A trailblazing female physician, Helene Knabe was living her life’s dream of practicing medicine when, on the morning of October 23, 1911, she was found dead. The mystery surrounding her death baffled investigators. Although they pursued several leads and even indicted one man, in the end, Dr. Knabe’s murderer was never brought to justice.
Dr. Helene Knabe immigrated to America from Prussia in 1896. For several years, she worked in domestic labor to learn English and save enough money to enroll in medical school. In 1900, Knabe was accepted to the Medical College of Indiana. There, her dedication and talent were soon recognized with an appointment as curator of the school’s pathology lab. She was the only student selected by the Director of Pathology to teach courses to underclassmen.
Dr. Knabe graduated on April 22, 1904. She was one of two female graduates that year. Dr. Knabe continued working as lab curator and clinical professor at the college. In 1905, she became the first woman in Indiana to be appointed Assistant Deputy State Health Officer. Dr. Knabe became a leading expert on rabies prevention. She was later promoted to acting superintendent but resigned when the State Board of Health refused to offer her pay equal to her male counterparts.
After resigning, Dr. Knabe opened a private practice and became the medical director and associate professor of physiology and hygiene at the Normal College of the National American Gymnastics Union. Through her association with Dr. William B. Craig, Dean of Students at the Indiana Veterinary College, Dr. Knabe was appointed Chair of Hematology and Parasitology at the school in 1909.
There were rumors of a romance between Craig and Knabe, with some suggestion that an engagement may have been called off in the days before Dr. Knabe’s murder. She had confided her engagement to a friend and sales records showed that she had recently commissioned a fancy gown.
On the morning of October 23, 1911, Dr. Knabe’s laboratory assistant entered her rooms at the Delaware Flats apartment complex and found Dr. Knabe lying on the bed with her throat slit. By the time police arrived an hour later, the crime scene had been disturbed by numerous gawkers. This, coupled with accusations that police officers failed to take the investigation seriously, hampered detectives’ ability to solve the crime. Indianapolis Police Chief Martin Hyland even publicly suggested she had committed suicide, based on the assumption that Dr. Knabe was large enough to ward off an attacker. Coroner Charles Durham quickly laid this claim to rest, noting defensive wounds on the victim and the absence of a plausible suicide weapon.
Newspapers were quick to sensationalize the murder, and Dr. Knabe was subjected to attacks on her character. As a single, 35-year-old female physician who demanded equality, Dr. Knabe defied society’s gender norms as a proud suffragette. The public found it easier to blame the gruesome murder on her unwomanly lifestyle.
Dr. Knabe was buried in an unmarked grave in Crown Hill Cemetery. Fifteen months later, two men were indicted: Dr. William B. Craig for murder and Alonzo M. Ragsdale, Dr. Knabe’s business partner and executor, as an accessory-to-murder. At trial, the state’s case quickly fell apart for lack of evidence. Dr. Craig was acquitted and charges against Ragsdale were dropped.
Dr. Knabe’s murder remains unsolved. Westfield author Nici Kobrowski has researched the crime extensively, drawing the conclusion that Dr. Craig was the likely killer. In 2016, she published a book entitled She Sleeps Well: the Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe. Drawn to the doctor’s unique story, Kobrowski purchased a headstone for her grave. We will likely never know who killed Dr. Knabe. Her case file was destroyed in a flood at the Indianapolis Marion County Police Department 1977, and there is little chance that her case will ever be reopened.