Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile

SEATTLE, Dec. 22. — A coast-wise search was being conducted today at the request of Seattle police for miss Clara E. Skarin, former telephone exchange operator here, in the hope that she might be able to throw light on the slaying of Ferdinand Hochbrunn, wealthy retired real estate dealer, whose body has been found in a room of his home here yesterday. He had been shot through the head and had been dead two months, in the opinion of officers.

— Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), December 22, 1921

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

Illustration of Ferdinand Hochbrunn

The smell must have been awful when they finally entered the apartment, given how long the old man had been lying there. It was murder — there was no question about that. He’d been shot with a single bullet to the back of his head. Robbery was assumed to be the motive because his pockets had been slit open, though $1,960 (almost $27,370 in 2018) and some gold certificates were found in a trunk near the body.

Ferdinand Hochbrunn, 72, was a confirmed bachelor who emigrated from Berlin, Germany, to America in 1872. He settled in Seattle where he made a fortune in real estate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was ruthless and, at times, deceitful in his business dealings. One of his clients, Olive Stearns, sued him for cheating her out of part of the proceeds of a land sale. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where Olive won a judgment against him for $14,759 ($441,125 in 2018).

Clara Skarin_Marked

News photo of Clara E. Skarin. Collection of the author.

The police were very anxious to speak with the dead man’s “ward,” a young woman named Clara Elizabeth Skarin. Clara, 27, was the daughter of Ferdinand’s housekeeper, a Swedish-born widow named Emma Ekstrand Skarin. Emma died suddenly in 1918 and Clara moved to Michigan after her mother’s death. She’d recently returned to Seattle and Ferdinand had taken her under his wing. He hired her to work as his secretary and gave her a room in his apartment at 2520 5th Avenue. But lately she’d lodged instead with her married cousin, Anna Datesman Clark.

A neighbor who lived below the apartment told the police she heard someone she thought was Clara walking around the apartment in late November. If Clara had been there it would have been impossible for her not to notice the body because it was lying on the floor of an alcove off her bedroom. Other tenants in the building said they’d seen Clara come and go during the months of October and November. She was last seen in late November, when she had Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt, Marie Datesman, and Marie’s family. Clara told them she planned to leave Seattle and meet Ferdinand in Portland, Oregon.

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

News illustration of the Hochbrunn apartment.

Clara Skarin leaves baggage in California after fleeing arrest -

The family snapshot of Clara.

The Seattle police asked Marie for a photo of Clara. She gave them a snapshot, but was so poor it was useless for identification purposes. She claimed it was the only one she had.

A series of letters and telegrams were sent in October and November to Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, signed “Ferdinand Hochbrunn.” The messages asked for rents from his Seattle properties to be collected and forwarded to him in Portland, and in Oakland and San Bernardino, California. The messages detailed news about his daily life along with the addresses of the places he was staying. Edward collected the rents and sent the money to the addresses in the messages.

The police came up with two theories of what had happened. The first was that the murderer posed as Ferdinand, telling Clara by letter or telegram that he’d gone to Portland on business. Clara didn’t know until late November, when she visited the apartment and found the body, that Ferdinand was dead. Shocked by the discovery, she’d fled and was wandering somewhere in a distraught state or possibly she’d even killed herself.

The second theory, which became the working theory, was that Clara killed her benefactor and stole his money. The police weren’t sure if she’d written the letters and telegrams that were sent to the attorney or if she’d worked with an accomplice.

The police search for Clara expanded to include the entire West Coast. In January 1922 the police missed her by a hair after she made a hasty exit from a hotel in California. The long hunt finally ended on September 3, 1922, when a Seattle acquaintance happened to see her in Oakland and informed the police, who arrested her. In Oakland she used the alias “Betty Parrish.”

She admitted to the police that she had shot and killed Ferdinand but refused to say any more. She was charged with first-degree murder.

Clara Skarin puzzles police. Three articles and photo. - Newspap

Clara puzzled the authorities. Described by the Oakland Tribune as having a “Mona Lisa Smile,” she seemed unfazed about being jailed and unconcerned about the charges she faced. She laughed and joked with officials and newspapermen at the Oakland Jail but refused to talk about the crimes she’d been accused of committing.

She claimed to be able to transport herself, using mental powers, to wherever she wanted to go.

Lying here (in jail) at night, I can close my eyes and go wherever I care to. I wander the hills at night. Everything is very real and I don’t feel that I am here at all. I have done that all my life. Sometimes when I have looked forward to a ball I have visualized my being there, and my dancing, so realistically that my feet actually ached.

Her biggest complaint about the jail was that one of the Jack London novels she was reading had had some of its pages torn out. She praised the Oakland Police Department as “wonderful” but also claimed that Oakland was one of the best places in the United States to hide in.

The police didn’t think the enigmatic Clara had worked alone. They searched for her male accomplice, “Phoenix Markham.” Clara wouldn’t say anything about Markham. The police located a telegram she’d sent two days after the murder to a telegraph operator named Raymond Herron in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It seemed to be written in code:

Mark here. Everything practically settled. No more saving a half cake of chocolate for tomorrow’s lunch. This is the first of my very own money to spend. May I send Jigadere some of Ollie’s clothes? Buy Maxine a new top and yourself a drink. Am going to order a car here for drive away in spring. Know agent here and want him to get commission. Wire me immediately. Love. BETTY.

Raymond was a 27-year-old Kalamazoo man who married a local girl three weeks after Clara’s arrest. The couple’s first child was born a month later. He wasn’t related to anyone named “Jigadere,” “Ollie,” or “Maxine.”

The police never found Phoenix Markham and the hunt for an accomplice was dropped. Clara alone stood trial for Ferdinand’s murder.

Clara was involved in another gun tragedy in August 1918 when the jealous wife of a friend visited the Seattle apartment she shared with her mother. The woman, Cleo Winborn, confronted Clara with a loaded gun and demanded to know what her relationship was with her husband, Robert Winborn. Unsatisfied with Clara’s answer, Cleo shot at Clara. The bullet hit her in the leg, wounding her slightly. Clara’s mother heard the commotion and ran into the room. Cleo turned the gun on Mrs. Skarin, killing her with a single shot. Then she turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.

It must be pointed out that the person who provided the details of what happened was the only survivor — Clara Skarin.

After she recovered from the leg wound, 24 year-old Clara moved with Cleo’s husband, 50-year-old Robert, to his native state of Michigan. Robert, an African American man who had worked as a barber, was suffering from epilepsy. He was treated at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and then transferred to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental asylum, where he died of epilepsy September 4, 1919. Clara claimed that she and Robert were married while he was on his deathbed.

Ferdinand’s will, if he had one, wasn’t located. His estate, valued at $100,000 (almost $1,500,000 in 2018) was settled on November 15, 1922. Though a business partner sued for half of it, the court awarded the entire estate to his brother, Henry Hochbrunn. Henry died the day before the matter was settled. His children inherited the estate.

Clara Skarin in her own words. photo. - Newspapers.com

Clara’s murder trial began in January 1923. She testified that Ferdinand had molested her from the age of 14, when her mother worked as his housekeeper. She claimed he’d again made “improper overtures” towards her in the weeks leading up to the shooting. She explained that this was why she’d moved out of his apartment and purchased a .32-caliber revolver for protection.

The day of the shooting Clara said she’d gone to the apartment to get some clothes she’d left there. Again he made unwelcome sexual advances so she pulled out her gun. They grappled over the weapon and it went off but no one was hit. Then he forced her against a wall and there was a struggle that ended in Clara managing to rest the muzzle of the gun on the back of Ferdinand’s head and pull the trigger with her thumb. He died about 15 minutes later.

She said she spent several minutes gazing in a mirror, then left the apartment and locked the door. She headed to the office of Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, and told him what had happened. Then she and Edward returned to the apartment, where they removed $30,000 ($419,000 in 2018) worth of gold from Ferdinand’s trunk. They split the gold and Clara left town six weeks later. Subsequently she sent letters and telegrams to Edward, signing Ferdinand’s name to them.

Von Tobel

Edward von Tobel

Edward disputed her story and testified that he’d had nothing to do with robbing Ferdinand and knew nothing about the murder until the body was discovered.

The jury of eight men and four women acquitted Clara of the murder of Ferdinand Hochbrunn on January 13, 1923. “I surely wish the young woman all happiness in the future,” said one of the female jurors, whose tears flowed freely during the defense counsel’s arguments. “She has surely seen enough of the seamy side of life. Now she may find peace and better things.”

Edward wasn’t charged with any crime related to the death of Ferdinand Hochbrunn. Clara stayed in Seattle for a few months after the trial ended, but in April she told a newspaper reporter that she’d left her job as a café hostess and planned to return to Oakland to live with friends. The girl with the Mona Lisa smile then vanished without a trace.

 

 

 

 

 

Male Fraud

Male Fraud

SEATTLE, Nov. 11 — Maggie Snyder, Patrick Snyder and Lester Levins were arrested this morning by a deputy marshal and two hours later were indicted by the United States Grand Jury and charged with conducting an illegal marriage bureau and fraudulently securing many thousands of dollars through the mails. Snyder conducts a mattress factory here and the other two run the bureau. The scheme was to get a man of means in communication with a woman located somewhere on the coast. After some correspondence regarding marriage the woman usually wrote she was ill and begged for money to be sent to her. Nearly all the victims have been from Western Washington.

The San Francisco Call, November 12, 1905

An article in the Huffington Post titled “How a Billion-Dollar Internet Scam is Breaking Hearts and Bank Accounts” serves as a reminder that some scams never die; they simply morph over time as technology changes. The criminals described in the article steal photos of actual people and use the photos to create fake Facebook profiles to trick lonely individuals into believing they are real people in search of a romantic relationship. Once the victim is hooked, she’s told a sob story and asked for cash — repeatedly. One woman lost two million dollars to the thieving scammers.

One hundred years before Facebook launched, Maggie Snyder and two male “colleagues” were arrested for a running a scam marriage bureau that targeted men as victims, in 1905. They advertised in Washington state newspapers, offering a “fine line” of young women, all of who claimed to be anxious to marry a lonely bachelor. At the time, women were in short supply in the state.

Fake matrimonial bureaus, such as the one run by Maggie, were similar to the current romance-for-money scam. The bureaus were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both men and women were the targets of such criminal operations.

In the case of Maggie’s bureau, the men exchanged letters with young ladies who supposedly lived somewhere on the west coast. Once a man was hooked, his “fiancée” asked for money to be mailed to her because she was ill or to help her pay her railroad fare — excuses varied. After the money was received the lady mysteriously disappeared. Of course the women never actually existed; Maggie and her cronies wrote the letters and collected the cash.

After receiving more than a dozen complaints from men who’d been duped and robbed, the Seattle police arrested Maggie, Patrick and Lester and charged them with mail fraud on November 12, 1905. Of the three, only 40-year-old Maggie got prison time. She was sentenced to a year at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary on January 23, 1906. She was also charged a $100 fine and court costs. Given the primitive state of that prison in the early 20th century, Maggie’s stay, particularly since she was one of the only women convicts, would not have been a pleasant one.

Nowadays middle-aged women are often the targets of fake romance scams and many of the criminals live and operate outside the United States. The use of Facebook and other social media makes these criminals hard to trace. While the method of communication has evolved with technology, the basic human instinct to trust others, along with the need for love and companionship haven’t changed, so the scam continues in a modern form.

Featured photo: Maggie Snyder, McNeil Island Penitentiary Prisoner Identification Photographs, NARA Pacific Alaska Region.

 

Wayward Girls

Wayward Girls

Hazel Raymond_back_marked

Reverse side of criminal I.D. card of “Hazel Raymond.”

She was down on her luck when she was arrested and photographed in San Francisco, in April 1913, on a charge of grand larceny. She looks world-weary in her mugshots. And it was no wonder, given all she’d been through. Despite the listing on her identification card, her name wasn’t Hazel Raymond. She was either Grace or Zola Swenson. The Swenson girls were twin sisters from Salt Lake City.

The previous year she’d tried to commit suicide after she was arrested in her Seattle hotel room for indecent conduct. Claiming to prefer death to disgrace, she picked up a bottle of toothache medicine and swallowed all of it. Fortunately the arresting officers got her to the hospital in time and she was revived.

Her father, Otto, was born in Sweden and her mother, Charlotte, hailed from France. She was born and grew up in Salt Lake City, where her family joined the Mormon Church and her father became a missionary. She and her twin sister were the youngest of their large family and her dad, who sometimes traveled for work, was away from home for periods of time.

Their parents moved to Washington State and their older siblings got married and moved away from Utah. The twins stayed on in Salt Lake City, where one worked as a waitress and the other was employed as a clerk.

The twins decided they could earn better money as prostitutes. They worked, along with several other white women, at a place in Plum Alley, Salt Lake City’s Chinatown. It didn’t last long. After several police officers were dismissed for taking bribes to look the other way, police raided the house on March 5, 1910, and arrested the inhabitants.

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Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, circa 1907.

On March 17, 1911, the twins, using the names Hazel and Pearl Raymond, along with another woman, identified as Irene Raymond, were taken into custody after a raid on a “negro club” in Salt Lake City. Federal authorities believed the women had been brought from Wyoming and forced to work as prostitutes at the establishment. This was a violation of the 1910 Mann Act, sometimes called the White-Slave Traffic Act.

The Mann Act made it a felony to take females across state lines for immoral purposes. Though the law was supposed to combat human-trafficking and forced prostitution, primarily of white women, the act was ambiguous and led to arrests of people engaging in consensual sexual activity. By 1916 it was known as the “The Blackmail Act.”

The owner of the club was an African-American attorney and newspaper editor named Lawrence Marsh. Marsh, Utah’s first minority attorney, was not popular with the white community in Salt Lake City. He’d lobbied for and succeeded in getting an equal rights bill for minorities into the state senate. The bill would have made it illegal for businesses to refuse to serve people based on their race.

Federal authorities declared that a white man in cahoots with Marsh lured the women, who claimed they’d worked as a vaudeville team, away from their theatrical troupe, and took them to Marsh’s rooms, or maybe it was his club — reports varied. Newspaper reports claimed that Marsh pulled a gun on the women, plied them with strong drink, made them smoke opium, and invited his friends to join him in subjecting the women to unspecified “abuses” while holding them against their will.

Supposedly the women escaped out a window, with the aid of a messenger boy, after a three-day ordeal.

Initially the women played along with the story of abduction and abuse. But when it came to testifying against Marsh in court, “Hazel” refused, saying she feared she would incriminate herself. The other women followed suit.

The case fell apart, however the taint of it caused Marsh to be disbarred and his senate bill went nowhere. On April 8, 1911, the women were released from jail where they’d been held during the trial.

Hazel_Raymond_parent__039_s_letter

The day after their release The Salt Lake City Tribune published a “pathetic letter” from Mr. and Mrs. O. J. Swenson of Aberdeen, Washington. According to the letter, Hazel and Pearl Raymond were actually the Swenson’s twin daughters, Grace and Zola Swenson. They had not been brought from out-of-state to Salt Lake City but were native daughters. The letter begged the “wayward girls” to go to their parents in Washington. The girls promised to comply.

At least one of the twins headed north to Washington State. In Seattle, again using the alias, Hazel Raymond, she tried to end her life after she was arrested for indecent conduct. Next came her 1913 arrest for grand larceny.

The story has a good ending. Grace ended up in El Paso, Texas, living with a man ten years her junior named Oliver Rice. Oliver was the breadwinner — he worked as an auto mechanic. He and Grace got married in 1926. For many years Zola, who never officially married, lived with her sister and Oliver in El Paso.

When Zola died of a stroke on January 10, 1943, the name listed on her death certificate was not “Zola Swenson, but “Zola Rice.” Of course it might have been an error, but it’s just as possible that after the wayward Swenson girls settled down, they took their Mormon faith to heart and shared a husband.

Featured photo: Police identification card mugshots of “Hazel Raymond,” whose real name was either Grace or Zola Swenson. Collection of the author.