The 1948 murder of Byron Hattman by the angry husband of a woman he either seduced or raped (and the evidence at trial leans toward rape) occurred during a sad morality play involving infidelity, allegations of sexual violence and death. Two people ended up dead and it is unlikely that the third corner of the triangle lived happily ever after.
Hattman was a 29-year-old Pennsylvania native working as an instrument designer for Emerson Electric Co. of St. Louis, Missouri. As part of his job, Hattman collaborated on U.S. Air Force avionics projects for Collins Radio Co. (now Rockwell Collins) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
A veteran of the Marine Corps who served in the China-Burma-India Theater during the Second World War, Hattman stood more than six feet tall and was quite athletic. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that he could play any position on the Emerson softball team. He was unmarried.
Working with Hattman at Emerson was Sydney Goodrich Rutledge, 23. Sydney was something rarity in the post-war 1940s; not only was she working outside the office, she was using her post-graduate degree in mathematics to work beside Hattman on Emerson’s instrument design team.
We know that in addition to being smart, Sydney was attractive: The Gazette introduced her to its readers as “a six-foot-tall honey-colored blonde.”
Sydney had been married for two years to a St. Louis doctor who was completing his pediatrics residency. The couple had no children.
Dr. Robert C. Rutledge, the third side of the love triangle and the killer in the story, was a U.S. Navy veteran and at the time an officer in the USNR, 27 years old, and just as athletic as Hattman. A native of Houston and a graduate of Rice Intitute, he and Sydney had returned to St. Louis after he finished his service at a naval hospital in the Northeast. The couple met while she was completing her master’s degree and Rutledge was in med school, which the Phi Beta Kappa completed a year early.
Shortly after she started working for Emerson, Sydney went stag to an engineering department after-hours function aboard an excursion boat on the Mississippi. It was there that she and Hattman first talked socially.
On that three-hour cruise, the pair discovered they shared a mutual love of sailing. At an after-party at the Fairmount Hotel, Hattman told Sydney that he owned a small sailboat and invited her to go out on the lake.
“I told him I would like it some time,” she testified at her husband’s murder trial. “I taught it two summers as counselor at a girls camp, but I had been unable to do any sailing since I had been at St. Louis.”
The Emerson engineer asked Sydney about her husband and she responded that he had wanted to come, but was unable.
“Both of us planned to go,” she said later. “Then he found out it was necessary for him to be at the hospital that night.”
Hattmann followed up on his offer two days later.
“He called me at my apartment and said he was having a group of friends going sailing that day and asked if I cared to go along,” she testified. “I told him that I was home by myself and would have to phone my husband at the hospital and ask him if would be all right.”
A half-hour later, Hattman picked up Sydney at the apartment. At the yacht club they changed into bathing suits and went sailing until early afternoon; Sydney said on the stand that she and Hattman each had about 4 beers each.
“When we first went out we came back in about 2:30, and this one man, he was a friend of Hattman’s and the girl had arrived,” Sydney told the court. “so the four of us went out sailing then for most of the rest of the afternoon until about 5:30.”
After the other couple left due to a previous engagement, Sydney and Hattmann went back out on the boat for a short sail. A storm came up, Sydney said on the stand, and they decided to stay at the yacht club until it passed. Hattman drove her back to her apartment about 11 p.m.
From this point, the various stories diverge in their details. The Rutledges point to Byron Hattman as the real villian in the play, while the prosecution laid all of the blame squarely at the feet of Dr. Rutledge. The Register hedges a bit on saying Sydney willingly cheated on Robert. What happened between them was a case of “he said, she said” except that “he” was dead and could not say anything. There are plenty of witnesses to testify that the relationship of Sydney and Hattman was closer than just co-workers, a matter of gossip considering that she was married. However, Sydney denied this with an assertion that she had been plied with booze and raped.
The next weekend — July 31, 1948, Hattman called Sydney and again invited her to go sailing with a group of friends. Rutledge was at the hospital, so after she cleared the trip with her husband, Sydney rode to the St. Louis Yacht Club with Hattman. At the dock Sydney was surprised that no one else had yet arrived.
“I asked where the other people were that were coming and he said at the last minute they had been unable to make it,” Sydney testified at her husband’s trial. “We would be by ourselves that day.”
The pair sailed on the river until around 6 p.m. when Hattman suggested that they grab a bite to eat.
“He said when we got into St. Louis we would go and get something to eat,” she said. “Since I had to eat I might as well go out with him.”
To most people such an invitation implies stopping on the way home for a meal. Instead, Hattman and Sydney drove back into St. Louis to her apartment where he dropped her off around 8 p.m. She checked in with her husband, who was still at the hospital, changed into a dinner outfit and at 9 p.m. she met Hattman in front of the apartment building.
“I went in to get cleaned up,” she said. “I talked to Bob, but I did not mention the fact that I was going to get some supper afterwards.”
The pair went to the Chase Hotel, which at the time was the place to go and to be seen in St. Louis.
“When we went to the hotel he insisted on going into the hotel cocktail room for a few drinks before dinner,” she said, referring to the lounge that one contemporary report referred to as “a real top-notch class spot…with costly decorations and equipment that baffle description.”
According to Sydney the pair had “two or three” drinks before heading next door to the Park Plaza hotel for dinner. But Sydney said Hattman was not quite ready for the main course yet.
“He began insisting on going to the Merry-Go-Round, which is the cocktail lounge at the Park Plaza,” she said. “While there he ordered two more drinks.”
It was at the Park Plaza that Sydney first became cognizant that she was becoming intoxicated.
“When about half way through (the second drink) I got very dizzy and nauseated and perspiration broke out all over. I told him I was going to faint.”
Hattman helped Sydney to the car, suggesting that they head to a nearby Italian restaurant because food may make her feel better. Over dinner Hattman offered an explanation as to why Sydney felt drunk.
“At that time he said he had made a mistake, that he had been ordering double drinks.”
After Sydney took a few bites of dinner and gave up, they left the restaurant and Hattman helped the drunken woman up to the apartment. He opened the door with her key when she was unable to fit it into the lock. Hattman stepped inside the apartment with Sydney.
“I immediately told him I was sick and wanted him to leave,” she testified. Hattman, however, apparently had other ideas. “He said he wasn’t going to leave when I felt like that. He was going to stay until I was all right.”
According to Sydney’s testimony at Rutledge’s trial, Hattman put his arms around her and forced her back into the bedroom where they had intercourse, which she said was non-consensual.
However, other witnesses familiar with the incident testified that Sydney told them she shared some of the guilt.
Investigators testified she was asked later if Hattman had forcibly had sexual relations with her and she answered, “No, I guess I was as much to blame as he was. We had too many drinks after sailing and wound up at my apartment,” but who knows if her response was just the 1940s attitude toward women who were raped: She was asking for it.
Sydney was grilled by prosecutor William W. Crissman about the events of that night.
Q: You got up there (to the apartment) and got the door open with the key. Didn’t you invite him in and tell him Bob was working?
A: I did not.
Q: You didn’t? Didn’t you after you got in the apartment, while he waited in the living room of the apartment go into the bedroom and remove your clothing?
A: I did not.
Q: And lie down on the bed and call him in there?
A: (Witness begins crying and shaking her head.)
Although she testified she spurned Hattman’s approaches after July 31, fellow employees testified that until about August 10 or 11 she went to his drafting board and visited with him several times each day to such an extent as to attract attention from her coworkers. Her supervisor testified she was an adult and he said nothing about it.
“It simply appeared to me that it was strange that a presumably happily married woman would be soliciting attention from an unmarried man,” he said.
For her part, Sydney denied these allegations on the stand:
He came up to me (at work) and asked me about Saturday night. I told him I wanted to forget about it, and didn’t want him to talk to me. There was no reason he should. He wanted me to explain why. I told him I certainly had reason enough…That same night he called me and wanted to know if I was still upset about it, that I should quit being so old fashioned, and suggested going out again. I told him at the time I didn’t want to talk to him at all.
At no point did Sydney say she considered filing any charges.
The rape or hook-up remained a secret between Sydney and Hattman until August 10, when the Emerson team held a pool party at the Norwood Hills Country Club.
In the men’s locker room, Hattman was bragging to his coworkers in the design department that he had been out with Sydney. Not knowing that Rutledge was present and within ear-shot, Hattman and the others expressed their opinions about Sydney and how she was probably being neglected in the bedroom by her absent husband.
Rutledge confronted Sydney about the allegations that night.
“He asked me what he had meant by that,” Sydney told the defense attorney. “When we finally got home I told him about everything that happened the previous Saturday night.”
On the stand at his trial, the doctor related how the news affected him.
“I can’t describe the feeling I had,” Rutledge testified. “I was heartbroken, just very much upset about it. We sat up all night talking about it. Sydney woke up crying hysterically.”
The next morning Rutledge called Hattman at the Emerson plant and confronted him over the phone, but Hattman did not want to talk.
“I told him I wanted him to leave my wife alone,” Rutledge told police during an interrogation. “He kept saying he couldn’t talk; other people could hear us, wanted me to call back and gave me a phone number.”
According to the Rutledges, Hattman refused to back down and continued to call Sydney at home when he knew her husband was at the hospital. Hattman purchased a pair of woman’s slacks and sent them to Rutledge in the mail, with a note that they belonged to Sydney; the ruse failed because Hattman left the price tag on the pants. On another occasion he drunk-dialed Rutledge and said he “had never beaten a whore out of her fee.” The next day, an envelope containing a 25-cent piece arrived in the mail.
For a while it appeared that things were going to go from really bad to even worse: Sydney told her husband she thought she was pregnant. The Rutledges’ busy schedules and state of their relationship established that if she was, the baby was not her husband’s.
Hattman retained a lawyer who spoke to Rutledge. The lawyer testified that Rutledge told him his wife was pregnant and that this had been definitely established by medical tests. In addition, the attorney told the court, the doctor said Hattman had had sexual relations with her, but he had not for several weeks because they had been quarreling.
Rutledge then said he had no intention of raising a child that was not his own and demanded $200 from the attorney to pay for an abortion, which the attorney refused. It turned out to be a false alarm and was never brought up again.
The Rutledges testified that throughout autumn and winter Hattman made many telephone calls to them in which he threatened them, called them vile names and suggested that each separate from the other, etc. However, there was reliable evidence telephone calls were frequently made by Rutledge to Hattman at the place where Hattman roomed until Hattman told him not to call any more and to see his attorney.
Beginning in November, Hattman was spending the first three days of each week in Cedar Rapids working with engineers of Collins Radio Company upon a project in which Emerson Radio Company was interested.
Rutledge testified Hattman telephoned the couple demanding money to refrain from calling them; he demanded $2,000 and Rutledge told him he would pay the blackmail if he would assure Rutledge he would leave St. Louis. According to the doctor Hattman agreed to that but they could not agree on any place in St. Louis where they could meet and agreed upon Cedar Rapids.
In December Rutledge made three trips to Cedar Rapids to meet with Hattman without success.
It was on December 14, 1948 that the play reached its climax when Rutledge and Hattman finally met. The result of that meeting was discovered the next day.
On the seventh floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids, Margaret Bell knocked on the door of room 729 to clean what she expected to be a room recently vacated by an engineer from St. Louis. Instead, Bell found Byron Hattman lying face down in a pool of his blood, his heart and liver punctured by a stab wound five inches deep.
It was a gruesome scene: Blood splatter covered the walls, the bedspread and floor. A bloody towel was floating in the toilet bowl. The knife used in the fatal attack was not at the scene.
The signs did not directly point to robbery as a motive: Hattman’s wallet was found with no money, but an expensive watch the designer wore was still on his wrist. His eyeglasses, however, were missing.
He had apparently been surprised by his attacker, for the key to the room was lying near the corpse as if it was in his hand at the time he was attacked.
“A blade less than five inches could not have made the wound,” The medical examiner on the case, Dr. Regis Weland told the court.
The stab wound was six inches long and the skin was split to a width of almost an inch. The cut ran from Hattman’s left side down toward the right at a 45-degree angle, passing through the right edge of his heart and puncturing his liver. It was delivered with such force that it broke one of Hattman’s ribs. There were defensive wounds on Hattman’s hands.
Hattman also suffered a head injury from some kind of blunt object. There were lacerations, a jagged, irregular tear at his hairline, a one-inch scalp wound on the back of his head and an abrasion over the right cheek bone.
It took less than 24 hours for the police to home in on Rutledge as the prime suspect.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on December 17, 1948, police knocked on the door of the Rutledge apartment ostensibly to question the doctor.
“A tall, willowy blond, dressed in a filmy negligee, opened the door,” wrote Gazette reporter Lou Breuer, who was with police at the time. “She identified herself as Sydney Rutledge.”
She told police that her husband was in the bathroom. Rutledge emerged and either agreed to go downtown or was arrested.
On the way to the police station the doctor became violently ill and slipped into unconsciousness. He was taken to a
hospital where he remained in a coma for about twelve hours. He later admitted he had taken an overdose of prescription sleeping pills.
“You shouldn’t have brought me around,” he said as police arrived to question him. “I would be better off dead. My career is ruined now, anyway.”
Although he was still recovering from his suicide attempt, Rutledge freely spoke to police and gave a confession from which he never wavered.
“It was over attention he had been paying to my wife,” he said. “Hattman had been trying to shake me down for money as payment in return for leaving him alone.”
Rutledge, sporting a black eye and broken nose, admitted fighting with his rival.
“Hattman kicked me in the eye and he pulled a knife on me,” Rutledge said. “We kept on fighting and I managed to get the knife away from him. Then I managed to knock him out.
“I don’t remember stabbing him.”
Rutledge said that he came to Hattman’s hotel and waited until he returned from work. The two men argued in the hotel room, with Rutledge offering to give Hattman all the money in his wallet to stop the harassment. Hattman laughed at the offer, took out his own wallet and said to the doctor that he did not need the money.
This enraged the doctor and a fistfight erupted. Rutledge said Hattman pulled a knife, but the doctor wrested it from his hands. He lunged at Hattman with the knife and hit him over the head with the handle. The doctor said as he dropped the knife Hattman fell to the floor, unconscious, but not stabbed. His argument was that Hattman stabbed himself as he fell. He washed up, took the money from Hattman’s wallet, the knife, and Hattman’s glasses which he grabbed by mistake.
Prosecutors argued that Rutledge laid in wait for Hattman, surprised him and struck him from behind as his victim tried to flee the room. With Hattman on the ground, Rutledge stabbed and killed his rival.
It took the jury five hours to find Rutledge guilty of second degree murder. A not guilty verdict was never considered; instead, the jury spent its time debating the degree of Rutledge’s guilt. Two weeks later, Judge J. E. Heiserman addressed the convicted doctor.
With Sydney weeping in the gallery, Heiserman said that Rutledge’s allegation of self defense did not bear up under scrutiny.
“That theory was rejected by the jury,” he said. “Stripped of that, the defendant was left with a case of intentional murder with malice aforethought. The court feels sorry for any young, professional, talented man in your circumstances. But I am not condoning the act.”
Heiserman sentenced Rutledge to a 70-year term, with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
Rutledge served about 10 months in the state penitentiary when he was released on bond while the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed his case. The couple moved to Houston where the doctor opened a pediatric clinic while awaiting the decision.
In 1951 the Court upheld Rutledge’s conviction and sentence. When police went to arrest Rutledge they found his clinic closed and the doctor missing.
Five days later his body was found outside Houston. He had committed suicide by running a hose from the car exhaust into the vehicle. He left a note for Sydney.
“Sorry to run out on you like this, but I think it’s best for you this way. There is a good future for you if you can just forget about all this. Love is a fleeting thing at best and time will cure a lot of grief. I love you, Bob.”