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The Mysterious Murder of Alice Donohue, Oakland, 1908

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part II: Pacific Coast Cases

On June 12, 1908, Daniel H. Donohue, a street-car motorman residing at 1266 Sixty-second Street, Emeryville, a suburb of Oakland, reported to Chief Wilson of the Oakland police that his wife Alice, a middle-aged woman, was missing, and he requested the Chief to issue circulars announcing that he (Donohue) would pay a reward of $10.00 for information as to her whereabouts.

He claimed that as he left home on the evening of June 11 to attend a lodge meeting, his wife complained of severe pains in her head. When he returned at midnight she had mysteriously disappeared. He furthermore stated that in view of the fact that the woman had left all her money and jewelry at home, he was inclined to believe that she had become suddenly insane and committed suicide.

Three weeks after his visit to Chief Wilson, Donohue met Police Captain Bock and requested him to have the offer of a reward withdrawn as he suspected that his wife had left with another man, but shortly afterward he abandoned this theory as untenable and concluded that his original theory was the correct one.

John Krasky was the manager of the Western Furniture Factory, which was located on Sixty-Fourth Street, about six blocks from the Donohue home. On August 28, 1908, his little dog became entrapped under the furniture warehouse and a boy employed there, named Frank Walsh, while attempting to extricate the animal, discovered three shirtwaists, a shawl, a long red coat and a short-handled shovel under the building.

Captain of Detectives Walter Peterson of Oakland and Marshal Cary and Deputy Marshal Pippy of Emeryville were notified, and they took charge of the clothing. Donohue was sent for and he immediately identified the articles as wearing apparel belonging to his wife, and he predicted that her body would be found in that vicinity.

Two days later Frank Walsh and Tony Figone were digging about the premises in search of the body. Within fifty feet from where Walsh found the clothing, they discovered the badly decomposed body of Mrs. Donohue, which had been doubled up and buried about three feet under the ground.

Captain Peterson was present with Donohue when the body was unearthed. The latter jumped down into the hole with the body and made a display of “grief” that was considered almost too great to be genuine and which was not at all consistent with his subsequent conduct.

He was interrogated at great length by Captain Peterson and many of his answers to questions were at variance with those previously given. For instance: When he first reported the disappearance of his wife, he laid great stress on the fact that she had left her money and jewelry at home, but when the body was found he claimed that the purse containing her money, and her pearl earrings, gold watch and wedding-ring were missing.

The spade found with the clothing was positively identified by Mrs. Emma De Verra of 1282 Sixty-First Street as the property of an old Swedish laborer known as Gustave Arkill, who lived directly across the street from the Donohue home. Mrs. De Verra made a statement substantially as follows:

“Arkill recently used this spake while digging a well for me. He frequently watched Mrs. Donohue’s actions from my home and requested me to do likewise and report the result of my observations to him. He furthermore stated that, at the request of Donohue, he had on one occasion trailed Mrs. Donohue to the Globe Hotel in Oakland, where she met a man. On the day Mrs. Donohue disappeared I saw Arkill, and he was extremely nervous and pale. At that time he had on a pair of striped pants which were covered with mud.”

Arkill was arrested the day the body was found. In his pocket was found a black bordered handkerchief which Mrs. De Verra identified as one she had seen Mrs. Donohue use. A comparatively new tortoise shell back comb was found in Arkill’s room, which Mrs. De Verra and Mrs. W. E. Green of 1267 Sixty-Third Street identified as one worn by Mrs. Donohue just previous to her disappearance.

Donohue came to Arkill’s assistance by claiming that the comb and handkerchief were never in his wife’s possession. The mud-covered pants referred to by Mrs. De Verra were found in Arkill’s room. He claimed the mud got on them years before while he was digging a well. Although the comb was evidently new, he stated that it was the property of his first wife, who had been dead for many years. He denied ever owning a spade similar to the one found near Mrs. Donohue’s body.

Captain Peterson then investigated Arkill’s record and found as follows: His true name was Gustave Ahlstedt. In 1898 he lived with his first wife at 331 Jessie Street, San Francisco, who charged that her husband attempted to poison her by putting strychnine in her coffee, but as she could not substantiate her charge the case was dismissed. Shortly afterward the couple were divorced in Contra Costa County. Ahlstedt returned to San Francisco, where he married again and resided with his wife at 51 East Park Street, on Bernal Heights, San Francisco.

On January 29, 1902, he came home unexpectedly and found his wife entertaining one Thomas Normile of 3274 Folsom Street. Ahlstedt shot and killed Normile, for which he was arrested, tried by a jury and acquitted.

Mrs. Elizabeth Laumeister of 529 Andover Avenue, San Francisco, swore to a warrant charging that on September 27, 1906, Ahlstedt broke into her home and stole a deed to some land and $40.00. Ahlstedt disappeared and she neither saw nor heard of him again until the Donohue murder brought his name into the papers. This lady identified the short-handled shovel as one she had seen Ahlstedt use in San Francisco, and 0. H. Adams subsequently testified that he was with Ahlstedt when he found the shovel shortly after the big fire in 1906.

After Mrs. Donohue’s clothing was found, Donohue and Ahlstedt were observed holding long and mysterious conferences.

Donohue claimed that he and Mrs. Donohue were married about ten years previous to her death. He had her life insured for $3,800.00, and immediately after her disappearance he took great care to pay up all her dues and assessments. When the body was found, he at once demanded the insurance money on the grounds that he was her lawful husband.

On the morning of September 3, the San Francisco Call published a history of the life of the murdered woman, which was substantially as follows :

The woman’s maiden name was Alice Steward. While very young she married a man in Pennsylvania from whom she claimed she obtained a divorce. About one year later she went through a marriage ceremony at Birmington, Pa., with an industrious coal miner named Joseph Barry. They lived together for several years and finally came to San Francisco. Eventually Barry learned that the marriage was illegal because the divorce from the first husband had not been properly obtained. Shortly after this they separated and the woman went to live with Donohue, who was at the time a gripman on the Powell Street railroad in San Francisco.

This article also exposed the past life of the woman, which showed that she was a dissolute character, who had associated with many men who bore most unenviable reputations.

On the day this article was published the Coroner’s inquisition began. Donohue was to be one of the first and most important witnesses examined. At the appointed hour he did not respond to the summons and Deputy Coroner B. H. Sargent and Deputy Public Administrator Flood were dispatched to the Donohue home to ascertain the cause of his absence. The officials knocked loudly at the doors, but receiving no response, it was finally decided to break into the house. There they found the body of Donohue lying .on the floor. Near by was a 38-calibre revolver with which he had shot himself through the mouth, blowing out his.brains. By his side was the Morning Call, and it was evident that he had been reading the article regarding the alleged Mrs. Donohue just previous to taking his own life.

A suicide note was also found, in which he protested his innocence and charged that Joseph Barry committed the murder. Captain Peterson finally located Barry at the Midas Coal Mines in Shasta County. But it was proven by numerous reliable witnesses that Barry went to work in the mines on February 22, 1908, and had not been away from that neighborhood for one day since then.

As the body of the so-called Mrs. Donohue was very badly decomposed it was impossible to ascertain the true cause of death, nor did the Coroner’s jury charge any person with the murder.

Although Captain Peterson suspected that Donohue murdered his paramour for the life insurance, the evidence was not sufficient to justify him in making a formal charge.

Captain Peterson also suspected that Ahlstedt had a guilty knowledge of the crime.

When Ahlstedt was released he was brought to San Francisco and tried on the burglary charge preferred by Mrs. Laumeister, but he was acquitted on January 19, 1909.

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