Bad Endings

The West Virginia Bluebeard

I stumbled across this story while going through some old newspapers. I had never heard of this case, but thought that someone might be interested, so I put this web-page together. This case attracted nationwide attention in its day, and a book, Love murders of Harry F. Powers: Beware such bluebeards was published in 1931 about the incident.

Phil Cohen
February 27, 2006

Camden Courier-Post - March 19, 1932

Harry F. Powers Shows No Emotion
as He Goes to Death on Gallows

Witnesses Told to Park Guns With Wardens as March Begins

Moundsville, W. Va., March 18- Harry F. Powers, West Virginia Bluebeard, went to his death on the gallows in the state penitentiary here tonight with his lips sealed.

Accused of the murder of five persons- two women and three children- Powers made no effort to talk, although an opportunity was given him at the last second before the trap was sprung.

The official prison announcement said the trap was sprung at 9:00 o'clock. Five physicians declared him dead eleven minutes later.

The murder of which he was convicted and for which he was hanged was that of Mrs. Dorothy Pressler Lemke, of Northboro, Mass.

His life was snapped away in the state penitentiary by a thick bull rope and a five-foot drop before a crowd of nearly 40 persons who pressed forward, tense and nervous, as the trap was sprung.

Displays No Emotion

The modern Bluebeard showed no emotion as he went to his death. A twitching of the lips, a simple twist of his head, a quietly pronounced "no" answering the question weather he desired to say anything before he passed into eternity--these were the only incidents as he stood high up on the platform of the gallows, waiting the drop.

Eleven minutes elapsed from the time the body plunged downward until the five doctors who pressed about him applying stethoscopes announced he was dead. But he had been unconscious, apparently, from the moment the thick rope had snapped his neck, for there was no tremor, not even the slightest movement of the rope.

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. Inside, state officials, prison officials, doctors, policemen,  even one of the jurors who convicted the man, gathered to await the summons that would take them to the dingy death house in a remote corner of the prison grounds.

Powers had been prepared before the march started for the death house. He was dressed in a black suit with a pin stripe, and wore a rather gaudy blue tie and a white collar.      

The grim voice of a deputy warden delivered the first warning that the march was about to begin.

"Any person who is armed will leave his guns at the desk until he returns," he said. Not a man moved forward. The voice rang out again. "Cameras will be left at the desk also". Again not a man in the crowd stepped forward, but if there had been cameras they would have been useless in the cramped space where the audience stood to witness the death plunge there was barely room to move.


National Affairs
"We Make Thousands Happy"

Advertisements in cheap, pornographic ("love" and "art") magazines conform to the standard of their fiction and illustrations but often fall a step lower. Pages are packed with announcements of "red hot" photographs, vigor tablets ("Glow of Life"), bust developers, sex secrets, aphrodisiacs ("Essence of Ecstasy"), contraceptives. Plentiful also are the advertisements of so-called matrimonial bureaus which will furnish lists of lonely men & women, object matrimony. Stressed in the advertisements, prominent on the lists are Wealthy Widows. Sample advertisements:

"LONELY HEARTS—Join the world's greatest social extension club, meet nice people who, like yourself, are lonely (many wealthy); one may be your ideal. . . . We have made thousands happy. Why not you?—Standard Club, Box 607, Grayslake, Ill."

"MARRY! New big directory, photos, descriptions, sent sealed, 10 cents.—Cozy Darling, Dept. 10, Kansas City, Mo."

"LONELY HEARTS—Let us arrange a romantic correspondence for you. A club for refined, lonely people. Members everywhere; strictly CONFIDENTIAL, efficient and dignified service—Eva Moore. Box 908. Jacksonville, Fla. I HAVE A SWEETHEART FOR YOU."

"WEALTHY LADIES, RICH WIDOWS, LOVELY GIRLS, want to marry. ('Write for free sealed list)—Mary E. Hill. Monon Building, Chicago, Ill."

"LONESOME FOLKS, DANDY LITTLE LADIES, many wealthy, will marry —Mrs. Budd, Box 753-L, San Francisco, Calif."

"There are more people starving for love and companionship than there are starving for bread," red-inked the American Friendship Society of Detroit, which offered "ABSOLUTELY FREE" lists of wealthy widows to anybody who had the price of a two-cent stamp. In four years the "society" had collected more than $100,000 in "dues." Its president, a Mrs. Olga Plater, and her husband, Albert Browel Plater (who in 1917 had been accused of impersonating a Russian count, a U. S. Army captain), lived in a $50,000 home near Detroit. Last week the American Friendship Society was involved in a sordid, hideous mess. In a shallow grave beside a garage in Clarksburg, W. Va., were found the bodies of two women and three children. In Clarksburg jail cowered a fat, beady-eyed, flabby little man, battered and bruised into a confession of his sadism. Police in many States followed clues to other crimes, other murders, all linked to Clarks burg's "Bluebeard" and the matrimonial societies through which he operated. From his papers it was apparent he had conducted at least 115 mail-order "court ships" with lonely, foolish women. Relatives of Widow Asta Buick Eicher, 50, in Park Ridge, Ill., became suspicious when Harry F. Powers, with whom she and her three children had left home after a mail-order courtship, reappeared to claim her house. Letters from Powers postmarked Clarksburg, W. Va., were found in the house. Clarksburg police went to Powers' home (not far from where famed Lawyer John William Davis once lived) and beside a windowless, cell-like garage dug up the bodies of Mrs. Eicher and her children. The two girls, 9 and 14, had been strangled; the head of the boy, 12, was beaten in with a hammer. The police arrested Powers, pounded a confession out of him. Convicts still digging in the foul trench found the body of Dorothy Pressler Lemke, a grass widow who had withdrawn $1,533 from a bank and left Northboro, Mass, with Powers a month earlier.

Killer Powers was rushed for safety from the city to the county jail while police began to investigate the activities of Luella Struthers, a wife whom he had not killed, who still lived with him and who had paid for construction of the garage. They learned she had been divorced by a man acquitted of murder in 1903, had met Powers through a marriage agency. They sought to connect her with a check forged on Mrs. Eicher's account and with a letter written to relatives of Mrs. Lemke. Police elsewhere, investigating Powers' courtships, learned he had been about to marry yet another woman when he was arrested, that he had stolen from many others. They sought evidence to accuse him of a Washington, D. C. murder.

The police also learned that a Detroit widow, mother of three, had found a husband through the American Friendship Society, had been murdered by him just before he committed suicide. While investigation of the "society" was being pressed, unexpected aid came to Killer Powers. One Barratt O'Hara, a Chicago criminal attorney, flew to Clarksburg and aroused the ire of the townspeople by announcing he would defend the prisoner. He refused to tell who had sent him. Clarksburg authorities, fearing an insanity plea, imported Alienist Edward Everett Mayer from the University of Pittsburgh, had him examine the prisoner.

Dr. Mayer's report: "Powers is a psychopathic personality ... of the hypopituitary type—squat, pig-eyed, paunchy, with weakened sexual powers. He is not insane, but he has been a borderline case all his life. Powers is capable of knowing right from wrong."

Harry Powers: Bluebeard of Quiet Dell

Extract from the Transcript of Record, State of West Virginia v. Felony No. 10357 Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, Criminal Court of Harrison County, Benjamin B. Jarvis, clerk.
West Virginia State Archives Collection.


On another day, to-wit, on the 12th day of December, 1931, the following order was entered: -

State of West Virginia vs. / Upon an lndictment for a Felony No. 10357 Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson.

This day came again the State by her Prosecuting Attorney as well as the defendant, Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, in person, who was set to the bar of lthe Court in the custody of the Sheriff and jailer of this County and represented by J. E. Law, his attorney; and the motion of the defendant, made at a former day of this court, to set aside the verdict returned by the jury in this action on the 10th day of December, 1931, and to grant him a new trial herein having been argued, by counsel and considered by the Court is hereby overruled and said new trial denied; to which ruling and action of the Court in overruling said motion and refusing a new trial herein the said defendant duly excepted.

And it being demanded of the said defendant if there was anything he knew or had to say why the sentence of the Court should not be pronounced against him, and nothing being urged in delay thereof, it is considered and ordered by the Court that he, the said Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, be hung by the neck until he is dead, and the execution of this judgment to be done upon him, the said Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, by the Warden of the penitentiary of this State at Moundsville on Friday, the 18th day of March, in the year Nineteen Hundred and Thirty-two; said execution to take place within the walls of said penitentiary according to law.

The Clerk of this court is hereby directed to deliver a copy of this order to W. B. Grimm, Sheriff and jailer of this County, who shall retain the custody of the said Harry F. Powers alias Cornelius O. Pierson, until a properly authorized guard, sent by the Warden of said penitentiary to receive him, shall convey said defendant, Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, to said penitentiary; and the Clerk shall also notify the Warden of said penitentiary of the conviction and sentence of the said defendant that he may as soon as practicable be removed and safely conveyed to said institution there to be kept in the manner provided by law until the said 18th day of March, 1932, when the execution of the judgment aforesaid shall be done upon him, the said Harry F. Powers, alias Cornelius O. Pierson, And the said defendant expressing a desire to apply for a writ of error and supersedeas to the judgment aforesaid, it is ordered that the execution thereof be, and the same is hereby suspended until the first day of the March Term, 1932, of this court, to enable the said defendant to make such application, and the said defendant hath leave to prepare, tender and have his bill or bills of exception signed, sealed and made part of the record herin within sixty (60) days from the adjournment on the present term of court.

Thereupon the said defendant was remanded to jail in the custody of the Sheriff and jailer of this County.

excerpted from
By Patterson Smith

A lonely-hearts killer operating in [Earle] Nelson's time was a man named Herman Drenth, who was known chiefly by his last alias, Harry F. Powers. A traveling salesman based in West Virginia, Powers used matrimonial correspondence agencies to ensnare lonely women, whom he robbed then murdered. 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. The pleasure of the sight, said Powers, "beat any cat house I was ever in."

I have a form letter in Powers' hand which he used to inveigle female correspondents. In it he announces himself "longing for someone to take [my former wife's] place in my heart," and promises that his new wife "can have anything, within reason, that money can buy." The letter begins, "My age is [blank], height 67 inches, have clear blue eyes, medium dark hair." Powers evidently had used the letter as a model for writing to various women, no doubt adjusting his age to fit the year of writing or the age of his correspondent.

The printed legacy of Powers consists of a scarce book by Evan Allen Bartlett, Love Murders of Harry F. Powers: Beware Such Bluebeards (1931) and a scarcer undated contemporary pamphlet of 14 pages, "Love Secrets of Bluebeard. The use of the term "Bluebeard" in the title to denote a murderer of women, the prevalent usage for the last two hundred years, is somewhat interesting, since the original Bluebeard was a fifteenth-century French nobleman named Gilles de Rais who was a homosexual killer of boys.