The Feminine Touch

The Feminine Touch

Becky Cok (sic) was given a sentence of two years in the penitentiary by the federal judge at San Angelo for making her little daughter steal. Mrs. Cook had a box at the Brownwood post office. Next to her was the box of the bank. She would have the child go to the post office and rob the bank box by reaching around through hers. Checks and drafts for large amounts ware (sic) thus abstracted from the bank box.

El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas), November 26, 1900

Robbing a post office was a crime committed often in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, but usually it was the purview of gun-toting men. Becky Cook, an Iowa-born seamstress and washerwoman, took an unusual approach when she used her young daughter to extract checks and drafts from the post office box of a Texas bank. Possibly the child was double jointed or had unusually nimble fingers. At any rate the little girl’s hand was small enough to reach in beyond Becky’s post office box, through the bars at the back and into the adjacent box—no weapons or threats of violence required!

Becky Cook news

Leavenworth Penitentiary file of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Post Office robbery, no matter how it was accomplished, was a federal crime and Becky’s conviction earned her more than a slap on the wrist. Though unable to cash the checks and drafts she stole “child-handed” so to speak, she was sentenced to two years at USP Leavenworth. Like other women sent to Leavenworth, she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary to serve out her sentence.

Her penitentiary forms noted that Becky was just under 5’6” tall with a slender build, blue eyes and brown hair and her teeth were “full & good.” She was described as “very talkative.” She had several scars and moles on her face and both of her ear lobes were pierced. She was Catholic, could read and write, and left home when she was 12 years old. At the time of her incarceration she wasn’t married.

Becky Cook mugshot

Leavenworth Penitentiary photos of Becky Cook. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

The Texas sun was hard on fair skin, and prison officials at Leavenworth described Becky as looking 35 rather than the 25 years of age she claimed to be. Her weather-beaten skin does make her look older than her mid-twenties—did she lie about her age? Her shaky signature on a penitentiary form doesn’t really look like “Becky Cook.” Could it be that she used an alias when she was arrested, but was not skilled enough at writing to pull off the subterfuge?

Becky Cook's signature

She was released from prison by 1902. Who took care of her daughter while she was in prison? Was it even her child? Where did she go when she was released? Was her name really Becky Cook? After her brief moment of infamy, thanks to a clever and feminine method of robbing a post office, the lady vanished from newspaper and genealogical records.

 

 

Mother Murder

Mother Murder

I was in the doorway and I saw my mother. I raised the gun and fired one shot. She fell back onto the bed. I opened the closet door in the bedroom and took the suitcase that was in there. Into the suitcase I put some bath towels and some other things, my personal effects. After the shooting I put the gun in the bathroom where I laid it on a trunk. I went into the drawer of my bedroom dresser and got about $45 there. I found the bankbook, which was in a box in a closet.

—Excerpt from Dorothy Ellingson’s confession, January 15, 1925

What began as another quarrel between 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson and her mother ended in matricide on the morning of January 12, 1925, in San Francisco. The newspapers dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer” and called her a “jazzmaniac.” Stories were printed about her love of late night partying with older men at clubs and illegal speakeasies all over the city. Her mother’s objections to her lifestyle led to the argument that culminated in murder.

Dorothy’s parents, Joachim (Joseph in news reports) and Anna were Norwegians who immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Initially they settled in Minnesota and Dorothy was born there in 1908. By 1920 they relocated to San Francisco, California. Joseph owned a tailor shop and Anna didn’t work outside the home. Dorothy’s only sibling, an older brother named Earl, worked as a stock clerk in a drug store.

By the age of fourteen Dorothy finished primary school and had completed a year of “Business College.” Her education was probably better than average for a girl of that time.

Dorothy claimed her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted enjoying the company of jazz musicians who played at the clubs around San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. The main conflict, according to Dorothy, was that she got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it all but impossible for her to get up and go to her stenographer job the next day. Her musician friends didn’t start work until 10 or 11 at night, so how could she be expected to keep a normal schedule? (“I have worked, off and on,” she later told reporters). However Anna needed her daughter to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and she was separated from her husband at the time of the murder.

After shooting her mother with her brother’s .45 caliber automatic Colt, Dorothy calmly gathered up her packed suitcase, cash and bankbook, and traveled via streetcar to a boarding house at 1047 Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (inspired, perhaps, by the glamorous silent film star Dolores del Rio). Optimistically, she paid two weeks rent up front. Meanwhile, back at home, her brother found their mother’s body and called the police.

Dorothy settled in to her new digs and headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next evening she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater. SFPD detectives arrested her the following day for murder—it was a busy week for a young girl!

Oakland_Tribune_Thu__Jan_15__1925_

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

Dorothy tried, unconvincingly, to place the blame for the murder elsewhere, but soon she confessed. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she explained.

A strange complex is Dorothy Ellingson. Her face is one of a woman of 24 or 25. Her form, while developed, goes with the face. Occasionally there is a gesture of girlishness, a movement that would indicate that, despite her appearance, it is a little girl and not an adult lodged in this prison compartment.

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

Despite her confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty. She fainted 12 times during her trial and her behavior ranged from hysterical to catatonic. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to an asylum for evaluation of her mental state. She was found to be sane, so the trial continued. In August 1925, Dorothy, now 17, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin prison.

dorothy ellingson_san quentin

Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year for Dorothy to spend another night in jail courtesy of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked in as “Dorothy Jentoff,” and charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis (Mary had no idea who she was). She told police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party. Her actual name came out after the arrest and she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. Mary refused to prosecute so the charges were dropped.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Mar_6__1933_

The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933.

Dorothy married a truck driver, Robert Stafford, in 1936, and lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for almost 20 years. The couple had two children but later they separated.

In 1955, 46-year-old Dorothy pleaded guilty to the theft of $2000 worth of jewelry, clothing and cash from a former employer. She’d been living in San Rafael under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints exposed her true identity. Her reason for the theft—her daughter needed money.

Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated, coincidentally, in the Marin county jail in a cell across from his mother. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered her mother—his grandmother—in 1925, but she confessed it all to him while they sat in the slammer. “He took it like a little man. He didn’t cry. He said it made him understand why I stuck by him through his problems,” noted Dorothy.

Dorothy Ellingson Stafford died on September 16, 1967, aged 59.

Featured photo: Dorothy Ellingson’s SFPD mugshot, 1925. Collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

No Place for Her

No Place for Her

It’s rare that someone becomes famous for going to prison, but that’s what happened to 14-year-old Lizzie Cardish in 1906. After pleading guilty to arson of a government building, the judge presiding over her case was required, under federal statute, to send her to prison for life. If the crime had occurred nine years earlier, the mandated punishment would have been death.

On the evening of January 17, 1906, Lizzie, a member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, set fire to the boys and girls building at the Menominee Indian Training School, a boarding school in Keshena, Wisconsin. Indian schools deprived the children sent to them of their culture with the goal of transforming them into “civilized” people. No one was injured in the fire, however the building was completely destroyed.

Lizzie Cardish is a comely Indian maid of about sixteen years and in court Tuesday afternoon she was neatly and becomingly attired in a white gown and waist and wore a pretty dark straw hat trimmed with blue ribbon. In appearance the girl is remarkably intelligent for one of her race, and her features are quite regular.

The Oshkosh Northwestern, June 13, 1906

Lizzie’s motives for starting the fire were reported to be either a wish not to attend school or a desire to go to a different school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Whatever her reason, it was an act of defiance against decades of horrendous treatment meted out to Native Americans by the federal government.

On June 15, 1906, Lizzie was taken to USP Leavenworth to serve her sentence, however the penitentiary had no place to put her! Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas, was built to house male prisoners. Evidently lawmakers never considered the possibility that women might occasionally break federal laws.

CardishLizziephoto001

Eleven women had been sent to Leavenworth prior to Lizzie. Their presence caused major difficulties for the warden, R.W. McClaughry, who had to find a secure, guarded place for them away from the male prisoners. Lizzie, by far the youngest, was the last female prisoner ever sent to Leavenworth.

The warden was not willing to keep Lizzie at the penitentiary for more than a day. Her mugshot and fingerprints were taken and the following day she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, where there was a women’s department.

Lizzie Cardish_Kansas

Lizzie Cardish, Kansas Dept. of Corrections. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

The public was outraged, not only that a young girl had been sentenced to life in prison for a crime in which no one was injured, but also that she was sent to a prison for male offenders. Many people demanded that her sentence be commuted, including Judge Quarles, the man who by law had no option but to pass a life sentence on Lizzie.

President Theodore Roosevelt commuted Lizzie’s sentence, in September 1906, but she wasn’t released immediately. She was sent to the Illinois State Training School for Girls in Geneva, until she reached the age of 21. Government officials demanded that she to be brought to USP Leavenworth from the Kansas State Penitentiary before being transferred to Geneva. As far as officials were concerned, Lizzie was still “officially” incarcerated at Leavenworth.

Lizzie commutation

Lizzie Cardish’s commutation document, Leavenworth prisoner file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president in 1909. He commuted Lizzie’s sentence on April 20, 1910, and she was released. She was 18 years old.

Lizzie dropped out of the news after her release from the training school. She was married twice—both her husbands were Menominee—and had eight children. She never set another fire.

Featured photo: Lizzie Cardish, Leavenworth Penitentiary prisoner photograph. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense—she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting—his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

bertha-liebbeke-notorious-pickpocket-in-il-ks-ia-mo-and-ne-fainting-bertha-stumbled-into-men-fainted-and-robbed-them2

Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Starts and Ends in Jail

Starts and Ends in Jail

Annabelle Johnson was in the pokey in Denver, Colorado, charged with larceny. The year was 1901 and her jailer was the deputy sheriff, a fellow named Charles Brown Blackwords. Charles, or C.B. as he was known, fell in love with the attractive young woman and talked her father into mortgaging his home to furnish the bond to get Annabelle out of jail. The lovebirds eloped together, despite the fact that C.B. already had a wife and children in Denver. Annabelle’s dad lost his house when she didn’t show up for court.

The couple headed to San Francisco. C.B.’s wife divorced him in 1903 and he and Annabelle were officially married. They decided to find work as servants for the wealthy, however they didn’t intend to do much cooking or cleaning. The plan was to get hired (using fake names) and become trusted employees. Then they would abscond with as much jewelry, furs and other valuables as they could lay their larcenous hands on.

The scam worked well for quite awhile. They pulled off robberies in San Francisco, Sacramento, Reno and Denver. However when they robbed W. E. Gerber, a Sacramento banker, of $6000 worth of diamonds and other valuables in December 1910, plans went awry. Law enforcement was onto their racket.

Annabelle, traveling under the alias “Jessie Croffer,” was arrested at the train depot in Ogden, Utah, and taken to the city jail. She’d been alone and was heading east on the Southern Pacific train. She had in her possession a large trunk that was presumed by the cops to hold the stolen loot.

Mrs. Blackword (sic) stated immediately after having been placed in jail that she wished her trunk contained dynamite, and that when the officers opened it, it would explode and blow the box into smithereens.

The Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah), Dec. 28, 1910

C.B. was arrested in Sparks, Nevada. He confessed to authorities that it was entirely his wife’s fault—she was the one responsible for the robberies! He was just an innocent victim of her criminal enterprises, despite the fact that they’d purchased a car with some of her ill-gotten gains.

The stolen loot was recovered, including three diamonds sent as a gift to a friend of the Blackwords and other jewels the couple pawned in Reno. Stolen linen, clothing and cut glass were located in the trunk Annabelle wanted to blow up.

Blackwords headline

Headline from The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, March 7, 1911.

Annabelle pleaded guilty to grand larceny. C.B. pleaded not guilty but he was convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. The couple was sentenced on March 6, 1911. She cried and made an impassioned plea that her husband was innocent and that he should not go to prison but he got a six-year term in Folsom. She got a seven-year stretch in San Quentin.

The strange thing is that there’s no record of C.B. being incarcerated at Folsom or any other California prison. Annabelle served four years and eight months at San Quentin and was released in December 1915. She and C.B. divorced in 1918.

Featured photo: Mrs. C.B. Blackwords (aka Annabelle Blackwords), San Quentin Inmate Photographs. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Bertha’s Razor

Bertha group 2

Bertha Boronda, California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Duplicate Photograph Album, Dept. of Corrections, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

What do you do when you’re facing a five-year sentence in San Question for a vicious attack on your husband’s penis? Obviously you do up your hair, put on your largest and most fetching hat and face the prison camera with a look of utter confidence on your face. At least that’s what Bertha Boronda did in 1908.

Bertha and her husband, Frank Boronda, had been married about 6 years when her assault on him took place. Frank was born Mario Narcisso Boronda in 1863 to a large family with Mexican roots that had lived in California for several generations. At the time of the attack Frank, age 43, was a fire captain with the San Jose Fire Department in northern California. Bertha Zettle was born to German immigrant parents in rural Minnesota in 1877. She moved to California around 1900. She and Frank were married the following year.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, May 31, 1907, Bertha slashed Frank’s penis with a razor at their San Jose residence. Reporting of the incident was tactful and non-specific. ”She drew a razor and cut her husband.” Then she walked to her nephew’s room and simply stated, “Frank cut himself.”

Boronda news

Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 31, 1907, page six.

Frank was able to get to his firehouse—conveniently located next to his home—and from there he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital where the wound to his genitals was dressed. No one was sure he would recover but evidently he was well enough to make a statement. He said the attack by his wife came out of the blue. He and Bertha were chatting and she was in a friendly mood when suddenly she wounded him.

Meanwhile Bertha fled the scene and wasn’t discovered until the wee hours the following night. She was located the San Jose Railroad Yards dressed in men’s clothing. (She has an angular, somewhat masculine face—I’m sure you can picture her in men’s attire, no doubt looking quite dapper). She admitted to the attack on Frank and claimed, in her confident style, it was actually his fault. He’d driven her out of her mind with fear that he was going to desert her and move to Mexico.

Frank recovered from his injuries. Bertha was charged was “mayhem,” a charge applied to someone who “unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless…” She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in San Quentin Prison in 1908.

Why did Bertha attack her husband so viciously? The San Jose Sheriff jailed Frank and a fellow fire captain a few months before Bertha’s assault on her husband. The rumor on the street was that the two men had been involved in some kind of election fraud and more arrests would follow. It’s plausible that, as Bertha feared, Frank was contemplating a move to Mexico (where he had relatives) at least until the election scandal blew over.

It was also rumored that Frank was cheating on Bertha with other women and she was in a jealous rage over his infidelities when she slashed him. Frank had a history of marital problems. His previous wife, Belle Doane, left her husband to marry Frank and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself a couple years later. Belle said she attempted suicide out of desperation because Frank had abandoned her. The unhappy couple divorced in 1895.

Did Bertha succeed in lopping off her husband’s penis? A distasteful rumor circulated that Frank’s penis, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and used an exhibit at Bertha’s trial, was discovered decades later, stored in a basement cupboard of the courthouse. Though there’s no doubt his penis was badly cut, it’s highly unlikely that it was severed (and thus put in a jar) because an injury like that would probably have led to his death from blood loss and infection. Microsurgery and replantation of body parts were 55 years in the future. In 1993 it was possible to reattach John Bobbitt’s penis after his wife, Lorena, cut it off in a fit of rage, but that would not have been the case in 1907.

Bertha was paroled on December 20, 1909, after serving less than two years of her sentence. She and Frank did not reconcile, however both of them gave marriage another shot. Frank married a woman 33 years his junior named Josie Warburton. Bertha worked as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco after her release from San Quentin. Later she worked as a waitress at Camp Meeker, a rustic vacation spot in northern California. She married an older widower, Alexander Patterson, in 1921 in Los Angeles, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Frank lived to be 77 and died in 1940. Bertha died in 1950 at age 72. The firehouse in San Jose where Frank worked is still there but now it’s a gastro pub. If you have a meal there, try not to think too hard about its past history. Just enjoy the food and beer!

Bertha's Razor

Bertha group 2

Bertha Boronda, California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Duplicate Photograph Album, Dept. of Corrections, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

What do you do when you’re facing a five-year sentence in San Question for a vicious attack on your husband’s penis? Obviously you do up your hair, put on your largest and most fetching hat and face the prison camera with a look of utter confidence on your face. At least that’s what Bertha Boronda did in 1908.

Bertha and her husband, Frank Boronda, had been married about 6 years when her assault on him took place. Frank was born Mario Narcisso Boronda in 1863 to a large family with Mexican roots that had lived in California for several generations. At the time of the attack Frank, age 43, was a fire captain with the San Jose Fire Department in northern California. Bertha Zettle was born to German immigrant parents in rural Minnesota in 1877. She moved to California around 1900. She and Frank were married the following year.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, May 31, 1907, Bertha slashed Frank’s penis with a razor at their San Jose residence. Reporting of the incident was tactful and non-specific. ”She drew a razor and cut her husband.” Then she walked to her nephew’s room and simply stated, “Frank cut himself.”

Boronda news

Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 31, 1907, page six.

Frank was able to get to his firehouse—conveniently located next to his home—and from there he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital where the wound to his genitals was dressed. No one was sure he would recover but evidently he was well enough to make a statement. He said the attack by his wife came out of the blue. He and Bertha were chatting and she was in a friendly mood when suddenly she wounded him.

Meanwhile Bertha fled the scene and wasn’t discovered until the wee hours the following night. She was located the San Jose Railroad Yards dressed in men’s clothing. (She has an angular, somewhat masculine face—I’m sure you can picture her in men’s attire, no doubt looking quite dapper). She admitted to the attack on Frank and claimed, in her confident style, it was actually his fault. He’d driven her out of her mind with fear that he was going to desert her and move to Mexico.

Frank recovered from his injuries. Bertha was charged was “mayhem,” a charge applied to someone who “unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless…” She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in San Quentin Prison in 1908.

Why did Bertha attack her husband so viciously? The San Jose Sheriff jailed Frank and a fellow fire captain a few months before Bertha’s assault on her husband. The rumor on the street was that the two men had been involved in some kind of election fraud and more arrests would follow. It’s plausible that, as Bertha feared, Frank was contemplating a move to Mexico (where he had relatives) at least until the election scandal blew over.

It was also rumored that Frank was cheating on Bertha with other women and she was in a jealous rage over his infidelities when she slashed him. Frank had a history of marital problems. His previous wife, Belle Doane, left her husband to marry Frank and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself a couple years later. Belle said she attempted suicide out of desperation because Frank had abandoned her. The unhappy couple divorced in 1895.

Did Bertha succeed in lopping off her husband’s penis? A distasteful rumor circulated that Frank’s penis, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and used an exhibit at Bertha’s trial, was discovered decades later, stored in a basement cupboard of the courthouse. Though there’s no doubt his penis was badly cut, it’s highly unlikely that it was severed (and thus put in a jar) because an injury like that would probably have led to his death from blood loss and infection. Microsurgery and replantation of body parts were 55 years in the future. In 1993 it was possible to reattach John Bobbitt’s penis after his wife, Lorena, cut it off in a fit of rage, but that would not have been the case in 1907.

Bertha was paroled on December 20, 1909, after serving less than two years of her sentence. She and Frank did not reconcile, however both of them gave marriage another shot. Frank married a woman 33 years his junior named Josie Warburton. Bertha worked as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco after her release from San Quentin. Later she worked as a waitress at Camp Meeker, a rustic vacation spot in northern California. She married an older widower, Alexander Patterson, in 1921 in Los Angeles, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Frank lived to be 77 and died in 1940. Bertha died in 1950 at age 72. The firehouse in San Jose where Frank worked is still there but now it’s a gastro pub. If you have a meal there, try not to think too hard about its past history. Just enjoy the food and beer!