1906 murder trials of wealthy wife who killed her teen servant shocked the nation
Many details of the case are hazy, but even the known details make the murder case of Agnes Polreis a shocking case of abuse and an example of the power wealth and affluence can have on justice.
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — When the family of Agnes Polreis received the body of their daughter, who had died while working as a servant girl in in 1906 they were shocked.
Her body was emaciated and covered in wounds that signaled the signs of severe abuse. Some of those wounds had developed gangrene. Her body was in such poor condition that it sparked outrage and suspicion, with local residents raging against the 16-year-old’s former employer, the wealthy Emma Kaufmann, and calling for justice for the teenage immigrant from Austria-Hungary.
The following three years were a whirlwind of sensational court cases, protests and widespread media coverage as prosecutors and many members of the public fought for justice for Polreis. In the end, Kaufmann would receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, and the Polreis family was left without a daughter while her accused abuser walked free.
Many aspects of the incident are hazy after 117 years having passed, but even the known details make the case of Polreis a shocking case of abuse and an example of the power wealth and affluence can have on justice.
Death and first trial
Polreis died June 1, 1906, while in the employ of Kaufmann, the wife of wealthy Sioux Falls brewery magnate Moses Kaufmann. The young immigrant, whose family had a farm in Parkston, South Dakota, had gone to work for Kaufmann as a servant girl at Kaufmann’s home.
Despite the egregious injuries evident on her body, she was buried June 4. But as questions about her fate lingered, the body was exhumed for further examination. Parkston residents then gathered for an “indignation meeting,” which was soon followed by a second exhumation.
“After she was buried, her body was exhumed and two autopsies conducted. Those revealed a total of 49 wounds - gashes and cuts,” Wayne Fanebust, author of " No Justice for Agnes: The Strange Death of Agnes Polreis and the Sensational South Dakota Murder Trials of Emma Kaufmann ," told the Mitchell Republic recently.
“The Polreis family was Catholic, and when the priest opened the coffin to bless the body, one of Agnes’ friends noticed something wrong with her, that she had some disfigurements," he said. "That got the local authorities involved in the case.”
Convinced there was more to the young girl’s death than officials or Kaufmann had let on, a delegation of Parkston men visited Sioux Falls to express their anger. Just a few days later, Emma Kaufmann was arrested for the murder of Polreis.
It was the start of a long process to find justice for Polreis, and the case was making the local newspapers, although at first it was hard for the family or concerned residents of Parkston to make any headway in bringing attention to the case.
“At the time, the (Sioux Falls) Argus Leader didn’t want to report it. They wanted it to go away,” Fanebust said. “They didn’t like to print anything that was anti-business or anything that put Sioux Falls in a bad light.”
But concern soon caught the eyes of the public at large, and those eyes focused hard on Kaufmann and her husband. The pair were extremely well-off, and while Moses was relatively well-liked, Emma had a personality that rubbed many people the wrong way and could swing toward violence, which led to a deep suspicion of her among the public.
“They were very rich. They had this beautiful house that they built in 1888 on the corner of Seventh and Summit Avenue. Moses made millions of dollars as a co-owner of the Sioux Falls Brewing Company, and Emma was a strange, bizarre, enigmatic woman who stayed by herself primarily and didn’t have many friends,” Fanebust said.
An attending coroner apparently failed to do his job in determining a proper cause of Agnes’ death, Fanebust said. A doctor, who was a friend of the Kaufmanns, allegedly forged a death certificate. There was deep suspicion that Emma had likely beaten Agnes to death and she was being protected by her wealth and connections.
“It looked like they were trying to cover up her death,” Fanebust said.
Emma also had a reputation of being abusive to domestic maids, and that apparently continued with Polreis at the Kaufmann home. Polreis did not speak English, which led Emma to communicate to her through pantomime and demonstration.
It was that language gap that apparently fueled a frustration in Emma that ignited her short fuse.
“The difference between the other maids and Agnes? Agnes couldn’t speak English, and that was her downfall,” Fanebust said. “She was held captive in a beautiful mansion.”
According to media accounts of the time, the case was quite sensational. In one event, following a preliminary hearing, a mob had gathered expressing severe anger at Emma Kaufmann, many residents having already made up their mind about her guilt.
“Never in the history of this state has there been such a scene as that enacted at the office of the incarcerating justice of the peace before whom the preliminary examination was held,” the Sioux Falls Daily Argus-Leader wrote in a reflection of the case in its May 31, 1909, edition. “People who were present on that occasion will never again witness a mob of Sioux Falls men and women so fiercely intent upon witnessing the humiliation of a woman around whom they felt wealth would throw its protecting arm and prevent justice from being dealt out to her.”
Despite much of the public aligning against the Kaufmanns, Fanebust said they were generally treated better than could be expected for the era. Although the Kaufmanns were Jewish, there was little if any antisemitism in the press coverage of the time, somewhat unusual in the age of yellow journalism, Fanebust said. Just how much public sentiment was influenced by their ethnicity is difficult to gauge, he said.
When Emma was held in jail during her trial, she was allowed to have her husband present, and a nurse cared for her while she was there. Her son, who was away at college, was allowed to visit. She even had a special chair in court and was allowed to wear a veil to hide her face.
The first trial, which began about a year after the death, was a circus of intense testimony, changes of attorney, star witnesses, statement reversals and media coverage. In the end, Emma was convicted of manslaughter. But that led to an overturning of the conviction of appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court due to the conduct of the prosecuting attorney.
“(He) messed it up so badly. The first jury convicted her of manslaughter, which I think was actually the correct outcome,” Fanebust, who is also a retired attorney, said. “But it was a slam dunk for the South Dakota Supreme Court to overturn it and order a new trial because he had littered the record with all sorts of misconduct. In his closing argument, he made the jury believe that God had told him what had happened at the Kaufmann house that night — Agnes had been hit on the back of the head and that eventually led to her death.”
The actual evidence presented appeared to have been enough to convict Emma Kaufmann, but it wasn’t to be.
Second trial and final conviction
A second trial was held beginning on the third anniversary of Polreis’ death, and by this time the public interest in the case was winding down.
But the judge and jury convened again in Flandreau, South Dakota, also the site of the first trial, and went through the procedure to secure a decision again. When testimony and evidence review were completed, the jury deliberated and came back with a conviction that stuck.
But it was only a conviction of battery, not murder or manslaughter, along with a $100 fine.
“It was utterly baffling. How could 12 people of reasonable intelligence come up with that?” Fanebust said. “It’s laughable. It’s like saying if you’ve hired a girl and it doesn’t work out, kill her and pay $100.”
Following the trials, which reached newspapers as far away as California and Oklahoma, the memory of the case began to fade away. Moses Kaufmann died in 1911, collapsing at the corner of Seventh and Spring Avenue, Fanebust said. Emma Kaufmann died two years later at a hospital in Sioux Falls.
Fanebust speculates that Emma Kaufmann likely suffered from mental health issues, which may have led to her odd behavior and violent outbursts.
“I think she suffered from a psychological malady. She had a personality disorder — like people who are unable to empathize with anybody. It made it easy for her to victimize Agnes,” Fanebust said.
There are other lingering mysteries. In his research for his book, Fanebust said he found that court records for the case in question have apparently disappeared from the Moody County Courthouse in Flandreau, where the trials were held. He said there is also mention of an elaborate headstone that was made for Agnes, but no record of the marker being placed in the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Parkston.
A modern marker bearing her name, the name of a sibling, and her parents — all with an alternate spelling of her last name — serves as a reminder of her at the cemetery today.
The greatest mystery is, of course, how two trials with evidence apparently stacked against the defendant could yield such unsatisfying results, both for the public and the family of a powerless victim. Fanebust said the case is an unfortunate example of how, sometimes, the justice system can come up short, even when the truth appears clear.
“In just about every city there is some type of tragic incident or a life ending in a tragic way,” Fanebust said. “At the time, it riles people up or causes some deep concern. But then it fades away.”
No Justice for Agnes: The Strange Death of Agnes Polreis and the Sensational South Dakota Murder Trials of Emma Kaufmann is available through the Augustana University bookstore and can also be found at the Mitchell Public Library archive room.