In the spring of 1918, residents were shocked by the murders of five people at the hands of Herman Wittig. The incident, subsequent arrest, and conviction of Herman Wittig went down in Gratiot County’s history as one of its quickest murder trials.
The Gratiot County Herald quickly deemed the Wittig murders an “affair to be one of the most gruesome in Gratiot County’s history.” The killing of a husband, wife, and three children took place in a dispute over money.
The crime centered aroundHerman Wittig, born in 1881 in Lafayette Township, the youngest of six children. His parents, Robert and Theresa Wittig, came from Germany, settling as farmers in Lafayette Township. After Theresa Wittig died, Herman purchased forty acres of land from his father in 1906 for $1400. When Robert died, the Wittig children appeared in probate court in 1914 to deal with their father’s estate. After an Ithaca teacher translated Robert’s letters, Herman Wittig emerged as the administrator by the court’s decision.
Soon after the hearing for his father’s estate, Herman Wittig farmed in Lafayette Township. Wittig’s name appeared in the news again in 1915 when he tracked down a neighboring chicken thief, Bard Seeley, who raided his chicken coop. Wittig followed the tracks of the robber, uncovered the remains of his butchered chickens, and then reported the incident to the Gratiot County undersheriff.
By one record in 1917, he owned 120 acres, three horses, and a cow. It also was a time where one’s German background could be suspect due to Germany’s role in the World War. Herman Wittig’s relative, Henry Wittig, operated the “Wittig Race Track” in that part of the county. In this place, horse races, wagering, food, and moonshine took place on a Sunday afternoon.
The Kimball Family
One couple, Willard and Cora Kimball, encountered hard times, needed work and a place to live. Despite his money and property, Herman Wittig needed help on his farm. The Kimballs and their three children lived in Port Huron, Michigan, before arriving in Gratiot County. Willard, age 28, had a generally good reputation there while operating a window cleaning business. However, after the United States entered the war, the Port Huron Draft Board wanted him to answer questions about possible induction into service. Despite all of this, the Kimballs made their way west and ended up in Gratiot County.
Life was not easy for the Kimballs. Once they arrived, they ended up on the farm working for, and staying with, Wittig. Local farm families, such as the Federspiels, brought food to the Kimballs to have enough to eat. A newspaper reported that the Kimball family “lived off the bounty of their neighbors,” allowing the Kimball children to visit neighbors regularly for food. Later, news appeared that Gratiot County officers investigated Mr. Kimball for not supporting his family financially. While staying with Herman Wittig, Cora Kimball kept house for him, and her husband did odd jobs such as fixing Wittig’s car.
Soon, Wittig -the bachelor- owed his visitors money, and the Kimballs wanted to be paid. It was then that a conflict erupted.
Five Murders on a Sunday Morning in Lafayette Township
On Saturday, April 27, 1918, Herman Wittig first went to a store, came home, and then decided to go crow hunting. Wittig did not feel well, later saying that he hunted to clear his head. Was Wittig drunk or upset for conflicts with the Kimballs? He visited his neighbors, the Bolbys and the Schermers, who invited Wittig in and offered him a meal. By 11:00 that evening, Wittig stumbled home and made his way upstairs, and soon fell asleep. Before going into the house, he threw his shotgun out of sight in the haymow in the barn. A newspaper later reported that Wittig had a drinking problem, and he had probably been drinking for several days.
As there would only be one surviving witness to the events in Lafayette Township, we have only Herman Wittig’s version of what occurred next.
Wittig was up at 7:00 the following morning, as were the Kimballs. They immediately continued their argument with Wittig over money that they believed was owed to them. Willard and Cora had approached Herman Wittig before about being paid for their work. Cora argued that she was owed five dollars a week for keeping house. Willard Kimball repaired Wittig’s car at the cost of forty dollars.
Herman Wittig marched toward the barn, leaving the house in haste and attempting to ignore the Kimballs again. Willard Kimball followed Wittig toward the barn while demanding payment and calling Wittig an obscenity. When Wittig reached the barn, he retrieved his sixteen gauge shotgun and warned Kimball to come no further, or he would shoot.
Kimball ignored the warning, continuing to demand money from Wittig. At a distance of ten feet, Wittig turned, aimed, and pulled the trigger, hitting Kimball on the left side of his head and neck. In Wittig’s own words, “Kimball dropped to the ground like a dog.” Cora Kimball witnessed the shooting and hid within the house. Wittig then dragged Willard Kimball’s body into the garage and covered the body with a horse blanket. In the process, Wittig emerged with a substantial amount of blood on his clothing.
Wittig later claimed that he waited approximately ninety minutes before entering the house. Once inside, Cora Kimball, shocked by witnessing the murder of her husband, defended herself with a butcher knife. She then hid with her three children inside their first-floor bedroom. Cora failed to make it out of the bedroom as Wittig pointed his shotgun at her and fired, blowing her head to pieces. Wittig also gave Cora a deep cut on her neck, thought to be with a knife or gun.
In the process of shooting Cora Kimball, the oldest child, Clarence, age seven, tried to defend his mother. Wittig hit the child with his gun, crushing his head. Wittig then strangled the two youngest children, Charles, age four, and Louise, age two, in their beds. Five Kimball family members now all lay dead on the farm of Herman Wittig.
Wittig then left the farm and wandered off into the neighborhood. Around noon, John Federspiel, a nearby farmer whose family gave food to the Kimballs, showed up on the farm. The Federspiels looked for young Clarence Kimball, who usually came each day to pick up food donations. On that Sunday, Clarence failed to appear. Curious because of how quiet it was on the farm, Federspiel tried to locate the Kimballs and Wittig. As he looked through the window of the Wittig house, he saw Cora Kimball’s body on the floor, next to one of her children. Federspiel immediately left and called Sheriff Bradford from Ithaca.
Sheriff Bradford, Deputy Clarence Wheeler, Prosecutor O.L. Smith, Coroner Will K. Ludwig, and Doctor C.E. Burt soon arrived at the Wittig farm. Although they were horrified by the deaths of Cora Kimball and her three children inside the house, the men were unable to locate Willard Kimball. Finally, Sheriff Bradford and Coroner Ludwig forced opened the locked garage where they found Willard Kimball’s body.
The question now was, “Where was Herman Wittig?” Word came to Sheriff Bradford that Wittig was at the Boyce Farm. While on his way there, the sheriff soon ran into Herman, who was returning home. When confronted with the killings, Wittig denied all involvement. Still, his tone changed after being questioned about a large amount of blood on his clothing. Wittig then confessed his crime but said he only killed the parents, denying anything about the children’s deaths. Later he stated that he did not intend to kill the children and did not remember doing so. What surprised the sheriff and the group from Ithaca most was that Wittig showed no sorrow or remorse for what had taken place on his farm earlier that morning.
A Long Sunday in Jail
Shortly after noon on Sunday, April 28, it was only a few hours since Wittig murdered the entire family. With his confession, Herman Wittig was immediately put under arrest and taken to the Ithaca jail. While in his cell, a stoic and unemotional Herman Wittig talked to a reporter of the Gratiot County Herald about what he did. Wittig also signed a full confession for the sheriff.
Orville Bowers, a photographer in Ithaca, drove out to the Wittig farm and took pictures of the murder scene. The photographs, one which showed the two youngest Wittig children dead in bed and another of Willard Kimball on the garage floor, appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. These pictures were among the first from a murder scene to be published on the front page of a Gratiot County newspaper. Bowers also took a shot of Herman Wittig while he was in jail on that Sunday. Wittig wore a late winter coat, appeared unshaven, hair uncombed, and stared blankly at the photographer. This picture of Wittig seemed to tell readers that he had little guilt or remorse for the murders that he had committed.
Swift Justice, A Life in Marquette Prison
The following day, Monday, April 29, 1918, at 10:00 am, Judge Moinet halted the infamous Beatrice Epler trial proceedings to focus on Herman Wittig. Because of the Epler proceedings (a trial that involved a young girl’s death in Alma and a house of ill repute), it would take something drastic to pause the Epler case. The Wittig Murders did just that.
As Wittig came to trial on Monday morning, some quickly pointed out that he was from a German family (America was now at war with Germany) and had substantial property. Another newspaper feared mob violence could soon erupt in Gratiot County over justice for the murdered Kimball family.
Herman Wittig’s confession, combined with his apparent lack of regret or remorse for what he did, made Judge Moinet’s job easy. Because Cora Kimball died in self-defense, Moinet believed that Wittig should be judged for second-degree murder. The Gratiot County Herald said that “the testimony and confession regarding the woman (Cora Kimball) did not certainly justify a decision of first-degree murder.” Moinet decided Wittig was guilty of second-degree murder and gave Wittig the maximum penalty – life in prison in Marquette Penitentiary.
Around noon on Monday, April 29, Herman Wittig found himself heading north toward Marquette. It would be a long journey in 1918, one in which there was no bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. The trip caused Wittig and his guards to spend one night in northern Michigan. On Tuesday, April 30, 1918, at 3:20 pm, Herman Wittig officially became a part of the prison population at Marquette Penitentiary, all within 72 hours of his crime.
Wittig in Prison
A few notes and photographs concerning Herman Wittig’s prison record exist today. Wittig’s picture showed that he finally got a shave when he entered Marquette, and he appeared in an open-collared shirt and coat. As in all of his photographs, he seemed severe and stoic. Wittig stood 5’ ¼”, weighed 145-150 pounds, had blue eyes and dark chestnut hair. Upon entering prison, Herman Wittig was only 36 years old.
The prison took pictures of an older Herman Wittig on March 13, 1941, and September 17, 1946. He appeared in a dress shirt, tie, and overcoat, with balding hair in both cases.
Herman Wittig met his maker on April 7, 1950, inside the hospital of Marquette Prison. He died from cancer of the stomach and liver and a heart valve problem. The time of death was 8:10 am. There are no records of any specific incidents involving Wittig in Marquette, nor is there any written correspondence he may have had with anyone. Wittig, age 69, never left the prison alive.
Results of the Kimball Murders
The remaining story of the Kimballs is as sad as their deaths. The death certificates on Willard and Cora Kimball state the cause of death as “murdered with shotgun” (Willard) and “murdered by Herman Wittig with shotgun” (Cora). Two different undertakers worked with the bodies, and two other burial places may exist today.
One source says Willard Kimball and a son are buried in Lafayette Cemetery, while Cora and two children are in Ithaca Cemetery. One wonders why the family might have been separated after their deaths. Cora’s informant was from Detroit; Willard’s was in Potterville, Michigan. Still, the family may be in a single plot in the Ithaca Cemetery, but it is hard to tell. In that cemetery, the only evidence that the Kimballs were in Gratiot County is a tiny, chalk-colored marker, which faintly reads “Kimball Family.”
Sheriff Bradford had a problem after the murders in finding family members. However, it is unclear why the Kimball family may rest in two different county cemeteries.
At least one member of Willard Kimball’s family was in the news in response to his brother’s death. William Kimball was arrested in Lansing on May 2, 1918, for disorderly conduct for window peeping. However, the police deemed William Kimball to be “temporarily demented” as a response to the death of his brother. Upon arrest, William Kimball carried a roll of newspapers and photographs of his brother’s murdered family.
Today, the Wittig Murders stand as one of the most gruesome mass murders in Gratiot County’s history. During the spring of 1918, Because residents fixated on another high-profile murder case in Alma in 1918, the Wittig murders did not achieve a place in the county’s long-term memory.
Instead, in our county’s history, this murder case represents one of the quickest times between a crime, its judgment, and subsequent punishment – amounting to less than 72 hours.
Copyright 2021 James M. Goodspeed