The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Conclusion

pickford ovation

Mary Pickford leaves the courtroom after testifying. Deputy Sheriff Joe Coyle “clearing the way” for Mary. On Mary’s left is John G. Mott, her attorney.
Inset: Mary on the witness stand.

On July 29, 1925, Mary Pickford made her much-anticipated appearance in the courtroom where the three men who had plotted to kidnap her were being tried. The star arrived shortly after 2 p.m. accompanied by her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Mrs. Charolotte Pickford, her mother, and Robert Fairbanks, Doug’s brother.

Mary’s testimony would offer virtually nothing to cement the case against the kidnappers; not that it mattered–all anyone had to do was to imagine America’s Sweetheart in the clutches of the three desperadoes to want to see them locked up forever.

"Mary and Doug" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

“Mary and Doug” premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The morning of Pickford’s appearance had been a long one for Bailiff Charles Bryant and Deputy Sheriffs Joe Coyle and Henry Dennison as they struggled to keep the crowd (estimated at nearly 1000) contained; but it was no use and the scene outside of the Hall of Records resembled one of Mary’s movie premieres.

Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN emulates real life newspaper photogs trying to get a scoop.

Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN emulates real life newspaper photogs trying to get a scoop.

Cameras whirred and clicked as newspaper photogs captured the moments of Pickford’s arrival.  The star, attired in a dark brown, two-piece suit, brown velour hat, dark brown shoes and tan silk hose, made her way into the building occasionally reaching out to shake a proffered hand or smile at one of her admirers.

Mary Katherine Clough leading the way to meet Pickford--eight stories above Broadway.

Mary Katherine Clough leading the way to meet Pickford–eight stories above Broadway.

Several women, not close enough to catch a glimpse of Pickford on the street, took their lives in their hands when they climbed out over the window sill and onto the little roof that bridged the gap between the two wings of the Hall of Records, eight stories above the ground.

A janitor attempted to shoo the women off of their perch, but they were as persistent as downtown pigeons. The women were identified as Mary Kathryn Clough, Catherine C. Marshall and Mrs. Alice Spellman (all three serving as jurors on a manslaughter case being tried in the building). Miraculously they managed to get to the judge’s window where Mary and Doug were waiting to be escorted to the courtroom. Mary Clough, the de facto leader of the intrepid trio of climbers, sighed “She is the sweetest thing!” and explained that all she wanted to do was to shake hands with her golden-haired idol.

Mary thanked the women for making the Herculean effort to meet her. That they had literally risked death seemed to delight rather than horrify Pickford who said: “It is wonderful to feel that they are so interested.  It makes you thrill–inside.  You know, we live in another world, apart, and so much enthusiasm is encouraging.”

Fortunately no one died.

Once inside the packed courtroom Mary was called to the witness chair and testified that she was at the studio on the day the men were arrested outside the gate. That particular point had been a bone of contention between the prosecution and the defense. The defense wanted to impress upon the jury that although the men had been at the studio they couldn’t have kidnapped Pickford if she wasn’t even there–but that tactic failed as did every other straw that S.S. Hahn grasped on behalf of the accused. The judge’s decision to allow the confessions was a particularly bitter defeat.

The defense rallied as much as they could. Their argument was two-pronged; the confessions should be inadmissible because they had been coerced, and the charges were a farce because the corpus delicti had not been established.  The judge delivered the coup de grace when he ruled that the confessions could be admitted as evidence.  The rest of the trial was a fait acompli.

On August 14, 1925 C.Z. Stevens and C.A. Holcomb were sentenced to from ten to fifty years in San Quentin for conspiracy to kidnap Mary Pickford for $200,000 ransom. The third defendant, A.J. Wood, was exonerated.

Stevens’ wife Pauline took the verdict hard. Tears ran down her face as she listened to the jury foreman pronounce the sentence.  She knew that she would lose her husband for a decade or more. It must have seemed particularly cruel to the couple to be separated once again–they had only been reunited for a year or so since losing touch during WWI.

The defense team immediately began to craft an appeal. They intended to use the same arguments they’d used unsuccessfully at trial: the coerced confessions and the contention that no overt act had been proved.

In June 1926 the Second District Court of Appeal handed down their opinion–Charles Z. Stevens and Claude Arthur Holcomb were guilty of conspiracy. The court agreed in part with the the defense when they concurred that the purchase of a revolver by Adrian Wood, who had been acquitted at trial, was not an overt act as had been charged.

However, the court asserted that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction on the conspiracy charge, and the fact that the conspirators had waited outside Mary’s studio in an automobile was proof of an overt act.

Stevens and Holcomb left for San Quentin on September 3, 1926 to begin their sentences.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 3

There may have been no corpus delicti and no overt act but Charles Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods were going to be tried for conspiracy to commit kidnapping anyway.

kidnappers pic

The accusations against C.Z. were taking a toll on his wife. The sight of her husband behind bars was too much for her–she collapsed in the County Jail and had to be taken home.

While Pauline was getting over the initial shock of seeing C.Z. in jail, a Sheriff’s deputy had been attempting to serve Mary with a subpoena. Mary’s fame gave her privileges not enjoyed by mere mortals. The subpoena was supposed be delivered personally but the deputy was unable to get anywhere near the star. Finally, in frustration, he handed the summons to Mary’s secretary.  To ease judicial fears her attorney guaranteed her attendance in court if needed.

Mary Pickford conferring with defense attorney S.S. Hahn. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Mary Pickford conferring with defense attorney S.S. Hahn. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

The trial was originally scheduled to be held in Department 17 in the Hall of Justice on Buena Vista Street, but it was deemed too small to accommodate the crowd that was expected to turn out to see Mary and Doug.  The trial was moved to the larger courtroom of Judge York on the eighth floor of the Hall of Records.

L.A. County Courthouse flanked by Hall of Records (L). [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

L.A. County Courthouse flanked by Hall of Records (L). [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Attorneys on both sides began trying their cases in the press.  Some things never change.  S.S. Hahn told reporters that he had new evidence that he would reveal later, and the Deputy District Attorney announced that he was ready to unequivocally prove the State’s case.

Glen G. Gravatt, a police department stenographer and secretary to Chief of Detectives Home, was the first to take the stand. He read from notes he had taken while he was listening through a physician’s stethoscope under the door of the room in the Hayward Hotel where the conspirators were meeting. With the stethoscope he was able to eavesdrop on Stevens, Holcomb, Woods and another possible conspirator, Louis Geck (aka “Louis the Spider”), and he got an earful.

As Gravatt continued to listen and take notes Geck asked Claude “Fat” Holcomb what he’d do if Mary Pickford “…picked up a big .45″. Holcomb replied: “I’d have to shoot her just like anybody else, that’s all.”

In an effort to speed up the trial the defense attorneys agreed to combine their efforts and offer the same defense for each of the men simultaneously. The attorneys also agreed to divvy up the responsibilities: S.S. Hahn would conduct all the direct examinations, Public Defender Aggeler would handle the cross-examinations and John A. Holland would prepare the rebuttal.

Defense attorneys Vercoe, Holland, Hahn and Aggeler [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Defense attorneys Vercoe, Holland, Hahn and Aggeler [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

The defense made a motion to acquit the defendants based on an interpretation of the laws governing conspiracy.  They argued that because no overt act had been committed the charges should be dropped and the men released. But the defense arguments didn’t pass muster and the trial went forward.

third degree

Failing to get the kidnapping charges dropped, S.S. Hahn then accused Detective Harry Raymond of beating confessions out of Stevens and Holcomb. Jurors leaned forward in their seats as Holcomb told his story:

“I was brought down to Chief Home’s office and Harry Raymond said to me, ‘Fat, we want a statement out of you and we want to get it free and voluntarily.'”

Holcomb continued:

“We went there (the movie studio) with Louie (aka The Spider) to see a friend of his about a job.  Then he (Raymond) struck me in the nose. I threw up my hand to protect my face and Mayer stopped me.  Mayer then took me to the wash bowl and washed the blood from my face and coat by using water and paper.  The George Home came in.  He looked at Raymond and smiled.  Then he went out and bought me some cigarettes.”Holcomb said that he had made and signed his confession because he was beaten up and because he was afraid that Raymond would “stomp the hell out of me every day until I did.”

Was there any truth to Holcomb’s accusations?  It’s difficult to say. During the 1920s it would not have been unheard of for a detective to smack a suspect around to gain a confession; but unfortunately for Holcomb and the others it was incumbent upon the defense to prove that the beatings had actually occurred–which they failed to do.

NEXT TIME:  Mary and Doug in court and the outcome of the trial.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 2

Los Angeles Police investigators had been following three men whom they felt sure were conspiring to kidnap either actress, and “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford, or the grandchildren of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny.

Mary_Pickford_-_Aug_1916_Motion_PictureCaptain Home and Detectives Harry Raymond and George Mayer of the LAPD had learned that at least one of the conspirators had recently purchased a gun. The officers followed C.Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods to the Hayward Hotel  downtown and from an adjoining room they eavesdropped as the plot was discussed. The men had decided to take Mary Pickford, rather than the Doheny grandchildren, in part because they knew that they’d have an easier time grabbing Pickford off the street.

Their plan was ingenious. There was a Shriner convention in town and so the kidnappers were going to don Fezzes, decorate their car with banners and pretend to be fun-loving conventioneers. They would follow Mary when she left the studio and before she reached Pickfair they would force her car into a curb and grab her. They’d be armed, just in case there was any resistance, and Fairbanks would be contacted by letter. The goal was to walk away with $200,000.

Shriners,_1925

Los Angeles’ Shriner’s Arab Patrol in costume in the midst dance with people looking on, circa 1925 [Photo courtesy Wikipedia]

There was no way that the cops were going to allow three men, at least one of whom would be armed, to get anywhere near Pickford so they had to act fast.  Stevens and Holcomb were arrested outside of the studio and their co-conspirator,  Woods, was busted at his home in Alhambra.

Woods was the youngest of the gang and he confessed to his part in the plan immediately. Holcomb followed suit, with Stevens being the last domino to fall.pauline stevens

Pauline, Stevens wife of just one year, wouldn’t believe that her husband could be party to a kidnap plot, let alone be the “brains” of the operation. She said:

“Oh, it must be wrong; there must be some mistake–he couldn’t have done that!  We were pals, he was the best and most honorable of husbands.”

Pauline told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she and her husband had met on the battlefields of WWI–he was a lieutenant in the aviation corps and she was a Red Cross nurse.  It’s nearly impossible to conduct a romance during wartime, and Pauline and C.Z. lost touch. After the war Pauline settled in Los Angeles and eventually C.Z. did too. By a happy coincidence he located her in the city and the couple resumed their courtship, and then married.

Other than being occasionally moody and depressed, as were many veterans of the “Great War”, C.Z. was described by Pauline as being a model husband, ambitious and hardworking. Being willing to work doesn’t guarantee success and C.Z. had had some business reversals before he and Pauline reconnected. He had worked in a Mexican oil field for a Texas-based company and by the time he returned Dallas in 1921 he had saved $10,000. He used the money to invest in a gas station but the business tanked and C.Z. lost every dime.

When she was shown photographs of the other alleged conspirators she recognized Holcomb as a man C.Z. had employed as a truck driver a couple of years earlier in yet another failed business venture.

A man down on his luck, as C.Z. was, may have easily become desperate enough to commit a crime.

A special session of the grand jury was convened, and with three confessions in hand the district attorney asked for indictments. Mary Pickford, who was working on a new film, was too busy to attend the courtroom proceedings, but Doug was there. Fairbanks testified to having seen two of the three conspirators loitering outside the gates of the studio.

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Captain Holmes and Detectives Raymond and Mayer each took the stand and identified the men and testified to the plot they had overheard.

The grand jury handed down three indictments–Stevens, Holcomb and Woods were held on $50,000 bond each.

The case was a complicated one because it appeared that corpus delicti had not been established. Corpus delicti is the principle that a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.  Additionally, the men no overt act had been committed by the men.  Could they really be tried?

Pauline was taking no chances that her husband might be released on a legal technicality.  She hired a well-known local attorney, S.S. Hahn, to represent him.  The three conspirators, if tried and found guilty, could conceivably spend 50 years in prison. That’s hard time by anyone’s  measure.

NEXT TIME: The case against the kidnap plotters continues.

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.

00063861_mary doug home

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 raoulwalsh.com]

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.

kidnap scenes2

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.