One of the strangest tales in twentieth century true crime has its roots in a Milwaukee love affair. It’s the story of Dolly Oesterreich, wife of a wealthy apron manufacturer, who secretly moved her teenaged lover into the attic of the home she shared with her husband. The brazen act began a decade long deception that ended in murder.
Fred Oesterreich was a hardnosed, hard-drinking businessman. Dolly was a pretty former factory employee with a sunny disposition. His charismatic wife could always smooth over any feathers rumpled by her gruff and demanding husband. Their marriage was happy enough, but the unexpected death of their only child caused a rift between the pair.
Their relationship plodded along for years, until 1913 when Dolly began the affair that would eventually make headlines across the nation. She met 17-year-old Otto Sanhuber, a sewing machine repairman who often worked at Oesterreich’s factory. Taken with the boy, she had her husband send the repairman to their home to work on her sewing machine. It is said she greeted Sanhuber at the door in nothing more than stockings, a slinky robe and a smile. During that visit their romance began.
The lovers were indiscreet, and before long Fred discovered the affair. When she was confronted by her husband, she vowed to end the relationship. But, she had a better idea. Instead of severing ties with Sanhuber, or leaving her husband, she opted to keep both men in her life. She convinced Otto to quit his job and move into the attic of the home she shared with her husband.
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Each morning, as soon as Fred left for the factory, Otto would emerge from his attic hiding place. The pair would complete Dolly’s household chores and spend the remainder of their time between the sheets of the bed the Oesterreichs shared. Just before Fred was due to return home, Otto would scramble back to the attic, which contained little more than a cot, a bucket, and scores of books to help him wile away the time while Dolly played the dutiful wife to her husband.
Fred sensed something strange was happening in the house, but he could not put his finger on what kept him feeling unsettled. He was baffled by the disappearance of food in the icebox, and the mysterious noises coming from the attic. Dolly reassured Fred that nothing was amiss, convincing him it was just his overactive imagination, made worse by his overindulgence in alcohol and too much workplace stress.
The trio shared the home, unbeknownst to Fred until 1918, when Oesterreich opened a West Coast factory and decided to relocate to Los Angeles. Dolly agreed to the move, as long as their new house had an attic. A house was purchased and Otto went in advance of the movers, building himself an attic hideaway and secreting himself before the couple moved into their new home.
The love triangle continued as it had in Milwaukee, until the night of August 22, 1922, when Fred Oesterreich was shot and killed in his living room. What really happened that night remains hotly debated, but it is certain that Fred Oesterreich was shot three times by a .25 caliber pistol. As Fred lay in a pool of blood from a bullet hole in his head, and the two in his chest, Dolly and Otto devised a plan to make it look as if unknown intruders broke into the home and murdered Fred.
Otto locked Dolly into a second floor closet, turning the lock from the outside. She would later claim to police that she was pushed into the closet as she was hanging the fur coat she’d worn that evening. As the investigation continued, the LAPD thought it suspicious that nothing from the home was taken and there seems to be no clear motive for the murder.
In time, the story begins to unravel and Dolly is arrested on July 12, 1923. While she is in jail, she asks her attorney to buy groceries for her seemingly empty home. It is then she reveals that Otto was living in the attic and instructed the attorney to tap twice on the attic door to let Otto know it was safe to come out of hiding. She eventually dropped her story of the unknown assailants and told the police the night of the murder she and Fred had argued. Otto overheard the spat and feared that Fred would hurt Dolly, so he rushed out of the attic to defend her and shot Fred.
The revelation stunned authorities and the story quickly made front page news across the country. Attic lurking Otto is dubbed “Bat Boy” by the media. Dolly is painted as a lusty femme fatale with an insatiable sexual appetite. That she begins an affair with both her attorney Herman S. Shapiro, and Milwaukeean Roy H. Klumb after Fred’s murder only solidifies her reputation as a tantalizing black widow. After years of lurid headlines and many indictments, Dolly is left a very wealthy woman, and no one serves jail time for the murder of Fred Oesterrich.
This event has captivated generations, so pop culture has embraced this strange tale. The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, released in 1968, find Shirley MacLaine playing the role of the wife with a broken sewing machine and explores the comedic side of the love triangle. In a more modern retelling of the tale, the 1995 film The Man in the Attic features a post-Doogie Hauser Neil Patrick Harris playing the role of the locked-up lover. True Crime cable shows and podcasts have retold the tale countless times, often with the same breathless coverage that made it front-page news across the nation throughout the Roaring Twenties.
Today, the physical traces of the Oesterrichs’ time in Milwaukee have all but disappeared. Oesterriech Manufacturing Company long ago shuttered its doors. The home the trio shared on what is now South 16th Street has been razed. The sole remaining evidence the family was here is the grave of the Fred and Dolly’s only child, Raymond. Buried in 1910, just shy of his tenth birthday, the boy is interned at the Holy Trinity Cemetery.
The lone headstone is the only tangible remanent of a story so scandalous that history won’t let it be forgotten. These names and events have may have disappeared from our often-told Milwaukee stories, but these notorious figures are an indelible part of Brew City’s past.