Little Black Books

Little Black Books

Eighteen-year-old Sherrie Lee Smith had made some bad life decisions and was in a bind. The guy she’d come to Oregon with had been convicted of robbery and sentenced to prison. Back in California, her husband had custody of their three kids and he’d filed for divorce.

She found work in Portland as a call girl, but bad luck dogged her. She got caught in a vice raid. She was charged with prostitution and released on bail.

The Portland vice squad had been investigating what the press described as “a large call girl ring” operating in the city. Girls as young as 15 had been arrested in the raids. Oscar Howlett, the deputy district attorney, needed evidence to arrest the ringleaders, but he was finding it hard to get any.

Sherrie called Howlett on the last day of December 1958. She told him she had important information that could help him and she wanted to trade it in exchange for dropping the prostitution charge. They arranged to meet the following day.

Sherrie Smith back_marked_flipped

Sherrie failed to show for the meeting. A couple weeks later her mugshots were copied and given to the press. Evidently a newspaper printed her front photo (that’s why the side view is crossed out) after she went missing — a dangerous “outing” of an important potential witness. Attorney Howlett announced to the press that he was concerned because he’d heard through the grapevine that the thugs who operated the call-girl ring had beaten her up to scare her into silence.

Several months later, during a vice crackdown in which 200 women were arrested, the police located several little black address books that were “penned in feminine script.” The books contained names of hundreds of clients and many of them were prominent men in Portland. The amounts paid for call girl services —between $10 and $3,000 — were noted in the books. Information about each client’s income had been carefully recorded, along with comments such as “has paid as high as $3,00 for a two-girl party” and “always get money first.”

An unnamed young woman gave testimony to a secret Multnomah County grand jury in May 1959. In her testimony she stated that another woman made the arrangements with the customers and they split the proceeds. She said that even at fees ranging from between $20 to $300, she was earning no more than if she worked at a legitimate job and intended to quit hooking. According to a press report, she claimed she “had been a call girl here in the six weeks since she’d come from California.”

Possibly this witness was Sherrie Lee Smith, but the facts don’t quite fit, because Smith had been in Portland since October 1958 and she was arrested in December 1958.

As a result of the grand jury hearing, two Portland women in their 30s and a 26-year-old woman from Vancouver, Washington, were indicted on three charges: soliciting for a prostitute, bringing together two persons for immoral purposes and being an immoral woman. Attorney Howlettt said he didn’t think he’d need to subpoena any of the clients, who “would suffer from the publicity,” to get a conviction. This proved to be accurate; there was no trial because the three women pleaded guilty.

Prostitution is usually controlled by organized crime. But in Portland in 1959, only the three women ended up serving time. Howlett admitted during the hearings that the call girl business “is operating full blast” in Portland.

Sherrie, despite her youth, looks like a woman who was able to handle herself. I hope she survived her time in Portland.

 

 

 

The Baby in the Suitcase

The Baby in the Suitcase

It started with the discovery of the bruised and battered corpse of a baby boy in an old dress suitcase. The suitcase turned up on October 1, 1907 in the backyard of a home in Prospect Hill, a well-to-do neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.

A police investigation led to a tenement rooming house on Benefit Street, more than half a mile from where the suitcase and its grisly contents were found. It was the home of Mabel Brown, age 36. Mabel told the police that her sister, Sarah McDonald, had lived in the house until recently, but had left for Worcester, Massachusetts. Mabel said Sarah hoped to find work there in a carpet factory.

Mabel identified the baby as Eddie McDonald, the eleven-month-old child of Sarah. She told police the baby was a “heavy and strong child, with pretty, light, curly hair and good form.”

The police searched Sarah’s room. According to The Boston Globe, the room “presented a shocking scene and the stench in the place was all but unbearable.” Evidence in the room led the police to the theory that after Eddie was killed, his body was hidden inside a feather bed cut for that purpose. Later it was moved to a closet, and then to a trunk, before it was finally put in the suitcase.

Mabel admitted to police that the suitcase had previously belonged to her mother. She denied any knowledge of the boy’s death and said she’d been out at the theater on the night of September 30, 1907, when the body, hidden in the suitcase was removed from the house. She also insisted she hadn’t noticed the foul smell coming from the room. Mabel admitted to the police that in the past she’d been a prisoner at the state prison in Cranston, Rhode Island, for “keeping a nuisance.” (What kind of nuisance wasn’t spelled out, but it was likely either a saloon or a brothel.

The police went to the home of another sister, Maggie Brown, in Worcester, Massachusetts. They found a woman there who claimed to be named Irene Clark. She denied ever having been to Providence and said she’d lived in Worcester for two years, during which time she worked for the Massachusetts Corset Company. But when police questioned her further she was unable to tell them the names of any businesses in Worcester and she didn’t know the name of the landlady at the boarding house where she claimed to live. Convinced she was Sarah McDonald, they arrested her and took her to Providence.

At the Providence jail she admitted the baby boy was hers, but she denied he’d been murdered. She said he died of natural causes and she’d kept the body for a week, unsure of what to do with it. Ultimately she decided to put it in her mother’s old suitcase, carry it more than half a mile north in a rainstorm, where she left it in a yard behind a house.

Sarah Heagney_back_marked

The back of Sarah Heagney’s criminal identification card.

According to the medical examiner, Eddie’s injuries showed that someone had beaten him to death “in a rage.” Sarah was charged with the baby’s murder.

Sarah pointed the finger at Patrick Edward McDonald; the man she claimed was her husband. He gave himself up to authorities. The police found no evidence that he was involved in the boy’s death and they let him go. Further investigation revealed that the couple was not actually married. Sarah’s surname was her maiden name — Heagney. Born in 1885 in Rhode Island, she was the 22-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, Frank Heagney and his wife, Sarah Kane Heagney.

Oaklawn

The Oaklawn School for Girl in an undated photo.

In 1900, when she was 15, Sarah was a resident of the Oaklawn School For Girls, a juvenile reformatory in Cranston, Rhode Island. Oaklawn was located in a walled complex with other state institutions including the state prison, an insane asylum and a workhouse for the homeless.

The Providence police wondered why Sarah hadn’t simply disposed of Eddie’s body in the Providence River, less than a quarter mile west of her boarding house. Why did she carry the suitcase, which likely weighed close to 20 pounds, more than twice as far and leave it the backyard of Charles H. Jefferds?

By 1907 Jefferds, age 52, had been a widower for almost ten years. He was a well to do “provisions dealer” — a wholesaler merchant selling to grocery stores and markets. He had an adult daughter, Geneva, who lived with him, and three sons: Lawrence, Charles Jr. and Chester. The family was wealthy enough that during the early twentieth century they always had one or two female servants living with them.

There was no mention in the news of Sarah having worked for the Jefferds family, but according to the back of her arrest card she had worked as a maid. If she worked for the family and become pregnant by Charles Jefferds or one of his sons, it might explain why she went to the trouble of taking her baby’s body to their property and leaving it there. Girls and women who worked as servants were sometimes viewed by the men who employed them as fair game for sex, consensual or not.

RI State Prison

The Rhode Island State Prison in an undated photo.

After she was arrested the press lost interest in Sarah and didn’t report on the outcome of the case. By 1910, according to the US Census, she was one of 16 female inmates at the state prison in Cranston. It may be that she was sent to prison as a punishment for the murder of her child.

The census enumerators in 1910 were tasked with asking how many children a woman had given birth to. That column in Sarah’s listing on the census form was left blank. There is no record of her after the 1910 census.