Mother Murder

Mother Murder

I was in the doorway and I saw my mother. I raised the gun and fired one shot. She fell back onto the bed. I opened the closet door in the bedroom and took the suitcase that was in there. Into the suitcase I put some bath towels and some other things, my personal effects. After the shooting I put the gun in the bathroom where I laid it on a trunk. I went into the drawer of my bedroom dresser and got about $45 there. I found the bankbook, which was in a box in a closet.

—Excerpt from Dorothy Ellingson’s confession, January 15, 1925

What began as another quarrel between 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson and her mother ended in matricide on the morning of January 12, 1925, in San Francisco. The newspapers dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer” and called her a “jazzmaniac.” Stories were printed about her love of late night partying with older men at clubs and illegal speakeasies all over the city. Her mother’s objections to her lifestyle led to the argument that culminated in murder.

Dorothy’s parents, Joachim (Joseph in news reports) and Anna were Norwegians who immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Initially they settled in Minnesota and Dorothy was born there in 1908. By 1920 they relocated to San Francisco, California. Joseph owned a tailor shop and Anna didn’t work outside the home. Dorothy’s only sibling, an older brother named Earl, worked as a stock clerk in a drug store.

By the age of fourteen Dorothy finished primary school and had completed a year of “Business College.” Her education was probably better than average for a girl of that time.

Dorothy claimed her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted enjoying the company of jazz musicians who played at the clubs around San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. The main conflict, according to Dorothy, was that she got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it all but impossible for her to get up and go to her stenographer job the next day. Her musician friends didn’t start work until 10 or 11 at night, so how could she be expected to keep a normal schedule? (“I have worked, off and on,” she later told reporters). However Anna needed her daughter to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and she was separated from her husband at the time of the murder.

After shooting her mother with her brother’s .45 caliber automatic Colt, Dorothy calmly gathered up her packed suitcase, cash and bankbook, and traveled via streetcar to a boarding house at 1047 Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (inspired, perhaps, by the glamorous silent film star Dolores del Rio). Optimistically, she paid two weeks rent up front. Meanwhile, back at home, her brother found their mother’s body and called the police.

Dorothy settled in to her new digs and headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next evening she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater. SFPD detectives arrested her the following day for murder—it was a busy week for a young girl!

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The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

Dorothy tried, unconvincingly, to place the blame for the murder elsewhere, but soon she confessed. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she explained.

A strange complex is Dorothy Ellingson. Her face is one of a woman of 24 or 25. Her form, while developed, goes with the face. Occasionally there is a gesture of girlishness, a movement that would indicate that, despite her appearance, it is a little girl and not an adult lodged in this prison compartment.

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

Despite her confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty. She fainted 12 times during her trial and her behavior ranged from hysterical to catatonic. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to an asylum for evaluation of her mental state. She was found to be sane, so the trial continued. In August 1925, Dorothy, now 17, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin prison.

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Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year for Dorothy to spend another night in jail courtesy of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked in as “Dorothy Jentoff,” and charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis (Mary had no idea who she was). She told police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party. Her actual name came out after the arrest and she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. Mary refused to prosecute so the charges were dropped.

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The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933.

Dorothy married a truck driver, Robert Stafford, in 1936, and lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for almost 20 years. The couple had two children but later they separated.

In 1955, 46-year-old Dorothy pleaded guilty to the theft of $2000 worth of jewelry, clothing and cash from a former employer. She’d been living in San Rafael under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints exposed her true identity. Her reason for the theft—her daughter needed money.

Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated, coincidentally, in the Marin county jail in a cell across from his mother. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered her mother—his grandmother—in 1925, but she confessed it all to him while they sat in the slammer. “He took it like a little man. He didn’t cry. He said it made him understand why I stuck by him through his problems,” noted Dorothy.

Dorothy Ellingson Stafford died on September 16, 1967, aged 59.

Featured photo: Dorothy Ellingson’s SFPD mugshot, 1925. Collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

The Youngest Prisoner

The Youngest Prisoner

Late in the afternoon of July 19, 1904, a young boy named Claude Hankins sneaked up behind his coworker, George Mosse, while George was milking a cow at the Bolles Ranch. Claude put a pistol near the back of George’s head and pulled the trigger, shooting him dead. Then Claude returned the pistol to where he’d found it in George’s room and fled on foot six miles to the nearby town of Marysville in Yuba County, California. He had $68 in his pocket that he’d stolen from his victim. He checked into the Golden Eagle Hotel and fell asleep.

Marysville map

Bird’s Eye View of Marysville and Yuba City, 1888. The Golden Eagle Hotel is on the right, second drawing from the top. C.P. Cook, artist. & W.W. Elliott Lithographers. Collection of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.

George O. Thompson, the ranch manager, and the ranch housekeeper were temporarily away when the murder occurred. They returned later that afternoon and, upon discovering the body and being unable to locate Claude, they called the coroner and the sheriff. The coroner confirmed that George had been killed with a gunshot to the head. Sheriff Voss began searching for Claude.

The sheriff found Claude at the hotel and took him to the police station for questioning. He told a wild story about two men showing up at the ranch, asking for food and money. He said one of the men shot George with his pistol and the pair took off with his cash. No one believed this story and soon the truth came out—Claude admitted to shooting George and stealing his cash.

Before moving to the ranch, Claude, aged 14, lived with his sister and her new husband, Atwell Webb, in Alameda, east of San Francisco. The arrangement had not suited Atwell. He complained that Claude was a wild and uncontrollable boy who ran with a bad crowd and “liked cigarettes.” He sent him to the Bolles ranch, about 150 miles northwest, in order to try and straighten him out or at least to get him out of the way. Claude received no pay and was expected to work for his room and board.

Claude had been at the ranch less than two weeks when the murder occurred. He’d written to his sister, Lugenia, telling her that the work was too heavy for a boy of his size and that he was frightened of his coworker, George Mosse, who regularly threatened him with violence. Claude confided to his sister that he even sometimes feared for his life.

Born in 1890 in Stockton, Kansas to John and Helene Hankins, Claude was the younger of the Hankins’ two children. The family moved to California shortly after he was born and his parents divorced when he was nine. Claude’s mother became sick in 1903, so he left school in order to try and help care for her, but she died later that year. Claude’s father was out of the family picture, living in Arizona.

George Mosse was not the murdered man’s real name. He was George Balch Morse, born in 1856 in Oakland to Harry and Virginia Morse. George’s father, Harry Nicholson Morse, was a well-known lawman, heralded as the “bloodhound of the far west.” Harry was sheriff of Alameda County from 1864-1878. At the time of the murder he had his own private detective agency. However Harry and his only son were estranged, thanks to George’s erratic and violent behavior.

George Balch Morse

The victim, George Balch Morse. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.

As a teenager, George attended military school but had been kicked out due to insubordination. It was also suspected that he started a fire at the school. He was a talented horseman but he was accused cruelty to animals.

George’s first wife died in 1880, leaving him with three young children. He married a widow with a young son but things did not go smoothly for the Morse family. George’s fascination with guns became an obsession. A desire to be known as a dangerous man began to rule his actions.

A dispute with a neighbor over a boundary fence led to George taking potshots at the man in 1889. He behaved so bizarrely that the neighbor complained to the East Oakland constable. A court hearing was held where it came out that in addition to arguing with and shooting at his neighbor, George had beaten both his wife and his stepson. The court found him sane but gave him a severe caution to control his violent behavior. His wife divorced him.

At first Claude was reluctant to tell the whole story of what went on at the ranch. Eventually it came out that George not only beat him but he also tried to rape Claude. Of course at the time the word “rape” was never used in this context, but newspapers reported that Claude said George tried to commit a “crime against nature” on him the day of the murder. The allegation was supported by the fact that, when the sheriff took Claude to jail, the buttons on his pants had been torn off and he had to find a needle and thread so Claude could repair his pants.

Some wondered if it would be reform school for Claude. Absolutely not! Despite his age and the terrifying story of abuse he told, Claude was tried for the murder of George Morse. Either no one looked too hard into George’s violent past or no one cared. Apparently not a single person wondered why the son of a famous lawman, a man who was educated, had a family, had been a professional (he had worked as both a plumber and a draftsman) and a property owner ended up on a remote ranch, working as a hired hand—a common laborer.

Charles Dray, the boy Claude replaced at the ranch, came forward during the trial with alarming details of the threats George had made towards him. (“He threatened time and again to cut my head off and take my heart out…”) But Dray withdrew his claims after he had a visit from the ranch manager, George Thompson. Claude’s father made a brief appearance, but only to tell the court that he was alive and had never been charged with a crime, as Claude had alleged earlier. Evidently clearing his name was the extent of John Hankins’ interest in his son’s fate. Other adults at the ranch testified that Claude had been treated kindly.

Claude’s sister told the court her brother was a good boy, but her voice was drowned out by those determined to seek revenge for the death of a famous lawman’s son or to avoid shouldering responsibility for the circumstances that drove Claude to pull the trigger in a desperate effort to protect himself.

The murder was described as having been done “in cold blood.” Claude was found guilty of 2nd degree murder. On November 1, 1904, Claude Frederick Hankins, 14 years old, 4 foot 11 ½ inches tall and 98 pounds was sentenced to 16 years in San Quentin State Prison. He was likely the youngest person ever sent to San Quentin.

Claude Hankins and others mugbook

Claude Hankins (right) with two other inmates sent to San Quentin around the same time, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Claude’s attorneys made an application for him to be paroled in November 1907. Parole was denied. Part of the reason was the statement the judge at the trial made about Claude and the possibility of parole:

My opinion is that the boy is a degenerate absolutely without conscience or moral sense. The statements he makes in his application are so ingeniously false that I have no faith in his reformation nor hope that he would become a useful member of society if released upon parole…his crime convinces me absolutely that this boy, although so young in years, is a very dangerous and confirmed criminal.

Eugene P. McDaniel, judge in the trial of Claude Hankins

His request for parole was finally granted and Claude was released from San Quentin in November 1909. Aged 19, he had grown a full foot taller while he was incarcerated.

He moved to Seattle, Washington, where he married Etta Collier in 1914. The couple had two daughters and Claude was employed for many years a truck driver and later as a bosun for a shipping company. There is no evidence he ever got into trouble again with the law. He died, aged 75, on April 10, 1965, in Seattle.

If you’re interested in seeing the mugshots of Claude taken on the day of his arrest by Clara Sheldon Smith, a professional photographer, and reading more of the newspaper stories about the case and trial, check out Arne Svenson’s fascinating book called Prisoners. I highly recommend it.

Featured photos: Claude Hankins, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Siblings Evil

Lewis and Rumball

Mugshots of Emma Rumball and her brother Arthur Lewis. California State Archives, Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

This is a disturbing and unpleasant story so please stop reading now if you have a weak stomach or if what you read tends to haunt your dreams.

Thirteen-year-old Helen Rumball, known as “Nellie,” was found dead in the attic of her home near in Gridley, California on June 26, 1911. The child was hanging from the attic rafters from a rope. Her body and legs were a mass of bruises and the attic was stiflingly hot, the temperature said to be close to 130 degrees. An incubator, possibly for eggs, was described as going “full blast” near where the child’s body was hanging. Needless to say, Nellie’s death was not the result of natural causes.

Helen Rumball

The victim, Nellie Rumball, The Pittsburgh Press, July 10, 1911

Nellie was the daughter of a Maine couple, William Rumball and his first wife, Budie. Her mother died before she turned one. A couple of years later William took a new wife, Emma Lewis, 16 years his junior. Emma was born in Minnesota to Norwegian parents. Around 1910 the Rumballs and their two children, Frances, age 4, and William, age 1, and William’s daughter, Nellie, moved to Gridley, California, in sparsely populated Butte County. There they took up ranching for a living.

William died in Gridley on September 27, 1910 of a kidney and liver ailment. Though not a rich man, he left an estate worth a few thousand dollars and it was divided in his will between his wife and Nellie. In splitting his estate this way he might have, inadvertently, signed Nellie’s death warrant.

Little Frances Rumball told the police she heard her half sister crying in pain in the attic. She pleaded with her mother to be allowed to go to Nellie and comfort her but her mother refused and told her to go to bed. Later that night Emma awakened Frances and William and informed them that Nellie was dead.

Nellie’s stepmother, 23-year-old Emma, admitted that she took the child to the attic, tied her up and left her there as punishment for not adequately completing her chores on the family ranch. Emma acknowledged she tied her stepdaughter’s legs with rope and then looped the rope under her arms and around her neck and secured it to a rafter. She claimed she was shocked that the child had died and suggested to police that perhaps Nellie committed suicide or her death resulted from her struggles to get free.

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San Quentin mugshots of Emma Rumball, April 12, 1912.

The early twentieth century was a time in America when harsh punishments were often doled out by parents to their children. Most people didn’t think twice about it, but clearly Emma had overstepped the bounds, even for that age.

Police were not satisfied with Emma’s explanations about Nellie’s death so she elaborated on her theory. She told them that her younger brother, Arthur Lewis, also a resident of Gridley, had gone to the attic while Nellie was tied up and taunted her until “she became frenzied in her efforts to free herself.” Emma thought Nellie died in the process. Why Arthur would do such a thing was not clear. The police weren’t buying the story.

An autopsy was held on the body and it determined that two vertebrae in Nellie’s neck had been dislocated, leading to her death. The doctors who performed the autopsy believed there was no way Nellie could have inflicted the injury on herself nor could it have happened by accident because her bonds were so tight that she had been unable to move. They believed she had either suffered a “blow” that caused her death or her neck had been twisted and intentionally broken.

The police also reexamined the death of William Rumball, nine months earlier, to determine if he had been “the victim of a plot.” They decided his death was due to natural causes.

The siblings pointed the finger at each other. Their demeanor was sullen and remorseless. They showed no concern that a young girl—a relative—had lost her life in a horrific way. Initially Emma was charged with murder and Arthur was charged with accessory to murder, but a few months later his charge was changed to murder after coworkers claimed that he had killed cows by twisting their necks. A decision was made to try the pair separately.

Arthur was found guilty of manslaughter on January 3, 1912. Eight of the jurors wanted to convict him of first-degree murder and four wanted an acquittal, so the verdict was a compromise. On April 5, 1912, just before she was slated to go to trail, Emma took a plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than risk a jury trial.

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San Quentin mugshots of Arthur Lewis, January 8, 1912.

The siblings were both sent to San Quentin State Prison, however his sentence was ten years while her sentence was only two years. Apparently it pays to be a young, attractive woman when a judge sentences you for manslaughter.

Arthur was released from prison after six years. He moved to North Dakota and enlisted in the army during World War I. After he returned from the war he got married and spent the rest of his life farming. He died in 1954, aged 65. We’ll never know if he ever talked to his sister again.

Incredibly Emma, who only served a year and seven months of her sentence, returned to the tiny town of Gridley after her release from prison. There she worked as a dressmaker, raised her son and daughter and took care of her elderly mother. She lived for years at 885 Kentucky Street. She even remarried late in life. She died, aged 70, and is buried in the Gridley-Biggs Cemetery along with her husband, William, and the stepdaughter that she punished—to death.

Murder in White Pine

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Photographs from Wong Fong’s Bertillon prison card, Nevada State Prison, 1908. Collection of the author.

Wong Fong knew he would never see his Chinese homeland again—he was going to die in prison. When his mugshot photos were taken, in 1908, he’d been incarcerated in the Nevada State Prison for more than 13 years for murder. In his front view photo he looks stoic but in the side view he looks downcast, sad and ashamed.

The murder occurred on October 4, 1894, in White Pine County in eastern Nevada. Wong (called “George Fong” in his court case) was charged with shooting another Chinese man, Hing Lee, with a pistol and killing him “without authority of law and with malice aforethought” according to the judgment of the Nevada Supreme Court.

Wong pleaded not guilty but the jury found him guilty. Since it was decided that the crime was carried out with malice aforethought and that Wong was sane at the time of the shooting, he was convicted of 1st degree murder in December 1894. He was sentenced to death.

His attorneys appealed the conviction and a new trial was ordered for Wong on procedural grounds. But on May 28, 1895, he withdrew his plea of not guilty and entered a guilty plea. He said he was changing his plea because he was in constant fear of his countrymen, fellow prisoners who were held with him in the jail in Ely, Nevada. He claimed they were not friendly towards him, wanted to do him bodily harm and he thought it would be safer in the state prison.

Newspapers described the victim as a “highbinder tong man,” an enforcer or assassin, literally a “hatchet man,” for a “Tong”— Chinese secret societies associated with underworld activity, similar to the Italian Mafia in the twentieth century. A highbinder, it was said, preferred a sword, knife, dagger or club to a gun.

Wars between various Tongs broke out frequently on the West Coast in the late nineteenth century, primarily in San Francisco. However it seems unlikely that members of two warring Tongs would have lived in sparsely populated White Pine County. It’s possible that the murdered man was a Tong member who, while passing through White Pine, got into a disagreement that led to the shooting. However it was not reported that Wong was part of a Tong, so why would an elderly man who worked as a cook pick a fight with a gangster?

With his guilty plea at the second trial, Wong received a new sentence—life imprisonment, rather than death. He was transferred to the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. He was reported to be 75 years old at the start of his incarceration in 1895, however his prison card lists his age as 75 in 1908.

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Wong Fong, Bertillon prison card (front). Collection of the author.

He achieved a peculiar sort of fame in the state and it was reported in the Nevada newspapers when Wong became sick and was on the verge of death. It may be that people suspected he wasn’t guilty or there was sympathy for an old man who had spent the last 20 years of his life a prisoner.

Wong lived until October 26, 1915, when he died, reportedly at the age of 96. He was buried in the cemetery on the prison grounds.

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Death certificate of Wong Fong, Nevada Department of Health, Carson City, Nevada.

Other Men’s Wives

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Joseph Evans, carte de visite mugshot (front and back of card), August 1, 1904. Collection of the author.

Joseph Evans was a matrimonially challenged man. His first wife, Mary Jane, died of blood poisoning in 1899, leaving him with three sons under the age of nine. Joseph needed to find a woman to care for him and his children.

Three years later Joseph married 35-year-old Rebecca Kane and the family moved into a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All seemed to be well, except for the fact that Rebecca Kane was actually Rebecca Burnham, wife of William Burnham of Reading, Massachusetts, and mother of two sons with William.

Due to disability and age—he was 73—William had not worked for years, so the townspeople of Reading provided financial support to the family. Rebecca saved $1200 of this money and handed the cash over to Joseph Evans, who briefly boarded at the Burnham home. Joseph used the money to set himself up in the furniture moving business, buying horses, wagons and “other accoutrements.”

Using their new horses and wagons, Joseph and Rebecca moved most of the Burnham furniture and belongings, including William’s overcoat, to their Cambridge home. The large expenditures for the moving business brought Joseph, who was not a wealthy man, to the attention of the police. On February 20, 1904, the couple were arrested and charged with bigamy.

Joseph claimed he didn’t realize Rebecca was already married. Rebecca claimed William had a first wife still living, so her marriage to him wasn’t valid. Local sympathy was with William and the Burnham sons.

The bigamy charges were eventually dropped. Presumably Rebecca returned to William, along with their furniture and his overcoat. Joseph needed to find another wife.

One assumes he would carefully vet the marital status of the next woman with whom he lived. Unfortunately this was not the case, and a year and a half later he found himself in police custody again. This time the charge was murder.

On the evening of Tuesday, August 1, 1905, Joseph fatally shot a private detective named George Frazer in the hallway of his Cambridge home. A Rhode Island man, Allan J. Barber, hired Frazer to locate his wife, Gertrude. And locate her he did—in the home of Joseph Evans. The story was that she was the Evans family’s “housekeeper.” Allan and the local police wisely remained outside while Detective Frazer entered the Evans home alone.

I bought the pistol to protect myself. I had no idea who the visitors were. I had my children and property to protect, and feared that burglars were attempting to break into my home.”

—Joseph Evans, Fitchburg Sentinel, August 3, 1905

Joseph was tried for murder and acquitted on the grounds that he was defending his home against unwanted intrusion.

Allan Barber sued his wife for divorce in November 1905, alleging adultery, though no one was named in his petition. Gertrude sued her husband for non-support and sought $5000 in alimony.

On February 9, 1907 Joseph Evans and Gertrude Hemenway Barber were married in Arlington, Massachusetts. Hopefully they lived homicide-free and happily ever after and Joseph never needed to find another wife.

Death at San Quentin

Mary Von

Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

Mary Von ad

Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour—Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money—something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand—the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco—it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Executed by Guillotine

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Enrico (Henri) Pranzini mugshot by Alphonse Bertillon.

Enrico (Henri) Pranzini was held to account for the gruesome 1887 murders of courtesan (high class prostitute) Marie Reginault and her servant, Annette Gremeret and Gremeret’s young daughter at Reginault’s Paris apartment in Rue Montaigne. Highly successful in her profession, Reginault lived a life of luxury. Some of her clients were said to be prominent men in the French government and army. The three victims’ throats had been slashed so badly they were nearly decapitated.

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Enrico Pranzini and the three victims. Page from the “Album of Paris Crime” by Alphonse Bertillon. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A handsome, 30-year-old man with a muscular build, Pranzini was popular with the ladies and was described in the press as a “gigolo.” Born in Egypt, he was intelligent, worldly and spoke several languages. Prior to the murders he worked as an interpreter and translator and traveled widely throughout Europe and the Near East. The press described Pranzini as a “professional blackmailer” who used his good looks and charm to “make love to older woman, get them in his power and then compromise them if they refused to pay.”

Letters, cuff links and a belt found at the crime scene implicated another man, Gaston Geissler, as the murderer, however the police believed they had a better case against Pranzini, despite the fact that he had no history of violence. Salacious details about the murders were reported widely in the press and the public clamored for a scapegoat. Pranzini filled the bill.

pranzini-police-news

Reports of the murders in the press included illustrations, some of which were based on morgue photos and mug shots.

Pranzini maintained his innocence throughout his trial for the triple murder. The prosecution’s case was circumstantial—it was based on the fact that he left Paris on the night of the murders and that he gave jewelry similar to some that was missing from the murdered woman’s apartment to prostitutes in Marseilles in the days following the crime.

He was convicted and given the death penalty—execution by guillotine.

Pranzini marched from his cell to the scaffold with a firm step and defiant air. When the executioners seized him the murderer resisted and fought desperately, demanding they let him alone. The executioners overpowered him and threw him upon the machine and in an instant had him securely bound. Immediately the terrible knife was started. It descended with horrible slowness at first, but then its movement quickened and the head of the murderer rolled into the basket.

The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 1, 1887

After his public execution, Pranzini’s body, minus the head, was removed to a Paris medical school, where parts of it disappeared. Subsequently it was discovered that some of his skin had been removed and used to make wallets. Other parts apparently went to well-connected curiosity seekers.

If you are visiting Paris, you might drop by the Police Museum of Paris, where you can see not only a wax model of Pranzini’s head but also a display of Parisian policemen taking a rogues’ gallery photo, like the one of Pranzini at the top of the page.