August, 1931. Park Ridge, Illinois. For weeks Asta Eicher had been bragging to friends and family about the well off civil engineer who intended to sweep the woman off her feet. Cornelius Pierson was a righteous man, who could take care of her and her family for the rest of their lives. He spoke well, had a decent job and was the perfect candidate for a recent widower. The two had recently met through a lonely hearts agency; American Friendship Society.
Asta would leave with the stranger, leaving her 3 children; Greta, Harry and Annabel, in the care of a friend, Elizabeth Abernathy while she was away. Elizabeth would eventually receive a letter stating Cornelius would be back soon to whisk the kids away to live with their new family. Cornelius did indeed show up and took the kids, right after attempting to withdraw the last of Asta’s funds from her savings account. He was declined due to a forged signature. Before he could be questioned further, Cornelius had vanished with the entire Eicher family. Leaving all of their belongings behind.
Meanwhile in Northborough, Massachusetts, Dorothy Lemke was also being wooed by none other than, Cornelius Pierson. She too had met the man through the American Friendship Society. She had grown fond of the man who seemed to check every single box for a perfect man. He boasted of his immense self-worth and his monthly income, as well as bragging about his 10-room house. All similar claims made to the Eichers as well.
The two would eventually meet, fall head over heels in love and flee to Iowa to be married. Cornelius suggested Dorothy withdrawal the last of her money, for what reason I am uncertain, but Dorothy obliged her new husband’s request. Once the money was gone, Dorothy’s friends and family would never hear from her again.
Who was Cornelius Pierson? Why were these women disappearing? Were there more victims? There were many more questions to be had but many of them could not be answered. However, one important question could be answered. Cornelius Pierson was actually career criminal Harry F. Powers.
Harry Powers was born in November of 1893, in a village in the Netherlands called Beerta. In 1910, his family would send Harry to the United States to find work but he soon found himself committing petty crimes. He would be employed shortly at a farm but would soon leave, complaining about his boss being too hard on him. From 1911 to 1924 Harry would be arrested for stealing liquor, stealing a car, escaping from prison, then finally for breaking into a home, and subsequently attempting to burn said home down.
Harry served over a year in prison for his final crime and decided he needed to shift gears. Commit crimes that may not lead so easily back to him. In 1922, he started to correspondence with multiple widows in an attempt to steal some of their money. Due to the shame some felt after being taken advantage of and due to the number of aliases Mr. Powers had, it is uncertain how many people fell for his traps. In 1924 however, one woman did. Posing as Joseph GIldow, he would go on to marry the widow Alle Province. Soon he would slip an unknown substance into her drink and left with some of her most prized possessions. She reported Joseph to the police but he was long gone at that point.
Harry would keep on the move, conning unsuspecting woman out of their affection and money until landing in the small town of Quiet Dell, West Virginia in 1926. There he would meet a woman who would later become his wife, and become a potential accomplice in Harry’s evil schemes; Luella Strother, a local grocery store owner.
Over the next few years, Harry would leave home frequently as a traveling salesman but he would also occupy his time working on lonely women. Harry would make an elaborate template for the perfect letter to send to women seeking companionship. It was suspected Harry sent out 100s of these letters, many of which appeared nearly identical to one another. Throughout his travels and many attempts at seducing he eventually hit upon both Asta Eicher and Dorothy Lemke.
Both women disappeared around the same time and shortly after their rendezvous with Cornelius Pierson. The first to raise suspicion was the disappearance of Asta and her children. The sudden disappearance, the forged signature and the poor excuses, Cornelius claimed the family was on a trip in Europe, got many locals asking questions. An investigation into the man was started and all they had was the name, and the town of Quiet Dell. Investigators first asked local officials about the elusive man, but they were unfamiliar with the name. The next course of action was to check with the postmaster and found that a Cornelius Pierson had rented a PO Box. The address associated with the PO Box lead to the home of a couple: Harry Powers and Luella Strother.
At this point I’m sure the investigators suspected foul play with all that had been going on and decided to search the property, despite there being no one home. Police broke into the garage and quickly discovered something sinister: a pile of clothing of different sizes, multiple bloodstains, hair, jewelry, and a trapdoor. Police decided to wait for Powers to show up and hear his explanation of the scene. Once he was spotted he was quickly apprehended and lead throughout the scene. Police would go on to discover dozens of letters, all ready to be sent out to potential victims of Mr. Powers.
While scouring the property for any signs of life, the police received a tip from a local boy who suggested moving the search to a drainage ditch that was accessible from the Powers garage. Upon doing so, investigators immediately noticed the unmistakable odor of decay and knew instantly what Powers had done with the innocent family. Prisoners from the local penitentiary were brought in to excavate the area and the bodies of the Asta, Greta, Harry and Anabel were all unearthed, all bound tightly with rope, within burlap sacks. All of the female members of the Eichers were hung from a noose while Harry was bludgeoned with a hammer. A few days later, Dorothy Lemke would also be discovered in a similar state, with a belt tied around her neck.
Powers would be escorted downtown for “interrogation”. He would confess but it appears he was roughed up quite a bit (not that it wasn’t deserved after the brutality of his crimes). Powers would regale authorities with how he was able to kill an entire family: “I was permitting little Harry Eicher to watch the killing of his mother and the others, but in the middle of it he let out an awful scream. I was afraid the neighbors would hear it, so I picked up a hammer and let him have it.” He went on to state that Dorothy arrived a day later after killing the family. Powers would torture Dorothy for hours before she agreed to sign some checks. Powers would go on to blindfold the woman, strangle her as well.
After the arrest the story became national news and many women would come forward claiming how close they’d come to being Harry Power’s next potential victim. It was not clear to investigators how much Harry Power’s wife was involved but she would go on to prove she was just as cold hearted as her husband as she would lease the property so that it could be a standing attraction. Pay to see the murder site of the infamous bluebeard of Quiet Dell. The attraction was quickly done with, when locals burned the property to the ground.
Due to the growing interest in the case and due to the recent construction to the courthouse, it was decided that the case would be made even more of a spectacle and be held at the Clarksburg Opera House. Doctors would testify that Powers was a psychopath but knew the difference between right and wrong. After both sides wrapped up their arguments, the jury would deliberate under the stage for just 2 hours before returning with an unsurprising guilty verdict. On December 12th, 1932, the judge sentenced Powers to death. He was sent to a death row cell at West Virginia State Penitentiary to await his execution. On 3/18/1932 Harry Powers was marched up the steps, hood placed over his head, followed by a thick length of rope, then forced to hang from the neck until he was dead, the same way he forced many of his victims to die.
During his incarceration, rumors and speculation ran wild on who else Harry could be guilty of killing. How many widows could he have killed? Some speculate Harry could have killed as many as 50 people due to a comment he made to reporters. When trying to get him on further chargers, Harry mentioned that he is already good for 5, why try to get him on 50. Who knows if there was any truth to that comment. One murder he is strongly suspected of was a former business associate and fellow traveling salesman, Dudley C. Wade. His inventory of vacuums were found with Harry but he was able to finesse the situation by claiming Dudley had stolen the merchandise and he had simply intended on bringing them back to the rightful owner. He was never fully investigated.
Harry Powers would also serve as the inspiration for one of the most vile and evil men in film, the despicable Rev. Harry Powell in the movie “The Night of the Hunter”. Based on the book of the same name, a smooth talking con-man attempts to seduce a widow and trick her children into revealing the secrets of their recently deceased husband and father in order to locate the money from a big score.
Below is a trailer for a documentary that looked very interesting on the crimes of Harry Powers and the recollections from some in the area.