An American Tragedy in Pomona–Part 1

MARY CECILIA ROGERS

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget, is cited as the first murder mystery based on details of an actual crime. I am skeptical of firsts, but if Poe’s story is not the first, it is an early entry. It appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.

Behind Poe’s tale of Marie Roget is the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers.

Rogers, a tobacco shop employee, became known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl. She disappears on October 4, 1848, and local papers report her elopement with a naval officer. She returns later, sans husband.

She disappears again on July 25, 1841. Friends see her at the corner of Theatre Alley, where she meets a man. They walk off together toward Barclay Street, ostensibly for an excursion to Hoboken.

Three days later, H.G. Luther and two other men in a sailboat pass by Sybil’s Cave near Castle Point, Hoboken. Floating in the water they see the body of a young woman. They drag it to shore and contact police.

According to the New York Tribune, Rogers is “horribly outraged and murdered”. Questions regarding Rogers’ death remain. It is alleged she ended up in the river following a failed abortion. The scenario is credible, in part, because her boyfriend committed suicide and left a note suggesting his involvement in her death.

GRACE BROWN

I love it when a novel is based on a true crime. One of my favorites is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser draws inspiration from a murder in the Adirondacks.

In 1905, Chester Gillette takes a job as a manager in an uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York. It is there he meets factory worker, Grace Brown. They begin an affair and she becomes pregnant.

Chester is neither interested in being a husband, nor in being a father. He takes Grace on a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Using the alias, Carl Graham, Chester rents a hotel room, and a rowboat.

Grace believes the hotel is where they will spend their honeymoon following a visit to the local justice of the peace. In anticipation of her new life with Chester, Grace packs all of her belongings in a single suitcase.

Chester’s suitcase is small. He is not beginning a life with Grace.

On July 11, the couple takes a rowboat out into the middle of Big Moose Lake. There is no marriage proposal. No wedding ring. He beats her over the head with his tennis racquet and pushes her overboard to drown.

On July 13, 1906, The Sun reports the tragic drowning of a couple in Big Moose Lake. Grace’s body floats to the surface the next day. The body of her companion, Carl Graham, is missing.

Fearing he is dead, police search for Carl. They soon learn the true identity of Grace’s companion. He is alive, well, and his name is not Carl. Police arrest Chester. He denies responsibility for Grace’s death. He insists she committed suicide. The bad news for Chester is none of the physical evidence supports his version of events.

CHESTER GILLETTE

The jury shows no mercy—they find him guilty and sentence him to death.

On March 30, 1908, they execute Chester in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.

LOIS WADE

March 4, 1932.

Soaked to the skin, bleeding from the head, and covered in bruises, seventeen-year-old Lois Wade stumbles into the road near Mountain Meadows Country Club in Pomona. A Good Samaritan takes her to Pomona Valley Hospital.

The hospital calls the Sheriff’s department, and deputies arrive to take Lois’ statement. She tells them a terrifying story.

She is is walking from downtown Pomona to her parent’s home at 349 East Pasadena Avenue, when a stranger pulls up alongside her and offers her a ride. She accepts, but rather than taking her home, the man stops his car on Walnut Avenue near an abandoned well and beats her.

Lois’ attacker forces her into the well and shoves her down witht a pole when she attempts to climb out. When Lois vanishes from his view, the man gets in his car and drives away.

The motiveless attack makes little sense, and deputies question Lois’ account. The next day, she revises her story.

Her attacker is not a stranger as she originally claims; he is her nineteen-year-old married lover, Frank Newland.

Deputies Killion and Lynch arrest Frank at his home at 918 South San Antonio Street, Pomona. They book him on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. Frank denies the attack.

As Lois lay in serious condition in the hospital, the D.A. revises charges against him to include statutory rape. Because of the severity of Lois’ wounds and her inability to appear in court, Judge White resumes Frank’s hearing at Lois’ hospital bedside.

Within a month of the attempt on Lois’ life, Frank goes to trial. Local newspapers pick up on the similarities between Frank and Lois and the characters in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Future Los Angeles mayor, Fletcher Bowron, sits on the bench. Public interest in the trial is high and draws an enormous crowd—the largest since the 1929 rape trial of theater mogul Alexander Pantages.

The trial begins on April 28; Lois takes the stand, and the courtroom hangs on her every word.

LOIS WADE

Lois is low-key and demure as she testifies to her ordeal.

“By prearrangement we met on a corner in Pomona. We went in his roadster to the Mountain Meadows Country Club, where he drove off the road and stopped the car. We sat in the car for a half-hour; yes, we kissed and loved. He then suggested that we walk over to an old windmill and abandoned well nearby.”

“We looked in the well and then suddenly he turned around and struck me over the head with a club. I fell to the ground. He struck me eight or ten times more and kicked me several times.”

Frank grabs Lois by the feet and drags her, struggling and screaming ten feet to the well. No match for Frank, he overpowers her and throws her in the well.

Lois lands in twenty-five-feet of water. She bobs to the top, and fights for her life. Frank uses a railroad tie to shove Lois under water. A photo of Deputy W.L. Killon, puts the size of the weapon into perspective.  

DEPUTY KILLION POSES WITH RAILROAD TIE USED TO BATTER
LOIS WADE

Convinced Lois is dead, Frank gets into his car and drives away.

Lois claws herself up the wall of the well. She crawls over the edge, tumbles onto the ground, then rises and lurches into the street to summon help. A man stops his car to render aid. Amazingly, Lois’ Good Samaritan is a doctor.

Dr. Roy E. St. Clair testifies to finding Lois in the road.

“I was driving to Pomona on the Mountain Meadows Road about 8:30 p.m. last March 4 when I heard a cry and the lights on my car picked up the figure of Miss Wade standing with her right arm out-stretched. I backed up my machine, and she came to the door and said ‘Take me to a doctor.’”

NEXT TIME: A strange ending.

The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s,  it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort—no gathering evidence, no investigation, nada. Read on.

cold turkey pinch

Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was grim. Thanks to Old Man Depression, misery was on the menu. The street lacked all the warmth, joy, and delicious aromas present in other neighborhoods in the city.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson pulled the holiday shift. They sat in the Chicago Café at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past oblivious to those who saw them as easy prey.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators. Drunk rollers were the vultures who robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions.

A man, down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said: “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.”  After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

Chicago Café at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937 [Photo is from Schultheis collection courtesy LAPL]

The man sat quietly nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had passed out.  “Watch me”—then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and rummaged through his pockets.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said: “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as he pulled out his badge and arrested 35-year-old Jack Orchard, their would-be benefactor, for robbery.

May your Thanksgiving be much happier than Jack ‘s (although he got a free beer!) 

Have a great Holiday and stay safe. 

Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder: 

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 

Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, Crime Reporter

Aggie interviews a tearful dame.

“There is no killer type.  Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover.  It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.

They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.

Killers do not run true to form.  What they have in common is killing.”

The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.

During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.  

Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity. 

Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.

Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.

Dear Mr. Gable, Conclusion

In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.

There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.

In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.

Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,

“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other.  Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”

Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,

“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.” 

The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.

CLARK GABLE WITH HIS STUNT DOUBLE

Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.

Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:

“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable.  It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables.  Hence Clark Gables.”

Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.

The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.

MAE WEST IN ‘EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY”–1937

The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:

“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child.  Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”

Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon. 

Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.

JOSEPHINE DILLON–CLARK GABLE’S FIRST WIFE c. 1919

“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes.  To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”

Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.

In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:

“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”

In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.

For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:

“That’s him.  I’d know him anywhere.”

Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.

Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.

“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”

Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.

The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm.  They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.

As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:

“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began.  It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”

U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.

“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”

Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:

“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”

Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.

“She was simply calling to her sweetheart.  She was sincere,” he said.

It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)

The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.

The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”

If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.

In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.

Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.

Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.

Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.

As Judy writes she sings, You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.

Dear Mr. Gable

From 1931 to 1932, Clark Gable went from relatively unknown to a superstar. Bags crammed full of fan letters from adoring women, and the occasional man, arrived at MGM. One male fan described Gable in a letter to Picture Play magazine:

Tall, dark, and steely eyed, he walks among men, yet strangely apart from his fellows. One minute a nobody, and then–a giant of the screen! Just one more actor looking for his coffee and cake and then–a star of stars!

Seeing him in films like “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “The Finger Points,” and “A Free Soul,” women compared Gable to earlier heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.

Movies provided a welcome escape for Depression-weary audiences. Among the throngs of movie-goers was Violet Wells Norton.  She sat in a darkened theater in Canada, her eyes glued to the screen. Everyone else in the audience saw Clark Gable. Violet didn’t see Gable, she saw Frank Billings, the father of her daughter Gwendolyn.

Frank Billings?

Violet met Frank Billings in 1923 in Billericay, Essex, England.  Billings was her neighbor and one night he overheard Violet and the man she called her husband arguing. Offering a shoulder to cry on, and a warm bed to lie in, Frank Billings fathered a daughter Violet named Gwendolyn.

Frank had no interest in fatherhood, and even less in a woman he considered damaged goods. He abandoned her and left for his home in the U.S.  Violet did not see Frank again until years later when he appeared before her on a movie screen.

In 1925 Violet married Herbert James Norton and moved with him to Winnipeg, Canada. They separated on November 23, 1934.

For two years Violet wrote to Gable. She never received a reply. Gable was aware of the letters and ignored them as the ravings of a crank.

Violet traveled to Hollywood in October 1936 to confront Gable with his teenaged daughter Gwendolyn and convince him to set up a trust fund for her education. Or, failing that, purchase one or all of the four scripts she penned: Gipsy Nell’s Revenge, Love in a Cottage, Love at First Sight and The Spirit Mother.

Gable turned Violet’s letters over to police. He said he was never in England, never met Violet, and was not a papa.

Federal authorities indicted Violet for mail fraud. The letter on which the Feds based the mail fraud charge came from 451 Cumberland Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, mailed on March 9, 1936, addressed to Clark Gable, MGM, Beverly Hills, and signed Violet N.

Following her indictment, Violet addressed the press.

“Don’t misconstruct (sic) me!” she said.

She explained that she merely asked “Gables”, as she called him, to support her daughter or buy her scripts. Violet asserted her requests were reasonable. From her jail cell, she said, “He looks like the Frank Billings I knew in 1923. I’d like to see him in person.”

Gable dismissed Violet’s accusations as “silly and fantastic.”

Were they?

NEXT TIME: Violet Norton, delusional, or. . . ?

MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT –A CONVERSATION ABOUT HISTORIC LOS ANGELES CRIME

MY INTERVIEW WITH DAVE SCHRADER ON MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT

On March 10th, B.C. (before Covid) I was interviewed by Dave Schrader for his wonderful radio show, MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT. We talked for 3 hours about historic Los Angeles crime.

When I first agreed to do the interview I wondered how we would fill the time. By the 2 1/2 hour mark I knew we’d never be able to cover everything. The time flew. Dave is a terrific host and I recommend that you check out his show. I hope to make a return visit sometime during the summer.

Dave’s area of expertise is the paranormal, but he also has an interest in crime. Here’s a little more about Dave:

Dave Schrader has been one of the leading voices of the paranormal since 2006 when he launched his wildly popular talk show, Darkness on the Edge of Town on Twin Cities News Talk – Minneapolis’s top-rated AM talk station.

The show grew to become one of the station’s most successful shows and most-downloaded podcasts, expanding Schrader’s reach globally. Seeing an opportunity, Schrader moved his show to Chris Jericho’s network of shows on PodcastOne, where he further expanded his worldwide audience.

You can find Dave on MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT.

It’s Aggie Underwood’s Birthday Month!

Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.  In her honor the Central Library downtown is hosting a party on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.

I will speak about Aggie and her many accomplishments from her time as a switchboard operator at the Record to her groundbreaking promotion to city editor at the Evening Herald and Express.  And yes, there will be cake. 

Aggie inspired me to create this blog and her Wikipedia page on December 12, 2012.  Aggie loved the newspaper business as much as I love writing for the blog and connecting with all of you.

Aggie hoists a brew.

Deranged L.A. Crime readers are an impressive group. They include current and former law enforcement professionals, crime geeks (like me), and the victims of violent crime.  I have even been contacted by a serial rapist (a despicable scumbag).

Each December I reflect on the year that is ending and make plans for Deranged L.A. Crimes. In 2020, the blog’s reach will extend to encompass all of Southern California, which includes the following counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.

I look forward to new stories, personalities and challenges.

Please join me as we enter the Roaring Twenties.  This time, no Prohibition.

Four women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s.
Image by © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

Film Noir Friday: The Hound of the Baskervilles [1939]

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.

Who doesn’t love Sherlock Holmes?  The character is irresistible. That’s why tonight’s feature is THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, and Wendy Barrie.

Enjoy the movie!

ROTTEN TOMATOES says:

Though it takes a few liberties with the Arthur Conan Doyle original, this film ranks as one of the best screen versions of this oft-told tale. After learning the history of the Baskerville curse, Sherlock Holmes decides to protect heir Henry Baskerville from suffering the same fate as his ancestors.