Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women: Part 1

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

In the spring of 1935, Aggie Underwood wrote a three part series of articles for the Herald-Express on the women incarcerated in Tehacahpi.  People have always been fascinated by the exploits of bad girls.

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There’s been a rise in the number of women committing violent felonies in recent years, but for many decades women behaving that badly were an anomaly. Alienists (psychiatrists) and penologists had various theories on the reasons why a woman might commit a crime as heinous as murder.

In 1924, Sigmund Freud suggested that menstruation reminded women of their inferiority and inflamed them toward revenge!

Frankly, Freud’s comment inflames me and if he wasn’t already long dead…

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Whether a woman killed because she was in a homicidal PMS rage or not, there was an ongoing debate on the punishment of women. Historically women have, quite literally, gotten away with murder.

In his 1931 criminology course, Dr. Paul E. Bowers seemed saddened by the fact that so few deserving women were executed. He said:

“We hate to send a woman to the penitentiary; we hate to electrocute or hang women.  We think its the wrong thing to do.  We have to admire Al Smith, when Ruth Snyder was convicted of killing the husband of this other woman. Al Smith didn’t given her a reprieve and allowed her to go to her electrocution, as she should have gone. Many women have been convicted of murder, but it is only very rarely that women are hung or electrocuted for committing murder.”

Dr. Bowers was a little confused about the facts of the case. Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, were convicted and executed for the murder of her husband; but Bowers was not at all confused about his opinion regarding female murderers — execute them!

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Ruth Snyder in the chair. As an aside, the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray case inspired James M. Cain to write his powerful noir novel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Below is the first part of Aggie Underwood’s series on the lives of the forgotten women of Tehachapi just as it appeared in newspapers in 1935.

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Tehachapi, Cal., Apr. 30 —

Nestled in a range of snow covered mountains, eight and one-half miles from the nearest town, is California’s home for forgotten women.

Here are Clara Phillips, the celebrated “Hammer Murderer”; Louie Peete, Nellie Madison, Josephine Valenti, Anna De Ritas, Burmah White and 140 others who ignored man-made laws and are spending long, long years in a miniature city of their own.

Ruller of this city surrounded by a high wire fence, is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works directly under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, Warden James B. Holohan.

For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged “bad” and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]

—–

Miss Jackson moved the first group of girls from San Quentin into Tehachapi in August, 1933, and by November of the same year all of the inmates of the state prison had been transferred.

Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider.

The buildings which comprise the prison group, are in an administration building, detention building and two cottages.

All work in the prison is volunteer–none compulsory and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best.

Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking and table serving, man secretarial and ome even beauty work.

There is no official chef at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks even to the extent of making all of the bread that is used by the inmates

—–

Six a.m. is regulation “get-up” time; 9 p.m. lights out.

Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be een leaving the various buildings in which they are house for the rabbitry, the chicken yard, the barn yard where there are several cow to be milked.

And, as groups gather around electric washing machines, or in the yard planting trees, or in the chicken yard, tending the fowls, loud shouts of laughter may be heard ringing through the echoing mountainous section.

No supervisor stands over these 145 women to drive them to their tasks. No one waits around to scold or correct them. They are on an honor system to do their best, work in their best manner, and according to Miss Jackson, this system succeeds remarkably.

Each building has a nicely furnished recreation room where the girls gather when their daily tasks are completed, to play cards, checkers, sew or play the piano. But, because the architects failed to provide for an auditorium, there are no picture shows because there is no room large enough to seat all the inmates.

Just as Sing Sing, the famous eastern prison for men has its outstanding football team, so does Tehachapi have its baseball team.

In fact, two teams have been organized, Joephine Valenti, who gains prominence in Los Angeles when she was convicted of burning her small baby to death, is captain of one team and Pauline Walker, a colored girl, is captain of the second team.

The play every Sunday, with all of the inmate gathering on the sidelines to do the rooting.

At preent the field isn’t much good, but the girls are gradually doing their own work and making a real diamond.

They have made their own uniforms–white bloues and black bloomers with red stripes down the sides, and, according to Miss Jackson, they welcome the opportunity to don these costumes and break the monotony of every day life.

Each goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs–a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their trangresoins of the law. yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.

—-

NEXT TIME: Agness Underwood’s series on the “city of forgotten women” continues.

L.A.’s Bonnie & Clyde – Burmah & Thomas White

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During the summer of 1933, while Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow were on the lam in the midwest, Los Angeles newlyweds Burmah White, a nineteen year old hairdresser  and her husband  twenty-eight year old Thomas, an ex-con, were also on the run.

Most newlyweds don’t spend their honeymoon on a crime spree, but Burmah and Thomas were not most newlyweds.

The lovebirds perpetrated ten stick-ups – seven in a single evening (netting them about $220); but the worst of their crimes was the shooting of a popular elementary school teacher, Cora Withington, and a former publisher, Crombie Allen.

Crombie was teaching Cora how to drive his new car. They were stopped at a light when a car driven by a young blonde woman pulled up alongside them, and a man brandishing a gun jumped out of the vehicle.  The bandit pointed his weapon at Cora’s head and said: “Shell out, sweetheart; and that goes for you, too, bo.” Just as Cora and Crombie were handing over their valuables there was an explosion – it was a gunshot – and it tore through Miss Withington’s left eye, came out near the right eye and ripped a hole in Allen’s neck.  Despite his injury, Allen memorized the license plate number of the bandit’s car!

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Left: Crombie Allen, retired publisher (right) testifying before Deputy Coroner Montfort at the inquest. Allen identified White as the man who robbed him and Miss Cora Withington, shooting the latter. He could not identify Mrs. White. Right–Mrs. Burmah White, widow of the dead bandit; Policewoman Lula Lane, and Mrs. Violet Dillon, sister of the dead man, at the inquest.

Both victims would survive their gunshot wounds, but the schoolteacher would be permanently blinded.

Chief of Police James Davis immediately instituted a blockade in an attempt to snare the bandits.

LAPD Chief Ed "Two Gun" Davis

LAPD Chief Ed “Two Gun” Davis

The blockade consisted of random stops and searches of pedestrians and vehicles, particularly during the wee hours of the morning when, according to Davis, “the more callous criminals are abroad.”

Chief “Two Gun” Davis wasn’t a big fan of the 4th Amendment. He’d said that constitutional rights were of “no benefit to anybody but crooks and criminals.”

Davis would use a similar blockade strategy later, in 1936, in an attempt to stem the tide of Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Whatever his shortcomings, Davis wasn’t wrong about callous criminals working in the city – they appeared to be everywhere. Masked robbers broke into the home of a cop and robbed him at gunpoint; while across town a woman in her 50s held up a rooming house manager who was showing her an apartment.

While the LAPD continued to hunt the Whites, teachers and parents at the Third Street School established a fund to aid Cora Withington, who would not be able to return to teaching because of her injuries.

Things would end badly for the newlyweds.whitedeath

The cops located their car in a parking lot adjacent to an apartment at 236 S. Coronado Street.  An officer dressed in a mechanic’s uniform staked out the vehicle and watched as Burmah got into it and drove it into a garage while her husband held the door open for her.  Two officers entered the hallway of the apartment and confronted Thomas White, who made the mistake of attempting to shoot it out rather than surrender. He died after taking two bullets through his heart.

While Thomas White was dropping to the floor dead, Burmah was on another floor attempting either to commit suicide or escape by hurling herself out of a window.  Police grabbed her before she could jump and took her to jail.

Aggie Underwood interviews mourner at funeral of evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson. [LAPL Photo]

Aggie Underwood interviews mourner at funeral of evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson. [LAPL Photo]

Burmah’s lack of remorse and abrasive demeanor earned the nineteen year old widow a guilty conviction on eleven felony counts and she was sentenced to a term of from 30 years to life.

At her sentencing Judge Bowron said that Burmah had been “an accomplice in the heartless and wanton shooting of Miss Withington and Crombie Allen”, and that her deliberate intent demonstrated how “utterly abandoned and ruthless she is despite her years”.

Burmah began serving her time at San Quentin, but was ultimately transferred to the Women’s Prison at Tehachapi. Herald-Express reporter, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, interviewed Burmah in prison and described her as “slightly defiant, cynical, and egotistical”. A few years in Tehachapi would mellow Burmah considerably.tehachapi_opening1932

Burmah was denied parole a few times before she was discharged on December 1, 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She’d served less than eight years for her part in the 1933 crime spree.  Upon her release, Burmah vanished from public view.

NEXT TIME: A Hollywood love triangle ends in death.

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?”

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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.