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.