This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
We 21st century dwellers have become numb to scandal (shout out to all the magazine covers in the grocery checkout line for making this possible). So-and-so did what to whom? Not surprised. Eyelash: not batted. So you might be surprised by how scandalized you’ll be after getting a load of this early 20th century tale, brought to my attention by the fine people at Atlas Obscura.
Our story begins in 1880 in Germany. A mother thinks it’s a good idea to name her new baby girl Walburga (no relation to Mark or Donny, as far as I know). Things don’t get easier for dear Walburga either; she emigrates to America, but ends up on a poor farm in the Midwest. One silver lining: she starts going by “Dolly,” so that’s something, I guess.
Walburga eventually turns things around for herself in her early 20s by marrying Fred Oesterreich, a rich owner of…an apron factory (aprons were that lucrative back then? I guess more people cooked at home back in the day, but still: really??). Unfortunately, money can’t buy you class or happiness because Moneybags was a drunk. Dolly soon becomes lonely and sexually unsatisfied.
Because she isn’t a particularly musical person, producing a series of Lemonade-style diss tracks is off the table, so Dolly comes up with a different plan. In 1913, she complains to her husband about a broken sewing machine. He promises to send one of his apron factory workers over to fix it.
That worker turns out to be a 17-year-old by the name of Otto, who has no idea what he’s about to get into. Dolly allegedly answers the door in “a silk robe, stockings, heavy perfume and nothing else” (not unlike what Joan Crawford did in her solarium to seduce Franchot Tone). Otto comes inside and doesn’t fix the sewing machine, but fixes something else, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).
An affair that would scandalize a nation is born. They meet in hotels at first, but that can get expensive and is inconvenient in general, so they think Aw, screw it! and start rendezvous-ing in her marital bed. That’s when the neighbors start talking, as they are wont to do. Dolly tries to get them off the scent by claiming Otto is her “vagabond half-brother” (ew). This convinces no one, so Dolly approaches Otto with a proposition. It probably goes a little something like this:
Hey, boo! Want to live in my attic? My ball and chain never goes up there. We can have sex whenevs and my neighbors can go back to talking about some other lady on the street. Oh, by the way, you won’t ever be able to leave the house and I’ll be the only one you ever see or talk to for the foreseeable future. Cool?
For whatever reason, Otto says Cool. He moves in, essentially becoming her sex slave. In his non-boning time, Otto works on his writing and makes bathtub gin. This goes on for FIVE YEARS, until Dolly’s husband starts getting paranoid, not about her cheating, but about ghosts and/or his sanity. How else could you explain the weird noises at night, the shadows under his door, the missing cigars?
Monsieur Walburga is creeped out enough to want to relocate to Los Angeles. Dolly is open to this with one caveat: the new house must have an attic. Moneybags is like Uh, you’re weird, but OK. Always one step ahead, Dolly sends Otto to LA in advance. By the time she and her husband move into their new home, he’s already kicking it in the attic!
After the move, Dolly’s husband starts drinking even more. Their marriage suffers and they fight a lot. One of these brawls occurs on August 22, 1922. It turns physical. Hearing the scuffle from the attic and fearing for Dolly’s life, Otto comes out of hiding, grabs two of her husband’s weapons and shoots him dead.
Because Dolly is never without a plan, the two decide to stage a home invasion. They swipe one of the husband’s diamond watches and Otto locks Dolly in a closet. Once he’s tucked away in the attic, Dolly screams until the police show up. The cops buy the story and don’t even bother checking every room of the house because apparently no one was perceptive or had common sense back then. Dolly inherits every cent, some of which she uses to buy an even bigger house, with an even bigger attic.
Because this story isn’t weird enough, Otto continues unnecessarily living in the attic in secret, while Dolly dates around. They’ve cultivated a nice sub-dom situation here; why fix it if it isn’t broken?
Then Dolly starts to get sloppy. She starts dating her estate attorney, who knows all aspects of the murder. That’s bad enough, but she takes it even further by gifting him the allegedly stolen diamond watch! Lawyer Boyfriend immediately recognizes it and calls her out. She says she found it under a cushion and didn’t think it was a big enough deal to involve the cops. If animated gifs had been invented, he would have sent her this one with a quickness:
Dolly also gives one of the murder weapons to a different boyfriend (this woman basically invented hustle!). She tells him that the gun looks an awful lot like the one used to kill her husband and she doesn’t want the cops getting the wrong impression. Could he chuck it into the La Brea Tar Pits for her? Again:
Then, she gives the same little speech to a neighbor and asks him to bury the remaining murder weapon. He obliges because men evidently stand zero chance against her.
Tar Pits Boo and Dolly eventually break up and he rats her out (a tale as old as time). The cops find the gun. Upon seeing the headlines, Neighbor Who Really Shouldn’t Have Gotten Involved brings the other gun to the police station. The jig is up, right? Not quite.
She goes to jail, but isn’t there for long. The guns are too rusted to determine if they had fired the bullets. And there is one small riddle the cops can’t answer: How would Dolly have been able to lock herself in that closet from the outside?? The charges are eventually dropped.
While she’s briefly in jail, Dolly asks Lawyer Boyfriend to bring food to a man living in her attic. Otto is super jazzed to talk to someone after being cooped up for all those years and regales Lawyer Boyfriend with all the details about his sexual exploits.
Lawyer Boyfriend’s response:
Otto flees to Canada.
Not thoroughly creeped out by the diamond watch and the two murder weapon witnesses and the strange attic dweller, Lawyer Boyfriend decides to not only keep dating Dolly, but move into her house!
Seven rocky years later, Lawyer Boyfriend finally has enough and tells the cops everything. Because Otto has the worst luck ever, he has recently moved back to town and is promptly arrested, along with Dolly.
The papers have a field day, branding Otto “the Bat Man of Los Angeles” and a “perjurer of his own soul.” Otto is found guilty of manslaughter, but catches a lucky break (his first ever?) when it’s announced that the statute of limitation has run out. Now 43 years old, he is a free man. Here’s a photo of him reveling in the victory and some much-needed vitamin D (something he sorely lacked all those years in the attic):
As for Dolly, her fancy attorney manages to get a hung jury and she is also set free. She goes on to meet a brand new man, and spends the next 30 years with him. Here they are applying for a marriage license:
She dies two weeks later at the age of 75.
And thus ends the very long, very winding, very absurd tale of Walburga Oesterreich. May she rest in peace and may we have half of her swagger and determination (the non-murderous half obviously).
For even more Walburga thoughts and feelings, get a load of this episode of The Cooler: