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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chinese Puzzle

A Chinese Puzzle

Tangled skeins of evidence which are being closely investigated by the authorities may result in the unearthing of one of the largest gangs of white slavers in the country with headquarters in New York City and also in other cities, as the result of the arrest of Mrs. Marie Chin Wore of Chenango street, who was taken shortly after midnight by Chief Detective Loren W. Rummer and Detective Larry Abel, police officials declared today.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), February 28, 1920

A young girl was found wandering in the vicinity of New York City’s Bowery neighborhood in February 1920. She was taken to a Christian missionary society where she told authorities a disturbing story about having been forced to become the “child wife” of a much older man.

The missionary who took care of the girl, Mary E. Banta, told the press the girl was born “Frances Michaelson” to Morris and Sadie Michaelson in New York City. According to Banta, the girl was placed in a foundling home in 1908, nine days after her birth. Banta also claimed that a white woman named Marie Chin Wore became the girl’s foster mother 1916. Marie legally adopted her in 1919, changing her name to “Anna Chin Wore.”

Harry Chin Wore

Harry Chin Wore

The same year she adopted Anna, Marie arranged for her to marry David Lee Nong. A California-born man of Chinese ancestry, David owned a restaurant in Binghamton, New York. According to the 1920 federal census, after the marriage Marie, age 32, and her Chinese husband, Harry Chin Wore, age 44, lived with Anna and David. Marie worked as a waitress in David’s restaurant and Harry ran a nearby laundry. Anna, age 16, was listed on the census as Marie and Harry’s biological daughter (possibly this was an error). Marie’s birthplace was listed as “Greece” and Anna’s as “New York.” Marie’s native language was recorded as “Greek.”

Less than two months after the marriage Anna stole enough money from David to escape and return to New York City.

The missionary, Mary Banta, took Anna back to Binghamton. Her stepmother, Marie, was arrested and charged with child abduction.

Anna Chin Wore marriage portrait_marked

Anna had on a dress that was much too large for her in her wedding photo. News photo, collection of the author.

Marie and her lawyer

Marie and her lawyer in court

Marie testified in court to being an opium addict. She said she was in the clutches of a gang of Chinese criminals who dealt opium and smuggled Chinese men and drugs across the border from Canada into the United States. She claimed that David Lee Nong was part of the gang and that there was an opium den in the basement of his restaurant.

Rumors of “white slavery” swirled around the case. News stories proclaimed that Marie went by multiple aliases and had been imprisoned several times in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. The press offered no proof of these claims.

Marie showed no signs of being addicted to opium or any other drug. Opium wasn’t found in the basement of David’s restaurant or anywhere on the premises, nor was the gang of criminals she described located. She appeared to be nervous but unrepentant and angry in court. At times she shook her head and sneered at her adopted daughter when Anna testified.

Anna told the court she was unsure of her age but she’d been told she was between 11 and 13 years old. She said that Marie “told me that my mother was a dirty Jew and had thrown me into an ash can, where a policeman had found me.” She recalled living in the foundling home in New York City and attending school in Manhattan before Marie removed her from the institution.

Nong restaurant

David Lee Nong’s restaurant

David, who was arrested as a material witness but wasn’t charged with a crime, testified that it was the custom in China for children to marry very young, however he claimed he hadn’t known that Anna was only 11 when he married her. He paid about $700 ($10,214 in 2018 dollars) to Marie and Harry. He claimed the money was to help them move to Binghamton and to set Harry up in a laundry business.

United States immigration laws passed in the late nineteenth century resulted in there being few Asian women in America for Asian men to marry. Mixed marriages, while not outlawed in New York, were frowned upon. The marriage age in New York, with parental consent, was 14 at the  time. The minimum age was only recently changed to 17.

Marie and David applied for and received a license for his marriage to Anna on November 20, 1919. When they tried to get a judge to perform the ceremony, he refused because he thought Anna looked too young. Next they went to a local Baptist minister who agreed to perform the marriage after Marie lied to him, telling him that Anna was 16 and the marriage was out of necessity because she was pregnant.

Anna testified that a few weeks after the marriage, Marie took her to a hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and forced her to commit “a statutory offense” with a Chinese man she’d never met before.

There was no evidence that Harry Chin Wore was directly involved in the marriage scheme, but he was found to be in the country illegally under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He was ordered deported to back China. Marie was offered a suspended sentence as long as she agreed to be deported to China with her husband. The couple was taken by the Binghamton Sheriff, in June 1920, to San Francisco and put on a steamship bound for China.

As she waited to sail, Marie gave an intriguing interview to a reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin.

I was born in China and I speak Chinese even better than English, although my parents were Americans. In fact, I came to America to be educated and was graduated from the University of Maine, later graduating as a trained nurse at the Portland, Maine general hospital. We were married in Canton, China, and I have no wish to terminate that marriage by taking advantage of the fact that my husband is debarred from the United States. I can be of great service to humanity in the Far East both by sympathy and education and even feel more at home there than in the land that was formerly mine only by parental tie.

Anna was sent to New York City, with the missionary, Mary Banta, as her guardian. The plan was for her to attend school under the care of the missionary society. Mary sued in the New York Supreme Court to have Anna’s marriage annulled.

David lost his restaurant due to the unsavory publicity about the case. In February 1922 he pleaded not guilty to a charge of gambling at a Binghamton cafe. He died, age 42, of liver cancer on July 10, 1922 at the Binghamton City Hospital.

Questions about Anna’s parentage went unanswered at Marie’s trial. If what Mary Banta said was true and Morris Michaelson was her father, he was almost certainly Jewish, so her mother must have been Asian. That would have been an unusual pairing for the time, though not impossible. Several young men named Morris Michaelson, all of them white, lived in New York City, according to the 1910 census, but none of them had a wife named Sadie or a wife who was Asian. Possibly Michaelson’s wife died shortly after the child’s birth, which could explain why the baby was placed in an institution.

The New York Extracted Birth Index lists a Frances Michaelson who was born on March 19, 1908 (the exact birthdate Mary Banta claimed was Anna’s) and there’s an Anna Michaelson, born in 1908, who was a resident of the New York Foundling Hospital and Children’s Aid Society until 1915. But there’s no way to definitively link either of those girls with Anna Chin Wore.

Could Anna have been, as one newspaper suggested, the biological daughter of Marie and a Chinese man who wasn’t her husband? Could that be why the baby was placed in an orphanage and why Marie lied about her relationship to Anna after she got the child back? Was Marie trying to hide the fact that she’d had an illegitimate child?

This case is full of perplexing clues but short on verifiable evidence. We’ll likely never know if Marie had good intentions when she arranged a marriage for Anna or if she sold her to the highest bidder.

Featured photos: March 1920 news photos of Marie Chin Wore (left) and Anna Chin Wore. Collection of the author.

No Dainties for Him

No Dainties for Him

An impulsive, violent act has the potential to ruin a young man’s life. William Lincoln Parkhill committed such an act in 1896 in Sacramento, California.

Parkhill, a street vendor who sold tamales, attacked a child of ten, Lillie Frank, and attempted to rape her on the morning of Monday, August 24. Lillie (or Lulu; both names were reported in the papers) was home alone when Parkhill somehow got into the Frank house at 1327 Fourth Street.

The attack was interrupted when two neighbors of the Frank family heard Lillie’s screams and came running. Valentine Bitterworlf and Charles Caa discovered Parkhill trying to smother the child with a pillow. Parkhill made a run for it, grabbing a nearby horse and buggy nearby but the horse got loose and the buggy went nowhere. Parkhill was captured and turned over to the local sheriff.

The locals were so angered by the crime that they geared up to lynch Parkhill. Cooler heads prevailed and he ended up in the Sacramento jail. However one local woman, possibly attracted to Parkhill’s youthful good looks, tried to send him “baked beans and other dainties” in jail. The food was returned to her. The local newspaper reported the incident in an outraged tone, noting that the “dainties did not tickle Parkhill’s palate.”

One of the things no man can understand is the sympathy shown by some women to criminals and displayed under circumstances where no one would expect it to be.

The Record-Union, Sacramento, California, September 2, 1896

Lillie Franks testified against William Parkhill, as did Bitterwolf, the man who intervened and halted the attack. Parkhill, who looks unconcerned in his mugshots, did not have an attorney and he made no effort to defend himself. He pleaded guilty to the crime.

3William Parkhill_prison mugshots

William Parkhill, Folsom Prison photographs. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

19-year-old William Parkhill was given a 12-year sentence for assault to rape and sent to Folsom State Prison. He served 7 years and 8 months of his sentence and was released on May 19, 1904.

After his release from prison, Parkhill, who was born in Connecticut, returned to the northeast, settling in Massachusetts. In November 1904 he married a Boston woman named Mary French who was seven years his senior. He tried his hand at blacksmithing and at selling insurance. But by 1910 Parkhill had run afoul of the law again and found himself an inmate of the Massachusetts Reformatory in Concord.

He was out of prison when he registered for the draft in 1918, listing his mother Hattie, as his next of kin, his nationality as Canadian and, strangely, his profession as “train nurse.” William Parkhill died, aged 41, soon after completing his draft registration, possibly a victim of the influenza pandemic.

Featured photos: William Parkhill’s mugshot photos. The handcuffs are just visible at the bottom of the photos. Collection of the author.