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.
At about 5 p.m. on Friday, January 19, 1935, Vera Woodman was in her Boyle Heights apartment when she heard a sound. She wasn’t sure what had caused the noise, but it sounded like a gunshot and it had come from next door–226 North Bailey Street–the home of Edith Eufala Norwood, widow and treasurer of White Memorial Church.
Vera walked over to Eufala’s house and tried the door but then she hear a key turn in the lock. There was no further sound so Vera thought that perhaps her neighbor was not in the mood for company and she returned to her apartment.
The next day William Norwood, who worked as the registrar as the White Memorial Hospital down the street from his mother’s house, dropped by to see her. When he entered the house he noticed it was extremely quiet. He called out but there was no answer. He went into the kitchen and that where he found his mother. She was dead, but there was nothing to suggest foul play until she was examined at the morgue.
Eufala had been wearing a bulky sweater at the time of her death and it had concealed a fatal bullet wound to her brain. The police had the how, now they needed to discover who and why.
Good police work means shaking the trees until something happens. A tried and true method is to knock on doors and question friends, family, and neighbors of the deceased. In this case the neighbors had seen more than they had realized.
Dora Byler, a nurse at White Memorial Hospital, found a handbag belonging to Isa Lang, a former boarder in Eufala’s home. It was on the sidewalk about a half-block from the murder scene. Other neighbors said they had seen Isa, shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, she was carrying a bundle and hurrying away from the Norwood home.
White Memorial Hospital
When detectives caught up with Isa she admitted that she had stopped by Edith’s home on Friday, but she said it wasn’t as late in the afternoon as witnesses had stated. She’d arrived at 3 p.m. and found the door open but her former landlady was not at home. Isa said that she packed the remainder of her belongings and left without ever having seen or spoken to Eufala.
A Coroner’s inquest was held at 1:30 p.m. on January 23 and all of the neighborhood witnesses, subpoenaed by Captain B.W. Thomason, testified. The prime suspect in the slaying, former school teacher Isa Lang, took the stand too. She emphatically denied being at Edith’s home at the time of the murder, she said she had been there at least two hours prior to when the gunshot had been heard. No one came forward to corroborate her story and Isa’s denials fell on deaf ears. The jury found that she had shot Edith with homicidal intent.
A week following the inquest Isa confessed to Deputy District Attorney Arterberry that she was guilty. She told him that after the murder she returned to her new boarding house at 120 South Boyle Avenue. The next day she went to Manhattan Beach and threw the revolver into the ocean. The gun had belonged to the dead woman and was kept in a living room closet.
The confession was important, but everyone wanted an explanation. What was the motive? Evidently the two women had had several petty quarrels, and during one of them Eufala ordered Isa to leave the house permanently. Isa found a new place on South Boyle Avenue and on January 18, the day of the murder, she had returned to retrieve the rest of her personal belongings. Moving is hungry work and Isa said that by the time she got to her old digs she needed sustenance. She pulled open the icebox door and found an delicious looking avocado sandwich. She was just about to take a bite when Eufala came in and took umbrage with Isa’s appropriation of her lunch. Eufala made a grab for the disputed treat and Isa became “insanely angry”.
Denied lunch and in a rage, Isa rushed to the closet where she knew the revolver was kept. She grabbed the weapon and when Eufala saw what was happening she turned to flee; and that’s when Isa took aim and fired. The bullet struck Eufala in the back of the head. She died instantly and collapsed on the kitchen floor
Only a madwoman would commit murder over a sandwich, at least that is what Isa’s defense contended. What would a judge and jury make of an insanity plea?
NEXT TIME: A Cell of One’s Own concludes.
Many thanks to my friend and fellow historian Mike Fratantoni. He finds the most deranged cases.
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, NANCY DREW–REPORTER, may not be film noir, but I’ve got female reporters on the brain today. I was interviewed this afternoon by KCRW (89.9 FM) in Los Angeles about the photo exhibit I’m curating at Central Library. The exhibit: THE FIRST WITH THE LATEST!: AGGIE UNDERWOOD, THE HERALD, AND THE SORDID CRIMES OF A CITY runs until January 10, 2016.
When the newspaper runs a promotional contest awarding fifty dollars for the best story written by a high school journalist, Bostwick, the city editor, decides to wash his hands of the kids by assigning them to cover trivial topics. Undaunted, student reporter Nancy Drew, the daughter of District Attorney Carson Drew, overhears the staff discussing the Lambert murder hearing and decides to cover the trial herself. At the courthouse, Nancy sits next to a man with a cauliflower ear and listens intently as Eula Denning, the murder victim’s ward, is accused of poisoning Kate Lambert for the inheritance money.
In late December 1930, Emery Ells went on trial for hiring Benjamin Brown to murder his estranged wife, Merle Ells. The prosecution called it “murder on the installment plan” because Benjamin had been given $2.20 worth of dimes to commit the crime with the promise of $2000 more to come.
Benjamin confessed to police, but his trial was postponed until January 1931. His attorneys needed time to gather evidence regarding his sanity.
Emery retracted his confession and through his attorney, William T. Kendrick, Jr., accused the cops of giving him the third degree. The defense fought to keep Emery’s confession out of court, and they won the battle–for a while. The confession made to officers was continuously blocked, but Emery had apparently confessed not only to the police but in the presence of newspaper reporter, George White. Since White had been in the room during Ells’ statement he was able to testify that the suspect had not confessed under duress.
Merle’s five sisters appeared in Judge Schauer’s court ready and willing to testify against their former brother-in-law. Merle had often spoken to them of her fear that Emery might do her harm if she didn’t allow him to have custody of their toddler son.
Emery took the stand in his own defense. He reiterated his accusation of police brutality to force a confession from him. He testified that he had been denied food and sleep for four days following his arrest. He also charged that he was kept near Merle’s body in the County Morgue until 3 a.m.–all the while being peppered with questions. Deputy Coroner Russell Monroe refuted Emery’s claim.
Emery’s trial lasted two weeks. On January 8, 1931 after deliberating for just a few hours the jury found him guilty of first degree murder. They recommended life in prison rather than the death penalty asked for by the prosecution. When Emery heard that his life had been spared he turned to his attorney and grinned.
Benjamin Brown withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Given Emery’s sentence Brown had good reason to expect the same treatment. Brown’s Public Defender, George A. Benedict, made an impassioned plea for leniency on his client’s behalf, but Judge McComb sentenced the defendant to hang.
On July 31, 1931, Benjamin Brown climbed the thirteen steps to the gallows. On his way he tripped on Warden Holohan’s heel. “Sorry Warden” were his last words. Earlier in the day Emery begged the Warden to be allowed to see Benjamin. He said Benjamin could exonerate him. Pretty ballsy considering he was lucky to have escaped the gallows himself. Warden Holohan denied the request. When he was told about it Benjamin said: “We are equally guilty. We did it together and we ought to hang together.”
From his jail cell, Emery Ells maintained his innocence in the shotgun slaying of his ex-wife, Merle. Under questioning he gave up the names of several of his acquaintances. One of the men he named was 27-year-old glass-blower, Benjamin J. Brown.
Shortly after midnight on on November 5, 1930, LAPD Detective Lieutenants Filkas and Baggott arrived at Benjamin’s home at 2575 1/2 Randolph Street in Huntington Park. They later said that they were there “on a hunch” that he might have some information that would enable them to break Emery’s alibi.
The detectives saw that Benjamin was nervous, and felt he had something to hide. He proved them correct by telling conflicting stories for over an hour before he suddenly slumped down in his chair and confessed. What did he have against the dead woman? According to Benjamin he’d never even met her before he unloaded a single barrel of the shotgun at her, and he had no idea that she was Emery’s ex-wife. He’d been hired by Emery to kill a woman who was allegedly ruining a baby’s life. As down payment he was given $2.20 in dimes. A full payment of $2,000 would be his when the job was done.
Knowledge of Benjamin’s confession, and his naming of Emery as the mastermind, was kept secret for hours until after detectives walked him through each step along the way to Merle’s brutal death. Benjamin told detectives that Emery had taken him to his brother Alfred’s home on Elizabeth Street and it was there that he was given a shotgun, gloves, flashlight, and a revolver. Emery advised Benjamin to “…use the gloves to prevent leaving any fingerprints and to use the revolver for my own protection afterward.”
Merle spent the last night of her life on a date. Benjamin spent that night preparing to kill her. He said: “Saturday night I took the ‘rod’ and went out and stuck up a guy and took his care away from him. I drove the car home, I got the guns and stuff and drove to the house where the woman was staying. Ells had gone out with me a day or so before and pointed out to me and also told me just where she would be sleeping on the porch.”
“I left the car parked in front and walked around to the porch. I had a pass key but the door was unlocked so I just pushed it open. She was lying in bed. My idea was not to hurt the kid. Ells had told me now to hurt the boy.”
Benjamin fainted. Cops revived him and he continued: “So I wanted her to sit up. I said to her, ‘wake up Merle. I want to speak to you outside quick. But she didn’t sit up.”
“Did she speak to you, say anything?” asked Filkas.
“She just whispered something–something like ‘what’s the matter.’ or like that.”
“You fired the shot then?” queried Filkas.
“No, I lost my nerve. I went back out and got in the car and drove around for a long while. Finally I got calmed down and went back again. I left the car in the same place again and went to the porch. But when I opened the door I again lost my nerve and went back and sat in the car. I got to thinking and decided I’d have to get it done quick so I went back to the porch a third time.”
“The door, I opened it and that was that, only one barrel.”
Detective Filkas and the others thought that Benjamin was going to pass out again, but he remained upright. He took a breath, and resumed his story.
“Well, anyhow you know that much of it. I was surprised I didn’t make any m ore noise myself. But I got out. I dropped the gun but held onto the flashlight. Then I got back into the car and I drove it just as fast as it would go. Just after I started, about a block away, an officer yelled to me to turn on my lights.”
After the shooting, Benjamin went home where he hid the revolver, gloves and part of his clothing in an adjoining vacant house. He abandoned the car in Huntington Park. All he had left to do was to inform Emery that the job was done and collect his blood money.
“I went to Emery where he was working in the cafe and told him that the job was done. He said another guy had the money for me. I told him to hurry up and get the cash for me quick, and he said O.K. I gave him the flashlight and revolver.”
The flashlight was discovered by Detective Lieutenant Savage in a search of Alfred Ell’s car. It was behind a cushion where Emery had shoved it during the ride home from the cafe following his shift on Sunday morning.
Captain Davidson and detectives at Central Station arranged for a dramatic, and meticulously choreographed, face-to-face meeting between the co-conspirators. Emery still didn’t know Benjamin had confessed when he was taken into the Captain’s office. When he entered the room he saw the gloves and clothes worn by Benjamin sitting on a table. Next to them sat the revolver, shotgun, and flashlight. He stopped to take it all in. His hands began to shake.
The investigators were silent in that ominous, “I know what you did” way that that all law enforcement officers seem to master. Their j’accuse look was more debilitating than a punch in the stomach. Captain Davidson didn’t speak, he merely looked at Emery and then pointed to the evidence on the table. Moments later, Benjamin was led into the room. He and Emery exchanged glances and nodded at each other. It was Emery’s turn to confess.
An hour later Captain Davidson came out of his office and announced: “Ells has made a complete confession of the whole thing. His statement corroborates in nearly every detail, except the actual killing, that of Brown.”
There was one thing that had puzzled the detectives about the night of the killing–why hadn’t Merle’s sister and brother-in-law heard anything? And how had Benjamin avoided killing the child? Apparently the baby had awakened during the night and gone into his aunt and uncle’s room to sleep. Their bedroom was separated from the glassed-in porch/abattoir by several other rooms. In the morning when the boy went to rouse his mother he became covered in her blood, and it was then that he ran screaming for help.
The confessions were exactly what the D.A. wanted–of course there is never a guaranteed outcome in a jury trial.
The stock market crash in October 1929 sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. Between 1929 and 1932 average annual incomes fell by 40% to a median of $1,500. In Los Angeles during 1930 you could buy an admission ticket to the club house at Hollywood Park for $2.20 and hope to win enough on some nag to buy dinner. Or, you could use the same money as a down payment on a contract killing.
In the few months since her interlocutory divorce decree, 22-year-old Merle Ells had been trying to piece together a new life. She and her infant son were living with her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cannon, in a bungalow at 323 E. 99th Street in Los Angeles. She had even started to date again. On the evening of November 1, 1930, she spent the evening with Clyde Shockley. Shockley operated the gas station a few doors down from where she was staying.
Merle had filed for divorce from Emery because she couldn’t take his abuse any longer. She had even found the courage to warn him that if he didn’t leave her alone she would turn him in to the police for his part in a hold-up. Emery wasn’t the type to go quietly, especially when he was in the wrong. He continued to press her for custody of their son, but there was no way she was going to allow that to happen. Emery was likely less interested in caring for a toddler than he was in trying to make Merle’s life miserable. If he couldn’t exert power over her as her husband, he could threaten her with a nasty child custody dispute.
At about 11 p.m., following her date with Clyde, Merle and her son went to bed on the sleeping porch at the front of the house. A nighttime hush fell over the house until early morning when Merle’s little boy ran into his aunt and uncle’s bedroom screaming, crying, and calling for his mother. He was covered in blood.
Merle was dead—a full charge of buckshot had entered her neck. The Los Angeles Times reported that a “rusty double-barreled weapon of obsolete design” was found near the foot of her bed where it must have been dropped by her killer. Remarkably none of the buckshot had harmed her son who had been sleeping in the bed next to her.
After they heard that Merle had charged Emery with cruelty to obtain a divorce, the police figured he was the first person they should talk to. They found the 26-year-old at the home of his brother, Alfred, at 8153 Elizabeth Street. Alfred, Emery, and two others, Ralph Molton and Oscar Powell (owner of the café where Emery was employed), were taken in for questioning by LAPD Detective Lieutenant Savage.
Emery offered his interrogators an alibi–he’d worked all night in Powell’s Cafe at Slauson and Santa Fe Avenues. Oscar Powell offered corroboration. He said that Emery was only alone for about 30 minutes during his entire shift (6 p.m. – 12 a.m.). Even so, the police held Emery in the City Jail on suspicion of murder.
Within a few days of the crime the police had a confession.
“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.
Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.
The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I will be making remarks at about 7pm.
I hope to see you there!
Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar.
The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929. The U.S. stock market collapsed with losses for the month totaling $16 billion–an astronomical sum in any age or by anyone’s measure.
By 1932 the nation’s unemployment rate was 23.6% and nearly half of all the banks that had been in business in 1929 had closed their doors. Able-bodied young men and women were having a tough time finding employment, but getting a job was especially difficult for sixty-three year old Antone Christ. He was at a time in his life when he should have been retired, not pounding the pavement looking for work.
Christ, formerly of Miami, Florida, had once been a wealthy businessman but he had lost $100,000 [equivalent to $1.5 million in today’s currency] in a bank failure. To add to his stress, the rapid mathematical calculator (in book form) that he had been attempting to market was evidently a tough sell. I’m guessing that the calculator was a sort of speed math that, once learned, would enable a person to solve fairly difficult calculations mentally–no paper, pencil, or abacus needed. Perhaps Christ’s calculator failed because the average Joe had nothing positive to enumerate. No earnings, no savings–just money going out the door.
Antone and his wife had only been married for a couple of years, and had moved to Los Angeles in 1931, presumably, as had so many others, to get a fresh start. Christ’s inability to get a job, and his constant brooding over the fortune he had lost, had made him a desperate man.
A little after 10 a.m. on February 15, 1932, August J. Martz, was in his office on the second floor of the building at 758 West Seventh Street when the door opened suddenly and a man stepped in. The man was Antone Christ and he was holding a gun.
“I thought it was a joke. He forced me to get up. Then I had to take from his pocket what appeared to be a bomb. He forced me to put it in my pocket, but wires extended from it and were attached to what appeared like a detonating contrivance he kept in his pocket. He had a sling around his neck, through which he put his hand that held the gun he kept trained upon me. In this fashion we descended the stairs and walked east on Seventh Street for nearly three blocks until we came to the Bank of America. All the time we were walking he kept cautioning me not to try any funny business; not even so much as a glance sideways. I don’t know how he knew I had an account at the Bank of America. I had never seen the man before. He told me to draw out every cent I had in the bank.”
Christ and Martz entered the bank and walked toward a teller’s window. Two bank guards, G.J. Fitzpatrick and George Constantineu, watched the pair enter and wondered what the hell was going on. Christ may have been momentarily distracted by the activity in the bank– and Martz saw an opportunity for escape. He said:
“I saw Fitzpatrick and I made up my mind to take a chance on the bomb and jump.”
When Martz made his dash the wires that connected him to Christ pulled loose. One, two, three…no explosion. On the chance that the contraption might still detonate, Martz ran to divest himself of the black cylinder he had carried in his pocket. He was relieved to discovered the cylinder was stuffed nothing but paper wadding.
Fitzpatrick and Constantineau cautiously approached Christ who had produced a nickel-plated .38 caliber pistol from his pocket and began to wave it above his head.
“Stand back; don’t touch me.”
Fitzpatrick demanded that Atone give up his weapon, but instead Antone took a step backward. He continuing to slowly move back, still holding the gun. Finally he bumped up against a counter and was forced to stop. As dozens of bank employees watched, Antone lifted the gun up to his head and fired.
Still breathing, Christ was rushed to the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital where he died on the operating table.
Detective Lieutenant Luke searched the dead man’s clothing and found 25 cents and an envelope. On the envelope was a single sentence written in pencil: