VANDALIA—Gary Sosniecki came back to Vandalia last Thursday to talk about the book he wrote on a family tragedy—the 1906 murder of his great grandmother at the hands of her husband.
He was at the Vandalia Branch Library to see old friends and sign copies of his book. Gary and Helen are former residents of Vandalia. They owned the Vandalia Leader from 2003 to 2009. During that time they made numerous friends, and several showed up to listen to Gary and get their books signed at two 45-minute sessions.
Little did Gary know that when he turned his investigative eye toward the rarely spoken about tragedy that befell his great- grandmother, Cecelia Ludwig, he would have to start his book tour virtually because of the coronavirus. The visit to Vandalia was his second in-person presentation. The library spaced the chairs out so couples could sit together and stay far enough away from other guests for proper social distancing. Everyone wore masks; even Gary, who eventually took his off once the audience was seated and far enough away from where he was speaking.
Growing up, Gary said he had heard about the murder, but few people in his family would elaborate about it. It would remain mostly a secret, stuffed in a closet, much like the one where his great grandmother’s body was found, beaten and burned.
Gary was impressed by the number of attendees who showed up with not only copies of his book, but antique potato mashers, the chosen weapon by his great grand father, Albion Ludwig to end Cecilia’s life. Gary held up his, but noted that he had been told that his was actually a ricer. Even so, they were made of hard wood about half the size of a rolling pin, and when swung hard, made a formidable weapon.
Even though Gary had spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather during his youth, the man never mentioned that his mother had been murdered when he was just a boy of 14.
In 1996, Gary became interested in genealogy and began to research his family tree, he was able to get his mother, Lillian Hornburg Sosnieski to talk a some more about the murder. That got Gary started on his quest to learn more. A local historian in LaPort, Ind., uncovered where and when the murder had taken place—Sept. 25, 1906 in Mishawaka, Ind. She also found his grand parent’s divorce decree from Cecilia’s first marriage. Even though the document said he physically abused her, Gary noted that Cecilia could give as good as she got.
There was a treasure trove of old newspaper articles about the murder and the subsequent trial, which the historian sent to Gary. Back in the day, newspapers were a bit more visceral about expounding on the blow by blow of trial testimony, often painting a truly bloody picture.
And it was from the actual trial testimony that Gary was able to gather enough information to write his book—“The Potato Masher Murder: Death at the Hands of a Jealous Husband.”
Once the writing was done, he had to find a publisher. Few big name publishers would look at a first-time author without an agent writing about a small-town murder, he said, so Gary sought other publishers, such as university presses.
One publisher was quite interested in the manuscript, Gary said, but had him cut about 25,000 words. When the deal fell through, Gary said it was a real low point for him.
“On the morning that I thought that I was going to get a contract,” he said, “I got a rejection. They didn’t think it was commercial enough.” Even though he’d had other rejections, this one hurt the most because Gary said he thought he was going to get a publishing contract.
Gary put about 15,000 words back into the book after that. Helen stepped up and found two university presses that were looking for true crime manuscripts. Kent State was the first to get back to Gary, he noted. From there he was off and running.
In addition to learning more about the murder, Gary, during his investigations, found other distant family members here in the U.S. and across the pond in Europe.
“One of the joys of my research was meeting cousins I didn’t know I had,” Gary said.
Gary said he had gone back to the neighborhood and house where Cecilia died and was outside when the new owner came home. Gary said he told the owner that his great grandmother was murdered in his house.
“He let out a shout and said, ‘I wish you hadn’t said that,’” Gary said. “I got him calmed down and he invited me in.” It was later, Gary said, he realized, that it might not have been the right house. House numbers had changed over the years and the house next door might have been the one he was looking for.
What’s next for Gary, literary wise? People have asked if he has another mystery that he could use to write a second book.
“My normal answer is—Helen says, ‘no,’” he said.
But there is the murder of the mayor of Weaubleau, Mo., that Gary covered in the early ’80s when he and Helen owned the Humansville (Mo.) Star Leader, that he believes would make a good story. In those days, he noted, people used to hand him classified ads on napkins. While the mayor’s funeral was underway, Gary and Helen were at a local café. A guy sitting near Gary handed him a napkin. On it, the man had printed an ad to sell a rifle; the one Gary later suspected had been used to kill the mayor because that man was eventually convicted of second-degree murder in the case.
“I kept that napkin,” Gary said.