CAPITAL CITY HISTORY: JC woman was victim of 1889 unsolved murder

A neatly dressed country girl was found trampled by a carriage in St. Louis in June 1889. Her black hat was neatly trimmed and a parcel wrapped in newspaper lay a few feet from her, along with her little handbag, filled with postage stamps, soap and razor. Her stockings were clean and beside her was an umbrella with the handle engraved "Anna."

Underneath her body was found a gentleman's handkerchief, large with a blue border and stained with axle grease.

Her new, custom-made shoes came from Joel Swope's shop, and helped identify her as Anna Weiss, 24, head chamber maid at Jefferson City's Madison House.

Weiss was the daughter of a stone mason who died some years before, requiring her to take on work. First she was a nanny, then she started worked in the dining room at the Madison House, an unofficial headquarters for lawmakers during the General Assembly.

The coroner found her five months pregnant in addition to the blow to the left side of her head which caused her death. Weiss' uncle, Fred Buehrle, best known as the Civil War veteran cannoneer, stayed in St. Louis several weeks during the investigation.

Eventually, Buehrle escorted Weiss' body back to Jefferson City, where the priest denied her burial in the Catholic Cemetery, because she was not at the last Easter confession. Her widowed mother then had her buried in the Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery.

This St. Louis cold case never has been solved.

Because of her stoic and reclusive nature, most people could not think of any man who might be the father. Family in Jefferson City, however, knew one man who was the likely philanderer, yet they were just as sure he could not be the murderer.

Buehrle regarded Weiss as a "strictly virtuous girl" until a professional gambler took notice of her. Buehrle said William McClair "was weaving a net around the girl by giving her jewelry of which she was passionately fond." McClair accompanied her to parties and showed special attention to her.

McClair was 48 and had a family of nine in Louisiana, Missouri. For the last three General Assembly sessions, he had been a prominent figure around the gambling tables in Jefferson City.

He got to know Anna and the other girls at the Madison House, as his occupation required him to sleep through the mornings and wake in the afternoon while the girls were doing their work. When McClair was ill at the Madison, Weiss had cared for him.

"I knew Anna Weiss intimately and esteemed her very much," McClair said. "When I was down with the fever, she was very kind to me, in fact all the girls were."

McClair, in fact, bought the trunk Weiss took with her to St. Louis from Wolferman's store on High Street three weeks before she left. He also bought her two dress patterns in calico and gingham. McClair gave her a ride to the Jefferson City depot and exchanged her paper money for three $20 gold pieces.

Once in St. Louis, Weiss stayed with her sister a few days, then rented her own room, where she signed the register as Mrs. Anna Mack -- "Mack" being McClair's nickname. Visitors from Dr. Elizabeth V. Thompson's "lying in" institution, a hospital for pregnant women, left a note for her at the Erie House while she was out.

The evening of her demise, Weiss was at supper with her sister's family. Before leaving, she burned letters in the fireplace and then gave her sister instructions should anything happen to her while she was gone.

Several suspects were arrested, questioned and released in the aftermath. While the St. Louis police continued to hit dead ends, residents in Jefferson City were collecting donations for a reward fund.

Anna arrived in St. Louis with more money than a housemaid would be expected to have. That led police to believe she had gone to St. Louis "to have an operation performed which would ward off her rapidly approaching exposure," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Since she had only taken a one-month leave of absence from work, the police deduced she had not come for the remaining four months to give birth. Therefore, their first conclusion was it had to have been a married man, because a single man might have been strong-armed into marrying her instead.

The chief of police, however, leaned toward suicide, saying she may have jumped from the carriage.

Through the years, St. Louis newspapers revisited the unsolved murder of this Jefferson City youth.

In an interview 24 years later, Police Chief Hughie O'Neill said: "The murder of Anna Weiss the hardest nut to crack in my experience. I have been on the police force 44 years and have been at this station 24 of them. But no case was ever worked harder with as few tangible results as that crime of 1889."

Michelle Brooks is a former Jefferson City News Tribune reporter and has published four books on local history. This story was collected during research for her upcoming book, Murder and Mayhem in Jefferson City, which releases in July.