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]
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.
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.
Police 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.
With 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.
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.
By 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 $#!%&* from beating me up. I’ll beat this in court. You are a good guy.”
Lieutenant Gebhart took the suspect to Homicide Division. As they drove, the suspect said: “I hope you have me for murder. I shot that #@$%&*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.
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.
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.
Why 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.
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.
Marion 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Here 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.
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 THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY, based on an Ellery Queen novel of the same name. It stars Helen Twelvetrees and Donald Cook. Match wits with an arch fiend, and enjoy the movie!
After Ellery Queen helps his father Inspector Queen with a case involving the robbery of a $50,000 pearl necklace, he leaves for a well-deserved vacation in Spanish Cape, California. In Spanish Cape, Walter Godfrey’s relatives, who have gathered in his seaside mansion, quarrel with one another. During an evening stroll, Stella Godfrey is abducted and her uncle, David Kummer, disappears.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, love is in the air, and heart-shaped cards and sweet treats are everywhere. Sadly not all love affairs remain heart shaped, sometimes they become triangles, and when they do they can be deadly.
Thirty-seven-year-old grocery clerk Worth Clements traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles to plead with his estranged sweetheart, twenty-seven-year-old Lucille Register, to marry him. He brought with him Lucille’s eight-year-old brother Stanley, whom he had adopted. Worth had divorced his former wife, one of Lucille’s aunts, and planned to marry Lucille as soon as possible.
The meeting between Worth and Lucille didn’t go well. Accompanied by two of her friends Mary Temple, Martha Hillhouse, and her brother Stanley, she went to LAPD’s Hollywood station for a safe place to talk things over with Worth. Their talk ended with Worth agreeing to return to Atlanta. The group left the police station and everyone piled into Martha’s car.
As Martha turned the car onto Third Street Worth and Lucille, together in the back seat of the car, began to argue. It was then that Lucille dropped the bombshell. She was already married! She and a fellow named Wayne Campbell had driven to Tijuana just two days earlier and wed. The other occupants of the car heard Lucille reject Worth in no uncertain terms: “I won’t marry you–take it or leave it.”
Worth responded: “Lucille, I’ve got a gun.” Did he bring the gun because he suspected he was part of a triangle? Or had he planned to kill Lucille if she rejected him for any reason? I suspect the latter; but surely Lucille’s confession was the thing that made him snap. He fired one shot into Lucille and she went quiet. Martha pulled the car to the curb at 3rd Street and Union Avenue. As Martha, Mary and Stanley ran for help they heard two more shots.
When the police arrived they found Lucille dead in the back seat. Beside her lay Worth. He had put two rounds into his chest and was barely alive.
LAPD Detective Thad Brown went to the hospital to speak with Worth. As soon as it was clear that he was going to pull through, he was charged with murder.
Little more than a month following the slaying Worth appeared in Judge Blake’s courtroom. He made a pathetic picture swaddled in a blanket, hunched over in a wheelchair. He pleaded guilty, even though he insisted he couldn’t recall committing the crime.
On December 29, 1937, Judge Blake found Worth guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. But he didn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was released on January 29, 1948, ten years to the day after he began his sentence.
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 THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL starring John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, and Claude Rains. Enjoy the movie!
Johnnie Bradfield, a deadly and cynical prize fighter, has just slugged his way to the championship when, during a drunken brawl in his apartment, his manager, Doc Wood, accidentally kills Magee, a newspaper reporter, and fixes the evidence so it appears that Johnnie has done the deed. Doc then makes his getaway, but perishes in a car accident while wearing Johnnie’s watch. The next morning, Johnnie awakens in a strange place and reads a newspaper article informing him that he has perished in a car wreck after murdering a reporter. On the advice of a shady lawyer, the champ flees, changes his identity and becomes an outcast.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
The fight between Isa Lang and Edith Eufala Norwood over an avocado sandwich ended in death. Isa had grabbed a gun from her former landlady’s closet and shot her in the back of the head. Eufala died instantly.
Isa was indicted for the slaying and ordered to stand trial on March 7, 1935 in Judge Doran’s court. She entered a a double plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity; which seemed reasonable given her stated motive for the murder.
The 46-year-old former school teacher took the stand in her defense and told the jury of nine men and three woman how “Everything went black.” after she and Eufala exchanged angry words. Isa said that the quarrel escalated quickly because: “Mrs. Norwood grabbed the sandwich out of my hands and she called me names. As she ran into the kitchen with the plate I made with my own bread I ran to a closet and got the pistol.”
Aside from the harsh words, Isa’s rage was triggered because she claimed that she had used her own bread to make lunch. She didn’t reveal the source of the avocados. Isa testified that she didn’t recall pulling the trigger, but admitted that she must have done it.
Jurors learned that the two women had been friends for the several years during which Isa had been living in Eufala’s home. But their friendship ended when Isa was told to move out.
Following their deliberations the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree and set Isa’s punishment at life in prison. The defendant addressed the jury telling them that she was “willing to accept any punishment the law requires.”
The verdict and sentence ended the first phase of Isa’s trial–next the jury would have to decide if she was insane when she committed the murder.
Three alienists (psychiatrists) testified that while Isa was undoubtedly eccentric whe was not legally insane when she shot Eufala. Isa’s defense team offered their own witnesses in an effort to prove that she was not mentally responsible for the shooting. It took the jury five minutes to arrive at a decision–Isa was sane–she would serve life in the State Prison for Women at Tehachapi.
There were few high profile female killers, especially during the 1930s, who weren’t interviewed by Aggie Underwood. Aggie started working as a reporter for the Evening Herald & Express in January 1935 and, as you can see from the photo she scored an interview with Isa.
Aggie Underwood, notebook in hand, interviews Isa Lang. [Photo courtesy of USC]
There were no further newspaper of reports on Isa until November 1976 when the Los Angeles Times did a piece on her. Isa had been a prisoner longer than any other woman in California–but that wasn’t her only claim to fame.
She was paroled in 1960 at age 71, and she told the interviewer, Charles Hillinger: “The first five years of freedom I really enjoyed. I had my own little apartment and a beautiful cat named Ginger. But the last four years were sheer hell. I became sick. I had to give up my apartment and go into a nursing home. I shared a room with five other elderly women. They were all senile. They had no idea where they were or what was going on. It was terrible. I was so lonely for all my friends in prison. I wanted to get back to prison in the worst way…”
Astonishingly, Isa was able to convince the Department of Correction that by giving up her parole and returning to prison she would be treated more humanely than she had been in the nursing home on the outside. Actually, now that I think about some of the stories I’ve read about nursing homes, maybe her request wasn’t so shocking after all.
Isa spoke with some pride of her years in prison: “I have worked at every job there is for inmates here over the years. The laundry, the kitchen, as a gardener in the yard, in the sewing room making American flags that fly over state buildings. For many years i was secretary for the superintendent. She also told Hillinger: “..I did your kind of work, too. I wrote feature stories and editorials for the Clarion, our prison paper, for 6 1/2 years.”
Isa revealed that she never married during her free years: “I’m glad for it. This is a tragic place for married women. Separated from their husbands. Their children in foster homes.”
As she got older and her health began to fail she was confined to a wheelchair, but inmates brought her gifts of rosebuds from the prison gardens–and staff members brought her flowers from their home gardens as well.
Isa wouldn’t say very much about the 1935 murder. “It was something that could happen to anyone. It was terribly foolish for me to get caught up in the situation that I did. I got stirred up. It certainly wasn’t worth it. I’ve accepted the consequences. Only God and I know what truly happened…”
Isa Lang in her 80s.
That wasn’t the end of Isa’s story. In August 1982 the Los Angeles Times covered her again. At age 93 (she was the oldest person serving time in the state’s prison system) she was likely going to be paroled–and she wasn’t happy about it. She objected to the presence of reporters at her parole hearing, saying: “I don’t want any publicity. The last time somebody put something in the Los Angeles Times about me years ago, people started picketing for my release and even the governor got into it. I want those do-gooders to mind their own business.”
It wasn’t just reporters she objected to. She became prickly when her victim was described as having been her benefactor. “That woman was not my benefactor. I merely rented a room from her. I killed her because she called me a bastard and a harlot and I want the record straight on that.”
Robert Roos, a member of the parole board, tried to sum up the conundrum: “The questions really isn’t whether Isa Lang is suitable for parole. She is by our criterion no longer a danger to society. The real question is whether parole is suitable for her. I, for one, don’t want to impose a death sentence on this lady by forcing her out of a place she clearly considers home.”
Would Isa be evicted from prison? Yes, indeed. Her attorney, James Gunn, declared himself “flabbergasted” by the parole board’s decision. Even Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Charles Havens agreed: “I’m surprised at what they did. It just doesn’t seem the compassionate thing to do.” But the board decided to follow the letter of the law and using that measure Isa was released.
Columnist Patt Morrison wrote about Isa in May 1983. At age 94, the former lifer was living comfortably with a “very compatible” elderly woman–a fellow vegetarian and Seventh-day Adventist.
Isa Lang passed away in 1983 at age 95.
NOTE: Again, many thanks to my friend and fellow historian Mike Fratantoni for directing me to this deranged tale.