Crazy-As-Hell Alumni Profiles: Erich Holt

17 08 2010

Cornell has somewhere around 245,000 alumni or so. It’s only fitting that an unfortunate few of our alumni err on the side of insanity. They might be acting as if they’re on crack, but most of their behavior can be attributed to them just being out of their damn minds.  This entry details one of our finer members of the batsh*t insane alumni club: Erich Holt, PhD 1914.

Erich Holt is one of several names he went by. He was born as Erich Muenter in Germany in 1871, but would adopt the aliases Frank Holt and/or Erich Holt later in his life. He moved to the U.S. and enrolled as a graduate student at Harvard (already famous for its whacko alums). In 1906 he was an instructor in German at Harvard College, living the life of a quiet and rather shabby looking married man.  His wife died mysteriously of arsenic poisoning, and Muenter felt the sudden compulsion to flee to Texas (a slight discrepancy here; Morris Bishop claims he fled to Mexico), later emerging under his aliases (which from what I’m finding, were pretty interchangeable). Holt launched into a brilliant scholarly career, doing four years of undergraduate work in only one year at the Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute before coming to Cornell to take on PhD work. Holt graduated in 1914 and took on a position as…a German instructor [1]. As you can see, he was really moving up in the world.

Well hell, if this was just about alumni who’ve killed their spouses, I could probably pull a dozen names easily. However, as those late night TV ads would say, “but wait, there’s more”.

1914 was not a great time to be a German guy living in the good ol’ U.S.A. For one, there was that whole war in Europe thing going on. Some folks weren’t too inclined to be polite towards folks who could be showing German sympathies. According to Morris Bishop, on campus alone there were rumors of tennis courts designed to serve as gun emplacements, and stories of bomb-making operations in faculty cellars (428). The professor of Latin tried to expel the professor of German (not Holt) from the “Town and Gown Club” because of German sympathies – namely, he read a New York daily that was published in German.

Well, Muenter/Holt was horrified by the war and all of the killing (not crazy). He decided that if he could stop all the munitions manufacturers, like J. P. Morgan, from selling to the Allies, he could single-handedly stop the war (kinda crazy). After realizing letters and arguments wouldn’t work, he decided to take action by bombing the Senate chambers of the U.S. Capitol (WTF crazy).

He designed a suitcase time bomb designed to work by letting acid eat through a cork, and took the next train to Washington D.C. His goal was to “wake the American people up to the damage which explosives like these were doing abroad”. Well, he went into the Capitol on July 2, 1915 at about 11:40 PM, and with bomb under arm, set it down in a reception room where it wouldn’t hurt anyone, went outside and waited for the explosion, running off to catch a train out of town when the bomb went off. The room was blown apart and a watchman was blown off his seat some distance away, but the story only merited a tiny blurb in the NY Times that attributed the explosion to “gasses”.

Step two in his grandiose plan was to take the train to Glen Cove, Long Island, home of industrial magnate J. P. Morgan Jr. Holt’s goal was to hold Mrs. Morgan and the Morgan kids hostage until J. P. agreed to stop sending munitions abroad. Well, after forcing his way into the house, J. P. stormed towards Holt and was given a warm Cornellian greeting by receiving two Big Red and bloody gunshot wounds to the groin as the British ambassador (Cecil Spring-Rice) and a butler subdued the German madman. This time, Holt earned himself the first three pages in the Times. While taken into custody, a grimmer part of his plan was revealed, as he planned to blow up several munition ships while they were at sea. It didn’t help that while he hadn’t plant any bombs yet, one munition ship (the “Minnehaha”) caught fire, and they thought it was one of his bombs,  and it returned to port in a panic.

Of course, the press had a field day with the story. While Morgan survived without major aftereffects (he lived another 28 years), Holt was exposed as Erich Muenter, the Harvard wife-killer. After trying to kill himself using by using the metal part of an eraser cap to try and cut an artery, he literally launched into a second attempt by climbing over the Mineola jail’s lattice bars and throwing himself head-down to the concrete floor 18 feet below. His second attempt turned out to be successful.

Word to the wise – you may not be the richest or most famous person to come out of Cornell, but things could be a lot worse. This is one alumni club that everyone should avoid joining.

[1] Bishop, Morris. History of Cornell. pp. 428-429



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