Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Secrets of the Big Creek Valley: The Rise and Fall of Pierce F. Rehrig

A Case of Getting Away with Robbery and
 Murder in Carbon County

By Ronald J. Rabenold

“If you want to get away with murder, come to Carbon County.” That’s what then District Attorney Carl Niehoff said at the Packerton Old-timer’s Club in 1949.

Pierce Rehrig of Lehighton died, some say murdered, on June 7th, 1941. Found face down at his bungalow in 22-inches of water of a slack water dam in the Big Creek Valley.
William B. Lovatt, Dennis and Pierce F. Rehrig's
Quilling Machine Patent, April 1910


Those bitter words from Niehoff were heard by Fred Komatowski’s paperboy, Paul Borits Sr. of Packerton. Borits knew Niehoff was referring to his customer, but until then he only knew him as an excellent tipper. The rhetoric was also directed at Judge James McCready (whom Niehoff was opposing in the primary election) and former District Attorney Heimbach for botching the murder prosecution of Komatowski.
Future D.A. Carl Niehoff in his 1924 Junior
Yearbook picture at Lehighton High
Pierce F. Rehrig was a successful silk mill operator, starting out in one of William B. Lovatt’s mills. Lovatt was the son of the “Read and Lovatt Mills” of Weatherly and Palmerton. Along with his father Dennis Rehrig and Lovatt, Rehrig earned patent # 953,914 in 1910. It was for a quilling machine used for bobbing silk. (You can Google search “Google Patents,” and use the search words “Rehrig” and “Lehighton” to see the complete application.)
(Charlie Rehrig had a silk mill on the hill on Ochre Street above Peach Alley in the early 1900s.)

Pierce Rehrig was certainly on his way. And then he met Miss Evelyn D. Christman. She started out as his secretary. By 1917, the two teamed up to form R & C Knitting Mills, creating a corporation with shares of stock. The same year Rehrig purchased the fateful side-by-side bungalows: one for him, and one for Miss Christman. It was a home away from home for both of them, even though he was married to Emma and had 10-year-old daughter Mildred at home.

(According to Cindy Lafaw, the bungalows were behind her grandfather's seventy-acre farm.  The stream running through the property was known as Deep Run, on the north side of the Big Creek Pike.  It was an area with two cabins and a private pond, closed off by a locked gate which was next to a small stone bridge over Deep Run.  It was about one-half mile past Behler's Busy Bee Gas Station.  There were no other cabins in this area.
Thank you for these valuable insights Cindy!  I remember my Uncle Bobby Haas telling me he once dated a young woman whose family eventually came to own one of these cabins after the death of Pierce Rehrig and their high school friends would gather there.)

By June of 1941, Rehrig’s mobility was restricted with the shuffling feet and shaking hands of advanced Parkinson’s Disease. Within two days of his death, Chief of Police Harry T. Yenser thought he had his man. Many knew Komatowski was the other man in Christman’s life. Komatowski and Christman shared her 728 Mahoning St. home since 1931. According to the contested confession Yenser extracted from Komatowski, Fred was “tired of playing second fiddle to Pierce Rehrig.”

State Attorney General Claude T. Reno visited Mauch Chunk to advise on this case. He appointed Attorney General Daniel P. Dougherty of Nesquehoning as Deputy Attorney General. Frank X. York of Mauch Chunk, hired by Rehrig’s widow in a civil suit against Christman, was appointed to assist Dougherty.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on the Komatowski motive, one Komatowski would later recant. Fred "Fritz" Komatowski said his interrogation was grueling.  He said it was a 20-hour marathon in 2-hour relays, including the brutality of punches to the face and kicks in the ribs. They allegedly beat the confession out of him and as District Attorney Albert H. Heimbach admitted to the press, they were “turning up the heat” with “third degree tactics” on their yet to be named key suspect.

The prosecution believed someone had to have thrown Rehrig into the water. They thought they would be able to convince the jury that Rehrig could have never walked, unassisted, the thirty paces necessary to end his own life. They called Rehrig’s wife, daughter and his personal attendant James Auge on to the stand and all testified that Rehrig was too incapacitated to have walked that far by himself. They even bused the jury out to Big Creek to see the “lay of the land,” to stroll around the cottages.

The defense claimed Rehrig had to have thrown himself into the water. They called witnesses, including Komatowski and Christman who emphatically stated that Rehrig could indeed walk that far. They even had testimony from Ralph Beltz who was Rehrig’s attendant before Auge. He agreed with the defense as to Rehrig’s ability. However he hadn’t worked with Rehirg in over seventeen months.


147 North Third Street Lehighton - The Komatowski homestead
from the late 1800s until the 1950s, passing from father Julius to son
August.  Bill Getz of Lehighton still remembers "Gus" his old landlord. 
Forensic investigation of 1941 wasn’t the science it is today. The police had no physical evidence. But if they were right, Komatowski was the last person to see him alive. He was also the person who found him the next day. At one part of his interrogation, Chief Yenser took Komatowski back to the property to recreate the two scenes he witnessed: the one where Rehrig begged to be placed into the dam and the other when he arrived after dark the next evening to see Rehrig floating face down in the water.

It was midnight on June 10th when a tired and beaten Komatowski was arraigned by Justice of the Peace F. A. Seip of Palmerton, the night before Rehrig’s funeral. He was released until he was rearrested on June 24th following his inconsistent testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest before the county grand jury, only to be released after a habeas corpus hearing on July 11, 1941.


 
The Komatowski's c. 1890 - Fred is kneeling left
and Freida sits at Julius' feet

116 South Third Street Lehighton - Evelyn Christman's first
home on her own, next to the then newly built Lehighton
Fire Co. #2.  She also took in her cousin James Wagner and
raised him as her own son.















Fred Komatowski was the son of Julia and Julius. He was born in February of 1886 and had three older brothers, Reinhold born in 1880 and twins Julius Jr. and August, born shortly after his parents immigrated from West Prussia Germany in 1882. He also had younger sisters Clara, 1888 and Freida born in 1893. Freida later married Oscar Pettit and moved to Hazelton and was the only other person named in Fred’s will. Fred’s father and older brothers were cast iron molders at the Lehighton Stove Works, but he gravitated to the Lehigh Valley Railroad and become a refueling clerk. He was also a “handyman” for R & C Knitting Mills.

Evelyn Christman was born in 1893, eighteen years younger than Rehrig and seven years older than Komatowski. Her parents were Alfred and Anna Christman. He was a carpenter in the Lehigh Valley Railroad car shops. She had one older brother, Clarence. Evelyn’s cousin, James H. Wagner came to live with them when he was two years old. He was 15 years younger than Evelyn.

Later on, when she set up her own household, Wagner moved along with her and she raised him as her own son. By 1920 at the age of 27 and still single, Christman was financially secure enough to hire Stella Snyder as her private, live-in servant.

Wagner would become a life-long ally of Christman. Christman even purchased a plane she kept at the Lehighton Airport (where the Lehighton Area High School is today.) and Wagner learned to fly it. He was also a faithful mill manager at R & C and would later receive the largest portion of her ample estate.

In 1940, one year before his death, Rehrig and Christman recorded a $1 transaction together. In the event of his death all his holdings in the R & C Corporation would go to Christman, rather than to his family. This, in addition to Komatowski’s “hazy” memory, changing his story three different times, played into the prosecution’s favor.

Komatowski never denied the majority of the detailed description he signed as to his whereabouts at the time of Rehrig’s death. The only part he refuted was the part about carrying and throwing him to his death in that pool of water.

205 North Second Street Lehighton - The childhood home
of Pierce Rehrig's attendant James Auge.
His confession reads like this: Komatowski leaves work at 11:00 AM on Saturday June 7th and has 2-3 beers before lunch. Having another two after lunch, he arrives at Christman’s bungalow. James Auge had Rehrig’s 1932 Chevy Coup blocking the shared driveway. Allegedly, Komatowski shouted for Auge to get the car “the hell out of the way,” which Auge did.

A short time later, Komatowski said he was minding his own business, feeding the squirrels next door, when Rehrig and Auge loaded into the Chevy. As they left, Auge shouted over to him, calling him a “son of a bitch.”

Shortly after, he left and met James “Jimmy” Pennell at the Carbon House, on the corner of North and First Streets in Lehighton (site of the present Bank of America). Jimmy agreed to leave the bar and go with him back out to Big Creek, allegedly to show Jimmy the poor conditions Auge was keeping Rehrig’s cabin. However, during the trial, Pennell testified he went there only for the promise of beer from Christman’s cabin.

The Weissport House - Komatowski and Pennell stopped
for some "whiskey and beers" and to talk to Ignatz Deutsch
Along the way, they stopped at the Weissport House and talked to manager Ignatz Deutsch while having “beers and whiskeys.” They arrived at Big Creek by 6:30 PM, a 20-minute ride.

Rehrig and Auge had returned with Pierce standing “propped-up” in the northwest corner of the porch. Fred said, “Hi-ya, Pete,” before he and Jimmy let themselves into the kitchen. He saw Auge and asked him what he shouted to him from the road earlier, sending Auge out the back door. Auge allegedly once again yelled at him causing Fred to call after him, telling Auge to return and tell him what he said. But Auge tore away alone in Rehrig’s car. During the trial, Auge expressed feeling terrified by Komatowski.

It was the last time anyone other than Komatowski would see Rehrig alive.

According to Komatowski, when he returned to the porch, he noticed Rehrig had moved, unassisted, over along the railing and seated himself on his piano stool. Pennell seated himself next to Rehrig on a rocking chair while Komatowski stood on the other side. They spoke politely and inquired about his health, to which Rehrig reported, “Not so good.”

Soon, Komatowski and Pennell crossed the bridge over the stream to retrieve two quarts of “Old Reading” beer from the Christman cabin. They sat drinking their beer for about 20-minutes on the steps leading into the water.

Leaving Pennell there, Komatowski decided to go check on Rehrig. He found him against the railing, shaking and in a terrible nervous state. It was then, according to Komatowski,  that Rehrig said how he wished he were dead, how he wished his suffering would end. Komatowski claimed he tried to soothe and bring Rehrig back from his death wish, but to no avail.

According to the written statement compiled from his 20-hours of “third degree” interrogation, Komatowski lifted Rehrig over the wooden cap piece on the side of the dam and stood him there facing the water, leaning forward.

This drastically differed from his court testimony. On the stand, he said that Pennell had simply returned to the car and he joined him at about 7:00 PM. With the car facing away from the property toward the roadway, had Komatowski dropped Rehrig into the water, Pennell would not have seen it. In court, Komatowski insisted he left Rehrig, alive, on his porch.
James "Jimmy" Pennell was with Komatowski at Rehirg's bungalow
the night of his death.  Pennell and Carl Niehoff
were LHS classmates in the Class of 1925.
On the way home, they stopped at Willard “Bully” Rehrig’s Glenwood Inn and were at the Lehighton A & P (present day Lehighton Hardware) by 8:00 PM. They then went to Kreamer’s Store, borrowed $15 from Ralph Kreamer and went to “Babby” Shafer’s Saloon, all on Second Street. After about an hour, Komatowski told Pennell he was going home. They parted company at the Elks Club at the corner of South and First Streets.
Leiby's Hotel (Now Citro's) on South Second Street Lehighton
with the original R & C Mill in the background
The next thing he remembered was waking at 2:00 AM unable to sleep. He decided to clean and cook his chicken for Sunday dinner, going back to sleep until 7:00 AM. He ate some breakfast and was at the Lehigh Valley Passenger Station to sign off on a refueling train by 7:30. (The station was at the north end of the present-day Rout 209 by-pass to the rear of Rite-Aid). Later, he arrived at the Elks Club, drank six large beers and swapped jokes and stories with Jimmy Yenser, Joe Vanage, Jimmy Pennell, Con O’Brien, and several others.

The Lehighton Hi-Rise where the Hotel Lehighton once stood.
Right of the Hi-Rise, the former Elks Club.  Komatowski
went looking for Chief Yenser here, but found Patrolman Anthony
at the Hotel.  Evelyn Christman's 123 South St rental is at right. 
Returning home, he took a nap on the divan couch downstairs. At 6:00 PM, 24 hours after Rehrig’s death, Fred gets a call from James Auge that awoke him. Auge accused him of taking Rehrig in his car and he demanded to know where he was. Auge also told him there was a search warrant out to find Rehrig. This was all news to Komatowski.

He asked his neighbor Lewis Hall if he wanted to go with him to another refueling at 7:53 PM and he agreed. Once there, he suggested they ride out to the bungalow to “feed the squirrels.” They arrived there around 8:15. With his 2-cell flashlight, he could see Rehrig’s body by his white shirt in the 22-inches of water and “suddenly realized what had happened.” Hall agreed they needed to contact the police.

They drove back into Lehighton and went into the Elk’s Club looking for Chief Yenser. Mr. Spiker the bartender hadn’t seen him and suggested calling over to the Hotel Lehighton (present-day site of the Lehighton Elderly Hi-Rise.) Patrolman Anthony was there and agreed to meet at the corner. They did, but he suggested calling the Motor Police (State Police) as it was out of his jurisdiction.

Komatowski took the stand in his own defense the last 2 days of the 13-day trail. With no court on Sunday, the jury was once again taken for a bus ride, this time to break the tension and “monotony.” They deliberated until 10 PM after closing arguments ended, then began again the next day at 9 AM, reaching a verdict by two that afternoon: “Guilty of murder in the 3rd degree.” Komatowski’s lawyer Ben Branch immediately declared a mistrial and secured Komatowski’s release on $7,500 bail.

A year and a half later, the state Supreme Court ruled in Komatowski’s favor. In a scathing denouncement, Chief Justice George W. Maxey ruled the charges had no foundation or precedent. “Every member of this court is surprised that the trial judge and the Commonwealth’s Special Prosecutor apathetically stood by hearing this ridiculous and meaningless sentence repeated thirteen times.” He also noted the judgment should never be used in case law.

The defense, with the help of Evelyn Christman’s testimony, established enough doubt that indeed Rehrig may have been able to walk unassisted to his own death, despite the prosecution’s own witnesses that said he couldn’t. A total lack of physical evidence with no eye witness and a recanted contentious confession won the defendant’s freedom.

Pennies for Freida - Komatowski's will,
witnessed by Wagner and Koch.
Freida Komatowski married Oscar Pettit and lived
 in Hazleton.
Komatowski and Christman spent their last years in a nicely furnished bottom-floor apartment in the R & C Knitting Mill in Packerton Hollow (the second floor was the mill). Fred Komatowski died in 1965. Claims against his estate for $30 for board, $52 for a Zern’s pharmacy bill, and $120 for Dr. Richard Gladding were paid to Evelyn Christman. “All the pennies in my top dresser drawer” were to go to his sister Freida, “if she is still here.” The remainder, about $5,000, was bequeathed to Christman. His handwritten, one-page will was witnessed by James H. Wagner and another loyal friend and R & C manager, Stanley L. Koch of Lehighton.
South Second Street Lehighton - Pierce Rehrig's mill and later
the home of his widow and daughter Mildred Baderschneider.
Today it's a 4-unit apartment building.  The flower gardens here
were once grand.
Emma Rehrig and her daughter Mildred filled their days gardening and sprucing up their home on the second floor of the former R & C Mill on South Second Street. Emma died in 1962. Mildred’s husband died in 1973 and she in 2005, nearly reaching one hundred years old. Despite a civil suit that alleged Christman obtained her wealth from Rehrig through “fraud, coercion, and deceit,” she and her mother were left with nothing much more than one building owned by her deceased father.
381-383 and 393 South Third Street Lehighton - All owned by
Evelyn Christman until 1973. 
Evelyn Christman died in 1973, one year before the opening of Beltzville State Park. By then she had acquired a sizable wealth. Besides her residence at the mill, she owned a 3-unit apartment at 381-383 as well as a house at 393 South Third and 123 South Street. She also owned a warehouse in Franklin Township, a winter trailer in Florida, and her home at 728 Mahoning, still occupied by James Wagner.
The R and C Knitting Mill in Packerton Hollow.  After Rehrig's death,
Komatowski and Christman lived here on the second floor.
Sixty-thousand dollars was distributed evenly to three Marlatt siblings, Robert, Cynthia and Terri Lee. Half of her R & C stock, worth $18,000, went to Koch who was also her driver in later years. There were provisions for the care of her dog and for thousands of dollars to go to Muriel Brady, to the Bethany Evangelical Church in Lehighton and the Fraser Mission in Philadelphia.

728 Mahoning Street Lehighton with rear apartment - James Wagner
 inherited this from Christman.  However the will stipulated it to be sold
upon his death, forcing his widow to move out of her own home.
Wagner received the bulk of her wealth, including the 728 Mahoning Street home and the remaining assets of cash, stocks and property. The will stipulated that “upon his death” the home must be sold and the proceeds to go to the Marlatt’s. However, the will did not provide for Wagner’s surviving wife. At her advanced age, she had to move out of her own home.

The secrets of this case have long been buried. Rehrig, Komatowski and Christman are all buried with their respective families. Pierce and Fred’s silent secrets remain with them in their graves which lie near the bottom of the Gnaden Huetten Cemetery. The two graves are exactly thirty paces from each other, the same number Pierce allegedly walked alone to his doom. Above them, overlooking from the hillside at the bottom of the adjoining Lehighton Cemetery is Evelyn’s grave. The two side-by-side bungalows of the Big Creek Valley are silent too, resting near below sixty feet of water of Beltzville Lake.


Evelyn Christman is buried alone with her parents, overlooking
the graves of Rehrig and Komatowski below.

30 Paces - From Bungalow to Stream and from Rehrig's resting place to Komatowski's. 
Komatowski's is seen here at the base of the tall tree on the left, next to the white stone.

2 comments:

  1. Ronald,

    I hope you're gathering these terrific stories and putting them in a book. Great writing. Thanks,

    Terry

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not quite the kind of reading one usually does on one's birthday! Happy B'day Prof! I appreciate your thoughts!...I do hope something bigger comes out of these stories...One Day!!!...THanks!

    ReplyDelete