The Bizarre Case of the Unfaithful Wife and Her "Attic Man"

Illustration for article titled The Bizarre Case of the Unfaithful Wife and Her "Attic Man"

Her name was Walburga Oesterreich, but she went by the much flirtier “Dolly.” In 1913, this “naughty vamp” was in her early 30s and hitched to textile manufacturer Fred Oesterreich when she met teenager Otto Sanhuber. A love triangle with a spectacularly bizarre twist soon formed.


The twist? Well, wanting to keep her lover close, Dolly set Otto up with a room in the Oesterreich attic, a fact she concealed from Fred—who’d inadvertantly introduced the two, since Otto had worked for him repairing sewing machines—for almost ten years. The relationship endured a location change; when the married couple moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, Otto came as well. Dolly made sure that her new Southern California home had an attic just for him. Apparently, he spent his free (i.e., away from Dolly) time cleaning the house, reading, writing erotica, and making bathtub gin.

This supremely odd arrangement puttered along until its inevitably tragic end. It came in August 1922, after four years in LA. Fred was a hard-drinking man (which may help explain why he never noticed his secret boarder), and one night he turned violent while arguing with his wife:

As the fight grew louder, Sanhuber hurried down from the attic to protect her, carrying two .25-caliber guns. When Oesterreich recognized Sanhuber, he flew into a rage. They struggled, the guns went off and Oesterreich was shot.

Thinking fast, Sanhuber locked Dolly in a closet, then hurried upstairs to his hideaway before police arrived, summoned by a neighbor who heard the shots.

She told police that a burglar had shot her husband, taken his expensive watch, locked her up and fled.

But the detective became suspicious when she said that she and her husband had never quarreled. Fred Oesterreich was a wealthy man, and although the detective considered that motive for murder, he had no evidence.

Of course, we wouldn’t still be talking about this case if that had been the end of it. Ever the seductress, Dolly became involved with one of her lawyers, Herman S. Shapiro, while Otto was still hiding in her attic. Enjoying her unmarried status, she added yet another man into the rotation ... and proved herself to be far too trusting:

As a gift to her new lover, she gave Shapiro her late husband’s diamond watch, which he recognized. Oesterreich explained that she’d found it under a seat cushion in the house, but didn’t think she needed to tell the authorities about it.

Then Oesterreich added a third lover, a businessman named Roy H. Klumb. From Klumb, she wanted a favor. Would he dispose of an old gun similar enough to the one used to kill her husband that it might be embarrassing if the police found it? Klumb threw it into what turned out to be a shallow spot in the La Brea Tar Pits. She asked a neighbor to do her a similar favor, and he buried the other gun under a rose bush in his backyard.

By July of the next year, however, a detective had learned that Shapiro had the watch. And Klumb, after breaking up with Oesterreich, had told police of disposing of one of her guns. They retrieved the first gun from the tar pits. With the case back in the newspapers, the neighbor brought in the gun from under the rose bush. Dolly Oesterreich was arrested for murder.

While she was in police custody, she convinced Shapiro to bring food to the man who was, uh, staying in her attic ... a man who was, by now, hungry to spill the beans about his true identity. Shapiro, who was hung up on Dolly himself, told Otto to take a hike. It appears he left his attic lair without putting up a fight; maybe after the shock of the murder, and the realization that Dolly had been seeing other men, his passion cooled irrevocably.

Or perhaps he realized that with the secret out, he would become the prime suspect in Fred’s murder. At any rate, he changed his name, moved to Canada for a time before returning to Los Angeles, and married a woman he could actually be seen with in public.


Years passed, and it seemed the mystery of Fred’s death would remain unsolved. Until Shapiro and Dolly broke up in 1930, that is, and ol’ Herman blabbed to the police about Otto. In short order, both Otto and Dolly were arrested, and though the case was overflowing with lurid details, Dolly was acquitted, and Otto’s manslaughter charge (despite a defensive strategy that was basically “Mrs. Robinson kept me as a sex slave”) was dropped due to the statute of limitations having expired.

Dolly lived out her otherwise remarkable life in Los Angeles until her death in 1961. Otto, the “Attic Man,” made no further headlines. The duo’s utterly bizarre love affair did, however, inspire the Shirley MacLaine comedy The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, as well as made-for-TV drama Man in the Attic, starring Anne Archer and Neil Patrick Harris. Treat yo’self and marvel at the jaw-droppingly campy trailer, below.

Top image: Otto Sanhuber, center, leads a jury trying him for the murder eight years ago of Fred Oesterreich to the scene of the crime in Los Angeles, June 16, 1930. AP Photo.



Fedora Times

My favorite part of this story is after the two inept murderers strew evidence everywhere, neither does any time at all. Yay privilege!