicians.  At the other end of the room were the twenty witnesses allowed by law.  It was reported he knelt down in front of the chair and murmured a few broken words of prayer.  A priest raised and kissed him before he was lowered into the chair.  As the guards strapped him in he said “Take it easy” which were thought to be his last words.  1725 volts of electricity was administered.  His body stiffened against the straps then relaxed.  Loth was declared dead at 11:57 am on January 16, 1893.  He was 26.  It was only the second electrocution at Clinton Prison. 

At some point after the trial, Loth was reported to have acknowledged his accusation of Alexander Demascek was untrue. Martin Frobiski, who was a witness at Loth's trial later reported to police he had known Loth for many years in and that he had killed a twelve year old girl "in the old country".   Police were of the opinion that the Demascek murder was not the first committed by Loth.

On October 31, 1892, Alexander Demascek was appointed administrator of his wife’s estate.  He later moved to New York City where he married Margaret Lensch on January 31, 1895.  They had a son, Alexander, in December of 1895 followed by four other children.  By the 1900 census they were living in Newark New Jersey where Alexander was working as a watchmaker.  Nothing is known of the elder Alexander after that time.  Margaret appears on later censuses remarried and living in California with her children. 

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