Monday, January 4, 2016

A Little Strychnine

I went to Colorado last year to look into the murder, in 1929, of my grandmother’s brother.  I heard about it 86 years after the fact when someone working on a college writing project posted a message on the Ancestry website seeking relatives of Elmer Stephenson.  The student was working on a story about her grandmother, a pioneer woman from Colorado whose stepfather was Stephenson.  He had come into her life when she was a very young girl and the two had a loving relationship. 

Lena Estelle Hampson
I didn't know much about Elmer Stephenson and had heard nothing of his murder which should tell you something about our family's not-so-robust internal communication. I knew he and his sister, my grandmother, were raised poor, lost their mother at an early age and were taken care of by the community around them in several towns in rural Northwestern Colorado.  Their father stayed in Missouri as a bridge tender for the Chicago and Alton Railway.  I knew that Elmer was an outdoors guy but had no real specifics.

I didn't even know much about my grandmother.  I knew that she had a lovely, 19th Century name, Lena Estelle.  She was a good businesswoman, working alongside her husband, Thomas Jefferson Hampson, while he and his brothers made a success of several grocery stores in Colorado in the 1890s.  The first store was in Salida, Colorado.  Soon, along with their Spanish immigrant businessman partner and successful silver miner, Don Valdez, they opened another store in Rifle and finally one in Grand Junction.  

Hampson Brother's store in Salida
The brothers were quick to anticipate the coming of “cash and carry,” the idea that people would select their food from a much wider variety of products than the Hampson boys offered, arrayed on open shelves, pay cash for it and haul it home themselves.  The two by four kind of stores like theirs were doomed, they thought, even if they offered credit and very personal service. Later, in the twenties, they bought Piggly Wiggly franchises offered in Oregon and northern California, stores that revolutionized the grocery business of the just passed century.  Unfortunately, the brothers did not anticipate the Great Depression.  Every store except the one in Crescent City, which they kept in the Hampson family until the 1980s, failed.

I heard my grandmother was funny and clever.  I also heard she was disciplined.  After a late pregnancy, she handed over the new baby to my Mom and went back to work.  Mother was twenty years older than her new sister, Barbara, and Mom spent those years living in Lena Estelle's home and raising Barbara. That established my Mom's brand of being the mother of choice after a divorce, an early death, or some kind of breakdown, mental or physical. 

My grandmother died just a few months before I was born and was just 62.   While I wish I would have known her, her developing dementia made her a bit of a stranger to everyone, let alone me, in utero.  I heard that she had stopped being a reliable babysitter for my toddler brother.  Once, in December 1941, she lowered my brother, then two, into the bushes below the window of the room where his crib was.  She had noticed a whole lot of Japanese troops marching down West Second Street in Medford, Oregon and did what she could to protect her grandson.  

Trout on the menu for the President
and his hunting cabinet.  I wonder if Elmer
is in the shot.  Jake Borah is on the left just
under the server's arm
What I subsequently learned about Elmer Earl Stephenson was that he was indeed an outdoor type.  As a very young man, 14 years of age, he had shot one of the largest bears ever killed in Colorado.  Ten years later, in 1905, he was in the hunting party that guided President Theodore Roosevelt on his three week bear hunt in northwest Colorado.  While he was not the lead guide, the amazing Jake Borah and John Goff were, he was in the party of 12 guides and wranglers whom the President like to call “the hunting cabinet.” 

Borah apparently was a real comic. According to the Vail Daily Enterprise, a day or so before taking a party out on
The President on the left of the picture.
a bear hunt, Jake would head out along the trail and dump some raspberry jam on a rock or log easily visible from the trail. After drying in the sun for a few hours, raspberry jam starts looking a lot like bear scat.  The following day, while escorting his clients out of camp, Borah would locate the rock with the dried jam on it, get off his horse and move in for closer observation.  "Bear sign," he would announce breathlessly.  Then, while the astonished clients watched, he would stick his finger in the jammy pile, raise it to his mouth, wipe it clean and announce "a 350 pound black bear passed by here just six hours ago!"

In 1907, Elmer was among the first rangers hired into the brand new federal agency called the United States Forest Service and he thrived at the White River National Forest headquarters in Yampa.  He was respected, a community leader, deemed fair by the most suspicious rural ranchers and farmers.  

Early White River Forest Ranger 
Later, when he left the Forest Service, Colorado was experiencing a boom in head lettuce farming. Lettuce stood up to the low temperatures in the high plateaus leading up to the Rockies and a good manager like Elmer could add another income stream to his prosperous life.

Yampa's Main Street.  The Royal Hotel, 
built the year Lillian and Elmer met, burned
to the ground earlier this year.  
Before all of that, in 1904, the 25 year old Elmer moved not far from Yampa to run a hunting lodge and he met a young, divorced mother of two, Lillian Rittmayer.  Lillian had married a much older German man at 18 and quickly had two babies before divorcing after seven years. She had come to Yampa to be with her family living on a ranch about four miles outside of town.  From a pioneer family, she was nicely connected and in a few years was appointed the postmaster of the town.  When Elmer came on the scene, he joined Lillian and the two kids at the ranch and became a good father and breadwinner.  Walter Rittmayer was the eldest child at six years and Anna, the woman who was the focus of the writing project that introduced me to all these details about Elmer, was just five. Anna became particularly close to this tall, fair-haired guy with blue eyes.  It was Elmer’s arm Anna held onto when she walked down the aisle to marry Fred Stell, a Forest Service Ranger colleague who had been brought in to help Elmer and who became a close friend. 

The note on the Ancestry site continued:

“Elmer was murdered in 1929 and my great grandmother was accused of his murder. She was acquitted and I don't believe they ever found out who killed him.”

If you know anything about these events, or would like to know more, please contact me.”

I was all ears, of course, and soon was talking to Sue, Anna Stell's granddaughter. While her great grandmother was acquitted of murder, Sue told me that some in her family were still out on the long-ago jury verdict.

Elmer seemed in good spirits that day, a Thursday, July 11, 1929 when he left Yampa and headed out to the house for lunch.  Friends recalled him passing the pool hall, lingering at the door, watching silently, and then calling out:

“That was a hell of a shot!”

Lillian prepared pot roast for Elmer that day, brewing a fresh pot of coffee and taking out the biscuits when she heard the car in the driveway. After lunch, she said she went to town to have the carburetor on her car adjusted and go to the post office.

Returning to the house, Lillian saw Elmer on the floor of the kitchen experiencing violent convulsions. As the alarm spread and the neighbors and the doctor rushed in, Lillian offered several explanations. To some neighbors, she was sure that Elmer had purchased and consumed bad liquor.  To others, she seemed to theorize it was a suicide.  “Why did you do this?” “Why did you do this, Elmer?”  Later, to the local newspaper, she attributed his death to a forest fire a couple of weeks before that seemed to sap his strength and weaken his heart. 

AP Photo of Lillian
You couldn’t live in Yampa or nearby without knowing that the Stephenson’s marriage had gone sour by 1929.  There was lots of drinking, loud, public arguments, even fist fights between the two in which Lillian gave as good as she got.  People were aware of sex with other partners.  Things also weren’t going well for Walter, Lillian’s son.  He had been arrested with other young men in Leadville, Colorado law enforcement for violating the Volstead Act, the Prohibition Law.  She wanted to spend the money to bail him out before his trial.  Elmer refused.  “The more I do for him, the more trouble he gets into,” a friend testified that Elmer had said. Walter, nicknamed “Hop,” was sentenced to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas for two years in June of 1929, just before Elmer’s death but bargained it down to four months shortly before Lillian's trial began in March.

At Elmer's ranch in Yampa.
Clockwise from left:  Barbara, Mildred, Lena
Estelle, Lida Hampson, Helen Hampson.  The
two girls in the foreground are from the Higbee
family, cousins of Mildred, my Mom.
Along with my grandmother, my mother, Barbara and several other sisters and cousins attended the funeral in Yampa, taking the train out from Medford, Oregon.  They spent several days in Salida and then Grand Junction, all places members of the Hampsons lived in Colorado.  When they got to Denver, Lena Estelle decided to retain an attorney to look after her deceased brother’s interests.

Lillian had taken up with a hired hand who sometimes worked at the ranch, a guy named John Rundle.  At the trial, the prosecutors took to calling him “mattress man” because of a story most people in town knew about.  Rundle had hid underneath a bed when Elmer came home from work unexpectedly. Elmer then sat on the porch for hours holding a rifle, waiting for Rundle to come out.

When the autopsy was performed on a Saturday morning, July 13, Elmer’s organs were full of strychnine.  There was no alcohol in his blood and very little food in his stomach. It was sensational news.  All their troubles as a couple, her obvious and long-term relationship with Rundle, the terrible things she said about Elmer around the little town, the divorce papers that arrived the morning of his death, their clash over Elmer not springing for Walter’s bail money and a string of seeming half truths posited by Lillian seemed to point to her as the murderer.  And there was that $3,500 insurance policy on Elmer’s life, taken out a few days before his death.

Farrington Carpenter as a young lawyer in
Hayden, Colorado
Farrington Carpenter had just been elected as District Attorney the year before Stephenson was killed and he decided to take his time before charging someone with the crime.  He had graduated from Princeton and then Harvard Law and he was smart and patient about what his strategy would be.  Charging a woman -- from a pioneer family -- with a capital crime was a big deal in 1929.  Farrington was as good as it gets when it came to grazing law, but this would be his first murder trial.  And the evidence was mostly circumstantial.  Strychnine.  Everybody had strychnine.  All kinds of Colorado varmints were controlled by strychnine.  Elmer had consumed very little food and his stomach was largely empty.  That fact pointed to the coffee, but the neighbors had cleaned up for the grieving widow Thursday evening and no traces of poison were available in the pot on the stove or in the cup on the table.  Lillian claimed she had drunk a cup of coffee from the same pot, though only one cup was on the lunch table, and it had been Elmer’s.  Like most everything in the kitchen, the cup had been long since washed and put back on the shelf.  What happened to all those biscuits they ate?  They weren’t in Elmer’s stomach.  And the carburetor adjustment?  The guys at the garage recalled no work being done on the car. It was clear to the owners of a ranch in Mancos, 400 miles away, that Rundle and Lillian were trying to rent their place a couple weeks before Elmer’s death. 

After Elmer died, the rumors abounded across tiny Yampa, 310 people living there in 1930 at 7,800 feet. When Lillian and Rundle came into town, they usually caused a quiet and intense stir.  Elmer had many friends.  She sent at least two letters to Carpenter asking him to do something. 

On September 15, 1929 she wrote Carpenter in her large and florid handwriting:

“O, how much longer must I remain in the shadow?” 

“I have been very lonely and sad.  And – often call out involuntarily for Elmer to come to my aid.”

“Please do all you can, dear friend, in your line of duty, to bring this most complicated situation to an early closing.”

The little girl, Anna, was living in Mancos with her husband and Lillian was visiting there at the beginning of the new year. Lillian had made the suicide narrative the most prominent part of the story in the weeks after Elmer's death and Carpenter urged her to look for some kind of note.  Sure enough, she found one!  It was written on the front pages of a small book of Elmer’s he had purchased when he became a Mason.  On the front pages of the book, was a kind of farewell note with this admission:
“My sweet Lida, farewell.  You’re right.  I am a rotter, no hope. Farewell.”

Lillian eagerly sent the book to Carpenter and he sent the note to handwriting analysts in New York, Chicago and Denver.   In February, 1930, the Chicago expert reported that the handwriting was not Elmer’s, but was, in fact, Lillian’s.  That was it for Farrington Carpenter.  He promptly sent deputies to Mancos where they arrested Rundle and Stephenson, charging her with murder and Rundle as an accessory.

In the Colorado State Archives, the box that was brought to my table and an associated folder proved disappointing.  There were the original letters from Lillian to Carpenter, some notes and handwriting comparisons by the
handwriting expert, the autopsy report, written by hand on a Yampa Pharmacy letterhead, the alleged suicide note in the Masonic book.  There was no transcript or other investigative materials.  Since Lillian had been acquitted, there was no appeal and no need for a transcript.

What does exist are the accounts of the trial in the Steamboat Pilot, the Steamboat Springs newspaper, and also wire service stories appearing in papers across the country.  The trial took over the large courtroom in the Steamboat Springs Courthouse, reduced today to the place where the Routt County Commission meets and makes policy.   

Probably the most interesting and potentially most important item in the archival record is a letter written anonymously and sent to Elmer's employer, the Barker Commercial Company in Los Angeles.  It was written eight months before Elmer's death.

“This man, Elmer E. Stephenson, stood high in the community, but for a long time this man has been drinking and this has led to affairs with married women and very young girls involved.”

“This man can furnish alibis by the score,” the letter continued.  “He is a keen thinker and has a knowledge of technicality in Law and Life but he will fall and that soon.”

“He is now visibly headed for a drunkard’s ending”

The letter described an incident in a company shed where Stephenson and a girl “barely sixteen” spent several hours.  He had given her silk stockings “on the condition that he let him put them on her," the letter stated.  "He gave her a drink that knocked her silly…regular flapper talk.”

The letter ends with a threat:

“And unless he is removed, your place of business will be destroyed in Yampa…and he will fall and that soon.”

Without the transcript, we don’t know how this letter came into evidence, but the jury saw it and it gave Lillian’s defense an opportunity to point to someone else who wanted Elmer dead. 

Carpenter wasn’t happy with the judge.  He set a high standard for bringing in the strychnine.  He had to show that the killer bought it.  That made everyone in Routt County a potential suspect.  The judge also wouldn’t let the handwriting report come in because the other expert opinions weren't brought in as well. Finally, Carpenter thought Lillian was not only a good witness in her own defense but also a highly manipulative one:

“She sported a new hairdo and wore a low-cut, tight-fitting velvet dress over her fulsome figure.  The male jurors could not keep their eyes off her.  Whenever their attention strayed, she would lean forward and pour out a glass of ice water, sipping this for several minutes just as I was trying to make an important point – such as the difference between manslaughter and murder – to the ogling jurors.”

Trial was held on second floor, right hand side
The jury and the judge had gotten away from Farrington Carpenter.  After 48 hours of deliberation over several days, the jurors instructed that a “not” be typed into the blank space before the word “guilty.”  They all signed their names to the bottom of the verdict document and Lillian and her soon-to-be husband, John Rundle, walked out of the Routt County Court House in Steamboat Springs and headed home to Yampa.

Lillian lived 28 years after she left the courthouse with John Rundle. She married him soon after the trial.  For the next nine years, they lived on the ranch outside of Yampa, but in 1939 they sold it, all 546 acres.  A few weeks later, In 1940, she announced that she had acquired the lease of the Golden West Cafe in Yampa, but soon thereafter moved up the road about 20 miles north to the town of Oak Creek.  

She was seriously ill in 1954, enough so to bring her son, Hop, down from Leadville where he continued to work in law enforcement, even was elected Sheriff despite his criminal conviction.  

She returned to the hospital in Oak Creek several times in 1958 and died in March.  Nothing Lillian did was without considerable drama.  The day she died, John Rundle was admitted to the hospital for reasons not specified.  Her son Hop could not attend the funeral later that week because of a serious heart condition.  She is buried in Yampa's cemetery under the name Lillian C. S. Rundle.  Elmer is there too, a few yards away, with an empty plot reserved for Lillian C. Stephenson next to his grave, an unfortunate oversight of the estate administrator or perhaps a conscious decision by Lillian herself.  John Rundle died three years after Lillian and is buried a couple of hundred miles away in Crawford, Colorado.  

Carpenter never pursued the case after the acquittal.  No retrial, no investigation of other possible suspects, nor was there an effort to change the cause of death to a suicide.  Subsequent prosecutors stayed away as the case grew colder than a late Colorado frost.  She beat them.  All of them.  Fair and square.

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