An American Tragedy in Pomona–Part 1

MARY CECILIA ROGERS

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget, is cited as the first murder mystery based on details of an actual crime. I am skeptical of firsts, but if Poe’s story is not the first, it is an early entry. It appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.

Behind Poe’s tale of Marie Roget is the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers.

Rogers, a tobacco shop employee, became known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl. She disappears on October 4, 1848, and local papers report her elopement with a naval officer. She returns later, sans husband.

She disappears again on July 25, 1841. Friends see her at the corner of Theatre Alley, where she meets a man. They walk off together toward Barclay Street, ostensibly for an excursion to Hoboken.

Three days later, H.G. Luther and two other men in a sailboat pass by Sybil’s Cave near Castle Point, Hoboken. Floating in the water they see the body of a young woman. They drag it to shore and contact police.

According to the New York Tribune, Rogers is “horribly outraged and murdered”. Questions regarding Rogers’ death remain. It is alleged she ended up in the river following a failed abortion. The scenario is credible, in part, because her boyfriend committed suicide and left a note suggesting his involvement in her death.

GRACE BROWN

I love it when a novel is based on a true crime. One of my favorites is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser draws inspiration from a murder in the Adirondacks.

In 1905, Chester Gillette takes a job as a manager in an uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York. It is there he meets factory worker, Grace Brown. They begin an affair and she becomes pregnant.

Chester is neither interested in being a husband, nor in being a father. He takes Grace on a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Using the alias, Carl Graham, Chester rents a hotel room, and a rowboat.

Grace believes the hotel is where they will spend their honeymoon following a visit to the local justice of the peace. In anticipation of her new life with Chester, Grace packs all of her belongings in a single suitcase.

Chester’s suitcase is small. He is not beginning a life with Grace.

On July 11, the couple takes a rowboat out into the middle of Big Moose Lake. There is no marriage proposal. No wedding ring. He beats her over the head with his tennis racquet and pushes her overboard to drown.

On July 13, 1906, The Sun reports the tragic drowning of a couple in Big Moose Lake. Grace’s body floats to the surface the next day. The body of her companion, Carl Graham, is missing.

Fearing he is dead, police search for Carl. They soon learn the true identity of Grace’s companion. He is alive, well, and his name is not Carl. Police arrest Chester. He denies responsibility for Grace’s death. He insists she committed suicide. The bad news for Chester is none of the physical evidence supports his version of events.

CHESTER GILLETTE

The jury shows no mercy—they find him guilty and sentence him to death.

On March 30, 1908, they execute Chester in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.

LOIS WADE

March 4, 1932.

Soaked to the skin, bleeding from the head, and covered in bruises, seventeen-year-old Lois Wade stumbles into the road near Mountain Meadows Country Club in Pomona. A Good Samaritan takes her to Pomona Valley Hospital.

The hospital calls the Sheriff’s department, and deputies arrive to take Lois’ statement. She tells them a terrifying story.

She is is walking from downtown Pomona to her parent’s home at 349 East Pasadena Avenue, when a stranger pulls up alongside her and offers her a ride. She accepts, but rather than taking her home, the man stops his car on Walnut Avenue near an abandoned well and beats her.

Lois’ attacker forces her into the well and shoves her down witht a pole when she attempts to climb out. When Lois vanishes from his view, the man gets in his car and drives away.

The motiveless attack makes little sense, and deputies question Lois’ account. The next day, she revises her story.

Her attacker is not a stranger as she originally claims; he is her nineteen-year-old married lover, Frank Newland.

Deputies Killion and Lynch arrest Frank at his home at 918 South San Antonio Street, Pomona. They book him on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. Frank denies the attack.

As Lois lay in serious condition in the hospital, the D.A. revises charges against him to include statutory rape. Because of the severity of Lois’ wounds and her inability to appear in court, Judge White resumes Frank’s hearing at Lois’ hospital bedside.

Within a month of the attempt on Lois’ life, Frank goes to trial. Local newspapers pick up on the similarities between Frank and Lois and the characters in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Future Los Angeles mayor, Fletcher Bowron, sits on the bench. Public interest in the trial is high and draws an enormous crowd—the largest since the 1929 rape trial of theater mogul Alexander Pantages.

The trial begins on April 28; Lois takes the stand, and the courtroom hangs on her every word.

LOIS WADE

Lois is low-key and demure as she testifies to her ordeal.

“By prearrangement we met on a corner in Pomona. We went in his roadster to the Mountain Meadows Country Club, where he drove off the road and stopped the car. We sat in the car for a half-hour; yes, we kissed and loved. He then suggested that we walk over to an old windmill and abandoned well nearby.”

“We looked in the well and then suddenly he turned around and struck me over the head with a club. I fell to the ground. He struck me eight or ten times more and kicked me several times.”

Frank grabs Lois by the feet and drags her, struggling and screaming ten feet to the well. No match for Frank, he overpowers her and throws her in the well.

Lois lands in twenty-five-feet of water. She bobs to the top, and fights for her life. Frank uses a railroad tie to shove Lois under water. A photo of Deputy W.L. Killon, puts the size of the weapon into perspective.  

DEPUTY KILLION POSES WITH RAILROAD TIE USED TO BATTER
LOIS WADE

Convinced Lois is dead, Frank gets into his car and drives away.

Lois claws herself up the wall of the well. She crawls over the edge, tumbles onto the ground, then rises and lurches into the street to summon help. A man stops his car to render aid. Amazingly, Lois’ Good Samaritan is a doctor.

Dr. Roy E. St. Clair testifies to finding Lois in the road.

“I was driving to Pomona on the Mountain Meadows Road about 8:30 p.m. last March 4 when I heard a cry and the lights on my car picked up the figure of Miss Wade standing with her right arm out-stretched. I backed up my machine, and she came to the door and said ‘Take me to a doctor.’”

NEXT TIME: A strange ending.

Premature Burial

The following tale is especially terrifying for me. Maybe it was my childhood reading of the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Premature Burial, that has given me an absolute terror of being buried alive. Maybe I had a previous life in Victorian England where their fears of being buried alive reached hysterical levels.

Assuming I predecease him, I’ve instructed my husband to allow me ripen before disposing of my body. Seriously. I know that of the fates likely to befall me, premature burial is way down on the list. This is one of those fears that resists common sense.

I know I’m not alone because clever Victorians devised various methods to avoid premature burial, like the safety coffin. No. I am not making this up.

Some coffins, like the one below, allowed the incarcerated victim to wave a flag, ring a bell, and to speak through a tube that reached to the surface to let passersby know someone alive was inside. In fact, such a coffin may be the origin of the saying, “saved by the bell.”

Enough about my personal fears—and forgive my digression. Let’s get to the story of Marie Billings who faced my biggest terror and lived to talk about it.

Late in the afternoon of May 9, 1928, Marie Billings answered a knock on her front door. A man stood waiting for her. He was tall, about 6’ 4”, and wore a dark suit with a grey pinstripe. He said he was a real estate salesman and interested in purchasing the home she shared with her husband, Howard, a local manufacturer.

Marie and Howard didn’t plan to sell their home at 5911 Allston Street in Montebello. Even so, she figured that there was no harm in listening to the salesman’s pitch. The two began a conversation and he followed her in to the house.

Without warning he slugged her over the head with a club he must have had concealed. Marie struggled in vain. Her attacker ripped her clothing and bound her with an electrical cord. Rendered helpless, she felt a silk stocking wind around her throat as the man choked her into unconsciousness. The stocking was removed from her neck and used to gag her. She was wrapped in a blanket and carried to his car, a Ford coupe.  

1928 Ford coupe

He drove her about eight miles to Turnbull Canyon in Whittier. Marie lay unmoving in the dirt. The man bent down and felt her pulse. She was still alive, so he beat her with an iron bar to finish her off.

Satisfied that she was dead, he covered her with dirt, brush, and leaves. He drove away.

Map of route from Marie’s home to Turnbull Canyon

Marie awoke and realized she was in a grave. HER grave. She resisted the urge to scream. Unable to breathe, she fought her way to the surface. She had just enough strength to free herself.

Badly beaten, Marie crawled two hundred yards to a nearby road. In her arms she carried the bloody blanket in which she was wrapped by her kidnapper. Her restraints trailed behind her.

She reached the road and flagged down a car driven by by W. J. Collins, a taxi driver. Collins drove her to the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier.

Murphy Memorial Hospital

Medical staff phoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Under the direction of Captain William Bright, an investigation into Marie’s assault and attempted murder began.

Marie recovered enough to be interviewed by detectives. She gave a chilling account of her battering at the hands of a man she said seemed familiar. He was the same real estate agent who visited her home a year earlier.

Claude Peters of the homicide squad interviewed Mrs. Robert D. Ellis, who lived within a block of the Billings home.  Based on Marie’s description of her attacker, Mrs. Ellis thought she recalled seeing him. She said, “I saw a man leaving the Billings house two or three days before the attack. He was carrying a large package and got into a Ford coupe and drove away.”

Based on the scant evidence they possessed, the sheriff’s department introduced an interesting theory of the crime that included a second suspect. They suggested that two accomplices battled to the death over Marie’s $500 diamond ring.

Alternatively, a second man may have witnessed the crime and attempted a rescue, which ended in his own death and burial.

Howard, Marie’s husband, began his own investigation. He visited the makeshift grave and found a piece of torn clothing with a powder-burned bullet hole. He delivered the potential evidence to Captain Bright.

In a search of the Billings home, deputies found a length of pipe with one clear fingerprint on it. They hoped that it would lead them to a suspect—it did not. Tantalizing bits of evidence that led nowhere.

The case went cold. Detectives never found a second grave, and the identify of Marie’s attacker stayed a mystery.  

This is one of those cases that will remain an itch I can’t scratch. I can only imagine how much it bothered the investigators who worked it at the time.

The man who attacked Marie was a sadistic monster. Did he commit other crimes? We will never know.

The Attic Love Slave: Dolly and Otto’s Bizarre Affair — Redux

Due to an audio glitch on February 9th, this webinar has been rescheduled to February 16, 2021 at 7 pm.

Please join me for one of the wackiest, and most deranged, love stories in L.A.’s history.

There is always some madness in love.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

On the evening of August 22, 1922, at about 10:30 pm, Fred Oesterreich and his wife Walburga, nicknamed Dolly, returned to their home at 858 North La Fayette Place after visiting friends in the Wilshire district.

The couple engaged in a bitter argument as they crossed the threshold of their home; however, it was not unusual for the heavy-drinking apron manufacturer and his wife to shout at each other. After over 25 years of marriage each was armed with a vast stockpile of grievances to hurl with deadly accuracy at the other.

Their evenings customarily ended when the combatants retired to their separate quarters to lick their wounds; but this night ended like no other before it. Moments after arriving home, Dolly found herself locked in her upstairs bedroom closet screaming for help. Fred lay dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor downstairs near the front door.

Publicly, the police attributed Fred’s murder to burglars. Privately, they were skeptical of Dolly’s account. With detectives unable to substantiate their suspicions with hard evidence—Fred’s case went cold.

In 1930, Fred’s killer came forward and revealed a bizarre tale of sex, murder, and attics.

Join me on Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 7 p.m. Pacific time for a webinar about the strangest love affair in L.A.’s history.

If you can’t watch the live presentation, it will be recorded and available on demand via BigMarker.

WEBINAR: The Murder of Marion Parker

On December 15, 1927, twelve-year-old Marion Parker, daughter of Perry Parker a prominent banker, was abducted from Mt. Vernon Junior High School. 

The kidnapper went directly to the office of Mary Holt, the school’s registrar. The young man told her that Perry Parker was seriously injured in an automobile accident and was calling for his youngest daughter. Times were different then; Holt never asked the man for his identification, nor did she ask him what he meant by the youngest daughter since Marion was a twin, separated in age from her sister Marjorie by minutes.

The demeanor of the young man erased any doubt that Mary Holt had about his character or intent. He insisted that he was an employee at Parker’s bank. When police questioned her later, Holt said the man seemed sincere because he was quick to suggest that if she doubted his word, she should phone the bank.

If only she had.

William Edward Hickman, who nicknamed himself ‘The Fox’, murdered and mutilated the girl. The crime made him the subject of the largest manhunt in Los Angeles’ history until the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. 

Who was William Edward Hickman, and why did he kidnap and murder and innocent child?

Deranged Webinars for December 2020 & a Preview of Topics for 2021

Below is the webinar schedule for the remainder of December 2020. Deranged L.A. Crimes webinars will be dark from December 23, 2020 through January 11, 2021.

If you missed the UNSOLVED HOMICIDES OF WOMEN IN LOS ANGELES DURING THE 1940s in November, a brand new version will be offered on January 12, 2021.

January 2021 marks the 74th anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. It is fitting that we look at that crime and some of the other unsolved murders of women during that deadly decade.

My other passion in life, besides true crime, is vintage cosmetics ephemera, and fashion.  On January 19, 2021, the topic is HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: HOW THE BOB CHANGED HISTORY. You’ll learn about the history of the bob hairdo, a style that has endured for over 100 years. This is my opportunity to display some of the girlie treasures from my vast collection.

Crime topics for 2021 will include: Harvey Glatman: The Glamour Girl Killer and Attic Sex Slave: The Strange Affair of Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber.

I look forward to ‘seeing‘ you at the webinars.

Hairnet from the 1920s

Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder: 

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 

Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, Crime Reporter

Aggie interviews a tearful dame.

“There is no killer type.  Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover.  It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.

They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.

Killers do not run true to form.  What they have in common is killing.”

The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.

During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.  

Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity. 

Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.

Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.

Dear Mr. Gable, Conclusion

In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.

There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.

In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.

Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,

“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other.  Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”

Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,

“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.” 

The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.

CLARK GABLE WITH HIS STUNT DOUBLE

Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.

Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:

“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable.  It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables.  Hence Clark Gables.”

Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.

The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.

MAE WEST IN ‘EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY”–1937

The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:

“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child.  Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”

Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon. 

Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.

JOSEPHINE DILLON–CLARK GABLE’S FIRST WIFE c. 1919

“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes.  To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”

Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.

In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:

“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”

In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.

For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:

“That’s him.  I’d know him anywhere.”

Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.

Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.

“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”

Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.

The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm.  They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.

As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:

“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began.  It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”

U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.

“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”

Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:

“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”

Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.

“She was simply calling to her sweetheart.  She was sincere,” he said.

It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)

The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.

The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”

If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.

In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.

Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.

Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.

Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.

As Judy writes she sings, You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.

MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT –A CONVERSATION ABOUT HISTORIC LOS ANGELES CRIME

MY INTERVIEW WITH DAVE SCHRADER ON MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT

On March 10th, B.C. (before Covid) I was interviewed by Dave Schrader for his wonderful radio show, MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT. We talked for 3 hours about historic Los Angeles crime.

When I first agreed to do the interview I wondered how we would fill the time. By the 2 1/2 hour mark I knew we’d never be able to cover everything. The time flew. Dave is a terrific host and I recommend that you check out his show. I hope to make a return visit sometime during the summer.

Dave’s area of expertise is the paranormal, but he also has an interest in crime. Here’s a little more about Dave:

Dave Schrader has been one of the leading voices of the paranormal since 2006 when he launched his wildly popular talk show, Darkness on the Edge of Town on Twin Cities News Talk – Minneapolis’s top-rated AM talk station.

The show grew to become one of the station’s most successful shows and most-downloaded podcasts, expanding Schrader’s reach globally. Seeing an opportunity, Schrader moved his show to Chris Jericho’s network of shows on PodcastOne, where he further expanded his worldwide audience.

You can find Dave on MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT.