Premature Burial

The following tale is especially terrifying for me. Maybe it was my childhood reading of the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Premature Burial, that has given me an absolute terror of being buried alive. Maybe I had a previous life in Victorian England where their fears of being buried alive reached hysterical levels.

Assuming I predecease him, I’ve instructed my husband to allow me ripen before disposing of my body. Seriously. I know that of the fates likely to befall me, premature burial is way down on the list. This is one of those fears that resists common sense.

I know I’m not alone because clever Victorians devised various methods to avoid premature burial, like the safety coffin. No. I am not making this up.

Some coffins, like the one below, allowed the incarcerated victim to wave a flag, ring a bell, and to speak through a tube that reached to the surface to let passersby know someone alive was inside. In fact, such a coffin may be the origin of the saying, “saved by the bell.”

Enough about my personal fears—and forgive my digression. Let’s get to the story of Marie Billings who faced my biggest terror and lived to talk about it.

Late in the afternoon of May 9, 1928, Marie Billings answered a knock on her front door. A man stood waiting for her. He was tall, about 6’ 4”, and wore a dark suit with a grey pinstripe. He said he was a real estate salesman and interested in purchasing the home she shared with her husband, Howard, a local manufacturer.

Marie and Howard didn’t plan to sell their home at 5911 Allston Street in Montebello. Even so, she figured that there was no harm in listening to the salesman’s pitch. The two began a conversation and he followed her in to the house.

Without warning he slugged her over the head with a club he must have had concealed. Marie struggled in vain. Her attacker ripped her clothing and bound her with an electrical cord. Rendered helpless, she felt a silk stocking wind around her throat as the man choked her into unconsciousness. The stocking was removed from her neck and used to gag her. She was wrapped in a blanket and carried to his car, a Ford coupe.  

1928 Ford coupe

He drove her about eight miles to Turnbull Canyon in Whittier. Marie lay unmoving in the dirt. The man bent down and felt her pulse. She was still alive, so he beat her with an iron bar to finish her off.

Satisfied that she was dead, he covered her with dirt, brush, and leaves. He drove away.

Map of route from Marie’s home to Turnbull Canyon

Marie awoke and realized she was in a grave. HER grave. She resisted the urge to scream. Unable to breathe, she fought her way to the surface. She had just enough strength to free herself.

Badly beaten, Marie crawled two hundred yards to a nearby road. In her arms she carried the bloody blanket in which she was wrapped by her kidnapper. Her restraints trailed behind her.

She reached the road and flagged down a car driven by by W. J. Collins, a taxi driver. Collins drove her to the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier.

Murphy Memorial Hospital

Medical staff phoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Under the direction of Captain William Bright, an investigation into Marie’s assault and attempted murder began.

Marie recovered enough to be interviewed by detectives. She gave a chilling account of her battering at the hands of a man she said seemed familiar. He was the same real estate agent who visited her home a year earlier.

Claude Peters of the homicide squad interviewed Mrs. Robert D. Ellis, who lived within a block of the Billings home.  Based on Marie’s description of her attacker, Mrs. Ellis thought she recalled seeing him. She said, “I saw a man leaving the Billings house two or three days before the attack. He was carrying a large package and got into a Ford coupe and drove away.”

Based on the scant evidence they possessed, the sheriff’s department introduced an interesting theory of the crime that included a second suspect. They suggested that two accomplices battled to the death over Marie’s $500 diamond ring.

Alternatively, a second man may have witnessed the crime and attempted a rescue, which ended in his own death and burial.

Howard, Marie’s husband, began his own investigation. He visited the makeshift grave and found a piece of torn clothing with a powder-burned bullet hole. He delivered the potential evidence to Captain Bright.

In a search of the Billings home, deputies found a length of pipe with one clear fingerprint on it. They hoped that it would lead them to a suspect—it did not. Tantalizing bits of evidence that led nowhere.

The case went cold. Detectives never found a second grave, and the identify of Marie’s attacker stayed a mystery.  

This is one of those cases that will remain an itch I can’t scratch. I can only imagine how much it bothered the investigators who worked it at the time.

The man who attacked Marie was a sadistic monster. Did he commit other crimes? We will never know.

Harvey Glatman: The Glamour Girl Slayer

Judy Dull

Harvey Glatman was hard-wired for deviance.

His parents once found him with a string tied around his penis, the loose end of which he had placed in a drawer, he was leaning backwards so that the string pulled taught. He was four years old.

Their son’s behavior alarmed his parents, but his indulgent mother, Ophelia, believed he would grow out of his peculiar habits. His father Albert hoped that discipline would straighten the boy out. His parents faced bitter disappointment. Nothing and no one would prevent Harvey from pursuing his pleasures.

Puberty is a confusing time, perhaps more so for a young man whose fantasies and desires don’t include holding hands at the local malt shop, or pinning a corsage on a prom dress. Not that he could have done those things even if his desires had been more typical — Harvey was painfully shy around girls and he was further handicapped by looks that earned him the nicknames “Weasel” and “Chipmunk”.

If Harvey was going to have a sex life, he was going to have to build it on nocturnal home break-ins, stolen lingerie and a length of rope.

Join me for an in-depth examination of Harvey Glatman’s life and crimes.

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The Attic Love Slave: Dolly and Otto’s Bizarre Affair — Redux

Due to an audio glitch on February 9th, this webinar has been rescheduled to February 16, 2021 at 7 pm.

Please join me for one of the wackiest, and most deranged, love stories in L.A.’s history.

There is always some madness in love.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

On the evening of August 22, 1922, at about 10:30 pm, Fred Oesterreich and his wife Walburga, nicknamed Dolly, returned to their home at 858 North La Fayette Place after visiting friends in the Wilshire district.

The couple engaged in a bitter argument as they crossed the threshold of their home; however, it was not unusual for the heavy-drinking apron manufacturer and his wife to shout at each other. After over 25 years of marriage each was armed with a vast stockpile of grievances to hurl with deadly accuracy at the other.

Their evenings customarily ended when the combatants retired to their separate quarters to lick their wounds; but this night ended like no other before it. Moments after arriving home, Dolly found herself locked in her upstairs bedroom closet screaming for help. Fred lay dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor downstairs near the front door.

Publicly, the police attributed Fred’s murder to burglars. Privately, they were skeptical of Dolly’s account. With detectives unable to substantiate their suspicions with hard evidence—Fred’s case went cold.

In 1930, Fred’s killer came forward and revealed a bizarre tale of sex, murder, and attics.

Join me on Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 7 p.m. Pacific time for a webinar about the strangest love affair in L.A.’s history.

If you can’t watch the live presentation, it will be recorded and available on demand via BigMarker.

Film Noir Friday on Saturday Night! Adventure in Manhattan [1936]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN starring Joel McCrae and Jean Arthur.

TCM says:

To cover the theft of the Koor-Hal ruby, newspaper editor Phil Bane calls in ace crime reporter George Melville. George arrogantly predicts to his fellow reporters the next crime to occur and is proven correct, as always. When an accident takes place outside the pool hall where the reporters congregate, George follows a suspicious woman, Claire Peyton, whom he sees begging one moment, then exiting a store in fancy dress only minutes later. George forces her to have dinner with him, and during the meal, she explains that she left a cruel husband for another man and then left him. That evening, she explains, she is to be allowed to see her daughter for the first time in years, but upon arrival, at her ex-husband’s house she discovers only a coffin.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

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Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “A naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too… Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

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Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

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Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 74-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

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Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

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The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

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Ray Pinker

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.

Unsolved Homicides & Mysterious Disappearances of Women in Los Angeles During the 1940s

This month is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short–the Black Dahlia.

I will write about the case in the blog again this year, as I have every year since 2013. In addition to writing about the case, I am offering a webinar (see below) on four unsolved homicides (including Elizabeth Short) of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

Elizabeth Short’s funeral

The unsolved murders are tragic; but at least family members and other loved ones had a body to mourn and to lay to rest.

Disappearances haunt the living. Did the person leave by choice, or were they taken against their will? As the years pass, the unanswered questions echo in lonely rooms. Broken hearts never quite mend.

In 1949, two very different women vanished in Los Angeles.

MIMI BOOMHOWER

On August 19, 1949, forty-eight-year-old socialite, Mimi Boomhower, known as the ‘Merry Widow’, disappeared from her Bel-Air home. When police arrived for a welfare check, the lights were on and a salad was left out on the dining table. One of Mimi’s dresses was laid out on her bed. Her car was still in the garage and there was no sign of a robbery.

Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, model, and actress, left her home at 5pm on October 7, 1949. She was supposed to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support payments and then she was expected to be at a night shoot for a film. Jean didn’t arrive at either of her appointments.

JEAN SPANGLER

At 7pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, we’ll discuss the homicides, disappearances, and why Los Angeles was such a dangerous place for women in the 1940s.

A New Year’s Eve Tragedy

Jay William Campbell’s day job was milkman, but he loved to fly. On December 31, 1951, he and his 7-year-old daughter, Judy, drove from their Van Nuys home to the San Fernando Airport. As a special New Year’s Eve treat, Jay planned to take Judy for a plane ride. They’d been up together before and she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Judy was the image of her mother, Mary. Mary wasn’t along for the plane ride though—Jay had not mentioned it to her. When he left with Judy all he said was “Be ready at 4:30, I’ll take you and Judy out for dinner.”

Mary was encouraged by Jay’s attitude—things were looking up for 1952. It was a relief to see him interested in a family outing. They recently came through a rough patch in their marriage; in fact, a few weeks earlier she was ready to go to Reno for a divorce.

Mary didn’t want to end their marriage She loved Jay and wanted to work things out. In recent days they seemed to be putting their problems behind them. Maybe they could get back the love they had when they were first married.

They started out like many young couples did in the 1940s. Jay was already registered for the draft when they married in June 1942. The U.S. entered the war in December 1941, and it was only a matter of time before Jay would be in the service. Rather than be drafted into the army, Jay enlisted in the navy.

It isn’t clear when Jay’s emotional problems began, but they were severe enough by 1943 for the navy to discharge him as a psycho-neurotic.  

Mary described Jay’s state of mind. “He was up in the clouds one day and down in the dumps the next. He was always in an emotional turmoil.”

Theirs should have been the perfect post-war family, but Jay couldn’t resolve his problems. He was, according to Mary, “…a worrier by nature.” But Jay’s worrying took a troubling turn.  He was paranoid and jealous. He was convinced Mary was cheating on him with a family friend named Chet.

Mary denied the affair and tried to soothe Jay’s fears. In mid-December she wrote him a note and packed it with his lunch. The note read:

Jay Dearest–I gave you a reason to doubt my love for you and now I have to do something to chase away the doubt.  I couldn’t live without you at my side where you belong.   I’ll always want to be yours and please dear be as you are and don’t change.  I really love you.

Your Mary.

At 4:30 Mary heard a small plane over house. Jay hadn’t mentioned taking Judy for a plane ride, but he had mentioned dinner at 4:30. He could be buzzing the house, he’d done it before.

Mary stepped outside but didn’t recognize the aircraft; even so she had a premonition. As she watched the small plane appeared to stop for a second in sky; then it spiraled downward. The plane ripped into several 4800-volt power lines. The neighborhood was plunged into darkness. The only light came from the burning plane which smashed into the playground of Judy’s elementary school across the street.

Mary’s premonition came true. Fireman had to cut the twisted metal away from Jay and Judy’s bodies before they could pull them out. They died on impact. Among Jay’s personal effects was a color photo of Mary and Judy. The photo was a Christmas gift.

What happened?  Why did the plane go down? Jay was a competent pilot; he’d had a commercial license for 3 years. Was there a mechanical failure? The answer was in a note found in the glove compartment of Jay’s car.

The note was addressed to Mary and it read:

It seems that the price one has to pay for happiness isn’t so easy to pay.  I have lost everything so that you may start anew.  You have lost me and every part of me today, including Judy.  Can you ever tell yourself that Chet was worth it all?  Please pay Mort Kamm about $600 for his airplane. Keep telling yourself that everyone gets over everything.  It may help you, but I doubt it. I have always loved you even if you haven’t loved me.  Don’t ever live a lie again.

Your Jay and Judy.

The deaths were officially listed as suicide and murder.

Funeral rites were conducted in Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale on January 5, 1952. Judy was buried with the doll she received as a Christmas present from her mom and dad.

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Christmas Holiday [1944]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. We are celebrating the holidays with holiday themed noir movies.

Tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette.