This is a disturbing and unpleasant story so please stop reading now if you have a weak stomach or if what you read tends to haunt your dreams.
Thirteen-year-old Helen Rumball, known as “Nellie,” was found dead in the attic of her home near in Gridley, California on June 26, 1911. The child was hanging from the attic rafters from a rope. Her body and legs were a mass of bruises and the attic was stiflingly hot, the temperature said to be close to 130 degrees. An incubator, possibly for eggs, was described as going “full blast” near where the child’s body was hanging. Needless to say, Nellie’s death was not the result of natural causes.
Nellie was the daughter of a Maine couple, William Rumball and his first wife, Budie. Her mother died before she turned one. A couple of years later William took a new wife, Emma Lewis, 16 years his junior. Emma was born in Minnesota to Norwegian parents. Around 1910 the Rumballs and their two children, Frances, age 4, and William, age 1, and William’s daughter, Nellie, moved to Gridley, California, in sparsely populated Butte County. There they took up ranching for a living.
William died in Gridley on September 27, 1910 of a kidney and liver ailment. Though not a rich man, he left an estate worth a few thousand dollars and it was divided in his will between his wife and Nellie. In splitting his estate this way he might have, inadvertently, signed Nellie’s death warrant.
Little Frances Rumball told the police she heard her half sister crying in pain in the attic. She pleaded with her mother to be allowed to go to Nellie and comfort her but her mother refused and told her to go to bed. Later that night Emma awakened Frances and William and informed them that Nellie was dead.
Nellie’s stepmother, 23-year-old Emma, admitted that she took the child to the attic, tied her up and left her there as punishment for not adequately completing her chores on the family ranch. Emma acknowledged she tied her stepdaughter’s legs with rope and then looped the rope under her arms and around her neck and secured it to a rafter. She claimed she was shocked that the child had died and suggested to police that perhaps Nellie committed suicide or her death resulted from her struggles to get free.
The early twentieth century was a time in America when harsh punishments were often doled out by parents to their children. Most people didn’t think twice about it, but clearly Emma had overstepped the bounds, even for that age.
Police were not satisfied with Emma’s explanations about Nellie’s death so she elaborated on her theory. She told them that her younger brother, Arthur Lewis, also a resident of Gridley, had gone to the attic while Nellie was tied up and taunted her until “she became frenzied in her efforts to free herself.” Emma thought Nellie died in the process. Why Arthur would do such a thing was not clear. The police weren’t buying the story.
An autopsy was held on the body and it determined that two vertebrae in Nellie’s neck had been dislocated, leading to her death. The doctors who performed the autopsy believed there was no way Nellie could have inflicted the injury on herself nor could it have happened by accident because her bonds were so tight that she had been unable to move. They believed she had either suffered a “blow” that caused her death or her neck had been twisted and intentionally broken.
The police also reexamined the death of William Rumball, nine months earlier, to determine if he had been “the victim of a plot.” They decided his death was due to natural causes.
The siblings pointed the finger at each other. Their demeanor was sullen and remorseless. They showed no concern that a young girl — a relative — had lost her life in a horrific way. Initially Emma was charged with murder and Arthur was charged with accessory to murder, but a few months later his charge was changed to murder after coworkers claimed that he had killed cows by twisting their necks. A decision was made to try the pair separately.
Arthur was found guilty of manslaughter on January 3, 1912. Eight of the jurors wanted to convict him of first-degree murder and four wanted an acquittal, so the verdict was a compromise. On April 5, 1912, just before she was slated to go to trail, Emma took a plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than risk a jury trial.
The siblings were both sent to San Quentin State Prison, however his sentence was ten years while her sentence was only two years. Apparently it pays to be a young, attractive woman when a judge sentences you for manslaughter.
Arthur was released from prison after six years. He moved to North Dakota and enlisted in the army during World War I. After he returned from the war he got married and spent the rest of his life farming. He died in 1954, aged 65. We’ll never know if he ever talked to his sister again.
Incredibly Emma, who only served a year and seven months of her sentence, returned to the tiny town of Gridley after her release from prison. There she worked as a dressmaker, raised her son and daughter and took care of her elderly mother. She lived for years at 885 Kentucky Street. She even remarried late in life. She died, aged 70, and is buried in the Gridley-Biggs Cemetery along with her husband, William, and the stepdaughter that she punished — to death.
Featured photos: Mugshots of Emma Rumball and her brother Arthur Lewis. California State Archives, Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.