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.

Soldier Boy

Soldier Boy

MARYSVILLE, Nov. 9. — Barney McQuaid was to-day sentenced to five years, and Thomas Mays to ten years, in San Quentin for highway robbery committed near Sicard Flat on October 27. McQuaid and Mays are deserters from the Presidio and were attired in infantry uniform at the time of their apprehension.

The San Francisco Call, November 10, 1900

Tom Mays_marked

Two young soldiers, Hugh Bernard “Barney” McQuaid, age 19, and Tom Mays, age 22, carried out a robbery near a desolate area in Yuba County, California. The men were deserters from a military base in San Francisco, and it’s likely that they were training for service in the Spanish-American War when they left their army posts and headed north.

Barney and Tom in stripes

San Quentin mugbook, California State Archives.

Prior to joining the army, Barney had a few skirmishes with law enforcement back in his hometown of Minneapolis, mostly for being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. Barney had a tendency to use foul language and become violent when crossed. On one occasion he fought a policeman who was trying to arrest him with such intensity that several officers had to be called to assist. It’s likely his family figured that a stint in the army would straighten out the troubled young man.

During his incarceration at San Quentin, Barney suffered from mental illness so severe that the guards at one of the harshest prisons in America were unable to control him, so he was transferred to a California asylum, the Mendocino State Hospital. His condition was described as “improved” when he was released from the hospital.

Though his prison record stated he was discharged on June 10, 1904, Barney was actually sent home to his family in Minneapolis in September 1903. It may have seemed like a blessing to his parents, who had already put five of their eleven children into an early grave. Barney’s father, John, was a policeman and officials trusted him to keep his son away from the temptations of crime. It was hoped that the comforts family life would help Barney regain his sanity.

It didn’t take long for Barney’s parents and sisters to realize they weren’t equipped to deal with his illness. In early December he was admitted to the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. His condition was described as “Demented and Vicious.” His medical record lists the “alleged cause” of his insanity as “degeneracy” (possibly he had a history of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness) but there’s no doubt he experienced violent outbursts and was a danger to others. According to the hospital notes, he’d been ill since the age of 17, so he was mentally unstable when he enlisted in the army in 1900.

He is strong and robust. He is quiet and sullen, pugnacious at times. Says he is a soldier boy and must not be kept in the hospital.

— St. Peter Hospital patient notes for Barney McQuaid

Measuring just over 5’, 9” tall and weighing 195 lbs., 22-year-old Barney was a powerfully built man. Three weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, he escaped. Two months later he was captured and returned to the institution.

Barney never left St. Peter’s again. Eleven years later he suffered a stroke and died on September 23, 1914. He was 33 years old.

Featured photo: Barney McQuaid’s mugshot, from a glass negative, taken on the day of his arrest in Marysville, California. Collection of the author.

A Man of Many Mugshots

A Man of Many Mugshots

His Second Term.

MARYSVILLE, Oct. 22, — Antonio Ferasci was today sentenced to ten years in San Quentin for burglary. Ferasci served a term for the same crime from Sonoma County in 1899 under the name Peter Ferasha.

Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1900

Despite the report from the L. A. Times, it was actually Antonio Ferasci’s third sojourn in a California prison.

Born in Switzerland around 1860 to Bernardo and Pasquala Ferasci, by the age of 24 Antonio had immigrated to Canada. He married Cecelia McLean Kelly, a 22-year-old, half-Indian woman who had not previously been married, in a Roman Catholic ceremony on December 18, 1884 in Granville, British Columbia. The marriage was not a success, and Cecelia Kelly, described as a single woman, was an inmate in the Penetanguishene “asylum for the insane” by 1911. She died there, aged 56, of arteriosclerosis on December 16, 1918, and was buried in the hospital cemetery.

Antonio 1st time

San Quentin photos from first sentence to prison

On June 23, 1898, 38-year-old Antonio, described as a laborer, was sentenced to one year in San Quentin Prison for grand larceny. The crime was committed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. He was released on April 23, 1899, after ten months served.

Six months later, on October 17, 1899, he was sentenced, under the alias Peter Ferasha, to a year in Folsom Prison for 2nd degree burglary committed in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. “Peter” claimed he worked as a dairyman before his conviction. He may have been connected with the Union Creamery Company, a dairy business started in San Luis Obispo by Swiss brothers named Louis and Angelo Ferasci in 1895. If so, the brothers were no doubt not pleased to share a surname and possibly bloodlines with a convicted criminal.

Antonio 2nd time

Folsom photos from second sentence to prison

Apparently officials didn’t realize that Antonio had been to prison in 1898. If they had known he was a repeat offender it’s likely would have gotten a longer sentence. Instead he again served ten months and was discharged on August 17, 1900.

Antonio, two times an ex-con by 1900, was not finished yet with crime or its consequences.

Two months after his release from Folsom, he was convicted of 2nd degree burglary committed in Marysville, a city in Yuba County, north of Sacramento. He listed his job as “stone fitter” at the time of his arrest. This time officials were wise to his previous two-term record, so he was given a ten-year sentence to San Quentin. He served six and a half years and was released on April 24, 1907.

Antonio 3rd time

San Quentin photos from third sentence to prison

The third time worked the charm! It’s impossible to know whether or not he reformed, but Antonio never went to prison again, at least not in California.

Featured photos: Antonio Ferasci mugshot photos taken by a professional photographer in Marysville, California, in October 1900. From a glass negative in the collection of the author.

Other photos from the California State Archives, Sacramento.

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

 

East-West Triangle

East-West Triangle

On the night before Midi was killed, I sat in my hotel room and prayed to God. I had procured a butcher knife from the café in which I worked and, as I sharpened it on a whetstone, I prayed to Him for strength. The next morning I went to the Takaoka home and entered Midi’s bedroom. She was as sleep. I awakened her and held her hand. I said ‘Molly, what has happened? You can’t marry Bachand.’ She said ‘Ray, I guess New York has spoiled me.’ She started to get up and put on her stockings. I couldn’t control myself any longer. I struck her many times on the head with a cold chisel then slashed her across the throat with the butcher knife.

— Raymond E. Johnson, confession for the murder of Midi Takoaka

On the morning of August 11, 1936, Ray Johnson, a 39-year-old Los Angeles cook, murdered his lover, 25-year-old Midi Takaoka. The mortally wounded young woman was able to stagger outside to the lawn of her home at 1211 North Commonwealth Avenue, where she collapsed and died.

Midi Taka better pic

Midi Takaoka, Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1936

Mizuye, known as “Midi,” was a professional dancer and singer. She was born in Ehime, Japan, in 1910 to Imahei and Kazuko Takaoka. Midi and her three siblings immigrated with their parents to California in 1918 when she was five.

Midi’s father, Imahei, described as a “fire-and-brimstone Christian minister,” was a founder of the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. When he died of tuberculosis in 1930, aged 45, Midi’s family was left destitute. To help them survive financially, she and her two younger sisters, Mary and Myrtle, formed a vaudeville trio called the Taka Sisters.

Though the Taka sisters weren’t triplets, they billed themselves as “the only Japanese triplets on stage” and it helped them find an audience. They danced around in a routine similar to the “three little maids” from the Mikado, then threw off their kimono and danced to fast jazz. The show was risqué and, after headlining at Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago in 1935, the beautiful sisters became nationally known, performing in nightclubs across the United States.

Taka Sisters

The Taka Sisters, The Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1936

Midi and Ray had known each other for three years. They met at the famous Palomar Dance Hall in Los Angeles, where Ray worked as a cook. He was in love with Midi but the relationship was complicated because he was 14 years older and had a wife who refused to divorce him. Another problem was the laws against interracial marriages that existed in many states at that time.

Midi was tired of waiting for Ray to get himself free. On a trip home, after performing in New York City, she met a new man named William Bachand. While traveling west on the bus, the pair fell head over heels in love. By the time they reached St. Louis, William had proposed marriage and given Midi a ring. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, he asked Midi’s mother for her hand in marriage and apparently Kazuko agreed to the match. William gave Midi a second ring to seal the deal.

The couple went to Yuma, Arizona, on August 9th, to try to get married, but authorities turned them away because Midi was Asian and William was white. Dejected, they returned to Los Angeles.

Johnson and Bachand pics

Rivals: Johnson and Bachand, The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1936

Hearing about Midi’s new love, Ray became enraged. Shortly after the couple got back from Arizona, Ray attacked William, stabbing him five times with an ice pick at the Takaoka home on the night of August 10th. Midi’s younger brother, Hallelujah, pulled Ray off and ordered him to get out. William, not seriously injured, was treated at a local hospital and released. Ray’s jealousy went unquenched, so the following morning he returned to the home, where he murdered Midi and then fled.

A guilt-stricken Ray turned himself in to the sheriff of Corona, California, three days later. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in November 1936. He received a life sentence for the murder, plus 10 years for the ice pick attack. He served his sentence at San Quentin prison. Despite the life sentence, he was paroled after 12 years, in 1948.

William Bachand returned to his home in Massachusetts and promptly got into trouble with the police. In March 1937 he was arrested in Leominster for stealing a bicycle and passing a bad check, all while wearing a stolen army uniform. Police uncovered his romance with the murdered woman and he admitted he lied to Midi about his background, telling her he was born in France and worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He also lied about his age — he was only 18 years old when he met Midi. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to four months in the house of correction. In 1944 he was again in police trouble for larceny and check fraud. Rather than return to prison he skipped town and was also charged as a fugitive from justice.

Midi’s sisters disbanded their act after her murder and never performed again. Due to their Japanese ethnicity, the Takaoka family was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, during Word War II.

California finally repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1948. Arizona’s ban was not repealed until 1962.

Featured image: Raymond E. Johnson’s San Quentin mugshot, California State Archives

Mistaken

Mistaken

LOS ANGELES, May 11. — Carl York, 22-year-old police informer who was shot down by detectives through “mistake,” died today in General hospital. He succumbed to five bullet wounds while police sought to link him with a series of recent filling station robberies. They claimed nine attendants identified the youth as one of two bandits who staged a series of recent spectacular raids in which attendants were kidnapped.

York denied any complicity in the robberies.

San Bernardino Sun, May 12, 1935

Carl York, a police informer, and W.L. Lanier, a narcotics squad detective with the LAPD, mounted the rickety stairs to the second floor door of a cheap Los Angeles rooming house during the early hours of the morning on May 8, 1935. Carl and Lanier didn’t know it, but three LAPD robbery squad detectives were staked out in a “bandit trap” near the bottom of the stairs outside the house, waiting for the occupants to return. The detectives had already searched inside the house, where they’d found a handgun and a small amount of narcotics.

“We’re police officers, hands up!” came the command from below as Carl and Lanier moved towards the door. Carl’s hand moved towards his hip pocket and the officers on the ground floor opened fire. Lanier wasn’t hit but Carl slumped over, seriously wounded. Lanier shone his flashlight in the direction of the gunfire. Recognizing one of the shooters as a fellow officer, he identified himself and ordered them to stop firing.

shooting photo

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935.

Carl didn’t have a weapon. He was taken to the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries three days later. He left a wife and small daughter in Denver, Colorado.

Carl York not a mugshot

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935

News reports described Carl as both an “undercover agent” and a “police informer” who was engaged in a narcotics investigation when he was shot by mistake. Both the LAPD narcotics and robbery squads were involved in separate investigations that brought them to the rooming house on the morning that Carl was shot. Each squad was unaware of what the other was doing.

The police claimed witnesses identified Carl as one of two men who carried out a series of raids in which parking lot attendants and vehicle owners were carjacked at gunpoint, robbed of small amounts of cash and kidnapped. Over the course of four days in April 1935, the bandits struck 12 times. The culprits drove the stolen cars, sometimes with the victim inside, through the city at high speeds. They’d abandon one car and steal another one. The victims were frightened, but not injured, though one man was thrown from his vehicle while it was moving and another was forced to hand over most of his clothing before being released from his car semi-nude.

Carl York mugshot

News photo mugshot of Carl York, May 9, 1935. Collection of the author.

The L.A. coroner ordered an inquest into Carl’s death. The verdict was “justifiable homicide” — an accidental and unintentional shooting by the officers. The Municipal League demanded an inquiry into Carl’s shooting, but nothing came of that.

After Carl’s death, four men reported to be Carl’s criminal associates were charged with robbery and conspiracy to rob but there’s no evidence that they were ever tried or sentenced to prison.

Then in June 1937, a series of kidnap robberies that were eerily similar to the crimes of April 1935 occurred in Bakersfield, California, 115 miles north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles residents Moran Pierce and Charles W. Taylor, both aged 23, committed the crimes.

Armed with automatic pistols, Pierce and Taylor staged their first holdup at El Tejon garage. They stopped E.W. Stevenson of Burlingame, as he drove into the garage in a big Packard, and subsequently held up Henry Lopez, garage attendant. Both Stevenson and Lopez were taken out on the Edison Highway, obliged to get out of the car and were strapped to the fence with belts.

 

Pierce and Taylor returned to Bakersfield and held up H.R. Thompson, operator of a Richfield service station, at Twenty-first Street and Golden State Highway. They abandoned their stolen automobile after this holdup and returned to their hotel.

The Bakersfield Californian, June 15, 1937

Pierce and Taylor were captured in their flophouse the morning after the crime spree during a search of all the rooming houses in the vicinity. The two men admitted to the Bakersfield kidnap robberies, along with some other burglaries. They also told police they pulled two service station kidnap robberies in Los Angeles a few days before the Bakersfield crimes. Both got life sentences, with Pierce heading to Folsom State Prison and Taylor going to San Quentin.

No photo of Taylor was located, however Pierce and Carl bear a resemblance to each other. It’s plausible that Carl was mistaken for Pierce who, along with Taylor, committed the Los Angeles kidnap robberies in April 1935. Then the pair laid low for a while only to reappear and commit similar crimes in Bakersfield. If so, Carl was telling the truth when he said he had nothing to do with the kidnap robberies. After death he was vilified as a criminal when perhaps all he’d done was help the police with their narcotics investigation.

Featured photo: Moran Pierce (left) in his Folsom prison photo, collection of the California State Archives. Carl York (right) in a news photo mugshot, collection of the author.

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.

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

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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.