FULL TEXT: When Inspector Rudolph Peternell, one of the youngest detectives on the Vienna police force, entered the house on the Kuppelwiesergasse that morning of Oct. 31,1936, he certainly had no reason to suspect that he was ringing up the curtain on one of the most astounding spectacles of crime in history.
He had come in response to a phone call from the tenant of the pretentious apartment, Mrs. Martha Marek. Mrs. Marek, long a widow, had reported that her place had been robbed of valuable tapestries and paintings during the night.
The comely, titian-haired woman had apparently suffered a paralytic stroke – quite recently, as Inspector Peternell was to recall – for she limped, and her left hand dangled lifeless. Moreover, she appeared to be sightless.
In answer to Peternell’s routine questions, she stated that on the previous evening she had sent her maid to a movie and retired early. The maid had not reported anything unusual.
“In the morning, however, on entering the drawing room, I soon discovered that certain articles were missing,” said Mrs. Marek. “Not only tapestries and paintings, but jewelry.” The inspector inquired:
“You heard no suspicious sounds during the night?”
“No,” she replied. “Ever since suffering a stroke, I have been a very heavy sleeper.”
“Can you give me an estimate of your loss, Mrs. Marek?”
“I have been thinking about that. I should say between $2,200 and $2,800.”
“Are you insured against theft?”
“Fortunately, yes. I have a policy covering my house against the dangers of fire and theft in the amount of $2,200.”
The detective made a list of the missing valuables, then took his leave. On the way back
to headquarters, he recalled reading in a news paper that Mrs. Marek had been in a gay night club. There had been nothing in the item to indicate that she wasn’t enjoying excellent health.
Also, the officer wondered why house-breakers would haul away heavy tapestries and paintings and pass up numerous less bulky articles, such as silverware.
PETERNELL’S superiors listened to his report, perused their records, and then decided to institute a secret investigation.
Their records relating to Martha Marek were voluminous and extraordinary.
She had come into the world some 38 years previously in the town of Sopron, Hungary. Her father had never been identified.
Soon after her birth the infant was placed in the care of a chef and his wife; later her mother, married Rudolph Lowenstein, stationmaster at Baden, near Vienna.
When Martha was seven, her stepfather left Austria for the United States and was not heard of again, at least by his family.
Martha next received shelter and education in a charitable institution in Vienna.
She went back to her mother at the age of 12 and became an errand girl for a dress shop.
Then in 1911, when she was 13, she made an acquaintance which was to have a very important effect on her future.
She met Moritz Fritsch, proprietor of a department store in downtown Vienna.
Fritsch, who was 62 but looked and acted at least a decade younger, observed her on a street car, noticed she was thinly clad and apparently undernourished.
He engaged her in casual conversation, learned of her job with the dress shop, and intimated that he might be able to do something for her.
Soon he had contacted her mother, With the result that Martha, now a good-looking young girl, entered Fritsch’s luxurious villa in fashionable Moedling as his ward.
The merchant, who had been divorced since 1900, became so taken with her that he also opened his doors and his purse to her half-sister, Paula. Both girls received the best education — at least in a bookish, institutional sense — that his money could buy.
Meanwhile, his own grownup son and daughter, not relishing the changed state of affairs in the home, went to live with their mother.
Hearty, generous Moritz Fritsch died in August, 1923. Despite the fact that he had reached the age of 74, there were whispers alter the funeral that his demise had been materially hastened by doses of poison.
This suggestion Breached the authorities via anonymous. letters, However, relatives objected to an exhumation and autopsy, and they also – perhaps primarily – feared that the reputation of the department store would not fare well in the scandal which might ensue.
As required by law, part of the estate went to Fritsch’s widow and children, while the rest, including costly furnishings, went to Martha. Thus, at 23, she became a person of substance as well, as marked personal charmer.
Three months later she married Emil Marek, 20, who was studying engineering at the Vienna Technical Institute. He quit school after the marriage and grew a beard, being self conscious about his bride’s three-year seniority. He also launched various grandiose engineering plans.
One of his schemes involved the electrification of Burgenland, the nation’s most backward province. In his financial negotiations he got the government to agree to put up a large sum of money – provided he raised the same amount.
While this matter was pending, young Marek on May 25, 1925, got himself insured, for a very respectable sum, with the Anglo-Danubian Lloyd company in Vienna.
BY THE TERMS of this policy, he would receive $400,000 in the event of permanent disability, and in the event of his death his widow would receive $100,000. He made his first premium payment on June 11.
On the very next day, something dreadful happened to Emil.
The story, as told by him and Martha:
He had been working in the garden of his villa in Moedling. He had been chopping a block of wood with a razor-sharp axe. The tool had slipped and struck his left leg at the knee. He had screamed for Martha and she had come running with her sister, Paula. They had summoned a doctor, he had seen that the leg hung by nothing more than a sinew, and accordingly had amputated it.
The Anglo-Dariubian Lloyd company heard the news with displeasure. Marek had paid out only about $145, and now, they seemed to owe him a net gain of $399,855! It was the fattest accident claim to come up for collection since World War I.
As might be expected, the company made an investigation, the first move of which was to examine the severed leg at the Moedling hospital.
According to evidence later testified to in court, they found marks indicating that the member had been struck not by one stroke but by three!
The company charged fraud in the ensuing weeks and months, the severed leg became one of the most discussed and debated topics in Austria. Could a man deliberately chop off his own leg? The insurance company insisted that, for $399,855, he could.
With the trial month away, a fresh development made startling news in November 1926.
As was testified to later, the Mareks had summoned to their home Karl Mraz, a former orderly at the Moedling hospital, and suggested: that he should swear at the trial that he had heard certain doctors say that they had “fixed” the leg wound so that it seemed to have been the result of three strokes.
HE WAS to say, also, that the doctors had, indicated that the insurance company would, of course, pay them well for their services.
Word reached the police and the Mareks were arrested on charges of haying conspired to defraud the company and to corrupt justice.
The trial began on March 28, 1927, amid a tempest of publicity; as often happens when the defendants are young and good-looking, public sympathy was on the side of the Mareks. How could that young fellow do such a thing to himself? How could his wife have brought herself to assist him?
Expert opinion differed on whether the leg had been cut intentionally and by several strokes, or whether one accidental. blow could have inflicted other marks automatically.
The defense suggested that the wooden block Marek had been chopping, and which-had allegedly been found on top of him by Mrs. Marek might have hit the leg and contributed to its severing.
The trial ended on April 9 in two verdicts. On the charge of defrauding the insurance company, they were found not guilty. On the charge of attempting to corrupt Karl Mraz, the ex-orderly, they were found guilty and sentenced to serve at least four months in jail.
Because of the time they had already spent in custody, the terms were considered served. Well-wishers flocked about the beaming couple as they left the courtroom. Policemen had to make an aisle for them as they made their way to a taxicab at the curb.
Mraz, meanwhile, had received a sentence of six weeks for having listened to them. His well-wishers were limited to relatives and friends.
In the weeks that followed, Martha picked up some pocket money by appearing in cabarets and in a Johann Strauss operetta. But the Mareks’ really big profit came when the insurance company settled for about $50,000. However, the Mareks had to pay more than half the award to defense lawyers and experts.
SOON they were down to $6,000, and that went fast in fruitless financial ventures. First Marek invested in a taxi fleet, and lost money; then he went to Algiers and concerned himself with plans to build utilities in North Africa; then, back in Vienna in 1930, the pair operated a vegetable market, which also failed. That left them just about broke.
The family had meanwhile been augmented by the birth of a son, Alfons, in 1929, and a daughter, Ingeborg, in 1932. Soon after the arrival of the second child, they moved to a colony of low-cost houses, and Marek ate with his parents in order to save money. The food seemed to have been altogether nourishing, for he was in excellent health in July, when he again resumed taking his meals with his strong-willed wife.
Then, all of a sudden he became ill. He lost weight and his eyesight failed. Finally he was removed to a hospital, and he died there on July 31, presumably of tuberculosis:
Several weeks later, seven-month-old Ingeborg Marek took sick, and expired on Sept. 2. The son, Alfons, also became ill but was saved by emergency measures.
The next phase of the Martha Marek record developed in the spring of 1934, when she began to toady up to a long-neglected great-aunt, 67-year-old Suzanne Lowenstein, widow of an army surgeon.
Mrs. Lowenstein was so flattered by Martha’s newly-developed interest that; on July 6, that same year, she wrote a new will in which she made the grand-niece her sole heir.
It was still June when Aunt Suzanne, fell ill.
Her sight failed her hair fell put, she lost the use of her, legs. On July 17 she died.
Martha, fairly well-fixed again, rented the place on the Kuppelwiesergasse. However, she liked to spend money, so the inheritance deflated fast, and her landlord had to attach some of the valuable furnishings willed her by Aunt Suzanne.
LATE in 1933 she cultivated the acquaintance of Jeno Neumann 49-year-old insurance agent who became first her sub-tenant and then her suitor. As with Marek, she easily dominated. Neumann and could readily persuade him that any scheme of hers couldn’t help but succeed.
A few months after Neumann raved, into his dual role, Martha advertised that she had a room for rent suitable for a middle-aged lady. She interviewed those who answered the ad and selected Felicitas Kittenberger, 53-year-old seamstress.
She assured the grateful Mrs. Kittenberger that, thanks to her wealthy connections,
she would land her lots of dressmaking customers.
Presently Neumann wrote an insurance policy for the seamstress in the amount of $950. The policy was to paid upon maturing to “bearer,” same being Mrs. Marek.
The usual sequence of swift events followed. Mrs. Kittenberger became ill her eyes and legs failed, her hair fell out. By June 2 she was dead; and four days later Mrs. Marek presented the policy. After deduction of taxes, she received $785.
Mrs. Kittenberger’s son, Herbert, called on Mrs. Marek and angrily accused her of being a murderess. She had him arrested but the police decided that he let his temper get the better of him, and sent him on his way.
Which brings the bulging Marek dossier to October, 1936, and the alleged theft of valuable tapestries, paintings and jewelry insured to the amount of $2,200. And to the secret investigation
Inspector Petemell and another detective, Josef Gunacker maintained a careful watch on the Marek home, and of the always enterprising suspect. In short order they began to make interesting discoveries.
From the janitor they learned that on the night of the reported robbery, Mrs. Marek had removed several large bundles wrapped in brown paper, and that they had been taken away by a small truck. The janitor had not noticed anything wrong physically with the woman.
The officers contacted a cleaning woman who washed Mrs. Marek’s windows and woodwork each week. Peternell offered her the job of cleaning his apartment at double the rate she had been getting, provided she went to his place on the day she customarily worked for Mrs. Marek. He told her to call the suspect, say that she was indisposed, and would send a substitute.
Thus it was arranged that on the next regular cleaning day a policewoman reported at the Marek apartment and tackled the scrubbing job. She could see immediately that Mrs. Marek enjoyed the best of health.
Before this, Peternell and Gunacker had located a storage warehouse in which Mrs. Marek had placed a number of bundles on the evening of Oct. 31, having insisted that the truck must come for the stuff after dark. The warehouse invoice showed that the delivered articles were the same she had reported stolen.
NOW the investigation of the fraudulent robbery became an altogether secondary matter, for the bodies of Emil Marek, Ingeborff Marek, Mrs. Lowenstein and Mrs. Kittenberger were exhumed and large quantities of a chemical, often used as a rat poison, were found in each. On top of that, it was established that Mrs. Marek had been a frequent purchaser, of this poison.
Her trial for murder, opened on May 2, 1938.
As large crowds were expected to attend, the ministry of justice had ordered, that the proceedings take place in the large hall of the courthouse.
The spectators were not m the least bored by what they saw and heard in the courtroom, for the “Devil in Petticoats,”‘ as Martha had been dubbed, proved a spectacular defendant.
Several times State’s Attorney Wotawa tried to persuade her to confess, indicating that she might be able to arrange a lighter sentence than death by beheading. But she shouted back that she would do no such thing, and she stared at him so fixedly that he said to her, “Don’t try to hypnotize me, madam!”
Another time he said, “You as a mother maltreated your children,” and she retorted, “I wish you would be as good a father as I am a mother!”
Another time she yelled at him, “What do you know about insurance?”‘
Again, while she was being questioned by the judge about a certain theft, she sneered, “You know more about stealing than I do.”
Reminded that Mrs. Kittenberger had become ill after eating at the Marek home, she replied, “Other people also became sick after meals.”
But the evidence against her could not be overcome by fireworks or denials. The bill of charges covered 1,400 pages, and there were more than 100 witnesses for the prosecution.
One of them, a druggist, testified that she had bought so much rat poison from him that he’d had to increase his order from the wholesaler. She had bought many tubes of the stuff, and each tube, he said, was enough to exterminate 70 rats.
Several witnesses testified that they had heard her say, before Emil died, that she was tired of being married to a cripple.
Eugenie Hellinger, a neighbor, quoted young Alfons Marek as saying, “I shall soon go to Heaven. My mother told me so.”
THE defendant’s explanation for why Mrs. Kittenberger had named her as the insurance beneficiary was that she (Mrs. Marek) had loaned the seamstress $1,100 with which to open a dress shop, and the policy had been security.
But it was proved that Mrs. Marek at the time did not have $1,100, or anything near that sum. Nor had Mrs. Kittenberger ever mentioned the dress shop project to anyone.
Herbert Kittenberger testified that he saw his mother five, days before she died and wanted to call in a doctor, but Mrs. Marek had summoned her own physician, who diagnosed cancer.
Then Kittenberger wanted her taken to a hospital, but he asserted that Mrs. Marek had prevented this until the patient had reached what proved to he her last hours.
Wotawa, summing up for. the state on May 19, described the defendant as “a cobra in whom the devil lies.” He said that the “unjust acquittal” in the leg-cutting case had been “the death warrant for the four poison victims.”
The five journeymen and four professional judges went through the motions of deliberating, then returned a verdict of guilty.
Martha Marek was beheaded on Dec. 6, 1938, the first woman executed in Vienna in 60 years.
[Peter Levins. “The Case of the Devil in Petticoats,” American Weekly (San Antonio Light, Tx.), Apr. 25, 1948, p. 28]