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.
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.
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.
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.
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