Human Monsters: Harry Powers, West Virginia’s Bluebeard

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There are few things worse than a betrayal of the heart. Lovelorn souls will seek comfort where they can find it, sadly those lonely hearts can become prey to silver tongue monsters. Such is the case of the poor women, and their children, who fell victim to Harry Powers, West Virginia’s first serial killer.

harry powers sitting
By all accounts, Powers was quite calm and collected when speaking of the killings. 

Powers was born Herman Drenth in 1889. He used a variety of aliases over his life other than Harry Powers such as Cornelius O. Peirson and A.R.Weaver. He served a few years in different prisons for defrauding widows before he settled down in Quiet Dell West Virginia, a stone’s throw away from Clarksburg where his wife opened a store.

It was from that tiny home in a small town, Powers began his murderous plan. He began to seek out adds by women in out of state papers, these Lonely Hearts adds were by older women who sought companionship. Many were looking for love after the loss of their husbands.

Powers would set about wooing them with love letters until he was able to get the women to agree to come visit him. Once they made it to his farmhouse, however, much more than their hearts would be broken. Powers would force them into an underground series of rooms he had built below his basement. He targetted women with children in many cases, possibly as a way to use the threat of hurting their children to force the women to comply with his demands.

Being a true Bluebeard killer, Powers would have them liquidate all their assets and drain their bank accounts. He would keep them alive until the money ran out, then he would murder mother and child with a hammer, disposing of the bodies in a drainage ditch behind his home.

harry powers mugshot
Booking photo

Like with most serial killers it was the smallest of details that ended his game of death. While going under the name Cornelius O. Peirson, powers visited a mother of three named Asta Eicher in Illinois. The woman was smitten with him and left her children in the care of a friend so the two could go away with each other for a few days. While her friend was babysitting the children a letter arrived saying Powers would come by to pick them up. Powers then tried to get one of the children to cash a check at the local bank which declined because of an obviously forged signature. That was the last time Asta or her three children would be seen alive.

Soon after that Powers visited Dorothy Pressler Lemke at her home in Massachusetts and convinced her to marry him in Iowa. Instead of sending her luggage to the site of their Iowa wedding, Powers sent them to his home in Quiet Dell and made the mistake of using Cornelius O. Peirson when he was shipping the trunks. When police began to investigate the disappearance of both Asta and Dorothy, that tiny slip up provided the connection that led them to the killer’s front door.

Having matched witness descriptions, Powers was taken in for questioning and his home searched. There the police discovered his murder dungeon which was filled with bloody clothes and even a trunk which held hundreds of love letters from different women. A search of the grounds yielded the bodies of Asta and her three children, as well as Dorothy Lemke.

Harry Powers confessed to the killings and would go on to explain that the sounds of his victims screaming in the rooms under his house sexually aroused him. He explained that he’d allowed one of the male children to watch the murder of his mother and siblings but after the kid had screamed he beat him to death with a hammer.

moor opera house
Moore Opera House in Clarksburg WV

His trial was held in the Moor Opera House not far from his home. The reason for the strange venue was the sheer amount of people who wished to view the trail. His crimes had caught the attention of the nation and people were shocked that something so awful could happen in such a small town. Powers even had to be protected from a lynch mob before he could even make it to court. After his conviction, he was executed by hanging in West Virginia’s infamous Moundsville penitentiary. When asked if he wanted to give a final statement before his execution, Powers simply said “No.” In the same cold and emotionless way he’d described the brutal slayings. His wife would not claim his body and he was buried in a potters field.

The exact number of his victims is currently unknown. He took the actual death count with him to the grave. It was determined from the 100 plus women who’d written him, that he’d been working the lonely hearts scam for over a decade. Police speculated his involvement in at least 50 deaths. When asked about this by detectives Powers was said to have replied: “You got me on 5. What would 50 more do?”

Inspired by the terrifying story, Davis Grubb wrote The Night Of The HunterWhich would later become a movie of the same name and influence filmmakers such as David Lynch and Spike Lee.

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