Episode 1 - A Mighty Flame


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Kristin: Life asked to death "Why do people love me but hate you?"

Death responded "because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.”

Kimberly: On a cold morning on Devil's night in Illinois on October 30th 1928 Chris Lewis descended the steps in a local police station to manage the furnace after employees complained of a sickly sweet smell coming from the boiler room.

 As he entered the basement he stopped in his tracks. As his eyes adjusted he noticed that a black figure was propped up against the furnace pipe. A young naked woman whose skin was burned as black as the night sky and small white patches of exposed boned peek through the melted skin of her head arms and feet. Her hair had been completely burned away and a series of bloody footprints surrounded her.

Mr. Lewis let out cries for help and was quickly met by the local police chief who entered the basement and saw the horror that was in front of Chris Lewis. Both of them stood there trying to understand what they had seen before them.

Assuming that the woman in front of them was dead, they jumped when the charred woman began to speak from her cracked bleeding lips and asked them both for a glass of water before collapsing into a burnt pile onto the floor.

Kimberly: I am Kimberly.

Kristin: And this is Kristin.

Kimberly: and welcome to the Murder and Myths podcast episode one - A Mighty Flame.

 

Kimberly: Elfrieda Knaak was a Sunday school teacher and a book agent who lived with her mother and had three brothers. Her father was a physician who died during the flu pandemic when she was 22. This major life event is what may have drawn her to the world of spiritualism and religion.

Elfrieda Knaak died on November 2nd as a result to her injuries. In the hospital she claimed, "it was all my fault" and "I did it myself." She also said that it was a purity ritual of love and faith that inspired her to thrust her arms and legs into the flames to prove her faith in the spiritual and make herself worthy of her astral sweetheart.

At one point she would cry out "Oh Hitch where are you?" and the visiting policeman only knew of one man named Hitch, fellow police officer Charles Hitchcock, Lake Bluffs night policeman.

One of the doctors who examined her said in order to believe the story that she did this to herself one must have placed one foot in the furnace and held it there in the flames for some time, removed it, then placed the other one in, and then thrust her head and arms and held it there for which she would experience the most intense pain that someone even in a trance couldn't have stood it. The pain would have been so excruciating that she would have fainted after first feeling the flames.

The coroner ruled her death as a suicide. The police however did not want to dismiss the possibility that they were dealing with a homicide. They reasoned that the door to the furnace was too high and too small for her to have burned her own legs and feet so severely. Also, a bloody handprint was found on the door along with blood-soaked footprints leading up to the furnace room stairs and back. And of course, there was that locked door.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that the autopsy found not only how Elfrieda had been burned but she had a broken arm that had must have been caused by a fall and was struck over the head and also electrocuted.

Police found out that Elfrieda had been involved with Charles Hitchcock. She had told her doctor that "Hitchy got me out of hell three months ago" and gave no other information.

She took lessons from Hitchcock for years on sales and personality development. He was a former actor who appeared in 27 films between 1912 and 1915 and was also a vaudeville performer. It isn't clear how he went from a Hollywood actor to a small-town policeman in Illinois. He was also coined Lake Bluffs most handsomest man and he worked at the police station where Elfrieda was found. He was a married man and a father of four and Elfrieda had named him her astral lover.

He denied claims that he knew Elfrieda Knaak had thought of him in a romantic way and denied ever having a romantic relationship with her. However, she was writing him letters and meeting him nightly at the police station for what Charles stated was for sales lessons to help her with her book sales. They were supposed to meet up on that fateful night, but he didn't show due to a broken ankle.

When the police did check his medical records, they found that Hitchcock had been housebound at the time of the murder. Hitchcock provided the police with three possible suspects however all those leads didn't pan out.

But how did Elfrieda Knaak get into the station herself? The door to the furnace and the station were all locked. She didn't have a key and signs of a struggle were all around the boiler room. They found that the bloody handprints and footprints were not Elfrieda’s. When she was asked about who locked the doors, she said the "mysterious hand" and that she wanted to "commit myself right in the eyes of God." Elfrieda stuck with her story in the hospital but then would be caught contradicting herself saying things like "I wonder if they did it" and "why I didn't do it they did." Another claim is that she made a pact with another woman saying "she didn't go through with it" and "I did it alone" and another time she said "Frank threw me over."

The only connection with a Frank was Frank Mandy he was a violin instructor and shared a studio with Hitchcock but there was no evidence that she'd ever met him.

Some of her last words were "I didn't do it, I didn't do it, I didn't do it" before slipping away for the last time.

When friends and family were interviewed, they said Elfrieda was a normal girl and had no history of mental illness or impulsive behavior. Her family believes she was attacked, drugged and burned to hide the crime. There was evidence that she had arrived in Lake Bluff on Monday October 29th from Chicago at 9:30 in the morning.

Elfrieda said that she had been looking for Hitchcock and this may or may not have been true.

She was witnessed to have made a couple calls. One would go unanswered and the other was taken in quiet whispers. She was found in the boiler room at 7:30 in the morning and the police couldn't account for her missing hours. The police started to search her personal effects and found books on religious topics one of them "Christ In You" referred to the refiner’s fires. The following passage was underlined:

"It is grander to suffer because rightly viewed it is sure to perfect the soul. It is impossible to know true joy, the heights of joy, until you have known the corresponding depths of pain.”

At the crime scene her purse shoes and wristwatch were found at the scene. A few yards away in the purse contained a letter written to her and reads as follows:

"Dear Fritzi, I haven't forgotten you haven't told me not to write but I am just this once regardless of what happens. Dear me you made me care so don't blame me entirely. I often wish I had taken the books the first day and this never would have happened but after studying you a while something tells me you were craving a friendship full of love and kindness from one that understood you and before I knew what I was trying to be your friend. Never once did I think of anything beyond being a friend until the third time you came by in the way you looked at me, I lost all control then. Next time you mastered me again more than ever. I lived over that moment a thousand times darling, after that how can you be so distant? I would be satisfied just to see you if only for a moment. It is awful I haven't done anything worthwhile in a week. I cannot sit long enough to even read a short story. If you don't intend to see me anymore it would be the best interest to not hear from you. I can forget in time but God forgive you when you called the other morning I had my books all ready to ship but when I started to seal them up I burst out crying before I knew the real reason for it but the reason is this the book seemed a part of you then. The phone rang and you were talking, not like Fritz, but a cold businesswoman and I couldn't say a word. I guess you noticed it however I unpacked the books and kept them because they are what brought you into my life. I try to think more of them and less of you. I said and I hope that no harm comes in my writing and that you have more in your heart than to be angry. There's no harm in love darling and that is all I offer you. I must sign off before someone comes and disturbs me trusting you will come again when you can.

PS you have to ponder the mess I made of this letter honey girl, I was in such a hurry and I am going uptown to mail this before I change my mind to tear it up. You'll remember that I was just getting over a case when I met you and God knows I need your help dear. If you want to take the job teaching and help me in your own way just name the price for a week from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. any day except Monday or Saturday. Love E.”

A few notes were also found where the author's had went to Highland Park to meet Elfrieda and demand explanation. The notes contradict themselves for it says Elfrieda was forgiven and then other parts said she would be sorry and one of the notes had also contained some religious pamphlets the author of these notes who was unknown for a long time until Elfrieda Knaak’s brother Alvin said she had befriended a woman named Louella Roe.

The words were very strained for someone who was just a friend. Was this possibly the woman that she had made the death pact with?

Louella denied the relationship and stated that it wasn't based on anything other than a mutual interest in spiritualism and stated that if Elfrieda did this to herself it preached the importance of astral projection and the spiritual purification. She said that she was aware of the presence that Elfrieda had over her and felt that she was hypnotized in her presence. She went on to say that Elfrieda would tell her I am not here with you I am in a spirit world. No one else in Elfrieda's family mentioned that she was obsessed with spiritual and described her as normal and sometimes very shy.

Another testimony from a doctor who was attending her said that she told the doctor that she loved Charles Hitchcock and she would mention that Hitchcock was going to go back to his wife or that his wife was going back to him. This led people to believe that Hitchcock feared his affair would cost his marriage so he lured Elfrieda down to the basement using his key's unlocked the building and let her where she would die at the furnace.

Shortly before Elfreida's death they brought Charles into her hospital room in hopes to get some information. When he walked in she met his eyes then looked away. He asked her aren't you glad to see me and without looking at him she whispered yes. He asked her questions about what happened that night and Elfrieda wouldn't respond as Charles gave up he turned to leave the room Elfrieda quietly said "I wonder I wonder I wonder goodbye."

 

Even though her death was considered a suicide the police still kept the case open. Charles resigned from the police station in January 1929. Charles and his son were arrested in August for a series of robberies to help keep up appearances which they were found guilty of and his son was sentenced to one to ten years, but Hitchcock's sentence was never publicized. Sadly, no new evidence was claimed during his arrest for the robbery.

 Three years ago a Lake Bluff police officer decided to review the case and found that all the evidence had disappeared. Elfrieda’s death currently remains unsolved.

Kristin: So, Kim's story got me thinking about the prevalence of fire in mythology. Fire is seen as both a life-giving and destructive force and I had many choices ranging from the well-known myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to lesser known stories at least in the U.S. like the South American tale of Jaguar and the origins of cooking fire.

When hearing about Elfrieda's claim that she burned herself as a sacrifice to her astral lover I thought of the Norse story of Brynhild and Sigurd from the Volsungs saga which I present to you now.

Brynhild was the daughter of a mighty king and a shield maiden who had enjoyed victories in battle. One day she found herself on the battlefield where two kings were warring, and she bravely killed one of the kings.

However, Odin, the All-Father, chief of the Norse gods had promised the now dead king victory in this war. As a punishment Odin decreed that she would never again have victory in battle and that she would be married.

She responded to Odin that she would marry, but only to a man who knew no fear. Odin then struck her with a sleep thorn, and she fell into a great slumber, her mountain fortress surrounded by great flames.

Enter the mighty warrior Sigurd who stood taller than most men. He was so broad across the shoulders that it was like looking upon two men standing side by side. He possessed eyes so bright that most men dared not meet them and beautiful chestnut hair and a well-trimmed beard.

Sigurd wore gold chain mail and his weapons were trimmed in gold as well. His shield and weapons were marked with the design of a dragon so all who looked upon him would know that this was the warrior who slew the dragon Fafnir.

Sigurd was riding upon his horse Grani when he saw a great light on a mountain, as though a fire burned there, bright against the sky, and he turned his horse in that direction. He came across the fortress surrounded by fire and without fear crossed the fire unharmed.

Sigurd entered the fortress to find a person sleeping fully armored on the floor. He approached the person and removed the helmet seeing now it was a woman. He cut off her chainmail and woke the woman claiming she had been sleeping long enough.

Brynhild and Sigurd made their introductions and shared a cup of mead, and upon Sigurd's request Brynhild imparted on him some of the wisdom she had learned in the form of a poem:

Beer bring I to thee,

Fair fruit of the byrnies' clash,

Mixed is it mightily,

Mingled with fame,

Brimming with bright lays

And pitiful runes,

Wise words, sweet words,

Speech of great game.

 

Runes of war know thou,

If great thou wilt be!

Cut them on hilt of hardened sword,

Some on the brand's back,

Some on its shining side,

Twice name Tyr therein.

 

Sea-runes good at need,

Learnt for ship's saving,

For the good health of the swimming horse;

On the stern cut them,

Cut them on the rudder-blade

And set flame to shaven oar:

Howso big be the sea-hills,

Howso blue beneath,

Hail from the main then comest thou home.

 

Word-runes learn well

If thou wilt that no man

Pay back grief for the grief thou gavest;

Wind thou these,

Weave thou these,

Cast thou these all about thee,

At the Thing,

Where folk throng,

Unto the full doom faring.

 

Of ale-runes know the wisdom

If thou wilt that another's wife

Should not bewray thine heart that trusteth:

Cut them on the mead-horn,

On the back of each hand,

And nick an N upon thy nail.

Ale have thou heed

To sign from all harm

Leek lay thou in the liquor,

Then I know for sure

Never cometh to thee,

Mead with hurtful matters mingled.

 

Help-runes shalt thou gather

If skill thou wouldst gain

To loosen child from low-laid mother;

Cut be they in hands hollow,

Wrapped the joints round about;

Call for the Good-folks' gainsome helping.

 

Learn the bough-runes wisdom

If leech-lore thou lovest;

And wilt wot about wounds' searching

On the bark be they scored;

On the buds of trees

Whose boughs look eastward ever.

 

Thought-runes shalt thou deal with

If thou wilt be of all men

Fairest-souled wight, and wisest,

These areded

These first cut

These first took to heart high Hropt.

 

On the shield were they scored

That stands before the shining God,

On Early-waking's ear,

On All-knowing's hoof,

On the wheel which runneth

Under Rognir's chariot;

On Sleipnir's jaw-teeth,

On the sleigh's traces.

 

On the rough bear's paws,

And on Bragi's tongue,

On the wolf's claws,

And on eagle's bill,

On bloody wings,

And bridge's end;

On loosing palms,

And pity's path

 

On glass, and on gold,

And on goodly silver,

In wine and in wort,

And the seat of the witch-wife;

On Gungnir's point,

And Grani's bosom;

On the Norn's nail,

And the neb of the night-owl.

 

All these so cut,

Were shaven and sheared,

And mingled in with holy mead,

And sent upon wide ways enow;

Some abide with the Elves,

Some abide with the Aesir,

Or with the wise Vanir,

Some still hold the sons of mankind.

 

These be the book-runes,

And the runes of good help,

And all the ale-runes,

And the runes of much might;

To whomso they may avail,

Unbewildered unspoilt;

They are wholesome to have:

Thrive thou with these then.

When thou hast learnt their lore,

Till the Gods end thy life-days.

 

Now shalt thou choose thee

E'en as choice is bidden,

Sharp steel's root and stem,

Choose song or silence;

See to each in thy heart,

All hurt has been heeded.

Sigurd found her council to be very wise and they laid together and he swore to marry her. Having found him to be without fear she agreed and they sealed their words with oaths, and Sigurd gave her the ring Andvaranaut before he left.

Sigurd travelled to see many kings before arriving at the Hall of King Gyuki where he was received warmly. He became friends with the king's sons Gunnar and Hogni and they were all great men.

Sigurd spoke frequently about how much he loved Brynhild, and this did not go unnoticed by the queen who thought Sigurd would be a better match for her daughter Gudrun. Since she saw no man was Sigurd's equal, the queen concocted a magic potion and slipped it to Sigurd in a cup of mead and upon drinking it he forgot all about Brynhild and his oaths.

He was soon married to Gudrun and became a blood brother to Gunnar and Hogni. Things were well for a number of years at which time the queen saw that it was time for her son Gunnar to marry. She told him to seek out the hand of Brynhild and bid Sigurd to ride with him.

They went first to the hall of her father and then to her foster father to ask her hand in marriage. Both agreed contingent upon Brynhild’s approval, knowing that she had vowed only to marry the man who possessed no fear.

When they came upon the flames surrounding the fortress Gunnar tried to ride his horse through the fire but his horse balked and would not take him through. Gunnar asked Sigurd for the use of his brave horse Grani but even still Gunnar could not make the horse leap through the flames.

Since Gunnar could not cross the barrier, he asked Sigurd if he could go in his place and they used a bit of magic the Queen had taught them to exchange appearances. Then Sigurd wearing the face of Gunnar rode Grani through the flame.

The flame flared at its maddest,

Earth's fields fell a-quaking

As the red flame aloft

Licked the lowest of heaven.

Few had been fain,

Of the rulers of folk,

To ride through that flame,

Or athwart it to tread.

 

Then Sigurd smote

Grani with sword,

And the flame was slaked

Before the king;

Low lay the flames

Before the fain of fame;

Bright gleamed the array

That Regin erst owned.

When Sigurd entered the fortress, he saw Brynhild who he did not remember meeting let alone swearing oaths to. Brynhild asked who he was since she could not recognize him as Sigurd, as he was wearing Gunnar's face. He replied that he was Gunnar, son of King Gyuki and that she was to be his wife. He explained that he had the consent of her father and her foster father and he had proved his worth by riding through the flames. He offered her golden treasures and asked what her answer was.

Brynhild warned him not to speak to her in this way unless he was willing to agree to kill every other man who has ever asked to marry her. Since he rode through the flames she had to agree and they spent three nights in the fortress laying in the same bed, though with Sigurd’s sword between them.

Sigurd took the ring Andvaranaut that he had given her before and replaced it with another ring from Fafnir's treasure.

Sigurd left the fortress and gave Gunnar back his face and once again wore his own.

Before arriving at King Gyuki's hall for her wedding to Gunnar, Brynhild stopped at her foster father's hall and entrusted him to care for and raise her daughter Aslaug who was also Sigurd's daughter from their first meeting.

It was only when Brynhild was married to Gunnar that the spell that had been placed upon Sigurd was broken and he remembered her and his oaths, only when it had been too late to do anything about them.

One day when the ladies were bathing in the river Brynhild and Gudrun were arguing over whose husband was the greater man. To end the argument Gudrun showed the ring Andvaranaut and revealed the truth to Brynhild that it was Sigurd and not Gunnar who had rode across the flames.

Already heartbroken over losing Sigurd she became enraged with this treachery and betrayal. Brynhild reminding Gunnar of his oath to kill any man who had promised to marry her prodded him to kill Sigurd, such was the need for her vengeance. She professed she would strike him down herself that she'd not been barred by Odin from taking up arms in battle.

Gunnar could not fulfill her request being a blood brother to Sigurd. He asked his brother Hogni for advice who urged him not to seek out Sigurd's death. However, Gunnar was committed to his path and the two decided that their solution would lay with their youngest brother Guthorm who had been too young to swear as a blood brother to Sigurd at the time of his wedding.

Gunnar and Hogni made an enchanted drink and gave this to Guthorm to enrage him against Sigurd. Guthorm tried three times to take Sigurd's life. Twice he failed when he looked upon the brightness of Sigurd's eyes, and a third and final time when Sigurd was sleeping.

In this time Guthorm succeeded, plunging his sword through Sigurd and into the mattress that lay beneath him.

In a final act of a warrior Sigurd threw his sword and it cut down Guthorm in response before he succumbed to his own death.

Despite being the one to order Sigurd's murder Brynhild was awash in grief at his death as he was her true love and the one man who should have been her husband.

In ancient custom Sigurd's body was prepared and a great funeral pyre was built. Once it was kindled, they placed upon it the body of Sigurd then Brynhild placed herself upon the funeral pyre so she could go into the afterlife with Sigurd, their bodies burning together.

 

Kristin: Thank you for listening to Murder and Myths a bi-weekly podcast this was episode 1 - A Mighty Flame.

Kimberly: Give us review on itunes or whatever platform you are listening on. If you have any story ideas or questions you can find us on murderandmyths.com or on twitter @murderandmyths where we do myth Mondays and true crime Thursdays or check out our Instagram @murderandmyths.

Kristin: Join us in two weeks for episode 2 - Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub.

 Kimberly: and as always come for the murder

Kristin: and stay for the myths