Saturday, June 27, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   June 28

O. F. Sensabaugh’s Son-in-law Goes on Criminal Spree; Dallas Methodists Mourn.  July, 1915

One of the most bizarre stories in Texas Methodist history unfolded during the first week of July, 1915.  

President Robert S. Hyer was putting the finishing touches on the most important project of his  distinguished life.  Southern Methodist University would open its doors to its students for the first time in a matter of months.  Hyer had resigned from his position at Southwestern University and had built the Dallas university from the ground up.  He raised funds, built the campus, and hired faculty.  One of those initial faculty members was a son-in-law of the Rev. Oscar Sensabaugh, one of the founding trustees of SMU.  

The son-in-law was Frank Holt, who had married Leona Sensabuagh, at Polk Street, Amarillo, in 1910.   Frank was fluent in several languages and used that fluency to obtain positions in several colleges..  Frank’s academic posts included Methodist institutions, Polytechnic (now Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth), Vanderbilt, and Emory and Henry.  In 1915, though, he was teaching at Cornell University when he received the job offer from SMU.  The new job must have thrilled Leona since it meant she and her two children, Oscar (b. 1913) and Daisy (b. 1914) would be living so near her parents.

Leona Holt left Ithaca, New York, with their two young children to set up housekeeping near the SMU campus.  Frank stayed behind and planned to come later, but Leona never saw her husband alive again.–His dead body arrived in Dallas by rail on July 11.  

Here’s the sad, strange story. . 

Frank Holt went to Washington D. C. on July 2.  He placed a very sophisticated bomb in the reception room of the U. S. Senate in the Capitol.  The timer was set to explode at midnight.  Holt waited outside until he heard the blast which fortunately did not cause any injuries in the deserted building.  He walked the few blocks to Union Station where he caught a train.  He  arrived in New York City where he placed another bomb on the USS Minnehaha, a munitions ship loaded with materiel headed for France.  That timer was set for a time when the vessel would be at sea.

He then made his way to the Long Island Estate of J. P. Morgan.  It was 9:00 a.m. July 3.  The Morgan family was still at breakfast.  Holt presented his card to the attendant and said, “I’m a friend.  I want to see Mr. Morgan.”  He was shown into the breakfast room where he fired two non-fatal shots into Mr. Morgan before being subdued.  

A letter to a Washington newspaper explained that the Capitol bomb was not intended to hurt anyone.  He just wanted to make people wake up to the horrors of the European war now raging.  In statement from his jail cell, he explained that the bomb on the munitions ship and the attack on J. P. Morgan were both intended to stop the war.  (Morgan had loaned both Russia and France vast sums to help their war efforts.)

As bizarre as this episode is, it becomes even weirder.  While he was in the Long Island jail, he revealed that he was not really Frank Holt.  His name was Erich Muenter, who had immigrated from Germany and lived first in Chicago, and later in Massachusetts where he had been an instructor in languages at Harvard.  He left Harvard soon after the funeral of his wife.  Her autopsy revealed death by arsenic poisoning, and police investigations revealed Muenter to be the poisoner.  He shaved his beard and fled to Mexico under the name of Frank Holt.  He worked in Mexico for a while before re-entering the US and working at various colleges.  In addition to those previously named, he also taught at the University of Oklahoma. 

Even his death was bizarre.  After a short time in the jail cell in which he wrote a letter to Oscar Sensabaugh, gave interviews, and tried to present himself just a concerned person who wanted to end the war in Europe, he climbed onto the door of his cell and dived headfirst onto the floor, thereby killing himself. 

Newspaper accounts of the funeral held at Brewer’s Chapel show that many Methodist and civic dignitaries attended the 6:00 p.m. interment at Grove Hill Cemetery (on Samuell just as it crosses White Rock Creek.  Look south from I-30 at Ferguson and you can see the cemetery.)  W. D. Bradfield, editor of the Advocate, conducted the service.  J. P. Mussett of Fort Worth delivered the eulogy.  How does one eulogize such a man?  Mussett did so be extolling the Senasbaugh family for the courage with which they were enduring the tragedy.  

The pall bearers constituted an interesting group of Sensabaugh friends, including   R. H. Shuttles (wholesale jeweler),  S. J. Hay (former mayor of Dallas and one of the founders of Trinity MECS where he sometimes preached),  and B. M. Burgher, postmaster and layman in Oaklawn Methodist.

What about the grieving widow---two small children, and having to live with the knowledge that her husband had pulled off one of the grandest deceptions in U. S. History and most audacious attacks ever?  

Leona enrolled in SMU and received a master’s in 1916.  She taught at Wesley College ( Greenville) then Alexander Collegiate Institute (later Lon Morris College in Jacksonville) before returning to SMU as language instructor and then  Acting Dean of Women.

Tragedy continued to follow her.   Her daughter Daisy died in dormitory fire at ACI in 1919.  Leona died on June 22, 1941 at the age of 54 and was buried in the same cemetery on Samuell, now called Oak Hill.   Flags on the SMU campus flew at half mast to honor her.   (a note of interest—both President Hyer and Gov. William P. Clements are buried in the same cemetery.)

You are probably wondering about whether the bomb on the Minnehaha exploded.  Yes, it did, after Muenter/Holt had already committed suicide.  Fortunately he had set the dynamite so far away from the munitions that the bomb did only minor damage.


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