Thursday, December 24, 2015


The Lawson Family Christmas Massacre

There is nothing that can ruin the holidays like murder, especially when the victims are an unassuming farm wife and six of her seven children, all waiting for the happiness and joy that usually accompanied Christmas. The story becomes even more tragic when it is revealed that their killer was the husband of the farm wife and the father of those children – and that he took his own life just after slaughtering his family.

The story of the Lawson Christmas Massacre took place in 1929, near Germanton, North Carolina. Charlie Lawson was a simple man with simple needs. He was a husband, father, and tobacco farmer. He worked hard, kept his family fed, made sure his debts were paid, and that he kept a roof over their head. The only true sorrow in his life had been when his third child, William, had died from pneumonia. Everything seemed right in the world for Charlie Lawson, but as they say, looks can often be deceiving.

 The entire Lawson family in a photo that was taken during a rare shopping trip in the Fall of 1929. Charlie bought everyone in the family a new suit of clothes and they posed in town for their first-ever family portrait.
Back Row: Arthur “Buck”; Marie; Charlie; Fannie; Mary Lou
Front Row: James; Maybell, Raymond; Carrie.

As Christmas Day, 1929 approached, the Lawson children grew more excited. They didn’t expect a lot of gifts since they had just received new clothing a short time before, but there would be lots of food to eat and lots of fun to be had with friends and relatives who lived nearby. They had no way of knowing that the day would be anything but happy – it would end in a terrifying slaughter that still reverberates in North Carolina today.

The victims of what turned out to be a baffling crime included six of the children, and Charlie’s wife of 20 years, Fanny. The youngest child was Mary Lou, who was only four months old at the time of her death. The only surviving child was Arthur, a 16-year-old that everyone called Buck. He only survived because he was sent on an errand by his father that Christmas afternoon.

The errand itself was a disturbing one. Buck and his cousin were sent trudging through the snow to Germanton to buy more shotgun shells for Charlie. However, when Buck returned home, he was stunned to find that his mother, sisters Marie, 17, Carrie, 12, Maybell, 7, and baby Mary Lou, and brothers, James, 4, and Raymond, 2, had all been slain by his father. They had been killed one by one, and Charlie had apparently chased down Carrie and Maybell after they ran away from the Lawson house in terror.

Charlie had annihilated his entire family. The interior of the house looked as though it had been drenched with buckets of blood. Some of the Lawson family had been killed by gunshot, others had been beaten to death, and others had died from a combination of the two. All of the bodies were found inside of the house, or in the adjacent tobacco barn. Some accounts say that Charlie placed small stones over the eyes of his victims.

Buck immediately ran to a neighbor’s house to ask the man to call the sheriff. He was sure that intruders had broken in and killed his family. As lawmen arrived on the scene, they came to a grim realization about what had occurred – Charlie Lawson had been the one who did the killing. When they told Buck, the young boy collapsed in the front yard.

Hours passed with no sign of Charlie. Men combed the surrounding woods and at some point around 10:00 p.m., a shot rang out in the trees behind the barn. All activity around the house suddenly stopped and everyone looked anxiously toward the woods, and then to the sheriff. Believing that Charlie may have fired the shot, and fearing that anyone venturing into the woods could be shot, the sheriff didn’t move. Eventually, a few of the men ventured into the shadowy forest. Moments later, they called back that Charlie was dead.

The scene in the woods was a strange one. Charlie had been there for hours, walking around and around in a circle around a tree. He had walked around and around the tree so many times that the snow had melted, making a path. Eventually, he sat down at the base of the tree, leaned back, put the gun barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Newspapers all over the country featuring glaring headlines about the murders the next day. The eyes of the entire country were focused on Stokes County, North Carolina and after the initial shock of what had happened, the only one question remained: Why?

There was no apparent motive. The Lawsons weren’t rich, but they weren’t having any financial problems. Charlie Lawson was a likable man. He was a hard worker. He didn’t have any extreme religious or act strange in any peculiar way. Most people in the community liked and respected him. They couldn’t imagine why he would have done such a terrible thing.

Soon, though, two theories emerged. The first was that Charlie had a medical condition that affected his mind and made him snap that day. Earlier that summer, while breaking up some new fields, Charlie had been hit in the head with a tool. He didn’t seem severely injured by it, but a few weeks later, he started seeing a local doctor for what he described as blinding headaches and trouble sleeping. A few friends belatedly admitted that Charlie had never been the same after the injury.

A few weeks later, Charlie and his sons were working in the fields and Charlie became angry with Buck, and attacked him. Buck, almost as large as his father, defended himself until Charlie backed down. Charlie had never acted that way before. Buck then took it upon himself to try and protect the rest of the family from Charlie’s temper – which may have been the reason that Charlie sent him away on an errand when he massacred the rest of the family.

The second theory that emerged was much more scandalous. There were rumors that Charlie had impregnated his teenage daughter, Marie, and had killed his family to prevent the incestuous scandal from being known.

Whatever the truth was, though, Charlie took it to his grave.

The murders attracted so much attention that at least 5,000 curiosity-seekers showed up for the funeral of the Lawsons, who were buried in a single plot at the Browder Family Cemetery, outside of Germanton. To protect the Lawson house, Marion Lawson, one of Charlie’s young brothers, planted posts around the farm and strung up a wire fence around the site. Townspeople assumed that Marion was trying to keep away the morbidly curious, but that was not the case – he was turning the house into a tourist attraction.

In the spring of 1930, hundreds of travelers came to see the place where the murders occurred. They handled the family’s belongings, gaped at the bloodstains on the floors and walls, and stood on the spot where the Lawson children breathed their last. The locals grumbled about the “shameful” attraction for a time, but only until they realized that the tourists were stopping in town to eat, buy gas, and stay in the new hotel. With the money Germanton was making from the tourists, the little town began to thrive during an era when most of America was suffering. As morbid as it may sound, it’s believe that Charlie Lawson saved from Germanton from the Great Depression.  

After interest in the Lawson farm began to wane, parts of the gruesome display were packed up and taken on the road. It made the rounds of sideshows and carnivals throughout the country for a number of years before it was eventually shut down, and some of the pieces were returned to the farm.

As decades passed, and the house fell into decay, children and adults alike wandered through the property. On many occasions, people left the house believing that at least of the deceased Lawsons were not resting in peace. By 1980, the old Lawson house was no more. The new owners had replaced the house and barn with a cultivated field. There was nothing left to see, and nothing to explore.

But that doesn’t mean that the hauntings have stopped entirely. The home that once belonged to the Lawsons’ closest neighbors is now the Squires Inn Bed and Breakfast. Shortly after moving into the house, the owner looked up and noticed a little boy and girl peering back at her through the glass in the one of the door. They disappeared, but she saw them again, and decided to do some research. After discussing her experiences with a local historian, she was shown the Lawson family portrait, taken shortly before they died. The woman immediately recognized her young visitors in the photograph. She had been visited by Maybell and James Lawson. The historian told her the Lawson children had frequently crossed the field to play with the children who had once lived in her house.

As the years have passed, the children have remained. Although saddened by their fate, the inn’s owner states that she finds some peace in the fact that the children have each other.

This complete story of the Lawson family murders can be found in the book, FEAR THE REAPER, by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse.


Ghosts of the Babbs Switch School Fire

The holiday season of 1924 was a brutal one in Oklahoma. As winter solstice was marking the change of seasons, bitter cold swept across the plains. Frigid temperatures raged south out of western Canada like a runaway freight train. Snow covered most of Oklahoma. The roads were slippery and the chill caused a run on heating stoves and warnings were sounded for railroad men, police officers, and others who worked outdoors at night. And then came Christmas Eve, when a fire broke out in a one-room schoolhouse in Babbs Switch, located just a few miles south of Hobart, Oklahoma.

The tragedy is nearly forgotten today, but at the time, it turned Christmas into a mournful holiday for the people of the region. Three dozen people died on that cold night – and left a dark haunting that lingered behind for years. 

Children from the Babbs Switch School near Hobart, Oklahoma

The evening of December 24 began with joy and laughter. The little school building was packed with over 200 students and families, enjoying the annual Christmas program. A Christmas tree, decorated with lighted candles, stood at the front of the room. Beneath it was a pile of presents that were going to be handed out to the children at the end of the evening. The fire began when a teenage student dressed as Santa Claus was removing presents from under the tree. He bumped against a branch and one of the candles was knocked loose. The flames ignited the sleeve of his suit and things quickly spun out of control. Fire ignited paper decorations, tinsel, and dry needles and spread quickly across the stage.

In a panic, people rushed to the building’s single door, which opened inward, as far too many doors to public buildings did in those days. As more people piled against the door, it prevented anyone from opening it. Others rushed to the windows for escape. Unfortunately, though, the windows had recently been fitted with bars to keep vandals out of the school. A few men managed to break the glass and pass smaller children to safety between the bars. A teacher, Mrs. Florence Hill, saved several of her students’ lives in this manner, but she herself perished in the fire.

When it was all over, the fire had claimed 36 lives, among them several entire families.

The dead and injured were transported by car to Hobart, the nearest town of any size, and a temporary morgue was set up in a downtown building. As the numbers of the dead and injured (37 people were taken to the Hobart hospital) were counted, there seemed to be one child that was not accounted for. The child, a little three-year-old girl named Mary Edens, was reported as missing, but her body was never found. Her aunt, Alice Noah, who escaped from the school but died a few days later, claimed that she carried Mary out of the building, but handed it to someone she did not know. Mary had simply disappeared without a trace in the wake of the fire.

The Babbs Switch fire led to stricter building codes in Oklahoma, especially for schools. It was also one of the catalysts for modern fire precautions against inward-opening doors, open flames, locked screens over windows, and a lack of running water near public buildings. Those who died that night probably saved the lives of future generations of Oklahoma schoolchildren.

As it happened, there was a strange twist to the Babbs Switch story in 1957. A California woman named Grace Reynolds came forward and claimed that she was actually Mary Edens, the little girl presumed killed in the 1924 fire. Mary had been a toddler at the time and her body was never found. Reynolds story was that she was handed out the window by her “real” mother into the arms of a childless couple who assumed that none of her relatives survived the fire and informally adopted her and raised her as their own. Reynolds became a minor celebrity, reuniting on the air with the Edens family on Art Linkletter’s House Party television show, and later wrote a book about her experiences entitled Mary, Child of Tragedy: The Story of the Lost Child of the 1924 Babbs Switch Fire.

Sadly, though, the whole thing was a hoax. No one knows why Grace Reynolds believed, or claimed to believe, that she was Mary Edens. It’s possible that she believed that she was adopted, or that perhaps she learned of the fire and saw a way to get attention by claiming to be the missing little girl. Her motives remain a mystery.

In any case, a local newspaper editor uncovered the hoax, and informed Mary Edens’ father about what he had discovered. Mary’s father asked that the editor not publish his findings, as he believed that his wife could not endure losing her child for a second time. The editor respected his wishes and his findings were not revealed until 1999.

Even this sad footnote to the fire was not the end of the story. In 1925, a new school was built at the site, but closed in 1943 when the Babbs Switch district was absorbed by the nearby Hobart school district. A stone monument was placed at the scene, bearing a short description of the fire and a list of the dead – the dead that some say do not rest in peace.

But it’s not the site of the school where ghosts of the past are reportedly restless. The bodies that were taken from the site were brought to Hobart and placed in a temporary morgue, which is now the fire station and the Shortgrass Playhouse. It is rumored that the ghost of a little boy has been seen throughout the building, running around the fire truck bays and scampering down hallways. There is also the ghost of a little girl who has been seen on the stage of the playhouse.

Who these spectral children may be is unknown. Half of the dead from the fire were children and none of them were recognizable. They had to be identified by jewelry, dentures, and anything that might be unique to a person. Two little brothers were identified by a toy gun found lying next to one boy, and the belt buckle of the other. The identities of the boy and girl who remain at the place where their bodies were taken after the fire remain a mystery, but we can only hope that they have found a little peace since their terrible deaths.

Friday, December 18, 2015


The Murder of Jack “Legs” Diamond

On December 18, 1931, gangster and bootlegger, Jack “Legs” Diamond, was shot to death in a rooming house in Albany, New York. Diamond had already survived five attempts on his life between 1916 and 1931, causing him to be known as the “clay pigeon of the underworld.” In 1930, Dutch Schultz, an enemy of Diamond, remarked to his gang, “Ain’t there nobody that can shoot this guy so that he don’t bounce back?”

This time, Diamond didn’t “bounce back.”

Jack “Legs” Diamond

Diamond, whose real name was John Moran, was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1897. His parents, John and Sara, were Irish immigrants. In 1889, a younger brother, Eddie, was born. The two boys struggled through grade school, while their mother suffered from health problems. She died on December 24, 1913, and their father moved them to Brooklyn soon after. Jack almost immediately fell in with some of the young street gangs of the era, notably the Boiler Gang. His first arrest for burglary occurred when he broke into a jewelry store on February 4, 1914. More than a dozen arrests would eventually follow. After a brief stint in a juvenile reformatory, he was drafted into the military during World War I. Not surprisingly, he deserted after less than a year and was sent to Leavenworth.

When he got out of prison in 1921, he returned to New York, where he began associating with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was then a young, but up and coming gangster. Diamond did odd jobs for Luciano, who introduced him to gambler Arnold Rothstein, who was the most powerful mobster in the city at the time. He eventually became Rothstein’s personal bodyguard and was cut in on the new heroin racket, which was making a lot of money.

Diamond, who had taken in his younger brother Eddie, was now making a lot of cash and the brothers decided to start their own bootlegging business. It was a common practice at the time to hijack liquor shipments from other gangsters and then sell it, hurting the competition and making a huge profit. Unfortunately, the brothers decided to hijack truckloads that belonged to Owen “The Killer” Madden and “Big Bill” Dwyer, two of the most ruthless Irish mobsters in the city. They were also connected to a larger syndicate that was run by Dutch Schultz, Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and others. Once word got around that the hijackings had been carried out by the Diamonds, the brothers lost any protection that they might have had and became targets for everyone.

On October 24, 1924, Diamond was driving his Dodge sedan along Fifth Avenue and stopped at the intersection with 110th Street. A large black limousine pulled up next to him. A shotgun appeared from the back window and, according to witnesses, opened fire on Diamond. He ducked down and hit the gas. He drove an entire block without looking over the dashboard. When he did, he saw that the black car was gone. He drove himself to nearby Mount Sinai Hospital, where doctors removed shotgun pellets from his head and face. When the police questioned him, he shrugged the whole thing off. They must’ve thought he was someone else, he told them.

It was obvious to Diamond that he needed protection, so he turned to Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen, a Jewish gangster who ran several rackets in Lower Manhattan. The main thing that he had going for him, as far as Diamond was concerned, was that he was one of the few people who didn’t want to kill him. Orgen wanted to increase his own power base so that he could compete with Luciano, Lansky, and the rest. Diamond would provide some of the muscle that he needed. Jack and Eddie became Orgen’s bodyguards and, in turn, Orgen cut them in on his liquor and narcotic rackets.

Then, on October 15, 1925, Orgen and Diamond were finishing their daily meetings and collections rounds and were approaching the corner of Delancy and Norfolk Streets in Lower Manhattan. Three men approached them and started shooting. Orgen was fatally wounded in the head and Diamond was hit twice on the right side. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital for emergency surgery and eventually recovered. He refused to tell the police anything and they tried to charge him with murder, but couldn’t make anything stick. Orgen’s murder was never solved, although it was believed to have been arranged by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and his partner, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro. They wanted to take over Orgen’s rackets and it’s believed that Diamond may have been in on the plot. After he was released from the hospital, he took over Orgen’s liquor operation, while Buchalter and Shapiro took over the dead man’s narcotics and other rackets.

With cash now pouring in, Diamond became a regular on the nightclub circuit and his picture started showing up in the newspapers. He was never portrayed as a gangster, though, only as a “wealthy man about town.” The public loved him and so did the ladies. Although married, he was a womanizer and his best-known mistress was showgirl and dancer Marion “Kiki” Roberts. His flamboyant lifestyle kept him out at the clubs at night and this may have been how he obtained the nickname “Legs.” He was a great dancer and was part owner of the Hotsy Totsy Club, a dance spot on Broadway. So, the nickname could have come from this or, as others have suggested, from his uncanny ability to escape death.

On July 14, 1929, violence came to the Hotsy Totsy Club. Two brothers, Pete and William “Red” Cassidy, along with a friend named Simon Walker, started a fight at the club after bartenders and staff members refused to serve the already drunk men. When a waiter told them to quiet down, Red turned on the waiter and began arguing with him. Walker grabbed club manager Hymie Cohen by the arm, demanded service, and threatened to destroy the club if they didn’t get it. He then shoved Cohen to the floor. Diamond and one of his cronies, Charles Entratta, saw the exchanged and stepped in. He told Walker, “I’m Jack Diamond and I run this place. If you don’t calm down, I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

Walker turned to Diamond and snarled, “You can’t push me around.” Those turned out to be his final words.

Diamond and Entratta both pulled their guns and shot Walker and the Cassidy brothers. Red was hit three times in the head, once in the stomach, and once in the groin. Walker was hit six times in the stomach. Both men were dead when they hit the floor. When the police arrived, Pete Cassidy was lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs with three gunshot wounds. Guns were found on all three of the men, who had extensive arrest records.

There were more than 50 people in the club when the incident took place – but no one saw a thing. Their backs were turned, they told detectives, or they were in the bathroom. Within six weeks of the shooting, Cohen, the waiter, two bartenders, and the club’s hat-check girl all disappeared. The waiter’s bullet-ridden body was later found in New Jersey. No trace was ever located of the others.

No witnesses ever came forward, so Diamond and Entratta were never charged. With the heat on him, though, Diamond closed down the club and moved to Greene County in upstate New York with his long-suffering wife, Alice. But he was only in Greene County for a short time before he sent word to New York that he was planning to return soon and reclaim what was his. When he had left the city, Schultz and Madden had quickly taken over his rackets. His planned return made him an immediate target and earned him the moniker of “clay pigeon of the underworld.”

Diamond with his wife, Alice.

In 1930, while preparing for his move back to the city, but also while establishing a bootlegging operation in Greene County, Diamond and two others kidnapped Grover Parks, a truck driver, who had been hauling liquor. They wanted to know where he was picking up his alcohol shipments, but Parks refused to tell them. Oddly, they set him loose. A few months later, Diamond tried the same thing with another driver, James Parks, and this time, he was arrested and charged with kidnapping. He was later acquitted at trial.

In late August 1930, Diamond traveled to Europe. He told reporters that he was on his way to Vichy, France, where he would take a mineral water “cure” for his health. The real reason for the trip, though, was to establish a German liquor source. He was planning to smuggle alcohol from Europe to reestablish his New York operation.

But nothing went according to plan. When the ship docked in Belgium, he was taken into custody by the police. After several hours of questioning, he was put on a train to Germany. When he arrived there, he was arrested by the German Secret Service and put him on a freighter that was bound for Philadelphia. It arrived on September 23 and he was immediately arrested by the Philadelphia police. At a court hearing on the same day, Diamond was told that he would be released if he left for New York within the hour. The weary gangster readily agreed.  

In New York, he moved into the Hotel Monticello in Manhattan and began trying to take back his rackets in the city. Hardly anyone was happy to have him back. On the morning of October 10, 1930, Diamond was wounded by three men who forced their way into his hotel suite and shot him five times. Still in his pajamas, he staggered out into the hall, where he collapsed. He was rushed to Polyclinic Hospital, where he slowly recovered enough to be discharged on December 30. When asked how he had managed to make it to the hallway with five bullets in him, Diamond said that he had already had two shots of whiskey for breakfast.   

On April 21, 1931, Diamond was arrested again, this time on assault charges that dated back to the Parks beating in 1930. Two days later, he posted bond and was released.

A week later, however, he was shot and wounded again. He was at a roadhouse called the Aratoga Inn, near Cairo, New York, which was owned by Jimmy Wynne. Wynne had numerous underworld connection and the nightclub was a popular hangout for gangsters. Diamond had just finished eating with three companions and was waiting on a telephone call from his attorney. As he walked to the front door to get some fresh air, three gunmen who were dressed as duck hunters, opened fire on him. Diamond was hit several times. A local man drove him to a hospital in Albany, where he was treated for his injuries.

His troubles continued. On May 1, while he was still in the hospital, New York State Troopers seized beer and liquor worth more than $5,000 from one of Diamond’s hideouts in Cairo. He was charged with bootlegging and sentenced to four years in state prison. He appealed the conviction and remained free on bail while he awaited the outcome of the appeal.

Meanwhile, Diamond still had to face the music in the Parks case and later that year, he went to trial. He was again acquitted on the assault and kidnapping charges. He left court a free man on December 17, 1931.

In the mood for a celebration, he and his family, along with a few friends, celebrated at the Rainbow Room of the Kenmore Hotel, the best hotel in Albany. At about 1:00 a.m. on December 18, he left the party and went to his see his mistress, “Kiki” Roberts, who was staying at another hotel. Roberts had attended the celebration party, but had left before midnight. Diamond stayed in her room until about 4:30 a.m. and then was driven to 67 Dove Street, a private rooming house where he had been staying during his trial. He entered the locked front door with his key, went upstairs to his room, and fell asleep on the bed.

Witness reports say that a large black car, which had been parked down the street for some time, pulled up to the rooming house soon after Diamond arrived. Two men got out and entered the front door, using a key, and quickly went upstairs. When they got to Diamond’s room they either used a key or, as some believe, Diamond drunkenly left his own key in the lock, and entered the room. Diamond was asleep on the bed. While one man held him down, the other shot Diamond three times in the head.

They ran out of the room, but when they were halfway down the stairs, one of the gunman rack back up, went back into Diamond’s room, and shot him a few more times – apparently, just for good measure. The landlady, Laura Woods, awakened by the shots, overheard the second gunman call out, “Oh hell, that’s enough, come on!” The men left the house and drove away in the black car.

A few minutes later, at 5:00 a.m., Mrs. Woods telephoned Alice Diamond, the contact that Jack had given her in case there was any trouble. Within minutes, Alice, one of Diamond’s men, and Diamond’s eight-year-old nephew, Eddie, arrived at the house. Alice entered the room and began to scream. She frantically wiped blood from his face with a towel while the police and an ambulance were called.  

Like most gangland slayings, the murder was never solved. In this case, there were just too many suspects since almost everyone seemed to want Diamond dead, from Dutch Schultz to the New York Syndicate, relatives of the Cassidy brothers who had been shot at the Hotsy Totsy Club, and even local politicians who wanted Diamond out of the Albany area. It didn’t seem to matter to most who had killed him – there weren’t many who were going to miss him.

Diamond was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Queens on December 23. There was no church service of graveside ceremony. The burial was attended by Alice, her sister and brother-in-law, three nieces, a cousin, about a dozen reporters, and more than 200 curiosity-seekers. There were no known gangsters in attendance and, against the custom of the day, none of them sent flowers either.  

Diamond may have gotten what he deserved, but there was one sad footnote to the story. On July 1, 1933, Alice Diamond was found shot to death in her Brooklyn apartment. It was speculated that she was killed by her husband’s enemies to keep her quiet, but no one knows for sure. Her murder, like the murder of Jack “Legs” Diamond, was never solved. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


The Mysterious Tragedy of Thelma Todd

The ghost of Thelma Todd still walks in Hollywood, or at least that’s what the owners of a building on the Pacific Coast Highway have claimed for years. It was in this building where Todd’s "Roadside Rest Cafe" was once located and it’s not far from the house where she met her mysterious end. This is a house where the ghostly elements of her demise are still repeated today. But what strange events have caused this glamorous ghost to linger behind in our world? The official cause of Thelma’s death was said to be an accidental poisoning from carbon monoxide, but the true facts in this sensational case remain unresolved to this day.

Perhaps this is why Thelma still lingers, looking for someone to uncover what really happened on the night of December 16, 1935. 

Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd was born on July 29, 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and was the first of two children of John and Alice Todd. Thelma’s father was a former police officer who had entered politics and had little time for his family. Because of this, her frustrated mother channeled all of her energy into Thelma and her younger brother, William. By the time Thelma was 10, her father had become the director of public health and welfare for the state of Massachusetts, a position that kept him away from home even more. Thelma was an exceptional student and did very well in school. She had also turned into a very pretty young woman. In 1932, she enrolled at the Lowell State Normal School, intent on become a teacher. In 1925, her brother was killed in an accident and engulfed by this family tragedy, Thelma began dreaming of moving away and making a life away from her oppressive home.

Fate intervened when a local boy submitted her high school picture into a statewide beauty contest and she won. This led to a talent scout from Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) inviting Thelma to screen test for the studio’s first film school. She passed the audition and became one of the 16 attendees, on the condition that she lose 10 pounds before arriving at the facility in Astoria, New York.

During her training, Thelma fell in love with a classmate, Robert Andrews, but the studio nipped the romance in the bud, fearing gossip would somehow taint the new school. This led the always-rebellious Thelma to seek revenge by being extra sexy and flirty around studio executives. It was this aspect of her nature that led to her nickname of “Hot Toddy.” With her classmates from the film school, Thelma made her screen debut in the silent feature “Fascinating Youth” in 1926.

Initially, Thelma’s mother had been thrilled by her daughter’s career opportunities, but she had doubts when she saw a publicity photo of the pretty girl in a flimsy costume. Alice Todd rushed to New York to voice her moral objections to studio executives. Already at wit’s end with Thelma’s rebellious behavior, Paramount gave her an ultimatum – relocate to Paramount’s studio in Hollywood, or go home. Thelma packed up and moved to California.

Thelma went to work under a five-year, $75-per-week contract with Paramount and throughout 1927 she was given small parts in a number of feature films like “Rubber Heels” with Ed Wynn and “Nevada,” a western with Gary Cooper. Then, Al Jolson spoke a few words onscreen in “The Jazz Singer” and motion pictures were changed forever. The industry went through a terrifying series of changes as the "Talkies" became the new medium of choice. The old silent films were gone for good and with them went some of the biggest stars of the era. The careers of screen legends like John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge and many others were suddenly over. They were forced into retirement when the public did not respond to the sound of their voices. For Thelma, the coming of sound motion pictures could not have occurred at a better time. She was now able to develop her wisecracking persona and the demise of many screen veterans made room for newcomers and little-known actors like Thelma. A new generation of screen stars was born. However, Paramount discharged her in 1929.

A short time later, Thelma was approached by Hal Roach, who offered her a new movie deal that would also allow her to freelance for other studios. Roach planned to feature Thelma with comedy actress Zasu Pitts in a series of two-reel comedies. A former director at Essanay, Roach persuaded Pathe to sponsor him in his own studios and he soon emerged as a comedic talent, envisioning hilarious situations and translating them to film. Roach concentrated more on story than slapstick and audiences loved him at the box office. His biggest stars became Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase and Thelma Todd. She proved to be a real asset to Roach, not only appearing in her own films but as a female foil to Stan and Ollie and others.

At first, Thelma was reluctant to take the deal with Roach because the requirement came with conditions. The first was that she had to bleach her hair platinum blonde and the second required her to abide by the “potato clause.” This meant that she was being signed at a certain weight, and if she gained more than five pounds, it was cause for instant dismissal. Thelma’s mother, widowed since 1925, was in Hollywood for one of her frequent visits and she urged Thelma to take the deal. Before reporting to the Roach lot for her first shoot, Alice Todd supervised the bleaching of her daughter’s hair and helped her to arrange a stringent diet.

In addition to Thelma’s comedies for Hal Roach, Thelma also played major roles in films for other studios. They were mostly comedies in which she portrayed the sarcastic and wisecracking blonde role that most suited her. She appeared in two different films with the Marx Brothers, “Monkey Business” and the classic “Horse Feathers.” Stan Laurel always wanted Thelma as the female lead in the Laurel and Hardy films, but her personality didn’t always mesh with the two comedians on screen. She and Laurel became close friends and he often found work for her in other films when she wasn’t working for Roach. He loved her bawdy sense of humor and when she suffered from boyfriend problems, she always confided in Stan.

Thelma was always up for partying when she was not at work and found it difficult to avoid liquor and foods, both of which were fattening. Friends on the Roach lot introduced her to diet pills, and she soon became hooked on the tablets.

By 1930, Zasu Pitts had moved on to other work and Thelma was often joined on screen by Patsy Kelly. They were still going strong in 1935 and her professional career was filled with high spots. Always restless in her personal life, though, Thelma was pleased when director Roland West started showing an interest in her, even though the unattractive older man was already married to silent screen actress Jewel Carmen. West was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood during the 1920s and early 1930s. While his output of films was small, his work was appreciated by studios and audiences alike. His greatest success came in 1926 with “The Bat,” an atmospheric thriller starring Jack Pickford and Jewel Carmen. His visually astounding 1928 film, “The Dove,” won an Academy Award for art direction. In 1931, he created one of the most extraordinary chillers of the time, “The Bat Whispers” with Chester Morris. West and Thelma began a romance, with West promising her the lead in Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels,” but that role went to Jean Harlow instead.

To make amends, West cast Thelma as the lead in “Corsair,” a new film that he was producing and directing for United Artists. When released, the film bombed and Thelma returned to her heavy work schedule. Although she was no longer romantically interested in West, they remained friends. By then, he had lost interest in making movies and suggested that they open a restaurant that catered to the film colony. Thelma promised to consider the idea.

Around this same time, Thelma met Pasquale DiCicco, a handsome New York playboy who associated with gangsters for the thrill of it. The suave Pat, new to Hollywood, promoted himself as a talent agent and began making the rounds of the L.A. restaurant and nightclub circuit. Movie industry people knew that he associated with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the Syndicate gangster who was based out of New York, which, of course, made him an intriguing character. Thelma was also amused by DiCicco and dating him gave her life a touch of danger – although it would prove to be more danger than she could have ever wanted.

Thelma and DiCicco had a whirlwind romance and, despite his violent temper and a number of beatings, the couple eloped on July 10, 1932 to Prescott, Ariz. The happy marriage did not last long. DiCicco refused to settle into married life and often left his new wife alone at their Brentwood home while he was out on the town. Frustrated, Thelma began drinking heavily, always relying on her faithful diet pills to keep the weight off. One night when Thelma convinced Pat to take her out with him to the clubs, DiCicco introduced her to Lucky Luciano, who was in town for a visit. Thelma was excited to be in the presence of the famous mobster, although DiCicco was unnerved by the gangster’s obvious interest in his wife.

By 1933, DiCicco was frequently away on business in New York and Thelma was continuing to churn out films, including her popular shorts with Patsy Kelly. Reportedly, she was seen out on the town several times with Luciano during this period. By February 1934, Thelma filed for divorce from DiCicco. That August, she began making plans with Roland West to open their restaurant on the beach. With funding from West’s wife, supervision by West himself, and Thelma’s name to lure in the film crowd, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café opened for business.

Located under the palisades of what is now Pacific Coast Highway (then known as Roosevelt Highway), the restaurant occupied the ground floor along with a drug store. On the second level were a bar, lounge, and West’s business office, as well as two apartments, one of which West and Todd shared “separately.” Nearby, at 17531 Posetano Rd, was the grand house where West’s wife, Jewel, sometimes lived, along with her brother (the café’s business manager), and his wife. Thelma stored her car in one of the garages of the Posetano Road house. To reach the garage from the restaurant required an arduous climb of 270 concrete steps. The café opened to good business. Many of West’s and Thelma’s famous friends began frequenting the place and it became popular with actors and star-struck fans alike.

In mid-1935, Thelma was spending much of her spare time operating the café. She was still working hard, drinking, and keep up her steady run of diet pills. Her hectic life was further complicated by several threatening letters demanding a sizable blackmail fee. They proved to be the work of a deranged stalker in New York and while this bit of strangeness worked itself out, it was not the most frightening thing that Thelma had to deal with that summer.

Her most disconcerting problem was the pressure that she was receiving from Luciano to turn over the café’s third story storage room (used unofficially as a gambling parlor for wealthy customers) to him as a Syndicate operation. At that time, organized crime was starting to appear in California, moving west from places like New York and Chicago. Bootlegging and drug trafficking had long been a part of Hollywood, but in the middle 1930s, Luciano was making an attempt to penetrate California with his illegal gambling enterprise. He already had casinos all over the country and with so much money flowing in and out of Hollywood, he was looking for a way to get a piece of the action. Thelma kept refusing Luciano’s request and he eventually became violent, causing her to break off all contact with him.

Their final confrontation came one night in late November at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills. According to witnesses, the pair had a brief exchange in the restaurant:

Thelma Todd: “You’ll open a gambling casino in my restaurant over my dead body!”
Luciano: “That can be arranged.”

Thelma threatened to take her problems with Luciano to L.A. District Attorney Buron Fitts and made an appointment at his office for December 17, 1935. To spite Luciano, she began converting the third-floor café space into a steakhouse. Meanwhile, Pat DiCicco showed up one day at the restaurant and asked her about the possibility of managing the place. Thelma didn’t know if he was trying to get back into her life – or if he was on a mission from Luciano.

 Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café

Thelma’s film work continued to thrive.  In 1935, she appeared with Bing Crosby in the Paramount musical “Two for Tonight” and in November, she began working with Laurel and Hardy again in the feature-length musical “The Bohemian Girl.” This film was also based on an operetta and Stan found an unusual part for Thelma to play. She appeared as a gypsy’s daughter, wearing a black wig to cover her blond curls. She continued to work on the film well into December.

On December 14, Thelma received an invitation to a Hollywood party. A few years earlier, she had made a film with Stanley Lupino, the British stage comedian and father of actress Ida Lupino. Stanley and his wife were in town, and Ida was hosting a dinner party for him at the Café Trocadero. When Thelma informed West about the party, he was irritated with her that she would not be at their own restaurant on such a busy night before the holidays. But this was not the worst thing to come that night. A few days earlier, Pat DiCicco had run into Ida Lupino at the Trocadero and she had unknowingly invited him to the party.

On the afternoon of December 14, Thelma and her mother went out Christmas shopping, driven by her chauffeur, Ernest Peters. Later, she returned home to change clothes while her mother continued with her errands. At 7:30 p.m., Peters, along with Mrs. Todd, picked up Thelma. The actress was wearing a blue satin evening gown with lace and sequins, expensive jewelry, and a luxurious mink coat. Before leaving, she and West argued again about the café, but the still-rebellious Thelma slammed the door in his face and walked out. After dropping Thelma off at the Trocadero, Peters took Mrs. Todd home and then made himself available to drive Thelma home after the party.

The party was a great success and Pat DiCicco showed up later in the evening with actress Margaret Lindsay, a subtle way of snubbing his ex-wife. During the dinner, Thelma left the group to make a telephone call and use the restroom. When she returned, she seemed moody, but did not say why. Around midnight, DiCicco also made a mysterious phone call, which left him jittery. He refused to comment on it and left with Lindsay at about 1:15 a.m. without saying good night to anyone.

While Thelma waited for her driver to arrive, she asked her friend, theater owner Sid Grauman, to call Roland West and tell him that she was on her way home. Sid made the call, telling West that Thelma should be back at the apartment by 2:30 a.m., although a half-hour after that, she was still waiting at the restaurant. The car reached its destination about 3:30 a.m. As usual, Peters offered to escort Thelma to the door, but she told him that it wasn’t necessary. She gathered her coat around her and walked off into the dark – and this was the last time that Thelma Todd was ever seen alive.

At 10 a.m. on Monday morning, December 16, Thelma’s maid, Mae Whitehead, entered the garage of the Posetano House and found the body of Thelma Todd. She was lying face down on the front seat of her Packard convertible. Her blond hair was matted and her skin was pale. She was still wearing her clothes from Saturday night. A porcelain replacement tooth had been knocked out of her mouth and blood was spattered on her skin, her evening gown, and on the mink coat. The police were summoned at once and the shoddy investigation – or cover-up, depending on what you believe – began.

Police crime scene photograph of Thelma slumped over behind the wheel of her car. Suicide could not explain the beating that she had taken before her death.

Thelma died from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but how she managed to get locked into her garage, by her own hands or by someone else’s, was a matter of conjecture. The investigation into her death revealed more questions than answers.  Some suggested that Thelma might have committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method for such an act, but then murders had been committed in a similar fashion. In addition, if she had killed herself, where had the blood on her face and clothing come from? To make matters more suspicious, an autopsy had revealed that Thelma had suffered a broken nose, several broken ribs, and enough bruises to suggest that she had been roughed up. This seemed to rule out suicide.

As the investigation continued, some nervous witnesses claimed to receive ominous threats and, in turn, recanted part, or all, of their original statements. In another weird twist, when Thelma’s mother first arrived at the scene, she insisted that someone had murdered her daughter. Later, she said that she believed Thelma’s death had been accidental. Then, still later in life, she changed her story again and once more said that Thelma had been murdered. Did someone lean on Thelma’s mother during the investigation and convince her that voicing suspicions of murder was a bad idea?

But if Thelma had been murdered, who had killed her? Roland West seemed to be the likely suspect and witnesses from the party, including Ida Lupino, said that she had been uneasy after making a telephone call. All agreed that she had been drunker than usual when she went home and Sid Grauman told the police about his telephone call to West. Also, witnesses from the neighborhood told the court how they had seen Thelma, still in her evening gown and mink coat, screaming obscenities and kicking at the door of the apartment. Apparently, she may have made it to the top of the concrete stairs, but could not get into the apartment.

Throughout the investigation, West contradicted himself several times, changing his story about his activities over the weekend several times. West admitted that instead of helping Thelma into bed on Sunday morning, he had locked the door to the apartment. After their fight earlier on Saturday, West had warned her that if she was not home by 2 a.m., he was going to lock her out. Some have surmised that Thelma’s telephone call during the party had been to West, hoping for a reprieve. When it didn’t come, she had asked mutual friend Sid Grauman to call for her later. But West remained adamant and said that after Thelma got home, they had another fight through the door. However, he added a strange contradiction to his story. He stated that he had later been awakened by his dog barking and was sure that he heard water running in the apartment. He assumed that Thelma had somehow gotten into the house.

An examination of the door did reveal marks where it was apparently kicked. Police were baffled though as to how Thelma could have gotten inside when it was bolted shut on the other side. This made them even more suspicious of West. Someone raised the incredible theory that West had hired an actress to pretend to be Thelma beating on the door while he was actually beating the real woman to death inside. The idea of the look-alike aside, West had a strong alibi against murder. Although his statement was contradictory, there was no evidence to tie him to the murder scene. He was, by his own admission, the last person to speak with Thelma on Sunday morning, just a short time before she died.

Another strange twist came from West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. She claimed that she had seen Thelma on Sunday morning, after the sun was up, driving her Packard past the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. At her side was a handsome stranger. This testimony was very bizarre because the coroner and the police believed that Thelma was already dead by then. They were sure that she had died during the early morning hours of Sunday and was not discovered until the following day.

But how reliable was Jewel Carmen? She was West’s wife and he was the prime suspect in the case. If she were lying, why would an estranged wife protect her unfaithful husband? Some suggested that perhaps if West did kill Thelma, perhaps Carmen hoped to get back into his good graces by providing an alternate killer in the form of the “handsome stranger.” She could also put Thelma in another place far from the early morning argument with West. All of the confusing stories, combined with no hard evidence, eventually cleared West of Thelma’s murder.

Years later, sources who have studied the case have pointed out West’s close ties to industry mogul Joseph M. Schenk and believe that it’s possible that Schenk may have used his major clout to help his friend get away with murder. Regardless, West never directed another film in Hollywood. He and Jewel Carmen divorced shortly after Thelma’s death and later, he sold the café. In 1950, he suffered a debilitating stroke and endured an emotional breakdown. On his deathbed in March 1952, he confessed to Chester Morris that he had always been haunted by Thelma’s death and felt that he was in some way responsible for it.

At the inquest that was held into Thelma’s death, the jury ruled that she had died accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning. They had been confused by all of the complicated testimony and, lacking any real evidence of murder, had no choice but to conclude that it had been an accident.
But Thelma’s attorney, who attended the inquest, was sure that the police had been on the wrong track all along. He requested a second inquest, in which he would be able to prove his theory. He believed that he could pin her murder, not accidental death, on Lucky Luciano. He was sure that when Thelma had turned down the gangster’s offer to take over the gambling at her café, she had unknowingly signed her own death warrant. The attorney was convinced that Luciano, or someone who worked for him, had beaten Thelma, put her in the car unconscious, and then started the engine. With the garage door closed, she had been poisoned by the fumes.

The district attorney agreed to the idea and a second inquest was scheduled. However, when Hal Roach learned of the plans for the second inquest, he begged the D.A. to drop the matter. Terrified at the thought of crossing Luciano, he urged the District Attorney to reconsider. Reluctantly, he agreed and the case was closed for good. As a result, the murder of Thelma Todd was never solved.
Although the case was wrapped up as far as the law was concerned, there were just too many unanswered questions and, as usual, involvement in the affair was enough to bring on the Hollywood style of retribution. In the past, Hollywood circles had ruined the careers of many popular stars and the death of Thelma Todd brought on the destruction of Roland West, who never worked again. No one else wanted to join him in his descent into obscurity.

The mystery over the unsolved death of Thelma Todd has lingered for decades. Some believe this may be why her spirit is so restless. Her ghost is still frequently seen and encountered at the building where the Roadside Rest Cafe was once located. Staff members at the production company that took over the space a few years ago stated that they often saw a filmy apparition that resembled Thelma. It was often seen near the concrete steps leading to the garage and also outside, in a small courtyard area. Was she replaying the events that occurred on the night of her death?

But the café is not the only spot connected to Thelma Todd’s death where ghostly events have occurred. In the garage of the house on Posetano Road, people have complained about the sound of a spectral engine running when the space is actually empty. Others say they have smelled, and have been nearly overwhelmed, by noxious exhaust fumes in the garage, even when no car was present. Apparently, the terrible events of that long-ago night in December have left an indelible impression on the place.

Will Thelma Todd ever rest in peace? It’s not likely. Unless new evidence could somehow come to light, her murder will always remain unsolved --- perhaps resulting in a tragic spirit that will continue to walk for many years to come. 

From Troy Taylor’s book, BLOODY HOLLYWOOD.