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The Story of the Borchardt Murder


By W. F. Jannke III


How many times have you heard the expression “If looks could kill”? Or an entertainer remarking on his performance by saying that he “killed” and that he “slayed” the audience? Like it or not we are a violent society, our everyday expressions reflecting that violence. So it should come as no surprise that murder has been a part of the scene since the very beginnings of mankind. And our own good old Watertown has not been spared its fair share of bloodletting. I have spent a great deal of time (perhaps too much!) poking into the darker recesses of our city’s history and from time to time a murder case has presented itself. Since we are in October, the month of ghosts and skeletons, what better time is there to write of a murder?


The murder occurred in the Town of Watertown in the winter of 1874, on November 30, 1874 to be precise. The victim in this case was a man by the name of John Borchardt, who was about 66 years of age. He lived on a farm in the southeastern part of the township. He made his home with his wife, Caroline, age 51, and his two step-daughters, Johanna and Wilhelmine (Mina) Krueger. He was described by those who knew him as friendly and without any known enemies. 


But obviously someone didn’t like him!


About 8:00 PM on the night in question, Wilhelmine and Johanna Krueger, breathless and in an agitated state, arrived at the home of a neighbor, Rudolph Hoof and told him that he must come quickly, someone had come into their house, doused the lights, and struck their step-father, wounding him badly. Hoof immediately set out with the girls to their home. As they went, the girls elaborated on this story, telling him that their father came home that night, singing loudly as he came into the house. He greeted them all and took off his hat and coat. Then he asked his daughters to go out and tend to his horses. While she and her sister were outside in the barn unhitching their father’s horses an unknown man came into the house, doused the lights and struck the old man and then ran off into the darkness. Hoof found this to be a strange tale, made even more strange when the three met Caroline Borchardt standing outside of the house as they arrived. She informed Hoof of her husband’s death by informing him that he had been kicked by a horse! Her daughter, Mina, reminded her of what she had told them and Mrs. Borchardt then stated that her husband had, in fact, been killed by an unknown assassin.


Mr. Hoof began to feel very uneasy by this time and he refused to enter the house. Instead, he went off to fetch another neighbor. However, this neighbor was equally bothered by the event and he suggested that they go after another neighbor. It was not until a brigade of eight men were assembled that anyone entered the house! 


Upon entering the house they found the three women, Mrs. Borchardt and her two daughters, all in their night clothes and huddled in bed together. There was a dim light in the room and the men could just make out a form lying on the other bed. Upon closer inspection it was revealed that this was the lifeless body of John Borchardt, his bloodied face covered by a cloth. The women seemed strangely unaffected by this gruesome sight. In fact, it was later reported, they carried the body and laid it on the bed. 


The men looked over the room. There was a large spot of blood on the floor, as well as on the lounge where old man Borchardt had been sitting when he was struck. How the blood got on the floor, according to one of the women, was when the body fell from the lounge and they dragged it over to the bed.


Questions began to be asked, but all of the women steadfastly maintained that a tall, dark, masked man breezed into the house, blew out the lights, and struck old man Borchardt. The blows he received, as they were later described at the coroner’s inquest by Dr. W. C. Spaulding of Watertown, were massive. There was a fracture at the base of the nose, and five wounds to the scalp, four of which were broken through the skin to the bone, one which had broken through the bone near the top of the head. There were also several founds, some of which broke through to the bone, on the base of the skull and on the sides of the head near the ears. When the doctor opened the skull to examine the brain it was discovered that John Borchardt had suffered from massive internal bleeding.


Then, in front of witnesses, Wilhelmine stated that just before he expired, John Borchardt said, “Mena, did you strike me?” This was a very startling thing for her to have said, and in the end it would indirectly lead to her downfall.


The women were charged with murder and arrested. They asserted their innocence up to the very end. In the mean time, witnesses were called and from their testimony a very dark story began to be painted of the life of the Borchardt family.


The facts that came out at the trial, which lasted a mere two days, revealed that the old man and his family did not live on good terms. He was quarrelsome and even scolded his wife on the night of his death. He was also something of a drinker. His own blood kin, his son Charles, when approached by the girls to fetch a doctor and come with them, asked them if the old man was not drunk and being troublesome. That is why he didn’t come right away. There was some bad blood between him and his step-daughters, especially Mina. They often spoke of hiring themselves out in order to shake loose from the place. It also appeared that the old man may have also wanted to kick her out, though no hard and fast evidence of this ever came to light. In fact at the trial Mina stated that her father always wanted her with him!


Perhaps the most damaging piece of evidence that came out at the trial was a statement that Mina made to a friend. She was quoted as threatening her father by stating that if he ever dared to chase her mother out of the house and lock her out to freeze she would smash his head in.


But how did John Borchardt meet his death? No one ever found any tracks of this unknown assailant, though it could be argued that it had started to snow after the murder and the tracks, if they ever existed, were obliterated. Mina stated that she saw the masked man run off towards Watertown, but no one else ever saw this phantom. And then there was the means of death.


John Borchardt was killed by being beaten repeatedly by blows from a hammer. When the men came in to look over the premises on the night of the murder they discovered a bloody hammer wrapped up in some clothes belonging to the deceased man and stuck into a cupboard. None of the women remembered seeing the hammer in the house before the murder, though at the trail one of the daughters stated that their mother had asked Mr. Borchardt to bring her the hammer and some nails from the barn to fix the curtains in the house.


The other telling feature of this case was the demeanor of the women. When the men entered the house they found them laughing and talking animatedly in bed. Johanna, one of the daughters, upon seeing the men entering, stated “I did not harm him!” They also noted that the women seemed to whisper amongst themselves a great deal. After Borchardt died they tried, unsuccessfully, to wash up the blood. And why did they feel compelled to move the body?


These questions plagued the jury and after deliberating for two hours they rendered their verdict. Their unanimous conclusion was that John Borchardt met his death at the hands of his wife and daughter, Wilhelmina. Johanna, the other daughter, was exonerated. The women were sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Waupun, the first day of January of each year to be spent in solitary confinement.


Thus ended a very unhappy case of family violence. We may think that such things only happened in the big city, or only in more modern times, but the sad fact is this sort of thing happened all the time. And still happens. And, sadly, most likely always will.