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.

 

Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets

At 11:15 a.m. the prisoner, William Collon of 406 East 142d Street, the Bronx, was being led up a staircase from the detention pen by Patrolman Michael Murphy. The staircase leads into the courtroom, about fifteen feet from the bench. The landing is flanked on all sides by iron-grated doors. As the prisoner reached the landing he pushed open a door, climbed a three-foot-high ledge, opened a window that was eighteen inches wide and leaped, landing on 161st Street, near Third Avenue.

The New York Times, July 2, 1952

After 23-year-old Collon jumped 20 feet to the street below, all hell broke loose at the Bronx Borough Courthouse in New York City. Detective Jeremiah O’Connor heroically jumped on the window ledge in an attempt to grab Collon, but was unable to catch him. He fired his revolver three times, including a warning shot in the air. Detective David Wahl arrived at the window and fired six times. Patrolman Robert E. Lee (no kidding) leaned between the two detectives and fired twice. An unidentified detective in the street fired four shots.

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Bronx Borough Court House in 2008. Courtesy of Jim Henderson via Wikimedia.

Passersby on the street below scattered in fear when the shots rang out and shopkeepers took cover under their store counters. Patrolman Irving Resnick was standing in the street below the window. He seized a man running by him that he thought was the prisoner, but another nearby patrolman, James Coyle, shouted that he had the wrong man—Coyle had spotted Collon crouched behind a parked car a block away.

Fifteen shots were fired in less than a minute on the morning of Tuesday, July 1, 1952. The escaping prisoner was hit three times: in the spine, the elbow and the back. He was carried back to the courthouse and taken to the hospital where he was listed in critical condition. When asked why he jumped, he said he didn’t know.

Pauline_Weidt_injured_by_stray_bullet__Photo

Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Lancaster, Ohio), July 12, 1952.

Collon was awaiting arraignment at police court when he escaped. The previous Sunday night, while still on probation for an earlier burglary, he had been caught attempting to burglarize an apartment at 202 St. Ann’s Avenue.

Two bystanders were shot during Collon’s escape attempt. Anna Marie Alers, a pregnant 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, was visiting friends who lived near the courthouse. After hearing the shots she leaned out a window and was hit in the thigh by a bullet. She was taken to Lincoln Hospital, where she was listed in fair condition.

Pauline Weidt, a 28-year-old bookkeeper for a dental laboratory on 161st Street, was working near an open window that morning, trying to catch the breeze on a hot summer day. One of the wayward bullets lodged her in breastbone. Pauline was also taken to Lincoln Hospital, where the bullet was removed and she was released.

The following day Magistrate Joseph Martinis ordered “each prisoner will be accompanied by a police officer from the pen to the bench.” Two weeks later Collon, whose condition had improved, was indicted on charges of third degree burglary and unlawful escape.

The police court operated at the courthouse until 1977 when the building was closed by the city. Currently on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, the building is under redevelopment by a private developer.

Featured photo: news photo of Pauline Weidt escorted by officers after she was shot. Collection of the author.