While some who dabble in genealogy might dread the proverbial skeletons in the closet, there are those of us who go looking for them. That’s exactly what I did on the day that I discovered that my 4th great-grandfather, William Zurweller, unloaded on a guy in Riverside. Let me warn you: Like most genealogy, this story is complicated. But is also exciting. Remember, genealogy is exciting! Come to the library, and do your genealogy!
It all started when I came across William Zurweller’s death certificate on Ancestry (a database that you can access for free at BCPL). Under cause of death, I saw: “Gunshot wound in the left side of the head (murder).” I thought, “Well, now I need that obituary.”
I opened up BCPL’s ProQuest Cincinnati Enquirer (Historical) database (another one that you can access for free, from home, with your library card). My search for William Zurweller yielded something unexpected, an article from October 31, 1893: “DEADLY: Was the Awful Combat Between Geo. Theetge and Wm. Zurweller – The Body of the Former Receives Six Bullets and Death Ends His Suffering Five Minutes Later. Frightened Children of the Enraged Men Witness the Bloody Tragedy at Collum’s Station. A Series of Threats and Petty Quarrels Culminate in a Murder—Eight Children Left Orphans—The Victim a Desperate Man.” And, that was just the headline! The article stated that William Zurweller and George Theetge had worked together at the Rolling Mill in Cincinnati, but that they had a falling out over Theetge’s son, whom Zurweller had taken in. One day George Theetge saw William Zurweller’s children playing marbles in the street, and threatened to kill their family. The children ran home to tell Zurweller, who grabbed his gun, proceeded to Theetge’s house shouting profanities. Theetge came outside, his gun misfired, so he tried to fight Zurweller by force – which ended poorly for him. Several other articles described the event and the proceedings, with most describing Theetge as a “scoundrel, his brothers having also died with their boots on.” Less than a week after the event, Zurweller went free – the jury found that he was acting in self-defense. Evidently, Theetge wasn’t terribly missed. For curiosity’s sake, I went on the hunt to see if Theetge really was such a scoundrel.
My search for Theetge brought another gem of a headline from the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 23, 1879: “KENTUCKY BLOOD: Which was Shed in Petersburg Sunday Night. Desperate Encounter Between George Theetge, Andy Leonard and a Peace-Maker.” Apparently, Theetge, who was at that time working at the distillery in Petersburg, started a fight with some visiting boys from Lawrenceburg, and he was carrying a knife and cutting people up. The interesting part of this article was the Peace-Maker, named later in the article as John Feely, a teamster of the town. I recognized that name. My coworker, Joseph English, also does his genealogy, and had Feely ancestors in Petersburg. I asked him if this was his ancestor, he said he thought it might be. A quick search on ancestry showed that his 2nd great grandfather, John Feely, was a teamster, according to the 1880 census. John Feely, an angelic sort (if his descendants are any indication), tried to break up the fight. When he was holding George Theetge and Andy Leonard at arm’s length, Theetge stabbed him in the arm and in the stomach. The article states that the abdomen wound was “deep and dangerous and very painful… he was carried to his home where his wounds were dressed, and where yesterday he was unable to speak and was regarded as in a very critical condition.” However, we know that because he was on the 1880 census (and not the 1880 Mortality Schedule), that he did indeed live through this. Though, we can only speculate if he might have had any lasting pain. There is one upside to these tragic stories – when introducing Joseph, I can now say, “My ancestor killed the man who stabbed his ancestor. Welcome to Kentucky.” Just kidding about that last part.
Now back to what started this all – the death certificate with the cause of death listed as murder. I did eventually find that article in the Boone County Recorder, after realizing that his place of death was Taylorsport. While reading through the paper that was published right after his date of death, I found reference to the death of a man named Zuelli. The location, date, and story around his death were accurate, so I knew that this was actually William Zurweller, my 4th great grandfather. Apparently William Zurweller threw Lou Phelps, who couldn’t swim, in the Ohio River. Phelps made it out, but he was very angry, so he went home to get his gun. Zurweller was at the time, living in a tent in Taylorsport. Lou Phelps approached the tent and was about to lose his nerve when he heard Zurweller say, “If we had drowned him, we could have kept his whiskey.” And, that sent Phelps over the edge, so he shot Zurweller. I don’t know what happened to Phelps after this, but I do know that Phelps’ and Zurweller’s grandchildren, Mary Elizabeth Phelps and Snowden Humphrey, would go on to marry, and become my second great grandparents. Apparently the families didn’t hold onto that grudge.
Kaitlin Barber is a Boone County native and recent graduate of the Masters of Public History Program at NKU. She began her work with Local History and Genealogy at BCPL in 2011.