The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart

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Doheny Chester Place mansion. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

It was spring 1925, and if the Doheny family didn’t have an uneasy feeling that they were being watched they should have. Three men were staking out the oil tycoon’s mansion on Chester Place and stalking his two grandchildren. The shadow men even followed the kids to church.  They were planning a kidnapping and the oil magnate’s family was an obvious target. But three men loitering in a parked in a car near the Doheny manse wouldn’t escape notice for long.

To kill time as they surveilled the Doheny grandchildren the conspirators discussed other possible victims, even bad guys need a Plan B.  Actress Pola Negri was one, and popular child star Jackie Coogan was another, but in the end Mary Pickford was considered to be the best victim. She was rich and she was more easily accessible than the Doheny grandchildren.

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Doug and Mary on Pickfair lawn. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

By 1925 Mary Pickford was five years into her marriage to her second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and she was one of the most beloved actresses on the planet. She was often referred to in newspapers and magazines as “Our Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart”  Pickford and Fairbanks were comfortably ensconced in their 18 acre Beverly Hills estate “Pickfair”. The home was described by Life Magazine as “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House, and much more fun.”  It wasn’t hyperbole; Pickfair’s guest list was every bit as stellar as that of the White House and guests included near neighbor Charlie Chaplin and some of the crowned heads of Europe.

pickford 1922Mary and Doug were frequently in the news and one item in particular caught the attention of the kidnap conspirators. They had read that the couple had over $2M in Liberty Bonds, and the kidnappers weren’t going to be greedy–they planned to demand only $200,000 [equivalent to $2.67 million in today’s money]. Surely Doug would pay the ransom to bring his wife home.

Director Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh [Photo courtesy of]

What the conspirators hadn’t counted on was that the police would be tipped off to their existence. They thought that they were being cagey, but hanging around outside Edward Doheny’s home was a sure way to get noticed.

Captain Home of the LAPD received information that some suspicious looking men had been seen outside the Chester Place home. The men didn’t appear to have business with the tycoon or any of his neighbors–one of whom was director Raoul Walsh (who was renting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s home).

The Captain sent two of his best detectives, Harry Raymond and George Mayer, to investigate. Raymond and Mayer spent several boring days and nights on a stake-out, but it paid off. One night they spotted a closed car and ran the license plate–it belonged to a man named C.Z. Stevens an automobile salesman who lived at 4671 Hollywood Blvd.

Stevens was followed by Captain Home and his detectives. The cops saw Stevens meet up with two men they later identified as Claud Arthur Holcomb and Adrian James Woods.  The trio appeared to be casing  the Pickford-Fairbanks studio as well as Edward Doheny’s home and it seemed a sure thing that they were up to no good.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

LAPD’s surveillance of the conspirators continued over several weeks. Captain Home told Edward Doheny about the plot and the multimillionaire contacted a couple of his former employees to guard him and his family.  The men were said to be proficient with firearms. Doheny was extremely security conscious–his family had been the target of kidnappers in the past. But the tycoon increased security following the births of his grandchildren.  Fortunately, his grand-kids were being tutored at home so they didn’t have to go out very often; however, the family was careful to keep to their routines so that nothing they did would signal to the would-be kidnappers that the plot had been discovered.

Mary and Doug were also told about the plot and they too cooperated fully with the law. LAPD officers guarded Mary, the grounds of Pickfair and were stationed to keep an eye on the studio.

As far as the law could determine the kidnappers had decided to focus their efforts on Mary, but the gang had vacillated between Pickford and Dohney for a few months so they could still change their minds.  And what if they abandoned both of those potential victims in favor of someone else?

The police were aware of the kidnappers plan but that didn’t mean that the targeted victims were safe, especially after it was discovered that one of the men had recently purchased a gun.

NEXT TIME: The kidnapping plot unravels.


The Kidnapping of Mary Skeele, Part 2

Mrs. Mary B. Skeele, accompanied by her husband, Dr. Walter P. Skeele, faces her abductors.

Mrs. Mary B. Skeele, accompanied by her husband, Dr. Walter P. Skeele, faces her abductors.

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Blindfolded, Mrs. Skeele is taken through house and grounds of Pasadena home by Chief of Detectives Taylor (left) and her son, Franklin Skeele.

Mary Skeele’s abductors had lured her out of her home using the tried and true method of many kidnappers — a faked family emergency. Mary had been told that her husband, Walter, had been in an accident and was in the emergency room of a local hospital. Of course upon receiving the news she didn’t hesitate to act, and when the stranger came to her door to escort her to the hospital she grabbed a wrap and went with him. Fortunately she’d called her son Franklin before she left the house, otherwise it may have taken longer for her family to realize that she’d been taken.

The strange man accompanied Mary to a car parked in front of her home. There was a woman in the auto waiting for them. Mary was seated between the two strangers and they drove away. When the car took a turn that Mary knew was in the opposite direction of the hospital, she demanded answers. When none were forthcoming she began to scream and fight.

The kidnappers couldn’t risk having Mary’s screams overheard, so the man took a blanket from the rear of the car and wrapped the small woman up in it. She struggled, but eventually she quieted down.

While Mary was being driven around Los Angeles, her husband Walter and her son Franklin had arrived home to find a ransom note pinned to the front door. The note was lengthy, rambling and, curiously, it had clearly been recycled  Wherever the word “daughter” appeared in the correspondence the word “wife”, clipped from a magazine, was pasted over it.wife daughter note

The strange recycled ransom note led cops to uncover the failed attempt to snatch Miss Isabel Smith. When Isabel related the tale of the man and his false mustache to detectives they realized that they weren’t dealing with professional gangsters or crooks, it was the worst of all possible scenarios — the kidnappers were bumbling amateurs!

The hole at the top of the bank with the empty cracker box and string attached.

The hole containing the empty cracker box.

The ransom note directed Dr. Skeele (Dean of the School of Music at USC), to deliver $10,000 in unmarked bills to a spot on Montecito Drive where he would find a cracker tin. Dr. Skeele was to deposit the cash in the the tin and place it in an adjacent hole.

The kidnapper’s note said that Mary would be held for twenty-four hours as a guarantee that Dr. Skeele had followed directions:

“Your wife will be held twenty-four hours to see if you have met these requirements. Remember, we are watching your every move and it is necessary that BE CAREFUL. You might make a move that would seem to you to be O.K., but at the same time it might prove fatal. Be wise, be careful.”

Mary’s kidnapping was highly publicized, which may have caused the kidnappers to panic and release her. At least they didn’t hurt her, she was dropped off within walking distance of her home after being held for twenty-four hours.

Investigators descended on the Skeele home with dozens of questions for Mary about her time in captivity. Even though her eyes has been covered, and cotton stuffed into her ears, Mary had noticed some important details about her captors and the place in which she’d been held. She had been able to peek underneath her blindfold and had seen a throw rug on the floor in the room in which she’d been confined, and she had also heard the ticking of a clock that chimed every hour and half-hour. The chime was distinctive and she felt sure that she’d be able to recognize it. Another detail that Mary reported was the sound of a train. She told detectives she thought the train was a mile or two distant from where she was kept.

LAPD's Highland Park station ca. 1930s. [Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.]

LAPD’s Highland Park station ca. 1930s. [Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.]

Shortly after Mary Skeele was returned home a postman and his wife who lived near the ransom drop alerted police to some suspicious goings on in their neighborhood. The tip led to the arrest of a couple, Luella Pearl Hammer and W.D. Howard, for questioning in the Skeele kidnapping case. Hammer and Howard were transported to the Highland Park police station. (Note: the current home of the L.A. Police Museum where I’m an archivist!)

Buster_TheGoatLuella had two homes, one near the money drop location and another which fit the description of the home in which Mary had been held. A police search uncovered a Royal typewriter (later identified as the machine responsible for the ransom note), and a clock that chimed the hour and half-hour. About two miles away there was a Santa Fe railway spur, which could account for the train sounds Mary had heard.

Among the items seized in the search was a an envelope in Luella’s desk upon which she had scrawled the names and addresses of several Hollywood stars — among them: Jackie Coogan, Mary Pickford, Constance Talmadge, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Adolphe Menjou and several others.kidnap list

When she was asked about the names on the envelope Luella first said she didn’t know anything about a list — then she suddenly blurted out:

“If there was such a list, it didn’t mean anything at all to anyone but me.”

Both Hammer and Howard confessed — although Howard seemed to want to assume most of the blame for the crime. He said:

“Well, I’m just in the middle again. And over a woman, too. A woman put me on the spot before. But I felt sorry for her because she was out of dough. I know I’m due for a ‘rap’, so I’ll plead guilty.”

hammer lawyerLuella began to vehemently deny that she’d confessed to the police. She agreed that she may have made some damaging admissions, but stated that she couldn’t recall what she’d said because the incessant questioning by police had unnerved her.

“I’m going to plead not guilty to this charge. I don’t know where anyone got the idea that I’m going to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, because I never said that and I haven’t any lawyer yet, so not one else was authorized to say so for me.”

One of Luella’s brothers-in-law retained an attorney for her — none other than Nathan O. Freedman, the same man who had defended Daisy De Voe. You may recall Miss De Voe —  she was tried for grand theft for taking items belonging to her employer, Clara Bow.

What defense would Freedman offer on Luella Pearl Hammer’s behalf?

NEXT TIME: The trial and case wrap-up.