Revenge and redemption in Victorian Philadelphia
The story of convicted murderer Jacob Pesendorfer is extra tragic, because the man he killed – the rich guy who tried to ruin his life – probably would’ve really liked him if he’d given him a chance. They had a lot in common, most importantly, they were both highly invested in Annie Gautschi’s future. Annie was the daughter of a wealthy music box manufacturer; her father, Henry A. Gautschi, owned “Henry Gautschi and Sons”, a fancy music box shop at 10th and Chestnut.
As you might expect from a guy who made precision instruments for a living, Gautschi was a bit of a control freak, with very exacting standards for his home life as well as work. He was horrified when he found out his daughter – a grown woman in her mid 20’s – was in love with their Austrian cook’s son Jacob: a young apprentice machinist, fresh off the boat, who barely spoke English.
This was back in the late 1890’s, when anti-immigrant sentiments were surging in America, and daughters of prominent men were expected to be married off for the family’s financial or political gain. Gautschi put his foot down! He fired his cook and ordered Annie to cut all ties with Jacob.
They continued to meet in secret until on August 4, 1896, they eloped and wed at Old Zion Lutheran Church (628 N. Broad). They settled in Audubon, NJ and soon were expecting a baby. Mr. Gautschi was furious! He began an aggressive harassment campaign to prevent Jacob from making a living, tracking him down at every new job, calling his employers, talking trash and pulling strings to have him fired.
Six weeks before Annie’s due date, she received a letter from her father saying he will never accept an immigrant worker like Jacob as his son-in-law, so she might as well get used to being poor if she stayed with him — he was cutting her off! However, if she left Jacob, Gautschi offered her an impressive package including an immediate sum of $2000 cash ($60,000 in today’s money), a generous yearly dividend, and an equal share in his estate.
She showed Jacob the letter and left him that evening.
Jacob turned around and sued Gautschi for $10,000 in Common Pleas Court for the alienation of the affections of Annie. The court sided with Gautschi. 🤯
A month later, Annie gave birth to Raymond Gautschi Pesendorfer at her dad’s Chestnut Hill home, where Jacob had zero access to his newborn son and soon-to-be-ex wife. The life Jacob had built was torn asunder. Without ever really knowing him, Gautschi had viciously taken everything from Jacob that he held dear: his wife, his baby, his employment.
Jacob seethed for one, two, three years… Finally, by September 1901, he was ready to return fire.
Early that month, Jacob had heard Gautschi had been traveling the Bethlehem Pike regularly as he worked on plans for a new home with a builder in Landsdale. Jacob knew just where his carriage would be most vulnerable, and lied in wait for him one day behind a tree near Stenton Avenue.
As Gautschi approached the toll gate here, Jacob charged out shouting “Now it is my time!” He fired six rapid shots from his revolver: #1 nicked the carriage driver’s neck; #2, 3, 4 lodged in Gautschi’s back; #5 hit the horse in its leg; #6 whizzed passed Gautschi as he slumped unconscious from his seat.
Jacob didn’t run, he just stood over Gautschi like he was drinking the moment in. Cops were on the scene in a flash, rushing Gautschi to Germantown Hospital and Jacob to the 14th District Station House, where he confessed to police, “I did it for revenge. I hope I did my work.”
He did. One of the bullets had lodged in Gautschi’s lung, which quickly led to lethal pneumonia in the days before antibiotics. Jacob was charged with murder and sentenced to death. When asked if he had any reason why the sentence should not be passed, Jacob just put his head down on the wooden rail in front of him and checked out of reality.
Jacob was sent to Moyamensing Prison, where he remained mute while awaiting his execution. One hour before the trap door was to spring beneath him, the governor postponed his hanging to give the Board of Pardons time to consider his sanity. The sheriff told press at the time that he felt no question that Jacob was mentally unfit to be executed. His sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he was transferred to Eastern State Penitentiary, where he made a remarkable (and somewhat suspicious) recovery.
Jacob’s mother by now lived at 914 Cherry Street, and she visited him every week until she took ill in 1913, leaving him feeling helpless to care for her. At the time, inmates at Eastern State were allowed to work on small crafts, which they could sell locally for a small profit. Jacob started out lathing simple wooden knitting needles but as his proficiency grew he began making boxes and cabinets of the finest inlay.
He got more ambitious, too, and soon set his eyes on designing and building a clock for the prison watchtower. The warden gave him a workshop and the result was amazing. The clock had two illuminated faces, with bells that chimed precisely every hour thanks to a special winding mechanism Jacob invented (and eventually patented).
Took him three years to finish it, and by the time he was done he was famous throughout the prison as a model inmate, much admired. They called him “Lifer Jake” and his boxes became so popular he had 18 other inmates working in his woodshop. He saved up and bought his mom a bungalow, and sent her money every month from his profits.
Throughout this time, Jacob applied every year to the State Board for Pardons but was always denied. The prison staff kept advocating for his case though and finally they got him on the list for the governor’s annual Christmas pardon.
On the morning of December 20, 1926, word came from Harrisburg: Governor Pennypacker had pardoned Lifer Jake!
“Jake you’re free, the governor has pardoned you!” the warden shouted after running the entire length of the cellblock to burst into Jacob’s workshop. Jacob could hardly believe it was true, that he’d be home with his mother by dinner time.
Everyone celebrated, and the Captain handed him a hefty check from all the money earned through his years in the woodshop (which amounted to about $84,000 in today’s dollars).
Outside Eastern State, the warden told reporters they were sorry to see him go, calling Jacob “a most unusual man” who has earned the “universal respect of guards and prisoners.” As he walked from his cell to freedom through the huge front gate on Fairmount Ave, he was followed by a line of guards all cheering and applauding. The prison chaplain drove him home to his mother, where she threw her arms around him and declared it the happiest day of her life (and the best Christmas present, ever).
Jacob bought some land in West Berlin, and built a wood-working factory for ex-convicts where they could earn a living and have a fresh start in life. Two stories tall, the building’s walls were almost completely made of glass because he knew how much sunshine meant after you’ve been holed up in a dark prison for years. He’d give anyone a chance, with just two rules: keep sober, keep honest.
The factory custom-made radio cabinets, model ships, humidors and inlaid tables and jewel cases. They probably could’ve made music boxes, if Jacob appreciated irony. How sad to think he had all these skills – and a great work ethic! — that no doubt Gautschi would’ve found quite useful in his shop. Who knows what new patents and quality manufacturing Gautschi & Sons may have put forth together, if only he’d trusted his daughter’s instincts, and received his son-in-law with an open mind.
But Gautschi forced his daughter to abandon her first love, and for propriety’s sake she made a clean break from her son as well: Annie gave little Raymond up for adoption in 1903 when she remarried a butter-and-egg man her father approved of. They lived an unremarkable life with their two children in Wissinoming until 1917, when her husband died of pneumonia. She lived the last two decades alone at the Belle-Vista Sanitorium in Whitemarsh, suffering from dementia that would end her life in 1939.
Meanwhile, Jacob’s factory supported him and his wife, Margaret, through the 1930’s and 40’s. He passed away in 1961, five years after losing his wife and exhausting his fortune. The last line of his obituary stated: “Mr. Pesendorfer did not leave any immediate family,” although certainly the scores of ex-cons he helped over the years would beg to differ.
What do you think? This article is a Local summary of Bob McNulty’s original “Philadelphia Story” that you should definitely read here for more of the story, featuring Bob’s unique perspectives and lots of great details: names, addresses, and American history. First published July 15, 2018 and featured in October 2023’s Local paper (thanks, Bob!)
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