The Death of Love, Part 2

Helen and Harry Love eloped to Mexico and married on May 3, 1936. Harry, at 46, was a “retired capitalist” and during the midst of the Great Depression that was quite an accomplishment. He gave Helen everything she could have wanted except his time–which is what she desired most. Harry was a mama’s boy and had, in is nearly five decades on the planet, not managed to clip the umbilical cord that continued to tether him to his meddlesome mother, Cora.

merry-xmas-sweetheartNot only had Harry refused to acknowledge Helen as his wife, he never even claimed her as his girlfriend. On the few occasions that Helen and Cora met, Cora was condescending and competitive to an uncomfortable degree. On Christmas Eve, Helen showed Cora the card Harry had given her which bore the salutation “Sweetheart”. Cora was offended by the card and immediately sneered at Helen, telling her that the card SHE had received from Harry was much prettier.

Many parents are reluctant to accept their child’s choice of a partner, but Cora seemed determined to keep Harry to herself. Had Cora always been so demanding of Harry’s time and attention? Perhaps Cora felt lost after her husband Charles passed away in 1923. She may have transferred her attention to her son. We can only speculate. We do know that Harry and Cora had taken a couple of cruises and frequently went out together for drives. Harry often stayed the night at Cora’s home rather than go to Helen and the apartment he maintained, allegedly for the two of them.

During the months that they had been married, Harry had pressured Helen into terminating a pregnancy and, following the “illegal operation”, Harry had sent Helen to New York to recover from the procedure that had nearly cost her her life.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The final straw for Helen came on New Year’s Eve. Harry had promised to take her out to the Norconian Supreme Resort in Riverside for what would certainly have been a night to remember. Helen had bought a gown, which she foolishly showed to Cora. Had Helen baited Cora with the gown?

Typical women's evening wear 1936.

Typical women’s evening wear c. 1936.

If Helen was playing a game of one upsmanship, she lost big time. Had Cora then applied pressure to Harry, or had he reneged on his promise to Helen of his own accord? It didn’t matter. Either way Helen was to facing a miserable New Year’s Eve, dressed to the nines with nowhere to go. Cora and Harry were going to dinner in Santa Monica at the Del Mar Hotel. Helen wasn’t even invited to tag along as a third wheel.

After spending hours brooding over the indignity of being kept away from a celebration that she felt should have included her, Helen snapped. She took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment of his car and put it in her handbag. Then, after ruminating for a while longer, she called a taxi and went out to confront Cora and Harry at the Del Mar.

1930s dame with gun.

1930s dame with gun.

Hurt, angry, and fed up with being Harry’s secret bride, Helen walked into the lobby of the Del Mar. When she asked the clerk if the Love party had arrived, she was told they had not. She said she would wait. A short time later Harry came from the dining room. He must have been there all along. Had he instructed the clerk to try to turn Helen away if she turned up, and then been thwarted when she declared her intention to stay?

Harry walked over to Helen and she said “Hello, darling.” Harry asked Helen what she was doing there; she said had planned to spend New Year’s Eve with him and she had meant it. They quarreled and Helen turned on her heel and strode into the dining room where she walked up to Cora who was seated at a table for two. Cora turned white and snapped at Helen, “This is no place for you. You are not invited! See me tomorrow.” Helen said, “Tomorrow will be too late.” Helen headed for the exit of the hotel with Harry next to her. “Have you a gun?” he asked. Helen replied, “You’re a big man. Why should you be afraid of a gun?” But he was afraid. So much so that he started to scream and run. He only managed to reach the steps of the club before Helen drew the pistol and fired.

Typical men's evening wear in 1936.

Delineator Magazine’s men’s guide to correct formal evening wear, January 1936.

Harry fell on the steps, but he got back up and ran down the sidewalk still screaming for help. Helen ran after him firing until she was out of bullets. Later Helen claimed she had no recollection of where Harry fell. Harry was carried back into the Del Mar and placed on a couch. Helen sat next to him and watched him die. “I couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed like something you see on the screen. I kept thinking of it as a motion picture death.” Helen later said.

But Harry’s death wasn’t a movie–it was real enough to get Helen arrested for murder.

NEXT TIME: Helen goes on trial as The Death of Love continues.

The Death of Love, Part 1

Helen Wills was born in Kentucky in 1905 to Claudia and George Wills.  George and Claudia divorced around 1920. Claudia reclaimed her maiden name of Durst; and she and her teenage children, sixteen-year-old Richard and fifteen-year-old Helen, lived together in Vanceburg, Kentucky.  All three held jobs to keep the family afloat. Claudia taught music at home.  Richard worked in a button factory as a cutter and Helen worked in a cigar factory.

00105362_helen-young_resize

Helen as a young woman. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Factory work can be soul crushing. I know because I worked in a swim suit factory as a teenager. I began each day punching a time clock. There was a large, empty, bin next to my sewing machine and my job was to fill it by the end of my shift. The noise of the industrial sewing machines was broken occasionally by the screams of a worker who had accidently sewed a finger to the bathing suit she was working on. Based on my experiences,  I wasn’t surprised to find that by the 1930 census Helen and her mother had left Kentucky behind and were living in Los Angeles at 74 South Mariposa Avenue. Helen claimed to be an actress, but it is unclear what she actually did to earn a living.

Being an actress must have sounded glamorous  to a small town girl like Helen, but there were hundreds of girls in Los Angeles whose big dreams had led only to aching feet as they trudged from one cattle call to another, never getting the break that would make them a star. I haven’t found any documentation to suggest that Helen ever appeared in a film or on stage.

Helen didn’t leave her mark on Hollywood, but as it turned out she would eventually take the lead role in a real life and death drama and she would make headlines from L.A. to New York.

Movie extras c. 1930s.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Movie extras c. 1930s. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen met Harry Love in 1929 or 1930 and dated seriously for a year prior to their secret marriage in Ensenada, Mexico on May 3, 1936.

Harry was a successful older man, about fifteen years Helen’s senior, described as tall, medium build with dark hair and brown eyes. He was born in Trinidad, Colorado in 1890, and as a young man he had worked as a shift boss for Montezuma Copper Company in Narcozari de Garcia, Sonora, Mexico and as a car salesman in Morenci, Arizona. He wasn’t a millionaire but he had done well enough to retire in his early 40s — the newspapers referred to him as a retired capitalist.

Helen realized early in their relationship that Harry was a mamma’s boy. At 46 he had never been married and he still lived at home with his mother, Cora. In Helen’s shoes I like to think I would have taken one look at that situation and run for the hills, but that’s me looking at the 1930s through my 21st Century lens. It is easy to make that call from a distance of 80 years.

Harry and Cora were so close that they’d taken at least two cruises together. One was in the 1920s, years before Harry met Helen. But in March 1936 Harry and Cora took a second cruise to Hawaii, aboard the S.S. Chiriqui. What man takes a cruise with his mother just a few months prior to his marriage?

sschiriquifront3_resizeThe truth is that Harry probably never intended to marry Helen. The hasty Mexican nuptials may have been necessitated by Helen’s announcement that she was pregnant. Harry must have had nightmares about how he was going to explain the marriage and child to Cora.  She was barely aware that he was dating, let alone making babies.

After the newlyweds returned home Helen expected, not unreasonably, that Harry would break the news to Cora, but he flatly refused.

Harry kept his new wife in an apartment at 3620 West Fourth Street, less than a half mile from his mother’s house at 457 South Harvard Boulevard. Helen may as well have been on another planet.  Harry didn’t even stay with her every night.

According to Helen, while they were dating Harry threatened to kill her if she ever became pregnant. In the 1930s the most common method of birth control was douching because other less caustic forms were nearly impossible to find.

In 1873 the Comstock Act passed in the United States prohibiting advertisements, information, and distribution of birth control and allowing the postal service to confiscate birth control sold through the mail.  It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court (in Griswold v. Connecticut) gave married couples the right to use birth control, ruling that it was protected in the Constitution as a right to privacy. However, millions of unmarried women in 26 states were still denied birth control.

Not only was douching extremely unreliable, it was dangerous. The most widely advertised douche was Lysol. That’s right, as early as the 1910s the same stuff used to clean toilets was advertised as a way for women to stay fresh and feminine. Although, frankly, I fail to see the allure of the regular scented Lysol or, worse yet, the pine scented version that eventually hit the market. The notion that my man would be excited by a pine tree is too horrible to contemplate. The subtext in many of the ads was a nod and a wink toward avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

lysol_ad2

One wonders exactly what tragedy is being referred to in this ad.

When Helen gave Harry the news of his impending fatherhood, he reacted predictably and pressured her into having an “illegal operation” (i.e. an abortion). Helen nearly died as a result. In September he sent her to New York for a couple of months to regain her health.

Helen arrived home in time for the holidays and one of the first things that she noticed about the apartment was that Harry had removed their framed marriage license from the wall and put it in a safe deposit box.  At least that’s what he told her.

In spite of their problems Helen was optimistic about her relationship with Harry and she believed that the two of them would spend Christmas alone together. Harry had other plans. He thought it would be swell if he and Helen spent Christmas with his mother – who still had no idea that Harry and Helen were married. Helen was introduced as a friend.

Helen wasn’t thrilled with the plan, but she went along hoping that Harry would finally reveal the truth of their relationship to Cora. It was not to be. Following dinner Harry and Cora bid adieu to Helen and went off together to church to listen to Christmas carols and then go for a drive.

On New Year’s Eve, Helen and Harry had lunch in Chinatown and he promised to take her to the fabulous Norconian Resort Supreme in Riverside that night to usher in 1937.

The Norconian.  Image courtesy LAPL.

The Norconian. Image courtesy LAPL.

As he had many times before, Harry failed to keep his promise. He told Helen that he planned to spend New Year’s Eve with Cora at the Del Mar Club in Santa Monica and that she, Helen, was not invited. Harry did, however, pick Helen up that evening and left her in his car in the parking lot of a building Cora owned at 3020 South Main Street. He gave explicit instructions to the parking attendants that no one but him was to take the car out.

Helen sat in the auto for hours, brooding. Finally an attendant told her she might be more comfortable if she waited inside the building. She agreed, but before she left the car she took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment and stashed it in her handbag.

Frustrated, hurt, and angry Helen took a cab back to the apartment where she stewed for a while longer before she made an important decision. She was tired of living in the shadows and fed up with Harry’s glib promises that inevitably came to naught. She grabbed her bag with the pistol still concealed inside, called a cab, and went to the Del Mar Club for a confrontation with the Loves.

NEXT TIME: The Death of Love, Part 2

References: 

Ancestry
Google Maps
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express
Our Bodies Ourselves
Mother Jones
Smithsonian
WGBH Boston
Wikipedia

Death of the Two Day Bride

clements_lucilleValentine’s Day is coming up, love is in the air, and heart-shaped cards and sweet treats are everywhere. Sadly not all love affairs remain heart shaped, sometimes they become triangles, and when they do  they can be deadly.

Thirty-seven-year-old grocery clerk Worth Clements traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles to plead with his estranged sweetheart, twenty-seven-year-old Lucille Register, to marry him. He brought with him Lucille’s eight-year-old brother Stanley, whom he had adopted. Worth had divorced his former wife, one of Lucille’s aunts, and planned to marry Lucille as soon as possible.

The meeting between Worth and Lucille didn’t go well. Accompanied by two of her friends Mary Temple, Martha Hillhouse, and her brother Stanley, she went to LAPD’s Hollywood station for a safe place to talk things over with Worth. Their talk ended with Worth agreeing to return to Atlanta. The group left the police station and everyone piled into Martha’s car.

As Martha turned the car onto Third Street Worth and Lucille, together in the back seat of the car, began to argue. It was then that Lucille dropped the bombshell. She was already married! She and a fellow named Wayne Campbell had driven to Tijuana just two days earlier and wed. The other occupants of the car heard Lucille reject Worth in no uncertain terms: “I won’t marry you–take it or leave it.”

Worth responded: “Lucille, I’ve got a gun.”  Did he bring the gun because he suspected he was part of a triangle? Or had he planned to kill Lucille if she rejected him for any reason? I suspect the latter; but surely Lucille’s confession was the thing that made him snap. He fired one shot into Lucille and she went quiet. Martha pulled the car to the curb at 3rd Street and Union Avenue. As Martha, Mary and Stanley ran for help they heard two more shots.

When the police arrived they found Lucille dead in the back seat. Beside her lay Worth. He had put two rounds into his chest and was barely alive.

LAPD Detective Thad Brown went to the hospital to speak with Worth. As soon as it was clear that he was going to pull through, he was charged with murder.

Little more than a month following the slaying Worth appeared in Judge Blake’s courtroom. He made a pathetic picture swaddled in a blanket, hunched over in a wheelchair. He pleaded guilty, even though he insisted he couldn’t recall committing the crime.

worth_wheelchairOn December 29, 1937, Judge Blake found Worth guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.  But he didn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was released on January 29, 1948, ten years to the day after he began his sentence.

The White Flame Murder, Conclusion

wright in courtAs Paul Wright’s trial continued his memory conveniently began to fail, and he substantively revised his original confession. When he first spoke to the cops he told them in vivid detail how he’d fired shots at his wife, Evelyn, and best friend, John Kimmel, in a “white flame” of passion; and he was able to describe exactly the position of both Evelyn and John on a piano bench in the living room of his home.

quiet shoesIn Paul’s revised statement he said that he no longer remembered from where he fired the shots, nor how many shots were fired. He substituted the original G-rated story of being awakened by Evelyn’s lilting laughter and then witnessing her embrace his best friend, with an X-rated tale that the newspapers called “a shocking and repugnant picture of passion”.

The lurid revelation of Evelyn fellating John on the piano bench had held trial spectators spellbound, but when less salacious testimony resumed they started to get restless and attendance dropped off. Why queue up for anything less than an orgy?

The prosecution went on the attack in its summation and characterized Paul Wright as a cold-blooded killer — not a man tormented by WWI demons, the aftermath of tuberculosis, and a vasectomy, which is how he was described by his defense team.

wright court head

Jerry Giesler, Wright’s attorney, passionately argued that his client should go free because he was unconscious when he shot and killed Evelyn and Johnny, on November 9, 1937.

The jury of eight men and four women found Paul Wright guilty on two counts of manslaughter — but in a separate hearing they also found that because he had been insane at the time of the double murders he was not guilty!

insane

If the Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up) examined Wright and decided that he had regained his sanity, he would be freed! And that is exactly what happened!

Paul Wright would never have to serve a single day in prison!

Editorials were written about the absurdity of the insanity defense and the fickle outcomes. One of the articles compared the results of Wright’s trial to that of another in which the insanity defense had been employed:

“Wright went free as the result of an official finding that he had recovered his sanity after killing two people. Hansen, who also killed two people and who made an identical defense, goes to prison for from two to twenty years.”

“It’s a queer world.”

It sure as hell is.

The White Flame Murder, Part 3

Paul Wright in court. [Photo courtesy of UCLA digital collection.]

Paul Wright in court. [Photo courtesy of UCLA digital collection.]

In his opening statement in the trial of Paul Wright for double murder, defense attorney Jerry Giesler contended that Wright had no motive for murder until the sight of his wife and best friend in an unmentionable pose turned him into an unreasoning, raging avenger.

Giesler had conceived of a creative defense for his client — he said that Wright’s WWI service, during which he as gassed; a post-war tuberculosis attack, and a voluntary vasectomy combined to make him emotionally unstable, with more violent reactions to shock that normal men.

If the vasectomy defense failed Giesler had a Plan B, and he laid it out for the jury:

“When Wright strolled sleepily into his living room at 4 o’clock that morning, there was absolutely no reason for him to criminally and brutally kill.”

“What he saw there on the piano bench–which he will detail to you from this witness stand…that married man still there at 4 o’clock in the morning beside his beloved wife…that horrible situation was such an emotional shock that it rendered this defendant as unconscious as though he had been hit on top of the head with a tremendous mallet.”

“Under the written law of the State of California–not any so-called unwritten law–it is the plain duty of this jury to acquit Mr. Wright.”

The written law to which Giesler was referring is the crime of passion plea, known as the provocation defense. Historically, according to U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, California defendants who have used the controversial plea have been able to reduce first and second degree murder charges down to manslaughter. Punishment has often been little or no jail time.

But would the defense strategy work for Wright? The prosecution produced evidence that had Wright sitting on his bed brooding, before arranging a chair in front of a mirror so that he could get a full view of his wife and best friend in a passionate embrace on the piano bench.

Giesler called witnesses to the stand who related a fairy-tale like courtship between Paul and Evelyn, resulting in a blissful marriage — at least for the first couple of years.

In 1936 Paul confided in a close friend that:

“I’m worried to the point of distraction. I’ve earned a fair salary ever since we have been married, but there doesn’t seem to be enough for the household and her demands.”

“I’ve always paid the bills, and it breaks my heart to see my credit go like this.”

I’ve done everything in my power to make her happy–even had myself sterilized, but it seems to be no use.”

The vasectomy had cost Paul one of his most cherished dreams — he’d always wanted a son, and that was never going to be possible for him.

Giesler continued to hammer home the impact of Paul’s “sex sacrfice” which the attorney
contended had destroyed Wright’s self-control when he found Evelyn and John in an intimate pose. Dr. Charles B. Huggins, a Chicago surgeon, described the vasectomy performed on Wright to save Evelyn from the danger of again becoming a mother. She’d nearly lost her life giving birth to Helen and a sterilization operation on her would have been much more dangerous.

From the witness stand, under Giesler’s skilled interrogation, Paul Wright gave his version of the events leading up to the double murder.

it cafePaul said that he and John had attended a club meeting, then gone out for a nightcap. By 2 a.m. they were at Clara Bow’s “It Cafe” preparing to go home. It was Paul who suggested that John accompany him home, ostensibly to provide back-up when Evelyn questioned him about where, and with whom, he’d spent the evening and early morning hours.

Paul went on to describe feeling fatigued and going to the bedroom for a nap. He told the hushed courtroom:

“I was awakened by some sort of sound–like the piano. It started me up out of my sleep. I went to the living room door and saw that the lights were still on.  Johnny was sitting at the piano. I could just see his head. He was looking downward. I couldn’t see Evelyn and I wondered where she was.”

I thought she was on the davenport and I looked, but she was not there. I thought she was in the kitchen. Then I turned–then I turned–I saw Evelyn on the piano bench with Johnny…They embraced and kissed each other.”

“Everything inside me exploded!” he shouted.

“Next thing I knew I was standing there with the gun in my hand. She was on the floor–Johnny was moaning. They were covered with blood.”

It wasn’t possible to know what the jury thought about what they’d heard, but a reporter for the L.A. Times was clear about how Wright had conducted himself: “Seldom in local court annals has a defendant appeared to such good advantage defending himself on the witness stand.”trump card

However the report wasn’t all admiration, Wright was accused of having “robbed his wife’s grave of decency and fidelity” in his attempt to save his own life. And the report went on with: “Johnny Kimmel, by inference was branded a depraved scoundrel by the man who killed him.”

Of course the only people whose opinions mattered were sitting in the jury box.

death gunWright emotionally and physically collapsed under Deputy D.A. Roll’s blistering cross-examination, and his earlier testimony started to come unraveled. He had maintained that he’d shot blindly at the pair from the bedroom doorway, but changed his story by declaring that when he pumped the final rounds into the two bodies he was standing with his gun in his hand beside the piano.

Also, little details began to surface about exactly what Paul had witnessed that had provoked him to commit double murder. Kimmel was immediately visible on the piano bench, but Evelyn was not.

Deputy D.A. Roll asked Wright:

“Was it in your mind that they had committed some unnatural act?”

To which Wright answered:

“Yes, it must have been.”

At last the prosecution was getting to the the truth of what Wright had seen. Evelyn wasn’t on the piano bench next to Johnny, she was in front of him on her knees! That explains Wright’s violent reaction a little better than what had at first been represented as a kiss and an embrace. From the beginning, Wright’s story made him sound like a Victorian husband who had stumbled upon his wife and a companion in a relatively innocent lip lock —  an act which should have merited nothing more than a shout demanding to know what the hell was going on.

Wright also admitted that he didn’t know whether he’d disarranged the clothing of his victims in the manner that they were found later by police!

Sounds to me like Wright had the presence of mind to set the scene of the crime to match his later statements to the cops. How would his conflicting testimony sound to the jury?

NEXT TIME: The verdict and aftermath of Paul Wright’s case.

The White Flame Murder, Part 2

ballisticsA quiet hilltop neighborhood in Glendale had been the scene of a violent double murder. Paul Wright, the president of United Airports Corporation of California, had confessed to the slaying of his wife, Evelyn, and his best friend, John B. Kimmel while blinded by a “white hot flame” of jealousy.

Wright may have been temporarily blinded by a white hot flame, but he’d regained his senses long enough to “Get Giesler” — that was Jerry Giesler the famed defense attorney. Giesler had obviously advised his client not to make any further statements; but Wright had already confessed, Giesler was going to have an uphill battle.

Paul Wright & Jerry Giesler [Photo courtesy UCLA digital collection.]

Paul Wright & Jerry Giesler [Photo courtesy UCLA digital collection.]

So far there were more questions than answers in the homicides; but at least the mystery of why Mrs. Wright had entered the Glendale mortuary as Mrs. Alta Vernon had been cleared up. Police announced that when she had first been taken in a fire department ambulance the driver, ignorant of her name, looked up the address in a directory and wrote down the name of a former tenant of the house. With the minor mystery solved, the cops could devote themselves to unraveling the larger conundrum of the piano bench killings.

Paul and Evelyn Wright had been having marital difficulties for months before the murders. Evelyn had written to her mother about her continuing estrangement from Paul. In her letters Evelyn revealed that money troubles and her fear that Paul was being unfaithful to her were driving a wedge between them.

Police detectives were attempting to reconcile the physical evidence at the scene of the murders to Paul Wright’s statement, and it was tough going. Wright stated that he was was about twenty feet away from Evelyn and John, who were in a clutch on a piano bench, when he started firing blindly — but tests showed that the bullets had entered the bodies at a 60 degree angle — in other words the shooter was practically standing over the couple.

As the investigators continued their examination of the crime scene a clearer picture of the night of the murders began to form, and it wasn’t pretty.helen wright

Wright’s story of being asleep on his bed for a while before he entered the living room and found his wife and best friend in flagrante delicto on a piano bench was refuted by investigators. Cops found a chair in the bedroom that was placed in front of a mirror which reflected the piano and bench that had been occupied by Evelyn and John. Also, the bed on which Paul was supposed to have been sleeping was undisturbed except for one side where police surmised he had probably sat and brooded before moving to the chair to watch the entire seduction unfold.

As Paul was being held in the County Jail awaiting arraignment he managed to make arrangements for Helen, his three year old daughter with Evelyn, to be sent to live with her uncle in Cleveland. Dr. Herbert Wright, brother of the accused, told reporters that Helen’s welfare was uppermost in her father’s mind, and that he considered it even more important than his own welfare.

gas chamberPaul’s future welfare was in jeopardy — he was going to be tried for double murder. On the advice of his attorney, Jerry Giesler, Wright entered a dual plea; not guilty, and not guilty by reason of insanity.

The prosecution demanded that Wright should be found guilty and his life snuffed out in California’s new lethal gas chamber. [The gas chamber had replaced the gallows in California in August 1937, just a couple of months before the murders of Evelyn Wright and John Kimmel.]

With Jerry Giesler mounting Wright’s defense the trial was going to be well worth watching — particularly when it was revealed that psychiatrists had been deposed concerning the possible effects on Wright’s mental condition of gassing during WWI, tuberculosis, and a sterilization operation he’d undergone in 1934 in order to spare Evelyn a second childbirth.

A vasectomy defense?

NEXT TIME: The White Flame Murder Case continues.

The White Flame Murder

00013010_geisler_lana

Lana Turner and Jerry Giesler. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

From the 1920s until his death in 1962, Jerry Giesler was the best known criminal defense attorney in the U.S. Whenever people with money found themselves on the wrong side of the law they knew to “Get Giesler”.

Having the accomplished attorney on your side didn’t guarantee your acquittal, but it definitely improved your chances.

Over his fifty year career Giesler represented hundreds of clients from Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane.

In November 1937, thirty-four year old Paul Wright, director of Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport) confessed to the murder of his wife Evelyn, and his best friend John Bryant Kimmel, United Air Lines operations manager. Wright said that he had committed the murders in the white flame of passion. Maybe. But once the white flame had dimmed to a flicker,  he’d still had the presence of mind to “Get Giesler”.

Bugsy Siegel and Jerry Geisler. [Photo courtesy of LAPL.]

Bugsy Siegel and Jerry Giesler. [Photo courtesy of LAPL.]

Giesler was going to have to work hard to earn his fee defending Wright — it seemed like a slam dunk for the prosecution. Wright had confessed, and in his initial statement to the cops he had stated that he’d fired his weapon blindly, making no attempt to aim it at either his wife or his best friend. But the physical evidence told a much different story — for a man who was firing in the white hot flame of jealousy he was a pretty damned good shot — eight of the nine rounds had found their mark in one or the other of his targets.

There were other troubling discrepancies in Wright’s confession. For instance Coroner Nance wanted to know why his office had not been notified of the crime until AFTER the body of Mrs. Wright had been embalmed. Nance also demanded to know why Mrs. Wright was registered at the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Glendale under the name of Alta Burnham.

violent death

Evelyn was already dead by the time her body arrived at the hospital where she was registered under a pseudonym  Joseph A. Zaremba of the Glendale mortuary was notified to collect the body. When he discovered that the dead woman had died as a result of gunshot wounds he asked the nurse if the Coroner had been notified, and he was assured that proper procedures had been followed. It wasn’t until four hours after the shooting that Zaremba was told by the Coroner that the victim of the shooting had been murdered and her name was not Alta Burnham.

Understandably Coroner Nance was not a happy man. He said:

“No one can delegate the duties of the Coroner.  I cannot have anyone disregarding the rules of this office.  Unless good reasons are show for this infraction of my rules and of the California Penal Code, I shall suspend the morticians responsible and take whatever steps I deem advisable in clearing up this situation.”

Giesler hadn’t gotten to Wright in time to prevent him from confessing, but once he took over the case Wright wasn’t doing any further talking. Giesler announced that:

“My client will not be a witness at the inquest nor at the preliminary hearing. He will enter a plea of not guilty. I am satisfied that when the true details all are disclosed there will be an entirely different light on this situation.”

A brief, but bizarre, tug-of-war erupted between Wright and his father-in-law, J. E. McBride, over possession of Evelyn’s body. Paul caved in quickly, but his request that Evelyn be buried in her favorite outfit, a two-piece black velvet suit, with a simple white collar, was respected. Her body was placed aboard a Santa Fe train bound for her hometown of Detroit.

Local L.A. newspapers speculated about the white flame that had burned so brightly in Paul that he was compelled to commit murder. What was it exactly that had set him off?

NEXT TIME: A piano bench ignites a murderous rage in Part 2 of the White Flame Murder.