December 1912: Wife murdered, daughter witnesses, husband killed in shoot-out with police
September 23, 2015
By volunteer Allison Bailey
Recently, someone came into the office asking for the location of a relative with a story that Elmwood staff had not heard before. His name was Adam Jack Boehler, and his actions on December 19th, 1912 drew attention to the entire city of Memphis, and would later go down in infamy.
On December 17th, 1912, Boehler wrote: “Dec. 17- Somebody with my wife at Union Avenue. Going to the show. A man with a brown suit on.”
His wife’s name was Grace Young. They both originated from Ohio, married in 1907, and had a daughter a year later named Rhoda. The years they were married were not described by any source, but it was apparent Grace was not happy, and left Ohio for Memphis with her daughter. According to the Kentucky New Era, Boehler travelled to Memphis from Indiana in a houseboat that floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It is unclear when he arrived in Memphis, but sometime after he did, he found out that Grace had filed for divorce. Grace was living at 452 Union Avenue, while Adam was living at the foot of Jefferson Street.
Grace was trying to move on with her life, but Boehler did not accept that she wanted to be separated from him. On December 17th, he had witnessed her with another man. He wanted to take the treasonous act into his own hands; he took this sight as nothing less than adultery.
On the night of December 18th he entered into his wife’s house with a razor. He found Grace and was in the process severing her head when their 4 year old daughter walked into the living room munching on an apple. Seeing the horrific sight, she ran to the neighbor’s house and gasped out that “Mama was being killed.” The neighbor called the police while Adam washed his hands and left for a rooming house on Main Street.
The police arrived promptly to find that Boehler had barricaded himself in his room with plenty of ammunition and alcohol, yelling to them that he would not be taken alive. Passing crowds of people stopped to watch; The Day Book claimed that as many as ten thousand gathered to witness the standoff. The police thought to starve him out in the room unless he attempted escape.
It is unclear who fired the first shot, but sometime between 3am and 11am many bullets were exchanged between the police and Boehler. A druggist named Spalding Parsons had stepped onto his own balcony nearby to presumably see what was going on. But one of the officers mistook him for Boehler and shot him. Likewise, two police officers were wounded by Boehler.
The situation was intense and attracted the attention of the city’s leaders, Mayor Crump and Fire and Police Commissioner R. A. Utley, who supervised the standoff. Main Street was roped off. A few officers entered the building and bored some holes in the floor above Boehler’s room, letting in a toxic gas called formaldehyde sink in. If they could not kill him via bullets or starvation, they would try a deadly fume. This did work- partially. He was weakened considerably, allowing the police to shoot him seven times before he staggered and fell onto the bed.
When the shoot off was ended the police broke the door to the room and transported Boehler to a waiting ambulance and rushed to the hospital. He was declared dead.
Boehler had left some notes behind, some of which answer questions about why he had killed his wife, while others create more questions. He had asked that all small debts be paid and that his daughter should be cared for by his relatives. He gave directions on what they should do with his body and his wife’s, requesting that they be buried side by side at Elmwood Cemetery. He began writing these notes before 10pm, continuing through the night. It was written in a manner that implied to the reader that they were intended to act somewhat as a will and suicide note- he did not expect to live long after he murdered his wife. He wrote in the first part of his letter about another baby they had, but had died. He blamed his wife for not visiting the grave. He also grimly joked about the Memphis police.
He even bought Christmas presents for his wife and daughter. For his wife he bought a watch, inscribed “Jack to Grace.” To his daughter he had a locket, inscribed “From Papa.” This suggests that the murder was not premeditated for very long.
Here are a few samples of notes he wrote shortly before his death:
“To All It May Concern:
Dear Brother and Sister—I am very sorry I have to write this note, but I cannot help it. I loved my wife and baby better than anything in the world. But she has turned me down for someone else. That’s the reason I take this step. If my baby lives after I am gone, please take care of her. I want brother or sister to have her, for my wife’s folks cannot take care of her. They cannot read or write.”
“Bury my wife beside me in Elmwood cemetery. I loved her better than my life. I would never have done this, but I could not reason with my wife. There was always somebody else. I caught her with someone else.”
“I am only sorry I did not get the man who broke up my home, and her folks, too.”
“I wish I had done this last night when she was in the ice cream parlor at Beale and Main with that - - -. I would have felt better. That’s what started me.”
“Some fine shooting your officers done. Very fine. Ha, ha!”
“Memphis has got a police force you can be proud of- aber nit[?].”
“The man with the brown suit and black Stenson hat caused this trouble. Mrs. North knows the man. He has taken her to the Majestic and Alamo Theaters and on Tuesday night to the ice cream parlor at Beale and Main. I hope Memphis will keep her eyes on a case like this hereafter.”
The Seattle Star (Seattle, WA), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Bennington Evening Banner. (Bennington, VT), 20 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Day Book. (Chicago, IL), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
Omaha Daily Bee. (Omaha, NE), 20 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Daily Ardmoreite. (Ardmore, OK), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Evening Standard. (Ogden City, UT), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Evening World. (New York, NY), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.
The Man Who Murdered Wife Killed by Police and Three Persons Wounded. Kentucky New Era (Hopkinsville, KY), December 20, 1912.
"Boehler Dead In Battle With Police." The Commercial Appeal [Memphis] 20 Dec. 1912: n. pag. Print.