A long ago unsolved murder of a young Jewish girl in Durant has haunted a distant relative.
Pauline Amsel, 14, daughter of Jake and Celia Amsel, was brutally murdered Nov. 11, 1914, in the family’s home at 501 N. Seventh Ave. The Amsels were described as some of Durant’s prominent citizens who owned the Amsel Store in downtown Durant. Pauline was a student at Oklahoma Presbyterian College for Girls.
“A deep pall of gloom and sadness was cast over Durant this morning when the news spread over the city of the cruel and brutal murder at 1:30 o’clock this morning of Miss Pauline Amsel, while she lay asleep in her home, by some unknown person,” wrote the Durant Daily Democrat in that afternoon’s paper.
According to the article, the Amsels were awakened by the screams of their daughter who was on the sleeping porch. Mr. Amsel got up to see what was the matter and a scuffle began with the intruder who pulled an automatic pistol and fired it into the floor, telling Mr. Amsel to let him go.
The pistol jammed and the intruder then began to stab Mr. Amsel with a small knife. The scuffle continued for several minutes before the intruder broke free, ran out of the house and down an alley.
While her father was fighting with the intruder, Pauline walked to her parents’ bedroom and said she was sick. Her mother was busy calling for help and Pauline walked to her own bedroom, fell across the bed and rolled onto the floor, according to information obtained at the time by the Democrat. Mr. Amsel, whose injuries were not reported to be serious, apparently did not realize their daughter had been attacked.
Her horrified parents saw that the entire right side of her neck was cut from the throat to the back of the neck. She died about 30 minutes later. A posse was organized and several suspects were questioned, some arrested, but the murder was never solved.
The article in that day’s paper states, “This is one of the saddest and most heart rending crimes that has ever been committed in the annals of Bryan County, and the citizens are worked up to a tremendous pitch over the sad occurrence …”
More than 90 years later, the murder is still a sad chapter in Bryan County history. And one not forgotten.
Pauline was buried in Corsicana, Texas, and the family left Durant sometime after that, selling their dry goods store at 137 W. Main St. to a McAlester company. It was later acquired by Caddo businessman Ben Siegel who relocated to Durant.
Mr. Amsel offered a $1,000 reward and wrote a letter to the Oklahoma governor in May 1915 asking for assistance. He also hired a detective agency, but to no avail.
In 1985, the case caught the attention of Melody Amsel-Arieli, of Maaleh Adumim, Israel. She is an American who grew up in New Jersey and immigrated to Israel in 1971. Pauline is her second cousin, once removed. Amsel-Arieli, who has corresponded with the Democrat by e-mail, is a genealogist and freelance writer.
She received a photo of an unknown couple when an elderly cousin died. On the back of the photo were the words Durant, Oklahoma. Amsel-Arieli also received a handsketched family tree showing the Amsels and that their daughter died in Durant in 1914.
“Since I had long ago heard of an Amsel family in Texas, this piqued my curiosity enough to start badgering other cousins with questions,” Amsel-Arieli said. “Jake’s branch of the family lives all over the U.S. today – yet none could tell me anything about Jake except that his daughter was murdered.”
During the next 10 years, Amsel-Arieli researched her immediate family in Slovakia. She tried to put the research of the Amsel murder on hold but was not able to do so.
“It haunted me,” Amsel-Arieli said.
She then began researching it and made contact with many people in the Durant area, including Leslie Webster, Dixie Prater, Marion Downs, Wayne Wylie, Liz Horton and Don Maupin.
Webster and her husband Tim live in the home where bloody clothing was found.
“After the murder, the person got rid of the clothes,” Mrs. Webster said. “He threw them in the basement of our house. Our house was still being constructed at that time.”
Mrs. Webster learned something happened there long ago after purchasing the home in 1989.
“Dixie Prater said something was haunted – well, not really haunted, but something bad happened there,” Mrs. Webster said. “Six or seven years later, she told me.”
Amsel-Arieli has written an article from her research and plans to submit it to several publications, including The Chronicles of Oklahoma. She hopes to learn more about the Amsel family and locate a photograph of Pauline.
Many of the local people she has corresponded with remember hearing stories about the murder. Some heard the Amsel home, which is no longer standing, was haunted. Many rumors have circulated throughout the years, according to Amsel-Arieli’s research. One theory is that an employee of the Amsels had a romantic interest in Pauline and he was subsequently fired.
“Pauline’s murder haunted Durant for decades,” Amsel-Arieli wrote. “Some parents, rather than frightening their children with a vicious nighttime murder of a child, preferred to say that she had committed suicide. Others, most born decades after the tragedy, remember overhearing snatches of hushed conversations, and themselves avoiding the ‘haunted’ house. Rumors, fueled by nearly a hundred years of suspicion and speculation, range from a crime of passion to suicide to tales of a forbidden liaison with a Gentile …”
After the murder, the Caddo Herald reported, “Miss Pauline was the (The Amsels’) only daughter, just blooming into lovely womanhood, a pleasant and charming young woman who was loved by all who knew her … frightened citizens took the law into their own hands, forming a search posse … townspeople all across eastern Oklahoma, nervously eyeing one another, secured their homes and purchased revolvers.”
One person who grew up hearing stories about the crime is Liz Horton, one of the people Amsel-Arieli has corresponded with.
“I’m told that Pauline and a young man from Durant fell in love and this deeply disturbed her father, the boy was not Jewish and the father was devout,” Horton wrote to Amsel-Arieli. “This much of the story I know is true but what happened after has been passed on until you have to speculate. Pauline was forbidden to see the young man again but she refused and not too long after she died.”
Another longtime Durant resident who had heard stories about the Amsels was the late Marvin McDaniel, who wrote a page about the murder in his memoirs.
“Many people that knew the Amsels believed that Mrs. Amsel killed Pauline,” McDaniel wrote. The Amsels were Jewish and Mrs. Amsel warned Pauline about dating Gentile boys, this was common knowledge close to the people that knew the Amsel family.”
Amsel-Arieli does not think Mrs. Amsel had anything to do with the murder.
“I believe that we are hearing hearsay – a town’s search to understand what happened – since no killer was found,” Amsel-Arieli wrote. “And two witnesses saw a man running from the Amsel’s back alleyway shortly after 1 a.m. Perhaps Celia was highstrung or depressed. I have heard that she was ‘not okay.’ High strung, (if it was so, we’ll never know), is a far cry from a murderer.”
The Democrat reported after the murder that the killer put on a coat belonging to Mrs. Amsel before he went upstairs. This coat was the one later found in the basement of the home now owned by the Websters. Amsel-Arieli believes that could have led to the misunderstanding.
Robbery was considered a possibility at the time. The Nov. 12, 1914, Democrat reported, “The most plausible theory is that whoever it was went to the house for robbery, as the family was known to possess quite a number of valuable rings, and that it was while he was at the bed of the girl she awoke and the murder resulted.”
But it was also reported that burglary could not have been the motive because no valuables were taken and all valuables were downstairs, not upstairs where the murder happened.
“I have spent many a night imagining the murder myself,” Amsel-Arieli said. “All of Durant was in an uproar then since the killer was still at large. In 1914 and 1915 everyone was afraid.”
The Amsel family left Durant between 1915 and 1920. Amsel-Arieli has obtained U.S. Census records from 1920 that show the Amsels lived in San Antonio, Texas, at that time. They later lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., but did not find peace, according to Amsel-Arieli.
Years later, Mr. Amsel thought the killer could have been someone who worked for him.
About 40 years after the murder, the Amsels moved to Corsicana, near Pauline’s burial site in Temple Beth El Hebrew Cemetery, according to Amsel-Arieli’s research.
“Today, Jake, Celia and Pauline are together again,” Amsel-Arieli wrote. “For eternity.”
Family seeks information
Melody Amsel-Arieli is seeking more information about the Amsels and old photographs. She has not been able to locate a photograph of Pauline. Anyone with information should contact Matt Swearengin at (580) 924-4388 or firstname.lastname@example.org.