Bad Girls 101

I’m going to turn my attention away from female victims for the time being because I want to focus on the bad girls of L.A.; but before I dig in to individual cases, I want to provide a little background on women behaving badly.

For a wildly entertaining glimpse into female felons behind bars, I highly recommend the 1933 film “Ladies They Talk About”. In fact, let’s consider it as a tutorial for Bad Girls 101.

No Los Angeles jail records exist from the early 1850s until 1888. In February 1888 it was recorded that there were 213 men in jail and only 3 women. The women who were most likely to have been arrested were prostitutes, called “soiled doves”.

Working girls came to the attention of social reformers more often than jailers, and so it went for years. However, the number of female inmates in Los Angeles continued to rise through the 1910s into the 1920s.

In 1926 the new Hall of Justice opened, and prisoners were transferred to the jail that was located on the 9th through the 15th floors. By 1927 the 181 female inmates had outgrown their accommodations on the 13th floor, and the roof chapel had to be converted to a dormitory to handle the overflow.

Hall of Justice, showing Broadway and Temple St. elevations. Old Hall of Justice showing its south elevation is seen in lower right background, behind county jail.  [LAPL Photo]

Hall of Justice, showing Broadway and Temple St. elevations. Old Hall of Justice showing its south elevation is seen in lower right background, behind county jail. [LAPL Photo]

In its early days California didn’t have a women’s prison, so the ladies did their time in San Quentin.

The problems with incarcerating women in a primarily male facility are overwhelming. The 17th century English poet Richard Lovelace said:

“Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.”

Stone walls and iron bars also make lousy prophylactics.

In the 1870s a female inmate, Nellie Maguire (who’d been convicted of grand larceny) became pregnant while incarcerated at San Quentin. The father of her child was likely a favored inmate who was given free run of the prison.

In 1901 prison reform in California was getting attention from women’s groups, temperance unions, and politicians. It took a couple of decades, and some bitter political battles, but finally in April 1927 the state legislature passed the reformatory bill which authorized $25,000 for site selection for a women’s facility. After months of work a 1,683 acre site in the Tehachapi Mountains was selected for the California Institution for Women.

In August 1933 the first contingent of twenty-eight prisoners left San Quentin for Tehachapi. Finally, in November 1933, all 134 San Quentin women were in their new quarters.

monahanThe Superintendent of Tehachapi in the mid/late 1930s was Florence Monahan. Monahan was a long time reformer, and her goal was to release women from Tehachapi who would become self-respecting citizens, instead of bitter, beaten women who would be determined to get back at society.

Some of the reforms instituted by Monahan included ditching the drab prison uniforms and replacing them with colorful frocks. Monahan said “We plan to revise all clothing. It must be suitable, economical and decent. But why should the women wear something they hate?”

tehachapi_style

Prisoners were fitted for their new dresses in a sewing room covered with photos torn from the pages of fashion magazines.

The prisoners were no longer required to wear sober footwear in black, white or dark blue. One woman ordered some red sandals from a catalog, and wore them proudly – with everything.

Other freedoms for female inmates included keeping pets, and living in what were referred to as cottages. There were no bars at Tehachapi.  And Tehachapi wasn’t only influencing the lives of women doing time there; it was also becoming part of the public consciousness.double_indemnity_1944_580x861

For instance in the 1944 film DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) tries to dissuade Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from carrying out the murder for insurance money plot she’s hatching against her husband by telling her: “….then there was a case of a guy that was found shot. His wife said he was cleaning a gun and his stomach got in the way. All she collected was a 3 to 10 stretch in Tehachapi.”

My favorite film reference to Tehachapi is from the 1941 film, THE MALTESE FALCON. Even though he’s in love with her, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) decides to hand Brigid O’Shaunessy (Mary Astor) over to the cops because she murdered his partner. However, he says that may wait for her: “Well, if you get a good break, you will be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you precious, by that sweet neck.”

There was a significant increase in incarceration rates among women in the mid-1930s, and less than one year following its opening Tehachapi was near capacity.

What kind of woman ended up in Tehachapi? You may be surprised. Ninety percent of the women were first time offenders, and fourteen percent of them had been convicted of murder! Their median age was 37, and eighty percent of them were Caucasian. Nearly half of the inmates came from Los Angeles!

Is there something about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder. He wrote:

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

The stock market crashed in October of 1929 and flapper bandits gave way to gun molls and Tommy guns.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow

Bonnie Parker & Roy Thornton, her husband. They married as teenagers and never divorced.

The Depression of the 1930s resulted in the perpetration of darker crimes. Women became involved in bandit gangs – they didn’t stay at home and roll bandages for the wounded thugs in their lives, they were active participants in kidnappings, bank robberies, and murders.

Many of the most notorious gangs of the Depression operated out of the mid-west. Everyone has heard of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

Bonnie took an active role in the Barrow Gang’s misdeeds, and she had no illusions about how she and Clyde would end their days. The last few lines of her poem THE BALLAD OF BONNIE AND CLYDE read:

They don’t think they’re tough or desperate
They know the law always wins
They’ve been shot at before, but they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.
BONNIE & CLYDE
Some day they’ll go down together
And they’ll bury them side by side
To few it’ll be grief, to the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

How did Bonnie & Clyde pay the wages of sin?

During 1933, before they died in a hail of bullets, Bonnie & Clyde were on the run from the law in the Midwest. L.A. had a criminal duo too, Burmah and Thomas White.

NEXT TIME: L.A.’s own Bonnie & Clyde: Burmah & Thomas White.

Louise Springer Murder: Conclusion

springer_coronerThe biggest manhunt since the murder of Elizabeth Short continued as cops tried to find the killer of hairstylist Louise Springer.

LAPD conjectured that either Louise Springer had been immediately stunned with a blunt instrument as she sat in her car at a Crenshaw Blvd. parking lot, or she had known the person who murdered her. The two possible theories were supported by the fact that Louise had apparently offered no resistance, nor had she cried out — and, tellingly, her brand new manicure was still pristine.

There were bruises on Louise’s right temple and the top of her head which, in the opinion of Dr. Frederick D. Newbarr, the autopsy surgeon, were hard enough to render her unconscious.

Mrs. Jewell Lorange, left, and Miss Germaine Le Gault presented possible clue to slaying of Mrs. Louise Springer in reporting "three men in black car."

Mrs. Jewell Lorange, left, and Miss Germaine Le Gault presented possible clue to slaying of Mrs. Louise Springer in reporting “three men in black car.”

Of the scant leads uncovered by detectives, an interesting piece of information emerged. Miss Germaine Le Gault and Mrs. Jewell Lorange, who lived directly across from where the death car was found, said that they saw three men “in a big, black car” spend two evenings prior to the murder parked less than 50 feet away from where Springer’s strangled body was found. Unfortunately, the lead never panned out.

More than a week had passed when suddenly the Springer case began to heat up with the arrest of two suspects: Leon Russell, car washer at a service station near the parking lot, and Claud Cox, a jobless Navy vet who had been arrested on a morals complaint made by a young Hollywood woman named Marion Brown. Brown, 18, told cops that Claud Cox, whom she said she knew slightly, took her to his room at 1611 N. Orange Drive and tried to molest her. Cox told cops that he got “a little friendly” but he flatly denied trying to harm the girl.

springer_marion brown2

Marion Brown, 18, said Roscoe Cox, released in Springer murder, tried to attack her.

As cops tracked down leads, Louise Springer’s husband and her 21 month old son mourned the wife and mother as she was laid to rest in a San Jose cemetery.

At least the crime lab was finally able to state conclusively that Louise Springer had not been slugged before she was garroted in her husband’s car. What had initially appeared to be bruises on Mrs. Springer’s head were actually post-mortem tissue changes — the result of the dead woman’s body resting face down for three days in the backseat of the car before being discovered. The evidence suggested that Springer had been murdered in the car, at the parking lot, as she listened to the radio.

Another suspect was arrested and cleared by LAPD homicide detectives.  The man was thirty-eight year old Guy Smith who was busted by L.A. Sheriff’s department deputies on a tip from a relative. Nobody can do you dirt like family. In any case, Smith had an alibi for the time of Louise’s murder; however, the law was investigating him in connection with other unsolved crimes, notably morals offenses.

As the case grew colder the cops began to cast around for a new motive in Louise’s murder. Maybe kidnapping and sexual assault weren’t the real motives; maybe someone had a grudge against her, or they were jealous of the attractive brunette.

springer_coxOne of the early suspects in Springer’s murder, Claude Cox, was arrested in September 1949, but the arrest had nothing to do with Louise Springer’s death. According to Mrs. Geneva Cowen, 35, she was walking along Hollywood Blvd. when she heard someone come up behind her. She turned and the man, Claude Cox, rushed up and hit her, hard. Cox said: “I’m going to kill you.” Cowen took a chance and started to run. Cox grabbed for her, but only succeeded in pulling her coat off.

Eventually the leads dried up and the Louise Springer murder, aka, the Green Twig Murder case, went cold.

Laurence and Louise Springer had been in L.A. for only six months before she was murdered, so the widower returned to Northern California to try to put some of his pain behind him.

The single major success in the case came when Dr. Mildred Mathias, UCLA botanist, was finally able to identify the twig that had been so cruelly inserted into Louise Springer’s vagina as belonging to a bottle tree. Dr. Mathias said that the twig had apparently been stripped from a larger branch sometime in the year prior to the crime.

Louise Springer’s murder remains unsolved.

The Murder of Louise Springer: Part 1

louise_portraitJune 16, 1949, the decomposing body of thirty-five year old Louise Springer, a beauty shop operator, was found huddled in the rear seat of her husband’s convertible automobile parked at 125 W. 38th Street. Springer had been garroted.

A length of clothesline was knotted around Springer’s neck, with two knots under her
left ear. Her face was swollen and nearly black. Her brown skirt and yellow suede
jacket had been twisted around her body, with her skirt tangled around her hips.

springer_houseA stick 14 inches in length and 1/2 inch thick had been violently driven into her vagina .

Laurence Springer had reported his wife missing about sixty hours before her body was discovered. Louise, a hairstylist, had been working until shortly before 9:00 p.m. on the night she disappeared. Laurence had arrived to pick her up from work and take her to their beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills.

He’d parked in a lot on Crenshaw across the street from the shopping center in which Louise worked. The couple walked to their 1948 convertible and Louise, who had spent hours on her feet, pulled off her shoes and put on a pair of slippers that she kept in the car. They were just about to head for home when Louise exclaimed: “Oh, I’ve forgotten my glasses.” Laurence told her to relax and listen to her favorite radio show while he went to retrieve her specs.

Laurence got Louise’s glasses, then stopped to buy a magazine and chat with a friend. He wasn’t gone for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but when he returned both Louise and the car were gone.springer_car

Laurence knew that something was wrong, she wouldn’t have driven off and left him. He looked around for a few minutes but he couldn’t find his wife. He called the cops at about 10:00 pm and a few moments later a prowl car met him at the parking lot. The officers looked around but they didn’t find anything either. Laurence accompanied the police to the University Division Station where he filed a missing persons report. He then went home to be with his 21 month old son.

The Springer’s housekeeper and nanny, forty-nine year old divorcee Elizabeth Thompson, nearly collapsed when she received the news of her employer’s disappearance. Thompson told police that the Springers were happily married and that as far as she knew they had no enemies. She said that the couple had sold the beauty shops they owned in Northern California, then moved south to L.A. They hadn’t been in town for very long before Louise was slain. spring_child

Thompson injected a note of mystery into the investigation when she said that she had received an obscene phone call from an unknown woman about three months prior to Louise’s disappearance. The caller asked several times for Thompson to identify herself, which she refused to do — then the caller made a lewd proposal and Thompson hung up on her. Cops didn’t believe that the phone call had anything to do with Louise’s disappearance, but during the initial stages of the investigation they couldn’t rule anything out.

springer_headlineOne of the most disturbing aspects of the case was that the parking lot from which Louise Springer had been abducted was only about a block away from the lot where the body of Elizabeth Short had been discovered in January 1947!

Women were terrified by the thought that the Black Dahlia’s killer was once again hunting the streets of L.A. for victims. An enormous manhunt, the largest since Short’s murder, was soon underway.

Witnesses in the neighborhood where Louise’s body had been found came forward to say that they had seen a man in the murder car and watched him as he seemed to adjust something on the backseat – which is where Louise’s body had been found covered with a tarp. A man was seen exiting the car, and some people thought that he may have been wearing a military uniform.

springer_cluesPolice forensics investigators were having a difficult time trying to determine if Louise had been slugged before she was strangled, or if she’d been sexually assaulted. A relatively new test called the acid phosphatase test was used to try to determine if semen was present, but the test was inconclusive due to decomposition.

The main piece of physical evidence, the twig that was violently inserted into Louise’s vagina, was becoming a huge problem for investigators — it couldn’t be identified. Bonnie Templeton, curator of the botany department at the County Museum, had been called in to lend her expetise in identifying the twig. She said that it could have come from “four of five” species of trees or shrub.

It was beginning to look as if the LAPD was going to have another unsolved homicide of a woman on the books.

NEXT TIME: The investigation into the murder of Louis Springer continues.

The Gardenia Murder Case, Conclusion

ora_familyThe hunt for Ora Murray’s suspected killer continued without success.

While Sheriff’s deputies hunted for the mystery man Paul (later ID’d as Terry by a jilted girlfriend), Ora’s bereaved family was attending her inquest. The Coroner’s jury found that Ora Murray came to her death as the “result of a homicide, from strangulation and concussion, by person or persons unknown”.

Ora’s husband Sgt. William Murray, stationed at a Mississippi Army camp, had been granted leave so that he could come to L.A. and claim his wife’s body. Sgt. Murray’s only comment was, “I hope they catch the rat who did it–soon”.

murray_walser

Finally in March 1944 the man known as Paul, with whom Ora had gone on her last car ride, was seized in New York by the FBI. His name wasn’t Paul, and his name wasn’t Terry (as he had told Jeanette, his heartbroken fiancee), his real name was Roger Lewis Gardner.ora_suspect

The FBI wanted him on the charge of impersonating a Federal officer and called him “the most badly wanted fugitive in the United States”.  FBI agent E.E. Conroy described Gardner as a man of many aliases, an impersonator, swindler and philanderer.  Gardner had allegedly married more than nine women without divorcing any of them.

With Gardner’s resume it’s no wonder that it was a dame who dropped a dime on him to the law. Gardner was returned to Los Angeles to face a charge of murder for the slaying of Ora Murray.

Ora’s sister, Latona Leinann wore a white gardenia “in memory of my sister” to Gardner’s trial. A white gardenia wrapped in tinsel had been found crushed beneath Ora’s dead body.

Latona told the jury of her premonition that Ora was in danger when she left to go for a drive with the man they knew as Paul.  In fact Latona was so concerned that she wanted to take down the license plate number of his car, or at least make him produce an ID. Gardner must have sweated for a few moments before saying: “What’s the matter? Why don’t you trust me?” Latona told him that she was skeptical of strangers, but her fears made no impression on Ora and she drove off with Gardner anyway.ora_gardnerwife

Gardner’s defense strategy was simple, he said it was a case of mistaken identity and that he wasn’t Paul.

The jury listened attentively to the testimony in the case, and then it came time for them to decide Gardner’s fate.  Before beginning their deliberations several members of the jury got down on their knees and prayed for divine guidance.

The jury was out for two days — the prayers for guidance went unanswered.  They could not reach a verdict. The last count stood at 7 to 5 for conviction.  The jury foreman Carl Sell informed Judge Landreth that they were hopelessly deadlocked.

One woman juror commented: “I think he’s [Gardner] is a slicker, but that he wasn’t a murderer.”

Roger Lewis Gardner walked out of the courtroom into the waiting arms of the Feds. He still had a three year sentence to serve in Leavenworth for impersonating a Federal officer.

The Gardenia Murder case remains one of several unsolved murders of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

NEXT TIME: More unsolved murders of women in Los Angeles.

A New Mystery Begins: The Gardenia Murder Case, Part 1

ora_peteThere were several unsolved homicides of women in Los Angeles prior to the 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short; one of the first was that of Ora Mae Murray.

Near dawn on the morning of July 27, 1943, the son of a caretaker at the Fox Hills Golf Course was startled by the loud barking of a dog, Pete, an Airedale belonging to one of the groundsmen. The boy went to investigate, thinking that Pete had cornered a gopher. When he found Pete, the dog was standing near the semi-nude  mutilated body of a woman. The boy called the Sheriff’s Department.

LASD Inspector Penprase arrived at the murder scene, which was about 100 yards from the clubhouse. Penprase told reporters that it was evident that the victim, soon identified as Mrs. Ora Murray, had been fierce in defense of her life despite the fact that she was recovering from three broken ribs.ora_oraportrait

Most of her undergarments had been ripped away, and her dress was in tatters. Under Murray’s body was a flattened gardenia corsage wrapped with tinsel. The press called the case The Gardenia Murder.

According to Inspector Penprase, it appeared that Murray had been strangled to death. Ora had last been seen alive at 11 pm. the night before her slaying with a man named Paul.  While the search for Paul continued, Ora’s sister, Mrs. Latona Leinnan (the woman wearing a gardenia in yesterday’s photo) was located. She told cops that she and Ora had gone to a public dance together. It was at the dance that Ora met a man who suggested the three of them go out for a drive. Leinnan asked the man if he’d stop by her house first so her husband could join them and make it a foursome.  When they reached Latona’s home her husband wasn’t in the mood to go out, so Ora left with the stranger.

The mystery man, Paul, was described by Latona as about 30, 135 pounds, and five feet eight inches tall. He had black hair and he was wearing a dark, double-breasted suit.  He was driving a 1942 Buick convertible coupe with a three inch silver stripe painted around the body.

About one week following the discovery of her body, LASD detectives received a phone call from a woman who said that she’d been jilted by a man named Grant Wyatt Terry — and he matched the description of the mystery man, Paul.

Terry’s spurned lover, Miss Jeannette J. Walser, told a tale of a whirlwind courtship by the possible slayer and his disappearance with a $300 diamond ring and $700 in cash. Jeanette had given Terry the cash and jewelry shortly before they were to be married.

Jeanette told Inspector Penprase that she had met Terry at a cocktail lounge on July 17, and he proposed marriage to her two days later! He told her he was an attorney for the Feds and was assigned to various Army camps, then he borrowed her car for “an important trip to San Diego”.  Walser’s car matched the description of the one driven by “Paul”.

Ora’s sister Latona was shown a photo of Terry, and she identified him as Paul.

Terry was clearly a con man, but was he a killer?

NEXT TIME: The hunt for a killer in the Gardenia Murder Case.

He Walked By Night — Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker

he-walked-by-night-movie-poster-1948_french

The 1948 film HE WALKED BY NIGHT starring Richard Basehart was loosely based on the 1946 crime spree of William Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker.

Jack Webb played a forensics specialist in HE WALKED BY NIGHT, and while filming the movie he had an epiphany — what if there was a radio show based on real life police work? Webb’s brainstorm would become a radio show, TV series, and a film (two films actually, one in 1954 starring Webb, and a comedy remake in 1987 starring Dan Ackroyd). The radio program debuted on June 2, 1949 with an episode entitled ROBBERY.

radio-vintage-ladyEpisode two, HOMICIDE – THE NICKEL PLATED GUN, aired on June 10, 1949. This digitally remastered copy is courtesy of the National Archives.

DRAGNET: Homicide – The Nickel Plated Gun

Who was the real Erwin Walker? He had been a civilian employee of the Glendale Police Department prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army. He was very near-sighted, and would have been classified as unfit for service if not for his remarkable skills in electronics. Walker was sent to the Philippines where his non-combat unit ended up in a three day fight for their lives with a contingent of Japanese army paratroopers.

Walker survived the war physically, but mentally he was broken. His crime spree began even before his release from the army. In August 1945, he entered an Army Ordnance warehouse at night, stealing seven 45-caliber Thompson sub-machine guns, twelve .45-caliber pistols, six .38-caliber revolvers, ammunition, holsters, and magazines.

On April 25, 1946, Walker was on his way to sell some stolen motion picture equipment to a man named William Starr.  Starr had suspected that Walker (who was calling himself Paul C. Norris) had stolen the equipment and he phoned the cops. As Walker approached Starr’s home he was confronted by two LAPD Hollywood Division detectives,  Lt. Colin C. Forbes, and his partner Sgt. Stewart W. Johnson. Walker opened fire — he wounded both cops and then he disappeared into the subterranean storm drains  of Los Angeles.

Walker managed to evade capture, and early on Wednesday, June 5, 1946, he drove to a meat market at the corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Brunswick Avenue in Glendale, where he was rousted by a suspicious California Highway patrolman, Loren Cornwell Roosevelt.  Instead of producing his I.D when Roosevelt asked to see it, Walker pulled out a weapon and fired. Then the cop killer once again vanished into the storm drains of the city.

Walker would later testify that he’d fired at Roosevelt only after the cop had shot at him first. It was a lie. Walker also stated that he fired twice — but Roosevelt had died in  the hospital with nine slugs in him. The investigation revealed that the fatal rounds had likely been fired from one of the Thompson sub-machine guns Walker kept with him.

walked1

A psychopath, his dog, and a gun — from HE WALKED BY NIGHT

LAPD was tipped off that Walker was living in a duplex at 1831 1/2 N. Argyle Avenue. In the early morning hours of December 20, 1946, using a key provided by the landlord, detectives Wynn, Donahue, and Rombeau entered Walker’s apartment.

Walker came up quick and reached for the Thompson he kept on the bed beside him. He struggled with the cops, but they shot him twice in the shoulder and finally subdued him by cracking his skull with the butt of a pistol. Walker was in custody at last.

walkertodie

Walker entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but the trial judge found him sane. Walker was tried and convicted for Officer Roosevelt’s murder and sentenced to death in the gas chamber.gaschamber

While on death row awaiting execution, a shrink diagnosed Walker with paranoid schizophrenia. Thirty-six hours before his scheduled execution Walker was found unconscious with a length of radio headphone cord wrapped around his neck. He was revived and his execution was postponed indefinitely while he underwent an extensive psych evaluation.

Walker was declared insane and committed to the Mendocino State Hospital where he received electroshock therapy, and spent his free time reading chemistry textbooks.

During the early 1970s Walker attempted to get his conviction overturned, but the courts denied his petitions. However, he did manage to get a ruling that deleted the portion of his life sentence that excluded any possibility of parole.

Walker had managed to successfully work the system and cheat the executioner. The convicted cop killer was paroled in 1974! Upon his release he legally changed his name, got a job as a chemist, and disappeared from public view.

Walker died in 1982. He had never once expressed remorse for the anguish he had caused the victims of his crimes.  If there is a hell, he is certain to burn for eternity.

HE WALKED BY NIGHT is in the public domain and if you have never seen it, here’s your chance.

Ho, Ho, Homicide

By January 11, 1947 Elizabeth Short had been missing for two days — yet nobody knew she was gone. Life went on, and so did the daily litany of crime in Los Angeles.

The story below is from the L.A. Times, and it is a simple one. Girl brings sailor boyfriend home for the holidays. Sailor kisses girl. Dad shoots sailor to death.

ho_ho_homicide

The Acid Bride — Conclusion

divorcedBernice Day and her younger sister, Carlyn, were on the run after Bernice tossed 25 cents worth of nitric acid into her husband’s face on the front porch of their Beverly Hills home.  Darby’s mother witnessed the attack and immediately called the cops on her daughter-in-law.

Bernice drove the getaway car while a terrified Carlyn put her hands over her eyes, held her breath, and prayed. Carlyn was finally able to convince her hysterical sister to relinquish the wheel. The girls drove around aimlessly until Bernice suddenly ordered her sister to stop at a drug store on Sawtelle Blvd. Bernice bought a bottle of veronal (a barbiturate) cubes and before Carlyn could make a move to stop her, she swallowed all of them.  It must have dawned on Bernice that the dose could be fatal and she started to scream and cry. Carlyn thought fast. She saw a bus stopped nearby so she pulled over to ask the driver for directions to the nearest hospital. The bus driver decided to get into the car and drive the sisters to Hollywood Hospital, where the unconscious woman was admitted and then lapsed into a coma. All the doctors would say about the Acid Bride’s prognosis was that she had a fighting chance.

Darby was faring little better than his wife. The acid had damaged one half of his face, but his doctors were convinced that his eyesight could be saved.  Sadly, it turned out that they were mistaken.  About three weeks after Bernice’s attack, Darby lost the sight in one eye.

While Bernice was in the hospital, and Darby was recuperating at home, the cops were trying to piece together the whole story — in particular the motive for the crime. Bernice’s sister Carlyn was able to provide a piece of the puzzle.  She produced a note, written by Bernice, which blamed Mrs. Day, Sr. for the marital discord between the newlyweds.

The note read: BERNIE_NOTE_larger

Bernice regained consciousness, and because she was no longer welcome at the Beverly Hills home she stayed with her mother and sisters in their apartment at 529 South Manhattan.  The cops found the Bernice and Carlyn there and busted them both.

hearing_photoBernice stuck to the ridiculous story that she had accidentally doused Darby with acid when the cork flew out of the bottle as she was showing it to him. She was examined by alienists who determined that she had the mind of a ten year old girl.

Copy of grand jury exhibit photograph of Darby Day Jr.'s facial acid burns, Los Angeles, Calif., 1925 [Photo courtesy UCLA archive.]

Copy of grand jury exhibit photograph of Darby Day Jr.’s facial acid burns, Los Angeles, Calif., 1925 [Photo courtesy UCLA archive.]

Once the jury saw the damage Darby had suffered they didn’t care if Bernice was a clumsy ten year old girl in the body of a 20 year old woman; they found her guilty. The jury did cut Bernice’s younger sister Carlyn a break — she was found not guilty of being an accomplice to the crime.

Bernice was sentenced to from one to fourteen years in prison.

Bernice was released pending an appeal to overturn her conviction on a technicality, but while out on bond she was rearrested, this time for speeding.  She couldn’t stay out of trouble.

For months Bernice would remain a free woman, but California’s high court finally denied her appeal and by mid-August 1926 the Acid Bride was San Quentin bound.

The press caught up with Bernice as she was about to board the train that would take her to San Quentin. She told them: “I have no bitter feelings against anyone. I have nothing to say about the case as there has been too much said already.”

Darby Day, Jr. and his family returned to Chicago where he was granted a divorce from Bernice. Even with the divorce, there were rumors that Darby and Bernice would reconcile once she was released from prison.  The rumors may not have been as loony as they sounded.

bernice2In a move that shocked everyone, Darby made a plea to the Governor of California to free Bernice from San Quentin.  He said: “”Bernice has been punished sufficiently for her hasty act, just as I have suffered, but this is the time to forgive, make amends and then forget.  I am not attempting to shield her, nor to belittle the offenses, but I will do what I can to bring about her release.”

The governor was not as forgiving as Darby, and the bid to win a pardon for Bernice failed. She did, however, serve only fourteen months and was paroled at the end of 1927. Darby  was not waiting at the gates of the prison.

The beautiful young parolee wanted to put her time in prison behind her. She summed up her fourteen months in San Quentin for reporters saying: “Association with approximately 100 women, white and black, brown and yellow, some good  the others mostly bad, all milling back and forth like animals in damp and stuffy quarters where the air is none too good, daily disputes, wrangles, bickering, real fist fights at times and a good deal of hair pulling — such a life is enough to take the heart out of any one, especially when one has not been accustomed to such associations.”

Bernice flatly denied the rumors that she and Darby would reconcile. She told reporters: “I’m glad he got a divorce for I never want to see or hear of him again. As for the public, all I ask is that they let me alone.”  She and her family returned to Chicago and Bernice got her wish, at least as far as the papers in Los Angeles were concerned – there were no further mentions of the Acid Bride.darbydead

In a tragic postscript to the case, Darby Day, Jr. died under anesthesia in a Santa Monica hospital on February 4, 1928. He is interred in the Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

The Acid Bride

Men become accustomed to poison by degrees. 
–Victor Hugo

bernice

Bernice Lundstrom of Chicago had managed to do a lot of living in her 20 short years. On Valentine’s Day 1923 Bernice eloped with Howard Fish, member of a wealthy Chicago family. The couple had been hasty, it must have been the roses and champagne, and the marriage quickly disintegrated.  By September 1924 Bernice had obtained a divorce and restoration of her maiden name. She was ready to find a new marriage-minded Windy City millionaire.

She turned her attention to Darby Day, Jr., son of another moneyed Chicago family. Immediately following her divorce from Fish, Bernice and Darby were wed. Darby Sr. gave the newlyweds a trip to New Orleans and Havana, and then installed them in a Chicago apartment.

It can be bitterly cold in Chicago during the winter, so the newlyweds came out to California and bought a home in Beverly Hills. Soon afterward Bernice’s mother, Mrs. James E. Lundstrom, and her two other daughters, Carlyn and Dorothy, moved to Beverly Hills also.

For reasons of her own, in early February 1924 the new Mrs. Day began to ask for a separate home. She may have tried pouting and stomping her feet, but she finally told Darby that if he didn’t buy her the home she wanted within two weeks, she would kill him.  She didn’t follow through on the threat. She tried a different tactic to get her way.

On February 23, Bernice upped the I-want-a-separate-home ante when she told Darby she’d taken poison. If she wasn’t going to kill HIM, maybe she’d teach him a lesson and kill HERSELF. She made a show of taking tablets and, scared to death that they were fatal, Darby ran into his mother’s room (yes, Mrs. Day Sr. was living with the newlyweds – a recipe for disaster).  Mrs. Day Sr. asked Bernice what she’d taken, and told the young woman she’d phone for a doctor.

Bernice told her mother-in-law not to worry, she’d only taken a few aspirin because she wanted to frighten Darby – and then she got up and ran out of the house.  She was run to ground by Darby’s employer, who said he’d managed to prevent Bernice from pitching herself off of a cliff!

After a busy day of attempted suicides, Bernice appeared to have recovered her senses because Darby bumped into her later that night at a dinner party where they made up, at least for a few hours.  By the next day Bernice had gone again. She had errands to run, and at least one of them was a felony.carlyn

Bernice and her sister Carlyn stopped in at the Baldridge Drug Store at Sixth and Western and asked a clerk, W.J. Bowman, for a chemical that would remove warts. Bowman suggested nitric acid and told the young women that 15 cents worth ought to do the trick. The women bought 25 cents worth instead (hmm, sounds like a HUSBAND SIZED WART).  Bernice gave her name as Mrs. K. Lane, 514 Manhattan Place, which Bowman dutifully entered into the poison register.

UIG-920-05-0-587-26703-8 - © - BuyenlargeUIGWhile Carlyn waited in the car, Bernice knocked on the front door of the Beverly Hills home she shared with Darby and her mother-in-law.  Mrs. Day, Sr. answered the door, but refused to let Bernice enter. She told the young woman to leave and not to return until she’d calmed down.   Bernice said she’d go, but not before she was allowed to see Darby alone. When Darby stepped out on to the porch, Bernice said “Look at me honey”, and when he did she hurled acid in his face. Some of the acid splashed back on Bernice, but she ran for the car in which her sister Carlyn was waiting.

Bernice took the wheel of the car and drove like a maniac away from the mayhem she’d caused. Bernice’s driving was so erratic that Carlyn began to fear for her life. In fact she was so terrified she finally managed to convince Bernice to relinquish the wheel.

While the sisters were making their escape, Bernice’s mother-in-law dropped a dime on Bernice.

The search was on for the Acid Bride.

NEXT TIME — THE STORY OF THE ACID BRIDE CONTINUES