Today, technology uses computers to replicate people. One hundred years ago, technology was using chemistry to replicate nature. Great fortunes awaited those who could synthesize rubber, timber and other natural products.
But silk, the Rolls Royce of textiles, held perhaps the greatest rewards. Not only was silk the world’s top luxury product, but because of its light weight and strength, it was becoming an essential ingredient in the growing automobile and aeronautics industries. In 1884, the first artificial silk was made from cellulose, but it was too flammable for practical use. In the four decades that followed, no one succeeded in creating synthetic silk that had the durability, feel or quality of the real thing …
So in 1924, when Charles Henri Schwartz, a French chemical engineer living in Berkeley, said he could revolutionize artificial silk manufacturing, people invested heavily in his Pacific Cellulose Company. Married with three children, Schwartz, 36, had been developing a secret formula. He set up a laboratory and offices in Walnut Creek, a few miles from his home.
Some believe that for every person there is an exact double — a doppelganger.
Schwartz’ doppelganger was Harold Warren. Warren, a successful construction engineer and bachelor, had come to Berkeley a few years after Schwartz and often spent time with his good friend Charles Heyward, who owned the Nottingham apartments in North Oakland.
By mid-1925, Schwartz had spent most of the investment money and seemed no closer to a solution. His investors became restive. To make matters worse, a young woman named Elizabeth Adams sued Schwartz for breach of promise. In her $75,000 lawsuit, Adams claimed Schwartz, posing as a single man, had seduced her with promises of marriage. Schwartz fought back and claimed that her charges were part of an international plot to blackmail him into revealing his secret formula.
A few weeks later, Schwartz announced that he had completed the formula and that the company would soon begin production. Around 9:30 p.m. on July 30, 1925, having just sent the night watchman to one of the other buildings, Schwartz was working alone in the laboratory building.
A few minutes later, a huge explosion rocked the lab. The night watchman called the fire department, which arrived quickly and extinguished the blaze. Though most of the windows were still intact, there was massive damage inside the lab. A body, almost completely incinerated except for the top of the head and the feet, was found under a workbench. Schwartz’ keys, his pocketwatch and chain were found on the body.
At 2 a.m., Mrs. Schwartz was brought to the scene and identified the body as that of her husband. The coroner agreed and ordered the corpse removed to the morgue. Mrs. Schwartz requested an early cremation of the remains.
At 4 a.m., Heyward was awoken by Warren, who said that he had been injured in a minor automobile accident and wanted to rest in the Nottingham Apartments while he recovered. Warren was given an empty unit in the apartments. Over the next seven days, Warren proved to be a lively guest, playing cards and entertaining Hayward and his wife with many stories.
On July 31, 1925, after suspicious blood stains were found at the lab, Professor Edward Heinrich was asked to investigate. A pioneer in the field of criminology, Heinrich determined the fire that caused the explosion had been deliberately started outside the lab. His analysis showed the blood stains occurred at least an hour before the fire.
Schwartz’s wife and doctor strongly disagreed with these conclusions, and his attorney suggested that Schwartz’s shoes be matched to the body as a means of identification, since he had unusually small hands and feet. The coroner decided on a more standard approach: an autopsy.
The autopsy revealed the body was that of a 50-year-old man who had been killed by severe blows to the head. His eyeballs had been punctured and his fingers dipped in acid to hide his eye color and fingerprints. Further investigation of Schwartz’s background revealed that his advanced degrees in chemistry from European universities were fraudulent. Police began a nationwide search for Schwartz.
Heinrich continued to sift through the ruins of the lab, looking for a clue to the victim’s identity. He found a bundle containing soap, coffee, needles, thread and some religious pamphlets with the name “Barbe” written on one of them. He deduced that the victim was probably an itinerant preacher. A man reported that Barbe told him he was headed up to Walnut Creek. Another man said Barbe told him he was on his way to answer an ad for a man who had small hands and feet.
On August 7, Heyward made a disturbing discovery: While reading about the Walnut Creek case, he saw a photo of Schwartz in the newspaper. Except for the mustache, Schwartz looked exactly like his friend, Harold Warren. Heyward reported this to police, who knocked on Warren’s door. As they forced it open, a gunshot rang out.
Inside the apartment, police found Schwartz dying of a self-inflicted bullet wound. Had Schwartz succeeded in his plan, his wife would have collected $190,000 in life insurance …
The search for artificial silk continued until 1938, when nylon, the most successful synthetic product in U.S. history, was developed at DuPont. In 2015, the value of U.S.-produced artificial fibers, such as nylon, was $76 billion.
Charles Schwartz’ scheme was brilliantly planned. Years before the crime, he established a new identity, that of Henry Warren. He selected a victim with similar physical characteristics to his own, a man who would not be missed — except for one slip.
“Schwartz made one big mistake when he poured benzyl on the floor of the laboratory,” said Professor Heinrich. “Benzyl fumes are heavy, and Schwartz didn’t wait until the fumes had sufficient time to rise above the level of the benches. Had he done this, there would have been an explosion which would have completely wrecked the building and destroyed all the evidence.”
Had Schwartz been a real chemist, he might have committed the perfect crime.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.