Note the cellar door (with shingles) on the bottom left of the house. That's where Jakob Meyer was left to die in 1865.
From Chapter One: The Murder of Eldridge Gant
I stood alongside Anna Fitzgerald when she took her first breath out of the womb. I will be standing by her when she takes her last breath on this earth. I am with her now in October 2006 as, at the age of thirty-four, she enters the home of Eldridge Gant.
Anna was on call that night when the phone rang at 8:02 p.m. She came from her flat in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis, driving her unmarked black Impala squad car, and was at the scene by 8:45 p.m. She wore her “power” outfit of blue slacks and a fashionable red sweater over a white blouse. On her belt was a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic handgun, her badge, work cell phone, and a pair of handcuffs.
While she was driving to Rockford, the patrol deputy still at the scene called and updated her in detail about the crime, and gave her directions to the house. Anna would be the lead detective on this case, but she would need help. She paged out for additional detectives and soon had four others on her team, briefing them by radio about what she knew and asked Joe Wilshire if he would quickly get a search warrant from a judge on call. With her team identified and waiting for further assignments, she arrived at the home of Eldridge Gant.
Located on Bridge Street, on the Hennepin County side of the Crow River, the house was completed in the fall of 1860 by Jakob Meyer, added onto in 1890, and received a final addition in 1912. When the house was built in Rockford Townsite, it was on a farm with acreage to both the north and east. Now it stood in the middle of the city of Rockford, Minnesota, surrounded by homes.
Anna slowly drove on the gravel driveway to the back of the house, where the leaves of October lay fallen on the outside parking area, blown in swirls by a strong, cold wind that seemed to be announcing winter. She talked to herself. “This must be the right place with a sheriff’s car back here.”
The house was clad in 5 ½” hardwood siding with a 1” lap, painted white, and little more than a few boards had been replaced over the years. She entered the backdoor of the 1912 addition and walked through a summer kitchen into the regular kitchen.
The deputy had arranged a path of light to the crime scene to make it easy for her to follow. She passed through the dining room with its glowing chandelier, the music room with two lamps casting shadows on the piano, and into the brightly lit parlor of the original 1860 house.
Immediately to her left was a fireplace with a flooring of red bricks. The rest of the room was hardwood with a thin red rug partially covering it. In front of the fireplace, tied to a kitchen chair, sat the unfortunate Eldridge Gant.
Eldridge no longer inhabited this earth. Two hours earlier Mack Freighter and Toby Levias, men devoid of conscience, tied him to the chair, mercilessly tortured him, and set him on fire. Toby did most of the torturing and flicked his cigarette lighter at the lighter-fluid-soaked Eldridge. The two men quickly snuffed out the fire when he screamed he would tell them where the tin box was, but there is only so much a ninety-six-year-old man can take, and Eldridge had taken more of it than he could handle. He gasped out the hiding place through twisted lips set in a charred face. Then his head dropped to his chest where the fire was still smoldering through what was left of his shirt, and his body emptied itself into what was left of his pants.
From Chapter Three: Jakob Meyer and the Civil War Coins
I’ll cover just two of the battles of the “War of Rebellion” as it was called in the North and “The War of Northern Aggression” as it was called in the South, to expose the pathetic means by which Jakob avoided death – Antietam and Gettysburg.
The First Minnesota was camped on Pry’s Farm on the morning of September 17, 1862, located on Antietam Creek in the far northeastern corner of the battlefield. The battle began early in the morning and raged on until 9 o’clock in the evening. I watched the carnage with tears in my eyes. The fields of battle were a scene of death and suffering of an intensity I had rarely witnessed. The lines of battle brought men within 50 yards of one another as they blazed away as fast as they could reload.
Artillery loaded with double loads of canister ripped men to pieces. Shell fragments tore through the bodies of men like the effect of the first trumpet of Revelation – when hail and fire mixed with blood was hurled down upon the earth. Rifle barrels became so hot they were rendered useless. Screaming and whistling projectiles burst through the air as the peaceful scene of early morning turned into one of destruction, agony, and gore.
The First Minnesota waded across Antietam Creek and into the jaws of death. Passing through the East Woods they were greeted by the sight of dead and wounded under every tree. This is where Jakob drew the line. He was in the back row of the First Minnesota. The battle was so fierce in front of them that no one noticed when Jakob just lay down with the dead and pretended to be one of them. The First Minnesota was pummeled by 12 pound Napoleon cannons and a volley of musket fire that descended on their ranks like a blanket of lead. Before they were totally annihilated, they were reinforced by Union troops with artillery that drove the Confederate forces off the field of battle like frightened wild animals being hunted down by a pride of lions. As the First Minnesota marched back to their camp the way they had come, in the dark of night, Jakob slipped into the ranks and no one realized he did not fight alongside of them all day.
Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863, and was the most critical battle of the war. On July 2, the First Minnesota was ordered into position in the line of battle near the center of the Union lines. About 7 p.m., some 300 men of the First Minnesota were ordered to charge and stop the advance of approximately 1,600 Alabama troops threatening to break through the line.
When Jakob saw his unit was outnumbered by more than five to one, he drew the line again. As they passed a field where dead bodies lay, Jakob hid among them and let his comrades face the rebel troops. In less than five minutes, 70% of Jakob’s unit was on the ground, dead or wounded. It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, which pales in comparison to the First Minnesota’s charge “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell.”
Reinforcements arrived after five minutes and the day was saved. The First Minnesota was ordered to retreat to the rear, and on the way back, in the dusk, Jakob once again slipped back into his regiment without anyone realizing he had not been with them in the charge. The confusion had been too great to keep track of who was there and who was not.
As if pretending to be dead was not cowardly enough, Jakob ransacked the bodies and stole the money they had on them – more than $5,000 during those two battles. Paymasters for Union troops paid their troops in paper money every three or four months. Jakob was lucky. Antietam and Gettysburg both occurred shortly after the troops had been paid for four months – $52 for privates, $676 for captains, up to $3,320 for a three-star general. Had his fellow troops realized what he was doing, they would have hung him from the nearest tree. Jakob obviously could not have carried that much money on him, so he sent it to three different banks in St. Paul, so as not to raise suspicion.
When the First Minnesota was mustered out on April 29, 1864, Jakob went to the three banks and exchanged the majority of the paper money, at a nearly 3:1 exchange rate, for $1,450 of newly minted gold and silver coins. I heard him tell one of the bankers, “I reckon I better make the exchange now. Greenbacks will go the way of Confederate paper money after the war, and these here gold coins will go no place but up. This here’ll be my pension when I retire from farmen.” He kept the 150 coins in the three banks for a few months before returning with a tin box to collect them, which is the one that was found in Eldridge Gant’s home the night he was murdered.
One year and one month from Jakob’s mustering out of the service and the ill-gotten gains of his battlefield cowardice, he died a mysterious death on May 24, 1865.
From Chapter Four: Anna Visits Uncle Marv and Receives a Lesson on Genealogy
Uncle Marv was hunched over his computer working on genealogy searches when Anna entered. He had a serious look on his face, which was his default countenance. When he saw Anna, he straightened up his six-foot four-inch frame in his wheelchair and smiled broadly at her. “Anna, my dear, here you are! When you phoned this morning, I knew this would be a great day, especially since you’ve come to discuss the passion of my life – genealogy.”
Anna settled in the lounge chair by the north wall of the room, and Uncle Marv maneuvered his wheelchair to face her. Beyond small talk, Anna updated Uncle Marv with the details of the Eldridge Gant murder, which he had just read about that morning as the feature story in the weekly Wright County Journal.
“Well, Anna, let’s tackle this genealogical mystery. After your call, I dug out my Gertrude Ackerman file, and here it is. Almost all the information I have on your great grandmother Gertrude and Jakob Meyer is in this file folder. There are a few pieces from my Anton Schaar file which I also gathered, and here they are.
“Your murder case sounds fascinating, especially the Civil War coins part of it. I can’t figure out, though, how Jakob would have possessed that much money, given that he was most likely a poor farmer.
“Perhaps I can shed some light on the lineage of three families that may help in your quest to determine who the coins belong to. But I have to warn you, I hit enough brick walls in my research that you’ll have plenty of detective work to do. I would suggest you find someone who knows their way around genealogy because you don’t have the background or experience to know where to look.” Anna smiled; she had learned to enjoy his bluntness.
I have observed over many years that bluntness seems to be a trait of people of German descent; in any event it is a trait of Uncle Marv’s. He is as upbeat a person as I’ve ever seen, given an incapacitating affliction that is gradually worsening, but I respect his down-to-earth telling it the way it is, without the hint of a smile.
However, when Anna smiled, Uncle Marv laughed, as if he knew he was being too stern. “Genealogy is something very wild and unpredictable, Anna; there are many rabbit trails. I once stumbled upon your great uncle Adolph’s headstone in the St. George Cemetery near New Ulm while researching another family in my lineage. I was so excited I could hardly breathe for a few minutes. Genealogy is like creating a detective mystery of your own – putting together all the aspects of it. It’s a challenge I have pursued since 1980 when I took a course on genealogy at North Hennepin Community College and was hooked for good.
“We are related because your great-grandmother was the child of my great-grandfather Anton by a second marriage…or so I thought. It took me until ten years ago to get into the branch of the Schaars who descended from that second marriage, and that’s when I ran into a big surprise at the History Center in St Paul. The things that really mess up a clean genealogy are divorces, bigamists, second or third marriages, and illegitimate children.
“From 1865 to 1905, there was a Minnesota state census every ten years.
“I began with the August 13, 1870, national census figures. Look at this page I photocopied. My great-grandfather Anton is 49, but my great-grandmother Barbara is not listed as his wife, having been replaced by a woman named Elizabeth. I was unaware that Anton had a second wife before that. As you can see on the census sheet, my grandfather Joseph and his brothers and sisters by Barbara follow Elizabeth, and then comes Gertrude, three years old, and Adolph, two. I later found that Gertrude was born in January, so that would mean she was born in 1867 by this sheet.
“I then went back to the 1860 national census and the 1865 state census and found Barbara in both places. So she died somewhere between 1865 and 1870. I checked the local Catholic cemeteries near Medina to find her grave. I didn’t have to look far. Her tombstone was in Holy Name Cemetery in Medina, with a date of death of 1865. I later found in my mother’s scrapbook that the actual date of Barbara’s death was June 14, 1865. Coincidently, Jakob Meyer was discovered dead in his wood storage bin May 24, 1865, by his wife Elizabeth. This is the same Elizabeth that married Anton Schaar August 12, 1865, just three months after Jakob’s death and two months after Barbara’s death. Take a look at this marriage certificate from the District Court for the County of Hennepin, showing that Anton Schaar married Elizabeth Meyer and by oath declared that there were no legal impediments thereof. I photocopied it from microfilm at the History Center.”
Anna had a surprised look on her face. “Uncle Marv, wasn’t that a bit quick for Anton to marry Elizabeth?”
“Not at that time,” answered Uncle Marv. “It happened all the time. Anton needed someone to raise his children and Elizabeth needed someone who had money coming in to provide for her basic needs. Sometimes such a marriage would occur within a couple of weeks. A long courtship was not one of the ingredients of these arrangements.”
Anna had been writing feverishly in her notebook. “Uncle Marv, would you be willing to loan me that file so I can copy the pages and cut down on the amount of notes I need to take. I can’t keep up?”
“Of course,” replied Uncle Marv. Then his trademark generous smile moved his moustache up one-half inch on the edges. “I thought you’d be treading in deep water about this time, so I prepared a summary of how Gertrude could be the offspring of either Anton Schaar, my great-grandfather, or Jakob Meyer. See what you think,” as he handed a sheet of paper to her.