It was a tragedy that befuddled and puzzled the residents of Arlington.
Early on a Friday morning in May 1888, seven members of the same family — including three children — were found, believed to have been burned to death in an accidental barn fire.
But the discovery of additional evidence following the blaze suggested it may not have been an accident. Newspaper reporters theorized what may have happened to this farm family. However, due to the charred condition of the bodies and the lack of a thorough investigation, the deaths remain a mystery.
A pioneer family
Friedrich “Fred” Groteluschen, born in Haast-Sage, Oldenburg, Germany, on Oct. 20, 1854, immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager in 1872. He worked as a hired man for Louise Frese before marrying her daughter, Mathilde in 1880.
The couple had three children: Ida Louise, 6; John Friedrich Wilhelm, 4; and Emma Rose, 2.
Frese was a widow. Her husband, Hermann, died Aug. 13, 1876, from injuries he received after falling off a wagonload of grain, according to the Blair Pilot. She owned the farm, which was about 1 1/2 miles northeast of Arlington.
Ludwig, also known as Louis, was Fred's younger brother. He arrived in the U.S. in 1874 and stayed with his brother's family, working as a hired man.
A gruesome discovery
Edward Smith was on his way to plow his field with a team of horses when he first noticed the fire on his neighbor's farm the morning of May 4, 1888.
“I started as fast as I could make one horse go, leaving the mate behind,” he told an Omaha Evening Bee reporter. “My father followed on foot. When I arrived the whole barn was ablaze and I could see no moving or living objects inside or outside.”
Smith searched for the family, finding no one around or in the house. He then hurried off to Arlington to alert residents and authorities.
A large number of people gathered at the homestead, but nothing could be done to save the two-story barn.
“When the building had burned to the ground and the heat subsided so as to make approach possible, a search was made in the ruins, and the spectators were horrified to find the charred and blackened corpses of the entire family in the ruins,” the Fremont Weekly Herald reported.
The bodies were scattered around the barn, according to reports.
Fred and the two older children were found in the north stable, near a door that was shut and possibly locked.
Louise Frese was found near the main door, only identified by a tuft of hair on the back of her head, the Omaha Evening Bee reported. Near her, Louis was in the alley of the barn about 10 feet from the door. He was identified by part of his shirt, bearing his initials L.G.
“His watch, badly damaged, was found lying by his side, and the hands had stopped at seventeen minutes past 7 o'clock,” the Omaha newspaper said.
Mathilde's body was found near the end of the alley, the farthest from the door. Her baby, Emma Rose, nearby. A horse had fallen near Mathilde, it's neck laying across her chest. Another horse laid in the alley between Mathilde and the others.
In addition to the family, 21 head of livestock, including horses and cattle, were killed in the fire.
Investigating the deaths
Sheriff Henry Schneider, acting as the coroner, and attorney W. H. Farnsworth arrived on the farm around noon. A coroner's jury was impaneled. Following the investigation, a verdict was rendered, the Fremont newspaper reported. The family had been burned to death in the barn and the cause of the fire was unknown.
The initial theory was the fire was accidental, hay set ablaze by ashes from a pipe or by a lantern, while the two men were feeding the horses early in the morning and it was not discovered in time. It was then thought the family tried to save the livestock. The older children, frightened from the commotion, followed their parents into the barn. The baby was likely in her mother's arms.
But why would a woman carry her child into a burning building?
And only one animal, a horse that was badly burned and had to be euthanized, escaped the blaze. It appeared that it had broken its halter.
“The mystery surrounding the terrible affair is impenetrable and this town is in a fever of excitement tonight,” the Omaha Evening Bee reported. “The presence of the whole family in the barn is unexplainable, and the condition of the house leads to the belief that the household was astir previous to the breaking out of the fire.”
When authorities searched the house, they found nothing disturbed. The breakfast dishes were washed and stacked. On the table, there were three tin plates with a slice of bread and butter and a few bites off one piece. The cows had been milked and the milk strained and still warm. The beds appeared to have been slept in, only one had been made.
As the bodies were removed from the ruins, it was discovered that Mathilde's throat was cut. The wound, which was not burned, had been protected by the horse that had fallen on her. Blood was found inside the collar of her dress.
But Dr. S.J. Hadley ruled the cut was likely from the shoe of the horse that had fallen on her.
Another theory emerges
That wasn't enough for residents or the newspaper reporters, who conducted their own investigations.
The Fremont Weekly Herald concluded the coroner's jury was “not well handled” at the inquest.
“There seems to have been too much excitement generally and not enough executive ability at the head of the jury,” a May 8, 1888, article said.
In addition to the cut and blood on Mathilde, a pool of blood was also found under partially burned hay. A knife and an axe were also found near two of the bodies following the fire. Shears were found near the entrance of the barn.
“Just how it happens that this was not discovered before seems to be due to the negligence of the acting coroner,” the article continued.
All of the dead were found face up, the newspaper reported, except Louis, who was face down.
At the urging of others, the doctor reexamined the bodies, which had already been placed in the caskets. He found that the cut on Mathilde's throat was much deeper than initially thought. Fred's left temple was also crushed, according to a report from the Columbus Telegram.
The theory that followed and that many residents supported was that Louis killed the family and set the barn ablaze after becoming dissatisfied with his brother for not paying him as much as he had promised. But he succumbed to the smoke before he could escape the fire.
There was a claim that Emma Frese, Mathilde's sister who was away visiting another sister at the time of the fire, said, “Louis did all of this.”
A final resting place
What happened to the Groteluschen family that May day more than 130 years ago will likely never be known. The answers are lost to history.
The family, respected by their neighbors, was laid to rest three days after the fire in God's Acre Cemetery near St. Paul's Lutheran Church north of Arlington.
A large headstone, with the names of the six Groteluschen family members, stands in the first row just to the left of the main entrance of the cemetery. Three small headstones behind are for the children. A few rows away, another headstone mark's Louise Frese's final resting place.
Both headstones are engraved with a Bible verse from the book of Isaiah. The writing, which is in German, reads:
“But the righteous perish, And there is no one to take it to heart; And holy people are drawn up, And nobody pays attention. For the righteous are taken away from calamity; And those who have walked right before them come to peace and rest in their chambers.”