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.

 

Mother or Monster

Mother or Monster

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

 

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

 

Captain Clark said there was no formal “confession.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl Leona Leo

Pearl, Leo and Leona O’Loughlin.

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl O'Loughlin News pic_marked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siblings Evil

Siblings Evil

This is a disturbing and unpleasant story so please stop reading now if you have a weak stomach or if what you read tends to haunt your dreams.

Thirteen-year-old Helen Rumball, known as “Nellie,” was found dead in the attic of her home near in Gridley, California on June 26, 1911. The child was hanging from the attic rafters from a rope. Her body and legs were a mass of bruises and the attic was stiflingly hot, the temperature said to be close to 130 degrees. An incubator, possibly for eggs, was described as going “full blast” near where the child’s body was hanging. Needless to say, Nellie’s death was not the result of natural causes.

Helen Rumball

Nellie Rumball, The Pittsburgh Press, July 10, 1911

Nellie was the daughter of a Maine couple, William Rumball and his first wife, Budie. Her mother died before she turned one. A couple of years later William took a new wife, Emma Lewis, 16 years his junior. Emma was born in Minnesota to Norwegian parents. Around 1910 the Rumballs and their two children, Frances, age 4, and William, age 1, and William’s daughter, Nellie, moved to Gridley, California, in sparsely populated Butte County. There they took up ranching for a living.

William died in Gridley on September 27, 1910 of a kidney and liver ailment. Though not a rich man, he left an estate worth a few thousand dollars and it was divided in his will between his wife and Nellie. In splitting his estate this way he might have, inadvertently, signed Nellie’s death warrant.

Little Frances Rumball told the police she heard her half sister crying in pain in the attic. She pleaded with her mother to be allowed to go to Nellie and comfort her but her mother refused and told her to go to bed. Later that night Emma awakened Frances and William and informed them that Nellie was dead.

Nellie’s stepmother, 23-year-old Emma, admitted that she took the child to the attic, tied her up and left her there as punishment for not adequately completing her chores on the family ranch. Emma acknowledged she tied her stepdaughter’s legs with rope and then looped the rope under her arms and around her neck and secured it to a rafter. She claimed she was shocked that the child had died and suggested to police that perhaps Nellie committed suicide or her death resulted from her struggles to get free.

Emma Rumball multi

San Quentin mugshots of Emma Rumball, April 12, 1912.

The early twentieth century was a time in America when harsh punishments were often doled out by parents to their children. Most people didn’t think twice about it, but clearly Emma had overstepped the bounds, even for that age.

Police were not satisfied with Emma’s explanations about Nellie’s death so she elaborated on her theory. She told them that her younger brother, Arthur Lewis, also a resident of Gridley, had gone to the attic while Nellie was tied up and taunted her until “she became frenzied in her efforts to free herself.” Emma thought Nellie died in the process. Why Arthur would do such a thing was not clear. The police weren’t buying the story.

An autopsy was held on the body and it determined that two vertebrae in Nellie’s neck had been dislocated, leading to her death. The doctors who performed the autopsy believed there was no way Nellie could have inflicted the injury on herself nor could it have happened by accident because her bonds were so tight that she had been unable to move. They believed she had either suffered a “blow” that caused her death or her neck had been twisted and intentionally broken.

The police also reexamined the death of William Rumball, nine months earlier, to determine if he had been “the victim of a plot.” They decided his death was due to natural causes.

The siblings pointed the finger at each other. Their demeanor was sullen and remorseless. They showed no concern that a young girl — a relative — had lost her life in a horrific way. Initially Emma was charged with murder and Arthur was charged with accessory to murder, but a few months later his charge was changed to murder after coworkers claimed that he had killed cows by twisting their necks. A decision was made to try the pair separately.

Arthur was found guilty of manslaughter on January 3, 1912. Eight of the jurors wanted to convict him of first-degree murder and four wanted an acquittal, so the verdict was a compromise. On April 5, 1912, just before she was slated to go to trail, Emma took a plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than risk a jury trial.

Arthur Lewis multi

San Quentin mugshots of Arthur Lewis, January 8, 1912.

The siblings were both sent to San Quentin State Prison, however his sentence was ten years while her sentence was only two years. Apparently it pays to be a young, attractive woman when a judge sentences you for manslaughter.

Arthur was released from prison after six years. He moved to North Dakota and enlisted in the army during World War I. After he returned from the war he got married and spent the rest of his life farming. He died in 1954, aged 65. We’ll never know if he ever talked to his sister again.

Incredibly Emma, who only served a year and seven months of her sentence, returned to the tiny town of Gridley after her release from prison. There she worked as a dressmaker, raised her son and daughter and took care of her elderly mother. She lived for years at 885 Kentucky Street. She even remarried late in life. She died, aged 70, and is buried in the Gridley-Biggs Cemetery along with her husband, William, and the stepdaughter that she punished — to death.

Featured photos: Mugshots of Emma Rumball and her brother Arthur Lewis. California State Archives, Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.