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.
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.
Always wear clean undies in case you end up in the hospital.
Often, early true crime magazines aren't very useful for sharing online due to their tendency to short-shrift the art, but Police Detective is a very visual exception, well worth uploading. Above is the cover of an issue from 1956, and below are assorted scans of the interior photo-illustrations, all eye-catching. Of the stories, probably the most interesting deals with hitchhiking women who are in reality brutal thieves. The magazine makes this sound like an epidemic but we seriously doubt it was ever a problem. According to the editors, men who picked up these highway hooligans were hit over the head with wrenches or tire irons, robbed, stripped down to their size 38 tightie whities and left unconscious or dead in a ditch while the thieves found the nearest pawn shop to sell off whatever they'd acquired. The description of the hapless men's heads being “crushed like eggshells,” according to the magazine, creates a disconcerting visual image, especially after that whole Sunday night Walking Dead baseball bat incident the entire internet is buzzing over. Not a good way to go. We have about thirty images below and many more true crime magazines inside the site.
Look at the state of this guy's underwear. How disgusting.
I don't think he was driving with them that way. I think he crapped himself when you crushed his skull.
You think so? Oh. Still though.
Seeing him so peaceful almost makes me forget how much I'm going to enjoy humiliating and torturing him.
Above, a July 1966 cover of the Mexico City-based true crime magazine Mundo Policiaco, with a random male about to have his blissful slumber interrupted by a gun toting femme fatale. The text says, “He called for help for seven hours.” The art is by the as yet unidentified A.Z., whose signature you can see cleverly placed on the carpet border. We find this failure to credit the painter annoying, especially since others got their names on the masthead, from director Alberto Ramirez de Aguilar on down. Oh well. Moving on, the insides of these have no illustrations, just unattributed black and white photos and a lot of text, though the rear covers are sometimes painted. Magazines of this type were generally called nota roja. Want one of your own? We've seen them online for about $300.
That centerfielder can really run! Look at her go! It’s almost like she hasn’t noticed the game is over.
Robert Baker and Trudy Jo Baker had just been married, aged twenty-six and seventeen, and were driving across the U.S.'s rolling midwestern states. They were embarked on their honeymoon, but when they saw a soldier named Larry Kirk hitchhiking outside St. Louis, trying to get home for Christmas, they gave him a ride. They later shot him in the back while he was sleeping in the car, robbed him of $12 and his watch, then dumped his body in a weed-choked field near Xenia, Illinois. When the couple was finally caught and tried, Robert Baker was sentenced to 99 years in prison, and Trudy Jo got 30 years at the Illinois Reformatory for Women.
That’s the backstory. This cover of Inside Detective published this month in 1957 uses a model to reenact Trudy Jo’s subsequent escape from prison. As center fielder of the prison softball team, she quickly realized the seven-foot outfield fence would be easy to scale. She soon did exactly that, made her way to Chicago, but realized she had no way to survive except through prostitution. Though new to the practice, she took to it like a duck to water and procured customers, mostly men in town for conventions, via the aid of local cab drivers, as well as what would grow into a collection of seven bellhops at a few of the city’s best hotels.
Living this way, she managed to evade capture for four months, and earned $6,000—more than $50,000 in today's money—all but $60 of which she spent on plush treats like caviar, wine, designer shoes, and a mink stole. She was finally recognized by a beat cop and subsequently captured, and the cabbies and bellhops that helped her were later charged with assorted crimes thanks to Trudy Jo turning state’s evidence against them. Thus the wheels of justice turn.
When asked how her time on the lam went, Trudy Jo, who you see above right during one of her many court appearances, replied, “I like wine and caviar and horses. In fact, I like anything that’s a gamble. I’ve been in all the best hotels and in the finest nightclubs. I've had the time of my life.” Her one regret? The prison permanently revoked her softball privileges.
The kids are definitely not alright.
Back to Mexico today with this cover of the Mexican true crime magazine Mundo Policiaco, which appeared on newsstands this week in 1964. The text, “Mis hijos se estan quemando,” means “My kids are burning.” Mundo Policiaco came at the tail end of an era of true crime magazines that launched during the 1930s and 1940s with Magazine de policia, Policia, and the amazing Detectives, which we've shown you here and here. You can see another Mundo Policiaco here.
Getting carried away south of the border.
Above, a very nice cover of Mundo Policiaco, which means “police world,” and was an obscure Mexican true crime magazine. All the examples we've seen look basically like this, though rendered by different artists, all unknown to us. In this case it's someone signing as “AZ.” This issue hit newsstands today in 1964.
The rest stop is one mile ahead! Can’t you freaking hold it?
From its founding in 1924 as True Detective Mysteries, through its second iteration and renaming in 1939, True Detective featured painted covers by top artists in the pulp/post-pulp field. The magazine experimented with photographed covers in 1962, releasing two issues of that style. The next year saw photographed covers become the norm and, sadly, another great forum for fine art disappeared forever. That said, some of the new photocovers were good, such as this one from January 1964 showing a kidnap victim fleeing her captor. As you can see, it sought to replicate the style of the painters by using careful staging, and in this case was particularly successful. But soon enough the covers turned into this—i.e., little more than snapshots.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1973—Peter Dinsdale Commits First Arson
A fire at a house in Hull, England, kills a six year old boy and is believed to be an accident until it later is discovered to be a case of arson. It is the first of twenty-six deaths by fire caused over the next seven years by serial-arsonist Peter Dinsdale. Dinsdale is finally captured in 1981, pleads guilty to multiple manslaughter, and is detained indefinitely under Britain's Mental Health Act as a dangerous psychotic.
1944—G.I. Bill Goes into Effect
U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Servicemen's Readjustment Act into law. Commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, or simply G.I. Bill, the grants toward college and vocational education, generous unemployment benefits, and low interest home and business loans the Bill provided to nearly ten million military veterans was one of the largest factors involved in building the vast American middle class of the 1950s and 1960s.
1940—Smedley Butler Dies
American general Smedley Butler dies. Butler had served in the Philippines, China, Central America, the Caribbean and France, and earned sixteen medals, five of which were for heroism. In 1934 he was approached by a group of wealthy industrialists wanting his help with a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1935 he wrote the book War Is a Racket, explaining that, based upon his many firsthand observations, warfare is always wholly about greed and profit, and all other ascribed motives are simply fiction designed to deceive the public.
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