Irresistible Appeal

Irresistible Appeal

Boise, Idaho.—Lyda Southard, Idaho’s notorious husband poisoner who is charged with having caused the death of seven persons, has not lost her irresistible appeal for men after nearly 10 years spent behind the gray stone wall of the Idaho State Penitentiary. Her recent escape proves that.

 

Love for the “Woman Blue Beard” nearly two years ago led a prison guard, Jack Watkins, to carry a gas pipe ladder into the yard of the women’s prison, across a driveway from the main prison which houses the male prisoners, and bury it in the flower bed.

 

Love for the modern Lucretia Borgia led an ex-convict, David Minton, who was pardoned scarcely three weeks before, to risk his newly regained freedom by assisting her to escape.

Sedalia Weekly Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri), May 22, 1931

It was only a slight exaggeration to claim that Lyda Southard caused the deaths of seven people. The body count was actually six, including four of Lyda’s husbands, her only child, a tiny daughter, and one brother-in-law.

She was born Lyda May Trueblood on October 16, 1892, in the small town of Keytesville, Missouri. In 1912 she married Robert Dooley in Twin Falls, Idaho. Their baby, Lorraine, was born the following year.

Edward Dooley, Robert’s brother, lived with the couple. Edward fell ill and died in 1915. Robert and Lorraine soon followed Edward to the grave. The deaths were said to be due to food poisoning or some common contagious illness — no one looked too closely in those days. Robert and Lyda received the cash from Edward’s life insurance policy, and Lyda got that, along with the money from Robert’s policy after his death. The amount wasn’t large — a couple thousand dollars total.

The baby wasn’t insured, but she was a burden and wouldn’t help Lyda snag another husband, so apparently she had to go too.

A slight, perky woman with dark, curly hair, blue eyes, and a ready smile, Lyda was no a great beauty but she had a pleasant face and a talent for attracting men. After her brother-in-law, first husband and baby died, she acquired three more husbands in rapid succession. Each one died of supposed “natural causes,” and each left Lyda a tidy life insurance settlement. Red flags didn’t go up until Edward Meyer, a previously healthy 35-year-old Twin Falls ranch foreman, died three weeks after his marriage to Lyda in 1920.

Lyda news editorial

Tongues began to wag when Lyda collected the insurance money, sold her property and left town shortly after putting Edward into the ground. Twin Falls Sheriff, E.R. Sherman, assigned his deputy, Virgil “Val” Ormsby, to investigate Edward’s death. Ormsby’s search led to one of Lyda’s homes and a basement full of flypaper coated with arsenic. The bodies of Lyda’s husbands and her brother-in-law and child were exhumed and autopsied. All the adults’ bodies were all found to contain arsenic.

The police hunt was on for the one person connected to all the men, now presumed to be murder victims — Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer. By the time she was located she had added another husband to her list.

She was found in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the side of husband number five, Paul Southard. She had tried and failed to get Paul, a Naval Officer, to take out life insurance on himself with his blushing new bride as the beneficiary.

Lyda_Southard mugshotProfessing her innocence, she agreed to return to Idaho, where she was tried and found guilty of murder in the second degree for the death her fourth husband, Edward Meyer. Prosecutors also submitted evidence that Lyda killed the other men using tea and lemonade laced with arsenic. Sentenced to 14 years to life, off to the Idaho State Penitentiary Lyda went. Paul Southard filed for divorce.

For the next ten years, Lyda sat in prison, planning her next adventure. On a moonlit night in May 1931, she cut the bars on her cell window using a saw provided by Jack Watkins, a prison guard who’d become smitten with her. (Jack died before her escape, presumably of natural causes). A ladder, buried earlier near the prison wall by Jack, allowed Lyda to scale the 16-foot wall, and a rope, made of torn blankets tied to heavy flower boxes, helped her reach the ground on the other side. There she leaped into the waiting arms of David Minton, an ex-con who’d recently been released from the same penitentiary. David had fallen in love with “Mrs. Bluebeard” and risked his newly gained freedom to break her out of prison. He had a car waiting nearby and the pair sped away.

 

The romance with David didn’t last long (though he survived it and was eventually arrested for his part in Lyda’s escape). She remained free for the next 15 months, during which time she married her sixth husband, Harry Whitlock, in Denver. But by July 1932, Harry had gotten wise to Lyda’s identity and, perhaps worried for his own safety, he turned her in. He arranged to have her go to a post office in Topeka, Kansas, where police were waiting — they sent her back to the penitentiary. Harry applied for the $500 reward offered for his wife’s arrest.

Before she returned to prison, a reporter asked Lyda how she’d been so successful at getting men to marry her. A smile played at her lips as she replied, “I don’t care to answer that.” The reporter persisted. He wanted to know if she confessed to murdering any of her husbands at her trial. “No,” was her answer. “Did you ever feel as if you wanted to?” wondered the reporter. “No, I never felt I was guilty,” was Lyda’s cleverly worded response.

She was given a six-month probationary release from the penitentiary on October 2, 1941, and moved to Oregon to live with a sister. Her full pardon came a year and a half later. It was rumored that Lyda married for a seventh time in the 1940s. If true, her husband was a brave man.

In 1958 Lyda, aged 65, collapsed on a city street in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ten minutes later she was dead of a heart attack.

Featured photos: Left: News photo of Lyda Trueblood, taken before her trial in Twin Falls, Idaho, October 6, 1921. Right: News photo of Lyda with her captors, Deputy Sheriff Val Ormsby, rear left, and Sheriff E.R. Sherman, rear right, same date and location.

 

New Dillinger Molls

New Dillinger Molls

Brady gave me a diamond. I always considered we were married. He didn’t kill a policeman. He was sweet and kind. He was good to me. He slept like a baby at night. I love him. I’ll marry him, even if I go to jail, to the electric chair or to hell.

— Margaret Barry, quoted in The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana), June 12, 1937

Margaret Barry Larson met gangster Al Brady during “the whirl of Mardi Gras” in February 1936. The pair took a shine to each other, so 24-year-old Margaret dumped her husband and small son and headed north with Al.

brady_fbi_photo

Al Brady

Alfred James “Al” Brady got his start in crookery in 1930 at the age of 20 when he stole a car, was caught and sent to the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton. Prisons are good places to learn how to commit crime and Al was an excellent student. After his release he recruited a group of like-minded young men, including Clarence Lee Shaffer and James Dalhover, to join his gang of thieves and killers. Al’s goal was to fill John Dillinger’s shoes. (Dillinger, a fellow Hoosier, had been killed by G-men in 1934.) Often driving stolen cars, the Brady gang pulled off more than 200 armed robberies, killed four lawmen and a civilian and wounded many others between 1935 and 1937.

Margaret Barker newsWith Margaret in tow the gang went to Ohio in March 1936. There they held up jewelry and grocery stores. In the course of robbing one grocery store, Al killed a young store clerk in cold blood. The gang escaped to Indianapolis but was traced there by police. During an attempt to arrest them, Sergeant Richard Rivers of the Indianapolis Police Department was shot and killed by one of the gang. They fled to Chicago with their loot, valued at $68,000.

Al and Margaret spent the next few days together at a Chicago hotel. Police located them and took the lovebirds into custody on April 30, 1936. James was also arrested in Chicago and Clarence was captured in Indianapolis.

Some of the loot was found in the gang’s safe deposit box in Chicago, however James revealed to police that a group of armed Chicago gangsters had stolen a portion of the takings from gang’s various holdups. About $6000 of the booty was discovered in the home of jewelry salesman Jack Becker, who rented the deposit box for the gang and acted as their fence. Becker and his wife Laura, who were considered to be part of the Brady gang, were arrested.

Margaret and Laura were described in the news as being the “new Dillinger molls.”

According to James, the gang was captured because Margaret insisted Al stay one more night with her at their Chicago hotel. When a man makes a serious error in judgement it makes sense to blame a woman, right?

Margaret, who’d been held on a vagrancy charge, was released from custody and reportedly went to work at a Chicago tavern. Despite her proclamations of eternal devotion and her professed willingness to follow Al to hell, the two never saw each other again.

Brady shootout

Bodies of Al Brady (closer to camera) and Clarence Lee Shaffer after the Bangor shoot out. Bangor Daily News.

Al, Clarence and James were sent back to Indiana to face a murder charge for the death of Officer Rivers. On October 11, 1936, all three men escaped from the jail where they were held. They spent the next 12 months committing a spree of robberies, primarily on the east coast, culminating in a shoot out with the FBI in Bangor, Maine, on October 12, 1937. Al and Clarence were killed in the gun battle — the bloodiest in Maine’s history. James was returned to prison in Indiana, where he was electrocuted the following year.

Featured photo: Margaret Barry (in hat), Laura Becker (seated) and policewoman Mary Henneberry, April 30, 1936. Collection of the author.

Mother or Monster

Mother or Monster

After withstanding a dramatic two-hour inquisition on the part of her husband, Detective Leo O’Loughlin, late yesterday, Mrs. O’Loughlin was brought before Captain of Detectives Clark and Chief of Police Reed again late last night.

 

From 9:15 until 4:30 this morning she underwent a merciless grilling, her iron nerve snapped and she was taken back to her cell in city jail in partial collapse.

 

Captain Clark said there was no formal “confession.”

 

“But she talked,” he declared, “ and we will go into the details of her admissions later on.”

Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record (Bradford, Pennsylvania), October 23, 1930

The body of ten-year-old Leona O’Loughlin was pulled from a lake in a city park in Denver, Colorado, on Friday, October 17, 1930. Leona had been missing from her home for two days when her body was discovered.

The Denver coroner performed an autopsy on the body and determined that she died either from suffocation or drowning. She had sustained two blows to the back of her head. The blows were severe enough to have caused a concussion but didn’t cause her death. She also had a small quantity of ground glass in her stomach and intestines but not enough to have killed her. The coroner estimated Leona’s time of death at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 14.

Leona lived with her father, 44-year-old police detective Leo O’Loughlin and her stepmother, 32-year-old Pearl, along with Pearl’s son from a previous marriage, Douglas Millican, aged seven. Frank O’Loughlin, Leo’s younger brother, boarded with the family but did not take his meals with them due to an ongoing argument with Pearl. Leona’s mother, Maude, had died of natural causes in 1928. Leo married Pearl, a divorcée, in January 1929.

Pearl and Leo were both taken ill on Wednesday, the day after Leona died and the first day the family realized Leona was missing. Pearl suffered from what was called “ptomaine poisoning,” from which she recovered the following day. Leo had something more serious, described as influenza, and he was sick enough to be hospitalized on Thursday. He was still in the hospital when his daughter’s body was found on Friday.

Pearl Leona Leo

Pearl, Leo and Leona O’Loughlin.

The police initially theorized that Leona had been kidnapped and killed by a child molester or by an enemy of her father’s. They also speculated that she might have wandered off on her own and died by misadventure or even that she committed suicide. But on Sunday, October 19th, her grandfather, Dennis O’Loughlin, told police that six weeks earlier he had found ground glass in his sugar bowl after Pearl, Leo and the kids had a meal with him at his Fort Collins home. He speculated, based on no evidence, that Pearl put the glass in his sugar in order to poison him. He ate some of the sugar and spat it out. Though he didn’t realize the sugar contained ground glass, he saved the contents of the bowl, which he turned over to police.

With the ground glass evidence in hand, the police developed a new theory — Leona’s death was an “inside job” — the work of a family member, likely her stepmother. Leo had been at work the night his daughter died, so that left Pearl and Frank as suspects — they were taken into custody. Leo insisted that his brother could not have been involved in Leona’s death. He wasn’t so sure about his wife. Supposedly Leo’s stomach contents were tested at the hospital and also found to contain ground glass.

Police decided that Pearl poisoned the family’s dinner with glass, causing everyone except her own son, Douglas, to become ill. Douglas was interviewed and admitted that he had not eaten the rice his mother served that Tuesday evening because she told him he’d already eaten enough. The theory went that, when Leona didn’t die shortly after eating rice containing the glass, Pearl took the girl to the lake, hit her on the head a couple of times and threw her in, leaving her to drown. Or maybe she suffocated her first, hit her on the head for good measure and threw her into the lake.

Motive was a problem. The police came to the conclusion that Pearl was after Leo’s insurance money, about $3200 (worth about $45,000 in 2017 dollars — not bad but far from a fortune). Leo claimed he changed the beneficiary of his policy from his wife to his daughter the week before Leona died. So with Leona out of the way, Pearl could next kill Leo and get the cash. They also thought she wanted Dennis’ money. His estate was the real plum, said to be worth about $35,000. But if it was her father-in-law’s money Pearl wanted, she needed to kill him first, so Leo would inherit, then kill Leo. Apparently she gave up on murdering Dennis after the glass in his sugar bowl didn’t kill him, but decided to try it anyway to kill Leona and Leo, or so the theory went.

The police interrogated Pearl relentlessly over a period of four days. Interviewed for hours on end, all she would say was that Frank was somehow involved in Leona’s death, but she refused to provide details. She was even taken to the funeral home to view Leona’s body in her casket in an effort to break her “iron nerve.” Instead Pearl leaned over and kissed the dead girl’s face.

Pearl O'Loughlin News pic_marked

Pearl in the Denver City Jail, November 1, 1930. Collection of the author.

Finally, in the early morning hours of October 23rd, an exhausted Pearl broke down. “I’ll take the blame. I’m the one that has to suffer,” said Pearl, after almost seven hours of non-stop questioning by police. Pearl’s lawyer intervened before police got her to sign a confession, but she was charged with first-degree murder. The police and prosecutor hoped that, if convicted, she’d get the death penalty. Two days later Pearl insisted she was innocent and claimed the confession was made under duress.

Frank was also charged with murder. Leo wanted his brother to have a trial so he could clear his name. Frank’s trial was scheduled to begin after Pearl’s finished.

A bloody towel was found in the O’Loughlin family car. Pearl claimed Douglas had a bloody nose sometime recently and that was how the blood got on the towel. Blood and some fibers were found on the tire iron in the vehicle. The fibers might have come from Leona’s hat, though no one was sure. Blood typing had not yet been discovered, so all anyone could say was that it was human blood on the towel and on the tire iron.

Pearl lacked an alibi for the evening Leona died and she damaged her case by lying about where she had been. At first she said that, after putting the children to bed, she went to her hairdresser’s home for a permanent wave, left briefly and went back again, spending most of the evening at the hairdresser’s. However the hairdresser testified that Pearl only came to her house once that night around 10:30 p.m., not wearing stockings and generally looking disheveled. Pearl also claimed she had taken a friend to the doctor that evening, but the friend said it was a different night they had visited the doctor. In fact, she insisted that she hadn’t seen Pearl for three weeks before Leona died.

The case was circumstantial, but Pearl was convicted of first-degree murder. It took the jury of twelve men less than two hours to arrive at the verdict. Her verbal “confession” to police was not allowed as evidence, so the death penalty was off the table. (At that time in Colorado the death penalty could only be imposed if the convicted person had signed a confession or if there was an eye-witness to the crime.) She was sentenced to 62 years to life in the Colorado State Penitentiary.

Leo, who had been allowed to testify against his wife at her trial, filed for divorce the day after Pearl was convicted. He remarried and that marriage, according to his obituary, also ended in divorce. In 1956 he died in Denver, aged 68. His father, Dennis, died in 1936, so if it were money that Pearl was after, with a little patience, she would have gotten it. The murder charge against Frank was dropped after Pearl’s conviction. He died in 1946.

After almost 20 years behind bars, Pearl was paroled from the Colorado State Penitentiary on June 30, 1951. During her time at CSP, she worked as a prison trusty and as the housekeeper of Warden Roy Best and governess for his children.

Pearl, who didn’t testify at her trial, gave an interview to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, in 1950, in which she told her side of the story. She said Leona came downstairs “acting silly” on the night she died, and told Pearl she had mistakenly taken some sedative tablets belonging to Leo that were on the bedside table. Pearl put the girl in the car to get help, but Leona died before they could get to a doctor, so she panicked and put the body in the lake. “I thought I had to get rid of her,” Pearl said. Though the story doesn’t explain Leona’s head injuries or the ground glass found in her stomach, the editor of the paper said he found Pearl’s story credible.

Warden Best offered Pearl a job as his housekeeper after she was released. Pearl wanted to work for the warden, who had long supported her requests for parole, but the Colorado Parole Board wouldn’t allow it. She took a job as a housekeeper in California. She died in San Diego in 1987, aged 88.

Featured photo: Pearl O’Loughlin’s undated mugshot. Museum of Colorado Prisons Facebook page.

Gangster Undressed

Gangster Undressed

We still didn’t think we had anything but a crazy drunk and both of us took him out to the car. He was dressed in his underwear and shoes only, with an expensive fur coat over them. I made the crack about being a drugstore cowboy when we were taking him out.

 

Kast went in to call headquarters and I stayed with DeVol. I figured I would have no trouble in handling him. But just as Kast stepped out, DeVol dove for me in the back seat and got both hands around my throat. I grappled with him and he sank his teeth into my left wrist and hand. I kicked the door open and dragged him out onto the pavement.

 

We rolled there for a second and then DeVol broke away and started to run across the street. I caught up to him and hit him over the head with the butt of my gun. Kast had heard the commotion and came running out and also hit DeVol.

 

He didn’t attempt to escape again and in a few minutes several other squads arrived and they found the bank loot and guns in the apartment. It was not until then we realized what sort of criminal we had been fighting with.

— Patrolman George Hammergren, The Minneapolis Star, December 19, 1932

St. Paul Policeman George Hammergren and his partner, Officer Kast, had arrested one of the most wanted criminals of their day. Lawrence DeVol was the look out man during a holdup of the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis by the Barker-Karpis gang on December 16, 1932. The gang escaped with $22,00 in cash and $92,00 in bonds. Lawrence shot and killed two police officers during the getaway.

Holed up in a rented St. Paul apartment with a bandit pal after the heist, Lawrence went out on the evening of December 18, 1932, dressed only in underpants and a coat. (In search of cigs, booze, drugs or all three?) When he returned he got confused and banged on the wrong apartment door, demanding to be let in. The man who lived in the apartment had no idea who he was and told him to “get going.” Lawrence wandered down the hall and returned to the apartment, waving his revolver. Peeking through the safety chain and seeing the gun, the man became alarmed, slammed the door and called police. Meanwhile Lawrence wandered off, found the correct apartment and entered, leaving the door ajar.

Officers Hammergren and Kast arrived at the apartment building for what they thought would be a straightforward nuisance call. They located the open apartment door, went in and found a man getting dressed. They asked him where the man with the “rod” was. He pointed to the bedroom, stating, “He’s been drinking and got a little boisterous, but he hasn’t got a rod of any kind.” Hammergren went into the bedroom and found Lawrence, clad only in his underpants, pointing a gun at him. Hammergren grabbed both Lawrence’s hands but was unable to get the gun from him. He yelled for Kast and the three scuffled, eventually extracting the gun from Lawrence. Figuring him to be “just a crazy drunk” they didn’t bother to handcuff him before taking him outside and putting him in the squad car. Meanwhile the other man escaped.

Born on November 17, 1903 in Belpre, Ohio, Lawrence was the middle of three sons of Helem and Emma (Shanks) DeVol. On his father’s side the family traced their ancestry back to Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Helem moved his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when Lawrence was six. He found work in the oil fields and he died there in 1917.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshot, age 24

Lawrence got his start in crime at a tender age and by the time he turned 11, he was labeled “incorrigible” and was sent to reform school in Oklahoma. His brothers, Albert and Clarence, also joined  the criminal ranks, but it was Lawrence who evolved into a big-time gangster and garnered most of the headlines. By the time he reached his late twenties, Lawrence had a rap sheet that included numerous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. He’d served multiple prison terms, accumulated 17 aliases and was wanted by police in ten states.

He became acquainted with gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1928. Together the pair escaped in 1929 and pulled off several robberies. They were later arrested in Kansas City, where Lawrence was able to post bail and skip town, leaving Creepy behind. He carried out another string of heists that culminated in the fatal shooting a police officer in Kirksville, Missouri. He also managed to escape custody there, but in addition to robbery he was now wanted for murder, and not just any murder, but the murder of a cop.

Lawrence headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he hooked up with his old pal, Creepy (who apparently had forgiven him for the earlier ditch), and Creepy’s friends Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, along with members of their gang. The men pulled off bank robberies in Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota before going to Minneapolis for the December 16th robbery.

Hammergen and his partner, Kast, were lucky that, when they captured Lawrence that cold night in December, he was out of his head with drink. In full control of his senses there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot them.

DeVol_ducks_photoBleary-eyed, with his face scuffed and still wearing only his fur coat and (presumably) underpants and shoes, his mugshots were taken that night at the St. Paul police station. Two days later the Minneapolis police photographed a cleaned up and far-from-contrite-looking Lawrence after he’d been charged with bank robbery and murder. He’s still wearing his beloved fur coat, but this time he’s also sporting a suit, tie and hat. On his way into Minneapolis city hall, a news photographer got a double exposure photo of DeVol, who was apparently still edgy after his capture in St. Paul, causing him to jump when the photographer’s flashbulb went off.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshots taken on December 20, 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He pleaded guilty to the murder of policemen Ira Evans and Leo Gorsky and was given a life sentence. First sent to the Stillwater penitentiary, he was moved to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane on December 27, 1935 — it turned out to be a late Christmas gift of sorts for Lawrence.

Psychiatrists St. Peter’s described him as suffering from a mania called “Dementia Praecox Catatonia.” The condition was characterized, they claimed, by “unbalanced judgment, delusions, hallucinations, alternating apathy and indifference, and tremendous and often violent excitement. The victim’s memory remains good, however, and he does not lose the capacity to understand situations an act.” The second sentence should have been a warning to anyone familiar with Lawrence and his criminal history.

Unlike his psychiatrists, Lawrence understood perfectly the opportunity that was presented to him and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. He organized a successful escape from the hospital, along with fifteen other dangerous criminals, the following July.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

A nationwide search wound up in Enid, Oklahoma, when police officers located him in a tavern on July 7, 1936. Asked to accompany them back to the station for questioning, he said, “Let me finish drinking my beer.” While draining the mug with one hand, he pulled out his gun with the other and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing the other. Though he fled the scene, this time there would be no getaway. With more Enid officers in hot pursuit, Lawrence James DeVol was shot nine times and killed a few blocks from the tavern where he enjoyed his final beer.

Featured photo: mugshots of Lawrence DeVol taken December 18, 1932. Collection of the author.

Additional mugshots and news photo of St. Peter’s Hospital escaped men from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

East-West Triangle

East-West Triangle

On the night before Midi was killed, I sat in my hotel room and prayed to God. I had procured a butcher knife from the café in which I worked and, as I sharpened it on a whetstone, I prayed to Him for strength. The next morning I went to the Takaoka home and entered Midi’s bedroom. She was as sleep. I awakened her and held her hand. I said ‘Molly, what has happened? You can’t marry Bachand.’ She said ‘Ray, I guess New York has spoiled me.’ She started to get up and put on her stockings. I couldn’t control myself any longer. I struck her many times on the head with a cold chisel then slashed her across the throat with the butcher knife.

— Raymond E. Johnson, confession for the murder of Midi Takoaka

On the morning of August 11, 1936, Ray Johnson, a 39-year-old Los Angeles cook, murdered his lover, 25-year-old Midi Takaoka. The mortally wounded young woman was able to stagger outside to the lawn of her home at 1211 North Commonwealth Avenue, where she collapsed and died.

Midi Taka better pic

Midi Takaoka, Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1936

Mizuye, known as “Midi,” was a professional dancer and singer. She was born in Ehime, Japan, in 1910 to Imahei and Kazuko Takaoka. Midi and her three siblings immigrated with their parents to California in 1918 when she was five.

Midi’s father, Imahei, described as a “fire-and-brimstone Christian minister,” was a founder of the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. When he died of tuberculosis in 1930, aged 45, Midi’s family was left destitute. To help them survive financially, she and her two younger sisters, Mary and Myrtle, formed a vaudeville trio called the Taka Sisters.

Though the Taka sisters weren’t triplets, they billed themselves as “the only Japanese triplets on stage” and it helped them find an audience. They danced around in a routine similar to the “three little maids” from the Mikado, then threw off their kimono and danced to fast jazz. The show was risqué and, after headlining at Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago in 1935, the beautiful sisters became nationally known, performing in nightclubs across the United States.

Taka Sisters

The Taka Sisters, The Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1936

Midi and Ray had known each other for three years. They met at the famous Palomar Dance Hall in Los Angeles, where Ray worked as a cook. He was in love with Midi but the relationship was complicated because he was 14 years older and had a wife who refused to divorce him. Another problem was the laws against interracial marriages that existed in many states at that time.

Midi was tired of waiting for Ray to get himself free. On a trip home, after performing in New York City, she met a new man named William Bachand. While traveling west on the bus, the pair fell head over heels in love. By the time they reached St. Louis, William had proposed marriage and given Midi a ring. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, he asked Midi’s mother for her hand in marriage and apparently Kazuko agreed to the match. William gave Midi a second ring to seal the deal.

The couple went to Yuma, Arizona, on August 9th, to try to get married, but authorities turned them away because Midi was Asian and William was white. Dejected, they returned to Los Angeles.

Johnson and Bachand pics

Rivals: Johnson and Bachand, The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1936

Hearing about Midi’s new love, Ray became enraged. Shortly after the couple got back from Arizona, Ray attacked William, stabbing him five times with an ice pick at the Takaoka home on the night of August 10th. Midi’s younger brother, Hallelujah, pulled Ray off and ordered him to get out. William, not seriously injured, was treated at a local hospital and released. Ray’s jealousy went unquenched, so the following morning he returned to the home, where he murdered Midi and then fled.

A guilt-stricken Ray turned himself in to the sheriff of Corona, California, three days later. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in November 1936. He received a life sentence for the murder, plus 10 years for the ice pick attack. He served his sentence at San Quentin prison. Despite the life sentence, he was paroled after 12 years, in 1948.

William Bachand returned to his home in Massachusetts and promptly got into trouble with the police. In March 1937 he was arrested in Leominster for stealing a bicycle and passing a bad check, all while wearing a stolen army uniform. Police uncovered his romance with the murdered woman and he admitted he lied to Midi about his background, telling her he was born in France and worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He also lied about his age — he was only 18 years old when he met Midi. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to four months in the house of correction. In 1944 he was again in police trouble for larceny and check fraud. Rather than return to prison he skipped town and was also charged as a fugitive from justice.

Midi’s sisters disbanded their act after her murder and never performed again. Due to their Japanese ethnicity, the Takaoka family was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, during Word War II.

California finally repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1948. Arizona’s ban was not repealed until 1962.

Featured image: Raymond E. Johnson’s San Quentin mugshot, California State Archives

Mistaken

Mistaken

LOS ANGELES, May 11. — Carl York, 22-year-old police informer who was shot down by detectives through “mistake,” died today in General hospital. He succumbed to five bullet wounds while police sought to link him with a series of recent filling station robberies. They claimed nine attendants identified the youth as one of two bandits who staged a series of recent spectacular raids in which attendants were kidnapped.

York denied any complicity in the robberies.

San Bernardino Sun, May 12, 1935

Carl York, a police informer, and W.L. Lanier, a narcotics squad detective with the LAPD, mounted the rickety stairs to the second floor door of a cheap Los Angeles rooming house during the early hours of the morning on May 8, 1935. Carl and Lanier didn’t know it, but three LAPD robbery squad detectives were staked out in a “bandit trap” near the bottom of the stairs outside the house, waiting for the occupants to return. The detectives had already searched inside the house, where they’d found a handgun and a small amount of narcotics.

“We’re police officers, hands up!” came the command from below as Carl and Lanier moved towards the door. Carl’s hand moved towards his hip pocket and the officers on the ground floor opened fire. Lanier wasn’t hit but Carl slumped over, seriously wounded. Lanier shone his flashlight in the direction of the gunfire. Recognizing one of the shooters as a fellow officer, he identified himself and ordered them to stop firing.

shooting photo

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935.

Carl didn’t have a weapon. He was taken to the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries three days later. He left a wife and small daughter in Denver, Colorado.

Carl York not a mugshot

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935

News reports described Carl as both an “undercover agent” and a “police informer” who was engaged in a narcotics investigation when he was shot by mistake. Both the LAPD narcotics and robbery squads were involved in separate investigations that brought them to the rooming house on the morning that Carl was shot. Each squad was unaware of what the other was doing.

The police claimed witnesses identified Carl as one of two men who carried out a series of raids in which parking lot attendants and vehicle owners were carjacked at gunpoint, robbed of small amounts of cash and kidnapped. Over the course of four days in April 1935, the bandits struck 12 times. The culprits drove the stolen cars, sometimes with the victim inside, through the city at high speeds. They’d abandon one car and steal another one. The victims were frightened, but not injured, though one man was thrown from his vehicle while it was moving and another was forced to hand over most of his clothing before being released from his car semi-nude.

Carl York mugshot

News photo mugshot of Carl York, May 9, 1935. Collection of the author.

The L.A. coroner ordered an inquest into Carl’s death. The verdict was “justifiable homicide” — an accidental and unintentional shooting by the officers. The Municipal League demanded an inquiry into Carl’s shooting, but nothing came of that.

After Carl’s death, four men reported to be Carl’s criminal associates were charged with robbery and conspiracy to rob but there’s no evidence that they were ever tried or sentenced to prison.

Then in June 1937, a series of kidnap robberies that were eerily similar to the crimes of April 1935 occurred in Bakersfield, California, 115 miles north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles residents Moran Pierce and Charles W. Taylor, both aged 23, committed the crimes.

Armed with automatic pistols, Pierce and Taylor staged their first holdup at El Tejon garage. They stopped E.W. Stevenson of Burlingame, as he drove into the garage in a big Packard, and subsequently held up Henry Lopez, garage attendant. Both Stevenson and Lopez were taken out on the Edison Highway, obliged to get out of the car and were strapped to the fence with belts.

 

Pierce and Taylor returned to Bakersfield and held up H.R. Thompson, operator of a Richfield service station, at Twenty-first Street and Golden State Highway. They abandoned their stolen automobile after this holdup and returned to their hotel.

The Bakersfield Californian, June 15, 1937

Pierce and Taylor were captured in their flophouse the morning after the crime spree during a search of all the rooming houses in the vicinity. The two men admitted to the Bakersfield kidnap robberies, along with some other burglaries. They also told police they pulled two service station kidnap robberies in Los Angeles a few days before the Bakersfield crimes. Both got life sentences, with Pierce heading to Folsom State Prison and Taylor going to San Quentin.

No photo of Taylor was located, however Pierce and Carl bear a resemblance to each other. It’s plausible that Carl was mistaken for Pierce who, along with Taylor, committed the Los Angeles kidnap robberies in April 1935. Then the pair laid low for a while only to reappear and commit similar crimes in Bakersfield. If so, Carl was telling the truth when he said he had nothing to do with the kidnap robberies. After death he was vilified as a criminal when perhaps all he’d done was help the police with their narcotics investigation.

Featured photo: Moran Pierce (left) in his Folsom prison photo, collection of the California State Archives. Carl York (right) in a news photo mugshot, collection of the author.

Mother Murder

Mother Murder

I was in the doorway and I saw my mother. I raised the gun and fired one shot. She fell back onto the bed. I opened the closet door in the bedroom and took the suitcase that was in there. Into the suitcase I put some bath towels and some other things, my personal effects. After the shooting I put the gun in the bathroom where I laid it on a trunk. I went into the drawer of my bedroom dresser and got about $45 there. I found the bankbook, which was in a box in a closet.

— Excerpt from Dorothy Ellingson’s confession, January 15, 1925

What began as another quarrel between 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson and her mother ended in matricide on the morning of January 12, 1925, in San Francisco. The newspapers dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer” and called her a “jazzmaniac.” Stories were printed about her love of late night partying with older men at clubs and illegal speakeasies all over the city. Her mother’s objections to her lifestyle led to the argument that culminated in murder.

Dorothy’s parents, Joachim (Joseph in news reports) and Anna were Norwegians who immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Initially they settled in Minnesota and Dorothy was born there in 1908. By 1920 they relocated to San Francisco, California. Joseph owned a tailor shop and Anna didn’t work outside the home. Dorothy’s only sibling, an older brother named Earl, worked as a stock clerk in a drug store.

By the age of fourteen Dorothy finished primary school and had completed a year of “Business College.” Her education was probably better than average for a girl of that time.

Dorothy claimed her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted enjoying the company of jazz musicians who played at the clubs around San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. The main conflict, according to Dorothy, was that she got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it all but impossible for her to get up and go to her stenographer job the next day. Her musician friends didn’t start work until 10 or 11 at night, so how could she be expected to keep a normal schedule? (“I have worked, off and on,” she later told reporters). However Dorothy’s mother Anna needed her to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and Anna was separated from her husband at the time of the murder.

After shooting her mother with her brother’s .45 caliber automatic Colt, Dorothy calmly gathered up her packed suitcase, cash and bankbook, and traveled via streetcar to a boarding house at 1047 Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (inspired, perhaps, by the glamorous silent film star Dolores del Rio). Optimistically, she paid two weeks rent up front. Meanwhile, back at home, her brother found their mother’s body and called the police.

Dorothy settled into her new digs and headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next evening she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater. SFPD detectives arrested her the following day for murder — it was a busy week for a young girl!

Oakland_Tribune_Thu__Jan_15__1925_

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

Dorothy tried, unconvincingly, to place the blame for the murder elsewhere, but soon she confessed. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she explained.

A strange complex is Dorothy Ellingson. Her face is one of a woman of 24 or 25. Her form, while developed, goes with the face. Occasionally there is a gesture of girlishness, a movement that would indicate that, despite her appearance, it is a little girl and not an adult lodged in this prison compartment.

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

Despite her confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty. She fainted 12 times during her trial and her behavior ranged from hysterical to catatonic. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to an asylum for evaluation of her mental state. She was found to be sane, so the trial continued. In August 1925, Dorothy, now 17, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin prison.

dorothy ellingson_san quentin

Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Mar_6__1933_

The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year before Dorothy spent another night in jail courtesy of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked in as “Dorothy Jentoff,” and charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis. (Mary had no clue about Dorothy’s past.) She told police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party. Her actual name came out after the arrest and she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. Mary refused to prosecute so the charges were dropped.

Dorothy married a truck driver, Robert Stafford, in 1936, and lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for almost 20 years. The couple had two children but later they separated.

In 1955, 46-year-old Dorothy pleaded guilty to the theft of $2000 worth of jewelry, clothing and cash from a former employer. She’d been living in San Rafael under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints exposed her true identity. Her explanation for why she stole the goods — her daughter needed money.

Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated, coincidentally, in the Marin county jail in a cell across from his mother. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered her mother — his grandmother — in 1925, but she confessed it all to him while they sat in the slammer. “He took it like a little man. He didn’t cry. He said it made him understand why I stuck by him through his problems,” noted Dorothy.

Dorothy Ellingson Stafford died on September 16, 1967, aged 59.

Featured photo: Dorothy Ellingson’s SFPD mugshot, 1925. Collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.