What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s, it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort–no gathering of evidence, no investigation, nothing.
Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was desperate living personified. LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson sat in the Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past, oblivious to those who would do them harm. Old Man Depression brought an abundance of misery, leaving The Nickel devoid of warmth, joy, and delicious aromas found in other city neighborhoods.
The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators who preyed on helpless drunks. Known as drunk rollers, the vultures robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions. A man, seemingly down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said, “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.” After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.
Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937. [Photo is from Schultheis collection at the LAPL]
The man sat silently nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had obviously passed out. “Watch me,” the beer drinker said–then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and searched through his clothing.
When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said, “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”
“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as pulled out his badge and arrested his would-be benefactor. Bailey booked Jack Orchard, 35, at the City Jail on suspicion of robbery.
If you wonder what Jack Orchard’s Thanksgiving repast was like in the county slammer, they served prisoners veal turnovers w/cream gravy, mashed potatoes, sugar peas, combination salad, one doughnut and coffee. The jailers, however, got turkey with all the trimmings. Crime doesn’t pay.
May your Thanksgiving be happier than Jack Orchard’s (although he got a free beer.) Have a great Holiday and stay safe. Those Black Friday sales can be murder!
NOTE: I’ll pick up the rest of Aggie Underwood’s Tehachapi series in my next post.
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 GREAT GUY, starring James Cagney and Mae Clark.
A little bit of trivia, thanks to TCM: This was James Cagney’s first film in more than 11 months because of litigation following the termination of his contract at Warner Bros.
Enjoy the movie!
When Joel Green, head of the Department of Weights and Measures, is nearly killed in a car accident by corrupt politician Marty Cavanaugh, ex-prizefighter Johnny Cave replaces him. Facing a city-wide racket of faulty measures, Johnny fines merchants who are cheating the public and ignores the customary bribes and threats of Cavanaugh’s men. The night after he refuses a job offer from Cavanaugh, Johnny is abducted. He wakes up, stinking of alcohol, in the gutter with his hair dyed red.
In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.
There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.
In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.
Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,
“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other. Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”
Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,
“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.”
The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.
Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.
Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:
“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable. It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables. Hence Clark Gables.”
Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.
The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.
The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:
“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child. Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”
Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon.
Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.
“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes. To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”
Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.
In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:
“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”
In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.
For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:
“That’s him. I’d know him anywhere.”
Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.
Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.
“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”
Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.
The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm. They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.
As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:
“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began. It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”
U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.
“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”
Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:
“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”
Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.
“She was simply calling to her sweetheart. She was sincere,” he said.
It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)
The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.
The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”
If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.
In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.
Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.
Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.
Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.
As Judy writes she sings, ‘You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.
From 1931 to 1932, Clark Gable went from relatively unknown to a superstar. Bags crammed full of fan letters from adoring women, and the occasional man, arrived at MGM. One male fan described Gable in a letter to Picture Play magazine:
Tall, dark, and steely eyed, he walks among men, yet strangely apart from his fellows. One minute a nobody, and then–a giant of the screen! Just one more actor looking for his coffee and cake and then–a star of stars!
Seeing him in films like “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “The Finger Points,” and “A Free Soul,” women compared Gable to earlier heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.
Movies provided a welcome escape for Depression-weary audiences. Among the throngs of movie-goers was Violet Wells Norton. She sat in a darkened theater in Canada, her eyes glued to the screen. Everyone else in the audience saw Clark Gable. Violet didn’t see Gable, she saw Frank Billings, the father of her daughter Gwendolyn.
Violet met Frank Billings in 1923 in Billericay, Essex, England. Billings was her neighbor and one night he overheard Violet and the man she called her husband arguing. Offering a shoulder to cry on, and a warm bed to lie in, Frank Billings fathered a daughter Violet named Gwendolyn.
Frank had no interest in fatherhood, and even less in a woman he considered damaged goods. He abandoned her and left for his home in the U.S. Violet did not see Frank again until years later when he appeared before her on a movie screen.
In 1925 Violet married Herbert James Norton and moved with him to Winnipeg, Canada. They separated on November 23, 1934.
For two years Violet wrote to Gable. She never received a reply. Gable was aware of the letters and ignored them as the ravings of a crank.
Violet traveled to Hollywood in October 1936 to confront Gable with his teenaged daughter Gwendolyn and convince him to set up a trust fund for her education. Or, failing that, purchase one or all of the four scripts she penned: Gipsy Nell’s Revenge, Love in a Cottage, Love at First Sight and The Spirit Mother.
Gable turned Violet’s letters over to police. He said he was never in England, never met Violet, and was not a papa.
Federal authorities indicted Violet for mail fraud. The letter on which the Feds based the mail fraud charge came from 451 Cumberland Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, mailed on March 9, 1936, addressed to Clark Gable, MGM, Beverly Hills, and signed Violet N.
Following her indictment, Violet addressed the press.
“Don’t misconstruct (sic) me!” she said.
She explained that she merely asked “Gables”, as she called him, to support her daughter or buy her scripts. Violet asserted her requests were reasonable. From her jail cell, she said, “He looks like the Frank Billings I knew in 1923. I’d like to see him in person.”
Gable dismissed Violet’s accusations as “silly and fantastic.”
Valentine’s Day is coming up, love is in the air, and heart-shaped cards and sweet treats are everywhere. Sadly not all love affairs remain heart shaped, sometimes they become triangles, and when they do they can be deadly.
Thirty-seven-year-old grocery clerk Worth Clements traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles to plead with his estranged sweetheart, twenty-seven-year-old Lucille Register, to marry him. He brought with him Lucille’s eight-year-old brother Stanley, whom he had adopted. Worth had divorced his former wife, one of Lucille’s aunts, and planned to marry Lucille as soon as possible.
The meeting between Worth and Lucille didn’t go well. Accompanied by two of her friends Mary Temple, Martha Hillhouse, and her brother Stanley, she went to LAPD’s Hollywood station for a safe place to talk things over with Worth. Their talk ended with Worth agreeing to return to Atlanta. The group left the police station and everyone piled into Martha’s car.
As Martha turned the car onto Third Street Worth and Lucille, together in the back seat of the car, began to argue. It was then that Lucille dropped the bombshell. She was already married! She and a fellow named Wayne Campbell had driven to Tijuana just two days earlier and wed. The other occupants of the car heard Lucille reject Worth in no uncertain terms: “I won’t marry you–take it or leave it.”
Worth responded: “Lucille, I’ve got a gun.” Did he bring the gun because he suspected he was part of a triangle? Or had he planned to kill Lucille if she rejected him for any reason? I suspect the latter; but surely Lucille’s confession was the thing that made him snap. He fired one shot into Lucille and she went quiet. Martha pulled the car to the curb at 3rd Street and Union Avenue. As Martha, Mary and Stanley ran for help they heard two more shots.
When the police arrived they found Lucille dead in the back seat. Beside her lay Worth. He had put two rounds into his chest and was barely alive.
LAPD Detective Thad Brown went to the hospital to speak with Worth. As soon as it was clear that he was going to pull through, he was charged with murder.
Little more than a month following the slaying Worth appeared in Judge Blake’s courtroom. He made a pathetic picture swaddled in a blanket, hunched over in a wheelchair. He pleaded guilty, even though he insisted he couldn’t recall committing the crime.
On December 29, 1937, Judge Blake found Worth guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. But he didn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was released on January 29, 1948, ten years to the day after he began his sentence.
As Paul Wright’s trial continued his memory conveniently began to fail, and he substantively revised his original confession. When he first spoke to the cops he told them in vivid detail how he’d fired shots at his wife, Evelyn, and best friend, John Kimmel, in a “white flame” of passion; and he was able to describe exactly the position of both Evelyn and John on a piano bench in the living room of his home.
In Paul’s revised statement he said that he no longer remembered from where he fired the shots, nor how many shots were fired. He substituted the original G-rated story of being awakened by Evelyn’s lilting laughter and then witnessing her embrace his best friend, with an X-rated tale that the newspapers called “a shocking and repugnant picture of passion”.
The lurid revelation of Evelyn fellating John on the piano bench had held trial spectators spellbound, but when less salacious testimony resumed they started to get restless and attendance dropped off. Why queue up for anything less than an orgy?
The prosecution went on the attack in its summation and characterized Paul Wright as a cold-blooded killer — not a man tormented by WWI demons, the aftermath of tuberculosis, and a vasectomy, which is how he was described by his defense team.
Jerry Giesler, Wright’s attorney, passionately argued that his client should go free because he was unconscious when he shot and killed Evelyn and Johnny, on November 9, 1937.
The jury of eight men and four women found Paul Wright guilty on two counts of manslaughter — but in a separate hearing they also found that because he had been insane at the time of the double murders he was not guilty!
If the Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up) examined Wright and decided that he had regained his sanity, he would be freed! And that is exactly what happened!
Paul Wright would never have to serve a single day in prison!
Editorials were written about the absurdity of the insanity defense and the fickle outcomes. One of the articles compared the results of Wright’s trial to that of another in which the insanity defense had been employed:
“Wright went free as the result of an official finding that he had recovered his sanity after killing two people. Hansen, who also killed two people and who made an identical defense, goes to prison for from two to twenty years.”
Paul Wright in court. [Photo courtesy of UCLA digital collection.]
In his opening statement in the trial of Paul Wright for double murder, defense attorney Jerry Giesler contended that Wright had no motive for murder until the sight of his wife and best friend in an unmentionable pose turned him into an unreasoning, raging avenger.
Giesler had conceived of a creative defense for his client — he said that Wright’s WWI service, during which he as gassed; a post-war tuberculosis attack, and a voluntary vasectomy combined to make him emotionally unstable, with more violent reactions to shock that normal men.
If the vasectomy defense failed Giesler had a Plan B, and he laid it out for the jury:
“When Wright strolled sleepily into his living room at 4 o’clock that morning, there was absolutely no reason for him to criminally and brutally kill.”
“What he saw there on the piano bench–which he will detail to you from this witness stand…that married man still there at 4 o’clock in the morning beside his beloved wife…that horrible situation was such an emotional shock that it rendered this defendant as unconscious as though he had been hit on top of the head with a tremendous mallet.”
“Under the written law of the State of California–not any so-called unwritten law–it is the plain duty of this jury to acquit Mr. Wright.”
The written law to which Giesler was referring is the crime of passion plea, known as the provocation defense. Historically, according to U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, California defendants who have used the controversial plea have been able to reduce first and second degree murder charges down to manslaughter. Punishment has often been little or no jail time.
But would the defense strategy work for Wright? The prosecution produced evidence that had Wright sitting on his bed brooding, before arranging a chair in front of a mirror so that he could get a full view of his wife and best friend in a passionate embrace on the piano bench.
Giesler called witnesses to the stand who related a fairy-tale like courtship between Paul and Evelyn, resulting in a blissful marriage — at least for the first couple of years.
In 1936 Paul confided in a close friend that:
“I’m worried to the point of distraction. I’ve earned a fair salary ever since we have been married, but there doesn’t seem to be enough for the household and her demands.”
“I’ve always paid the bills, and it breaks my heart to see my credit go like this.”
I’ve done everything in my power to make her happy–even had myself sterilized, but it seems to be no use.”
The vasectomy had cost Paul one of his most cherished dreams — he’d always wanted a son, and that was never going to be possible for him.
Giesler continued to hammer home the impact of Paul’s “sex sacrfice” which the attorney
contended had destroyed Wright’s self-control when he found Evelyn and John in an intimate pose. Dr. Charles B. Huggins, a Chicago surgeon, described the vasectomy performed on Wright to save Evelyn from the danger of again becoming a mother. She’d nearly lost her life giving birth to Helen and a sterilization operation on her would have been much more dangerous.
From the witness stand, under Giesler’s skilled interrogation, Paul Wright gave his version of the events leading up to the double murder.
Paul said that he and John had attended a club meeting, then gone out for a nightcap. By 2 a.m. they were at Clara Bow’s “It Cafe” preparing to go home. It was Paul who suggested that John accompany him home, ostensibly to provide back-up when Evelyn questioned him about where, and with whom, he’d spent the evening and early morning hours.
Paul went on to describe feeling fatigued and going to the bedroom for a nap. He told the hushed courtroom:
“I was awakened by some sort of sound–like the piano. It started me up out of my sleep. I went to the living room door and saw that the lights were still on. Johnny was sitting at the piano. I could just see his head. He was looking downward. I couldn’t see Evelyn and I wondered where she was.”
I thought she was on the davenport and I looked, but she was not there. I thought she was in the kitchen. Then I turned–then I turned–I saw Evelyn on the piano bench with Johnny…They embraced and kissed each other.”
“Everything inside me exploded!” he shouted.
“Next thing I knew I was standing there with the gun in my hand. She was on the floor–Johnny was moaning. They were covered with blood.”
It wasn’t possible to know what the jury thought about what they’d heard, but a reporter for the L.A. Times was clear about how Wright had conducted himself: “Seldom in local court annals has a defendant appeared to such good advantage defending himself on the witness stand.”
However the report wasn’t all admiration, Wright was accused of having “robbed his wife’s grave of decency and fidelity” in his attempt to save his own life. And the report went on with: “Johnny Kimmel, by inference was branded a depraved scoundrel by the man who killed him.”
Of course the only people whose opinions mattered were sitting in the jury box.
Wright emotionally and physically collapsed under Deputy D.A. Roll’s blistering cross-examination, and his earlier testimony started to come unraveled. He had maintained that he’d shot blindly at the pair from the bedroom doorway, but changed his story by declaring that when he pumped the final rounds into the two bodies he was standing with his gun in his hand beside the piano.
Also, little details began to surface about exactly what Paul had witnessed that had provoked him to commit double murder. Kimmel was immediately visible on the piano bench, but Evelyn was not.
Deputy D.A. Roll asked Wright:
“Was it in your mind that they had committed some unnatural act?”
To which Wright answered:
“Yes, it must have been.”
At last the prosecution was getting to the the truth of what Wright had seen. Evelyn wasn’t on the piano bench next to Johnny, she was in front of him on her knees! That explains Wright’s violent reaction a little better than what had at first been represented as a kiss and an embrace. From the beginning, Wright’s story made him sound like a Victorian husband who had stumbled upon his wife and a companion in a relatively innocent lip lock — an act which should have merited nothing more than a shout demanding to know what the hell was going on.
Wright also admitted that he didn’t know whether he’d disarranged the clothing of his victims in the manner that they were found later by police!
Sounds to me like Wright had the presence of mind to set the scene of the crime to match his later statements to the cops. How would his conflicting testimony sound to the jury?
NEXT TIME: The verdict and aftermath of Paul Wright’s case.
A quiet hilltop neighborhood in Glendale had been the scene of a violent double murder. Paul Wright, the president of United Airports Corporation of California, had confessed to the slaying of his wife, Evelyn, and his best friend, John B. Kimmel while blinded by a “white hot flame” of jealousy.
Wright may have been temporarily blinded by a white hot flame, but he’d regained his senses long enough to “Get Giesler” — that was Jerry Giesler the famed defense attorney. Giesler had obviously advised his client not to make any further statements; but Wright had already confessed, Giesler was going to have an uphill battle.
Paul Wright & Jerry Giesler [Photo courtesy UCLA digital collection.]
So far there were more questions than answers in the homicides; but at least the mystery of why Mrs. Wright had entered the Glendale mortuary as Mrs. Alta Vernon had been cleared up. Police announced that when she had first been taken in a fire department ambulance the driver, ignorant of her name, looked up the address in a directory and wrote down the name of a former tenant of the house. With the minor mystery solved, the cops could devote themselves to unraveling the larger conundrum of the piano bench killings.
Paul and Evelyn Wright had been having marital difficulties for months before the murders. Evelyn had written to her mother about her continuing estrangement from Paul. In her letters Evelyn revealed that money troubles and her fear that Paul was being unfaithful to her were driving a wedge between them.
Police detectives were attempting to reconcile the physical evidence at the scene of the murders to Paul Wright’s statement, and it was tough going. Wright stated that he was was about twenty feet away from Evelyn and John, who were in a clutch on a piano bench, when he started firing blindly — but tests showed that the bullets had entered the bodies at a 60 degree angle — in other words the shooter was practically standing over the couple.
As the investigators continued their examination of the crime scene a clearer picture of the night of the murders began to form, and it wasn’t pretty.
Wright’s story of being asleep on his bed for a while before he entered the living room and found his wife and best friend in flagrante delicto on a piano bench was refuted by investigators. Cops found a chair in the bedroom that was placed in front of a mirror which reflected the piano and bench that had been occupied by Evelyn and John. Also, the bed on which Paul was supposed to have been sleeping was undisturbed except for one side where police surmised he had probably sat and brooded before moving to the chair to watch the entire seduction unfold.
As Paul was being held in the County Jail awaiting arraignment he managed to make arrangements for Helen, his three year old daughter with Evelyn, to be sent to live with her uncle in Cleveland. Dr. Herbert Wright, brother of the accused, told reporters that Helen’s welfare was uppermost in her father’s mind, and that he considered it even more important than his own welfare.
Paul’s future welfare was in jeopardy — he was going to be tried for double murder. On the advice of his attorney, Jerry Giesler, Wright entered a dual plea; not guilty, and not guilty by reason of insanity.
The prosecution demanded that Wright should be found guilty and his life snuffed out in California’s new lethal gas chamber. [The gas chamber had replaced the gallows in California in August 1937, just a couple of months before the murders of Evelyn Wright and John Kimmel.]
With Jerry Giesler mounting Wright’s defense the trial was going to be well worth watching — particularly when it was revealed that psychiatrists had been deposed concerning the possible effects on Wright’s mental condition of gassing during WWI, tuberculosis, and a sterilization operation he’d undergone in 1934 in order to spare Evelyn a second childbirth.
Lana Turner and Jerry Giesler. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
From the 1920s until his death in 1962, Jerry Giesler was the best known criminal defense attorney in the U.S. Whenever people with money found themselves on the wrong side of the law they knew to “Get Giesler”.
Having the accomplished attorney on your side didn’t guarantee your acquittal, but it definitely improved your chances.
Over his fifty year career Giesler represented hundreds of clients from Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane.
In November 1937, thirty-four year old Paul Wright, director of Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport) confessed to the murder of his wife Evelyn, and his best friend John Bryant Kimmel, United Air Lines operations manager. Wright said that he had committed the murders in the white flame of passion. Maybe. But once the white flame had dimmed to a flicker, he’d still had the presence of mind to “Get Giesler”.
Bugsy Siegel and Jerry Giesler. [Photo courtesy of LAPL.]
Giesler was going to have to work hard to earn his fee defending Wright — it seemed like a slam dunk for the prosecution. Wright had confessed, and in his initial statement to the cops he had stated that he’d fired his weapon blindly, making no attempt to aim it at either his wife or his best friend. But the physical evidence told a much different story — for a man who was firing in the white hot flame of jealousy he was a pretty damned good shot — eight of the nine rounds had found their mark in one or the other of his targets.
There were other troubling discrepancies in Wright’s confession. For instance Coroner Nance wanted to know why his office had not been notified of the crime until AFTER the body of Mrs. Wright had been embalmed. Nance also demanded to know why Mrs. Wright was registered at the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Glendale under the name of Alta Burnham.
Evelyn was already dead by the time her body arrived at the hospital where she was registered under a pseudonym Joseph A. Zaremba of the Glendale mortuary was notified to collect the body. When he discovered that the dead woman had died as a result of gunshot wounds he asked the nurse if the Coroner had been notified, and he was assured that proper procedures had been followed. It wasn’t until four hours after the shooting that Zaremba was told by the Coroner that the victim of the shooting had been murdered and her name was not Alta Burnham.
Understandably Coroner Nance was not a happy man. He said:
“No one can delegate the duties of the Coroner. I cannot have anyone disregarding the rules of this office. Unless good reasons are show for this infraction of my rules and of the California Penal Code, I shall suspend the morticians responsible and take whatever steps I deem advisable in clearing up this situation.”
Giesler hadn’t gotten to Wright in time to prevent him from confessing, but once he took over the case Wright wasn’t doing any further talking. Giesler announced that:
“My client will not be a witness at the inquest nor at the preliminary hearing. He will enter a plea of not guilty. I am satisfied that when the true details all are disclosed there will be an entirely different light on this situation.”
A brief, but bizarre, tug-of-war erupted between Wright and his father-in-law, J. E. McBride, over possession of Evelyn’s body. Paul caved in quickly, but his request that Evelyn be buried in her favorite outfit, a two-piece black velvet suit, with a simple white collar, was respected. Her body was placed aboard a Santa Fe train bound for her hometown of Detroit.
Local L.A. newspapers speculated about the white flame that had burned so brightly in Paul that he was compelled to commit murder. What was it exactly that had set him off?
NEXT TIME: A piano bench ignites a murderous rage in Part 2 of the White Flame Murder.