Family lore is that our paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Percy Theetge, killed a man in the early 1900s, then fled to Kentucky for many years, returning to Cincinnati in poor health. His wife Mae had remarried after declaring Percy dead years before, but took him in when he returned. Dad remembers his great-grandfather Percy living in a room in Mae’s house.
So naturally I started searching for information about Percy Theetge. There were a few articles about him in the 1920s, concerning car theft and an attempted robbery. And Percy did disappear for a while in the early 1900s—Mae listed herself in the 1910 U. S. Census as a widow. But there was nothing about Percy being involved in anything as serious as a murder.
But there was murder in the Theetge family. In late October 1893, Percy’s father George was gunned down by his neighbor after a long-running feud between the two. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported the murder in great detail and with little sympathy for the victim.
George William Theetge was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in 1845 to William and Eve Theetge. William and Eve had at least seven children who survived to adulthood. George was the oldest son and became a carpenter like his father. In 1864 George married Sarah Elizabeth Hoffman and they eventually had eight children, Percy being the second youngest. They moved several times between western Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and Petersburg, Kentucky.
George Theetge had a history of holding grudges, and from time to time this led to violence. In July 1879 a simmering feud between George Theetge and Andy Leonard, both workers in a Petersburg, Kentucky distillery, led to a near-fatal fight. The previous year in another altercation between them, Theetge had wielded a knife so savagely that the blade had stuck an inch into a wooden board that Leonard had held in front of him as a shield. The fight was broken up, but the hatred remained.
In the 1879 incident, reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Theetge and Leonard ran into each other on a Petersburg street. John Feely, a local teamster, stepped between them to break up the fight. In fury, Theetge stabbed at Feely, striking him in the arm and abdomen. Feely was dangerously wounded, and it was feared he would die. Theetge was forcibly taken to his home but left after a few minutes, taking with him a knife and pistol. He found Leonard, who had armed himself with piece of lumber four feet long, four inches wide and two inches thick. Before Theetge could fire, Leonard struck him in the head with the two-by-four several times, until, according to the Enquirer, “Theetge’s head resembled a piece of pounded beef more than the head of a human being.” It was assumed that Theetge would die. Leonard was quickly charged with assault, but just as quickly acquitted.
Theetge, in the meantime, miraculously recovered from his injuries, and was arrested for the attack on Feely. However, although Feely was expected to die, he was recorded as living with his wife and children in the census of 1880. There is no record of George Theetge ever being convicted of the attack on John Feely.
The 1879 fight was one of a series of violent incidents involving Theetge, which culminated in his death in 1893.
“Deadly Was the Awful Combat”
In 1893 George Theetge and his family were living at Cullom’s Station, in the Riverdale section of Cincinnati near the Indiana border. One of their neighbors was William Zurweller. Theetge and Zurweller had previously worked together at a local rolling mill, and there was bad blood between them.
On October 30, George Theetge passed Zurweller’s house on his way home. He threatened Zurweller’s children, saying that he would kill them and their father too. The children went inside and told their father, and Zurweller got his revolver and went out to confront Theetge. Theetge also had a gun which he tried to fire. But when the gun jammed, he used it as a club and repeatedly struck Zurweller in the head with it. Zurweller responded by firing six bullets into Theetge at point-blank range. They continued to grapple with each other until Theetge fainted from loss of blood. Zurweller returned to his home, and Theetge died on the street before several onlookers. He left his wife Sarah and eight children.
The Enquirer noted that Theetge had gotten into several ‘scrapes’ at his previous home in Petersburg, attacking Doc Tully (no relation that we know of) with an axe and in return being shot in the arm, and in a separate incident shooting at one of his own sons with a double-barrelled shotgun. After that incident, he was forced to leave Petersburg and moved to Cullom’s Station, just eight months before his death.
Wearing the Burial Suit
William Zurweller turned himself in almost immediately, and was tried and acquitted in George Theetge’s death. Sarah and the younger children were left destitute, so much so that a friend of the family, Tom Conway, gave them a suit of clothes in which to bury George. In a final sordid twist, a few weeks later Conway saw John Theetge, one of George’s sons, wearing the suit. According to the Enquirer, “[t]he matter has aroused the bitterest feelings down in Riverside and there is inciting talk heard. If the son is given a coat of tar and feathers it will be no surprise to the denizens of that part of the city.”
The Evil That Men Do …
The coverage by the Cincinnati Enquirer was extensive and very much in the ‘yellow journalism’ style of the era. It is all very entertaining to read over a century later, when all who were directly affected are long dead. But it is sobering to think of the family life of Sarah and the children, with a husband and father who was so filled with rage and hatred.
George died at the age of 48, and given his history it is amazing he lived as long as he did. Most of his children were grown or nearly grown when he died. For good and for ill, his legacy lived on in them and their descendants. Percy and his younger brother Albert got into several scrapes of their own, including car theft and attempted robbery. But they are not recorded as having committed the kinds of violent acts their father perpetrated. So while certain habits persist through generations, families do evolve over time—and it is hoped for the better.