The Sad Story of Robert Lee Ritz
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
–Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright
One of the most tragic stories in Wheeling sports history is the 1916 murder of Robert Lee Ritz of Wheeling.
In an interview with a relative, 98-year-old Roberta Lee Mitchell of Colerain (who was named for her cousin Robert), a photograph of this outstanding and popular football player was donated to the Ohio County Public Library Archives.
Known as “Lee,” Robert Lee Ritz was the only child of Lee and Anna Ritz. His father died at an early age and his mother, a Stobbs, later married Theo Camp and lived at 1014 Vine Street in East Wheeling.
Lee was captain of the football team at Wheeling High School, and according to the Wheeling Intelligencer, he was one of the best athletes in West Virginia. Selected to the all-state high school football team, he planned to attend Cornell University.
The Big Game
The big game of 1916 was the Thanksgiving Day contest between Wheeling High and Bellaire High School on Thursday, November 30 at League Park field. Said to have the best team in the state, Wheeling defeated Bellaire 13-0 on a muddy field before a crowd of 10,000 people. Despite playing with an injured knee and ankle, Captain Lee Ritz led the way, rushing for a touchdown as halfback and kicking the bonus point while playing beside his cousin Hugh Stobbs.
A City Paralyzed with Grief
Just two days later on Saturday night, December 2, 21-year-old Robert Lee Ritz was dead, shot twice by an old “chum,” 28-year-old brass worker Jack Nolte of Warwood. Nolte then tried to kill himself, but lived, never divulging his motive. The front-page story noted that the shooting took place at 9th and Main Streets. The janitor at the Virginia Apartments heard the shots and rushed to the scene, but Ritz was already dead. A crowd gathered, and a rumor started that Lee had been killed by a disgruntled Bellaire High fan.
“Wheeling,” said the Intelligencer, “was paralyzed with astonishment and grief.” The funeral of Lee Ritz on Tuesday, December 5, 1916, was a city event. Brief services were held at the home of his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William Stobbs, at 217 South Wabash Street on Wheeling Island. At 2:30, a public service was offered at First English Lutheran Church on 16th Street. As the paper reported, the funeral was one of the largest ever held in Wheeling, and special traction cars were employed to carry the many friends and family to Greenwood Cemetery.
Among those in attendance were football squads and representatives of schools of the Valley, including Parkersburg, Tyler County, Moundsville, Bridgeport, Bellaire, Cathedral, Linsly, Union, Wellsburg, and Martins Ferry. At the service, a quartet sang and the church was filled with flowers, including a bouquet from Ella Nolte and the family of the killer. For an hour after the service, more than 3,000 people walked past the open casket. Then Robert Lee Ritz was taken to his grave at Greenwood Cemetery, leaving behind a grief-stricken Valley.
– by Sean Duffy
In many ways, the sad story of Robert Lee Ritz exemplifies the value of archival collections. From the donation of a large, but relatively nondescript, oval portrait of a young man and a bit of information shared by a 98-year-old relative who still remembered some of the subject’s story, a sad but fascinating story from Wheeling’s past was rediscovered.
The stories such artifacts reveal are not always pleasant. In fact, what happened to Lee Ritz was tragic and awful. We gave serious thought to not sharing the story, thinking perhaps it would be better if it remained forgotten. But in the end, we decided there is value in remembering–there is value in learning from the past, even when the lessons are painful. This story provides an important window, a nuanced insight into the zeitgeist of 1917 Wheeling. We did not visit Roberta Lee Mitchell to learn about Robert Lee Mitchell. It was unexpected. But she entrusted us with his photograph, and his story should speak for itself to a new generation. Lee Ritz should not be forgotten. It is not our place to censor the past. Archival collections, even when they consist of only one photograph, exist to make the past accessible.
Three Years of Tragedy
The murder of Captain Robert Lee Ritz on December 2, 1916, was actually the third wrenching annual tragedy endured by the students and faculty of Wheeling High School from 1914 to 1916.
On January 3, 1914, an intense fire ripped through the relatively new school building, causing part of the roof and a supporting wall to collapse, crushing to death a city fireman and two volunteers who were fighting the blaze.
Then on November 20, 1915, Lee Ritz’s predecessor as football captain, William H. Parker, died after being carried from the field midway through a game at Buckhannon that would determine the state championship. According to the attending physician, he died from a ruptured blood vessel in the brain caused by “over-exertion.”
The Buckhannon High School student body passed a resolution, proclaiming, “we…profoundly deplore the tragic death of Captain William H. Parker,” and extending their sympathy to his teachers and classmates. Both schools canceled the final game of the season. For Wheeling, that meant the annual Thanksgiving “Big Classic” against Bellaire, the same game won by Wheeling a year later, just days before Ritz was murdered.
By the time newly elected Captain Ritz and his mates took the field for the 1916 season opener against Moundsville at League Park, a plaque dedicated to Parker ‘s memory had been hung in the school, “so that all future classes might look back and revere his memory.” It’s unlikely that Lee Ritz needed any such reminder to revere his deceased teammate and friend on that day and, indeed, every game day through Thanksgiving.
A year later, the team was left to revere the memory of another dead captain. Interior lineman Lawrence “Bud” Wagoner helped them by composing an elegy for his friend that appeared in the WHS Record for 1917.
But what became of Jack Nolte?
This is the natural question to ask after reading Margaret’s story above. And, as might be expected, a sensational trial would determine Nolte’s fate.
After the shooting, John “Jack” Nolte spent some time recuperating from his self-inflicted gunshot wounds at North Wheeling Hospital. There was speculation that he would not recover. At first, he did remain steadfastly silent (or, as the Intelligencer termed it, a “sphinx-like silence”) about the events of December 2, despite relentless “grilling” by Prosecutor McKee and police detectives.
Newspapers across the state and region reported the early theory, originating with police officers, that Nolte had shot Ritz due to jealousy “over a girl wooed by both” (Charleston Daily Mail, Dec. 4, 1916).
When he finally did speak, Nolte claimed the two men had formed a suicide pact, and that Ritz had taken his own life. This seemed suspect from the start, since one of the bullets entered through Ritz’s back, on the left side of his body. Two detectives later testified that he still clutched a cigar in his right hand when his dead body was examined on the sidewalk outside the Virginia Apartments. This, said the state, would have made suicide physically impossible.
Nolte retained prominent Wheeling attorney Frank A. O’Brien as defense council, and O’Brien would attempt an insanity defense. Several prominent Wheeling men were chosen as jurors, among them P.H. Hornbrook, baker Fred G. Stroehmann (foreman), Walker I. Frissell, and A.S. Paull.
The trial itself was rapid by modern standards. Commencing in early March 2017, a verdict was returned by March 23.
The sensational details of the testimony are a matter of public record and will not be recounted here. Suffice to say, the evidence showed that Nolte was indeed jealous of Ritz and perhaps obsessed with him. His strange behavior toward Ritz provided the basis for his defense. An array of psychiatrists testified as to Nolte’s “moral imbecility,” diagnosing him as a “sadist” and “pathological,” having “lost all sense of decency and shame.” This, the defense claimed, meant that Nolte could not appreciate the consequences of his actions.
Dr. J.R. Bloss of Huntington went so far as to summon the specter of phrenology to diagnose Nolte: “Shape of his head, small above ears, high arched palate, are indicative of degeneracy. Also, one side of his face is different from the other and apparently controlled by separate and independent muscles. These are indicative of mental infirmity…”
The prosecution, while admitting that Nolte’s obsession with Ritz was “unnatural,” maintained that Nolte was fully aware of the consequences of his actions, and, in fact, planned and intended to kill Ritz. Prosecutor McKee sought the death penalty. One of the doctors called by the prosecution, the prominent Wheeling physician Dr. Charles Wingerter, who specialized in “mental and nervous diseases,” testified that Nolte was “abnormal” but not insane.
Both sides seemed to acknowledge Nolte’s “inversion,” the contemporary medical term for homosexuality. And the various reactions to this fact are instructive regarding early 20th century attitudes and mores. For the prosecution, it simply proved that Nolte was “abnormal.” For the defense, Nolte’s homosexuality was proof of his insanity. Nolte’s defense attorney went so far in his closing argument as to call his client an “immoral, perverted and almost God-punished man…”
After two days of deliberation, the jury agreed with the prosecution, finding Nolte guilty of murder in the first degree. But three jurors rejected the death penalty, and the jury recommended life in prison.
“Life’s a long time, but that’s not so bad, is it?” Nolte reportedly said in reaction to the verdict. His defense attorney admonished him for smiling at the jury.
As far as we can determine, Nolte spent the remainder of his life in the state penitentiary at Moundsville.
Charleston Daily Mail, December 1916.
In-person interview with Roberta Lee Mitchell, October 2015.
Wheeling High School Record [Yearbook], 1913-1917.
Wheeling Daily News, 1916 [clippings from Stobbs family scrapbook]
Wheeling Intelligencer, March 1917.
Wheeling News-Register, March 1917.