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April 29, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Death of Terre Haute jeweler gains national headlines

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute sought national publicity in 1910 through “Boosterism,” lauding the city’s significant advancements during the decade ending Dec. 31, 1909.

But the first national publicity the city received during 1910 was news of the mysterious death of 48-year old William H. Neiderhelman, a Terre Haute jeweler.

Neiderhelman, known in Terre Haute as “W.H. Helman,” was found unconscious by a chambermaid Jan. 10 on the floor of his room in the Plaza Hotel at the northwest corner of Ninth and Sycamore streets. He died a few hours later. The death made headlines from coast-to-coast.

Neiderhelman had returned to Terre Haute from Chicago by train on Sunday, June 9. After securing the hotel room, he ordered a shot of whiskey from the bar.

Two letters written by Neiderhelman were found in the hotel room. One was addressed to the chief of police and the other was to an anonymous friend.

Both notes accused 20-year old Effie Sellsberry of placing poison in his coffee at a Chicago restaurant before they departed for Terre Haute. The letters asserted that Miss Sellsberry remained on the Louisville & Nashville train en route to New Orleans.

Local law enforcement officials were suspicious, questioning how Neiderhelman could have survived more than 18 hours between the time he ingested the poison and probable time of his death. Nevertheless, they notified police and railroad officials in Memphis and New Orleans to detain the woman.

Sellsberry, a New Orleans theater vocalist, was Neiderhelman’s stepdaughter. He was divorced from her mother, Sophie Neiderhelman, who lived with her two adult sons in Cincinnati.

When Sellsberry and her traveling companion, Henry Corcoran, arrived in New Orleans, the pair was arrested to be returned to Terre Haute for questioning. Deputy Prosecutor Charles Whitlock and his wife picked them up Jan. 12.

Unknown to Sellsberry and Corcoran, a detective made the last 140 miles of the rail journey occupying a seat behind them. The New York Times, among others, tracked the details.

When interrogated, Sellsberry readily admitted having dinner with Neiderhelman in Chicago. She also acknowledged that both of them became ill after eating oysters.

“We braced up on some medicine,” she said, “and when I bade him good-bye just before reaching Terre Haute, I felt hardly any ill effects and he appeared to have experienced nothing serious either.”

Corcoran was a horse jockey. His father was the proprietor of a hotel in Nashville, Tenn.

“What are we wanted for?” he asked police in the New Orleans depot.

“For murder,” the detective replied, words that caused Sellsberry to scream and burst into tears, attracting the attention of hundreds.

While the two suspects were being returned to Terre Haute for questioning, some of Neiderhelman’s intimate friends came forward with melodramatic stories about the jeweler’s background.

“W.H. Helman, Jeweler,” had been in Terre Haute for several years. Starting in February 1902, he worked for Sam Sterchi, local jeweler and pawnbroker at 306 Wabash Ave. In late 1905, he opened his own store at 1129 Wabash Ave.

Before 1890, Neiderhelman maintained a home and a jewelry store in Cincinnati. He allegedly borrowed money to acquire an imposing inventory and then fled with his wife, her two sons and the jewelry to Germany, where he launched a thriving business.

When German authorities discovered after 10 years that Neiderhelman had not served time in the Army, he was directed to register and enlist. Instead, he returned with his family to America and, after staying in Chicago for a while, was hired as “W.H. Helman,” worker, by E. & J. Swigart, Cincinnati wholesale jewelers.

Creditors were never the wiser. In late 1902, Neiderhelman disappeared from his Cincinnati home accompanied by his wife’s female cousin and ended up in Terre Haute as “Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Helman,” residing at 802 Mulberry St.

Apparently Neiderhelman’s relationship with his ex-wife was not overly strained. One of her sons came to Terre Haute to work for his stepfather with the idea of inheriting the business. However, he returned to Cincinnati after a few months.

On Jan. 14, an autopsy revealed that Neiderhelman’s stomach contained 53 grains of potassium cyanide. According to medical authorities, he would not have survived more than 10 minutes after ingesting that dose of poison.

The death was ruled a suicide and the preliminary murder charge against Sellsberry was promptly dismissed.

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