Berrien County, Michigan
Axe Fiend Kills Farmer
Submitted & Transcribed By Laura Cox
Niles Daily Star
April 1, 1927
Michael Zerbe, 87, Is Slain in Bed As Aged Wife Fights Assassin- Old Couple Living Northwest of Niles Are Victims of Cruel Murderer- HOME IS BURNED TO GROUND- Neighbors Rescue Mrs. Zerbe and Body of Victim As Flaming Rafters Crash- Michale Zerbe, 87, is dead, the victim of a murderer’s ax; his wife, Mrs. Sarah Zerbe, 73, lies at the point of death, and their little home, located about five miles northwest of Niles near the Mead school, is in ruins, as the result of one of the most atrocious, cold blooded crimes in the history of Berrien County.
While no arrests have been made, Sheriff Bryant’s men are looking for Walter Wallick. of Buchanan, who had married a daughter of Zerbe and from whom he was divorced about two years ago.
It is said that Wallick frequently had been at the Zerbe home to talk over the difficulties between himself and his former wife, and that he had also made attempts on several occasions to secure money from the Zerbes.
Mrs. Zerbe has been conscious at times during the day and is able to tell something of the tragedy.
She states that she was awakened at about 4 o’clock this morning and getting up found herself almost immediately grappling with a man who held an ax in his hand with which he struck her.
She managed to elude his grasp once and attempted to strike a match to light a lamp. However her assailant struck her again with the ax and she fell to the floor beside the bed, where she lay in a semi-conscious condition.
Her husband had not awakened at the beginning of the struggle but was finally aroused from his slumbers. As he raised up in bed, according to Mrs. Zerbe, the strange man struck Mr. Zerbe in the face with the flat side of the ax.
Mrs. Zerbe heard her husband cry, “Mother, they’re killing me!” whereupon the murderer trampled over her and struck Zerbe on the head crushing his skull.
She remembers no more until a neighbor was carrying her from the burning house.
Ned Schaffer, who lived within sight of the Zerbe home, was up at around 4 o’clock to look after some cattle which had been sick and he was the first to discover the fire. He summoned Charles Tichenor on the telephone and the latter family spread the alarm and soon the entire countryside was awakened and hurrying to the scene.
Schaffer and Tichenor reached the house first and Schaffer carried the aged man from the house and Tichenor carried out Mrs. Zerbe. Just as Tichenor stepped over the threshold, the roof caved in. How the fire was started is not known, although when discovered the roof and top of the house was in flames.
Riley Zerbe, a son, who resides within a half mile of his parents’ home, was among the first to reach the scene. His mother and the body of his father were removed immediately to his home. Later Mr. Zerbe’s body was taken to the Child’s Funeral rooms in Buchanan.
Sheriff Fred Bryant, Deputy Sheriff C. S. Overcash, other deputies and Niles and Buchanan police officers were soon at the scene of the murder and after hearing Mrs. Zerbe’s story, immediately a description of Wallick was sent out and a search instituted for him in Buchanan and Niles.
Coroner George Slaughter of Benton Harbor was notified and he empaneled the following jury to conduct an inquest: John Winn, Howard Smith, Emmanuel Conrad, Harvey Hartlien, E. P. Gilbert and Floyd Shreve. The inquest will be held in Buchanan.
Mrs. Zerbe has three distinct scalp wounds besides minor cuts and bruises as a result of the attack upon her. She is also suffering greatly from shock and on account of her advanced years, it is thought she may not recover. She is being kept almost constantly under the influence of opiates, although when conscious she appears quite rational.
She states that in the darkness of the room she was unable to see the face of her assailant, but that his height, build, the kind of hat and clothes he wore also suggest to her that he was Zerbe’s son-in-law. She is Zerbe’s second wife. Zerbe is survived by four children: Riley, Mrs. Mae Penwell of Hartford, Mich.; Mrs. Cora (Bradley) Howe Wallick and Mrs. Georgia E. Barnhart, wife of Oliver Barnhart of Buchanan. Another son of Zerbe’s (Harry) was drowned twenty years ago.
Walter Wallick, the son-in-law against whom suspicion is directed, about two weeks ago is said to have forged the names of George Hess to three notes and to have passed them at a Buchanan bank. He had made two of the notes good and was to have made the third good this morning when the bank opened. He has not been seen around Buchanan for about a week and it was suspected he was not able to make good on the third note.
Officers are working on the theory that he became frenzied when he was unable to secure the money from the Zerbes and awaited a chance for revenge.
The Zerbes had a dog which was regarded as fierce especially at night and no one passed the farm at night without the dog causing great commotion by barking.
The dog lay dead beside the Zerbes’ bed this morning. It was suspected that the murderer was in the house when Mr. And Mrs. Zerbe retired last night for that the dog would have been aroused by his arrival. It is also suspected that the dog may have been killed before Mrs. Zerbe was attacked.
What awakened Mrs. Zerbe is not clear-whether is was a blow on her head or a noise in the room. She said she was able to wrest the ax from her assailant once but that he took it from her in the fierce struggle which ensued. Mrs. Zerbe’s wedding ring was twisted and broken and a piece of it was embedded in one finger.
Zerbe had lived in the Bend In the River for many years. Upon retiring from active farming he moved to Buchanan and after a number of years residence there, seven years ago he moved back to the farm where the murder occurred, in order to be near his son.
The farm is the old Mead farm and is owned by Charles F. Pears of Buchanan. It comprises 20 acres and had been farmed by Zerbe’s son Riley. It was a pleasant, hospitable home and the Zerbes were held in high esteem.
Today a smoldering ruin marked the site of the house, the destruction of the house having been complete. No damage was done to other buildings on the farm. Mrs. Zerbe was an active, strong woman and was able to tend to her household duties and light work about the farm.
The rain which fell during last night made the none too good roads in some of the neighborhood northwest of Niles soft and after the many cars had passed over them today to the scene of the murder, they were almost impassable in places. Charles Tichenor drove from his home to the Zerbe home in mud almost up to the hubs of his car. Others hastening to the scene met with like difficulties. Police officers, newspaper representatives, neighbors and others from remote parts of the county were attracted to the scene in large numbers because of the nature of the crime which has stirred the countryside as one of the most cold blooded in the annals of Berrien County. ***
[The Continuing Story…The sheriff put out a search
for Walter Wallick but they need not have looked very far. As the fire
from the burning house died down, they discovered the charred remains
of a man, burned beyond recognition, but believed to be Walter Wallick,
identified by a watch he wore. Whether he was trapped in the upstairs
rooms or whether he intentionally went back into the burning house will
never be known. Mrs. Zerbe did survive the attack and lived until 1939.
The Zerbes are buried in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Buchanan. Beside
them are the graves of their son, Harry (1881-1904), the one who
drowned; their daughter Cora (1870-1964); Cora’s first husband, George
Bradley (1869-1906); Cora’s second husband, Harry (H.B.) Howe
(1865-1914); a son of Riley’s, Ralph (1914-1973) and an infant daughter
of Riley’s, Florence (1922-1926).]
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