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The Wetzel - Munshour Murder

Michael Hillman



"For the first time in the memory of man, together with the farthest extended traditions, a foul and dastardly murder has been committed in our community."

With this headline, the Emmitsburg chronicle drew open the curtain on a murder mystery that would capture the attention and energy of almost every Emmitsburg area resident for years to come.

The story, like so many others, began many years before the actual murder. The chief protagonist, Felix Munshour, was the youngest of a hard-working farm family. Five feet eight inches in height and weighing 210 pounds, Felix was imposing in appearance. Yet his structure tended toward corpulence and, to those that knew him, he was wanting in any indication of intellectual capacity.

Around 1875, unwilling to accept the life of farmer, Felix headed west to seek his fortune. His search however proved illusionary and, in March of 1879 following the death of his father, Felix returned to Emmitsburg to claim his share of the proceeds from the sale of the family farm.

Flush with over $1700 in ready cash, Felix set about trying to buy a reputation as a gentleman of means-a reputation that he had long desired, but for which he was unwilling to work. Felix quickly took up residence in the Emmit House, purchased a fine horse and buggy, and became a standing member at many of the meeting and drinking houses that populated Emmitsburg at the time.

However, without income, Felix's fast placed life soon rid him of the entire patrimony that the industry of his parents had secured to him. It was said that Jacob's last dollar was squandered on a horse race, and soon, the wanna-be gentleman found himself deeply in debt and reduced to sleeping in barns, and was at the mercy and beneficence of others for his substance.


As his debts increased, and with no hope of a reprieve on the horizon, Jacob began to look to the sinister side of life for relief. He did not have to look far. Felix's cousin, James Wetzel, was a hard working, industrious farm hand. Forty-one and single, he had resided, up until recently, with his mother and sister in the tenant house of Elijah Close.

Upon the marriage of his sister to John Knode, Wetzel sold his household belongings and moved in with them at the old Morrison farm, near Tom's Creek Methodist Church. Wetzel had a profound distrust of banks and, as such, was known for carrying his life savings on him. An easy prey for a desperate man.

In mid July, Felix, who had taken up part-time residence with William Rentzel, a part-time boot smith, had begun to lay his trap. At every opportunity, Felix sought out Wetzel's company. Since he and his cousin had never really been close, the business of convincing his cousin to part with his hard earned cash, took some time.

As the association between the cousins solidified, Felix began to focus more and more on his timetable and the benefits of his planed actions. Even going so far as too haphazardly commentto _____ Grimes, that by early August, he would be back in the money again.

Over the ensuing weeks, Felix bombarded Wetzel with illusionary tales of "get rich" schemes. One that seemed to strike a cord with Wetzel, who imbibed more then he should, was the selling of illegal alcohol. The trap was now ready to be sprung, but, unlike a novice hunter, Felix left a trail leading directly back to him.

On August 2, Felix borrowed a 12 gage-shot gun from Daniel Lawrence, telling Lawrence that he was going hunting and would return the gun in a few days with all the money he owned him. The following day, Felix crossed paths with Thomas Shorb. While walking through Stansbury's woods, Felix shot a squirrel. As he loaded the barrel with new pellets, he noted to Shorb that he only used the right barrel because it had more power and that he had yet to fire the left, which still had some old shot in it.

On Monday, August 4, Felix met with Wetzel at John Knode's house and, with Knode listening in with profound disgust, discussed the final plans for their intended business. The two agreed to meet early the next morning near the old bridge over Tom's Creek (just upstream of the present Tom's Creek bridge) and walked into town to meet a prospective supplier.

Monday evening it rained, the first rain the area had received in weeks and, as such, most of the rain ran off of the hard clay soil.


Tuesday, August 5, 1879, began like any other late summer day in Emmitsburg. Many were up early to beat the oppressive summer heat. At 6:00 a.m., Wetzel left home and headed toward Rentzel's. On the way, he stopped in at Thomas Haugh's blacksmith shop. After a short chat, Wetzel was once again on the road and his rendezvous with history.

The two met as planned around 6:45 a.m. at the recently washed old wooden bridge over Tom's Creek and headed toward Emmitsburg. The two walked silently down the old Poolsville Road (now Keysville), with Wetzel in the lead, and Felix a few steps behind, carrying the shotgun, which he supposedly intended to return to Lawrence while in town.

Fifteen minutes later, they passed William Koontz, who was headed in the opposite direction, toward the Munshour farm, now the residence of Felix's brother Jim. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the pair resumed their march. Sensing something wrong, Koontz turned around to take another look at the two, only to discover the two had left the road.

And left the road they had. Intending to meet their supplier in a secluded location, the two had turned north and headed into "Myer's woods." Unaware that he was being led into a trap, Wetzel led Felix into the woods and down a gully to the intended meeting point.

We'll never know whether Wetzel ever realized what was going to happen. At approximately 8:00 a.m., just as the pair stepped foot into the gully, Felix placed the end of the shotgun just below and to the back of Wetzel's left ear and pulled both triggers. The right side of Wetzel head disappeared in a spray of bone and blood.

The blast echoed through the valley and was noted by many. William Koontz, who had just returned for his errand to Jim Munshour, noted to his son that the shot seemed to be just over the hill, in Myer's Woods.

Acting quickly, Felix riffled Wetzel's now limp body and retrieved the goal of his act, Wetzel's calf-skinned purse. Which by all accounts, contained only $52.

Felix quickly covered Wetzel's body with leaves and, sure that the body was well hid, retraced his steps back through the woods. He no sooner left the woods when he was spied by Charles Troxel, who was returning from his morning butchering run to Maxell's Mill, located near Tom's Creek Bridge.

Unaware that his departure had been noted, Felix returned to the road and, from there, to Rentzel's. A short while later, Rentzel too returned from the errands he had been on and inquired about Wetzel and the business deal. Felix said that he had meet Wetzel at the head of Rentzel's lot and had parted company with him there after "Wetzel had decided not to get a license to sell the alcohol." Felix told Rentzel that he told Wetzel that he "thought that would cause them more trouble than it was worth" and broke off the deal and returned home. According to Felix, "Wetzel had headed to Emmitsburg where he had some business to do."

Shortly thereafter, Felix left and headed to Motter's Station to buy a bottle of alcohol. Once across Tom's Creek, Felix followed the path of the present day Four Points Road, pressing forward with strong sense of purpose. Once out of eyesight, Felix crept off into Oliver Morrison's woods and, under the safety of an old tree, sat down to inspect the scope of his ill-gotten gains.

The contents of Rentzel's calfskin purse were quickly sorted and most of its contents stuffed into a hole under the tree. While Felix sat reviewing his take, he was unaware that he was under the watchful eye of Isaac Bower, one of Oliver Morrison' farm hands. When the last of the papers were secretly hid under the tree, Felix resumed his trek toward Motter Station, though at a more leisurely pace.

As if to show him that fate intended to curse him for his actions, Felix had no sooner left the woods than he crossed paths with Oliver Morrison's neighbor, William Motter. Motter inquired about Felix's presence in his neighbor's woods, to which Felix replied that he had been out hunting. Motter looked Felix up and down and commented that he looked like he had been up to more then hunting. Felix's, who by now was getting a little nervous, could only think to curse at Motter and turning away, continued toward Motter's Station.

Proceeding directly to the station's bar, Felix requested a bottle of whiskey. However, owing to the fact that he was already deeply in debt to the bar, his request was refused. To the bartender's surprise, Felix laid a new $20 bill on the counter as down payment on his debt, and a bright new green bottle of whiskey was soon in Felix's possession.

That evening, Felix stayed at Rentzel's house in a room by himself. If he had any remorse for his actions, he never openly showed it. Early the next morning, Felix gave Rentzel a crisp new $10 bill and asked Rentzel to return the shotgun and to buy him some new underclothes. "Don't tell anyone where you got the money from," directed Felix, "If they ask, don't answer." That evening, Felix asked Rentzel to replace the heels on his worn boots. On Thursday, Felix went to town and bought a new suit, paying $10.32 cash.


Wetzel's failure to return home Tuesday night did not go unnoticed by his sister and brother-in-law. On Wednesday, John Knode stopped in at the Rentzel's and inquired of Felix about the whereabouts of Wetzel. Felix informed Knode that he had left Wetzel at the Moser's gate, (which lead to Moser's woods), and that Wetzel was heading toward Tom Shorb's house. A direction that would carry any wood-be searcher directly away from the location of Wetzel's body.

On Wednesday, night Felix once again stayed alone in a downstairs room at Rentzel's.

By Thursday, the mysterious disappearance of James Wetzel had become the topic of everyone's conversation and whispers of "Murder!" soon permeated the valley. All the while, Felix acted as if nothing was amiss. Flush with cash, he reappeared in all his old haunts, spending his ill-gotten gains as fast as he had his parent's inheritance. When asked about the source of his newfound wealth, Felix's credited it to a lucky horse wager and redirected the conversation by purchasing a drink for the questioner. That night it rained for the second time.

By Friday, John Knode had convinced many of the neighbors to join him in searching for Wetzel. A local sheriff, who had heard of the disappearance, added his skills to the search. At Knode's request, Felix was questioned a second time about Wetzel's disappearance.

With the woods now crawling with searchers, Felix began to feel uneasy about the unfinished business of burying Wetzel. On Friday night, armed with a pick axe stolen from Rentzel and a shovel stolen from his brother's farm, Felix's quickly made his way to the site of the crime. Under the bright light of the full moon Felix silently went about the dirty work of burying the now decaying body of his victim.

Swings of the pick ax into the yellow clay soil were intermixed with swigs from the green whiskey bottle. The bottle emptied before the digging and, in disgust, Felix threw it against a near by tree, upon which it shattered.

Once the grave was wide enough for Wetzel's body, Felix dragged Wetzel's body over to the shallow grave and covered it. Once the body was covered, leaves were strewn over the area to hide the new turned ground. Finally finished, Felix turned toward home. Minus the spade and pick ax.

On Saturday, the search parties expanded their search to include the route Felix had taken to Motter's Station. Felix, now weary that Knode was on to him, soon began to cast about for a plausible reason to blame Knode for Wetzel's disappearance. Aware that everyone already knew that Knode had previously killed a man, Felix took aim at his key antagonist. "Why should I take the blame for Wetzel's death," Felix's told William Mort, "Knode knew about Jim's and my plans, and could have easily been in wait and off'ed Jim after I left."

In spite of his pleas of innocence, the mood of the valley continued to swing against Felix and, on Sunday, at the request of friends of Knode, Felix was arrested for the murder of Wetzel.

During questioning by the sheriff, Felix, with flushed face and quivering lips, acknowledged that he had been with Wetzel that day, but insisted, as before, that they had parted company near the woods and that, from there, Wetzel had headed off to Tom Shorb's house. Unfortunately, Felix had forgotten that the day prior to the murder, he had met Tom Shorb as the latter was headed out of town on business. Felix was unable to explain why he had not told Wetzel this and saved him the trip.

In spite of deep suspicion of the sheriff, without a body, the sheriff had no grounds to hold Felix. Felix's release on the grounds that there was no body, caused the number, as well as the effort, of the searchers to be magnified exponentially.

Monday proved to be a tense day in the valley. Felix used every opportunity to spread his story that Knode was behind Wetzel's disappearance. Valiantly trying to use the fact the he was Wetzel's cousin to garner sympathy for his case. But the searches continued unabated.


On Tuesday, August 12, around 4:40 p.m., Jacob Root, along with Oliver Morrison and William Crabster, were making one last sweep of Myer's woods, when all of a sudden Root's horse shied at a sickening smell that originated beneath the leaves. Dismounting, Root cleared away some of the leaves and discovered a piece of bone and a quantity of blood and vermin. Root called to his companions, who quickly joined him. Following the trail of maggots, they quickly found the newly turned earth and all realized that they had finally found "Poor Jim."

Word of the discovery of a grave spread quickly and shovels were soon brought to the scene. Wetzel's body was soon uncovered and the sheriff sent for and, upon his arrival, a corners inquest was held at the graveside. William Koontz retold his tale of passing Felix and Wetzel as he headed toward Jim Munshour's for a dung fork. Koontz noted that he thought it strange that they had disappeared when he had turned around and he now realized that they had turned into the woods.

Charles Troxel told the jury of seeing Felix come out of Myer's woods, near where the body was found. Though all the facts were circumstantial, the preponderance of evidence weighted heavenly against Felix and the jury voted that he be rearrested and remitted into the hands of the Frederick County sheriff.

As fate would have it, William Ashbaught, a constable from Carroll County who had been assisting in the search for Wetzel, met Felix as he was passing by the area, headed toward Emmitsburg and another night of drinking.

Ashbaught told Felix, "They've found Jim's body." Felix's countenance flashed red. "The hell they did." Replied Felix and, without getting directions, led Ashbaught off at a double-quick pace directly to the grave.

Silence descended upon all as Felix approached the grave. The human wall that had surrounded the body now parted, allowing Felix access to the body. With a cigar in his mouth, Felix presented an almost disinterested attitude as he looked down on the decaying remains of his victim. "Somebody should put a blanket over him." Felix finally said.

A mummer of disgust went up from the crowd. Felix stood silently as the sheriff, handcuffs at the ready, approached. "Felix Munshour, I place you under arrest for the murder of James Wetzel." Felix once again loudly protested his innocence. The sheriff however listened to none of this and promptly cuffed him.

As Felix was marched away, those that remained behind resumed their efforts to disinter Wetzel's body. It was quickly noted by all that, while the ground around the grave was dry, Wetzel's clothes were soaking wet, as if they had been rained upon.

Once free, the body was loaded onto a wagon and carried a few hundred yards to William Gilson's farm for closer inspection. The entry wound, characteristic of a shotgun blast, was clearly visibly to all. The next morning, Wetzel's body was re-examined by Dr. Annon, who confirmed the conclusions of the night before. As now being well into a state of advanced decay, and with no further purpose for it, the body was quickly buried at Tom's Creek graveyard.

The efforts of the community, which for the past week had been focused on the search for Jim, now shifted gears toward the collection of evidence.

A search of the area around the grave for clues soon revealed boot prints. The length and depth of the heel was measured and recorded. Rentzel's boots were procured and brought to the scene of the crime. The distance from the heel to the toe of the boot fit the boot print near the death scene to a tee. However, as the heel of the boot had just been replaced, it filled the indentation made by the killer's heel with room to spare.

Realizing that the heels were new, a search was conducted of Rentzel's boot smith workshop for the old heels, which were quickly found. The heels, still covered with yellow clay, were inserted into the track. They fit perfectly. A further search of Rentzel's property soon uncovered the clothes Felix had worn the day Jim had last been seen.

Two days after the discovery of the body, the pick ax supposedly used to dig the grave was found near the fence line separating Myer's woods from the Annon farm. When the blade of the ax was inserted into marks near the grave, it fit. Upon its discovery, Rentzel, with whom Felix was living, came forward and identified it as his. Later that week Jacob Myer's came across a shovel near his fence line, which Jim Munshour, Felix's brother, laid claim to. Isaac Fisher, the bartender at Motter's Station, identified the broken green bottle found near the grave as similar to the bottle he had sold Felix the day the murder had supposedly had been committed.


As word of the discovery of Wetzel's body and the arrest of Felix for his murder, spread, neighbors began to recall seemingly innocuous events involving the two that had occurred on the day of the murder. One of the pivotal pieces of evidence against Felix, however, was discovered almost by accident. While out coon hunting several Sundays after the arrest of Felix, Charles Richardson, one of Oliver Morrison's farm hands, came across some papers stuffed into a hole at the base of a tree. After collecting what he could, Charles turned the documents over to Oliver Morrison.

Upon realizing that the papers were receipts for merchandise sold to Wetzel, Oliver asked Charles to lead him back to the tree. With the aid of Isaac Bowers, another farm hand, and William Motter, the hole was widened, and additional papers, including many with Wetzel's signatures, were recovered.

Bowers, realizing that this was the same tree he had watched somebody sitting under a few weeks earlier, reminded Oliver Morrison about telling him. Turning to his neighbor, William Motter, Oliver noted that he remembered seeing Felix come out of the woods not far from the spot they now stood, around 11 a.m. that same day. Motter also recalled seeing Felix, and recalled to all his meeting with Felix and Felix's cursing of him after he had commented on Felix's dirty appearance.

A week before the trial was set to begin, Wetzel's body was exhumed a second time. Under the careful eye of Dr. James Eichelberger, shotgun pellets were removed from the skull and compared to that used in the suspect shotgun. The shot matched that used by Felix's gun. Upon closer inspection, the pellets on the right side of the wound were bright, as if they were new. Those to the left were gray and, thus, much older.

By early October, the state's prosecuting attorney, John Motter, was ready to proceed with his case against Felix. On Wednesday, October 14, the trial began. One hundred and eleven witnesses were summoned in the case. Due to the extreme publicity surrounding the case, only three of the first 12 potential jurors were found not to have already formed an opinion on the case. At total of 50 addition potential jurors had to be questioned before the required number of 12 was selected.

Upon the seating of the jury, Motter quickly got down to the business of establishing Felix's motive for the murder. Great efforts were taken to clearly establish beyond a shadow of a doubt, the time line of the day's events. Corroborating evidence was submitted to establish the exact time that William Koontz had passed the two on the road, the time of the shot, when Charles Troxel spotted Felix emerging from the woods, and when Felix had arrived at Motter's Station.

The trial, with all its witnesses and spectators from Emmitsburg, proceeded in due order through the week. On Friday evening, weary of the week's events, several jury members asked permission to visit a local barbershop for shaves and haircuts. When word of the unauthorized activity reached the judge, he declared a mistrial. The citizens of Emmitsburg, who either out of responsibility as a witness or as curious bystanders, had trekked to Frederick at their own expense, burst into outrage. The cries of shame and foul fell on deft ears, and the judge directed Motter to begin his case one again when the new court's term began in late December.


On December 28, Felix Munshour's second trial for the murder of James Wetzel began. With winter now firmly established in the area and with the prospects that the case would lag, the judge made the unusual decision that the case would not only be heard during regular day hours, but at night as well. Once again howls of protest went out from the audience. It was hard enough making the 25-mile trip to the court house in the winter, now the residents of Emmitsburg would have to face either the danger of late night hacks home or the added expense of procuring rooms at local boarding houses for the duration of the trial.

As he had done in the first trial, Motter quickly got down to weaving the reams of circumstantial evidence into a preponderance of proof. The cross examination of state witnesses by Capt. James McSherry, Felix's attorney, uncovered several inaccuracies, yet the inaccuracies did not fall into a pattern of overt deception and so, to many, the cross examinations seemed to be futile at best.

Upon the resting of the state's case, McSherry outline Felix's defense. "No one," he noted, "had seen Felix kill his cousin." Thus, the outcome of the case would be decided upon the strength of circumstantial evidence-evidence he believed, he could cast some doubt on.

Since much had been made about Felix, having been without means, suddenly having money. McSherry called ____ Grimes to the stand. Grimes testified that Felix had recently brandished about a wad of money "thick as my wrist." In cross examination, Motter successfully called into question the time of this event, alluding that it had taken place several months earlier, after the sale of Felix's parents farm and not recently, as Grimes claimed.

McSherry then called Josephine Shorb, who also testified that she had seen Munshour with "a wad of money." Motter successfully impinged Shorb's integrity when he questioned her about statements she had made to several witnesses after the first trial that, if Felix had come to her, she would have willing washed the clothes he had worn after killing Wetzel, so that the state would not have them as evidence against him.

McSherry noted that the boot print that matched Felix's boot had not been found until Thursday, two days after the discovery of the body. McSherry pointed out that there had been many people around the grave between the day of the discovery of the body and the discovery of the boot print and, thus, there was a good chance that it had been made by someone else.

Unable to shake the time line established by Motter, McSherry called Felix to the stand. McSherry walked Felix through the time line and at each pivotal point, asked Felix if "he had done so." "No sir, I did not go into the woods with him, I left him at Moser's gate and returned to home." "No sir, I didn't kill him." "No sir, I didn't take the pick from Rentzel's shed." "No sir, I didn't take the shovel from Jim's barn." "No sir, I didn't stuff the papers under the tree." On and on it went. McSherry read each point of the state's evidence against Felix and, in each case, Felix denied it.

On Wednesday, January 28, final arguments were heard. Motter walked the jury through the testimony that had been presented. Step by step Motter established that Wetzel had last been seen heading into Myer's woods with Felix, who had been brandishing a shotgun; that, shortly thereafter, a shot blast was heard originating from the woods; that Felix was shortly thereafter seen coming out of the woods alone; and that Felix had recently been existing as a vagabond, but that, immediately after Wetzel's disappearance, Felix was awash in cash.

McSherry, in his closing comments, attacked the circumstantial nature of the case. He pointed out that no one had seen the murder, that Felix had been seen in town on the night the body had supposedly been buried, and that his boot had to be forced into the boot print left by the killer.

At the close of McSherry's comments, the court gave the jury final instructions and, at 9:19 p.m., the jury retired to consider the evidence that had been presented to it. All night long the jury debated the merits of the case, but, like that of many of the residents of Emmitsburg, the final decision was a foregone conclusion. At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, the jury notified the judge that hey had reached a decision.


The word that a decision had been made quickly spread and those that had been waiting in bars and rooming houses made haste to procure a front row seat. At 11:10 a.m. the jury entered the room. Silence descended upon the court as the judge turned to the jury and asked, "Has the jury reached a verdict?" "Yes, Your Honor, we have. We find the defendant guilty as charged." A drone of background noise immediately erupted from the audience. Felix, who had expressed satisfaction only hours before that he would be found innocent, sat motionless, staring directly ahead, making eye contact with no one.

Like many trials of today, the defense almost immediately filed a motion for a new trial based upon improper instructions to the jury. Specifically, the judge's instruction to the jury that one of two verdicts only could be found, namely, "Murder in the first degree or not guilty," was wrong, inasmuch as the jury had the right to ring in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, manslaughter, or not guilty. The court took the motion under advisement, and for the remainder of the year, the fate of Felix Munshour was held in abeyance.


Felix's application for a new trial was eventually denied by the Court of Appeals, and at 9:00 a.m., on January 4, 1881, almost 16 months to the day after the killing of James Wetzel, Felix Munshour was brought before Judge John Lynch for sentencing. The judge quickly dispensed with the preliminaries and, speaking directly to Felix said "Felix Munshour, you have been tried and convicted by a jury of your country of murder in the first degree. Have you any reason to assign why the court should not now pronounce the sentence of the law upon you?" to which Felix replied, "None, sir; except that I am an innocent man."

The judge was unmoved by Felix's final protestation of his innocence. "Nevertheless," stated the judge, "I deem it unnecessary to say anything to you upon the nature of the offense as you are possessed of sufficient intelligence to understand the character of the crime of which you have been convicted. The sentence of the court is that you be taken in charge by the sheriff of Frederick County, and conveyed to the jail of Frederick County until such time as the Governor of Maryland shall appoint for your execution, and there and then be hanged by your neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul."

During the delivery of the sentence, Felix exhibited no visible emotion whatever, not even a quivering of a muscle on his face was noticeable. He was neatly attired in a dark suit, the coat of which was buttoned closely near the top. His face was cleanly shaven and he still wore his large and handsome dark moustache.

On February 11, Felix was read the governor's warrant for his execution on the 25 of March 1881. At the conclusion of the reading, Felix, who had been listening in the same an apparent attitude of indifference that had characterized his demeanor from the first hour he was charged with the crime, broke out into language violently abusive and condemnatory of his counsel.

The confident hope and expectation that Felix had so long indulged of securing a new trial, which would possibly change the awful judgment into imprisonment, seemed at last to have deserted him. Fortunately for Felix, the writ of error that had been filed by his counsel after his sentencing had been overlooked and the governor's warrant for execution was annulled the following week.

Like his previously appeal, however, the writ of error filed on Felix's behalf was also denied and a new warrant for his execution was issued, and, on November 11, 1881, Felix Munshour was hanged.


Lest you have any doubt about the correctness of the jury's decision, on April 7, 1884, while cleaning out the house formally occupied by William Rentzel, with whom Felix Munshour was temporally staying at the time of the murder, Welty's terrier went under the shop and brought out an old calfskin pocket book. When opened, it contained a piece of paper with James Wetzel signature on it. The purse which Felix had removed from Rentzel after his death, the purse that he had gone through while sitting under the tree in Morrison's woods, the purse that had remained missing for so long, had finally been found. With it, any doubt about the guilt of Felix Munshour in the death of Jim Wetzel that fateful summer day, 120 years ago, was laid to rest forever.

Read more articles by Michael Hillman