We’re a Happy Family-No, Really!

Virginia Lee Corbin

November 6, 1927

Mrs. L.A. Corbin, 45, was rushed to the police receiving hospital today after she telephoned her neighbor and declared, “I have just swallowed enough poison to kill ten men!” While doctors labored to save Mrs. Corbin’s life, her 17-year-old daughter, former child star and current film ingénue Virginia Lee Corbin, told police she was ready to sign an insanity complaint against her mother. Mrs. Corbin had “taken all the money I’ve made in pictures,” Virginia Lee told detectives. “Mother wanted more money tonight and I wouldn’t give it to her; besides, she wouldn’t let me go out. I guess that’s the reason for all this. Let’s get it over with. If she acted this way before, she’ll do it again.” An ambulance took Mrs. Corbin to General Hospital’s psych ward, while a Times reporter snapped a photo of disgruntled looking Virginia Lee leaving the Georgia Street Police Station.

Two days later, Virginia withdrew her complaint. “She didn’t know what she was signing when she signed the complaint,” explained her adopted sister, Ruth Miehle. “Police Mystified by Action” read the Times sub-head that day; detectives noted that that Virginia had questioned them at length about the ramifications of signing the complaint, and went so far as to ask them to sign the document as complaining witnesses. Virginia herself was conspicuously unavailable for comment, so Ruth explained further: “There is absolutely nothing to the statements that Virginia is angry at mother over money matters.” Virginia’s assertions to the contrary, Ruth reported, were “misstatements by the police. But the police were equally certain that the statements had been made,” reported the Times. At any rate, Mrs. Corbin was moved to the relative comfort of the Rosemeade Sanatorium.

A Happy Family

On November 9, the Times ran a photo of a smiling Virginia and Ruth on either side of their wheelchair-bound mother. “The family life of Virginia Lee Corbin once more is announced as harmonious,” wrote columnist Harry Carr shortly thereafter. “The loving daughters have not only released their mother from danger of going to a cell for the insane, but they have been publicly photographed chucking her under chin. I just don’t see the connection, but I have a feeling that chucking one’s relative’s under the chin is a public indication that you didn’t mean what you said-or something. At any rate, during the long winter evenings that family have much to talk about.” Or not-for despite the apparent reconciliation, Virginia petitioned the court for and was a granted a guardian. She also established a trust fund as a “first step toward recuperating asserted financial losses” due to “maternal extravagances.”

Mrs. Corbin recovered from her suicide attempt. The Corbin family contained to display a flair for drama. In 1929, the Times reported that Virginia was missing, possibly kidnapped, before she showed up on a train bound for New York City. Five years later, Mrs. Corbin instigated a search for Virginia and her family after hearing of “reports” in the British press that they were stranded in Belgium. Again, they were safe in New York.

Virginia Lee Corbin continued to act in smaller and smaller roles. “When the talkies began to displace the silent films, I decided an English accent would be a great help,” she told the press in 1930. Nevertheless, by 1936 the Times included her in an article devoted to the “Many Forgotten Names” of the previous decade. Her first marriage ended in divorce when her broker husband accused her of “habitual drunkenness.” Whether or not it was true, Corbin lost custody of both her sons. She died in 1942 of either heart disease or tuberculosis. She was only 32 years old.

AKA Hydrochloric Hattie

September 21, 1927
West Los Angeles

Oh, Officers? When you decide to go out and arrest a lady who’s been threatening to chop up her neighbors with a carving knife, you might not want to knock on her door and stand there like waiting until she sprinkles your faces and ears with acid from a bottle. Eventually, Mrs. Mary L. Ward of 11014 Santa Monica Boulevard was captured, halted by the effects of tear gas as she prepared another acid bomb from the large store in her bedroom. She’s in the psycho ward at County General tonight, which has a special program in becoming a better neighbor.

Winnie, Minnie, and Baby Norman

winniehowardLast week, we learned of a baby found dead in a Main Street flophouse, apparently strangled, with cotton stuffed in his nose and mouth.  Police were looking for the woman who’d registered for the hotel room, a Mrs. W. Howard, who’d left the establishment the day before the infant’s body was discovered.  Since then, things have gone from curious to curiouser.

Police found a bundle of little Norman Howard’s sleepers stashed in a downtown department store shortly after the body was found.  Captain of Detectives Bean said, "The mother is probably wandering around in a deranged condition and I believe she will either attempt to take her life or will put in an appearance at some institution within a few hours."

While they continued to search for Howard, police investigations uncovered some information about the missing mother and her recent activities.  Winnie Howard, 35, and her husband, Frank, had purchased a chicken farm in Norco, but separated soon afterwards; Winnie left the farm when she could no longer make the payments.  Since then, she’d been staying with her baby in hotels around Riverside and Corona, finally going to her twin sister Minnie’s home in Reseda.

Minnie Fabbro said that Winnie had left a few days before the baby was killed, and that she’d experienced a psychic vision where she saw her sister’s body floating in the ocean the night before police came to question her.

After days of searching, Winnie Howard was finally found on the evening of August 26, not in the ocean, but at a Sierra Madre campground.  She’d registered there under a false name, but had never claimed her campsite.  Instead, Winnie had spent the four days since the death of her son wandering the hills without food or water.  She was taken into custody, and placed under psychiatric watch.  Upon hearing of Howard’s plight, a group of philanthropic club women took pity on her, and retained Attorney Milton Golden to defend her.

Today, homicide investigator Eddie King files an insanity complaint against Howard, and the District Attorney’s Office warned that if Howard was found sane, they would charge her with murder.  Golden replied that, despite this, they would fight the insanity charge.  He said, "Mrs. Howard is not insane.  She accidentally rolled over on the child in her sleep and caused its death.  If the District Attorney’s office wants to file a murder complaint, we are ready to go to trial."

As far as the Los Angeles Times shows, it never came to that.  On September 6, Howard was declared sane and sent to a sanatorium for two weeks to complete her recovery.  Afterwards, she was released into Minnie’s custody.

A Real Nailbiter

demerveux1Today, fencing master and underwear salesman Lt. Gerard  De Mereux was vindicated for the second time in the space of a week.  Last week, De Mereux was awarded $500 in damages in a suit against Hollywood director J. Stuart Blackton, who was accused of beating De Mereux with a horsewhip.  De Mereux had been living as a guest in Blackton’s home, giving fencing and corrective gymnastics lessons to Blackton’s daughters.

De Mereux testified that Mrs. Blackton had given him a romantic note, and that as a gentleman, "the only honorable thing for him to do was leave."  While packing his bags, Mrs. Blackton reportedly began to strike and spit at him, at which point, Blackton entered the room with a riding crop and beat De Mereux about the shoulders and chest. demerveux2

Blackton testified that the attack was prompted by De Mereux’s attack on his wife, during which he choked her and clawed at her with his fingernails, drawing blood.  But ho!  De Mereux presented to the jury his fingernails, and brought forth numerous witnesses who claimed that De Mereux had spent the past 12 years as a confirmed nailbiter who could not possibly have scratched a soul.

Following the judgment, De Mereux was taken before the Lunacy Commission on an insanity complaint offered by Albert A. Kidder, Blackton’s attorney.  After several days of observation, physicians from the Lunacy Commission declared him merely "emotionally unstable," but were unable to find evidence of the insanity complaint, which, among other things claimed that De Mereux had threatened Blackton’s daughters.

The Bible Explained — For $1,000

Jan. 22, 1907
Los Angeles

Since his teens, James Lauer has been studying the Bible. Where others have struggled to parse its meanings, he has found clarity. He wants to write a book that will explain it all. The only thing he needs is $1,000 ($20,523.57 USD 2005).

During his studies of the Bible, Lauer has apparently never encountered anything prohibiting extortion, so to get the money, he has been writing notes to Mrs. Joseph Maier Sr. One was not enough, so Lauer wrote a series of letters demanding money and threatening her life if she didn’t pay.

At the moment, Lauer is in the City Jail under examination by Dr. Quint. Neither Lauer’s conduct nor his appearance is reassuring. “His long red hair and beard are unkempt, his flat-topped skull is peculiarly formed and his painfully strained gaze does not indicate a well-balanced mind,” The Times says.

“During his imprisonment in the City Jail, Lauer talked wildly of his plans for writing a book about the Bible which would clear up all the misunderstanding. He repeatedly declared that while all attempts to explain the Bible have failed, it is quite clear to him, and that he could explain it perfectly to others if he were given opportunity to write his book.

“Lauer, according to his own statement, has pored over the Bible constantly since he was 15 years of age, inventing explanations, and this, it is believed, has turned his brain.”


E-mail: lmharnisch (AT) gmail.com

Another Way to Grieve


sondeadSeptember 22, 1907
Los Angeles

A few days ago I posted about the Vance family who, having lost their young son, responded to their grief with solemnity and rectitude, though in a manner unusual to the dictates of the age.  More appropriate to the workings of 1907, perhaps, is the mayhem that ensued after the Musitelles of 812 Howard Street lost their little John.

Mr. and Mrs. John Musitelle have five children; four daughters, and their favorite, youngest child John Jr.  Musitelle, a fruit merchant, often took little John on the wagon ride between their ranch in Fernando and the fruit markets east of Chinatown.  The mother had admonished John Sr. to never let the boy out of his sight, but today, Musitelle entrusted the task to an employee, one Pete Gotelli.  Musitelli had to stay in Fernando on business, and the boy, who was exhausted from playing, pleaded with his father to allow Gottelli to take him home.  Musitelle consented.

Mrs. Musitelli waited at the corner of Macy and Howard for the arrival of her husband; when the Gottelli-driven fruit wagon arrived, Gottelli left the horses unhitched and fled (questioned later, Gottelli stated that he didn’t want to face the mother).  There, in the carriage, little John appeared to be sleeping.  It would be a long sleep—at the west end of the East Main Street bridge over the Los Angeles River, John had fallen from the wagon as it crossed the railroad tracks, and was crushed under its wheels.   Mrs. Musitelle carried John to the couch inside, where he passed away.

“They have killed my Johnnie!” screamed Mrs. Musitelle, who in her rage became violent at all who came near.  Neighbors had called the undertaker’s wagon from Pierce Brother’s, and as the boy was being loaded in, Mrs. Musitelle broke free from those restraining her and grabbed the boy back.

At that point Mr. Musitelle arrived home, and despite a desperate struggle, managed to stab himself in the chest, though without doing serious damage.  Mr. and Mrs. were taken to another house, where Mrs. Musitelle insisted she did not recognize Mr. Musitelle.  When she finally realized who he was, she accused him of killing the boy.  Mr. Musitelle has stated that he will end his life at the earliest given opportunity.

We can only assume that, unlike the Vance family, the Musitelles will imbue their son’s funeral with every possible trapping of black-clad mourning.


The Night Signal


August 29, 1907

An augur came to Mrs. John George last night as she meandered through the traumwelt, delivering the most terrible of presage: murder! The prognostication was that of her husband, Mr. George, standing over the bed. Choking her.

But Mr. George, long locked up in the secure confines of the State Hospital for the Insane at Patton, was certainly no threat. Or was he? On the strength of this omen, she fled her home.

Mr. George had in fact escaped. Not finding her at their San Bernadino home, he went late in the night to the home of her parents, and then to Colton, where one of his little boys was staying with an aunt. Before he could gain ingress, the bulls caught up to the fugitive, and threw him in prison.

This morning, Mr. George, having torn off his clothes and soaked them in water, and having ripped apart the mattress and bed quilts, fought violently the attempts of the attendants whose job it was to pack him up and ship him back to Patton.

That Mrs. George will sleep soundly tonight is of course a matter of conjecture, but we hope she does, lest she miss another harbinger from the other side.