I’ve never been comfortable reviving homicide cases when digging into history for a column. Those stories echo a dark past and only renew the pain for ancestors. The tragic story I’m about to awaken, however, has so many curls and spins, mixed with eccentricity and entanglements, that mystery authors and movie producers would thrive on, given today’s lust for sensationalism.

A murder-suicide took place at Hotel Marinette in the winter of 1938 smack in the heart of the city’s bustling downtown district. The story had a connection that extended from royalty in Germany to Canada, from there to Milwaukee, and eventually to Silver Cliff in Marinette County.

It affected multiple families, some of them upscale even during the Great Depression. Also, a small army of barristers from Milwaukee and the local legal corps were involved, as were five or six different judges. It was a drama that seemed like Hollywood script writers were at work.

I had heard bits and pieces of the shootings some 20 years later while covering the police and courthouse beats in Marinette as a young reporter for the Menominee Herald-Leader. It was common back then for reporters to sit with cops and lawyers during a break in trials and replay the past.

My curiosity for complete details of the case was sharpened the day I received a telephone call from John R. Johnson of Marinette who had a few recollections of his own to pass along. It was time to investigate the facts surrounding the case. The investigation turned out to be a fascinating catch.

The story centers around Henry Von Noble, who was born in Germany Oct. 4, 1883. His father abandoned his family when Henry was a young boy, his mother divorced his father and later remarried. Von Noble was a graduate of Heidelberg University in his native country. A well-polished young man, he was an officer in the Russian army in World War I. Following the conflict, he moved to Quebec, Canada, and came to the United States in 1921. He had a divorced wife and three children living in Germany.

Von Noble was 21 when he married in 1904. His wife divorced him in 1924 after he was placed on probation for adultery. As a part of the settlement, the wife was to receive a $6,000 inheritance that Von Noble was to collect when his mother died.

After leaving Canada, he settled in Milwaukee where he worked as a car salesman. His charm and smooth-talking demeanor were a perfect fit for the trade. He claimed to be a count and was a relative of a Prussian noble family. He was obsessed with royalty and boasted about his alleged ancestry and noble ranking.

Von Noble married a second time in 1926 only to be divorced four years later. He was ordered to pay $15 a week in support payments for their one child. The second wife testified in a Milwaukee court that her husband refused to become a U.S. citizen because he didn’t want to surrender his European ancestry.

The Associated Press picked up on the divorce story, per-haps because of Von Noble’s German background and because his wife was a member of an affluent Milwaukee family. The AP reported Von Noble had threatened his wife and her relatives, abused his wife physically, and kept a col-lection of rifles and smaller weapons for purposes of intimidation. Court records showed the defendant went by the first names of Henry, Harry and Heinz at different times.

A master at wooing woman, Von Noble married a third time. Irma, wife No. 3, was the daughter of a wealthy Milwaukee banker. She advanced him $40,000 so he could purchase a sizeable chunk of land and a fine herd of cattle to start a ranch in Silver Cliff. Irma Von Noble was also a divorcée, her former husband being the vice president of a Milwaukee bank. Henry and Irma were married in Oconto Sept. 14, 1936.

Von Noble claimed to be a student of husbandry in Europe. He was controlled by a theory that he could raise cattle on western ranges and the vast woodlands in the Silver Cliff region would provide shelter for his herd. His operation grew to 7,200 acres and about 200 head of cattle, a stable of horses and other farm animals.

The outsider and novice rancher was not well-liked in Marinette County. He was considered to be too eccentric with his kooky behavior. He had a hot temper. He was unwilling to let go of his past as a Prussian military officer, and had a penchant for toting a revolver and a blackjack to threaten his farm hirelings and neighbors.

Gradually, Von Noble’s small empire began to crumble around him. Ranch laborers complained of his quirky behavior. Sheriff Arthur Woulf received complaints that cattle on the ranch were starving from a lack of food and improper shelter in the brutal winter months. The sheriff and Dr. Oscar G. Olson, a Marinette veterinarian who served as the county’s humane officer, went to investigate and found conditions to be deplorable.

Their inspection found dead cattle frozen in the snow, death attributed to starvation and exposure to harsh weather. Many others were found to be in a weakened condition due to starvation. They filed charges of cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. The rancher pleaded not guilty and was due to appear before Justice Osten Mathisen on Feb. 12 (1938) for a hearing.

Labor turnover at the farm was huge. Forty different workers had come and gone in the past year alone. Workers told the sheriff Von Noble would explode in fits of anger, then lie down on a couch and point a revolver at his head as if to take his own life. He carried a rifle, revolver and field glasses while riding a horse over ranch land looking for wolves, bobcats and cattle rustlers who he thought might be molesting his cattle.

The third Mrs. Von Noble had had enough, too. She left her husband on Dec. 4, 1937, and established resident Washington, Wis., ending 15 months of togetherness. Her petition for divorce was on grounds of cruel and inhumane treatment. A Ozaukee County judge issued a restraining order which prevented Von Noble from transacting any business at the ranch that encumbered farm property.

The divorce hearing was postponed several times before it was finally scheduled for Feb. 15 before a Sheboygan judge. The case was moved from Ozaukee County to Marinette County. Attorney Emmett McCarthy of Marinette was a member of Von Noble’s legal team with two Milwaukee attorneys. Two Milwaukee barristers represented Mrs. Von Noble.

Oddly, the defendant traveled to Milwaukee the day before his trial to visit his second wife in an effort to settle the alimony dispute with her. He returned to Marinette on the eve of his divorce trial with wife No. 3.

On the morning of the trial, Von Noble started the day in a weird manner. He took a taxi from Hotel Marinette to the railroad station in Menominee in hopes of finding his wife asleep in a Pullman car parked on a sidetrack. Unsuccessful, he returned to Hotel Marinette unaware his wife was staying at the same hotel.

He spotted her talking to her legal team while having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. He left the dining area and walked to the courthouse to converse with his lawyers. “I love that woman, and she loves me,” he reportedly told his legal team. “I’m going over to see her.”

Meanwhile, Irma Von Noble, two of her children from a previous marriage, and her sister were all at the hotel preparing to depart for the courthouse. Von Noble entered the lobby holding his coat over his right hand, presumably to conceal a .357 Magnum revolver.

It was 10:40 a.m. when Irma Von Noble, son, daughter and sister were about to exit the hotel lobby. The troubled man opened fire in the lobby, killing his wife instantly, seriously wounded the sister, then took his own life. Only three shots were fired. Two people died and a third suffered a shattered jaw and facial injuries. Although terribly frightened, the children were unharmed. Hotel employees ran for cover when the shooting erupted. One patron in the coffee shop fled out the door and fainted on the sidewalk.

Undersheriff Edward O’Hearon and Deputy John Wood were the first officers on the gruesome scene. District Attorney Richard “Jab” Murray and Coroner Robert Thompson ordered a coroner’s inquest.

After several postponements, a seven-man jury heard the testimony and returned a verdict in seven minutes. The ruling: Irma Von Noble died of a single shot to the head, her husband died of a self-inflicted wound to the head.

The body of Irma Von Noble was taken to Milwaukee for burial. Final rites for Henry Von Noble were conducted at the Martin Funeral Home in Marinette with only a local pas-tor and two staff members from the funeral home present.

In the meantime, county officials were left a wreckage at the ranch where cattle were starving and property crumbling due to lack of attention. All three wives had retained attorneys. Three ranch hands and one cook needed to be paid. Tons of hay had to be trucked to the ranch to feed the unhealthy animals. Forty-two cattle and one horse were found dead, their carcasses trucked to a Green Bay factory for animal tallow used in making soap. Some animals were found in the snow-covered woods trying to survive by eating brush. The cattle that survived were shipped to a livestock dealer in Peshtigo.

It took years to settle the estate because of the many complications and legal maneuvers involved.

The Von Noble murder-suicide case remains one of the most storied of its kind in Marinette County annals. Love, adultery, quest for power, greed, wealth and royalty mobilized an astounding tale of drama that only newspapers could detail. The Eagle-Star, Herald-Leader and the AP described the horrifying details that captivated readers for weeks, the coverage extending to Von Noble’s native Germany.

It is a piece of local history that couldn’t be ignored more than 70 years later.