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

aggie_scene-landon-murder-1946_lasd-photo_crop

Aggie at a crime scene in the 1940s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

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

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

dirtyharry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

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

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

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

ramirez_108a

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

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

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving?

jail menu

Most people spend Thanksgiving week overeating turkey, stuffing and pie and overspending at the Black Friday sales. This week Deranged L.A. Crimes takes a look at the dark side of Thanksgiving. The robberies, burglaries, and occasional homicides. While they may not celebrate the holiday like the rest of us, the miscreants are only human and their bad behavior doesn’t mean that they don’t crave a sumptuous meal–even if it’s served to them in a jail cell.

***

If you’re curious, and you know that you are, here’s the Thanksgiving Day menu for Los Angeles County Jail in 1919 as prepared by Captain George Ganagner and the jail chef:

Soup — Cream of Tomato
Celery Hearts
Ripe Olives
Garden Radishes
Baked fresh ham
Cauliflower
Candied sweet potatoes
Combination salad — Thousand Island dressing
Spiced Plum Pudding
Fresh Apple Pie
Coffee
French rolls — bread and butter

Among the people to enjoy the feast were Lewis B. Harris. Harris, convicted of looting the First National Bank of Artesia.  Harris was sitting in the slammer awaiting an appeal. Joining Harris was M.P. McDonald, wife killer, who was waiting to find out if he’d go to prison for life or hang; James Cameron, convicted of second degree murder waiting on his appeal; Matthew Joseph who pleaded guilty to a charge of second degree murder, and Mrs. Ella R. Kehr who was accused of assisting in the murder of a woman friend in Hotchkiss, Colorado.

Other diners included several suspected killers, a con-artist, an extortionist, and a forger. Can you imagine the dinner conversation?

Next time: More Thanksgiving mayhem.

The Boos Cruise, Conclusion

cassie boosBy early August 1916, Cassie Boos and Naomi Ernst had been locked in mortal legal combat for weeks. Cassie had accused Naomi of attempting to extort money from her; Naomi accused Cassie of trying to steal her husband from her. Neither woman seemed willing to give an inch, at least if what their attorneys told the reporters was true.

E.E. Ernst, the man in the middle of the embarrassing skirmish, was trying to diffuse the situation, or maybe he was just trying to get released from police custody, when he signed an affidavit denying that he or his wife were involved in a plot to blackmail Cassie Boos, and he also vehemently denied that Mrs. Boos had made an effort to alienate his affection from his wife.

Naomi won the first round when Judge Richardson sustained the demurrer to the complaint against her, in which she was accused of attempting to extort $15,000 from Cassie Boos.  The judge’s action automatically dismissed the charge; however, it was stipulated that the prosecution could, if it desired, file an amended complaint.naomi

It is difficult to say who blinked first, but on August 16, 1916, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cassie’s attorneys, Morton, Behymer, Craig and Salzman stated that an agreement had been reached by the waring parties, and that Mrs. Boos was going to withdraw the criminal complaint she’d filed against Naomi.

Maybe a good faith sign from Cassie was all the incentive Naomi needed to drop her suit too. Naomi even went so far as to admit that she’d been misled and deceived by a few of Cassie’s enemies who urged her to bring the suit.  Who the enemies were and how they came across Naomi wasn’t revealed in the papers. Naomi (as her mother had earlier advised her to do) agreed to return to Cassie the letters that she had written to E.E. during the summer of 1915.

By the end of August 1916, the combatants had negotiated a peace treaty–but it lasted for only a couple of months.

sues boosE.E. must have spent the time from August to October ruminating over the claims and counterclaims that had resulted in his arrest and seven day detainment in the City Jail–because on October 13, 1916 his attorney, Daniel M. Hidey, filed a false arrest suit against Cassie Boos on behalf of his client.

The newspapers took the opportunity to rehash some of the more humiliating moments of the alienation of affection claim against Cassie. To buttress her argument that Cassie had attempted to steal her spouse, Naomi had produced letters from Cassie to E.E. in which she addressed him as “The Duke of Catalina”, “My Sweetheart” and “My Dear”.   A disclosure of this kind would have been bad enough for anyone, but for the wife of a wealthy and respected man it had to have been devastating.

Through his attorney E.E. stated that he had suffered damages amounting to $60,796 (equivalent to $1.3M in today’s dollars) due to his false arrest.  He had spent seven days in jail where he declared he was made ill after being subjected to a “third degree” interrogation by detectives.  Further, according to E.E., Cassie knew he was innocent when she swore to the complaint charging him with blackmail.

Daniel M. Hidey submitted an itemized list of damages to the court:

“Seven days in jail, lost time at $3 day, $21; legal counsel, $150, securing above sum he sacrificed property valued at $300; seventy-five days lost by reason of arrest, $225; illness caused by “third degree” required medical services, $100; injury to feeling and loss of pride, $10,000; general damages, $25,000; punitive damages, $25,000.”

Cassie Boos’ attorney, Ona Morton, issued a unequivocal denial of the charges, alleging Cassie was the victim of a conspiracy to extort money from her.

Mr. Morton said:

“Mr. Ernst has no just claim against Mrs. Boos for false arrest and we will show that, by his own statements, Mrs. Boos was fully justified in causing his arrest on the charge she did.  There was no malice in the charge.”

Unfortunately, there was no further mention of the Ernst vs. Boos lawsuit in the L.A. Times so I don’t know if E.E. emerged triumphant. My guess is that the lawsuit went nowhere; I can’t imagine that the L.A. Times would not have reported on such a large settlement, if there had been one.

henry boos deathI don’t know how E.E. and Naomi fared in the months and years following the lawsuits; but the Boos’ marriage survived another four decades beyond Cassie’s brief infatuation with “The Duke of Catalina”. Henry passed away at age 78 at his home on Plymouth Blvd in April 1957. He had retired in 1946. He was survived by his widow Cassie, brother Cyrus and four married sisters. Services for the cafeteria pioneer were conducted in Grace Chapel, Inglewood Park Cemetery.

The Boos Cruise

In 1905 the four Boos brothers, Henry, Cyrus, Horace and John moved to Los Angeles from Moscow, Ohio with a dream of opening their own cafeteria. Cafeterias were a new concept in those days; in fact the term hadn’t even been coined until 1893 when John Kruger opened an eatery in Chicago modeled on European smorgasbords.

Boss Brother Cafeteria c. 1934 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Boss Brother Cafeteria c. 1934 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The brothers had worked in restaurants in New York and St. Louis and they were drawn to Los Angeles, as were so many others from the East and Midwest, because of its weather and the opportunity to create something completely new.

Angelenos loved the cafeterias, they offered a multitude of choices and, even better, you didn’t have to tip! By 1916 the brothers were operating four cafeterias downtown.

00037577_boos bros xmas dinner 1934

Cassie Altherr arrived in Los Angeles a few years after the Boos brothers. Cassie’s husband, William, trained and showed Shetland ponies and was involved in what was referred to as the “amusement” business–I read that to mean carnivals and/or circuses. William may have been good with horses, but he was a miserable husband. The pair had married in 1902 in Alton, Illinois, but the union lasted for only a few years before William deserted Cassie. At least he left her stranded in Los Angeles–not the worst fate that could have befallen her.

In September 1910, Cassie sought to divorce her spouse on the grounds of desertion. Cassie testified that William wasn’t a total deadbeat, he had sent her regular checks–usually accompanied by a terse note:

“Cassie, Please find enclosed check for $35.”

The judge asked her if that sort of abbreviated communication was typical of William’s correspondence, and she said that it was. The judge said:

“Well, they are brief and to the point, but they are not examples of the missive a man would send to his wife if he really cared for her.”

Cassie won her divorce.

Cassie remained in Los Angeles; and it isn’t clear how she and the cafeteria magnate met but they married on March 20, 1912. The wedding, a small affair, was covered the next day in the Society page of the L.A Times:

“Miss Cassie Altherr, daughter of Mrs. Mary Green of Kingsley Drive was married yesterday, to Henry Boos, a young business man of the city. Rev. J. M. Schaefle read the ceremony at the Hotel Alexandria, in the presence of twenty-four guests. The room was aglow with bride roses, and where the young people stood a forest of palms was effective.
Luncheon was served from a table, enhanced with a beautiful centerpiece of bride roses. A three months’ trip through Florida, Cuba and the East will be enjoyed before making this city their home.”

Only a few weeks into their honeymoon Cassie and Henry, along with the rest of the world, would hear the news that the luxury vessel Titanic had gone down in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean just four days into her maiden voyage. They must have felt fortunate knowing that, even if they had wanted to, they would never have been able to make it to Southampton, England in time to take the cruise.

The newlyweds returned from their extensive trip in June and eventually made their home in a palatial mansion on Gramercy Place.

Other than an occasional mention in the society pages the Boos appear to have led a quiet life. But this is Deranged L.A. Crimes, so you know that quiet domesticity never lasts.

On June 24, 1916, LAPD detectives Raymond and Canto, and a private detective named Blair, went to the small home of Naomi and Erwin Ernst at 1321 1/2 W. 25th Street. The Ernst home was about two miles and two million light years away from the Boos mansion.

The police had a warrant issued by Judge Richardson to arrest Naomi and Erwin for being members of a blackmail gang that was said to have extorted large sums of money from well-known businessmen and their wives over the course of about six months. A complaint had been signed by Cassie Boos alleging that the Ernsts had attempted to extort money from her.

blackmail headlineNaomi told the detectives that the charges against she and Erwin were absurd. She said she wasn’t a blackmailer at all, in fact she was a wronged woman. She said she was going to name Mrs. Boos in a $50,000 alienation of affection (heart balm) suit.

Erwin, who was cooling his heels in the City Jail, was more than willing to talk about what he considered to be a misunderstanding. He backed up Naomi’s claim that neither of them were blackmailers; however, he said that his wife had recently come into possession of some overly friendly letters sent to him the previous summer by Mrs. Boos, and therein was the problem.

Apparently, in August 1915 Erwin had been employed by the Catalina Excursion Company as a boatman and he had met Cassie and several of her wealthy friends when they hired the boat he piloted for an outing. It may only have been a day cruise, but apparently Erwin made quite an impression on the ladies.

Erwin said:

“I met Mrs. Henry Boos and several other ladies on an excursion and extended every courtesy; these ladies seemed to appreciate the kindness extended to them and I later received several letters from them manifesting their interest in me and their intention to help me.”

Erwin claimed that he and Naomi had separated a couple of months prior to his meeting Cassie, so there was no way that the cafeteria owner’s wife could have been responsible for alienating him from Naomi. He maintained that the correspondence from Cassie was innocent,  and certainly not intended to rupture his already rocky marriage.naomi

By December 1915, Naomi and Erwin had resolved their differences and resumed their marriage; that was until the letters surfaced. Like most daughters in a similar situation, Naomi sought the counsel of her mother, Mrs. L.C. Osborne, a former Long Beach osteopath.

Mrs. Osborne protested her daughter’s innocence to the detectives and recalled her advice to her offspring:

“When my daughter obtained those letters from her husband, last December, I advised her to take them to Mrs. Boos and have it out with her and return them without resorting to any legal action.”

Good advice that had fallen on deaf ears.

Cassie’s attorney’s tried to spin the case as an egregious attempt by two sinister individuals to perpetrate a crime against their client:

“We regret exceedingly that there has been any publicity of this case. The facts unquestionably show that a certain coterie of people deliberately planned and purposely acted to extort money by blackmail from our client. We are prepared to prove this beyond any question from many sources.”

“Unfortunately, blackmailing in Los Angeles is becoming a fad.”

They continued:

“In this instance they (the alleged blackmailers) have found one who has been strong enough to meet the light of publicity full in the face, for the sake of exposing the attempt that has been made to extort money from her, and the authorities, after a careful investigation are now bringing justice to the instigators of this nefarious plot.”

Nefarious plot? Maybe. Maybe not.

The attorneys for both sides traded barbs in the newspaper, but it was tough to tell who was in the right. Were Naomi and Erwin blackmailers–was Cassie a home wrecker; and who would emerge victorious once the smoke cleared?

NEXT TIME: The Boos Cruise continues.

Happy Birthday!

year end wrap up cake

Deranged L.A. Crimes is one year old!

When I began this blog just over a year ago I had no idea that it would be as well received as it has been. My goal was simple, I wanted to entertain people while pursuing my passion for Los Angeles history through its crimes. I hoped that along the way I’d find a few like minded people who love Los Angeles history and crime as much as I do. Over the past twelve months the blog has exceeded my wildest dreams and has given me an opportunity to play hostess to approximately 250,000 visitors! It is gratifying, and humbling, to have been able to reach so many people.

I’ve gotten to know many of you over the past year through your comments and I have found that your knowledge of everything from forgotten L.A. lore to film noir trivia is encyclopedic. I have heard from readers in law enforcement as well as from fellow historians and writers. I’ve been contacted by the families of both victims and perpetrators who played a part in some of the crimes I have covered. I’ve even had readers from a couple of L.A.’s oldest street gangs seeking to find their place in the city’s crime history.

It appears that 2014 may be an even more exciting year for Deranged L.A. Crimes than 2013 has been (if that’s possible). In addition to a book of crime scene photos that I’ve been working on with the Los Angeles Police Museum (narrative written by non other than the Demon Dog himself, James Ellroy) I am currently working on a Deranged L.A. Crimes book. I don’t have any lectures scheduled for 2014 yet, but I hope to. Bringing historic L.A. crimes to life in a lecture is something I love to do.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions please feel free to contact me, I’d love to hear from you.

I wish all of you a very happy new year, and I thank you for your readership!

Best,

Joan

The Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings, Conclusion

barret trial beginsBenton Barrett had confessed to the murders of his wife Irene and his stepson Raymond, but was he guilty? His confession had lacked crucial details and he appeared to have been so highly suggestible during his interrogation by the Santa Monica police that he was willing to admit to anything they tried to pin on him.

Benton’s courtroom demeanor reflected his inability to appreciate his predicament. He was at times befuddled and could be heard chuckling for no apparent reason, and at other times he chanted psalms or nodded off.

BARRETT CHANTS_EDIT2It was fortunate for Barrett that his attorney had found two girls, Oteil McIntosh and Thelma King, who could testify to having seen the alleged murder victims alive and well long after their bones were supposed to have been pitched into a cesspool by Benton.

barrett_witnesses_edit

On the witness stand Oteil told a packed courtroom how she had seen Raymond Wright driving a woman fitting the description of Irene Barrett in an automobile. She had shouted a greeting to the boy: “Hello, Ray”, and he’d answered: “Hello, Oteil. Then he had reached forward to shift the car into gear and speed away.

Oteil was acquainted with Raymond because they attended school together and he’d even come to her home and played football with her brothers!

Thelma took the stand and corroborated Oteil’s testimony. She said that the two of them had been out walking and the encounter with Raymond happened exactly as Oteil had testified. When asked what she had said after the car had passed, Thelma said that she had remarked that Raymond wasn’t a very handsome boy and Oteil had agreed — then they shared a laugh.

The defense had struck gold with the girls and then did equally well with three unpaid alienists who declared Barrett to be a complete lunatic. The accused was described as a “…man-vegetable, a hopeless victim of senile dementia, human only in frame, still in touch with human kind by occasionally reaching islands of sanity in his mental realm.” A very bleak picture to be sure.barrett veg_edit

Dr. Hay Rochester offered his opinion that despite the worries and stress of a murder trial, Barrett had managed to gain quite a bit of weight which he stated was clear evidence of the man’s insanity!

Another of the shrinks described Barrett as a “week, susceptible, mentally depraved old man” and went on to say that Barrett was unquestionably insane, and could easily have been convinced that he had murdered his wife and stepson.

Of course the only opinions that mattered were those of the twelve citizens in the jury box. They deliberated for hours and it appeared that they would not be able to reach a verdict. They requested clarification on a few points of law then retreated behind closed doors. It took them close to thirty and one-half hours before they concluded that Benton Barrett was not guilty by reason of insanity.

Upon hearing the verdict read, Barrett began to sob then he shouted:

“I ain’t crazy. I ain’t crazy, and I hadn’t ought to go to Patton with them crazy people. I ain’t crazy. But God will surely take care of an old man like me.”

alive headline

In March 1927 a local newspaper reported that Delia B. Rawson, a long time friend of Irene Barrett’s, had recently received a letter postmarked in Canada supposedly written by the dead woman!

Rawson said:

“The letter was mailed from a familiar town Canada. It mentioned briefly the place on Santa Monica Boulevard where the double murder is supposed to have taken place, but there was no mention of the circumstances.”

“Mrs. Barrett did say that the tow-headed boy, meaning her son Raymond, who then was a schoolboy, had grown into manhood and was ‘a great comfort to her now.'”

“The letter,” Mrs. Rawson said, “added that Mrs. Barrett was leaving the town from which it was mailed. It was signed Irene, which was Mrs. Barrett’s first name, and I am positive it was in her handwriting which I know very well.”

If Irene and Raymond were alive, and it certainly appeared that they were, some important questions would likely go unanswered forever. What did Irene gain by running off? Perhaps the most vexing question was whose bones were found in the cesspool?

Irene Barrett and Raymond Wright

Irene Barrett and Raymond Wright

When Benton Barrett was given the news that Irene and Raymond had been reported alive in Canada, he said:

“I have always thought the Lord would take care of me. He never has failed. I always believed this thing would clear itself up, and now I am convinced that it will.”

Dr. J.M. Webster, superintendent of Patton, the institution in which Barrett had spent nearly a decade following his trial, declared that the man was “competent, with some peculiarities.”

I believe that describes us all.

The Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings, Part 2

BARRETT BREAKS DOWN_resize

Facing a bucketful of bones (left to right): Chief of Police F.W. Ferguson of Santa Monica; Benton L. Barrett; Assistant Chief of Police Sidney Holt, Santa Monica; Capt. J.D. Hunter of D.A.’s office, and Lt. Clarence Webb, Santa Monica police.

In custody for the murders of his wife Irene and his stepson Raymond, Benton Barrett told the cops that only way he could banish the mental picture of the crime was to stare at a photo of his wife — the small likeness of her he kept in his watch case.

“She comes to me in the night and I get out her picture to drive away the apparition. I do not dream, it is only when I am awake that I can see her. If I can keep this picture it will help me.”

For hours during his interrogation Barrett insisted to the cops that he could not explain how the remains of his wife and stepson got into the cesspool. Then, suddenly, his memory improved:

“Yes, I remember now how it all happened. I was frightened. I passed that pile of charred bones and they seemed to watch me, seemed to cry out against me.”

When he’d finished confessing Barrett looked at the investigators who were grouped around him at a table and he said:

“Well, boys, anything else I can enlighten your minds on?”

Barrett’s defense attorney, Lewis D. Collings, and Capt. H.L. Zimmer, an investigator, didn’t believe the man’s confession for one minute. According to Collings and Zimmer there were several people, principally his wife Irene, who had schemed to pray on Barrett’s weakened mind for the sole purpose of profit. Allegedly the conspirators expected Benton either to be sent to the gallows or to end his own life.barrett death scene

Collings offered facts to support his belief in Benton’s innocence. Collings said that Barrett had been senile for months and was about to have a guardian appointed — which would have conveniently gotten him out of the way; Barrett confessed to the murder but was so weak-minded that he changed his story each time the detectives suggested another possibility; and the fire in which Barrett said he’d burned the bodies wasn’t long enough to contain his wife’s body.

Barrett’s attorney went on to say that the bones found in the outhouse had not been there on the Saturday following the fire, yet in his confession Benton had stated he’d put the bones in cesspool on Friday! Additionally, the bones in the outhouse were bleached by the sun; the marrow remained intact and had not been not melted away as it should have been if subjected to heat, and the bones were also free of flesh.

A case as bizarre and highly publicized as Barrett’s attracts every nutcase for miles. Among the assorted wackos was a dowser using one of Irene’s gloves and one of Raymond’s shirts wrapped around his dowsing wand — he was seeking their remains and not the perfect place to drill for water. The man went to the barn where the murders were believed to have occurred, then he went out to Topanga Canyon and somehow convinced a detective to dig an acre of land to expose the bodies of Irene and Richard — nothing was found.

In a letter to the editor Mr. W.D. Turner of Long Beach offered an analysis of the case. He believed that the murders were committed, but that Barrett had help in disposing of the bodies. He went on at length to describe how bones can reveal to whom they belonged in life.

An astrologer who lived near Barrett’s home said that all Scorpios like Barrett:

“…will think no more of committing a murder than a tiger does.” He is the kind to send poisoned candy in the mail.”

barrett victims aliveDisturbing reports that Irene had been planning to disappear and take some of Benton’s money with her began to surface. Two days prior to her disappearance Irene had purchased new clothes for herself and her son — she’d also bought a suitcase.  Barrett’s attorney announced that there would be a $1000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Irene and Raymond. Witnesses came forward and stated that they’d seen the supposed murder victims in San Diego, but investigators couldn’t locate the mother and son if, in fact, they were still alive.

Barrett’s original attorneys withdrew from the case claiming that they were not being provided with a sufficient number of investigators and experts to mount a vigorous defense. In all seven attorneys would join, then depart, the defense team. By April 1917 only one attorney remained, Ona W. Morton.

During jury selection Barrett chanted hymns and kept a meticulous account of the number of glasses of water he consumed — 70 in one day.

As jury selection continued a small girl, about two years old, entered the courtroom alone and struggled with the gate to the trial area. As the gate swung open the tot fell on her face and Benton jumped up and reached out for her. The bailiff, Martin Aguirre, grabbed the man and and chastened him:

“Get back there! Remember you are a prisoner in this court, accused of burning your wife and stepson. Never leave your seat like that again.”

Barrett burst into tears.

Barrett’s trial drew a SRO crowd every day. Defense attorney Morton argued that there was no evidence that Irene Barrett or her son Raymond Wright were dead, let alone murdered, and the jury must acquit his client.

Would the jury agree with Morton?

NEXT TIME: The conclusion of the Santa Monica Cesspool Murders

The Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings

barrett confesses

Benton L. Barrett (65) hadn’t known Irene (45) for very long before he married her in San Diego in 1914. Irene had been keen on a brief courtship and Benton happily demurred — after all, he was in love. Irene didn’t want to rush to the altar because she was crazy in love with Benton — far from it. She was working a badger game on him. Benton had signed over a one-half interest in his 5 acre property, plus $25,000 ($584,000 in current dollars), to Irene before they ever strolled down the aisle!

Irene wasn’t the only person with a vested interest in Benton’s money and property. While still a newlywed Irene claimed that Benton’s cousin, Charles (an attorney), had it in for her and was spreading rumors about her extra-marital affairs. Unfortunately for Irene, they weren’t rumors. Charles had hired a private investigator to shadow Irene and the PI uncovered evidence of Irene’s infidelity.

Benton remained unconvinced of his wife’s duplicity until he was introduced to Mr. George Forbes. George produced 31 letters, all of them racy (and some of them obscene) written by his randy correspondent Irene – who frequently signed herself as “Your Loving Wife…”

Was Benton’s jealousy enough to drive him to commit murder?

On October 18th Irene and her 17 year old son Raymond Wright suddenly vanished.

Two days after Irene and Raymond had disappeared Benton went to his attorney and confessed to the murders. He told a grisly tale:

“I now feel my wife and stepson plotted to kill me. Last Wednesday morning my wife and I quarreled bitterly over a bundle of 31 letters she wrote to George Forbes. I had read the letters and I was insanely jealous. Jealousy robs a man of life and the desire to live. I was insane and she was angry, angry at being found out.”

“After breakfast the boy picked up his cap and started out the front door. My wife followed him and they talked for a long time in the hall. I did not hear what they were saying but I know now they were plotting to kill me. I went out to the yard, started a rubbish fire and she followed. I went into the stable and she came there with a knife. The boy followed her. I killed them both and took their bodies to the fire, where I tried to burn them up. At 3:30 o’clock I stopped feeding the flames. There was a pile of embers that looked like a grave. I pulled at this pile with a branch of a peach tree and exposed the bodies. They glowed redly in the embers and I covered them over.”

Benton told the lawyer that he had obsessively tended the fire, then on Friday night he removed the skulls and long bones and threw them in the cesspool. Just like Lady Macbeth he compulsively washed his hands, but of course they wouldn’t come clean.

seeking clues

Benton claimed self-defense and said that he had been driven to murder due to the various legal battles going on in the family. He said after he’d burned the bodies he had lapsed into a three day daze.

Cops went to the property and found a small amount of burned bones and teeth in a backyard funeral pyre. Then they began to eyeball the cesspool under the outhouse — maybe  it held a clue to the alleged murders.

Cops inventoried the cesspool and found:

  • 14 vertebrae
  • Portions of tibia, fibula, pelvic, femur and toe bones
  • 1 buckle from the side of a boy’s trousers
  • A shoulder socket bone
  • Portions of a skull, mostly female
  • A cheek bone
  • Orbital cavity of an eye
  • Seven blue sweater buttons (ID’d as from Irene’s sweater)
  • Three brown buttons from a boy’s coat
  • Several 22 caliber bullets

Hundreds of people circled the property and watched as police pulled several bloodied weapons from a barn. But Benton’s confession had developed some major holes. Many believed that the 65 year old man wasn’t capable of doing all of the heavy lifting involved in the killings without help – and there wasn’t a hint of an accomplice. Besides, there weren’t enough bones found to have made two complete adult skeletons.  It was also troubling was that Benton seemed to be highly suggestible and changed his story based on what police would show him and tell him. Then there were the supposed sightings of Irene and Raymond which had begun within hours of their alleged murders!

barrett_murderer

Unfortunately for Benton, neither his mental state, nor the sightings of his “victims”, would be enough to keep him from being tried for a double homicide.

NEXT TIME:  The tale of the Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings continues.

Death By Dermatology, Conclusion

steele noseIf you were a resident of Los Angeles during the 1910s or 1920s it would have been simple for you to locate a beauty doctor. Beauty doctors were rarely, if ever, actual physicians, they were practitioners of dubious skill, training, and ethics, and they advertised relentlessly in the personal columns of the local newspapers.

One of the many beauty doctors advertising her skills to Angelenos seeking to improve their looks was Gertrude Steele. Steele called herself a doctor but she was not a medical doctor, nor was she a doctor of philosophy, she was a registered naturopath.

Steele’s registration as a naturopath meant very little at that time because there were few regulations to which such a practitioner had to adhere. The lack of oversight many times resulted in disfigurement or death for the patients unlucky enough to be worked over by a scalpel wielding faux doctor.steele before after

Steele had caused the death of her son-in-law, George Blaha, who had only wanted his freckles removed — what he got instead was a premature death. Steele had administered an overdose of chloroform to ease the excruciating pain she’d caused him with the freckle removal procedure.

As a result of the botched operation on George, Gertrude’s naturopath license was revoked. There were a few months when it looked as though Gertrude would be held accountable for her son-in-law’s death, but her attorney successfully argued before the California State Supreme Court that Steele had the right to perform the procedure on George because the Legislature had not defined what her license permitted her to do! Steele’s license was restored and she was swiftly back in business!

But the LAPD, the State Board of Medical Examiners, and the District Attorney weren’t satisfied with the outcome in George’s case, and when another of Steele’s patients died it prompted a more thorough investigation.

steele licenseMrs. Christina Leslie was 67 years old and was seeking to restore the “youthful bloom” to her face as promised in Gertrude Steele’s ads. Instead of having her youth restored, Mrs. Leslie died of blood poisoning.

For many weeks the cause of Mrs. Leslie’s death was known only to a few of her closest friends — no autopsy had been performed. Finally the circumstances surrounding her demise reached the ears of Chief of Detectives George Home who ordered an immediate investigation.

Detectives discovered scores of Gertrude Steele’s patients, male and female, who had reported to the State Board of Medical Examiners that they had been mutilated and disfigured for life by Dr. Steele’s facial lotions and by her scalpel.steele_indicted

Gertrude Steele had never had a single day of instruction in surgery and her incompetence had lead to countless deformations and several deaths. Steele’s daughter, Mrs. Solomon, had acted as her mother’s assistant in all of her operations — it appears that Mr. Steele was no longer part of the practice — although it isn’t clear what happened to him. Solomon didn’t have any medical training either, although she appeared to have some compassion for the victims of her mother’s ineptness. She described the post-surgery horror that Mrs. Leslie endured:

“A few days after the operation, Mrs. Leslie came back. Infection had begun in the incisions. She remained at my mother’s house for ten days and all that time I begged my mother to call in a physician. But she would not. She would take the top of my head off for butting in and all the time she was trying to treat Mrs. Leslie who appealed more to the divine powers to help her rather that her own common sense.”

Mrs. Emma Graham, a close friend of Christina’s, arrived at Steele’s clinic and once she saw the condition her friend was in she promptly had her removed. But instead of taking her to a hospital, Christina was transferred to Emma’s home — where at least
she was under the care of a certified physician. Mrs. Graham told cops:

“I learned that Mrs. Leslie was in a bad condition and that she was being kept at Mrs. Steele’s house. I went to see her, I found her reclining on a window seat. Her face was in a terrible condition and her clothing was all bloody. I had her removed to my home.”

“At my home Mrs. Leslie grew worse each day. She told me Dr. Steele had performed the operation. Terrible abscesses were appearing all over her and she complained of pains in her swollen hands.”

Dr. James Reeve Dean, the physician who attended Mrs. Leslie for the last few weeks of her life told investigators:

“I found two incisions had been made upon Mrs. Leslie’s head. These incisions began at the hairline on the forehead and each extended downward and along the side of the face, in front of the ears and then curved back behind the ears. Upon Mrs. Leslie’s neck I found an ugly abscess, filled with infected matter with a drain at the top of the abscess instead of at the bottom where it should have been. The incisions on the forehead had left ugly wounds. Pyemia had set in and had centered on one of the patients hips and upon one of her hands, which was swollen to twice its normal size.”

After three long weeks of unbearable pain, Mrs. Leslie succumbed to blood poisoning. In Dr. Dean’s opinion the cause of Mrs. Leslie’s death had been infection due to the dirty conditions in the  surgery in which the facelift had been performed.

Investigators turned up the names of other people who had suffered at Mrs. Steele’s hands:

  • Michael Goane, 19, who died in Dr. Steele’s office while undergoing treatment for the removal of a scar from his cheek.
  • Martin J. Colbert, from San Francisco, who came to his death from shock caused by a carbolic acid application and anesthetic treatment.
  • Miss Pauline Hall, motion picture actress, won a judgement of $2500 against Dr. Steele for the mutilation of her face. Miss Hall testified in court that her lower lip had been “frozen” and that while Dr. Steele performed the operation the doctor communed with the Universe and prayed for the success of the operation.
  • Arthur Carew, had an operation for a hump nose. Dr. Steele cut a piece from his nose, cut strips of flesh from each temple and severed an artery which she first attempted to close with her fingers, later attempting to stop the flow of blood by prayer. Fortunately for Carew he was taken to a hospital and survived his ordeal.
  • Miss I. Vogel, formerly employed at the Ambassador Beauty Parlors reported that her face had been mutilated in an unsatisfactory nose operation.

The list of people maimed or killed by Steele seemed to be endless. One of Steele’s patients said that the doctor requested all of her patients sign a form absolving her from any after-effects of her operations:

“I hereby certify that the operation and subsequent treatment to be performed upon me is at my own request and I hereby absolve Dr. G.D. Steele and Company from all responsibility from any results therefrom.”

For her part, Dr. Steele advertised:

“The work is done conscientiously, with perfect technical skill in feature correcting under Divine Guidance. God does the healing.”

gertrude steel picFinally in October 1924, Gertrude Steele was indicted for manslaughter in the death of Mrs. Christina Leslie. When cops went to pick Steele up all they found was a “For Rent” sign on her property and her daughter, Mrs. Solomon, whom she had apparently left behind without a thought. Solomon said:

“She left me penniless and ill and with all of her own troubles to contend with — bill collectors, complaints from her patients and such. I am glad the investigation was made. It has taken a great burden of worry and sorrow from my mind. I feel so much better now.”

Solomon continued:

“She is my mother, but I believe, as the authorities believe, that she should be stopped from continuing with this work of which she has no scientific knowledge.”

Gertrude Steele’s license to practice naturopathy was revoked, but it didn’t matter — she was nowhere to be found. At last, in January 1925 she was discovered living in Oberhausen, Germany. California requested Gertrude Steele’s extradition, but I have not yet been able to find out if she was ever returned to the U.S. to face justice.german poster

Chilling, isn’t it, that a person could butcher people with impunity. I suspect that Gertrude Steele found herself quite at home in Germany during the mid-1920s, because by 1925 Adolf Hitler had begun his ascendancy to power.