Elaine Richman killing resembled the 1955 & 1960 attacks that made Dobermans infamous
HOUSTON, Texas––Found dead in her Houston back yard on February 8, 2019, Doberman enthusiast Elaine Richman, 66, most likely succumbed to severe facial wounds and apparent defensive wounds to her hands and arms.
“Preliminary autopsy results list a sharp force injury as the cause of death,” reported Taisha Walker and senior digital editor Aaron Barker of Click2Houston.com.
Apart from the nature of the wounds, a sharp force injury as the cause of death would be indicated by evidence of spurting blood: when the heart stops, blood pressure stops with it. Blood from bite wounds inflicted after a dog attack victim’s death slowly oozes and soon congeals.
“Many of her dogs were champions”
“The two Dobermans were confiscated by authorities,” reported Miya Shay of KTRK-ABC 13 television news. “They are currently being held by the city of Houston’s animal control department, pending the outcome of a Houston police criminal investigation.
Elaine Richman “spent a big part of her life training and showing the dogs,” her brother Bruce Richman told Shay. “She would take such pride in seeing them win ribbons and awards and many of her dogs were champions. That was her life,” Richman added.
“However,” Shay said, “Richman’s relationship with other Doberman owners was strained after she was forced out as treasurer of the local [Doberman] organization following a financial probe. After her death, a number of Doberman owners contacted by ABC13 were reluctant to talk about Richman. They wanted to focus on the Dobermans, not wanting one tragic death to impact the perception of the dogs.”
Doberman advocates in denial
But fellow Doberman owners by the dozens, many of whom knew Richman and her dogs, one male and one female, remained in denial that Richman’s own Dobermans could have attacked her.
“That is extremely unusual, that a person is attacked by their personal dogs,” Houston Kennel Club president Tom Pincus told the Houston Chronicle, overlooking that the most frequent victims of fatal attacks by any dogs are owners and other members of their households.
“I would not believe that for a second until I heard that from a coroner’s report,” insisted Pincus.
Dog show handler Theresa Nail, who walked one of Richman’s Dobermans through several competitions, told the Houston Chronicle that Richman’s dogs were “very well-behaved and sweet.”
Others, as well as vouching for the Dobermans, mentioned that Richman had fallen in competitions as recently as November, suffering unspecified complications from the falls. A photo of Richman at a recent agility event appears to show her left wrist in an elastic bandage.
Richman was also said to have been scheduled for heart surgery to have a stent implanted, a hint that she might have had a heart attack in conjunction with the Doberman attack.
But even if Richman fell or had a heart attack before her Dobermans inflicted the bloody injuries from which she tried to protect herself, the Dobermans almost certainly finished her off.
Whether the Dobermans knocked Richman down before mauling her, or just mauled her after she fell, and whether the Dobermans triggered the hypothetical heart attack or the heart attack triggered the Dobermans to bite, are details in the sequence of events bringing about her death, not exonerating factors for the dogs.
“Didn’t see them as vicious”
What Richman’s Dobermans did not do is bark loudly and incessantly enough to inspire neighbors to look over the fence to see why they were barking, or to call police or animal control to complain.
“I didn’t see them as vicious,” Richman’s next-door-neighbor of 20 years Robert Amie told Barker and Walker of Click2Houston.com. “They sounded vicious, but they never acted vicious toward anybody. They were trained so well from what I saw, it’s hard for me to believe that they would attack her.”
Police found Richman several days after her death, after she had missed two sessions of obedience training classes at which she and her Dobermans were expected.
Pit bulls vs. Dobermans in the 1940s
It is commonly said, and is perhaps half true, that Dobermans were the most feared dog breed in the U.S. before pit bulls. But even when Dobermans were at the height of their notoriety as a dangerous breed, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was really no apt statistical comparison that put them in the same risk bracket as pit bulls.
The first known fatality in the U.S. from a Doberman attack was two-year-old Mary Jane Lund, mauled in her back yard in Oakland, California by her family’s longtime pet on June 28, 1943.
The most recent previous U.S. dog attack fatality, 21-year-old Dorothy Whipka, of Davenport, Iowa, suffered severe head injuries when knocked down by a dog identified by contemporary newspaper coverage as a large mongrel, but identified as a Rottweiler by recent sources. The most recent fatal mauling had been that of 17-month-old Vernell Jacobs, by a pit bull, in Whiteville, North Carolina.
After the Doberman killed Mary Jane Lund, the next two known U.S. dog attack fatalities were both killed by pit bulls: 21-month-old Marguerite Derdenger of Los Angeles, on February 13, 1945, and 39-year-old Doretta Zinke, of Miami, Florida, on May 16, 1945.
Pit bulls vs. Dobermans in the 1950s
The next Doberman fatality did not come until Winifred W.L. Bacon, 64 was mauled by her two Dobermans on June 22, 1955 in an unwitnessed attack at Island Beach State Park, near Toms River, New Jersey.
The most recent serious dog attack on the east coast, on June 2, 1955, had ended without injury, other than a pair of broken glasses, when a rampaging pit bull at Fancher-Davidge Park in Middletown, New York, pulled a 17-year-old girl down, biting her clothing twice. The attack was thwarted when the girl’s sister and another girl helped the victim to escape into a restroom, where they remained until an unknown person removed the pit bull.
Pit bulls vs. Dobermans in the 1960s
Five years after Winifred Bacon was killed, and after pit bulls killed at least two more people, a Doberman on March 19, 1960 killed Frances Tetreault, 50, of Northvale, New Jersey, about 75 miles north of Toms River. The second fatality inflicted by a single breed of dog in one state lastingly established the bad reputation of Dobermans.
But only 10 days later, on March 29, 1960, two pit bulls belonging to one William D. Fair severely mauled 9-year-old Patricia Brown of Chicago, whose prospects for survival remained uncertain, as of publication of the only known coverage of the attack.
Pits 4, Dobies 3. Then pits ran up the score
Over the entire 1943-1960 time frame, there were 16 documented non-rabid fatal dog attacks in the U.S., four of them by pit bulls, four by huskies, three by Dobermans, two by German shepherds, one by a Rottweiler, and two by packs identified as only “mongrels.”
As of 1960, according to published estimates by breed fanciers, the Doberman population of the U.S. was about 39,000, compared to about 20,000 pit bulls. Thus, while Dobermans were, and are, clearly much more dangerous than the average dog, a pit bull was even then nearly three times more likely to kill someone than a Doberman.
No more fatal Doberman attacks for 21 years
Following Tetreault’s death, there was not another Doberman-inflicted death until in 1981 a neighbor’s two Dobermans killed four-year-old Ronald Messer, of Kettering, Ohio, when he climbed a low chain link fence to retrieve a ball.
From then to the present day, Dobermans have killed only ten more people, disfiguring 25. Pit bulls, now about four times more numerous than Dobermans, have killed 447 people, disfiguring 4,364.
So how did Dobermans get the deadly reputation that Doberman fanciers aware of Elaine Richman’s death now hope to suppress?
Dobermans descended from Rottweilers
The Doberman story actually begins with Rottweilers, originally a cart-pulling mastiff variant, rarely––if ever––identified by any particular name until a dog called a Rottweiler was exhibited at an 1882 show in Heilbronn, Germany.
Neither NewspaperArchive.com, offering microfilm of newspapers going back to 1607, nor the Culturomics Ngram Viewer, offering word indexes of books published since 1800, shows any prior mention of a Rottweiler dog.
The next published record of Rottweilers appears to be mention of their use as foundation breeding stock by German dogcatcher and tax collector Karl Friedrich Louis Doberman, who produced the first “Doberman” circa 1890 by crossing Rottweilers with hunting hounds.
“Darling or devil?”
Then-Sports Illustrated correspondent Virginia Kraft, better known later in life as thoroughbred racehorse bbreeder Virginia Kraft Payson, wrote in a 1958 defense of Dobermans entitled “The Doberman Pinscher: Darling…or Devil” that, “When Herr Louis Dobermann began about 1870 to experiment with the development of the breed that now bears his name, his goal was a dog with the agility and grace of a terrier, the sleek aristocracy of a racer, the power and strength of a working shepherd and the ferocity of a tiger—ready and willing to attack anything, man or beast.
“An indication of Dobermann’s success was reported some years later by an early Swiss breeder, Gottfried Liechti, who wrote: ‘They were certainly robust, had absolutely no trace of fear—not of the devil himself—and it required a good deal of courage to own one.’”
Virginia Kraft made no mention in her essay of fatal attacks, other than in connection with the occasional use of Dobermans in World War II by the U.S. Marine Corps.
Richman attack was “Déjà vu all over again”
An anonymous Sports Illustrated article published on March 28, 1960, however, investigating the death of Frances Tetreault, appears to be most responsible for Dobermans’ ensuing ill repute.
In some respects, the Tetreault death and the earlier death of Winifred Bacon made the death of Elaine Richman look, as then-New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra put it, like “Déjà vu all over again.”
“When 16-year-old Aldo Iulo approached the offices of the Aufdemberg Kennels,” the Sports Illustrated article began, “his way was blocked by 100 pounds of raging, snarling dog. Behind the dog Aldo could see a woman’s body.
“The boy, a kennel employee who had fed the dog on occasion and knew it well, fought a panicky desire to run. Instead he took a sandwich from the lunch he was carrying, offered it to the animal and edged his way slowly to the safety of the kennel office.
“Once inside he summoned help. Aufdemberg’s Warrior, purebred Doberman pinscher, onetime show dog, ribbon winner, favorite of his late master, and family house pet, had attacked and killed his mistress.
“She had a deep slash wound of the throat. Teeth lacerations crisscrossed the arm she had used to try and protect herself. When the police arrived they executed the dog with a shotgun.”
The Doberman who killed Frances Tetreault had been withdrawn from competition after becoming known as “difficult to handle.”
He because the “personal pet” of Albert Tetreault, “who with his wife had been raising Dobermans for 20 years,” the Sports Illustrated article specified. “The dog slept at his bedside, lived in the house, and was never penned with the score of other dogs at the kennels.”
In 1958, however, “Tetreault’s health failed. Bed-ridden, he could not recognize people, or even his own dog. The animal’s irritability increased.”
Doberman experts advised euthanasia
Molly O. Farrell, president of the New Jersey Doberman Club in 1958-59, told Sports Illustrated that she had received “a number of reports of people being bitten by this dog.
“A year ago Mrs. Tetreault was told by a veterinarian that the dog should be disposed of,” Farrell said. “He was a big, rough beast. The only one who had ever seemed able to handle him was Al. I can’t understand why a woman who had as much kennel experience with Dobermans as Frances would ever keep a dog in the house that she couldn’t handle. You just don’t do that. When dogs get that kind of meanness in them they must be destroyed. You have no choice.”
“I guess she couldn’t do it”
“He was mean,” agreed Aufdemberg Kennels employee Robert Williamson.
Albert Tetreault died in December 1959.
Robert Mullen, a Long Island breeder and exhibitor of Dobermans, advised Frances Tetreault two weeks before her death to have Aufdemberg’s Warrior euthanized.
“She said he had bared his fangs at her,” Mullen recalled. “I told her to get rid of the dog, or at least pen him in the kennel. But she reminded me the dog had been her husband’s pet. I guess she couldn’t do it.”
Dobermans are still dangerous
Dobermans have continued to earn their reputation as dangerous, including in the Houston area.
A toddler in Stafford, Texas, was flown to Houston by Life Flight, for example, on April 22, 2014, after suffering facial injuries from his grandmother’s Doberman.
Dobermans are also now killing more people, more often, than at the height of their ill repute.
But pit bulls kill 76 times more people
A Doberman named Luger was surrendered to the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey for euthanasia in 2003, after several biting incidents. Rehomed instead, Luger killed his adopter, Valerie DeSwart, just 10 days later.
At least two Dobermans were among 16 dogs who are believed to have killed Sherry Schweder, 65, and her husband Luther Schweder, on August 15, 2009 in Lexington, Georgia.
At least one Doberman was reportedly among the seven dogs who killed Deborah Onsurez, 56, in Modesto, California on December 28, 2017.
And a newly acquired Doberman in October 2016 killed four-year-old Kiyana McNeal in Sturgis, Michigan, and injured her mother, Jacey McNeal Wolkins, an experienced Doberman owner, moments after the dog was delivered to them.
But in the 10-time frame preceding publication of this article, 2009 to 2019, pit bulls have killed 305 people in the U.S. alone: 76 deaths by pit bull for each death by Doberman.