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.

Death By Dermatology, Part 1

The hypodermic needle was invented in 1854 and the first effective local anesthetic was cocaine, which was used in an eye surgery in 1884. Those discoveries, and the many others that followed, paved the way for modern doctors to perform surgeries and other invasive medical procedures that patients could actually hope to survive.

The first facelift is said to have been performed by Eugen Hollander in 1901 in Berlin on an elderly Polish aristocrat who wanted her cheeks and the corners of her mouth lifted. The
surgery was successful and the patient was reportedly pleased with the outcome. The first textbook on facial cosmetic surgery was written by Charles Miller of Chicago and was
entitled: The Correction of Featural Imperfections (1907).

Allisvanity

“All Is Vanity” [1892] by Charles A. Gilbert

Legitimate medical professionals and their patients benefited from scientific advancements but sadly criminals also found a way to profit.

For decades medical quacks have made their homes in Los Angeles. The degree to which they have believed their own advertising has varied —  some of the practitioners may have been sincere and deluded, while others have undoubtedly been conniving and cynical seeking only to separate gullible Angelenos from their cash.

By the early 1900s personal ads in the local newspapers hyperbolized the wonders of modern medical science for the removal of pimples, wrinkles, crows feet, double chins, thin necks and superfluous hair. One ad exclaimed:

“Premature Ugliness is a Crime which has its effect on coming generations.”

I have no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean, but presumably answers could be found at the Cosmetic Surgery Company in the Johnson Building at the corner of Fourth and Broadway.

Among the early practitioners of cosmetic procedures in Los Angeles were Professor David and Mme. Gertrude Steele. This advertisement for their services appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 21, 1907:

gertrudesteele_ad

It seemed that there was no dermatological miracle the Steele’s couldn’t perform — that is until March 1908 when they permanently disfigured Mrs. G.W. Du Bois.

Mrs. Du Bois said that she’d read the Steele’s advertisement which guaranteed the harmless removal of wrinkles and spots from the face, and filling in of hollows by a unique chemical substance. The Steele’s promised a refund if their work was unsatisfactory, so what did she have to lose?

A money back guarantee for a medical procedure wouldn’t inspire confidence in me, but Mrs. Du Bois went ahead with a visit to the Steele’s downtown clinic.

A few days following her treatment lumps had formed on either side of Mrs. Du Bois’ nose, on top of it, and on the left side of her neck. She found it impossible to lie down at night, was in constant pain, and was informed by doctors that the lumps could not be safely removed. Arsenic, prescribed to cure the facial spots, affected Mrs. Du Bois’ health so adversely that the roots of her eyebrows were burned out.

In her lawsuit the injured woman stated that she was permanently disfigured and her health was ruined. She requested $1000 [approximately $26,000 in current U.S. dollars] in damages and the refund of her original payment of $100.

During the one day hearing in Judge Hutton’s court, Mrs. Du Bois and the Steele’s each presented their side of the case. Mrs. Du Bois spoke of the pain and suffering she had endured, while Gertrude Steele insisted that the disfigured woman was attempting to extort money from them.

steele_disfigure

Judge Hutton ruled against the Steele’s and they were required to pay Mrs. Du Bois every penny she had asked for in her suit. The injured woman went home to her life of constant pain and deformation, and the Steele’s remained in business. In fact Mrs. Steele continued to deliver lectures on “How to Remain Young Forever”.

Either the Steele’s managed not to disfigure anyone else for the next decade or no one who had been harmed came forward because there was nary peep out of them, except for their advertisements, until 1919.

In December 1919, Gertrude Steele (who by that time was calling herself a doctor) killed her son-in-law George Blaha with an accidental overdose of chloroform. The “doctor” had administered the anesthetic to ease the pain caused by the mixture of chloroform and carbolic acid she had used in an attempt to remove freckles from his face.

Maybe the so-called doctor would be held to answer in criminal court for the death of her son-in-law. Maybe not.

NEXT TIME: Dr. Gertrude Steele’s reign of error continues.