May 30, 1933: Death on Memorial Day Jun 1, 2014 4:07:23 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Jun 1, 2014 4:07:23 GMT -5
May 30, 1933: Death on Memorial Day
Shortly before 10 o’clock on Memorial Day morning of 1933, Julia Place, a real estate agent, arrived unannounced at 622 Salvatierra Street in Palo Alto, California. She intended to show the bungalow along Stanford University’s Faculty Row to a couple looking for a summer rental.
The current residents were David Lamson, a young Chapparal editor now working as advertising manager at Stanford University Press, his 26-year-old wife Allene (above) and their 2-year-old daughter Allene Genevievem, who was nicknamed “Bebe.” Allene, a 1928 graduate of Stanford, had edited the women’s section of the Daily and Quad as an undergraduate student and was now employed as executive secretary of the campus YWCA. Mr. and Mrs. Lamson, married since 1928, were popular and socialized with the campus literary set.
When no one answered the door, Mrs. Place walked around the house to the backyard where she found a shirtless David Lamson, hoe-in-hand, chatting with a neighbor while watching a fire where he was burning leaves and twigs. He called out, asking her to meet him at the front door while he went through to let his wife know people were waiting to view the house. As Mrs. Place and her clients waited, they heard a shriek from inside and David shouting, “Oh my God, my wife’s been murdered!” When he opened the door, Lamson looked as though he were about to faint and the shirt he had put on after entering the house was smeared with blood.
As she was phoning Lamson’s sister, Margaret Lamson, a Palo Alto physician, the real estate agent heard neighbors, alerted by the commotion, gathering outside. Buford Brown, first to arrive, told police the following day: “When I entered the bathroom, Mr. Lamson was kneeling on the floor, his wife’s head in his arms, sobbing hysterically and calling her. I induced him to leave to go into the other room. He staggered and then fell to the floor in a faint.”
What happened inside the Lamson home that morning shattered the tranquil and safe university neighborhood for years to come and unleashed a hailstorm of national publicity.
When police arrived, they discovered Allene Lamson’s naked draped corpse lying face-down over the edge of a bathtub of water. She had a serious wound to the back of the head and blood was spattered on the wall and pooled on the tile floor. Her husband seemed stunned and confused. The officers quickly ruled out accidental death and concluded Allene had been the victim of murder. Because there was no evidence of a break-in or robbery, they took Lamson into custody for questioning.
According to Lamson, with the family’s housekeeper on vacation and their daughter visiting her grandmother, he and Allene played bridge with friends Monday evening and did not get home until around 11 p.m. His wife complained of indigestion so he slept in the back bedroom, as he often did when she wasn’t feeling well. Around 4 a.m., Allene called out and he brought her some soup and a sandwich and gave her a back-rub. At 6 o’clock on Tuesday – Memorial Day morning – he got out bed, had breakfast and went out to do some yard work. He awakened has wife around 9, drew her a bath, helped her into the tub and prepared a breakfast tray. He then returned to the backyard, where he remained until Mrs. Place showed up with the couple from San Francisco.
As word spread that David Lamson was jailed as a suspect in his wife’s death, the press leaped on the story of a possible wife-murder on the elite and pastoral Stanford campus.
On the other side of the country, the number one crime story was that of the 1932 kidnaping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in East Amwell, New Jersey. By May of 1933, there had been no arrests in the Lindbergh case, but newspapers were selling in huge numbers on the strength of sensationalist speculation. West Coast publishers took note and hoped to turn Allene Lamson’s death into a similar bonanza. The Lamson case had all the elements of a great tabloid story: a gory death under mysterious circumstances, an incongruous setting and an unlikely suspect. It was the sort of stuff that sold newspapers and every reporter was looking for a scoop. Throngs of journalists carrying huge flash cameras swarmed the Stanford campus and Santa Clara County Courthouse. Police closed Salvatierra Street the Sunday following the tragedy in an attempt to discourage multitudes of gawkers and thrill-seekers driving and walking past the house.
The case remained front-page news throughout the summer as reporters came up with “fresh evidence” based on nothing more than rumor and speculation. San Francisco papers, including the Examiner, Call and Chronicle, hired motorcycle couriers to speed copy and photos from the courthouse and police headquarters in San José before deadline. A preliminary hearing held June 15 was filmed by newsreel crews and shown for three nights in a row at the American Theater in San José. The local Mercury-Herald described the courtroom as the “pulsating center of a drama – a tragedy in which the public has shown more interest than any similar hearing in the history of Santa Clara County.”
Neither Sheriff William Emig nor District Attorney Fred Thomas avoided the spotlight and their positions never wavered: Allene Lamson was killed and David Lamson was the only suspect. But the public and press weren’t satisfied: they wanted a motive. Friends and neighbors spoke kindly of David and Allene and most insisted the pair had a loving relationship. However, some mentioned signs of strain in recent months and a few insisted David Lamson’s pleasant façade masked a quick temper. One line of speculation was that on the night before her death, Allene spurned David’s romantic advances with the claim she was having her period, but after discovering a used, but bloodless, sanitary napkin the following morning, he became angry. A second rumor was that Lamson was having an affair and had gotten the maid pregnant. This claim was dismissed when the housekeeper gave birth to a redheaded baby, the spitting image of her redheaded fiancé.
Then there was Sara Kelley, “the blonde divorcée from Sacramento.” The two had met at Stanford 10 years earlier when they worked together one summer for a Merced newspaper before either married. David ran into her again at the Sacramento Union in 1932 when he was attempting to persuade the Union’s editors to serialize a gardening book published by Stanford Press. Investigators for the prosecution found witnesses who said they had seen the two at various Sacramento restaurants and at Sara’s apartment, though always in the presence of others. He sent her flowers on five occasions and the bill was forwarded to his home address. There was also a pink slip of paper on his office desk with two love poems written by Sara Kelley, obviously submitted for his perusal prior to possible publication in the Stanford Illustrated Review.
The murder trial of David Lamson began August 24, 1933. Jurors were drawn from throughout Santa Clara County, a rural area known then as the “prune capital of the world.” The prosecution was led by Allan Lindsay, an aggressive, but emotional deputy district attorney, who was determined to prove Lamson murdered his wife. The defense argued that Mrs. Lamson slipped when getting out of the bath, cracking the back of her head on the porcelain sink opposite the tub in the small 7-by-10-foot bathroom.
One of the many controversial aspects of the case was the relationship between David and Allene. By almost all accounts, they were a close, loving couple whose disagreements were no different than those of other married couples. Others, however, claimed the couple sparred frequently and that David did not like the fact Allene insisted on working instead of staying at home and caring for their young child.
The three-week trial became a battle of expert witnesses. Allene Lamson’s head wounds consisted of a horizontal laceration about 5-inches in length, intersected approximately at midpoint by a vertical cut of about 3½-inches, with two smaller horizontal lacerations running from the bottom of the vertical cut and the area where the major cuts intersected was significantly depressed. The prosecution called the respected head of Stanford Medical School’s anatomy department, who testified the wounds at the back of Allene’s skull could have been made only by four separate blows, not the single strike alleged by the defense. Prosecutors then presented the alleged murder weapon, a 10-inch length of pipe retrieved from the smoldering ashes of the fire David had been tending on the morning his wife’s body was discovered. The county pathologist testified he found a speck of burnt blood among the pipe threads. (This “blood” turned out to be paint.) The defense countered with its own experts, who declared the fatality most likely resulted from a single blow to the head – an argument consistent with the theory that Mrs. Lamson had slipped getting out of the tub.
Bay Area newspapers reported the technical crossfire, but focused more heavily on speculation concerning the “Sacramento love triangle,” which provided a motive for the crime. Although the “blonde divorcée” was never called to the stand, she was a constant refrain in the prosecution’s closing argument. So, too, was an alleged statement Lamson made shortly after his wife’s body was discovered. A law enforcement officer claimed he overheard Lamson exclaim to his sister: “My God, why did I ever marry her?” (Both Lamson and Margaret denied he made such a statement.)
Lamson decided to testify and repeated almost verbatim the story he had told investigators. Prosecutors seized on his admission that Allene’s body had slipped back into the tub when he first lifted her, suggesting he was attempting to wash away evidence. In response to the parade of defense witnesses testifying to the apparent stability of the marriage and Lamson’s genuine shock and grief, prosecutors countered by noting that Lamson had acted in both high school and college stage productions.
Reading the trial transcript today, it becomes clear that neither side presented a persuasive case. The prosecution declared a murder had been committed and argued that circumstances pointed to Lamson (pictured above) as the killer, but failed to produce a compelling motive and there was no evidence of aggressive behavior or marital discord. There was also no explanation as to how Lamson could have been nonchalantly hoeing weeds and chatting with a neighbor just after bludgeoning his wife to death in the bathroom.
The defense made even more mistakes, likely because Lamson’s attorneys did not anticipate the vigor of the prosecution or grasp the public relations war being waged in the papers. Defense attorneys failed to call Sara Kelley, who could have effectively countered the love triangle motive. Additionally, one of the expert witnesses testifying to the “single-blow theory” was Blake Wilbur, M.D., the son of Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur and a personal friend of Lamson’s, creating a presumption of bias.
The defense adhered too stubbornly to its “accident theory” and as the prosecution demonstrated, the layout of the bathroom made it difficult for Allene to have sustained such a massive head injury from slipping in the tub. Additionally, the defense never seriously explored the possibility that a third party could have been involved, even though business school student John Venderlip told campus police he had seen a suspicious man near the Lamson home both the night before and morning of Mrs. Lamson’s death.
On the evening of Saturday, September 16, 1933, after eight hours of deliberation and three ballots, members of the seven-man, five-woman jury filed into the courtroom to render their verdict. Defense attorney Edwin Rea, unnerved by the demeanor of the 12 jurors, prepared for the worst and whispered in his client’s ear: “Take it on the chin, kid.” There was an audible gasp in the courtroom as the foreman read the unanimous verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree. Lamson sat quietly as the jury was polled and remained impassive as the judge sentenced him to hang within 90 days, subject to appeal.
The New York Times reported “the academic calm of Palo Alto was shattered by the verdict. Friendships were disrupted, and academic circles were divided into two camps.” Friction also developed among the lawyers and outside a hearing room 10 days later, Rea and prosecutor Lindsay, who had been described as the “battling barristers” in the press, got into a fistfight and had to be separated by news reporters. Rea left the courthouse with a swollen lip. Later, in a letter to University President Wilbur, Rea ranted: “the tactics of the prosecution in this case, both those shown by the record and otherwise, are worse than murder.”
News of the conviction galvanized a group of Lamson’s Stanford friends (primarily from the English department) to form the “Lamson Defense Committee.” Margaret Lamson organized the appeals process, soliciting contributions to defray legal expenses and urging academic criminologists to speak out against the harsh sentence. A 608-page appellate brief challenging every aspect of the prosecution’s case was prepared by defense attorney Edwin McKenzie and two English professors condensed the document into a 103-page pamphlet entitled The Case of David Lamson, which was signed by 20 professors, writers, physicians and clergymen. In its foreword, San Francisco novelist Peter Kyne emphasized the “Kafkaesque” aspects of the case. University of California criminologist August Vollmer referred to Lamson’s predicament as “the most amazing situation that has ever arisen in American jurisprudence – a man condemned to die for something that has never happened, and every bit of circumstantial evidence pointing to his innocence.”
In the meantime, Lamson was moved from his cell in the county jail to San Quentin’s death row. Warren Thoits, Lamson’s nephew, who later became an attorney, was 11-years-old at the time and recalls going with his mother to deliver hot meals to “Uncle David” at both the local jail and San Quentin. “The cost of this case in terms of both money and the disruption of our family life was huge,” he says, “but, as scary as the process was, it was an unbelievable education that greatly influenced my choice of profession.”
At San Quintin, Lamson sought refuge in writing and even though he was facing imminent death, his letters to supporters had a strangely detached quality. In a letter to a Palo Alto Times reporter, he indicated that introspective letters “are very hard for me to write. Because, you see, this faith lay deeply between Allene and myself, and it is as hard for me to speak of it as of our love. I feel as if I were exposing Allene and myself both to public gaze – and I feel that our love, our faith, are between ourselves and God.”
Lamson also wrote about life on death row: “The men I knew on the Row, waiting to be hanged, were just people. And not very smart people; for smart people don’t get sent to the Row, no matter what their crimes. The smarty pulls the strings, the cons say; and the square-john stretches the rope.” (His observations were later turned into a book entitled We Who Are About to Die that became a 1935 bestseller.) Portions of the book were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. One chapter is devoted to a mass murderer nicknamed “Hamlet’s Ghost” by other inmates. Lamson writes: “I feel quite sure that hanging the Ghost will have done little or nothing to restrain such other Ghosts if they ever get to the condition of mind that Hamlet’s Ghost was in when he cut open five people. The Law, however, assumes that with this particular Ghost dead, all such Ghosts are laid. A sentiment, I say once more . . . open to doubt.”
In October 1934, the seven-member California appellate court rendered its decision and the headline on the front page of the Sunday Examiner read: “Lamson Wins New Trial for Murder.” Though the court unanimously ordered a new trial, there was a catch because three of the justices based their decision on technical grounds only and failed to question the judgment that a murder had been committed. The chief justice himself declared the court was ordering a new trial even though “a majority of the justices feel Lamson is guilty.” The San Francisco Chronicle excoriated the statement as “irresponsible” and “highly prejudicial to any new trial that may be ordered.”
After 11 months on death row, Lamson was returned to the Santa Clara jail and his second trial began February 2, 1935. The first trial was completed in three weeks, but this one dragged on for three months during which time a total of 173 witnesses testified. Experts droned on about angles of impact and the probable trajectory of blood spatter, but there were other witnesses to whom both jurors and courtroom spectators listened closely. One of these was the housekeeper, Delores Roberts, who testified regarding the home life of the Lamsons, which she insisted was peaceful and harmonious. But it was Sara Kelley, the blonde divorcée, now remarried, who had everyone leaning forward to catch every word as she effectively rebutted the love triangle hypothesis.
In May 1935, the exhausted jury returned to the courtroom after four days of deliberations and the foreman announced the seven men and five women could not come to a decision and were hopelessly deadlocked. The final vote was nine for conviction and three for acquittal. When a reporter asked Lamson if he was surprised by the verdict, he replied: “After what I’ve been through, it would take a great deal to surprise me.”
Would the government put Lamson on trial a third time? The district attorney, whose reputation and political future were on the line, felt he had no choice and the participants found themselves sitting before a judge and jury once again in November 1935. This time, the trial was aborted because of irregularities in the list of jurors and the proceedings were delayed until January 1936, by which time the newspapers were more concerned about the upcoming presidential election than the Palo Alto wife killer case.
A different judge presided over the third trial, but it, too, dragged on for three months. After 36 hours of deliberation and 10 ballots, this jury, like the one in the preceding trial, gave up and announced its members were deadlocked. Again, nine had voted for conviction and three for acquittal.
On April 3, 1936, California Superior Court Judge J. J. Trabucco announced the prosecution had decided to drop the case against Lamson and after three years confinement, the defendant was free to go.
When Lamson arrived at his sister’s shingled cottage on Creek Drive in Palo Alto, his 5-year-old daughter ran into his arms, shouting “Daddy!” A Daily reporter who attended an impromptu party at the home of Margaret Lamson that evening indicated Lamson seemed serene and grateful as he and his attorneys and supporters celebrated the end of the ordeal.
A few months after his release, Lamson relocated to Southern California to work on the screenplay for his book, We Who Are about to Die, where he met and married Ruth Smith Rankin, a magazine writer. The two lived in North Hollywood and Lamson continued to work on screenplays as well as a novel based on a freak childhood hunting accident. In the late 1930s, the couple moved to the Sierra foothills near Nevada City and for the next 15 years, Lamson wrote some 89 short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. By 1954, feeling he was burned out as a writer, Lamson and his wife returned to the Bay Area where he took a job as maintenance manager with United Airlines. He died in 1975 at the age of 72.
Allene Lamson’s death would remain a mystery. The sensational case slowly faded into history, but there were times when those in the presence of the amiable David Lamson could not help wondering: Was he the victim of overzealous prosecutors? Or a master of deceit who had gotten away with cold-blooded murder?
Sources: Bloody Ivy: 13 Unsolved Campus Murders by Henry Bobonich; The Malefactor’s Registry; Guide to the Lamson Murder Case, Collection SCO861, Online Archives of California; and Bernard Butcher, Stanford Alumni Magazine, January/February 2000.