Quick Quack Cure for Crime

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

BERKELEY. March 27. — The surgeon’s knife will be used in an attempt to reform Mrs. Jean Thurnherr, the notorious girl burglar. Specialists have declared that the girl, who was injured while disguised as a cowpuncher in Arizona, has never recovered from a blow on her head received while breaking a horse, and that this injury causes her to steal.

The San Francisco Call, Mar 28, 1911

It all began in 1903, when 14-year-old Bessie Barclay, later known as Jean Thurnherr, ran away from her Los Angeles home. She went to San Pedro, a community south of Los Angeles, where, disguised as a male, she found work in a bowling alley and then got hired as a cabin boy on a lumber schooner headed for the Puget Sound.

Her family, distressed at her absence, hired a female private detective to search for her. The detective located her in San Pedro before the boat left. She was returned to her father, Henry A. Barclay, an attorney and judge, and her mother, Lily Ward Barclay, an artist.

Jean_Thurnherr_as_Bessie_Barclay_adventures_and_picsIn 1904 Bessie ran away a second time. Again she dressed as a boy and found work as an elevator operator, a newsboy and a cowboy in Arizona. (The Arizona part of her adventures would, in later news reports, be expanded to include tales of tangling with Mexican outlaws and a head injury due to a fall from a horse.) She was located by authorities and returned to her parents but she didn’t stay home long. The next time she ran she went farther — all the way to San Francisco.

Disguised as a boy she worked as a bellhop at a hotel on Kearny Street. There met a miner from Alaska and robbed him of a purse containing $340 worth of cash and gold nuggets. This time she was arrested and convicted of grand larceny. However with her family’s legal connections, she got off with probation. During her court hearing she claimed that she was adopted and left home because she didn’t get along with her adoptive parents. While she was in jail in San Francisco, her mother, Lily, died in Los Angeles.

If only the law would let me fulfill those duties instead of trying to curb my venturesome spirit in a reform school. There’s no use pretending otherwise — it’s a boy’s life and a boy’s opportunities and above all the wide free life of the mountain ranger that appeals to me most.

— Jean Thurnherr, quoted in the San Francisco Call, June 15, 1909

Bessie’s father was fed up with her exploits and broke off contact with her. During her arrest in 1909, it was rumored that she was the biological child of her mother, Lily Barclay, but that Judge Barclay was not her father.

Instead of returning home after her release from jail, she remained in the San Francisco Bay Area, under the supervision of a probation officer and of women who worked for various charitable aid societies.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Thurnher (sic) is a natural and more than usually clever criminal. Possessed of a charming personality she makes friends readily and exercises an almost uncanny influence over men with whom she comes in contact. She never seemed to care for their attentions. She was always interested in stories of bold crimes and frequently expressed her admiration of clever thieves whom she read about.

— Mrs. F. Smith of Associated Charities, quoted in The Oakland Tribune, June 18, 1909

On October 1, 1908, Bessie, using the alias Jean M. Gordon, married Albert B. Thurnherr, a young dry goods store clerk, in Alameda. The couple moved to Berkeley and settled into an apartment near the University of California. On Christmas Day, 1908, Bessie pulled her first burglary at an apartment house close to her new home.

The Thurnherrs moved around Berkeley during their first year of marriage and everywhere they went, burglaries followed. At one point a homeowner returned while Bessie was in the process of robbing the woman’s bedroom. She leaped out the window to the ground, a drop of about 20 feet, and escaped unharmed. The homeowner got a glimpse of her fleeing form (surprisingly she dressed in women’s clothing) and reported to the police that it was a woman they should seek for the burglaries. The newspapers dubbed the burglar “the female Raffles,” inspired by the E. W. Hornung’s fictional gentleman thief, Arthur J. Raffles.

Jean_Thurnherr_under_arrest_for_may_crimes__picsShe was arrested several times during the winter of 1909, but the police lacked evidence and she wasn’t charged. By May they were convinced of her guilt and had her followed by detectives. She was arrested on June 11, 1909, at her Berkeley home. The police found numerous items in her home that she had stolen over the previous eight months. She pleaded guilty to 1st degree burglary and was sentenced to one year at San Quentin Prison. Her husband, Albert, stood by her and was reported to be heartbroken by her prison sentence.

Jean/Bessie spent 10 months at San Quentin before being released early for good behavior. She returned to life with Albert in Berkeley, but she didn’t stay out of trouble for long. She was caught shoplifting at a jewelry store in March 1911 — it was the third time she had robbed the same store.

At this point a clever doctor named H. N. Rowell came up with the idea that Jean/Bessie might be cured of her burglary habit by having surgery on her skull. She claimed that she hit her head during a fall while breaking horses in Arizona in 1904. Dr. Rowel believed that her head injury was what caused her seemingly endless lust for crime.

With difficulty Albert found two bondsmen who agreed to pay his wife’s bond so she could be released from jail for the operation. She went to the Fabiola Hospital in Oakland, where a trio of doctors removed a three square inch chunk of her skull. They said it was thickened so much that it pressed on her brain and this was, no doubt, the cause of her problems. Just for good measure Dr. Rowell also put her under hypnosis — he was supposedly an expert — to aid her recovery.

The operation was proclaimed a success. The patient lost little blood and her brain was described as “not injured at all.” The docs sewed up “the tissues” over the wound and then sewed up her scalp and sent Bessie on her way — cured of crime by surgery! “Hers was a case of disease rather than crime,” proclaimed her doctors.

Except that she wasn’t cured. Despite insisting that her urge to steal was gone, in September 1911, she was caught stealing from an office building in Oakland. Given probation, she was arrested again in 1913. Rather than jail she was sent to the Patton State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane, in San Bernardino, California. The judge in her case believed she might be suffering from a “dual identity.”

Doctors at Patton decided she was not insane and returned her to her husband, Albert, who had moved to San Francisco. In October 1913 she reoffended but the judge decided to release her from jail because she was ill and he hoped going home would save her life.

Albert was married to someone else by 1918. It’s possible Bessie died of whatever she was suffering from in 1913, though no death record was located for her. (Having a piece of your skull removed and living without it would be no picnic, especially in the days before antibiotics). She may have moved on to commit more crimes under an alias or possibly she assumed a male identity. Whatever she did, she left her mark on the history quick quack cures for crime.

Featured image: Bessie Barclay (Jean Thurnherr) mugshots, California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Duplicate Photograph Album Dept of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 23374-23778

 

Mother Murder

Mother Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oakland_Tribune_Thu__Jan_15__1925_

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

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

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

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

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

dorothy ellingson_san quentin

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

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Mar_6__1933_

The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starts and Ends in Jail

Starts and Ends in Jail

Annabelle Johnson was in the pokey in Denver, Colorado, charged with larceny. The year was 1901 and her jailer was the deputy sheriff, a fellow named Charles Brown Blackwords. Charles, or C.B. as he was known, fell in love with the attractive young woman and talked her father into mortgaging his home to furnish the bond to get Annabelle out of jail. The lovebirds eloped together, despite the fact that C.B. already had a wife and children in Denver. Annabelle’s dad lost his house when she didn’t show up for court.

The couple headed to San Francisco. C.B.’s wife divorced him in 1903 and he and Annabelle were officially married. They decided to find work as servants for the wealthy, however they didn’t intend to do much cooking or cleaning. The plan was to get hired (using fake names) and become trusted employees. Then they would abscond with as much jewelry, furs and other valuables as they could lay their larcenous hands on.

The scam worked well for quite awhile. They pulled off robberies in San Francisco, Sacramento, Reno and Denver. However when they robbed W. E. Gerber, a Sacramento banker, of $6000 worth of diamonds and other valuables in December 1910, plans went awry. Law enforcement was onto their racket.

Annabelle, traveling under the alias “Jessie Croffer,” was arrested at the train depot in Ogden, Utah, and taken to the city jail. She’d been alone and was heading east on the Southern Pacific train. She had in her possession a large trunk that was presumed by the cops to hold the stolen loot.

Mrs. Blackword (sic) stated immediately after having been placed in jail that she wished her trunk contained dynamite, and that when the officers opened it, it would explode and blow the box into smithereens.

The Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah), Dec. 28, 1910

C.B. was arrested in Sparks, Nevada. He confessed to authorities that it was entirely his wife’s fault — she was the one responsible for the robberies! He was just an innocent victim of her criminal enterprises, despite the fact that they’d purchased a car with some of her ill-gotten gains.

Blackwords headline

The San Francisco Call, March 7, 1911.

The stolen loot was recovered, including three diamonds sent as a gift to a friend of the Blackwords and other jewels the couple pawned in Reno. Stolen linen, clothing and cut glass were located in the trunk Annabelle wanted to blow up.

Annabelle pleaded guilty to grand larceny. C.B. pleaded not guilty but he was convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. The couple was sentenced on March 6, 1911. She cried and made an impassioned plea that her husband was innocent and that he should not go to prison but he got a six-year term in Folsom. She got a seven-year stretch in San Quentin.

The strange thing is that there’s no record of C.B. being incarcerated at Folsom or any other California prison. Annabelle served four years and eight months at San Quentin and was released in December 1915. She and C.B. divorced in 1918.

Featured photo: Mrs. C.B. Blackwords (aka Annabelle Blackwords), San Quentin Inmate Photographs. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

First Lady of San Quentin

First Lady of San Quentin

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

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

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

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

Mary Von ad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Him Up

Give Him Up

A Montana-born woman, 34-year-old Mae Kavanaugh, was convicted of writing “fictitious checks” and sent to San Quentin State Prison, the infamous northern California prison, on March 25, 1918, to serve a two year term.

Eight years earlier, in 1910, Mae and a male accomplice, H. S. Farnsworth, lured a man to their rented Santa Cruz cottage. Suddenly the lights went out and the victim, John Hodges, found himself in the dark with Miss Mae. A man found alone with a single woman could only be after one thing, and if his wife found out, it would be highly embarrassing for him, perhaps even disastrous. Mae pulled a gun on Hodges and demanded $500. Not having the cash on him, Hodges wrote her a promissory note.

farnsworth2

H.S. Farnsworth, San Quentin Mug Book, July 2, 1910. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

Instead of paying up, Hodges reported the couple to the sheriff. Farnsworth, a man described as a “once wealthy contractor” was convicted of extortion and given the maximum sentence of 5 years in San Quentin. “I’m sorry I can’t make it more,” commented the judge when Farnsworth was sentenced.

I am down and out. I was once well to do but met with reverses, and this thing appealed to me as a chance to make a raise.

—H. S. Farnsworth, June 28, 1910, Santa Cruz, California

Mae was very lucky; she got probation and was ordered to “give Farnsworth up.” Apparently she gave up Farnsworth, but neglected to give up crime.

San Quentin is the oldest correctional institution in California. It housed women from the time it opened in 1852 until 1932, when a prison for women was built in Tehachapi.

Featured image: Mae Kavanaugh, San Quentin mug book photo. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.