The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The mystery of the disappearance of Raimonde Von Maluski, 3 years old, believed to have been kidnapped a week ago near his Washington Heights home, continued unsolved yesterday. Seventy detectives under Acting Lieutenant Edwin England continued the hunt, searching again through High Bridge and Fort George Parks and canvassing Houses.

The New York Times, April 6, 1925

SonnyRaimonde Von Maluski III, known as “Sonny,” was last seen on the sidewalk near his family’s apartment building on West 178th Street. The day, Sunday, March 29, 1925, was clear but far from warm, with an afternoon high of about 45 degrees. The small boy was outside on his own, apparently watching a Salvation Army prayer meeting and parade that took place in the street. Washington Heights, where the Von Maluski family lived, is in the narrow northern strip of Manhattan bordered by the Hudson River to the west and the Harlem River on the east.

By sometime on Sunday evening Sonny’s parents, Raimonde and Alice, realized that their three-year-old was gone so they alerted the police. Despite a massive search of the area, which included dragging a nearby City reservoir and the Harlem River, the child was nowhere to be found.

Initially the police theorized that Sonny had been kidnapped for ransom because the building where his family lived was home to some fairly affluent people. However Sonny’s family lived in the basement — his father was the building superintendent. With three young children — 5-year-old Gertrude and baby Robert — in addition to Sonny, there was no money to pay a ransom. In fact the family also had a lodger. Harold Jones, aged 25, worked as a handy man for Raimonde and lived with the family in their cramped apartment.

Mary Jones newsOne day into the search for Sonny, Harold suggested that his 40-year-old estranged wife, Austrian-born Mary Jones, might have been responsible for the boy’s disappearance. He said Mary had become mentally unbalanced the previous year when their baby died shortly after it was born. Harold claimed that Mary held a grudge against Sonny’s father because Raimonde informed the police that she’d stolen something from the building. During a visit to Harold, Raimonde had thrown Mary out of the apartment house due to a display of what Harold described as “disorderly conduct.” Harold claimed Mary was a bigamist, with two prior marriages but no divorces from her previous husbands.

The police arrested Mary, who lived alone in a flat on 3rd Avenue in the East Village. She insisted that she knew nothing about the child’s disappearance but the police charged her with kidnapping Sonny.

HaroldHarold told the police that he believed his wife contacted a man named Alexander Albert and offered him $100 to knock off Raimonde. Alexander was questioned and told police that the information was true but he’d declined the offer. Harold named several other “Bowery stew bums” (homeless alcoholics) he believed Mary tried to bribe to harm Raimonde. Police located the men but could find no evidence of a plot so they were released.

Sonny wasn’t mentioned as a target of Mary’s revenge.

At Mary’s grand jury hearing a ten-year-old girl identified her as the woman she’d seen in a cab that followed Sonny during the parade. However a woman who’d also been nearby failed to identify Mary. A cab driver named William Mahon testified that he’d picked up a woman he identified as Mary, along with a young boy who matched Sonny’s description, near the Von Maluski’s building on the evening the boy went missing. He said the boy was crying. He testified that he’d driven them over a bridge and dropped them off near a vacant lot in the Bronx.

Sonny’s mother, Alice, testified that she and Mary argued about why Harold had moved into her family’s apartment. Alice said that Mary told her she thought Harold moved in so he could carry on an affair with another woman. Alice also admitted that Mary had offered her children toys when she’d visited their apartment, but Alice hadn’t allowed the children to accept them.

The grand jury indicted Mary for the kidnapping of Sonny Von Maluski.

The prosecution witnesses at the trial consisted of cab driver Mahon and another cab driver. The second driver claimed a woman approached him several weeks before Sonny’s disappearance and offered him money to “get a sick child away from a dopehead mother and a drunken father.” He refused the offer but he identified the woman as Mary. A man described as a “volunteer witness” (apparently he wasn’t called by the prosecution but he was allowed to testify) said he’d been in a cab behind the Mahon cab and had gotten a good look at the woman and child who got in the cab. He swore that the woman was Mary.

Mary displayed no emotion throughout her short trial and was the sole witness in her own defense. She admitted she’d been married three times but insisted she wasn’t a bigamist. On that Sunday she had lunch with friends at the restaurant below her apartment, then attended services at nearby St. Ann’s Church. After church she said she went home and took a nap until 9 p.m. Then she woke up but decided it was too late to go out again, so she got undressed and went to bed.

The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding Mary guilty of kidnapping. At her sentencing the judge stated, “I believe you are utterly bad. I believe you killed that child.” He sentenced her to 20 to 40 years in Auburn Prison. He demanded Mary tell the court where the child’s body was hidden. In reply, Mary said, “Why don’t the Von Maluskis tell the truth?”

The family

The following year Mary wrote to the Von Maluskis from her prison cell and promised to tell them what she knew about Sonny’s disappearance if they would visit her. The couple had given up hope of finding Sonny alive, but they went to Auburn hoping to discover the location of his body. However all Mary told them was that she believed he was alive and living near East 51st Street in Manhattan. Prison officials noted that Mary frequently rambled and seemed to be losing her grip on reality.

In 1927 a woman in Hagerstown, Maryland reported to the police that a year or so earlier she’d taken in an abandoned young boy. She heard about the Von Maluski case and wondered if her boy might be Sonny. The woman and the Von Maluskis exchanged photos and descriptions and Raimonde visited in person. Sonny had a large burn scar on his chest, but the Maryland boy didn’t have a scar and he didn’t recognize Raimonde. It was decided that the boy wasn’t Sonny.

Harold Jones moved to Mills House #3 on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan by 1930. The Mills hotels (there were three in NYC) offered spartan accommodations for working men. Harold is listed on the 1930 census as a 29-year-old unmarried man who worked odd jobs for a living. Harold’s whereabouts after 1930 could not be determined.

Alice gave birth to a daughter, Adele, in 1926. By 1939 Alice either died or she and Raimonde divorced, because he married 32-year-old Enid Whitney in May of that year. The following year the couple had a little boy they named Frederick.

Mary was moved to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Dutchess County, New York, by 1940. During the 1940s, Matteawan inmates were subjected to electric and insulin shock treatments. The facility also housed more than three times the number of people it had been built to hold. Mary’s date and place of death are currently unknown, but my research into her later life is ongoing.

Alive or dead, Sonny Von Maluski was never found.

Featured photo: news photo of Mary Jones at her grand jury hearing, April 1925. Collection of the author.

The Argument

The Argument

A quarrel over a woman ended last night in the slaying of an escaped convict by one of his three pals and the wounding and capture of the other three men by the police following a pistol battle.

The St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, Missouri), July 7, 1931

It started out as a congenial evening of drinking among friends on a hot summer night in St. Louis. Winfield (known as “Windy”) Seeman and his pal, Morris Rosen, met up with John Harrington and Harry Casey near the Mississippi riverfront. July in St. Louis is notoriously hot and humid. In order to try to cool off one of the men suggested they head to a speakeasy called “Mack’s Place” for some beers.

The speakeasy was in a house in the southeast part of the city, near the workhouse, in an area called “No Man’s Land,” where mounds of rocks from an old quarry were still scattered around. During the 19th century, workhouse inmates were forced to break rocks from the quarry into gravel as part of their penance for being imprisoned. Streetlights were few in No Man’s Land, so it was dark at night and vehicles traversed the landscape with difficulty. The police disliked the area and avoided it, which meant it was a good place to run an illegal beer tavern.

Harry Casey was a 40-year-old St. Louis man with an extensive criminal history. As a joke he was nicknamed “The Velvet Tongue Kid” thanks to his free use of some of the vilest curse words in the English language. He’d been sent to the workhouse for car theft in his late teens. By the age of 25 he’d been hardened by two prison terms in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) — one of which came after he’d stolen some guns and attempted to kill a police officer who tried to arrest him in Illinois. He’d lived in California for a time but he’d recently returned to his hometown.

Winfield Seeman mugshot

Morris Rosen 2-1

Windy Seeman (top) and Morris Rosen (bottom) in MSP mugshots. Collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Windy Seeman and Morris Rosen had become buddies at the MSP when Windy was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery. Russian-born Morris, the younger of the two, had served a year at the MSP for assault to kill and was in for the second time for burglary and grand larceny. They were both skilled tradesmen and had been put to work on the outside in a supervised prison gang that was at work on a new prison. Windy and Morris walked away from the gang the previous October and had been on the lam ever since.

John was a salesman in his thirties with no criminal record.

The men sat in front of Mack’s Place drinking and as the alcohol flowed, tongues loosened. John casually mentioned that he thought Windy’s wife, Irene, was a very attractive woman. Perhaps it was an innocent comment or he may have been testing the waters to see how married the Seemans really were. Either way, he wasn’t prepared for for the escaped con’s reaction.

Windy accused John of trying to steal his wife. John replied that it was meant as a compliment, nothing more, but Windy became even more incensed and refused to let the matter drop.

John retreated inside the speakeasy but Windy grabbed his pistol and followed him. Harry, never one to avoid a fight, followed them both inside and Morris trailed in last. Gunfire erupted and Windy fell to the floor with a bullet wound to his chest.

Morris insisted that they needed to get his friend to a doctor. The three men laid Windy in the backseat of John’s car and headed to the city hospital. Before they got far the police, who’d been called by someone at the speakeasy, arrived on the scene. They ordered the men out of the car. Instead Harry fired at the policemen, who dropped to their knees, sought cover and returned fire.

By the time the bullets stopped flying, John had been shot in the left arm and Harry had taken a bullet to his right hand and had a deep scalp wound. Morris was seriously injured — he’d been shot in the head. Windy was dead, with bullet wounds to his stomach and heart. None of the officers was injured.

The police weren’t sure whose bullet had killed Windy. However he’d been lying in the backseat of the car during the gun battle, which made it unlikely that the officers, firing from a low angle, had shot him. John told police that Harry fired the fatal shot after the argument moved inside the speakeasy. Morris, once he’d recovered, said the same thing. But velvet-tongued Harry claimed John had fired the fatal shot.

Harry with charged with Windy’s murder. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault to kill and was sent to prison for ten years. He died in 1944 of stomach and liver cancer and was buried in a pauper’s grave in East St. Louis, Illinois.

John, whose father, Patrick Harrington, was a St. Louis policeman, returned to life as a salesman. He was killed in July 1952 when he failed to stop at an intersection near Route 66 in St. Louis County while driving his car at a high rate of speed. John’s car struck another vehicle and he was thrown 30 feet from his wreck. He died at the scene of fractures, shock and blunt force head trauma. Passengers in the other two cars involved in the crash suffered only minor injuries.

Morris survived but his lost his eye. He was returned to the MSP to finish his sentence once he’d recovered. He was released in 1934 and he moved back to his hometown of Kansas City. Eventually he became a part owner of Toffler’s Loan Shop in Leavenworth, Kansas. The store, part pawn shop and part general store, sold rifles, shotguns and pistols, among other things.

In December 1952, while demonstrating a revolver he believed to be unloaded, Morris snapped the trigger and the gun exploded. It wounded him in the hand and wounded a bystander in the arm. He recovered from his second gunshot wound and lived another 33 years, dying in 1995 at the age of 90.

Featured photo: Morris Rosen’s mugshot, taken on November 19, 1931. The Missouri State Penitentiary Database, collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Gambling with Gangsters

Gambling with Gangsters

Large amounts of money have been found cleverly concealed about the persons of J. J. Kellogg and J. MacDonald, held here for questioning. The men were arrested Wednesday as suspicious characters.

— The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), October 12, 1931

Nothing says “crook” quite like cash concealed in your clothing. One man had $1400* ($23,172) in hundred dollar bills sewn in the lining of his coat sleeve. His pal had $560 ($9,269) in hidden compartments in the instep and heel of his shoe.

They were spotted hanging around the downtown streets of Washington, Iowa, on the evening of October 8, 1931. Earlier in the day they’d checked into the Colenso Hotel on the town’s main drag. The coat cash man said his name was J. J. Kellogg and James McDonald was who the shoe cash man claimed to be. After the pair booked into the hotel, they’d inquired about what time the local banks opened their doors.

Naturally the cops wanted to know who they were and what they were up to.

J. J. Kellogg, who looked like he walked out of central casting for the role of a two-bit gangster in an Edward G. Robinson film, stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington where most of the townsfolk were farmers. With the fedora, cigar, lean, hungry face and suspicious eyes — he might as well have had “gangster” tattoed on his forehead.

He was taken into custody for having false license plates on his car. The police then discovered that one of the many names he used was Riley Gaffigan. They suspected that Riley and his buddy James had been part of a gambling con pulled the previous January in Springfield, Illinois.

Abe Lincoln Hotel Springfield

Hotel Abraham Lincoln

The victim of that con was Myrtle Tanner Blacklidge, the tax collector for the second wealthiest district in the United States — the northern part of Illinois, which included Chicago. Myrtle went to the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in Springfield on January 22, 1931. There she played the card game faro with three men in a hotel room. The men told Myrtle she’d won $207,000 ($3,426,258) but they claimed her win was “on paper.” They wanted Myrtle to fork over $50,000 ($827,598) cash to replace a check she’d provided to get into the game. Only then, they said, could they give her the winnings.

Though she had a well-paying job, Myrtle had expensive tastes and was desperate for cash. She’d lost both her adult son and her husband to illness within weeks of each other the previous year. She borrowed the $50,000 in $1000 bills from a friend — defeated Chicago mayoral candidate, Edward Litsinger. Of course Litsinger, like any Chicago pol worth his salt, expected something in return for the loan. Myrtle promised him $10,000 ($165,519) of her winnings.

She rejoined the card players and handed over the $50,000 cash, but she was unable to resist a little more gambling. She lost the whole $50,000 but figured she still had $157,000  ($2,598,659) coming to her. The men told her to wait in the room while they went to get the remainder of her winnings. They never reappeared. “I realized I had been duped,” she later commented.

Litsinger said Myrtle lied to him about why she needed the money, telling him it was to complete a “business deal,” not to gamble. He promised to sue her. Then it was revealed that it was actually Litsinger’s nephew, Fred Litsinger, the tax reviewer for northern Illinois, who’d handed over his uncle’s cash. Fred had done a bit of gambling himself at the time. Hoping to avoid bad publicity for his family, Edward dropped the lawsuit.

Myrtle resigned from her tax revenue job due to the scandal.

George Perry, known in Chicago as “Big George” Parker, was shot to death in his home in South Bend, Indiana, a few months later. Myrtle identified him as one of the three men who’d taken her in the faro game.

The authorities thought they’d found the remaining two men when the Iowa police arrested Riley and James. In addition to the cash hidden in their clothes and shoes the men carried a substantial number of used cashier’s checks with the details erased out. Police believed their current racket was to start poker games with local farmers, paying out their losses with the bogus checks.

Not wanting to personally confront the gangsters, Myrtle and Fred were unwilling to go to Iowa to identify the men. Myrtle looked at photos of Riley and James and said she thought they weren’t the ones. The men each paid hefty $500 ($8,275) fines for driving with illegal license plates on their car and were released. They melted into the criminal underworld and weren’t heard from again under the names they’d used in Washington, Iowa.

No one was ever arrested for the faro game con.

Myrtle and pals

Myrtle’s troubles continued when the wife of a policeman sued her for $100,000 ($1,837,537) in 1934, claiming Myrtle had stolen the affections of her husband. Torrid love letters from Myrtle to “Denny, Darling” were produced in court as evidence. The jury awarded $7,500 ($140,815) to the wife, and Myrtle, unable to pay, was sent to jail. Ironically the policeman’s wife was required to pay Myrtle’s jail boarding fees — 50 cents ($9) per day!

In her last years Myrtle lived in a Chicago nursing home, where she wrote for the monthly newspaper, “The Optimist.” She died at the home in 1958, aged 79.

*Note: U.S. dollars were converted to 2018 values using an inflation calculator and are listed in parentheses.

Featured photos: mugshots (?) identified on the reverse as “James J. Kellog, alias Billie Gafney, Laferty.” Collection of the author.

Henry King’s Mysterious Mugshots

Henry King’s Mysterious Mugshots
301px-Henry_King_(director)_1915

Henry King in 1915

Henry King was about as squeaky clean as they come in a place as rife with scandal as Hollywood. He was married to the same woman, a silent film actress named Gypsy Abbott, until her death in 1952. He and Gypsy raised four children and lived in the same beautiful home at 645 S. Muirfield Road in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

He came from a farming family in Christiansburg, Virginia. He dropped out of high school and worked on the railroads for a time. He stumbled into acting when he accompanied a friend to an audition and got an offer to try out for a part. It turned out he had a talent for it.

He moved on from being a theatrical actor to acting in Hollywood movies, where he got in on the ground floor, just as motion pictures were taking hold. He went on to become a film director and he worked at various studios, including 20th Century Fox. He made nearly 70 films over a career that spanned almost 40 years. He was nominated twice for an Oscar for Best Director.

He was an avid pilot who enjoyed scouting film locations in his personal plane. Though he was 55 years old when the United States got involved in World War II, he served as a deputy commander of the Civil Air Patrol.

He died, aged 96, of a heart attack in his sleep at his California home in 1982.

There is no record of any wrongdoing on the part of Henry Edmondson King, in 1939 or at any other time during his long life, according to newspapers and online biographies. He was a decent man who got along with temperamental actors and demanding studio heads alike. Unlike many Hollywood celebrities, he didn’t have a big ego. He was calm on the set and efficient at his craft. Sure, he made a lot of money, but that’s not a crime in America.

Henry King stand up_marked

The only dishonest thing he ever did that I was able to discover was to tell the occasional fib about his height. On his 1918 World War I draft registration card he claimed to be 6’2.5” tall. On a 1922 passport application he said he was 6’6” tall. His “stand-up” photo indicates he was about 5’11” but he was older when it was taken, so who knows. Maybe he had osteoporosis.

Why did the NYPD take mugshots of Henry on April 28, 1939? And they were not just any mugshots, but a set of both the standard front and side photos along with the “stand up” photo of his full body. He looks calm and composed in the photos, with an expression on his face that gives absolutely nothing away. But he was an actor so it’s not surprising that he was able to carefully control his face.

Were the photos taken as a publicity stunt for a film about crime in New York City? If so the film was never made. In 1939 King was probably working on Little Old New York, a film about the life of engineer Robert Fulton as he worked to build the first steam-powered ship in America. The movie was released in February 1940 and, according to imdb, some of the scenes in it were filmed on location in New York City.

Does the number 41144 have some meaning? Is it a hidden code? Or is it just the number Henry was given when he was arrested, if he was arrested.

Henry, your mugshots are very intriguing. What’s the story behind them?

Henry King mugshot back

The reverse side of Henry King’s mug shot photos.

Featured photos: Front and side mug shot photos of Henry King, taken on April 28, 1939 by the NYPD. Collection of the author.

Baby For Sale

Baby For Sale

Juvenile officers today filed a petition in Juvenile Court asking that Ronald Bacus, 18 months of age, who was reported on sale for $150 be declared an abandoned child.

The Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1936

Mrs. H. H. Moore and her husband weren’t able to have biological children. Cora Mae Bacus responded to their newspaper ad in which they described how they hoped to find a baby to adopt. Cora told Mrs. Moore she had an 18-month-old baby boy that she wasn’t able to care for. She was looking for a good family to adopt him.

It all sounded like the answer to Mrs. Moore’s prayers until Cora mentioned that she needed $150 to seal the deal. Mrs. Moore became suspicious about Cora’s motives and worried about the safety of the child. She reported Cora to the Long Beach police.

The police asked Mrs. Moore to tell Cora that she was willing to “purchase” the child and asked her to arrange a meeting. The women met on November 15, 1936, but instead of receiving cash for the baby, Cora was arrested. It turned out she also had another buyer for the boy — a Mrs. Helen Pace. She’d offered the baby to Helen for the cut-rate price of $50.

Cora was married to a bus driver named Roland Leo Bacus. The Bacuses were in their mid-30s and lived in Long Beach, California. Both had previous marriages and Cora had a teenage daughter from her first marriage.

The police investigated birth records at Long Beach Hospital and discovered that the birth certificates on file showed that Cora had a baby girl named Ramona Loy Bacus on March 18, 1935. But to their surprise she was also listed as having had a baby boy, Ronald Leroy Bacus, on May 17, 1935. Ronald was the baby Cora planned to sell.

Cora, Roland and RamonaObviously only one of the babies was Cora’s. She claimed Ramona was her biological child. Ignoring the fact that the boy baby was listed as hers in hospital records, Cora told the police that a woman named Sue Weiner left Ronald with her in June 1935 and never returned for him.

The police went to the address for Sue that Cora gave them in Huntington Beach, about 15 miles south of Long Beach. The woman who lived there insisted she didn’t know Cora and that the baby boy wasn’t hers. He was declared an abandoned child and placed in a foundling home.

Cora was arraigned on two felony counts of trying to sell a human being. The count related to the offer to Helen Pace was later dropped. Cora pleaded not guilty to the remaining charge.

Her trial began in Long Beach Superior Court on January 12, 1937. Cora’s lawyers explained to the court that the $150 she’d requested was not a fee but simply compensation for what she’d spent while caring for Ronald.

A month after the trial began the Deputy D.A., Clarence Hunt, told the court he didn’t believe he could get a conviction. The charge against Cora was dismissed and she was set free.

On October 29, 1937, Cora was granted a divorce from Roland Bacus.

Cora either lost custody of Ramona or she gave her little girl up. By 1940, according to the federal census, Ramona Loy had been adopted by a couple named Eugene and Donna Norman. She grew up on a ranch in San Bernardino, California, where she loved to read and played volleyball and basketball. She died in San Diego in 1999.

After she divorced Roland, Cora had at least two more husbands and he had a couple more wives. Then Cora and Roland decided to give marital bliss another spin. They got remarried in Los Angeles in April 1966. Their second divorce came in September 1972. Both ended their days in Washington State — he died in 1975 and she died at the age of 94 in 1997.

Of all the people involved in this incident, baby Ronald is the one I’m most curious about. He’s not listed in the California Birth Index under the name “Ronald Bacus” and none of the 41 baby boys born on May 17, 1935 in L.A. County had a mother whose maiden name was “Weiner.” The 1937 Long Beach City Directory lists a “Bertha S. Weiner” who was unmarried and worked as a cashier at a grocery store. She and the Bacus family lived only three blocks apart on Cherry Avenue. If Cora was telling the truth about the mother’s name it’s possible Bertha S. Weiner was Ronald’s mother, but there’s no way to prove it now.

Having a baby out-of-wedlock would have been extremely embarrassing for a woman in those days. Perhaps Cora wanted to help the baby’s mother out and offered to raise him as her own, then had marital troubles and realized it wasn’t going to work out. So she came up with another plan, one that worked out very badly for her.

After Cora’s case was dismissed baby Ronald vanished from news reports and I couldn’t locate him in any later records. He was probably adopted and given a new name. Hopefully he grew up with a good family and had a wonderful life.

Featured photo: news photo of the mugshot of Cora May Bacus, December 12, 1936. Collection of the author.

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Six inmates, all from the prison hospital, escaped from the Hutchinson reformatory here last night at 8:15 o’clock in one of the most daring and systematic breaks in recent years. Following the carefully laid plans the six took advantage of two prison ladders, one of which was equipped with special hooks, made a dash for a dark spot on the east wall, scaled it and disappeared before the hospital guard noticed their absence.

The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas), March 4, 1929

Clarence Pruitt KSP

Clarence Pruitt, KSP prisoner photos, 1926

Clarence Pruitt was paroled in August 1928 from the Kansas State Penitentiary (KSP) after serving two and a half years for stealing 32 chickens from a farmer named Guy Platte. Soon after he was paroled, authorities discovered that in 1925, he’d escaped from the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson. Rather than allowing him to enjoy his new freedom, they sent him back to the reformatory to serve out the rest of his 1924 sentence for grand larceny.

Clarence Pruitt back_marked

Clarence was one of the six men who escaped from Hutchinson into the frigid March night in 1929. He was recaptured in July. Rather than risk another escape from Hutchinson he was sent to the more secure state penitentiary — round two at the KSP for Clarence.

Lyal Berry became prisoner # 6549 at the KSP on July 19, 1919, after he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary. He’d burgled three homes in Peabody, Kansas, was arrested and broke out of jail by cutting through the bars on the window of his cell with a stolen saw. He told prison officials he was 22 but he was actually only 17 years old and a recent graduate of the state reformatory for juveniles in Colorado. Though young, he had an impressive criminal career of robberies and jailbreaks under his belt, along with a bullet wound sustained when he was shot by a pursuing police officer after his jailbreak.

Cecil Pruitt

Lyal Berry (Cecil Pruitt), KSP prisoner photos, 1919

Lyal’s real name was Cecil Pruitt. He loved aliases and he had at least five of them, including the name of his older brother, Clarence. Born on August 17, 1901, he was two years younger than Clarence. The Pruitt brothers’ father, William, died in 1911, while they were still boys. Their mother, Elizabeth, moved to Denver, Colorado, after William’s death, where she got remarried. Clarence left school after 8th grade to work as a coal miner and farmer. Cecil only made it through 5th grade.

Although he had a poor prison record, Cecil was paroled from the KSP in August 1924, four days after his 23rd birthday. It didn’t take long for him to violate his parole. The Kansas authorities located him at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, in July 1925, where he was serving a five to six year sentence for burglary and armed robbery. He was returned to KSP to serve the rest of his sentence for the 1919 burglary on July 20, 1928 — round two at the KSP for Cecil.

The Pruitt brothers had a couple of months together at the KSP before Cecil was pardoned and released on December 13, 1929. Clarence got out in 1930.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end well for the Pruitt brothers. In March 1931, a car containing more than 100 stolen chickens was found abandoned in Greeley, Colorado. The vehicle was traced to Clarence, who pleaded guilty to theft of 1,200 to 1,800 chickens in the area and was sentenced to two to three years in a state prison. Clarence’s wife blamed his brother for her husband’s legal troubles, but by then Cecil was in a Denver jail on a narcotics charge. Plus Cecil had always been more interested in stealing cash and jewelry than chickens.

Despite having served multiple prison sentences for chicken theft, other people’s chickens continued to tempt Clarence, and by 1940 he was incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary. On May 8, 1950 he was arrested for stealing 100 chickens from farms in several counties outside Denver. He pleaded innocent to the charges and the outcome of his case wasn’t reported.

If he’d spent his criminal career stealing chickens, Cecil might have lived to a ripe old age. Instead his body was found in a “blood-stained, bullet-pocked” car in Kansas City on September 7, 1931, less than a month after he turned 30. He’d been beaten to death. Police suspected a fellow gangster killed him, but his murder was never solved. His sisters collected his body and buried him.

Featured photo: Front of reward card issued for Clarence Pruitt, prisoner #6216. Collection of the author.

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.