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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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Milwaukee industrialist Casper Sanger's family was rocked by murder 105 years ago.

105 years later, Milwaukee murder case still amazes


Emil Sanger is buried in Forest Home Cemetery amid many of the notables who shaped Milwaukee's history. But the scion of one of the city's leading families earned his notoriety as a wife-beater and civic menace, and when Sanger was gunned down 105 years ago, some top movers and shakers saw to it that his killer didn't serve time for what was called "one of the most famous tragedies in Milwaukee history."

He was Robert Luscombe, former county supervisor and city attorney -- and Emil Sanger's brother-in-law.

Burley, bearded Casper Melchior Sanger was prodigious when it came to creating wealth and children. He and wife Mary came to Milwaukee in 1862 and opened a shoe store. The Sangers had 13 children, and over the next 10 years Casper's profile steadily rose over the Milwaukee business and political landscape. He started a successful tannery and then went into the lumber trade. By 1871, the Sanger-Rockwell plant employed 300 persons.

"Everything (Sanger) was interested in prospered, and he became recognized as one of the weighty men of affairs whose judgment was that of an expert in any business affair," noted the 1876 book "Milwaukee: The History of a City."

In the early 1870s, Sanger was elected to the common council and state legislature. In 1876, he became the county's first Republican sheriff. Running for mayor two years later, Sanger lost to Ammi R.R. Butler by 343 votes.

After being defeated in an 1880 race for Congress by his brother-in-law, Peter Duester, Casper turned his full attention to making and enjoying money. The Sangers lived in a mansion on Terrace Ave., and Casper bought a stock farm in Waukesha.

He also entered the mining business, and by the end of the decade gold and silver mines in which he invested were said to be bringing in $3,000 a month in precious metals.

The biggest silver mine was "The Waterloo," in Dagget, Calif. Casper put his son, Emil, in charge there in 1886. Joining Emil were Frank and Nellie Germain. A former treasurer of the Wisconsin Telephone Co., Frank Germain was the mine's bookkeeper.

Nellie was the daughter of Samuel Luscombe and the sister of Robert. The Sangers and Luscombes went way back. The children played together, and Casper hired Robert as a clerk at Sanger-Rockwell, where he worked alongside Emil Sanger until Luscombe left to study for the law. He got his J.D. in 1882, and then became a county supervisor. In 1884, Robert was elected city attorney. After leaving City Hall, he remained one of Milwaukee's most influential barristers.

In 1892, Casper and his partners were offered $2 million for their mines. They demanded $2.1 million, and the deal fell through.

A year later, the Great Silver Panic struck the country and the bottom of the silver market dropped out, taking Sanger's fortune with it.

The Terrace Ave. mansion and the Waukesha farm were sold to pay off debts.

Not to worry, assured an old family friend in a widely-circulated letter. "(Sanger) will pull through and fully resume his old-time place among 'the solid men of Milwaukee,'" wrote Robert Luscombe.

Emil Sanger returned from California, but not empty-handed. With him was Nellie Luscombe Germain, wooed away from her husband Frank by the boss's son. They married and Emil took over a family saddlery business.

But as the Sangers' problems mounted along with litigation by growing numbers of creditors, Emil, as one newspaper story quaintly stated, "sought relief in deep potations of the cup that cheers but robs the senses of their responsibility." He became abusive to his own family members, and his ire was focused mostly on his brother-in-law, Robert Luscombe, whom Emil decided was singularly responsible for the Sangers' problems.

For months, Emil told just about everybody he met around town -- including Congressman S.S. Barney -- that he intended to kill Luscombe.

At their home on April 26, Nellie Sanger begged her 30-year-old husband to stop. "Damn you, you look like your brother!" he shouted, and then proceeded to whip, punch and kick his wife with such ferocity that when she escaped the next day and staggered two blocks to her father's home on the corner of 15th and Grand (now Wisconsin) Ave., at first he didn't even recognize her.

Samuel Luscombe sent for a doctor and then for Robert: "Nell is here all battered to pieces," he wrote to his son. "Come immediately, armed for an emergency."

The following night, April 27, 1895, when Emil pounded on the front door at quarter-to-midnight, Robert Luscombe pointed a double-barreled shotgun at the face in the glass panel and pulled the trigger.

At the trial the defense team of future mayor David S. Rose, former congressman Peter Somers; Henry Killilea, who later helped found baseball's American League; and future U.S. senator and federal judge J.V. Quarles called a parade of witnesses who testified to Sanger's threats and abusiveness.

The prosecution pointed out that moments before he was killed, Sanger asked a passing policeman to accompany him to Samuel Luscombe's door, and that he was unarmed at the time. But as one newspaper story noted, it pretty much boiled down to that "probably not a single man ever came in contact with (Luscombe) who failed to become impressed with his cheery and genial manner and his bright disposition," and that the man he killed "was unpleasant in manner and made few strong friendships."

After his acquittal, Luscombe moved to Centerville, Mich., and was a leading citizen there until he was taken to the state insane asylum after a sudden and complete mental breakdown. He died in 1912.

Casper Sanger was still broke when he died in 1897. He's buried in Calvary Cemetery.

That Emil's grave at Forest Home Cemetery is unmarked by headstone or monument is no surprise, unlike the news that upon her death in California in 1920, poor Nellie was cremated and her remains were brought back and interred with those of the husband who beat her unrecognizable because she looked like her brother.

Talkbacks

smozingo | Aug. 16, 2011 at 4:00 p.m. (report)

My great grandfather, Gottfried Bahten and his brothers, Dietrrich, Henry and John were deeply involved in Sanger's mining interests in Calico and Dagett (in California's Mojave Desert). We think that the Bahten Brothers might have come from the Milwaukee area but haven't been able to trace them there. I AM ASKING ANYONE WHO HAS KNOWLEDGE OF THESE BROTHERS OR THE ORO GRANDE MINING CO. TO PLEASE CONTACT ME.

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