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The Man in the Attic Case
Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: A bizarre saga of obsession, sex, and a secret lover in the attic
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: August 22, 1922
Date of arrest: July 12, 1923
Date of birth: 1880
Victim profile: Fred Oesterreich (her husband)
Method of murder: Shooting (.25 caliber pistol)
Location: Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA
Status: Her trial ended in a hung jury. The jury was unable to reach a verdict.  In 1936, the indictment against her was dismissed. Died in 1961
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2 photo gallery 3

Walburga "Dolly" Oesterreich (Approx 1880 in Germany or Milwaukee, Wisconsin – 1961 in Los Angeles) was an American homemaker and wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer. She gained notoriety for her bizarre 10-year affair with Otto Sanhuber (aka, Otto Weir; aka, Walter Klein) which culminated in the shooting death of her husband. The story inspired both a feature film, The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, and a made-for-TV movie starring Neil Patrick Harris, The Man in the Attic.

Dolly Oesterreich first became friendly with 17-year-old Otto Sanhuber around 1913 and described him as her "vagabond half-brother." The two quickly became lovers and met clandestinely at Sanhuber's boarding room or at a nearby hotel. They also arranged trysts at Dolly's home but, when neighbors began noting Otto's increasingly frequent comings and goings and alerted her husband, Dolly suggested to Otto that he quit his job and secretly move into the Oesterreich's upstairs attic to allay any further suspicions. He readily agreed to the arrangement. Not only would this put him in closer proximity to his lover but it would also give him time to pursue his dream of writing pulp fiction stories. Sanhuber would later describe himself as Dolly's "sex slave".

Dolly's husband, Fred, remained unaware of the new "boarder", though on several occasions he came close to discovering the deception. When the Oesterreichs moved to Los Angeles in 1918, Dolly had already sent Sanhuber on ahead to await their arrival. Dolly deliberately chose a new house with an attic (somewhat of a rarity in Los Angeles) and once again Otto moved in to resume their affair.

On August 22, 1922, after overhearing a loud argument between the Oesterreichs and believing Dolly to be in danger of physical harm, Sanhuber came rushing down from the attic, a pair of .25 caliber pistols in hand. In the ensuing struggle, Sanhuber shot Fred Oesterreich three times, killing him.

The two lovers then hastily staged the scene to look like a botched burglary. Sanhuber pocketed Fred's diamond watch while Dolly hid herself in a closet. Sanhuber had locked the closet door from the outside and tossed the key aside before returning to his attic refuge and this fact played a key role in frustrating police efforts to press murder charges against Dolly, despite their strong suspicions. But with no knowledge of Otto Sanhuber's long-time presence in the house, they were hard-pressed to explain how Dolly could have killed her husband while locked in a closet.

Sanhuber remained at large for eight years, eventually moving to Canada, changing his name to Walter Klein and marrying another woman before returning to Los Angeles again. In 1930, after a falling out, Dolly's personal attorney (and current lover), Herman Shapiro, revealed to police what he knew about Otto Sanhuber's involvement in the murder. Sanhuber was arrested and convicted of manslaughter but later released because the statute of limitations had run out.

Dolly was also arrested but her trial ended in a hung jury (most of the jurors leaning towards acquittal) and in 1936 the indictment against her was finally dropped. Dolly Oesterreich remained in Los Angeles until her death in 1961. Otto Sanhuber disappeared back into obscurity after his release from jail and nothing more is known about him.


Walburga "Dolly" Oesterreich

A bizarre saga of obsession, sex, and a secret lover in the attic began to unravel on a late-summer night in 1922

Dolly Oesterreich always had a man in her life-usually more than one. Fred Oesterreich, her husband, was a hard-living, hard-drinking and wealthy manufacturer of women's clothing, primarily kitchen aprons. The couple first lived in Milwaukee, then moved to Los Angeles. Following them out was Dolly Oesterreich's secret live-in lover, Otto Sanhuber.

In 1913, when Dolly was a housewife in her early thirties, she had seduced Sanhuber, age 17, who was then working as a sewing-machine repairman in her husband's factory. Oesterreich began the affair by calling her husband at work to tell him that her sewing machine was broken. When Sanhuber arrived at her home to fix the machine, she was wearing only stockings and a silk robe.

The owlish, slight Sanhuber, who later described himself as Oesterreich's "sex slave," not only became fixated on the domineering housewife but he moved into the house, quietly retreating to the attic each evening when Fred Oesterreich came home from work. And wherever the Oesterreichs moved, for the next decade, so did Sanhuber.

During the day, Sanhuber made the beds, did other housework and kitchen chores, made bootleg gin and fulfilled his duties as a lover. He lived on scraps he was fed in the kitchen. At night, in the attic, he lived another, solitary life, reading murder mysteries by candlelight and writing fiction-adventurous tales of lust and romance that he eventually sold to magazines. When the strange tale became publicly known, the newspapers called Sanhuber the "ghost in the garret" and "Bat Man."

The Oesterreichs frequently quarreled, but a particularly loud argument, and the sounds of a physical struggle, finally brought Sanhuber out of his attic late on the night of August 22, 1922. Fearing for his lover's safety, Sanhuber grabbed two small pistols and came down to confront Fred Oesterreich. The undoubtedly surprised husband recognized Sanhuber from years before, when he'd ordered him to stay away from his wife. Oesterreich grappled with Sanhuber and in the struggle was shot three times, once in the back of the head.

The lovers decided to feign an attack by burglars, whom Dolly Oesterreich would claim had killed Oesterreich when he resisted their demands. Sanhuber locked Dolly Oesterreich in a bedroom closet, threw the key into the hallway, hid Fred Oesterreich's expensive diamond watch, then retreated to his attic hideout. Dolly Oesterreich screamed for her husband-"Fred! Oh Fred!"-but was slumped on the closet floor when police arrived, alerted by neighbors who had heard the gunfire.

For almost a year the story held, though detectives were suspicious. For one thing, Oesterreich had been killed by a .25-caliber handgun, a petite weapon that few armed robbers would choose.

Dolly Oesterreich, meanwhile, moved to another house in the neighborhood, installing Sanhuber again secretly in the attic. She also struck up an affair with the attorney settling her husband's estate, Herman S. Shapiro. As a gift to her new lover, she gave Shapiro her late husband's diamond watch, which he recognized. Oesterreich explained that she'd found it under a seat cushion in the house, but didn't think she needed to tell the authorities about it.

Then Oesterreich added a third lover, a businessman named Roy H. Klumb. From Klumb, she wanted a favor. Would he dispose of an old gun similar enough to the one used to kill her husband that it might be embarrassing if the police found it? Klumb threw it into what turned out to be a shallow spot in the La Brea Tar Pits. She asked a neighbor to do her a similar favor, and he buried the other gun under a rose bush in his backyard.

By July of the next year, however, a detective had learned that Shapiro had the watch. And Klumb, after breaking up with Oesterreich, had told police of disposing of one of her guns. They retrieved the first gun from the tar pits. With the case back in the newspapers, the neighbor brought in the gun from under the rose bush. Dolly Oesterreich was arrested for murder.

In jail, Oesterreich begged Shapiro to take food to the still-hidden Sanhuber. When he did, and the two men began talking, Shapiro learned of Sanhuber's ten-year obsession. Shapiro threw him out of the house.

Meanwhile, in hearings that dragged over months, Chief Deputy District Attorney Buron Fitts and Deputy District Attorney Harold L. Davis searched for a motive and more evidence, as well as an explanation of how Dolly Oesterreich could have locked herself in her bedroom closet and still deposited the key outside the door. Both guns were also rusted and damaged; it was impossible to prove that either one was the murder weapon. Then Oesterreich became so ill that she was reported to be dying. Eventually she was released on bail. Soon, all charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Shapiro, her remaining lover, moved into Oesterreich's house, and they lived together in a tumultuous relationship for the next seven years. Finally, in 1930, Shapiro moved out and told the authorities about Sanhuber, the "ghost in the garret." Oesterreich and Sanhuber were both arrested this time-Oesterreich being charged with conspiracy while Sanhuber was charged with murder. The jury found Sanhuber guilty of manslaughter, but since it was now a year beyond the statute of limitations for him on a manslaughter conviction, Sanhuber was freed.

In a separate trial prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney James Costello, Oesterreich was saved by a hung jury. Lacking more convincing evidence, new District Attorney Buron Fitts ended the long melodrama by declining to try her again.

Sanhuber disappeared. Oesterreich apparently bridled her passions, living quietly with the same man for the next three decades, until her death in 1961.


'Bat Man' case: A lurid tale of love and death

By Cecilia Rasmussen - Los Angeles Times

March 20, 1995

Even by the standards of the day, this was one of the most outrageous slayings of the age. And it fed the front pages for eight years. Walburga (Dolly) Oesterreich was at the center of one of the city's most sensational love affairs, a tale feasted on by the city's newspapers in the 1920s and '30s, when brassy headlines reflected the cutthroat competition.

Newspapers described her as a "naughty vamp" and "comely." Her eyes and her appetites would bring a long line of men into her life -- and send one to his death.

She had been a Milwaukee housewife, married to a dour, hard-drinking apron manufacturer named Fred Oesterreich. But the housewife, and the house, had a secret: Her over, Otto Sanhuber, a small, quiet sewing machine repairman who had worked for Oesterreich, lived for 10 years in the attic over the apron manufacturer's bed, hidden there by Dolly.

When the Oesterreiches moved to Los Angeles, Sanhuber came along and took up residence in the attic of a house above Sunset Boulevard

One summer night, when he heard the Oesterreiches quarreling, Sanhuber came out of his hideaway and shot Fred Oesterreich to death.

The investigations and trial were to last eight years and end in a mistrial. Dolly Oesterreich was never retried on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. However her "sex slave," Sanhuber, was convicted.

Their bizarre arrangement began in 1913, when Dolly Oesterreich, 26, called her husband at the apron factory, complaining that her sewing machine did not work. Her husband sent Sanhuber, 17, to fix it. Dolly Oesterreich, who had noticed Sanhuber at the factory, greeted him in a silk robe, stockings, heavy perfume and nothing else.It was the beginning of a decade-long affair.

In 1918, when the Oesterreiches moved to Lafayette Park Place in Los Angeles, Sanhuber quietly moved in right over them. At night, he read mysteries by candlelight and wrote stories of adventure and lust. By day he made love to Dolly Oesterreich, helped her keep house and made bathtub gin.

On Aug. 22, 1922, the Oesterreiches returned home arguing. As the fight grew louder, Sanhuber hurried down from the attic to protect her, carrying two .25-caliber guns. When Oesterreich recognized Sanhuber, he flew into a rage. They struggled, the guns went off and Oesterreich was shot.

Thinking fast, Sanhuber locked Dolly in a closet, then hurried upstairs to his hideaway before police arrived, summoned by a neighbor who heard the shots.

She told police that a burglar had shot her husband, taken his expensive watch, locked her up and fled.

But the detective became suspicious when she said that she and her husband had never quarreled. Fred Oesterreich was a wealthy man, and although the detective considered that motive for murder, he had no evidence.

Dolly moved to a house nearby, and Sanhuber stayed in that attic too, writing on a typewriter he bought with proceeds from the sale of his stories and with the nickels and dimes -- never anything larger --bestowed on him by Dolly.

Freed from her marriage, she became fond of her estate attorney, Herman S. Shapiro. She gave him a diamond watch, which he recognized as the one that the supposed burglar had stolen the night her husband was slain. She explained that she had found it later under a window seat cushion.

While Sanhuber wrote and Shapiro spent long hours in court, Oesterreich took up with a businessman named Roy H. Klumb. She begged him for a favor: She had a gun that looked just like the one that killed her husband. And she worried that the police might find it and suspect her of murder. Would he get rid of it for her? Dutifully, Klumb threw the gun into the La Brea Tar Pits.

She told the same story to a neighbor, who buried the second gun in his yard.

When Oesterreich broke off with Klumb, he told police about the gun and the tar pits. On July 12, 1923, 11 months after the murder, police found the gun near the oozing tar and Oesterreich was arrested.

The day the headlines hit, the neighbour walked into the police station with the second gun.

But both were too rusted to determine whether they had fired the fatal bullets.

From jail, Oesterreich pleaded with Shapiro to buy groceries for Sanhuber and to tap on the ceiling of the bedroom closet to let him know he should come out.

Sanhuber, starved for conversation, began telling the attorney lurid tales about his 10 years with Dolly. Shapiro issued an ultimatum, and Sanhuber left the state.

After Oesterreich was released on bail, Shapiro moved in with her --but not into the attic. The charges were eventually dropped.

But in 1930, after seven stormy years with Oesterreich, Shapiro moved out and came clean. He told authorities what he knew.

A second warrant was issued for Oesterreich's arrest; she was charged with conspiracy, and Sanhuber was charged with murder.

The papers dubbed it the "Bat Man" case after learning that Sanhuber had led a cave-like existence in the attic.

The jury found Sanhuber guilty of manslaughter, in spite of his defense that he had been enslaved by her. But the statute of limitations had run out and Sanhuber, now 43, walked free.

At Oesterreich's conspiracy trial, famed attorney Jerry Giesler won a hung jury, and Oesterreich was free.

In 1961, she died at age 75, less than two weeks after marrying her second husband and 30-year companion, Ray Bert Hedrick.


Man in the Attic Case

By Denise Noe

Woman Meets Boy

In 1903, Walburga “Dolly” Oesterreich and Fred Oesterreich (pronounced “Acestrike”) had been married for 15 years.  The couple resided in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Both were primarily of German descent, like many others in that city, and enjoyed good beer and hearty German foods.  Both were blond and tended toward plumpness.  By most accounts, they were only a few years apart in age, she 36 to his 40, but for all they had in common, possessed quite different temperaments.  Fred was a skinflint with an iron will.  He owned a factory in which about 60 women worked at manufacturing clothes, primarily aprons.  He often went through the factory, demanding that each worker work faster and better.  Dolly, as forelady, would frequently follow behind him to soothe the wounded egos of the criticized and anxious employees.

Apparently, the Oesterreichs had marital problems of a decidedly personal nature.  Dolly appeared to crave sex quite a bit more frequently than Fred did.  Thus, she began to seek to have her physical needs met in extramarital affairs.  They didn’t last very long – until she met a man who would be special to her for decades.

One day Dolly was at the factory, observing the labor of the employees, when a sewing machine broke down.  Notified of the problem, the Singer Sewing Machine Company sent a repairman to the Oesterreich factory.  He was Otto Sanhuber, a blue-eyed, short and slightly built teenager.  Even Sanhuber himself did not know exactly how old he was.  He believed he was either 16 or 17 years old.  He thought he was of German Jewish extraction and had been an orphan.  His birth name was likely Weir but he was adopted into the Sanhuber family.

There are two quite different versions of how the relationship between the teenaged repairman and the middle-aged Dolly began.  In one, the Oesterreichs’ only child, a teenager named Raymond, had recently died when Dolly first saw Otto. 

She was immediately attracted to the soft, shy boy-man, at least in part because he reminded her of the dead son for whom she still deeply grieved.  Maternal feelings may have mixed with her sexual desire for Otto, heightening both. 

So not long afterward, she requested that the Singer Sewing Machine Company send Otto to her house to fix the sewing machine in her bedroom.  It was a pleasant autumn day when Otto arrived at the Oesterrichs’ dark yellow frame house.  Dolly Oesterreich opened the door, heavily perfumed and wearing a silk robe, stockings and slippers.  She led the teenaged repairman to the bed where she watched, sitting on her bed, as he worked on the machine. 

Whenever Otto looked up from his work, it seemed that Dolly. Oesterreich’s bathrobe had come open a bit more and he could see that she was wearing nothing beneath her robe.  This aroused mixed feelings in Otto.  He had never been a hit with girls and was a virgin at the time.  The sight of so much exposed female flesh embarrassed him even as it aroused him. 

At a certain point, Dolly Oesterreich was lying back, with much flesh showing and a broad, seductive smile on her long-nosed, pretty face.  Otto understood.  He left his work to take the older woman in his arms and the two of them enjoyed an afternoon of passion.

Another version of this story gives a far more gradual build-up to the affair.  In that version, Otto went to the Oesterreich home to fix Dolly’s broken sewing machine but she did not seduce him at that time.  Instead, he met and made friends with a very much alive young Raymond.  He started visiting their home, and Raymond, regularly.

Then Raymond suddenly took ill and died.  Dolly plunged into a terrible grief.  Otto came around often to comfort her in her mourning.  The two grew closer until romantic and sexual passion blazed.

For the next three years, factory forelady and repairman carried on their secret love affair.  Sometimes Dolly met Otto at his boarding room and on other occasions they frequented a hotel.  Usually, Otto visited Dolly when she stayed home from the factory, pretending to be ill, or her husband was out for the night at a lodge meeting.  Despite their affluence, the Oesterreichs had no servants and that made it easier for the clandestine lovers.

Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber made a lively pair.  Otto claimed that the two once made love no less than eight times in a single, ecstasy-filled day.

However, things could not go on as they were indefinitely.  A neighbor began noticing the frequency of young Otto’s comings and goings and mentioned them to Fred Oesterreich.  A suspicious Fred confronted Dolly.  As Alan Hynd wrote in The Attic Lover, she “calmly replied that a book salesman had been pestering her but that she had put a stop to the fellow’s visits.  The apron manufacturer seemed to be satisfied.”

Kept Man

Many cultures, principally Muslim, have a custom called “purdah” of keeping women in seclusion.  By forbidding females to move freely within the world of men, they hope to make certain that there is no chance a child could be fathered by anyone other than a husband and thus keep bloodlines “pure.”

Otto Sanhuber was a man who, for different reasons, chose to live in his own, unique sort of purdah. 

Dolly told Otto about the nosy neighbor and suggested that having him always coming and going would cause the two of them problems.  She proposed that he move into the attic so he could be there all the time.  Otto liked this plan.  It meant he got free room and board.  It also meant he would be close to the woman he loved at all times.  He would have to quit his work as a repairman but he didn’t care.  The young man had long nursed a dream of being a writer and this arrangement would give him the time he needed to work on that skill.

The attic was cleaned up and furnished with an oil lamp, a comfortable mattress and a chamber pot.  Otto brought reading material as well as a pencil and paper into his new home. During the day, Otto did household chores, sweeping floors, dusting, washing dishes, peeling vegetables and performing various domestic duties.

On nights when the Oesterreichs went out as a couple, or Fred Oesterreich was out by himself, Otto could leave his purdah for a bit of evening exercise. 

Dolly put a padlock on the door to the attic and carried the key herself so Fred would not be able to slip up there.  Her husband asked about the padlock and she easily replied, “I want to keep my furs in a safe place.”

Of course, Dolly Oesterreich had duties at the factory and was not home most days.  However, she pretended to be ill often enough that Otto and she could enjoy their relationship.

There was a distinct disadvantage to this arrangement.  Otto was now living directly above his lover and her husband.  He needed to be extra careful when he moved around lest he accidentally alert Fred to his presence. 

The position of the attic meant that Otto could hear the sounds of the woman he adored making love with her husband.  While having sex, Dolly urged Fred not to be so noisy.  He asked why and she replied, “Oh, you never know who might hear us and it would be embarrassing.”

“Who the hell can hear us?” an understandably puzzled Fred asked.

“Oh, nobody I guess,” Dolly relented.

According to Alan Hynd, after one such night of marital passion, a jealous Otto confronted Dolly.  She reminded him that she could not leave her husband since she had no saleable skills and no funds of her own.  She had to stay married and that meant she had to have sex with Fred.

Otto eventually agreed that he would not harass her about her marital lovemaking.

About a year passed when Fred Oesterreich became troubled by odd noises.  He and his wife were in bed when he thought he heard something – like a man clearing his throat.

“What was that?” Fred asked his wife.

“You’re imagining things,” an unruffled Dolly told him.  “Now go to sleep.”

Fred Oesterreich settled back against the covers of his bed next to his wife.  Suddenly he bolted upright.  “I wasn’t imagining that!” he said.

“You certainly are imagining things,” Dolly said in exasperation.  “It’s only a rat or a mouse.  If you want to know something, you’re drinking too much.”

When the Oesterreichs were going out at night, Dolly made it a regular practice to release the trap door to the attic just before leaving.  Otto would listen for the sound of the couple closing their front door.  As soon as he heard that, he would run down the stairs and gorge himself on the hearty German food all three of them loved: rye bread, cheeses, liverwursts, bologna and anything else edible that happened to be in the house.

Fred Oesterreich was sometimes baffled when he looked at food that had been left over from the previous day.  He sat down at the table with his wife and, when he saw the small size of the roast before him, asked Dolly what happened to the meat. She managed to convince him that he had eaten it the night before when he had been drunk. That explanation seemed to satisfy him.

South Seas Dreamer

Although Otto Sanhuber lived an isolated life in confinement, with no one but Dolly for company, in his imagination he freely roamed the balmy South Seas where he enjoyed colorful adventures.  He also got his fantasies down on paper while in his attic home.  He would hand these short stories to his married, middle-aged girlfriend who would type them up when she had time and Fred was not around.  She mailed them to pulp magazines, using a post office box for the correspondence.  Like most writers, his first efforts were greeted with dispiriting form rejection slips.  But Otto was tenacious, and eventually a story of his was published in a little magazine.  He began publishing fairly regularly to his own joy and that of his helpful sweetheart. 

One evening, wrote Alan Hynd, Fred Oesterreich was pottering in his garden and happened to look up – right at the window in his attic.  Dolly had repeatedly warned Otto not to go near that window but he had disobeyed this once and the two men may have looked directly at each other for just a split second before a panicked Otto pulled back.

“Goddamn it!” Fred yelled as he raced into his home.  “I knew somebody was up in that attic.  I just saw something moving at the window!”

“All right,” Dolly said, “I’ll go up to the attic and investigate.”

“I’ll go up,” her husband said.

“I’ll go up,” Dolly repeated.  When she came down, she expressed concern for her husband’s mental condition.  “Fred, you’ve been working too hard at the factory,” she said in a caring voice.  “You’re seeing things.  Promise me you’ll go to a doctor.”

Fred told his wife that he would see a physician about his curious symptoms.  He did not want to give her more cause for worry.

Go to the doctor he did.  “Take things a little easier,” the physician advised and wrote out a prescription for a tranquilizer.

In 1910, writer and lover Otto Sanhuber had lived in the Oesterreich attic for about three years.  The couple decided to move and went to check into houses.  Dolly Oesterreich would only agree to a home with a convenient attic.  She may have told Fred she wanted a secure place for her beloved furs.

In the new residence Otto was not directly above the Oesterreich’s bedroom so he did not have to overhear the couple in their most intimate moments.  Fred also did not hear Otto clearing his throat or coughing.

The Oesterreich marriage continued to deteriorate.  Fred was drinking all the time.  He was by turns silent and depressed or loud and argumentative.  However, the seven-year-old love affair between Dolly and Otto was still going strong.  At approximately 24, Otto was sexually vigorous and he and Dolly were deeply in love.  He was also enjoying some success as a writer, penning stories that appeared in various pulps and that earned him and Dolly a few extra dollars.

In 1913, the odd family moved again and Otto took up residence in a fresh attic, bringing his little light, his cot and a chamber pot

The years passed with Fred becoming ever more of a grouch and his wife finding regular solace in her loving attic man. 

One late evening in 1918, a confrontation occurred.  The Oesterreichs were out at a German beer party.  Fred and Dolly got into an argument and Fred went home in a huff, leaving his wife behind.  The aging factory owner strolled into his kitchen only to find a short, slim, very pale, 32-year-old man seated at the table, placidly enjoying a nice leg of lamb.

“What the hell’re you doin’ here in my house?!” an outraged Fred exclaimed as he grabbed Otto by the shoulders.

Taken by surprise, Otto weakly replied, “I’m hungry, sir.”

“So you’re the one’s been eatin’ all my meat!” the homeowner shouted.

“Y-y-y-yes, sir,” the younger man stuttered.

Little suspecting that he was dealing with an occupant of his own house, Fred Oesterreich tossed the much smaller man onto the street.

When Dolly came home from the party, her husband related the strange story of the man eating in their kitchen.  Fred had not been imagining things after all, he said.  This rascal had somehow been sneaking into their house to forage through their food! 

Otto spent an uncomfortable night sleeping out in the open.  After his unceremonious expulsion, Otto met up with Dolly.  What should they do now? he wondered. “Go to Los Angeles,” Dolly said.  “I’ll give you the money from your stories.”

He followed her advice.  The two communicated through the post office box that had already been set up for sending and receiving Otto’s literary efforts.  Otto got a job as a porter in an apartment complex.  He did not particularly care for Los Angeles.  After spending so many years of his life in an attic, coming out only at night, the sunshine struck him with an unpleasant harshness.

In the meantime, Dolly was working on her husband, telling him that they ought to move to Los Angeles.  He was eventually convinced.  The couple stayed in a Los Angeles hotel while they looked for a house to buy.  It was not easy to find one acceptable to Dolly because few California homes had attics. While the Oesterreichs looked for a home, Dolly and Otto commenced a more conventional sort of dalliance. 

They met in various cheap hotels for trysts.

Eventually, Dolly found a large, nice home with an attic on North St. Andrews Place in an affluent area.  The couple set up housekeeping and Otto moved into the attic. Later, he would say that he was willing to live cooped up in attics “in order to be near the only person in the entire world who cared whether Otto Sanhuber lived or died.”  He resumed his life of making love to Dolly and doing housework during the day.  Since it was Prohibition, the couple also made bathtub gin.  At nights he continued to read and to write short stories that she would type and send off to publishers.

Unlike Otto, Fred Oesterreich adored Los Angeles.  The sunny weather had a marvelous effect on him and he felt a renewed vigor.  Although he had been contemplating retirement before the move, he decided he wanted to return to the working world.  He purchased a new factory and spent his days running the place.

Shots Ring Out!

Otto Sanhuber had spent many years as a secret lover of Dolly Oesterreich and most of that time as a resident in her and Fred’s attic, unknown to Fred, when a crisis erupted in a most terrible way.

It was August 22, 1922.  The Oesterreichs had been out for the evening.  They were quarreling when they returned home.  Otto heard the noisy row.  Then he heard a loud thud and the sound of Dolly screaming. Otto thought Fred was beating Dolly; actually, she had just slipped on a throw rug.   He grabbed two .25-caliber guns and rushed down the stairs. 

It is important to note at this point that Fred Oesterreich was never able to tell his version of the next events.  All we have to go on are the words of Dolly and Otto, plus the physical evidence.

According to the stories told by both Dolly and Otto, Fred recognized Otto as the culprit he had found in his home before, leisurely helping himself to a generous leg of lamb.  Flying into a rage, Fred tackled Otto, grabbing for the guns, then putting his hands around Otto’s neck.  One or both guns went off and a panicked Otto pulled the trigger again and again, shooting Fred a total of three times.

Fred Oesterreich lay dead on his living room floor. 

What could they do?  Otto believed they could make it appear that burglars had intruded into the family home and murdered the husband. For once, he gave the orders and a frightened Dolly complied.  Otto divested Fred’s corpse of the diamond-studded chain watch, then locked Dolly into a closet, tossed the key on the floor, and scurried back upstairs to his familiar refuge.

A neighbor had heard the shots and phoned the police, who arrived shortly.  “Fred! Oh, Fred!” they heard Dolly tearfully cry from behind the closet door of the couple’s bedroom.  The key to it was on the carpet a few feet from the door.  

Chief of Detectives Herman Cline was on the scene at the Oesterreich home that night.  He took an immediate dislike to Dolly Oesterreich. She was too immaculately dressed and carefully made-up for a woman of 55, in his (rather old-fashioned) opinion. Alan Hynd describes what happened as the interrogation began.

He began questioning her and his suspicions were ratcheted up.  “Did you and your husband ever quarrel?” he asked.

“Never,” she instantly replied.

“Not even a little bit?” he pressed.

She remained oddly firm.  There had been no arguments between herself and the late Fred. 

Cline knew that all couples have spats.  Why would someone claim otherwise?  He knew she must be a liar and have something to hide.

The chief and other officers carefully inventoried the residence.  Only one item could be identified as missing: the husband’s diamond-studded watch.  However, the dead man’s wallet was still in his pocket and stuffed with cash. 

Cline got nowhere with Dolly Oesterreich.  His attempts to trip her up and catch her in a lie or contradiction all failed.  Later he would describe her as the “toughest dame I ever saw.”

When the crime lab came back to report that Fred Oesterreich was done in by a .25, Cline was convinced that something was wrong with Dolly Oesterreich’s burglar story.  “No burglar uses a .25-caliber gun,” he said.  “Why, that’s a woman’s gun.”  But attempts to prove Dolly’s guilt were fruitless.  There was one seemingly insurmountable problem with her having murdered her husband.  That was the question of how she could have locked herself in the closet from the outside.

Fred’s close friend and business associate, Fred Keune, said he was certain a burglar had killed Fred Oesterreich.  “He was one of the most loved men I have ever known,” Keune commented to the Los Angeles Times.  “As far as I know, he didn’t have an enemy in the world.”  Telling those assembled that he and his wife frequently socialized with the Oesterreichs, Keune went on to say that, “Mr. Oesterreich was probably the cause of me moving here and now that he is gone it seems everything worthwhile that was here when he was alive has faded away. . . . It was the greatest blow of our lives when we learned last night he had been killed.  I’m sure it is a case of burglary.”

Herman Cline kept plugging away at the baffling case while the widow Oesterreich was free to get on with her life.

Get on with it she did.  Once again she moved.  She told others that she wanted to get away from the awful memory of Fred’s killing.  She moved to a smaller home on North Beachwood Drive. The year 1923 began with Otto Sanhuber moving into yet another attic.  He no longer had to hide from Fred Oesterreich but he had more reason than ever to want to hide from the world.

Dolly tried to settle her late husband’s estate.  She hired attorney Herman Shapiro.  Dolly was a sensuous woman and the two began flirting, then progressed to dating.  During a meeting, Dolly pulled an obviously expensive, diamond-studded man’s watch out of her purse.  She handed it to Shapiro and said, “Here, I want you to have this.  It belonged to dear Fred.”

Later, she set about getting rid of the guns that had been used in her husband’s killing.  She had just started a relationship with an actor.  She handed him a .25-caliber revolver.  He knew at least part of the story of Fred’s violent demise.  She assured him that she had had nothing to do with her husband’s death but feared having the gun would incriminate her even though she was innocent.

Her friend indicated that he did understand and was happy to take it off her hands.  He went to the La Brea tar pits and tossed it.

Chief of Detectives Herman Cline somehow learned that Shapiro was walking around with a diamond-studded watch.  Suspicions aroused, Cline had a talk with the attorney, who obligingly reported the story of the grateful Dolly Oesterreich and her generous gift.  He also handed the watch to Cline, who took it to Dolly.  She suddenly developed amnesia.  “I’ve never seen it before,” she insisted.

Ah-ha!  Cline was certain he could prove her a liar.  The conscientious detective traveled to Milwaukee where he visited good jewelry stores until he found the one that had sold that watch to Fred Oesterreich.  He returned home to arrest the widow Oesterreich for first-degree murder.

As a shocked Dolly Oesterreich suffered her first days in jail, her actor friend read about the arrest in the newspapers.  Frightened, he went to Cline and told him the story of the .25 he had been given and told to dispose of.

Cline was elated.  All of the pieces of this puzzle were finally falling into place.  “What’d you do with the gun?” he asked.

“I tossed it in the La Brea tar pits,” the actor replied.

Cline’s heart sank.  “Jesus Christ,” he said bitterly, “Now there’s as much chance of finding it as finding a snowball in hell.”

Sources differ as to whether Cline’s people were able to recover a .25-caliber from the tar pits.  Hynd wrote in The Attic Lover  that they dragged them in vain.  But Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in The Los Angeles Times that “On July 12, 1923, 11 months after the murder, police found the gun near the oozing tar.” Rasmussen also said that a neighbor with whom Dolly had deposited a second gun went to the police with it. However, “both [guns] were too rusted to determine whether they had fired the fatal bullets.”

Shapiro visited Dolly behind bars.  Apparently she was unaware of the crucial role he had played in getting her there for she seemed to still regard him as a trusted friend.  She told him that she had a very special favor to ask.  In her home there was a trap door leading to the attic.  It was on the second floor, located inside the closet there.  She wanted Shapiro to take a generous bag of groceries to her home and knock three times on that trap door.  A man would answer the raps, she explained, and take the groceries.

The whole thing sounded crazy to Shapiro.  Nevertheless, he bought the groceries and made the trip to the closet on the second floor.  

Alan Hynd describes the scene: the door to the attic opened and a man said, “Hello, Herman, don’t be afraid of me.”  Apparently he knew of Dolly’s friend and may even have been expecting this visit.  Middle-aged at the time, the still slim and slightly built Otto Sanhuber peered down at the stranger bearing the full grocery bag.  Otto slid out of the attic and onto a shelf.

The attorney introduced himself and Otto gratefully accepted the groceries.  “Glad to meet you,” Otto said, extending his hand for a shake, “Mrs. Oesterreich has told me a lot about you.”

On another visit to Dolly, Shapiro reminded her that he was a civil, not a criminal, attorney and could not be expected to handle her murder case.  So she hired the flamboyant Frank Dominiquez, a smart and outspoken lawyer who did specialize in criminal cases.

Dominquez heard nothing about the man in the attic from his client.  However, Shapiro told him about Otto and Dominquez insisted that Shapiro get Otto out of his attic residence. Otto vacated reluctantly when he understood the implications for Dolly.

In court, things were looking up for Dolly Oesterreich.  Dominquez moved for a dismissal of the murder charge.  Much to the chagrin of Herman Cline, the judge granted it. No weapon could be linked to the killing, there were no eyewitnesses, and no confession.  The “stolen” watch that had so mysteriously turned up was too thin a reed upon which to rest a murder case.

It seemed that the slaying of Fred Oesterreich was destined to remain a mystery. 

Apparently the extraordinary love of Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber had finally spent itself.  Dolly continued to date Shapiro, who gave her an ultimatum: she could no longer see Otto.  She agreed to it on the condition that Shapiro help Otto  find work.  

According to Fallen Angels by Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader, Shapiro took Sanhuber to San Francisco and “found him a job as a janitor.  From there he went to Vancouver, Canada, where he worked as a porter.  He soon married a Canadian woman.  After a time he returned to Los Angeles with his wife.  He found another hotel porter’s job, one where he worked nights and retired to sleep before the sun rose.  He made no contact with his former lover.”   Somewhere along the way, he changed his name to Walter Klein and it was under that name that he married his wife, Mathilde.

Seven years passed before Cline got a break in the case. 

In 1930, Shapiro appeared at the police station.  He and Dolly had had a falling out over money, he told them.  He claimed that she had threatened him.  Thus, he had drawn up the affidavit that he was turning over to them.

That affidavit contained the story allegedly told to Shapiro by Otto Sanhuber.

The polite, quiet and sunshine-averse Otto was employed in another Los Angeles apartment house as a porter.  He was arrested for murder.  So was his former lover, Dolly.

"Bat Man" on Trial

The press had a field day with the sensational case.  Otto was called the “Bat Man” and “The Ghost in the Garrett.”  Earl Seeley Wakeman defended Otto.  Wakeman was a shrewd attorney who specialized in defending accused murderers.  Otto had, of course, confessed to the killing but claimed it happened in a struggle over his guns. Otto pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Wakeman played on the jury’s sympathies by saying that his client had been a tool in the hands of a much older, more sophisticated and dominant woman.  The defendant in the courtroom was no longer the fresh-faced teenaged male virgin who had caught Dolly’s eye.  He was a sallow-complexioned, small, plain-looking middle-aged man.  He had a receding hairline and wore round, black horn-rimmed spectacles.  He had a nervous twitch that added to the effect of making him look pitiable.

In Norman Winski's Sex and the Criminal Mind, Otto's testimony is recorded. Otto described  an average day for him in the Los Angeles Oesterreich house in the years preceding the killing.  “I made up the beds [the couple was by then sleeping in separate bedrooms] and changed the linen about two times a week,” he said.  “They loved to sleep clean, and I made up the beds for them, and put away their clothes, and dusted Fred’s clothes, because he had some beautiful things, and I would keep them in order for him and dust them, and dust his shoes, you know, so he would look neat always.  And then I would wash the dishes if he wasn’t home, and if he was home he would wash them, and Mrs. Oesterreich would dry them, because I couldn’t then.  And I would get the vegetables clean, and they were clean – everybody praised her, how clean her things were; and scrubbed the floor and kept it clean, and kept the floor neat, you know – she loved to have a beautiful floor – and dusted it, you know.”  As can be seen from this testimony, Otto took pride in doing a good job in his domestic duties.  His years of housework for the Oesterreichs probably made him a most efficient janitor.

His attorney asked him about the period when he came to Los Angeles ahead of the Oesterreichs and had to be away from his beloved Dolly. Norman Winski reported this testimony:

“When I was away from my attic,” he testified, “the time was so long I didn’t measure it in hours.  I was frantic until I returned.”

The Oedipal nature of the relationship was underlined when Otto spoke of the way he occasionally tried to manipulate Dolly.  Not having anything else at his disposal, he used refusing to eat as a weapon when the two had a dispute.

“It was sort of defense,” he told the court.  “I had no other weapon.  I did it deliberately.    I would go in my attic and I would stay there, I would not come out except just when needed, and I would fast, I just wouldn’t eat anything, that is all, and I had peace.  Maybe it was foolish of me, but I did not – that was my best way of doing it – and she would begin to feel sorry for me, I think, and talk softly to me and bring me food, set it there.  Well, now, like in that house, at that little door, you know.”

“Outside the door?” Wakeman asked.

“And then she would become, not disagreeable, but annoyed with me, and then I behaved myself.”

“By ‘behaving yourself’ you mean you did what she wanted you to?”

“Yes, sir,” Otto replied.

“And did that have anything to do with sex?” his lawyer pressed.

“Yes, sir, as a rule.”

The jury did not convict him of murder but did find him guilty of manslaughter.  However, the statute of limitations for that offense had already expired, leaving Otto Sanhuber a free man.

Attorney Jerry Geisler defended Dolly.  He was young and little known at the time but very skilled.  The jury was unable to reach a verdict but the majority were in favor of acquittal.  In 1936, the indictment against her was dismissed.

At the time The Attic Lover was published in 1958, Dolly was said to be “living over a garage in a run-down section of Los Angeles.”  As noted by Wolf and Mader in Fallen Angels, she “passed her last years living in a sort of attic.”

Cecilia Rasmussen wrote that Dolly died in 1961, “less than two weeks after marrying her second husband,” a man she had known for 30 years named Ray Bert Hedrick.  He had been her business manager.  When she died, all her estate went to Hedrick because of a will drawn up in 1953.  It made no mention of Otto Sanhuber.

Nothing is known about Otto Sanhuber’s life after his release from custody.  Perhaps he plugged along as a porter or janitor, dashing off the occasional short story and seeing it published in a pulp magazine.  With his gift for total devotion to a woman, it is not unreasonable to suspect that his marriage to Mathilde was a happy one. It was certainly superior to his relationship with Dolly Oesterreich in that it had no third party being wronged.

The home in which Fred Oesterreich died still stood in 1986.  Wolf and Mader noted, “No longer a single family residence, it’s now an apartment building with nine small units.  One of them is in the attic.”

On Film

This very unusual case inspired an excellent made-for-TV movie called The Man in the Attic. Graeme Campbell directed it.  Here the older couple is named Krista and Joseph Heldmann and they are played by Anne Archer and Len Cariou.  Neil Patrick Harris plays Edward Broder. As Mike Martin and Marsha Porter noted in Video Movie Guide 2002, “Good performances make it all seem plausible.” 

Len Cariou is sympathetic as Krista’s husband, a man several years older than she.  He is not depicted as a tyrannical Attila the Husband or “Simon Legree” as Hynd characterized Fred Oesterreich.  Rather, he is a successful man who knows that, as is common among marriages of the time period, his wife did not marry him out of passion but for respectability and financial security.  The audience is given to believe that, as he says at one point, he has done his best to “make this marriage work on [her] terms.”

Anne Archer’s Krista is a very loving and protective mother.  All her energy and feeling is concentrated on Karl.  She may even be a bit overprotective but that is, at least in part, the result of having few interests other than her maturing child.  With her husband, Joseph, she is tolerant and kind but distant.  She believes that she is merely an ornament to him, a pretty wife to wear on his arm, much as he thinks that she considers him a meal ticket.

Their son’s death throws the marriage into a crisis.  Joseph does not express emotion well and is unable to give his wife the comfort she needs after Karl’s death.  He does not weep and Krista takes that as meaning he does not care.  She feels isolated in her grief.  Krista emotionally “adopts” Edward in his place, sometimes calling him by her lost son’s name.  Edward, whose parents died long ago, looks upon her as the mother he was denied.  The romance between Edward and the older Krista unfolds believably and poignantly.  It is, of course, a story rich in Oedipal implications and The Man in the Attic mines them beautifully. The feelings of the older woman and younger man blossom into sexual love and the movie has some steamy love scenes.

The Man in the Attic ends on a note that salutes the extraordinary sacrifices Broder made. The reporter notes that he gave up all chance for a normal life, a wife and family of his own, his freedom to move in the world, his ability to form friendships.  “And I’d do it all again,” Broder says.  He would do it for love. There is indeed a sense in which the character, and the real-life individual upon whom he was based, were saintly.

However, that is only half of the story.  For even as he gave up his own freedom and the opportunity for a wife and family of his own for the sake of Dolly Oesterreich, he also took from Fred Oesterreich – his wife’s affection, support in the form of room and board, and privacy.  Finally, whether by premeditated act or during a struggle, he took Fred Oesterreich’s life.  It is likely that the usually passive, submissive Otto received a kind of sadistic gratification from cuckolding and living off Fred even as, on a day to day basis, he served him by pressing his suits and polishing his shoes. 

Otto’s sacrifices were mind-boggling and so were his thefts.  Few human beings have lived a life as rich in extremes and contradictions as did Otto Sanhuber.

Another major film inspired by this case was a comedy called The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom which debuted in 1968 starring Shirley MacLaine as Dolly, Richard Attenborough as Fred and James Booth as Otto.



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