Beneath the Surface

The Rev. John Spencer

At half-past 9 on July 26, 1921, Robert Siddell and his wife had just retired for the evening in their cabin near Konocti Bay on Clear Lake in California when they were awakened by shouts coming from their neighbor, the Rev. John A. Spencer, who was standing in their living room.
 
“Siddell, Siddell, a rope!” Spencer was shouting. “My wife is in the lake! This is Mr. Spencer calling!”
 
Reverend Spencer was standing near the front entrance, drenched from head to toe. When he saw the Siddells, he raced from the house toward the Siddell’s wharf. Robert Siddell followed him, while his wife headed next door to another neighbor’s home to fetch more help.
 
Spencer was standing on the dock when Siddell arrived next to him, and the minister pointed to something floating near where his boat was tied to the Siddell wharf.
 
“There she is now,” Spencer said, referring to his wife, Emma, and Siddell noticed that his voice and demeanor had changed a bit.
 
Looking out into Konocti Bay, Siddell saw a woman’s body floating face down in the black water, with “a considerable portion of her body exposed” above the surface. She was dressed, but the evidence reports that she “wore no hat” and her hair was “down or torn loose.”
 
Quite calm now, Spencer jumped into his boat and moved toward the bow, reaching into the water to pull his wife’s body out of the water. With Siddell’s help, they took her limp form from the water and laid her on the wharf.
 
“While all of this was going on,” the record shows, Spencer “exhibited no signs of emotion. Indeed, his manner was rather that of complacency of mind than an indicium of excitement or sorrow or grief.”
 
When they had her on the dock, he turned to his neighbor and remarked, “She does not look as though she suffered any.”
 
Although Spencer might have been willing to write-off his wife, Siddell was not. He told Spencer to lift Emma’s upper body as she lay face down on the dock. As he did so, a large amount of water was expelled from Emma’s mouth. Siddell pushed on her abdomen, and more water flowed out. They turned the woman on her back and Siddell tried to get her to breath by working her arms back-and-forth.
 
“But all efforts at resuscitation were futile,” wrote a California appeals court. “It was obvious that life was extinct, as undoubtedly was the fact before the body was removed from the water.”
 
After the coroner removed Mrs. Spencer’s body, the minister told how they had happened to end up on the Siddells’ dock so late after calling hours. Emma, it seems, was sewing a skirt and needed a particular type of thread and she knew that Mrs. Siddell was planning to go into town the next morning. According to Spencer, she persuaded her husband “against his wishes” to leave their dock, on the opposite of Konocti Bay from the Siddells, and ferry her across to the Siddell cabin.
 
Spencer said he was in the act of tying up the boat when his wife must have stood up, lost her balance and fallen into the water. He tried three times without success to rescue her, and then headed up to the Siddells to seek help.
 
The next morning, the coroner held an inquest, during which a panel of six citizens heard testimony from the witnesses, Siddell and Spencer.
 
At one point during the hearing, when one one of the jurors posited whether it was possible that Emma had suffered a heart attack or seizure of some sort, Spencer told the court that his wife did have “serious heart trouble.” Friends noted that this was the first time that they had heard this.
 
After the brief hearing, the coroner’s jury ruled that Emma Spencer met her death through accidental drowning.
 
It wasn’t long after Mrs. Spencer was buried that ugly rumors began circulating that perhaps the death wasn’t an accident. For one thing, those who had experience with drownings said, normally a drowned body sinks beneath the surface and will remain there until the gasses of decomposition reverse the negative bouyancy and cause it to float. That usually takes four to six days.
 
The body of a person who is dead before he or she hits the water will float, however.
 
The Rev. Spencer didn’t help his case, either. Shortly after the funeral, he wrote a letter to another minister, discussing the unfortunate events. His version of what happened, however, bordered on fiction.
 
“I am grateful to think that it took place in front of witnesses, and at the public wharf,” he wrote. “The evil tongues that have done so much mischief in the past can find nothing here. I have at least cause to be thankful that it took place where it did at the home of a prominent and much respected family, with they and other friends present.”
 
At another time, he told other friends that Emma had fallen overboard in the middle of the afternoon during a party while she was waving to neighbors on the shore and that several others had also dived into the water to try to save her.
 
A quiet investigation began and the police soon learned from a youth named Hudson Jack, that he was camped near the wharf near the Spencer home and that at about 8 p.m. on the night Emma died, he heard a scream coming from the waterfront near that dock.
 
A little more than two weeks after she had been buried, Emma’s corpse was exhumed and an autopsy was performed. Although Mrs. Spencer’s mitral valve in her heart was a trifle thick, that would not have caused her death or even prompted a heart attack, the medical examiner ruled.
 
When friends of Mrs. Spencer told investigators they thought it very unusual that Emma had left her home without a scarf and hat that she “always” wore.
 
“It was known that the deceased always wore a hat and certain shawl when visiting among her friends or sailing with her husband on the lake,” the appellate court wrote. “As seen, when her body was first observed floating in the bay…the deceased wore neither a hat nor the shawl referred to.”
 
Working from the theory that perhaps Mrs. Spencer did not drown where she was found, authorities began poking around the dock near the Spencer cabin and when dragging the area of the lake around the Spencer dock, managed to bring up a red-and-white shawl that Emma’s friends subsequently identified as the victim’s favorite.
 
In August 1921, Spencer appeared at the offices of a real estate firm and demanded some documents that his wife had prepared shortly before her death. The papers signed over rights to some property and a promissory note held by Emma Spencer to her husband in the event of her death.
 
Next, the police began looking at the marital relationship between the minister and his wife.
 
“It was discovered that for a number of months before the death of Mrs. Spencer the relations between the defendant and his wife were of the most unhappy character,” the investigation revealed. “Spencer had often been heard to abuse his wife by addressing to her opprobrious epithets of the most indecent character and expressing himself when quarrelling with her in the most offensive profanity.”
 
At one point, a weeping Emma told a friend, “that man in the next room is killing me.” Another neighbor heard her telling Spencer that “she knew enough about him to send him to prison.”
 
Most damning of the circumstantial evidence that was accumulating against the Rev. Spencer was the fact that he was carrying on an affair with a married woman referred only as “Mrs. D.” He not only was her lover, he was paying for an apartment for her in San Jose and at times was living with her as if they were married.
 
Authorities unearthed a letter written by Spencer in December 1920 to Mrs. D., where he referred to her as “My only sweetheart.
 
“We will see each other and confess our love to each other, just the same, darling,” he wrote in it.
 
Other evidence showed that Emma was well aware of the affair, although she certainly did not approve. In fact, as Spencer became more and more infatuated with Mrs. D. — there is no mention of Mrs. D.’s husband, and it seems likely that because she was living in an apartment paid for by Spencer she was at least separated — the Spencers’ relationship became more fractious.
 
In August 1921, the Lake County Sheriff and district attorney concluded their investigation and arrested Spencer. During a boat trip back to Lake County, Spencer asked District Attorney Churchill how much he earned annually. When Churchill replied that he received $1,500, Spencer replied, “That’s not enough!” He then offered him a bribe.
 
“I know of a case where the district attorney was given $200 for not prosecuting a case,” Spencer said. “Do you think that would be a proper thing to do?”
 
Churchill knew what was going on and began to play along. He talked about how poor he was and about his high mortgage. Spencer asked if he wanted to live on Konocti Bay, which Churchill said sounded very nice. Spencer then proposed giving him 50 feet of frontage along the bay as well as enough lumber to build a home.
 
When Spencer discovered a recording device in a room where he and Churchill were to discuss the bribe further, he dropped the subject.
 
The matter went to trial, and the Rev. Spencer was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, arguing that the corpus delicti was not proved, but was unsuccessful.