How Mabel Got Away With Murder

How Mabel Got Away With Murder

Shots rang out at the Milwaukee Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown around noon on Thursday, April 22, 1915. The police arrived and found George Grasty lying on the floor in a third floor washroom. He was severely injured, with a bullet wound to his abdomen and another in his right hip. The police located the shooter — a young woman — in a guest room on the fourth floor. Her gun was sitting on a nearby dresser. When she was told that Grasty was seriously injured and might die, she cried, “I am sorry.”

The woman was taken to jail. Grasty was taken to the hospital, where he died of his injuries the following day.

Three months earlier, Grasty had been released from McNeil Island Penitentiary, a federal prison off the coast of Washington State, after serving a 9 month sentence. He’d been convicted of violating the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act. The law was passed in 1910 out of concerns that men, particularly immigrants and African-Americans, were luring young white women and girls into prostitution. But it was also often used in cases in which an unmarried man and woman crossed state lines together.

george grasty record

Unfortunately the press didn’t cover Grasty’s case.

George Grasty was born in 1886 in Culpeper County, Virginia. His father, Enoch Homer Grasty, was a mixed race man who was born into slavery in 1846. Enoch may have been the son of his slaveholder, William Clark Grasty. An early graduate of Howard University, Enoch Grasty raised a large family in Culpeper, where he worked as a farmer, teacher and pastor. George was the fourth of seven children born to Enoch and his first wife, Fannie Bickers.

In 1913 Grasty worked as a barber in Billings, Montana. His penitentiary record indicates that in 1914, before he was imprisoned on McNeil Island, he worked as a waiter and a barber in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He also had a wife in Minneapolis.

When he got out of prison in January 1915, Grasty made his way to Seattle.

Martha Kawata to plead insanity - Newspapers.com

According to the story the shooter later told the court, her husband, Sueki Kawata, was armed with a gun and out looking for her when she happened to meet George Grasty, an old acquaintance from Montana. He offered to hide her overnight and she accepted. She and Grasty spent the next eight days drinking and smoking opium together. She claimed that due to his light complexion and pale eyes, she thought Grasty was white.

The party came to an abrupt end when she found out that Grasty had stolen a diamond necklace from her. An argument ensued and she shot him. However she also claimed Grasty had forced her to take the drugs and gloated over her while she was helpless from their effects. She claimed he told her that she had no choice but to go with him and live in a house “below the line” where she would have to work as a prostitute.

The big question on everyone’s mind was not why she shot and killed a man, but why had she married a Japanese man? The shooting of Grasty evidently seemed like a minor faux pas by comparison. Literally no one in Seattle spent any time crying over “the white slaver’s” fate.

“I married Kawata because he was good to me. He has been kind. He has cared a great deal for me and has stuck with me through this trouble, too,” she explained. But it is strange that someone so kind and caring had gone looking for her armed with a gun. Perhaps he heard she was with Grasty and took the gun in case things got ugly.

She came off as well spoken and educated when reporters visited her in jail. She was described as wearing conservative clothing that she kept neat and clean and never wearing makeup. Her husband visited her daily in jail, where he sat outside her cell.

At her trial for murder, the public was thrilled by the details of the time she and Grasty spent in opium dens prior to the murder. Because of all the opium she’d smoked, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to the Medical Lake Insane Asylum in eastern Washington for an evaluation of her mental state.

Six months later she was found to be sane and released from custody. There’s no doubt about it — she played her cards right and got away with murder.

She probably did have a rough childhood. She claimed that before she met Sueki, all men had been cruel to her. “If I cared for them they cared nothing for me. Once I loved a man who beat me,” she said. But she also lied about her name and her past. After she was arrested, she told the police her name was Martha Kawata. She claimed that she was born in Tennessee, but various genealogical records also list her as having been born in South Dakota and Missouri.

There’s no record of her existence prior to her marriage in October 1913 to Sueki Kawata under the name “Mabel Worthington.” It could be that she was orphaned when she was a child or that she ran away from home. It’s also possible that she had a criminal record and the name she used on the marriage record was an alias.

Sueki Kawata sued Mabel for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and desertion in 1919. Both remarried, but by 1940, both were again divorced. Sueki and his son from his second marriage, Harry, were interned at the Minidoka Concentration Camp in Idaho during World War II. Sueki died in Seattle in 1952. Mabel’s death date is unknown.

As for George Grasty, did his family back east mourn his death? Did they ever even find out what happened to him?

Featured Images: George Grasty’s mugshots from McNeil Island Penitentiary (National Archives) and a photo of Mabel Kawata published in the The Seattle Star on May 3, 1915

Davidson_978-1-4766-8254-9I’m very pleased to announce that my biography of the infamous criminal, Sophie Lyons, will be released soon. The research and writing of the book took about two years, but I think it was worth it!

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.

00464867

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.

 

 

“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.

Gambling with Gangsters

Gambling with Gangsters

Large amounts of money have been found cleverly concealed about the persons of J. J. Kellogg and J. MacDonald, held here for questioning. The men were arrested Wednesday as suspicious characters.

— The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), October 12, 1931

Nothing says “crook” quite like cash concealed in your clothing. One man had $1400* ($23,172) in hundred dollar bills sewn in the lining of his coat sleeve. His pal had $560 ($9,269) in hidden compartments in the instep and heel of his shoe.

They were spotted hanging around the downtown streets of Washington, Iowa, on the evening of October 8, 1931. Earlier in the day they’d checked into the Colenso Hotel on the town’s main drag. The coat cash man said his name was J. J. Kellogg and James McDonald was who the shoe cash man claimed to be. After the pair booked into the hotel, they’d inquired about what time the local banks opened their doors.

Naturally the cops wanted to know who they were and what they were up to.

J. J. Kellogg, who looked like he walked out of central casting for the role of a two-bit gangster in an Edward G. Robinson film, stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington where most of the townsfolk were farmers. With the fedora, cigar, lean, hungry face and suspicious eyes — he might as well have had “gangster” tattoed on his forehead.

He was taken into custody for having false license plates on his car. The police then discovered that one of the many names he used was Riley Gaffigan. They suspected that Riley and his buddy James had been part of a gambling con pulled the previous January in Springfield, Illinois.

Abe Lincoln Hotel Springfield

Hotel Abraham Lincoln

The victim of that con was Myrtle Tanner Blacklidge, the tax collector for the second wealthiest district in the United States — the northern part of Illinois, which included Chicago. Myrtle went to the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in Springfield on January 22, 1931. There she played the card game faro with three men in a hotel room. The men told Myrtle she’d won $207,000 ($3,426,258) but they claimed her win was “on paper.” They wanted Myrtle to fork over $50,000 ($827,598) cash to replace a check she’d provided to get into the game. Only then, they said, could they give her the winnings.

Though she had a well-paying job, Myrtle had expensive tastes and was desperate for cash. She’d lost both her adult son and her husband to illness within weeks of each other the previous year. She borrowed the $50,000 in $1000 bills from a friend — defeated Chicago mayoral candidate, Edward Litsinger. Of course Litsinger, like any Chicago pol worth his salt, expected something in return for the loan. Myrtle promised him $10,000 ($165,519) of her winnings.

She rejoined the card players and handed over the $50,000 cash, but she was unable to resist a little more gambling. She lost the whole $50,000 but figured she still had $157,000  ($2,598,659) coming to her. The men told her to wait in the room while they went to get the remainder of her winnings. They never reappeared. “I realized I had been duped,” she later commented.

Litsinger said Myrtle lied to him about why she needed the money, telling him it was to complete a “business deal,” not to gamble. He promised to sue her. Then it was revealed that it was actually Litsinger’s nephew, Fred Litsinger, the tax reviewer for northern Illinois, who’d handed over his uncle’s cash. Fred had done a bit of gambling himself at the time. Hoping to avoid bad publicity for his family, Edward dropped the lawsuit.

Myrtle resigned from her tax revenue job due to the scandal.

George Perry, known in Chicago as “Big George” Parker, was shot to death in his home in South Bend, Indiana, a few months later. Myrtle identified him as one of the three men who’d taken her in the faro game.

The authorities thought they’d found the remaining two men when the Iowa police arrested Riley and James. In addition to the cash hidden in their clothes and shoes the men carried a substantial number of used cashier’s checks with the details erased out. Police believed their current racket was to start poker games with local farmers, paying out their losses with the bogus checks.

Not wanting to personally confront the gangsters, Myrtle and Fred were unwilling to go to Iowa to identify the men. Myrtle looked at photos of Riley and James and said she thought they weren’t the ones. The men each paid hefty $500 ($8,275) fines for driving with illegal license plates on their car and were released. They melted into the criminal underworld and weren’t heard from again under the names they’d used in Washington, Iowa.

No one was ever arrested for the faro game con.

Myrtle and pals

Myrtle’s troubles continued when the wife of a policeman sued her for $100,000 ($1,837,537) in 1934, claiming Myrtle had stolen the affections of her husband. Torrid love letters from Myrtle to “Denny, Darling” were produced in court as evidence. The jury awarded $7,500 ($140,815) to the wife, and Myrtle, unable to pay, was sent to jail. Ironically the policeman’s wife was required to pay Myrtle’s jail boarding fees — 50 cents ($9) per day!

In her last years Myrtle lived in a Chicago nursing home, where she wrote for the monthly newspaper, “The Optimist.” She died at the home in 1958, aged 79.

*Note: U.S. dollars were converted to 2018 values using an inflation calculator and are listed in parentheses.

Featured photos: mugshots (?) identified on the reverse as “James J. Kellog, alias Billie Gafney, Laferty.” Collection of the author.

The Unlawful Operation

The Unlawful Operation

SYDNEY.—In the Darlinghurst sessions on Thursday, Harold George Hooper, 34, picture show installer; Thomas Bernard Hooper, 39, agent; Michael Sayegh, 26, formerly a medical student; Nancy Cowman, 18, picture show attendant, and Vera Crichton, 23, married woman, were charged with having conspired together for the purpose of the performance of an unlawful operation.

The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), July 11, 1924

It was a stuff up from start to finish, (that’s a “screw up” in America) beginning with the age-old story of boy meets girl, falls in lust with girl, gets girl pregnant. However the boy in this case was a 34-year-old man who was already married and had no intention of leaving his wife, so what to do? His plan was to spirit his 19-year-old girlfriend off to the big city where the pregnancy could be ended with no one the wiser. But you know what they say about even the best-laid plans, and these certainly weren’t in that category.

Isabella Higgs

Mug shot of Isabella Higgs, 21 February 1924, Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

The story begins in Braidwood, a small town 175 miles southwest of Sydney, Australia. The year is 1923 and Harold Hooper, known as “Dick” to his many friends, went to Braidwood from Sydney to set up a “picture show,” (aka movie theater). Dick and a local girl, Isabella Higgs, met by chance one day in August and struck up an acquaintance. Isabel, described in the news as a “sturdily-built country girl,” came from a poor Braidwood family and worked as a servant.

Soon Dick and Isabel were seeing a lot of each other. According to an account of the case in The Truth, a scandal sheet newspaper, “She met him almost every night, and each time they defied conventions which prescribe that it is wrong for a single miss to dally in company dangerous to her chastity.” In plain language, they had sex, a lot of sex.

In late September Isabel told Dick she thought she was pregnant. Dick brought her a box of pills and told her to take them and they would take care of the “problem.” The pills didn’t work and soon “she found her condition reaching a serious stage.”

Dick ran back to Sydney where, he claimed, he had pressing business obligations. He asked a friend, Michael Sayegh, to go to Braidwood for him, partly for the picture business but also to meet with Isabel. Michael, a Syrian immigrant, was a commercial traveler, however he’d been a medical student at the University of Sydney. He’d dropped out of medical school in his fourth year due to financial difficulties, but he still had some medical instruments and told Dick he knew how to perform an “unlawful operation.” This operation was illegal in Australia at the time.

Michael met with Isabel and confirmed that she was about three months pregnant. Then he broke the news to her that Dick was already married and had a young son. He told Isabel that if she would go to Sydney he would perform an operation on her. Isabel wasn’t convinced this was a good plan, but she also wasn’t thrilled about telling her father about her predicament.

Vera Crichton

Mug shot of Vera Crichton, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

Dick, always ready with an excuse, said he had kidney trouble and couldn’t travel to Braidwood, so he sent his brother, Thomas Bernard “Burn” Hooper, age 39, and Vera Crichton, a 23-year-old married woman, to talk Isabel into coming to Sydney. Vera told Isabel she’d had the operation herself and it was entirely safe. Isabel agreed to the plan but only if she got to see Dick before she had the operation. It was now late January 1924.

The group set off in a hired car that broke down several times. In addition to Burn, Vera, and Michael, Nancy Cowman, an 18-year-old picture show attendant described as “young and pretty, with pouting red lips” came along on the trip. After many stops and starts due to car trouble the travelers finally made it to Sydney.

None of the news articles explained why Michael, Nancy and Vera got involved in the project. Maybe they owed Dick a few favors. Burn was Dick’s brother and evidently he was motivated by family loyalty.

Meanwhile Isabel’s family had no idea where she’d gone so they reported her to the police as a missing person. They were concerned that she’d been kidnapped or, worse, that she might be dead. The police began to search for Isabel.

In Sydney Michael rented a room for Isabel on Surrey Street in Darlinghurst, a neighborhood then known for razor gangs, sly-grog houses (that’s a speakeasy if you’re a Yank), drug dealing and prostitution. If someone were looking for a place to perform an operation with no questions asked, Darlinghurst would be a perfect choice. Nancy and Isabel stayed together in the room several days with Dick popping by nightly to reassure Isabel that the operation would be fine. Michael stopped in a few times with powders for Isabel to take, but he didn’t perform the operation. He was probably hoping the drugs would cause a miscarriage.

A few days later Michael was finally ready to begin the operation. But before he started, Nancy showed up and told him that Vera and Burn had been arrested and interviewed about Isabel’s disappearance. They’d given statements to the police that Isabel was alive and well but the darned police wanted proof. They wanted Isabel in the flesh. Michael packed up his instruments and the three of them bolted.

Dick took Isabel and Nancy to a parsonage in Maroubra, a beachside suburb of Sydney. The parson was a friend of Dick’s who didn’t ask a lot of questions. (Where did Dick get such devoted friends?) The girls hid out in Maroubra for the next ten days. Dick promised Isabel that if she kept her mouth shut that after she had the baby he would give her a pound a week until the child turned 14. Generous Dick.

The police told Vera and Burn they couldn’t have bail until Isabel was located alive and well. On February 20, 1924 Isabel, Nancy and Dick turned themselves to the police. The now-famous mug shots of Nancy, Isabel and Vera were taken the following day. Unfortunately the mug shots of the men apparently didn’t survive.

Dick, Burn, Vera, Nancy and Michael were charged with “conspiracy to bring about a result by the illegal use of an instrument.” In those days no one ever dared utter the word “abortion.”

No charges were brought against Isabel. She returned to Braidwood, where she had the baby. She brought the baby to the trial of the five conspirators in July.

The cowardly Dick claimed he wasn’t the father of the baby. He insisted he was just trying to be a Good Samaritan by bringing Isabel to Sydney where she could secretly have the baby. The jury must have had trouble keeping a straight face.

Dick, Burn and Vera were convicted but the jury couldn’t agree on Nancy and Michael. Dick and Burn appealed their convictions and were retried. Burn was acquitted but Dick was convicted again, however he was released without being sentenced to prison. Vera also appealed and got a new trial but for some strange reason it never took place and she was released from custody. At the second trial of Nancy and Michael, Nancy was acquitted. Michael, the Syrian immigrant who was described as being from a “highly-respected family and who had been a brilliant scholar while at the University” was convicted and sentenced to 12 months hard labor. His sentence was upheld on appeal.

The story was reported all over Australia, including in some articles that were illustrated. Though it’s a tragic tale it had one positive outcome — it left us with a group of fascinating mug shot photos. They’re in the collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum in Sydney, which has generously scanned and uploaded them to their web site, along with others taken around the same period. The photos are so interesting and unusual that they’ve been used and abused all over the Internet, so it seemed to me like a good idea to tell the story of the real people and try to set the record straight. Then everyone can go back to colorizing them, drawing them, putting them on coasters, using them as avatars, whatever.

If you want to read more stories of the people in the Justice &​ Police Museum mug shot photos, I highly recommend the book Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle.

Featured photo: Mug shot of Nancy Cowman, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

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.

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.