Book Review: The Potato Masher Murder
Decades after the fact, it’s disturbing to discover that a member of your family was murdered. It’s even more shocking to discover that another family member was responsible for that violent death. This scenario actually happened to Gary Sosniecki, a journalist who discovered that in 1906, his great-grandmother Cecilia was beaten by her husband with the titular weapon, and then set on fire. The perpetrator, Albin Ludwig, asserted that his actions were due to self-defense.
The events of over a century ago are seen through a contemporary lens, though Sosniecki tries to replicate early-twentieth century attitudes towards domestic abuse, as well as women who engaged in adulterous affairs. As Sosniecki delved into his family history, he discovered that Cecilia had relationships with men outside of her marriage, and had probably been violent towards her husband just as he had been towards her. Sosniecki does an admirable job of explaining Indiana’s attitudes towards “wife murder” and other forms of violence during this era, providing a critical but not strident assessment of the era.
The events are well-told, the pacing is solid, and the trial and its aftermath are told smoothly and effectively. It’s told intelligently, without any trace of luridness or exploitative shock value. Sosniecki even avoids preachiness when delving into controversial subjects, and the result is a compelling read that does an admirable job of trying to recreate the era.
Sosniecki is writing history, not historical fiction, so he should be praised rather than criticized for sticking to the facts that can be gleaned from the available evidence. While the facts of the case are carefully recounted and explained, the inner workings of the central characters’ lives remain opaque. Yet one can’t blame Sosniecki for this at all– without detailed diaries or interviews, it’s utterly impossible to get inside the heads of people from the past. This level of characterization is necessary, but it’s also frustrating. We get snippets of Cecila and Albin’s lives, quick descriptions of their actions, and occasionally a comment from Albin, but we’ll never know who these people truly were. It’s not a fault, just an inevitable disappointment.
Also notable is the personal aspect of the story. Sosniecki explains that this simply wasn’t discussed in his family. He targets one member of his family as the driving force of the conspiracy of silence, though I would have liked to have seen more attempts to explain why everybody else in the family decided to keep mum about the crime. Avoiding an unpleasant family chapter is understandable, but I wonder if Sosniecki experienced any blowback from family members over writing this book. In any event, the book is definitely worthwhile, shedding light into dark attitudes and actions from a past many people wrongly consider a “more innocent time.”
The Kent State University Press True Crime Series is increasingly one of the most interesting collections of historical crimes, and I look forward to reading future entries in the series.
The Potato Masher Murder: Death at the Hands of a Jealous Husband
By Gary Sosniecki
Kent State University Press