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.

 

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 described as “ptomaine poisoning.” 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 that Pearl put the glass in his sugar in order to poison him, but he had no evidence to support his theory. He ate some of the sugar and spat it out. Though he didn’t realize the sugar contained ground glass, he claimed 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. It was reported that Leo’s stomach contents were tested at the hospital and were found to contain ground glass.

Police decided that Pearl laced 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 police theory was 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. Either way the police figured Pearl had murdered Leona.

Motive was a problem. The police figured 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 said he’d 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 insurance cash. However the police also believed 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 the method 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 said he 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, Pearl’s friend insisted that she hadn’t seen Pearl anytime during the three weeks before Leona’s death.

The case was entirely 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 was 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.