Down to Earth: Murder and Onion Pie

| February/March 1993

“Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?” This saying from the Middle Ages attests to the great medicinal esteem in which sage was once held. Yet my own relative, Fritz Frenzell, had sage in his garden, and he died. Some say he was murdered with an onion pie — it even had sage in it. Sage didn’t seem to be of much help to him.

Uncle Fritz, as people in our little community called him, was an immigrant from Germany. He fled his ­native country in about 1916 for ­political reasons and, bringing a small fortune with him, settled in the isolated little village on the Osage River where I grew up.

He invested some of his money in several farms on the outskirts of this agricultural community. He leased out those farms, and spent his time overseeing the operations and farming techniques of his tenants. Everyone in town knew Fritz didn’t trust banks, and he concealed the rest of his money in dutch ovens that were hidden in secret “safes” under the floor of his house. But because the town was small and everyone in town knew everyone else, there was virtually no need to worry about theft.

Fritz spoke with a thick German accent, was easy to anger, and was well known as one who was tight with his money. He’d argue over the prices of things at the two grocery stores in town, sometimes going so far as to stomp out, saying he refused to pay those prices. Yet at other times, when he drank heavily, he’d throw handfuls of change in the street in a sort of strange apology to the neighborhood for being such a skinflint.

For the most part, our family assumed that everyone liked the old man, even though they thought him eccentric. One neighbor in particular—Martha, we’ll call her—began to befriend Fritz, visiting him fairly regularly. Martha knew he liked onion pie, which was an old family favorite of his, and she occasionally took him a steaming pie, fresh from the oven, for his supper. Fritz was quite fond of the familiar quichelike dish, and he grew to look kindly upon the neighbor lady and her husband.

Another neighbor soon began stopping by regularly, this one with a bottle of Fritz’s favorite brew. Often, this man assisted with fencing or other odd jobs or helped out in the garden. Fritz’s wife had always raised a large garden, growing vegetables and the traditional herbs of their homeland. The garden produced sage and horseradish, fennel and rhubarb, caraway, hyssop, thyme, and many other herbs. Yet after his wife died, Fritz had no idea how to use any of those plants.

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