Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile

SEATTLE, Dec. 22. — A coast-wise search was being conducted today at the request of Seattle police for miss Clara E. Skarin, former telephone exchange operator here, in the hope that she might be able to throw light on the slaying of Ferdinand Hochbrunn, wealthy retired real estate dealer, whose body has been found in a room of his home here yesterday. He had been shot through the head and had been dead two months, in the opinion of officers.

— Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), December 22, 1921

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

Illustration of Ferdinand Hochbrunn

The smell must have been awful when they finally entered the apartment, given how long the old man had been lying there. It was murder — there was no question about that. He’d been shot with a single bullet to the back of his head. Robbery was assumed to be the motive because his pockets had been slit open, though $1,960 (almost $27,370 in 2018) and some gold certificates were found in a trunk near the body.

Ferdinand Hochbrunn, 72, was a confirmed bachelor who emigrated from Berlin, Germany, to America in 1872. He settled in Seattle where he made a fortune in real estate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was ruthless and, at times, deceitful in his business dealings. One of his clients, Olive Stearns, sued him for cheating her out of part of the proceeds of a land sale. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where Olive won a judgment against him for $14,759 ($441,125 in 2018).

Clara Skarin_Marked

News photo of Clara E. Skarin. Collection of the author.

The police were very anxious to speak with the dead man’s “ward,” a young woman named Clara Elizabeth Skarin. Clara, 27, was the daughter of Ferdinand’s housekeeper, a Swedish-born widow named Emma Ekstrand Skarin. Emma died suddenly in 1918 and Clara moved to Michigan after her mother’s death. She’d recently returned to Seattle and Ferdinand had taken her under his wing. He hired her to work as his secretary and gave her a room in his apartment at 2520 5th Avenue. But lately she’d lodged instead with her married cousin, Anna Datesman Clark.

A neighbor who lived below the apartment told the police she heard someone she thought was Clara walking around the apartment in late November. If Clara had been there it would have been impossible for her not to notice the body because it was lying on the floor of an alcove off her bedroom. Other tenants in the building said they’d seen Clara come and go during the months of October and November. She was last seen in late November, when she had Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt, Marie Datesman, and Marie’s family. Clara told them she planned to leave Seattle and meet Ferdinand in Portland, Oregon.

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

News illustration of the Hochbrunn apartment.

Clara Skarin leaves baggage in California after fleeing arrest -

The family snapshot of Clara.

The Seattle police asked Marie for a photo of Clara. She gave them a snapshot, but was so poor it was useless for identification purposes. She claimed it was the only one she had.

A series of letters and telegrams were sent in October and November to Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, signed “Ferdinand Hochbrunn.” The messages asked for rents from his Seattle properties to be collected and forwarded to him in Portland, and in Oakland and San Bernardino, California. The messages detailed news about his daily life along with the addresses of the places he was staying. Edward collected the rents and sent the money to the addresses in the messages.

The police came up with two theories of what had happened. The first was that the murderer posed as Ferdinand, telling Clara by letter or telegram that he’d gone to Portland on business. Clara didn’t know until late November, when she visited the apartment and found the body, that Ferdinand was dead. Shocked by the discovery, she’d fled and was wandering somewhere in a distraught state or possibly she’d even killed herself.

The second theory, which became the working theory, was that Clara killed her benefactor and stole his money. The police weren’t sure if she’d written the letters and telegrams that were sent to the attorney or if she’d worked with an accomplice.

The police search for Clara expanded to include the entire West Coast. In January 1922 the police missed her by a hair after she made a hasty exit from a hotel in California. The long hunt finally ended on September 3, 1922, when a Seattle acquaintance happened to see her in Oakland and informed the police, who arrested her. In Oakland she used the alias “Betty Parrish.”

She admitted to the police that she had shot and killed Ferdinand but refused to say any more. She was charged with first-degree murder.

Clara Skarin puzzles police. Three articles and photo. - Newspap

Clara puzzled the authorities. Described by the Oakland Tribune as having a “Mona Lisa Smile,” she seemed unfazed about being jailed and unconcerned about the charges she faced. She laughed and joked with officials and newspapermen at the Oakland Jail but refused to talk about the crimes she’d been accused of committing.

She claimed to be able to transport herself, using mental powers, to wherever she wanted to go.

Lying here (in jail) at night, I can close my eyes and go wherever I care to. I wander the hills at night. Everything is very real and I don’t feel that I am here at all. I have done that all my life. Sometimes when I have looked forward to a ball I have visualized my being there, and my dancing, so realistically that my feet actually ached.

Her biggest complaint about the jail was that one of the Jack London novels she was reading had had some of its pages torn out. She praised the Oakland Police Department as “wonderful” but also claimed that Oakland was one of the best places in the United States to hide in.

The police didn’t think the enigmatic Clara had worked alone. They searched for her male accomplice, “Phoenix Markham.” Clara wouldn’t say anything about Markham. The police located a telegram she’d sent two days after the murder to a telegraph operator named Raymond Herron in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It seemed to be written in code:

Mark here. Everything practically settled. No more saving a half cake of chocolate for tomorrow’s lunch. This is the first of my very own money to spend. May I send Jigadere some of Ollie’s clothes? Buy Maxine a new top and yourself a drink. Am going to order a car here for drive away in spring. Know agent here and want him to get commission. Wire me immediately. Love. BETTY.

Raymond was a 27-year-old Kalamazoo man who married a local girl three weeks after Clara’s arrest. The couple’s first child was born a month later. He wasn’t related to anyone named “Jigadere,” “Ollie,” or “Maxine.”

The police never found Phoenix Markham and the hunt for an accomplice was dropped. Clara alone stood trial for Ferdinand’s murder.

Clara was involved in another gun tragedy in August 1918 when the jealous wife of a friend visited the Seattle apartment she shared with her mother. The woman, Cleo Winborn, confronted Clara with a loaded gun and demanded to know what her relationship was with her husband, Robert Winborn. Unsatisfied with Clara’s answer, Cleo shot at Clara. The bullet hit her in the leg, wounding her slightly. Clara’s mother heard the commotion and ran into the room. Cleo turned the gun on Mrs. Skarin, killing her with a single shot. Then she turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.

It must be pointed out that the person who provided the details of what happened was the only survivor — Clara Skarin.

After she recovered from the leg wound, 24 year-old Clara moved with Cleo’s husband, 50-year-old Robert, to his native state of Michigan. Robert, an African American man who had worked as a barber, was suffering from epilepsy. He was treated at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and then transferred to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental asylum, where he died of epilepsy September 4, 1919. Clara claimed that she and Robert were married while he was on his deathbed.

Ferdinand’s will, if he had one, wasn’t located. His estate, valued at $100,000 (almost $1,500,000 in 2018) was settled on November 15, 1922. Though a business partner sued for half of it, the court awarded the entire estate to his brother, Henry Hochbrunn. Henry died the day before the matter was settled. His children inherited the estate.

Clara Skarin in her own words. photo. - Newspapers.com

Clara’s murder trial began in January 1923. She testified that Ferdinand had molested her from the age of 14, when her mother worked as his housekeeper. She claimed he’d again made “improper overtures” towards her in the weeks leading up to the shooting. She explained that this was why she’d moved out of his apartment and purchased a .32-caliber revolver for protection.

The day of the shooting Clara said she’d gone to the apartment to get some clothes she’d left there. Again he made unwelcome sexual advances so she pulled out her gun. They grappled over the weapon and it went off but no one was hit. Then he forced her against a wall and there was a struggle that ended in Clara managing to rest the muzzle of the gun on the back of Ferdinand’s head and pull the trigger with her thumb. He died about 15 minutes later.

She said she spent several minutes gazing in a mirror, then left the apartment and locked the door. She headed to the office of Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, and told him what had happened. Then she and Edward returned to the apartment, where they removed $30,000 ($419,000 in 2018) worth of gold from Ferdinand’s trunk. They split the gold and Clara left town six weeks later. Subsequently she sent letters and telegrams to Edward, signing Ferdinand’s name to them.

Von Tobel

Edward von Tobel

Edward disputed her story and testified that he’d had nothing to do with robbing Ferdinand and knew nothing about the murder until the body was discovered.

The jury of eight men and four women acquitted Clara of the murder of Ferdinand Hochbrunn on January 13, 1923. “I surely wish the young woman all happiness in the future,” said one of the female jurors, whose tears flowed freely during the defense counsel’s arguments. “She has surely seen enough of the seamy side of life. Now she may find peace and better things.”

Edward wasn’t charged with any crime related to the death of Ferdinand Hochbrunn. Clara stayed in Seattle for a few months after the trial ended, but in April she told a newspaper reporter that she’d left her job as a café hostess and planned to return to Oakland to live with friends. The girl with the Mona Lisa smile then vanished without a trace.

 

 

 

 

 

In and Out of the Colony

In and Out of the Colony

The police have been asked to be on the lookout for George A. Lewis, 27 years old, who escaped from the Gardner Insane Colony, Sunday. He is of slight build and has dark hair. He was dressed in a gray suit.

Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), October 19, 1908

His name was recorded by the Worcester police as “Arthur or George Lewis” when he was arrested on October 4, 1913 for carrying a gun, B & E and larceny. His police identification card carries the following information:

Age: 28 years

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 170 pounds

Descent: African

Skin color: Coffee

Occupation: Hotel Waiter

His right hand had been broken at some point and he had scars on both sides of his head. (The scar on the right side is visible above his temple in his profile photo).

He was held for a grand jury hearing, but no newspaper articles about a charge or conviction were found. In his mug shot photos his eyes don’t quite focus and he looks like he’s unconcerned about his predicament.

George Allen Lewis was born on June 15, 1883 in Littleton, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children born to George and Abby (Smith) Lewis. Abby died of gastroenteritis in 1897. By 1900 George and his father moved to Boston, where his father worked as a day laborer and George attended school.

An article appeared in the Boston Post on November 25, 1901, about the attempted murder of a young, recently married, black man named George Lewis. George’s wife, Mary, hit her husband on the head with a hatchet after a quarrel stemming from visits she received from another man. “My only wish is,” she is reported to have said to Lieutenant Garland, “that the axe was not sharper. I wanted to kill him.” Mary Lewis had a violent past and had been involved in an earlier assault case in which someone threw a lighted lamp at her.

George survived the attack and told police that he loved his wife and simply had asked her to give up her male friend. Police were convinced “he had come pretty near being a model husband.”

Possibly the head injury George suffered, described as deep gash three inches long that bled profusely, caused a traumatic brain injury that eventually made him mentally unstable. By 1908, George was a patient in an asylum called the Gardner State Colony in Worcester County, Massachusetts.

A history of Gardner describes it as a “colony for mentally disturbed patients who were able bodied and sufficiently cooperative to engage in construction work for the institution.” The Colony had both an agricultural and a livestock farm and was self-supporting. Escapes were common, and after George escaped, in October 1908, the police were asked to be on the lookout for him. He was back as a patient in the Colony by 1910, when the federal census listed his occupation there as “housework.”

Gardner Insane Colony

Map of the Gardner State Colony from the 1907 annual report of the institution

His arrest in 1913 may have occurred after another escape, but it’s also possible he had an improvement in his mental health. The goal of the physicians who ran the Colony, according to annual reports published between 1903-1911, was to rehabilitate patients and release them back into the community. The Worcester city directory for 1915 lists a “George Lewis” who worked as a waiter and boarded at 23 Washington Street. The city of Worcester was less than 30 miles south of the Colony.

George was back at the Colony by 1918. In September of that year, a Gardner official filed a World War I draft registration card for him. His father, a resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was listed as his next of kin. George was no longer able to write his name, so someone at the institution signed for him with an “X.” The box where his occupation should have been written was instead stamped “INSANE.”

George was still a patient of the Colony when he was counted on the federal census in January 1920. Ominously he was one of the few inmates who had no occupation — apparently his mental condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer carry out even simple tasks. George was not listed on the 1930 federal census at the Colony or anywhere else.

In 1935 the Colony’s name was changed to the Gardner State Hospital. The hospital closed in 1976 and in 1981, a prison opened on the site. There’s a cemetery from the Colony years and a list of 132 people who are buried there appears on FindAGrave, but George’s name isn’t on the list. However the description of the cemetery notes that there could be as many as 600 more unidentified souls buried there and it’s likely that George is one of them.

Featured photo: Worcester Police Department Criminal identification card photos taken on October 4, 1913. Collection of the author.

Soldier Boy

Soldier Boy

MARYSVILLE, Nov. 9. — Barney McQuaid was to-day sentenced to five years, and Thomas Mays to ten years, in San Quentin for highway robbery committed near Sicard Flat on October 27. McQuaid and Mays are deserters from the Presidio and were attired in infantry uniform at the time of their apprehension.

The San Francisco Call, November 10, 1900

Tom Mays_marked

Two young soldiers, Hugh Bernard “Barney” McQuaid, age 19, and Tom Mays, age 22, carried out a robbery near a desolate area in Yuba County, California. The men were deserters from a military base in San Francisco, and it’s likely that they were training for service in the Spanish-American War when they left their army posts and headed north.

Barney and Tom in stripes

San Quentin mugbook, California State Archives.

Prior to joining the army, Barney had a few skirmishes with law enforcement back in his hometown of Minneapolis, mostly for being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. Barney had a tendency to use foul language and become violent when crossed. On one occasion he fought a policeman who was trying to arrest him with such intensity that several officers had to be called to assist. It’s likely his family figured that a stint in the army would straighten out the troubled young man.

During his incarceration at San Quentin, Barney suffered from mental illness so severe that the guards at one of the harshest prisons in America were unable to control him, so he was transferred to a California asylum, the Mendocino State Hospital. His condition was described as “improved” when he was released from the hospital.

Though his prison record stated he was discharged on June 10, 1904, Barney was actually sent home to his family in Minneapolis in September 1903. It may have seemed like a blessing to his parents, who had already put five of their eleven children into an early grave. Barney’s father, John, was a policeman and officials trusted him to keep his son away from the temptations of crime. It was hoped that the comforts family life would help Barney regain his sanity.

It didn’t take long for Barney’s parents and sisters to realize they weren’t equipped to deal with his illness. In early December he was admitted to the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. His condition was described as “Demented and Vicious.” His medical record lists the “alleged cause” of his insanity as “degeneracy” (possibly he had a history of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness) but there’s no doubt he experienced violent outbursts and was a danger to others. According to the hospital notes, he’d been ill since the age of 17, so he was mentally unstable when he enlisted in the army in 1900.

He is strong and robust. He is quiet and sullen, pugnacious at times. Says he is a soldier boy and must not be kept in the hospital.

— St. Peter Hospital patient notes for Barney McQuaid

Measuring just over 5’, 9” tall and weighing 195 lbs., 22-year-old Barney was a powerfully built man. Three weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, he escaped. Two months later he was captured and returned to the institution.

Barney never left St. Peter’s again. Eleven years later he suffered a stroke and died on September 23, 1914. He was 33 years old.

Featured photo: Barney McQuaid’s mugshot, from a glass negative, taken on the day of his arrest in Marysville, California. Collection of the author.

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

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

Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.