January 21, 1881
Frederick Kester is hanged for the murder of his wife
On the morning of August 22, 1879, Caroline Burmeister (also spelled as Bearmiester or Burmaster in contemporary newspapers) visited her sister Minnie Kester (alternately spelled Koester). Minnie was approximately 7 months pregnant at the time and Caroline often assisted with the chores Minnie was unable to complete on her own.
Caroline arrived to find the door open. She looked inside the Buckley, Illinois house for signs of her sister. Instead, she found a broken shotgun on the floor, covered in blood and human hair. Neighbors came to help search for the missing woman and followed a trail of clues left behind. It appeared Minnie had been shot with the shotgun while standing near her bed before she ran into the second room of the two-room house. Bloody handprints on the door suggested Minnie had attempted to hold the door closed, but her attacker was able to force their way in. Minnie was then likely struck in the head with the shotgun with enough force to break the weapon before the attacker discarded it on the floor. Minnie then ran outside the house to a woodshed where she was killed with an axe. Her attacker then dragged her body by the heels into an area of tall weeds where it was found by her neighbors. From the markings on her body, it appeared the shotgun blast had struck her in the side of the head and her jaw.
A note written in German (both Minnie’s family and her husband Frederick’s were German immigrants) was left on a bureau which read, “This thing [referring to Minnie’s murder] comes by the old man [Minnie’s father]. He is around my house, trying to shoot me to death. They tell Minnie that she should leave me, and she keeps throwing it up to me.” The letter was not signed but was presumed to have been written by Frederick, who was conspicuously missing.
Frederick and Minnie had been married for around a year before her murder and the marriage, according to Minnie’s family, had not been a happy one. While “she was not treated as kindly as she deserved by her husband,” Minnie did not report any instances of physical abuse to her family.
Frederick was tracked to Kansas and then to Iowa, where he had taken an alias. He was apprehended and returned to Illinois to stand trial.
Frederick claimed Minnie had requested him to go to a neighbor’s to steal apples late at night. He refused. She insisted. He relented. When Frederick returned, he found the lights off within the home and Minnie’s body on the floor. Immediately, he encountered a man on a black horse who asked what had happened then inquired if Frederick had had any trouble with his father-in-law. When Frederick responded in the affirmative, the man suggested Frederick flee, which he did. Frederick stated he had not killed his wife and was unsure if she had killed herself or if “tramps” had killed her.
Frederick was convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to death. His execution was witnessed by a large group, composed of adults and children who had traveled “by wagon, on horseback, on foot, and by trains” from neighboring counties. Frederick’s final statement was to reaffirm his innocence: “I did not do the deed, as I have told all the time. I have nothing to say. If I have to die, all right. This is all I have to say.”
By the end of the year, rumors began to circulate that Frederick had been innocent of the crime and his father-in-law had killed Minnie instead. The Mattoon Weekly Gazette was one newspaper to report the rumor which claimed Mr. Burmeister (whose given name was not provided) had confessed upon his deathbed that he had committed the murder rather than his son-in-law. The veracity of this claim was disputed by the Paxton Record, however, and dismissed as nothing more than gossip.
Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016
“He Is Not Innocent.” Paxton Record. December 15, 1881
The Mattoon Weekly Gazette. December 9, 1881
“Hanging in Illinois.” The Martin County Herald [Shoals, Indiana]. January 27, 1881
“Criminal News.” The Chicago Tribune. January 22, 1881
“Hemp For A Hound.” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. January 22, 1881