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). 

Book collectors of old L.A.

Shopkeeper William “Scotty” Manson, 47, lived alone behind Acme Stamp and Hobby, supplying used books and collectable stamps to the passing trade. Any customer was potentially a worthy one in the SRO Land of 1956, as Bunker Hill was crumbling and the detritus of human life washed ever further each morning onto the streets surrounding Skid Row.

When two gents came in together and asked for a quantity of books to be boxed, Manson thought he’d made his grubstake for the day. Alas, the fellows had a further request: could he just be so kind as to place all his money in the box as well? A flash of a long knife accompanied the suggestion.

Like any savvy shopkeeper of his place and era, Manson was armed, with a .45 caliber revolver in his pocket. He stepped back and drew his weapon, but the young man with the knife was quicker, and slashed his chest and belly. The would-be thieves turned and ran as Manson unloaded his weapon, then collapsed in the door of his shop. At General Hospital, where he was taken in serious condition with three deep cuts, he told police what had happened.

But even without Scotty’s report, the scene on the street told the tale. One robber, Charles Brooks, 28, resident of a hotel at 224 Boyd, reached 1st and Broadway, then fell, gushing blood. He survived part of the ride to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, where he was DOA.

The second miscreant, Eugene Sparkman, resident of a hotel at 534 Wall, made the acquaintance of a motorcycle cop a block from where Brooks went down, and was popped. Taken into evidence was the book he’d kept hold of as he fled, reform-minded prison warden Lewis E. Lawes‘ “20,000 Years in Sing Sing,” with its heartwarming dedication “To those tens of thousands of my former wards who have justified my faith in human nature.” We can only hope he ran into as enlightened a prison manager as Lawes, in his unreported but inevitable next stop.

A Rubbish King’s Last Stand

They called Hamayag Saroyan the rubbish king, and like any king, he was jealous of his subjects. When a restaurant canceled his hauling contract, King Hamayag left his Montebello castle and went to Main Street to stake out the place and learn what other potentate dared to pick up his trash.

His majesty, 64, stood watching from a parking lot next to the Jeffries Banknote Co. at 117 Winston Street, just one more set of eyes in the naked city. Then suddenly a man broke away from the crowd, brushed against Saroyan, and left him reeling. The old man cried out, and stumbled across the narrow street, then up the steps of a coffee shop at 128 Winston Street. He looked around at a room full of strangers and croaked, “Help me! I’m hurt. A Negro did it.” Then he fell, dead from two knife wounds in the heart, $49 in his pockets.

Witnesses saw a black man running east on Winston, and said he’d first taken off and neatly folded his bloody coat. Someone gave chase, but lost the fleeing man near 5th and Wall. A month later, J. H. Knox, wanted for a New Orleans stabbing, was picked up on suspicion when he left his Wall Street hotel room for a smoke. But witnesses didn’t think he was the regicide, so cops shipped him back to Louisiana to face justice there.

Hamyag Saroyan’s slaying would go unsolved, and authorities declined to use it as a reason to reopen their year-old grand jury investigation into allegations of a rubbish war between rival contractors.

Those 1955 public hearings, held by Mayor Norris Poulson, had spread some pretty stinky stuff around City Hall, including allegations that large garbage collection agencies were conspiring with dump owners and Teamsters to freeze out independent operators. Trash collectors had to join “the combine” (their local rubbish union plus the Teamsters’ union) or be forced out of business.

One such small fry was William C. Crowder, who picked up 1250 San Fernando Valley customers by offering attractive trash bins with a built-in deodorizer—housewives loved them. But dumps began refusing his loads after he objected to the local union demanding half of his customers as a tithe, and Crowder had to drive all over L.A. until he found a cooperative dump. Then there was Sadie Olive Frank, another Valley trash collector, who testified about harassment, vanishing bins, and sugar in her truck’s gas tank. But it wasn’t just sheeny men who had to toe the line: businesses that hired non-union trash haulers were threatened with picket lines.

Ultimately, Teamsters secretary-treasurer Frank Matula, called the “czar” of west coast trash, was sentenced to prison for his perjured testimony about the rubbish racket he headed. His pal Jimmy Hoffa gave him the going-to-jail present of naming him one of three international trustees of the union, a poke in the eye to the Feds. And Mayor Poulson, stunned by the magnitude of the fraud, ordered his staff to begin work on developing a municipal trash service, which would dump in city-owned ravines.

Muse on all this next time you’re about to complain about the size of your L.A. city trash collection bill.

Honestly, I am Stabbed

601 S MAIN_STABBING_HEADLINE What would you do if you were waiting at a downtown bus depot and a woman suddenly started shouting that she’d been stabbed? Would you rush to her aid, or would you assume that she’s just another SRO Land eccentric and ignore her? On September 28, 1948 thirty-nine year old Miss Essie Lee Mitchell of Oceanside was waiting in the lounge of the Santa Fe Trailways bus depot at 601 S. Main Street. She was unaware that she’d been followed, so she was shocked when a young man walked up to her, thrust a knife into her ribs, and demanded money. Because it was a crowded terminal, and presumably help was at hand, Essie began to scream hysterically. Rather than immediately taking flight Essie’s attacker stabbed her, and then he took off. 601 S MAIN Essie rushed out of the lounge shrieking “stop the man”, but her entreaties were completely ignored by onlookers. The injured woman couldn’t believe it. What the heck was the matter with everyone – didn’t they hear her? Why didn’t anyone step up to assist her? Maybe a visual aid would get someone’s attention. Essie pulled open her coat and shouted “Honestly, I am stabbed – look at the blood”. Help was forthcoming at last; cops apprehended eighteen year old Raul Portillo and booked him on a charge of attempted murder.

When Legends Collide: Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm

Lili St. Cyr was a marquee burlesque striptease star known for her bubble bath routine. Tempest Storm who went onstage just before St. Cyr referred to herself as a performer so green that she didn’t know her right foot from her left. But Ms. Storm’s assets and the threat she posed to the headliner didn’t go unnoticed by St.Cyr. While Ms. Storm performed onstage, St. Cyr would watch her like a hawk and point out any similarities in their acts to impresario Lillian Hunt. One night another dancer who performed earlier in the show dropped a pin onstage. Whereas most dancers used hooks or zippers for their costumes, this dancer used pins. The barefoot St. Cyr stepped on the pin and when she finished her number she was livid and accused Ms. Storm of leaving the pin behind. Ms. Storm a fiery redhead with a no nonsense attitude quit on the spot. As she was packing her bags, the quick thinking Lillian Hunt came up with a solution. She offered to send Ms. Storm to the El Rey Theater in Oakland to perform as the headliner. From that point on, Tempest Storm never looked back and her star shone brighter and brighter. She called it one of the luckiest things that ever happened to her. Fast forward nearly twenty years. The two women hadn’t crossed paths since that incident at the Follies Theater. Ms. Storm had just finished headlining the Minsky’s Revue at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. Lili St. Cyr came in to headline the next night. Storm’s daughter Trish wanted to meet Lili St. Cyr. Ms. Storm wasn’t sure at all what to expect but when they went backstage, St. Cyr welcomed them inside and graciously said, “I knew you were going be a star.” Storm’s response, “Is that why you bitched about me?” That was all it took. The two legends of burlesque shared a laugh and became fast friends. After St. Cyr retired from performing, Ms. Storm sent her money from time to time and they remained in contact up to St. Cyr’s death in 1999. At the reopening of Cole’s just down the block from where the original Follies Theater once stood a faded burlesque billboard hangs in the corner near the bar. The two burlesque divas Tempest Storm and Lili St. Cyr almost look as if they were destined to face off at that moment in time.

Follies Billboard

Tempest Storm, 2008 Tempest Storm, 2008 Photos by the author.