Helen and Howard Cassidy had a stormy marriage. The couple separated three times and also had gotten divorced and remarried. By 1926 the marriage was on the rocks again. Helen took their five-year-old daughter and moved out without leaving a forwarding address. Howard moved back to his home state of Colorado with their two sons.
Helen and her daughter moved into the Anderson Hotel in Colton, just east of Los Angeles. The residential hotel was close to where her new love interest, William Johnston McLean, and his business partner planned to build 100 stucco homes inspired by Spanish architecture. McLean, a bachelor, was an Iowa-born real estate developer who’d also worked in Hollywood as an assistant director.
Meanwhile Howard Cassidy hired a detective to locate his wife and their child. The detective found Helen and the little girl living with McLean at the hotel. The newspapers described the couple’s abode as the “Colton Love Nest.”
Furious over what Helen had done, Howard brought suit against his wife and McLean for adultery and for contributing to the delinquency of a minor child. He also threatened to sue McLean for damages over alienation of Helen’s affections.
In this case that old adage should read: “Hell hath no fury like a man scorned.”
Adultery, defined as sex acts between a married person and someone who is not that person’s spouse, was a criminal offense in California at the time Helen and Howard were battling in the courts. The laws have since been changed and it’s currently only an “offense against public morals” in California. It remains a crime, at least on the books, in many other states.
Convicted of adultery just after Christmas 1927, Helen and McLean were sentenced to five to seven years each in state prison. Somewhat ironically, they were incarcerated in the same prison—San Quentin.
Howard sued for a divorce, which was granted while Helen was still locked up; He got custody of the couple’s three children. Helen requested that she be allowed to see her children after she was released from prison. According to her attorney, “She writes to me that she thinks she has atoned in full, under the execution of the sentence of the law, that a year in prison has changed her and that if she cannot see her three children her heart will break.”
The divorce court judge agreed that Helen had “atoned for her sins” and should be allowed to see the children “at any reasonable time” after she was released.
Helen was paroled from San Quentin after 14 months and McLean was released after 18 months. Prison has a way of souring even the most passionate love affair—the couple did not reunite after their terms were up.
McLean returned to L.A., where he no doubt carefully checked the marital status of his future girlfriends. Helen moved to an apartment by herself in Berkeley, just north of the UC campus. Hopefully Howard followed the judge’s orders and allowed his ex-wife to see the children regularly.
Featured photos: San Quentin prisoner photos of Helen Cassidy and W.J. McLean. California State Archives.