This is a big month for the Deranged L.A. Crimes blog. On December 17, 2012, the 110th anniversary of the birth of the woman whose career and life inspires me, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, I started writing this blog. I also authored her Wikipedia page, which was long overdue.
By the time I began, Aggie had been gone for twenty-eight years. I regret not knowing about her in time to meet her in person. But, through her work, and speaking with her relatives over the years, I feel like I know her. I have enormous respect for Aggie. She had nothing handed to her, yet she established herself in a male-dominated profession where she earned the respect of her peers without compromising her values. She also earned the respect of law enforcement. Cops who worked with her trusted her judgement and sought her opinion. It isn’t surprising. She shared with them the same qualities that make a successful detective.
This month, I will focus on Aggie. I want everyone to get to know and appreciate her. She was a remarkable woman.
Agness “Aggie” Underwood never intended to become a reporter. All she wanted was a pair of silk stockings. She’d been wearing her younger sister’s hand-me-downs, but she longed for a new pair of her own. When her husband, Harry, told her they couldn’t afford them, she threatened to get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She did not know how to find employment. She hadn’t worked outside her home for several years. A serendipitous call from her close friend Evelyn, the day after the stockings kerfuffle, changed the course of her life. Evelyn told her about a temporary opening for a switchboard operator where she worked, at the Los Angeles Record. The job was meant to last only through the 1926-27 holiday season, so Aggie jumped at the chance.
Aggie arrived at the Record utterly unfamiliar with the newspaper business, but she swiftly adapted and it became clear to everyone that, even without training, she was sharp and eager to learn. The temporary switchboard job turned into a permanent position.
In December 1927, the kidnapping and cruel mutilation murder of twelve-year-old schoolgirl Marion Parker horrified the city. Aggie was at the Record when they received word the perpetrator, William Edward Hickman, who had nicknamed himself “The Fox,” was in custody in Oregon. The breaking story created a firestorm of activity in the newsroom. Aggie had seen nothing like it. She knew then she didn’t want to be a bystander. She wanted to be a reporter.
When the Record was sold in January 1935, Aggie accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Evening Herald and Express, propelling her into the big leagues. Working for Hearst differed entirely from working for the Record. Hearst expected his reporters to work at breakneck speed. After all, they had to live up to the paper’s motto, “The First with the latest.”
From January 1935, until January 1947, Aggie covered everything from fires and floods to murder and mayhem, frequently with photographer Perry Fowler by her side. She considered herself to be a general assignment reporter, but developed a reputation and a knack for covering crimes.
Sometimes she helped to solve them.
In December 1939, Aggie was called to the scene of what appeared to be a tragic accident on the Angeles Crest Highway. Laurel Crawford said he had taken his family on a scenic drive, but lost control of the family sedan on a sharp curve. The car plunged over 1000 feet down an embankment, killing his wife, three children, and a boarder in their home. He said he had survived by jumping from the car at the last moment.
When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanor, and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded Laurel was “guilty as hell.” Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance.
Hollywood was Aggie’s beat, too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers. On December 16, 1935, popular actress and café owner Thelma Todd died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her Pacific Palisades ho9me. Thelma’s autopsy was Aggie’s first, and her fellow reporters put her to the test. It backfired on them. Before the coroner could finish his grim work, her colleagues had turned green and fled the room. Aggie remained upright.
Though Aggie never considered herself a feminist, she paved the way for female journalists. In January 1947, they yanked her off the notorious Black Dahlia murder case and made her editor of the City Desk, making her one of the first woman to hold this post for a major metropolitan newspaper. Known to keep a bat and startup pistol handy at her desk, just in case, she was beloved by her staff and served as City Editor for the Herald (later Herald Examiner) until retiring in 1968.
When she passed away in 1984, the Herald-Examiner eulogized her. “She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”
They were right. Aggie dined with judges, cops, and even gangster Mickey Cohen. I hope you will enjoy reading about Aggie, as much as I will enjoy telling her stories.
This is the third of a series of articles by an International News Service staff correspondent who obtained the first comprehensive inside story of California’s unique all-woman prison.
Tehachapi, Cal., May 2 — Forbidden to read newspapers, their only source of information being occasional letters and visits by friends, the 145 women inmates of California’s “City of Forgotten Women,” Tehachapi, have one question that is always asked early during a visit.
“Something new?” It was the first question asked me by Mrs. Anna de Ritas, 39-year-old convicted slayer of her sweetheart Mike Lotito. The dormitory in which she is housed is by far the “happiest” sounding building of the prison group. Anna de Ritas shot her lover to death.
Housed with her are Miss Thelma Alley, Hollywood actress, convicted of manslaughter in connection with an automobile accident; Mrs. Eleanor Hansen, who murdered the husband whom she charged failed to properly feed her and their daughter; Emma Le Doux, who has spent more than 20 years in state prisons for murder in Stockton.
Another interesting inmate of Tehachapi, and another really happy one, is Mrs. Trinity Nandi who has spent more than 17 years behind prison walls for murder. She is to be released in May, and she is full of plans for the future.
Since her removal from San Quentin to the Tehachapi institution, Mrs. Nandi has been working in the rabbitry and has qualified as an expert. It is her hope to start a rabbit farm when she is released. The women in Tehachapi are learning how to make themselves useful when they leave it.
When Burmah first entered Tehachapi, she was full of ambition and conducted classes in commercial courses, Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, says Burmah did a fine job of it. She taught oral English, typing, and dramatics to fellow inmates.
She fell ill for almost two months and during that illness her ambition and vivacity seemed to disappear.
“I’ve gone into it very thoroughly,” Burmah said softly, and sadly, after announcing that her interviewer was the first visitor she has had since last November. Her father, who was loyal to her throughout her arrest and trial, is dead now.
“The prison board can’t do a thing. The judge who sentenced me fixed that up and I just can’t see any sense in working hard every day when there’s nothing to work for. I can’t see any sense in hoping for the future, when there’ nothing to hope for. I can’t see any sense in training for work to do when I get out of here, because I’ll be an old lady then–maybe not old physically, but I know from what it’s already done to me that I’ll be hundreds of years old mentally.”
The girl the nation read out as the “jazz baby,” Burmah White, the blonde bandit moll, wife of one of Los Angeles’ most notorious slain criminals, Thomas White, has vanished. The “tough,” cynical 19-year-old girl who entered the prison 16 months ago has been transformed into a quiet mannered, sad-eyed girl, her face framed in soft dark brown hair which she had let grow back to its natural color.
“You know,” she said, with a slightly cynical smile, “they tell me there’s civilization beyond them thar hills!”
“I was an example to the youth of this country when I was sentenced for the wrongs I had done. That was the sole purpose in giving me that stiff sentence–to set an example. I wonder if it has deterred any girls in Los Angeles from a life of crime–I doubt if it even made an impression on any of them,” she said bitterly.
I found she had been making a new blouse out of a bit of silk that she had managed to obtain. A particularly becoming blouse–peach colored, with a white lacing down the front.
“Oh, can you wear those things up here?” I asked her, and then she grinned her old grin and said, “Well, we can wear dark skirts and blouses on Sunday–only the blouses have to be white–but making it helped pass the time of day.”
NOTE: This is the final installment of Aggie’s interviews with inmates in the Women’s Prison in Tehachapi. . When the series appeared, Aggie had been working for William Randolph Hearst for less than a year. The series was syndicated which gave her national exposure, and helped her earn a reputation as a reporter to be reckoned with.
This is the second of a series on California’s unique women’s prison, which has bestirred national interest among sociologists and penologists. An International News Service staff correspondent was able to obtain the first comprehensive “inside story” of the institution where Clara Phillips and other noted women offenders are now confined.
Tehachapi, Cal., May 1, 1935 — Eight months in the “death house!”
Eight months in which to sit in one tiny room, forbidden to talk to anyone except matrons–Eight months in which to remember–what?
Possibly the sound of six shots, ringing out in the still of night–six shots which ended the life of Eric B. Madison, movie studio cashier.
Eight months in which to hear over and over again, the voice of a judge saying “You are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead”.
That is the fate of Nellie B. Madison, comely widow, who is the only woman in California now under sentence to die on the gallows.
Just eight months ago last March 12, Nellie Madison entered Tehachapi prison and was placed in the “death cell.”
This “cell” is merely a room in the prison hospital. Architects who designed the state institution for woman at Tehachapi omitted “death cell.” That’s another way this prison is different.
So, in this room on the second floor of the administration building, Nellie Madison sits day after day. She seems a quite different person from the Nellie Madison who amazed Los Angeles court attaches during her trial with her cool, calm demeanor.
Her nattily tailored clothes are, of course, discarded for the regulation prison costume–blue denim dresses with a white pinstripe.
Her jet-black hair, now greying, has grown from the trim modern bob until it almost reaches her shoulders.
“In Los Angeles, I was thoroughly benumbed by all that had happened,” she said after the first glad welcome of seeing someone whom she had seen in the outside world.
“I couldn’t realize just what had happened to me, but now that I have been here–let’s see is it only eight months or is it ten years–well, I’ve begun to get all the confidence in the world that the State Supreme court will reverse my conviction.”
This was Mrs. Madison’s only interview since she has entered the state institution.
“It seems to me that one’s conscience would be the greatest punishment in the world,” she said.
“My conscience doesn’t bother me one bit, but I do feel the disgrace that I have brought on myself and my family. One’s past good name and character seem to mean nothing when a person gets into trouble, but it apparently doesn’t mean a thing.”
Mrs. Madison’s recreation consists of short walks on the grounds each day–in company with a matron and the letters she receives from friends.”
Aggie became interested in Nellie’s case when she covered it for the Herald. As she learned more about the abuse Nellie suffered at the hands of her husband, Eric, the less she believed Nellie deserved to hang. Through her coverage of the case, and her advocacy, Aggie and others were successful in getting Nellie’s sentence commuted to life; which made her eligible for parole. On March 27, 1943, nine years and three days after the murder, the state released Nellie.
In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said this about the case.
“While one’s work as a reporter may serve justice and work for or against a defendant, one shies from taking bows for presumed triumphs. Even in commendation, one does not want to feel one’s fairness impugned. I was embarrassed, therefore, when Nellie Madison embraced me gratefully at Tehachapi when I informed her that her sentence to be hanged had been commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Frank F. Merriam.”
“‘You did it! You did it!’ she wept. ‘I owe it all to you!’”
NEXT TIME: In the third article, Aggie tells of interviews with other inmates at Tehachapi.
In the spring of 1935, reporter Aggie Underwood wrote a three-part series of articles for the Herald about women incarcerated in Tehachapi. Aggie maintained a relationship with the prison’s administration. They kept her informed about prisoner releases, and anything of interest to the Herald’s readers. Bad girls are undeniably fascinating.
The number of women committing violent felonies has risen since Aggie covered the crime beat. For many decades, women committing such crimes were an anomaly. Alienists (psychiatrists) and penologists offered various theories to explain their behavior.
In 1924, Sigmund Freud suggested menstruation reminded women of their inferiority and inflamed them toward revenge. Let that nonsense sink in for a moment. His theory is absurd and offensive, but we still accept variations of it today. We may characterize an ambitious woman as unfeminine or vicious. We may praise a man exhibiting identical traits for his business acumen and strength. Make no mistake, even in the 21st Century women are still competing on an uneven playing field.
There is an ongoing debate about the punishment of women, regardless of whether they were driven by homicidal PMS rage or something else. Throughout history, women have avoided the death penalty more often than their male counterparts.
In his 1931 criminology course, Dr. Paul E. Bowers said, “We hate to send a woman to the penitentiary, we hate to electrocute or hang women. We think it’s the wrong thing to do. Many women have been convicted of murder, but it is only rarely that women are hung or electrocuted for committing murder.”
One of the most notorious executions of a woman was the electrocution of Ruth Snyder in New York in 1928. She and her lover, Judd Gray, received death sentences for the murder of her husband. Tom Howard, a clever newspaperman for the Daily News, smuggled a small camera, strapped to his ankle, into the death chamber. At the crucial moment, he snapped a photo of Ruth in her death throes. The photo made front page news around the world. Snyder and Gray inspired James M. Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity, which became the eponymous film noir in 1944.
Perhaps because her own upbringing was as tough as many of the women she interviewed behind bars, the lives of female convicts intrigued Aggie. She didn’t romanticize their crimes, nor did she condone their actions. She empathized.
Below is the first part of Aggie Underwood’s series on the lives of the forgotten women of Tehachapi, as it appeared in newspapers in 1935.
Tehachapi, Cal., Apr. 30 —
Nestled in a range of snow-covered mountains, eight and one-half miles from the nearest town, is California’s home for forgotten women.
Here is Clara Phillips, the celebrated “Hammer Murderer”; Louise Peete, Nellie Madison, Josephine Valenti, Anna De Ritas, Burmah White and 140 others who ignored man-made laws and are spending long, long years in a miniature city of their own.
Ruler of this city surrounded by a high wire fence is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, James B. Holohan.
For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged “bad” and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.
Miss Jackson moved the first group of girls from San Quentin into Tehachapi in August 1933, and by November of the same year, they had transferred all the inmates of the state prison.
Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider.
The buildings which comprise the prison group are in an administration building, detention building, and two cottages.
All work in the prison is volunteer—none compulsory, and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best.
Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking, and table serving, many secretarial and some even beauty work.
There is no official chef at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks, even to the extent of making all the bread that is used by the inmates.”
Six a.m. is regulation “get-up” time; 9 p.m. lights out.
Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be seen leaving the various buildings in which they are housed for the rabbitry, the chicken yard, the barn yard where there are several cows to be milked.
And, as groups gather around electric washing machines, or in the yard planting trees, or in the chicken yard tending the fowls, loud shouts of laughter may be heard ringing through the echoing mountainous section.
No supervisor stands over these 145 women to drive them to their tasks. No one waits around to scold or correct them. They are on an honor system to do their best work in their best manner, and according to Miss Jackson, this system succeeds remarkably.
Each building has a nicely furnished recreation room where the girls gather when their daily tasks are completed to play cards, checkers, sew or play the piano. But, because the architects failed to provide for an auditorium, there are no picture shows because there is no room large enough to seat all the inmates.
Just as Sing-Sing, an Eastern prison, has an outstanding men’s football team, so does Tehachapi have its baseball team.
In fact, two teams have been organized. Josephine Valenti, who gained prominence in Los Angeles when she was convicted of burning her small baby to death, is captain of one team and Pauline Walker, a colored girl, is captain of the second team.
They play every Sunday with all the inmates gathering on the sidelines to do the rooting.
At present, the field isn’t much good, but the girls are gradually doing their own work and making a real diamond.
They have made their own uniforms—white blouses and black bloomers with red stripes down the sides, and, according to Miss Jackson, they welcome the opportunity to don these costumes and break the monotony of everyday life.
Each goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs—a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their transgressions of the law. yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.”
NEXT TIME: Agness Underwood’s series on the “city of forgotten women” continues.
NOTE: This is an updated version of a post from 2013.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, Milk Duds, a Coke, and find a seat.
Tonight’s feature is THE GLASS KEY ], starring George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Claire Dodd.
Based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, THE GLASS KEY was remade in 1942, and starred Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
Crime boss Paul Madvig, who has been running the city for ten years, decides to reform and joins the campaign to re-elect Senator John T. Henry, whose daughter, Janet, Paul hopes to marry. When bibulous gang member Walter Ivans kills a man in a car accident, Paul refuses to help clear him. Paul then threatens gangster Shad O’Rory, who runs a gambling house called the Four-Leaf Clover, that he is going to close down his club and clean up the town.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY, based on an Ellery Queen novel of the same name. It stars Helen Twelvetrees and Donald Cook. Match wits with an arch fiend, and enjoy the movie!
After Ellery Queen helps his father Inspector Queen with a case involving the robbery of a $50,000 pearl necklace, he leaves for a well-deserved vacation in Spanish Cape, California. In Spanish Cape, Walter Godfrey’s relatives, who have gathered in his seaside mansion, quarrel with one another. During an evening stroll, Stella Godfrey is abducted and her uncle, David Kummer, disappears.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
At about 5 p.m. on Friday, January 19, 1935, Vera Woodman was in her Boyle Heights apartment when she heard a sound. She wasn’t sure what had caused the noise, but it sounded like a gunshot and it had come from next door–226 North Bailey Street–the home of Edith Eufala Norwood, widow and treasurer of White Memorial Church.
Vera walked over to Eufala’s house and tried the door but then she hear a key turn in the lock. There was no further sound so Vera thought that perhaps her neighbor was not in the mood for company and she returned to her apartment.
The next day William Norwood, who worked as the registrar as the White Memorial Hospital down the street from his mother’s house, dropped by to see her. When he entered the house he noticed it was extremely quiet. He called out but there was no answer. He went into the kitchen and that where he found his mother. She was dead, but there was nothing to suggest foul play until she was examined at the morgue.
Eufala had been wearing a bulky sweater at the time of her death and it had concealed a fatal bullet wound to her brain. The police had the how, now they needed to discover who and why.
Good police work means shaking the trees until something happens. A tried and true method is to knock on doors and question friends, family, and neighbors of the deceased. In this case the neighbors had seen more than they had realized.
Dora Byler, a nurse at White Memorial Hospital, found a handbag belonging to Isa Lang, a former boarder in Eufala’s home. It was on the sidewalk about a half-block from the murder scene. Other neighbors said they had seen Isa, shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, she was carrying a bundle and hurrying away from the Norwood home.
White Memorial Hospital
When detectives caught up with Isa she admitted that she had stopped by Edith’s home on Friday, but she said it wasn’t as late in the afternoon as witnesses had stated. She’d arrived at 3 p.m. and found the door open but her former landlady was not at home. Isa said that she packed the remainder of her belongings and left without ever having seen or spoken to Eufala.
A Coroner’s inquest was held at 1:30 p.m. on January 23 and all of the neighborhood witnesses, subpoenaed by Captain B.W. Thomason, testified. The prime suspect in the slaying, former school teacher Isa Lang, took the stand too. She emphatically denied being at Edith’s home at the time of the murder, she said she had been there at least two hours prior to when the gunshot had been heard. No one came forward to corroborate her story and Isa’s denials fell on deaf ears. The jury found that she had shot Edith with homicidal intent.
A week following the inquest Isa confessed to Deputy District Attorney Arterberry that she was guilty. She told him that after the murder she returned to her new boarding house at 120 South Boyle Avenue. The next day she went to Manhattan Beach and threw the revolver into the ocean. The gun had belonged to the dead woman and was kept in a living room closet.
The confession was important, but everyone wanted an explanation. What was the motive? Evidently the two women had had several petty quarrels, and during one of them Eufala ordered Isa to leave the house permanently. Isa found a new place on South Boyle Avenue and on January 18, the day of the murder, she had returned to retrieve the rest of her personal belongings. Moving is hungry work and Isa said that by the time she got to her old digs she needed sustenance. She pulled open the icebox door and found an delicious looking avocado sandwich. She was just about to take a bite when Eufala came in and took umbrage with Isa’s appropriation of her lunch. Eufala made a grab for the disputed treat and Isa became “insanely angry”.
Denied lunch and in a rage, Isa rushed to the closet where she knew the revolver was kept. She grabbed the weapon and when Eufala saw what was happening she turned to flee; and that’s when Isa took aim and fired. The bullet struck Eufala in the back of the head. She died instantly and collapsed on the kitchen floor
Only a madwoman would commit murder over a sandwich, at least that is what Isa’s defense contended. What would a judge and jury make of an insanity plea?
NEXT TIME: A Cell of One’s Own concludes.
Many thanks to my friend and fellow historian Mike Fratantoni. He finds the most deranged cases.
Doris Dazey’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Walter B. Schwuchow, had spent the four years since their daughter’s death investigating their former son-in-law, Dr. George K. Dazey.
In 1935 Doris was found in the garage of the Santa Monica home she shared with George. She was wearing a night gown and her face was only inches away from the car exhaust–she expired from carbon monoxide poisoning. The authorities ruled her death a suicide, but there was no note and seemingly no cause for her to have taken her own life. Her parents never believed that she would kill herself, not with a four month old child depending on her, so they undertook an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding her demise.
In bits and pieces the Schwuchows began to assemble a picture of their daughter’s marriage to Dr. Dazey, and it was very different from the public face the couple presented to the world. After speaking with Doris’ friends, and her former neighbors, the Schwuchows learned that her marriage to George was not ideal; in fact Doris had been contemplating divorce even though she’d been married to George for only a year.
As soon as George got wind of the Schwuchow’s statements he issued an immediate denial regarding their accusations:
“We were always happy, never quarreled. Sometimes Doris thought I was working too hard, but you couldn’t call that a quarrel, even when she protested my professional labors.”
“Once in a while she complained that she felt she was not doing her share because of ill-health, but I said we could keep all the servants necessary to aid her.”
If George had murdered Doris and then staged the scene in the garage, what was his motive? Doris had been an actress–she played the lead in “Ramona” for several years in the annual Hemet pageant–what if Doris planned to return to her career sans husband? She’d consulted with attorney Russell Parsons about a divorce, but it wasn’t clear if she had talked to George about it. If she had spoken with George he may have decided that one expensive alimony payment was enough–he was still paying off his first wife. In fact his ex- had taken him to court for back alimony and they’d had an acrimonious courtroom encounter not long before Doris died. It may have been enough sour George on another divorce and drive him to murder. Even though he made a bundle as a physician supporting two ex-wives, one with a child, would have been a financial burden.
The money motive was a strong one, but then the Schwuchow’s revealed a secret that upped the ante even further and provided Dr. Dazey with a very compelling motive for murder. They said that Doris had told them the baby boy she’d had four months before she died may not have been George’s child.
George pooh-poohed the notion:
“Our boy was born two months prematurely. I am a physician and know a premature baby when I see one. The boy is in splendid health and looks just like me.”
Even if the baby was George’s as he contended, Miss Frances Hansbury, a nurse and personal friend of his, said that he had bragged to her about having committed “the perfect crime”. Oh, and then there was a former watchman, Roland Seal, who said that on the fatal day he saw Dr. Dazey carrying what he thought was a woman’s body into the garage.
Dr. Dazey continued to deny any responsibility for Doris’ death and said that the Schwuchow’s were trying to frame him:
“Dr. and Mrs. Schwuchow have been trying to get the boy for themselves and because I won’t let them have him they are stirring up all this trouble.”
A grand jury was convened to delve into the circumstances of Doris Dazey’s death. The D.A. posited that the forty-one year old doctor had killed his wife in a domestic dispute. Seal, the former watchman, said that he had heard screams coming from the Dazey residence on the day Doris died. It was around dusk, he said, that he saw the physician carry the limp form of a woman from the house to the garage.
If we take Frances Hansbury’s and Roland Seal’s statements at face value they beg the question: why the hell didn’t one of them ever go to the police?
District Attorney Buron Fitts was satisfied with the case against Dr. Dazey, in fact he believed it might be strong enough to seek the death penalty. Dazey was indicted for murder.
George had no intention of giving his accusers the last word:
“Doris was the best wife any man could want—why in God’s name would I want to kill her?” Not long before I found her dead, apparently a suicide from monoxide poisoning in our garage, a boy was born to us and we had everything to be happy about.”
“Why should she take her own life I do not know. There is a far-fetched possibility that someone else may have done her harm, but the idea is so remote and I can think of no reason for it that I scarcely give credence to the thought.”
The doctor dismissed the accusation of his former nurse, and occasional dinner companion, by saying:
“As for Miss Frances Hansbury, who says I boasted to her of the ‘perfect crime,’ I can say nothing except that she was a friend–or I thought she was–and am at a loss to understand her action.”
“I knew Miss Hansbury about four years before my wife died. I went out with her once or twice socially before marrying Doris and I think that once after I found my wife dead. She is a nurse and I had employed her. Our relationship was friendly, but also professional.”
As for the watchman, Roland Seal, Dr. Dazey seemed to be completely mystified by his involvement in the case:
“Roland Seal is a man I have never met, nor ever talked to to my knowledge. Just what his interest in the case is I may never know, but he is not telling the truth when he says he saw me carry the body of my wife–or any woman–from my house to the garage on the day Mrs. Dazey met her tragic death.”
Dr. Dazey’s trial began in February 1940. The prosecution called its two star witnesses to the stand to lay the foundation for the case against him.
Roland Seal testified that:
“On the day Mrs. Dazey was found dead in the garage of her home I had occasion to pass her house several times. Once I heard a scream, and just at sunset I saw Dr. Dazey carry a scantily clad woman from the house to the garage. I paid no attention, thinking she was ill, and he might be taking her to a hospital. Since then a friend of Dr. Dazey’s warned me that the physician would ‘take care of me’ if I talked.”
Interestingly, Seal’s memory seemed to improve with each retelling. At first he’d stated that he’d seen Dr. Dazey carrying something that he thought may have been a woman’s body into the garage. In court he said that it he definitely saw observed Dr. Dazy carrying a woman’s limp body and that she was “scantily clad”.
Miss Frances Hansbury was also an interesting witness for the prosecution. She testified that she’d known Dr. Dazey for nine years and she still thought of him as a friend. She said:
“Dr. Dazey once confided in me he had committed the perfect crime. Then, apparently fearful I might talk out of turn, he threatened my life and said he would ‘frame’ me as a dope addict. I feel very sorry for Dr. Dazey and never would do anything to hurt him. But I was in fear of my life and was forced to leave here and go to New York City.”
Dr. and Mrs. Schwuchow reiterated what they had always believed: “We feel now as always that there was no cause for our daughter to take her own life. Beyond that, we have nothing to say.”
And Russell E. Parsons, Doris’ attorney (who became Deputy District Attorney in the years following her death) said:
“While a private attorney, Mrs. Dazey consulted with me about marital difficulties she said she was having with her husband. Naturally, I cannot disclose publicly the nature of our conversation.”
Even as he was preparing to face a jury on a murder charge, George Dazey went to court to battle his former in-laws for custody of four-year-old Walter who may, or may not, have been his biological son. Juvenile Judge W. Turney Fox denied the Schwuchow’s petition to have the child declared a ward of the court. There was sufficient evidence that Walter was devoted to his stepmother, Hazel Dorcas Dazey, and that it was in his best interests to let him stay where he was–Hazel was awarded custody of the little boy while George sorted out his legal problems. Dr. and Mrs. Schwuchow were given the right to take Walter for a visit every other weekend.
Would George Dazey’s murder trial go as well for him as the custody hearing had? Maybe. If Hansbury and Seal were the D.A.’s best witnesses it would likely be an uphill battle to put the doctor in prison.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE starring Chick Chandler and Shirley Grey.
In California circumstantial evidence is often used to arrive at a guilty verdict. Here is a definition:
“Circumstantial evidence . . . which is defined as evidence that only indirectly proves that a certain fact is true . . . is a legitimate form of evidence in California criminal courts. Many guilty verdicts are based on circumstantial evidence.”
TCM’s synopsis of Circumstantial Evidence:
“After attending the murder trial of a man who is sentenced to death on evidence that is purely circumstantial, newspaper reporter Jim Baldwin decides to write an exposé hoping to put an end to capital punishment based solely on circumstantial evidence. With his fiancée, Adrienne Grey, a court artist, Jim pays a visit to the paper’s wealthy and eccentric gossip columnist, Fred Stevens, and the two men concoct a plan that will forcefully demonstrate how misleading circumstantial evidence can be.”