The Lawn Mower Made Me Do It


At 1:30 p.m. on April 28, 1932, Mrs. Pauline Pohl was pushing her hand mower back and forth across her lawn on when a shot rang out and a bullet whizzed past her head. She abandoned her yard work immediately and ran into her house.

She telephoned the police:

The woman next door is trying to kill me,” she gasped. “Send somebody, quick!”

While Pauline was hunkered down inside her house praying that no further shots would be fired at her, Ella May Thompson, the woman who was trying to kill her was standing in the bathroom of her small frame bungalow, pistol in hand, glaring at Mrs. Pohl’s house. She had shot through her bathroom at the neighbor.

If Ella was driven to a homicidal rage by the gentle whirring of the metal blades on Pauline’s hand mower, she’d never have been able to cope with the constant din of modern leaf blowers and power mowers. But she had nothing to compare the hand mower to–all she knew was that the sound it made was driving her mad and if she had to kill her neighbor to get some peace she’d do it.

Still gripping the pistol, Thompson whirled around to face Josie Norton the practical nurse who had been caring for her for the past few months.

“You get out of here…pack your clothes and get out and stay out.”

Norton swiftly complied.

Radio Officers Paul Donath and Percy Gunby were cruising nearby when they received the relayed distress call placed by Mrs. Pohl.  They sped to the address on Marsh Street and hurried to the front door of Miss Thompson’s home.

Officer Donath jumped out of the patrol car and rushed up to Thompson’s door and rang the bell.  Peering through the glass he saw Ella raise her pistol, but he couldn’t move out of the way in time to avoid the bullet that struck him in the chest.

Donath toppled backward from the porch as his partner ran to his side and tugged him across the lawn out of the range of fire.  Shooting the policeman didn’t snap Ella to her senses, far from it.  She shouted through the shattered glass in the door:

“That will teach you policemen a lesson not to come to my home without a search warrant.”

Gunby had no choice but to leave his mortally wounded partner sprawled on yard as he ran into Mrs. Pohl’s house to use her telephone to call for an ambulance and back-up. Within minutes an ambulance screamed up, grabbed Officer Donath and transported him to the hospital where he succumbed a short time later.  Right on the heels of the ambulance were dozens of cop cars which decanted about fifty police and detectives. Captain Rudolph and Inspector Davidson led a squad of men to the side of Thompson’s house.

For over twenty minutes Rudolph and Davidson tried to reason with Ella. They pleaded with her to throw her weapon out into the yard and surrender, but she refused. A crowd of nearly 500(!) gathered to witness the dramatic dénouement–they didn’t have long to wait. Police soon received a supply of tear gas bombs and, failing to convince Ella to come out with her hands up, they hurled one through a side window–then they pitched two more into the house.

Officers surrounded the house with their guns drawn, and as the gas made its way through the rooms of of her home Ella appeared at the rear door. Again the law pleaded with her to surrender, but without warning she suddenly fired three times and made a mad dash for freedom.  A bullet from her weapon passed near Officer Cliff Trainor’s head and lodged in the garage door behind him.  At least twenty officers, holding pistols and sawed-off shot guns, fired at once. Astonishingly not a single round hit its mark. Officer Trainor leveled his gun at the crazed woman and pulled the trigger–Ella finally went down. Clad in pink pajamas, one slipper on and one off, she fell backwards from the porch steps, shot through the eye.

Miss Norton was questioned by the police. She said that as far as she knew Ella was the former secretary of J.V. Baldwin, a local car dealer.  She thought that Baldwin had provided financial aid to the dead woman.

Investigators found Baldwin at his dealership and quizzed him about Thompson. He said that she’d been in his employ five years earlier and that when she had married a former hospital employee, Roy Alger, Baldwin offered the couple money for a honeymoon trip.

 He continued:

“Since then I have been made the target of an attempt to ‘shake me down’ for money.”

There must have been much more to the story because Baldwin had been sued by Alger for $125,000 in an alienation of affection suit that involved Ella.  According to some of her acquaintances Ella and Alger’s marriage had been short-lived and was annulled not long after they’d taken their vows.

Ella, who had been taking Veronal for her nerves, was a ticking time bomb.  She had been arrested on October 2, 1931 for carrying a concealed weapon when she created a disturbance at the hotel in which Baldwin was a guest.

Her trouble with her neighbor, Pauline Pohl, had stared just days after the hotel incident when she was arrested for attacking her in a backyard fight. Ella was accused of beating Pauline and fined $25 for battery.

According to Pauline she had built her house next to Ella’s a little over a year before the shooting and there had been no trouble between them until:

“…she accused me of throwing papers in her yard. She became hysterical and beat me and pulled my hair.”

Dr. Glen Bradford, Ella’s physician, told the cops that he had been treating Thompson for a nervous breakdown for quite some time.

“I visited her Wednesday, however, and she seemed to be getting along nicely.”

The deceased officer, 34 year old Paul Donath, had been on the job for ten years when he was gunned down. His body was identified by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Juanita Costoza, who burst into tears as she answered questions about him. Paul’s heartbroken wife, Virginia, fainted at the Coroner’s inquest.

The gun which Ella had used in the shoot out was the property of another LAPD officer, Palmer A. Pilcher. Pilcher had recently been suspended from duty for being intoxicated. Apparently the inebriated officer had attempted to park his car on the sidewalk in front of the Rosslyn Hotel, and to make matters worse his gun was missing.  There’s nothing that will get an officer in hot water faster than losing his weapon.

On the day of his suspension he called on Ella, whom he had been dating, and tried to get his gun back, but she refused to even let him into the house. Nurse Norton said:

“I tried to find the gun, but she must have hidden it.  She had been hard to handle for some time and my efforts to quiet her after she shot as Mrs. Pohl were useless.”