Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka “The Sticker”

February 13, 1927
Chinatown 
 
dopeslayerThe headline read, "TORTURE DEN AND POISON PEN OF SUSPECTED DOPE SLAYER BELIEVED FOUND," and the story itself contained six missing girls, a basement torture chamber, and a "trick" pencil that could turn into hypodermic needle, chock full of poison, with the flick of a finger.
 
The villain was none other than Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka The Sticker, a dope fiend who’d done time on poison charges in three state prisons in as many years, and had twice been a murder suspect.
 
It’s all quite a lot of build-up for a story that ultimately came to nothing. 
 
The Chinatown den was discovered when undercover agents heard groans in its vacinity.  Their report was passed along to the feds, who prompty raided the joint.  In addition to the "poison pencil," Snow Davis’s known weapon of choice, they found piles of women’s clothing and a stack of newspaper clippings from New Orleans.
 
However, any former inhabitants had fled.  Investigators had been hoping to link Snow to the January disappearances of six girls between the ages of 15 and 20, but it must have been wishful thinking.
 
Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka The Sticker, gets out of Los Angeles unscathed, and the Times never mentions him again. 

Of felines, gas grates and tipsy transit

January 18, 1927
Los Angeles

Lovers of the purring class will be down at 720-32 South Main Street this weekend to tour the 23rd annual Los Angeles Cat Club exhibition, which this year highlights the pug-nosed Persian and water-lovin’ Angora breeds. But we reckon the biggest draw is San Francisco champion Princess Zenina, who recently escaped death when a salmon can became stuck on her head, cutting off her air supply. Happily her mistress discovered the distressed puss and cut an air hole in the can before carefully cutting it away. That leaves Princess Z with eight lives, in case anyone’s counting.

Just one block south at #856, the one-man taxi business of ex-cop Emil N. Scott has been shuttered after Scott was branded in Municipal Court as a bootlegger. It seems he sold hooch to passengers who knew to hail his cab when thirsty.

In less sunny news of L.A.’s animal citizens, casting director Hugh S. Jeffreys, 46, was found dead in his breakfast nook at 1475 Wenzel Avenue, Palms, along with his little dog and a caged canary. A gasping parrot was saved by the negro maid, who had served Jeffreys’ breakfast just an hour before. The room was poorly ventilated, and the gas fire that burned in the grate had somehow filled the room with carbon monoxide.

Poison—Everybody’s Doing It!

poisonJanuary 8, 1927
Los Angeles

Yesterday’s news told of poison booze victim Dennis Cavanaugh. Now it looks like everybody’s trying to get into the act. Take, for example, Mrs. Helen Delamere, who in court papers filed today claims that her husband, P.F. Delamere, has been trying to poison her for several years. First there was the time he tried to get her to eat some poisoned pie. Mrs. Delamare’s nurse wouldn’t let her—but when the nurse ate it (waste not, want not!), she became ill. When on several occasions Mrs. Delamere consumed chicken and soup prepared by her hubby, sickness followed. And when Mrs. D, her sister, and mother nibbled on sandwiches made by the sinister Mr. D—-you guessed it—-the ladies were seized by illness.

Even Aimee Semple McPherson has been gripped by the poison fad. Suspicion was aroused today when a man hurried into a downtown messenger bureau carrying a brown package tied with purple string addressed to the evangelist and marked “rush delivery.” The man then refused to leave the office until the package was dispatched. Due to his erratic behavior, the delivery service sent a messenger boy out with the package, but instructed him to double around the block. The sender (who paid in cash and did not state his name) followed awhile, then disappeared. In the interim, the police were called.

The officers immediately suspected “an infernal machine,” but when the package and a burning dynamite cap were placed side by side, nothing happened. The cops thereupon opened the box and discovered it was filled with candied figs—sweetmeats now suspected of being poisoned. They await analysis by the city chemist.

Death Potion No. 5

January 7, 1927
Los Angeles

Death Potion Headline

Bending the Volstead Act to the breaking point is de rigeur among the smart set, with an evening of drinking rarely resulting in anything worse than a queasy stomach and a screaming headache the next day.

Dennis J. Cavanaugh (22) and his companions Walter Scott and “Tex” Scott went out last night to do a little carousing. The young men began their evening by stopping off to buy a couple of pints of rum at a store on East Ninety-Second Street, run by the Henkins brothers, Clay (46) and William (48).

Where the young men went to party after purchasing the hooch is not known, but by this morning Walter was in critical condition at his home, “Tex” was very ill, and Dennis had been found dead on the front lawn of a house at 1847 Roosevelt Street – his body reeking of alcohol.

Whether they knew it or not, the Henkins brothers had sold the boys poison liquor. They are currently in jail facing manslaughter charges.

Buying illegal booze is dangerous – it’s like playing Russian roulette. But it becomes even more frightening when people like Wayne B. Wheeler, advocate of the Anti-Saloon League, come out in support of allowing the government to use poison to enforce Prohibition.

On January 1st of this year, the new government formula (“Formula No. 5”) for denaturing industrial ethyl alcohol went into effect. The formula doubles the amount of poison which manufacturers are required to use. Bootleggers sometimes buy industrial ethyl alcohol and substitute the original label with one of their own. Only three drinks of the libation may cause permanent blindness.

Many in Congress have demanded that the government stop legalized murder. The Secretary of the Treasury recently announced that he is opposed to the use of poison to enforce the law, but that “Formula No. 5” will remain until a non-removable, non-poisonous denaturant can be found by government chemists.

Ruth Snyder’s Date with Death

December 17, 1927
Ossining, NY Ruth Snyder

Mrs. Ruth Snyder has a date with Sing Sing’s electric chair on January 12, 1928, unless her plea for executive clemency is granted.

The seductive blonde and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray (see photo), were both tried and convicted of murdering Ruth’s husband by caving in his skull with a window sash weight, strangling him with a garrote fashioned out of picture wire and a gold pen, and finally stuffing chloroform soaked rags into his nostrils.

Judd GrayIf there is an explanation for the obvious overkill in the murder of Albert Snyder, it must be that Ruth’s previous attempts to snuff out the life of her husband (twice by asphyxiation and once by poison) had failed – and she wasn’t about to give up. Ruth had persuaded her husband to take out a double indemnity policy, which would pay her in the event of his accidental death. It was the lure of the $97,000 worth of life insurance that compelled her to continue with her diabolical schemes until she succeeded.

Fueled by two bottles of whiskey and profound stupidity, the criminally-challenged duo staged the murder scene as a burglary gone horribly wrong. But their pathetic plan was doomed to failure. They threw an Italian language newspaper on the floor as a false clue to the identity of the killers. They emptied dresser drawers and overturned chairs. And in an act that would eventually help prosecutors to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Ruth hid her allegedly stolen jewelry under her mattress, about three feet away from Albert’s battered body!

The trial of Ruth and Judd would be a media circus, and celebrities such as director D.W. Griffith, and evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson would attend. Ruth would be called “ruthless Ruth”, “vampire”, and the “blonde fiend” by the press. Evidently not all men found those appellations a turn-off, because Ruth received at least 160 marriage proposals during her incarceration. DEAD

Unfortunately for Ruth, her plea for clemency would be denied by Governor Al Smith. Her execution would be famously recorded by newspaper man Tom Howard. The ingenious reporter had strapped a miniature camera to his ankle beneath his trousers. Just as the executioner threw the switch on the whimpering murderess, Tom raised the cuff of his pants and snapped the tabloid photo of a lifetime.

The murderers were unexceptional, but their crime inspired art. “Machinal”, a play by Sophie Treadwell was deemed one of the best of 1928-29. James M. Cain’s brilliant novels “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” are said to have been inspired by Albert Snyder’s murder. And, of course, each of the novels translated into two of the finest examples of film noir ever produced.

Coffee, Tea … or Murder?

Coffee, Tea ... or Murder?

December 11, 1927
Hollywood

The death of motion-picture actor George Donald Bailey was announced this morning. The 63-year-old thespian complained of feeling ill yesterday. A doctor was summoned, but Bailey died within a few hours. The death certificate, signed by Dr. C.D. Baker (a friend of the deceased), stated the cause as heart disease.

The matter would seem to rest there, but this afternoon Bailey’s widow was visited by her daughter, Blanche Olivarias, and Blanche’s sister-in-law, Miss Tommy Olivarias. The women brewed a soothing pot of coffee, sipped from their cups, and immediately were gripped by nausea. Tommy, in particular, became violently sick and felt a choking sensation in her throat.

Unusual, you think, but this is where the plot thickens: “‘My husband clutched at his throat just prior to his death,’ Mrs. Bailey said. ‘He kept mumbling he was being choked to death'”—just after having a cup of coffee from the same fatal pot. Indeed, doctors say the only reason Tommy recovered was emergency treatment.

The county coroner requested a chemical analysis of Bailey’s organs. The coffee pot and whatever liquid remained in it were turned over to the county chemist. Results were expected sometime the following week.

Did heart disease kill George D. Bailey—or was it poison? Were his widow, daughter, and her sister-in-law victims of the same toxin? Alas, the Times never reported on the outcome of the autopsy or tests on the coffee pot.

I Scream, You Scream

November 14, 1927
Pasadena 
 
toxicicecreamOver 100 Pasadena residents are clutching their guts today, the victims of a recent outbreak of food poisoning.  Those affected had all eaten a batch of tainted French vanilla ice cream sold by a local catering company.  At first, the toxins were suspected to have come from the copper mixing vats used by the unnamed company; however, after questioning some of its employees, City Bacteriologist C.W. Arthur and City Chemist Frank Marks (how ’bout those job titles!) uncovered the true culprit.

It seems that the ice cream recipe called for an egg mixture which the company only bothered to make about once a week.  Unfortunately, the ice cream was frequently made several days later.  Arthur and Marks found that a scoop of the toxic French vanilla contained about 20 times as much bacteria as a sample of raw sewage.

Oh, careless confectioner, what have you wrought!

We’re a Happy Family—No, Really!

Virginia Lee Corbin

November 6, 1927
Hollywood

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.

Suicide by Car

Suicide Headline

September 16, 1927 Laguna Beach

Jerome Shaffer, 35, may have been the first case of suicide by car ever reported in California. A resident of Laguna Beach and professional entertainer, Shaffer had been ill and in financial difficulties when he drove his car to Laguna Beach Grammar School to end his life.

Jerome parked his car on the playground of the school and crawled underneath leaving the engine running. He then wrapped himself in a blanket and held one end of a rubber hose in the self-made shroud with him, and thrust the other end into the car’s exhaust pipe so that the deadly gas would propel him into oblivion. His body was found by the school principal, George K. Bingham.

According to his roommate, Jack West, Jerome had slipped quietly from their shared dwelling sometime during the pre-dawn hours of the morning. Shaffer and West had performed at the Masonic Hall in South Pasadena and returned home at 1 am. Jack told police that he hadn’t heard Jerome leave and only learned of his roommate’s fate when he found the letter which had been left for him.

Shaffer also left a letter addressed to Judge Raymond Thompson of Pasadena. In that letter he gave instructions for the disposition of his automobile and said that he regretted that he had no money to bequeath West. He asked that his body be cremated by the Charles Lamb Company of Pasadena, and requested that his ashes be given a public funeral in the Laguna Beach open air theater. His final wish was that his remains be scattered over the Pacific by his longtime friend and pilot, Joe Skidmore.

The Killer on Page Six

September 3, 1927 Marmola
Los Angeles

Not all crimes are reported on the front page – and not all criminals are gun toting bandits. It may seem like a slow news day, but lurking on page six of the Los Angeles Times was this innocent looking advertisement for the diet drug Marmola. In the future the drug will be exposed as a possible killer!

Let’s hop into the time machine and travel to 1938… The public was fed up with products that promised the world, but delivered illness, disfigurement, and death. A Senate subcommittee was formed to investigate the outrageous claims of some over the counter medications. Following the subcommittee’s recommendations, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act on June 25, 1938.

Attorneys for Marmola challenged the constitutionality of the law. They insisted that people had the, “inalienable right of self-medication”. The judge who reviewed the case disagreed stating that the legislation was enacted to, “make self-medication safer and more effective”. Marmola toned down its claims but remained on the market. Finally in the early 1940s the FDA, believing the drug to be dangerous, seized dozens of packets while they were in transit to La Crosse, Wisconsin. The drug went on trial in Madison, Wisconsin in 1943.

fat girlsA young woman from Chicago came forward with a horror story that left courtroom watchers in tears. She told the judge that she had purchased Marmola because she was tired of her weight being the subject of cruel taunts by her classmates. Her excess pounds began to melt away, but she had also developed some nasty side effects. She hadn’t known that she was taking desiccated thyroid in toxic amounts. By the end of seven months she was vomiting regularly and her weight would eventually plummet to a cadaverous 50 pounds! At the time of the trial she was deathly ill with persistent symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Due in large part to the girl’s testimony, Marmola was finally pulled from drugstore shelves.

Diet elixirs such as Marmola aren’t quaint artifacts of bygone days. Just spend any Saturday morning watching today’s television infomercials hawking diet drugs and quack devices, each promising to transform you from a flabby couch potato to a sculpted body beautiful.

Caveat emptor.