Serial killer Harry F. Powers did not actually have “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles like Night of the Hunter’s Rev. Harry Powell. But the inspiration for novelist Davis Grubb’s character, memorably brought to life on the big screen by Robert Mitchum, was still plenty unnerving.
They called him “the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a tabloid-ready nickname that suggested West Virginian Powers, born in the Netherlands as Herman Drenth and also known as Cornelius R. Pierson, cut a suave, seductive figure. Not really the case; he was a stocky vacuum cleaner salesman whose greatest skill was separating divorcees, spinsters, and widowers from their money, luring them into his sinister orbit via carefully-crafted love letters. It was the late 1920s and early 1930s, and he was the ultimate proto-Catfisher. Worse yet, he was also a killer, preferring to dispose of his vulnerable victims once he’d stolen all of their assets.
Powers was a sly planner. Any woman unfortunate enough to fall for his promises of happiness and make the trek to Quiet Dell, West Virginia would surely find herself imprisoned in the soundproof room he constructed beneath his garage for exactly this purpose.
Powers was able to pick up women by placing and responding to “lonely hearts” advertisements in magazines in newspapers; he also joined matchmaking “matrimonial bureaus” to increase his reach. (It should be noted that he himself was already married.) In a 1931 posting for the American Friendship Society, he lied through his teeth:
“Wealthy widower,” the ad read, “worth $150,000. Has income from $400 to $2,000 a month.” His profession was listed as “civil engineer.”
“Own a beautiful 10-room brick home, completely furnished with everything that would make a good woman happy. My wife would have her own car and plenty of spending money. Would have nothing to do but enjoy herself.”
None of that was true, but it was a tempting enough sales pitch to pique the interest of Chicago widow Asta Eicher, who knew him as “Mr. Pierson.” She had three children ranging in age from 9 to 14, and she’d been a single mom for eight years. Her new man might not have been handsome, but he offered the security and companionship she was longing for. When the Eichers suddenly departed Chicago, leaving Mr. Pierson in charge of wrapping up their affairs, the man told the family’s former boarder that they’d headed to Colorado. The story was shady enough to attract police interest, and when they searched Asta Eicher’s home, they found a stack of love letters from West Virginia.
Powers was busted when the police searched his garage prison (pictured below) and discovered valuables belonging to Eicher, as well as the body of Dorothy Lemke, a Massachusetts divorcee who’d been missing for a month. (Eicher and her three kids were buried in a shallow grave nearby on the property.)
His trail of horrors was, apparently, much longer than that, reports the NY Daily News:
Inside Powers’ home, there was a trunk-load of correspondence from more than 100 love-starved widows and spinsters from all over the country. Letters and photos found in the trunk suggested that he had been operating as a love racketeer for more than a decade. A roll of film left in a camera was developed, yielding images of Lemke and Powers together.
After a brutal grilling by police, Powers confessed to the five murders. After promising marriage, he had driven Eicher and her kids from Chicago to his farm. He locked them up for a few days, then took them to a room where he had suspended a noose from the rafters.
One by one, they were hanged. “I was permitting little [12-year-old] Harry Eicher to watch the killing of his mother and the others, but in the middle of it he let out an awful scream,” Powers told police. “I was afraid the neighbors would hear it, so I picked up a hammer and let him have it.”
Lemke had arrived a day after the Eichers. She was ushered into the garage, locked up and later hanged.
Digging around the farm produced no more bodies, but there was a strong suspicion that Powers had killed before. Asked once how many he had murdered, he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “I don’t know.”
After he was captured, other women came forward claiming that they’d also been contacted by Powers/Pierson. Some were lucky enough to have merely been robbed of their life savings and not their lives. Some were spared entirely, and were shocked to learn the man who’d been so ardently wooing them had evil intentions, including a Detroit woman named Edith Simpson:
She had already purchased her wedding dress and was making arrangements to leave with him. When shown a letter that Powers had written to Asta Eicher, Mrs. Simpson was amazed to see that it was an almost exact copy of one that he had sent to her. Nevertheless, she told officers, “He wrote so beautifully in his letters, his mind was so big and fine, I can’t believe he would hurt an insect.”
Though he was suspected of 50 or more murders, based on the amount of unaccounted-for personal effects discovered in his garage (and his cheeky remark, made while jailed, “You got me on five. What good would fifty more do?”), he never gave up any additional information. With his “Bluebeard” reputation well-established, and his “murder garage” well-documented, he went on trial in December 1931; it generated so much interest it was held in an opera house rather than a courtroom to accommodate the crowds.
He was found guilty and, grimly appropriately, died at the end of a hangman’s noose in 1932.
All images: AP Photo