The Saddest Zither Player

Sometimes it takes some buffing to find the sparkle in a life story, and sometimes the tarnish goes all the way through.

The internet is already so filled with unpleasantness, it probably doesn’t need Arthur to add to it. But I’ve had a clipping from the Norwalk Evening Herald staring at me from my desktop for months now, as if it was trying to tell me something that I needed to know. I reckoned it was time to figure out what that something might be. My digital clipping is a little faded, but here’s how the last act of his tragedy was reported:


Arthur Hartzler died Thursday morning at the Sandusky county hospital, his death being due to a general breaking down and kidney trouble aggravated by strong drinking.

Hartzler came to Fremont some time ago and eked out a miserable existence playing his zither in local saloons and resorts. He was a talented musician and a young man with a splendid education who had evidently seen better days.

He was a printer by trade.

There is a pathetic story in connection with Hartzler’s career and he frequently related the details to his friends here. Hartzler, it is said, was a member of a prominent Fort Wayne, Ind., family and at one time was married and had a happy home. According to his statements another man broke up his home and Hartzler took his musical instruments and also took to drink and has since been a broken-hearted man who drowned his sorrows with strong drink and toured from place to place.

As a musician he had but few equals and it was also said Hartzler had composed a number of popular songs of the day including “My Lady Lou” and others. He was about 31 years of age. The man had been drinking very hard of late and Wednesday was removed to the hospital where he died Thursday morning.

—Norwalk Evening Herald, April 14, 1906

You probably noticed that there were a lot of research starting points in that death notice. For a man who drank himself to death after a short life of very little distinction, Arthur Hartzler left a lot of footprints along the path between his desolate infancy and his miserable death. And because I wanted to know how he came to that tragic end, I started following them.

About a year before his death, he had been described as “a physical wreck”—the result of alcoholism. After he tried to borrow a revolver to shoot himself, “police locked him up for safe keeping.”

Sandusky Star Journal, March 27, 1905

The place they locked him up was the Erie County Infirmary rather than the jail. This institution was part of that all-but-forgotten era of American greatness when the indigent were still referred to as “less fortunate.” In the 1905 rural mail directory, the infirmary was listed as Arthur’s residence.

Only a few years earlier, in the summer of 1902, he had been included on a list of fun-loving fellows on a pleasure cruise to the Quinnebog Fishing Club on Old Hen Island in Lake Erie. I imagined the fishing buddies aboard the freshly-repainted double-decker passenger steamer Ogontz—smoking their cigars and clapping each other on the shoulder and singing naughty tunes accompanied by Arthur’s jolly zither.

How did he get from that sunny afternoon to a residence in the infirmary? Apparently, I was going to have to go all the way back to the beginning.

He was born in 1876 in Twin Lakes, Indiana—an area whose claim to fame is that it had been the starting point of a horrible Indian removal march.

He was the youngest child of an Evangelical minister and his wife. His father, Adam, was a big, strapping man who had begun his career as a blacksmith. But after answering the call to the ministry, Adam began traveling a wide circuit. His wife and children were left for weeks and months to fend for themselves, often with very little food or fuel. They were often sick.

“Adam Hartzler, 1836-1878,” Historical Data and Life Sketches of the Deceased Ministers of the Indiana Conference of the Evangelical Association, 1835 to 1915, v1

When Arthur was just two years old, his father died in the harness, the fervor of his final sermon still hot on his lips. Now entirely destitute, the mother and children made their way to Fort Wayne, where his mother may have had family.

Fort Wayne would have been the setting for most of the better days that Arthur may have ever seen. In the pages of the local papers and directories, we see him join social clubs, enjoy a few months’ jaunt to the big city of St. Louis, land a job as a press feeder for the newspaper. He seemed like a young man with ambitions.

In the Fort Wayne Weekly Gazette, November 12, 1896, Arthur was listed as a guest at a McKinley-themed birthday party for which a featured decoration was a potato suspended from the ceiling and stuck through with little flags and yellow chrysanthemums. The hopeful image of that festive tuber was the zenith of Arthur’s story, as revealed in the scattered fragments I was able to pull together. Subsequent fishing excursions notwithstanding, it was mostly downhill thereafter.

By this time, 20-year-old “Professor Hartzler,” in the spare time allowed by his press feeder job, had gained something of a name for himself in Fort Wayne’s middle class society, as a fine musician and music teacher. He was a featured performer at the Saengerbund. He had sent off his most promising composition, “My Lady Lou,” to try to get it published. Music cataloging has always been one of the unrevealed secrets of the universe to me. While I found a couple popular songs bearing that name, I never found him identified as the composer. Knowing Arthur’s later luck, maybe he ended up the victim of plagiarism.

Zither Player, by Carl Zewy (Austrian, 1855–1929)

I never found any trace of either the once-happy marriage or the homewrecker that he later used to explain why he turned to drink. He always appears in city directories as a typical working bachelor, living in a modest boarding house. Instead, I surmised that his story of a failed marriage was something he may have invented as a substitute for a much more horrible episode. While on a bender, on June 24, 1901, he caused the death of a toddler.

Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, 6/26/1901

I really hadn’t thought much about the fact that drunk driving was an issue even when the vehicle was powered by a completely sober horse. But as Lelia Leibacher rode into town in the arms of her mother, with her big brother driving a wagon loaded with the family’s berry harvest, Arthur and a drinking buddy set out on a fatal joy ride in a rented rig. A few minutes later, both vehicles were wrecked, Arthur was fleeing the scene, and the Leibachers’ little girl was dead of a fractured skull.

Little Lelia. There she is, in the 1900 Census:

And in the 1910 Census—well, there she’s not. Her mother’s only daughter, a memory.

What was the penalty in 1901 for causing the death of a child by drunk driving? I knew that Arthur was indicted and brought before mayor’s court in Sandusky. But before I could decide whether I was up for the challenge of digging through court records, I looked back at my own notes. That fishing club expedition? It was in 1902, only a year after the accident. Whatever legal price he paid, if any, he didn’t pay it for long.

A possible explanation for the brevity of his debt-paying to society came near the end of the list of fun-loving fellows aboard the Ogontz: “Mayor M.”

John Molter, the mayor of Sandusky from 1901 to 1910, was a virile and athletic gent whose other job happened to be booze wholesaler. Exactly the sort of guy Arthur might have entertained in the saloons.

In December, 1902, Arthur’s on the guest list again: this time, at the going-away party for saloonkeeper George Brengartner, who was departing for Mexico in a futile attempt to recover his health. By way of bon voyage, the guests presented him with a diamond ring. So Arthur evidently had friends in fairly high places.

Of course, I can’t be sure that Arthur’s friends influenced the grand jury that convened in the last week of September, 1901. While finding true bills in cases of pocket picking and petty larceny, Arthur’s case, according to the Sandusky Daily Star, was just “ignored” because “Hartzer [sic] was so clearly the victim of unfortunate circumstances.” All I can say is that while Arthur played his zither for Sandusky’s fun-loving sportsmen, the Leibacher family sold berries to supplement a stevedore’s meager wages. Draw your own conclusions.

So what have I learned here?

Well, yes, that. But I think I sort of knew that already.

For me, the takeaway from this tragic story was not really the suspicion that Arthur might have been spared imprisonment for his crime, or even the realization that, in a city of fewer than 20,000 people, Leila’s death had already vanished from society’s memory after only five years. It is even more interesting to me that my own mind turned so sharply in the direction of cynically expecting injustice.

On the day after the accident, the Sandusky Register ran a story that ended like this:

George Leibacher, the husband and father, works on the docks at Huron. He was summoned and arrived late in the afternoon. He was much wrought up, and to a Register man said: “Those fellows must not be released. I’ll prosecute them. My little baby was killed, and they must settle.”

Sometimes it seems like our culture’s quest for vengeance is insatiable. We want wrongdoers to pay and keep paying; our thirst seems never slaked. Even the execution of the guilty often fails to suffice. How curious, then, to envision this poor, grieving father, whose first response seems so strikingly moderate.

Witnesses at the scene of the accident drove stakes marking the location of the rigs, showing that Mrs. Leibacher was on the right hand side.

And maybe that was the only comfort the Leibachers ever had or ever really expected: to know that, whichever direction the justice system turned, at least they were in the right.

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