The Death of Love, Conclusion

Helen -- out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen — out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Within hours of her conviction Helen had willed herself into a coma, just like she said she could do. Inmates in the jail who passed by Helen made cracks, to which she was oblivious, about the “sleeping beauty”. Maybe they were jealous, because if Helen regained consciousness she’d be svelte.  The first 5 days of her coma she lost 10 lbs! Nothing gets results like a diet of despair and guilt.

The jail physician, Dr. Benjamin Blank, examined Helen and declared that:

“She is suffering from a catatonic condition, a form of stupor brought on by extreme mental strain.”

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

He further stated:

“It is possible that the condition was brought on by fear during her trial that she might be hanged if convicted, or fear of serving the second-degree murder sentence fixed by the jury.”

A TIME Magazine article described Helen’s condition as:

“a fit of sulks so profound that half a dozen solemn psychiatrists could not even agree on a name for it, variously calling it ‘hysterical fugue,’ ‘split personality,’ ‘dementia praecox,’ ‘triumph of the subconscious,’ ‘self-imposed hypnosis,’ ‘voluntary stupor.'”

Legally, Helen could not be sentenced for her crime while in an insensible state. Her condition put justice for Harry on hold indefinitely.

Judge Smith was skeptical about Helen’s coma, and he wasn’t the only one.  Matron Vada Sullivan, who had seen many female prisoners during her tenure at the jail said:

“Mrs. Love is faking.  She has been causing us considerable trouble since the jury returned the verdict that found her guilty of second degree murder.  She has been stubborn and despondent.”

After several continuances of sentence, Judge Smith ordered court to be held in the hospital so that Helen’s reactions could be observed. There wasn’t much to see. Doctors stuck her with pins and otherwise abused the unconscious woman but she responded only when Dr. Samuel M. Marcus, the fifth psychiatrist to examine her, massaged her head and mentioned Harry’s name.  Helen muttered: “Please don’t go away, Harry!”

officials-study-helenHelen became known as “the husk woman”, and she remained unconscious for 158 hours.

After slapping and shaking her, which one can only hope weren’t the usual psychiatric treatments for a comatose patient, Dr. Marcus was finally successful in awakening Helen by whispering in her ear:

“Here I come—that Dr. Marcus again—I’m knocking, knocking at that door—let me in now, Helen! Let me in, I say! I am going to get through that door so open it! Wake up!”

Helen did awake, while film crews recorded everything and her attorney stood by. It took 58 seconds for her to rise, and when she did she was terrified and begged for water. When Dr. Marcus asked if she was happy to be back in the land of the living she sobbed, ‘No, Oh, I haven’t done anything wrong! Let me go back!”

Helen, passed out in her mother's arms.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen, passed out in her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy LAPL.

She felt much better the next day. She said to the assembled newspapermen: “Don’t I look beautiful this morning?”

Helen was ravenously hungry. She’d been fed intravenously while she was out, but once she was upright she was treated to chicken broth with rice, buttered toast and two glasses of milk.

When asked about rumors that she was going to lapse into another neurotic coma, Helen smiled. She did her nails, wrote letters, read her fan mail, and expressed her disappointment at not being able to play golf with Jailer Clem Peoples.

She was sure she could beat him because she had once driven a golf ball 240 yards. She said, “Can you imagine that? And me a girl?”

When all was said and done, Helen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from seven years to life in prison. Helen left HOJJ (Hall of Justice Jail,) for Tehachapi dressed as though off to a fashionable tea. She was wearing a black crepe dress embroidered with silver flowers and a black cloth coat.  Around her shoulders was a silver fox fur. She wore a black straw hat which, she said, she had bought in Paris. Black shoes, gloves, and purse completed her off-to-prison ensemble. Women dressed up for everything in those days, and a trip to prison was no exception. It paid to look your best.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen did well at Tehachapi, she even won first place in a baking contest for her coconut cake.

While Helen was baking awarding winning cakes in prison, her mother-in-law, Cora, was embarking on a scorched earth policy where her former daughter-in-law was concerned.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is...  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is… Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora went to court to prove that there was no evidence of a marriage between Harry and Helen.  She got an injunction barring Helen from representing herself as Harry’s widow or using the name Love.

In an unrivaled act of optimism, Helen applied for parole in November 1938 under her maiden name, but was told she would have to wait two years before applying again. Not unreasonable given that she had shot a man to death a year earlier.

In 1940 the litigious Cora sued Rio Grande Oil Co., Richfield Oil Co., KNX and CBS for $1M in a libel suit.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen's trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen’s trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora claimed her character had been defamed in a broadcast of the radio program “Calling All Cars” (an episode entitled The Silver Cord which aired on January 13, 1939.) I haven’t found any record of her suit, so I don’t know if she won.  But I doubt it. Listen to the episode and decide for yourself if she had a legitimate complaint. Actually, everyone should have complained. The heavily hyperbolic episode didn’t flatter any of the characters.

If Helen was paroled in 1940 it didn’t make news; however, she was eventually released. It is difficult to trace women, especially in years past when they routinely took their husband’s surnames. That said, I think I’ve been able to ferret out a few bits of information on Helen.  As far as I can tell she was married a total of four times (three if you agree with Cora Love who adamantly denied Helen was ever legally married to Harry). As far as I know, Helen managed not to kill any of her other husbands or lapse into any more self-induced comas.

Helen Wills passed away in San Francisco, California on November 1, 2000 at the ripe old age of 95.

As for Cora Love, she passed away in Riverside, California on 17 Nov 1950 ten days following her 85th birthday.

The Kidnapping of Mary Skeele: Finale

Mary identifies her kidnappers. [Photo courtesy UCLA Digital Archive]

Mary identifies her kidnappers, Luella Pearl Hammer and E.H. Van Dorn. [Photo courtesy UCLA Digital Archive]

The first move that Luella Pearl Hammer’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, Esq., made in her defense was to gather a team of alienists (psychiatrists) to assess her mental condition. Freedman was spinning Hammer’s involvement in the attempted kidnapping of Isabel Smith, and the kidnapping of Mary Skeele, as the result of her diminished mental capacity. And while he was at it, Freedman was trying to make it seem as though Hammer was under the influence of her partner in crime, W.D. Howard, whose real name was discovered to be E.H. Van Dorn.van dorn

Luella was working overtime to sell her insanity to the media, and as a result to potential jurors. While in the slammer she’d managed to get herself locked up in solitary confinement for hurling a bowl of soup at a fellow prisoner.

Luella and Freedman had to have been crushed when the shrinks came back with a report declaring the kidnapper sane. Well, maybe not completely sane — she was characterized by one of the alienists as having a “hysterical nature” and by another as “constitutionally psychopathic” — but in their estimation she was legally sane and good enough to stand trial. Despite her clean bill of mental health, Luella and her attorney were still going forward with a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Luella may not have been insane, but she acting the part in court.  She laughed out loud several times during Mary Skeele’s testimony, and perhaps because her education was in music, not psychology, she woefully misjudged the effect that her inappropriate sniggering, chuckling and arm waving was having on the jury. She wasn’t making any points with the people who would decide her fate.

Surprise witness -- the clock!  [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Archive]

Surprise witness — the clock! [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Archive]

However, Mary Skeele made an excellent impression on the jury. Her testimony was straight forward and filled with details like a description of the throw rug in the room where she was held.

The surprise witness at the trial was the clock with the distinctive chime that Mary had heard every half hour and hour during her captivity. Despite Luella’s disturbing courtroom behavior, Mary told her story with dignity.

Hammer probably wasn’t acting on the day when E.H. Van Dorn stood up in court and announced that he wished to plead guilty. She moaned, and gesticulated, and created such a ruckus that  she had to be removed from the courtroom, and the proceedings had to be delayed. Hammer’s reaction was dramatic enough to prompt her lawyer to call in the shrinks to re-examine her.

Mary Skeele recreates her kidnapping for detectives. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Archive.

Mary Skeele recreates her kidnapping for detectives. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Archive.]

As far as his guilty plea was concerned, Van Dorn had a caveat, he wanted to make a statement. Judge Aggeler accepted Van Dorn’s plea, and he got to make his statement.

He told the court that the kidnapping was all his idea and that his sweetheart, Luella, was innocent. In fact, Van Dorn said, Luella had been sick in bed during the time of Mary’s kidnapping.

While Van Dorn was throwing himself under a bus to save his lady love, she was being examined by four alienists — she was once again determined to be sane. In their opinion Hammer’s actions in court, grimacing at the jury and laughing out loud, were motivated by her desire to manipulate the twelve citizens in the jury box into believing that she was non compos mentis.

Van Dorn’s misguided attempt to play Sir Lancelot to Hammer’s slightly demented Guinevere proved to be an utter failure. He really shouldn’t have expected more — after all, he couldn’t even keep his false mustache in place during the failed attempt to kidnap Isabel Smith.

Maybe Luella was crazy after all.

Maybe Luella was crazy after all.

Each of the bungling kidnappers received a sentence of from ten years to life for the abduction of Mary Skeele.

Because of Luella’s double plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity she was given a sanity trial following her conviction. She took the opportunity to give her final performance as a mad woman — she hummed a tune, made meaningless motions with her hands, and waved good-bye to a group of curious spectators.

E.H. Van Dorn went before the parole board in 1941, but his request for release was denied. He applied for parole again in 1944 — I don’t know if he was freed.

I haven’t been able to find any information on Luella after she was sent to prison.

NOTE: This case was recreated for the radio show, CALLING ALL CARS