An American Tragedy in Pomona–Part 1

MARY CECILIA ROGERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRACE BROWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHESTER GILLETTE

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

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

LOIS WADE

March 4, 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOIS WADE

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

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

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

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

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

DEPUTY KILLION POSES WITH RAILROAD TIE USED TO BATTER
LOIS WADE

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: A strange ending.

Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

Dick the butcher: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

 –Henry The Sixth,  William Shakespeare

Like many residents of Los Angeles, Arthur Emil Hansen was a transplant. He had been a successful farmer in South Dakota before moving to the city in 1932. Perhaps he’d grown tired of farming and longed for a change; whatever the reason he had traded his 200 acre farm for the Chatham Apartments on Berendo Street. He assumed a $15,000 (equivalent to $256,000 in 2014 U.S. dollars) mortgage against the building. Subsequently, he traded his equity for an equity in another apartment house and assumed a $150,000 (equivalent to approximately $2.5M in current U.S. dollars) liability against it.

lawyers slain

If not a real estate mogul, Hansen was fast becoming quite the wheeler and dealer. Following his success with the apartment building he then invested in an 800 acre parcel of land in the Imperial Valley. Unfortunately the deal didn’t go smoothly, and by June 1938 the thirty-eight year old former farmer, and land baron wanna-be, had been tied up in a civil suit for over five years. For his part Hansen claimed that he’d never even taken possession of the ranch and that after signing the trust deed he was foreclosed upon. Arthur had lost both the apartment building AND the ranch for a total of about $39,000 (equivalent to $665,892.00 in 2014 U.S. dollars)–hardly a pittance at any time, and a veritable fortune at the tail end of the Great Depression. He was convinced that he had been swindled.

In the first round of litigation Hansen was awarded $7000, but the case didn’t end there and more legal wrangling ensued. After all was said and done he was on the hook for taxes and water assessments for the ranch and Mr. John Hancock (no, I didn’t make it up) was seeking to collect the $5000 judgement he’d won against Hansen in 1935.

On June 22, 1938, Hansen entered the courtroom of Referee in Bankruptcy on the eighth floor of the Hall of Records where he was about to lose every dime he had left–the real estate deals had gone south and paying an attorney over a period of five years is an extremely expensive proposition. Financially, Hansen was on crutches and they were about to be kicked out from underneath him. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he caught sight of the two attorney’s who were representing his opponent.

lawyer vics

The attorneys, J. Irving Hancock, who was representing his father (John must have saved a fortune in attorney’s fees)  and R. D. McLaughlin, were seated toward the front of the room with their heads together. Anyone else observing the pair would likely have thought that they were conferring on a point of law, or maybe asking after each others wives and children, but as far as Arthur was concerned the two lawyers were sneaking glances at him, whispering, smirking, and plotting his complete financial annihilation.

E.F. Crozier, clerk in Commissioner Kurtz Kauffman’s court, was working on some papers when he noticed Hansen enter the room and sit behind McLaughlin and Hancock. Then he heard shots. Crozier ducked behind the desk and then got up and ran for help.

death scene diagram

Deputy Sheriff Frederick O. Field arrived and took charge of the situation: “Don’t let anybody in or out” he said. Field saw Hansen attempt to exit the courtroom and prevented him from escaping. Then  the deputy ordered the courtroom to be kept closed until Capt. William Penprase, head of the Sheriff’s Bureau of Investigation, arrived with a squad of officers.

Hansen confessed on the spot:

“When I entered that courtroom and saw those two attorneys whispering together to harass me further I could not stand it. I wanted to kill them both–I am glad they’re dead–they can’t hurt anybody else.”

Hansen was summarily booked in the County Jail, charged by Deputy Sheriff Killion with suspicion of murder and ordered to be held incommunicado for forty-eight hours.

Shortly after being placed in his cell, Hansen was interviewed by Gustav F. Boehme, Jr., a psychiatrist. Reporters attempted to get an in-depth statement from the alienist, but all he would say was that Hansen was emotionally excitable.

Hansen was definitely volatile, but even so he’d made some interesting allegations about harassment and about having been swindled by Hancock and a few others in the real estate transactions. Was he just hysterical, or had the South Dakota farm boy been duped?

NEXT TIME: Hansen’s criminal case and aftermath.