Down to Earth: Murder and Onion Pie

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Photo by Pixabay/Couleur

“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.

Eventually, five neighbor men were taking turns delivering the bottles to Fritz, and Martha continued to make the onion pies. Fritz loved the pies, and he increasingly lost himself in those bottles. Those six people kept up this outpouring of “neighboring” to poor old Fritz over the course of a year or so: the onion pies increased to several a week, and the bottles became so frequent that Fritz was never sober. He began to neglect his businesses, he quit arguing with storekeepers, and he increasingly kept to his house, drinking. Finally, after several suspicious trips to a lawyer at the county seat, and with the six “neighbors” present, Uncle Fritz died. He’d been drunk for weeks, or maybe months, living mostly on onion pies when he ate anything at all.

Fritz was buried quickly, and a court order was issued which barred any of our family from setting foot on the property. When the will was read after the funeral, each of the six neighbors was given one of Uncle Fritz’s prosperous farms, and his house in town and most of his possessions were to be divided equally among those same six people.

At the auction of his remaining property, relatives were allowed to bid on favorite items of Fritz’s, and my aunt bought a few things. But no one was allowed to check under the house in the safes; in fact, no one was allowed in the house at all, with the exception of for the six neighbors who’d looked after the old man until he died.

Just a few years ago, I watched as Uncle Fritz’s house was torn down, and I walked over the abandoned, forgotten herb garden, thinking about the plants that once grew there. I photographed the two safes, one set into the wall and one under the floor, accessed by lifting up a carpet and pulling up a trapdoor. Those few neighbors left living who remembered the story came to watch as well. Some told tales of having seen Fritz’s gold coins — “kettles full,” by their description. Others told of seeing rubies and other treasures. And as they watched the demolition, they spoke of the frustration they had felt during that time, believing that Fritz was being intentionally poisoned, yet being unable to prove it or to stop the probable crime. It all happened in the 1930s: backwoods towns had little access to adequate police investigations, and very little training or knowledge about how to begin delving into such allegations.

Back then, in fact, the whole town had suspected that Martha was slowly poisoning poor old Fritz with her onion pies. Several neighbors even remembered that storekeepers often questioned Martha’s husband about why he was buying arsenic so often. “It’s the only thing that’ll get those rats,” was the standard answer. But the neighbors held to their belief that Martha added a little more arsenic to the pies each week. The alcohol wore the man out, and the arsenic slowly killed him.

Uncle Fritz had sage in his garden, yet he died. Well beyond his passing, the healing and healthful herbs continued to grow in the garden, now as mere ornamentals. Maybe the inflection of the proverb should be changed: “Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?”

Jim Long of Oak Grove, Arkansas, offers his sage advice often in these pages, in frequent lectures across the country, and to those lucky enough to visit him, his shop, and his gardens at Long Creek Herb Farm.

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