In the days following the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s body, crumpled up confessions given by every sad drunk and deranged publicity seeker littered the local landscape. Most of the confessors were men. But even though none of the women who confessed were guilty, the cops thought maybe a woman had committed the murder. After all, L.A. has its share of female killers.
The Herald ran side-by-side photos of three homicidal women arrested in L.A. Louise Peete (one of only four women ever executed by the State of California) was a serial killer. Police arrested her for murder in the 1920s. Found guilty, she served eighteen years in San Quentin. A few years after her release, she committed another murder for which she paid with her life.
Winnie Ruth Judd committed two murders in Arizona. Police arrested her in L.A. when a trunk containing the dismembered remains of Hedvig Samuelson and Anne Le Roi leaked bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.
In 1922, Clara Phillips (aka “Tiger Girl”) murdered Alberta Meadows, the woman she suspected was a rival for her husband’s affections. She struck Meadows repeatedly with a hammer, and then, in a fit of adrenalin fueled rage, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder onto the torso of the corpse.
The possibility of a woman murdering Short wasn’t far-fetched. The Herald featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere previously profiled Short’s killer as a young man without a criminal record, but she was open to the killer being a woman. In fact, she abruptly shifted gears from identifying a young man as the slayer to enthusiastically embracing the notion of “… a sinister Lucrezia Borgia — a butcher woman whose crime dwarfs any in the modern crime annals.”
La Vere was an expert for hire, and if the Herald editors had asked her to write a profile of the killer as a mutant Martian alien, she’d likely have done it. Still, she made a few insightful comments in her column. “Murderers leave behind them a trail of fingerprints, bits of skin and hair. The slayer of ‘The Black Dahlia’ left the most telltale clue of all–-the murder pattern of a degenerate, vicious feminine mind.”
Even more interesting was La Vere’s exhortation to police to look for an older woman. She said, “Police investigators should look for a woman older than ‘The Black Dahlia.’ This woman who either inspired the crime or actually committed the ghastly, unspeakable outrage need not be a woman of great strength. Extreme emotion or high mental tension in men and women give great, superhuman strength.”
One thing I find interesting about La Vere’s profile of a female perpetrator is that she said the woman would be older than Short. In recent years, an older woman became an integral part of a theory about the murder.
It is a theory put forward by Larry Harnisch. Harnisch, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article for the paper on the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. In the years since, he has done a lot more digging into the case and has unearthed an important connection between the body dump site near 39th and Norton, and two medical doctors. One doctor, Walter Alonzo Bayley, lived in a house just one block south of the place where Betty Bersinger found Elizabeth Short’s body. At the time of the murder, Bayley was estranged from his wife; however, she still occupied the home. Bayley left his wife for his mistress, Alexandra Partyka, also a medical doctor. Partyka emigrated to the U.S. and wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, but she assisted Bayley in his practice.
Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed Partyka was blackmailing the late doctor with secrets about his medical practice. Secrets damning enough to ruin him.
There is also a link between Bayley’s family and Short’s. In 1945, Dr. Bayley’s adopted daughter, Barbara Lindgren, was a witness to the marriage of Beth’s sister Virginia Short to Adrian West at a church in Inglewood, California, near Los Angeles.
Larry discussed Dr. Bayley in James Ellroy’s “Feast of Death”. [Note: Be forewarned that there are photos of Elizabeth Short in the morgue.]
A woman could have murdered Elizabeth Short. Could the woman be Alexandra Partyka? The chances are that we’ll never know–or at least not until Larry Harnisch finishes his book on the case.
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. She married at 17 to David Wrather and they had a son, David, Jr.
In 1922, after training in New Mexico, Jeanne worked as a nurse in Amarillo, Texas. Marriage didn’t suit her. She and David divorced in 1924; she won custody of their son.
In 1925, Jeanne married again. That marriage, too, failed. There are rumors that Jeanne acted in film, but I could not find her listed in the Internet Movie Database—even under an alias—so she may have appeared in uncredited roles. Whether she appeared in movies or not, Jeanne had an interesting Hollywood connection. She worked as a private nurse for Marion Benda Wilson, Rudolph Valentino’s last date, possibly his last love. Known as the “Woman in Black,” for many years, Marion put flowers on Valentino’s grave.
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.
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.”
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.
It isn’t clear when Jeanne began to abuse alcohol, but by the mid-1940s, she fought demons she could not control.
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 badly beaten, nude body of a woman in a field near the Santa Monica Airport. The Herald immediately put out an extra edition with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body.”
Within a couple of hours, police identified the victim of the “Werewolf Killer” as forty-five-year-old Jeanne French.
Someone savagely beat Jeanne. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument—likely a socket wrench. 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. There were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for Jeanne to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t 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.
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 sat next to a smallish man with a dark complexion sat on the stool next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
On the night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne, who was drunk, started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left.
Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son, David, 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.”
Police booked Frank for murder, then they cleared him. His landlady told police she could verify Frank was in his apartment at the time of the murder. His shoe prints failed to match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops had few leads. They found French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Place and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that 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, which the coroner estimated to be around 6 a.m.
Police rousted scores of sex degenerates, but they eliminated each as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that Jeanne ate a Chinese meal shortly before her death.
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 look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked on Jeanne’s murder for eight months, but they never closed it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He said he dated Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes—he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. He seemed a likely suspect until he didn’t. Police cleared him despite his odd behavior.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949, the Grand Jury launched an investigation into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
Like the murder of Elizabeth Short, there have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades. Two more women on the list of unsolved homicides of women during the 1940s.
Elizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body.
Even in a murder case as well-publicized as the Black Dahlia, the more time that elapses following the crime, the fewer clues there are on which to report. That the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought psychiatrists, psychologists, and mystery writers who would attempt, each in his/her own way, to analyze the case and fill column space in the paper as they, and the cops, waited for a break. Decades before the founding of FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald engaged in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.
The Herald tapped Beverly Hills psychologist, Alice La Vere, to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer. The paper introduced La Vere as “… one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists.” La Vere regularly spoke to various organizations about the problems of returning veterans. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give readers, “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis is remarkably contemporary.
Here is an excerpt from her profile of Short’s personality:
“Some gnawing feeling of inadequacy was eating at the mind of this girl. She needed constant proof to herself that she was important to someone and demonstrates this need by the number of suitors and admirers with which she surrounded herself.”
La Vere described the killer.
“It is very likely that this is the first time this boy has committed any crime. It is also likely that he may be a maladjusted veteran. The lack of social responsibility experienced by soldiers, their conversational obsession with sex, their nerves keyed to battle pitch — these factors are crime-breeding.” She further stated: “Repression of the sex impulse accompanied by environmental maladjustment is the slayer’s probable background.”
How does La Vere’s profile of Elizabeth Short and her killer compare with the analysis of retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests Beth was “needy” and that her killer would have “spotted her a mile away.” He said that the killer “would have been a lust killer and loved hurting people.”
On the salient points, I’d say that La Vere and Douglas were of like minds regarding Elizabeth Short and her killer.
At the time of Elizabeth Short’s murder, mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig) was one of the most popular crime writers in the country. In its January 28, 1946 issue, TIME magazine selected Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. Sadly, Rice is largely forgotten by all except the most avid mystery geeks (like me).
In late January 1947, the Herald invited Craig Rice to give her take on the Black Dahlia case. She summed it up this way:
“A black dahlia is what expert gardeners call ‘an impossibility’ of nature. Perhaps that is why lovely, tragic Elizabeth Short was tortured, murdered, and mutilated because such a crime could happen only in the half-world in which she lived. A world of—shadows.”
The police couldn’t catch a break. Not only couldn’t they locate the crime scene, false confessors, male and female, diverted critical resources and muddied the waters.
LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was challenging from the moment they arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site posed a problem.
Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.
The Herald-Express cruelly tricked Beth’s mother, Phoebe, into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.
Murder victims lose their right to privacy; every secret revealed. To fill column space while reporters tracked multiple leads, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The Herald sought the opinion of LAPD’s shrink. Dr. Paul De River. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up effect two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master, and the victim was the slave”.
In a chilling statement, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died.”
Reporters interviewed people who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Beth. They weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The claim Beth longed to be a star is a myth, likely based on letters she wrote to her mother. Beth wanted to keep the truth of her life in Southern California from her mother; for instance accepting rides from strangers and moving constantly. No mother wants to hear that, so the Hollywood lie came easily. A believable fiction when you are young and pretty. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for the killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie canvassed Southern California for leads. She was twelve years into her career with the Herald-Express when the Black Dahlia case broke. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she checked in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said, “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.” She immediately dropped the ‘Werewolf’ tag.
A few days passed and police located the mystery man, Robert M. Manley, known by his nickname, Red. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed the 25-year-old salesman. The first thing she said to him was, “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied, “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”
Aggie told him he was in one hell of a spot and advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective, looked over at Manley and said, “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”
Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to interrupt him. Red said he picked Beth up on a San Diego street corner early in December. He confessed that the night he spent with Beth in a roadside motel was strictly platonic and concluded with, “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
The story ran in the Herald with the headline: “Night In a Motel”, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.
The morning following her interview with Red Manley, her editor yanked Aggie off of the case. She said, “… the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”
The no-assignment routine resumed the next day. Aggie said she sat for about three hours, then started on an embroidery project. Every person who saw Aggie with her embroidery hoop roared with laughter. She kept at it until quitting time.
Day three—Aggie prepared for more embroidery when the assistant city editor that told her that because of an overnight decision, she was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue working leads.
Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook out of her handbag before management pulled her off the case again. This time, permanently. Aggie’s new assignment—city editor. Nobody was more shocked than Aggie. She deserved the promotion. With 20 years in the newspaper business, she possessed the necessary skill set to be an effective editor. She became one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily. She enjoyed running the editor’s desk, and did a phenomenal job, but she confessed she missed being in the field chasing a story.
One of the conspiracy theories that surrounds Beth’s murder involves Aggie. Some believe she got too close to a solution in the murder, and the killer(s) arranged to have her promoted out of the way. That means whoever murdered Beth had enough juice with the Herald to influence personnel decisions. I think that is nonsense. The paper’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, had no reason to tamper with Aggie’s successful coverage. Additionally, as city editor, Aggie handed out assignments and directed the activities of all the reporters in the newsroom. She knew everything they uncovered. The timing of Aggie’s promotion is a sidebar, not a conspiracy.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold — or does it?
About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.
What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend–an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego” and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. Beth probably made the scratches herself. Maybe insect bites? Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Following a platonic night in the motel room–Red passed his self-administered love test. Lucky Harriette. He still had a problem; he’d been out of touch with his wife for a couple of days. How would he explain his silence? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.
In my mind’s eye, I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have wondered what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky, someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well-meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?
Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave goodbye to him and be on her way–but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to make a plan to ditch her red-headed shadow. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.
Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable putting her out of the car on her own.
He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine, and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.
Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go–gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.
She may have been headed to the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.
When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police because the bar led a double life. By day, it catered to the lunch crowd. Dark enough to be cozy for cocktails for a man escorting a woman, not his wife. By night the clientele changed to mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal, there were only a few places where men could meet.
No one who was willing to talk could say for sure that Beth was in the bar on the 9th—and if she was there, no one saw her leave.
I find it profoundly sad that no one missed Beth. She had no family here, and no close friends. She was perfect prey. With no credible sightings of her, it is likely that from January 9th to the morning of January 15th, when she died, Beth was held captive by her killer. What did he say to her? Did she plead for her life? It is terrifying to contemplate.
We won’t be on the bus as we were pre-pandemic. We will be stalking the mean streets of downtown Los Angeles (I’ll forego my vintage peep-toe pumps for something more suitable) to shine a light on unsolved mysteries, and heinous crimes.
One of the cases I’ll talk about is the 1943 murder of William Lederer, the owner of the Roseland Roof, a dime-a-dance hall on Spring Street. It is unhinged.
This post begins my annual coverage of the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.
Seventy-six years ago, on January 8, 1947, Robert ‘Red’ Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.
Red was a twenty-five-year-old salesman and occasional saxophone player, with a wife, Harriette, and 4-month-old baby daughter at home. The couple married on November 28, 1945. They lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs.
Red enlisted in the Army on June 24, 1942. He was 20 years-old. In January 1945, He entered a hospital for treatment of a non-traumatic injury, and the Army discharged him in April of the same year for medical reasons—but not for any residual condition.
Maybe his injury made it difficult for him to adjust to marriage and parenthood. He said that he and Harriette had “some misunderstandings.” Restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.” The woman Red used to test his love was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short.
Red traveled for his job and it was on a trip to San Diego that he met Elizabeth. She was standing on a street corner and appeared to need a ride. At first, she seemed reluctant to get into his car. But in an instant, she changed her mind and got in. She introduced herself as Beth Short, and they struck up a conversation. When Red returned to Los Angeles, the two corresponded.
Dorothy French met Beth on the night of December 9, 1946 at the all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on Fifth Avenue. Dorothy worked as a cashier at the ticket window and she noticed Beth seemed at loose ends. When her shift ended at 3 a.m., Dorothy offered to take Beth back to the Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit she shared with her mother and a younger brother. Beth was glad to abandon the theater seat for a comfortable sofa.
Weeks passed, and Elvera and Dorothy grew tired of Beth’s couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. She didn’t even pay for groceries. She received a money order for $100 from a former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, yet she spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent.
One of the unsent letters was to Gordon. In the letter dated December 13, 1946, Beth wrote:
“I do hope you ﬁnd a nice girl to kiss at midnight on new years eve. It would have been wonderful if we belonged to each other now. I’ll never regret coming West to see you. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there. However, it was nice as long as it lasted.”
The French family had another complaint about their house guest—despite her claims, there was no evidence that Beth ever looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but it was just one of her many lies. Her letters home never revealed her transient lifestyle—nothing about couch surfing, borrowing money to eat, or accepting rides from strange men.
Beth could have found a job if she wanted one. She worked in a delicatessen in Florida as a teenager and at the post exchange (PX) at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base). Red arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview—but she didn’t follow-up.
When Red heard from his friend that Beth was a no-show for the job interview, he wrote to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego; she preferred Los Angeles and wanted to return there. Red said he’d help her out.
The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was Red’s love test. If nothing happened, then he would know that he and Harriette would stay together. Kismet. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a decision to make.
Beth and Red weren’t on the road for long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Did Red have butterflies in his stomach? How did he want the love test to turn out?
Red must have realized the decision was Beth’s. They never shared more than a kiss. She spent the night in a chair and he took the bed.
The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, for Los Angeles.
According to Edith’s public defender, William Aggeler, a state of extreme melancholia brought about by physical ailments suffered since childhood, account for her accidental shooting of Linus Worden, causing his death.
Edith’s mother recounted for the seven men and five women on the jury a litany of illnesses and conditions afflicting her daughter. She testified that at seven months old, Edith had a serious case of pneumonia; she had an attack of spinal meningitis at three; at nine they found her unconscious in a rocking chair. She remained in bed for several weeks and was in such extreme pain she couldn’t bear to be touched without screaming in agony. When she finally got out of bed, she held her head in a twisted position. A lump developed on the right side of her neck and when she walked, she dragged her right leg and complained of constant head pain. At twelve, she suffered a spasm so severe that her hands couldn’t voluntarily unclench.
After her marriage, at seventeen, her husband found her one afternoon unconscious lying between the bed and the wall. In the ten years since then, she endured many similar attacks, even having one while in jail.
In November 1920, Edith’s mother noticed her daughter’s extreme moodiness. She testified the nervous condition manifested itself in Edith’s refusal to eat and her inability to continue to work in any capacity. In the fall of 1920, her mother found a revolver in Edith’s room and removed it. She gave the weapon to her husband.
As sad as Edith’s life was, she still shot and killed a man—and that is the story the prosecution would tell. Detective Kline testified to his conversation with Edith in the hospital. He asked her how she came to be shot. She answered, “It does not make any difference.” He informed her of Linus’ death, and she said, “I shot him, but I do not believe he is dead and will not believe it until my brother-in-law, Lee, tells me so.”
Edith insisted mutual despondency was the reason for the shooting. She claimed both she and Linus wanted to die. The mutual destruction motive flew in the face of Edith’s initial statement, “I couldn’t live without him, and I couldn’t get along with him.”
Edith’s mother testified for the defense; however, her father, Mr. Vosberg, was called as a prosecution witness. His duty to testify weighed heavily on him. He loved Edith. He recalled for the jury the events of the night of Linus’ death. He said he and Harvey Clarke, his son-in-law, relaxed inside the house while Linus and Edith sat outside in Linus’ car. When they hear four shots, both men sprang into action. They found Linus dying, and Edith seriously wounded.
A packed courtroom heard Edith testify on Monday, July 25. Physical suffering made her life wretched, and she tried several times to commit suicide. Two years after she married, she tried it again. “I had been reading spiritualist books.” [Note: spiritualism was enormously popular following WWI. So many people lost loved ones and desperately wanted to contact them in the afterlife.] Edith said she read The Gateway of Heaven. “It described the experiences of a woman on the other side. After reading it, I got a desire to go and see what was there.”
The death of her husband exacerbated her depression. “I used to walk the palisades at Santa Monica and fight the inclination to go over. I did not think it was right at that time; I had a greater understanding then than later. I got the desire in August 1920 to take my life.”
A friend of hers from Santa Barbara shot himself in the head. She thought it would be “a good way to do it.” She bought a gun in early November.
Even jail didn’t stop Edith from attempting suicide. She got a hold of a pair of scissors and tried to do herself in.
Edith described suffering debilitating symptoms every month. She lived on aspirin. Often, she shut herself away in her bedroom.
Was there a legitimate medical cause for Edith’s physical complaint and behavior? It is possible Edith suffered from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). In the 1920s, the diagnosis didn’t exist. In fact, they didn’t add PMDD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 2013, and it remains a controversial. Yet, the symptoms described by Edith fit the disorder. They also fit Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Her first suicide attempt at fourteen lends credibility to a hormonal imbalance, but that is speculation.
It isn’t surprising that Edith’s trial became a battle of expert witnesses. Alienists on both sides offered an opinion on Edith’s mental state. The question of her sanity loomed large.
Defense witness, Dr. Allen, believed Edith was insane at the time of the murder. In fact, he referred to her case as one of “psycopathic (sic) personality.” He said, “In considering her mental state, it is necessary to view it in the light of the history of her case. In this case, there is a very marked history of abnormality, or eroticism. I don’t think this woman was at any time mentally normal. Because of her physical condition, she was predestined to become mentally unbalanced in a crisis.”
Dr. Allen’s conclusion isn’t surprising given how often women were characterized as hysterical and insane.
I’ll digress for a moment. Women’s menstrual cycle has a long history of being misunderstood. In fact, the word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tapua, which means both sacred and menstrual flow. Ladies, if we ever learn to harness it, menstruation is our super power. Why? Ancient Romans believed a woman’s monthly flow could turn new wine sour, wither crops, dry seeds in gardens, kill bees, rust iron and bronze. Dogs who taste the blood become mad—their bite poisonous. There is some good news. Hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to flashes of lightning.
Don your capes and prepare for battle. Now back to Edith.
Edith’s conflicting stories of the murder are troubling. At first, she said Linus wanted to die. During her trial, she said it was an accident. Before she and Linus went out for a drive on the fatal night, she slipped into a small room off the parlor. Linus noticed her come and go twice before he asked her about it. She said she would explain later. She didn’t tell him it was where she kept her revolver. He didn’t see her slip the gun into her coat pocket.
When they returned later and sat in Linus’ car, Edith said she kept thinking about taking out the gun and shooting herself. She communicated some of her unease to Linus. He said he would see her the next night. Making future plans doesn’t sound like a man ready to kill himself.
Edith continued her testimony, “All kinds of emotions went through me. I remember him turning away from me. He laughed and said: ‘You will be all right.’ I shook my head and felt the gun. The first thing I knew there was a flash. I saw his face in front of me. The report frightened me.”
Did Linus laughing at her trigger a rage?
The defense hoped the jury would believe Edith’s ill health made her mentally irresponsible for Linus’ death.
“Many people suffer from illness, including headaches, but it doesn’t justify taking a life,” argued the prosecution. The D.A. asked the jury not to be swayed by “technical insanity,” nor sympathy, but to administer the law as it is written.
It took the jury an hour and a quarter to acquit Edith.
The following day, shortly after 2 PM, police rearrested Edith at a downtown department store on an insanity warrant sworn to by Detective Sergeant Eddie King of the district attorney’s office. Accompanying him was future LAPD chief, Louis Oaks. [Oaks served from 1922 to 1923 until they showed the hard-drinking the door. It’s an interesting tale for another time.]
Was the D.A. a sore loser? Maybe. But he pointed out that the attacks of melancholia Edith suffered were a recurrent affliction, and a recognized form of insanity.
In early August, five physicians of the Lunacy Commission found Edith sane. While subject to depression, the doctors didn’t consider her a menace to society. However, they recommended six months of probation rather than confinement in an institution.
Judge Weyle said, “you have suffered enough.”
Following her acquittal, Edith resumed the use and spelling of her maiden name, Edythe Vosberg.
The 1930 census shows her living with her parents in a home at 858 N. Curson, in West Hollywood. She works as a stenographer in the motion picture industry. Her brother-in-law Harvey, and her brother Gayne (born Alfred D. Vosberg), worked as actors. Either of them may have helped her get the job. Her brother changed his name to Gayne Whitman after WWI to avoid the negative association with his German birth name. Gayne had a long career, from 1904-1957, he appeared in 213 films. On radio, he played the title role in Chandu the Magician and also worked as an announcer.
The 1933 city directory for Santa Monica, has Edythe working for the H.C. Henshey Company. Henshey’s was a major Santa Monica department store. Sadly, it went out of business years ago.
Edythe’s mother passed away in 1939. By the 1940 census, 49-year-old Edythe is living at 2630 St. George Street with her father and her nephew, 22-year-old Harvey Clark. The house is off Franklin Avenue, near the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz.
In 1950, 56-year-old Edythe works as a record keeper for the city police department. It doesn’t say which city, she appears to be living in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.
I don’t know what Edythe did from 1950 until her death in 1971. I know she never remarried, and never had any further run-ins with the law. She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
The Supreme Court is trampling women’s rights and there is no reason to believe it will stop. Can we expect to be deprived of voting rights? Will they force us to perform only those jobs deemed suitable for women? I, for one, believe this court has no lower bound. I await an apocalypse.
While I await said apocalypse, I divert my energy into research. It is my escape and my happy place. Anyway, during a recent search of old newspapers, I found several intriguing cases from 1921.
I’ll begin with Edith Lundberg.
The Los Angeles newspaper headlines for 1921, reflect nothing short of a female crime wave. On any given day, Edith Lundberg shares column space with Louise Peete (unmasked years later as a serial killer); Erie Mullicane, a young woman accused of killing her baby, and numerous other women facing the criminal justice system for a variety of crimes.
Born to Anna Marie Hart and William Allen Vosburgh (Vosberg) on June 29, 1891 in Illinois, Edith Mae Vosberg had an older brother, Gayne born in 1890, and a sister, Ethel, born 1895
Married, at 18 years-old, to Arthur Lundberg and widowed seven years later in 1916, Edith Lundberg’s life was not very different from other women her age. Many young women lost children, and husbands, before their 30th birthday. Luckier than some, Edith moved from Missouri to Santa Barbara, California, to live with her younger sister, Ethel. Ethel married Harvey Clark, a successful movie character actor. They welcomed Edith.
Situated a short distance from the beach, the Clark’s house at 322 West Mission Street must have made a pleasant change for Edith from the harsh mid-western winters, and the loneliness of widowhood. Even with its desirable location, it was a long commute to get to the movie studios, so sometime during 1920, the Clarks moved to Los Angeles, and Edith accompanied them. She moved in with her parents, who also fled the harsh midwestern weather. She found a job as a stenographer in the mechanical department of the Hall of Records.
In September 1920, she started dating Linus Worden, Jr., a local car salesman. Linus served in the motor transport corps during the war, earning his sergeant’s stripes. A post-war segue to working in auto sales seemed perfect for him.
Prior to meeting Linus, Edith resumed use of her maiden name. Linus and his family knew her as Miss Vosberg. She did not mention her widowed status. After five years alone, she may have preferred to put her sadness behind her and start fresh. Linus called on at least once a week. Edith’s mother believed the relationship was on a track to marriage, but the Wordens had a different take on it. They believed it was casual companionship. Both families agreed the pair enjoyed each other’s company.
On February 8, 1921, the couple went out for a drive. A couple of hours later, Linus’ car pulled up at the curb in front of the Vosberg home at 1227 West Twelfth Street. (The house is long gone.) In the house, her parents, and her sister and her brother-in-law, heard laughter and conversation from the car. After a momentary silence, four gunshots cracked. A agonized cry followed. Linus got out of the car, took a few steps toward the house and collapsed on the sidewalk.
F.E. Andreani, a near neighbor, heard the commotion and ran over to Linus to render aid. Linus said, “I’m shot.” Then stopped trying to speak. Andreani pulled the fallen man into his car and rushed him to the nearest receiving hospital, but Linus died before they could reach medical help. One bullet pierced his heart, and another lodged in his stomach.
Linus’ wounds accounted for two shots. What about the other two? After shooting Linus, Edith held the pistol against her abdomen and shot twice. She made it to her parents’ porch before falling. At the hospital, Edith begged to die. She told the attending surgeons, “I couldn’t live with him and I couldn’t live without him. I made up my mind to kill him and I shot him.” She also muttered she and Linus “felt blue.” She said she planned to kill him and then herself.
As they waited for word on Edith’s condition, police began their investigation. They learned Edith purchased the gun at a pawnshop two weeks earlier. She used an assumed name.
Two days after the crime, Edith lay near death in the county hospital. Her motive remained unclear. One doctor, Edward H. Morrissey, president of the Los Angeles Association of Optometrists, theorized, “If this young woman quarreled with Worden, she undoubtedly did so because of the low ebb of her vitality caused her to be irritable. Any undue excitement which might have come while she was in this condition could have caused her to lose control of herself. The majority of criminals in our jails and inmates of our county farms are victims of defective vision.” An interesting theory, for sure. Dr. Morrissey based it on a report that Edith complained of a severe headache and problems with her eyesight the day of Linus’ murder.
Police had their own theory, which did not involve faulty eyesight. They believed Edith premeditated the murder because she purchased the revolver in advance. Another odd thing, Edith wrote, but did not mail, a letter to a friend in which she stated: “I have a strange feeling. If anything happens, I will come to you if I am allowed.”
Edith’s condition tread a thin line between life and death for days before doctors felt confident enough to declare her on the road to recovery. The news is enough for the District Attorney to file a murder charge against Edith. They move her from the county hospital to a bed in the county jail.
According to her attorney, T.E. Justice, (perfect name for an attorney, right?) Edith would plead insanity. Edith said, “I don’t know why I killed him. I loved him and he loved me, but we were both moody, subject to despondency and melancholy, and I did not feel that we would be happy married. I had planned for some time to take my own life, but had no intention of taking his. But I expect to pay the penalty, and now my chief worry is for his mother, for he was everything to her.”
Her difficult recovery postponed her preliminary hearing until April 5. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Sergeant Bean remained baffled by Edith’s conflicting statements. On one hand, she claimed she couldn’t live with Linus; other the other hand she could not live without him. In the next breath, she asserted the shooting was a terrible accident. She intended to kill herself, not to harm Linus. Maybe the trial would clarify her true motive.
On April 5, her attorney (soon to be replaced by a public defender) previewed Edith’s defense—chronic melancholia.
Master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is trying to control the rogue actions of one of his men, while also planning one last big heist before retiring. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hanna (Al Pacino) attempts to track down McCauley as he deals with the chaos in his own life, including the infidelity of his wife (Diane Venora) and the mental health of his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). McCauley and Hanna discover a mutual respect, even as they try to thwart each other’s plans.
Heat is based on the true story of Neil McCauley, a calculating criminal and ex-Alcatraz inmate who was tracked down by Detective Chuck Adamson in 1964.