“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Her Sinful Slacks

Her Sinful Slacks

Evelyn Bross, 19 years old, 2754 Jackson Boulevard, charged with violating a city ordinance by appearing publically in men’s clothing, was placed under psychiatric supervision until July 15 at a hearing before J. M. Braude in Women’s court yesterday. Judge Braude explained that there could be no objection to women wearing slacks as long as the garb wasn’t used for impersonation purposes.

Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1943

Nineteen-year-old Evelyn “Jackie” Bross was part of the war effort on the home front — she worked as a machinist at a defense plant in Chicago. In her line of work it was practical to wear pants — blue flannel trousers were what she preferred — along with sturdy oxford-style shoes. In fact Jackie hadn’t worn a dress or even a skirt since 1937 when she was 13 years old. As for her short hair, well, it was comfortable and she thought it looked good combed back with a little hair oil. She’d never worn make-up and she wasn’t about to start now.

Bross goes to court in pants. Amendment offered. Pic. - NewspapeWhy should other people get to tell a girl what to put on in the morning and how to style her hair? Wasn’t the war effort all about keeping America a free country and helping other countries become free too? Questions like these burned in Jackie’s mind when the police hauled her in to the Women’s court for violating the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance, a municipal code that “prohibited persons from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex in public.”

Jackie, who lived with her parents, Walter and Helen Bross, and  ten siblings in an apartment on Jackson Boulevard, vehemently denied the accusation that she was trying to impersonate a male. “If I dress like a girl I’ll look like a boy and I’ll be picked up more often for impersonating a girl,” she commented matter-of-factly.

Judge Braude was not unsympathetic to Jackie’s plight. “I think the fact that girls wear slacks should not be held against them when they are not deliberately impersonating men,” he said. “Styles are changing.”

Change was afoot in more than just fashion. With the majority of men fighting in World War II, women were indispensible workers in munitions factories.

RosieTheRiveter_RosieJust three months after Jackie was arrested, on May 23, 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s iconic illustration “Rosie the Riveter.” Rockwell depicted a muscular, Michelangelo-inspired woman taking a quick break from her factory work to munch on a sandwich. She has massive arms, a huge neck and sits gloriously atop a wooden post, dressed in (pause for sudden intake of breath) a pair of overalls! She looks entirely comfortable in her body and not the least bit feminine, though no one would mistake her for a man. But there was no outcry of protest about the fact that Rosie was depicted in pants when the illustration appeared. In fact the image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the Treasury Department for use in war bond drives.

Judge Braude pointed out that another young woman, who was arrested for wearing pants at the same time as Jackie, looked “feminine” thanks to the cut of her pants and the styling of her hair. He let her go without a penalty. Jackie, however, was released on $25 bond and ordered be placed under the “psychiatric supervision” of Dr. David B. Rotman for six months. The judge also instructed her to cover up her short hair with a headscarf.

Americans from coast to coast supported Jackie’s cause. In her hometown, Alderman William J. Cowhey agreed that she shouldn’t be penalized for wearing pants. He offered an amendment to the municipal code, stipulating that wearing clothing of the opposite sex was illegal only if the person did so “with the intent to conceal his or her sex.” The city council immediately approved it.

In July 1943, Judge Braude put Jackie and a friend, Catherine Barcz, who lived in the Bross home, on probation on a “morals” charge. The women had met each other at the defense factory where they both worked as drill press operators. At the court hearing their boss testified that both were exceptionally fine workers. Regardless of their work ethic, Catherine was married and Judge Braude ordered her to move out of the Bross abode and return to her husband.

The morals charge was likely the result of Dr. Rotman’s “psychiatric supervision.” The implication was that the two women were lovers, so the court stepped in to separate and penalize them. The court’s interest in controlling what Jackie wore had evolved into exerting control over her sex life. Perhaps this was the purpose of the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance from its inception.

Bross tells of her favorite film - Newspapers.comFast-forward 33 years to 1976. By then Jackie had moved to Elgin, a northwest suburb of Chicago. A news reporter interviewed her for a light piece about favorite films. Jackie said she liked Ingmar Bergman movies, with her favorite being the Swedish director’s latest film, “Face to Face.” The film, about a psychiatrist driven to the brink of insanity by unpleasant memories from her childhood, was an interesting choice given the court-imposed psychiatric supervision and penalty that Jackie endured in 1943.

By 1976 no one in America looked twice at a woman wearing slacks or pants of any type. Headscarves had become popular too. Decriminalization of homosexuality was still a ways off in the future.

Jackie Bross died in 2004 in Manteno, Illinois.

Featured photo: Acme Newspictures photo of Jackie Bross at the Women’s Court in Chicago, taken January 8, 1943. Collection of the author.

Granite Man Walks

Granite Man Walks

After a pathetic Christmas day spent along the banks of the drainage canal in the vain hope of clearing up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her mother, Mrs. Kate Mitchell Trostell, 11 year old Eleanor Trostell was taken to the detective bureau last night to confront Arthur Foster, charged with the murder of her mother.

 

All through the night and into the early hours of the morning, the child alternately sobbed and pleaded with him to reveal her mother’s fate.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1922

The days when a detective could bring a kid into an interrogation room and keep her there for hours in order to wring a confession out of a murder suspect are long gone. Also gone are the days when a newspaper photographer was allowed to take posed photos of the interrogation, including the chief of detectives (in this case Michael Hughes) smack in the middle of the photo.

Evidently finding an unbiased jury was not a major concern in Chicago during the 1920s.

Kate Trostell, a widow, hadn’t been seen since December 2, 1922, when she failed to come home after her evening shift at the Chicago Western Union office. Her family — two sisters and a brother — was convinced that Arthur Foster had murdered her.

The police grilled Arthur for days on end. Twice they brought in Kate’s 13-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to confront him in jail. When her sobs and pleas didn’t crack him she ran over to him, flung herself into his lap, twined her arms around his neck and begged him to bring her mother back for Christmas. “I’d like to honey, but I don’t know anything about her,” he said.

Foster and Kate photo - Newspapers.comArthur was a truck driver who’d dated Kate and asked her to marry him. He continued to pursue her even after she cooled on him and tried to end the relationship. Kate’s family and coworkers claimed Arthur was a violent man who’d chased her, shot at her and thrown rocks at the window of her office.

The police found blood on the running board of Arthur’s car and on a blanket in his vehicle. At the time it was impossible to determine whether or not the blood was Kate’s. They also found a yellow pencil — the sort she used at the telegraph office — with her teeth marks on it in the car. Arthur said that Kate often rode in his car and the pencil proved nothing.

Arthur insisted he had no idea if Kate was alive or dead but he loved her and wouldn’t have harmed her. He said he hadn’t seen her the night she went missing but he knew she’d been depressed and talked about killing herself. He believed she might have done what she often threatened to do — throw herself into the Chicago Drainage Canal. Beyond that Arthur had nothing to say. In fact he was a man of so few words the newspapers dubbed him the “granite man.”

In late December the police dragged the canal, where they found Kate’s coat and purse. It didn’t bode well for her making it home for the New Year.

Kate's body found in drainage canal - Newspapers.com

Kate’s body surfaced at the dam where the canal ended, in Lockport, Illinois, on January 23, 1923. The deputy coroner said she was alive when she went into the water, but there was a bruise on her forehead and several more on her knees and hands. Her injuries might have resulted from a violent struggle before she went in, but they also could have occurred during the fall. The police theory of her death, which had been that Arthur killed Kate and threw the body into the canal, changed to Arthur hitting her on the head, throwing her into the water alive and watching her drown. It would have taken a granite man full of hate to commit that crime.

A witness claimed to have heard a woman scream near the canal the night Kate went missing. That, along with the blood and pencil in Arthur’s car and that he’d phoned her the evening she vanished was the sum total of evidence against him.

Arthur was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. His attorney appealed on the basis that the evidence was circumstantial and that the state hadn’t proven that Kate had been murdered. A judge agreed and ordered a new trial.

The second trial never happened. In October 1926 the state dropped the case and Arthur walked out of jail a free man. The following year he married a widow whose name, as fate would have it, was Katherine.

Kate’s daughter, Eleanor, grew up, got married and raised a family.

“Go get ‘em Mike” Hughes became the head of the Chicago Police Department in 1927. He resigned after only a year in office but remained with the department until 1935, when he retired.

Whether Kate’s death was the result of murder or suicide remains an open question.

Featured photo: news photograph taken for the International Newsreel Corporation of the police interrogation of Arthur Foster, December 14, 1922. Collection of the author.

Two Dead Center for Thanksgiving

Two Dead Center for Thanksgiving

One of four prizes awarded to the fifty-six members of the Kansas City police force in the annual target contest Thanksgiving was won by Mrs. Vinnie Callahan, with every shot in the circle and two dead center.

The Kansas City Kansan, December 4, 1922

Everyone agreed that Vinnie Callahan was a great shot, though she rarely needed to use her gun in her job as the welfare officer of the police department in Kansas City, Kansas. Most of her workday was spent solving problems stemming in large part from poverty, poor judgment and anger management issues. It was a job that required compassion, common sense and patience. Her gun was a tool of last resort.

She was born Vinelia Good in 1881 in Junction City, Kansas, to Peter “Peachy” and Lulu Good. Her family had no money for her to attend college, so after she graduated from high school she worked as a typesetter for a local newspaper and later as a night telephone operator. In 1902 she married William Callahan, a college-educated veteran of the Spanish-American War. The following year their only child, a son named Byron, was born.

The Callahan family relocated to Kansas City, Kansas, and Vinnie stayed home to raise her boy. After Byron graduated from high school, in 1921, she was hired by the police department to be the “social welfare” officer. She threw herself into the job wholeheartedly.

Newspapers of the time are full of stories about Vinnie’s police work. The more mundane side of it involved helping people who were out of work find jobs so they could feed, clothe and house their families. “Untangling the domestic affairs of citizens” was how one newspaper described what she did. But really it involved much more than that.

When a woman was sent to prison for selling alcohol (prohibition was in force), Vinnie took care of her eight children who were left homeless and found them good temporary homes. She helped a depressed woman who spoke no English move out of a squalid shack and find a decent place to live after her husband murdered their two daughters. During the 1921 holidays she played “Mrs. Santa” at a local school that had mostly impoverished students. There she distributed gifts, toys and ice cream to the kids in good Mrs. Claus style.

Vinnie’s attitudes about parenting were far ahead of her time. She helped a young runaway girl, who’d been denounced by her family as “incorrigible,” communicate with her parents so that, instead of being relegated to life on the streets, she was able to return home. “It was the common case,” she told a reporter, “of the parents demanding obedience regardless of the child’s rights in the case. So many of them do not seem to realize children have social needs that should be studied and supplied.”

Helping people with day-to-day life challenges didn’t deter Vinnie from honing her target shooting skills. The police department held a yearly contest just before Thanksgiving for its officers. She was one of four police officers ranked as among the best shots in 1921 and 1922. In 1924 she was ranked the second best marksman out of 51 cops and detectives. The achievement warranted a news story and a photographer hired by United Newspictures of New York City took a picture of her for the story.

The contest winners were awarded turkeys for their Thanksgiving feasts. Vinnie was probably the only person to win a turkey and cook it too.

Most of her male colleagues were good sports about being beaten by a woman at a traditionally male-dominated skill. Only one man grumbled publicly, blaming his poor showing on the fact that he was left-handed.

Vinnie left her job with the police in the mid-1920s. Unfortunately there’s no way to know what prompted her to retire, however it may have been for health reasons. She died, age 47, on December 13, 1928, after “an illness of several months duration” according to her obituary.

Featured photo: Policewoman Vinnie M. Callahan, news photo taken December 3, 1924. Collection of the author.

Unforgettable Legs

Unforgettable Legs

Short skirts may or may not be a sign of modern depravity, but they registered as a sign of bad luck for Peggy Hudson and her husband, according to reports from Los Angeles. Peggy is now awaiting sentence on a charge of first degree robbery.

Hayward Semi-Weekly Review (Hayward, California), May 15, 1928

Charles Anderson arrived home after a long day at his Los Angeles restaurant, The Red Onion, on the night of March 5, 1928. He pulled his car into the garage, got out of the vehicle and was unpleasantly surprised to discover a man and woman waiting in the shadows for him.

The woman thrust a gun into his ribs and told him to turn out the lights. Once they were extinguished the man ordered Charles onto the ground and tied him up with a piece of rope. Then the couple went through his pockets and robbed him of the day’s profits from the restaurant — $382 cash ($5,640 in 2018).

Before they left the man remarked to Charles, “Guess I’ll have to take your car too. You see I’m an ex-convict and I have to make a quick getaway. Don’t be afraid, though. I don’t want your car and I’ll leave it a couple blocks from here on Reno Street.” And with that puzzling comment, the pair got into his car and drove off into the night.

Charles freed himself and called the police. His car was nowhere to be found.

Bora Hudson has unforgettable legs - Newspapers.com

“I didn’t get a good look at her face, but I saw her legs, and I could pick them out any time,” he told the police. He claimed the legs he’d seen belonged to Nora Hudson, better known as Peggy. She was a woman he’d previously employed as a cashier at his restaurant. He also said he thought he recognized Peggy by her voice but he was less sure of that than he was about her legs. He didn’t know her male companion.

Changes in women’s hemlines in the 1920s meant a lot more leg showed than ever before and naturally men took notice. This careful, possibly even lecherous, observation of his female employee’s legs paid off for Charles. It took two months but the LAPD finally located 20-year-old Peggy by tracing her to her home address on Flower Street in downtown L.A. The police took Peggy and her husband, Willard Hudson, a musician, into custody and booked them on suspicion of robbery.

Was there something unusally memorable about Peggy’s legs? If so it’s not obvious in the news photo.

Williard Hudson mug

California State Archives

Willard’s incriminating comment about having a criminal record turned out to be true. He’d been incarcerated at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.

A pair of slick criminals the Hudsons were not. With time to cool off they likely realized they’d been foolish to rob a man who knew Peggy. Then they compounded their mistake when Willard confessed his criminal background to their victim.

They pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and each was sentenced to five years to life in prison. Willard served his sentence at Folsom Prison and Peggy was sent to San Quentin. She was paroled in August 1931 after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Peggy Hudson must go down in history as the only person ever captured and sent to prison after being identified by her legs.

Featured photo: Nora Hudson, alias Peggy Hudson, July 8, 1928; California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin Mug Book.

San Diego’s Joan of Arc

San Diego’s Joan of Arc

Juanita McKamey, the 20-year-old modern Joan of Arc, who had visions of leading a conquering host of the Industrialists into their proposed new republic, was brought before Judge W.R. Guy of the Juvenile Court today. The bright-eyed maid was undaunted by the surroundings of the law and told the court she did not hear him tell her at her last visit to break connections with the I.W.W.’s.

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1912

The year was 1912 and revolution was in the air. The right to free speech and the question of where one could exercise it was a burning issue in America. The California Free Speech League, a newly formed coalition of socialists, left-leaning labor groups, including the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), single-taxers and church organizations was ready for action.

The group planned a mass parade for the evening of February 8th to test a recently passed city ordinance banning public speech in a seven-square block area of the city that was regarded as “congested” by city leaders, including an area known as “Soapbox Row.” Juanita McKamey, a local manicurist, was one of the parade’s organizers.

At 7:30 p.m. Juanita took up her position, along with several other leaders, at the front of the parade. Standing four abreast the marchers slowly moved forward. As they picked up speed they sang, waved banners and encouraged the three to five thousand onlookers to join them. The group was escorted by a contingent of more than 100 San Diego police officers and a police blockade waited for them at Sixth and E Streets. No one would be arrested as long as the parade kept moving.

When the marchers reached the blockade they moved through it towards Soapbox Row. Wood Hubbard, one of the leaders, tried to mount a soapbox that was hastily set up for the speakers. He was immediately pulled down and roughly arrested. Another female marcher tried next and she too was pulled down and arrested. Juanita was the third person to try to mount the box to speak and she too was forcibly taken into police custody.

The crowd responded to the rough treatment of the speakers by surging forward chanting “Free speech, show that you are Americans.” The police had to expend much of their energy on crowd control, but no one got to speak. The thirty-eight men and three women, including Juanita, who tried to mount the box were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.

Three days later Juanita, who’d been bailed out of jail, was arrested again after she spoke at another rally. This time she was charged with being “incorrigible.” In the photo on her police identification card she looks serious and eager to return to the fight. The officer who prepared the card wrote on it that she “was speaking on the corner of 5th and E sts whick is against the law.”

She was put on probation and ordered to drop her association with the I.W.W. She was sentenced to the local Detention Home (for juveniles). This was an odd choice since authorities were aware that, at age 20, she was not a juvenile.

Juanita didn’t intend to follow the court’s orders. Instead she planned to continue what she defined as her “calling” to work for freedom of speech. She organized an escape from a window of the detention facility using a rope she’d fashioned from blankets. The plan was uncovered before she had a chance to put it into action and she was transferred to the city jail to await trial with the others.

iww_3_

The city and county jails overflowed with people arrested for violating the ordinance. Conditions at the jail were unsanitary and some of the inmates got sick. There was mounting opposition to the free speech movement among many locals. When a group of inmates was transferred to a jail in another county, some local vigilantes intercepted the trucks the prisoners were riding in and beat them up.

By late February Juanita was out on bail and agitating for free speech on the streets again. In March she was part of a group of more than 300 protestors hosed by police in front of the City Jail with four hundred pound-pressure fire hoses while jail inmates serenaded the demonstrators by singing “The Marseillaise.”

In the wake of public protest meetings and vigilante violence the city came up with a new ordinance, referred to as the “move-on law.” The new law expanded the area where public speech was prohibited and sanctioned the arrest of anyone who “shall seem likely to obstruct and impede” passage along a city street. The new law proved to be a diaster because if someone even looked like they might make a speech they could be arrested.

The I.W.W. demanded a state investigation of the protest and the police response to it. The investigation discovered no mistreatment of the prisoners. Even the hosing of protesters by police was deemed not to have resulted in any serious consequences. The investigation also found no acts of violence among the protesters.

Juanita attended the state investigation hearings in late April 1912. This was the last time her name came up in protest-related news. By the end of May the I.W.W announced their departure from the San Diego campaign. In mid-June, after a smallpox epidemic broke out in the jail, the last 15 free speech prisoners pleaded guilty, paid fines and were released. The revolution was over.

Who was the young woman the newspapers described as a “modern Joan of Arc?”

Despite her Hispanic first name, Juanita was the Caucasian daughter of Andrew McKamey of Ohio and Sofronia Catherine Clarkford of Virginia. The McKamey’s started their married life in Ohio, and then moved to San Diego, where Juanita was born in 1891. In an atypical move, the family went back east in the late 1890s. Andrew made a living farming in Georgia. They returned to San Diego by 1905 and Andrew found work as a carpenter.

Harry Kizer_crop

California State Archives

After the free speech fight in San Diego ended Juanita continued to live an unconventional life. She had a son, born in 1914, and a daughter, born in 1918. It appears that she was unmarried when her children were born. However she did eventually marry a Pennsylvania man named Harry H. Kizer.

She may have met Harry during the free speech protests when he was also arrested. However he wasn’t the father of her children, because in 1913 Harry did a 3.5 year stint in Folsom State Prison for grand larceny. By 1930, though they still lived under one roof, Juanita and Harry were divorced.

Juanita worked in real estate and was the owner of a “Tia Juana” beer garden. She was a member of the socialist party until at least 1928. She lived for 60 years in Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego, near the border with Mexico. In 1975 she died in Chula Vista and her ashes were scattered at sea.

Further reading: There’s a lot more to know about the San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912. Click here for an in-depth, eight part article.

Thanks to Sherwood Donahue of Sherwood’s Treasures for connecting me with Juanita McKamey’s police I.D. card. If you’re looking for an interesting mugshot, Sherwood’s your man.

Featured photo: Juanita McKamey, San Diego Police photo dated February 11, 1912. Collection of the author.

Escape from a Bordello

Escape from a Bordello

Mrs. Fay Buck, a woman well known in the Tenderloin, was arrested in Sacramento yesterday on a warrant sworn out by Mrs. Rose Decker of 236 Mason street, charging her with grand larceny. Mrs. Buck formerly lived with Mrs. Decker, and it is alleged that she got into her landlady’s wardrobe one day, got all her finery and then went to Sacramento.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 1904

Fay Buck was in big trouble, arrested for stealing clothing and furs valued at $540 (more than $15,000 in 2018). Despite the dire circumstances she found herself in Fay obviously took the time to style her hair. The updo she sported in her mugshot is nothing short of magnificent.

If you’re wondering why Rose Decker, Fay’s “landlady,” had such valuable clothes, the answer is because she was a madam who ran a “sporting house” in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Dressing well would have been a necessity of the job.

Fay testified that she’d arrived in San Francisco without money or friends and had been enticed into a “house of ill-repute.” She said she’d stolen the clothes in order to turn them into cash and escape from a “life of shame.”

Stealing nice clothes was a practice Fay might have learned from Rose. A few months before Fay absconded with Rose’s clothes, Rose herself stole a trunk full of the belongings of Nellie Bennett, one of the working girls in her house. Nellie was late on her rent to the tune of $110 (over $3000 in 2018) so Rose figured she’d help herself to the trunk, which contained clothing and photographs of Nellie’s admirers. Nellie agreed to drop the charges and give the clothes up as long as the photos were returned to her.

california-supreme-court-053-lawlor

William P. Lawlor, California Supreme Court Historical Society

Fay wasn’t so lucky. Rose pursued the charges and Fay was convicted of grand larceny. When she appeared before Judge William P. Lawlor for sentencing, in February 1905, she begged for probation. In support of her plea she presented a letter that her husband, J. Douglass Bucke, had written to the court from his home in Butte, Montana.

Douglass wrote that Fay had always been of good character. He took responsibility for her plight, writing that he should have met her at the dock when she landed in San Francisco. Evidently the plan had been for Fay to travel on her own from her home in Washington State via San Francisco to Montana. How she could do that without funds was an unanswered question. Douglass claimed he was “unable to appear in person to plead for one whom I love and who is alone in the world with the exception of myself.”

Judge Lawlor wanted to hear from Douglass in person so he postponed Fay’s sentencing for a month. The month went by and Douglass wrote again, saying he was now sick in the hospital and couldn’t travel.

Matilda Christ photo. Fay Buck. - Newspapers.com

Prison Matron Matilda Christ

A few more weeks went by and still no Douglass. Tired of waiting for him to show up, Judge Lawlor placed Fay on probation in the care of Matilda Christ, a matron at the San Francisco City Prison. Matilda agreed to be Fay’s guardian and to provide a “good home” in the house she shared with her sister’s family. The deal was that Fay would be paid $10 a month to take care of Matilda’s young niece.

Six weeks later Fay absconded to Seattle. Matilda accused Fay of stealing two of her rings and some of her clothes and underwear. Judge Lawlor put out a bench warrant for Fay. She was arrested in July 1905 and hauled back into court.

Instead of the nanny job she’d been promised, Fay told the judge that Matilda had forced her to work as a waitress in a restaurant. According to Fay, Matilda also made her turn over much of her salary to pay for her room and to pay back a loan she made to Fay for clothing purchases.

After a few weeks of long, tiring days at the restaurant Fay claimed that Matilda came up with an alternative. She suggested that she could rent a flat for Fay to “solicit men” for sex and they’d share in the profits!

Disgusted by the idea and unwilling to return to that life, Fay ran away from Matilda’s home.

Matilda was “white with rage” when she heard the story Fay told the judge and strongly denied it. However she admitted that Fay hadn’t stolen anything from her — she’d found the items in her house and “forgot” to tell the court about it.

Judge Lawlor found no hard evidence of the bordello scheme — it was the word of one woman against the other. However he gave Matilda a “severe censure” for not telling the court she’d been mistaken about Fay stealing from her. She was forced to resign from her job as prison matron.

Fay admitted during one of her many court hearings that she wasn’t actually married to Douglass Bucke.

Judge Lawlor said he “didn’t believe Fay was of the criminal class” and released her on probation into the custody of the Mother Superior of St. Catherine’s Home for wayward girls. She later married Douglass but filed for divorce from him on the grounds of desertion in July 1907.

St. Catherine's home

St. Catherine’s Home in 1925, Online Archive of California

Judge Lawlor was promoted to associate justice of the California Supreme Court in 1915. He held the position until his death in 1926.

Rose Decker continued to have run-ins with the San Francisco Police throughout the first decade of the 20th century. The Hotel Nikko San Francisco now stands where her bordello was located in 1904.

Featured photo: Fay Buck, December 10, 1904, Bureau of Identification, San Francisco Police Department. Collection of the author.