She Resisted

She Resisted

Alleged Shoplifters Held

Two women, both of whom are suspected of being professional shoplifters, were arraigned at the Central Police Court yesterday. The defendants said their names were Annie Mitchell and Ellen Joyce, but they refused to tell the magistrate where they lived. Detectives Swan and Knox of Marks Brothers’ Store arrested the women on Monday after they had, it is alleged, stolen several pairs of gloves and a silk skirt. They were held in $600 bail for trial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1900

The news article supplies only a dash of information, however the remarkable photo of Ella Joyce, taken on January 22, 1900 when she was arrested, speaks volumes. She resisted having her picture made, so the arresting officers held her hair and chin to get a clear picture. Even then, Ella closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to make sure to ruin the photo. Perhaps it was her comment on the police and their practice of photographing people who hadn’t been charged with wrongdoing, much less found guilty of a crime.

Ella Joyce_back_lowresThe back of Ella’s CDV card provides a few personal details. She was 27 years old, slender and tall — almost 5’8” — with black hair, blue eyes and a medium complexion. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had a small scar above her right eyebrow and another on her right thumb. She worked as a domestic. Her Bertillon measurements were recorded on a separate piece of paper that was glued to the CDV.

When the federal census was taken on June 9, 1900, six months after her arrest, there was only one young woman named Ella Joyce living in Philadelphia. Ellen “Ella” O’Donnell Joyce was a married woman who lived with her husband, William, in East Germantown in the northwest section of the city. They’d been married four years and had no children. William worked as a gardener and Ella was a housewife. Both were American-born children of Irish immigrant parents.

There was no follow-up in the newspapers about the shoplifting case of Ella and her pal Annie. Marks Brothers, the store where Ella was arrested, was founded as a millinery shop and was well-known for its women’s goods. The store opened at the southwest corner of Eighth and Arch Street in the 1860s and the building was reconstructed after a fire in 1889. It closed for reorganization in 1902 and reopened at a different location in 1904.

Marks Brothers Store

Marks Brothers, undated photo by Frank H. Taylor, Free Library of Philadelphia

Officer Knox, one of the policemen who arrested Ella, was temporarily kicked off the force, in 1905, after he “got in trouble at a picnic.” Officer William Swan, the other policemen involved in Ella’s arrest, worked as a detective assigned to keep an eye on the Marks Brothers store between 1895 and 1902. The Philadelphia Inquirer is full of stories of Officer Swan’s exploits, such as the time he nabbed Samuel Hoffman, a boy still in knee breeches, for stealing the pocketbook of Mrs. Huldah Katz. A few months later he detained Mrs. Maud French and Mrs. Alice Incas for shoplifting coats and shoes. Both women had babies in their arms at the time. The young, the old and the female comprised the majority of those Officer Swan arrested at Marks Brothers.

Marks Brothers, unable to compete with larger stores in the vicinity of its new location, closed its doors forever in 1909.

Ella and William continued to live in the same East Germantown tenement and were still childless when a census worker recorded them in 1910. William was employed as a steamfitter and Ella was without a profession. On September 13, 1911 — the day before her 38th birthday — Ella died at home of cirrhosis of the liver and exhaustion.

It was a cold day in late January 1900, and Ella Joyce needed a pair of gloves and she wanted a silk skirt, but she couldn’t afford either. Or maybe it was a misunderstanding and she intended to pay. Though we’ll never know exactly what she was thinking when her mug shot was taken, as a piece of photographic history, it is priceless.

Featured photo: Ella Joyce’s CDV mugshot, collection of the author

The Love Nest

The Love Nest

COLTON, Sept. 16.—Accused of living as man and wife at the Anderson hotel here, Mrs. Helen M. Cassidy and William J. McLean, prominent real estate broker of this vicinity, were in A. W. U’ren’s justice court this morning for preliminary hearing. They are charged with adultery, and also contributing to the delinquency of a minor, with the husband of Mrs. Cassidy as the complaining witness.

The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California), Sept. 17, 1926

Helen Cassidy had a stormy marriage. She and her husband Howard separated three times and had also gotten divorced and remarried. By 1926 the couple’s marriage was on the rocks again, so Helen took their youngest child, a five-year-old daughter, and left Howard. He moved back to his home state of Colorado with their two sons.

Helen took up with an older man, a real estate developer named William Johnston “W. J.” McLean. The couple, along with Helen’s child, moved into a residential hotel in Colton, California, a community just east of Los Angeles. The Anderson Hotel was close to where McLean and his business partner planned to build 100 stucco homes inspired by Spanish architecture. The Iowa-born McLean, who was unmarried, had previously worked in the Hollywood film industry as an assistant director.

Anderson Hotel

Anderson Hotel in Colton, circa 1930.

Howard hired a detective to locate his wife and their child. The detective found Helen and the little girl living with McLean at the hotel. The newspapers described the couple’s abode as a “Colton love nest.”

Furious over what Helen had done, Howard brought suit against his wife and McLean for adultery and contributing to the delinquency of a minor child. He also threatened to sue McLean for damages over alienation of Helen’s affections, demonstrating that “hell hath no fury like a man scorned.”

Adultery, defined as sex acts between a married person and someone who is not that person’s spouse, was a criminal offense in California at the time Helen and Howard were battling out their marriage out in the courts. The laws have since been changed and it’s currently only an “offense against public morals” in California, but it remains a crime, at least on the books, in many other states.

Convicted of adultery just after Christmas in 1927, Helen and McLean were sentenced to five to seven years each in state prison. Somewhat ironically, the pair was incarcerated in the same prison — San Quentin. (Women were held in San Quentin from the late nineteenth century until 1933 when the California Institute for Women in Tehachapi opened its doors.) Their mug book photos were taken during a period at San Quentin, in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the subject faced the camera head on and an angled mirror was placed over his or her shoulder. Only a single mugshot photo was produced, reducing both time and cost of photography.

Howard sued for a divorce, which was granted while Helen was still inside, and he got custody of the couple’s three children. Helen requested that she be allowed to see her children once she was released from prison. According to her attorney, “She writes to me that she thinks she has atoned in full, under the execution of the sentence of the law, that a year in prison has changed her and that if she cannot see her three children her heart will break.” The divorce court judge agreed that Helen had “atoned for her sins” and should be allowed to see the children “at any reasonable time.”

Helen was paroled from San Quentin after 14 months and McLean was released after he served 18 months. The couple didn’t reunite after their prison terms were up. McLean returned to L.A., where he no doubt carefully checked the marital status of his future girlfriends. Helen moved to an apartment by herself in Berkeley, just north of the UC campus in northern California. Hopefully Howard followed the judge’s orders and allowed his ex-wife to see her children again.

Featured photos: San Quentin prisoner photos of Helen Cassidy and W.J. McLean. California State Archives.

Christmas in the Tombs

Christmas in the Tombs

Mrs. Catherine O. Neill will have to spend her Christmas in the Tombs Prison, much as she desires to be taken to Connecticut to be tried on the charge of murdering her husband, Joseph Neill, on the night of Dec. 14. Sheriff Rich of Greenwich says that this is due to Gov. Higgins being away from his executive office until after Christmas.

The New York Times, December 23, 1906

Despite its creepy name, the Tombs Prison had nothing to do with graves, crypts or burials (though some people, including Catherine Neill, were there thanks to dead bodies). Located in downtown Manhattan, the Tombs was so-named because the design of the original 1838 prison building was said to have been inspired by an Egyptian tomb. In 1902 that building was torn down and a lovely, turreted French castle inspired the building that replaced it. However the name “The Tombs” stuck. “The Turrets” just didn’t have the same ominous ring.

872px-The_Tombs,_New_York,_November_1907

The Tombs Prison, 1907, LOC

No matter what inspired the architects of the New York City Prison, Catherine, also known as “Goldie,” was there because she’d been accused of murdering her husband. The murder was unusually revolting — Joseph Neill’s brain had been pierced with some kind of sharp instrument, causing his death.

Catherine, a petite woman who’d worked as a chorus girl and artist’s model prior to her marriage, became severely depressed in prison, walking up and down her cell at night, crying and moaning that she wanted to die. She fainted when she was finally charged with her husband’s murder. Joseph was a former boxer who’d earned his living as a blacksmith. He was described as a “stalwart blacksmith of fine physique and good appearance.”

The couple met in New York City’s Tenderloin district in September 1906 and Joseph swept her off her feet. Catherine was estranged from her first husband, a policeman named William H. Finley whom she married when she was only 17. Joseph persuaded her to divorce Finley and marry him, however it turned out that when their marriage occurred her divorce was not yet final. When Joseph discovered that his wife was a bigamist he became enraged and threatened to make a new will leaving his money to another woman.

The conflict escalated during a vacation in Connecticut at the Greenwich Hotel in December, when Joseph got drunk and attacked Catherine. She insisted she was only defending herself, and she had the bruises to prove it, including a black eye (visible in her mug shot photo). She said she grabbed her umbrella to ward off the blows and her husband stumbled, falling forward. His face, she said, had been accidentally impaled on the pointy end of her parasol. She fled from the hotel, taking a train home to New York City. She sought refuge at her mother’s home and the police later arrested her there.

Accused of killling

Catherine’s neckline was drawn as more revealing than it actually was in her mugshots. Illustrations published in The Indianapolis Star on May 20, 1907

There was no doubt that the burly Joseph had badly beaten his wife. However an autopsy revealed that he’d been drugged before he died. The prosecution maintained that Catherine did the drugging and, once her husband was unconscious, they claimed she pulled his eyeball aside and inserted a sharp object into his brain through his right eye socket, causing his death. The actual murder weapon, described as a pearl-handled nail file, was found in the folds of Catherine’s parasol.

The newspapers loved the sordid drama of the Neill couple’s story, likening Catherine to Evelyn Nesbit (the original Gibson Girl). Evelyn’s husband, the psychotically jealous Harry Thaw, shot and killed her former lover, architect Stanford White, in front of a large crowd at Madison Square Garden in June 1906. The only similarity between the two cases was that both Catherine and Evelyn were pretty young women from the lower rungs of society who’d worked in New York City as artist’s models and chorus girls. Harry Thaw, the son of a wealthy family, was tried twice for the White murder, with the second trial ending in a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. After a few years at a cushy asylum, from which he escaped, Harry got a third trial where he was found not guilty and set free.

Not having access to expensive defense lawyers like the ones who represented Harry Thaw, Catherine pleaded guilty to manslaughter on May 22, 1907. The judge sentenced her to a minimum of five and a maximum of nine years in the Connecticut State Prison. She applied for a pardon after two and a half years in prison, again using the “oops, he fell on my umbrella” explanation for Joseph’s death.

Keeping a lovely young woman cooped up in prison just didn’t seem right. The court bought Catherine’s account and she was granted a pardon just before Christmas in 1909.

Catherine returned to New York City under an assumed name to avoid publicity. As a free woman, the first thing she said she planned to do was embrace her seven-year-old child from her first marriage. A child who, it was reported, was blind from birth.

Featured photos: Catherine O. Neill Bertillon photos, New York City, 1906, Library of Congress

The Girl Who Loved to Dance

The Girl Who Loved to Dance

Reformatory People Think She Will Have to be Tethered on the Lawn

Pinky Dunn, the colored girl, who is in the county jail waiting for Judge Dale to repent and modify his sentence by sending her to Beloit instead of putting her with the boys at the Hutchinson Reformatory, will not get her wish. Judge Dale believes she ought to go to the reformatory and she will be taken there probably next week, unless Judge Dale changes his mind, which is not likely. The Hutchinson News, despairing of any hopes of keeping Pinkey out of that town, says the question what to do with the girl at the reformatory is no less knotty problem than at first. There are absolutely no provisions made for taking care of female inmates, and unles (sic) another building is put up especially for the purpose, or Pinkey can be tethered on the lawn, some steps will have to be taken toward the hasty disposal of the girl.

The Wichita Daily Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, December 10, 1899

Tethered on the lawn? What?

The Kansas State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson was going to get a new inmate — a female inmate! Apparently none of the smart lawmakers in Kansas considered the possibility that a judge might send a girl to the reformatory. But the Wichita judge had gotten sick and tired of seeing Pinkie Dunn, so he double-checked and found that the law specified that “persons,” could be incarcerated there and that meant not just male persons.

1899 was a busy year for 17-year-old Pinkie, legally speaking. She’d been accused, along with several other girls, of slashing a man with a razor. Then there was the fancy Easter dress she was suspected of stealing from a woman who employed her as a cook and dishwasher. Not to mention the pocketbook she and another girl were accused of taking right out from under the head of a local chili vendor while the woman slept, and then going back into the shop and buying some chili with the proceeds of the theft. That took real nerve!

The final straw was when Pinkie was accused of sneaking into the hotel room of a male traveler and stealing his gold watch — she was jailed, tried and convicted of grand larceny. Judge Dale decided to make an example by sending her to a prison that wasn’t built to house female prisoners. Reformatory officials were not happy and, immediately after she arrived, they granted her parole and set her free. She was ordered to return to her hometown of Wichita and given a train ticket for that purpose.

Pinkie was a middle child of 13 children born to Ephriam and Fannie (Kidd) Dunn. Eight of the Dunn children survived to adulthood. Her family moved from Louisiana to Kansas in the late 1880s when she was a small girl.

Pinky Dunn envelope

Instead of going back home to Wichita after she was freed, Pinkie went to Salina, Kansas. She was arrested there in February 1902 for being drunk and disorderly and for picking $12 from a man’s pocket. This was a parole violation so Pinkie was sent back to the reformatory. The laws had changed since her earlier conviction and this time she was moved to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas. The state pen was able to accommodate both men and women.

Pinkie became famous at the penitentiary for her dancing. Apparently the female department hosted shows for the prisoners and Pinkie was considered to be an artist with her feet. No one could “hoe it down” like Pinkie, who danced up a storm when she got onto the stage. Born in a later age, she might have used her talents and energy to make it as a dancer on Broadway.

Pinkie’s life after she was released from the penitentiary did not improve. She tied the knot with Charles W. Kuntz in 1907 and the marriage was troubled from the start. Charles had a history of violence that included an attack on a young girl and a fight in which he tried to decapitate another man with a razor.

The honeymoon was barely over when Charles and Pinkie were found guilty of an attack on a local school principal that caused serious, but not life-threatening, injury to the man. The reason for the attack was that the principal had reprimanded Charles’s stepson. Next a policeman discovered Pinkie “behind a bill board with a white man” and Charles assaulted the officer after he tried to arrest Pinkie. She was found guilty of indecent conduct and fined.

Charles landed in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, where he and two other prisoners were killed when they tried to escape in 1914. Four innocent people also died during the incident. Pinkie was not involved in the escape attempt.

Pinkie eventually found her way to California and the latter half of her life is a mystery. She died in San Francisco on December 21, 1940. According to her death record, Mabel, not Pinkie, was the real first name of the girl who loved to dance.

Featured photo: Pinkie (also spelled Pinky and Pinkey) Dunn, Kansas State Penitentiary prisoner 144, Lansing Historical Museum

Murder in Sacramento

Murder in Sacramento

He came up to the room. He had the clothes on his arm. He said that he beat a woman on L street out of them, and finally said he got them off Mrs. Gibson. He said he got her drunk and that he “croaked” her. I do not understand what croaked means. He never told me what it meant. He told me he killed the woman, and that the d — old — would not tell any tales on him. I put the clothes on the bed and afterwards on the rocking-chair. They lay there till the next day. There was a watch and a gold locket among the jewelry. The locket was of a small size and carved. I believe the dresses were all wrapped up in one when he brought them in. The jewelry was in the pockets.

— Testimony of Carrie Spencer, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1873

After Charles Mortimer was arrested for the brutal murder of Mary Shaw Gibson, the Sacramento police took a photograph of him. That photo, along with a rogues’ gallery photo of Mortimer taken sometime before the murder, may be the earliest example of the police using photography to help convict a criminal suspect.

Carrie Spencer_flatOn the morning of September 20, 1872, a passerby discovered the body of Mrs. Gibson at her Sacramento business. Mrs. Gibson, a 45-year-old widow from Ireland, sold groceries and liquor from the front room of her property on Jibboom Street and lived in the back room. Her head was lying in a pool of blood from a deep knife wound to her neck that had severed her jugular vein. She was fully clothed and there were signs that she had put up a fierce struggle with her assailants, because reddish-brown hairs were found tightly clenched in her hand. The police believed she had pulled the hairs from the beard of her attacker during the deadly assault. Cash had been taken from the dead woman’s pocket and clothing and jewelry were missing from her room. A glass of beer on the bedside table was taken as evidence and later found to contain strychnine.

Suspicion quickly focused on an ex-convict named Charles Mortimer and his prostitute “moll,” Carrie Spencer. The pair had been seen drinking in Mrs. Gibson’s establishment on the day of the murder. Dresses and jewelry belonging to the dead woman were found in the couple’s room at the Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel and Mrs. Gibson’s ring was found in Charles’ possession. Charles claimed he purchased Mrs. Gibson’s belongings from a man named “George.”

Mechnic's hotel

Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel, undated photo, Library of Congress

Most damning of all, Charles had a fresh injury to his face and he was missing some of his whiskers. He’d been to the local barber to get his beard trimmed to try and make the missing facial hair less noticeable. Police also found a partially empty packet of strychnine powder in his pocket.

The couple was arrested for the murder and photographed by the police. A comparison of a pre-murder photo of Charles to one taken shortly after the murder clearly shows that he normally sported a beard and it had recently been shaved off. His facial hair was described as being reddish-brown in color.

Charles Mortimer was born Charles Flinn in 1834 in Vermont. He was the eldest of five brothers. His family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was still a child. By the time he was 14 he was in the state reform school in Worcester, where he was described as “idle and dissolute.” He moved west around 1860 and served a one-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in 1862 for a robbery he committed in San Francisco.

Another arrest for assault and robbery followed in 1864. At that time Charles claimed to have reformed and offered to show the police where he buried some stolen loot in exchange for leniency. While pointing out the spot to an officer, who bent down to get a better look, Charles knocked him over the head, grabbed his gun and beat him with it until he thought the man was dead, then made his escape. (The officer eventually recovered). The following year he teamed up with another escaped convict and committed a series of robberies under the name George Foster. These crimes landed him back at San Quentin for a seven-year stretch. Shortly after he was released, in 1872, he met Carrie at a dance hall in San Francisco.

In order to save her own skin, Carrie became the chief witness against Charles at the murder trial. He threatened to kill her if she testified against him, but she had little choice but to cooperate with police if she wanted to avoid being charged as an accessory. She pinned the blame squarely on him, claiming that she knew nothing about Mrs. Gibson’s murder until afterwards, when he showed up at their room with the cash, clothing and jewelry.

Charles was convicted and sentenced to hang. After his conviction he told his version of the story to the press in exchange for money to pay his lawyers. He admitted that he hit Mrs. Gibson with a beer mug, cutting her face and causing her to fall over, but it was Carrie, he insisted, who dealt the deathblow by cutting her throat while he held down the victim’s hands.

A month before the execution date an armed stranger tried to enter the Sacramento Jail, where Charles was being held, in the middle of the night. He was shot and killed by the officer guarding the jail entrance. The man was William John Flinn, Charles’ younger brother. Though he hadn’t seen his brother for many years, William traveled more than 3,000 miles from his home in Massachusetts to Sacramento, hoping to rescue Charles from the gallows.

Charles feigned insanity after the death of his brother but it didn’t help his cause. He was hanged on May 15, 1873. It took him 13 minutes to die. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, near the brother who died trying to save him.

Carrie returned to her previous pimp, James Willis, and resumed her career as a prostitute. In September 1873 she was arrested in Sacramento for trying to entice a young girl into a “house of ill fame.” Later that year, Carrie and James, who had been convicted of vagrancy and asked to leave the city, boarded a train to Stockton. They were seen in San Francisco, where it was reported that James was fined $300 for violently assaulting an African American woman after she refused his offer of drugged beer.

Mrs. Gibson’s family initially was unable to locate her will and were uncertain about how to divide her $13,000 fortune. Her will was finally found in March 1874 among a pile of papers taken from her house. Rather than leaving her estate to all six of her siblings, she left it only to the ones who had followed her instructions and immigrated with her to California, cutting out those who had remained in Ireland.

Featured photo: Charles Mortimer, before and after the murder of Mary Gibson, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Photo of Carrie Spencer, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

The Freedwoman

The Freedwoman

Mary Snowden and Cynthia Walton, two dusky damsels of Eufaula, who have been awaiting trial in the Muskogee jail on a charge of assault to kill, were tried by a jury and the result was a verdict of guilty as to Mary Snowden and acquittal as to Cynthia.

Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Oklahoma), December 7, 1899

Mary Snowden was sentenced to five years hard labor and costs in the federal penitentiary after she was convicted of assault to kill. The 21-year-old had been married for just over a year when she became prisoner #2040 at Leavenworth. Details of the crime were not reported in the newspaper, which likely means the victim was also a person of color.

Matthew Snowden

Matthew Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo

Her husband, Matthew Snowden, was a Creek Freedman. (Matthew’s mother had been a slave of Creek Indians. Emancipated slaves and their children were enrolled as tribal citizens). Matthew had served two stints at Leavenworth by the time he married Mary. Their marriage didn’t last long. In 1902, while she was still in prison, he got married again and the following year he was married a third time. By 1907 Matthew was incarcerated for assault to kill at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. His brothers, Littleton, Joseph and Horace, also served prison terms.

The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.”

According to her marriage license, Mary’s maiden name was Grimmett and she was born in 1879 in Indian Territory. In 1896-97 she was listed with her mother, Mary Hill, on the Indian Territory Census, living in Tahlequah in Cherokee County. Based on her almond-shaped eyes, straight hair and high cheekbones, Mary probably had both Native American and African American ancestry.

Mary appears to have been unfazed by the prospect of going to prison — she stared confidently at the camera with the hint of a smile on her pretty face. Officials at Leavenworth described her as “colored” with “l. mulatto” skin tone, good teeth, dark brown eyes, black hair and a short, slender build. Her religion was Baptist and she was literate. At the time of her incarceration, both of her parents were deceased and she had no children.

Aylesworth Album Collection. - Photographs. - Box 1. FREEDMEN DANCE DURING ENROLLMENT AT FORT GIBSON

Part of what’s intriguing about Mary is what she’s wearing — the tiny, striped straw hat and coarsely woven shirt. A photo taken at a dance during the Freedmen’s enrollment in the Five Civilized Tribes at Fort Gibson, shows the clothing worn by freedwomen around the turn of the century — the small hat and the puffy-sleeved shirt with its ruffled collar are visible. Mary’s beaded necklace is the part of her outfit that may signal her Indian heritage.

Like most of the 12 women sent to Leavenworth, Mary was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, because the federal penitentiary had no facilities for women. If she behaved well and earned “good time,” she would’ve been released in February 1904. Otherwise she would have served her full sentence and been freed in December 1904.

In 1906 she married James Brice, an African American man 12 years her senior. In August 1908, Mary was shot in her thigh (“Williams Causes Darktown Terror”) during an altercation with a jealous, drunken lover named Bub Williams. The wound was described as severe and may have been fatal because, although there was no announcement of her death, Mary’s husband was listed as a widower on the 1910 census.

Mary’s mugshot was one of a handful of early Leavenworth inmate photos that were re-photographed and made available online by National Archives staff. That’s lucky, because her photo is currently missing and may have been stolen from the National Archives in Kansas City, where the Leavenworth inmate files are held.

Featured photo: Mary Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo, 1900. Collection of the National Archives.

Irresistible Appeal

Irresistible Appeal

Boise, Idaho.—Lyda Southard, Idaho’s notorious husband poisoner who is charged with having caused the death of seven persons, has not lost her irresistible appeal for men after nearly 10 years spent behind the gray stone wall of the Idaho State Penitentiary. Her recent escape proves that.

 

Love for the “Woman Blue Beard” nearly two years ago led a prison guard, Jack Watkins, to carry a gas pipe ladder into the yard of the women’s prison, across a driveway from the main prison which houses the male prisoners, and bury it in the flower bed.

 

Love for the modern Lucretia Borgia led an ex-convict, David Minton, who was pardoned scarcely three weeks before, to risk his newly regained freedom by assisting her to escape.

Sedalia Weekly Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri), May 22, 1931

It was only a slight exaggeration to claim that Lyda Southard caused the deaths of seven people. The body count was actually six, including four of Lyda’s husbands, her only child, a tiny daughter, and one brother-in-law.

She was born Lyda May Trueblood on October 16, 1892, in the small town of Keytesville, Missouri. In 1912 she married Robert Dooley in Twin Falls, Idaho. Their baby, Lorraine, was born the following year.

Edward Dooley, Robert’s brother, lived with the couple. Edward fell ill and died in 1915. Robert and Lorraine soon followed Edward to the grave. The deaths were said to be due to food poisoning or some common contagious illness — no one looked too closely in those days. Robert and Lyda received the cash from Edward’s life insurance policy, and Lyda got that, along with the money from Robert’s policy after his death. The amount wasn’t large — a couple thousand dollars total.

The baby wasn’t insured, but she was a burden and wouldn’t help Lyda snag another husband, so apparently she had to go too.

A slight, perky woman with dark, curly hair, blue eyes, and a ready smile, Lyda was no a great beauty but she had a pleasant face and a talent for attracting men. After her brother-in-law, first husband and baby died, she acquired three more husbands in rapid succession. Each one died of supposed “natural causes,” and each left Lyda a tidy life insurance settlement. Red flags didn’t go up until Edward Meyer, a previously healthy 35-year-old Twin Falls ranch foreman, died three weeks after his marriage to Lyda in 1920.

Lyda news editorial

Tongues began to wag when Lyda collected the insurance money, sold her property and left town shortly after putting Edward into the ground. Twin Falls Sheriff, E.R. Sherman, assigned his deputy, Virgil “Val” Ormsby, to investigate Edward’s death. Ormsby’s search led to one of Lyda’s homes and a basement full of flypaper coated with arsenic. The bodies of Lyda’s husbands and her brother-in-law and child were exhumed and autopsied. All the adults’ bodies were all found to contain arsenic.

The police hunt was on for the one person connected to all the men, now presumed to be murder victims — Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer. By the time she was located she had added another husband to her list.

She was found in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the side of husband number five, Paul Southard. She had tried and failed to get Paul, a Naval Officer, to take out life insurance on himself with his blushing new bride as the beneficiary.

Lyda_Southard mugshotProfessing her innocence, she agreed to return to Idaho, where she was tried and found guilty of murder in the second degree for the death her fourth husband, Edward Meyer. Prosecutors also submitted evidence that Lyda killed the other men using tea and lemonade laced with arsenic. Sentenced to 14 years to life, off to the Idaho State Penitentiary Lyda went. Paul Southard filed for divorce.

For the next ten years, Lyda sat in prison, planning her next adventure. On a moonlit night in May 1931, she cut the bars on her cell window using a saw provided by Jack Watkins, a prison guard who’d become smitten with her. (Jack died before her escape, presumably of natural causes). A ladder, buried earlier near the prison wall by Jack, allowed Lyda to scale the 16-foot wall, and a rope, made of torn blankets tied to heavy flower boxes, helped her reach the ground on the other side. There she leaped into the waiting arms of David Minton, an ex-con who’d recently been released from the same penitentiary. David had fallen in love with “Mrs. Bluebeard” and risked his newly gained freedom to break her out of prison. He had a car waiting nearby and the pair sped away.

 

The romance with David didn’t last long (though he survived it and was eventually arrested for his part in Lyda’s escape). She remained free for the next 15 months, during which time she married her sixth husband, Harry Whitlock, in Denver. But by July 1932, Harry had gotten wise to Lyda’s identity and, perhaps worried for his own safety, he turned her in. He arranged to have her go to a post office in Topeka, Kansas, where police were waiting — they sent her back to the penitentiary. Harry applied for the $500 reward offered for his wife’s arrest.

Before she returned to prison, a reporter asked Lyda how she’d been so successful at getting men to marry her. A smile played at her lips as she replied, “I don’t care to answer that.” The reporter persisted. He wanted to know if she confessed to murdering any of her husbands at her trial. “No,” was her answer. “Did you ever feel as if you wanted to?” wondered the reporter. “No, I never felt I was guilty,” was Lyda’s cleverly worded response.

She was given a six-month probationary release from the penitentiary on October 2, 1941, and moved to Oregon to live with a sister. Her full pardon came a year and a half later. It was rumored that Lyda married for a seventh time in the 1940s. If true, her husband was a brave man.

In 1958 Lyda, aged 65, collapsed on a city street in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ten minutes later she was dead of a heart attack.

Featured photos: Left: News photo of Lyda Trueblood, taken before her trial in Twin Falls, Idaho, October 6, 1921. Right: News photo of Lyda with her captors, Deputy Sheriff Val Ormsby, rear left, and Sheriff E.R. Sherman, rear right, same date and location.