Interview with a Murderess

Aurellia Scheck, a 19-year-old laundry girl, loved Ernest Stackpole, a handsome, well-off young man, ten years her senior, who had come to Los Angeles from out east and rented a room in her mother’s boarding house. Together, she and Ernest plotted to murder Aurellia’s husband Joel, a plumber, so that they could collect the $500 for which his life was insured.

On June 14, 1906, Aurellia let Stackpole into the bedroom at the rear of 524 San Julian street where Joel lay sleeping, and Stackpole shot Joel – once in the heart and once straight through his forehead. 

Aurellia claimed that two burglars had fired their pistols when Joel woke up and surprised them. The police didn’t believe her, not least because armed burglars were rare in the San Julian street area in those days, there being little worth stealing in any of the dilapidated houses.

The lovers were arrested and Aurellia soon cracked under interrogation, turning state’s witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. After a trial that occupied the front pages of the city’s newspapers that summer, Stackpole was sentenced to life imprisonment, and Aurellia was remanded in custody on a charge of perjury, which never came to trial but which kept her locked up for three months. 

Shortly before her release from the city jail, a Los Angeles Herald reporter secured the only interview that she ever gave the press, in which she spoke about her awful life and how she had become involved in murder. 

Understandably, the interview differs to a large degree from her testimony in court. In order to condemn Stackpole, she had had to damn herself, too, by describing in detail the murder plot and her part in it. Speaking to the Herald’s reporter, she naturally tried to distance herself from the crime. Also, although the article claims to report Aurellia’s actual words, they were obviously prettied up by the journalist, as they lapse occasionally into the purplish and melodramatic language that was a mark of the paper’s feature pages. 

Still, her story is worth reading, not only for the insight into the mind of a woman who got away with murder but for the glimpse of a life that, in its early particulars, is probably similar to the lives of many of those who drifted west in the early 20th century, heading for the bright lights and dark streets of SRO land. 

“It won’t take long to tell all I know about myself,” Aurelia said. “I haven’t been on earth very long, and while things have happened rather rapidly in my life this last trouble has so far overshadowed them all that I can think of nothing else.

“I was born in lowa not quite twenty years ago. My mother and father separated two years after my birth, and after that I travelled about with my mother and sister.

“My mother was a nurse of experience and she made a good living that way until she met a man whom she thought she loved.

“At any rate they married, and from that time on I begun to realize what the world really was. We lived a gypsy life, travelling day and night through the hills and woods of Missouri, Arkansas, lowa and Nebraska.

“It was beg for food in the day time and sleep about a camp fire out in the woods at night.

“Strange fancies came to me then in those wild surroundings and I feared the dark, feared the shapes and shadows of the smoke from the camp fire and wondered what the world was made for and why we were all living on it. I have thought those same thoughts lying in my cell over there, with some woman of the town snoring off a drunken sleep within a dozen feet of me, and I have never found an answer to it.

“At last, my mother separated from my father. Their last quarrel was as violent as the life had been. I can see my mother now, pointing across the Missouri river to the far bank and my father slowly trudging toward its shadowy forests. That was the way they parted, and then we came to California.

“I was 11 years old then, and I managed to get one year’s schooling, then it was work for me, hard work at the washing machine, until, I thought my back would break. It was there that I met Joel Scheck, a slender lad who worked one of the wringing machines.

“I quit work there and went to work in a box factory. I spent four years at that, making berry boxes at 6 cents a hundred.

“What chance did I have? I had no education, I had been reared as a gypsy and at the time when every young girl is budding into womanhood and having a good time with her friends in little entertainments I was compelled to kick away at a box making machine.

“I married Joel Scheck when I was 17 years of age. He was only a boy and we went to live on San Julian street.

“At that time I went to work at my mother’s lodging house. I did the work for her for a while, and would then hurry home and do the work at my own home.

“I had never had the fun that other girls have, of going to theaters, and entertainments, so that what wonder was it that I should be lonesome when my husband left me in the evening? He rarely ever spent an evening with me.

“He went out early and came in late, and I was there all by myself, fearfully lonesome, while he was out enjoying himself.

“Then came the voice of the tempter.

“It was at my mother’s house that I met Ernest Stackpole. He was a boarder there, and in that way we met every day. He said he was just in from Arizona, and he always had plenty of money.”

(At this point, I should state what Aurellia did not then know: that the dashing young Stackpole was actually a convicted burglar and armed-robber, who had just fled Utah after a successful heist.)

“At first he would tease me when I went to his room to make up the bed and sweep. Then he wanted me to drink, and he showed me what nice drinks he could make. I paid little attention to him until he became so persistent that in a moment of weakness I accepted a small glass of wine from him.

“That was the beginning of the end. After that he was always importuning me to drink. When my husband was around we all three drank, and so I didn’t think it was so bad after that.

“Then we gradually became more intimate. We went to downtown cafes at all hours of the night, my husband being always along. We went to theaters and entertainments, to beaches and parks, and Stackpole was always putting up the money.

“My husband drank the liquor and accepted the hospitality and never paid a cent. I was only a girl and knew nothing of the ways of a girl’s ruination. At the cafes I saw other young girls drinking. Many of them became drunk and had to be carried away.

“Stackpole offered me all the things I had never enjoyed. He spent money lavishly. He took us places, and for the first time In my life. I had a chance to see pretty plays and enjoy the beaches.

“The evenings were awfully lonesome until he came, and then it was my downfall.

“I thought my husband was unkind to me, and the easy, polished ways of Stackpole appealed to me. A woman sometimes forgets the right for the easy downward path.

“It was a sorry day for me that I accepted Stackpole’s invitation to go to an afternoon matinee, for we later went to a cafe. There he made a drink for me, and when I had swallowed the stuff I didn’t know what had happened to me. My mind was a blank. When I came to my senses I was in a room with him.

“Then he had me, and he knew it. When he went away he wrote five times to me before I answered, and then he began to talk of the killing. I did not appreciate what it meant until he had written many times. I dared not tell my husband, for I feared Stackpole. He told me that if I told he would kill us all.

“To protect my husband I dared say nothing. When he returned he told me to come to him or the killing would begin at once.

“What could I do? I went to him and was his slave again. I did as he said. I drank the drugs he gave me and did not know what I was doing. I threatened to tell the police, and he said that if I did it would only precipitate the murder, for he would kill us all. On the night of the killing he told me that he would kill us all if we dared to say anything against him.

“The events of that night seem to be more like a hideous dream, a dream which has been with me constantly until I feel that I will lose my mind. I see it all over again until my eyes start from my head.

“Would l care If they had hanged Stackpole? I would not have anyone hanged, but I have ceased to think of him. I never want to see him again.

“I am homesick, so homesick until I feel that I will go crazy.”

The Herald journalist asked what Aurellia was homesick for – her mother? The lonely surroundings of her previous life?

“Neither,” she answered, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.

Perhaps she was homesick for Joel, the journalist suggested. (“A moment later I realized how heartless the question was”, he admitted.) He saw her reel back as if she had been struck. Then she slumped and held her face in her hands.

“Oh, how I miss him,” she said. “In the daytime I want him until I wish I could die. But at night I lie over there in my cell and look up at the darkness and wonder if he can know how I want him. I see his face and hear his voice calling to me and there I lie until the first gray light of the morning streaks in through the east windows and the birds in the matron’s room welcome the morning.

“Then I feel that I have lost all that is worth while in life and it fairly tears my soul from me.”

The journalist left after asking about what she planned to do when she was released. (Live with her brother in Garvanza. Learn a profession. Make someone happy.) As he stood outside the door, waiting for the matron to open the iron gates, he heard “a low, heartbreaking sob” from inside the room; the last recorded utterance of Aurellia Scheck.

At the time of Aurellia’s release, Ernest Stackpole was just beginning his life sentence in San Quentin. He was violent enough to quickly establish himself as a jailhouse bully, but he occupied this station for only a few months until he received a humiliating beating from a four-foot-high Puerto Rican dwarf who had been imprisoned on a charge of statutory rape. 

He was paroled in 1927, after serving 21 years – he was in his 50s, and seemed “quite an old man”, according to the warden. He immediately resumed his career of crime and was captured the following year after being shot in the leg during a hold-up in Sacramento. He spent the rest of his life in jail. 

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, Sep 16, 1906 (the main interview and picture of Aurellia). The case was reported on frequently in the same paper from June 15 to August 31, 1906. Los Angeles Herald Sep 28, 1906 (the dwarf story); and the Oakland Tribune, June 17, 1924 and May 14, 1928 (the details of Stackpole’s later life). 

“Officer Chokes Horse”


The Angelus hotel, 1905

Photo credit: USC Libraries Special Collections

Hearing shouts of alarm from down the block, the office workers, tourists and shoppers in the lunch-hour crowd thronging the corner of Fourth and South Spring streets one cold afternoon in 1905 turned to see a runaway horse, pulling a light runaround cart, charging towards them with frightening speed.

Some of them ran for safety, some froze, too scared to move; none of them tried to stop the horse – it would be madness even to try.

Luckily, the police officer who was on duty at the intersection that day was Patrolman Billy Matuskiwiz, who happened to hold the record among patrolmen for stopping runaway horses, having bravely halted 20 during his 12 years on the force.

Officer Matuskiwiz stepped to the middle of the street and waited as the horse sped towards him. When it drew near, however, it swerved and dashed straight toward a crowd of tourists outside the Angelus hotel. Matuskiwiz leaped at the horse but found that it had no bridle or halter. Some men would have given up at that point, but not Officer Matuskiwiz, who decided to throw his arms around the animal’s neck and squeeze its throat with all his strength, clinging on as it flung its head back and forth to throw him off.

Half a block later, Matuskiwiz had succeeded in choking the horse into submission, and brought it to a halt just outside the hotel. As Matuskiwiz led the animal away, the crowd burst into heartfelt applause.

Five years later, Matuskiwiz was interviewed for a short piece in the Los Angeles Herald, which introduced him as a remarkable man “who bears the enviable record of having saved a human life for each of his seventeen years of service.”

The character sketch portrays a humble, hardworking figure: “William Matuskiwiz, who holds down a night beat on Spring and Main streets between Sixth and Seventh streets … is a blunt, plain spoken man and a poor politician. He wears no sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve and despite the years of faithful service in the interest of the city he is still just a plain patrolman with no ax to grind in the politics of the police department.”

The piece focuses on one particular aspect of his character, which it holds up as something of a novelty: “Unlike many of his fellows, he is in full sympathy with the prison reform movement.”

How bizarre! At the start of his career, Matuskiwiz was apparently “a firm believer in the iron hand for the man in the shadow of the law”, but he soon came to believe that “kind treatment of prisoners and a recognition of their rights bring the best results.”

The newspaper allows the officer a few paragraphs in which to relate the event that made this horse-choking man of steel adopt such a tender philosophy. It features runaway horses, which may well have been a necessary element of all of Matuskiwiz’s stories.

“I was taking Juan Silvos, a young Mexican charged with a heinous crime, to San Quentin,” explained Matuskiwiz. “Silvos had ten years at hard labor staring him in the face. I kept him handcuffed to me on the train. At San Francisco we missed our boat by a margin of several minutes. It would be an hour before the next one would leave. My prisoner complained of being hungry, and somewhat in the same frame of mind myself, we started across Market street in the direction of a little restaurant. Silvos was handcuffed and I held him by a small chain.

“When we reached the center of the street I heard a woman’s piercing scream and looking back saw a little child some four or five years old toddling from its mother into the path of a runaway team. The horses were within several feet of the child. I forgot all about the prisoner in the child’s danger, and springing forward almost before I realized what I was doing, had snatched the little girl from under the horses’ feet. In the meantime the mother had fainted and in the excitement of the gathering crowd I ran to her side with her daughter and lifted the mother to her feet. The woman recovered and wanted to know who I was. Her question brought to my mind the fact that a ten-year prisoner was in my charge. Silvos in the meantime had had plenty of time to escape, but turning around I found him at my side quietly looking on. I asked him why he had not attempted to escape. He told me that I had thought of him when he was hungry.

“Instead of taking him to San Quentin on the next boat I immediately took the handcuffs from his wrists and showed him the town. We took in everything that was doing, had several good dinners and caught the night boat to the prison. I told the warden of how he had acted and the chief promised to take his good behaviour into consideration.

“Silvos was released less than a year and a half after he had been confined. I meet him on the streets occasionally and he is profuse in his thanks. That little experience changed my whole idea of criminology. From that time on I became a firm believer in giving the prisoners a show and treating them like human beings.”

Billy Matuskiwiz was as tough and fearless as any police officer who ever walked the streets of SRO land, and he was a liberal, too! All Angelenos should remember him with admiration – and all Angeleno horses should remember him with respect.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald: Jan 20, 1905; May 16, 1910.


The Panicking Patrolman


In June 1907, a drunk woman was arrested for shooting her sweetheart during a fight in a rooming house. It should have been a straightforward case, but things are rarely simple in SRO land, and the unravelling of loose threads soon ended the career of a young policeman.

Right after the shooting, when things still seemed clear cut, the police told the press what they believed had happened. A newsboy called Buck Wilson and his girlfriend, Lena Carter, “an exceptionally pretty girl about 19 years of age” who, until recently, had been working in a massage parlor, had spent a warm Sunday afternoon and evening at Venice beach in the company of Buck’s roommate and his girlfriend, Grace Rhyn, “a few years older than Miss Carter and also very pretty”. When the party returned to the rooming house at 523 West Sixth street where Buck and his roommate lived, they were all drunk. Shortly after midnight, an argument between Buck and Grace Rhyn suddenly turned violent, and they started to fight. Lena Carter tried to intervene but Buck knocked her to the floor. At this, she ran to an adjoining room and procured a loaded revolver. She returned to the room where her lover and her friend were still struggling, aimed the pistol at Buck’s back and pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through Buck’s left lung. She fired again, but the shot went wild.

The shots were heard in the street, which was soon filled with hundreds of excited people. The police had to force their way through the crowd in order to get to the apartment. Everyone present was arrested and taken to the police station, with the exception of Buck, who was taken to hospital. None of them would speak to the police, but Buck was eventually convinced to give some details of what had happened, which the police dutifully relayed to the reporters.

But something wasn’t right, as became clear when a patrolman called Holden went to his superiors with a new piece of information.

Patrolman Holden, who had pushed his way through the onlookers and made the arrests, had seen another policeman at the scene, Patrolman Charles Norris, a new officer who had evidently been there before the crowd had formed in the street but did not stick around to assist Holden. After Holden had taken the suspects to the station, he tried to contact Patrolman Norris to find out what he knew about the shooting and why he had left the scene, but Norris was nowhere to be found. According to the manager of Norris’s rooming house, which was just across the street from where the shooting had occurred, Norris had hurriedly removed all his belongings from his room and left for some unknown place.

His strange behavior took on a more sinister cast when it was revealed that the gun that had been used to shoot Buck belonged to Norris. When questioned about the gun, Lena Carter admitted that Norris had been present, but maintained that she alone was to blame for the shooting.

Late on Monday afternoon, Norris turned himself in at his police station and was immediately taken to the cells, where, that night, he told his side of the story.

He had been walking home along West Sixth street when he heard people quarrelling in the building he was passing. He went up to quell the disturbance, and tried to pull Buck Wilson off Grace Rhyn. While he was leaning over, Lena Carter pulled his revolver from his pocket and started shooting. As he tried to stop her and get the gun back, Patrolman Holden entered the room, whereupon Norris fled, fearing implication in the affair.

Why had he quit his rooms and gone into hiding? He could give no clear explanation, or at least none that was accepted by his colleagues. Norris was told that he would be suspended from duty and would likely be charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

The next morning, an elderly couple arrived at the station — Norris’s parents, who knew nothing of his arrest and had become worried when they had missed him on his beat. The desk sergeant did not have the heart to tell the old people that their son was locked up and took them to a detective, who broke the news gently. “Mrs Norris said, with tears in her eyes, that her boy was good,” the police told the press, further saying that the father was an old soldier, “and proud of it”, and was ashamed that his son should be in jail.

At the request of the district attorney, Norris was paroled in order to be with his parents while awaiting a formal charge. “When their son was finally released, the old couple straightened their bent backs and tried to walk proudly down the street. Even the policemen who are used to touching scenes could not help sympathising with the young man and his fond parents”.

Norris and Lena were tried separately. At his trial, Norris finally confessed that he had known Lena Carter for some time, having met her when he walked a beat on Spring street, and had recently “spent two nights” with her, his wife being absent in Cincinnati. Further, he admitted that it was no accident that he had been in the room; Lena had sent for him on the night of the trouble, just prior to the shooting. Everything else, however, was as he had originally said: he had been trying to separate the brawling man and woman when Lena took his gun and shot Buck, and he had panicked when officer Holden arrived and had fled in order to avoid being dragged into the mess.

If only Holden hadn’t recognised him. If only he hadn’t left his gun behind.

If only he had never met Lena Carter.

At Lena’s trial — at which it was revealed that her real name was Mrs Evelyn Ferguson (she had used the name Lena Carter “for convenience”) — she claimed that she had been frantic with worry that Grace Rhyn’s weak heart would give out during her struggle with Buck, and had simply used the quickest means possible to stop the fight, never meaning to hurt him so seriously. Her story was undermined somewhat by testimony from a neighbor that she had cried, “Let him die!” as Norris had tried to help the wounded man.

The police court accepted that Norris had no part in the shooting of Buck Wilson, but took a dim view of his disgraceful disappearance following the crime. He would face no criminal charges, but he would never work as a police officer again.

Lena/Evelyn’s fate is a mystery, as the coverage of the trial appears to end abruptly halfway through the proceedings. Presumably, the case was either dropped or reached a non-newsworthy conclusion, perhaps due to Buck’s full recovery a month after the shooting, which would have reduced the charge from murder to attempted murder. Whatever the case, it does not seem to have been reported, and Lena — that is, Evelyn — vanishes from history. The last glimpse of her that we catch shows her standing in court on July 19, 1907. “Neatly attired in a blue suit,” she stood alone in the dock, facing an uncertain future. However, “aside from a little nervousness, she seemed to be thoroughly satisfied with her prison life.”

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, June 10-13 and 26; July 19. 


A Peddler Plundered

Street peddler Tony Adams patrolled the corner of Fifth and South Main streets, selling candy from a tray that he secured to his body with a broad leather strap across his back, which freed his hands and made it easier for him to wrap purchases and make change, thus ensuring that he could see to the needs of the candy-hungry downtown crowds as speedily and efficiently as possible.

At least, that’s how Tony saw it. Patrolman Grant McCart took a different view, and arrested Tony on a charge of obstructing the sidewalk.

In court, McCart testified that Tony “blockades the sidewalks as he darts here and there, swinging his big tray in front of him.” The city prosecutor asked McCart to illustrate how Tony moved through the streets, so the tray was brought into the court and fastened across McCart’s bulky shoulders. McCart then barged recklessly about the room, butting into the bailiff with the sharp edge of the tray and nearly knocking Tony over as he turned around.

“I think that will show the objectionable manner in which the defendant uses that big wooden box,” said the prosecuting attorney.

The court was impressed by the demonstration, but Tony had a more important matter on his mind. “Oh, judge!” he exclaimed as he looked into his tray, “Somebody has stolen my goods!” Of the several pounds of sweets that had been piled in Tony’s tray, only a few pieces of chewing candy remained, nestled in one corner. “When I was taken to the police station, I had a nice lot of candy! Where has it gone?”

The judge informed Tony that that was no concern of the court’s and wished him luck in his pursuit of his complaint with the chief of police.

Tony was fined $5 for obstructing the streets and advised in future to cry his wares from the curb.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, August 26 and 29, 1906.

Bad Man on Crocker Street

Officer Gifford, on night patrol on Crocker street, heard a call for help and saw three men chasing another man down the block away from him. As he set off after them, Gifford saw the man in the lead leap up the steps at the entrance to the emergency hospital, just as the foremost of his pursuers tripped and fell on the sidewalk, sending his pistol skidding across the cement. At this, the one who had been being chased ran back down the steps, snatched up the gun and pointed it at the prone man.

By the time Gifford reached the entrance to the hospital, the other two pursuers had run off, but the man who had tripped was still there, held at gunpoint. Both men started shouting at Gifford to arrest the other, so he did the only sensible thing and arrested both of them.

The man who had been being chased was S Mahoney, a railroad engineer employed by the Santa Fe, who lived at 415 Crocker street. The man who had tripped was H A Smith, who turned out to have been a special police officer until he had been dismissed for certain unspecified irregularities. Despite the fact that he had since taken up work as a deputy constable, the police and detective agencies regarded him as “a bad man”. Indeed, a few days previously, he’d been involved in an abortive bit of gunplay involving a detective whom he’d met in a saloon. After threatening him “with all manner of evil”, Smith had gone for his gun, but the detective had been quicker on the draw and Smith had found himself being escorted out of the saloon at the barrel of a Colt, which would make Mahoney the second man in a matter of days to be on the point of shooting Smith.

Mahoney told the police that, after catching a show at the theater, he’d gone to a saloon on Fifth street, where he’d met Smith and his two companions, with whom he’d shared a few drinks. When he was on his way home, he realised that his former drinking buddies were following him and increased his speed, at which the three men did likewise. As he drew near to the building where he lived, Mahoney heard Smith shout, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” which he took as his signal to start running and crying for help. The police released Mahoney. Smith was taken to the cells and the two men who’d fled — known associates of Smith’s called Charles Burrell and William Jasper — were arrested the next day.

At the trial in police court, which took place a month later, Smith finally got a chance to tell his side of the story. He explained that, while having those drinks with Mahoney, he had formed the view that Mahoney was a suspicious character deserving of further investigation. In particular, Smith explained, he had doubted Mahoney’s word when he said that he lived on Crocker street, and had decided to follow him when he left the saloon in order to verify the truth of the statement. However, owing to the investigators’ consumption of alcohol, their surveillance technique might not have been as covert as it might otherwise have been and they evidently alarmed Mahoney, who thereafter misinterpreted their calls for him to stop so they could explain their presence as calls for him to stop so they could rob him. Misunderstanding had piled on misunderstanding, according to Smith, resulting in the regrettable situation in which a terrified Mahoney had ended up holding a gun on a slightly inebriated but otherwise diligent deputy constable lying stretched out on the sidewalk outside the emergency hospital.

Faced with two conflicting accounts, which overlapped only to the degree that each party agreed that the other parties had been drunk, the police justice dismissed the charges. The question of whether Smith was a bad man or merely a bad law enforcer remains unanswered.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, Nov 19, Nov 20 and Dec 13 1906; Photograph of the emergency hospital from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

The Abduction of Baby Toto

“Toto”, the two-year-old daughter of Mary Smith, a single mother who had a room in the home of the Harver family at 634 Gallardo street, went missing one spring day in 1906. Mary’s neighbors, who rushed to the house to comfort her,  soon confirmed that each had seen the same distinctive beggar woman drifting down the street earlier — a “strange creature” who “several times … remarked that she had no means of earning a livelihood.”

From the women’s description, the police identified the beggar as Lizzie McGuire, who was well known to them, and not only because she had survived being shot some years ago by her boyfriend, Paddy Walsh, who was now serving a sentence in San Quentin. They suspected that she had taken the little girl either to hold her for a reward or to carry along with her on one of her periodical begging tours of the country. The latter possibility was bolstered when they discovered that Lizzie had fled her quarters in a rooming house on East Second street the day before.

While police departments across southern California were contacted with details of the case and photographs and descriptions were sent out of Toto and Lizzie, a detective called Roberds doggedly searched second-class lodging houses downtown, following a sighting of the woman on the corner of Fifth and San Pedro.

Five days after the abduction, during which time Lizzie had dragged the child around various run-down establishments in an attempt to evade capture, Detective Roberds tracked her down in a dingy room in 644 San Julian street.

Lizzie, who “sullenly refused to say anything to detectives when her lair was discovered”, was arrested. However, as the police had known all along, she would never be prosecuted. She had survived her boyfriend’s attempt to kill her all those years ago, but she hadn’t exactly come through unscathed — the shot that he’d fired had hit her in the head, leaving her not only with a bullet scar on her forehead that made her detection by the police far easier than it would otherwise have been, but also with a brain that didn’t quite work as well as it used to. The prosecution was over before it began: Lizzie was deranged, and therefore mentally unfit to stand trial.

And Toto? She was returned to her tearful mother, apparently physically unharmed, although she appeared wan and was “sadly in need of a bath”.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, April 20 and 21, 1906.