High drama, and a 95-year-old mystery

by Jack Neely

The Friday that Col. Charles Kahlo arrived in town, Staub's Theater was packed for the return of Miss Ethel Barrymore, starring in a production of Cousin Kate. At 24, the beauty was already one of America's favorite actresses; her second appearance at the old Gay Street opera house caused quite a stir. "For the first time in the history of Staub's Theater," remarked the wry Sentinel reviewer, "the ushers appeared in full dress and without chewing gum." During multiple curtain calls—they said the curtain bobbed up and down "like a cork on a fishing line"—the ushers presented Barrymore with bouquets of pink carnations. Then the boys lined up at her door backstage, hoping for a chance "to kiss her hand, catch a glance from her eye, and bask in the smile on her lips."

In the late winter of 1904, it was a welcome diversion. We could still smell the ashes of a fire that had gutted several buildings on Gay Street. And we worried about the smallpox. There were new cases every day. Its victims sometimes made it to the quarantined Pest House. Homeless unknowns were diagnosed only after death, found in alleys and under bridges where they had sought shelter. Fearing an outbreak in the prison, Brushy Mountain was refusing convicts from the Knox County jail.

The Sentinel was serializing H.G. Wells' novel, The First Man In the Moon—but one newspaper ad was more eye-catching: Is your life insured? SEE MCKINNEY/ THEN DIE when you are ready.

That Friday, Col. Kahlo checked into the Hotel Imperial, the extravagant Victorian hostelry at Gay and Clinch, two blocks from Staub's Theater. At 63, Kahlo was still a striking figure, "a man of handsome physique," as some would describe him in the days to come. Born in Prussia, he had moved to Ohio in his youth. When he was Ethel Barrymore's age, Kahlo was a Union officer, a captain in the 163rd Ohio Infantry. Elected an Indiana state senator in his 30s, Kahlo was known for his "jovial disposition," which made him friends with some of the most powerful men in Midwestern politics, including fellow veterans James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison, whom Kahlo helped get elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1881, newly elected President Garfield appointed Kahlo consul-general at Berlin, in the time of Bismarck and the German Empire. When Kahlo was charged with "incompetency and incapacity" at that post, it was Sen. Harrison who intervened with Garfield to save his friend's job. But Kahlo's appointment to Berlin didn't survive Garfield's assassination the same year. Harrison later admitted he may have "oversized" his friend.

Still, Kahlo enjoyed a diverse career, working as a civil engineer and manufacturer, serving on the staff of several Indiana governors, where he got the title of colonel. In 1889, Harrison became Kahlo's second pal to become U.S. president. Harrison sent his fellow Hoosier to Sydney, Australia, to serve as consul there: a less challenging assignment than Berlin, maybe, but one Kahlo held longer and, later, spoke about more.

When Kahlo came to Knoxville in 1904, he was enjoying a good salary as a representative for the National Association of Manufacturers. He was proud of his children: one son was a doctor, the other a dentist. He might have seemed poised to enjoy a comfortable retirement. But he was here on an ambitious mission. Kahlo wanted to found an oil company in Knoxville. Details are elusive.

Seeking support for his enterprise, Kahlo enjoyed an unseasonably warm late-winter weekend here. He spent the following Monday downtown with two men who had taken an interest in his oil venture: Fred Clute, a former mining inspector who lived on North Gay; and R.W. Thompson, a friend from Indianapolis who was at the time advertising manager for the American Newspaper Association.

Kahlo was in his usual good spirits. He'd been here a few times before and had friends here, especially among his 60ish contemporaries he knew through Union veterans' groups. Some who spoke with Kahlo here remarked that the well-traveled former consul was a "brilliant conversationalist."

That evening, Kahlo took a walk with his associates. When he stopped at a pawnshop and bought a pistol, his friends made fun of him. He seemed too "jovial," they said, to need a gun. Kahlo took their ribbing, they later said, "in his characteristic good nature." The friends departed in front of the Imperial and planned to meet there the following morning at 9:00.

Kahlo went upstairs and wrote his wife a letter. Things were "only fair" in Knoxville, he wrote. He expected to do better with his proposal in Chattanooga.

It was chillier Tuesday morning, 48 degrees and getting colder. Clute was first to arrive in the Imperial's spacious lobby for their meeting. The desk clerk told him Kahlo wasn't down yet. Clute went up to Kahlo's room and knocked. There was no answer. Clute peered in through the window by the door and saw Kahlo's clothes draped on a chair. Figuring Kahlo was taking a bath, Clute went back downstairs.

Thompson arrived and went upstairs himself. More insistent, Thompson opened the unlocked door. Inside he found the former consul to Berlin and Sydney on the floor with his gun in his hand and a hole in his head.

Clute telegraphed Kahlo's son Harry with the news. The Indianapolis dentist remarked for the Knoxville papers, "The shock to me is great, and it is a mystery.... I can assign no reason for it."

The Sentinel suggested later that "It is thought that Col. Kahlo met with some dire disappointment Monday evening." But what that might have been, no one would guess.

That night, down Gay Street at Staub's, Amelia Bingham, the controversial Broadway star, appeared in an obscure drama called Olympe, leading a cast of 35 in a costume drama set in Louis XV's France. Knoxville filled the house, seeking an escape to a more dramatic place and time.