Unforgettable Legs

Unforgettable Legs

Short skirts may or may not be a sign of modern depravity, but they registered as a sign of bad luck for Peggy Hudson and her husband, according to reports from Los Angeles. Peggy is now awaiting sentence on a charge of first degree robbery.

Hayward Semi-Weekly Review (Hayward, California), May 15, 1928

Charles Anderson arrived home after a long day at his Los Angeles restaurant, The Red Onion, on the night of March 5, 1928. He pulled his car into the garage, got out of the vehicle and was unpleasantly surprised to discover a man and woman waiting in the shadows for him.

The woman thrust a gun into his ribs and told him to turn out the lights. Once they were extinguished the man ordered Charles onto the ground and tied him up with a piece of rope. Then the couple went through his pockets and robbed him of the day’s profits from the restaurant — $382 cash ($5,640 in 2018).

Before they left the man remarked to Charles, “Guess I’ll have to take your car too. You see I’m an ex-convict and I have to make a quick getaway. Don’t be afraid, though. I don’t want your car and I’ll leave it a couple blocks from here on Reno Street.” And with that puzzling comment, the pair got into his car and drove off into the night.

Charles freed himself and called the police. His car was nowhere to be found.

Bora Hudson has unforgettable legs - Newspapers.com

“I didn’t get a good look at her face, but I saw her legs, and I could pick them out any time,” he told the police. He claimed the legs he’d seen belonged to Nora Hudson, better known as Peggy. She was a woman he’d previously employed as a cashier at his restaurant. He also said he thought he recognized Peggy by her voice but he was less sure of that than he was about her legs. He didn’t know her male companion.

Changes in women’s hemlines in the 1920s meant a lot more leg showed than ever before and naturally men took notice. This careful, possibly even lecherous, observation of his female employee’s legs paid off for Charles. It took two months but the LAPD finally located 20-year-old Peggy by tracing her to her home address on Flower Street in downtown L.A. The police took Peggy and her husband, Willard Hudson, a musician, into custody and booked them on suspicion of robbery.

Was there something unusally memorable about Peggy’s legs? If so it’s not obvious in the news photo.

Williard Hudson mug

California State Archives

Willard’s incriminating comment about having a criminal record turned out to be true. He’d been incarcerated at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.

A pair of slick criminals the Hudsons were not. With time to cool off they likely realized they’d been foolish to rob a man who knew Peggy. Then they compounded their mistake when Willard confessed his criminal background to their victim.

They pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and each was sentenced to five years to life in prison. Willard served his sentence at Folsom Prison and Peggy was sent to San Quentin. She was paroled in August 1931 after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Peggy Hudson must go down in history as the only person ever captured and sent to prison after being identified by her legs.

Featured photo: Nora Hudson, alias Peggy Hudson, July 8, 1928; California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin Mug Book.

The Hungry Wife

The Hungry Wife

Hollywood, Cal., police watching Mrs. Eleanor Hansen, 42, devour a ham and egg breakfast at the police station following her arrest Tuesday for the fatal shooting of her husband, Hans Terkel Hansen, 50, movie studio employe (sic), believe her word that she was “desperate with hunger.”

Des Moines Tribune (Des Moines, Iowa), October 3, 1934

Forty-two-year old Eleanor Hansen looks like she shared a joke with the photographer while he took her mugshot at the California Institution for Women in Tehachapi. Her body language also conveys a cocky “hey bud, let’s get this over with” attitude. Based on the crime she’d committed three months earlier, Eleanor had an impatient streak.

Eleanor went to see her ex-husband, Hans, at his Los Angeles rooming house in early October 1934 because he was behind in his $10 monthly support payment ($191 in 2018). She told him she and their 13-year-old daughter, Barbara, hadn’t eaten in several days. Hans responded with a remark that Eleanor took as an insult, so she shot him twice, killing him instantly.

Eleanor Hansen shoots husband. Photos and details. - Newspapers.

She fled the scene and headed to Barbara’s junior high school where the police arrested her an hour later. She explained that she didn’t go to her ex-husband’s lodgings intending to shoot him, but she simply needed money because she and Barbara were sick from hunger. But his insult was the final straw that tipped her over the edge.

“I killed him because he had it coming. He owed me $400 alimony. I had no money. I went to see him to get money for food, not to kill him,” she told police.

Eleanor Hansen shoots husband. Photos. - Newspapers.comWhen Hans insulted Eleanor he disregarded the old adage “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Not to mention that hunger is high on the pyramid of needs and when it takes over the brain, irrational thoughts and crazy actions can result.

Taking no chances, the police took Eleanor to a restaurant and made sure she got fed before they interrogated her.

His landlady, Ella Horton, said Hans was living on bread he got from the county and had given Eleanor his last 15 cents a few days earlier. She also claimed he’d just recently gotten a job as a film studio carpenter but he hadn’t been paid yet and owed her money too. It was all right, though. I was glad to help him,” she said.

Could jealousy have played a role in Hans’s murder?

Eleanor Hansen goes to prison. Next to article about Gloria VandThe son of Danish immigrants, Hans was born in Nebraska and worked on his family’s farm as a young man. According to news reports he’d worked as an astrologer and had several film star clients. He’d also been employed an instructor at the Hollywood School of Astrology and had several other careers along the way. He was married and divorced prior to his marriage to Eleanor and he lost custody of his son from the previous marriage to his ex-wife’s new husband, so father of the year he was not.

Eleanor must have been convinced that Hans had some money squirreled away or something worth pawning, because she took a gun with her when she confronted him at his rooming house. Of course it’s possible she planned to kill him and the late alimony payment was just a cover, however she was convicted of second-degree murder, which argues against planning.

Sentenced to five years to life,“I still think I got a rotten deal,” Eleanor commented before she went to prison. Apparently death seemed to her to be a less rotten deal than imprisonment. Looking prosperous, Eleanor cast a glance over her shoulder on her way to Tehachapi and a news photographer captured the moment.

By 1940 Eleanor was an inmate in the Stockton State Hospital for the Insane. Barbara spent her teen years in foster care, but mother and daughter were reunited at some point because she and her children were mentioned in Eleanor’s obituary. Eleanor spent her later years in Auburn, California, where she died at the age of 71 on April 6, 1964.

Featured photo: Eleanor M. Hansen, prison mugshot. Collection of the California State Archives in Sacramento.

Thanks to Kate Griffiths for suggesting this story for Captured and Exposed. If you haven’t read Kate’s blog, Photobooth Journal, check it out!

Henry King’s Mysterious Mugshots

Henry King’s Mysterious Mugshots
301px-Henry_King_(director)_1915

Henry King in 1915

Henry King was about as squeaky clean as they come in a place as rife with scandal as Hollywood. He was married to the same woman, a silent film actress named Gypsy Abbott, until her death in 1952. He and Gypsy raised four children and lived in the same beautiful home at 645 S. Muirfield Road in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

He came from a farming family in Christiansburg, Virginia. He dropped out of high school and worked on the railroads for a time. He stumbled into acting when he accompanied a friend to an audition and got an offer to try out for a part. It turned out he had a talent for it.

He moved on from being a theatrical actor to acting in Hollywood movies, where he got in on the ground floor, just as motion pictures were taking hold. He went on to become a film director and he worked at various studios, including 20th Century Fox. He made nearly 70 films over a career that spanned almost 40 years. He was nominated twice for an Oscar for Best Director.

He was an avid pilot who enjoyed scouting film locations in his personal plane. Though he was 55 years old when the United States got involved in World War II, he served as a deputy commander of the Civil Air Patrol.

He died, aged 96, of a heart attack in his sleep at his California home in 1982.

There is no record of any wrongdoing on the part of Henry Edmondson King, in 1939 or at any other time during his long life, according to newspapers and online biographies. He was a decent man who got along with temperamental actors and demanding studio heads alike. Unlike many Hollywood celebrities, he didn’t have a big ego. He was calm on the set and efficient at his craft. Sure, he made a lot of money, but that’s not a crime in America.

Henry King stand up_marked

The only dishonest thing he ever did that I was able to discover was to tell the occasional fib about his height. On his 1918 World War I draft registration card he claimed to be 6’2.5” tall. On a 1922 passport application he said he was 6’6” tall. His “stand-up” photo indicates he was about 5’11” but he was older when it was taken, so who knows. Maybe he had osteoporosis.

Why did the NYPD take mugshots of Henry on April 28, 1939? And they were not just any mugshots, but a set of both the standard front and side photos along with the “stand up” photo of his full body. He looks calm and composed in the photos, with an expression on his face that gives absolutely nothing away. But he was an actor so it’s not surprising that he was able to carefully control his face.

Were the photos taken as a publicity stunt for a film about crime in New York City? If so the film was never made. In 1939 King was probably working on Little Old New York, a film about the life of engineer Robert Fulton as he worked to build the first steam-powered ship in America. The movie was released in February 1940 and, according to imdb, some of the scenes in it were filmed on location in New York City.

Does the number 41144 have some meaning? Is it a hidden code? Or is it just the number Henry was given when he was arrested, if he was arrested.

Henry, your mugshots are very intriguing. What’s the story behind them?

Henry King mugshot back

The reverse side of Henry King’s mug shot photos.

Featured photos: Front and side mug shot photos of Henry King, taken on April 28, 1939 by the NYPD. Collection of the author.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Baby For Sale

Baby For Sale

Juvenile officers today filed a petition in Juvenile Court asking that Ronald Bacus, 18 months of age, who was reported on sale for $150 be declared an abandoned child.

The Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1936

Mrs. H. H. Moore and her husband weren’t able to have biological children. Cora Mae Bacus responded to their newspaper ad in which they described how they hoped to find a baby to adopt. Cora told Mrs. Moore she had an 18-month-old baby boy that she wasn’t able to care for. She was looking for a good family to adopt him.

It all sounded like the answer to Mrs. Moore’s prayers until Cora mentioned that she needed $150 to seal the deal. Mrs. Moore became suspicious about Cora’s motives and worried about the safety of the child. She reported Cora to the Long Beach police.

The police asked Mrs. Moore to tell Cora that she was willing to “purchase” the child and asked her to arrange a meeting. The women met on November 15, 1936, but instead of receiving cash for the baby, Cora was arrested. It turned out she also had another buyer for the boy — a Mrs. Helen Pace. She’d offered the baby to Helen for the cut-rate price of $50.

Cora was married to a bus driver named Roland Leo Bacus. The Bacuses were in their mid-30s and lived in Long Beach, California. Both had previous marriages and Cora had a teenage daughter from her first marriage.

The police investigated birth records at Long Beach Hospital and discovered that the birth certificates on file showed that Cora had a baby girl named Ramona Loy Bacus on March 18, 1935. But to their surprise she was also listed as having had a baby boy, Ronald Leroy Bacus, on May 17, 1935. Ronald was the baby Cora planned to sell.

Cora, Roland and RamonaObviously only one of the babies was Cora’s. She claimed Ramona was her biological child. Ignoring the fact that the boy baby was listed as hers in hospital records, Cora told the police that a woman named Sue Weiner left Ronald with her in June 1935 and never returned for him.

The police went to the address for Sue that Cora gave them in Huntington Beach, about 15 miles south of Long Beach. The woman who lived there insisted she didn’t know Cora and that the baby boy wasn’t hers. He was declared an abandoned child and placed in a foundling home.

Cora was arraigned on two felony counts of trying to sell a human being. The count related to the offer to Helen Pace was later dropped. Cora pleaded not guilty to the remaining charge.

Her trial began in Long Beach Superior Court on January 12, 1937. Cora’s lawyers explained to the court that the $150 she’d requested was not a fee but simply compensation for what she’d spent while caring for Ronald.

A month after the trial began the Deputy D.A., Clarence Hunt, told the court he didn’t believe he could get a conviction. The charge against Cora was dismissed and she was set free.

On October 29, 1937, Cora was granted a divorce from Roland Bacus.

Cora either lost custody of Ramona or she gave her little girl up. By 1940, according to the federal census, Ramona Loy had been adopted by a couple named Eugene and Donna Norman. She grew up on a ranch in San Bernardino, California, where she loved to read and played volleyball and basketball. She died in San Diego in 1999.

After she divorced Roland, Cora had at least two more husbands and he had a couple more wives. Then Cora and Roland decided to give marital bliss another spin. They got remarried in Los Angeles in April 1966. Their second divorce came in September 1972. Both ended their days in Washington State — he died in 1975 and she died at the age of 94 in 1997.

Of all the people involved in this incident, baby Ronald is the one I’m most curious about. He’s not listed in the California Birth Index under the name “Ronald Bacus” and none of the 41 baby boys born on May 17, 1935 in L.A. County had a mother whose maiden name was “Weiner.” The 1937 Long Beach City Directory lists a “Bertha S. Weiner” who was unmarried and worked as a cashier at a grocery store. She and the Bacus family lived only three blocks apart on Cherry Avenue. If Cora was telling the truth about the mother’s name it’s possible Bertha S. Weiner was Ronald’s mother, but there’s no way to prove it now.

Having a baby out-of-wedlock would have been extremely embarrassing for a woman in those days. Perhaps Cora wanted to help the baby’s mother out and offered to raise him as her own, then had marital troubles and realized it wasn’t going to work out. So she came up with another plan, one that worked out very badly for her.

After Cora’s case was dismissed baby Ronald vanished from news reports and I couldn’t locate him in any later records. He was probably adopted and given a new name. Hopefully he grew up with a good family and had a wonderful life.

Featured photo: news photo of the mugshot of Cora May Bacus, December 12, 1936. 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.

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

BERKELEY. March 27. — The surgeon’s knife will be used in an attempt to reform Mrs. Jean Thurnherr, the notorious girl burglar. Specialists have declared that the girl, who was injured while disguised as a cowpuncher in Arizona, has never recovered from a blow on her head received while breaking a horse, and that this injury causes her to steal.

The San Francisco Call, Mar 28, 1911

It all began in 1903, when 14-year-old Bessie Barclay, later known as Jean Thurnherr, ran away from her Los Angeles home. She went to San Pedro, a community south of Los Angeles, where, disguised as a male, she found work in a bowling alley and then got hired as a cabin boy on a lumber schooner headed for the Puget Sound.

Her family, distressed at her absence, hired a female private detective to search for her. The detective located her in San Pedro before the boat left. She was returned to her father, Henry A. Barclay, an attorney and judge, and her mother, Lily Ward Barclay, an artist.

Jean_Thurnherr_as_Bessie_Barclay_adventures_and_picsIn 1904 Bessie ran away a second time. Again she dressed as a boy and found work as an elevator operator, a newsboy and a cowboy in Arizona. (The Arizona part of her adventures would, in later news reports, be expanded to include tales of tangling with Mexican outlaws and a head injury due to a fall from a horse.) She was located by authorities and returned to her parents but she didn’t stay home long. The next time she ran she went farther — all the way to San Francisco.

Disguised as a boy she worked as a bellhop at a hotel on Kearny Street. There met a miner from Alaska and robbed him of a purse containing $340 worth of cash and gold nuggets. This time she was arrested and convicted of grand larceny. However with her family’s legal connections, she got off with probation. During her court hearing she claimed that she was adopted and left home because she didn’t get along with her adoptive parents. While she was in jail in San Francisco, her mother, Lily, died in Los Angeles.

If only the law would let me fulfill those duties instead of trying to curb my venturesome spirit in a reform school. There’s no use pretending otherwise — it’s a boy’s life and a boy’s opportunities and above all the wide free life of the mountain ranger that appeals to me most.

— Jean Thurnherr, quoted in the San Francisco Call, June 15, 1909

Bessie’s father was fed up with her exploits and broke off contact with her. During her arrest in 1909, it was rumored that she was the biological child of her mother, Lily Barclay, but that Judge Barclay was not her father.

Instead of returning home after her release from jail, she remained in the San Francisco Bay Area, under the supervision of a probation officer and of women who worked for various charitable aid societies.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Thurnher (sic) is a natural and more than usually clever criminal. Possessed of a charming personality she makes friends readily and exercises an almost uncanny influence over men with whom she comes in contact. She never seemed to care for their attentions. She was always interested in stories of bold crimes and frequently expressed her admiration of clever thieves whom she read about.

— Mrs. F. Smith of Associated Charities, quoted in The Oakland Tribune, June 18, 1909

On October 1, 1908, Bessie, using the alias Jean M. Gordon, married Albert B. Thurnherr, a young dry goods store clerk, in Alameda. The couple moved to Berkeley and settled into an apartment near the University of California. On Christmas Day, 1908, Bessie pulled her first burglary at an apartment house close to her new home.

The Thurnherrs moved around Berkeley during their first year of marriage and everywhere they went, burglaries followed. At one point a homeowner returned while Bessie was in the process of robbing the woman’s bedroom. She leaped out the window to the ground, a drop of about 20 feet, and escaped unharmed. The homeowner got a glimpse of her fleeing form (surprisingly she dressed in women’s clothing) and reported to the police that it was a woman they should seek for the burglaries. The newspapers dubbed the burglar “the female Raffles,” inspired by the E. W. Hornung’s fictional gentleman thief, Arthur J. Raffles.

Jean_Thurnherr_under_arrest_for_may_crimes__picsShe was arrested several times during the winter of 1909, but the police lacked evidence and she wasn’t charged. By May they were convinced of her guilt and had her followed by detectives. She was arrested on June 11, 1909, at her Berkeley home. The police found numerous items in her home that she had stolen over the previous eight months. She pleaded guilty to 1st degree burglary and was sentenced to one year at San Quentin Prison. Her husband, Albert, stood by her and was reported to be heartbroken by her prison sentence.

Jean/Bessie spent 10 months at San Quentin before being released early for good behavior. She returned to life with Albert in Berkeley, but she didn’t stay out of trouble for long. She was caught shoplifting at a jewelry store in March 1911 — it was the third time she had robbed the same store.

At this point a clever doctor named H. N. Rowell came up with the idea that Jean/Bessie might be cured of her burglary habit by having surgery on her skull. She claimed that she hit her head during a fall while breaking horses in Arizona in 1904. Dr. Rowel believed that her head injury was what caused her seemingly endless lust for crime.

With difficulty Albert found two bondsmen who agreed to pay his wife’s bond so she could be released from jail for the operation. She went to the Fabiola Hospital in Oakland, where a trio of doctors removed a three square inch chunk of her skull. They said it was thickened so much that it pressed on her brain and this was, no doubt, the cause of her problems. Just for good measure Dr. Rowell also put her under hypnosis — he was supposedly an expert — to aid her recovery.

The operation was proclaimed a success. The patient lost little blood and her brain was described as “not injured at all.” The docs sewed up “the tissues” over the wound and then sewed up her scalp and sent Bessie on her way — cured of crime by surgery! “Hers was a case of disease rather than crime,” proclaimed her doctors.

Except that she wasn’t cured. Despite insisting that her urge to steal was gone, in September 1911, she was caught stealing from an office building in Oakland. Given probation, she was arrested again in 1913. Rather than jail she was sent to the Patton State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane, in San Bernardino, California. The judge in her case believed she might be suffering from a “dual identity.”

Doctors at Patton decided she was not insane and returned her to her husband, Albert, who had moved to San Francisco. In October 1913 she reoffended but the judge decided to release her from jail because she was ill and he hoped going home would save her life.

Albert was married to someone else by 1918. It’s possible Bessie died of whatever she was suffering from in 1913, though no death record was located for her. (Having a piece of your skull removed and living without it would be no picnic, especially in the days before antibiotics). She may have moved on to commit more crimes under an alias or possibly she assumed a male identity. Whatever she did, she left her mark on the history of quick quack cures for crime.

Featured image: Bessie Barclay (Jean Thurnherr) mugshots, California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Duplicate Photograph Album Dept of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 23374-23778