On August 22, 1922, neighbors in a Los Angeles neighborhood called police after hearing gunshots. When police arrived, they found home owner & wife, Dolly Oesterreich locked in a closet, her husband, Fred Oesterreich, shot dead on the floor. After questioning Dolly, she told police that a burglar broke in, shot her husband dead & stole his expensive watch & fled.
Police became suspicious after Dolly told them that she & Fred never argued. They knew that Fred was a wealthy man & the detective felt this could be the motive for murder, but because there wasn’t enough evidence, Dolly was released. So, who was responsible for murdering Fred?
Dolly was born Walaburga Korschel in 1880 in Germany though grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a community of German immigrants. While working in an apron factory at age twelve, she met Fred William Oesterrech, another German immigrant, who owned the factory. Dolly was very attractive & vibrant & quickly caught Fred’s attention; the two got married when she was seventeen. Dolly was well liked amongst the factory workers & often helped resolve any dispute amongst the staff. As well liked as she was, Fred, on the other hand, was not.
Dolly became a housewife while Fred worked long hours. When he wasn’t working, he was often drunk & Dolly felt that her husband wasn’t meeting her needs. In the Fall of 1913, 33-year-old Dolly called Fred at the factory to complain that her sewing machine wasn’t working & he promised to send a repairman to the house. 17-year-old Otto Sanhuber, an employee of Fred’s who repaired the factory’s sewing machines, came to the house to fix the sewing machine, finding Dolly wearing only a robe, stockings & a heavy spritz of perfume. An affair quickly began.
At the beginning of their affair, the couple was very careful to keep their relationship under wraps, meeting at hotels. Soon, they grew tired of making the effort to meet outside the home & decided to change their unions to the Oesterreich home, specifically Dolly & Fred’s bed. It didn’t take neighbors long to notice a strange man hanging around; Dolly told them that Otto was her “vagabond half-brother.”
Fearing that they were drawing too much attention, Dolly began to form a plan; she proposed that Otto move into the attic of the Oesterreich home, knowing that Fred never ventured up there. In her mind, it was the perfect solution; she could continue her steamy affair with Otto & no one had to be the wiser, Otto never being spotted coming or going. Otto had little to no family so his disappearance wasn’t noticed & he quit his job at the factory, spending all of his time with Dolly or hidden in the attic when Fred was home. In 1930, the LA Times reported that he grew to love Dolly “as a boy loves his mother.” Because of the odd arrangement, Otto was basically a prisoner of his hideaway.
While in the attic, the teenager passed time writing stories that he hoped would someday be published; the Los Angeles Times wrote, “At night he read mysteries by candlelight & wrote stories of adventure & lust. By day he made love to Dolly Oesterreich, helped her keep house & made bathtub gin.” Dolly provided Otto with a weekly supply of books to keep him quiet & entertained. The room was equipped with a cot & a desk & Otto had many hours to focus on his dream of writing for Pulp magazines which were ten cent fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the late 1950s. The magazines got their names from the cheap wood pulp paper that they were printed on & eventually were dubbed pulp fiction.
Fred would occasionally hear noises from the attic, noticed that some of his cigars had gone missing & felt he was imagining seeing strange shadows passing his bedroom on some nights.
This situation went on for five years until 1918 when Fred threw a curveball & suggested they sell their Milwaukee house & move to Los Angeles. Dolly took the change in stride & found them a house with an attic overlooking Sunset Boulevard in Lafayette Park Place; she sent 22-year-old Otto there early, where he was waiting for her when she arrived, already settled in his attic home.
Their arrangement continued on as per usual, for four more years, until August 22, 1922. After their move to LA, Dolly & Fred’s marriage began to deteriorate & their arguments intensified, sometimes even becoming violent, Fred drinking more & more. On August 22nd, Dolly & Fred came home from an outing, arguing. As the fight escalated, Otto, fearing for Dolly’s life, rushed down from his attic hideaway to protect his lover, carrying two .25 caliber guns. Fred quickly recognized his former employee & flew into a rage; the two scuffled & the guns went off, shooting Fred three times in the chest, killing him instantly.
Otto & Dolly thought quickly, knowing that neighbors were closeby & would have heard the shots. Dolly gave Otto Fred’s diamond watch as well as all the cash from the bedroom; Otto locked Dolly into the closet from the outside, took the key & scurried back to the attic to hide from arriving police, taking the watch, money & pistols. This is when Dolly explained that a burglar had shot her husband, stole his watch, locked her into the closet & fled. Again, detectives weren’t entirely buying her story, strongly believing she was involved, but there was no evidence to suggest another conclusion & they couldn’t understand how she would have locked herself into the closet.
Dolly inherited millions of dollars after Fred’s death & quickly purchased another house with a spacious attic; despite the fact that she was now a single widower, she & Otto continued their strange arrangement, Otto living in the attic. He continued to create stories, now using a typewriter he purchased with the funds from the sale of a few of his stories he wrote under a pen name as well as the literal nickels & dimes that Dolly gave him. There was no longer fear that Fred would hear the tapping of the typewriter’s keys.
After nearly a decade with Otto, Dolly began to grow tired of their relationship; maybe the luster & excitement fading with the death of Fred. Now free from her marriage, Herman S. Shapiro, her personal attorney, who she hired after being suspected of Fred’s murder, quickly caught Dolly’s eye. Herman, like Fred, was a very busy, career-driven man & spent many hours away, working. While Herman was away, another gentleman caller entered the picture, Roy Klumb, a business man & third lover that she bided her time with while Herman was in court & Otto was writing in the attic.
Dolly decided to use Roy to help her get rid of one of the guns that was used to murder Fred, telling him that they incidentally resembled the burglar’s guns. She said she was worried that the police might find it & suspect her of murder. Roy tossed one of the guns into the La Brea tar pits, leaving Dolly with another gun to dispose of. She sweet talked her neighbor into burying the second gun in his backyard, telling him the same story she had told Roy.
Dolly eventually broke up with Roy who went to the police with his story of the disposal of the gun. Police went to the tar pits & found the gun on July 12, 1923, 11 months after the murder; Dolly was taken into custody. As newspaper headlines featured the story, Dolly’s neighbor dug up the second gun & brought it to police though neither weapon could be tied to Dolly because of corrosion.
Meanwhile, Dolly was in jail & began to worry about Otto’s wellbeing. She pleaded with Herman, asking him to bring groceries to Otto & tap on the ceiling of the bedroom closet to let him know that he should come out. As she told past neighbors, she explained to Herman that Otto was her “vagabond half brother.” Herman did as he was asked & met the pale, thin & cordial Otto who was so starved for conversation with another human that he quickly spilled the truth about the nature of his relationship with Dolly.
Herman gave Otto an ultimatum & told him to leave; Otto ended up leaving California & fleeing to Canada. Herman got Dolly released on bail & apparently, not too bothered with the story of her attic love slave, he moved in with her & all of the charges against Dolly were dropped. At one point, she have Herman a diamond watch that he recognized as the one that the supposed burglar stole during the night of Fred’s murder. Dolly explained it away, saying she found it under a window seat cushion.
Seven years later, in 1930, Dolly’s tumultuous relationship with Herman Shapiro came to an end & he moved out; at the time, Otto had coincidentally moved back to LA. He promptly went to police with the information he had gathered about Fred’s murder, telling them everything he knew. This time, warrants were issued to not only Dolly, but also Otto; Dolly was charged with conspiracy & Otto with murder.
The newspapers called the story the “Bat Man” case after learning the details of Otto’s living situation in a cave-like existence. The defense argued that Otto had been enslaved by Dolly though on July 1st, he was found guilty of manslaughter though released because the statute of limitations had expired; at the time, the statute of limitations was seven years & by this time, eight years had passed since Frank’s death. 43-year-old Dolly’s trial ended in a hung jury & in 1936, the indictment against her was dropped. Otto changed his name to Walter Klein & moved to Canada, marrying another woman. He eventually moved back to LA & lived the rest of his life privately. Dolly stayed in LA until her death in 1961 at age 80, less than two weeks after marrying her second husband & 30-year-companion, Ray Bert Hedrick.
The story inspired the 1968 movie, The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom & the 1995 movie, The Man in the Attic, starring Neil Patrick Harris.
- Los Angeles Times: ‘Bat Man’ Case: a Lurid Tale of Love and Death
- ati: The Story Of Dolly Oesterreich – The Woman Who Kept Her Secret Lover In The Attic For Years
- Wikipedia: Walburga Oesterreich
- Wikipedia: Pulp magazine
- Atlas Obscura: The Married Woman Who Kept Her Love in the Attic
- Gizmodo: The Bizarre Case of the Unfaithful Wife and Her “Attic Man”
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