People who knew the portly and bespectacled Catherine Cassler were unlikely to guess that this woman, who seemed so ordinary, would twice live in the shadow of execution – and twice escape with her life.
She was born in 1884 in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. As Ione Quinby writes in Murder for Love, “Her childhood was passed during the period of oil lamps and gas fixtures, before electricity had flooded the world, but the family often used candles that dripped untidily. The flat was so small that they were cramped when they all sat down at once in the kitchen, and it smelled foully of bad air and greasy skillets. They took their baths – if any – in the combined living-room and bedroom, in a washtub whose leaks had been plugged up, behind a bureau that was pulled out like a screen for the occasion.” Little Catherine often picked up wood and coal from the railroad tracks a mile from home for her family’s use. Other times she would try to get such items from a local charity organization. Her father was a hard drinker who harshly disciplined her.
At 14, Catherine married Truman Cassler, 19, who like his wife was quite rotund. Employed as a truck driver, he worked steadily. Catherine soon had a baby, Edward.
Although Truman worked as a trucker in Chicago, Catherine and little Edward settled into a small home in Hebron, Indiana. Catherine wanted her son to grow up in a more wholesome environment that she believed a big city provided.
Catherine joined the Hebron local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), often regaling other members with horror stories of her father’s drunkenness.
However, rumors circulated that this apparently fervent WCTU member was a secret bootlegger. Those rumors were given special credence when she was arrested for that offense and spent time in the Porter County Jail.
Catherine swore “that she was not a bootlegger at all, but merely an over-zealous investigator who dabbled in moonshine to get information about real bootleggers.”
Catherine was long out of jail when Chicago cabinetmaker Bill Lindstrom, 51, was found dead on December 6, 1926 in an area near his home. He had a large bump at the back of his neck. Police initially believed Lindstrom had just slipped on the icy street and fatally hit his head.
Then a cop noticed that the man’s shoes were oddly dry.
Investigators learned that Lindstrom lived with sallow-complexioned, coarse-featured Lillian Fraser who was sometimes called his common-law wife. However, she was legally married to another carpenter whom she had left four years previously.
Bizarrely, her husband did not know they were separated. A nurse, Lillian Fraser had told her husband she was working at a distant hospital. She continued to visit her lawful spouse once a week so he believed their marriage was intact.
Investigators learned that Lillian Fraser had taken out a $7,500 life insurance policy on Lindstrom. Under intense questioning, she admitted plotting to murder him for the money. However, she fingered close friend Catherine Cassler as the brains behind the scheme. Lillian claimed Cassler had suggested the insurance policy and enlisted balding rumrunner Loren Patrick to kill Lindstrom. He was allegedly willing to murder in exchange for Fraser’s having paid the $137.50 fine he owed for violating Prohibition.
According to Fraser, both Cassler and Patrick drove to the house she shared with Lindstrom on December 6, 1926. Cassler waited in the car and Patrick knocked on the door. Fraser had already told Lindstrom that a potential customer wanted to look at a cabinet. When Lindstrom opened the door, Patrick said he was that potential buyer. Lindstrom allowed Patrick into the house.
As they spoke, Fraser pulled a short lead pipe out from under her apron and slipped it to Patrick. When Lindstrom leaned over to pick up a small cabinet, Patrick slammed the pipe against the back of Lindstrom’s neck, killing him with one blow.
Both Fraser and Patrick agreed to testify against Cassler. They claimed Cassler had suggested the plan in part because she nursed a grudge against Lindstrom who had threatened to beat Cassler up for intervening in quarrels between himself and Fraser.
When authorities interviewed Cassler, she said she had known nothing about it until after the victim was killed. She said she was friends with Fraser and Patrick and they had informed her of the murder afterward in guilt-ridden panic. Cassler said she had not called police because she was “not a snitcher.” She insisted she had not driven to the home with Patrick on the day of the murder and had no part in planning it.
Cassler refused a proffered deal to plead guilty in exchange for avoiding a death sentence.
During her trial, Cassler often smiled at the testimony of her accusers. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
Had she been hanged, she would have been the first woman executed in Illinois.
When asked why she refused to accept a plea deal, she answered, “Why should I? This is no life behind prison bars. I would sooner die on the gallows than that.”
Judge Philip Sullivan sentenced Cassler to hang on October 21, 1929.
In early October, as she sat in her cell she heard carpenters building the scaffold on which she was to hang.
However, days before she was to be executed, her attorneys won a 60-day stay to allow them to make an appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court. “I am very happy,” she said in response to news of the stay. “But if it is finally decided that I must hang, I will trip to the gallows as lightly as though I were the best dressed woman in town on my way to church.”
On November 16, 1929 jailors accused her of plotting with convicted illegal drug distributor Martha Schuster to make a jail break. Schuster was transferred to another jail and Cassler was placed under special guard.
Then on December 21, the Illinois Supreme Court granted an appeal that her conviction be reviewed.
By this time, two significant events had occurred. The first was that Lillian Fraser had suddenly died. Just as suddenly, albeit somewhat later, Patrick changed his story. He said he and Fraser planned the murder on their own with no suggestions from Cassler. The prosecutor derided this recantation as “just the old trick to try and save someone from the gallows.”
With neither Patrick nor Fraser to testify against her, she was released on April 20, 1929.
She was not quite as happy as might be expected for she had learned while she was incarcerated that her husband Truman had taken up with a much younger woman. That woman was Cameola “Babe” Soutar, 24, a roller skater and Vaudeville dancer who weighed half as much as the two hundred pound Catherine Cassler.
Indeed, while Cassler was still locked in jail, Soutar had paid her a visit. The dancer taunted Cassler, saying that Truman would marry Soutar as soon as Cassler hanged. The gloating Soutar waved presents that Truman had given her. An infuriated Cassler hit her cell bars and yelled at Soutar.
Ten days after Cassler’s release, on April 30, she brutally beat her rival, scratching Soutar’s face with rings and knocking her down.
Forty days after Cassler was freed, Soutar’s small body was found in a swamp near Hebron, Indiana. She had been shot through the heart.
There were no shoes on her feet. Witnesses claimed she had last been seen wearing satin shoes with rhinestone buckles. Some people speculated that Cassler might have removed them because Lindstrom’s shoes had provided a telltale clue.
At an inquest, Truman said Catherine had told him three days before Soutar’s body was discovered, “You won’t be bothered with your sweetie anymore.”
Officers testified that .32 caliber bullets were taken from Soutar’s corpse. Catherine Cassler’s sister lived nearby and .32 cartridges were found in her home.
Neighbors suggested Cassler killed Soutar and put her in a bed that closed up in a closet, leaving the corpse standing up one night while Truman slept nearby. They also suggested Cassler propped the corpse up in her automobile the next day to drive her to her swampy resting place.
Truman Cassler testified, “Monday night Edward slept on the davenport in the living-room. Always before he has used the daybed, which he lets down from the closet. I thought it was funny, that bed being up and the closet door closed.”
A cleaner who worked in the building in which the Casslers lived testified to watching Soutar enter the Cassler home between nine and ten o’clock Monday morning.
A neighbor testified to seeing Cassler drive her car with a figure in the passenger seat.
Edward testified that his mother and he had been driving around that Monday as he was “looking for work.”
After the inquest, Catherine Cassler was arraigned for murder a second time. Since the murder was believed to have taken place in Indiana, she would have been eligible for execution in the electric chair if convicted.
However, authorities were unable to amass enough evidence for a trial. She was released On October 7, 1929.
Eight years later, still a third cloud of suspicion bloomed over Cassler’s head. Claiming she was the mother of her boarder, Warren Shattuck, 29, Cassler took out a $1,000 life insurance policy on him in 1937. Six weeks later, he “fell” off the terrace of her home. When asked about that insurance policy, she laughed and explained that she had been confused because her boarder often called her “Mom.”
Cassler waived the insurance claim. Neither she nor anyone else was ever arrested in connection with Shattuck’s death. After that incident, the woman of very strange luck disappeared from history.
Sources on following page.