Only this was certain; Issac was dead. On June 1st 1897, at 6:45 pm, a night watchman found Issac Hoffman, a partner in Hoffman, Rothschild, & Co. lying on the floor of his office with three bullet wounds in his head. Another bullet hole was in the wall.
Circumstances pointed to Theodore Figel, Hoffman’s bookkeeper. Figel was seen with Hoffman thirty minutes before his body was discovered, and it was Figel’s gun that shot Hoffman. Police Chief Isaiah Lees, San Francisco’s legendary detective, questioned Figel.
Two days later, to everyone’s surprise, Lees declared that Hoffman had committed suicide. But why? Hoffman’s business was prosperous and he seemed to be in the best of spirits. The answer was a subject near and dear to 1950s comedians: his mother in-law. There was great discord in the Hoffman household. Hoffman’s mother-in-law, was the widow of his former business partner. She felt cheated by the amount that Issac had paid her for her husband’s share and was suing him. His wife sided with her mother and complained bitterly about her husband’s stinginess. Letters Issac had taken from his wife suggested a tempestuous relationship between them. Just minutes before his death Hoffman told a friend, ”How can I be happy when I have such a mother-in-law?”
At the inquest Mrs. Hoffman painted a different picture, that of a close knit family. The letters were a minor misunderstanding. Each night his family waited for his entering footsteps before starting dinner. Hoffman hated guns and never owned one.
The coroner testified against the suicide theory, pointing out that Hoffman had been shot three times on the left side of his head, even though he was right handed.
A number of doctors, and Isaiah Lees, still believed that suicide was a possibility. The police department was split between Lees’ suicide theory and his detectives who believed the death was murder.
Soon troubling information about Figel came to light. Figel was a gambler and had lost thousands of dollars at the racetrack. There was also a discrepancy of over $10,000 in the Hoffman company books. But it wasn’t an open and shut case. Figel had a number of alibi witnesses who placed him away from the office when the shooting occurred. And his father Joseph, a retired businessman spent his fortune on the legal defense of his son.
Figel was arraigned on embezzlement and murder charges. The murder case was tried first. At the trial Figel explained away the embezzlement by saying that Hoffman had given him the money to bet at the track. He also blamed the financial irregularities on his assistant. Figel produced witness after witness who testified that they saw him at a saloon and on a trolley heading for the Tiburon Ferry at the time the shooting would have taken place. Two doctors testified that Hoffman’s wounds were self-inflicted.
On March 7, 1898 a jury found Figel not guilty of the homicide but the jury also rejected the idea that Hoffman had committed suicide.
The embezzlement and forgery charges were later dismissed as well on a motion of the District Attorney. Figel’s father had spent all his money defending his son and he was forced to go back to work. In 1904 he left the business to his son. Three months later Theodore Figel was arrested for forging a check for $965 at Wells Fargo Bank to replace money he lost at the track. After paying bail Figel disappeared, leaving his wife and children penniless.
Postscript: I sent the autopsy description and illustrations of the bullet’s path to Ken Moses, former head of San Francisco Police Department CSI. Ken is a nationally recognized leader in the field Crime Scene Investigation and has testified in over nine hundred trials. To my amazement Moses said that a finding of suicide was not only possible but likely. “Some suicides use their non-dominant hands to shoot the gun. This makes the hand shaky and you often get downward and unusual paths of the bullet. From the description, it doesn’t seem that much brain tissue was destroyed. Of course I’d have to see much more information to make a definite call.”