A Good Accordion Player

A Good Accordion Player

After accepting a plea of guilty of murder, second degree, on an indictment charging Luigi DioGuardi with murder, first degree, Justice Robert F. Thompson yesterday sentenced DioGuardi to serve ten to twenty years in Auburn prison.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 8, 1923

On the evening of February 28, 1922 a group of family and friends had gathered at the home of Salvatore Tubilino to enjoy some of Salvatore’s homemade wine. While Prohibition had been in place for more than two years, the manufacture and consumption of wine at home was still legal. Salvatore was an immigrant to the United States from Italy who lived with his wife and five children in Rochester, New York.

The gathering turned ugly in the early morning hours when four of the partygoers, heavily under the influence of the grape, descended into the cellar to sample wine from various casks. An argument broke out between Salvatore and two friends over the merits of his wine after he boasted about its “wonderful kick.” Luigi DioGuardi insisted that his home-brewed wine, made across the road at 30 Orange Street, was far superior.

The dispute moved to the backyard, where it intensified after Giuseppe Falsone slapped Salvatore in the face. Another of the partygoers, Charles Vitale, tried to separate the two men, but to no avail — the argument continued to escalate. Possibly the feud had been building over a number of weeks and finally reached the breaking point. Salvatore turned away and headed back into the house, but before he reached the door Luigi pulled out a revolver and shot him four times in the back. When Charles again tried to intervene, Luigi shot him too, though not fatally.

Salvatore’s wife heard the gunshots and ran out of the house. She knelt beside her husband. With his dying breath he whispered the name of his murderer to her. It was her sister’s husband, her own brother-in-law — Luigi DioGuardi.

In the confusion that arose after the shootings, Luigi and Giuseppe fled the scene and police arrived too late to catch the pair. Giuseppe was captured the following day and held as a material witness.

Much later Luigi would claim that he immediately left Rochester and made his way to Canada. He said he went to Niagara Falls by taxicab, then hid in the backseat of another cab and crossed the bridge to Canada. Once he made it safely over the border he said he then boarded a train to Toronto and from there caught a sleeper train to Montreal.

The police believed he’d actually remained in the vicinity of Rochester for a few days after the murder. They thought family and friends sheltered him while he gathered money and made his escape plans.

Born in 1887 in the province of Palermo near the northern coast of Sicily, Luigi immigrated to the United States as a young man. He arrived at New York’s Ellis Island on March 10, 1910. By the time of the murder he was a family man with a wife and four children.

Someone, possibly a family member, provided police with a photograph of Luigi, taken with his accordion sitting next to him on a stool, and it became the mug shot on his wanted card. There’s no evidence that he played professionally, but Luigi was clearly proud of his accordion. On the back side of his wanted card, the police made a note of the fact that he was a “good accordion player.”

Luigi DioGuardi_back_lowres

Luigi in disguiseRochester detectives traced Luigi to Montreal, where he’d grown a mustache as a disguise and adopted the alias “Louis Degarde.” “While the new appendage might have served to deceive an inexperienced observer, it did not fool detectives” noted one Rochester newspaper. He was in the process of moving his family to Montreal when detectives arrested him on May 6, 1922. The gun used in Salvatore’s murder was never recovered.

Luigi was sent to Auburn Prison for 10-20 years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. He claimed he was heavily intoxicated at the time of the crime and had little memory of the night of the murder. There’s no way to know if he was allowed to take his accordion with him to prison to help pass the time.

After his release from Auburn Luigi rejoined his wife and sons in Rochester. When the 1940 federal census was taken he was employed as a tailor at the Hickey Freeman Clothing Company. He died in 1962 in Pompano Beach, Florida. The home where the murder occurred has been torn down and replaced by a parking lot.

Featured photo: Luigi DioGuardi’s photo with his accordion, which was pasted to the front of his wanted card. Collection of the author.

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Six inmates, all from the prison hospital, escaped from the Hutchinson reformatory here last night at 8:15 o’clock in one of the most daring and systematic breaks in recent years. Following the carefully laid plans the six took advantage of two prison ladders, one of which was equipped with special hooks, made a dash for a dark spot on the east wall, scaled it and disappeared before the hospital guard noticed their absence.

The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas), March 4, 1929

Clarence Pruitt KSP

Clarence Pruitt, KSP prisoner photos, 1926

Clarence Pruitt was paroled in August 1928 from the Kansas State Penitentiary (KSP) after serving two and a half years for stealing 32 chickens from a farmer named Guy Platte. Soon after he was paroled, authorities discovered that in 1925, he’d escaped from the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson. Rather than allowing him to enjoy his new freedom, they sent him back to the reformatory to serve out the rest of his 1924 sentence for grand larceny.

Clarence Pruitt back_marked

Clarence was one of the six men who escaped from Hutchinson into the frigid March night in 1929. He was recaptured in July. Rather than risk another escape from Hutchinson he was sent to the more secure state penitentiary — round two at the KSP for Clarence.

Lyal Berry became prisoner # 6549 at the KSP on July 19, 1919, after he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary. He’d burgled three homes in Peabody, Kansas, was arrested and broke out of jail by cutting through the bars on the window of his cell with a stolen saw. He told prison officials he was 22 but he was actually only 17 years old and a recent graduate of the state reformatory for juveniles in Colorado. Though young, he had an impressive criminal career of robberies and jailbreaks under his belt, along with a bullet wound sustained when he was shot by a pursuing police officer after his jailbreak.

Cecil Pruitt

Lyal Berry (Cecil Pruitt), KSP prisoner photos, 1919

Lyal’s real name was Cecil Pruitt. He loved aliases and he had at least five of them, including the name of his older brother, Clarence. Born on August 17, 1901, he was two years younger than Clarence. The Pruitt brothers’ father, William, died in 1911, while they were still boys. Their mother, Elizabeth, moved to Denver, Colorado, after William’s death, where she got remarried. Clarence left school after 8th grade to work as a coal miner and farmer. Cecil only made it through 5th grade.

Although he had a poor prison record, Cecil was paroled from the KSP in August 1924, four days after his 23rd birthday. It didn’t take long for him to violate his parole. The Kansas authorities located him at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, in July 1925, where he was serving a five to six year sentence for burglary and armed robbery. He was returned to KSP to serve the rest of his sentence for the 1919 burglary on July 20, 1928 — round two at the KSP for Cecil.

The Pruitt brothers had a couple of months together at the KSP before Cecil was pardoned and released on December 13, 1929. Clarence got out in 1930.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end well for the Pruitt brothers. In March 1931, a car containing more than 100 stolen chickens was found abandoned in Greeley, Colorado. The vehicle was traced to Clarence, who pleaded guilty to theft of 1,200 to 1,800 chickens in the area and was sentenced to two to three years in a state prison. Clarence’s wife blamed his brother for her husband’s legal troubles, but by then Cecil was in a Denver jail on a narcotics charge. Plus Cecil had always been more interested in stealing cash and jewelry than chickens.

Despite having served multiple prison sentences for chicken theft, other people’s chickens continued to tempt Clarence, and by 1940 he was incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary. On May 8, 1950 he was arrested for stealing 100 chickens from farms in several counties outside Denver. He pleaded innocent to the charges and the outcome of his case wasn’t reported.

If he’d spent his criminal career stealing chickens, Cecil might have lived to a ripe old age. Instead his body was found in a “blood-stained, bullet-pocked” car in Kansas City on September 7, 1931, less than a month after he turned 30. He’d been beaten to death. Police suspected a fellow gangster killed him, but his murder was never solved. His sisters collected his body and buried him.

Featured photo: Front of reward card issued for Clarence Pruitt, prisoner #6216. Collection of the author.

Christmas in the Tombs

Christmas in the Tombs

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

The New York Times, December 23, 1906

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

872px-The_Tombs,_New_York,_November_1907

The Tombs Prison, 1907, LOC

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

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

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

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

Accused of killling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

His Final Walk

His Final Walk

FASCI TO DIE IN THE SAME WAY AS TWO PALS

 

BELLEFONTE, PA., Dec. 26.— Like John Torti and Tony Burchanti, two of his companions in the Laurel Line robbery and murder near Scranton on July 30, 1923, Paul Fasci will go to his death in the electric chair at Rockview prison Monday morning at 7 o’clock without benefit of clergy.

— The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), December 27, 1926

Edward Murphy, a salesman for an oil company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time when five men held up the Laurel Line train during its morning run between Moosic and Avoca, Pennsylvania. P.J. Durkin, the motorman, Arch Henshall, the paymaster for the West End Coal Company and another passenger, Philip Scribner, were also shot. All three eventually recovered from their wounds, however Edward, who was reading the morning paper when he was hit with a stray bullet, died instantly.

The bandits grabbed the coal company’s $70,125 payroll cash and headed to their getaway car. Police had little to go in to solve the case, and for a time it seemed as if the men had pulled off the perfect train robbery.

Fasci news photo

1921 police photo (bottom) showing three of the five men (1,2 & 5) suspected of being the Laurel Line train robbers.

After interviewing witnesses, detectives believed that three of the five gang members were in a police photo photograph of a five Italian men taken in 1921. The men in the photo had been arrested in a high-powered car several days after an attempted bank robbery in New Castle, Pennsylvania. None of them could be linked with that holdup attempt, but the photo remained in police criminal identification files.

Paul Fasci_back

Back side of the 1921 photo. John Torti (#5) is identified even though he was cropped out of the photo.

The search was on for three of the men in the photo: Tony Burchanti, Paul Fasci and John Torti.

Tony and John had been employees of the West End Coal Company, the target of the Laurel Line robbery. They quit their jobs shortly before the robbery and never collected their pay.

The trail of the Laurel Line bandits went cold until March 26, 1924, when a gang attempted to rob the $400,000 payroll of the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh. The job had a similar M.O. to the Laurel Line heist and Tony was arrested for the attempted robbery.

Next police located John, along with “Big Jack” Stummy and Michael Bassi, in Tiltonsville, Ohio, where the men had gone to pick up their mail. A shootout ensued in which “Big Jack” was killed. John tried unsuccessfully to kill himself and was taken into custody. Michael escaped.

Michael was later arrested in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, for another robbery of a coal company payroll in which a messenger died. He was convicted of first-degree murder and executed at Rockview prison.

Tony and John were convicted of the murder of Edward Murphy and executed in the electric chair at Rockview on June 1, 1925.

Also pictured in the 1921 photo was Paul Fasci. Police believed Paul was the fifth and final suspect in the Laurel Line robbery. Detectives finally located him in a gambling dive in Chicago in February 1925. He was returned to Pennsylvania, where he was tried and convicted of Edward’s murder in early 1926.

Paul told prison officials he didn’t want a priest with him when he went to the death chamber two days after Christmas in 1926. He was resigned to his fate and said goodbye to his brother, Orlando, on Christmas Day. Orlando had fought hard to have Paul’s case reopened but he’d been unsuccessful.

Paul spent his last day on earth alone in his Rockview death house cell with a guard stationed nearby. His hair had already been closely shaved. A plain white shirt, trousers with a slit up one leg and a pair of carpet slippers were laid out, ready for his final walk.

He ate a hearty breakfast and died insisting he was an innocent man.

Featured photo: 1921 police photo of Tony Burchanti (#1), Paul Fasci (#2) and two men not involved in the Laurel Line heist. John Torti (#5) was cropped off the photo. Collection of the author.

The High Cost of Murder

The High Cost of Murder

ARRAIGNED ON MURDER CHARGE

Worcester, Dec. 23. — Henry Gauthier, 28, and Felix Vadenais Jr., 19 years old, were arraigned in the district court today on a charge of murdering Joseph S. Goldberg in Manchaug, Monday night. They pleaded not guilty and the case was continued to Jan. 6 at the request of the government. They were remanded to jail without bail.

Fitchberg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), December 23, 1914

The dead body of Joseph S. Goldberg, wrapped in a horse blanket, was discovered in his wagon by the sheriff on a cold evening in late December 1914. Joseph’s murderer had draped his body over the seat of the horse-drawn wagon and started the rig on the road towards the town of Millbury, Massachusetts.

Joseph, a second-hand clothes peddler, stopped by a drug store in the village of Manchaug around 9:15 pm on the night he was murdered. About fifteen minutes later he was seen heading to a barn where he planned to leave his horse and cart overnight.

His murderer or murderers found him at the barn. He was hit on the head with a blunt object. Then the 35-year-old Jewish Russian immigrant was shot in the chest. The wound was instantly fatal.

Manchaug map

Police believed the motive for the murder was robbery. The day before he was killed, a witness claimed Joseph pulled a large roll of bills out of his pocket while he was making change for a customer. After his death, only six cents was found in his pockets.

Joseph lived with his wife, Dora, and young son, Milton, in the city of Worcester, about 13 miles from where he was killed. Dora was five months pregnant when her husband was murdered.

Two young men, Felix Vadenais and Henry Gauthier were arrested the following day for Joseph’s murder. The men were kept in jail until after the 1915 New Year. Officials then determined that they didn’t have enough evidence to charge Henry, so he was released.

Felix Vandenais_back_marked

Criminal identification card of Felix Vadenais made by the Worcester Police Department.

Felix was charged with murder in the first degree on January 22, 1915.

On April 16, 1915, after a trial lasting 11 days with three hours of deliberation, the jury found Felix not guilty of the murder. Joseph’s daughter, Judith, was born four days later.

Ten days after the jury acquitted Felix of murder, The Boston Globe printed an article about the cost of the trial — $6500 by that date — to the taxpayers of Worcester County. The defendant’s attorneys’ fees, along with a payment for “establishing the case” for Felix were listed at $775. It was expected that the expert witnesses, two professors from Harvard and Tufts, who testified about the blood evidence but had not yet sent in their bills, would cost the county another $7500.

No one was ever brought to justice for the murder of Joseph Goldberg.

Featured photos: mugshots of Felix Vadenais taken by the Worcester Police on December 21, 1914. Collection of the author.

 

 

Irresistible Appeal

Irresistible Appeal

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyda news editorial

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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