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Dissection Of A Murder

Updated on August 26, 2011

At around 6.00 p.m. on January 19, 1926, Anna May Dietrich waved goodbye to her sister in downtown Philadelphia, saying that she was on her way to a dancing lesson and would be home for dinner that night. She never arrived. Next morning the police were contacted. Investigation of Anna's social life revealed a fun-loving, liberated 35-year-old, fond of dancing and socializing, a real product of the 'Roaring Twenties.' The discovery that Anna had canceled her dancing lesson sent detectives on a different tack; they asked the family if there were any men in Anna's life? Anna's brother-in-law mentioned that she frequently visited a chiropractor named David Marshall who had an office in Philadelphia. He had been treating her for a back ailment; perhaps he could shed some light on the strange disappearance?

Anna May Dietrich
Anna May Dietrich

Marshall, age 42, was most helpful. He admitted that Anna was a patient, but said he had not seen her for 10 days. On her last appointment she'd been fretful over some romance that had turned sour, but she hadn't elaborated. Police thanked Marshall for his assistance and left.

Grisly Find

Next day, parcels of human remains, wrapped in newspaper, were found in some woodland near Media, a suburb of Philadelphia. The headless body had been drained of blood and mutilated by someone with appeared to have some kind of surgical knowledge. Another 48 hours and the grisly jigsaw puzzle was complete, when the missing head was discovered seven miles away, in Bywood, hidden beneath a railway trestle. Carefully, pathologists organized the parts into something identifiable as Anna May Dietrich.

When a witness came forward, claiming to have seen Anna in tears at Marshall's office on the night of her disappearance, Marshall was arrested. And this time police officers weren't so gentle with the charming chiropractor. Delaware County District Attorney, William Taylor, decided on shock tactics. He gave orders that Marshall be taken to the morgue to view the remains. Taylor later described how he had assembled everyone around the remains of Anna Dietrich: "I made the others take off their hats, and I turned to Marshall and said: 'In the presence of God and this girl's body, didn't you do this?' He smiled at me and put his hand to his mustache and took a cigar out of his pocket and said: 'Why, certainly not.'"

Given The 'Third Degree'

Still smirking, Marshall was hauled back to the police station and subjected him to what the press called "a severe grilling." After seven hours he broke down and confessed that he and Anna had been lovers for more than seven years. Recently, though, Marshall had tried to cool things, but Anna was having none of it. She had come to his office on the evening of January 19, he said, overwrought and tearful and threatening suicide. They'd argued and Marshall had stormed out of his own office. When he returned he found Anna lifeless on the floor. She had taken some kind of poison. That night he went home, terrified by the prospect of his infidelity becoming public knowledge and ruining his marriage. Unable to sleep, he returned to his office in the early hours and set about dismembering the body.

Marshall (second left) after signing his confession
Marshall (second left) after signing his confession

Even after Marshall signed this confession, his interrogators still harbored doubts and they turned the screws harder still. Several hours later, and utterly exhausted, Marshall finally gave up his secrets. In a careworn voice he now claimed that Anna turned up at his office and tried to blackmail him over their relationship, demanding money for her silence. "I refused, then a quarrel started. I tried to scare her. The result was that, I guess, I choked her … I would like to say this, though … I don't want the impression that I deliberately intended to choke her to death, for I didn't." Marshall's protestations of non-culpability might have carried more weight had he not then slashed Anna's throat.

Mutilates Body

The next morning he spent three and a half hours with a hacksaw and a six-inch razor sharp knife, reducing his former lover to hand-sized parcels. During the course of his work he was interrupted by the phone. It was Anna's brother-in-law, Alexander Schul, calling to ask if he had seen Anna. "I haven't seen the kid for a week," replied Marshall, then went back to his sawing.

Later that day he contacted a chauffeur named E. J. Barry. When Barry arrived at Marshall's office, the latter asked if he would dispose of some parcels. Sure, said Barry. But as he lifted one of the packages, the paper wrapping broke and out fell a human leg. Barry just gaped. Desperately, Marshall began thrusting fistfuls of dollars at him, begging him to get rid of the parcel, but Barry just backed away. He fled the office and would later contact the police.

The Trial Begins

At his trial, which began on March 8, 1926, Marshall claimed that the second confession had been beaten out of him, and that Anna really had committed suicide. His only crime was to dissect her body to conceal their illicit affair. As often happens in murder trials conflicting medical evidence only muddied the waters further. According to the state's experts, there was no toxicological evidence to say that Anna had taken her own life, while the medical examiner stuck by his original opinion of strangulation. Dr. Henry Cattell, for the defense, insisted that the autopsy supported Marshall's story; nor was he prepared to dismiss the possibility of poisoning.

Investigators still didn't buy Marshall's story. And their doubts received a boost when a witness raised the possibility that Anna, far from being some kind of unstable jilted lover, was actually scared of Marshall. Kenneth Gleason had spoken to Anna Dietrich on the night of her death. The two had been riding a train into Philadelphia. According to Gleason, Anna had produced a photograph of Marshall, then mentioned that she was attending a party the next night with another man. As he departed the train, Gleason called back to Anna, "I hope you have a nice time at the party." Anna had frowned. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe the man I'm going to meet tonight will object to a date with another man." This was significant; it meant that prosecutors could now add jealousy to the mix when they charged Marshall with first degree murder. If found guilty he would go to the electric chair.

Controversial Verdict

On March 24, after five hours' deliberation, the jury convicted Marshall of second-degree murder. He was jailed for 10-20 years. After serving just nine years behind bars, he was paroled and reportedly died in Florida in 1941.

Poor Anna May Dietrich was twice victimized in this sensational trial. It later emerged that five jury members had originally voted for first-degree murder, only to cave in to pressure from others who felt that, as an admitted adulteress, Anna Dietrich had in some way contributed to her own death. Marshall's infidelity barely figured in their deliberations.


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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      It really is tragic (and anger-provoking) that the old "double standard" is still so ingrained in some areas. Sadly, I don't see it disappearing any time soon.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Sadly, 80-some years later, many segments of Society still believe women who take up with married men "deserve" to brutally murdered.

      How 'bout we just bring back stoning the "hussies" in the town square, and let the philandering husbands have the honor of lobbing the first stone? Makes as much sense as the mentality that the philanderer is the wronged party in an extra-marital relationship.

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks, Binaya.Ghimire. Your comments are really valued!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this hub. Voted up


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