Harry Powers: Photo Courtesy of the Harrison County Public Library
The serene beauty of West Virginia is one of the hallmarks of my home state, driving throughout the state one is reminded why the nickname is “Almost Heaven.” While not the most entertaining of states, it is an absolute joy for the outdoors lover and the lover of all things homespun and folksy. The hollers and woods of West Virginia also have their share of mystery, debauchery, and murder as well. Don’t let the scenery fool you, the skeletons in the Mountain State’s closet are truly terrifying. Arguably the most notorious killer from the hills of West Virginia wasn’t a native to our state, hell he wasn’t even American, but Harry Powers became front page news across the United States in the 1930s and became the most notorious serial killer in West Virginia History.
The man who knows today as Harry Powers had so many aliases that it is impossible to know what his real name was, but the man known as Powers was born in the late 19th century in the Netherlands. Powers immigrated to Harrison County, West Virginia in the early 1920s and soon began work as a vacuum cleaner salesman in and around the area of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, near present-day Clarksburg, West Virginia. Harry was a ladies man and soon began courting a young lady named Luella Strother from the area. The two were wed and settled down for marital bliss surrounded by the lush West Virginia hills, or so Luella thought. Even though he was married, Harry began to write to many newspapers throughout the country and post in the lonely hearts section of the paper. The lonely hearts section was the 1920s version of Tinder, but with no photo, and a whole hell of a lot more bullshitting. Men and women would post about their need for a spouse and talk themselves up throughout the article. It was a popular, and risky way, to get together with singles.
Lonely hearts ads also gave easy prey to predators, and Harry Powers was a predator. Looking for young widows with money, Powers wrote under the pseudonym Cornelius Pierson and corresponded with dozens if not hundreds of women throughout the 1920s. While living a double life in West Virginia, Powers, living vicariously through Cornelius Pierson, continued to woo many women at once, until in 1931, he got a hit. A young widow and mother of three children, Asta Eicher, became smitten with the Pierson character and wrote to Powers that she wanted him to come out and visit her in Illinois. Powers made up an excuse for business to leave his home and was soon on a train to Illinois
Powers arrived in Illinois and soon met Asta and her three children. Asta was enamored with the bespeckled charmer with the odd accent. Powers was a sweet talker and soon convinced Asta to accompany him, alone, back to West Virginia to look for a feature home for their wedded bliss. Asta left the children in the care of a relative and took off with her fiance, the charming Cornelius Pierson. Powers had only one idea in mind though; he knew that Asta had a large sum of money from the death of her husband, and went about getting that money by any means necessary. We don’t know exactly what happened with they arrived in West Virginia, but we do know one thing, a week later Cornelius Pierson arrived back in Illinois, alone, with Asta’s bank book.
Pierson returned to Asta’s home and took custody of the children (worst babysitter ever), he sent one of the children to the local bank branch to cash a check for 4,000 dollars from Asta’s account that bounced. Angered by this, the dashing stranger told the children to prepare to leave Illinois and begin their new lives with their new step-dad in West Virginia.
The Eicher family is missing from Illinois and never writes back to family. The family becomes concerned when they don’t hear from Asta nor the children and begin talking to the police about the man from West Virginia. Powers begins another Lonely Hearts relationship with a woman from the Northeast named Dorothy Pressler, who also falls in love with him and agrees to move to West Virginia as well. Mrs. Pressler turns her entire bank account over to her dashing suitor and disappears off the face of the earth.
The Eicher Family: photo courtesy of the Harrison County Public Library
By now, the Illinois authorities are growing ever suspicious and begin searching the Eicher home for clues. They find a large bundle of letters from Cornelius Pierson that were postmarked in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The authorities contact the state and county police in Harrison County, West Virginia and ask them to search for Pierson. Eventually, the local police figure out that Pierson is a pseudonym that Harry Powers used because of the identical addresses. The local authorities go out to the Powers farm and begin looking around. They take Powers into custody for questioning without much evidence that would stick in court, but while they are questioning Powers, they find a crime scene in his barn.
The Crime scene at the Powers Barn. Photo Courtesy of the London Daily Telegraph
Under the floorboards of the Powers barn, they find bloody clothes, a bloody footprint, and a burned bank book. After a thorough search of the property, they come across a large mound of newly moved dirt. It didn’t take a crack CSI team to figure out that they should dig there, and the authorities began to dig. In broad daylight, the entire town noticed the commotion at the Powers farm and began congregating on the land. With dozens of locals looking on, the authorities uncovered the bodies of five people. The two women, who Powers had convinced he loved, were strangled to death with rope for a total of four thousand dollars. The young Eicher daughters were strangled by hand, and the Eicher son was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Not only did the town go wild, but the entire country also began running stories on the front page about the ghastly “Lonely Hearts Killer” from West Virginia who the press would forever dub “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell.”
Harry Powers had no chance in court; the vile child killer was nearly lynched by angry citizens before he could even be sentenced. It took the local fire department to spray the lynch mob with high-pressure hoses just to keep them from killing Powers. The trial was held at a local theater because the courtroom could not hold all the spectators, and the trial took less than a week. Harry Powers paid the ultimate price for his crime; he was sentenced to die at the gothic Moundsville State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, one of the most dangerous and notorious prisons in America. On March 18, 1932, the Blue Beard of Quiet Dell twitched at the end of a hangman’s noose for his crimes.
The Moundsville State Pen. Photo from Wikimedia share and share alike
The Gallows where the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell met Satan. Wikimedia share and share alike
West Virginia Culture Center. http://www.wvculture.org
The London Daily telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10816712/True-crime-Americas-most-notorious-ladykiller.html