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 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.


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.