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Was Elias Steinour Murdered?

by James Rada, Jr.

Charles Hoffman woke early in the morning of February 14, 1912. He stoked the fire in the stove to warm up his home. When he went to the window to look out into the darkness of the new day, he noticed that it wasn’t as dark as it should be.

The farmhouse across the way was on fire!

He threw on his robe and rushed outside. He ran across the field separating the two houses that were located along Taneytown Road, about a mile south of Gettysburg. He pounded on the front door, trying to wake the elderly Civil War Veteran who lived in the house.

When he heard nothing but the crackle of flames, Hoffman ran around to the back of the house to the door to the kitchen. He pounded on the door, but still got no response.

He looked through the window next to the door and saw that the kitchen was on fire and laying on a couch next to the stove was Elias Steinour. “He called but could not rouse him, the unfortunate man either being soundly asleep or already suffocated,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

Though the back door was locked, Hoffman forced it open, intending go inside and drag Steinour out. The fresh air from the opening door fed the flames, though, and they leaped toward him, driving Hoffman even further from the house.

It would be hours before anyone could get close enough to the house to recover Steinour’s remains. Even then, only his upper body could be found wrapped in his charred bedclothes.

As for the house, nothing was left of it but a pile of debris and the chimney.

Before the day was out, rumors had run through town that Steinour had been killed and was the victim of an arsonist. He was the third person in four days to have been burned to death. On February 11, a woman had caught herself on fire while trying to thaw out water pipes with a coal oil torch. She died the following day. On that day, another woman died when her home in Bonneauville caught fire.

It was said that the back of Steinour’s skull had been crushed. The motive for the murder was that Steinour was supposed to have had a bit of money hidden away in the house in silver. That money hadn’t been recovered from the debris.

Even the newspaper started to report that it might have been possible because Steinour “had received threatening letters and that a series of incendiary fires had been threatened in which the Steinour home was included.”

Given how persistent the rumors were, Dr. Albert Woomer, the county coroner, opened an investigation to see if an inquest was needed. He went out to the still-smoking remains and examined the scene of the death. He also talked to people who were spreading the rumors, people who knew Steinour and people who lived near him.

The initial report had been that since Steinour slept near the wood stove in the kitchen that sparks had somehow caught his clothing on fire. However, Hoffman told the coroner that hadn’t been the case. He had seen Steinour laying on his cot while the kitchen had been on fire. His bedclothes weren’t burning at that time, and they would have been the first to catch fire.

As for Steinour’s hidden treasure of silver, Woomer found a small wallet with $55 in charred bills in it. He also spoke to another of Steinour’s neighbor’s, George Fissel, who said Steinour had had little money. The $55 had been his rent payment because he didn’t even own the farmhouse where he lived.

There hadn’t even been an insurance motive for burning the house. It was owned by a Mrs. Keckler who lived in the Dobbin House, and she did carry insurance on the house.

“After seeing a number of neighbors, viewing the body and going thoroughly into the case, Dr. Woomer decided that no coroner’s jury need be impanels and the matter was dropped,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

Woomer did manage to recover Steinour’s lower body remains, which he added to the other remains.

In an odd coincidence, Steinour’s wife, Clara, had also burned to death three years earlier when the couple had lived on Middle Street in Gettysburg. “Mrs. Steinour in trying to sweep off the top of a red-hot stove had her clothing catch fire from the broom which suddenly burst into a blaze,” the newspaper reported. She died of her wounds several hours later.

Since Steinour had been a member of Co. B, 99th Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War, his funeral was held at the GAR Hall on February 15, and he was buried in Soldiers National Cemetery. Though the coroner had closed the case, the rumors still persisted, and in an end-of-the-year review article in the Gettysburg Times, it was noted, “The cause of the fire has always been a mystery and talk of foul play was frequent for days after the tragedy. The coroner made an investigation and found no indications which would point to that theory but there are still many people who think the house was set on fire after Mr. Steinour was robbed.”