Whether venturing into a blood-spattered farm in Texas, down a lonely mountain road in Alabama, or into the deceptively sunny Ohio suburbs, acclaimed mystery writer Craig Rice lends her hard-boiled style and a wicked irony to this gallery of real-life murders. Among them . . .
A saintly middle-aged widow bludgeoned to death in her New Jersey home; the headless torsos of two women found floating in the Lake of the Ozarks; a New Year’s fire in Pennsylvania set to cover the traces of a more ghastly crime; a traveling evangelist on a divine mission blown to bits in Berkley; an aspiring starlet tortured, bisected, and dumped in a vacant LA lot; and a New York couple poisoned to death by the mysterious “Veiled Murderess,” a convicted killer who never revealed her motives—or her true identity.
Culled from Rice’s work as a crime reporter, “the stories in 45 Murderers have withstood time” as a century-spanning, cross-country tour of the sinister underbelly of the American Dream (Jeffrey Marks, author of Who Was That Lady?).
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THE FALL OF "THE HOUSE OF DEUTERONOMY"
The time was 1911, heydey of buxom burlesque queens and hijinks under the gaslights. The place, St. Louis, Missouri, rich, powerful, proud, but already disputing with New Orleans, her sister city to the south, a more doubtful renown as the original Babylon of barrelhouse boogie, City of Song — and Sin.
It was night, and elsewhere the city was at rest, but in the tenderloin district the lights blazed and doors swung in, swung out, as the old song goes. The street lamps threw their golden circles of light on the sidewalk, to guide unsteady feet on the path to ruin. Into one of these dens of vice stepped the tall figure of a stranger.
The tanned face under the broad-brimmed hat marked him as a rancher, but the rest of his garb was a study in contrasts. The high, tight collar would have gone better with a derby hat, and the fancy vest was out of keeping with the sturdy, square cut shoes. The stranger looked around him, flashed a roll of bills and announced in a loud voice:
"I'm from Oklahoma and I want to meet an Oklahoma girl!"
The men at the bar turned slowly round, took one look at the stranger, smiled, and returned to their drinks. Just another rancher, fresh from the hinterland and out for a good time. One of them shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about "a fool and his money —" as he saw a girl approaching the table where the stranger had seated himself and was ordering a drink.
"I used to live in Oklahoma."
It was a small, weak voice. The stranger turned and looked at the girl. For a moment a flash of recognition lit up his face, but only for a moment.
"Sit down," the stranger whispered. "Sit down and sip that drink, but don't look at me. They're watching us."
Under the glare of the gas lamp he could see the girl more plainly now. She couldn't have been more than eighteen, but her face, though heavily rouged, bore the livid scars of violence. She was trembling.
The stranger whispered, "I've come to get you out of this, Dolly Slade."
The girl started. "No!" she gasped. "No! Please!" But it was clear that she was not denying her identity. It was just plain fear. The stranger mentioned another name, and this time the girl nodded, fighting back the tears that seemed about to overwhelm her.
"Keep drinking, keep smiling," the stranger warned. "Don't look at me, but keep talking. Tell me all about it. I'm here to help you."
"It was him, all right," the girl breathed. "He took us to a place and left us with a strange man. He was a horrible man. He beat me and knocked my teeth out. I was unconscious — I don't know how long — and when I recovered Ina was gone. I haven't seen or heard of her since. They said they would kill me if I ever told this. You won't give me away, please! You won't!"
"Enough," the stranger whispered back. "Not a word of this to anyone." A waiter was approaching the table. There was a look of dim suspicion in his gimlet eyes.
The stranger scowled at the girl and, in a loud, rude voice "Finish your drink and be off with you!" he said, and, in a whisper again, "I'll be back."
With this he rose, paid his bill and left.
If all this seems a bit theatrical, there is a good reason for it — it was. Sheer theater. For the stranger was not just a rancher on the loose. He was Sheriff Ben Totten of Ottowa County, Oklahoma, and he was playing a role. A role in a real life drama of blood and violence that was destined to become one of the world's great classics of crime detection.
When the country Sheriff set out from his native Ozark mountains to go sleuthing in the big city it was not for the purpose of rescuing girls from a life of shame. Important as this was, it was only incidental to his main task. What Sheriff Totten had on his mind was — murder.
It must have seemed a long time to Ben Totten since that September day when a farmer rode in to the Sheriff's office in Miami, Oklahoma, and, dismounting from his horse, said: "Ben, there's death in them hills. Saw her m'self, just a young 'un, poor thing. No tellin' how long she's been there."
It may not have been a long time as the clock ticks, but even a few weeks is a long time when you're investigating a murder, long enough for the trail to get mighty cold.
He remembered the pathetic little face of the victim, ravaged almost beyond recognition by death and foul weather. The heavy autumn rains had washed out all trace of the slayer, who had committed the crime, so medical examination revealed, at least two weeks before, on September 15, 1911, if their reckoning was correct.
For days the body of the beautiful girl lay in the undertaking parlors at Miami while hundreds of people filed by, trying to identify her, and police at neighboring Fayetteville, Springfield and Tulsa searched their Missing Persons files for a clue. Result: no missing girls reported, and no one who could even guess who the dead girl was or where she came from. It was beginning to look as if the crime would remain unsolved.
It was then that Sheriff Totten's mind turned to the mysterious house in the hills.
Ben Totten had passed by the place before and he remembered it as a large house, larger than any he had ever seen in these hills. The path leading up to it was matted with thick underbrush. The trees that all but concealed it from view stood tall against the sky, and gnarled with the wounds of tornado, hail and lightning. Its high, arched windows were perpetually shuttered against the sun, and its doors were reputed to be forbiddingly locked against intrusion day and night.
The hill people for miles around spoke of "the house" with awe. They said it was a house of worship, a kind of "mission," and its worshippers called it "The House of Deuteronomy."
Its pastor was Dr. Allen Heeber, a patriarchial little man with old-fashioned sideburns, whose favorite Bible text was said to be the Eighteenth Chapter of Deuteronomy:
"And this shall be the priest's due from the people, from them that offer a sacrifice ... the first fruit of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the first fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him."
Dr. Heeber's flock took this biblical injunction seriously, for, as Ben Totten learned on his first visit to "the house," the barns back of the place were bulging with free will offerings. It was also on the occasion of this first visit that he met Mrs. Cora Wentworth, who was the matron in charge, in the absence of Dr. Heeber and his assistant pastor, James Garrett. When he asked Mrs. Wentworth whether she had knowledge of any missing girl and told her about the young murder victim who lay unidentified at Miami, the matron shook her head.
"I'm sure none of our girls has been lost," she said. "This is a training school, you know, and as they complete their studies our girls go out into the field as missionaries. What was she like, this girl you say was murdered?"
"She was around twenty," said the Sheriff, "medium height, slender, with a lot of unusually long, fair hair. She must have been right pretty — once."
No, Mrs. Wentworth knew of nobody who answered that description, she said, and when she came to Miami a few days later to view the body she repeated her assertion that the girl was nobody she knew. Dr. Heeber, too, viewed the body and denied he had ever seen the dead girl. Jim Garrett, the pastor's assistant, a long-faced, mustachioed man of about forty, who looked like the typical mountaineer of the Ozarks, also denied knowing the identity of the dead girl.
In spite of its outward appearance of dire foreboding The House of Deuteronomy, for all that Ben Totten could see, was just what its leaders purported it to be, a house of worship and a training school for young girl missionaries. Its atmosphere was apparently one of peace and quiet, and no breath of scandal had ever touched it. Sheriff Totten might have been forgiven if he had dropped this angle of the investigation right then and there — but he had a hunch. He carried his questioning further, to the three men who worked the farm in back of the house: Amos Smith, who was treasurer of the cult, Jim Byers and Sam Kirby. It was from Sam Kirby that Totten got the first intimation that all was not serene in this Oklahoma Eden.
"We're not supposed to talk," Sam told the Sheriff, "but — why don't you go and see Mrs. Cairns. She was housekeeper before Mrs. Church. They had a big row one day and she quit. That was a week or so ago."
What is it they say about little acorns? Well, this one grew and grew till — but I don't want to get ahead of my story.
Dipping snuff and stirring a boiling kettle full of the family wash, Mary Cairns told her story. She didn't know that there were any girls "missing" from the house, exactly, but she did think it queer the way her cousin's girl, Ina Lackey, was there one week and gone the next.
"I don't think Ina meant to go right then," she told Totten. "If she had, she'd have told me. Ina — and Dolly Slade, too. Jim Garrett took them. I'd sure like to know where they went."
About Jim Garrett, who "always took the girls away when they left the house to go out in the field," Mrs. Cairns had very definite opinions.
"Now there's a man I can't abide. Dr. Heeber may be all right. Seems he's got the call, but for all Garrett's preachin' the Lord's gospel, he's, well, he's tricky. I'd sure like to know where them girls went."
"Did any of the girls ever leave the house — alone?" the Sheriff asked.
Yes, come to think of it she did remember one. Josie Byers was her name, no kin to Jim Byers who lived at the farm. She remembered it because it was unusual for the girls to leave alone, Mrs. Cairns said. "It never happened before. I never felt very good about her going. Just before she left I saw her crying. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong. I liked the girl. If she'd said goodbye — but she didn't. Just up an' left."
She also remembered that Josie Byers was pretty and had very long, fair hair, and that her home was in Fayetteville.
Taken to the undertaking parlor at Miami, Mrs. Cairns took one look at the murdered girl and exclaimed —
"That's Josie, I'd swear it! I'd know her by her hair. Get Faye Church over here. She'll tell you the same thing. She's honest. She won't lie for anyone."
Faye Church hated to contradict Dr. Heeber, but she, too, identified the body as that of Josie Byers, and when Dr. Heeber persisted in denying that it was Josie, Mary Cairns blew up.
"I've no fine notions about Allen Heeber," she snapped. "He's as smooth as they come, and Cora Wentworth, too. I mistrusted the whole outfit when I found some of Josie's clothes hidden away in the storeroom. There's something wrong about that house, Mr. Totten," she cried. "I'm glad to be out of it."
A day or two later Ben Totten had even better reason than Mrs. Cairns to suspect that there was indeed something wrong about that house. His deputy came back from Fayetteville with a report that Josie Byers was not at the home of her folks, where Dr. Heeber said she had gone when she left the house — for the cult leader now admitted there had been a Josie Byers at the "mission," but that she had gone back to her folks in Fayetteville. The deputy also brought back with him the information that Josie's little finger on her left hand was broken when she was a child and had always been crooked afterwards. And he had obtained a chart of the girl's teeth from a local dentist.
Both clues checked perfectly with the dead girl. It was Josie Byers, all right.
With warrants in his pocket, and accompanied by a deputy, Sheriff Totten headed up the winding mountain roads once more, bound for The House of Deuteronomy.
This time there was no reply when he knocked. The door was unlocked. He pushed it open and walked in. The silence that greeted the two men was like the silence of the tomb!
As Amos Smith, the cult's treasurer, described it when the Sheriff spied him and Jim Byers back of the house later, chopping wood as if nothing had happened — "'Pears like they just up and left."
He had no idea where they went but he was sure Dr. Heeber would be back.
"I don't know what got into everybody all at once," he said, innocently.
As treasurer, Amos Smith knew, from his own records, that there should be about $10,000 in cash in the house — Dr. Heeber didn't believe in banks. But a thorough search soon revealed that the cash had gone with the prophet.
Mrs. Cairns was now willing to tell more. Cora Wentworth had threatened to shoot her once, she said. Yes, there was a gun in the house. Sheriff Totten remembered the .38 caliber bullet that was removed from the dead girl's skull. There was another thing Mary Cairns remembered. When Jim Garrett returned from the trip on which he took away Dolly Slade and Ina Lackey, he was carrying a package that bore the name of a store in St. Louis.
What Ben Totten found in St. Louis when he got there, we already know. The next night the police swooped down on the vice district in a series of well-planned raids. Many of the girls taken into custody proved to be "missionaries" from Dr. Heeber's mysterious cult house in the Ozark hills. Among them was Ina Lackey.
Both Dolly Slade and Ina Lackey promised to testify against the cult leaders, but Ben Totten was still faced with the problem of finding them. He had succeeded in breaking up one of the most vicious white slave rings in the country, but there was still that little matter of murder.
The fugitives might have made good their getaway for ever and a day — if it hadn't been for a sidewalk photographer by the name of Frank Munsie. Munsie was taking pictures as usual one fine afternoon the following Spring, on the beach at Santa Monica, California. He snapped two pictures of a couple seated on the boardwalk, and when the man became furious and threatened to smash his camera if he did not turn over the negative at once, Munsie got suspicious. He turned over one of the negatives, but he took the other one to police headquarters. By this time the hunt for the cult fugitives was nationwide in scope, and police recognized the two faces on the picture.
When Sheriff Ben Totten arrived at the Los Angeles jail where the two were being held, he did not immediately accuse them of the murder of Josie Byers. He took them back east to answer for the disappearance of the money in the cult's treasury. But when he confronted Heeber with Dolly Slade and Ina Lackey, the cult leader offered to plead guilty to the white slave charge. Garrett was his accomplice, he said, and between them they collected $250.00 plus expenses for every girl they delivered. But he still kept mum about Josie Byers.
It was not till Jim Garrett was apprehended and proved his own innocence of the murder by an air-tight alibi, and Ben Totten found the murder gun under a floor board in the attic of the cult house, that Heeber's calm was shaken. By this time, however, Mrs. Wentworth was dying in a sanitarium as the result of a tumor and was ready to confess.
"Dr. Heeber killed Josie Byers," she said. "The girl was infatuated with him. She wanted to marry him and threatened to tell certain things she had learned if he didn't. He woke me up in the middle of the night and told me he had decided to do it. They went away together. At five o'clock in the morning he came back. Alone. He said he had shot her with my gun and asked me what to do with it. I pried loose a board in the attic and put it there. We hid her clothing and in the morning we said she had decided to go home."
From Allen Heeber, Sheriff Totten heard a slightly different version of the story.
"There's no use fighting it any longer," he sighed. "It wasn't the way you heard it, however. I loved Josie. I wanted to marry her. But Cora Wentworth was jealous. And she had too much on me. She ordered me to kill Josie. I had to do it."
Which story was true? No one will ever know, for within an hour after he confessed Allen Heeber took poison and died in his cell. No one knows to this day how he managed to lay his hands on the poison. And Cora Wentworth died of the tumor with the secret locked in her heart.
Perhaps before he died the "prophet" of the mysterious cult house in the hills had occasion to reflect on another verse of that favorite Eighteenth Chapter of his in the Book of Deuteronomy:
"There shall not be found among you any that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination ... or a witch ...
"For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord."CHAPTER 2
THE CLUE OF THE OWL
If you mentioned strange clues to Sheriff Clarke Studebaker, of Kelso, Washington, the chances are that a faraway look would come into his eyes and he would begin to mutter something about owls.
It all happened long ago, back in 1924, in fact, but it was not the kind of a case that anybody could forget very easily. For it isn't often that an owl — a dead owl, at that — provides the clue that cracks a murder mystery.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "45 Murderers"
Copyright © 1952 Craig Rice.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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