Granite Man Walks

Granite Man Walks

After a pathetic Christmas day spent along the banks of the drainage canal in the vain hope of clearing up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her mother, Mrs. Kate Mitchell Trostell, 11 year old Eleanor Trostell was taken to the detective bureau last night to confront Arthur Foster, charged with the murder of her mother.

 

All through the night and into the early hours of the morning, the child alternately sobbed and pleaded with him to reveal her mother’s fate.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1922

The days when a detective could bring a kid into an interrogation room and keep her there for hours in order to wring a confession out of a murder suspect are long gone. Also gone are the days when a newspaper photographer was allowed to take posed photos of the interrogation, including the chief of detectives (in this case Michael Hughes) smack in the middle of the photo.

Evidently finding an unbiased jury was not a major concern in Chicago during the 1920s.

Kate Trostell, a widow, hadn’t been seen since December 2, 1922, when she failed to come home after her evening shift at the Chicago Western Union office. Her family — two sisters and a brother — was convinced that Arthur Foster had murdered her.

The police grilled Arthur for days on end. Twice they brought in Kate’s 13-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to confront him in jail. When her sobs and pleas didn’t crack him she ran over to him, flung herself into his lap, twined her arms around his neck and begged him to bring her mother back for Christmas. “I’d like to honey, but I don’t know anything about her,” he said.

Foster and Kate photo - Newspapers.comArthur was a truck driver who’d dated Kate and asked her to marry him. He continued to pursue her even after she cooled on him and tried to end the relationship. Kate’s family and coworkers claimed Arthur was a violent man who’d chased her, shot at her and thrown rocks at the window of her office.

The police found blood on the running board of Arthur’s car and on a blanket in his vehicle. At the time it was impossible to determine whether or not the blood was Kate’s. They also found a yellow pencil — the sort she used at the telegraph office — with her teeth marks on it in the car. Arthur said that Kate often rode in his car and the pencil proved nothing.

Arthur insisted he had no idea if Kate was alive or dead but he loved her and wouldn’t have harmed her. He said he hadn’t seen her the night she went missing but he knew she’d been depressed and talked about killing herself. He believed she might have done what she often threatened to do — throw herself into the Chicago Drainage Canal. Beyond that Arthur had nothing to say. In fact he was a man of so few words the newspapers dubbed him the “granite man.”

In late December the police dragged the canal, where they found Kate’s coat and purse. It didn’t bode well for her making it home for the New Year.

Kate's body found in drainage canal - Newspapers.com

Kate’s body surfaced at the dam where the canal ended, in Lockport, Illinois, on January 23, 1923. The deputy coroner said she was alive when she went into the water, but there was a bruise on her forehead and several more on her knees and hands. Her injuries might have resulted from a violent struggle before she went in, but they also could have occurred during the fall. The police theory of her death, which had been that Arthur killed Kate and threw the body into the canal, changed to Arthur hitting her on the head, throwing her into the water alive and watching her drown. It would have taken a granite man full of hate to commit that crime.

A witness claimed to have heard a woman scream near the canal the night Kate went missing. That, along with the blood and pencil in Arthur’s car and that he’d phoned her the evening she vanished was the sum total of evidence against him.

Arthur was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. His attorney appealed on the basis that the evidence was circumstantial and that the state hadn’t proven that Kate had been murdered. A judge agreed and ordered a new trial.

The second trial never happened. In October 1926 the state dropped the case and Arthur walked out of jail a free man. The following year he married a widow whose name, as fate would have it, was Katherine.

Kate’s daughter, Eleanor, grew up, got married and raised a family.

“Go get ‘em Mike” Hughes became the head of the Chicago Police Department in 1927. He resigned after only a year in office but remained with the department until 1935, when he retired.

Whether Kate’s death was the result of murder or suicide remains an open question.

Featured photo: news photograph taken for the International Newsreel Corporation of the police interrogation of Arthur Foster, December 14, 1922. Collection of the author.

The Hungry Wife

The Hungry Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Hannah Toppin

The Death of Hannah Toppin

Yesterday afternoon, Lieut. Spear, of the Tenth Police District, received an anonymous letter stating that the body of a young lady was lying in a house in Jefferson Street, below Second, and intimating that the death was caused by vio’ence.

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 8, 1859

Hannah Jane Toppin’s body lay on a bed in a third floor room in Martha Hudson’s Philadelphia home. She suffered for days before finally dying on March 7, 1859 — her nineteenth birthday.

Martha knew Hannah’s death would not stay a secret for long. She packed her bags and was out the door of her Jefferson Street row house a few hours after the young girl took her last breath.

The following day Hannah’s father, Henry Toppin, went to the Hudson home after he heard a rumor that his missing daughter had died there. He identified the body as Hannah’s and the police were called. They arrested John Hudson but could not locate his wife.

Hannah was a first generation child of Irish immigrants. Her father worked as a weaver. Hannah and her three brothers attended school as youngsters, but once they reached their teen years they worked to help with the family finances.

Hannah worked in a hat store on Second Street where she met a mechanic named Robert Dunlap. They began spending time together and soon Hannah feared the worst — that she was enceinte. She hid her fears from her parents but confessed her worries to a cousin. Unable to keep the secret, the cousin soon spilled the beans to Hannah’s parents.

Henry and Jane Toppin informed their only daughter that they knew her secret. Hannah told them she had a plan to visit Mrs. Hudson’s herb shop, where she’d heard she could get a natural remedy to end her pregnancy.

Her parents forbade her to leave the house but two weeks later she was gone. She spent the next four weeks at Martha Hudson’s house.

Dr. S. P. Brown performed a postmortem exam on Hannah’s body. He testified at the inquest that the membrane around Hannah’s bowels had been perforated by an instrument and was “highly inflamed.” Her death was the result of peritonitis due to the perforation of her bowel. Jane Fletcher, a woman who lived with the Hudsons and who nursed Hannah before she died, testified that her death was slow and agonizing.

Dr. Brown also stated that Hannah was not pregnant when she died. Whether she’d had a miscarriage earlier or whether the pregnancy had been a false alarm was unknown, however Dr. Brown stated that, in his opinion, Hannah was mistaken in thinking she was pregnant.

The inquest verdict was that Martha Hudson caused Hannah’s death while trying to induce an abortion. John Hudson and Robert Dunlap were held as accessories before the fact. Martha, however, was still missing.

In late March a New York City policeman saw a woman leave a dry-goods store “laboring under great excitement.” He thought she might be a shoplifter so he followed her to a house on West Thirty-First Street and spoke to the man who rented her a room there. The man told the officer that her name was Mrs. Brown and that she was in “great disquietude due to family difficulties.” The officer told him to keep an eye on her and left. Later he read in a newspaper about the death of Hannah Toppin and the search for Martha Hudson. He thought “Mrs. Brown” might be Martha Hudson, so he returned to the house and spoke to her. She confessed to being the wanted woman.

Martha was returned to Philadelphia where she was held on a charge of murder in the second degree, meaning intentional murder without premeditation, but with malice aforethought.

At the trial Dr. D. S. Brown (not the Dr. Brown who performed the postmortem) testified that Martha called on him two days before Hannah died and begged him to come and see Hannah. At first he refused but eventually he agreed. Hannah told the doctor that Mrs. Hudson had operated on her because a drunken woman hit her in the stomach. She said Mrs. Hudson had been very kind to her. Dr. Brown testified that her condition seemed to have improved when he saw her the next morning. The following night she died.

Martha’s attorney presented no defense. She was convicted of second-degree murder on May 3, 1859. She was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Featured photo: “Mrs. Hudson, Abortionist” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New Jersey Noir

New Jersey Noir

Mrs. Emogene Hurst, 27-year-old expectant mother, has been indicted for murder in the shooting of her husband which police said was brought about by a lover’s triangle.

The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), August 29, 1951

The news photo of Emogene Hurst and her lover, James “Reds” Moore, was shot in the most unflattering way possible. The room is dark and a bright light on the floor provides the only illumination. Dark shadows menacingly engulf the couple. But the film noir feel was appropriate, because Emogene and Reds were in every bit as much trouble as Walter and Phyllis, the murderous pair glamorously portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the noir classic “Double Indemnity.”

Emogene’s husband, 38-year-old Harrison Hurst, was found dead in his bed in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on the morning of July 9, 1951. He had a single gunshot wound to his head. The gun was lying in a pool of blood on the floor next to the bed. It looked like a straightforward suicide until a police investigator started poking around and asking questions. Emogene didn’t help herself when, rather than crying, she laughed and got drunk at her husband’s funeral. Then she proceeded to sit on Reds’ knee and kiss him. People noticed and they talked.

The police took a second look and decided Harrison’s demise wasn’t due to suicide but rather it was murder.

They took Emogene in for questioning and brought in the Reverend Maurice Ragan to assist in the interrogation. Ragan was, very conveniently, both a man of the cloth and an officer of the law. He advised Emogene to sign a statement admitting that she shot her husband because “a sinner who repented would be rewarded.” Emogene, who was born and raised in a small, rural community in Tennessee and never went beyond the 8th grade in school, admitted to her affair with Reds and signed a confession that she’d shot her husband.

However she claimed Harrison beat her and threatened to “blow her brains out.” Fearing for her life, she said she got his gun and shot him while he slept.

Harrison was also a native of Tennessee and Emogene was his second wife. They were married in 1943, shortly after he was released from the Tennessee State Prison. She was 18 and he was 30 when they tied the knot. After the marriage the couple moved to New Jersey, where Harrison was jailed for robbing a filling station and for breaking and entering.

Emogene’s confession was the main legal evidence against her in her murder trial. But her height, said to be almost six feet, and weight, somewhere between 230 and 250 lbs., were mentioned in nearly every news article. When a fellow inmate at the jail tried to spruce up her appearance by curling her hair, it was noted by the newsmen. It was rumored, incorrectly, that she was pregnant when she was arrested.

The state anticipated that if found guilty, Emogene would have a chance to get cozy with “Old Smokey,” the infamous New Jersey state prison electric chair in which Bruno Richard Hauptmann lost his life after he was convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The Hursts took boarders into their home to supplement their income. Reds was one of the boarders, along with a man named Dana Nelon and a woman, Annabelle Connor. At the trial it came out that Emogene and Reds were not the only ones in the Hurst home carrying on an extramarital affair. Emogene testified that both her husband and Dana were having relations with Annabelle, who was allegedly recovering from injuries she’d sustained in a car accident. Apparently Annabelle had enough energy for a bit of fun while she recuperated.

Jury gets Emogene Hurst case. Photo. Love letters. - Newspapers.At her trial Emogene renounced her confession, claiming it was “wrung out of her” after hours of police questioning. Emogene testified that Dana shot Harrison in an argument over Annabelle’s affections after a night of heavy drinking and partying. She said she was sitting outside her house when Dana came up to her and said “Go inside and you’ll see your man making love to my woman,” shortly before he shot Harrison. Later she saw him cleaning the blood off his fingers with lighter fluid.

Dana countered that Emogene woke him early in the morning, claiming there was “something wrong with her husband.” Upon investigation he found Harrison dead in bed with a bullet wound to his head. He said that Emogene pulled the gun out from under her apron and laid it in the pool of blood on the floor. Why she would incriminate herself in front of her boarder was never explained.

It was Reds who sealed Emogene’s fate when he testified that several days prior to the shooting she showed him the gun and asked him to use it to kill Harrison. “But I told her I wouldn’t do anything like that,” he testified. She was found guilty of first-degree murder, but the Cumberland County jury recommended mercy. Instead of facing “Old Smokey” she was sentenced to life in prison on January 23, 1952.

After more than 14 years in the Clinton Reformatory, Emogene Hurst was paroled in November 1966. She was 41 years old. The other characters in the saga of the murder of Harrison Hurst had long since faded into the woodwork.

Featured photo: news photo of Emogene Hurst and James “Reds” Moore, taken on August 14, 1951. Collection of the author.

The Argument

The Argument

A quarrel over a woman ended last night in the slaying of an escaped convict by one of his three pals and the wounding and capture of the other three men by the police following a pistol battle.

The St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, Missouri), July 7, 1931

It started out as a congenial evening of drinking among friends on a hot summer night in St. Louis. Winfield (known as “Windy”) Seeman and his pal, Morris Rosen, met up with John Harrington and Harry Casey near the Mississippi riverfront. July in St. Louis is notoriously hot and humid. In order to try to cool off one of the men suggested they head to a speakeasy called “Mack’s Place” for some beers.

The speakeasy was in a house in the southeast part of the city, near the workhouse, in an area called “No Man’s Land,” where mounds of rocks from an old quarry were still scattered around. During the 19th century, workhouse inmates were forced to break rocks from the quarry into gravel as part of their penance for being imprisoned. Streetlights were few in No Man’s Land, so it was dark at night and vehicles traversed the landscape with difficulty. The police disliked the area and avoided it, which meant it was a good place to run an illegal beer tavern.

Harry Casey was a 40-year-old St. Louis man with an extensive criminal history. As a joke he was nicknamed “The Velvet Tongue Kid” thanks to his free use of some of the vilest curse words in the English language. He’d been sent to the workhouse for car theft in his late teens. By the age of 25 he’d been hardened by two prison terms in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) — one of which came after he’d stolen some guns and attempted to kill a police officer who tried to arrest him in Illinois. He’d lived in California for a time but he’d recently returned to his hometown.

Winfield Seeman mugshot

Morris Rosen 2-1

Windy Seeman (top) and Morris Rosen (bottom) in MSP mugshots. Collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Windy Seeman and Morris Rosen had become buddies at the MSP when Windy was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery. Russian-born Morris, the younger of the two, had served a year at the MSP for assault to kill and was in for the second time for burglary and grand larceny. They were both skilled tradesmen and had been put to work on the outside in a supervised prison gang that was at work on a new prison. Windy and Morris walked away from the gang the previous October and had been on the lam ever since.

John was a salesman in his thirties with no criminal record.

The men sat in front of Mack’s Place drinking and as the alcohol flowed, tongues loosened. John casually mentioned that he thought Windy’s wife, Irene, was a very attractive woman. Perhaps it was an innocent comment or he may have been testing the waters to see how married the Seemans really were. Either way, he wasn’t prepared for for the escaped con’s reaction.

Windy accused John of trying to steal his wife. John replied that it was meant as a compliment, nothing more, but Windy became even more incensed and refused to let the matter drop.

John retreated inside the speakeasy but Windy grabbed his pistol and followed him. Harry, never one to avoid a fight, followed them both inside and Morris trailed in last. Gunfire erupted and Windy fell to the floor with a bullet wound to his chest.

Morris insisted that they needed to get his friend to a doctor. The three men laid Windy in the backseat of John’s car and headed to the city hospital. Before they got far the police, who’d been called by someone at the speakeasy, arrived on the scene. They ordered the men out of the car. Instead Harry fired at the policemen, who dropped to their knees, sought cover and returned fire.

By the time the bullets stopped flying, John had been shot in the left arm and Harry had taken a bullet to his right hand and had a deep scalp wound. Morris was seriously injured — he’d been shot in the head. Windy was dead, with bullet wounds to his stomach and heart. None of the officers was injured.

The police weren’t sure whose bullet had killed Windy. However he’d been lying in the backseat of the car during the gun battle, which made it unlikely that the officers, firing from a low angle, had shot him. John told police that Harry fired the fatal shot after the argument moved inside the speakeasy. Morris, once he’d recovered, said the same thing. But velvet-tongued Harry claimed John had fired the fatal shot.

Harry with charged with Windy’s murder. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault to kill and was sent to prison for ten years. He died in 1944 of stomach and liver cancer and was buried in a pauper’s grave in East St. Louis, Illinois.

John, whose father, Patrick Harrington, was a St. Louis policeman, returned to life as a salesman. He was killed in July 1952 when he failed to stop at an intersection near Route 66 in St. Louis County while driving his car at a high rate of speed. John’s car struck another vehicle and he was thrown 30 feet from his wreck. He died at the scene of fractures, shock and blunt force head trauma. Passengers in the other two cars involved in the crash suffered only minor injuries.

Morris survived but his lost his eye. He was returned to the MSP to finish his sentence once he’d recovered. He was released in 1934 and he moved back to his hometown of Kansas City. Eventually he became a part owner of Toffler’s Loan Shop in Leavenworth, Kansas. The store, part pawn shop and part general store, sold rifles, shotguns and pistols, among other things.

In December 1952, while demonstrating a revolver he believed to be unloaded, Morris snapped the trigger and the gun exploded. It wounded him in the hand and wounded a bystander in the arm. He recovered from his second gunshot wound and lived another 33 years, dying in 1995 at the age of 90.

Featured photo: Morris Rosen’s mugshot, taken on November 19, 1931. The Missouri State Penitentiary Database, collection of the Missouri State Archives.

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.