Bertha’s Feint

Bertha’s Feint

Bertha Liebbeke looked for all the world like the pretty, corn-fed daughter of an Iowa farmer. Clifton Woolridge, a Chicago detective, described her as a “girlish young woman, with the baby dimples and skin of peach and cream, the innocent blue eyes, and the smiles that play so easily over her face as she talks vivaciously and with keen sense of both wit and humor.” Woolridge was clearly smitten with Bertha and he was not alone.

She was born in March 1880 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Her father, William, was an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Her mother, Mary, was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in 1870 in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. They had a large family — nine children in all.

When Bertha was in her mid-teens her father died. Shortly after his death she 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. The diagnosis got her sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Due to age restrictions she was later transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda. She remained at the state hospital for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane

After her release from the mental hospital, Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” She proved to be an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to the profession that took full advantage of her good looks. Bertha would locate a prosperous-looking gentleman in a crowd of people and smile demurely at him. Intrigued, he came closer. When he got next to her she would suddenly be overcome by a dizzy spell. The gallant gentleman would catch the lovely lady just in time to rescue her from hitting the ground. She heaved a sigh, came to and thanked him, but not before she’d picked her savior’s pockets so skillfully that he didn’t notice the theft until she was long gone. When her victims reported their losses to the police, few of them suspected Bertha as the culprit.

Even after news reports about “Fainting Bertha” made her the most notorious female pickpocket in the Midwest, men continued to walk into her trap. She could steal anything — a wallet, a diamond stickpin, a gold watch — without batting an eyelash.

Bertha traveled from Council Bluffs by boat and train to all the big Midwestern cities, robbing conductors and passengers along the way. She also used her nimble fingers to steal from department stores, including Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, where Detective Woolridge made her acquaintance. Her photo was in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. Over the course of her career she used at least nine aliases, including Jennie Jennings, Carrie Jones and Bertha Siegal.

Three times it was reported that Bertha had plans to marry, but the engagements were all broken, apparently because she couldn’t stop thieving. Nonetheless she smiled beguilingly when she was photographed, as inmate #5693, at the Nebraska State Penitentiary after her conviction for grand larceny.

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

Despite her success as a thief, all was not well with Bertha’s mind. She suffered periodic bouts of insanity so intense it was impossible for prison guards, doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which often 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 extreme — one minute she was calm and the next she was crying hysterically.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing jewelry and cash, she also had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. In 1905, when she was a patient in an insane asylum in Kankakee, Illinois, she escaped and tried to set fire to herself. By 1907 she’d been housed in seven different penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from them. She also frequently threatened to commit suicide. Back and forth between hospital and prison Bertha went.

By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing problem of what to do with Bertha. No one wanted her and the question of whether she belonged in a prison or an asylum seemed to be impossible to answer.

Finally she was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. Three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich. The report stated that Bertha “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 if Bertha was permanently insane, however they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. Governor Aldrich disagreed. He sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her sentence, specifying that “special quarters” had to be provided by the Warden to protect both Bertha and those around her.

Rev Savidge

Charles Savidge

After her release from the penitentiary in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge, who’d been trying to reform Bertha since 1904, offered her a home at his People’s Church in Omaha. (It’s possible that, like Detective Woolridge, Reverend Savidge was infatuated with Bertha). He and his church members were convinced that with the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” would be cast out. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was designated to be with Bertha at all times.

The People’s Church congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. In November 1913 Bertha told a reporter she had “reformed for good.” She said she had plans to marry and move the West Coast, where she believed she could put her past behind her. (She didn’t realize that her escapades had been widely reported in the Western States.) But the effort to change Bertha failed miserably. Savidge and his flock gave up on her and threw her out. “I will not attempt to aid her again as I consider her case impossible,” he commented.

Like so many times in the past, Bertha’s marriage plans fell through. She ended up in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy in 1914. Now almost 35 years old, she was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska, from which she soon escaped. She stole a woman’s purse and was arrested. Twice she tried to commit suicide while she was in jail. First she took strychnine tablets but the police pumped her stomach. Then she set her clothes on fire and her limbs were badly burned.

She left a note to her sister that read: “I have ended it all as I told you I would. Kiss the children goodbye and ask my precious mamma to forgive me. In my package here I have $7 and my watch, which I want you to keep; also a chain which I bought at Ryan’s jewelry store. I don’t want to be buried, so sell my body to the Creighton Medical college. Farewell, dear mamma, sisters and brothers, and forgive me, all of you.”

Bertha was sentenced to one to seven years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. There her mental state continued to deteriorate. By 1918 she was back in the asylum, but she soon escaped again. The police soon located her at a hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. After she was taken into custody to be sent back to the mental asylum, she claimed to be “one of the Seven Wonders of the World.” In 1919 she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde in the woman’s face and partially blinding her.

Bertha lived in the state asylum for the next 20 years. In an effort to control her violent outbursts she undoubtedly endured the psychiatric treatments of the era, such as mechanical restraints, surgical removal of internal organs and chemical shock therapy. In 1930, when she was listed as an asylum inmate on the federal census, Bertha was not well enough to hold even the simplest job at the hospital.

On May 5, 1939 Bertha died at the Lincoln State Hospital. She was 59 years old. Part of her obituary in the Lincoln Journal Star read: “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 image: Bertha’s 1899 mugshot card, History of Nebraska

Other images from the History of Nebraska and Rootsweb

The Baby-faced Menace

The Baby-faced Menace

Joseph Gruner, 82, died yesterday in County hospital of injuries suffered June 26 in the restaurant at the front of his home at 941 Chicago av. Police listed his injuries as suffered in a fall, but his daughter said she believes he was beaten in a robbery.

Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1954

Katherine Whitney discovered her father, Joseph Gruner, lying unconscious on the floor of her restaurant. Joseph, who served as the restaurant’s night watchman, had a fractured skull and there were signs of a break-in at the restaurant. A large hole had been cut in the screen door and cigarette butts and matches littered the doorway. The thieves had stolen cigarettes, soft drinks and some money was missing from the cash register.

Joseph was rushed to the hospital but he never regained consciousness. He died six days later. The police chalked his death up to a fall and filed the case under “accidental death.” Katherine protested, saying that she thought her father had been killed by the thieves who’d broken in. But with little evidence and plenty of without-a-doubt homicides to investigate, the Chicago cops moved on.

Harvey TobelTwo months later Emily Shouse and Ruth Tobel arrived at the Chicago apartment Ruth shared with her mother and stepfather. The girls were exhausted and hoped to get a little shut-eye after a busy night of burglarizing homes. They weren’t hungry because they’d consumed an entire cherry pie at the last house they’d broken into that evening. Unfortunately Ruth’s stepfather, Harvey, woke up and wasn’t pleased to discover the stolen property that his 14-year-old stepdaughter and her pal had deposited in the apartment. Without discussion, Harvey said, “Come on. I’m going to turn you both over to the police.” Then he loaded the two young girls into his vehicle.

As the car approached the station, Ruth tried to jump out but Harvey was able to grab her and keep her in the vehicle. In an apparent effort not to commit parricide, she threw a revolver to Emily and shouted, “Let him have it!” The gun hit the floor and broke open, releasing a cartridge. Emily picked it up and, leaving the loose cartridge where it had fallen, she snapped the gun shut, took aim and fired at Harvey. Fortunately the gun clicked on the empty chamber. Ruth got out of the car and ran off while Harvey wrestled the gun away from Emily. Passersby saw the commotion and called the police, who took Emily into custody. Ruth was soon located and arrested.

Emily1Emily, who had runaway from home, had $500 of stolen cash stuffed into her bra. Ruth was carrying $100 and wearing $2000 worth of stolen jewelry. In addition to pulling 40 to 50 burglaries during the month of August, Emily also admitted to knocking down an old man and taking $10 from him in a strong-arm robbery.

A witness came forward and identified Emily as the woman from whom she’d recently purchased household items at cut rate prices. It turned out that Emily had broken into a home while the homeowner was at work, stolen $800 worth of property and then pretended to be the homeowner; selling off the items she’d stolen for bargain basement prices. Even veteran Chicago cops were shocked at the brazen nature of Emily’s crime.

DelgadoBut there was more to come. Emily admitted that she, along with two male partners, had been involved in a nighttime burglary of a restaurant on the near north side of Chicago in late June 1954. The trio was interrupted when the night watchman awoke and confronted them during the burglary. One of the men, 20-year-old Pablo Delgado, hit the man over the head with a wrench, knocking him out. The trio escaped out of the back of the restaurant.

The night watchman was Joseph Gruner. The burglars likely didn’t realize that Joseph had later died of his injuries.

Emily’s confession forced the police to reopen the Gruner case. They located her partners and she and the two men were charged with murder. They all confessed, and then recanted their confessions. On the eve of their trial the prosecutor decided to seek the death penalty. Rather than face the possibility of a death sentence, Emily and the men pleaded guilty to murder. On December 1, 1954, Pablo was sentenced to 199 years in prison. The second man, 18-year-old Victor Camacho, got a sentence of 100 years.

The prosecutor declared that, despite her pretty “baby-face,” Emily was a menace to society who deserved to be either in prison or an insane asylum. Emily, aged only 15, was sentenced to 18 years in the State Reformatory for Women in Dwight, Illinois.

Emily got a raw deal and she knew it. She appealed for a new trial, stating that public defender had forced her to take a plea, but in 1956 her appeal was denied.

cottageAt the reformatory Emily was housed in a cottage (one of eight) with 27 other prisoners that was supervised by a single matron. Her roommate was a 22-year-old St. Louis woman named Shirley Gray. Shirley was doing two to five years for a gas station hold up she’d pulled with her husband.

On the night of November 22, 1958, Emily and Shirley, clad in pink overalls and navy pea coats, sneaked to the basement of their prison cottage. The pair then crawled through a ventilation pipe that led to the prison grounds. They threw their heavy coats over the barbed wire fence surrounding the prison and were able to scale the fence and get over the barbed wire without injury. They burglarized a nearby farmhouse, stealing clothing and food.

ShirleyThe two women then began grueling a 75-mile trek through a snowstorm to Chicago. After they arrived in the city they parted company. Shirley stole a car and headed to Joliet. She was caught on Christmas Eve during a routine traffic stop in which she subsequently attempted to drive the car off the road and into a house in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Emily dyed her red hair black in an effort at disguise, but she too was caught a few days later at one of “her old haunts” — a tavern on North Clark street. “Take a good look at me because I’ve already started to plan my next escape,” she told police after she was captured. Both women were returned to the prison in Dwight and Emily got a few years added to her sentence. Despite her threats, she didn’t try another escape.

The prosecutor apparently had it in for Emily because in February 1959, shortly after she’d been returned to prison, he put her on trial for the robbery of $80 from a Chicago cleaning lady. The theft had occurred in early December while she was still on the loose. The victim identified Emily as the robber but due to a disparity in height (Emily was taller than the height the victim estimated her robber to have been) she was acquitted.

Benches found in home of Sandra Manske (Emily Shouse) - NewspapeFast-forward 17 years. Emily was married and working as a realtor when four benches — property of the local realtor’s association — vanished from the streets of Belvidere, Illinois. An investigation was launched and the benches were eventually located at Emily’s home. Everyone had forgotten that Emily and her husband had offered to repaint the benches during a town meeting six months earlier. Emily was cleared of “theft” charges and the benches, with their fresh red, white and blue paint were reinstalled. Emily (who was known by a different name) posed proudly with the refurbished benches in April 1976.

She died at the age of 39 in January, 1978.

Featured photo: Emily Shouse’s mugshot from her 1955 prison card, collection of the author.

The Felonious Housewife

The Felonious Housewife

Ford stealing and check forging sent half a dozen prisoners to the state penitentiary at Lansing yesterday. Spring and a desire to own an automobile seem to go hand in hand The desire seems to be strongest at Hutchinson, for nearly all the prisoners convicted of stealing Fords came from Reno County.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Evans will each serve one to five years for their episode. Evans will work in the penitentiary proper and his wife will be in the industrial farm for women. They were arrested at Newton, where the automobile was found. The Ford was stolen from the J. W. Bailey residence in Hutchinson.

Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas), April 20, 1918

In the summer of 1917 she was arrested for writing three “fictitious checks.” The San Francisco Police Department prepared a Bureau of Identification card with her photo and stats. Her name was recorded as “Emma Douglas” but she had two aliases: “Mrs. E. Evans” and “Mrs. K. Howard.” Her occupation was “housewife” and her birthplace was “Illinois.” The police forgot to make a note of her age, but obviously she was young. Her crime was too small for the newspapers to pick it up.

Check forgery is a habit that’s hard to break.

May Howard_SF_marked

1917 mug shots taken by the San Francisco police

Less than a year later and almost two thousand miles to the east she was arrested with a male partner in Newton, Kansas. She and her partner had stolen a Ford Model T touring car (likely a 1917 model that retailed at $360) during the night of Saturday, April 6, 1918. The following day a motorcycle cop spotted the stolen car, and watched as the couple replaced the Kansas license tag that had been on the car with a Colorado tag. The sharp-eyed officer arrested the pair.

1917-Ford-Touring-Car

1917 Ford Model T touring car

She claimed her name was May Evans and said the man was her husband, Charles Evans. They’d come from San Francisco, where he’d registered for the World War I draft under the name Charles Douglas. To finance their cross country travels they would steal a car, drive it for a while, then sell it and pocket the cash and repeat the process.

She’d also written a series of forged checks to cover their travel expenses, including one to the owner of a rooming house where they’d stayed before they were arrested. The newspaper noted that she had “good clothes” and a “quiet, undisturbed air about her.”

They both pleaded guilty to grand larceny — she for the bad checks and he for auto theft. He was sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing and she went to the new facility for women, the State Industrial Farm in Topeka. Each served a year in their respective institutions.

Chas Evans_low

Charles “Chas” Evans, Kansas State Penitentiary mug shots, courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

On July 11, 1919, they were arrested about 700 miles east of Kansas in Columbus, Ohio, for attempted auto theft and for carrying concealed weapons. The weapons part of the charge means the pair was serious about their criminal endeavors. She told the Columbus police her name was Emma Evans. He claimed to be R. W. Pharis.

The Columbus police prepared a photo identification card for her and on it noted that, in addition to “Emma Evans” she also used the alias “Emma Douglas.” She claimed Des Moines, Iowa, as her birthplace and 22 years as her age. Her occupation, as on the San Francisco card, was “housewife.”

She claimed she didn’t have any previous criminal record, however the police figured out that she and her partner were recently paroled prisoners from Kansas, where they had been identified as May Howard and Charles “Chas” Evans. Their crime spree had taken them across the country, from the west coast to Ohio, the heart of Middle America.

May Howard 1919 back

Back side of criminal I.D. card of “May Howard”

In Columbus she got 30 days jail time, along with a fine of $150 and court costs.

In 1919 federal legislation called the Dyer Act was passed to combat vehicle theft, which was becoming a big problem, particularly in large cities. If May and Charles (or whatever their real names were) were again caught stealing, selling or transporting a vehicle across state lines, it would be federal crime under the act. If convicted they’d each get a sentence of ten years in a federal prison.

Because they used multiple aliases, the couple was untraceable after their arrests in Columbus. The question of whether they continued their life of crime or settled down into a more mundane and honest life can’t be answered.

Featured photo: police photos of “May Howard,” aka Emma Douglas, Emma Evans and May Evans, taken in Columbus, Ohio, on July 19, 1919. Collection of the author.

Her Clever Game

Her Clever Game

Emma Johnson was sentenced to the penitentiary this week in the Shawnee county district court, and her pal, E. Johnson, who claimed to be her husband, was sentenced to the Hutchinson Reformatory, the charge against both being forgery of a large number of small checks in Topeka recently. The checks were passed at Topeka stores. The woman is believed to have been the real leader in the enterprise. She is about twice as old as the man claiming to be her husband.

— The Merchants Journal, Topeka, Kansas, January 26, 1918

Part of the reason the game worked so well was its simplicity. Emma’s “husband” and “daughter” had real checks — the pay was honestly earned. But it was a simple proposition to forge the checks, making four or five checks from one, and presto: a week’s work became the wages of a month or more.

Emma went to stores in Topeka and asked the owners if they would mind cashing the checks for her. She looked honest and was well dressed and polite so most were happy to oblige. If they bothered to call at the hotel, where her “daughter” worked, or motor car company, where her “husband” was employed, to make sure everything was on the up and up, they were informed “yes, certainly” Mr. or Miss Johnson worked at the business.

They pulled the scam all over Topeka during the fall of 1917. Towards Christmas they thought they might be pushing their luck and headed out of town.

Hugh Latimer

Hugh Larimer, Kansas Historical Society

The merchants of Topeka weren’t happy about being scammed. It wasn’t right or fair and it made them look like dupes. They refused to sit by and do nothing, so they banded together and hired a private investigator from the Burns Detective Agency to try to track the criminals down. And track them he did, all the way to Oklahoma City, where Emma and the man who claimed to be her husband were arrested. The girl who posed as their daughter got away.

Hugh Larimer, the Shawnee County sheriff, took the couple into custody and charged them with forgery. The Burns detective informed Hugh that Emma and her young partner were also wanted for pulling the same check duplication scam in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The couple pleaded guilty to 3rd degree forgery.

Emma Johnson, alias Kaparis, was sentenced to between one and ten years at a new facility for women, the Kansas State Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. E. Johnson, alias L.S. Burgess, got a similar sentence to the state prison for men.

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Women gardeners in front of the vegetable storage cave at the Women’s Industrial Farm in 1936. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Emma became the farm’s 36th prisoner on February 8, 1918. Her date of release is unknown because many of the records of the farm no longer exist.

Featured photo: glass plate negative of Emma Johnson, prisoner 36, of the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.

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.