Voices from the Grave: The unsolved murder of Rockford High School teacher Cordelia Gummersheimer

By Kathi Kresolcordelia
Contributor

When Sarah Burr and Marie Dobbins couldn’t reach their friend Cordelia Gummersheimer on Sunday afternoon, they weren’t really all that concerned. The three were teachers at Rockford High School and had made plans for dinner on Sunday, December 8, 1929. They knew Cordelia was always busy. Besides her teaching position in the language department of the high school, Cordelia also tutored students and worked as an interpreter for local business men who dealt with foreign countries. She was fluent in several languages.

Cordelia was not originally from Rockford but had been teaching at the high school for eight years by 1929. She had grown up in Belleville, Illinois before for attending Knox College in Galesburg. In 1916, Cordelia, who her family described as always ready for adventure, traveled to Puerto Rico to teach languages there. During the summer months, Cordelia attended the University of Wisconsin where she was working on her master’s degree. She took her studies and her teaching position very seriously and was well liked by her students and co-workers. Cordelia was also known to be a free spirit. She had put her studies on hold during the summer of 1928 when she traveled with a tour group to Cuba to act as an interpreter.

Cordelia had a very optimistic outlook and seemed fearless to the other single female teachers at Rockford High School. She shrugged off their concerns about living alone in the Grantway Apartments at 516 West State Street. She liked her little home with the bed that folded down in the combination living room and bedroom. Cordelia slept with the window open even after her friends stressed for her to use more caution. The window was easily accessed from the back porch with stairs that led to the street.

So it was not until the late afternoon on that Sunday, December 8, that her two friends really began to worry. They finally grew concerned enough when they couldn’t reach her by 7:30 p.m. They decided to contact another co-worker in the building, Miss Alice Walker. Walker let them in the building and all three women knocked on Cordelia’s door. When they got no answer, they went out the back door that led to the back porch where they noticed that the window to Cordelia’s apartment was wide open. As they peered into the dim lit room, they were horrified to see that their worst fears had been realized. Cordelia was stretched across the bed, dressed in a pink silk nightgown, with her head in a pool of blood.

Police officers, members of the Sheriff’s Department, the coroner Walter Julian and even the State’s Attorney William D. Knight all arrived at the scene. It was the beginning of what would become one of the most intense and baffling investigations ever conducted in Winnebago County.

There was no easy motive determined at the scene. Cordelia was not sexually attacked and she still wore her engagement ring and had other valuables in the apartment that were not taken thus eliminating robbery as a motive.

The murder weapon was a three-foot piece of pipe that was found on the foot of Cordelia’s bed. The pipe that was used in the attack was determined to have come from a box of pipes kept outside a plumbing shop located at the rear of the apartment building. The killer grabbed the pipe, climbed two flights of stairs, raised the window that was left slightly open, and slipped in the apartment where Cordelia was sleeping on her left side. Cordelia had apparently fallen asleep reading a book by the light of the bedside lamp that was still on.

The coroner’s autopsy would show Cordelia had been struck three times with the pipe. One blow above her right eye, the other two blows fell back further by her ear. The autopsy also showed that Cordelia had been killed at least 12 to 13 hours before her body was found. There was no sign that anything else in the apartment had been disturbed. The neighbors were interviewed but stated they heard no noises or saw anything suspicious.

The police worked this case tirelessly. Undaunted by the list of Cordelia’s many friends and associates which led them to not only other states but other countries, they pushed for answers for Cordelia’s family. Her brother came from Belleville to take Cordelia home where she was laid to rest in the Walnut Hill Cemetery.

Police followed many scenarios, including relationships both current and past, and possible stalkers. They even thought for a time that the killer could have been a woman who lost a man to Cordelia. Unfortunately, though they worked several angles and looked into many suspects; Cordelia’s murder was never solved. This murder was revisited by the press and police for decades always with regret that no justice could be found for this young woman who had given so much to her students and her community.

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