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.

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.

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.

Irresistible Appeal

Irresistible Appeal

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyda news editorial

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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