When he moved to Nashville a century ago, Erich Muenter had already made a name for himself. By the end of his desperate, mysterious and violent life, he would invent several others.
It was 1911 when the assured, educated Muenter arrived in Tennessee with his new bride. A prosperous minister's daughter, she had no inkling she had married a man who believed himself a superman above the law. The proof of his delusion was a murder charge that forced him to flee and devise a new identity, unbeknownst to her.
Nor did she know the victim, a woman police said he killed just because he thought he could get away with it — the first Mrs. Muenter.
The saga of one of the strangest fringe dwellers in American history was already under way as Mr. and Mrs. "Frank Holt" stepped off a passenger train in what is now the Gulch. Before Muenter's life and deeds were over, the richest man in the country would have two bullet wounds, and a bomb would strike at the very heart of American government.
And some students in Middle Tennessee would grow more confident in their mastery of Romance languages — unaware they were being taught by a seething madman bent on assassination and worse.
One hundred years ago, nobody would have paid special notice when a language teacher, newly hired by Vanderbilt University, rented half of a duplex at 719 17th Ave. S. and moved in with his wife, Leona.
The area was desirable because it was near enough to the streetcar line to catch an easy ride to work or to shop downtown. Just as desirable were the comfortable middle-class residents in the homes that lined the street: ministers, business owners, professionals and young marrieds.
Among the latter was the new language teacher, who introduced himself as Frank Holt — a name befitting a rugged Westerner, not a bookish figure with a noticeable German accent. His neighbors included the Rev. Thomas Wigginton, pastor of the Broadway Presbyterian Church; Morris Gee, who worked for the L&N Railroad; and James Frith, a traveling salesman who, with his wife Charlotte, rented the other side of the Holts' duplex. They knew all about Holt's job, his penchant for languages, his erudite manner.
What they did not know was that Frank Holt didn't exist.
Erich Muenter was a habitual liar. The first lie he typically told people — after his name — was that he was born in the United States. This was not true, as records show he was born in Germany in 1871. He immigrated to the U.S. in the 1890s.
His new neighbors might have assumed he had no children, since no children shared the rooms he and Leona rented. But this was not true either. He had abandoned his children with his first wife's family in Chicago, under hasty and suspicious circumstances.
The name "Frank Holt" was a fabrication, and like much in Muenter's life, it was intended to hide his past. And over time, it would allow him to plot an even more sinister future.
If we define a Nashvillian as anybody who has called Nashville home, a good case could be made that Erich Muenter is the most notorious Nashvillian who ever lived. While his tale isn't completely unknown — it has been discussed in the occasional history book or newspaper article over the years, some of which were used to research this article — it has not been recognized for what it is: an unusually sordid and fascinating footnote in our city's history.
Curiosity about Muenter was revived recently by an unlikely agent: baseball stats master Bill James. His new book Popular Crime, a litany of lurid deeds from the sticky pages of history, contains a juicy retelling of the Muenter saga. Muenter also appears in Joseph T. McCann's 2006 book Terrorism on American Soil, for reasons that will become clear. Those works led to a search through turn-of-the-century newspaper archives, which yielded paydirt with The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and the Kansas City Star. As recently as 2009, the New York Daily News ran a Muenter story, albeit under the headline "The Nutty Professor." Together, these and other sources — including the police archives at Cambridge, Mass., and the U.S. Capitol — weave a tale that shows how open and unguarded a country America once was, until the advent of men like Erich Muenter.
Muenter made something of himself in America, his adopted country. He studied at the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in 1899. Some said he could speak seven languages. A man of such education and intelligence could easily find work teaching in colleges, and by the time he was in his mid-30s Muenter was on the faculty of Harvard.
While he was studying in Chicago, he met and married Leone Krembs, a pharmacist's daughter. The couple was living in Cambridge, Mass., when they had their first child in 1902.
From this idyllic period, a colleague of Muenter's at Harvard would later remember something disturbing. Professor Hugo Munsterberg, considered by some the father of modern forensic psychology, recalled that Muenter borrowed from him several books on insanity. The professor found it an odd interest for a language teacher, but he didn't think much of it at the time.
In April 1906 the Muenters had a second daughter. This time, however, immediately after the child's birth, Leone's health went into decline. To the many doctors, specialists and nurses he consulted — and subsequently alienated — the frantic Muenter was a terror, challenging their opinions and firing them in a rage. The world saw an anguished father and husband desperately seeking a cure for his ailing beloved.
Alas, no miracle was forthcoming. Leone died the next week, on April 16. The Cambridge authorities refused to release the body until some organs and samples had been taken for the medical examiner. Muenter, however, insisted on rushing back to Chicago with her body for the funeral.
While awaiting results, the authorities agreed to his departure. Perhaps with some reluctance, they gave the widower permission to travel to Chicago to bury his wife. One account of the cross-country procession noted that Muenter headed west by train with "the newborn, a toddler, a nanny and a casket."
After Leone's funeral, he left his young daughters in the care of their maternal grandparents, and departed for what his in-laws assumed was a brief trip to deal with his grief and clear his head. He was gone when word arrived from Cambridge that the autopsy results had arrived.
The medical examiner found traces of arsenic in Leone's stomach, strong enough to rule out accidental death. The results indicated one thing: The grief-stricken husband who had hired and fired a steady stream of doctors was actually a cold-blooded killer covering his tracks with a smokescreen of confusion. If the police hadn't been suspicious of Muenter before, now they wanted him in chains. A warrant was issued for his arrest on murder charges.
But Erich Muenter, the man who poisoned his wife and gambled that his intellectual inferiors would never detect the crime, had vanished. He cleared his head all the way to Mexico, outrunning and dodging the telegraphed bulletins of the Massachusetts police.
He never saw his daughters again.