Sunday, February 15, 2015

Silk Stocking Murder

Nearly every boy or girl Scout who sat around a campfire at one of the camps along the Horseshoe Trail in the Furnace Hills above Lititz, Pennsylvania has heard the tales of murder and of bodies dumped along the Seglock Creek.  One of them was a real story that, for a time, captured national attention for our little community.

Lucille Smith was a Virginia girl who married a night foreman in the mould department of the Wilbur-Suchard plant, and moved to Lititz. The mother of two was considered attractive.

On Thursday, Aug. 31, 1939 her husband, Elwood Smith, arrived home from work to find their children alone and his wife nowhere to be found. All of her clothes and her purse were left undisturbed. She had told her husband that she planned to take in the late movie. The children were left playing on the porch and when they went inside their mother was missing.

Elwood Smith was convinced that his wife had been captured by "white slavers" but Lititz Police Chief Clarence "Bosh" Kreider had another theory. He was aware of the rumor that Mrs. Smith and her husband's best friend, Earl Steely, had been carrying on an affair while her husband was at work.  Steely and Smith had grown up together and remained friends even after both had married and started families. Steely worked in Ralph Binkley's quarry, about two miles out of town and lived in a small shack on the rim of the quarry.

By Labor Day, Kreider had called in the Pennsylvania Motor Police and about the only person in town not convinced of Steely's guilt was his long-time friend, the husband of the missing woman. "I don't think Earl had anything to do with Lucille's going away," Smith reportedly told Chief Kreider.

Kreider had been to the Steely house a number of times in the preceding days and each trip left him a little more convinced of his theory--but what was lacking was evidence. Even the fact that Steely had missed work on Thursday with the alibi that he was "just driving around," was insufficient.  Steely's note to his boss that morning that he won't be in to work and that his "happy days" were over, wasn't enough to hold him on suspicion. When Steely returned home late Thursday night, the idea that he and Mrs. Smith had run off together was put to rest.

On one trip to the Steely home Kreider learned from the suspect's wife that he was carrying dynamite and a detonator battery in his car, that the car had been giving him trouble and, according to his wife, "He had a mind to blow it up." He had also been drinking.

Labor Day started early for Chief Kreider as he drove to Brickerville to interview a witness in a recent tire theft. By noon he was having lunch and smoking a cigar at Jim Enck's filling station in the crossroad village when a white-suited ice cream truck driver arrived with startling news.

That morning (Labor Day, 1939) Paul Nessinger had been out training his hunting dogs in the hills above Hopeland when he stumbled upon what he thought was a dead fox about a hundred yards up the Horseshoe Trail off of Seglock Road (which runs along Seglock Creek).  On recognizing it as a badly decomposed human body he walked to the home of Deputy Sheriff Abe Lane to report his discovery. Lane called Cpl. Styles Smith at the Ephrata State Police Sub-Station who joined the investigation.

From Brickerville, Chief Kreider, on learning of the find from an ice-cream truck driver, first called State Police investigators Thomas Lawson and Roy Radcliffe who had originally been brought into the investigation just two days earlier. Then he called Spacht's Funeral Home in Lititz where the body had been taken. The undertaker was able to identify the badly decomposed body, which was first thought to have been a man. Harold Cootes, brother of the missing lady, had recognized the clothing and a ring that was on a finger. When asked how long she had been dead the undertaker estimated about a week but went on to state flatly that it was a murder.

At the funeral home, Lititz Burgess Victor Wagner joined the investigative team and they were briefed by Deputy County Coroner Dr. Mahlon H. Yoder. It was Yoder, who had a family practice on Main Street, who pointed out that the left stocking had been rolled down to her ankle and the right had been ripped off and tied in a knot around her neck, where it remained.

The investigators gathered a plaster casting of a tire track, which turned out to be a Goodrich tread and pieces of enamel paint that broke off when the driver backed into a tree chipping paint from the right rear fender.

Nessinger had seen the tracks leading off the road to the trail and knowing that a couple of hundred yards up the trail were large boulders placed there to restrict use of the trail to hikers and horses. On finding the body he was first concerned that it might be one of the gangster murders that were then prevalent around Reading (as Reading had become a vacation haven for the mobsters getting away from both Chicago and New York).

Also found at the scene, about 15  feet from the body and hidden in the undergrowth, was a burlap bag containing five woodsman's hand saws that had been stolen from Eberly's grist mill on Aug.  25.  Investigator Lowson noted, "If we can tie these saws in with the case we'll have a first degree murder." Cpl. Smith also held a chip of rubber from a tire that had struck a rock as the driver backed down the trail.

The crime team returned to Lititz about 5 p.m. and concluded that Steely was most probably the culprit and that an investigation of his automobile would prove his guilt. They decided to go home for supper and meet at the fire house at 8 p.m. to stake-out the Steely homestead.


Four investigators, Lititz Police Chief Kreider, State Police investigators Lowson and Radcliffe and Lititz Burgess Wagner huddled in a ramshackle shed on the edge of the quarry to watch for Steely's return. They had become concerned when they realized that the newspapers had reported the finding of the body, that Steely had been drinking a lot lately and that his wife's report of dynamite in his car had yet to be challenged.

The moonless night was lit only by flashes of distant lightning and the rumbles of thunder were becoming louder by the moment. At about midnight the storm had reached the quarry and the shack in which they were hiding did little to keep out the downpour--they were soaked to the skin. The chill was only made more difficult by a second storm an hour later.

"It's 3:30 a.m.," announced Lowson, "I feel like I have been here for a month." A quick confab brought them to the agreement that Steely probably saw the papers and skipped out. Lowson, an acknowledged sharpshooter, drew his gun and inspected it for moisture before suggesting that they check the house before leaving.

On approaching the Steely cabin they spied his car under a lean-to attached to a  small barn. They gathered cautiously around the car to find a damaged rear right fender and the back seat torn up. The battery was visible but the dynamite couldn't be seen. "Steely's our man," proclaimed the Chief.

Sending the burgess and the chief to watch the back of the house, the two State Police investigators knocked loudly on the front door, alarming Steely's 19 year-old wife and elderly mother.  They professed no knowledge of the wanted man's whereabouts and were soon joined by the other tenants of the building, Steely's younger brother and sisters and his four year-old daughter. A search of the house revealed that they were telling the truth and, in fact, were surprised to know that the car was on the property.

Outside the house the posse determined to check the shed behind the house before leaving the premises. Entering the shed they found it deserted and Radcliffe mounted a rickety ladder to a trap door. Gun drawn he stuck his head above the floor and Kreider asked if he found anything.  The response, "Not yet. Wait a minute until I. . .throw up your hands or I'll shoot!"

Steely was found sitting on a cot across the room with his hands up. Lowson gingerly kicked a small metal tank away from the cot as Kreider cuffed the up-stretched hands. The tank contained "condensed gas."

After two hours of interrogation at the fire house, Steely admitted the crime saying that he and Lucille had been out on their third date, driving around in his car and then parking.  He was drunk and wanted sex. She was not in the mood.  At one point she got out of the car and ran down the trail. Steely caught up with her and talked her back into the car. After about an hour of talking and arguing he grabbed her around the throat and strangled her. He then tore off her right stocking and tied it around her neck.

After tossing the body out of the car he drove down the road about a quarter of a mile and slept until morning. He then drove to the quarry and stole some dynamite, intent upon blowing himself up. It was then that he wrote the note to his boss and drove away. He couldn't convince himself to go through with the suicide and a couple of days later, returned the explosives.

Kreider felt the story a bit suspicious as there was no mention of Mrs. Smith's glasses or girdle, both of which are missing. He deduced that the murder happened somewhere else and that the culprit drove the body to the place where it was found. Kreider also asked about the saws and Steely swore that he knew nothing about them. The chief's theory may well have been correct but it didn't matter, Steely had admitted to the murder.

The saws, it turned out, were most likely just a strange coincidence where two crimes came together at the same scene. The bottle of "condensed gas" was another botched attempt at suicide.

On the advice of his attorneys Steely entered a plea of guilty and a two-judge panel, Oliver S. Sheaffer and C. V. Hardy, determined that it was, indeed, first degree murder. The fact that he removed the stocking and tied it around her neck was a premeditated act. Earl Steely was committed to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for the remainder of his life. He was twenty four years old.

The crime made Lititz infamous as it was covered by most of the dime detective magazines of the day. Chief Kreider remained head of the one-man police department for decades, finally handing off the mantle of leadership to Officer Lloyd Hoffman. But during his last years on the force, Kreider became famous locally for giving up his driver's license and administering police justice standing on the square stopping speeders with a thrill from his police whistle.

Hikers and campers, including Scouts at nearby reservations, are often regaled by stories of murder so foul by silk stockings within these very Furnace Hills. There is a large nugget of truth to the campfire tales. So, beware…………

1 comment:

  1. Harold E. Cootes (d.1998) was my father. Lucille Smith (nee Cootes) would have been my aunt, but she died a year before I was born. My parents both lived in Litiz in 1939. My Mother was Emma Cootes (nee Mohler). My Father worked at Woodstream Products (Animal Trap Co. at the time). He left Lititz to work for the U.S. Army as a tank draftsman and designer of the Patton and Sherman tanks (Detroit, MI) and, later, was credited with 16 patents while working for AMP, Inc. in Harrisburg, PA. Lucille Cootes was originally a member of the Cootes family from Rockingham County (Cootes Store area), VA. She was a daughter of Charles Edward Cootes. There were 3 other brothers (2 who served in WWII) and 4 sisters, including Lucille. Mother's family decendants still reside in the Litiz area.

    ReplyDelete