The Claw Hammer Murder

by James Scott Bell

July 12, 1922. It was hot in Los Angeles. A twilight crowd of 5,000 cooled off at the Hollywood Bowl, listening to an eighty-piece orchestra play a bill of popular music under the baton of maestro Albert Hurtz.

Downtown at the Alhambra movie house, 500 Angelenos thrilled to the  hit of the season, D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm starring Dorothy and Lillian Gish.

At clandestine speakeasies in Hollywood, couples were tippling gin and dancing the Charleston.

And on a lonely stretch of road in Montecito Heights a beautiful young widow named Alberta Meadows was getting her skull pulverized by a claw hammer.

When police—along with a couple of crime beat reporters—got to the scene, the sight of the corpse made several of them nauseous. The body had been disemboweled and the face was an unrecognizable muck of raw meat. So viciously had that face been smashed that the head of the hammer had broken off.

Who could have committed such a heinous act…and why?

The answer came by way of another tip—from the killer’s husband! It was he who turned in a pert, shapely, former vaudeville dancer named Clara Phillips, age 23.

It seems her husband, a dashing sport named Armour Phillips, had gone into debt chasing the California oil boom. With creditors breathing down his neck, he struck up an acquaintance with the rich and comely widow, Mrs. Meadows. Soon they began, as it used to be said, “keeping company.”

When Clara confronted Armour, he denied any dalliance. She started listening, from an upstairs extension, to Armour’s telephone calls. She heard gossip that Armour had bought Mrs. Meadows a wristwatch and new tires for her car.

The day before the murder, Clara went shopping with her friend, Peggy Caffee. She bought a skirt, a pair of slippers and some stockings. Then they went to a five-and-dime where Clara purchased a claw hammer. She had not yet told Peggy about her suspicions.

She did the next day, Wednesday, July 12. She poured out her heart as the barkeep poured out the gin at a speakeasy in Long Beach. She told Peggy she wanted to talk to Alberta Meadows, so they headed back to L.A. to wait outside the bank where Alberta worked. Around four-thirty, Mrs. Meadows emerged and headed toward her Ford coupé. Clara stepped over. Alberta knew who Clara was, and perhaps not wanting to cause a scene she consented to Clara’s request to drop her off at her sister’s house in a sparsely populated and rugged development northeast of downtown.

Along the way Clara asked Alberta to pull over and please step out of the car to discuss “something.” She confronted Alberta about Armour. Alberta denied any wrongdoing.

Clara pulled out the claw hammer and struck Alberta’s head.

Alberta wailed and started running. Clara caught up with the dazed widow, grabbed her arm, and walked her back to the car. Peggy thought it was all over. Until Clara went back to work on Alberta’s head.

Alberta cried out to Peggy, “My God! Save me! Help me!”

Peggy attempted to intervene. Clara raised the hammer and said, “Don’t interfere, damn you, or I’ll kill you!”

Peggy ran down the road, stopped, and looked back. She saw Clara pounding and pounding and clawing at Alberta’s body, blood “spurting out in gushes.”

Peggy vomited.

After finishing her ghastly work, Clara rolled a big rock over the body. A few minutes later, covered in blood, Clara ordered Peggy into Alberta’s car.

“I’ll do the same thing to any other woman who bothers my husband,” she said. “And if you tell anybody, I’ll kill you.” After dropping Peggy off, Clara drove to her house, walked in and told Armour, “I guess it’s murder. I killed your lover, Alberta.”

She then poured herself a drink and said she’d turn herself in to the police in the morning.

For some reason, Armour convinced Clara to take it on the lam. She agreed. That night they ditched Alberta’s car and got Clara a ticket on a train to El Paso, with a plan for her to cross over into Mexico.

In the morning Armour went to see his lawyer and told him what was going on. The aghast attorney immediately called a well-known L.A. lawman, Undersheriff Gene Biscailuz. He came to the lawyer’s office and Armour told him about his wife’s confession.

Biscailuz notified authorities in Tucson, who nabbed Clara off the train and put her in the hoosegow. A couple of days later, L.A. plainclothesmen and the sheriff of Los Angeles county, Bill Traeger, arrived to bring Clara back. She smilingly obliged, denied knowing anything about the murder, and said her name was really Clara McGuyer.

She was put in a Pullman compartment, with the sheriff’s wife to keep watch.

Little did she know that the lawmen had brought along Peggy Caffee. At one point they brought Peggy into the Pullman and asked her point blank if this was the woman who killed Mrs. Meadows.

“Yes,” a nervous Peggy replied.

Clara said nothing and began to apply some makeup.

By the time they got back to L.A., the press was calling this the most brutal murder in the history of the city. They dubbed Clara Phillips “The Tiger Woman.”

She smiled for all the cameras, even as she was booked at the L.A. county jail.

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At the trial, thinking she could charm the jury, Clara Phillips took the stand and swore under oath that it was really Peggy Caffee who bought the hammer and killed Alberta Meadows!

The jury deadlocked on first degree murder, 10-2 for conviction. They unanimously settled on second degree. The judge sentenced Clara to 10 years to life to be served at San Quentin.

But Clara had other ideas.

A man named Jesse Carson—a gun runner and soldier of fortune—had become enamored of the fetching killer. Visiting her in jail, Carson smuggled her a hacksaw blade. Over the space of three nights, Clara sawed at the bars on her window. Then she slipped through, made her way to vent pipe and shimmied down 50 feet to an outcropping where Carson had placed a rope. She went down the rope another 50 feet and climbed over a steel fence into an alley where Carson was waiting for her in his car.

They hid out in Redlands, where Clara bleached her hair. Eventually, wearing dark glasses and a hat, Clara lit out by train with Carson. They got to New Orleans and booked passage for Clara to Vera Cruz, with Carson to follow. Authorities picked up her trail to Mexico, then Guatemala, and finally to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz

There her extradition was held up by some local officials who had fallen for the dimples and charm of the Tiger Woman. Undersheriff Gene Biscailuz, who spoke perfect Spanish, was dispatched with a team to negotiate with the Hondurans. He had with him a reporter for the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner, Morris Lavine. He asked Lavine to meet with Clara and convince her to return. Lavine appealed to her vanity. Instead of running all your life, come back to Los Angeles, get a new trial and prove your innocence—and give the Examiner your exclusive.

The prospect of landing on the front page again did the trick. Clara returned, only to find out that her lawyer had missed the deadline for filing the appeal.

Off to San Quentin she went. In 1933 she was transferred to the new women’s prison at Tehachapi. To pass the time, she started studying dentistry.

Armour, meanwhile, had gotten a divorce and moved east.

Clara Phillips, LAPD booking photo, 1922

In 1935, thirteen years after the brutal slaying, Clara Phillips was paroled. Stepping out of the gates she was greeted by a crowd shouting, “Tiger Woman!” Reporters asked for a statement. Clara said she just wanted to be left alone.

She went to live in San Diego and worked as a dental assistant until 1961. (What a chilling thought that is. “Open wide…wider…”) She then moved to Texas, and finally went to face the Ultimate Judge.

The history of Los Angeles is rife with crime stories like this—brutal, sensational, and often accompanied by a public fascination bordering on celebrity worship (can you say O.J.?)

Little wonder, then, that I keep setting my books in my home town.

What about you? Did the town where you grew up have any sensational crimes? Or at least, something local that had folks talking? How about where you live now?


Note: My new L.A. thriller, Romeo’s Town, releases today at a special deal price. (Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for B09CFTLDKJ. There’s a paperback, too.)

Crime and Punishment

Do you consider whether the punishment fits the crime? In the old days, the accused might choose a champion who fought for him. Nowadays, we hire lawyers to defend us in court. Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword. Other cultures are more brutal. If you’re caught stealing, they cut off your hand. They don’t make allowances for your troubled childhood or twisted mind. If you do a bad deed, you pay for it.

Some of these punishments are well illustrated at the Crime Museum downtown in Washington D.C. I’m doing a detailed walk-through of this experience on my personal blog along with photos, but suffice it to say that methods of crime detection and types of punishment have changed greatly through the ages.

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Nan Stocks (800x600)

Basically, the top floor of this fascinating museum gives a historical look at what counted as a crime beginning in medieval days and working its way through history toward modern CSI techniques. Did you know that you could be punished for kissing on the Sabbath during Colonial times? That was considered lewd and unseemly behavior, and you might even get your ears nailed to the pillory while you’re sitting in the stocks.

Interactive kiosks challenge you to participate. You can do fun things like shoot a Glock 17 at a police simulation, see how quick you can defuse a bomb, learn how to crack a safe, and match a bullet in the crime lab.

Electric Chair (600x800)

Today’s crime scene investigation involves science and observation. The public’s fascination is shown in multiple versions of Sherlock Holmes and CSI shows on television. More abhorrent are how criminals become celebrities. They’re certainly going to be satisfied if they commit their crimes for fame and recognition. Turn on the evening news, and watch the reporters talk about local murders ad nauseum.

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Do today’s punishments fit the crimes? Or have we become too lenient, too civilized? Do punishments even work? Are they truly the deterrent they’re meant to be, other than keeping the bad guys off the streets? What about so-called “white collar” crimes? Rather than sitting in prison, should those criminals be put to work to compensate their victims or to educate others?

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While highly entertaining, the displays in the Crime Museum make you think about the nature of crime, how the definition depends upon the culture, and whether the punishment is suitable and effective.

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CSI vs. The Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

I had lunch recently with a friend in the DA’s office, who was bemoaning the “CSI Effect” on a case she was prosecuting. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to how the popularity of shows like CSI have caused jurors to expect high tech evidence to be presented in every case. And absent that evidence, there’s a tendency to assume that the police didn’t do their job.

Which, of course, isn’t necessarily the case. DNA evidence, even when it is collected, faces a huge processing backlog. Plus, there’s the simple cost/benefit analysis. All of those fancy tests are expensive, so law enforcement needs to pick and choose which cases merit that kind of expense. And sadly, with most, they just can’t afford to put that fancy equipment (most of which is several generations behind what you see on TV) to use.

Here’s a personal example. A few years ago, my father’s car was stolen. The police came, took the report…and somewhat miraculously, found the car (an old Volvo station wagon, on its last legs) abandoned in a bad section of town. When my dad picked the car up, he noticed a discarded cigarette box in the rear passenger footwell. Being an aficionado of crime shows, he knew exactly what to do. Carefully using a pair of tweezers, he picked up the box, placed it in a baggie, and trotted down to the station with his evidence.

“What do you expect us to do with this?” The duty cop asked.

“Dust it for prints,” my dad said.

“But you got the car back, right?”

“Sure, but don’t you think maybe it might have been used in a another crime? It’s not an expensive car, they probably used it to haul something…from a burglary, maybe.” (On a side note, clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. When he told me this story, I immediately envisaged all sorts of terrible crimes being committed with the help of Bessie the Volvo).

“Yeah, maybe,” the cop said. “Hand it over.”

On his way out the door, my dad turned back and saw the cop toss it in the trash can.

Now, I’m not bashing law enforcement here. It’s likely that the local department simply didn’t have the resources to pursue the case. I watched a show last week where an entire unit spent weeks trying to solve the disappearance of a prostitute in a major city, using all sorts of high tech toys to assist them in their search. And that rarely happens. While researching BONEYARD, I stumbled across the term, “the Missing Missing.” When certain people- prostitutes, runaways, illegal immigrants- fall off the grid, the cases are rarely pursued. But if a twenty year-old honors student vanishes, chances are it will be a constant news loop for at least a few days. In reality law enforcement resources aren’t always applied equally or fairly- there isn’t enough money invested for it to be. So if you’re serving on a jury for a burglary, chances are you won’t see 3-D renditions of the crime scene and a slew of DNA evidence entered against the defendant. Luckily, as my cops friends always say, most criminals are stupid. They’re caught literally holding a smoking gun in their hands.

My favorite example from the local crime blotter this week. Mind you, I didn’t insert the “duh,” that was a nice touch by the SFPD:

On July 15th at 5:20 pm, The Plainclothes Team was patrolling in the
area of 3rd and Quesada when they came upon a group of subjects walking
down the street. The cops recognized some of the members of the group as
active members of a local violent street gang. One of the subjects
recognized the officers as well and alerted his associates. They
immediately split up into smaller clusters. One of the groups ducked
down behind the parked cars at the curb and continued to walk in this
crouched manner to avoid detection. Duh, they were unable to avoid
detection and were stopped. There was a good reason for all the
crouching and hiding nonsense. The officers located a loaded .9mm
handgun, along with a full box of ammunition, that was tossed by one of
the subjects into a driveway. This incident resulted in the arrest of
three individuals on gun and gang charges.

Chalk up another win, thanks to good old fashioned police work, no high tech toys required.

Too Close for Comfort?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was a little disconcerted when I read in my old local paper from Melbourne Australia, The Age, online about the weekend’s shootings of four police officers in my current home town of Oakland, California. It wasn’t the incident (tragic though it is) that was the cause of my disquiet- sadly Oakland is all too frequently associated with violence and crime these days – it was the fact that the news had travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific to become a headline there. No doubt we will have to fend off worried phone calls from family in Melbourne as they lament (as they always do) the current state of America…but it also reinforces the global reach of news these days and how fear, like tragedy, is imported day after day till it’s firmly embedded in our psyche to the point that we become either overwhelmed or inured to it. This made me consider why I write what I write and what is for me ‘too close for comfort’.

Why, for instance, do I write a historical series rather than a modern day crime series dealing with the very real fears we all face? On one level I like the sheer escapism of writing about another time and place and I love immersing myself in historical research but on another level I think perhaps I’m also avoiding writing about things that cut too close to the bone. Call it ‘dread avoidance’ – the art of skirting around the very essence of fear itself. Stephen King I believe once said that he wrote ‘horror’ because at some level writing it protected him and his family from it ever happening to them. I think for me the opposite is true – not writing about it a kind of protective measure (which seems a slightly pathetic admission doesn’t it from a mystery writer?)

There is obviously plenty of room in the world of books for stories that both confront fear and those which provide a heady escape from those fears. For the development of my own craft, however, I know that one day I will have to set aside my inhibitions and face ‘the darkest dread’ in my stories. What I want to know is how you as a reader or a writer feel? Are there some things too close for comfort that you could neither read nor write about? How do you face the challenge of confronting these issues as well as these fears? If you write about them does it make it easier or harder to confront?