Flying Scissors

Flying Scissors

A quarrel between two teen aged sisters over clothing and boy friends ended yesterday when one of the sisters hurled a pair of long bladed scissors which penetrated the breast of the other, killing her.

Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1947

The three Zawistowski sisters sat in the kitchen of their family’s apartment on a cool, overcast Monday in late October. The apartment was located on West Evergreen Avenue, just east of Humboldt Park, in a tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Chicago.

Jozef and Magdalena Zawistowski were Polish immigrants with six children, all of whom were born in America. Irene, a junior in high school, had just turned 16. Rose, age 13, was still in elementary school. Adeline, age 18, had graduated from high school and was employed as a bookkeeper for an auto parts company.

The younger girls were home from school for lunch and Adeline was off work because she wasn’t feeling well. Magdalena and John, the girls’ older brother, were in another room. Jozef, a house painter, was away at work.

The girls’ conversation turned to clothes and boy friends, which reminded Adeline that one of her favorite dresses was missing from her closet. She suspected Irene had taken it without her permission and loaned it to a neighborhood girl. She thought Irene should ask before borrowing her clothes and told her so. The conversation took a nasty turn. Insults went back and forth between the two sisters.

Rose, who didn’t like to listen to her older sisters fight, took refuge in her bedroom. But the walls in the apartment were thin and she still heard a rising tide of anger in their voices.

Suddenly it got very quiet. Then Rose heard a cry and the sound of something falling. She ran back to the kitchen where she was confronted by a nightmarish scene.

Adeline

Adeline lay on the floor with one of the blades of the scissors from the table sunk into her chest. Irene stood over her older sister with a look of horror on her face. Then she started to scream hysterically. The others heard the commotion and ran to the kitchen. Magdelena bent down and cradled her daughter in her arms, telling her it would be all right. John called the doctor. He also phoned for the police.

Dr. Slawinski lived less than two blocks from the Zawistowski apartment. He came as soon as he could but it was too late. The blade had punctured one of Adeline’s lungs and most likely it also ruptured a large blood vessel in her chest. All the doctor could do was pronounce the young woman dead.

Meanwhile the police arrived at the apartment and took Irene into custody.

scissors“I got so mad I just picked up whatever I could and threw it at Adeline,” Irene told Capt. Daniel Healy and Lt. Joseph Mooney of the W. North Avenue Police Station. “I loved my sister,” she added. When Irene made her statement to the police she hadn’t yet been told that her sister was dead. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she screamed.

Irene was held in a juvenile facility until the grand jury heard the case two days later. The jury listened to the evidence in order to decide whether or not Irene should be indicted in the death of Adeline.

The only eyewitness to the events was Irene. Did she pick up the scissors and stab her sister? Or did she, as she told the police, throw the scissors at Adeline in a fit of blind rage with no intention of really harming her?

Could a blade from a pair of household scissors that were thrown from a distance of eight feet pierce a person’s clothing, go through the chest wall and the lung’s tough pleural membrane to penetrate far enough to cause death? It took the grand jury only half an hour for to decide that it could have happened that way. Adeline’s death, though tragic, was declared to have been “accidental.” No charges were filed against Irene.

Irene collapses

Immediately after the grand jury announced its verdict, Irene collapsed into the arms of Minnie Attardo, the policewoman in charge of her. After the verdict sank in, Irene became hysterical and had to be carried out of the courtroom.

Adeline’s funeral was two days later, on Halloween day.

The incident was shocking enough that newspapers around the country carried reports about it, but after the grand jury rendered its verdict and Adeline was buried, the story ended as far as the public was concerned. It wasn’t reported if Irene was returned to her family or if she ended up in a foster home or juvenile facility.

I hope Irene got the help she needed for her emotional instability and anger management issues, not to mention the lifelong heavy burden she had to carry of responsibility in her sister’s death.

Featured photo: retouched news photo of Irene Zawistowski and Policewoman Minnie Attardo after the announcement of the grand jury verdict. Collection of the author.

Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

San_Bernardinos

San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.

The Drop

The Drop

John Medlock is to hang tomorrow for the murder of Carrie Boyd, or McKinney, more than three years ago in the Gardiner coal camp. The Boyd woman was living with a negro named McKinney when Medlock won her somewhat fickle affections. She went to live with him but after a short time left him for another man.

Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), May 24, 1906

The murder occurred on the night of January 4, 1901. John Neeley (aka Medlock) went out looking for Carrie Boyd and he finally found her in the Gardiner saloon. Fueled with a jealous rage, he pulled out his pistol and shot her without warning. As she started to fall to the ground someone caught her and tried to hold her up. “Let her alone,” he yelled. “I want to see her drop.”

Witnessing the shooting sobered up the bystanders and most of them cleared out of the bar in fear for their own lives. Carrie died on the floor of the saloon. Her killer disappeared into the darkness. No one was foolish enough to try to stop him.

Gardiner was a mining town in Colfax County, New Mexico. James Gardiner, a geologist for the Sante Fe Railroad, discovered coal in nearby Dillon Canyon around 1881. Soon the Old Gardiner Mine swung into production. In 1896 the Raton Coal and Coke Company took over the mine and three railroad companies established coke ovens in town. Coal miners, both white and African-American, were drawn to the area for work.

With little to do in the evenings but drink, the saloon was a gathering place for the citizens of Gardiner. Hard drinking led to fighting. A few years after Carrie’s murder the partition that separated black and white drinkers in the saloon was smashed to bits during an altercation.

Coal mining was and still is a dangerous profession. John lost the sight in his right eye during a mine explosion. He also carried the scars on his forehead and right cheek from severe burns he got in the same accident. In addition he suffered from syphilis. Given how few women lived in New Mexico back then, venereal diseases were practically an occupational hazard for miners and cowboys.

After he murdered Carrie, John headed east to Indian Territory. He wouldn’t be caught for more than two years and when he was captured it was not for Carrie’s murder but for an assault on a woman who survived the attack. Under an alias — John Medlock — he was sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary for the assault.

Before John was released from Leavenworth the New Mexico authorities realized he was the man who shot and killed Carrie Boyd. The sheriff of Colfax County, Marion Littrell, picked him up from the federal penitentiary on May 14, 1905, and took him to New Mexico to face the murder charge.

He was convicted of Carrie’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He didn’t fight the sentence.

The plan was for John and another man, David Arguello, who was convicted of the murder of a peace officer, to be hanged together on May 25, 1906. Two for the price of one saved the county some money. The sheriff was besieged with applications from people who wanted to witness the hangings. By law only 20 were allowed to attend.

The night before his execution John gave a statement confirming his guilt in Carrie’s murder. He said he regretted the crime and the bad company he kept when it happened. Then he went to bed and slept well. The next morning, after eating a good breakfast, he whistled and sang in his cell as he washed up.

Raton County Courthouse

After exchanging a few last words with his minister, John calmly mounted the scaffold that had been set up on the west side of the Raton County Courthouse. The trap was sprung at 10:15 a.m. but his neck wasn’t broken in the drop. He died of strangulation 13 minutes after his body went through the trap door.

The executions of John Neeley and David Arguello were the only legal hangings in Raton, New Mexico. Of course many lynchings also occurred in New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the Great Depression the mines in Gardiner closed and after World War II the few families still there left. By 1954 Gardiner was a ghost town. Now the land is gated private property owned by media mogul Ted Turner. It’s part of Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch and if you have a spare $450 you can book a night’s stay there.

Featured photo: John Neeley, alias Medlock, from his Leavenworth Penitentiary file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

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. Collection of the 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.