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

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.

The Kidnapping of Mary Skeele

Mrs. Mary Skeele

Widespread lawlessness and violence characterized the U.S. in the 1930s: bank robberies, gangland killings, and kidnappings frequently made headlines. The most infamous kidnapping of the period was the 1932 abduction of twenty month old Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. on March 1, 1932. But the Lindbergh baby was only one of many victims of ransom kidnapping.double_action_gang_193712

On February 5, 1933 Mrs. Mary Bosworth Skeele, 65 year old wife of Dr. Walter F. Skeele, Dean of USC’s College of Music, became the victim of a kidnapping. She was lured out of her home by a cruel hoax.

Mary received an anonymous telephone call informing her that her husband was in the North Side Emergency Hospital. The caller said:

“Dr. Skeele has been injured in an automobile accident. He has been taken to the North Side Emergency Hospital at 287 San Fernando Road. We’re coming in a car to take you there.”

While she waited for her ride to the hospital Mary phoned her son Franklin and told him where she was going and why. Then the call was interrupted — Mary said:

“A car has just stopped in front of the house and some one is knocking at the door. I suppose they’ve come to get me. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

Franklin rushed to meet his mother at the hospital, but when he arrived he was perplexed to discover that no one answering his father’s description had been admitted. He waited a few minutes for Mary, then he telephoned the church where he knew that his father usually played organ on Sunday evenings.

Franklin was relieved when his father answered the phone, but after conversing for a few moments Dr. Skeele and his son realized that something was horribly wrong — Mary was in trouble — and they immediately notified the police. Arriving home, father and son found a 700 word ransom note — probably the most verbose ransom note ever written. The note had been typed but in some places words clipped from newspapers and magazines had been pasted between the typewritten lines. There were instructions to a drop-off location where $10,000 [equivalent to $178,589.23 current USD]  was to be placed in a cracker box left by the kidnappers. There was also an admonition not to play tricks, or there would be dire consequences.

The first major clue in the case was that the address on the envelope containing the ransom note had been cut from a page in the College of Music year book; and, even better, the year book had been mailed to a limited number of subscribers the week prior to the crime. The cops were also intrigued by the fact the word “daughter” had been replaced by “wife” in the ransom notes — maybe Mary hadn’t been the kidnapper’s first choice.

Sure enough, the police investigation revealed that Miss Isabel Smith, 29 year old daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Merle N. Smith, was to have been the first victim.

pasadena plot2The M.O. was virtually the same in both cases. Isabel had received a phone call, meant to lure her from the house, from a man purporting to be a representative from her father’s church:

“This is Mr. Johnson of the church. We are arranging a surprise party for your father and mother and there is to be a committee meeting tonight and we would like you to attend. We’ll pick you up.”

Isabel asked the man to hold the line for a moment. She turned to her aunt, Anne Wolfe, and told her about the man on the phone. Miss Wolfe was leery:

“Find out who he is. You won’t go until you are sure of his identity.”

The man who had phoned arrived a short time later at the front door to collect Isabel, but Anne wasn’t about to allow her niece to go alone. The two women accompanied “Mr. Johnson” to a medium sized sedan parked at the curb. Inside the car was a woman. Anne asked:

“Is this Mrs. Johnson?”

The woman in the car barely nodded in acknowledgement and buried her face in the fur collar of her coat, as if she was attempting to conceal her identity.

The man threw open both doors of the sedan and reached in the back for a lap robe. He grabbed Isabel’s arm to assist her into the car, but meanwhile the light rain that was falling had loosened the spirit gum by which “Mr. Johnson” had attached a false mustache to his upper lip!

Isabel got one look at the cockeyed ‘stache and said:

“I don’t know you. I’m not going with you. And besides, your mustache is slipping.”

Isabel pulled her arm free of the man’s grip, and both she and Anne made a dash for the house. They ran inside, slammed the front door, and then heard the “Johnson’s” sedan roar off into the night.

Isabel and Anne had just had a close encounter with two of the most inept kidnappers in the history of Los Angeles.

NEXT TIME: Mary in captivity.