Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Terrible Death of Barbara Kuenzl

This is not a happy story. It’s about an awful death. It begins with a brewer.

Kuenzl Family, early 1880s
Lorenz Kuenzl was born in 1845 in Bohemia. He had been trained to brew beer there before coming to America in 1871. Kuenzl settled in Stevens Point. There, he married a German-born woman nine years his junior named Barbara Walter. The couple relocated to Oshkosh and in 1875 Kuenzl took a lease on what had been been Gottlieb Ecke’s brewery on Harney Avenue.

Barbara and Lorenz Kuenzl flourished in Oshkosh. The couple took up residence in a home that still stands at 1225 Harney Avenue and began having children. Eventually, they purchased the brewery, which was now named the Gambrinus Brewery. Kuenzl’s “Celebrated Lager Beer” was served in saloons throughout the city. The Kuenzl family grew wealthy.

In 1894, The Gambrinus Brewery merged with two other Oshkosh breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Kuenzl was named brewmaster of the new concern. His brewery on Harney Avenue was converted into a bottling plant.

Gambrinus Brewery and Kuenzl Home on Harney Ave

Three years after the merger, Lorenz Kuenzl died from complications of edema, an excessive accumulation of fluids within the body. Meanwhile, the Oshkosh Brewing Company had grown into one of the region’s most successful breweries. As the administratrix of her late-husband’s estate, Barbara Kuenzl now directed the Kuenzl family’s stake in the thriving brewery.

Barbara Kuenzl remained at the home on Harney Avenue living with the family of her youngest daughter, Anna. It was there in the summer of 1906 that Barbara Kuenzl died following a terrible accident.

On the Friday afternoon of July 6, 1906, a wagon had come to the Kuenzl home to deliver fuel for the Kuenzl’s kitchen stove. Barbara Kuenzl asked the driver to wait for a moment while she emptied the remaining gas from a storage can into the stove. When she did so, the stove ignited and Mrs. Kuenzl’s skirt caught fire. She ran out the rear door of the house and into the yard, the flames spreading up to her waist. Her screams were heard by neighbors and workers in the beer bottling plant next door. A 12-year-old boy named Jacob Hetzel ran to help her.

Better known as John, Jacob Hetzel lived nearby on Harney Ave. with his widowed mother. He had been playing in the street when he heard Mrs. Kuenzl’s screams. Hetzel chased after the burning woman. He caught up to her and attempted to put out the flames with his hands. The fire ignited Hetzel’s clothing burning his face, arms and torso. Workers from the bottling plant arrived to help. Hetzel then ran three blocks to Lake Winnebago, the fire growing upon him. When he reached the lake, he plunged himself in.

By then it was too late for Mrs. Kuenzl. Her clothes were finally extinguished, but she had suffered severe burns to her lower body. She remained conscious throughout the ordeal. She was rushed to St. Mary’s hospital at the corner of Boyd and Merritt streets. Her wounds were dressed and she was given sedatives as her suffering increased. It was evident that she stood no chance of surviving. She had lost the function of her legs and was weakening. She died two days later in the early hours of Sunday, July 8, 1906.

Jacob Hetzel fared better. As he ran to the lake he was followed by neighbors who had witnessed the boy’s attempt to save Mrs. Kuenzl. They helped him from the water. He was taken to Lake Side Sanitarium on Hazel Street. Though his wounds were serious, Doctors Corbett and Blowett expected the boy to survive. He did.

The accident and its aftermath were reported in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on July 7, 1906. In a jumbled story that seems to have been pieced together hastily and almost randomly, Jacob Hetzel stands as the lone bright spot in an otherwise gruesome tale. When I first came upon this, I immediately wanted to know more about the bold 12-year-old who nearly lost his own life trying to save someone else’s.

Jacob John Hetzel was born on April 1, 1894 on a farm in the Town of Aniwa in Shawano County. He was the second of three children, his parents German immigrants. Hetzel was named after his father, who had died at the age of 38 while in a state of “helpless intoxication” in an accident involving a horse-drawn wagon. Jacob Hetzel was three when his father died. He would rarely use the name he shared with his father, preferring to use his middle name, John.

After the death of the father, the Hetzel family stayed on at their 160-acre farm in Aniwa until about 1904 when the widowed Matilda Hetzel moved her family to Oshkosh. Jacob Hetzel attended school in Oshkosh until the 7th grade, then went to work at the Diamond Match Factory and the Banderob-Chase Furniture Company. He grew into manhood standing 5’3” and weighing 145 pounds. He had brown hair and eyes and a dark complexion.

Hetzel eventually found a trade working as an auto mechanic. For much of his life, he bounced from job to job until settling in at U.S. Motors in Oshkosh in 1940. Hetzel appears never to have married, though the 1940 census indicates that a daughter and grandchild were living with him. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Hetzel gave inaccurate information to the census taker. At the time of his death, his only known heirs were his brother and sister.

Hetzel lived all of his Oshkosh life in the same home at what is now 1013 Harney Avenue. He died alone there on Febraury 18, 1964 after suffering a heart attack. Jacob hetzel was 69 years old. His brief obituary in the Northwestern mentions nothing of his life; only that he had died. By then, that harrowing day in 1906 was all but forgotten.

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