In 1911, a 7-year-old girl was killed. Her body was discovered days later in Lake Monona. Two arrests followed, but they divided the city then and still do now.
In this Cold Case Wisconsin, News 3 Investigates’ Jennifer Hoff asks who killed little Annie Lemberger?
All this time later, there’s still no easy answer. But News 3 looked to Annie’s nephew to help us unravel the case that he didn’t even know about until more than seven decades after the crime.
“It was just a very, very good mystery,” Mark Lemberger, whose book brings readers back in time to a dark place in Madison history, said. “The Annie Lemberger mystery is the second-most written of child homicide in 20th Century America after the Lindbergh baby."
The headlines captured people’s attention across the country, because in 1911, it wasn’t often children were killed.
“For this kind of child in Madison to get all this attention was really a pretty big deal,” historian Mark Gajewski said.
It was Labor Day weekend of 1911. Newspapers report Annie was kidnapped from her South Frances Street family home, near where the Kohl Center is now. Days later and a mile away, crews found her body in Brittingham Bay. An autopsy said she was suffocated.
But as fast as news of that spread then, it wasn’t until 1985 that it reached Mark Lemberger, living in South Carolina.
“This murder mystery in our family of many years gone by was front page of the Wisconsin State Journal that Sunday morning,” Lemberger said.
The little girl who stole America’s hearts grabbed Mark’s too, because she was his aunt. After spending years scrutinizing the scandal, his book was born.
“There were really only two possible suspects, and you could make a case for the innocence of either one of them,” Lemberger said.
John Johnson was the town criminal and a convicted child molester; therefore, an easy target. He confessed to the crime, but despite recanting, spent 10 years in prison before an attorney, anxious to gain public office, took on his case and during trial, introduced a surprise witness that would stun everyone.
“He basically bribed a woman to come forward and accuse Annie Lemberger’s own father of the murder,” Gajewski said.
Immediately, Martin Lemberger was arrested and Johnson freed. It’s said, in a fight to be first, the same newspapers that reported Annie’s death failed to investigate Mae Sorenson’s claim Martin was the killer. The papers and people had to blame someone, and for no other reason, jumped on the bandwagon and accused Martin of murder. Even years later, when a polygraph test proved Sorenson lied, the damage was done.
“They certainly weren’t vindicated,” Lemberger said. “Most of the town thought they were pretty evil that they could let Mr. Johnson rot in prison for 10 years.”
Martin wouldn’t serve time behind bars. The statute of limitations expired, but rebuilding his reputation might have taken as much of a toll on the family. Martin had a stroke and died some 30 years after Annie did. Soon after, his wife won a settlement with a magazine that called Martin the murderer.
She used the money to buy a monument that memorializes a little girl whocaptured the nation’s attention.
But any more answers about this Wisconsin Cold Case have long been buried with Annie Lemberger.
“I asked my mother, 'Did grandpa do it? and she said, 'Do what?' and I said, 'Kill little Annie?' and she said, 'No, he didn’t kill her,'” Lemberger said. “I said, 'Well, who did?' and she said, 'Nobody knows.'”
Johnson was granted clemency and paid $5,000 as compensation for his sentence. He died of pneumonia in 1938.
The attorney who helped free him was elected judge, but was eventually disbarred for borrowing money from bootleggers in exchange for lighter sentences.
So, who do you think killed Annie?
Lemberger encourages people to read his book and come up with an answer for themselves.