1927 Lillian Graef Killing Still Haunts Milwaukee

By Joe Hanneman

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin —Lillian G. Graef’s infectious smile and carefree demeanor belied the troubles she’d seen in her 19 years. Her 47-year-old mother, Mary, died of tuberculosis in January 1922 when Lillian was just 14. Her sister, Adeline, died in July 1921 of the same disease. The family’s oldest girl, Marie, became a surrogate mother to the rest of the children for a number of years until she too, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and forced into a sanitarium.

A graduate of SS Peter and Paul Catholic School, Lillian had a good job at a Third Street candy shop where she was a popular employee. Her best friend was Frances Platt. From the days they played with dolls together to more recent times when they borrowed each other’s clothes, Lillian and Frances were inseparable. They went to dances and movies together, and spent countless hours at the Platt residence. Since the death of Lillian’s mother, the Platt residence was a second home to Lillian. By all outward appearances, Lillian had a happy life. If Lillian had flaws behind her smile and merry laugh, she was a bit too trusting and kept close to the vest with her romantic interests.

Fill-In on Blind Date
Mildred Graef wasn’t feeling up to going out on the evening of October 11, 1927. She’d made a date with a young man she knew only as Jack, who’d given her a ride to a girlfriend’s house downtown on October 4. Mildred felt like canceling, but Lillian volunteered to go. It would be fun, she reasoned. Besides, Mildred spoke of how friendly Jack had been on their short drive. Lillian got ready for the blind date.

lillianShe wore a rose jersey dress, light stockings and black patent leather shoes with a single strap. For outerwear, she had a pink felt hat and a light brown plaid jacket with a fur collar. She wore a favorite brooch and a prized watch. On her left hand, she had a silver class ring from SS Peter and Paul School. When a car horn sounded outside the house, Lillian dashed out the door into a light drizzle. It was 7:30 p.m. Mildred watched through the window as her baby sister got into a what appeared to be a Ford coupe. It was the last time Lillian’s family saw her alive. She never returned home from the date.

After Lillian was missing four days, The Milwaukee Journal ran a page four story with her description and details of the blind date with Jack. It wasn’t until November 5 that there was a break in the disappearance. John Anderson, a highway construction crewman from Pewaukee in Waukesha County, was inspecting the Bluemound Road bridge over the Fox River. He spotted a woman’s body, snagged on wires from a collapsed barb-wire fence at the river’s edge. It was Lillian. It was evident to police who responded that the young woman had been savagely beaten before being dumped into the river.

Dr. Edward L. Miloslavich, Milwaukee County pathologist, found that Lillian was strangled to death with her own scarf. She had been beaten in the head with a metal bar, causing four skull fractures. Broken fingers, bruises and scratches showed she tried valiantly to fend off the attack. Her lungs were dry, so she was dead when dumped in the river. Based on her stomach contents and rates of digestion, it was believed she died about 9:30 p.m. on October 11, two hours after departing on her date. When she was found, her brooch, watch and hat were missing. Miloslavich theorized it was the work of a sadist, likely to be closer to middle age than early 20s.

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Pathologist Dr. Edward L. Miloslavich (holding an ax from an unrelated case) said Lillian was strangled to death.

Mildred provided a description of Jack: dark chestnut hair, very white complexion, about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds. He wore a dark suit. His eyes were large and his hands were very white and soft. Thus began perhaps the largest manhunt in Wisconsin history. “The net of justice last night was closing, slowly but apparently inevitably, upon the slayer of Lillian Graef,” The Milwaukee Sentinel predicted on November 7. Police began looking for “Jack,” and an older man who frequented the Third Street candy store where Lillian worked. The older man, described by newsmen as “elderly” but who was likely about 45, drove a Cadillac. He made frequent date requests of Lillian.

The eldest Graef child, Marie, had been in critical condition at the Wisconsin Tuberculosis Sanitarium near Wales in Waukesha County. When her brother, Edward, brought the news of Lillian’s murder, she collapsed. Mildred, Edward and Margaret Graef went to a local undertaking room to identify Lillian’s belongings. They then drove to the Bluemound Road bridge under which the body was found. A parade of curiosity seekers had already begun to visit the site, watched carefully by police.

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Lillian’s siblings after identifying her body at a local undertaker

Based on input from Dr. Miloslavich, police turned their efforts to finding the man who would be dubbed “Cadillac Daddy.” He often visited the candy shop where Lillian was a clerk. Visits were typically after 3:30 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The man usually selected a cigar, then stood and chatted a while to ensure that Lillian would wait on him. He spoke of his fishing expeditions to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and his planned hunting trip for that fall. On at least two occasions, Lillian accompanied him for a ride in his Cadillac. “Cadillac Daddy” did not return for a visit after Lillian’s October 11 disappearance.

A friend of Lillian told police that “Daddy” wore a pair of unusual brown oxford shoes with three brass buckles down the side and three straps across the instep instead of laces. It was a unique enough shoe to send detectives to stores and factories across Milwaukee and Racine in search of an owner. No more than 40 or 50 pairs of similar shoes were said to exist in the United States. The young woman said she accompanied Lillian and Cadillac Daddy on two drives. His vehicle was dark blue or black, with gray upholstery. On both occasions, the last week of August and again a week later, the car picked them up at or near the Graef residence, she said.

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Lillian’s missing brooch was thought to be a key clue in her disappearance.

The investigation swung wildly into conjecture in the early days of the case. On November 8, newspapers told of the theory that Lillian was killed on North Avenue, probably by someone tied to the Chicago underworld in Cicero, Illinois. A call received at the Graef home a few days after Lillian disappeared told of a man coming to Milwaukee from Cicero “with a load.” Police took that to mean a load of bootleg liquor. Police also believed that a quarrel between occupants of two automobiles on North Avenue on the night of October 11 could be tied to the murder. “Killer Hated Family, Lured Lillian Graef to her Death,” read the November 8 headline in The Milwaukee Sentinel. In the end, though, the story was just another theory that went nowhere.

“We are no nearer a solution of the mystery than we were the day the girl’s body was found,” Milwaukee Police Capt. Harry McCrory said on November 10. “We have exhausted every avenue and are up against a stone wall.”

On the morning of November 9, Lillian’s funeral Mass was held at SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church on North Cramer Street. Her casket was carried to the grave with seven white chrysanthemums, placed on top by her father and siblings. Burial was at the 196-acre Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on West Nash Street, where she was laid next to her mother Mary and sister Adeline.

A coroner’s jury met in Waukesha on Saturday, November 12, but was unable to render a verdict beyond saying Lillian met death at the hands of “some person unknown.” Agnes Long testified that she saw a young woman resembling Lillian outside the Third Street candy store where the murder victim worked at about 8:15 p.m. on October 11. It was raining hard, Long said, and the woman was across the street had one foot on the running board of a Ford coupe. Milwaukee County Sheriff Charles Schallitz found a witness who said he saw Lillian inside the candy store about 8:30 p.m., about an hour before she was killed.

Police were sure they had the drop on Cadillac Daddy in late November 1927. A tip to The Milwaukee Sentinel led Sheriff Schallitz and deputies to Chicago, sure they had the location of the “middle-aged man of mystery.” Before the suspect was confronted or apprehended, the Sentinel published front-page details of a ruse police planned to use to trap him. The paper said Cadillac Daddy would be “asked to answer charges that he is habitually an annoyer of young girls;” specifically that he tried to lure a North Division High School girl just two days after Lillian disappeared. When the suspect was finally captured, however, it turned out he was not Cadillac Daddy. The tip was a dud, and the story reporting such in The Sentinel was relegated to page seven.

Massive Suspect Lineups
Police spent much of their effort in trying to find the dark Ford coupe driven by the elusive Jack. More than 50 officers began a canvas of the city in an effort to track movements of anyone fitting Jack’s description, or anyone who drove a Ford coupe. By February 1928, this effort expanded to an unheard of degree. Every owner of a Ford coupe in several counties was compelled to come to Milwaukee police headquarters and be viewed by Mildred Graef, the only person would could identify “Jack.” On the first night alone, Mildred viewed some 300 Ford owners at the central police station. This continued for weeks, until 7,000 people had been lined up. Jack was not among them.

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One of many suspects paraded in front of Mildred Graef, to no avail.

Another spectacular murder case crossed paths with the Graef investigation. The brutal killing of Emma Greenwald near Dousman, Wisconsin on November 8, 1927 was originally thought the work of the same man or men who murdered Graef. However, Greenwald’s husband shortly confessed to hiring a man to strangle his wife. Arthur Betzhold, dubbed “The Choker” during the trial, was paid just $3 for the crime by Alvin Greenwald. Once Betzhold was at Waupun prison, he called Sheriff Schallitz and said he loaned his Ford coupe to a former Milwaukee bus driver so he could take Lillian for a ride on October 11. Now living in St. Paul, Minnesota, the man was arrested but shortly proved to police he had nothing to do with the Graef killing.

The sheriff hauled in a chop suey salesman from Detroit for questioning when it was discovered he had news clippings about the Graef murder. He said he was an acquaintance of Catherine Packard, who worked with Lillian at the candy store. She sent him the news clippings, he said.

Milwaukee Cop Questioned
In August 1928, Milwaukee police rookie Benjamin Eckert was questioned about his brag to friends that for $10,000 he could name Graef’s killer for police. Eckert was already in jail, charged with shooting and bashing in the head of his girlfriend, Alice Herdegen. At the time of Lillian’s murder, Eckert worked in an automotive garage at 24th Street and Lisbon Avenue, not far from the Graef home. He was known to drive one of the garage owner’s Ford coupes, and had a reputation for picking up girls on North Avenue. Eckert told police that he had nothing to do with Lillian’s death and was simply bragging to friends. He smugly predicted he would not go to prison for Herdegen’s death. However, when a jury in October 1928 took less than 20 minutes to convict him of killing his girlfriend, Eckert cried like a baby.

The Graef murder case was quickly growing cold. The Sentinel dubbed the Graef killing “the most puzzling crime in Milwaukee history.” More than two years went by with no major leads.

Then, in February 1931, a suspected triple bigamist made major headlines as the next suspect in Lillian’s death. Jack Glenn Shoen Goodwin was taken by police to the Muirdale sanitarium in Wauwatosa so Mildred Graef Skubal, now married and a tuberculosis patient, could attempt an identification. Remarkably, police brought him face to face with Mildred. She called him a “dead ringer” for the elusive Jack who gave her a ride and took Lillian on a date. The self-assured suspect merely smiled and said, “I never knew Lillian. I never saw you before. But if I had known you and if I had taken one ride with you I can assure you that we would have taken many more.”

Police began tracking the life story of Goodwin, who was wanted in Kansas City and Salt Lake City as a possible bigamist. It turns out he was also married in Milwaukee to a woman named Marie Seigel. He was the first of thousands of suspects that Mildred thought resembled Jack. He was nothing but smiles any time the murder was discussed. “Why should I want to kill any girl?” he asked detectives. “I can knock ’em dead without killing them. At least that’s what seems to be the trouble right now — too many women.” Goodwin’s nauseating bravado aside, he was cleared within a day. Mildred could not conclusively say he was Jack. It turns out he was in Kansas City at the time of the murder. So the biggest lead in more than three years fizzled out.

Police were still working active leads as late as 1938, but the case of Lillian Graef remains unsolved. It continued to take its toll on the Graef family. The father, Fred, turned to alcohol. After numerous arrests for public drunkenness, he drew a one-year sentence in the Milwaukee House of Correction. He said “continual brooding” over Lillian’s death, along with the tuberculosis illness of two daughters, drove him to drink. On one occasion he was arrested after arguing loudly with his children over who would receive proceeds of Lillian’s life insurance.

Police chased every lead for more than 10 years, but ended up no closer to a solution than on day one in November 1927. They really didn’t know if Lillian stayed with Jack the entire evening on October 11, or if she went off with “Cadillac Daddy” or someone else entirely. Perhaps she and Jack were both murdered, although no evidence came forth to suggest this. Her strangulation, sexual assault and severe beating were similar to the killings of Helen Leng, Julia Twardowski, Joyce Roberts, Edna Mueller and Mae Doe, between 1924 and 1937. Like the case of Lillian Graef, those murders were never solved.

©2016 Treasured Lives

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