Bess was the wife of Harry A. Nelson, the Deputy Assessor of Alameda County, California. It was the Great Depression, and many people were suffering financial hardship, but the Nelsons were not among them. They lived in a comfortable home at 5314 Boyd Avenue in Oakland with their daughter Jessie and Bess’s mother, Mae Hulett.
Harry wasn’t home much—his job was demanding. He was also an active member of a World War I veteran’s group. Bess was busy with several women’s social clubs.
From the outside they looked like a perfect family, but all was not well on Boyd Avenue. The marriage wasn’t a happy one. Bess and Harry were spending as much time as possible apart, and when they were together they often fought. Harry had a $10,000 insurance policy on his life. Bess would later claim that he’d threatened to remove her as beneficiary during one of their arguments.
In February 1932, Muriel Forbes was hired to work as the Nelson’s maid and as a nanny for seven-year-old Jessie. Muriel’s husband Claude occasionally worked as a chauffeur for Bess. Sometimes, after he picked Bess up at one of her club functions, she took the young man out to dinner. Muriel, who was also inclined to be trusting, thought nothing of the increasing amount of time her husband was spending alone with Bess.
Things came to a head on Memorial Day, when Harry discovered that his wife’s friendship with Claude had developed into a love affair, despite the 13-year difference in their ages. He threw her out of the house and ordered her to take her chauffeur-turned-lover with her.
Bess and Claude spent a week out of state. Then they headed back to California and settled into a nice hotel in Santa Cruz. But the views of Monterey Bay did nothing to assuage Claude’s anger over how unfairly he thought Bess had been treated by her husband. One night, about two weeks into the “honeymoon,” he decided to go up to Oakland and confront Harry.
Lead pipe in hand, he broke into the Nelson’s home and crept into the master bedroom. Harry was in bed asleep. Rather than wake him up for a chat, Claude proceeded to batter Harry on the head with the pipe. Then he crept out and returned to Bess in Santa Cruz.
Muriel discovered Harry, who was still alive. She called the police and he was rushed to Highland Hospital. When Bess heard the news of the assault on the radio, she called home. Unexpectedly, the police answered the phone and told her Harry had been attacked by an intruder and was in the hospital. She broke down and told them where she was. In short order, the lovebirds were arrested.
Bess made a confession, of sorts, to the police:
My finances were low. I began to wonder what we could do or where we would live. Claude said he would see about it. I did not know whether he meant to bump Harry off or ask Harry to release me so that I could marry Claude. If he had succeeded in killing Harry I would not have told on him. I love him too much to send him over the road. I hope now that Harry gets well. He will give me my freedom. Claude and I figured with Harry out of the way we could live in the Boyd avenue house. Claude could get a job and we could carry on the payments of $31.60.
Evidently Bess thought that if her husband recovered, she and her boyfriend would face little or no prison time. But three days after they were arrested, her hopes were dashed when Harry Nelson died.
As it turned out, they were not the only ones with a secret. Once the dust settled, Harry’s parents got in touch with the authorities handling his estate. They were under the impression that Bess was Harry’s housekeeper, not his wife. Did the lawyers know that Harry already had a wife, Etta, whom he married in 1913 in his native Minnesota? The couple also had a daughter who was now in her teens.
A lawsuit ensued over which wife and daughter would inherit the life insurance money. Given her association with the accused murderer, Bess’s chances of success seemed unlikely.
Bess’s mother commented to the press that the first marriage was not a complete surprise to her. Harry, she claimed, had always been a secretive man. She recalled letters arriving at the house, addressed to a “Mrs. Harry Nelson” who was not her daughter. She also testified that her daughter was mentally ill and therefore was not responsible for her actions.
The insanity defense did not work out for Bess: She and Claude were convicted of Harry’s murder. Bess got life in prison, but Claude was sentenced to death. After several unsuccessful appeals, he was hanged at San Quentin on December 8, 1933. His family was unable (or unwilling) to pay the cost of bringing his body home to New York, so he was buried in the prison cemetery.
Paroled after serving ten years in prison, Bess’s entanglements with the law continued. In 1945 she was arrested with Jean Osburn, an ex-con she’d met in prison. They were accused of running a scam in which Jean posed as a doctor and Bess as a nurse (using her mother’s name as an alias) on the pretense of offering medical services. Of course neither had any medical training. It was a ruse to get inside the homes and was rob their victims. They were returned to the women’s prison in Tehachapi.
Featured photos: San Quentin mug book photos of Bess Nelson and Claude Forbes. California State Archives