Losing It All

Helen Joy Morgan

When Helen Joy Morgan went on trial for murder in 1933, the press was quick describe her as a “pretty, cultured, convent-bred heiress,” but not one reporter was willing to point out that she was also quite nuts.
She was not crazy in the medico-legal sense of the word where a person is not responsible for their actions. Instead, Helen was a whack-job obsessive girlfriend who would brook no rival for the affections of her boyfriend, a Flint, Michigan, garage mechanic, and was willing and able to kill to protect what she thought was hers.
It is hard to say in whose book except Helen’s that the boyfriend, Leslie Casteel, would be considered a catch, but when Helen met him, she was immediately head-over-heels for the grease monkey.
They were a study in contrasts. He could neither read nor write and preferred colognes and perfumes to bathing.
Helen was the sole heir to the wealth amassed by the Morgan family of Chicago. Helen’s mother owned valuable properties in the Loop area of the Windy City, in California, as well as a plantation in Mississippi and real estate outside of Flint (Readers are reminded that back in the 1920s and 30s, Flint was home to a thriving automobile industry with all of the wealth and social strata of Detroit).
To say Helen and Les had nothing in common is putting it mildly. She moved in America’s most exclusive society — Old Money — and he was 43-year-old a thrice-married, illiterate, serial philanderer who was more than 10 years her senior.
After Helen graduated from the exclusive convent boarding school in the early 1920s, she and her widowed mother, Carrie, moved to Flint. There they were welcomed into the city’s high society, but Helen never expressed any enthusiasm for the many eligible bachelors who were hoping to make her acquaintance.
Not interested in the activities of Flint’s tony set, Helen instead enjoyed taking long country drives by herself. It was on one of the jaunts that her car broke down and Helen met Les.
No one connected to the case could really give a good reason why Helen found Les so appealing. Maybe it was a rebellious act; it might have been that she thought society boys to be immature; perhaps she thought that she could control Leslie easier than a man from her own economic class. Could be she saw a “bad boy” who needed fixing. We will never know.
What was clear was that once the 27-year-old Helen set eyes on Leslie Casteel, he was the most important thing in her life. It was this obsession with Leslie that prompted her to buy a gun and kill him when it appeared his ardor for her had cooled.
The Widow Morgan was not at all happy with her daughter’s choice of a boyfriend, so soon Helen had moved out of their mansion into a small cabin owned by the mechanic.
“There she cooked his meals and cashed his pay checks and kept house,” wrote one anonymous reporter. “There she was content to ignore all of the luxury she had known since childhood and to slave for an ignorant, uncouth man whose only qualification was that she loved him.”
Carrie Morgan’s fight to keep her daughter probably pushed Helen even closer to Les. The family matriarch sent her daughter to California for several months, hoping it would cool the flame. Her plan was halfway successful, for in Helen’s absence Les returned to his philandering ways.
Helen, for her part, remained just as infatuated as ever, even after she learned that because of his illiteracy, Les had the other workers in the garage read him Helen’s love letters.
Carrie then took out her big stick and disinherited her only child. That made no difference to Helen, although we have no reports about how Les felt about losing out on the Morgan millions.
To be fair to Les Casteel, he never appeared to be after Helen for her money. Even his relatives were not impressed by Helen’s money. Noting that the couple was a cosmic mismatch, they scorned and shunned the young woman, who remained undeterred.
Les’s real motivation for the relationship with Helen was simply sex. A man with three divorces is clearly not a big believer in commitment, and eventually the novelty of making love to Helen wore off. Les began to look for other woman, tripping Helen’s jealousy switch with a vengeance.
In today’s world it does not seem unusual to hear about someone stalking their lover (former or otherwise), but this apparently was something not done in the 1930s, much less an act committed by a woman from Old Money.
Helen began following Les around town, spying on his every move. She parked outside the cottage they used to share (she did not move back in after her return from California) and watched it for hours, afraid he was carrying on with other women. He was, and she was quick to confront these women with threats of violence.
Not surprisingly, the stalking was a big turn-off for Les, so he began to distance himself from Helen. As most stalking victims will attest, this is easier said than done.
One time Helen showed up at the garage where Les worked and created a scene. She would warn any woman she saw come in contact with Les to stay away from him. Later, Helen acknowledged that something was not right with her.
“He had some strange power over me that I could not break,” she told police after her arrest.
Jealousy quickly turned to irrational anger, with Les as the prime target now. It was clear that Helen was losing control. She told a factory manager who was a friend of Les’s that his wife had been seduced by Les into having an affair — this was a complete fabrication.
There was no such thing as a restraining order in those days, so Les had little else to do but to take it and hope Helen would move on. Obviously, the worst was yet to come.
Two weeks before Les would die, the cabin that he shared with Helen burned down. To investigators it looked like an accident, and it may well have been one. However, Helen told police that Les had torched the place for the insurance money. Les was arrested on arson charges based solely on Helen’s statement. When she refused to repeat it for a grand jury, he was released without ever being charged with wrongdoing.
In April 1931, Les had had enough and decided that putting a few thousand miles between him and Helen might be best. He announced plans that he was leaving Flint for California. Forever.
Helen was not ready to give up the man she both loved and hated. She begged him for one last meeting before he left and Les agreed.
On the last night of his life, Les went for a ride with Helen. They ended up at Glenwood Cemetery on a lonely road in Genessee County, Mich.
What we do know is that the couple sat in the car for just a few moments before three shots cut through the silence of the cold night. Then Les stumbled from the car and fell in the road, dead. From behind the wheel, Helen emerged and stood over him before dropping the pistol and driving calmly back into town. We know this because the entire shooting was witnessed by a man named Nelson Roome, described in the press as the night watchman for the cemetery.
Helen drove to a police precinct in Flint and said she killed Les in self-defense.
“You tried to put me in jail!” she claimed Les yelled at her. “I’m going to cook your goose, you little double-crossing stool pigeon!”
Helen said Les pulled a pistol and struggle began between the 200-pound mechanic and the 130-pound society girl.
“The door came open on my side and I fell out of the car. I pointed the gun at him and I pulled the trigger, but it wouldn’t go off,” Helen told police. “I fixed some mechanism on it, and pulled the trigger. It went off. I’m sorry I did it because I loved him.”
The story fell apart quickly after it was learned Helen had purchased a .32 revolver about a month before the killing. In other words, it was she who brought the gun to the meeting.
Helen did not testify at her trial and it did not take long for the all-male jury to convict her of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to serve 20- to 25-years in prison.
The last mention of Helen Joy Morgan leads us to believe that she ended up serving a good chunk of that time. In January 1934 — after she had served a little over a year in the Detroit House of Corrections for Women — the Michigan Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence.