The Murder Complex–Part 1

Ohio native Grace Hunt was 17 when she married 41-year-old Charles Price Grogan in Los Angeles on April 5, 1902. It was an advantageous marriage for both. Charles basked in the glory of his triumphs, with the press dubbing him the “Olive King,” and a radiant Grace by his side, a queen befitting his grandeur. A few days prior to their fifth wedding anniversary, they welcomed a son, whom they named Charles Patrick Grogan.

Grace and Charles were married for over a decade before they separated. The difference in their ages may have sunk the marriage. Whatever their reasons, the couple had separated by the late 1910s and divorced by the 1920 census—at least that was how Charles declared his marital status. Grace, for the same census, gave her marital status as a widow. Why the discrepancy? Simple; divorce stigmatized women.

Grace was luckier than many women because California, at least in its laws, was more tolerant of divorce than other states. The State’s first divorce law in 1851 recognized impotence, adultery, extreme cruelty, desertion or neglect, habitual intemperance, fraud, and conviction of a felony as legitimate grounds for divorce.

Despite the law’s progressive attitude, divorce could ruin a woman, which is why many women found it easier to claim widowhood than risk suffering the loss of status if their divorce became public knowledge. It seems absurd to us now in these days of no-fault divorce and “conscious uncoupling” (a phrase coined in 2014 by celebrity Gwenyth Paltrow to describe her separation from her musician husband, Chris Martin), but divorce was not a simple matter when Grace and Charles called it quits.

The couple’s family and intimate friends would have known the truth, and the rest of local society may have acknowledged Grace’s widowhood with a nod and a wink and allowed her to continue her fiction unchallenged.

Grace’s claim to widowhood would edge closer to the truth when Charles died of apoplexy (internal bleeding—perhaps because of a stroke) on July 8, 1921.

The Olive King was a wealthy man who loved his only son. He bequeathed Patrick his entire fortune, estimated to be between $1 and $2 million dollars. Until he turned 25, Grace was to administer Patrick’s monthly allowance, which amounted to a princely sum of $800 per month. An agreement had been reached by Grace and Charles regarding their divorce. The couple agreed Charles would create a trust fund, not to exceed $50,000, for her maintenance. To put things into perspective, $50,000 in 1921 is equivalent to three quarters of a million dollars today. And Patrick’s monthly allowance is equivalent to about $12,000. A fortune like the one Charles left Patrick and Grace can attract the best people in society—it can also be a magnet for the worst of humanity.

In her 30s, Grace was beautiful, wealthy, and prominent. She would make a wonderful wife for the right man.

NEXT TIME: Grace meets a new man, as The Murder Complex continues.

Coming May 14, 2024–Of Mobsters and Movie Stars: The Bloody “Golden Age” of Hollywood

This gorgeous cover is the winner of the WildBlue Press cover contest. It evokes the glamour of old Hollywood, yet suggests the dark side of the city and the era.

Of Mobsters and Movie Stars is available for pre-order on Amazon for release on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. You will also be able to purchase the book in hardcover, paperback, eBook, and, coming soon, audiobook, on the Amazon and WildBlue’s websites.

My connection with many of you inspired me to tackle a book project. I can’t thank you enough for your support over the past 12 years. I’m looking forward to many more years here (and a few more books!) I’ll let you know about any book signings and interviews, so stay tuned. I’ve created some content for my author page on WildBlue, so please visit me there and sign-up to receive updates.

There are 37 stories in Of Mobsters and Movie Stars, including an early killer couple who went on a spree while Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were still in grammar school. One of the most shocking tales is about a man who plotted to kill his wife using two Diamondback rattlesnakes named Lighting and Lethal.

Many people have asked if Los Angeles had a mob. The answer is they had two. The earliest was headed by Joe “Iron Man” Ardizzone, an old-school gangster straight out of Central Casting. The other mob, orders of magnitude more powerful and insidious than Ardizzone’s, was the Hollywood studios. Using hired thugs called “fixers,” the studios wielded power over actors and politicians. When choreographer Busby Berkeley killed three people while driving drunk, the studio came to his aid. When director, and husband of Jean Harlow, Paul Bern, died under suspicious circumstances, the studio intervened.

One of the ugliest incidents of studio power was the attempted cover-up of the brutal rape of a young actress at a studio hosted event. The victim refused to be silent and, as far as I’m concerned, is the Godmother of the #metoo movement.

I posted excepts from Mobsters and Movie Stars on WildBlue. Below is one of them.


Excerpted from The Torso Murder

“William Pettibone, Ray Seegar, Floyd Waterstreet, and Glen Druer explored the muddy river bank for hidden treasures on May 18, 1929. The boys noticed something that looked like a turtle shell or strange prehistoric fish 150 feet from the bridge in the city of Bell. One boy took a stick and poked it into an end of the bony structure and held it aloft for the others to gape at. The boys spent a few minutes before realizing their treasure was a human skull.

With the head impaled on a stick, the boy ran up to the roadway. He waved it around until a female motorist stopped. The horrified woman kept it together long enough to drive to a public telephone where she called Bell’s Chief of Police. Chief Smith and Motor Officer Steele met the woman and the group of boys near the river. The woman declined to give her name. Smith’s officers told Captain Bright about the grisly find. Bright accompanied Deputies Allen, Brewster, and Gompert to the scene. While deputies searched the area, an enormous crowd of curious on-lookers gathered.

The initial autopsy yielded nothing which could identify the deceased. At least the skull still had several extant teeth, which made an identification possible. Local newspapers printed the photos and drawings of the teeth and distributed them to dentists.

With limited remains, the experts needed to perform a miracle. Amazingly, they did just that.”

The Murder Complex–Prologue

Thursday, February 19, 1925

Night had fallen by the time Donald Mead and Kenneth Selby started home following a school baseball game. The twelve-year-old boys walked in companionable silence. After dark, only; a coyote’s howl could be heard. Then, the boys heard the rumble of a car engine. That was unusual. Beverly Glen was a quiet, semi-rural enclave about twenty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles; the place where many well-to-do Angelenos owned get-away cabins. On an impulse, the boys dove into a stand of bushes near a small bridge moments before the car’s headlights would have illuminated them. They intended to spy on whomever had the audacity to intrude on their domain.

View showing a car on unpaved Sunset Boulevard between Carolwood and Delfern Drives in Beverly Hills, with three palm trees in the background. This is in the general location of Beverly Glen. c. 1925

Keeping still, the boys watched a lone driver back a sedan up to the front steps of a cabin and turn off his headlights. The boys knew the cabin belonged to Dr. Thomas Young, a Los Angeles dentist, but they could not positively identify the driver due to the darkness. He seemed to be male. Maybe it was the doctor. No matter, the boys enjoyed their spy game. From their vantage point, they watched the man drag a large, heavy box draped in a dark-colored cloth from the car. Donald and Kenneth whispered to each other that the box must be awfully heavy, as they saw the man hunched over and struggling to lift it. Did it contain a king’s ransom of gold and silver? Or did the box contain the corpse of a desperado?

The man wrestled the box onto the landing and dragged it inside the cabin. The boys thought it odd that he never turned on the cabin lights. When he reappeared on the veranda, he scanned the area. Satisfied that he was alone, he returned to his car and retrieved a gunny sack. It was large, its contents a mystery to the boys. The sack must not have been as heavy as the box because the man slung it over his shoulder. He disappeared into the cabin again. A few minutes later, he returned empty-handed. Then he got into his car and drove away.

 The boys could barely contain their curiosity. Who was the man? Why was he being so secretive? They waited a few minutes before leaving their hiding place, and then they walked over to the cabin. In the dirt near the cellar door was a sack marked “Lime.” They also found some “funny smelling stuff” that made them “sick at smelling it.”

After poking around the cabin for a few more minutes and finding nothing, Donald and Kenneth headed home. They didn’t give the strange man another thought until the police questioned them six months later.

NEXT TIME: The Murder Complex continues.

Of Mobsters and Movie Stars: The Bloody Golden Age of Hollywood

I am excited to announce that you will be able to pre-order my book soon. It is scheduled for a May 14th release. For further details, visit WILDBLUE PRESS. I’ll keep you posted about any new developments–like the cover art.

WILDBLUE PRESS says:

No Hollywood script can compare to the terror of the 37 true tales in OF MOBSTERS AND MOVIE STARS: The Bloody “Golden Age” of Hollywood!

In this gripping historical account, expert crime historian Joan Renner explores the shadowy world of fame and crime during Hollywood’s most glamorous era. As Los Angeles transformed into the epicenter of film, it also became a haven for notorious criminals and mobsters, weaving a complex tapestry of allure and danger that is sure to intrigue.

Renner brings to life stories that are more thrilling than fiction, including harrowing LAPD showdowns, dark dealings behind the studio gates, and tragic fates of luminaries whose off-screen lives were as dramatic as their on-screen personas. She delves into infamous episodes, such as the shocking case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, accused of “accidentally” crushing to death a young actress beneath his enormous weight as he raped her, and other lesser-known, but equally hair-raising stories of actors brought down by scandal and corruption.

OF MOBSTERS AND MOVIE STARS offers a profound and enlightening look at Hollywood’s dual nature, illustrating how its seductive glitter was deeply entangled with its sinister impulses. This book is essential for anyone fascinated by how America’s “City of Dreams” became a stage for some of the most gripping dramas of the twentieth century.

Step into the Prohibition Era with Joan Renner as she reveals the hidden crimes and undying ambition behind Hollywood’s shimmering façade.

Clara Eunice Barker, Vampire–Conclusion

Grace Munro filed a $50,000 lost-love (alienation of affection) suit against her husband’s young paramour, Clara Eunice Barker. But Clara had a trump card to play; a bundle of love notes written to her by none other than Grace’s husband, Charles. Clara hid the letters in the attic of the Glendale home she shared with Charles while they pretended to be cousins for the benefit of Glendale society. The bundle came as an unpleasant surprise to Charles who believed all the letters were destroyed.

The lawsuit could get steamy, and Angelenos expected a knock-down, drag-out fight between Grace and Clara.

Clara took the stand, and according to the L.A. Times she testified to “bare the sordid romance that she says ruined her young life.” She told the court how she and Charles Munro met.

“I met him at the corner of Montgomery and Front streets, Trenton (New Jersey). I was working in a Trenton pottery and was on my way to the post office to mail letters for the potter. A big automobile nearly struck me. The driver stopped the car and asked me if I was hurt. When I told him no, he kindly offered to drive me home, after ascertaining where I lived. He said it was on his way.”

According to Clara, Charles persuaded her to get into his car.

“He asked me where I was employed, my house address and telephone number. He did not enter the house.”

Charles phoned her every day and finally invited her out for dinner. He said his name was Darrell Huntington Stewart and he lived in Wayne Junction, PA.

For three weeks, the couple dined at the same restaurant every night until Darrell proposed marriage. The generosity and sweetness of her suitor swept Clara her off her feet. As lovers will do, Charles sent two photos of himself to her and he inscribed them on the backs.

“With all my love to my future wife, Clara Eunice Barker. Your own, Darrell.”

Soon after sending Clara the photos, he asked her to accompany him on a business trip to New York, and she agreed to go. Charles gave Clara her own room, which led her to believe his intentions were honorable.

Late in the afternoon on the first day of their trip, Charles came to Clara’s room. She recalled the meeting for the jury.

“He told me there was no harm in his being there, as we were soon to be married. Whatever happened was all right; it would make no difference; we would be married within a week. I believed him.”

A few weeks after the trip, Clara at last became suspicious of Charles. He’d made no move to set a wedding date, and she said that he always seemed to be in Trenton. He never phoned from Philadelphia, where he told her he lived.

The clue to Charles’ real identity came when she overheard some men talking.

“There is only one man in Trenton who owns a brown automobile of a certain make, and that man is Munro.”

Knowing that her lover, the mysterious Darrell, drove a car matching the description of Munro’s, she did a bit of sleuthing.

Clara phoned the zinc works and asked for Charles Munro — when he answered the phone, she recognized his voice as belonging to her fiancée, Darrell.

“I was horrified. I asked him how he could have done such a thing. He said he fell in love with me the first time we met. He said before he met me, he was preparing to run away with another girl, May Pierson, who was his stenographer…now that he had met me, he would not run away with her. He would get a divorce. He said he had a miserable life.”

After his identity was revealed, Charles cajoled, sweet-talked, and threatened Clara to keep her. Clara stayed.

Early in her relationship with Charles, in January 1915, Clara received a telephone call from Grace. Grace described Charles as “a liar and a hypocrite.” She knew her husband well. Clara had every reason to believe Grace, but she would not give him up.

Charles must have had some uncomfortable moments after his wife and mistress spoke to one another on the telephone. It would have served him right if they’d joined forces and fleeced him for every cent. Sadly, they continued to fight over him instead.

To keep the two women apart, Charles warned Clara to steer clear of his wife, whom he characterized as a terrible person. He told Clara that Grace was likely to hurl acid into her face.

Charles continued to string Clara along with promises of marriage. The pair moved around, finally arriving in Southern California where, masquerading as cousins, they started a new life in Glendale. Clara grew tired of waiting for Charles to make good on his promises to divorce his wife, and in a fit of despair she swallowed poison.

Charles wrote dozens of letters to Clara, and in each one he declared his undying love for her. But Charles realized Clara might not wait for him.

“I know, darling, you are not made of stone, and that you cannot wait very long, and I am pushing everything to the limit so we can soon be together.”

If Charles’ love talk didn’t work its magic on Clara, perhaps threats would. He wrote to her about a dream he’d had.

“I told you if you were not true, I would kill you. But I changed my mind as I wanted to see you suffer. I woke with the most awful yell, and was laughing. But, oh, what a laugh.”

After a trial lasting nine days, the jury of eleven men and one woman deliberated. It took them fewer than six hours to find Clara “not guilty of the love theft.”

Surprisingly, the battle of Wife vs. Mistress did not end with the verdict. A new trial was granted because a judge determined the judgment in favor of Clara was against the weight of the evidence.

Revitalized by the opportunity for a new fight, and another chance at $50,000, Grace  declared Clara was a vampire who had enticed Charles away from his marriage. Grace intended to drive a financial, if not an actual, stake through the heart of her rival.

Grace was victorious in the second trial, but instead of the $50k she’d asked for, the judge awarded her one dollar. Clara must have felt relieved that it cost her only a dollar to be rid of Grace.

The judge did not like Grace, but he also disapproved of Charles and Clara. He said,

“The tie that bound Mr. Munro and Miss Barker was low and degraded.”

Low and degraded, she may have been, but Clara was successful in her lawsuit against Charles. She recovered the “love nest” in Glendale. She also got the furniture, bonds, and other gifts he gave her–about $27,000 (equivalent to $436,000 in current USD).

The Munro’s and their attorneys felt Clara didn’t deserve a penny. They said her hands were not clean, and the property given her was the “price of her sin”. A galling statement coming from Charles. Sounds like he and Grace would have sewn a scarlet letter to Clara’s dress if they could.

Judge Wood did not entirely disagree with the Munros, but he seemed to believe that sin is a matter of degree.

“If I distinguish between the two, she is the lesser sinner.”

And to the lesser sinner, go the spoils.

Clara Eunice Barker–Vampire

The early 20th century witnessed a clash of old and new technologies, as well as a period of rampant civil unrest. The role of women in the new millennium had yet to be defined. In 1919, when this story takes place, women in the U.S. were one year away from celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave them the right to vote. The hard-won right was a victory, but it was still a man’s world.

On March 2, 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mrs. Grace Munro, the wife of wealthy zinc manufacturer Charles W. S. Munro, filed suit for alienation of affection. She sought $50,000 in damages, which is equivalent to $826,000 today, from Miss Clara Eunice Barker. Clara was Charles’ mistress for five years. Grace’s suit alleged her twenty-three-year marriage to Charles was a happy one until Clara entered their lives.

According to Grace, Clara enticed Charles to leave home with “an offer of money and otherwise.” We can guess what the otherwise referred to. Charles abandoned Grace without means of support; but he purchased a home for Clara and gave her cash. About $30,000 worth.

In the early morning hours of March 5, 1919, with a warrant sworn out by Grace, Deputy Constables Bright and Hayes arrived on the doorstep of 1201 Mountain View Street in Glendale, the home that Charles and Clara shared. They took Charles into custody for a felony statutory offense against Clara. Grace instigated the charge, and she clearly meant to put the screws to Charles. Having him arrested was enough—she dropped the charge.

William’s arrest came as a shock to Glendale society. They thought Clara and Charles were cousins, which was how they introduced themselves at first. They also did not know Charles had a wife and three daughters in Trenton, NJ.

Police wanted to speak with Clara but they could not find her, and Charles refused to talk. They discovered Clara fled to Salt Lake City, Utah, as soon as she got word of Grace’s lawsuit. Anger and outrage fueled Grace, who tracked Clara down and confronted her in a Salt Lake City hotel lobby. Grace walked up to Clara and exclaimed, “So you are the vampire”.

Theda Bara — the original vampire

Grace was not accusing Clara of being a blood sucking bride of Dracula. She used the term to imply that Clara was a seductress, a femme fatale, a vamp (ire) of the type made famous by actress Theda Bara in the 1915 film A FOOL THERE WAS.

The Glendale home in which Clara and Charles lived was in Clara’s name. She wanted to keep it, along with the furnishings, an automobile, and any other trinkets that Charles gave her. She filed a countersuit

Clara told reporters, “I am fighting for my honor as well as my legal rights. I have been cruelly mistreated and imposed upon by the man in whom I had implicit faith, and I intend to test the justice of the courts.”

Clara alleged there was a conspiracy against her. She accused the recently reconciled Munros, and a few of their friends, of seeking to deprive her of her property.

She demanded damages of $51,500. Some of which were for the Glendale property, the furniture, the car, and $25,000 for damages suffered by the conspiracy and threats she claimed were made against her.

According to Clara, while in Salt Lake City, she was called a vampire and was plagued by mysterious telephone calls, loud knocks on her bedroom door after midnight, and attempts by strangers to “force their acquaintance on her.” These incidents, Clara said, were part of a plan to harass and frighten her.

Grace intended to fight the conspiracy charge and to pursue her alienation suit. She would not back down. “I said she (Clara) is a vampire, and she is.”

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Grace claimed she and Charles were happily married for years before Clara entered their lives, but Grace lied. Prior to his affair with Clara, Charles had been involved with his stenographer, Miss Mary Pierson, with whom he had taken an auto trip. Grace was obviously aware of the liaison because she knew where Mary lived. She even appeared on the doorstep with questions for Mary’s landlady. Charles had long possessed a wandering eye.

If Angelenos expected a lurid trial, they would not be disappointed. Wife vs. Mistress was going to be a battle royal.

NEXT TIME: A vampire’s love letters, and the wages of sin in Part 2 of Clara Eunice Barker, Vampire.

The Jokers & a Newsflash from Deranged!

NEWSFLASH! I am very excited to announce that my book, Of Mobsters and Movie Stars: The Bloody Prohibition Era in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is being published by WildBlue Press. The expected release date is the end of May, so it is coming up fast.

The book covers true crime tales from 1919 to 1939, twenty of the most corrupt years in the city’s history. For the next several weeks, I will focus on stories from that era. Some of the posts will be encores, and others will be brand new to the blog.

All I have right now is an edited manuscript and a title. As soon as I get a cover, I’ll post it here to get you in the mood. I will also let you know when I have a firm release date.

Thanks again for following Deranged L.A. Crimes. I appreciate your readership.

Joan


The 1920s were a time of rapid growth in Los Angeles. During Mayor George E. Cryer’s tenure, the population of Los Angeles surpassed 1,000,000, and the city undertook several important civic development projects, such as constructing Central Library.

Estimated at $350,000 to construct, (equivalent to $4.8 million in today’s currency), the Olympic Auditorium ended up exceeding $500,000 because of cost overruns. With seating for 15,300 people, the architects designed the building to be a combination convention hall, exposition building, and boxing arena, making it the largest venue of its kind upon completion.

Olympic Auditorium [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The Olympic wasn’t just for mugs and pugs. In May 1925, the Los Angeles Times reported that a “…colossal presentation of ‘Aida’ with elephants and camels, a chorus of over ninety voices and a ballet of twenty-four dancers…” would be on stage at the auditorium. I love opera and it would have been a treat to see live elephants and camels at the Olympic.

Of course, now you’re asking “what has civic pride and operatic spectacle got to do with cops behaving badly? Alas, not much except to point out that where there is big money, there is an opportunity for misbehavior.

The auditorium opened to fanfare and sold-out crowds; but there was a problem—at least sixty contractors had not been compensated for their work. Liens totaling $400,000 had to be paid. Newspaper accounts never made it clear why the contractors were stiffed; but the city formulated a plan for restitution.

The process of repayment was a breeze. Sheriff’s deputies collected the box office receipts and secured them in the office vault. Once the deputies deducted taxes and overhead from the gross, they took the balance and applied it to the outstanding claims.

For several months, everything went like clockwork. But on April 16, 1926, Mrs. M. Q. Adams, a bookkeeper in the Sheriff’s civil department, observed that the vault door was partially open. She called to Chief Civil Deputy Arthur Jewell, who discovered the previous night’s deposit of $1182 was missing. Sheriff Traeger decided not to publicize the burglary—making it a need-to-know basis only. Theft of money from his office vault was damned embarrassing.

They assigned Undersheriff Biscailuz and Chief Criminal Deputy Wright to the case. Whoever took the money must have known the combination to the outer door and possessed duplicate keys to the inner door. It was an inside job.

Deputy Karl Wallich (38), one of the few people who had access to the vault, was a suspect. During questioning, Wallich said that after he left the Hall of Justice in the early morning, he had turned back at the Plaza to buy a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t find a store that was open, so he ended up driving to a small market at Fifth and Spring. Wallich’s story didn’t hold up. Deputy Wright found seven stores between the Plaza and Fifth and Spring Street that were open early in the morning.

Deputy Sheriffs Heller and Johnson dropped in on Karl Wallich at his home to take his statement. They confronted him with his lie about the stores and he caved in on the spot. He was unsuited for a life of crime. He produced half of the missing funds and ratted out his friend and accomplice, Harry Adler (19), a civilian clerk who relinquished the other half.

Adler confessed he had hidden himself in the vault about 10 o’clock Wednesday night, waiting for the auditorium’s receipts to be deposited. Deputy Sheriffs Wallich and Barton came to the vault door about 11:30 p.m., locked up, and left the building. Once he figured everyone had gone, Adler took a screw driver and removed the plate from the combination lock and exited the vault. Nobody saw him leave. He then met Karl in front of the Hall of Records, where they divvied up the cash.

The most surprising thing about their confessions was that both men insisted they hadn’t stolen the money to enrich themselves—the theft was a joke.

According to the merry pranksters, their intention was only to seek revenge on Deputy George Barton, a co-worker who had teased and played jokes on them. The theft was their way of getting even. They figured since Barton was the only person who had keys to the inner vault, it would be his ass in a sling when the money disappeared. The plan was to let Barton twist in the wind for a bit, then return the cash to the vault, but then “things got so hot” they couldn’t see their way out of the mess.

Wallich and Adler’s little stunt didn’t amuse Sheriff Traeger. He covered the full $1182 loss out of his own pocket until the thieves returned the money.

Wallich and Adler lost their Sheriff’s Department jobs. Adler pleaded guilty at his arraignment. He spent ninety days in a sheriff’s detention center and upon his release and the court granted him three years of probation. Wallich first entered a not guilty plea, but then he changed his mind and entered a guilty plea and requested probation. There was no follow-up story in the newspaper, but Wallich expected probation.

I wonder if the men stayed friends or if their criminal misadventure ended it. I like to think that with their penchant for pranks, the guys opened a brick-and-mortar joke shop—the kind that sold whoopee cushions, rubber vomit, joy buzzers, and fake dog poop.

NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime historian, and curator of the Sheriff’s Department Museum, Mike Fratantoni, for introducing me to this tale.

P.S. This is an encore post from 2013.

The Red Lipstick Murder

Born in a small New Mexico town in 1902, Jeanne Axford came of age during the Roaring ‘20s. Perfect timing for the free-spirited girl. At 17 she married David Wrather, and they had a son, David, Jr.

Jeanne Axford (L) with her cousin Clara. Photo from Ancestry

JEANNE’S EARLY YEARS

In 1922, after training in New Mexico, Jeanne worked as a nurse in Amarillo, Texas. According to Jeanne, David abused her. She and David divorced in 1924; she won custody of their son.

In 1925, Jeanne married again. That marriage, too, failed. Rumors have circulated that Jeanne appeared in a film, yet she remains absent from the Internet Movie Database, even under an alias. She may have appeared in uncredited roles. Whether she appeared in movies, Jeanne had an interesting Hollywood connection. She worked as a private nurse for Marion Wilson, Rudolph Valentino’s last date, maybe his last love. Known as the “Woman in Black” for many years, Marion put flowers on Valentino’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death.

Marion Benda Wilson aka The Woman in Black

Sometime between 1925 and 1931, Jeanne learned to fly and earned the moniker, “Flying Nurse.” She worked for a large oil company in South America, flying from one oil field to another, caring for workers. She became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, and the 99 Club, an organization of women aviators.

Either an optimist, or a glutton for punishment, Jeanne married for a third time in Dallas, Texas on October 8, 1931, two days after her 29th birthday, to Curtis Bower. It took the couple five weeks to realize their mistake. The dissolution of her marriage earned Jeanne another nickname, “air-mail divorcee.” The divorce papers, prepared by her attorney, Allan Lund, went via air to Juarez, Mexico for filing. A new law in Mexico provided for a final decree by proxy. Neither Jeanne nor Curtis needed to appear in court.

WHERE IS JEANNE?

On July 5, 1932, Jeanne’s mother, Oma Randolph, went to police to file a missing person report. Jeanne left home the morning of June 27 to drive to the Mexican border, where she planned to board a private plane for Mexico City.

The week following the missing person report, Jeanne cabled her mother from Mexico City. “I can’t understand the worry I have caused in the United States by flying to Mexico. I am flying back for the Olympics. I assure everyone that I am okeh.”

By the mid-1940s, Jeanne had unspecified medical issues, possibly a hysterectomy. In pain, she turned to alchohol and drugs.

Jeanne kept a low profile for the next several years. She married in 1944 for the fourth and final time to a former Marine, Frank French.                   

ANOTHER LOS ANGELES WOMAN IS MURDERED

On February 10, 1947, less than a month after housewife Betty Bersinger found Elizabeth Short’s bisected body in a Leimert Park vacant lot, Hugh C. Shelby, a bulldozer operator, found the battered, nude body of a woman in a field near the Santa Monica Airport. The Herald put out an extra edition with the headline, “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body.”

Within hours, police identified the victim as forty-five-year-old Jeanne French of 3535 Military Avenue. Near her body they found a black plastic purse, like the one Elizabeth Short carried. Inside was a lone penny, some hairpins, and handwritten notes.

The area where they discovered her was a type of Lover’s Lane, situated seven miles from the location on Norton Street where they found Elizabeth Short.

Police speculated her attacker stripped Jeanne naked in a parked car and then beat her. He struck her multiple times after she staggered from the vehicle. Then he dragged her body into the field, some feet from the highway, where he then wrote his obscene message on her torso. Afterwards, he stomped on her chest so hard he left a clear shoe print behind.

He threw her clothing on top of her. A powder blue coat trimmed with fox fur and a burgundy dress. Except for her bra, they did not find any underwear. She wore no stockings.

Her slayer arranged her shoes, one on either side of her head, about 10 feet from her body.

Detectives gather at the scene of Jeanne’s murder

Someone savagely beat Jeanne. She suffered blows to her head administered by a metal blunt instrument—a socket wrench or tire iron. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by her killer stomping on her. Heel prints marked her chest. One of her ribs pierced a lung. It took a long time for Jeanne to die. The coroner said she gradually bled to death.

Jeanne was probably unconscious after the first blows to her head, so she may not have witnessed her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, or feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso, “Fuck You, B.D.” and “Tex.” Police looked for a connection between Jeanne’s murder and Elizabeth Short’s death; but they found nothing.

On the night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. She and Frank recently separated. Frank said they planned a 6-month trial separation to see if they could work out their problems. Jeanne arrived drunk at Frank’s apartment and he said she started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left.

Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son, David Wrather, came in for questioning. As he left the police station, he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said, “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate. He looked at David and said, “I swear to God, I didn’t kill her.”

Both Frank and David had a history of abusing Jeanne. Neighbors heard violent arguments between Jeanne and David, as well as with Frank. Neither of them treated her with kindness or respect.

Jeanne’s neighbors knew her as a hard partying, mouthy drunk. The local bars she frequented confirmed Jeanne’s belligerence. Loud, profane, and promiscuous, Jeanne hung out with a rough crowd. The men she knew took advantage of her. She courted danger, and according to Frank, she feared nothing and no one. Her alcoholism and drug use suggest she was committing suicide, one drink and one needle at a time.

Despite his declaration of innocence, police booked Frank for murder. Then, as now, a woman is most likely to be killed by her husband or a lover. The forty-seven-year-old former Marine gunnery sergeant was arrested days earlier for viciously beating Jeanne, resulting in blackened eyes and a broken arm. Police cleared him when his landlady confirmed he was in his apartment at the time of the murder; and his shoe prints failed to match those found on Jeanne’s chest.

Police traced Jeanne’s whereabouts for part of the night. Ray Fecher, the operator of a drive-in café at 11925 Santa Monica Blvd., told detectives Jeanne came in between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. Sunday. She drank coffee and chatted with Fecher. “She said her husband was sadistic. She said he liked ‘dark things,’ and had beaten her several times. Then she raised a pair of dark glasses she was wearing to show me a couple of black eyes she said he had given her.”

After she left the drive-in, Jeanne entered a bar at 10421 Venice Blvd. According to Earl Holmes, the bartender, in a loud voice, she announced her plan to commit Frank to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital the next day. She had threatened Frank with hospitalization before, and he beat her. As abusive as their relationship was, Frank was not her killer.

Jeanne was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance of the Pan American Bar on West Washington Place. The bartender told police Jeanne took a stool next to a smallish man with a dark complexion. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.

Fuck You. B.D.

Jeanne did not drive herself to the place of her death; someone took her there. Police found her cut-down 1929 Ford roadster in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, the Piccadilly at Washington Place and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said the car was there at 3:15 on the morning of the murder, and a night watchman saw a man leave it there. The police never accounted for Jeanne’s whereabouts between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death.

Even though Jeanne was not sexually assaulted, police rousted scores of sex degenerates. The brutality of the crime and the fact that she was found naked led the police to infer a sexual motive. None of the men rose to the level of a serious suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that Jeanne ate a Chinese meal before her death.

THE RED LIPSTICK MURDER GOES COLD

Jeanne’s slaying became known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case. Like the Black Dahlia case, it went cold.

Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., the District Attorney assigned investigators from his office to re-investigate the case.

Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked on Jeanne’s murder for eight months, but they never closed it. They found a few suspects. One of the most promising suspects was a man who was seen with Jeanne on the night of her death. The man submitted to a lie detector test, but the examiner told detectives the subject was one of a small percentage of people who could beat the test. They never cleared the man, but neither did they arrest him.

Like the murder of Elizabeth Short, there have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades. Their killers took their bloody secrets to their graves.

Aggie & Leona

I first encountered Agness “Aggie” Underwood while researching crime in Los Angeles. Aggie’s name appeared many times in various accounts, which piqued my curiosity. I had to know more about one of the few women reporters working in the field during the 1930s and 1940s.

Aggie’s 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, was a revelation. Here was a woman who reported on the major crime stories of her day, including the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.

Agness May Wilson was born to Clifford and Mamie Sullivan Wilson in San Francisco in 1902.

Clifford Wilson

Her sister, Leona, followed four years later. By 1904, the family had moved to Belleville, Illinois, and it was there Mamie, 25 years old, died of rheumatism of the heart. Before she died, she had Aggie promise to care for Leona. That is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a little girl.

Aggie’s father, Clifford, was a glassblower who traveled for work. After Mamie’s death, he passed Aggie and Leona to relatives. Eventually, relatives placed them in separate foster homes. Aggie fought to keep Leona with her, but her best efforts were no match for the adults who tore them apart. The sisters lost touch.

Aggie’s life in the foster home was hard. She struck out on her own in her early teens. Eventually landing in Los Angeles, she worked at the Pig ‘n Whistle downtown. Things looked up when Harry Underwood, a soda jerk at the Pig, proposed to her when a greedy relative threatened to report her for working underage—unless she turned over her entire paycheck. Aggie gratefully accepted Harry’s timely proposal.

Mamie Sullivan Wilson

We characterize the 1920s as a free-wheeling time when liquor and money flowed. It didn’t hold true for everyone. The Underwoods, like many other families, struggled financially. By 1924, they had two children, Mary Evelyn, and George Harry. They realized they could not make it in Los Angeles, so they traveled out-of-state, seeking new opportunities. During their travels, Aggie located Leona, and they reunited.

The Underwoods returned to Los Angeles, and Leona moved in to the family’s home on the city’s east side. Even with Harry and Leona working day jobs, money was tight. At least Aggie had achieved her dream of having a family. What more could she ask for? How about a pair of stockings?

By October 1926, Aggie grew tired of wearing Leona’s hand-me-down stockings. She went to Harry and asked for the money to buy a pair of her own. He told her they couldn’t afford them.

Incensed, Aggie said if he wouldn’t buy them for her, she’d get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She hadn’t worked outside the home in several years. What could she do to earn a living?

Before she could turn to the want ads, Evelyn Conners called. She and Aggie had remained close since meeting at the Salvation Army Home several years earlier. Evelyn worked at the Los Angeles Record and got Aggie a temporary job at the switchboard. Evelyn knew Aggie was qualified because they once worked together at the telephone company.

Leona and Aggie

Aggie enjoyed being at the Record, and she hoped to stay through the New Year. She got lucky. Gertrude Price was the women’s editor and wrote an advice column under the name Cynthia Grey. Each year, Gertrude organized a food drive for the city’s poor, and she needed help to fill and deliver the baskets. She asked Aggie if she would stay and help. Without hesitation, Aggie accepted; it meant seven or eight more weeks of steady work.

Aggie & Getrude surrounded by Christmas baskets

Aggie assumed she would return to her housewifely chores at in January 1927, but Gertrude had other plans.

Aggie–housewife

Her conscientiousness had not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Gertrude offered Aggie a part-time job as her assistant. It didn’t pay as well as the switchboard, only five dollars per week. Once she did the arithmetic, Aggie realized she wouldn’t net a dime after she paid a babysitter to watch her kids. Why did she stay if she wasn’t making any money? Aggie didn’t know it yet, but she was in love with the newspaper business.

Throughout 1927, Aggie tackled each task that Gertrude handed her with enthusiasm. In return, Gertrude became her mentor and confidante.

By the time the 1928 holiday season rolled around, Aggie was a fixture at the Record. She again assisted Gertrude Price with the Christmas baskets program. The Underwoods’ financial woes were far from over; but if their holiday was lean, so be it. She felt fortunate to be surrounded by her family.

Ironically, even though Aggie cherished family life, she revealed few details about hers in her autobiography. In fact, she never mentions Harry by name, only referring to her unnamed husband. The reason is simple, she and Harry were divorced a few years before the publication of NEWSPAPERWOMAN. Aggie chose to highlight her professional achievements. 

Bob Hope and Aggie read each other’s autobiographies

Aggie’s omissions make sense when you consider her position at the time. She was still only a couple of years into her city editorship at the Herald. Personal details might negatively impact her career. I think perhaps the most important thing for Aggie was he desire never to be a “sob sister.” She didn’t want to tug at people’s heartstrings in the copy she wrote for the paper, and especially not in her autobiography. That said, I really wish she had made good on her plan to author a more complete autobiography in her retirement. She never got around to it.

It is no surprise she never wrote about an event that must have devastated her—the death of her sister, Leona, on December 6, 1928. Without Aggie’s input,, we can only speculate on what happened, and what impact it had on her.

The Underwoods

Like most families, the Underwoods had a work week routine. December 6 was a Thursday, so Leona dropped her niece and nephew off at the babysitter, as she usually did. While the rest of the family was out for the day, Leona consumed ant paste.

The principal ingredient is arsenic. Ant paste was a common poison found in most households. At twenty-two years old, Leona may have believed that taking poison would be a quick and easy death. She could not have been more wrong. Death by arsenic poisoning is excruciating. Depending on the dose, it can take hours or even days to kill.

Aggie’s established routine was to swing by the babysitter after work, pick up the children, and then go home. When Aggie arrived home, she found Leona. I cannot imagine how Aggie felt. Records show they transported Leona to Pohl Hospital on Washington Boulevard. They admitted her at 3:25 p.m. By 4:00 p.m. her body was in the county morgue. Why did Leona take her life? Her death certificate gives two reasons: “Love affair & financial difficulties.”

Leona’s death notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times the next day. The brief notice said they would hold funeral services on Saturday, December 8, 1928, in the chapel of Ivy H. Overholtser on South Flower Street.

Without input from Aggie, it is difficult to calculate the impact that Leona’s death had on her, but it must have been enormous. Did she feel guilty about failing to honor her mother’s dying wish for a second time? As tragic as Leona’s death was, with two children and a husband to care for, Aggie had no choice but to turn her attention toward the living.

NOTE: The holidays are not a joyous time for everyone. If you or someone you care about is in a crisis, please call 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 to talk with a caring, trained counselor. It is free, confidential, and available 24/7.