Murder in Sacramento

He came up to the room. He had the clothes on his arm. He said that he beat a woman on L street out of them, and finally said he got them off Mrs. Gibson. He said he got her drunk and that he “croaked” her. I do not understand what croaked means. He never told me what it meant. He told me he killed the woman, and that the d — old — would not tell any tales on him. I put the clothes on the bed and afterwards on the rocking-chair. They lay there till the next day. There was a watch and a gold locket among the jewelry. The locket was of a small size and carved. I believe the dresses were all wrapped up in one when he brought them in. The jewelry was in the pockets.

— Testimony of Carrie Spencer, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1873

The body of Mary Shaw Gibson was discovered on the floor of her bedroom in Sacramento on the morning of September 20, 1872. Her head was lying in a pool of blood from a deep knife wound to her neck that had severed her jugular vein. She was fully clothed and there were signs that she had put up a fierce struggle with her killer, because reddish-brown hairs were found clenched tightly in her hand. The police believed she had pulled the hairs from the beard of her attacker during the assault.

Carrie Spencer_flat

Mrs. Gibson, a 45-year-old widow from Ireland, sold groceries and liquor from the front room of her property on Jibboom Street. She lived in the back room. Cash had been taken from the dead woman’s pocket and clothing and jewelry were missing from her room. A glass of beer on the bedside table was taken as evidence. It was found to contain strychnine.

Suspicion quickly focused on an ex-convict named Charles Mortimer and his “moll,” a prostitute going by the name of “Carrie Spencer” and “Carrie Butter.” The pair had been seen drinking in Mrs. Gibson’s establishment on the day of the murder. Dresses and jewelry belonging to the dead woman were found in the couple’s room at the Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel and Mrs. Gibson’s ring was found in Mortimer’s possession. He claimed he had purchased her belongings from a man named “George.”

Most damning of all, Mortimer had a fresh injury to his face and he was missing some of his whiskers. He’d been to the local barber to get his beard trimmed in an attempt to make the missing facial hair less noticeable. Police also found a partially empty packet of strychnine powder in his pocket.

Mechnic's hotel
Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel, undated photo, Library of Congress

The couple was arrested for the murder and photographed by the police. A comparison of a pre-murder photo of Mortimer to one taken shortly after the murder clearly shows that he normally sported a beard that was described as reddish-brown in color. That photo, along with the photo of Mortimer taken after the murder showing that his beard had been shaved off, may be the earliest example of the police using photography as evidence in a criminal case.

Charles Mortimer was born Charles Flinn in 1834 in Vermont. The oldest of five brothers, his family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts when he was still a child. By the time he was 14 he was in the state reform school in Worcester, where he was described as “idle and dissolute.” He moved west around 1860. He served a one-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in 1862 for a robbery he committed in San Francisco.

Another arrest for assault and robbery followed in 1864. Mortimer claimed to have reformed and offered to show the police where he buried some stolen loot in exchange for leniency. While pointing out the spot to an officer, who bent down to get a better look, Mortimer knocked the man over the head, grabbed his gun. He beat him with it until he thought he was dead and made his escape. (The officer eventually recovered).

The following year Mortimer teamed up with another escaped convict and committed a series of robberies under the name George Foster. These crimes landed him back at San Quentin for a seven-year stretch.

In 1872, shortly after he was released, he met Carrie at a dance hall in San Francisco. They hit it off and decided to travel together to Sacramento.

In order to save her own skin, Carrie became the chief witness at Mortimer’s murder trial. They were held in the same jail (in fact it was the only jail), and he got a message to her, threatening to kill her if she testified against him. She had little choice but to cooperate with police if she wanted to avoid being charged as an accessory. She pinned the blame squarely on him, claiming that she knew nothing about Mrs. Gibson’s murder until afterwards, when he showed up at their hotel room with the cash, clothing and jewelry.

Mortimer was convicted and sentenced to hang. After his conviction he told his version of the story to the press in exchange for money to pay his lawyers. He admitted that he hit Mrs. Gibson with a beer mug, cutting her face and causing her to fall down, but he insisted that it was Carrie who dealt the deathblow by cutting Gibson’s throat while he held down her hands.

A month before the execution date an armed stranger tried to enter the jail in the middle of the night. The man was Mortimer’s younger brother, William John Flinn. Though he hadn’t seen his brother for many years, he had traveled more than 3,000 miles from his home in Massachusetts to Sacramento in hopes of rescuing his brother from the gallows.

Instead he was shot and killed by the officer guarding the entrance.

Mortimer feigned insanity after the death of his brother, but it didn’t help his cause. He was hanged on May 15, 1873. It took him 13 minutes to die. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery close to the brother who died trying to save him.

Carrie was released from jail. She returned to her previous pimp, James Willis, and resumed her career in the sex trade. In September 1873 she was arrested in Sacramento for trying to entice a young girl into a “house of ill fame.” Later that year she and Willis, who had been convicted of vagrancy and ordered to leave the city, boarded a train to Stockton. The couple was last spotted in San Francisco, where it was reported that Willis was fined $300 for violently assaulting an African-American woman after she refused his offer of beer. The beer turned out to have been drugged.

Mrs. Gibson’s family was unable to locate her will and uncertain how to divide her $13,000 fortune. Finally the will was discovered in a pile of papers taken from her house during the murder investigation. Rather than leaving her estate to all six of her siblings, she left it only to the ones who had followed her instructions and immigrated with her to California, cutting out those who had stayed behind in Ireland.

Featured photo: Charles Mortimer, before and after the murder of Mary Gibson, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Photo of Carrie Spencer, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

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