Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile

SEATTLE, Dec. 22. — A coast-wise search was being conducted today at the request of Seattle police for miss Clara E. Skarin, former telephone exchange operator here, in the hope that she might be able to throw light on the slaying of Ferdinand Hochbrunn, wealthy retired real estate dealer, whose body has been found in a room of his home here yesterday. He had been shot through the head and had been dead two months, in the opinion of officers.

— Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), December 22, 1921

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

Illustration of Ferdinand Hochbrunn

The smell must have been awful when they finally entered the apartment, given how long the old man had been lying there. It was murder — there was no question about that. He’d been shot with a single bullet to the back of his head. Robbery was assumed to be the motive because his pockets had been slit open, though $1,960 (almost $27,370 in 2018) and some gold certificates were found in a trunk near the body.

Ferdinand Hochbrunn, 72, was a confirmed bachelor who emigrated from Berlin, Germany, to America in 1872. He settled in Seattle where he made a fortune in real estate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was ruthless and, at times, deceitful in his business dealings. One of his clients, Olive Stearns, sued him for cheating her out of part of the proceeds of a land sale. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where Olive won a judgment against him for $14,759 ($441,125 in 2018).

Clara Skarin_Marked

News photo of Clara E. Skarin. Collection of the author.

The police were very anxious to speak with the dead man’s “ward,” a young woman named Clara Elizabeth Skarin. Clara, 27, was the daughter of Ferdinand’s housekeeper, a Swedish-born widow named Emma Ekstrand Skarin. Emma died suddenly in 1918 and Clara moved to Michigan after her mother’s death. She’d recently returned to Seattle and Ferdinand had taken her under his wing. He hired her to work as his secretary and gave her a room in his apartment at 2520 5th Avenue. But lately she’d lodged instead with her married cousin, Anna Datesman Clark.

A neighbor who lived below the apartment told the police she heard someone she thought was Clara walking around the apartment in late November. If Clara had been there it would have been impossible for her not to notice the body because it was lying on the floor of an alcove off her bedroom. Other tenants in the building said they’d seen Clara come and go during the months of October and November. She was last seen in late November, when she had Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt, Marie Datesman, and Marie’s family. Clara told them she planned to leave Seattle and meet Ferdinand in Portland, Oregon.

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

News illustration of the Hochbrunn apartment.

Clara Skarin leaves baggage in California after fleeing arrest -

The family snapshot of Clara.

The Seattle police asked Marie for a photo of Clara. She gave them a snapshot, but was so poor it was useless for identification purposes. She claimed it was the only one she had.

A series of letters and telegrams were sent in October and November to Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, signed “Ferdinand Hochbrunn.” The messages asked for rents from his Seattle properties to be collected and forwarded to him in Portland, and in Oakland and San Bernardino, California. The messages detailed news about his daily life along with the addresses of the places he was staying. Edward collected the rents and sent the money to the addresses in the messages.

The police came up with two theories of what had happened. The first was that the murderer posed as Ferdinand, telling Clara by letter or telegram that he’d gone to Portland on business. Clara didn’t know until late November, when she visited the apartment and found the body, that Ferdinand was dead. Shocked by the discovery, she’d fled and was wandering somewhere in a distraught state or possibly she’d even killed herself.

The second theory, which became the working theory, was that Clara killed her benefactor and stole his money. The police weren’t sure if she’d written the letters and telegrams that were sent to the attorney or if she’d worked with an accomplice.

The police search for Clara expanded to include the entire West Coast. In January 1922 the police missed her by a hair after she made a hasty exit from a hotel in California. The long hunt finally ended on September 3, 1922, when a Seattle acquaintance happened to see her in Oakland and informed the police, who arrested her. In Oakland she used the alias “Betty Parrish.”

She admitted to the police that she had shot and killed Ferdinand but refused to say any more. She was charged with first-degree murder.

Clara Skarin puzzles police. Three articles and photo. - Newspap

Clara puzzled the authorities. Described by the Oakland Tribune as having a “Mona Lisa Smile,” she seemed unfazed about being jailed and unconcerned about the charges she faced. She laughed and joked with officials and newspapermen at the Oakland Jail but refused to talk about the crimes she’d been accused of committing.

She claimed to be able to transport herself, using mental powers, to wherever she wanted to go.

Lying here (in jail) at night, I can close my eyes and go wherever I care to. I wander the hills at night. Everything is very real and I don’t feel that I am here at all. I have done that all my life. Sometimes when I have looked forward to a ball I have visualized my being there, and my dancing, so realistically that my feet actually ached.

Her biggest complaint about the jail was that one of the Jack London novels she was reading had had some of its pages torn out. She praised the Oakland Police Department as “wonderful” but also claimed that Oakland was one of the best places in the United States to hide in.

The police didn’t think the enigmatic Clara had worked alone. They searched for her male accomplice, “Phoenix Markham.” Clara wouldn’t say anything about Markham. The police located a telegram she’d sent two days after the murder to a telegraph operator named Raymond Herron in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It seemed to be written in code:

Mark here. Everything practically settled. No more saving a half cake of chocolate for tomorrow’s lunch. This is the first of my very own money to spend. May I send Jigadere some of Ollie’s clothes? Buy Maxine a new top and yourself a drink. Am going to order a car here for drive away in spring. Know agent here and want him to get commission. Wire me immediately. Love. BETTY.

Raymond was a 27-year-old Kalamazoo man who married a local girl three weeks after Clara’s arrest. The couple’s first child was born a month later. He wasn’t related to anyone named “Jigadere,” “Ollie,” or “Maxine.”

The police never found Phoenix Markham and the hunt for an accomplice was dropped. Clara alone stood trial for Ferdinand’s murder.

Clara was involved in another gun tragedy in August 1918 when the jealous wife of a friend visited the Seattle apartment she shared with her mother. The woman, Cleo Winborn, confronted Clara with a loaded gun and demanded to know what her relationship was with her husband, Robert Winborn. Unsatisfied with Clara’s answer, Cleo shot at Clara. The bullet hit her in the leg, wounding her slightly. Clara’s mother heard the commotion and ran into the room. Cleo turned the gun on Mrs. Skarin, killing her with a single shot. Then she turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.

It must be pointed out that the person who provided the details of what happened was the only survivor — Clara Skarin.

After she recovered from the leg wound, 24 year-old Clara moved with Cleo’s husband, 50-year-old Robert, to his native state of Michigan. Robert, an African American man who had worked as a barber, was suffering from epilepsy. He was treated at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and then transferred to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental asylum, where he died of epilepsy September 4, 1919. Clara claimed that she and Robert were married while he was on his deathbed.

Ferdinand’s will, if he had one, wasn’t located. His estate, valued at $100,000 (almost $1,500,000 in 2018) was settled on November 15, 1922. Though a business partner sued for half of it, the court awarded the entire estate to his brother, Henry Hochbrunn. Henry died the day before the matter was settled. His children inherited the estate.

Clara Skarin in her own words. photo. - Newspapers.com

Clara’s murder trial began in January 1923. She testified that Ferdinand had molested her from the age of 14, when her mother worked as his housekeeper. She claimed he’d again made “improper overtures” towards her in the weeks leading up to the shooting. She explained that this was why she’d moved out of his apartment and purchased a .32-caliber revolver for protection.

The day of the shooting Clara said she’d gone to the apartment to get some clothes she’d left there. Again he made unwelcome sexual advances so she pulled out her gun. They grappled over the weapon and it went off but no one was hit. Then he forced her against a wall and there was a struggle that ended in Clara managing to rest the muzzle of the gun on the back of Ferdinand’s head and pull the trigger with her thumb. He died about 15 minutes later.

She said she spent several minutes gazing in a mirror, then left the apartment and locked the door. She headed to the office of Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, and told him what had happened. Then she and Edward returned to the apartment, where they removed $30,000 ($419,000 in 2018) worth of gold from Ferdinand’s trunk. They split the gold and Clara left town six weeks later. Subsequently she sent letters and telegrams to Edward, signing Ferdinand’s name to them.

Von Tobel

Edward von Tobel

Edward disputed her story and testified that he’d had nothing to do with robbing Ferdinand and knew nothing about the murder until the body was discovered.

The jury of eight men and four women acquitted Clara of the murder of Ferdinand Hochbrunn on January 13, 1923. “I surely wish the young woman all happiness in the future,” said one of the female jurors, whose tears flowed freely during the defense counsel’s arguments. “She has surely seen enough of the seamy side of life. Now she may find peace and better things.”

Edward wasn’t charged with any crime related to the death of Ferdinand Hochbrunn. Clara stayed in Seattle for a few months after the trial ended, but in April she told a newspaper reporter that she’d left her job as a café hostess and planned to return to Oakland to live with friends. The girl with the Mona Lisa smile then vanished without a trace.

 

 

 

 

 

Unforgettable Legs

Unforgettable Legs

Short skirts may or may not be a sign of modern depravity, but they registered as a sign of bad luck for Peggy Hudson and her husband, according to reports from Los Angeles. Peggy is now awaiting sentence on a charge of first degree robbery.

Hayward Semi-Weekly Review (Hayward, California), May 15, 1928

Charles Anderson arrived home after a long day at his Los Angeles restaurant, The Red Onion, on the night of March 5, 1928. He pulled his car into the garage, got out of the vehicle and was unpleasantly surprised to discover a man and woman waiting in the shadows for him.

The woman thrust a gun into his ribs and told him to turn out the lights. Once they were extinguished the man ordered Charles onto the ground and tied him up with a piece of rope. Then the couple went through his pockets and robbed him of the day’s profits from the restaurant — $382 cash ($5,640 in 2018).

Before they left the man remarked to Charles, “Guess I’ll have to take your car too. You see I’m an ex-convict and I have to make a quick getaway. Don’t be afraid, though. I don’t want your car and I’ll leave it a couple blocks from here on Reno Street.” And with that puzzling comment, the pair got into his car and drove off into the night.

Charles freed himself and called the police. His car was nowhere to be found.

Bora Hudson has unforgettable legs - Newspapers.com

“I didn’t get a good look at her face, but I saw her legs, and I could pick them out any time,” he told the police. He claimed the legs he’d seen belonged to Nora Hudson, better known as Peggy. She was a woman he’d previously employed as a cashier at his restaurant. He also said he thought he recognized Peggy by her voice but he was less sure of that than he was about her legs. He didn’t know her male companion.

Changes in women’s hemlines in the 1920s meant a lot more leg showed than ever before and naturally men took notice. This careful, possibly even lecherous, observation of his female employee’s legs paid off for Charles. It took two months but the LAPD finally located 20-year-old Peggy by tracing her to her home address on Flower Street in downtown L.A. The police took Peggy and her husband, Willard Hudson, a musician, into custody and booked them on suspicion of robbery.

Was there something unusally memorable about Peggy’s legs? If so it’s not obvious in the news photo.

Williard Hudson mug

California State Archives

Willard’s incriminating comment about having a criminal record turned out to be true. He’d been incarcerated at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.

A pair of slick criminals the Hudsons were not. With time to cool off they likely realized they’d been foolish to rob a man who knew Peggy. Then they compounded their mistake when Willard confessed his criminal background to their victim.

They pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and each was sentenced to five years to life in prison. Willard served his sentence at Folsom Prison and Peggy was sent to San Quentin. She was paroled in August 1931 after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Peggy Hudson must go down in history as the only person ever captured and sent to prison after being identified by her legs.

Featured photo: Nora Hudson, alias Peggy Hudson, July 8, 1928; California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin Mug Book.

San Diego’s Joan of Arc

San Diego’s Joan of Arc

Juanita McKamey, the 20-year-old modern Joan of Arc, who had visions of leading a conquering host of the Industrialists into their proposed new republic, was brought before Judge W.R. Guy of the Juvenile Court today. The bright-eyed maid was undaunted by the surroundings of the law and told the court she did not hear him tell her at her last visit to break connections with the I.W.W.’s.

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1912

The year was 1912 and revolution was in the air. The right to free speech and the question of where one could exercise it was a burning issue in America. The California Free Speech League, a newly formed coalition of socialists, left-leaning labor groups, including the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), single-taxers and church organizations was ready for action.

The group planned a mass parade for the evening of February 8th to test a recently passed city ordinance banning public speech in a seven-square block area of the city that was regarded as “congested” by city leaders, including an area known as “Soapbox Row.” Juanita McKamey, a local manicurist, was one of the parade’s organizers.

At 7:30 p.m. Juanita took up her position, along with several other leaders, at the front of the parade. Standing four abreast the marchers slowly moved forward. As they picked up speed they sang, waved banners and encouraged the three to five thousand onlookers to join them. The group was escorted by a contingent of more than 100 San Diego police officers and a police blockade waited for them at Sixth and E Streets. No one would be arrested as long as the parade kept moving.

When the marchers reached the blockade they moved through it towards Soapbox Row. Wood Hubbard, one of the leaders, tried to mount a soapbox that was hastily set up for the speakers. He was immediately pulled down and roughly arrested. Another female marcher tried next and she too was pulled down and arrested. Juanita was the third person to try to mount the box to speak and she too was forcibly taken into police custody.

The crowd responded to the rough treatment of the speakers by surging forward chanting “Free speech, show that you are Americans.” The police had to expend much of their energy on crowd control, but no one got to speak. The thirty-eight men and three women, including Juanita, who tried to mount the box were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.

Three days later Juanita, who’d been bailed out of jail, was arrested again after she spoke at another rally. This time she was charged with being “incorrigible.” In the photo on her police identification card she looks serious and eager to return to the fight. The officer who prepared the card wrote on it that she “was speaking on the corner of 5th and E sts whick is against the law.”

She was put on probation and ordered to drop her association with the I.W.W. She was sentenced to the local Detention Home (for juveniles). This was an odd choice since authorities were aware that, at age 20, she was not a juvenile.

Juanita didn’t intend to follow the court’s orders. Instead she planned to continue what she defined as her “calling” to work for freedom of speech. She organized an escape from a window of the detention facility using a rope she’d fashioned from blankets. The plan was uncovered before she had a chance to put it into action and she was transferred to the city jail to await trial with the others.

iww_3_

The city and county jails overflowed with people arrested for violating the ordinance. Conditions at the jail were unsanitary and some of the inmates got sick. There was mounting opposition to the free speech movement among many locals. When a group of inmates was transferred to a jail in another county, some local vigilantes intercepted the trucks the prisoners were riding in and beat them up.

By late February Juanita was out on bail and agitating for free speech on the streets again. In March she was part of a group of more than 300 protestors hosed by police in front of the City Jail with four hundred pound-pressure fire hoses while jail inmates serenaded the demonstrators by singing “The Marseillaise.”

In the wake of public protest meetings and vigilante violence the city came up with a new ordinance, referred to as the “move-on law.” The new law expanded the area where public speech was prohibited and sanctioned the arrest of anyone who “shall seem likely to obstruct and impede” passage along a city street. The new law proved to be a diaster because if someone even looked like they might make a speech they could be arrested.

The I.W.W. demanded a state investigation of the protest and the police response to it. The investigation discovered no mistreatment of the prisoners. Even the hosing of protesters by police was deemed not to have resulted in any serious consequences. The investigation also found no acts of violence among the protesters.

Juanita attended the state investigation hearings in late April 1912. This was the last time her name came up in protest-related news. By the end of May the I.W.W announced their departure from the San Diego campaign. In mid-June, after a smallpox epidemic broke out in the jail, the last 15 free speech prisoners pleaded guilty, paid fines and were released. The revolution was over.

Who was the young woman the newspapers described as a “modern Joan of Arc?”

Despite her Hispanic first name, Juanita was the Caucasian daughter of Andrew McKamey of Ohio and Sofronia Catherine Clarkford of Virginia. The McKamey’s started their married life in Ohio, and then moved to San Diego, where Juanita was born in 1891. In an atypical move, the family went back east in the late 1890s. Andrew made a living farming in Georgia. They returned to San Diego by 1905 and Andrew found work as a carpenter.

Harry Kizer_crop

California State Archives

After the free speech fight in San Diego ended Juanita continued to live an unconventional life. She had a son, born in 1914, and a daughter, born in 1918. It appears that she was unmarried when her children were born. However she did eventually marry a Pennsylvania man named Harry H. Kizer.

She may have met Harry during the free speech protests when he was also arrested. However he wasn’t the father of her children, because in 1913 Harry did a 3.5 year stint in Folsom State Prison for grand larceny. By 1930, though they still lived under one roof, Juanita and Harry were divorced.

Juanita worked in real estate and was the owner of a “Tia Juana” beer garden. She was a member of the socialist party until at least 1928. She lived for 60 years in Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego, near the border with Mexico. In 1975 she died in Chula Vista and her ashes were scattered at sea.

Further reading: There’s a lot more to know about the San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912. Click here for an in-depth, eight part article.

Thanks to Sherwood Donahue of Sherwood’s Treasures for connecting me with Juanita McKamey’s police I.D. card. If you’re looking for an interesting mugshot, Sherwood’s your man.

Featured photo: Juanita McKamey, San Diego Police photo dated February 11, 1912. Collection of the author.

Earnest Ernest

Earnest Ernest

Ernest Perez was 21 years old and a native of Mexico. His first name fits his gaze as he looks seriously up at the camera. The photographer could not have asked for a more beautiful light in which to take Ernest’s mugshot.

He was arrested on October 7, 1922, for petit larceny, details unknown. The jail warden thought he was reliable or he wouldn’t have made him a “trusty” — the inmate in charge of disciplining other prisoners when they were at work outside the jail. If you weren’t into power trips, being the trusty would have been an awful job.

Ernest Perez_low_marked

After serving 20 days in the Yuba County jail in Marysville, with 80 more to go, Ernest saw his chance. He took “french leave” and headed into the wild blue yonder of California.

CharlesJMcCoy-1000Charles J. McCoy sent out wanted letter after Ernest disappeared, hoping that an officer of the law would see it and see Ernest and arrest him and return him to jail to finish his time.

A police officer prior to being elected sheriff of Yuba County, in 1914, Charles followed his father, Hank McCoy, to the job. He remained in the job for 31 years.

It’s not possible to catch up with Ernest and find out what he did with the rest of his life. Hopefully he found a way to make a good, honest living, but as a Mexican living in 1920s America, that would not have been an easy task.

Featured photo: Ernest Perez, from the collection of the author

Photo of Charles J. McCoy: courtesy of James Casey 

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush

Buried treasure running into the hundreds of dollars has been found on the old Starke Hotel property, now owned by Attorney Ralph E. Swing, it became known here yesterday. For a number of days men employed on grading the property have been digging for the gold and keeping the fact a secret.

The San Bernardino County Sun, San Bernardino, California, March 3, 1921

Starke’s Hotel, located at Third Street and Arrowhead Avenue in San Bernardino, California, was a busy place during its heyday in the late 19th century. According to a 1938 news article, the hotel was a temporary home to “visitors from all parts of the states, professional gamblers, miners and many other guests” when it was owned and operated by German immigrants August Starke and his wife Catherine. By 1910 the hotel, which had changed owners several times, was a flophouse and sometime brothel called the Sunrise Hotel.

Starke HotelOn a rainy day in early March 1915, a 21-year-old Texan named Charles Hayward and his accused accomplice, Rosie Moyer, sat in the San Bernardino jail awaiting trial in Superior Court. They were charged with robbing $350 (worth about $8,700 in 2018), most of it in $10 gold coins, from a Chinese man named Wong Fong.

Charles was suspected of carrying out the actual robbery, then handing the bag of money off to Rosie. It was alleged that Rosie then hid the bag somewhere in the couple’s room at the Sunrise Hotel, but the police hadn’t located the cash.

Almost two years earlier Charles escaped from a chain gang while doing 30 days for petty larceny in Oakland, 450 miles to the north. More recently he’d survived a suicide attempt after he’d hacked at his wrist with the jagged edge of a cigarette tin while he was in jail on a drug charge in Los Angeles. Charles was familiar with the California criminal justice system — he’d also been jailed in San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Charles thought Rosie wasn’t the brightest coin in the cash register, so while he sat in jail he wrote her two letters telling her exactly how to “frame” her story when she testified at her trial. But Rosie never got the letters because a jail trusty handed them to the jailer instead. She got her story mixed up and ended up incriminating herself on the stand. Her attorney did what he could to try and repair the damage, but she was convicted of the robbery.

Charles Hayward prisonThe lawyers brought an interpreter, a local Chinese-American high school boy, to translate the testimony of Wong Fong and the other Chinese witnesses who spoke no English. As it turned out he spoke a different dialect than the witnesses and the lawyers had to to send to Los Angeles for another interpreter. The letters Charles wrote to Rosie were also submitted as evidence at his trial. He too was convicted of robbing Wong Fong.

Rosie Moyer prisonWhen Rosie was sentenced she cried hysterically and begged Charles to tell the court she’d had nothing to do with the crime. He steadfastly maintained his innocence. He said he couldn’t exonerate her since he wasn’t guilty of the robbery himself and had no idea who’d done it. The authorities drugged Rosie to calm her down. Both she and Charles were sentenced to five years at San Quentin. They served three and a half years before being paroled.

By early 1921 the Starke, or Sunrise Hotel, was abandoned and slated for tear down. When the construction workers found $10 gold coins in the demolition rubble, San Bernardinians speculated about the origins of the coins. Some folks thought a miner or old-salt frontiersmen, who cached his wealth at the hotel, had forgotten where he’d left his loot. The best money, however, was on the coins belonging to Wong Fong, the victim of the 1915 robbery. The money, you’ll recall, was never recovered.

Wong couldn’t say if the loot was his or not because he was long gone, killed several years earlier when he fell off his bolting horse. The owner of the property, Ralph E. Swing, who, ironically, was one of the prosecution attorneys in the cases against Charles and Rosie, let the workers keep the money. “Finders are keepers,” commented attorney Swing. Perhaps fearing the taxman, none of the finders was willing to admit to how much gold they’d recovered.

An archeological analysis of San Bernardino Chinatown, including the privies of Starke’s Hotel, was undertaken by Foothill Resources for Caltrans in 2001. Many household objects, such as clothing and eating utensils, were located, in addition to the signs of what you’d normally expect to find in a privy. Even items related to social drugs, like alcohol, tobacco and opium, were discovered. However there was no gold found anywhere in the vicinity, on which several of the San Bernardino Superior Court buildings now stand.

Featured photos and additional photos: Charles Hayward and Rosie Moyer, inmate photos from the California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

San_Bernardinos

San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.