Justice Times Two, Part 1

Los Angeles has been home to some of the wiliest and most wicked criminals in the world.  And where there are criminals there are attorneys to defend them.  I’ll leave it to you to decide which group is worse.

Among the defense attorneys who practiced in the city, one of the most fascinating was Samuel Simpson Hahn.  Known as S.S. Hahn, which makes him sound like a luxury liner, Hahn was born Schrul Widelman on September 18, 1888 in Ternova, Besarubia, Russia.  He is believed to have arrived in the U.S. on June 30, 1906 and changed his name to Samuel Needleman.  Contrary to the persistent belief that xenophobic immigration agents arbitrarily changed the names of newcomers many people opted to change their surnames to adapt to their new lives in America.  In any case, by 1912 the newly minted Samuel Needleman had moved to Los Angeles and had changed his name one last time. He became Samuel Simpson Hahn.  That moniker stuck with him for the rest of his life.

S.S. Hahn with a witness in Aimee Semple McPherson's trial. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

S.S. Hahn with a witness in Aimee Semple McPherson’s trial. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

On July 22, 1915, having passed his exam, Samuel Hahn was admitted to the California State Bar and for the next four decades he defended some of the most notorious criminals in the city.  Hahn’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of local crime.  Among those who sought his services were serial killer Louise Peete and naughty evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Hahn didn’t limit his practice to felons. Following WWII there was a sharp uptick in divorces.  Starry-eyed couples who married in the heat of passion during wartime found themselves dreading the prospect of thousands of dreary days in each other’s company. In 1945, LIFE Magazine featured Hahn in an article on divorce mills.   Interestingly, he appears to have met his second wife, Mary Monroe, when she came to him to dissolve her marriage.

HAHN_MARY MONROE

I intend to write more about S.S. Hahn in the coming months.  I find his career worthy of multiple posts.  He was disbarred as a young attorney in the 1910s, possibly for suborning perjury, but appears to have won an appeal to restore his license. His death by drowning in a backyard swimming pool in 1957 was ruled a suicide, but it was highly suspicious. I’ll get to more of Hahn’s life later—I think you’ll find it compelling.

Today I’m going to cover a 1934 case from the Hahn files in which he defended a man accused of murdering his wife.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, June 27, 1934, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Kilborane of 4919 Bemis Street were driving on a lonely stretch of dirt road between the Southern Pacific tracks and the Los Angeles River. They were about 200 feet West of the intersection of San Fernando Road and Colorado Boulevard when they noticed a car.  It isn’t clear what caught the attention of the couple but they decided to investigate.  They found a woman sitting upright and dead on the passenger side. Seated next to her behind the steering wheel was a man.  He was severely wounded and semi-conscious. Both had suffered gunshot wounds to the head.

betty mcneerPolice identified the victims as Gray (Grey) Everett McNeer and his estranged wife, Beatrice (Betty) Helene Harker McNeer. While fighting for his life in the General Hospital Gray managed a brief statement in which he laid the blame for the shootings on his dead wife. Unfortunately for Gray the physical evidence suggested a far different scenario.

There were a couple of major problems with Gray’s statement.  First, Betty had been shot three times in the head and second, she was right handed. Even a contortionist would have found it difficult to shoot herself on the left side of her head if she was right handed. Besides, if Betty was the shooter why would she leave her intended victim moaning and alive?  Wouldn’t she have made certain he was dead before she turned the gun on herself—three times? Detectives were convinced Gray was a killer and placed him in the prison ward of the hospital—not that he was capable of taking it on the lam.  Doctors weren’t convinced that he would make it through the night.

gray mcneerWith Gray in the hospital, Detective Lieutenants Sanderson and Hill of the police department began their investigation into the backgrounds of the McNeers.

At 33 years of age Gray already had an extensive criminal record.  The 1930 Federal Census lists Gray as an inmate in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where he was a machine operator in the pants factory. He was in prison for his part in the robbery of a paper company in Oklahoma City.  If his life since his release from prison was any indication of his future plans he had no intention of going straight, ever.  At the time of the shooting Gray was wanted for questioning in a recent string of robberies in Los Angeles.

Betty was 29 when she died and she had been married and divorced twice before she tangled with Gray.  She was 19 when she married a wealthy Altadena inventor, E.P. Pottinger. They divorced after two years and Betty wed Arthur Nollau who owned a knitting mill at 1409 West Washington Boulevard.  The marriage to Nollau also lasted roughly two years.  Twenty-four months seemed to be limit of Betty’s attention span for marriage.  In the days prior to her death she had filed for divorce from Gray to whom, you guessed it, she had been married for approximately two years.

Gray’s condition appeared to be improving; which meant that the ex-con would likely be indicted for  his wife’s murder.  In that case he would require the services of an attorney.

NEXT TIME:  Justice Times Two continues.

 

1901

Marion Linden’s Life of Crime, Conclusion

Marion Linden morphed from a Ohio high school football star in 1932, to a failed felon with a death wish in Nebraska in 1936. His plan to die in a hail of police bullets in Omaha, thereby easing his parent’s Depression era monetary woes, went south faster than a freight train to Georgia. Marion was given a break, three years probation, and didn’t do any prison time for his dangerous and idiotic behavior.

Marion wasn’t supposed to leave Nebraska, but that didn’t stop him. He married 18-year-old Arlene Fagor in Denver, Colorado, on December 5, 1936. Marriage can be a maturing experience for some, but evidently not for Marion. His good behavior and his marriage lasted all of two months before ending in gun fire. Marion shot Arlene in the heart when he learned that she had been unfaithful to him while he searched for work in Texas. Found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, Marion was sentenced to from seven to eight years in a Colorado prison.

linden headline2By now may be wondering what Marion’s criminal behavior in Ohio, Nebraska, and Colorado has got to do with Los Angeles. Simple. Like many others before him, following his release from prison the ex-con moved to Los Angeles–land of bright blue skies, sunny beaches and, in Marion’s case, third chances. Prison may have mellowed him, and perhaps it did–for a while.  From 1940 to 1957 if he committed any crimes they weren’t serious enough to get his name into the newspapers. Unfortunately, Marion proved to be incapable of keeping his life on track.

On Sunday, March 17, 1957, St. Patrick’s Day, Leo Wise, a 34-year-old LAPD officer from  University Division, was on his evening rounds when he responded to the shouts of a bartender at a bar at Pico and Figueroa. Wise arrived to find an extremely intoxicated man creating a disturbance. Wise pulled the man onto the sidewalk outside the bar and patted him down, but didn’t find a weapon. Officer Wise said, “I don’t want to see you on the street anymore. Go home.” The patrolman then walked off in one direction and the drunk lurched off in another. After watching Officer Wise depart, the man returned to his spot in front of the bar.

When Officer Wise returned later in the evening he found the man where he’d left him. Wise said, “I thought I told you to go home.”  He patted the man down and once again he didn’t find a weapon.  Because the man hadn’t complied with his suggestion to go home and sleep it off, Officer Wise had no other option but to arrest the scofflaw.

Wise walked over to the police call box to request transportation for the man’s trip to the drunk tank–he never saw the pistol.  The man shot twice, hitting Wise in the neck and side. The wounded officer fell to the sidewalk but he managed pull out his service revolver. He got off two shots before the man jumped into a car and drove away.

A small crowd gathered around the fallen officer to render aid. Wise waved them off and gasped, “Take the number of those plates and call the police!”  Officer Wise died of his wounds.

Mexican national Luis Alatorre was driving by the bar with three companions. He witnessed the shooting and didn’t hesitate to drive after the suspect.  Alatorre and his friends flagged down motorcycle officers, Charles Sturtevant and Lloyd Nelson, who continued the pursuit. They stopped the man at Alvarado and 11th.  Alatorre and his companions, who had followed in the motor officers’ wake, pulled up and shouted, “Be careful, he has a gun. He just shot a policeman.” The man yelled at the officers, “you took me, but I got one …  I would like to shoot some more, just like I did the last copper. I’ll bet he is dead.”  The suspect spat in the face of the officer who was handcuffing him.

More officers arrived and one of them said, “Let me have him for a while and I will fix him.” The arresting officer replied that the suspect  “is under arrest and in my custody, so leave him alone.” The suspect said: “Thank you, buddy, for stopping these $#!%&* from beating me up. I’ll beat this in court. You are a good guy.”

linden booked photoLieutenant Gebhart took the suspect to Homicide Division. As they drove, the suspect said:  “I hope you have me for murder. I shot that #@$%&*cop and I intended to kill him. If I had an opportunity I would kill all of you. … I tried to shoot him in the heart. … I shot him with a .32 and I didn’t think it would do that much damage, but I hoped it would.”

The suspect was taken to LAPD’s Homicide Division where he was identified as Marion Linden. Lieutenant Gebhart, and several other officers later testified that Linden, even though he was handcuffed, had kicked and spat at officers and knocked furniture about. Lieutenant Gebhart heard Marion say that three years earlier he had been “framed” by two policemen on a charge of interfering with an officer.  He insisted that the officers had perjured themselves . He was convicted of the charges and during his 90 days in jail he made up his mind that he was going to kill a cop.

Marion bragged that: “it took the jury eight hours of deliberation on a misdemeanor charge to convict me …I’m very tough to beat.”  He also said that he had beaten one other murder rap and he would beat the charges against him for the murder of Leo Wise.

Marion was wrong. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Two years later, on July 30, 1959, Lt. Governor Glenn M. Anderson granted Marion a clemency hearing. The hearing came just in time. Marion was scheduled to go to the gas chamber in about a week. Governor Brown told reporters he wouldn’t interfere in the case, and left for a junket in Puerto Rico.

Marion’s execution was delayed while he acted in Pro Per and filed his own appeals. A few minor errors were corrected in the trial record but, apart from that, nothing substantive was changed. Marion’s death penalty stood.

On January 1, 1960, a fist fight broke out on death row. Marion and several other inmates, including the infamous “Red Light Bandit”, Caryl Chessman, got into an argument in their exercise area as they were about to watch the Rose Bowl game on TV. The fight ended when one of the combatants smashed the television on the floor and guards came in to separate the inmates. The fray was likely instigated by Chessman, but each of the other men saw an opportunity to mix it up and jumped in. They had nothing to lose.linden executed

Marion’s early life had showed promise, but somewhere along the line he lost his way. He became a violent and bitter man intent on murder. On July 12, 1961 forty-three year-old Marion James Linden paid for his life of crime in California’s gas chamber.

Marion Linden’s Life of Crime, Part 1

In March 1932 the Elyria, Ohio Chronicle Telegram sang the praises of an Avon High School sophomore for scoring ten field goals, bringing his team to its eleventh straight win for the season. The young man had his whole life ahead of him.

Fast forward to Omaha, Nebraska, April 1936. Marion James Linden, former high school grid iron star from Ohio, was living up to the speed he showed in scoring ten field goals. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old was speeding towards a life of crime. Marion was busted for stealing two automobiles, kidnapping three men and staging a holdup in only 45 minutes. Quite an accomplishment.

News-UT-OG_ST_EX.1936_04_03_LINDEN_headlineWhy was Marion on a crime spree? He told reporters: “I wanted to commit self-destruction in such a way my insurance policy would not be invalidated through the suicide clause.” Suicide by cop would have been his parents the princely sum of $1200 (equivalent to $20,814.77 in current USD). No doubt the cash would have helped his family weather the Depression. Marion entered a guilty plea, but a few days later he reappeared in court and changed his plea to innocent. He was placed on probation for 2 years.

By early February 1937, Marion was living in Denver, Colorado. By mid-February he was in jail on a murder charge. Marion shot Arlene, his 18-year-old bride of two months, in the heart.NEWS-NE-EV_ST_JO.1937_02_22_LINDEN_headline

Marion believed that while he was in Texas trying to find employment as an oil field worker, Arlene was in Denver having an affair. When Marion returned from Texas he immediately went to the home of his in-laws, the Cochrans, where Arlene was staying. He told Detective Captain James E. Childers that he pleaded with Arlene to give up her lover, and when she refused he shot her. But there may have been more to Marion’s motive than jealousy. Capt. Childers quoted Marion as saying that a divorce would have revealed a violation of his Nebraska probation agreement and he would have been compelled to return there to serve out the three year sentence for his mini-crime spree in April 1936.

News-CO-GR_DA_TR.1937_04_24_LINDEN_headlineMarion was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Judge Henry A. Hicks pronounced sentence–from seven to eight years in the state penitentiary. Lewis D. Mowry, Marion’s attorney, said that the his client had no plans to appeal, nor would he seek a new trial.

After serving only three years of his sentence, Marion was released in 1940. At that point he falls off the radar. Did Marion go straight? As an ex-con he may have found it difficult to get a fresh start, but If he committed any further crimes they weren’t newsworthy.

Marion resurfaced in Los Angeles in 1957 where he would once again be the topic of news stories.

Next time:Marion’s story concludes.

The Death of Love, Conclusion

Helen -- out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen — out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Within hours of her conviction Helen had willed herself into a coma, just like she said she could do. Inmates in the jail who passed by Helen made cracks, to which she was oblivious, about the “sleeping beauty”. Maybe they were jealous, because if Helen regained consciousness she’d be svelte.  The first 5 days of her coma she lost 10 lbs! Nothing gets results like a diet of despair and guilt.

The jail physician, Dr. Benjamin Blank, examined Helen and declared that:

“She is suffering from a catatonic condition, a form of stupor brought on by extreme mental strain.”

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

He further stated:

“It is possible that the condition was brought on by fear during her trial that she might be hanged if convicted, or fear of serving the second-degree murder sentence fixed by the jury.”

A TIME Magazine article described Helen’s condition as:

“a fit of sulks so profound that half a dozen solemn psychiatrists could not even agree on a name for it, variously calling it ‘hysterical fugue,’ ‘split personality,’ ‘dementia praecox,’ ‘triumph of the subconscious,’ ‘self-imposed hypnosis,’ ‘voluntary stupor.'”

Legally, Helen could not be sentenced for her crime while in an insensible state. Her condition put justice for Harry on hold indefinitely.

Judge Smith was skeptical about Helen’s coma, and he wasn’t the only one.  Matron Vada Sullivan, who had seen many female prisoners during her tenure at the jail said:

“Mrs. Love is faking.  She has been causing us considerable trouble since the jury returned the verdict that found her guilty of second degree murder.  She has been stubborn and despondent.”

After several continuances of sentence, Judge Smith ordered court to be held in the hospital so that Helen’s reactions could be observed. There wasn’t much to see. Doctors stuck her with pins and otherwise abused the unconscious woman but she responded only when Dr. Samuel M. Marcus, the fifth psychiatrist to examine her, massaged her head and mentioned Harry’s name.  Helen muttered: “Please don’t go away, Harry!”

officials-study-helenHelen became known as “the husk woman”, and she remained unconscious for 158 hours.

After slapping and shaking her, which one can only hope weren’t the usual psychiatric treatments for a comatose patient, Dr. Marcus was finally successful in awakening Helen by whispering in her ear:

“Here I come—that Dr. Marcus again—I’m knocking, knocking at that door—let me in now, Helen! Let me in, I say! I am going to get through that door so open it! Wake up!”

Helen did awake, while film crews recorded everything and her attorney stood by. It took 58 seconds for her to rise, and when she did she was terrified and begged for water. When Dr. Marcus asked if she was happy to be back in the land of the living she sobbed, ‘No, Oh, I haven’t done anything wrong! Let me go back!”

Helen, passed out in her mother's arms.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen, passed out in her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy LAPL.

She felt much better the next day. She said to the assembled newspapermen: “Don’t I look beautiful this morning?”

Helen was ravenously hungry. She’d been fed intravenously while she was out, but once she was upright she was treated to chicken broth with rice, buttered toast and two glasses of milk.

When asked about rumors that she was going to lapse into another neurotic coma, Helen smiled. She did her nails, wrote letters, read her fan mail, and expressed her disappointment at not being able to play golf with Jailer Clem Peoples.

She was sure she could beat him because she had once driven a golf ball 240 yards. She said, “Can you imagine that? And me a girl?”

When all was said and done, Helen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from seven years to life in prison. Helen left HOJJ (Hall of Justice Jail,) for Tehachapi dressed as though off to a fashionable tea. She was wearing a black crepe dress embroidered with silver flowers and a black cloth coat.  Around her shoulders was a silver fox fur. She wore a black straw hat which, she said, she had bought in Paris. Black shoes, gloves, and purse completed her off-to-prison ensemble. Women dressed up for everything in those days, and a trip to prison was no exception. It paid to look your best.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen did well at Tehachapi, she even won first place in a baking contest for her coconut cake.

While Helen was baking awarding winning cakes in prison, her mother-in-law, Cora, was embarking on a scorched earth policy where her former daughter-in-law was concerned.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is...  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is… Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora went to court to prove that there was no evidence of a marriage between Harry and Helen.  She got an injunction barring Helen from representing herself as Harry’s widow or using the name Love.

In an unrivaled act of optimism, Helen applied for parole in November 1938 under her maiden name, but was told she would have to wait two years before applying again. Not unreasonable given that she had shot a man to death a year earlier.

In 1940 the litigious Cora sued Rio Grande Oil Co., Richfield Oil Co., KNX and CBS for $1M in a libel suit.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen's trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen’s trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora claimed her character had been defamed in a broadcast of the radio program “Calling All Cars” (an episode entitled The Silver Cord which aired on January 13, 1939.) I haven’t found any record of her suit, so I don’t know if she won.  But I doubt it. Listen to the episode and decide for yourself if she had a legitimate complaint. Actually, everyone should have complained. The heavily hyperbolic episode didn’t flatter any of the characters.

If Helen was paroled in 1940 it didn’t make news; however, she was eventually released. It is difficult to trace women, especially in years past when they routinely took their husband’s surnames. That said, I think I’ve been able to ferret out a few bits of information on Helen.  As far as I can tell she was married a total of four times (three if you agree with Cora Love who adamantly denied Helen was ever legally married to Harry). As far as I know, Helen managed not to kill any of her other husbands or lapse into any more self-induced comas.

Helen Wills passed away in San Francisco, California on November 1, 2000 at the ripe old age of 95.

As for Cora Love, she passed away in Riverside, California on 17 Nov 1950 ten days following her 85th birthday.

The Death of Love, Part 3

Helen with her hands on her head. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen with her hands on her head. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen was arrested at the Del Mar Club for Harry’s murder. She was overheard saying, “His mother is to blame for all this.” Cora may well have been a mean spirited, selfish, bitch and Harry may have been a weak, wuss of a man, but nowhere in the California State Penal Code does it mandate a death sentence for wussiness. And if it did, it wouldn’t have been up to Helen to mete out justice.

Helen was booked at the Santa Monica Jail and then transferred to the County Jail where she was held without bail. She was so distraught that she attempted to hang herself in her cell with a polka dot scarf she’d been wearing. Fortunately for her a sharp-eyed matron saw what was happening and intervened.

Helen being booked. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen being booked. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Following her failed attempt at self-destruction, Helen spent the next few days wailing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to see Harry one more time. Because it was 1937 and not 2017, Helen was unbelievably granted permission to view Harry’s body at the funeral home. A request made by a killer her view her victim’s remains would never fly today.

When Helen arrived at the funeral home her first question for the undertaker was whether or not Cora Love had been by to view Harry. According the undertaker, Cora had come in earlier and and she was in deep shock.  Helen stiffened for a moment and then she nearly shouted, “Harry knows whose fault it was.  He knows and I know…” Helen walked over to Harry’s coffin and lifted the drape that covered it. She kissed him and said, “Darling, you are happier than me. You don’t blame me, do you , darling? I love you my dear, I love you. Your hands don’t feel cold to me. You won’t be lonely darling. My heart will always be with you.” Helen turned to the undertaker and made him promise to bury a tiny heart-shaped wreath of roses of Harry, “Do this for me. Please say you’ll do this for me,” she pleaded. Harry was buried at the Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).

mrs-love-tells-shotHelen’s one way chat with Harry was creepy, but things were about to get stranger.

At the inquest Howard H. Spencer, brother-in-law of Mrs. Love, testified that Harry Love was a single man. Helen whispered, “He lies.” Among the other witness who appeared were Neil Johnson and L.B. Nelson, employees at the Del mar club; Max Daniels, in whose taxicab Helen rode to the scene of the shooting; George Hahn, wine steward at the club, who testified that the distraught woman asked to be allowed to touch her husband while he way dying in the clubhouse; Chester L. Dewey, who witnessed the shooting from a parking lot across the street; Capt. Elmer Lingo of the Santa Monica Police Department, and Officers Thomas Garrett and Charles Horn, who arrested Helen.

While the Coroner’s jury was deliberating, Helen sobbed out the story of her brief marriage to one reporter in particular, Aggie Underwood. “We were beautiful in love. But Harry was so afraid of his mother. His affection for his mother and hers for him were strange and frightening. Ten months ago Harry and I drove down into Mexico and at a little town below Ensenada we were married. It was a mysterious trip because harry wouldn’t tell me where we were going and when we started I didn’t know he planned to be married.”killer-kisses-mate

Because of Cora, Harry refused to announce the marriage, and that stung. “It was agonizing to be so in love with a man and not have him with me,” Helen said. “Three months after our wedding, I told Harry I was going to show his mother our marriage certificate. He took it from me and said he had placed it in a safety deposit box and that I would never see it again until we had a home of own.”

Helen pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Her defense was that she’d brought the gun to the club fearing that Harry would threaten her. What? She wasn’t invited to the Del Mar Club and it was her idea to take Harry’s pistol, get into a cab, and go to Santa Monica. At any point along the way she could have changed her mind and returned home. The fact that she didn’t speaks to her state of mind and her intention. Helen insisted that the pistol fired accidentally when she tried to pull it out of her pocket.

Cora Love testifies. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Cora Love testifies. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

If you’ve ever handled a weapon you know that it takes about five to eight pounds of pressure to pull the trigger of the average hand gun. Then there was the fact that Helen shot multiple times. Even if one was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on the alleged accidental discharge, it wouldn’t explain the multiple shots she fired at Harry while chasing him out of the club and down the street. Helen’s account was also at odds with eye witness testimony and her original statement to the cops in which she confessed to the crime.

While she awaited trial, Helen sat in her County Jail cell and wrote poetry to her dead husband.

“Strange sea, strange air,
Ah, but let us not forget
All our happy days together.

Then let them sound one high call,
For I shall be waiting
On some plain
In gold field or satin rain.

Waiting for all that our love could ever bring,
Deathless in our remembering.”

Helen was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her effort was heart felt.

The trial lasted several days, and finally the jury of seven women and five men were instructed by Judge Frank M. Smith:

“You may find this defendant guilty of murder in the first degree and fix the penalty at death.  You may return a first degree murder verdict, but set life imprisonment as the penalty.  You may return a second degree murder verdict, or a manslaughter verdict, or you may, after a careful study of the evidence before you determine that the defendant is not guilty.”

During deliberations one of the jurors, Mary Plettner, a 45 year old house wife, was found in contempt of court after the jury foreman, Harry Joannes, reported her for being drunk. Evidently Mary had hidden a bottle of booze in the women’s bathroom.  Joannes said that Plettner was in no fit condition to continue. Despite the problem with Mrs. Plettner, Judge Smith expressed his faith in the American jury system; however, he said he believed a juror in a case involving a homicide should remain sane and normal during deliberations.

Mary Plettner, drunk juror; jail matron; Helen Love.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Mary Plettner, drunk juror; jail matron; Helen Love. Photo courtesy LAPL.

An alternate took Plettner’s place, and one hour later, Helen was found guilty of second degree murder. Helen stunned the courtroom by asking to waive her not guilty by reason of insanity plea. She said she wasn’t crazy when she shot Harry.

Due to her request, her sentencing was delayed.

Back in county lock-up Helen told fellow inmates “I can make myself die whenever I want to” and she told a jail matron “I can sit in this chair, or lie down on this bed and kill myself by strength of will power”.

Three days later, Helen lapsed in to a coma that appeared to have been self-induced.

NEXT TIME:  Is Helen faking a coma? What do the doctors think? Will she live to face sentencing for Harry’s murder?

The Death of Love, Part 2

Helen and Harry Love eloped to Mexico and married on May 3, 1936. Harry, at 46, was a “retired capitalist” and during the midst of the Great Depression that was quite an accomplishment. He gave Helen everything she could have wanted except his time–which is what she desired most. Harry was a mama’s boy and had, in is nearly five decades on the planet, not managed to clip the umbilical cord that continued to tether him to his meddlesome mother, Cora.

merry-xmas-sweetheartNot only had Harry refused to acknowledge Helen as his wife, he never even claimed her as his girlfriend. On the few occasions that Helen and Cora met, Cora was condescending and competitive to an uncomfortable degree. On Christmas Eve, Helen showed Cora the card Harry had given her which bore the salutation “Sweetheart”. Cora was offended by the card and immediately sneered at Helen, telling her that the card SHE had received from Harry was much prettier.

Many parents are reluctant to accept their child’s choice of a partner, but Cora seemed determined to keep Harry to herself. Had Cora always been so demanding of Harry’s time and attention? Perhaps Cora felt lost after her husband Charles passed away in 1923. She may have transferred her attention to her son. We can only speculate. We do know that Harry and Cora had taken a couple of cruises and frequently went out together for drives. Harry often stayed the night at Cora’s home rather than go to Helen and the apartment he maintained, allegedly for the two of them.

During the months that they had been married, Harry had pressured Helen into terminating a pregnancy and, following the “illegal operation”, Harry had sent Helen to New York to recover from the procedure that had nearly cost her her life.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The final straw for Helen came on New Year’s Eve. Harry had promised to take her out to the Norconian Supreme Resort in Riverside for what would certainly have been a night to remember. Helen had bought a gown, which she foolishly showed to Cora. Had Helen baited Cora with the gown?

Typical women's evening wear 1936.

Typical women’s evening wear c. 1936.

If Helen was playing a game of one upsmanship, she lost big time. Had Cora then applied pressure to Harry, or had he reneged on his promise to Helen of his own accord? It didn’t matter. Either way Helen was to facing a miserable New Year’s Eve, dressed to the nines with nowhere to go. Cora and Harry were going to dinner in Santa Monica at the Del Mar Hotel. Helen wasn’t even invited to tag along as a third wheel.

After spending hours brooding over the indignity of being kept away from a celebration that she felt should have included her, Helen snapped. She took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment of his car and put it in her handbag. Then, after ruminating for a while longer, she called a taxi and went out to confront Cora and Harry at the Del Mar.

1930s dame with gun.

1930s dame with gun.

Hurt, angry, and fed up with being Harry’s secret bride, Helen walked into the lobby of the Del Mar. When she asked the clerk if the Love party had arrived, she was told they had not. She said she would wait. A short time later Harry came from the dining room. He must have been there all along. Had he instructed the clerk to try to turn Helen away if she turned up, and then been thwarted when she declared her intention to stay?

Harry walked over to Helen and she said “Hello, darling.” Harry asked Helen what she was doing there; she said had planned to spend New Year’s Eve with him and she had meant it. They quarreled and Helen turned on her heel and strode into the dining room where she walked up to Cora who was seated at a table for two. Cora turned white and snapped at Helen, “This is no place for you. You are not invited! See me tomorrow.” Helen said, “Tomorrow will be too late.” Helen headed for the exit of the hotel with Harry next to her. “Have you a gun?” he asked. Helen replied, “You’re a big man. Why should you be afraid of a gun?” But he was afraid. So much so that he started to scream and run. He only managed to reach the steps of the club before Helen drew the pistol and fired.

Typical men's evening wear in 1936.

Delineator Magazine’s men’s guide to correct formal evening wear, January 1936.

Harry fell on the steps, but he got back up and ran down the sidewalk still screaming for help. Helen ran after him firing until she was out of bullets. Later Helen claimed she had no recollection of where Harry fell. Harry was carried back into the Del Mar and placed on a couch. Helen sat next to him and watched him die. “I couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed like something you see on the screen. I kept thinking of it as a motion picture death.” Helen later said.

But Harry’s death wasn’t a movie–it was real enough to get Helen arrested for murder.

NEXT TIME: Helen goes on trial as The Death of Love continues.

The Death of Love, Part 1

Helen Wills was born in Kentucky in 1905 to Claudia and George Wills.  George and Claudia divorced around 1920. Claudia reclaimed her maiden name of Durst; and she and her teenage children, sixteen-year-old Richard and fifteen-year-old Helen, lived together in Vanceburg, Kentucky.  All three held jobs to keep the family afloat. Claudia taught music at home.  Richard worked in a button factory as a cutter and Helen worked in a cigar factory.

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Helen as a young woman. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Factory work can be soul crushing. I know because I worked in a swim suit factory as a teenager. I began each day punching a time clock. There was a large, empty, bin next to my sewing machine and my job was to fill it by the end of my shift. The noise of the industrial sewing machines was broken occasionally by the screams of a worker who had accidently sewed a finger to the bathing suit she was working on. Based on my experiences,  I wasn’t surprised to find that by the 1930 census Helen and her mother had left Kentucky behind and were living in Los Angeles at 74 South Mariposa Avenue. Helen claimed to be an actress, but it is unclear what she actually did to earn a living.

Being an actress must have sounded glamorous  to a small town girl like Helen, but there were hundreds of girls in Los Angeles whose big dreams had led only to aching feet as they trudged from one cattle call to another, never getting the break that would make them a star. I haven’t found any documentation to suggest that Helen ever appeared in a film or on stage.

Helen didn’t leave her mark on Hollywood, but as it turned out she would eventually take the lead role in a real life and death drama and she would make headlines from L.A. to New York.

Movie extras c. 1930s.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Movie extras c. 1930s. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen met Harry Love in 1929 or 1930 and dated seriously for a year prior to their secret marriage in Ensenada, Mexico on May 3, 1936.

Harry was a successful older man, about fifteen years Helen’s senior, described as tall, medium build with dark hair and brown eyes. He was born in Trinidad, Colorado in 1890, and as a young man he had worked as a shift boss for Montezuma Copper Company in Narcozari de Garcia, Sonora, Mexico and as a car salesman in Morenci, Arizona. He wasn’t a millionaire but he had done well enough to retire in his early 40s — the newspapers referred to him as a retired capitalist.

Helen realized early in their relationship that Harry was a mamma’s boy. At 46 he had never been married and he still lived at home with his mother, Cora. In Helen’s shoes I like to think I would have taken one look at that situation and run for the hills, but that’s me looking at the 1930s through my 21st Century lens. It is easy to make that call from a distance of 80 years.

Harry and Cora were so close that they’d taken at least two cruises together. One was in the 1920s, years before Harry met Helen. But in March 1936 Harry and Cora took a second cruise to Hawaii, aboard the S.S. Chiriqui. What man takes a cruise with his mother just a few months prior to his marriage?

sschiriquifront3_resizeThe truth is that Harry probably never intended to marry Helen. The hasty Mexican nuptials may have been necessitated by Helen’s announcement that she was pregnant. Harry must have had nightmares about how he was going to explain the marriage and child to Cora.  She was barely aware that he was dating, let alone making babies.

After the newlyweds returned home Helen expected, not unreasonably, that Harry would break the news to Cora, but he flatly refused.

Harry kept his new wife in an apartment at 3620 West Fourth Street, less than a half mile from his mother’s house at 457 South Harvard Boulevard. Helen may as well have been on another planet.  Harry didn’t even stay with her every night.

According to Helen, while they were dating Harry threatened to kill her if she ever became pregnant. In the 1930s the most common method of birth control was douching because other less caustic forms were nearly impossible to find.

In 1873 the Comstock Act passed in the United States prohibiting advertisements, information, and distribution of birth control and allowing the postal service to confiscate birth control sold through the mail.  It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court (in Griswold v. Connecticut) gave married couples the right to use birth control, ruling that it was protected in the Constitution as a right to privacy. However, millions of unmarried women in 26 states were still denied birth control.

Not only was douching extremely unreliable, it was dangerous. The most widely advertised douche was Lysol. That’s right, as early as the 1910s the same stuff used to clean toilets was advertised as a way for women to stay fresh and feminine. Although, frankly, I fail to see the allure of the regular scented Lysol or, worse yet, the pine scented version that eventually hit the market. The notion that my man would be excited by a pine tree is too horrible to contemplate. The subtext in many of the ads was a nod and a wink toward avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

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One wonders exactly what tragedy is being referred to in this ad.

When Helen gave Harry the news of his impending fatherhood, he reacted predictably and pressured her into having an “illegal operation” (i.e. an abortion). Helen nearly died as a result. In September he sent her to New York for a couple of months to regain her health.

Helen arrived home in time for the holidays and one of the first things that she noticed about the apartment was that Harry had removed their framed marriage license from the wall and put it in a safe deposit box.  At least that’s what he told her.

In spite of their problems Helen was optimistic about her relationship with Harry and she believed that the two of them would spend Christmas alone together. Harry had other plans. He thought it would be swell if he and Helen spent Christmas with his mother – who still had no idea that Harry and Helen were married. Helen was introduced as a friend.

Helen wasn’t thrilled with the plan, but she went along hoping that Harry would finally reveal the truth of their relationship to Cora. It was not to be. Following dinner Harry and Cora bid adieu to Helen and went off together to church to listen to Christmas carols and then go for a drive.

On New Year’s Eve, Helen and Harry had lunch in Chinatown and he promised to take her to the fabulous Norconian Resort Supreme in Riverside that night to usher in 1937.

The Norconian.  Image courtesy LAPL.

The Norconian. Image courtesy LAPL.

As he had many times before, Harry failed to keep his promise. He told Helen that he planned to spend New Year’s Eve with Cora at the Del Mar Club in Santa Monica and that she, Helen, was not invited. Harry did, however, pick Helen up that evening and left her in his car in the parking lot of a building Cora owned at 3020 South Main Street. He gave explicit instructions to the parking attendants that no one but him was to take the car out.

Helen sat in the auto for hours, brooding. Finally an attendant told her she might be more comfortable if she waited inside the building. She agreed, but before she left the car she took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment and stashed it in her handbag.

Frustrated, hurt, and angry Helen took a cab back to the apartment where she stewed for a while longer before she made an important decision. She was tired of living in the shadows and fed up with Harry’s glib promises that inevitably came to naught. She grabbed her bag with the pistol still concealed inside, called a cab, and went to the Del Mar Club for a confrontation with the Loves.

NEXT TIME: The Death of Love, Part 2

References: 

Ancestry
Google Maps
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express
Our Bodies Ourselves
Mother Jones
Smithsonian
WGBH Boston
Wikipedia

Film Noir Friday–Holiday Edition: MIDNIGHT [1934]

midnightlc

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a special holiday screening. It is the 117th anniversary of Humphrey Bogart’s birth. What better way to celebrate than to show one of his early films? Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Today’s feature is the pre-code MIDNIGHT (aka CALL IT MURDER), starring Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Fox, O.P. Heggie, Henry Hull and Margaret Wycherly.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Ethel Saxon confesses in court to the murder of her errant husband John in a “crime of passion,” and also admits she took his money. Jury foreman Edward Weldon, who believes in obeying the letter of the law, convinces his peers to convict Ethel of first degree murder, despite public sympathy for her cause. On the day of her execution, reporter Bob Nolan bribes idle Joe “LeRoy” Biggers, Weldon’s son-in-law, to get him into the Weldon home to see the family’s reaction as Ethel is taken to the electric chair.

Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood and Deranged L.A. Crimes

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Aggie at a crime scene in the 1940s.

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2016, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.

It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog.  She began her career as a temporary switchboard operator at the Daily Record in late 1926.. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she described the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland” and promptly fell in love with the newspaper business. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wanted to be a reporter and she pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and other social events, Aggie covered most, if not all, of the most important crime stories of the day. She attended Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947.

Like Aggie, I’ve become obsessed with the villains and victims in Los Angeles. The stories touch me as often as they frighten and repulse me. I want to understand why people do the things they do, and sometimes I feel like I get close. I don’t expect to ever completely answer that question–but the quest is a rewarding one.

Whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes for a while, I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2017 and a few appearances too. I will keep you posted.

Joan

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

dirtyharry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

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Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan