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 Anna needed her daughter to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and she 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 in to 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!

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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.

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

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year for Dorothy to spend 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 idea who she was). 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.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Mar_6__1933_

The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933.

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 reason for the theft—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.

An Experienced Woman

An Experienced Woman

When Judge Smith sentenced Aimee Meloling to serve three years in San Quentin Prison for burglary, she commented, “May your honor’s heart soon be as soft as your head.” Aimee might have rejoiced at getting a lighter sentence than her husband, Albert Webb Meloling, known as “A.W.” He was ordered to serve five years in Folsom Prison for the same crime. However Aimee was under the impression she was going to get off with a slap on the wrist, not hard time in San Quentin.

The Melolings, a young, middle class couple from New York, had broken into the room of a fellow guest at the upscale Granada Hotel, a residential hotel in Los Angeles, in 1905. They stole what was described as a set of “handsome hand-painted chinaware” along with some “valuable steins” (beer anyone?). The crime was burglary, so planning was involved.

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The Granada Hotel in Los Angeles, circa 1900.

Was the theft just a moment of weakness for the Melolings or was it an ongoing practice? Did they have an irresistible eye for attractive china they couldn’t afford or were they temporarily short on cash and in need of something to pawn? Both got long sentences for a crime that seems relatively minor, so possibly the police suspected they had dabbled with burglary before. Or maybe the judge just didn’t care for Aimee’s attitude.

The prison sentences came as a shock—the couple was under the impression they were going to get probation. At a court hearing a month earlier they met a man who had just been sentenced to five years in San Quentin. After being introduced by the deputy sheriff, they had a nice chat with the soon-to-be prisoner. The deputy apparently suspected what the Melolings didn’t yet realize—they would soon be headed to prison themselves and would need all the friends they could find there.

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San Quentin Prison mugshots of Aimee Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

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Folsom Prison mugshots of Albert W. Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Aimee served two years and four months in San Quentin. Before she was released, in October 1907, an appeal was made to the governor of California to commute A.W.’s sentence so his wife didn’t have to “survive on her own.” The governor agreed and commuted the sentence but for unknown reasons it was later restored. A.W. wasn’t released until January 1909, after serving three and a half years.

Out of prison, the couple reunited and lived in a variety of locations in California. A.W. tried his hand at an array of careers, ranging from hotel proprietor in San Francisco (lock your room!) to running an auto livery in Santa Barbara and working as a commerical artist in Oakland. The couple had a son in 1916 but they later divorced.

By 1933 Aimee was the matron of the Alameda County jail in northern California. She looks happy, in a 1933 newspaper photo, escorting a new prisoner to San Quentin, but of course her role was as the jailer, not the jailed.

It isn’t a total surprise that a woman who didn’t expect to go to prison but ended up there anyway chose a career in the corrections field. After all, she had a lot of experience.

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Alameda Jail Matron Aimee Meloling, lower left. The Oakland Tribune, January 24, 1933.

The Youngest Prisoner

The Youngest Prisoner

Late in the afternoon of July 19, 1904, a young boy named Claude Hankins sneaked up behind his coworker, George Mosse, while George was milking a cow at the Bolles Ranch. Claude put a pistol near the back of George’s head and pulled the trigger, shooting him dead. Then Claude returned the pistol to where he’d found it in George’s room and fled on foot six miles to the nearby town of Marysville in Yuba County, California. He had $68 in his pocket that he’d stolen from his victim. He checked into the Golden Eagle Hotel and fell asleep.

Marysville map

Bird’s Eye View of Marysville and Yuba City, 1888. The Golden Eagle Hotel is on the right, second drawing from the top. C.P. Cook, artist. & W.W. Elliott Lithographers. Collection of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.

George O. Thompson, the ranch manager, and the ranch housekeeper were temporarily away when the murder occurred. They returned later that afternoon and, upon discovering the body and being unable to locate Claude, they called the coroner and the sheriff. The coroner confirmed that George had been killed with a gunshot to the head. Sheriff Voss began searching for Claude.

The sheriff found Claude at the hotel and took him to the police station for questioning. He told a wild story about two men showing up at the ranch, asking for food and money. He said one of the men shot George with his pistol and the pair took off with his cash. No one believed this story and soon the truth came out—Claude admitted to shooting George and stealing his cash.

Before moving to the ranch, Claude, aged 14, lived with his sister and her new husband, Atwell Webb, in Alameda, east of San Francisco. The arrangement had not suited Atwell. He complained that Claude was a wild and uncontrollable boy who ran with a bad crowd and “liked cigarettes.” He sent him to the Bolles ranch, about 150 miles northwest, in order to try and straighten him out or at least to get him out of the way. Claude received no pay and was expected to work for his room and board.

Claude had been at the ranch less than two weeks when the murder occurred. He’d written to his sister, Lugenia, telling her that the work was too heavy for a boy of his size and that he was frightened of his coworker, George Mosse, who regularly threatened him with violence. Claude confided to his sister that he even sometimes feared for his life.

Born in 1890 in Stockton, Kansas to John and Helene Hankins, Claude was the younger of the Hankins’ two children. The family moved to California shortly after he was born and his parents divorced when he was nine. Claude’s mother became sick in 1903, so he left school in order to try and help care for her, but she died later that year. Claude’s father was out of the family picture, living in Arizona.

George Mosse was not the murdered man’s real name. He was George Balch Morse, born in 1856 in Oakland to Harry and Virginia Morse. George’s father, Harry Nicholson Morse, was a well-known lawman, heralded as the “bloodhound of the far west.” Harry was sheriff of Alameda County from 1864-1878. At the time of the murder he had his own private detective agency. However Harry and his only son were estranged, thanks to George’s erratic and violent behavior.

George Balch Morse

The victim, George Balch Morse. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.

As a teenager, George attended military school but had been kicked out due to insubordination. It was also suspected that he started a fire at the school. He was a talented horseman but he was accused cruelty to animals.

George’s first wife died in 1880, leaving him with three young children. He married a widow with a young son but things did not go smoothly for the Morse family. George’s fascination with guns became an obsession. A desire to be known as a dangerous man began to rule his actions.

A dispute with a neighbor over a boundary fence led to George taking potshots at the man in 1889. He behaved so bizarrely that the neighbor complained to the East Oakland constable. A court hearing was held where it came out that in addition to arguing with and shooting at his neighbor, George had beaten both his wife and his stepson. The court found him sane but gave him a severe caution to control his violent behavior. His wife divorced him.

At first Claude was reluctant to tell the whole story of what went on at the ranch. Eventually it came out that George not only beat him but he also tried to rape Claude. Of course at the time the word “rape” was never used in this context, but newspapers reported that Claude said George tried to commit a “crime against nature” on him the day of the murder. The allegation was supported by the fact that, when the sheriff took Claude to jail, the buttons on his pants had been torn off and he had to find a needle and thread so Claude could repair his pants.

Some wondered if it would be reform school for Claude. Absolutely not! Despite his age and the terrifying story of abuse he told, Claude was tried for the murder of George Morse. Either no one looked too hard into George’s violent past or no one cared. Apparently not a single person wondered why the son of a famous lawman, a man who was educated, had a family, had been a professional (he had worked as both a plumber and a draftsman) and a property owner ended up on a remote ranch, working as a hired hand—a common laborer.

Charles Dray, the boy Claude replaced at the ranch, came forward during the trial with alarming details of the threats George had made towards him. (“He threatened time and again to cut my head off and take my heart out…”) But Dray withdrew his claims after he had a visit from the ranch manager, George Thompson. Claude’s father made a brief appearance, but only to tell the court that he was alive and had never been charged with a crime, as Claude had alleged earlier. Evidently clearing his name was the extent of John Hankins’ interest in his son’s fate. Other adults at the ranch testified that Claude had been treated kindly.

Claude’s sister told the court her brother was a good boy, but her voice was drowned out by those determined to seek revenge for the death of a famous lawman’s son or to avoid shouldering responsibility for the circumstances that drove Claude to pull the trigger in a desperate effort to protect himself.

The murder was described as having been done “in cold blood.” Claude was found guilty of 2nd degree murder. On November 1, 1904, Claude Frederick Hankins, 14 years old, 4 foot 11 ½ inches tall and 98 pounds was sentenced to 16 years in San Quentin State Prison. He was likely the youngest person ever sent to San Quentin.

Claude Hankins and others mugbook

Claude Hankins (right) with two other inmates sent to San Quentin around the same time, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Claude’s attorneys made an application for him to be paroled in November 1907. Parole was denied. Part of the reason was the statement the judge at the trial made about Claude and the possibility of parole:

My opinion is that the boy is a degenerate absolutely without conscience or moral sense. The statements he makes in his application are so ingeniously false that I have no faith in his reformation nor hope that he would become a useful member of society if released upon parole…his crime convinces me absolutely that this boy, although so young in years, is a very dangerous and confirmed criminal.

Eugene P. McDaniel, judge in the trial of Claude Hankins

His request for parole was finally granted and Claude was released from San Quentin in November 1909. Aged 19, he had grown a full foot taller while he was incarcerated.

He moved to Seattle, Washington, where he married Etta Collier in 1914. The couple had two daughters and Claude was employed for many years a truck driver and later as a bosun for a shipping company. There is no evidence he ever got into trouble again with the law. He died, aged 75, on April 10, 1965, in Seattle.

If you’re interested in seeing the mugshots of Claude taken on the day of his arrest by Clara Sheldon Smith, a professional photographer, and reading more of the newspaper stories about the case and trial, check out Arne Svenson’s fascinating book called Prisoners. I highly recommend it.

Featured photos: Claude Hankins, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

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.

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.

Blackwords headline

Headline from The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, March 7, 1911.

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.

Bertha’s Razor

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Bertha Boronda, California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Duplicate Photograph Album, Dept. of Corrections, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

What do you do when you’re facing a five-year sentence in San Question for a vicious attack on your husband’s penis? Obviously you do up your hair, put on your largest and most fetching hat and face the prison camera with a look of utter confidence on your face. At least that’s what Bertha Boronda did in 1908.

Bertha and her husband, Frank Boronda, had been married about 6 years when her assault on him took place. Frank was born Mario Narcisso Boronda in 1863 to a large family with Mexican roots that had lived in California for several generations. At the time of the attack Frank, age 43, was a fire captain with the San Jose Fire Department in northern California. Bertha Zettle was born to German immigrant parents in rural Minnesota in 1877. She moved to California around 1900. She and Frank were married the following year.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, May 31, 1907, Bertha slashed Frank’s penis with a razor at their San Jose residence. Reporting of the incident was tactful and non-specific. ”She drew a razor and cut her husband.” Then she walked to her nephew’s room and simply stated, “Frank cut himself.”

Boronda news

Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 31, 1907, page six.

Frank was able to get to his firehouse—conveniently located next to his home—and from there he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital where the wound to his genitals was dressed. No one was sure he would recover but evidently he was well enough to make a statement. He said the attack by his wife came out of the blue. He and Bertha were chatting and she was in a friendly mood when suddenly she wounded him.

Meanwhile Bertha fled the scene and wasn’t discovered until the wee hours the following night. She was located the San Jose Railroad Yards dressed in men’s clothing. (She has an angular, somewhat masculine face—I’m sure you can picture her in men’s attire, no doubt looking quite dapper). She admitted to the attack on Frank and claimed, in her confident style, it was actually his fault. He’d driven her out of her mind with fear that he was going to desert her and move to Mexico.

Frank recovered from his injuries. Bertha was charged was “mayhem,” a charge applied to someone who “unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless…” She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in San Quentin Prison in 1908.

Why did Bertha attack her husband so viciously? The San Jose Sheriff jailed Frank and a fellow fire captain a few months before Bertha’s assault on her husband. The rumor on the street was that the two men had been involved in some kind of election fraud and more arrests would follow. It’s plausible that, as Bertha feared, Frank was contemplating a move to Mexico (where he had relatives) at least until the election scandal blew over.

It was also rumored that Frank was cheating on Bertha with other women and she was in a jealous rage over his infidelities when she slashed him. Frank had a history of marital problems. His previous wife, Belle Doane, left her husband to marry Frank and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself a couple years later. Belle said she attempted suicide out of desperation because Frank had abandoned her. The unhappy couple divorced in 1895.

Did Bertha succeed in lopping off her husband’s penis? A distasteful rumor circulated that Frank’s penis, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and used an exhibit at Bertha’s trial, was discovered decades later, stored in a basement cupboard of the courthouse. Though there’s no doubt his penis was badly cut, it’s highly unlikely that it was severed (and thus put in a jar) because an injury like that would probably have led to his death from blood loss and infection. Microsurgery and replantation of body parts were 55 years in the future. In 1993 it was possible to reattach John Bobbitt’s penis after his wife, Lorena, cut it off in a fit of rage, but that would not have been the case in 1907.

Bertha was paroled on December 20, 1909, after serving less than two years of her sentence. She and Frank did not reconcile, however both of them gave marriage another shot. Frank married a woman 33 years his junior named Josie Warburton. Bertha worked as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco after her release from San Quentin. Later she worked as a waitress at Camp Meeker, a rustic vacation spot in northern California. She married an older widower, Alexander Patterson, in 1921 in Los Angeles, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Frank lived to be 77 and died in 1940. Bertha died in 1950 at age 72. The firehouse in San Jose where Frank worked is still there but now it’s a gastro pub. If you have a meal there, try not to think too hard about its past history. Just enjoy the food and beer!

Bertha's Razor

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Bertha Boronda, California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Duplicate Photograph Album, Dept. of Corrections, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

What do you do when you’re facing a five-year sentence in San Question for a vicious attack on your husband’s penis? Obviously you do up your hair, put on your largest and most fetching hat and face the prison camera with a look of utter confidence on your face. At least that’s what Bertha Boronda did in 1908.

Bertha and her husband, Frank Boronda, had been married about 6 years when her assault on him took place. Frank was born Mario Narcisso Boronda in 1863 to a large family with Mexican roots that had lived in California for several generations. At the time of the attack Frank, age 43, was a fire captain with the San Jose Fire Department in northern California. Bertha Zettle was born to German immigrant parents in rural Minnesota in 1877. She moved to California around 1900. She and Frank were married the following year.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, May 31, 1907, Bertha slashed Frank’s penis with a razor at their San Jose residence. Reporting of the incident was tactful and non-specific. ”She drew a razor and cut her husband.” Then she walked to her nephew’s room and simply stated, “Frank cut himself.”

Boronda news

Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 31, 1907, page six.

Frank was able to get to his firehouse—conveniently located next to his home—and from there he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital where the wound to his genitals was dressed. No one was sure he would recover but evidently he was well enough to make a statement. He said the attack by his wife came out of the blue. He and Bertha were chatting and she was in a friendly mood when suddenly she wounded him.

Meanwhile Bertha fled the scene and wasn’t discovered until the wee hours the following night. She was located the San Jose Railroad Yards dressed in men’s clothing. (She has an angular, somewhat masculine face—I’m sure you can picture her in men’s attire, no doubt looking quite dapper). She admitted to the attack on Frank and claimed, in her confident style, it was actually his fault. He’d driven her out of her mind with fear that he was going to desert her and move to Mexico.

Frank recovered from his injuries. Bertha was charged was “mayhem,” a charge applied to someone who “unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless…” She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in San Quentin Prison in 1908.

Why did Bertha attack her husband so viciously? The San Jose Sheriff jailed Frank and a fellow fire captain a few months before Bertha’s assault on her husband. The rumor on the street was that the two men had been involved in some kind of election fraud and more arrests would follow. It’s plausible that, as Bertha feared, Frank was contemplating a move to Mexico (where he had relatives) at least until the election scandal blew over.

It was also rumored that Frank was cheating on Bertha with other women and she was in a jealous rage over his infidelities when she slashed him. Frank had a history of marital problems. His previous wife, Belle Doane, left her husband to marry Frank and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself a couple years later. Belle said she attempted suicide out of desperation because Frank had abandoned her. The unhappy couple divorced in 1895.

Did Bertha succeed in lopping off her husband’s penis? A distasteful rumor circulated that Frank’s penis, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and used an exhibit at Bertha’s trial, was discovered decades later, stored in a basement cupboard of the courthouse. Though there’s no doubt his penis was badly cut, it’s highly unlikely that it was severed (and thus put in a jar) because an injury like that would probably have led to his death from blood loss and infection. Microsurgery and replantation of body parts were 55 years in the future. In 1993 it was possible to reattach John Bobbitt’s penis after his wife, Lorena, cut it off in a fit of rage, but that would not have been the case in 1907.

Bertha was paroled on December 20, 1909, after serving less than two years of her sentence. She and Frank did not reconcile, however both of them gave marriage another shot. Frank married a woman 33 years his junior named Josie Warburton. Bertha worked as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco after her release from San Quentin. Later she worked as a waitress at Camp Meeker, a rustic vacation spot in northern California. She married an older widower, Alexander Patterson, in 1921 in Los Angeles, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Frank lived to be 77 and died in 1940. Bertha died in 1950 at age 72. The firehouse in San Jose where Frank worked is still there but now it’s a gastro pub. If you have a meal there, try not to think too hard about its past history. Just enjoy the food and beer!

Siblings Evil

Lewis and Rumball

Mugshots of Emma Rumball and her brother Arthur Lewis. California State Archives, Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.

This is a disturbing and unpleasant story so please stop reading now if you have a weak stomach or if what you read tends to haunt your dreams.

Thirteen-year-old Helen Rumball, known as “Nellie,” was found dead in the attic of her home near in Gridley, California on June 26, 1911. The child was hanging from the attic rafters from a rope. Her body and legs were a mass of bruises and the attic was stiflingly hot, the temperature said to be close to 130 degrees. An incubator, possibly for eggs, was described as going “full blast” near where the child’s body was hanging. Needless to say, Nellie’s death was not the result of natural causes.

Helen Rumball

The victim, Nellie Rumball, The Pittsburgh Press, July 10, 1911

Nellie was the daughter of a Maine couple, William Rumball and his first wife, Budie. Her mother died before she turned one. A couple of years later William took a new wife, Emma Lewis, 16 years his junior. Emma was born in Minnesota to Norwegian parents. Around 1910 the Rumballs and their two children, Frances, age 4, and William, age 1, and William’s daughter, Nellie, moved to Gridley, California, in sparsely populated Butte County. There they took up ranching for a living.

William died in Gridley on September 27, 1910 of a kidney and liver ailment. Though not a rich man, he left an estate worth a few thousand dollars and it was divided in his will between his wife and Nellie. In splitting his estate this way he might have, inadvertently, signed Nellie’s death warrant.

Little Frances Rumball told the police she heard her half sister crying in pain in the attic. She pleaded with her mother to be allowed to go to Nellie and comfort her but her mother refused and told her to go to bed. Later that night Emma awakened Frances and William and informed them that Nellie was dead.

Nellie’s stepmother, 23-year-old Emma, admitted that she took the child to the attic, tied her up and left her there as punishment for not adequately completing her chores on the family ranch. Emma acknowledged she tied her stepdaughter’s legs with rope and then looped the rope under her arms and around her neck and secured it to a rafter. She claimed she was shocked that the child had died and suggested to police that perhaps Nellie committed suicide or her death resulted from her struggles to get free.

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San Quentin mugshots of Emma Rumball, April 12, 1912.

The early twentieth century was a time in America when harsh punishments were often doled out by parents to their children. Most people didn’t think twice about it, but clearly Emma had overstepped the bounds, even for that age.

Police were not satisfied with Emma’s explanations about Nellie’s death so she elaborated on her theory. She told them that her younger brother, Arthur Lewis, also a resident of Gridley, had gone to the attic while Nellie was tied up and taunted her until “she became frenzied in her efforts to free herself.” Emma thought Nellie died in the process. Why Arthur would do such a thing was not clear. The police weren’t buying the story.

An autopsy was held on the body and it determined that two vertebrae in Nellie’s neck had been dislocated, leading to her death. The doctors who performed the autopsy believed there was no way Nellie could have inflicted the injury on herself nor could it have happened by accident because her bonds were so tight that she had been unable to move. They believed she had either suffered a “blow” that caused her death or her neck had been twisted and intentionally broken.

The police also reexamined the death of William Rumball, nine months earlier, to determine if he had been “the victim of a plot.” They decided his death was due to natural causes.

The siblings pointed the finger at each other. Their demeanor was sullen and remorseless. They showed no concern that a young girl—a relative—had lost her life in a horrific way. Initially Emma was charged with murder and Arthur was charged with accessory to murder, but a few months later his charge was changed to murder after coworkers claimed that he had killed cows by twisting their necks. A decision was made to try the pair separately.

Arthur was found guilty of manslaughter on January 3, 1912. Eight of the jurors wanted to convict him of first-degree murder and four wanted an acquittal, so the verdict was a compromise. On April 5, 1912, just before she was slated to go to trail, Emma took a plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than risk a jury trial.

Arthur Lewis multi

San Quentin mugshots of Arthur Lewis, January 8, 1912.

The siblings were both sent to San Quentin State Prison, however his sentence was ten years while her sentence was only two years. Apparently it pays to be a young, attractive woman when a judge sentences you for manslaughter.

Arthur was released from prison after six years. He moved to North Dakota and enlisted in the army during World War I. After he returned from the war he got married and spent the rest of his life farming. He died in 1954, aged 65. We’ll never know if he ever talked to his sister again.

Incredibly Emma, who only served a year and seven months of her sentence, returned to the tiny town of Gridley after her release from prison. There she worked as a dressmaker, raised her son and daughter and took care of her elderly mother. She lived for years at 885 Kentucky Street. She even remarried late in life. She died, aged 70, and is buried in the Gridley-Biggs Cemetery along with her husband, William, and the stepdaughter that she punished—to death.