‘Potato Masher Murder: Death at the hands of a jealous husband,’ came out this year
By Stan Schwartz
VANDALIA—Some people in town may remember the former co-owners and co-publishers of The Vandalia Leader, Gary and Helen Sosneicki. They sold the paper to R. Jack Fishman, the owner of Lakeway Publishers in Morristown, Tenn.
Gary’s family had a big secret that few of his relatives spoke about—the murder of his great grandmother at the hands of her husband. A lifelong journalist, Gary’s curiosity was piqued. Because so few family members spoke about it, the facts about the murder were slowly fading away.
Last Thursday evening, Gary hosted a live Facebook event to talk about what led him to look into his great grandmother’s murder and why he decided to put ink to paper and bring her brutal death out into the open.
When he started the event, Gary held up a vintage potato masher, one similar to the one used to kill his great grandmother. They are nothing like the potato mashers of today. Gary described it as looking similar to the end of a baseball bat, but with a handle
“When swung like a base ball bat,” he said, “it could be a deadly weapon. And that was the case in my great-grandmother’s murder.”
As a child, Gary would only hear bits and pieces of the story from family members.
Even though he spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather when he was growing up, Gary said the man he never mentioned that his mother had been murdered when he was just 14.
Gary said he was researching his family tree in 1996, when he was able to get his mother to talk a little about the murder. Her memory was hazy on some of the facts but, Gary added, she provided enough information for him to embark on what would be a 24-year quest to learn what had happened that fateful day—Sept. 25, 1906.
A historian in La Porte, Ind., uncovered a divorce decree for Gary, and he learned that the murder had taken place in Mishawaka, Ind. According to the records, Gary’s great grandmother, Celia, did not have much luck with husbands. The divorce decree showed that her first husband beat her.
“And it was her second husband who killed her,” Gary added.
The historian sent Gary hundreds of newspaper clippings about the murder from the local papers.
“My journalism history professor was right when he taught us that, ‘newspapers are an important tool for historians,’” he said. “Heaven help the historians of the future if newspapers ever go out of business.”
Through his research, Gary said, he found a cousin that he didn’t know he had. She was living in California and shared what she knew of the murder and a photo of his great grandmother.
His research stalled then. Twenty years later, Gary retired and ended up breaking an ankle. While laid up, he started researching again. Luckily, in those intervening years, many of the online genealogy sites started up. He discovered a treasure trove of information about the murder on the internet.
When his ankle healed, Gary said he and Helen made their first research trip to Indiana. The microfilm at local libraries held more information for him. The county archives had disposed of the trial transcripts years before, apparently only holding onto felony cases for 55 years.
A big break in his research happened in 2017, when Gary learned that a local archivist found the transcript in the State Supreme Court files. With those transcripts, Gary said he realized he had enough material for a book.
He finished his first draft in February of 2018.
“Eventually, there were 12 drafts,” he said, showing a slide with most of them stacked behind his desk.
Now came the biggest hurdle—finding a publisher. Most big New York publishing houses, Gary surmised, would not be interested in a first time author without an agent, so he targeted smaller publishers that solicit manuscripts about true crime or regional history.
He had eight rejections, but one publisher stayed interested in the book, he said. Gary signed his contract with Kent University Press in September 2019, finishing his review in April of this year.
He smiled then, holding up a copy of the book with its cover art depicting the only known photo of his great grandmother and one of the man who murdered her.
Life was tough back then. Gary noted that his great grandmother was 15 years old and seven months pregnant with his grandfather when she married her first husband in 1892. That marriage did not last long. The divorce decree from 1896 showed that Cecilia charged her husband with cruel and inhumane treatment.
She met her second husband, Albin Ludwig in 1901 in Elkhart, Ind.
Gary said they were a mismatched couple from the start. Cecila was 3 inches taller than Alvin and her new husband was seven years older.
From the trial transcripts and the other research he did, Gary details what happened between the couple. He learned they were both foulmouthed and foul-tempered.
Newspaper coverage of the trial at time was explicit, he noted, because they stated Cecilia’s nude charred body was found stuffed in a closet. There were no witnesses, and all the evidence was circumstantial. Albin claimed self-defense.
Gary said he details both sides of the story in his book.
Because of the pandemic, he had to postpone his in-person book tour, but plans on having some virtual meeting. He is planning to come to Vandalia sometime in August this year.