Christmas one century ago: The Baroness Zollner, allegations of espionage, a sudden death, and the mind-reading duck

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Knoxville in the past can seem like this city does in dreams. It’s recognizably the same place, but with familiar landmarks slightly twisted and lots of unsettling differences, erupting with odd events that don’t make sense. During Christmas week, 1917, you could walk into the Holston building and, at the L&N counter, buy a ticket to Havana. Then you could walk down the street to the familiar Bijou Theatre to see Felix, the Mind Reading Duck. Two days before Christmas, patriots gathered at the Market Hall for a funeral-like commemoration of the 118th anniversary of George Washington’s death. And on Christmas Eve, a German engineer watched smoke billowing out of the roof of his stylish Cumberland Avenue house, and then dropped dead.

Winter had arrived that year with quite a lot of snow, enough to cover the streets almost daily. It relented just before Christmas. Christmas Eve was the first day in almost two weeks that the streets were clear.

Knoxville was Asia-mad that year, fascinated with Asian art, fashion, and kitchenware. Stores sold kimonos for both men and women. The Choy Ling Hee Troupe, from Canton, or Gwangzhou, was a talented group of magiciains and acrobats, known for fire-eating and hanging by their hair. They headed the bill at the Bijou for three nights in a row. At Woodruff’s, you could buy Parcheesi (“The Game of India”), Ouija boards, and ping-pong tables, charms of the Mysterious East.

Just a couple of blocks down the street at the Queen was The Secret Game, the latest movie starring Sessue Hayakawa. Forty years later he’d be the cruel taskmaster Col. Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai, but in the silent era, the handsome young leading man was often the good guy, in this movie a spy working for the United States. It’s one of the ironies of the era that in that day of open stereotypes and unapologetic racial discrimination, Americans seemed more interested in motion pictures about people of other languages, races, and cultures than we do today.

Farther down Gay Street at the Strand was The Rose of Blood, starring Theda Bara. We can’t see that one today, because no copies are known to have survived. Based on a Polish writer’s story, it was set in contemporary Russia, which was changing fast. (Czar Nicholas and his family were missing. There were “contradictory stories” about the czar’s whereabouts, editorialized the Knoxville Journal, “but not many seem to care where he is or what he’s doing.”)

Of course, everybody was distracted by international news. If Knoxville seemed a little quieter than usual in 1917, it was partly because a few thousand of its young men were absent. There was a war on, and whether Germany or the Allies were winning was a matter of which pundit you preferred. The anxiety fed suspicion of collaborators and spies.

There’s been a glimmer of hope for an armistice—a word we never use except in connection to that particular war—but by Christmas Eve, it seemed unlikely.

At the Red Cross center, women worked all day, every day, preparing bandages and, lately, knitting warm socks and scarves for the troops.

Knoxvillians were learning the word “Hooverizing,” named for the newly appointed chief of the U.S. Food Administration, former mining engineer Herbert Hoover. America had to cut back on meat, wheat, and sweets.

Some defied it. “What is Christmas without Candy?” Kern’s demanded to know, in a big display ad. Candy, the local bread and candy manufacturer insisted, was “almost indispensible to the festive nature of the day.”

The J. Allen Smith Co., later to be known as White Lily, ran large ads informing Knoxvillians that it was their patriotic duty to buy their Plantation Flour brand, because it was only 75 percent wheat flour, and the rest corn flour.

The war effort led to a nationwide call for “lightless nights,” not blackouts, exactly, but an attempt to save on precious coal by turning off unnecessary lights. Knoxville was reportedly excused because, even in 1917, the city got much of its power from hydroelectric sources, a dam on the Ocoee River.

The war was taking its toll on the home front. Knoxville’s famous marble industry ground almost to a halt, due to the shortage of steel, which was hampering building projects all over the nation. One of many construction projects slowed by the war was the the Farragut Hotel, local investors’ larger, more modern replacement for the Hotel Imperial that had burned the previous year.

In 1917, Knoxville’s premier hotel was the huge Hotel Atkin, at Gay and Depot Street, across from the Southern Railway station, busy 24 hours a day. The Atkin advertised a Christmas Day feast in its big dining hall. The feast was one of several public events that day, including Miss Annie McGhee’s Christmas Dance for teenagers at the Lyceum, the building on Walnut at Cumberland that hosted lectures and art shows.

A former Knoxvillian suddenly stood in the national spotlight that Christmas. William Gibbs McAdoo, the son of a university professor who had introduced the electric streetcars to Knoxville back in 1890, was President Wilson’s secretary of the treasury. That Christmas, McAdoo was placed in charge of all the nation’s railroads, as an emergency war measure for moving troops and supplies.

***

The war had pushed a lot of the dramatic movements to the back pages, but that Christmas, Lizzie Crozier French, the 66-year-old daughter of an antebellum congressman, had been advocating for suffrage for most of her life, but sensed her goal was finally within reach. She wrote an open letter to Sen. Kenneth McKellar, commending him for the decision he was soon to make favoring “the enfranchisement of women.”

And Knoxville booster J.R. Williams wrote an essay “What’s the Matter with Knoxville?” expressing alarm that investment in the city had dropped off sharply in recent years, despite what he saw as a transformative boon to the city, the arrival of the national Dixie Highway. “Something is radically wrong with Knoxville,” he wrote in the Journal. “It is almost criminal that a city, surrounded by the wealth of natural resources that Knoxville has, is making no more progress than it is.” He proposed that Knoxville become a national center for automobile parts.

Despite everything, it was a reasonably brisk shopping season. Shoppers arrived by the hundreds on the trains, many of them making a day trip of it, others getting a hotel room and staying overnight. George’s and Miller’s both had Toylands, both with the real Santa Claus available for consultation. Miller’s was advertising Christmas furs. Dodge was advertising its “closed car” starting at $885. Phonographs were big that year, with a broader range of them than ever, for sale at several places, especially furniture stores like Sterchi’s, which also carried the latest records by Enrico Caruso and Alma Gluck, opera stars who often recorded popular tunes, and John Philip Sousa’s rousing band tunes.

By Dec. 22, Market Square was overflowing with people and Christmas trees and wreaths and edible goods: vegetables, exotic fruits (citrus fruits in particular had become a Christmas tradition), hams, turkeys, geese.

Violence and murder had once been a local Christmas tradition, the natural consequence of thousands of young men suddenly freed from factory work for a couple of days. But in 1917, there were fewer young men in town to get in trouble. There was one killing on the Bowery on the evening of Dec. 20, when under somewhat mysterious circumstances, a locomotive engineer from Monroe County was shot in the back of the head at Porter Hutchinson’ Cafe at 132 South Central. Porter Hutchinson himself was arrested for the murder. He admitted to shooting the man, but said it was an accident. He was shooting at another man, in self defense, and hit that poor fellow accidentally.

On the Bowery, that defense was good enough. Hutchinson kept his cafe, and remained a Bowery character for years afterward.

A couple of days later, a John Bundren, reportedly a faculty member at Columbia University, shot and wounded his brother-in-law in a house on North Sixth, and then disappeared. Something about a medical condition leaving him “deranged.”

Also, over on Riverside, a 10-year-old girl was accidentally shot to death in her yard during the holiday. Across town, another fellow shot himself in the foot.

But generally, the police remarked, the quiet sobriety of the town over the holidays was almost astonishing. No fireworks injuries that year, and hardly any arrests for public drunkenness.

The Bijou billed itself as The Joy Spot of Knoxville, and no historian would question that claim. Right after the Choy Ling Hee Troupe left town, Al H. Weston and Irene Young, comic pop singers (“A Modern Flirtation”) were at the Bijou on Dec. 24, 25, and 26—the duo would later make some very silly records—along with comedienne Dorothy Earle, the one-woman “Avalanche of Mirth,” and the Van Der Koors, the Quack Illusionists, with Felix, the Mind-Reading Duck.

The mind-reading duck drew no particular comment or critique in either newspaper. It wasn’t the strangest thing in town that Christmas.

Every Christmas has a story that gave people something to talk about around the tree. That year, the story was the peculiar case of Victor Beutner. A German immigrant, he’d been born in Berlin in 1870, and grew up in the German Empire of Otto von Bismarck. A “consulting engineer,” he moved to America as a young man, and married Marion Nevins, daughter of Irish immigrants. They had children and had lived in Pittsburgh and then Kansas City for several years before moving to Knoxville in 1916. He and Marion and daughter Josephine and son Victor Jr. moved into a nice big rental house on Cumberland Avenue, near the northeast corner of 17th, and became known to their neighbors for their expensive collection of antique furniture and impressive library of literary and scientific books. Victor Jr. is listed as a student in Knoxville in 1916, but during the war, joined the Army.

Some news reports that got out on the national wire described him as an “enemy alien.” His wife, who census data indicates was born in New York, was sometimes described as an “unnaturalized citizen.” Those characterizations are murky today.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mrs. Beutner and her daughter were out Christmas shopping. The 47-year-old Victor Beutner was working on an automobile in the yard when a neighbor pointed out the smoke billowing from the Beutners’ roof. By one account, cited not in the newspapers of the day but years later, he seemed unconcerned at first, and said, “Let it go, let it all go.”

However, as he talked about the fire with neighbors he reportedly became more and more agitated. The fire engines did arrive, and began pumping water onto the house, saving most of it, even the library and furniture, though the ceilings and wallpaper were ruined. But Beutner himself was in a strange state. “He was much excited,” reported the Sentinel, “and suddenly he was seen to begin falling.” Neighbors caught him as he collapsed, and carried him to a neighboring house. He was dead.

Beutner’s death certificate (we obtained it this week thanks to the helpful staff at the McClung Historical Collection) was signed by Dr. Ebenezer Alexander. Son of the famous diplomat of the same name, Dr. Alexander had grown up partly in Greece. Under Cause of Death, he wrote, “Fell dead in yard, after excitement + severe physical exertion, probable cerebral hemorrhage.” There was no autopsy.

Even before that awful day, it had already been an alarming holiday season for the Beutners. Mrs. Marion Beutner, the woman who returned from a shopping trip to find her husband dead and her house on fire, had just days before found herself implicated in a nationally notorious espionage case.

***

The Baroness Iona Wilhelmina Zollner, of New York, was making national headlines that month. Described, at age 35, as a “striking personage…of winning manner and voluptuous figure,” she was American by birth, daughter of a New Yorker. Her son from her first marriage was currently at the U.S. Naval Academy. However, a later husband, the one from whom she obtained her proud title, was reportedly a German officer. She had been arrested in Chattanooga’s large, luxurious Hotel Patten on Dec. 13, in a state of undress, in the company of an American lieutenant. The baroness had been hanging around Fort Oglethorpe, a major induction center for the American war effort.

An investigation of the baroness’s rooms had turned up, along with some sort of code book, the name of Mrs. Marion Beutner of Knoxville, and her Cumberland Avenue address. Just a few days before her husband’s death, Mrs. Beutner had appeared before large, intimidating U.S. Attorney General W.T. Kennerly and “strenuously denied any intimate relations with the baroness,” that she had merely met her that month on the train from New York to Knoxville. Victor backed up his wife’s story.

It was a coincidence, thanks to protocol for federal cases, that just after the holidays, the suddenly notorious Baroness Zollner herself arrived in downtown Knoxville, under the custody of the federal government, to testify before the federal district judge at the Custom House on Market Street. She caused quite a stir, drawing hundreds when she went to eat lunch. The judge she was here to meet was none other than Edward Terry Sanford, who would be, before long, nationally known. He heard the evidence, weighed with the fact that the baroness never attempted to disguise her identity, proudly signing in at the hotel as the Baroness Zollner. He finally admitted he had no more than circumstantial evidence against the baroness, and let her go. About five years later, by the way, Judge Sanford accepted an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, her story alarmed authorities. Based on her testimony in Knoxville, the U.S. Naval Academy expelled her son, the cadet.

People scratched their heads over that cluster of particularly strange coincidences at the time. The surviving Beutner family left town soon after that, living in Chicago, Buffalo, and elsewhere.

The Beutner house, saved by the prompt actions of fire department regardless of Herr Beutner’s wishes, became the SAE house a few years after the war. It was torn down in 1938 to build a Cole’s Drugstore. It’s now the site of something called a Volshop.

As far as I can tell, no one ever figured it all out, unless it was Felix, the Mind-Reading Duck. As the Beutner house smouldered, Felix was performing at the Bijou, not quite 15 blocks down Cumberland Avenue from the fire.

It another Christmas mystery. It was still remarked on in the papers as late as the 1940s, sometimes with details not included in the contemporary reporting, like a report that the Beutners had been under surveillance before the Zollner arrest—and that just before his death, Victor Beutner had resisted neighbors’ attempts to save his furniture.

Then, like most things we can never figure out, we found a way to stop thinking about it. Each new year brings its own dramas.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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