The Legend of Dr. John Garner’s Strange Murder

Do you believe in clairvoyance? Is there a sixth sense that allows us to have extrasensory perception, if only we heeded it? That is the question at the center of this scandalous Milwaukee murder.

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The odd tale began the morning of March 2, 1876. Dr. John E. Garner started the day with an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was nothing he could put his finger on, but something about the day felt a bit off to him. By mid-day, he was consumed by an unexplained sense of uneasiness. He spent the day at home with his family, but the familiar comforts brought him no peace of mind.

That same morning, a train left from a rail station in Ohio, bound for Milwaukee. Onboard was Sarah Willner. With her was a list of names, and Dr. Garner’s was at the top of the list. The train chugged along, with each mile of track covered bringing it ever closer to Milwaukee.

When dinnertime arrived, Garner was a wreck. His wife would later describe him as “restless and disturbed” during the meal. As the evening wore on, the doctor’s agitation increased. By 8:30 p.m., the doctor manically paced the room, telling his brother-in-law it felt as if “something was closing in on him.” He believed the gnawing fear he felt was irrational, and admitted that if a patient came to him reporting these feelings, he would quickly brush off these claims with a prescribed tonic and an order for bedrest. Still, he could not shake off the feeling of dread that consumed him.

The train for Ohio pulled into the Milwaukee station at 8:25 p.m. Willner stepped off the train and hailed a carriage. She gave the hack-driver the address of Dr. John Garner.

 

 

Just before 9 p.m., the doorbell of the Garner home rang. Garner’s young daughter answered the door, the girl then called for her father. When he arrived, Willner shot him in the chest. Then, without fanfare or an explanation, she turned to leave the home.

Upon return to the carriage, she ordered the driver to take her first to a lawyer, and then to the Newhall House Hotel. Stunned, the man followed her orders. When the police caught up with Willner, she was calmly eating a fried chicken dinner in the dining room of the once celebrated hotel.

Willner readily admitted she shot Garner. She explained that she had no choice but to kill Dr. Garner, claiming the doctor had “killed my husband, uncle, and brother and has made my life a torment. I did it in self-defense.”

Police soon discovered Willner had been sending threatening letters to Garner, and a number of other Milwaukee physicians. Garner had treated her husband when the couple lived in Milwaukee, but it was several years ago, and the doctor was not treating Willner’s husband at the time of his death. Willner was convinced the Milwaukee doctors on her list were poisoning her with “medicated vapors,” and only their deaths would end her torment. She had a hitlist of doctors she intended to kill in Milwaukee; unfortunately for Dr. John Garner, his name was first on that list.

This story ends sadly. The next day, Garner dies as a result of the gunshot wound. Sarah Willner is eventually declared insane and spent the remainder of her days confined in a Wauwatosa asylum. The murder was a senseless tragedy that would likely have been long forgotten, had Garner not felt a growing sense of apprehension throughout the day. Stories of his premonition swirled around the city and soon became the stuff of Brew City legends.

Was the universe trying to warn Garner of his impending doom? Could he have saved himself from the fate Willner planned for him? After 145 years, the answers to those questions, and the mystery of Dr. John Garner’s strange foreboding, remain unknown.

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