Cold Case: The Murder of Clara Bates
By Joe Bachman
Murder, madams, and Ed Gein — a piece of Wisconsin Rapids history that will never be forgotten.
It has been long rumored that a female bartender was murdered at the old Shanghai Room in the Hotel Mead, and though this story could never be verified, it is likely mistaken for the very real murder of a bartender just 10 miles away on the Portage/Wood County Line.
While the entire story of what went down on a fateful night in 1952 will never truly be known, here’s what we do know:
On the night of Jun. 30, 1952, local resident Edward Kanieski called authorities to report a body found in local bar “Cad’s Tavern”, which is now known as Kellner International, located on 80th St. South in Kellner. According to court documents, Kanieski was in the area and heard noises that sounded like a “woman and a child weeping”. While the front door to the tavern was locked, Kanieski returned later with a friend and made their way into the tavern through a backdoor.
Kanieski discovered the body of 76-year-old tavern owner Clara “Cad” Bates in her living quarters inside the tavern, and immediately called authorities. Bates was found nude, except for her shoes and stockings, and according to court records had taken repeated blows to the head by a blunt object. Bates was also found with a rope fastened tightly around her neck, as if there was an attempt to strangle her. The murder weapon was never recovered.
Kanieski initially lied about being at the tavern on the night of the murder, the tavern of which through Bates had a reputation for providing prostitutes for patrons known as a “sporting house”. Bates was considered a “madame” in the area. According to eyewitness accounts, many reported seeing Kanieski’s vehicle at the tavern on the night of the murder, as Ms. Bates suspiciously closed down early that day. Rumors persist that Kanieski could have been a client of Bates that night.
Police found scratches on Kanieksi’s arms, which was said was from picking blueberries, and not from any sort of struggle. Kanieksi was convicted of burglarizing a home in 1950, and with a known troubled history, he was soon arrested for the murder of Clara Bates.
Evidence from hair fibers found on Kanieski’s jacket that matched hair fibers from one of Bates’ dogs was presented as evidence at the trial, as well as fibers from Kanieski’s pants that matched fibers found on a rug in the room of the murder.
Following a short deliberation after a three-day trial, Kanieski was found guilty of the murder of Clara Bates.
However, after multiple appeals, in 1972, a Wisconsin Supreme Court judge Horace Wilkie found the evidence in the case circumstantial, and threw out the evidence of hair fibers as unreliable. The judge also found no motive for the murder.
Kanieski, who maintained his innocence throughout his 20 year sentence was finally released the same year, but died only a few years later in 1975.
So who killed Clara Bates? Former owner, Robert Spohn, of what is now Kellner International, put forth some interesting theories.
According to Spohn, the late District Attorney John Potter, who prosecuted the case against Kanieski, was in an “election year”, and locals speculate wanted a quick conviction to what was a gruesome murder to get re-elected. While there are others who feel the same, this has never been confirmed. Though Potter, himself, would write a 1993 book on the incident called “The Tangled Web” where he maintains Kanieski’s guilt.
Court documents say otherwise, so if Kanieski did not commit the murder, then who did?
Spohn isn’t alone when locals in the area suspect that it might have possibly been Ed Gein. Gein only lived 20 minutes away from Kellner, but according to Kellner natives was known to frequent Cad’s Tavern. His first known murder was committed in 1954, as he ended the life of 51-year-old Mary Hogan, the owner of a tavern in Pine Grove, Wis.
Could Clara Bates have been Ed Gein’s actual first victim? We may never know.
Kellner residents now see “K.I.” as known for great food, great drinks, and great times. However, the obvious question was posed to current owners, as of 2014, Rachel and James Greve — “Does Clara Bates haunt Kellner International?”
The answer was a definitive “no.”
However, that doesn’t excuse the strange occurrences in the area, according to Spohn. One rainy night, he heard the similar sounds Kanieski once heard coming from behind the bar — only instead of a woman and children crying, it was the sound of youths playing around and making noise. While the source of the noise was never found, upon further investigation with a local police officer, both saw a figure walking down 80th St. South outside of the bar.
“This figure was walking down the road and the officer took out his flashlight and put the light on it,” said Spohn. “As soon as the light flashed on it, the figure disappeared.”
While the tragedy of the Bates murder not only affected the lives of Clara Bates and Edward Kanieski, as well as his family, it will be a case forever entwined in Wisconsin Rapids’ history — and a case that will likely forever remain unsolved.
Kellner International is located at 1204 80th St. South.