Author: MilwaukeeNotebook

Carl Swanson blogs about Milwaukee history. He has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 25 years. He lives in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood with his wife, three children, and two cats.

When Milwaukee police handed out courtesy cards

Hi Fi Lofts Condominiums 3059 N Weil St, Milwaukee, former home of JW Speaker
The Hi Fi Lofts Condominiums building at 3059 N. Weil St., is the former home of J.W. Speaker Co., which originally manufactured tire repair kits. Carl Swanson photo

The courtesy cards once issued by Milwaukee Police to a favored few weren’t Monopoly board game style Get Out of Jail Free passes, but one might be excused for thinking they might be. Light blue in color, the wallet-sized cards read, “The courtesies of the Police Department of the City of Milwaukee are extended to [name].” Each courtesy card was dated and signed by the chief of police.

It’s not known when the cards first appeared, but no more were issued after September 22nd, 1950, the day an angry Police Chief John W. Polcyn told the Milwaukee Journal the long-standing practice would end.

Polcyn, a former Marine, had worked his way up from patrolman to chief. According to the Milwaukee Police Historical Society, the “hard-working, clear thinking, and ambitious” Polcyn was appointed to lead the department in 1945 and is remembered for his many innovations. To name just a few, he introduced the two-tone paint scheme Milwaukee’s police cars still wear, created the department’s narcotics squad, instituted its Police Aide apprenticeship program, and even established the city’s night parking permit system (the first of its kind in the nation).

Polcyn also pushed the department to address the topic of race and published “A Guide to Understanding Race and Human Relations,” a booklet used by police departments throughout the United States.

The courtesy card kerfuffle was a rare public embarrassment for the chief, and it happened because of one man.

In 1935, John W. Speaker established a company to manufacture tire repair kits. The venture succeeded and soon the J.W. Speaker Co. moved into a large factory at 3059 N. Weil St. in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood and added radiator fronts, automotive lighting, and car and truck mirrors to its product mix.

During World War II, J.W. Speaker Co. developed the Heatab miniature stove and a simple folding can opener. Both were made in vast quantities and packaged with the rations used by the U.S. military. (The company, still operated by the Speaker family and now based in Germantown, today specializes in after-market vehicle lighting systems.)

Tragedy struck the J.W. Speaker factory in Riverwest on November 1949, when a massive explosion and fire instantly killed 20-year-old Dorothy Gruber. A second worker, Cora Schultz, died a few hours later of injuries suffered in the blast. She had just returned to work following her honeymoon. Four other employees were hospitalized with burns.

Speaker, busy in his office at the front of the plant, heard the blast and saw two injured workers running from the building. He went after them, loaded them into his car, and rushed to the hospital.

The explosion shattered windows in nearby buildings and left a 45-foot-long by 20-foot-high hole in the wall of the one-story drying room at the south end of the factory. It took the combined efforts of the plant’s sprinkler system, six fire engines, three ladder trucks, and a rescue squad to bring the fire under control.

Fire officials speculated that fumes from nitrate used to make the tire patch backing accumulated and been touched off by a spark.

Oddly, for a manufacturer of auto accessories, Speaker had a poor driving record. Seven months after the factory explosion, a motorcycle patrolman saw a car driven by Speaker weaving his way down North Prospect Avenue. When the officer tried to pull him over, Speaker abruptly swerved, nearly colliding with a taxi cab. When he finally did stop—parking four feet away from the curb, the officer noted—he failed sobriety tests, briefly scuffled with officers, and was charged with drunken driving. According to the June 2, 1950 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Speaker had been fined 16 times previously for traffic offenses dating back to 1937.

When his case came to trial on September 20, 1950, Speaker was found guilty and fined $100. He also caused a sensation when he told the court of displaying his police courtesy card to the arresting officer, who, Speaker said, showed “anything but the usual courtesy.”

Two days later, Chief Polcyn ordered Speaker to come to police headquarters and surrender his card. “I’m going to tear it up in his presence,” Polcyn told the Journal. If Speaker failed to show, the chief said, “I will send an officer to bring him and his card in.” (As it happened, Speaker waited until just before the chief’s deadline—then sent the card by messenger.)

Polcyn told the newspaper the practice of issuing courtesy cards was an old custom he had inherited on taking office and only 20 or 22 cards were in circulation. He refused to provide a complete list of cardholders, but said they were mostly male, usually above middle age, and included the sheriff, a couple of union leaders, friends of the police, and a few lawmakers who might be expected to vote favorably on issues important to the department.

Under no circumstances, he insisted, were the cards to be used to get out of a violation. Mostly, the chief said, they were handy for getting a check cashed or for obtaining hotel accommodation while traveling.

“It does help you get around among strangers if you have an extra means of introduction where you’re not known,” he told the Journal.

Polcyn added, “I’ve never liked the idea of these cards. They didn’t seem to me to be the sort of thing the police should issue. There was a bare chance they might be misused or misunderstood.”

Still, the chief was confident no Milwaukee officer would be swayed from his duty by being shown such a card. He pointed out Speaker had tried it and had been arrested anyway.

Who knows? Maybe he was right. Maybe no prominent citizen ever dodged a ticket by flashing a courtesy card, personally issued by the chief himself, at a lowly beat cop.

Or maybe when Speaker aired his complaint in open court in front of some suddenly very interested reporters, he had violated the first rule of the courtesy card, that being one does not talk about the courtesy card.


Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book.


Riverwest factory made the world a more colorful place

A view of the former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee, WI
The former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard is vacant today but it has a proud heritage. Carl Swanson photo

A color printing press is a miraculous machine. As big as a house (and the newest ones are much bigger than that), packed with rollers and gears turning at blinding speed, producing tens of thousands of printed sheets per hour, they are so precisely made that a single part misaligned by a few thousandths of an inch would ruin the output.

One of the early pioneers in color printing, Leslie Claybourn, built a factory in Riverwest in 1922 and his workers were soon turning out printing presses that were more innovative, more massive, and more precise than any before. His company attracted visitors from around the globe and even held the record for a time for the world’s largest color press.

Then, in 1957, it all came to an end. Other companies would occupy the 172,344-square-foot factory at 3701 North Humbolt Boulevard over the subsequent years but it stands empty today.

Leslie Claybourn was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1884. He started an electroplating company and then a machine shop. Business being slow at times, he augmented his income by moonlighting as a professional wrestler. Known as Lex “The Terrible Swede” Claybourn, he was good enough to hold the lightweight championship at one point.

It is not known when he hung up his wrestling tights, but by 1914 he was working as a development engineer for a Cincinnati printing machinery company. In 1918, Claybourn became vice president and director of operations for the Menasha Printing & Carton Co. While there, he perfected a process for printing pictures on butter and ice cream cartons.

His patented techniques, involving both improved machinery and new ways of producing printing plates, attracted a great deal of industry attention. In 1921 he was able to organize the Claybourn Process Corporation and built a large factory on Humboldt near Keefe Avenue.

One of the company’s first customers was the Milwaukee Journal. Other newspapers followed, including The New York Times. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and many more. By 1929, Conde Nast was printing Vogue on a Claybourn five-color press.

In a 1929 article, a national trade publication, The Pressmen’s Journal, wrote, “Mr. L.W. Claybourn is one of the outstanding geniuses of the printing industry of the world, and it has been said by many authorities in the printing and printing machinery fields that Mr. Claybourn is actually 25 years ahead of the industry.”

On the last day of 1930, Claybourn’s car was involved in a collision at the interaction of North Prospect and East Newton avenues. So violent was the impact that Claybourn’s car was thrown sideways into a unity pole, snapping it off at its base. He spent all of 1931 in a cast and never fully recovered from his injuries.

It would take more than that to sideline “The Terrible Swede.” In 1934, the Claybourn company made headlines when it unveiled a 72-ton five-color press able to print 4,000 sheets per hour while cutting set-up time in half. The gain in efficiency was startling. This high-speed full-color press could be up and running as quickly as a relatively simple two-color press.

But in those dark years of the Great Depression excellence in design and manufacture might not be enough to save a company. In 1937, with the Milwaukee plant struggling to stay afloat, Connecticut-based C.B. Cottrell & Sons Company acquired the firm.

Claybourn stayed briefly to help with the transition, then moved on to work with many other printing firms. At the time of his death in 1956, he held more than 200 patents for printing innovations.

The Riverwest plant’s new owner, Cottrell & Sons, traced its roots as a machine builder all the way back to 1855. By the time of the Civil War, the firm was specializing in printing presses. The firm sent Donald Cottrell, grandson of the founder, to manage its newly acquired Milwaukee operation. A graduate of Harvard, he had served as captain of an infantry company in World War I. He also had a local connection—Charles Ilsley, chairman of the board of Marshall & Ilsley Bank, was a classmate of his at Harvard.

Cottrell would lead the company out of the Depression and through years of wartime production in World War II.

In 1943, the company plowed a 13,000-square-foot plot near the factory and its employees planted and tended a victory garden. The Milwaukee Journal reported that, among other things, the garden had 480 tomato plants, which produced far more than its employees could consume at home. A bushel basket of tomatoes was kept in the factory in late summer for snacking. Their agricultural efforts earned the company’s workers a trophy from the National Victory Garden Institute.

In 1953, Cottrell & Sons was itself taken over by the Harris-Seybold Co. and the Milwaukee plant had another owner. By 1955, the factory had 165 employees and was building rotary color presses that weighed 40 tons and measured 42 feet long.

Two years later, Harris-Seybold closed the Humboldt factory and a piece of Milwaukee’s industrial heritage died.

In 2015, the Wisconsin Historical Society sponsored a survey to find industrial properties that might be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The report concluded the C.B. Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division factory is “significant as an example of an early-twentieth-century industrial complex with a consolidated plan. The first factory and warehouse were constructed in 1922, and the Classical Revival main office was constructed in 1927. In the 1950s and 1960s, the plant expanded at the rear; however, the complex retains the character-defining features of the form including the large expanses of original window sash, roof lighting, and a consolidated plan. The C.B. Cottrell & Sons buildings retain a high degree of integrity and are therefore potentially eligible.”

If a historical marker is erected, which seems unlikely, it might quote the founder, Leslie Claybourn, who told The Pressmen’s Journal in a 1929 interview, “Printing is a mechanical problem. Establish accuracy and precision into the locked-up form to be printed or moulded from, which is the very foundation of the printed job, and you will print that form correctly in spite of yourself.”

Maybe it could also mention the tomatoes.


Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book.


The streetcar heist

The Wells Street trolley replaced horse-drawn railcars.
Electrified streetcars like this one replaced Milwaukee’s horse-drawn railcars in 1890. In 1902, armed men robbed a trolley crew—then stole their streetcar. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

In a 1902 robbery described as “one of the boldest that has been accomplished in Milwaukee for some time,” two armed men boarded a late-night streetcar, robbed the crew, then made good their getaway—by stealing their streetcar.

The crew of the Greenfield Avenue trolley, Conductor Curtis Neydis and Motorman Edward Kane, were completing the final run of the night as they reached the end of the line at 26th Street at 1 a.m. on November 25th, 1902.

Out of the darkness appeared two men armed with revolvers who ordered the conductor to hand over the collected fares plus the unused tickets and transfers. The theft amounted to $30, the equivalent of about $900 today.

The Milwaukee Journal reported, “Keeping their men covered with the revolvers the robbers ordered them from the car, and while one of the robbers kept his gun trained on the men, his partner turned on the current and ran the car back towards the city.”

The robbers traveled two blocks, leaving the trolley at Orchard Street. In the meantime, the crew rushed to the streetcar company’s nearby phone box, where they found the robbers had stuffed the keyhole. “The robbery was evidently well planned,” the Journal noted.

Running after their now-abandoned streetcar, the crew jumped aboard and sped down the tracks to the next phone box, where they were finally able to report the crime.

The streetcar crew supplied police with detailed descriptions of the robbers and three detectives spent much of the following day at the scene.

A police inspector told the Journal he was satisfied that the men they were seeking were “tough characters” and vowed to spare no effort in apprehending them.

But just 24 hours after the theft, the police force’s attention would instead be turned to solving one of the city’s most sensational murders. You can read about it here.

Lost Milwaukee, a new book from The History Press containing the very best from Milwaukee Notebook, is now available. Click here for more details.

Milwaukee’s Grand Plan

A horse cart is featured in this vintage postcard view of Milwaukee's original Grand Avenue viaduct
Horse-drawn carts like the one shown in this postcard view were common sights when the Grand Avenue viaduct was built in the early 1900s. Carl Swanson collection

Wisconsin was in a mood to dream big in the years following the end of the Civil War. One idea involved extending Grand Avenue (today’s Wisconsin Avenue) from the shore of Lake Michigan all the way to Madison—creating an 80-mile-long boulevard lined the entire distance, they were certain, by elegant mansions and places of worship.

Before anything like that could happen, a suitably impressive way had to be found to carry Grand Avenue across the broad Menomonee River valley. So, after years of indecision and political infighting, Milwaukee set to work on a massive viaduct. Its construction sparked lawsuits, took far longer than expected, and cost much more than estimated.

Pretty much every Milwaukee road project ever, in other words.

But the Grand Avenue viaduct was also a triumph. Upon its completion in 1911, it was immediately regarded as one of the world’s most notable structures.

An army of carpenters and laborers used 3 million board-feet of lumber to make the concrete forms for the viaduct’s eight massive arches.

The idea became a reality largely through the efforts of a single Milwaukee County supervisor, Samuel Bell. The owner of a Milwaukee insurance company, Bell had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. Elected to the county board, Bell was named to the board’s highways and bridges committee.

Bell stepped in after an attempt to fund a viaduct across the Menomonee Valley at the west end of Grand Avenue failed in 1896. At that time, much of the land at the west end of the bridge was owned by real estate companies and it was not clear how the project would benefit the public. The proposal went nowhere.

Bell revived the measure back in 1899, only to have supervisors balk at the viaduct’s estimated cost of up to $190,000 (the equivalent of $5.8 million today).

In 1900, Bell introduced—for the third time—the proposal. By now all the west end lots had been sold to private individuals and Bell was in an optimistic mood. He told the Milwaukee Journal, “If the assessors do their duty, the county will have a material increase of revenue from this source of taxation … there will almost be a new city out there.”

In a May 4, 1900 interview with the Journal, Bell said, “When the resolution came before the board in 1896, the law limited the power of the board to act in the matter to one year. The proceedings show that a resolution was introduced, but the county’s finances were in such a condition that there would be trouble in selling the bonds if the work was started. The matter was dropped, but in 1899 the legislature passed a law, chapter 310, which removed the time limit.”

He added, “This year (1900) it is before the board again. The land necessary to build the west end is assigned to the county. The members seem favorable to the proposition and it looks as if it would go through.”

In the same article, Bell noted the board was only on step one.

“What the board must do is this: First to decide that the building of the viaduct is to the best interests the county and that it should be built. A resolution to that effect is now before the board. Second, locate the viaduct. Third, to have a survey made of it. Fourth, secure the property by condemnation or purchase. Fifth, secure a profile plan and specifications for the work. Sixth, to advertise for bids and, seventh, to make the bond issue. All this has to be done by proper resolutions and it would take eight or nine meetings to get it though if a step were taken at each meeting.”

In a May 7, 1900 article headlined “Viaduct is Assured” the Journal reported Bell’s proposal had cleared the highways and bridges committee and would go before the full board where, the newspaper noted, no significant opposition was expected.

The next day Bell’s measure was blocked when a fellow supervisor introduced a resolution to take no action until the state legislature passed a law giving the county authority to “assess benefits and damages in the vicinity of the viaduct.”

Bell finally got the project off the ground in 1904 when county supervisors approved the project by a 26 to 12 vote. The proposal had been kicking around for eight years.

To find the best design for the proposed viaduct, the county sponsored a nationwide competition with a prize of $1,500 ($40,000 today). A New York engineer named Edwin Thacher was the winner for an art deco barrel-arch design based on concepts developed by Joseph Melan of Vienna. The Melan system relied on a core of steel I-beams shaped to form the arches and then encased in poured concrete.

In 1907, the county collected bids for the viaduct’s construction. A local firm, the Newton Engineering Co., was the low bidder at $372,000. To keep an eye on the project, the county hired Gustav Steinhagen, who, in 1892, had built the 2,085-foot-long Wells Street trolley viaduct, which crossed the Menomonee Valley a block north of the Grand Avenue viaduct site.

There was a local shortage of laborers at the time so Newton Engineering hired large numbers of African-Americans from Tennessee. The concrete was poured at night and these workers would tamp it down in unison, singing spirituals as they did so to keep their rhythm. This was something new for Milwaukeeans and they crowded around the bridge in the moonlight to listen.

“People would come from miles around,” Ralph Hayward, who worked on the viaduct, told the Milwaukee Journal in a 1950 interview. “All you could hear was the sound of singing.”

Behind the scenes, things were less harmonious. Just weeks after construction started, the contractor and Steinhagen were bickering. Steinhagen said the builders ignored his orders and had too few employees on the job while the Newton Company said Steinhagen was “arbitrary and unreasonable.”

After a year of this, the county had enough. The Newton contractors were dismissed and the company promptly filed a lawsuit against the county for unpaid work. A group of local builders banded together to form the National Engineering & Construction Co. and took over the project.

Three-hundred workers were soon hard at work turning 900 tons of steel and 55,000 barrels of cement into eight massive 145-foot-span arches, one 80-foot-arch, and one 60-foot arch together forming a graceful span 2,088 feet long, 80 feet high, and supporting a 67-foot-wide roadway.

Timber forms used to build the Grand Avenue viaduct
This timber ramp was used in the pouring of cement. Building the wood forms while keeping the railroad tracks beneath open was one of the most complex aspects of the project.

On October 24, 1910, the contractors turned the bridge over to the county for final finishing work, which included the roadway approaches at both ends of the new bridge. Then they too filed suit against the county for extra work authorized by Steinhagen.

The lawsuits dragged on, as they do, but in 1916 the court awarded the first contractor an additional $41,000 and the second contractor $67,743.

The final cost of the bridge totaled $614,475 ($14.4 million today), nearly double the original bid and three times higher than the $190,000 estimate that had so horrified the board in 1899.

To no one’s surprise, there were further delays. The county board even managed to put off casting a commemorative bronze tablet to be attached to the structure. The proposed tablet included Steinhagen’s name and the names of the members of the county board that had originally approved the project.

“Well, let’s see,” the Milwaukee Sentinel quoted one supervisor saying, “shouldn’t the names of the new board be on that tablet instead of the old?” Most of the committee, the Sentinel noted, believed he was right “especially those who were not members of the old board.” Supervisors decided to delay having the plaque made while they considered the question.

In an April 29, 1911 editorial note, the Milwaukee Sentinel acidly remarked, “Possibly the new Grand Avenue viaduct will be open to the public by the time it is necessary to build a new one.”

Milwaukee residents were also feeling impatient. On a fine Sunday in May 1911 hundreds of people descended on the viaduct, ignored warning signs and climbed fences in order to walk across the valley on the new bridge.

Finally, on July 4, 1911, the viaduct was declared open. Horses and buggies had been common when the project was first discussed but when it opened fifteen years later, automobiles by the hundreds crossed the new span.

Milwaukee residents could finally take stock of what had been accomplished and, possibly to their surprise, found they had created a landmark.

“The Grand Avenue viaduct is considered by foremost engineers to be the finest in America, both in construction and from an artistic standpoint,” the Sentinel noted. “The arches are the largest and longest of all bridges in America and only two bridges in Europe exceed the Milwaukee bridge in length of arch spans.”

Vintage postcard view of Milwaukee's original Grand Avenue viaduct
The concrete bridge included a scroll design balustrade and Art Deco streetlights. Two streetlights were located above each pier, with one above the arch’s crown. Carl Swanson collection

The cement contractor for the project, the Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company of LaSalle, Illinois proudly printed a booklet describing the viaduct as, “a feat of engineering that will not be eclipsed in either beauty or size for many years to come.”

A national trade magazine, Rock Products, printed a cover story in its April 22, 1911 issue, writing, “From all over the country expert engineers and builders were attracted to the sight of the great achievement to witness the building of the great structure and study the methods employed in its construction. This viaduct is by far the greatest concrete bridge in the world, its mighty arches towering high in the air and the giant supporting piers present a spectacle which has to be seen to be appreciated.”

The plots of land west of the viaduct quickly became a desirable residential area, which considerably bolstered the development of Wauwatosa. Supervisor Bell, who visited the viaduct site nearly every day during the years of its construction, had predicted the outcome and must have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.

In the end, the dreamed-of boulevard to Madison got no farther than the west side of the Menomonee Valley.

The arches of the present-day Wisconsin Avenue viaduct suggest the appearance of the original bridge
The present Wisconsin Avenue viaduct was built in 1993 to replace the original bridge. The modern bridge incorporates arches designed to recall the appearance of the earlier structure. Carl Swanson photo

Carl Swanson is the author of the book Lost Milwaukee from The History Press, available from book stores or online.

“A fit of insane jealousy”

Shortly after midnight November 26th, 1902, Aldrich L. “Al” Schissler, a Milwaukee saloon keeper turned bookmaker, shot and killed aspiring actor Frederick W. Ruel, twenty-three. Police gathered statements from eyewitnesses, recovered the murder weapon, and had the killer in custody within a few hours. 

It seemed an open-and-shut case. But Schissler’s murder trial nearly spiraled out of control as prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over allegations of underaged prostitution, concealed identity, jealousy, infidelity, and insanity. When jurors finished their deliberations and handed their verdict to the judge six months after the fatal shot, it was anyone’s guess what they had decided. Would Al Schissler escape a prison sentence for murder?

Schissler, thirty-seven at the time of the shooting, was born and raised in Milwaukee. His lawyers portrayed him as a loving husband and father driven temporarily insane by the infidelity of his beautiful young wife. 

Prosecutors painted a different picture. In the 1890s, they noted, Schissler had operated a notorious “stall saloon” at 236 Fourth Street. Stall saloons featured walled-off booths with lockable doors. They were most frequently used as cheap places for prostitutes to entertain clients. 

A reporter visited Schissler’s place in 1894 and called it “the worst type of stall saloon that is to be seen in the city.”

“The number of stalls and rooms—the upper floor being occupied with private rooms which are kept by the saloon man for couples—is twelve, and from each is an electric bell which is connected with an indicator back of the bar,” the reporter wrote. “The stalls are separated from the saloon and from each other by partitions eight or nine feet high. 

“Schissler’s place is patronized as well in the day as at night. There are few hours in the day when couples are not seen by the neighbors wending their way along the street till they reached the corner when they separated, the girl going in by the private entrance on Cedar street and the man by the front door on Fourth. The reporters observed a childish couple—neither of the two apparently over 18—enter the place in this way not two weeks ago.”

The story appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel on April 1, 1894. The next day police descended on Schissler’s establishment and arrested him on a charge of conducting a disorderly house and charged three women found inside as inmates of a disorderly house. 

While the charges were still pending in district court, one of the women, Martha Kolodzik, married Schissler. When she subsequently refused to testify against her new spouse the case fell apart.

She was 14 years old at the time of her marriage. 

Prosecutors said the marriage was a sham, a way for Schissler to derail the charges against him. Was it likely such a man, in a marriage such as this, they argued, actually be driven to insanity by his wife’s infidelity?

In 1898, Schissler closed his saloon and became a bookie, organizing betting pools and placing wagers on horse races held around the country. By 1902, the year of the shooting, the Schisslers had been married seven years, had a six-year-old daughter, and lived in a house at 1921 Cedar Street. 

But Mrs. Schissler, just twenty years old, dreamed of a career on stage. She enrolled in Milwaukee’s Faust School of Oratory under the assumed name of Lillian Desmond. She never spoke of her husband or daughter at the school. Her classmates thought she was single.

One of those students was Frederick W. Ruel, a twenty-three-year-old bank clerk from Watertown, Wisconsin who spent part of each week in Milwaukee attending the Faust school. 

The school’s co-proprietor, Mrs. Gilbert Faust, said Reul was a promising student. 

“He was a tall, handsome young fellow and would in time have done well as a leading man. He had all the natural qualifications for the role, and the news of his death comes as a shock to all of those who knew him. We believed he had a bright future before him.” 

Reporting from Watertown, the Milwaukee Journal added more details, “Mr. Reul, who was twenty-three years old, was employed as a clerk in the Wisconsin National Bank here. He was widely known in this city and was regarded as an exemplary young man. He possesses an exceptionally fine appearance and was always one of the best dressed young men of the city.

“As far as is known here, Mr. Reul possessed no undesirable acquaintances. He was popular among the younger social set and had many girlfriends belonging to Watertown’s best families. His friends in Watertown remembered him for his devoted kindness to his invalid older brother, and described him as ‘an exemplary young man.’” 

Just before Thanksgiving 1902, Ruel and a fellow student with the Faust school, Anna Benson, landed roles in a musical benefit at the Davidson Theater. Also appearing at the Davidson that week was William Crandell, an actor from New York with a national touring company. 

Crandell struck up a friendship with Anna Benson, described by Mrs. Faust as, “a sweet little woman, as pretty as she can be, and about 18 years of age.” 

Speaking to reporters the day of the shooting, Crandall said, “I met Miss Benson Monday, and as she was a pleasing young girl, I became well acquainted with her. Reul came to the theater yesterday afternoon where I met him, and, as he seemed to know Miss Benson, we chatted together a while after the performance, and arranged a meeting after the evening’s performance. I saw no more of Reul or Miss Benson until I was released from my work and going outside, I met both in company with another lady, who was introduced to me as Miss Schissler. I did not know she was a married woman, and I don’t think Miss Benson or Reul did.”

The four hired a carriage and stopped briefly at the Schlitz Palm Garden, then had dinner at a nearby restaurant. The gathering broke up about midnight, the four returning to the carriage.

Al Schissler had spent the evening with his business partner. Mrs. Francis Kallas, a stepsister of Mrs. Schissler, was staying at the couple’s house on the night of the shooting and said Mrs. Schissler had left the house about 8 p.m., saying she was going to the theater with a lady friend.

“Mr. Schissler came home about 10:30 and I was in bed with his child,” Mrs. Kallas said. “He came to the door and asked where his wife was. I told him that she had gone to the theater. He said little, but I could tell he was mad.”

Anna Benson recalled, “When we got to the carriage we were joking about who should be taken home first; but as we were then on the West side, it was decided that we should take [Mrs. Schissler] home first, and so we started. On the way, we were all talking and joking, and before we knew it the carriage stopped in front of a house. One of the boys looked out and noticed a man just leaving the window, and some remarks were made about it. Mrs. Schissler said something about her pa waiting for her. We sat there talking for a moment when all of a sudden a man came out of the house.”

Ruel was seated next to Schissler’s wife on the front bench of the carriage when Schissler leaned through the window of the carriage, seized Ruel’s arm, which was resting on the window frame, and said, “Who are you?” As Reul began to reply, Schissler pointed a handgun at the young man’s chest and fired a single shot into the young man’s chest the bullet tearing through Reul’s right lung and lodging in his spine.

Mr. Reul threw up his hands and cried out something I could not understand,” Anna Benson said. “That is all I know of how it happened. It all came so quick and it was dark in the carriage.”

Schissler, smoking pistol still in his hand, ran back into his house. His sister in law said, “He rushed into my room about 12:30 o’clock and said that he had shot a man. I was too dazed to speak.

“He picked his child up out of the bed and kissing her goodbye, said to me, ‘I may go up for life for this; please take care of the little one.’ He put on his coat and said that he was going to give himself up, and left the house at once. I believe that Al was always passionately fond of his wife and was jealous of her, but I never thought that he would do this.”

In the confusion following the shooting, Schissler’s wife and Anna Benson both jumped from the carriage and fled. Mrs. Schissler was eventually found hiding in a neighbor’s yard by a police officer. Anna, after running several blocks, boarded a streetcar and, not sure what else to do, rode it home.

William Crandell, alone in the carriage with the severely wounded Reul, ordered the driver to hurry to nearby Trinity hospital. Once there, the driver and Crandell pounded on the doors and shouted but were unable to rouse the staff. 

A passing resident of the neighborhood suggested they try the Emergency hospital instead. As the carriage raced onward through the midnight streets, Crandall cradled Reul in his arms.

“Finally, seeing that he was passing away fast,” Crandall said, “he asked me to help him say a death prayer. I knew of nothing but the Lord’s prayer.”

Reul stumbled through the first words alone before growing weakness forced him to stop. Crandall finished the prayer with Reul repeating the words. As Reul was being placed on the stretcher at the Emergency hospital, he grasped his side, saying, “I am going to die,” and passed away before the physicians could attend to him.

The Milwaukee police detective who tracked Schissler to his brother’s house and placed him under arrest had known Schissler for years and said his wife’s interest in acting, and the attention she showed theatrical people, was a source of tension in their relationship.

“This fact always troubled Schissler greatly and I believe that he killed the young man while in a fit of insane jealousy,” Detective McManus told reporters.

The behavior of Mrs. Schissler in the hours after the shooting caused much comment. The Milwaukee Journal interviewed her at her home, the day after the shooting.

“Twenty-four hours in which to reflect has left no sign of remorse in Mrs. Albert L. Schissler, whose husband is now being held at the Central police station on the charge of murdering F. William Reul, a Watertown bank clerk, who was her escort. Alone she has stayed in her home, 1921 Cedar street since her release by the police yesterday afternoon. All night she was alone in the big house with the front door unlocked. Her little girl who was taken away yesterday morning and whose whereabouts are unknown to Mrs. Schissler, did not even cause seem to cause this mother any anxiety.”

Even under these circumstances, the reporter noted, Mrs. Schissler couldn’t shake off theatrical gestures. Dressed in a black silk wrapper, she carefully arranged herself among the pillows on the divan, clasped her arms behind her head, and asked, “Now, what is there that you want to know?”

As the interview proceeded, she referred to her husband with no emotion and was equally indifferent when asked the whereabouts of her child.

Speaking of the murdered man, she said, “I am awful sorry for Mr. Reul, I had only known him since Sunday and Tuesday night was the second time that I ever met him. No, there was nothing between us more than a mere professional acquaintance.

“If I had thought that there was anything wrong in what I was doing, I should not have had them drive up to the house, but should have left the carriage at the corner. But as it was, I thought nothing of it, so we drove right up in front of the house.”

When the trial finally opened, six months later, the state laid out a strong case, telling jurors Schissler was a man with a bad reputation, that his wife was a woman of loose character, and that the shooting had been deliberate.

Schissler’s defense attorney, Henry Killilen, countered with an aggressive defense based on temporary insanity. His client, Killilen said, had suffered epileptic attacks for several years. He would present witnesses who testified that Schissler had episodes of angry outbursts that he was unable to recall moments later. 

On the night of the shooting, Killilen said, Schissler found a letter addressed to his wife which proved to him the infidelity of the wife he adored. His mind weakened by the recurring attacks of epilepsy, the attorney said, he became temporarily insane. 

“His wife,” Killilen told the jury, “is an attractive and uncommonly beautiful woman, whom this husband loved more dearly, wisely or unwisely, than any other husband with the city limits loves his wife. It went beyond simple high regard and amounted really to stupid infatuation.”

He added, “On that evening he went to his home. His wife was gone. He looked on a dresser in the home and found a letter addressed to his wife by another man. He read the letter, which proved to him the utter shamelessness of the woman who was the mother of his child. … What would the knowledge mean to any of you who have wives that you love, and you whose minds are strong, think of the effect this information would have on a man whose brain was clouded by disease?”

Schissler’s defense team also attacked the character of the murdered man, telling jurors, “when a man goes out at night with a woman who is practically a stranger to him, he must be prepared to accept the consequences. If you find this man [Schissler] guilty of murder in the first degree, it will encourage crime, for it will practically tell every libertine in the country, ‘You can wreck as many homes as you please and the wronged husband will be defenseless and helpless.’” 

Assistant District Attorney E.T. Fairchild told jurors it was his opinion the whole story of the letter was fabricated, saying it was absurd to suppose that the letter could have laid in a desk to which Schissler had daily access for a period of two years without his finding it.

“Referring to the affection the defense said Schissler had for his wife,” the Milwaukee Journal reported, “Mr. Fairchild said that the love the defendant had exhibited for her was that which a libertine manifests toward his mistress. He was not concerned with the development of her mind, her soul, her nobler faculties. He declared with emphasis that any man who is engaged in the business of conducting a house of ill repute is incapable of any genuine and true affection. He contended that there had been at least a tacit agreement between the defendant and his wife in regard to their conduct toward each other.”

Seven medical experts examined Schissler. Four experts, called by the defense, stated that Schissler was insane at the time of the crime while the three called by the state said he was sane.

In the months since the shooting, Mrs. Schissler had left the city to continue her theatrical ambitions. As the trial entered its final days, a role in a play brought her back to Milwaukee.

“I had hoped the public would not become aware of my presence in the city,” said Mrs. Schissler told the Milwaukee Journal reporter who had tracked her to the modest hotel room she was occupying, “I have tried to forget all about the past, and have started out to earn my own living. Now I am to be dragged out before the public again. I have taken no interest whatsoever in Schissler’s case and did not really know what had been done with it until I arrived in Milwaukee, and of course, then I could not help learning it. However, I have formed no opinion on what the outcome will be, for really it matters but little to me. I have been thrown upon my own resources and I am using all of my energies to perfect myself for the work which I have selected.” 

When asked if her husband was subjected to epileptic fits, she said: “I have not lived with him long enough to know, but as far as I know he never had.”

“Mrs. Schissler has changed but little since the eventful night,” the reporter noted. “Her appearance is much the same; she speaks in the same unconcerned manner of the sad affair and seemed to be totally void of feeling for anything except her art.” 

The next day, April 17, 1903, the jury retired to decide on the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the shooting. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury found Schissler sane.

Although there would be another round of closing arguments before the jury would be asked to rule on Schissler’s innocence, temporary insanity had been the core of the defense strategy and with that taken away, there was little else on which to base a defense.

Over the next few days, his defense team sought to impeach the character and testimony of the state’s witnesses and introduced the idea that the bullet was fired in the heat of passion or was even fired accidentally, but the outcome was all but certain. On April 27th, 1903, Schissler was found guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

His attorneys appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court citing a lengthy list of reasons why the conviction should be thrown out. In its August 1904 term, the court upheld the original verdict. 

Schissler had been free on bail for the six months between the shooting and verdict. He had spent part of the time at a resort in French Lick, Indiana. As Schissler started his sentence, another man was allowed his freedom. 

William Crandell, the professional actor who witnessed the shooting and comforted the mortally wounded man as their carriage raced from hospital to hospital, had been held under lock and key as a material witness for the entire time. Since he had no connection to the city, prosecutors felt there was a chance Crandell would not return to testify if released.

He was confined in the witness room of the county jail, where he passed his time reading, writing and talking with the others held in confinement.

“One never knows what is coming,” he told the Milwaukee Journal. “Here only a few weeks ago I was happy and free, and in a single night it all changed until here I am out of a position and with not much to look forward to, but these (pointing to the barred windows) for a Christmas greeting.”

The paper noted that Crandell did have a few visitors, including Anna Benson, who was in the carriage with Mrs. Schissler, Crandell and Reul. She visited Crandell every day.

“What will I do when the trial is over? That is hard to say, I do not know if I will return to the stage or not,” he said. “You see this will sort of put me back, and I was getting along so nicely too. It is hard to get into a first-class company.” 

With the trial concluded, his once-promising acting career in tatters, and facing an uncertain future, Crandell was finally released from confinement. As a witness, he was owed a modest fee but the cashier the clerk of the municipal court accidentally paid him far too much.

“When an attempt was made to locate him it was found that he had suddenly disappeared from the city,” the Journal reported.


Carl Swanson is the author of the book Lost Milwaukee from The History Press, available from book stores or online.


The long season of the Milwaukee Clipper

From 1941 to 1970, the Milwaukee Clipper linked Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan. The ship offered amenities including a live orchestra, a fine restaurant, and even a movie theatre. Carl Swanson collection

In the early 1900s three elegant sister ships sailed the Great Lakes, the Tionesta, the Juniata, and the Octorara. One of them, renamed the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper, would serve its namesake city from 1941 to 1970.

A lot can happen to a ship in nearly seven decades – and a lot did.

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The Owls of Port Washington Road

This building housing Shiloh Tabernacle Church, 3436 N Port Washington Rd., recalls the glory days of Milwaukee’s fraternal orders. Carl Swanson photo

The sturdy brick building at 3436 N. Port Washington Rd. is the home of Shiloh Tabernacle Church, and has been for many years. But look closer. There are three owls carved above the entry.

This building has a secret past. (more…)

The Lady and the Light

For 33 years, starting in 1874, the operation of the North Point Lighthouse in Lake Park was in the capable hands of an extraordinary woman. Photo by Carl Swanson

If you visit the old lighthouse in Lake Park you will hear the surprising story of Georgia A. Stebbins, keeper of the North Point light for 33 years starting in 1874.

To put that in perspective notes the lighthouse website, it would be another 46 years before women were allowed to vote. Yet here was Georgia, duly appointed by the federal government and in sole charge of a vitally important maritime safety facility.

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The Great Courthouse Trouser disaster

first_court_house

The first courthouse was built in 1836. Additional offices and the jail are to the right. This is the site of Cathedral Park today. Carl Swanson collection

Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee, which one writer described as “a fascinating hodgepodge of largely undigested facts, gossip, puffs and salty observations.” Buck included events both great and small in the city’s formative years. For example, many historians relate the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse in what is today Cathedral Square, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”

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Book contains favorite posts from Milwaukee Notebook

Nearly 100 attended the book launch event for “Lost Milwaukee” April 24th at Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. Photo by John Swanson

We did it! Thanks to The History Press, the all-time best posts from Milwaukee Notebook – rewritten and expanded – are now collected in the new book Lost Milwaukee. The 42 essays and more than 70 images cover a broad range of topics, including:

  • In the waning days of World War II, a duck named Gertie built a nest in downtown Milwaukee and became a national sensation.
  • A popular bike path was once the route of one of the world’s fastest steam-powered passenger trains.
  • The last days of the Schlitz brewing empire in Milwaukee.
  • Women employed in a World War I munitions factory worked in their bloomers because the machinery made long dresses hazardous.
  • Today’s Estabrook Park was once a massive quarry and the home of the world’s largest producer of natural cement.
  • A nearly forgotten Milwaukee River park was a popular beer garden.
  • One-hundred years ago, excursion steamboats ran on the upper Milwaukee River.
  • For decades the rickety-looking Wells Street viaduct provided a thrilling ride for trolley passengers.
  • In 1859, Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Milwaukee included fiery rhetoric – and an encounter with a sideshow strongman.
  • The story of the lost canal under a busy city street.

From beer barons to chocolate makers, from a courthouse statue locals said resembled a drunken dancing girl to an ice cream run that led to the founding of Evinrude outboard engines, Lost Milwaukee is a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Click here for more information on this new book!

[From the Acknowledgments section of Lost Milwaukee] “Lastly, I wish to thank those who have followed my blog and shared their love for Milwaukee. This book would not have been possible without their support, comments and suggestions.”