At about 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, 1909, 14-year-old Hedwig “Hattie” Zinda was seized by two men and dragged into a deserted office building near the intersection of Garfield Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. She was sexually assaulted, murdered, and her body left slumped in a corner of the abandoned office.
The building’s interior showed how fiercely Hattie fought her attackers. Furniture was overturned, a chair was smashed, and marks on the dust-covered floor traced how her assailants had been dragged the struggling little girl back and forth through the office. Deep finger marks on Hattie’s neck revealed the cause of death. She had been choked by powerful hands.
When found, Hattie was still clutching strands of blond hair she had torn from the head of one of her attackers.
Today a busy commercial area, 106 years ago this stretch of Humboldt Boulevard north of the river was heavily industrial, poorly lit, and nearly deserted after dark. Hattie, described by her school teacher as “the nicest, most industrious, and neatest girl in the whole class,” had been south of the river helping her ailing sister with housework. She was walking the seven blocks back to her home in what is today the 2400 block of Weil Street when she was accosted.
Alarmed when she failed to arrive, members of her large family (Hattie was one of 15 children), along with in-laws and neighbors, searched the neighborhood. When they were unable to find the child, police were called in.
Five days later, on November 17th, Milwaukee Police Detective John Shenar, walking along Humboldt Boulevard, saw a length of black hair ribbon fluttering on the sidewalk in front of a deserted office building owned by Tews Co., a distributor of cement, lime, and wood lath. Shenar, circled the little wooden structure and found a small window had been forced open. He went the company’s new office, a block north, and asked permission to conduct a search. Shenar and a company bookkeeper entered and found Hattie’s body on the floor in a sitting position with her back against the wall. Her skirts were covered with blood and extensive bruises revealed how savagely she had been beaten.
Chief of Police John T. Janssen hurried to the scene accompanied by every available detective in the city. A crowd formed as the investigators painstakingly examined every inch of the two-room building and its surroundings. As word spread of the injuries to the girl’s body, the onlookers became increasingly angry. The Rev. Francis Czerwinski, the rector of St. Hedwig’s parish, a few blocks from the crime scene, told the Milwaukee Journal the mood in the community was such that the assailants if captured, would never reach jail alive.
Chief Janssen assigned every detective on the force to the case. In reality, they had no witnesses and very little evidence to go on. However, one slender thread emerged during the investigation. Someone vaguely recalled two men who abruptly left town for Chicago after the discovery of Hattie’s body. Chicago police, anxious to help solve the horrible crime, managed to trace the men’s movements to an employment agency where they had inquired about winter work in the lumber camps of the North Woods.
Milwaukee Police Detective Eugene O’Gorman was ordered to track down the men. His 2,000-mile chase by train and, on occasion, by mule, took him through 125 lumber camps in three states, before he caught up with the two near Blaney, in northern Michigan, and took them into custody.
Karol Wojciechowski, 36, and Adam Pietrzyk, 25, returned to Milwaukee on Dec. 8, 1909. Anger in the community still running high. Police fretted about their prisoners’ safety and prosecutors worried about how they would ever find an impartial jury.
On the night of Dec. 10th, Pietrzyk, speaking through an interpreter, abruptly confessed, saying Wojciechowski instigated the attack. According to newspaper accounts, Wojciechowski responded by accusing Pietrzyk of the crime. (Pietrzyk, incidentally, had blond hair similar to the strands found on Hattie’s body.)
Fearful of a violent public response when news of the confessions became known, authorities conducted an immediate night session of the municipal court. Escorted by a protective cordon of police, the two men were rushed before a judge, entered guilty pleas, and were sentenced to life in prison. Just as quickly, Wojciechowski and Pietrzyk hurried out of City Hall to a waiting convoy of police vehicles to be whisked safely to state prison.
The lack of evidence, the seemingly convenient confessions, and the subsequent insistence by the two men they had nothing to do with the murder have raised questions over the years.
Pietrzyk died of tuberculosis in the state prison in the early 1920s. In 1940, Wojciechowski earned parole and went to live with a nephew near Owen, Wis. Two years later, at the age of 70, he received an absolute pardon from Gov. Julius Heil, who noted the “partially circumstantial” evidence behind his conviction.
The men’s guilt may never be fully established. Significantly, Milwaukee judges and prosecutors, the men with personal knowledge of exactly what the men said and the circumstances surrounding their confessions, were the ones most vehemently opposed to Wojciechowski’s release and had in fact been instrumental in turning back three earlier attempts at parole.
Haddie’s funeral took place on Nov. 20, 1909, at St. Casimir’s Catholic Church in Riverwest. At least 4,000 people packed into the church and hundreds more stood outside as a solemn mass of requiem was sung by the Rev. Joseph Zinda, a cousin of the murdered girl. In his sermon, the Rev. B. Celichowski, pastor of St. Casimir’s, described the girl he knew as a “patient little worker,” and said, “This almost unbelievable deed will teach us another lesson, and that is that we can never tell what a man will do when he loses fear of God.”
Hattie Zinda, who died at the age of 14 “fighting as desperate a battle for her honor as ever a woman waged,” as a newspaper reporter of the time wrote, is buried in Milwaukee’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Her grave marker is a column, five feet tall. It is topped by the statue of a child. It symbolizes innocence.