Film Noir Friday: Meet John Doe [1941]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is MEET JOHN DOE starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, and Walter Brenannan. While this film may not be an obvious choice for Film Noir Friday it’s a very dark look at pre-WWII America.  Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

When the metropolitan newspaper The Bulletin is bought by publisher D. B. Norton, he changes its name to The New Bulletin and replaces its motto, “A free press for a free people,” with “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” As part of the new streamlining efforts, managing editor Henry Connell fires “sob-sister” columnist Ann Mitchell because she does not produce enough “fireworks” to bring up the paper’s circulation. However, Ann resolves to fight for her job by writing a phony letter to her column, claiming to have received it from a man protesting the degenerated state of affairs in the world and announcing his plans to jump from the roof of City Hall at midnight on Christmas Eve.

A Visit From the Sheriff — 2016

Ching-ching-a-ling! Ching-ching-a-ling!
Are those sleighbells I hear?
No.
It’s gunfire…

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T’was the week before Christmas, December ’54
David Cox’s house was filled with violence, mayhem and smashed crockery galore.

David’s Downey neighbors awoke to ruckus and clatter,
and wondered just what in the hell was the matter.

It must be that S.O.B. Cox, they concluded —
a few beers in his belly and he’s completely deluded.

They turned away from their windows and went back to their beds,
where they pulled the covers up over their heads.

David had arrived home three hours late,
with booze on his breath and his eyes filled with hate.

His wife, Billie, had made a modest request
for $25 to buy each of their girls a new dress.

“Mary and Katherine don’t need presents, you frivolous bitch!”
David picked up a lamp and smashed it to bits.

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He ripped out the windows, wood frames and plaster,
then sped off in his truck leaving behind a disaster.

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Later that evening when David came home
he drove his truck into a fence, then lurched around drunk and alone.

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Hello! Anyone home? He shouted to the empty house.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

His children were frightened and his pregnant wife was alarmed,
she tooks the kids to her mother’s so they wouldn’t be harmed.

The Norwalk Sheriff’s station was called, and deputies rushed to the scene.
David was wielding a shotgun and he looked pretty damned mean.

“Drop your weapon!” the deputies shouted calling David by name.
But Cox opened fire and the cops did the same.

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Sgts. Lovretovich and Piper stood over David who was collapsed on the lawn.
He’d taken multiple rounds — he was deceased, he was gone.

Why didn’t he do as we said, they pondered aloud; to behave as he had —
he must have been crazy, he must have been mad!

david coxDavid’s drinking and anger had cost him his life,
he’d never again see his friends, children, or wife.

Christmas was dismal for the Cox family that year.
Instead of baby dolls, buggies and bears named Ted,
there was a casket, flowers and tears to be shed.

No doubt about it, David Cox had acted a fool.
A moron, an idiot, a jackass, a tool.

Neighbors were heard to exclaim, ere Deputies drove out of sight.

Don’t mess with the Sheriffs, they’ll put up a fight.

 

NOTE: I recently heard from a relative of the Cox family and was heartened to learn that Billie and her children went on to have good lives. David Cox wasn’t an evil man — he was just a guy who tried to solve his problems with a bottle of booze and a shotgun.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago and have made it a holiday tradition.  I’m really just an old-fashioned dame at heart. A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS by Clement Clarke Moore  provided the inspiration for this post.  Of course it’s impossible to do justice to the original, but it was fun just the same.

I took very few liberties in writing this story. The details of the shooting are as they appeared in the Los Angeles Times report of the incident. One of my favorite Deputy Sheriffs of the era, Ned Lovretovich, played a role in this story. I’ve written about him  several times and his career continues to fascinate me. Thugs With Spoons is one of my favorite Ned stories.

A big thank you to Mike Fratantoni for bringing this story to my attention–he knows the most deranged tales..

 

Film Noir Friday: He Walked By Night

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is HE WALKED BY NIGHT starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, and Jack Webb. It was during the making of this film that Jack Webb got the idea for DRAGNET.

The film is based on a true story, the Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker case, which I wrote about a few years ago.

38gunAs of a few months ago I have a personal connection to this movie. I was given the blue steel revolver that belonged to the screenwriter, John C. Higgins — it was a gift from his nephew, Eric, and I’m honored to own it. Higgins wrote the screenplays for T-MEN and RAW DEAL, two terrific films.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Inspired by the true story of Erwin Walker, a WWII hero who turned to crime and terrorized Los Angeles in 1946, He Walked By Night (1948) is a remarkable low budget, film noir thriller that is often overlooked in film studies of this genre. Besides Richard Basehart’s chilling performance as a meticulous thief of electronics equipment who becomes a wanted cop killer, the film glistens with the stylized black and white cinematography of John Alton whose use of light has been compared to the lighting in Rembrandt paintings. The film could well serve as a primer on how to shoot a film noir since it incorporates all of the familiar elements of the genre so masterfully into the visual design of the film: splintered shadows from Venetian blinds that transform a cozy bedroom into a prison, street lights over patches of wet pavement, a brief pinpoint of light from a hastily lit match in a dark room. Most memorable of all is the chiaroscuro camerawork in the final sequence as Davis Morgan – Richard Basehart’s character – is pursued through the huge drainage canals underneath Los Angeles by the police. This was the first time this unusual locale was used in a film and it would later serve as an equally disturbing setting – the lair of giant mutant ants – for the science fiction thriller, Them! (1954).

 

Happy Birthday, Aggie

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Aggie drinking a beer.

It’s December 17, 2015 — the 113th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.

Aggie was a general assignment reporter with a gift for covering crime. Like many Los Angeles social historians I first ran across her because of her coverage of the January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short—the Black Dahlia. I bought a copy of her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman. in which she included a partial list of the headlines she had generated.  They were a revelation; not only had she written about the Dahlia case she had reported on nearly every major crime case in the city from 1931 through January 1947.

The more I learned about her the more I admired her. I created her long overdue Wikipedia page, and she inspired me to create this blog. I’ve lectured about her, and at the time of this writing I am curating an exhibit of photographs at the Central Library entitled: The First with the Latest!: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City.  If you haven’t visited the exhibit yet I urge you to do so before it closes on January 10, 2016, and if you can’t get to the exhibit please pick-up a copy of the companion book, available on Amazon.

In 1936, the Herald’s city editor, John B.T. Campbell, wrote: “Aggie Underwood should have been a man. A rip-snorting, go-gettum reporter who goes through fire lines, trails killers… using anything from airplanes to mules to reach the spot that in newspapers is… marked with an arrow or an X. Favorite occupation is following a good murder. What a gal!”

What a gal, indeed.

Aggie and the Ice Cream Blonde

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Aggie Underwood c. 1930s

Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.

Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.

thelmaAmong the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach.  She was given a take it or leave it option.  She left.

Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.

Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.

West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.

On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.Ida_Lupino_head_shot

As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.

When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.

According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.

Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.

It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.

On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.

May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
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At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.

From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:

“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”

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Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.

The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.

It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.

The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.

The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.

She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.

There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
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Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.

And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.

The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.

Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.

I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:

“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”

Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.

I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.

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Roland West

On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.

Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
ToddMapIt was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.

She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.

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Ray Pinker

According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.

What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.

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Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films

West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.

What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.

Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.

The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:

“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”

And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:

“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’

“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”

Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:

“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”

Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.

I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.

Film Noir Friday on Saturday Night: The Hat Box Mystery [1947]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is THE HAT BOX MYSTERY starring Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, Allen Jenkins and Virginia Sale. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

In New York City, society matron Marie Moreland’s life is threatened by a blackmailer named Stevens. Meanwhile, at the Ashton Detective Agency, Russ Ashton, his secretary and fiancée, Susie Hart, and his assistant, Harvard, wait for clients while filling up on hamburgers from Harvard’s girl friend, Veronica Hooper, who runs a diner. When Russ is called away to Washington, D.C. to act as a bodyguard, Harvard borrows money from Veronica to pay for Russ’s trip. Left in charge, Susie accepts a case from Stevens, who is in disguise. Stevens claims he needs evidence to sue his wife for divorce, and gives Susie a hat box equipped with a camera.

 

Jealousy and Gin

ruth maloneBy December 1927 twenty-three-year-old Ruth Malone had been in Los Angeles for about 4 months. She’d fled Aberdeen, Washington to escape her husband John, a jealous and violent drunk. She used her mother’s address at 244 North Belmont Avenue, but lived with a girl friend in an apartment at 9th and Flower. She kept the address of the apartment a secret just in case John tried to find her. She worked half a mile from the apartment at a drug store on East Twelfth between Santee Street and Maple Avenue. Ruth had spent the last few months seriously contemplating divorce but she wasn’t in any hurry to confront John.

It was 11 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, December 7, 1927 and Ruth had started her work day when John turned up. She hadn’t even known he was in town. He was obviously drunk and made a scene. He wanted Ruth to come back to him, but she wasn’t interested in a reconciliation and John stormed out. He returned at noon and began to plead with Ruth.  Again she accused him of being drunk. He copped to it–in fact he said that he’d been drinking for three weeks straight and would stay drunk until Ruth agreed to come back to him. She refused. He pulled a revolver from his pocket. Ruth clocked it and made a dash for the rear of the store. Her escape route was cut off by some partitions–she was trapped. As twenty people watched John began firing and each shot hit its mark. Ruth was hit in the chest, face and hip. Satisfied that he’d killed her, John turned the gun on himself. One bullet entered his chest a few inches above his heart and then he raised the weapon to his head and fired.malone shooting in store

The police were called and when Detectives Lieutenants Hickey, Stevens and Condaffer, of the LAPD’s Central Station Homicide Squad arrived they found Ruth dead and John nearly so. Detective Hickey was shocked when John summoned the strength to say “I’m sorry I killed her, but give me a smoke before I croak, will you?” Hickey later said that even though John believed he was dying his first thought appeared to be of a cigarette. The detectives also found an incoherent note in John’s pocket, the ramblings of a man driven to murder by jealousy and gin.

malone_near deathInvestigators learned that John was 29-years-old and that he had an arrest record. He’d been busted in Oakland on October 10, 1917 on a burglary charge and later in San Francisco for violation of the State Poison Act (a drug charge). John had been in Los Angeles for a few weeks. He was staying at a hotel just a few blocks away from Ruth’s workplace.

As John lay in a bed in General Hospital fighting for his life, a Coroner’s jury charged him with Ruth’s slaying. If he lived he would be tried for her murder. Ruth was buried in Graceland Cemetery following a private funeral at Mead & Mead undertaking parlor.

It was touch and go for a few weeks but John pulled through and by February 1928 he was well enough to stand trial. L.V. Beaulieu, his court-appointed attorney, unsuccessfully attempted to use John’s three week long drinking spree as an excuse for the murder but the judge sustained the prosecution’s objections. Alcohol induced amnesia was a poor defense strategy. The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict with no recommendation for leniency. Under the law Judge Fricke had no alternative but to sentence John to be hanged. He was transported to San Quentin to await execution.malone_hickman2On March 20, 1928 John and several other death row inmates welcomed a newcomer to their ranks, William Edward Hickman. Hickman, who had given himself the nickname “The Fox” had been sentenced to death for the brutal mutilation murder of 12-year-old Marion Parker, a crime he had committed only ten days after John had killed Ruth. The two dead men walking had met in the Los Angeles County Jail while each was awaiting trial. John cornered Hickman on one occasion and blamed him for inciting the public to a renewed interest in capital punishment–resulting in his own date with the hangman.

malone_mug2John’s sentence was automatically appealed but the State Supreme Court upheld the death penalty. Judge Fricke re-sentenced John to hang. Unless something changed he would meet his end on December 7, exactly one year to the day since Ruth’s murder. John had evidently changed his mind about dying since his suicide attempt because he was part of a Thanksgiving escape plot that failed. To prevent him from any further attempts to tunnel out of San Quentin he was moved to the death cell.

As a condemned man, John’s final requests were honored. He was given a record player and listened repeatedly to “I Want to Go Where You Go” until it was time for him to climb the thirteen steps to the scaffold. One year before, just moments after killing Ruth, John’s first thought had been for a cigarette. Nothing had changed in the year since. John was still smoking as guards placed the black cap over his head. As he dropped he quipped: “Well boys, I got a run for this one.” The cigarette was jerked from his lips. Three witnesses, one of them a guard, fainted. John Joseph Malone was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.

Jealously and gin make a lethal cocktail.