Florence Wehn is murdered in Seattle by an unknown assailant on April 18, 1917.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 11/13/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20664

On April 18, 1917, Florence Haubris Wehn (1889-1917), the wife of prominent Seattle sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973), is brutally murdered just blocks from the couple's studio home on the west side of Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. Following the shock of her death the sculptor relocates his studio back to the Leschi neighborhood where he grew up, and for the next several years struggles to continue his artwork. The murder of Florence Wehn will remain unsolved.

A New Life Together

It was during her early years at the Rainier School that Florence Haubris met James Wehn, sometime between 1897 and 1899. A shared passion for the arts -- music for Florence, sculpture for James - formed a bond that eventually led to courtship between the two. In the years of their subsequent courtship, James enlisted Florence's aid to create one of the most lasting and recognizable artworks of his early career. In 1904, Florence posed for a series of portrait illustrations and bas-relief plaque sculptures available for sale around the city. One example was an illustration titled "The Seattle Girl" that appeared in the December 1906 edition of The Coast. Another example was a variation of a drawing produced for the cover of a sheet-music score dated to 1912, from an original Wehn drawing of Florence made at the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909.

The couple was married on July 24, 1915. Later that year they purchased and relocated to a new bungalow home at 2214 12th Avenue W, on the west side of Queen Anne Hill.

As newlyweds, the Wehns enjoyed new privacy in their residence, away from the pioneer homes of the Wehn and Haubris families east of downtown Seattle. The couple had active work and social lives together: James continued to receive new commissions for sculptures and medallions, while Florence worked at the Pantorium Dye Works in the telephone switchboard department and was a member of the Myrtle Chapter, O.E.S., in Seattle.

Birthday Party and Working Late at the University

On Tuesday, April 17, 1917, James was engaged in work for the University of Washington, which required him to be on the grounds of the campus: a death mask to be sculpted from the late Orson B. Johnson (1849-1917), professor emeritus of zoology, and new designs for a series of architectural gargoyles to adorn one of the university's new Tudor-Gothic-style buildings.

Meanwhile Florence planned to attend the birthday party of her nephew Julian Jingles at the Haubris home across town from her Queen Anne residence. It was important for Florence to attend, since her sister, Julian's mother Ethel, had died only six months before along with the boy's father, Dr. J. J. Jingles. While James attended to his sculpture work, Florence celebrated with her family.

The festivities lasted all day. Florence had arrived early, having left her house at 7:30 in the morning to travel by cable car to the east side of Seattle. As the afternoon hours gave way to evening, Florence remained while birthday cake was served and Julian opened presents.

James returned home that evening from the UW campus. By 10 p.m., Florence had still not come home, but it wasn't a special reason for concern: In the past, she had stayed overnight at her parent's home, rather than travel during the late hours. He reasoned she probably was tired after spending the day there and had decided to again remain for the night. He was unable to phone the Haubris home to confirm this, however, since the Wehns did not have a telephone in their home due to "wartime shortages" (McDonald).

As it turned out, while James did not know it, his wife had decided to return that late evening, despite her parents' offer to stay the night and return in the morning. Her rationale (later conveyed to James by her father) was that to stay over would cause "Jamie" concern since he would not know where she was. She departed the Haubris house around 10 p.m., carrying with her several wrapped items, including a flour sack with rose-bush cuttings and a piece of birthday cake to take home for James.

The sculptor stated the following morning that her absence was not something he was alarmed by:

"I had not the least suspicion of any harm coming to her when she was not at home this morning, for it is her custom to go direct from her father's home on such occasions to the place of her employment, for we have no telephone either in our home or my studio which adjoins" ("Young Woman's Murder ...).

The lack of alarm proved to be fateful. As dawn broke on the next day, the sculptor learned of a grisly discovery.

Murder Site Blocks from Home

Two members of the Seattle police department -- detectives Ernest Yoris (1889-1967) and Charles J. Waechter (1871-1936) -- came to the Wehn residence early the next morning. From them, James learned they had walked the short distance from the scene of a terrible crime to come see him.

Florence Wehn had been murdered and left in a dirt ravine off West Wheeler, just one street up from the Wehn house on 12th Avenue W. The detectives led James to the scene of the crime to identify the body. Florence's father, Paul Haubris -- himself a Seattle police officer -- had also been informed by now and was at the scene as well. Deputy coroner Frank Koepfil had the body removed shortly after.

The detectives had little to go on. Retracing Florence's last movements, they determined she had exited a streetcar at the corner of W Wheeler Street and 10th Avenue W and walked west along Wheeler to 11th Avenue W, where she went down two flights of stairs that followed the route of Wheeler to where the street continued westward. They surmised that either she had met someone en route from the streetcar who had gone with her to the stairs, or someone waited to ambush her near the bottom of the stairs at 11th Avenue.

Evidence that Florence had struggled with her attacker came by way of a hair comb discovered on a path leading from the bottom of the 11th Avenue stairs along W Wheeler Street. The ravine lay below Wheeler, about 14 feet down and covered in tall grass along the slope.

Florence had been brutally beaten with a blunt object and sustained repeated blows to the head and neck. Two of these had caused skull fractures, with these injuries established as the cause of death by the coroner's office. None of Florence's garments were torn, nor was robbery an apparent motive: A hidden pouch containing her diamond wedding ring and a pair of pearl earrings went untouched on her body, as was the 55 cents in her purse. She had fought back against her killer. Among the injuries, the bones of the second finger of her left hand were shattered, with a cut across the back of the fingers of the right hand indicating she used both hands and arms to ward off multiple blows. Arranged neatly around the body were the packages Florence had been carrying, including a bottle of milk she had purchased at a store stop made downtown.

When police asked neighboring residents, no cries for help or other signs of struggle had been witnessed or heard. Florence was last seen by streetcar conductor J. B. Russell, who saw her get off the car alone and travel in the direction of her home, without being followed. A young man named Weston Harner (1902-1970), who was on his way to work that morning, had seen the body as he walked by on the street above. Aghast at the sight, he notified the police via the Local No. 10 fire station.

Additional evidence that Florence Wehn was murdered on the street came from observations made by Claude Rix, a motorcycle patrolman and one of the first officers to arrive on the scene: "one set of footprints leading from the bottom of the stairs to the ravine and another set, apparently made by the same person, leading from the ravine to the foot of the steps" (Woman's Murder Proves Baffling ...").


That same day, James Wehn was taken in for questioning. Years later, in one of the few remarks he ever made about the death of Florence, he said that "the grilling he had undergone from the police had been pretty tough but that he had been glad they had been so determined ... it gave him hope they would be able to find out who had killed his wife" (Mary Clark). Chief of Detectives Charles Tennant (1876-1933) led the interrogation, asking about Wehn's whereabouts the night of the slaying, his relationship with Florence and any quarrels they may have had, and if there was anyone with a reason to want to harm his wife. He was cleared as a suspect soon after the police interview.

The Haubris family was also questioned and confirmed that Florence had decided to return home that night on her own accord. Other avenues of inquiry were also fruitless. A woman identified as Mrs. Vanasse, who lived several blocks away from the scene of the crime, reported to the detectives that someone had tried to gain access to her home between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m., "first by rapping on the doors, and then by trying the windows when Mrs. Vanesse, who was alone in the house, refused to heed the signal" ("Young Woman's Murder ...").

One theory endorsed later by the Seattle police was that the murder was the work of an insane man who had committed another assault just four days prior to the Wehn murder. In that case, a lone woman -- Mrs. McGarvey -- was walking on 43rd Avenue S at night and was attacked from behind. Bound and gagged, she was also taken into a ravine, but left without serious injury. No physical description of the man was forthcoming from the victim. In the ensuing years, the Wehn murder was added to the Seattle Police Department's cold-case files.

Starting Over

The death of his wife -- and the violent manner of her demise -- was an inconsolable loss for James: "It knocked me clear off my pins. I cannot conceive the fiendish crime" (McDonald). His sculpture work came nearly to a standstill. Commissions recently secured for the Seattle Garden Club and the Freed Memorial were not completed until 1920 and 1923, respectively. At the advice of his doctor, James decided to relocate his studio back to the Wehn home at 710 29th Avenue S. He also traveled extensively back east in the year following the murder, to escape the city where his wife had been killed.

Both the McGarvey assault and the homicide of Florence Wehn were crimes unsolved by the Seattle police, and remain so to this day.


"Woman's Murder Proves Baffling to City Sleuths," The Seattle Times, April 19, 1917, p. 1; Lucile McDonald, "Wehn, First Seattle Sculptor, Still Hard at Work," The Seattle Times, May 15, 1960, magazine p. 5; "Young Woman's Murder Baffles Police on Trail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1917, p. 4; Mary Clark, Letter to Special Collections Division, January 12, 1972, Folder 6, Box 1, James A. Wehn Papers (1929-1974), Acc. 2353-001, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; "Death Records: Florence Wehn," Washington State Archives -- Digital Archives website accessed November 4, 2018 (https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/Record/View/70A3FEE79C658CC07B69B445F4CCD8F8); Fred Poyner IV, The First Sculptor of Seattle: The Life and Art of James A. Wehn (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).

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