Bessie’s Revenge

The beautiful neighborhood of Verdemont lies ten miles north of downtown San Bernardino. In 1925, nestled against the hills, it offered the perfect vantage point to witness San Bernardino’s growth and prosperity.

San Bernardino, E Street

Twenty-three-year-old Bessie Jones may have wished she could get out more, but her father worked as a Santa Fe railroad section foreman and was gone all day. Bessie cared for her invalid mother, and for her four-year-old daughter. She sometimes went down the hill to the A.B.C. root beer stand on Third Street to get a cold drink and socialize.

On one of her trips in 1924, she met Jack Croft, who worked at the stand. Several years her senior, he was nice looking and easy to talk to. She sometimes used the root beer stand as an excuse to bump into him. Bessie lost track of Jack for about a year, until one Sunday, when he and a friend, Bobby Cline, stopped in front of Bessie’s home. She went out to talk with them.

On Sunday, September 13, Bessie saw Jack outside the house talking to her father. He had a hat pulled low on his brow. At first, she did not recognize him—then he lifted the hat. He asked her what had she been doing, and she told him most of her days she spent at home with her mother and daughter. Jack said, “Let’s go down to the corner and get a coke.” Bessie told him she could only be gone for thirty minutes to an hour at the most. Jack said that was fine with him. “Go tell your folks you will be back in about an hour.”

Bessie got in Jack’s car and he drove down to the corner of Highland and Mt. Vernon, where a small grocery was attached to a soft drink place. He got out of the car and said, “I will be back in a few minutes, if you don’t mind waiting.”

Jack returned with a package of bottles. Bessie heard them clanging together. He got behind the wheel and started for Bessie’s place. When he got to Highland, he turned up a road and drove past farm houses to a quiet spot.

Jack pulled over. He took a bottle of Delaware Punch and a bottle of something that smelled like liquor to Bessie. Jack mixed them together and took a drink. He tried to get Bessie to take a sip, but she refused. She asked him to let her out of the car. He said no. He got out of the car, walked around to the passenger side of the car, and tried to pull Bessie out. She got away from him and slid under the steering wheel and hung on.

She saw a bottle at her feet and kicked it out into the dirt. Bessie faced Jack and asked him to let her go. He said, “Well, if you are really good to me.” Bessie got out and took a few steps. Jack said, “Are you coming back?” She said yes. Instead, she ran down the road as fast as she could, hoping to get to the main highway. She hit a dead-end in an orchard and turned around.

She saw the lights of Jack’s car coming and she ran. Bessie was not a match for Jack’s car. He pulled up beside her. “Bess, I’ll take you home. I will show you I am a real man. I will take you home.”

Bessie got back into the car. Jack drove down the road in the opposite direction of her home. Fed up, she demanded to be released and said she would walk home. Jack ignored her. He stopped the car and started fighting with her again. Bessie kicked, scratched, and bit him hard. He raped her. She thought he would drive away and leave her in the dirt. He did not. Bessie told him she would cause him trouble. He laughed and said a woman cannot cause a man any trouble.

Bessie got back into the car, and Jack headed toward her home. She told him he would have to explain to her parents, if they were still awake, why the one-hour trip to the root beer stand had turned into hours. He agreed. He would say he blew a tire.

When they pulled up in front of the house, Bessie ran inside. Bessie told her mother Jack “insulted” her in a nearby wash. She said, “I’ll fix him so he will never insult another woman if I can help it.” She grabbed her father’s gun and ran outside.

Jack sat in his car with the door open. Sneering, he asked, “Is your father asleep?” Bessie lifted gun and pulled the trigger. She said, “I fired at him. I only meant to hurt him for what he had done to me—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

Critically wounded, Jack started the car and drove nearly 100 yards before he collapsed and died. The car crashed into a telephone pole.

San Bernardino deputy sheriffs arrested Bessie while they investigated further. They also needed the coroner’s jury report. Before the jury convened, deputies learned the dead man gave Bessie an alias. He was not Jack Croft. He was Albert Burress.

The coroner’s inquest was surreal. Bessie sat fewer than 20 feet from Albert’s body as she testified. In fact, they asked her to identify him as the man she shot. From the stand, Bessie described her growing rage as Albert drove her home following the assault. She admitted she planned to shoot him, and she was not remorseful. She said, “He got what he deserved.”

Today, Bessie might be on the hook for voluntary manslaughter. In 1925, the coroner’s jury listened with empathy to Bessie’s ordeal and reached the same conclusion as Bessie had. Albert deserved what he got. They ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.

The Murder Complex, Part 4

THE LADY VANISHES

Thomas told anyone who asked him that the last time he saw Grace was on February 21, 1925.  They had stopped at a roadhouse, the Plantation Grill, for drinks and dancing. National Prohibition may have been the law, but it was simple enough to find a cocktail if you wanted one.

Entrance to speakeasy.

Thomas saw a group of people enter the café and recognized a woman named Nina. He had known her for several years. He spent some time chatting with her. Thomas said that Grace became unreasonably jealous and they started to argue.  Rather than make a public scene, they left the roadhouse and continued their argument in the car until they reached Western and Eighth Streets where they made up. Instead of calling it a night, they went to the Biltmore Hotel where there was an orchestra and dancing.

When they arrived at the Biltmore, Grace excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. Thomas waited, but she never returned.

Thomas reported Grace missing, and he also hired a private investigator. He maintained that Grace had left for Paris or New York to seek a divorce. According to Thomas, she carried with her $126,000 in Liberty bonds.  Thomas said Grace would return when she was ready. Then he went on with his life as if nothing had happened.

Biltmore Hotel

A couple of days after Grace disappeared, Thomas asked Patrick to accompany him to the Beverly Glen cabin because he said he needed to pour a concrete floor in the cistern which he claimed was leaking. Patrick welcomed any activity that would distract him from worrying about his mother.  He mixed and poured the cement while Thomas smoothed it out.

Over the next few weeks Thomas arranged parties and other social events for Patrick to “keep his mind off things.”  Among the guests at the soirees was Thomas’ attractive young office assistant, Dorothy Leopold.

When Grace’s father Frank first got word that she was missing, he felt in his gut that something horrible had happened to her. He wanted to force a confrontation with Thomas, so he filed a legal request to become Patrick’s guardian. If the guardianship request was meant to fluster Thomas, it failed.  Thomas said that it was up to Patrick to choose a guardian.

Patrick didn’t want his grandfather to be his guardian, so he named an attorney he knew to take charge of his legal affairs until Grace returned. As a further slap in the face to his mother’s family, Patrick stated his preference was to live with his stepfather.

Weeks went by with no sign of Grace. Then suddenly, Patrick began receiving letters from her with New York postmarks. In the letters, she said that her family was keeping her from Thomas and that they knew where she was. Patrick was conflicted. He loved his mother’s family but Thomas had been very good to him.  He had even bought him a new Chrysler.

By June, Grace’s family, joined by her friends from the Ebell Club and trust company officers from the bank, appealed to District Attorney Asa Keyes to launch a sweeping investigation.

Original Ebell Club located on Figueroa. By C.C. Pierce & Co. – http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/3021, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30848484

THE INVESTIGATION

On June 12th, an investigation into Grace’s mysterious disappearance, spearheaded by the D.A., kicked into high gear. Los Angeles Police Department officers interviewed residents of Beverly Glen.  Among those interviewed were Donald Mead and Kenneth Selby. The boys related to police what they had witnessed that February night. If it had been Thomas creeping around in the cabin in total darkness, it may have been construed as odd, but it didn’t mean he was guilty of anything.

Adjacent to the Young cabin was a well which supplied water to several surrounding cabins. The water was drawn using a gasoline pump and was piped to the surrounding cabins.  Residents told police it had been an open well until February, when Dr. Young had sealed it with a concrete floor.  They thought that it was strange that although the water had always been clean and pure, after the floor was installed the water began to emit a putrid stench.   One of the residents said:  “The water never began to smell until a few months ago.  No, we cannot use it, not even for shower baths or for dishwashing.  It is slightly discolored and when drawn, a yellowish, smelling sediment settles in it.  We have no idea what caused this sudden change in the water.”

There were so many questions about the Beverly Glen cabin that police felt it was time to conduct a search there. The cabin held several intriguing clues; a one-ounce bottle of Novocain secreted near the fireplace, and bloodstains in a bedroom.

Prior to the search, Thomas made a cryptic statement: “I hold the key to this situation and I have burned my bridges behind me.”

While many still had doubts about what had happened to Grace, District Attorney Asa Keyes was not among them: “I am as certain as I am sitting here that Mrs. Young is dead – that she has been murdered.  By whom she was slain we do not know. That we are trying to determine.”

Following their search of the cabin, authorities decided to break up the concrete in the cistern. They made a gruesome discovery.

NEXT TIME: Grace is found.

The Murder Complex, Part 3

Thomas Young

Thomas complained often that Grace had wanted to “be the boss” ever since they had said their I dos, and he resented her for it. The truth was that Thomas was sly and manipulative and had an unhealthy interest in the fortune Grace and Patrick shared.

At least Thomas was a decent stepfather.  He worked hard to ingratiate himself with Patrick, and he was successful. Patrick was very attached to Thomas. But while Patrick was becoming fonder of Thomas, Grace was growing fearful of him.

In late 1924 or early 1925, Grace asked her father, Frank Hunt, to meet with her. She went over to his apartment on Irolo Street and picked him up to go for a drive.  She told him that she didn’t want to have a private conversation anywhere but in her car. She was afraid that Thomas had placed a Dictaphone in the house.

If Frank thought his daughter was being paranoid without cause, he changed his mind after he heard her out.

As they drove around, Grace told Frank of the indignities Thomas had forced on her. She told him of intimate photographs which Thomas had taken. He bullied her into posing in ways that sickened her. But Grace couldn’t see a way out. Thomas had threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone how he treated her.  He had also threatened to take Patrick away or to have her committed to Patton State Insane Asylum. Grace knew Thomas well enough to be convinced that these were not idle threats.

Father and daughter tried to formulate a plan that would get her to safety, but in the end they were immobilized by their fear of Thomas’ retaliation.

Frank hadn’t known about the photos, but he was aware of an incident which had occurred several weeks earlier – in fact he and Grace had talked about it at the time.

At Thomas’ request, Patrick had visited him in his office to have a tooth filled.  Almost immediately following the procedure, Patrick became violently ill. His face swelled up to an abnormal size and he was in excruciating pain.  Frank didn’t think that his grandson would “make it for another thirty days” and he was convinced that Thomas had intentionally given Patrick a slow poison to “get him out of the way.”

After conferring with her father and in direct opposition to Thomas’ wishes, Grace brought in Dr. J.A. Le Deux, who actually saved Patrick’s life.

Was Patrick’s close call attempted murder?  Neither Frank nor Grace wanted to say anything to him without proof.

Patrick was unaware of his mother’s and grandfather’s fears about his safety. He liked and trusted Thomas. Perhaps that is why, when Grace suddenly disappeared in February 1925, he didn’t question Thomas’ assertion that Grace had left him. And if Thomas said Grace would return, then of course she would.  Wouldn’t she?

NEXT TIME: The lady vanishes.

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, the silence in Beverly Glen was broken only by the sounds of nature; a coyote’s howl, or the powerful beating of an owl’s wings.  But this night the boys heard the rumble of a car engine. That was unusual, as there wasn’t much traffic in the Glen.  It was a quiet, semi-rural enclave about twenty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles; the place where many well-to-do local residents 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.

(ca. 1925) – View showing a car on an 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.

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 that the cabin belonged to Dr. Thomas Young, a Los Angeles dentist, but it was too dark to positively identify the driver who appeared to be male. Maybe it was the doctor — maybe not. No matter, the boys were enjoying 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, because the man was hunched over and appeared to be having difficulty lifting it. Perhaps the boys were speculating about the box’s contents as they watched. 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 furtively scanned the area. Evidently satisfied that he was alone, he returned to his car and retrieved a gunny sack.  It was large and filled with something the boys couldn’t identify. The sack must not have been as heavy as the box because the man was able to sling 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 were barely able to contain their curiosity. Who was the man …and 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 wouldn’t give the strange man another thought until they were questioned by police six months later.

NEXT TIME: The Murder Complex continues.

Dog Spelled Backwards, Conclusion

clarke_arraigned_pichim in all sorts of schemes, most of which smacked of extortion. The cops thought that the scams were primarily small ones, until they uncovered evidence that John was attempting to merge several cults into a “spiritualist trust”. Among the plans he had for the trust were: Mexican distilleries, deals in bat guano, and investments in copper mines and oil stocks.  He planned to operate the trust out of a home offered for sale by Mrs. Dorothy Parry. John represented himself to Dorothy as the agent for a purchaser who could afford the asking price of $70,000 (equivalent to nearly $10M in 2016 dollars). But rather than putting Dorothy together with a buyer, John bombarded her with letters and poems. Dorothy told investigators: “The man’s persistence was so annoying that I had to move and asked my hotel not to give my forwarding address. But somehow Clarke managed to obtain it and followed me to this address. As the result of his visits I have been afraid to answer the door bell or go to the telephone.”

While continuing to pursue Dorothy, John was able to convince several more women to sign “soul contracts.” Helen Isabelle McGee’s contract read in part: “I agree with John Bertrum Clarke to enter with him into a higher spiritual development for at least two years. I will do everything possible to permit him to restore my full youth…and will be guided by him in both objective and subjective…”

love pirate caseSoul contracts and shady real estate deals were bad enough, but what about the  possibility that John had been involved in the suspicious deaths of two women with whom he had been involved?

The first death was that of John’s former housekeeper. Her body was found in the lake at Westlake Park across the street from the apartment John occupied at the time. Shortly before her death the unnamed woman had deeded a piece of property she owned in Ventura to John. He was questioned but subsequently released.

The second death was that of a 22-year-old girl. She was a student of the occult and at the time of her death she was helping John sell his books. It was rumored that the two had been lovers. She shot herself while in the vestibule of a local church–allegedly she was despondent over ill health. If John had played any part in her death it was never proved.

John flatly denied any knowledge of the drowned girl: “There is nothing to that story,” he said. According to him the story had originated at Patton State Hospital where he had been an inmate in 1920. He told investigators that the basis of the story was a play on his name. John explained that if you eliminated the first and fourth letters of his surname you were left with the word “lake”. Hmm. Really?

The hospital, originally known as Southern California Hospital for Insane and Inebriates, first opened its doors in 1893. Exactly why John had been confined in the hospital isn’t clear. At that time, and for many years after, it was a place where the seriously ill, or the seriously inconvenient, were confined. But he could have been there for any one of a number of issues–the place housed people suffering from mental disorders as well as physical ailments, specifically syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

John’s immediate problem, and the one for which he was in legal trouble up to his eyeballs, was the contributing charge. He came face-to-face with Clara Tautrim and her mother, Caroline, in the anteroom of the District Attorney’s office. They, along with Cecyle Duncan, had given their statements to D.A. Buron Fitts and Deputy D.A. Joos. John didn’t appear to be distressed by the presence of his accusers. In fact when they left he turned to Detective Berenzweig and said: “Give me credit for picking good looking ones.”

Only Clara Irene Berry seemed to be upset. Clara admitted that she’d been a party to luring the Tautrim girl to John’s apartment, but she denied knowledge of John’s real intentions.

D.A. Fitts questioned John, but the accused couldn’t be persuaded to stay on topic. When he was asked how many women he’d had love affairs with he said: “Most of them didn’t keep their dates, but when they didn’t show up I went out and got another. What I wanted to do was get a wife. I didn’t care if I had to marry her sixteen times. I wanted to transfer over to her my patents which will soon be in use by the government and which will bring me in $3000 a day.” John was returned to his jail cell.

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

John had several days’ growth of beard and was wearing the same soiled white suit when, on July 22nd, he was arraigned on the contributing charge. Clara Berry was arraigned as his accomplice. When she heard the charges against her she cried out: “No, no!”

While John and Clara were held in the county jail, each on $5000 bond, Chief Deputy District Attorney Buron Fitts held a press conference. He said: “The arrest of John Bertrum Clarke, ex-convict and former inmate of the asylum at Patton, undoubtedly removed a grave menace to the safety of the womanhood of Los Angeles. Under the guise of a minister of the Church of Cosmic Truth, Clarke planned in a systematic manner to prey on the girls and women of the city, evidence in our hands indicates. Neither the grey-haired woman nor the girl in her teens was immune from the menace. His conviction on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor is of the utmost importance to this community, and anyone possessing information regarding the activities of the man should place it in our hands at the earliest possible moment. Detectives Berenzweig, Hoskins and Harris, as well as Captain Plummer and Lieutenant Littell of the vice squad, deserve the highest commendation for their clever and untiring efforts in bringing Clarke before the bar of justice. Men of Clarke’s stamp are as dangerous in every respect as the ‘bad man’ who seeks his victim with a gun. They are certainly not worthy the same respect.”

John’s sanity, or lack thereof, was to be determined by the Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up). They heard from Clara Tautrim who described her interactions with the so-called love-pirate. She told of his promises to make her a motion picture star, and she also told them about the time he had grabbed her and kissed on on the neck. An overture she didn’t appreciate.

A doctor who had examined John testified: “He has been quiet and cooperative, but talkative. He has an exalted opinion of himself. He said he has discovered an automatic alphabet which enables him to communicate with God. He told me he is one of the greatest spiritualists in the world. He boasted that he had saved 40,000 persons from becoming insane. He says that he has invented an automatic mail sorting machine that has a human mind, and that he wrote President Coolidge about it.”

Another doctor, named Carter, testified: “He (John) was in the Psychopathic Hospital in 1919. Then he was sent to Patton where he stayed one year. His present actions indicate that he did not thoroughly recover at Patton from hi mental illness. He has proven himself a menace to be at large regarding his annoyance of children and a menace to himself.”

“He is a thorough case of dementia praecox,” declared Dr. Allen.

John loudly reiterated his demand for a jury trial. However he was soon bound for the Patton Asylum where, on November 16, 1924, he picked the look on his door and escaped. LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department were keeping an eye on his usual haunts on the chance that he would return to the city. He never turned up.

In early April 1925 District Attorney Asa Keyes learned that John was in Reno; however there was no legal procedure in place to extradite an insane person.  John may not have realized it but the Lunacy Commission had done him a favor.  If he’d he gotten his wish of a jury trial he may have been found guilty and sentenced to prison. It would have been much more difficult to escape from San Quentin than it was from the Patton Hospital.

John was in the wind for months before being discovered in Reno. Several weeks after that he was under arrest in Seattle, Washington. Police Chief Severyns contacted the LAPD and District Attorney Keyes for advice.

The situation was the same as it had been when John had been found in Reno–he couldn’t be extradited. As long as John stayed away from Los Angeles he could continue to operate his crack-pot schemes and cons with impunity; at least until he ran afoul of the law elsewhere.

I’ve found copies of some of John’s writings, but I haven’t been able to track him any further than 1925. I’d love to know what happened to him. If anyone knows please share.

Baby Borgia

borgia1On February 3, 1925 a bizarre story broke in the local news — it was alleged that seven year old Alsa Thompson had attempted to murder a family of four with a mixture of sulphuric acid and ant paste she had added to the evening meal. The intended victims tasted the food, but it was so awful they pushed their plates away.

Could a seven year old actually conceive of such a fiendish plan? Evidently the Platts family, with whom Alsa had been living following her parents’ separation, thought so. It was  also revealed that Alsa had taken the blade from a safety razor and slashed the wrists of her 5-year old sister, Maxine, with with whom she’d been playing.

borgia3Alsa was taken by Policewoman Elizabeth Feeley to the Receiving Hospital where she was questioned by police and surgeons about the poisoning plot. The little girl cheerfully confessed that she had indeed attempted a quadruple homicide and that she’d done it because: “…I am so mean.”

Inez Platts told the police that Alsa had come to live with the family in their home at 1540 1/2 McCadden Place, Hollywood, only two months before the poisoning incident. Alsa’s mother, Claire, worked in a downtown department store and her father, Russell, worked in Santa Ana. Apparently neither could manage custody of Alsa at the time. Inez said that ever since Alsa had arrived family members had fallen seriously ill and were under the care of their family physician. Mr. Platts had lost his voice and a couple of the children had suffered from mysterious pains.

Investigators spoke with anyone who had come in contact with Alsa and discovered that she was extremely gifted — she was already in the eighth grade. Her teachers described her as one of the best students they’d ever had, and added that she had never caused them any trouble in the classroom.

Alienists were baffled by Alsa, the doctors said that they had never before encountered a case of homicidal mania in a person so young, particularly when there was no apparent grudge against the victims.borgia2

Russell Thompson was vocal in defense of his daughter: “Alsa never poisoned any one.” When Russell was informed that Alsa had further confessed that as a 4 year old she had put ground glass into the food of her twin sisters and killed them, he said that the statement was absurd.

“The twins died when they were 2 years and 2 months of age. That was in Canada. We had two doctors and a nurse in constant attendance on them when they were ill, and they said death was due to intestinal troubles. Alsa couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with that.” No one could fault Russell for believing in Alsa’s innocence, but had he been deceived?

In his 1954 novel THE BAD SEED, William March tells the deeply disturbing tale of 8-year-old  Rhoda Penmark whose mother, Christine, begins to suspect her daughter is behind a series of “accidental” deaths. When Christine’s worst fears are confirmed she has to make the difficult decision–what to do about Rhoda.  If you’ve never read the book or seen the 1956 film adaptation you should. Each has a different, but shocking, ending.

Was Russell wrong? Had his beautiful daughter committed murder?

NEXT TIME: Find out if Alsa’s father was right about her, or if she was actually a high functioning sociopath capable of multiple murder, in the the conclusion of Baby Borgia.

NOTE: Many thanks to Alex Cortes. It was a conversation with him about this twisted case that lead to this post.