A Local Historian Discovered What Happened to 111-year-old Erie Murderer

A box of records from the 1908 September term of court is buried deep in the Court of Oyer & Terminer files at the Hagen History Center in Erie.

Case No. 76, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Ferdinand Fischer, is almost done. There are only a few pages left.

The murder of 69-year-old Moorheadville farmer George Cook in his garden by his brother-in-law, an oddball local Teamster named Ferdinand Fischer, was shocking at the time.

Fischer was later caught and charged with killing Cook after a short search for him. In November 1908, he was tried for killing Cook, but he was found not guilty because he was crazy. This was one of the first times this happened in Erie County.

Fischer was sent to Warren State Hospital, but he ran away on June 20, 1909. He was caught and sent back in 1910.

Fischer ran away again on August 12, 1911, and then he was never seen again.

In one of the letters in Fischer’s court file, dated May 24, 1948, Dr. Robert H. Israel, who was in charge of Warren State Hospital at the time, asked for Fischer to be removed from their records.

“He would be 86 years old if he were still alive. “The chances are that he is dead or locked up in some other place,” Israel wrote.

On October 26, 1948, 37 years after Fischer went missing, Erie County Judge Elmer L. Evans agreed and had Fischer taken off the records.

Technology and history have come a long way, so maybe we now know what really happened to Ferdinand Fischer.

The next year, I spent a lot of time going through hundreds of newspaper stories, documents, and other records, but I didn’t find anything new, so I put the case on hold.

After my second book, “Erie’s Backyard Strangler: Terror in the 1960s,” came out, I decided to look into the case once more.

Records From the Military and Warren State Hospital Open the Case

I took a different method to the case, starting over and focusing on the basics.

John and Catherine Fischer had Ferdinand John Fischer on December 20, 1861, in Hamilton, Ohio. In the early 1870s, Fischer’s family moved to Erie. However, Fischer’s mother’s side of the family, who had the last name, Diefenbach, stayed in Ohio.

Newspaper stories and court records show that Fischer got in trouble with the law as early as October 1890, when he was accused of setting fires. Before he killed his brother-in-law in 1908, he was accused of stealing and acting inappropriately toward women, among other things.

There is proof that Fischer was married twice and had six kids from those marriages. We don’t know much about his first marriage, but by the time he married Melda E. Armstrong, an Erie woman, in 1900, he had either lost his first wife or been separated.

This time, putting all the proof on the table showed more details about what seemed to be a short time in the military during the Spanish-American War. Fischer joined the 65th New York Infantry in Buffalo, New York, in 1898, but he was only in the army for a few months, according to records I found.

This, along with Fischer’s hospital records from Warren State Hospital, led to a key piece of information. Fischer was a heavy drinker, and he also had neuritis, which is a disease of the nerves in his peripheral nervous system. Fischer’s neuritis caused him a lot of pain, and the papers show that he sometimes couldn’t sleep because of it.

In July 1911, Fischer’s wife also asked for him to be let out of jail.

Melda Fischer and four of Fischer’s other children moved to Rochester, New York after the plea was turned down.

Melda Fischer died in 1931, and she was laid to rest in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. With help from the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, we were able to find an article in the Rochester, New York, newspaper Democrat & Chronicle from 1914 about Ferdinand Fischer. In the article, he was charged with throwing a lit lamp at his wife and breaking two of her fingers.

Fischer went before a judge and was given a year of freedom and let go. Fischer and his wife were living at that home in 1915 when the next census was taken.

Fischer, on the other hand, is no longer seen in records after 1915. All signs point to him leaving his family in Rochester.

Melda Fischer was also a widow at the time of the 1920 Federal Census.

On a hunch, I decided to look up Fischer’s service records to see if he ever went to one of the Soldiers and Sailors’ Homes around the country to get help for his many health problems.

Fischer showed up in the record for the old Soldiers and Sailors Home in Dayton, Ohio, with a disability that said he was paralyzed on the left side, which was probably a result of his neuritis. This proved that the hunch was right.

The records also showed that Fischer’s mom’s family lived in Dayton.

What was more interesting was that Fischer filed for divorce from his wife in 1926, which was later granted. This was surprising because, up until her death in 1936, Melda Fischer wrote to insurance companies looking for her husband, which suggests she didn’t know where he was.

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More Evidence Points to Fischer Being in Tennessee

The floodgates opened all at once, and more records were found. By the 1930s, Fischer had moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he continued to get care at the Mountain Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

Fischer married Catherine “Kittie” Broyles in Greene County, Tennessee, on November 6, 1931.

Fischer’s name on his marriage license from 1931 made it easy for me to match it to a letter from April 1910 in his Warren State Hospital file.

Fischer later moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, with his third wife. There are no other papers or court records that say if Fischer did anything else wrong, but this could be because of his severe disabilities.

Ferdinand Fischer died of heart failure on November 3, 1948. He was 86 years old. After a few days, he was buried with full military honors at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee.

Even though we know a lot about Ferdinand Fischer’s life since he escaped in 1911 (in a case that made people in Erie County afraid and excited about the possibility of him doing more bad things), the case is still a puzzle.

By 1948, the officials in Erie were more interested in the world after World War II than in chasing ghosts from the past who were likely dead or unable to help society.

Even though the mystery of what happened to Ferdinand Fischer 111 years ago has finally been solved, there are still questions that will probably never be answered.

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