By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor, OPEC
A yellowed, typed spreadsheet titled “Report of Inmates, Women’s Ward, San Quentin Prison, May 1922” gives some insight into the 48 women serving sentences at the time. In 1922, there were two state prisons – San Quentin and Folsom. Female inmates were housed at San Quentin before the original California Institution for Women was built.
The report lists name, sentence, crime, county, date received, age, nativity, race, occupation, religion, sentencing judge, district attorney, counsel, previous institution history, prison record, mental age, physical handicap, tuberculosis status and whether or not the inmate tested positive for venereal diseases.
One name on the 1922 report stands out since she was the first woman sentenced to the death in the State of California – Emma LeDoux.
LeDoux was in her mid-30s when she was convicted of poisoning her husband in 1906. The press dubbed her the “trunk murderess.”
Her trial, which lasted 15 days, was headline news at the time. It took the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to bump her story off the front pages.
She was accused of convincing her estranged husband, A.N. McVicar, to meet her in Stockton for a rendezvous. Prosecutors allege LeDoux planned to do away with her husband since she had married another man and didn’t want her bigamy revealed.
According to prosecutors, LeDoux poisoned her husband and stuffed his body in a trunk. She tried to have the trunk shipped to her home in Amador County but the trunk wasn’t properly registered so it sat on the platform. Train station personnel noticed the smell and became suspicious.
LeDoux became the first woman in California sentenced to the death penalty. In 1907, rumors were circulating about her so Sheriff Sibley, with the county jail where she was being held while her case was on appeal, brought in newspaper reporters for an interview. She spoke of having hope for the appeal and complained of her infamy.
“It seems that it is not enough for people to crowd and block the streets to stare at me, as if I were some sort of a Fourth of July horrible; now they must start these rumors,” she said, according to the Evening Sentinel, Jan. 17, 1907. “In justice to myself, I’m glad you came.”
The state Supreme Court heard arguments and she was granted another trial.
On Jan. 26, 1910, feeling her health was failing, she changed her plea to guilty. She was sentenced to life in prison. She ended up serving 10 years and won parole from San Quentin in 1920, but she was back in prison in less than a year.
In 1925, she earned parole again but ran afoul of the law for running a bogus marriage scheme. Her crime landed her back in San Quentin in 1931. She was transferred to the newly opened California Institution for Women at Tehachapi in 1933.
On July 7, 1941, she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 69, still a prisoner of the State of California, according to the Haggin Museum.
The report lists her sentence as life, received out of San Joaquin County on Feb. 2, 1910, with a good prison record. Her occupation is listed as dressmaker. Her previous history is listed as “paroled and returned.”
“A possible solution of the murder mystery surrounding the slaying of Albert V. Marcus, the Beau Brummel jitneuer of Glendale, appeared today in Bakersfield when Trinity Dandia, a woman, confessed her implication there to an almost similar jitney bus murder in the valley city,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, July 28, 1917.
A jitney bus was the common term for a low-cost shuttle bus, or car, usually costing a nickel for a ride. A “jitneuer” was the owner or operator of the jitney bus.
“Marcus, known to have made frequent conquests among feminine hearts of Glendale, was killed early in February of this year by someone who accompanied him on a ride in his jitney bus several miles from Glendale. There was some evidence to indicate that the murder had been the work of a woman,” the paper reported.
Originally police were looking at a possible jealous husband to one of the victim’s “conquests.”
“With the arrest in Bakersfield of the Dandia woman, who, the officers say, confessed her part in a jitney murder there that was almost identical to the slaying of Marcus, the officers believed that they had at last found a clue that might lead to the solution of the Marcus mystery,” the paper reported. “The officers in Bakersfield believe that the Dandia woman participated in five jitney bus murders in California, one of them being the Marcus murder.”
She was convicted of the murder of James A. Hanlon, a young jitney driver killed April 1917. “The jury found for murder in the first degree and recommended a life term,” reported the Sausalito News, Dec. 1, 1917.
She was in her mid-20s when she was arrested and put on trial. She was 30 when the San Quentin Women’s Ward report was published.
In 1933, Dandia was one of the first inmates sent to the new California Institution for Women.
“Trinity Dandia, the second oldest prisoner at San Quentin, took her canary along Friday when she and 27 other women prisoners were transferred to the new women’s penal farm in the Tehachapi mountains. A curious crowed gathered to see the women entrain for their new ‘home.’ The inmates wore coats over their prison dresses when they boarded the barred prison car ‘Lordsburg’ at Richmond station,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, Sept. 2, 1933.
She was paroled in 1949. Her name crept back into the newspapers briefly in 1963 when she was one of 55 issued a Christmas pardon by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr.
“The pardons reached back in time to embrace 73-year-old Trinity Dandia of Stockton, convicted of murder in San Joaquin County in 1917,” reported the Desert Sun, Dec. 26, 1963.
Louise L. Peete
A 1920 Los Angeles murder found Louise L. Peete in the county jail facing murder charges and newspapers reporting the details as front-page news.
“A small revolver, containing five discharged cartridges, was found … where it apparently had been hidden near the crypt in the basement of the residence of Jacob C. Denton, where his body was found two months ago,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 23, 1920. “The Denton residence, where Mrs. Louise Peete, now in the county jail awaiting trial for the murder of Denton, was either a tenant or housekeeper, is now occupied by the sister of the dead mining promoter, Mrs. Thomas Merryman, of San Francisco, and her husband.”
According to the article, the Merrymans found the gun hidden between two pipes running from the furnace and was turned over to the district attorney.
“Officers stated Mrs. Merryman also found Denton’s check book. They said it had been located under a rug, just outside the room occupied by Mrs. Peete. The rug was tacked to the floor. The book, which was thin, was said to show no record of the checks totaling $750 which Mrs. Peete was alleged to have cashed after Denton’s disappearance,” the paper reported.
During her trial, the gardener testified Peete hired him to remove dirt from around rose bushes and store it in the basement for future use. Another witness testified Peete borrowed a shovel which was found several days later with dirt on it. The same witness said Peete gave him a bundle to burn that contained a table cloth, men’s collars and cancelled checks.
Peete’s young child was told her mother was in the hospital, according to newspaper reports at the time.
“Betty Peete, the pretty little 4-year-old daughter of Mrs. Louise Peete, … will be barred from the courtroom during her mother’s trial,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 13, 1921. “The barring of Betty from the courtroom is considered a psychological handicap to the defense as her presence at the side of her mother undoubtedly would have had a sentimental effect on the jury.”
Mrs. Peete was found guilty and while walking a half-block to the jail along with the bailiff and her husband, “they faced a crowd of probably more than 1,000 persons,” reported the Sacramento Union, Feb. 6, 1921. The husband accompanied her to the jail “to try to give her comfort, but jailers said it was she who comforted him. He wept, they said, almost constantly, while she remained dry-eyed and, with an arm about his shoulder, endeavored to encourage him.”
Peete was received by San Quentin Dec. 7, 1921. At the time of the Women’s Ward report, she was 29.
A headline the following year declared, “Granted divorce from murderess.”
“Richard Peete was granted a divorce from Louise Peete, serving a life sentence in San Quentin for the murder of Jacob Denton of Los Angeles,” reported the Madera Tribune, Nov. 22, 1922.
Nearly two decades later, she was granted parole.
“Mrs. Louise L. Peete, who was convicted at one of Los Angeles’ most sensational murder trials 18 years ago of slaying Jacob C. Denton, wealthy Arizona mining man, was scheduled to begin a new life outside prison walls today,” reported the Madera Tribune on April 10, 1939.
Five years later, she was again facing murder charges.
“Mrs. Louise Peete, veteran of 18 years in prison for the 1920 murder of Jacob C. Denton, is again in custody charged with the murder of her employer, 60-year-old Mrs. Margaret Logan, whose body was found buried in the back yard of the Logan home at Pacific Palisades,” reported the Madera Tribune, Dec. 29, 1944.
In 1945, she was given the death penalty.
“Mrs. Louise Peete, twice-convicted murderess, was sentenced to die in the San Quentin gas chamber for her second murder, and said quietly, ‘I’m glad it’s all over with,’ but betrayed no emotion,” reported the Madera Tribune, June 1, 1945.
A news account in 1947 claims Louise Peete was responsible, directly or indirectly, for four deaths, not including her own execution. The list of bodies included Jacob Denton in 1920, the suicide of her first husband, Richard, and the slaying of Margaret Logan. Peete had Logan’s ailing husband, Arthur, committed to an asylum, where he later died. Mrs. Logan’s forged signatures on Peete’s monthly parole reports tipped off authorities, who found the woman’s body in a shallow grave in the backyard.
In 1947, she became the second woman executed in California, according to newspapers at the time.
By the time the report was released, Catherine Wixson, 32, had already served seven years of a life sentence for first-degree murder. Her occupation was listed as “housewife” and she had no prior convictions.
Reported by the Sacramento Union on June 29, 1915, Wixson and James Marvin were sentenced to life in prison after “they pleaded guilty to charges of murdering … rug peddler, Hadje Cussaid. Mrs. Wixson will serve her term at San Quentin and Marvin will go to Folsom Prison.”
The newspaper report described the crime.
“Mrs. Wixson and Marvin and two men known as ‘Billy’ and ‘Jack,’ planned the robbery of the rug peddler. Mrs. Wixson rented rooms with him at 1400 Seventh Street, where the men in the gang hid themselves. The rug peddler was overpowered by them, given ammonia and robbed. He died from the effects of the ammonia. It was alleged that ‘Jack’ and ‘Billy’ not only played the most important parts in the robbery, but they also escaped with most of the money taken from the rug peddler,” the paper reported.
Clarence Hogan was killed by a revolver held by 21-year-old Marie Bailey while they were driving in his car. The 1921 trial grabbed front-page headlines, such as the May 25 issue of the Los Angeles Herald, “Girl to admit death shot in love slaying.”
According to news accounts at the time, Bailey was married to someone else but had fallen for Hogan, who was making “efforts to have the girl lead an immoral life.”
Bailey claimed the gun went off accidentally as she was trying to kill herself.
She was convicted of voluntary manslaughter with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Judge Hancock sentenced housewife Stella Schwoerer to life imprisonment in San Quentin, according to the Los Angeles Herald, May 25, 1916.
Schwoerer pleaded guilty to charges of murdering her husband. She was 37 years old when the Women’s Ward report was published and was six years into her sentence.
A brief news item in the Sacramento Union, dated Nov. 7, 1916, sums up the crime.
“Protesting that she was innocent, Mrs. Chona Andrade was sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin by Judge Ogden for the murder of her son-in-law, Jesus Espinoza, in a lonely hut in the Livermore hills on Sept. 11.”
May Gilman, 43, was serving five years for “abortion,” whether she received one or performed it is unclear but her occupation is listed as nurse. She hailed from England.
Russian housewife Hanna Ashkenazi, 38, was serving two to five years out of San Francisco County for violating penal code 274 (abortion, the original law dating back to 1850). Her occupation is listed as pharmacist.
Bookkeeper and cashier Jean Fallon, 32, was a Finland native. She is listed as serving two one-to-10-year sentences out of Sacramento County for two counts of embezzlement.
Chinese native Wong Pong, a 35-year-old housewife, was serving up to five years for “violating poison law,” committed from Alameda County. She had two prior convictions but the offenses aren’t listed.
Italian native Rosina Salvino, 35, was serving a 10-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder out of San Joaquin County. She was received in 1920.
Six inmates are listed as “U.S. Prisoner,” all serving sentences of one year plus one day for violating the Harrison Act of 1914, an early anti-drug law that sought to combat opium addiction through licensing and taxation.
The six women serving sentences were Viola Harvson, 30-year-old housewife, sentenced out of the East District (ED) of Louisiana; Ray Houge, 24-year-old nurse, sentenced out of the West District (WD) of Texas; Maria Parejo, 49-year-old chambermaid, sentenced out of the WD of Texas; Gertrude Ruch, 32-year-old waitress, sentenced out of the ED of Louisiana; Ruth Spencer, 31-year-old housewife, sentenced out of the ED of Louisiana; and May Tyson, 30-year-old seamstress, sentenced out of the WD of Texas.
There were 10 women serving sentences for first- or second-degree murder, seven for manslaughter and others for various crimes ranging from forgery to receiving stolen property and burglary.