NOVEMBER 27, 2016
by Ron Grossman
Except for one little detail, the final chapter of Elfrieda Knaak's life reads like an Agatha Christie mystery novel. It was chock full of ambiguity. Cause of death? Take your pick. There were severe burns on her head, neck and face, when she was found nude in the furnace room of the Lake Bluff police station on Oct. 30, 1928. But an autopsy also showed signs of electrocution and a severe blow to the head. There were two false confessions — three, counting Knaak's claim: "I did it myself." Yet she changed her story several times before dying, four days after someone did something to the attractive 30-year-old book saleswoman and Sunday school teacher.
And that's the thing about a who-done-it. After all the false clues and dead ends, the reader learns who the culprit was, slaps his forehead and exclaims: "I should have seen that!" Knaak's case wasn't wrapped up so neatly.
It is true that a Lake County coroner's jury found Knaak "came to her death 'by burns which appear from the evidence to be self-inflicted.'" According to the Tribune's report, the jurors heard testimony from a brother of Knaak who "told him she burned herself to prove the power of mind over matter."
That jibed nicely with Knaak's dabbling in spiritualism. On her bookshelves was "Christ in You," a prescription for mystical enlightenment. As the Tribune reported: "The opening paragraph of the 'Ninth Lesson' was marked in pencil, presumably by Miss Knaak. The paragraph follows: 'As you unfold in the consciousness of God many inexplicable things become clear. One is the purifying power of pain. ... This is the process called 'the refiner's fire.'"
Still, the suicide theory raised as many questions as it answered.
A doctor who saw Knaak in the hospital to which she was taken raised a key issue, as the Tribune reported. "To believe her story you would have to believe these facts," Dr. Arthur J. Rissenger told private detective George Hargrave: "That she placed her right foot in the furnace and kept it there for several minutes. Then that she stood on the burned foot and put the other one in the fire after which, standing on the two injured feet, she thrust her head and arms into the fire. The pain would have been excruciating and she also would have probably fainted after the first feeling of the flames."
Those holes in the official version of the story have long framed it in doubt. "Someone else at least had a moral if not a physical responsibility for Elfrieda's burning," said her brother Alvin Knaak, city clerk of Deerfield, where Elfrieda Knaak lived.
The same thought would occur to Londoners in 1954, when a housewife's charred remains were found on a smoldering wood pile. As the Tribune's correspondent noted: "Other minds have even recalled for purposes of comparison, the 26-year-old Illinois mystery in which pretty Elfrieda Knaak, a salesman frustrated in love, supposedly burned herself to death by alternately putting her head, arms and feet into a blazing furnace."
In fact, the Lake Bluff cops looked into the possibility of an ill-fated love affair. They quickly ascertained that Knaak had some sort of relationship with Charles Hitchcock, a onetime movie actor and vaudevillian turned cop and the town's night watchman. On the surface, it didn't seem that Knaak and Hitchcock were romantically involved. "Hitchcock is no Apollo in real life," the Tribune noted. "Much of the good looks that once were his have disappeared."
Still, the timing was suspicious. Hitchcock was scheduled to be on duty the night when Knaak was found in the police station. But he'd taken the shift off, saying an ankle he'd broken earlier was acting up. A doctor who attended Knaak told the coroner's jury that Knaak said she loved Hitchcock. "Occasionally she said something about Hitchcock going back to his wife or his wife going back to him," the Tribune reported.
So some speculated that Hitchcock, fearing that the affair would cost him his marriage, lured Knaak to the police station. He had a key with which to let them in. That theory drew support from an enigmatic entry in Knaak's diary, released to the media by her brother: "Oct. 10. Went this P.M. without any sale. Called H. at 6 P.M. He said it seemed like three weeks and hoped I would come soon."
Assume that "H" was Hitchcock, factor in Knaak's movements the evening before she was found in the police station and the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit. Instead of going home from her Loop office, she phoned her sister from Highland Park about 6 p.m. Knaak, who played piano, explained she stopped to buy a piece of sheet music, estimating she'd be home by 7:30 p.m. Instead she bought a ticket on a 6:01 p.m. train to Lake Bluff.
The station master in Lake Bluff remembered her arriving, and the one person she apparently knew there was Hitchcock. He supplemented his income by maintaining a studio where he taught pop psychology — self-esteem improvement, effective sales strategies, elocution — and Knaak had been his student. Knowing her predilection for spiritualism, could he have exercised some kind of mental leverage that induced her to put her arms and legs in that furnace? She had said they were bonded by a "spiritual" love.
At the inquest, a detective and the state's attorney tested that theory by pounding hard when Hitchcock testified. Did he have the ability to hypnotize someone? "He said he had none, but while on the stage had encountered men who could put persons in a trance," the Tribune reported. "He named Houdini as a friend and others whom he characterized as 'mental sensitists.'"
But he said he had no idea that Knaak was in love with him. He said he never left home that night, though his wife couldn't corroborate that, having been at work herself. Still, there wasn't any physical evidence linking him to the scene of the presumed crime, so investigators considered other suspects. One was a violin teacher who either shared Hitchcock's studio or had one nearby. Nothing there, so maybe their mistake was in assuming the killer was a man. Among Knaak's effects was a letter from a "H.R. Lock," which a Mrs. H.P. Roch of Libertyville acknowledged sending.
"Not once did I think of being anything beyond being a friend until the third time you came and the way you looked at me," Luella Roch had written. "Then the next time you came you mastered me more than ever."
"Plump and comely," as the Tribune described her, Roch denied their relationship was based on anything more than a mutual interest in spiritualism. Again, a dead end. Meanwhile, the accounts of those who confessed to killing Knaak weren't believable. An Army deserter in Texas who'd been a chauffeur for a wealthy Lake Forest family claimed he did it. The evidence said no.
A self-proclaimed student of the occult sent a letter claiming credit for the killing. "The writer of this letter was no ordinary crank," the state's attorney commented. "Either he is an ingenious fictionist or else he knows something of the crime." The investigators' consensus favored the crank theory.
So detectives and family members looked to the one person who should've known who the culprit was, according to a reporter's account:
"From the cracked lips of the dying girl came a mumbled: 'I wonder—I wonder.'
"'You wonder what, (E)lfrieda?' asked a nurse as relatives bent over her.
"'I wonder why they did it,' muttered the girl.
"'Who did it?' almost shouted the nurse.
"'I can't remember,' the girl enunciated with difficulty as consciousness left her."
The Furnace Girl Kraig Moreland The Furnace Girl Kraig Moreland The Furnace Girl Kraig Moreland The Furnace Girl Kraig Moreland The Furnace Girl Kraig Moreland
by Ann Marie Scheidler • October 1, 2018
On October 29,1928, 30-year-old Elfrieda Knaak was found propped up next to a furnace in the basement of Lake Bluff Village Hall, with burns over more than half of her body. The events that took place in the following two weeks turned the idyllic village upside down as local and county law enforcement officials scrambled to determine what took place and who was responsible.
Ninety years later, the questions surrounding Knaak’s demise are still unanswered. How did she get there? Why was she so badly burned? Who could have committed such a terrible crime? This baffling story became a nationwide media sensation, thrusting the small town of Lake Bluff and its beloved Village Hall onto the front pages of newspapers from New York to Los Angeles.
In his debut novel, The Furnace Girl, Kraig Moreland offers his theory of what really happened to Knaak—as told to and written by long-time friend Toby Jones.
“I grew up in Lake Bluff and heard the story of Elfrieda Knaak when I was in junior high,” recalls Moreland. “After I graduated from college, I moved back to Lake Bluff and became involved with the local history museum. One event we ran each fall was the Lake Bluff Ghost Walk, and the story of Elfrieda was my favorite.”
Moreland was inspired to write The Furnace Girl after seeing one of the scenes acted out at the 2008 Ghost Walk. The scene involved the Lake Bluff Orphanage that housed more than 10,000 children from 1894 to 1969. Because of all of the questions asked during this scene, Moreland intuitively knew there was more to the Knaak story that needed to be told.
So Moreland set off around the country with his video camera, interviewing former children and staff who had spent time at the orphanage. After hearing countless stories about children running away from the orphanage and separately uncovering a clue about Knaak’s death, Moreland started to formulate a storyline about a child who fled the orphanage and became an accidental witness to Knaak’s death.
It is a stranger-than-fiction story, told through the eyes of Griff Morgan, a young orphan boy, whose harrowing journey makes him an accidental witness to what still remains one of the most puzzling, unsolved crimes of the early 1900s. In this fictionalized account of the mystery, Griff and his young sister land at the Lake Bluff Orphanage, where they must learn to navigate their new surroundings and face their fears. The 12-year-old Griff stumbles upon unlawful activity throughout the town, from Elfrieda’s illicit relationship with a married man (and prime suspect), to characters so dark that he feels his safety slipping away with every passing day.
“I always knew that there was a good story here,” says Moreland. “But I’ve actually only seen it being told as a movie. Yet before you can have a movie script or a screenplay, you need to have a book. That’s why I reached out to Toby.”
Moreland and Toby Jones met after college when they moved to Lake Bluff and lived in adjacent apartments just a stone’s throw away from Lake Bluff’s Village Hall. “It was important for me to have someone who had a connection to Lake Bluff write the story,” adds Moreland.
Moreland called Jones, a minister living in Michigan, and told him he wanted to enlist his help. “I told Toby to ‘get comfortable’ because I was going to talk for about an hour,” remembers Moreland with a laugh. “The next day I had Chapter One in my inbox.”
The Furnace Girl
Fast forward three years later and The Furnace Girl is complete. “I have a whole new appreciation for the book-writing process,” says Moreland. “I would send Toby voice recordings as if I were describing a movie scene and then he would email me a draft. We went back-and-forth, bringing in trusted friends to give feedback along the way. It was also really important to me to have photos throughout the book, and that added time to this project as well. Many people are surprised to know that Toby and I only saw each other once in the three years it took to finish the book—and we didn’t even talk about the manuscript then.”
As Moreland looks forward to his book being optioned for a movie, WGN-TV’s Larry Potash will feature the mysterious case surrounding Knaak’s death in a nationally televised primetime show this fall. “We filmed the interviews and even went into the basement of the Village Hall where the furnace once stood,” Moreland says.
Moreland and Jones have also enjoyed the opportunity to share readings from The Furnace Girl at various events. “I am a teacher and an entrepreneur and Toby is a minister,” explains Moreland. “We spend a great deal of our time talking in front of groups of people. We get a lot of energy from it. I actually built a replica of the furnace from the book to scale so that our readers can have an interactive experience that they won’t forget.”