Elizabeth Radcliffe and Roy Hinterliter, in an image spliced together in the Chicago TribuneOn a July night in 1916, 21-year-old Roy Hinterliter showed up at the sanitarium in Olney, Illinois with an unconscious teenager, Miss Elizabeth Radcliffe, draped across his lap in his buggy. Doctors tried for about an hour to revive the 17-year-old girl, to no avail. Shortly before midnight, the doctors concluded that “life was extinct before Hinterliter reached the building.”
Hinterliter told the doctors that he and Elizabeth had gone riding, and that she’d been well and in good spirits until they began heading back into town. “We were getting near town when she said, ‘Roy, I feel bad.’ Then she fell over on my lap, and I rubbed her hands and feet but couldn’t bring her to.” He said he had rushed her to the sanitarium for help, not realizing that she had already died.
An autopsy confirmed a roughly ten-week pregnancy, but showed no external signs of violence and all her reproductive organs appeared normal. However, upon cutting open her heart, air escaped.There were no lung lesions to explain the air in Elizabeth’s bloodstream. The amount of air in Elizabeth’s blood stream was reportedly so extensive that her brain floated when placed in water. The coroner testified at trial that there was no way that Elizabeth could have done anything to introduce that much air into her own circulatory system.
As news of the girl’s death broke a man named C.R. Hall from the nearby village of Calhoun brought a package containing a catheter to the State’s Attorney, reporting that one of Hinterliter’s friends had been picking the instrument up from under an elm tree known as a local trysting spot. When the sheriff went to the location, he found marks consistent with a horse tether being tied to a tree, along with signs of a struggle marking the soil, including imprints from what appeared to be Elizabeth’s hands and Hinterliter’s shoes. Sand consistent with the soil in that area had been found in Elizabeth’s shoes. Two of Hinterliter’s friends, Earl Berry and Glenn S. Jones, were taken into custody and given immunity in return for their testimony.
Another friend, Floyd Shook, reportedly told authorities that Hinterliter had said to him that he’d performed catheter abortions on other young women with no ill effects.
Berry and Jones said that they had been in the drug store with Hinderliter when he’d bought the catheter, and that he’d told them that a country doctor, George Weber, had instructed him on how to perpetrate an abortion with it, and had previously “cheated” him by charging him 75 cents for what he could get at a drug store for a quarter. They also said that after depositing Elizabeth at the sanitarium, he had give his friends a blackjack and a loaded revolver, which they stashed under the seat of their buggy. The next day, they said, he’d instructed them to go to the crime scene and collect the catheter to dispose of it.
Other evidence recovered from the scene included Elizabeth’s handkerchief and the broken top of an imitation tortoiseshell comb, curved and about six inches long, which reportedly could have been used as a makeshift abortion instrument. These items were identified as belonging to Elizabeth by her sister, Mrs. Bert Fancher.
After reviewing the autopsy results, the evidence, and the testimony of Hinterliter’s friends, the coroner’s jury concluded that rather than inserting the catheter into Elizabeth’s uterus as instructed, Hinterliter had used it to puncture an artery and had blown into it.
Hinterliter lived in Bonpas Township, Wabash County, about 12 miles south of Olney, with his mother Emma and brother Bert on an extensive and valuable family farm. The area, in the Texas school district, was known locally as “Hell Texas.” Hinterliter was described as “a clean cut young man in appearance, one that any one might take for a high school boy.”The Chicago Tribune noted, “His clear gray eyes, firm jaw, and thin, determined lips gave physical weight to his assertions that he would tell his story only when brought to trial.”
“And when I do talk,” he was quoted as saying, “you will know, and the people will know, that I never did a single act of injury to Miss Radcliffe in my life. As bad as it may look for me now, I shall answer no questions. I have plenty of friends — don’t worry about that — and they’ll stick by me.”
Hinterliter was right about having plenty of friends. Though hated in Olney — indeed, in danger of a lynching — after Elizabeth’s death, Hinterliter was popular in his home county, where “to a man” the “industrious German farmers” of the area rallied around him. A dozen of them offered up sections of their property to secure his bail.
Other friends, evidently closer to Hinterliter’s age, were more of a nuisance, driving through the alley by the jail and shouting to him through the windows.
He had met Elizabeth, a well-off young woman, about ten months earlier at West Salem, a town not far from his mother’s farm in Olney. Elizabeth had recently moved to Olney from the family home in Paoli, Indiana to live with her sister. At first, Elizabeth’s affections were divided between Hinterliter and a young man named Sam Harrin, but when Harrin enlisted in the Army and was stationed in San Antonio, “young Hinterliter began making hay while the sun shone. He came often in his rubber tired buggy to take the girl on evening rides. His last ride ended Friday night when the girl died beneath an old elm tree near a bridge on the rock road, two miles south of town.”
Hinterlinter said that due to “her vivacity and attractiveness,” Elizabeth had many admirers, two of whom, Fred Herrin and Bill Balding, joined the Fourth Illinois Infantry and went to San Antonio. He himself, Hinterlinter said, only took her buggy riding occasionally. He went to Olney accompanied by his friend Glenn Jones, he said, because Elizabeth and one of her admirers had sent him letters, with Elizabeth indicating that she was pregnant and that she’d kill herself if he didn’t help her. Hinterliter later testified that when he went to see her, “She told me she was sick and in trouble. I asked if she wanted to go to a show and she said, ‘No, I would rather go driving.'”
He had then gone to get his horses, stopping at the drug store to buy the catheter, before taking Elizabeth driving to the apple orchard, where they got out of the buggy and remained for about half an hour. “When I went to get the team,” which he said took him about two minutes, “Elizabeth used the instrument and atomizer. When I got back she was unconscious and I thought she had fainted. I rubbed her wrists and ankles and tried to bring her to, but couldn’t. I thought she had fainted. I got her in the buggy and drove as fast as I could to the sanitarium.”
It was Jones, not Hinterliter, who had bought the atomizer in question. Hinterliter said that Jones had instructed him as to what to purchase and had given him instructions to relay to Elizabeth.
On the witness stand in his own defense, Hinterliter sobbed and insisted that “She used the instruments herself, and if she were here now she would tell you so.”
Elizabeth’s sister said that a week before her death, Elizabeth had left with Hinterlinter in his buggy, and returned declaring that it was “all off” between them. She then said that she was going to a friend’s house for the evening, but didn’t return until about 5:00 a.m., looking dusty and as if she’d been awake all night. The state’s attorney reported that Hinterliter and Elizabeth had evidently gone to Dr. Granville Walker in Charleston, Illinois, asking him to abort the baby.
The jury didn’t believe him. After deliberating for 12 hours, they returned to court at 8:15 on the morning of January 10, 1917, and handed down a guilty verdict. The extensive deliberation was related to the degree of guilt to lay on Hinterliter legally, since he by his own admission had procured the fatal instruments, instructed Elizabeth in their use, and taken her to a private location for the abortion. Legally, the state pointed out, it didn’t matter if Hinterliter had actually used the instruments, since an accessory is as guilty of manslaughter as the person who perpetrated the actual crime. Though his sentence could have been as little as one year, he was sentenced to life in prison.
- “Killed Girl by Injecting Air, State Charges,” Chicago Tribune, Jul. 26, 1916
- “Say Ratcliffe Girl was Killed by Air Bubbles,” The Chicago Tribune, Jan. 7, 1917
- “Roy Hinterliter Must Pay Penalty,” Fort Wayne (IN) News, Jan. 10, 1917
- “Hinterliter Convicted of Killing Sweetheart,” The Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 11, 1917
- “‘Air Bubble’ Murder Trial Nearing End,” Fort Wayne (IN) News, Jan. 8, 1917
- “Investigating Report of All Night Mystery,” The Sheboygan (WI) Press, Aug. 5, 1916