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!

The Japanese Butler

The Japanese Butler

On April 25, 1900, Sanichi Kanda waited with about 50 other young Japanese men to board a British steamship, the Sikh, which sat in the port of Yokohama, Japan. The ship had arrived a day earlier from Kobe with about 150 people, mostly young men, on board. Its final destination, the United States of America, was halfway around the world. Born in Tokyo in 1880, Sanichi had $31 in his pocket and would turn 20 on May 10, three days before they landed in Tacoma, Washington. He knew he wouldn’t see his parents, Junnosuke and Somi, or his homeland again.

Yokahama port

The Port of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in an undated photo.

A lean, handsome man, Sanichi had only attended school for six years, but he was able to speak, read and write English. After he arrived in the United States he worked for a couple of years in Seattle as a tailor, but he was restless. He boarded a train heading east.

He arrived in Maryland and was hired to work for Mrs. Louise Brinkmann at “Oakwood,” her enormous Queen Anne-style home in Catonsville, just west of Baltimore. Mrs. Brinkmann, who was born in New Jersey, came from a German family that had made a fortune in the sugar business. She married August Helmuth Brinkmann, a successful German-born businessman, in 1879 and they had three sons. They separated in 1900, with Mr. Brinkmann returning to Germany. Before they parted company Mrs. Brinkmann obtained a tidy financial settlement from her husband.

Oakwood

“Oakwood,” Mrs. Brinkmann’s home in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1904.

Mrs. Brinkmann employed several servants at her estate, including a housekeeper and a coachman. She was a busy woman with an active social life who did a lot of charity work. She also made frequent trips out of town to visit family and friends. Unfortunately, paying the wages of her servants was not at the top of her to-do list.

Sanichi became impatient when his wages weren’t paid. He realized it was wrong to steal, but he also knew that if he complained, the authorities were unlikely to take the word of a Japanese immigrant over the word of a wealthy American lady. He took a valuable diamond ring from her home and headed to Washington, D.C., where he pawned the ring for $60. She reported the theft to the police.

Mrs. Brinkman

Mrs. Brinkmann behind the wheel of one of her automobiles.

Sanichi soon found job a working as a servant for Mrs. Howard Kingscote, an English woman staying temporarily in Staunton, Virginia. Like Mrs. Brinkmann, Mrs. Kingscote hailed from a good family and was separated from her husband. She was also an accomplished novelist, writing under the pen name “Lucas Cleeve,” in the bodice-ripper genre, a subject area with which she had extensive personal familiarity. Though no one in Staunton knew it at the time, she’d had to make a quick exit from her homeland after it was discovered that she’d seduced and bilked several men, causing their financial ruin. Her financial troubles continued in America, where eventually she’d be kicked out of several hotels for non-payment of her bills.

S. Kanda advertisement for employment - Newspapers.com

It didn’t take long for Sanichi to figure out that Mrs. Kingscote was even less likely to pay him on time than Mrs. Brinkmann, so he left the job. Undaunted by his previous bad luck with employers, he placed an ad in various newspapers seeking work as a butler and valet. He might not have been caught for the theft of the ring except that he used his real name in the ads. The Baltimore police traced him through the ad and sent two detectives to his rooming house.

At first he denied taking the ring, but after some conversation with the detectives he admitted the theft. He explained he’d only done it because he hadn’t been paid. Nonetheless they arrested him and took him to Baltimore to face charges. He pleaded guilty to a charge of petty larceny and was sentenced to six months in the Maryland House of Correction (aka “The Cut”) on October 25, 1905.

After he was released from prison Sanichi decided he’d had enough of working as a servant to white ladies. He returned to Washington State and found work as a laborer in an oyster camp in Vaughn, a village on the Key Peninsula. There he met Daisy Lillian Tuthill, a young woman from Connecticut. Daisy and her only sibling, her younger brother, Frank, had been orphaned as children. They moved to Vaughn to live with their grandparents. Frank died in 1908 when he was just 20 years old.

Sanichi asked Daisy to marry him and she accepted. They applied for a marriage license near the end of September 1910. There was only one problem — officials in Seattle refused to grant the license because he was Asian and she was white. Next they applied for the license in Tacoma because they heard that two other mixed-race couples had received marriage licenses there. The state auditor was not happy about it, but he admitted there was no law against granting them the license. “We can take our time investigating the applications and they may get tired of waiting,” the auditor commented. In fact Washington was the only state in the western U.S. and one of only eight in the nation where inter-racial marriage was legal at the time. The couple waited patiently and the license was eventually granted. A justice of the peace married Sanichi and Daisy on November 5, 1910 in Mason County, Washington.

By 1915 the Kandas had three children: Eugene, George and Lillian. Sanichi continued to work as an oysterman and oyster culler in South Bay, north of Olympia. Another son, Richard, joined the family in 1929.

After running the gauntlet to get married, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Sanichi and Daisy’s story were one of happy-ever-after? Sadly that’s not the case. On November 25, 1934, their beautiful daughter, Lillian, was shot and killed on a lonely road in Thurston County, Washington, by Merritt Hunter, Jr., a jealous high school sweetheart, after she tried to break off her relationship with him. Hunter’s father told a news reporter that his son had been behaving irrationally for about a year before the murder. He said that he and his wife were unhappy about the relationship because Lillian was partly of Japanese ancestry.

Hunter in jail - Newspapers.com

News photo of Merritt Hunter in jail after he was arrested for the murder of Lillian Kanda.

Hunter was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison. He was paroled in 1951. Four years after he was released he shot and killed his wife, Elayne, with a .22 caliber rifle. Then he turned the gun on himself, committing suicide.

Sanichi, Daisy and their three sons were sent to Tule Lake War Relocation Center, an internment camp in northern California, on June 4, 1942, after the outbreak of World War II. The camp was constructed for incarceration of Japanese people living in America and Americans of Japanese ancestry, due to irrational fears that they might collaborate with the Japanese. Daisy was not in either category but she was sent to Tule Lake anyway. The Kanda’s sons left the camp shortly after they arrived. Sanichi and Daisy remained at the camp until October 4, 1943.

tule-16

Cabins at the Tule Lake Camp, circa 1944.

After the war ended Sanichi got a job with the railroad. He outlived Daisy, who died in 1962, by one year. They are buried with three of their children and their tiny granddaughter, Karen, in Tumwater, Washington.

Featured photo: Sanichi Kanda, 1905 carte-de-visite mugshot (front and back). Collection of the author.

Thanks to antiques dealer, Nathan Roberts, for selling me a large collection of CDV mugshot cards from Baltimore, including the card of Sanichi Kanda.

 

 

 

East-West Triangle

East-West Triangle

On the night before Midi was killed, I sat in my hotel room and prayed to God. I had procured a butcher knife from the café in which I worked and, as I sharpened it on a whetstone, I prayed to Him for strength. The next morning I went to the Takaoka home and entered Midi’s bedroom. She was as sleep. I awakened her and held her hand. I said ‘Molly, what has happened? You can’t marry Bachand.’ She said ‘Ray, I guess New York has spoiled me.’ She started to get up and put on her stockings. I couldn’t control myself any longer. I struck her many times on the head with a cold chisel then slashed her across the throat with the butcher knife.

— Raymond E. Johnson, confession for the murder of Midi Takoaka

On the morning of August 11, 1936, Ray Johnson, a 39-year-old Los Angeles cook, murdered his lover, 25-year-old Midi Takaoka. The mortally wounded young woman was able to stagger outside to the lawn of her home at 1211 North Commonwealth Avenue, where she collapsed and died.

Midi Taka better pic

Midi Takaoka, Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1936

Mizuye, known as “Midi,” was a professional dancer and singer. She was born in Ehime, Japan, in 1910 to Imahei and Kazuko Takaoka. Midi and her three siblings immigrated with their parents to California in 1918 when she was five.

Midi’s father, Imahei, described as a “fire-and-brimstone Christian minister,” was a founder of the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. When he died of tuberculosis in 1930, aged 45, Midi’s family was left destitute. To help them survive financially, she and her two younger sisters, Mary and Myrtle, formed a vaudeville trio called the Taka Sisters.

Though the Taka sisters weren’t triplets, they billed themselves as “the only Japanese triplets on stage” and it helped them find an audience. They danced around in a routine similar to the “three little maids” from the Mikado, then threw off their kimono and danced to fast jazz. The show was risqué and, after headlining at Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago in 1935, the beautiful sisters became nationally known, performing in nightclubs across the United States.

Taka Sisters

The Taka Sisters, The Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1936

Midi and Ray had known each other for three years. They met at the famous Palomar Dance Hall in Los Angeles, where Ray worked as a cook. He was in love with Midi but the relationship was complicated because he was 14 years older and had a wife who refused to divorce him. Another problem was the laws against interracial marriages that existed in many states at that time.

Midi was tired of waiting for Ray to get himself free. On a trip home, after performing in New York City, she met a new man named William Bachand. While traveling west on the bus, the pair fell head over heels in love. By the time they reached St. Louis, William had proposed marriage and given Midi a ring. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, he asked Midi’s mother for her hand in marriage and apparently Kazuko agreed to the match. William gave Midi a second ring to seal the deal.

The couple went to Yuma, Arizona, on August 9th, to try to get married, but authorities turned them away because Midi was Asian and William was white. Dejected, they returned to Los Angeles.

Johnson and Bachand pics

Rivals: Johnson and Bachand, The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1936

Hearing about Midi’s new love, Ray became enraged. Shortly after the couple got back from Arizona, Ray attacked William, stabbing him five times with an ice pick at the Takaoka home on the night of August 10th. Midi’s younger brother, Hallelujah, pulled Ray off and ordered him to get out. William, not seriously injured, was treated at a local hospital and released. Ray’s jealousy went unquenched, so the following morning he returned to the home, where he murdered Midi and then fled.

A guilt-stricken Ray turned himself in to the sheriff of Corona, California, three days later. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in November 1936. He received a life sentence for the murder, plus 10 years for the ice pick attack. He served his sentence at San Quentin prison. Despite the life sentence, he was paroled after 12 years, in 1948.

William Bachand returned to his home in Massachusetts and promptly got into trouble with the police. In March 1937 he was arrested in Leominster for stealing a bicycle and passing a bad check, all while wearing a stolen army uniform. Police uncovered his romance with the murdered woman and he admitted he lied to Midi about his background, telling her he was born in France and worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He also lied about his age — he was only 18 years old when he met Midi. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to four months in the house of correction. In 1944 he was again in police trouble for larceny and check fraud. Rather than return to prison he skipped town and was also charged as a fugitive from justice.

Midi’s sisters disbanded their act after her murder and never performed again. Due to their Japanese ethnicity, the Takaoka family was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, during Word War II.

California finally repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1948. Arizona’s ban was not repealed until 1962.

Featured image: Raymond E. Johnson’s San Quentin mugshot, California State Archives