SEATTLE, Dec. 22. — A coast-wise search was being conducted today at the request of Seattle police for miss Clara E. Skarin, former telephone exchange operator here, in the hope that she might be able to throw light on the slaying of Ferdinand Hochbrunn, wealthy retired real estate dealer, whose body has been found in a room of his home here yesterday. He had been shot through the head and had been dead two months, in the opinion of officers.
— Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), December 22, 1921
Illustration of Ferdinand Hochbrunn
The smell must have been awful when they finally entered the apartment, given how long the old man had been lying there. It was murder — there was no question about that. He’d been shot with a single bullet to the back of his head. Robbery was assumed to be the motive because his pockets had been slit open, though $1,960 (almost $27,370 in 2018) and some gold certificates were found in a trunk near the body.
Ferdinand Hochbrunn, 72, was a confirmed bachelor who emigrated from Berlin, Germany, to America in 1872. He settled in Seattle where he made a fortune in real estate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was ruthless and, at times, deceitful in his business dealings. One of his clients, Olive Stearns, sued him for cheating her out of part of the proceeds of a land sale. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where Olive won a judgment against him for $14,759 ($441,125 in 2018).
News photo of Clara E. Skarin. Collection of the author.
The police were very anxious to speak with the dead man’s “ward,” a young woman named Clara Elizabeth Skarin. Clara, 27, was the daughter of Ferdinand’s housekeeper, a Swedish-born widow named Emma Ekstrand Skarin. Emma died suddenly in 1918 and Clara moved to Michigan after her mother’s death. She’d recently returned to Seattle and Ferdinand had taken her under his wing. He hired her to work as his secretary and gave her a room in his apartment at 2520 5th Avenue. But lately she’d lodged instead with her married cousin, Anna Datesman Clark.
A neighbor who lived below the apartment told the police she heard someone she thought was Clara walking around the apartment in late November. If Clara had been there it would have been impossible for her not to notice the body because it was lying on the floor of an alcove off her bedroom. Other tenants in the building said they’d seen Clara come and go during the months of October and November. She was last seen in late November, when she had Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt, Marie Datesman, and Marie’s family. Clara told them she planned to leave Seattle and meet Ferdinand in Portland, Oregon.
News illustration of the Hochbrunn apartment.
The family snapshot of Clara.
The Seattle police asked Marie for a photo of Clara. She gave them a snapshot, but was so poor it was useless for identification purposes. She claimed it was the only one she had.
A series of letters and telegrams were sent in October and November to Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, signed “Ferdinand Hochbrunn.” The messages asked for rents from his Seattle properties to be collected and forwarded to him in Portland, and in Oakland and San Bernardino, California. The messages detailed news about his daily life along with the addresses of the places he was staying. Edward collected the rents and sent the money to the addresses in the messages.
The police came up with two theories of what had happened. The first was that the murderer posed as Ferdinand, telling Clara by letter or telegram that he’d gone to Portland on business. Clara didn’t know until late November, when she visited the apartment and found the body, that Ferdinand was dead. Shocked by the discovery, she’d fled and was wandering somewhere in a distraught state or possibly she’d even killed herself.
The second theory, which became the working theory, was that Clara killed her benefactor and stole his money. The police weren’t sure if she’d written the letters and telegrams that were sent to the attorney or if she’d worked with an accomplice.
The police search for Clara expanded to include the entire West Coast. In January 1922 the police missed her by a hair after she made a hasty exit from a hotel in California. The long hunt finally ended on September 3, 1922, when a Seattle acquaintance happened to see her in Oakland and informed the police, who arrested her. In Oakland she used the alias “Betty Parrish.”
She admitted to the police that she had shot and killed Ferdinand but refused to say any more. She was charged with first-degree murder.
Clara puzzled the authorities. Described by the Oakland Tribune as having a “Mona Lisa Smile,” she seemed unfazed about being jailed and unconcerned about the charges she faced. She laughed and joked with officials and newspapermen at the Oakland Jail but refused to talk about the crimes she’d been accused of committing.
She claimed to be able to transport herself, using mental powers, to wherever she wanted to go.
Lying here (in jail) at night, I can close my eyes and go wherever I care to. I wander the hills at night. Everything is very real and I don’t feel that I am here at all. I have done that all my life. Sometimes when I have looked forward to a ball I have visualized my being there, and my dancing, so realistically that my feet actually ached.
Her biggest complaint about the jail was that one of the Jack London novels she was reading had had some of its pages torn out. She praised the Oakland Police Department as “wonderful” but also claimed that Oakland was one of the best places in the United States to hide in.
The police didn’t think the enigmatic Clara had worked alone. They searched for her male accomplice, “Phoenix Markham.” Clara wouldn’t say anything about Markham. The police located a telegram she’d sent two days after the murder to a telegraph operator named Raymond Herron in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It seemed to be written in code:
Mark here. Everything practically settled. No more saving a half cake of chocolate for tomorrow’s lunch. This is the first of my very own money to spend. May I send Jigadere some of Ollie’s clothes? Buy Maxine a new top and yourself a drink. Am going to order a car here for drive away in spring. Know agent here and want him to get commission. Wire me immediately. Love. BETTY.
Raymond was a 27-year-old Kalamazoo man who married a local girl three weeks after Clara’s arrest. The couple’s first child was born a month later. He wasn’t related to anyone named “Jigadere,” “Ollie,” or “Maxine.”
The police never found Phoenix Markham and the hunt for an accomplice was dropped. Clara alone stood trial for Ferdinand’s murder.
Clara was involved in another gun tragedy in August 1918 when the jealous wife of a friend visited the Seattle apartment she shared with her mother. The woman, Cleo Winborn, confronted Clara with a loaded gun and demanded to know what her relationship was with her husband, Robert Winborn. Unsatisfied with Clara’s answer, Cleo shot at Clara. The bullet hit her in the leg, wounding her slightly. Clara’s mother heard the commotion and ran into the room. Cleo turned the gun on Mrs. Skarin, killing her with a single shot. Then she turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.
It must be pointed out that the person who provided the details of what happened was the only survivor — Clara Skarin.
After she recovered from the leg wound, 24 year-old Clara moved with Cleo’s husband, 50-year-old Robert, to his native state of Michigan. Robert, an African American man who had worked as a barber, was suffering from epilepsy. He was treated at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and then transferred to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental asylum, where he died of epilepsy September 4, 1919. Clara claimed that she and Robert were married while he was on his deathbed.
Ferdinand’s will, if he had one, wasn’t located. His estate, valued at $100,000 (almost $1,500,000 in 2018) was settled on November 15, 1922. Though a business partner sued for half of it, the court awarded the entire estate to his brother, Henry Hochbrunn. Henry died the day before the matter was settled. His children inherited the estate.
Clara’s murder trial began in January 1923. She testified that Ferdinand had molested her from the age of 14, when her mother worked as his housekeeper. She claimed he’d again made “improper overtures” towards her in the weeks leading up to the shooting. She explained that this was why she’d moved out of his apartment and purchased a .32-caliber revolver for protection.
The day of the shooting Clara said she’d gone to the apartment to get some clothes she’d left there. Again he made unwelcome sexual advances so she pulled out her gun. They grappled over the weapon and it went off but no one was hit. Then he forced her against a wall and there was a struggle that ended in Clara managing to rest the muzzle of the gun on the back of Ferdinand’s head and pull the trigger with her thumb. He died about 15 minutes later.
She said she spent several minutes gazing in a mirror, then left the apartment and locked the door. She headed to the office of Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, and told him what had happened. Then she and Edward returned to the apartment, where they removed $30,000 ($419,000 in 2018) worth of gold from Ferdinand’s trunk. They split the gold and Clara left town six weeks later. Subsequently she sent letters and telegrams to Edward, signing Ferdinand’s name to them.
Edward von Tobel
Edward disputed her story and testified that he’d had nothing to do with robbing Ferdinand and knew nothing about the murder until the body was discovered.
The jury of eight men and four women acquitted Clara of the murder of Ferdinand Hochbrunn on January 13, 1923. “I surely wish the young woman all happiness in the future,” said one of the female jurors, whose tears flowed freely during the defense counsel’s arguments. “She has surely seen enough of the seamy side of life. Now she may find peace and better things.”
Edward wasn’t charged with any crime related to the death of Ferdinand Hochbrunn. Clara stayed in Seattle for a few months after the trial ended, but in April she told a newspaper reporter that she’d left her job as a café hostess and planned to return to Oakland to live with friends. The girl with the Mona Lisa smile then vanished without a trace.