A busy schedule caused me to miss posting a blog last week and to be late this week. However, here we are with a new crime. In my previous blog, I presented the murders of four young workers at a Speedway, Indiana, Burger Chef restaurant in 1978. This week’s case is also from Indianapolis, the 1911 murder of Dr. Helene Knabe.
Helene Knabe was born December 22, 1875, in the German state of Prussia, in an area now part of Poland. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but higher education wasn’t an option for women in nineteenth-century Germany. When she learned that medical schools in Indiana admitted women, she made plans to immigrate and arrived in 1896.
At first, Helene worked as a seamstress to earn money for her medical schooling. She also had to polish her English skills to a level where she could succeed in her studies. She entered the Medical College of Indiana in 1900 and graduated in 1904 as one of the two women students.
Almost immediately after graduation, Dr. Knabe was appointed Assistant Deputy health officer in Indiana, the first woman in that position. She assumed the role of acting superintendent after becoming an expert in rabies prevention. Upon learning that her male coworkers earned more, she resigned and opened a private practice.
Dr. Knabe’s Career Flourishes
In her practice, Dr. Knabe taught sex education, focusing on reaching out to immigrant women. She also educated the local community on the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Another achievement was her appointment as medical director and associate professor of physiology and hygiene at the Normal College of the National American Gymnastics Union.
In 1905, Dr. Knabe met Dr. William B. Craig, the Dean of Students at Indiana Veterinary College. Dr. Craig recommended Helene for the Chair of Hematology and Parasitology at IVC, a position she assumed in 1909.
The two doctors maintained a friendship and may have been engaged to be married. Dr. Craig later disputed this, but some of Dr. Knabe’s friends said otherwise.
The Murder of Dr. Helene Knabe
Monday morning, October 23, 1911, Dr. Knabe’s laboratory assistant entered her room in the Delaware Flats apartment complex. She found Dr. Knabe lying on her bed with her throat slit and her nightgown rolled up around her shoulders.
The Indianapolis police launched an investigation that can only be described as slipshod. At the outset the janitor, Jefferson Haynes, removed the garbage can before the police police could inspect its contents. Haynes was later a suspect, but investigators soon cleared him.
Police first declared the death to be a suicide, despite the absence of a weapon and the presence of a bloody fingerprint (Helene’s hands had no blood on them). Fingerprinting wasn’t firmly established in 1911, but the police didn’t try to match the bloody print. However, coroner Dr. Charles O. Durham was adamant when he declared the death a homicide.
Almost fifteen months after her death, a grand jury indicted Dr. Craig for Dr. Knabe’s murder. They also indicted Alonzo M. Ragsdale, an undertaker, as an accessory. Ragsdale was a business associate of Dr. Knabe and the unscrupulous executor of her estate.
Dr. Craig’s defense employed the disgusting but timeworn technique of attacking the victim. They maintained that Dr. Knabe was an aggressive and masculine woman, dog-whistle language hinting that she was a lesbian. There is no evidence that this was the case, even if it had been relevant.
Dr. Knabe was treated as a villain, not a victim. The media and some of her peers chastised her for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Society couldn’t understand a woman wanting to work in a sometimes unpleasant and coarse field. Because she was a 35-year-old woman who worked as a physician and lived in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—her critics judged Dr. Knabe unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, her unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed she was an unsuccessful pauper physician.
The truth was that Dr. Knabe had several sources of income and brought in over $150 ($4,766 in 2023) each month. Far from being poor, she sent most of her disposable income to an uncle who could no longer work.
The case against Dr. Craig collapsed under the assault from the defense. It didn’t help that Craig’s housekeeper, who was to be a witness against him, refused to come to the courthouse. Judge Alonzo Blair directed the jury to return a not-guilty verdict. Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the state dropped the charges against Ragsdale.
The murder of Dr. Helene Knabe remains unsolved over a century after her death.
Dr. Helene Knabe is buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, a resting place she shares with former President Benjamin Harrison, poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Depression-era gangster John Dillinger.
You can read more about Dr. Knabe and her death in the 2016 book, She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe by Nicole R. Kobrowski.
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