Did the legal system use him as a pawn, or was it the other way around?
Caryl Chessman and a detective named E.M. Goossen appear in the above photo made shortly after Chessman's arrest in January of 1948. Chessman had robbed several victims in the Los Angeles area, two of whom were women that he sexually assaulted. He forced one woman to perform oral sex on him, and did the same to the other in addition to anally raping her. Chessman was convicted under California's Little Lindbergh Law, named after Charles Lindbergh's infamously kidnapped and murdered son. The law specifically covered intrastate acts of abduction in which victims were physically harmed, two conditions that made the crime a potentially capital offense.
The law was intended to prevent deliberate acts of kidnapping and ransom, as had occurred in the Lindbergh case, but Chessman's prosecutors—demonstrating typical prosecutorial zeal—argued that Chessman had abducted one victim by dragging her approximately twenty-two feet, and had abducted the other woman when he placed her in his car, then drove in pursuit of the victim's boyfriend, who had fled the scene in his own vehicle. Chessman was indeed sentenced to death. The Little Lindbergh Law was revised while he was in prison so that it no longer applied to his crimes, but his execution was not stayed.
During his nearly twelve years on death row he authored four bestselling books—Trial by Ordeal, The Face of Justice, The Kid Was a Killer, and Cell 2455: Death Row, the latter of which was made into a 1955 movie. The books, many interviews, and a steady stream of articles fueled public debate about his looming execution. Among those who appealed for clemency were Aldous Huxley, the Rev. Billy Graham, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Frost. Their interest was not wholly about Chessman so much as it was about the issue of the cruelty of the death penalty, which had already been abandoned in other advanced nations.
In the end the campaigning was ineffective, and Chessman was finally gassed in San Quentin Prison. But even dying, he further catalyzed the death penalty debate. The question of whether a capital punishment is cruel and unusual hinges on whether it causes pain. Gas was held by its proponents to be painless. Chessman had been asked by reporters who would be observing his execution to nod his head if he was in pain. As he was gassed, he nodded his head vigorously and kept at it for several minutes. It took him nine minutes to die. That happened today in 1960.
The saying goes that no parent should have to bury a child. Somebody didn't hear the saying.
The above Colombia Pictures promo photo of U.S. actress Eloise Hardt first appeared in 1941, when she was still performing in uncredited roles. Her first star turn came in 1947 in the twenty minute short The Luckiest Guy in the World, followed by a role in Homecoming in 1948. But her career in movies never really took off. It was in television that she made her mark, appearing in dozens of series beginning in 1956. Some of those included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Miami Undercover, and Dr. Kildare. But for all her acting credits, it was for events outside of show business that she seems to be remembered today.
In 1968 Hardt's daughter Marina Habe was kidnapped, murdered, and her body left in the woods off Muholland Drive. Speculation over the years is that one or more members of the Manson Family did the deed. This would have made Habe an early victim, as their famous murder spree didn't occur until 1969, but according to Ed Sanders, author of The Family, members of Manson's circle admitted they knew Habe, and newspaper reports in 1969 suggested the same weapons that killed Habe were used on Sharon Tate. However no arrest was ever made in the murder. As for Hardt, she's still alive and residing in California, which means she's outlived her daughter by nearly fifty years.
She was a woman of exceptionally high caliber.
We always thought it was weird that hip boots only come to mid-thigh, but we suppose if they came all the way to the hips they wouldn't be boots—they'd be a body cast. Above you see Wisconsin born actress Christa Helm, née Sandra Lynn Wohlfeil, in a promo made for her 1974 actioner Let's Go for Broke, in which she played the ass kicking Jackie Broke. It was one of only two movies she made, due to her unfortunate murder in 1977 at age twenty-seven by a still-unknown assailant who stabbed her thirty times.
Helm was a black belted practitioner of martial arts, but the prevailing theory, supported by forensic evidence, is that she was surprise attacked from behind. Because of the murder, she has attained a posthumous fame, partly kept alive by family members still seeking to solve the crime, and partly by a growing internet cult. We'd get into the story in detail, but others have written about it and done a thorough—if sometimes dubiously factual—job, so just appreciate the amazing photo. It's one of the cooler ones you'll ever see, and one of the very few of Helm that exist online.
Jealous murder strikes a John Wayne movie set.
This Master Detective published today in 1960 has a nice cover by Al Drule, and inside the issue are several interesting stories, but the one we're looking at today is “The Crime that Wasn't in the Script,” about a murder that took place during the filming of John Wayne's western The Alamo. The story is kind of forgotten, but basically, an actress named LaJean Etheridge was killed by her boyfriend Chester Harvey Smith, who was angry that Etheridge had decided to move closer to the movie set in Brackettville, Texas. Such a killing is impossible to understand under any circumstances, but putting on your jealous madman cap for a second you can picture a possessive man losing it over his girlfriend moving thousands of miles away. Like if someone told you the story you'd nod and go, “Umm hmm,” because you could see it.
But Etheridge wasn't moving thousands of miles. She and Smith had both scored work as extras on The Alamo, had traveled from Hollywood together, and were living in Spofford, Texas with three other extras in lodgings set up by Wayne's Batjac Productions. Etheridge had decided to move from Spofford to Fort Clark, ten miles north, a relocation precipitated by her landing a larger part in the film. Was she simply moving closer to the set to facilitate the changed demands of her role? Or was she leaving her boyfriend? Still wearing your jealous madman cap, you can picture Smith believing the latter. Etheridge would be out of sight, living with unknowns, possibly having fun with production staff and carousing with handsome actors. But she never got the chance—as she was packing Smith stabbed her in the chest with a Bowie knife, and she died on the scene. He was arrested when police arrived fifteen minutes later, pled guilty to murder, and was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
The final assessment by Smith's lawyer was that the murder was a crime of “passion and professional jealousy.” As details emerged a clearer picture of Smith formed. He had once struck his ex-wife's roommate in the head with a hatchet, and earlier had tried to run her, her roommate, and their dates down with his car. His rage wasn't reserved only for ex-lovers. He also once attacked a bus driver. So Smith needed no excuses to hurt people. It's just what he did. But maybe this particular episode really was a so-called crime of passion. Rumors circulated during the trial that Etheridge had been seeing John Wayne, but he never testified nor was officially involved with the case in any way. And under the circumstances, it was probably inevitable that such rumors would spring up. Yet Etheridge had completed her part, and Wayne, according to several accounts, had asked her to stay on at Fort Clark. So there's no telling.
Etheridge's part in The Alamo was left on the cutting room floor. No surprise. The murder caused enough bad publicity as it was, so naturally there was no way she could have remained in the film. It wasn't until an extended version was released in 1993 that her role as Mrs. Guy was seen by movie fans. Though the story of the murder hasfaded somewhat, author John Hegenberger used the events as the backdrop for a 2017 crime novel called Stormfall. Chester Harvey Smith, John Wayne, and others are characters, and the star is Hegenberger's detective creation Stan Wade. The book opens with the murder, and Etheridge uttering her final words to Smith before she dies. What were the words? According to the statement Smith gave police, Etheridge said, mortally wounded and bleeding to death, “I love you.” You can take off your jealous madman cap now.
In the end she didn't think saying it with flowers would get her true feelings across.
Tired of the rampant commercialism of Valentine's Day? So is the woman on the cover of Edward Ronns' 1955 thriller Say It with Murder. Too bad she doesn't live where we do, where there's no such holiday. This cover is from Australia's Phantom Books, a company we've been featuring often of late, and as we've mentioned, Phantom had a habit of using reconstituted art. You can see exactly what we mean by looking at the front of the 1954 Graphic Books edition, with its excellent work from Lou Marchetti. We still don't know exactly why Phantom changed its covers. A rights usage issue, we suppose. But if that's the case, why was the company able to get away with making near copies of the originals? We'll keep exploring this question until an answer presents itself.
Axe and you will receive.
Above and below are the cover and assorted interior scans from a February 1953 issue of True Police Detective, a magazine we've discussed once or twice before. You get the usual collection of true crime tales, explored in procedural detail, with striking photo spreads posed by professional models, as well as some actual crime scene shots. One story we noticed here concerned the murders in London of 16-year-old Barbara Songhurst and 18-year-old Christine Reed in May 1953. The two had last been seen alive embarking on a bike trip. Songhurst's body was found the next day floating face down in the Thames, while Reed's was located five days later when a section of the river was drained. Reed had been raped, and both had been beaten unconscious and hacked with an axe. The physical evidence was clear: an assailant had surprise attacked both victims, beaten them unconscious, axed Reed and disposed of her before turning his attention to the helpless Songhurst.
One curious part of the tale is that the girls disappeared while biking from London to Brighton, according to the author. It seemed to us like a pretty long trip and we were right—as the crow flies it's more than forty miles. So we think the magazine got that part of the story wrong, since the girls' families were expecting them back home by evening. In any case, our interest derived from the simple fact that the crime hadn't been solved at the time True Police Cases went to press. A man named Alfred Whiteway had been arrested, but the story ends with, “Whiteway is awaiting trial that will determine his guilt or innocence.” Since we had already invested the time to read the entire saga, we wanted to find out how it ended.
The case almost turned on chance. A month after Songhurst and Reed had been found, Whiteway was arrested for raping a woman and assaulting another on Oxshott Heath. He had the Songhurst/Reed murder axe in his possession when police picked him up. While being driven to the station he managed to hide the axe under the car's rear seat, where it remained until the vehicle was cleaned some time later and an officer discovered the weapon. Instead of realizing its significance, the officer took the tool home and used it to chop wood, blunting the edge and obliterating any blood evidence. If he had simply realized how suspicious it was to find it under the seat of a police car the case would have been solved.
In the end, old-fashioned procedural work finally cracked the case. Whiteway had been maintaining his innocence the entire time, but forensic investigators finally found minute traces of blood in an eyelet and seam on one of his shoes. Confronted with blood evidence he broke down and confessed. He had attacked the girls in a rage, raped Songhurst, and tossed both bodies in the Thames. If he expected his admission to earn him leniency he was disappointed—he was convicted in court of what became known as the Towpath Murders and hanged at Wandsworth Prison in December 1953. And the axe that almost but didn't break the case ended up in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard, where it still resides today.
Trevor makes the most of her smoke break by posing for a master.
Brooklyn born actress Claire Trevor made more than sixty movies over seven decades, including the important film noir entries Raw Deal, Born To Kill, Johnny Angel, Murder My Sweet, and Key Largo, the latter of which snared her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. And if you haven't seen her in it you really should. She was one of film noir's defining artists, an indispensable participant in it. We're also fond of her in lighter fare such as 1965's How To Murder Your Wife, with Jack Lemmon. The noirish shot above was used as a reference photo by the legendary Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas. He painted a portrait of Trevor which you see inset just above, and you also see her posing with the piece below. The portrait was commissioned by her employers Fox Film Corporation as a promo image, a type of work Vargas did often, and the studio used prints of portrait as lobby cards. All of these images came about in 1934.
Extra, extra, read all about it!
The above photo shows the murder scene of Los Angeles mob lawyer Sam Rummell who was messily dispatched in front of his Laurel Canyon villa via shotgun blast in 1950. Around 1:30 a.m., as he climbed the steps to the sprawling house, someone or someones with deadly aim blew off the left rear quadrant of his head. Rummell ran with the notorious mobster Mickey Cohen for years, and had been neck deep not only in Cohen's multimillion dollar prostitution and gambling operations, but also in schemes to oust mayor Fletcher Bowron in a recall election, and to take control of the LAPD.
The insider theory was Rummell was killed to prevent his appearance before a grand jury to testify about an alleged conspiracy between the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and a company called Guarantee Finance, a front for a massive Cohen-controlled bookmaking operation. The insider theory was also that L.A. Sheriff's officers pulled the trigger. These remained mere theories, because the killer or killers were never caught.
All very interesting, one more dead mob underling, but that isn't why we shared the photo. A close look reveals, at center, a man holding an edition of the Los Angeles Mirror with a headline reading: Cohen's Lawyer Shot To Death. Yes, Mirror staff were so quick with their Extra edition that it hit newsstands before Rummell's murder scene had been cleared. That's journalism—late night, coffee-fueled, time-pressured, editor-with-a-whip journalism. And the photo is an fascinating example of it working perfectly, sixty-six years ago today.
Some hangovers can't be cured.
When Thomas Barrington and Harry Hancock walked into Eddy's Bar in Los Angeles and sat down for drinks they seemed like normal customers, but they were actually robbers armed with guns and bad intentions. These were hardened types who had spent a combined fifteen years in prison. Both been free for less than a year. Their plan was to wait until Eddy's closed and force its employees at gunpoint to open the safe. Since the place was a combined bar, restaurant, and liquor store, and it was Saturday night, they knew the safe would have plenty of money inside.
The night wore on and eventually last call came. At that point four workers were present—two bartenders, a waitress, and a hat check girl, who was not a girl but rather was the waitress's mother. In addition, one of the bartender's wives was there, and two cooks were sleeping in quarters on the premises. A lot of people for two robbers to handle. One of the bartenders herded the stragglers out, including Barrington and Hancock. But in the parking lot the robbers drew their guns and forced their way back inside. In those few moments of confusion, with so many people around, one of the women slipped away and called police from a nearby pay phone.
The cops showed and gunplay soon followed. Barrington shot one of bartenders point blank in the back and nailed a deputy named Harold Blevins in the head from a distance, killing him instantly. A second deputy named Charles Covington returned fire and hit Barrington numerous times, killing him, but not before taking a Barrington round in the chest. More cops arrived and a standoff ensued with Hancock that finally ended with teargas rounds fired into the building and police rushing the entrance. The photos above show the aftermath of all that, with Barrington's body in the doorway and detectives milling about. That was today in 1957.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1938—Alicante Is Bombed
During the Spanish Civil War, a squadron of Italian bombers sent by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to support the insurgent Spanish Nationalists, bombs the town of Alicante, killing more than three-hundred people. Although less remembered internationally than the infamous Nazi bombing of Guernica the previous year, the death toll in Alicante is similar, if not higher.
1977—Star Wars Opens
George Lucas's sci-fi epic Star Wars premiers in the Unites States to rave reviews and packed movie houses. Produced on a budget of $11 million, the film goes on to earn $460 million in the U.S. and $337 million overseas, while spawning a franchise that would eventually earn billions and make Lucas a Hollywood icon.
1930—Amy Johnson Flies from England to Australia
English aviatrix Amy Johnson lands in Darwin, Northern Territory, becoming the first woman to fly from England to Australia. She had departed from Croydon on May 5 and flown 11,000 miles to complete the feat. Her storied career ends in January 1941 when, while flying a secret mission for Britain, she either bails out into the Thames estuary and drowns, or is mistakenly shot down by British fighter planes. The facts of her death remain clouded today.
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