The Sensational Death of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler, and the Fatal Love Triangle that Ended in Murder
by Susan Yerkes
SAN ANTONIO —Nov. 13, 1914 “Millionaire businessman shot to death by pretty nurse!” the headlines screamed.
Otto Koehler, 59, the multi-millionaire head of the San Antonio Brewing Association, was dead – shot by a woman with whom he had been “intimately involved” in a cozy little love nest off South Presa. The story of the millionaire, the mistress and the murder made headlines nationwide, even as the Great War was beginning in Europe. As the facts were fleshed out, the scandal swelled. Not one mistress, but two, were involved. Both of them were nurses. Both of them were named Emma, as was Koehler’s wife. You almost need a program to track the action.
Otto Koehler: Wealthy San Antonio businessman. Born in Berlin, he emigrated to America and learned the brewery business in St. Louis. In San Antonio he advanced to president of the San Antonio Brewing Association, later the Pearl Brewery. Interests in banking, copper mines and more rounded out his fortune. Dapper and well-liked, he built the magnificent Koehler House, now a San Antonio landmark, for his wife Emma, also a native German.
Emma Koehler: The “invalid wife.” She took to her bed after a 1910 car wreck and was present only as pale background as the scandal unfolded between 1910 and 1918.
Emma Dumpke/Doschel (We’ll use her nickname, “Emmi”): Hired as Emma Koehler’s nurse after the auto accident. A Berlin native, lively, pretty and petite, with brown hair “sparkling” hazel eyes. Became Otto’s mistress shortly after being hired as Emma’s nurse. The affair continued until 1913, when she fell in love with a man named Doschel, moved to St. Louis and married him.
Emma Burgemeister/Turley (Nicknamed “Hedda”): Tall, blonde, full-figured Berlin native with arresting grey eyes. Like Emmi, a nurse trained in Berlin. Emigrated to New York, then San Antonio, where she worked for with patients of Dr. Ferdinand Herff and other prominent physicians. Became friends with Emmi and moved into her apartment on South Presa Street.
The Scandal began when Otto took Emmi as his mistress.. After Hedda arrived and moved in with Emmi, Otto bought the ladies a charming little cottage on Hunstock Avenue, just off S. Presa. He deeded it to Hedda. (In case, Hedda reported later, Emmi should leave him, Otto reasoned he would still have Hedda in the house.) Otto paid Emmi $125 a week, and $50 a week to Hedda.
Things rocked along until 1913, when Emmi eloped with Mr. Doschle. Later, Hedda testified at her murder trial that Otto, distraught with grief, quickly proposed marriage to her after Emmi decamped. He vowed to leave his wife for her. She refused him, she would tell the jurors with a tender-hearted sigh — “I would not leave Mrs. Koehler behind, sick and helpless as she was.” While she passed on marriage, Hedda proposed an alternate source of succor for the grieving Otto: “I just gave myself away,” she testified, “because I loved him.”
Money may have been an added attraction. With Emmi out of the picture, Otto was now paying Hedda that $125 a week, squiring her around town and visiting the Hunstock love nest after dark several times a week. He took her to Germany and gave her two $10,000 letters of credit, as evidence of his affection (or for services rendered).
But by 1914 things started going downhill. Hedda suspected Otto had another new flame, and hired a private detective to follow him. Otto went to Germany again, this time without her. When he returned to San Antonio in mid-October, 1914, he did not visit. When Hedda got in touch, he asked to meet her at a bar in the red light district with “all her papers” (letters of credit, money she said he owed her, possibly evidence for a blackmail scheme, etc.) Hedda begged Emmi to return to San Antonio before the meeting, telling her she felt the romance was dead, and she feared Otto might want her dead, too. Rather than meet at the bar, Hedda sent Emmi to the brewery to ask Otto to meet her in their cottage, instead.
Just before 5 p.m on the brisk afternoon of Nov. 13, 1914, Otto drove his horse and buggy to 532 Hunstock and hurried inside. Emmi was in the front room, and Hedda was in the bedroom, lying down with a headache, she testified later. Their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Neil Campbell, said she heard a commotion and ran out to see Emmi in the front yard screaming “Help! Help! Hedda! Hedda!” Campbell heard shots, she testified, so she prudently dashed back into her own house for some whiskey in case it was needed. More shots and more screaming ensued. When police arrived, they burst into the cottage with neighbors drawn by the melee.
Blood was everywhere. Otto lay dead. Some recalled Hedda lying on top of Otto’s bloody body; others said she was sitting alone, or had her head in the lap of an elderly German neighbor from across the street, who spoke no English but was one of the first to respond to the screaming. A 32 caliber automatic, still hot from being fired, lay on the floor. A 25 caliber revolver was on a sideboard. A case knife lay open on the floor, too, and Hedda had either a scratch or a deep cut on one wrist (depending on whose later testimony you choose.) She also had bruises on her neck, some witnesses said, while others later denied it.
One thing was crystal clear—Otto Koehler was dead as a doornail. One bullet had broken his neck, another entered his brain just above an eye socket, and a third was in his chest.
Hedda was hospitalized briefly, then jailed briefly and released when someone posted $7,500 bond for her. A grand jury indicted her for murder, but she was nowhere to be found. Her lawyer, State Senator Carlos Bee, told the court she had gone to Germany to nurse wounded soldiers. In fact, she was in New York City for a couple of years, until in late 1917 she contacted the court and said she was ready to stand trial. She must have been a very persuasive woman. By now, former Texas Governor T.M. Campbell was heading her legal team.
The trial started Jan 15, 1918 and took just one week, even allowing for a delay caused by the absence of witness Florence Ramer, one of Texas’ first female attorneys, whom the prosecution hoped would testify that Hedda had divulged plans to kill Otto to her on the day of the murder. To no avail, though – although Ramer, who had done a “midnight flit” from town, was arrested in Denison and dragged back to testify, she invoked attorney-client privilege and denied everything. (Ramer soon gave up law, went to L.A. and enjoyed a long Hollywood career as Florence Bates.) Banker J.H. Frost testified about Hedda trying to cash in one of Koehler’s $10,000 letters of credit, which she denied she had ever touched. In fact, reports of the trial testimony reveal vastly conflicting versions of almost everything connected to the murder, although there was general agreement about Otto’s two mistresses, and to the fact that Hedda shot him – although she had various versions of her reason for doing so. First she said she shot him “to protect the honor of my friend”(Emma Dumpke-Doschel) Then she said it was because “he was like a wild bull” and “I thought he was going after my friend.” She also said that Otto was choking her, and then added that he was coming at her with a pistol. (As it turned out, both of the pistols found in the house, and the case knife, belonged to Hedda. Otto apparently arrived unarmed). She said she shot herself in the head after shooting Otto. (Somehow she missed) Then, she said, “Since I didn’t know if I had a bullet in my brain,” so cut her wrist.
Testimony and arguments closed the evening of Jan. 22, 1918. The next morning it took the jury of 12 male citizens less than 3 hours to reach a verdict – “Not Guilty.” Then they filed past the defense table, where each shook Hedda’s hand warmly and congratulated her.
A year later, Emma “Hedda” Burgemeister and a stockman from Leon Springs named J.W. Turley – one of those same 12 jurors — were married in New Orleans. They returned to live in San Antonio, in the same cozy cottage at 532 Hunstock Avenue where Otto Koehler’s life once bled out on the parlor floor. Turley’s grown son lived in a smaller house on the property. The couple adopted Hedda’s German niece and nephew from Berlin. A story in the social pages of the San Antonio Light from 1925 featured the Turley children “setting the pace in studying English” in a playhouse in the home’s back yard.. J.W. died in the ‘40s, and it is rumored that Hedda committed suicide after that. But the neat little house on Hunstock, now nestled in curtains of jasmine and golden esperanza, still stands.
Emma Dumpke-Doschel returned to St. Louis with her husband and lived a similarly quiet life.
The original Emma, the wife that Otto told his mistresses he planned to leave, came out of the whole sordid affair smelling like a rose. After Otto’s death, the new widow, then 56 years old, miraculously rose from her sickbed and took care of business. At a time when women didn’t even have the vote, a woman running a business was unusual enough. Running a brewery was unheard of. She succeeded spectacularly. By the time Hedda Burgemeister went on trial in 1918, Pearl was the biggest brewery in Texas. When prohibition closed down most American breweries, Emma Koehler kept hers going strong by transitioning into soft drinks and food production. The day the Volstead Act was repealed and Prohibition ended in Texas, Pearl literally rolled out the barrel again, in hundreds of boxcars and trucks full of beer for a thirsty state. Watching the first bottles roll off the line, Emma is reported to have said, with tears in her eyes, “I wish my poor hubby could see it.”
Today, Emma Koehler’s spirit is invoked in the very posh, very hip Hotel Emma at the Pearl.The hotel’s name has also prompted history and scandal buffs to re-visit the story of Otto Koehler and his fateful, and fatal –affairs. In the hotel’s Sternewirth Bar and Clubroom, the menu offers a specialty cocktail made with gin, gran classic, apricot and absinthe called “The Three Emmas.”
They say it’s to die for.
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