Archive for 1920s

Under a Bad Sign

Arthur Covell

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

The supernatural figures into more than a few crimes that are chronicled in The Malefactor’s Register, although most, if not all, can be laid at the feet of killers who are very much of this world.
Few murderers, however, are like Arthur Covell, who in 1923 used a horoscope to plan the murder of his sister-in-law Ebba Covell. What makes Covell’s crime even more unusual was that he had a hypnotic effect over his nephew Alton, who he used as his murder weapon. Without Alton, Arthur never could have committed the crime for he was a bedridden paralytic (or as the press at the time referred to him, “a hopeless cripple”) who could not walk and who was barely able to sit up in bed.
Ebba was the second wife of Dr. Fred Covell, a chiropractor who lived in Bandon, Oregon, a beautiful small town along the Pacific Coast. Along with Ebba and Fred, the Covell household included two of Fred’s children by a previous marriage, Lucille, 14, and Alton, 16, as well as three children from Fred and Ebba’s marriage.
Apparently Lucille and Alton were developmentally disabled — Alton to the point that he had been institutionalized. When Fred remarried after the death of Alton and Lucille’s mother, Alton was returned to the home.
The situation in the Covell household — two teens with mental handicaps, a profoundly disabled adult, and the normal chaos that accompanies young children — was tense and according to contemporary accounts, there was particular hostility between Arthur and Ebba.
“Mother never went upstairs to see him and always fussed about how much he ate,” Lucille told authorities.
Arthur had been injured when a truck he was repairing fell on him and crushed his spine. As he recovered he began studying the pseudo-science of astrology and casting horoscopes for friends and family. Within a short time he gained a reputation as an accomplished seer and was running a lucrative mail-order horoscope business. His clientele included several Hollywood big-wigs such as movie director William Desmond Taylor, who would one day be murdered himself in one of Hollywood’s great unsolved crimes.
Arthur’s work in astrology was more than vaguely simple solar horoscopes of the type we see in many newspapers. Instead, he said he used the stars and planets to provide advice on when to make decisions and to predict what the future held.
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1923 the heavens revealed to Arthur a complex plot of mass murder and theft. Evidence uncovered after the murder of Ebba showed that Arthur had planned to use Alton to commit at least 27 murders in and around Bandon. Some of the victims were to be slain after being swindled while others would be killed after their wills were revised to make Arthur a beneficiary. Strangely, one of the families Arthur slated for death was to be sacrificed for the improvements they had made to their home.
“The plans of Arthur Covell were so minutely detailed that they even called for the removal of windows and doors before the home of the victim was burned,” said Detective Luke S. May after Arthur’s arrest. “The stolen articles were to be used in a home the Covells planned to build.”
Although Covell told Alton and Lucille that Ebba’s murder was fated by the stars, her arguments with Arthur and her apparent discovery of his plot also helped, police said.
On September 3, 1923 the time had come to get Ebba out of the way, Arthur told Alton. They had already talked over the plan in great detail, and even included Lucille in some of the discussions. Lucille later said that she was afraid to go to her father or stepmother for fear of what they would do to Uncle Arthur.
The stars told Arthur that the crime must occur at 11 a.m. on September 3, after Fred Covell went to work.
As Arthur lay in his bed on the second floor, Alton took the murder weapon — a rag soaked with ammonia — and sneaked up behind his stepmother. He clamped the rag over her mouth and nose, and after a painful struggle a few minutes long Ebba died. The only sign of injury was an red rash on her cheek caused by the chemical.
Alton carried Ebba’s lifeless body to her bedroom and gently placed her on the bed and told his uncle that it was done. Arthur called Fred at his office and told him to return home as “something terrible has happened.”
It didn’t take long for authorities to toss out the idea that Ebba, a healthy, middle-aged woman, would just keel over and die a natural death. However, they were stumped when an external examination did not reveal any evidence (except that strange red blotch on her cheek) of foul play. She had not been strangled and her neck was not broken.
Once the coroner ruled her death to be homicide, police began pressuring the most obvious suspect, Fred Covell. After all, there was no way that Arthur could have carried out such a crime, and the only other people in the house were Alton and Lucille, neither of whom had any reason to want Ebba dead.
Within 48 hours, however, Fred was out from under suspicion while Alton and Arthur were in jail awaiting arraignment on murder charges. The case broke open after police questioned Lucille who told them everything she knew about Arthur’s plans. Confronted with her information, Alton confessed to killing Ebba at Arthur’s direction.
I put the ammonia on the rag,” he said, “and Ebba was standing by the stove. I walked up to her from behind and on the right side. I put the rag over her nose with my right hand and held her arms with my left. I held it on her nose, pressing hard, for about three minutes before I let her down on the floor.”
In Arthur’s bedroom police found a journal filled with encoded entries and astrological symbols. It didn’t take them long to decipher the code which amounted to a written confession of the entire plan by Arthur. The notebook contained messages such as “Today is the day. I wonder if Alton will go through with it.”
Interestingly, it also contained a note from Arthur to himself detailing how he had miscalculated the appropriate time for Ebba’s death: “Sept. 3. 11 A. M. Made mistake about con. Should have been 11:14:14.”
To police, however, Arthur admitted nothing except knowing that “September would be a bad month for Ebba.”
The trial of Arthur and Alton was pretty much a perfunctory affair. Both were convicted of murder; Alton received a life sentence while Arthur, who observed his trial from a cot in the courtroom, was sentenced to hang.
Arthur was carried to the gallows by a group of prison guards on May 28, 1925 and hanged. Alton was paroled after serving about eight years.

Dottie Got a Gun

Dorothy Perkins

The tragic story of Dorothy Perkins, at one time the youngest woman ever to be charged with murder in New York, is a great example of what happens when more than one eyewitness describes a crime.
If anyone should have been lying dead on the floor of that crowded Greenwich Village house on Valentine’s Day 1925, it probably should have been either Mickey Connors or Dorothy’s father, Rudolph.
Instead, the dead man was Thomas (Tommy) Edwin Templeton, a veteran of the Great War and an apparently pretty decent guy who was only trying court 17-year-old Dorothy, who ended up fatally shooting him.
Dorothy’s father served with Tommy, 26, in the New York Guard’s Ninth Coast Artillery as a supply sergeant. During the war, Tommy had risen to the the rank of sergeant and continued his military service in the reserves while working as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He came from a reputable old New York family; his brother served in the New Jersey State Assembly. His prospects were bright, which made him in Rudolph’s mind a good suitor for Dorothy.
On the other hand, 35-year-old Mickey Connors was a truck driver and spouse-abusing divorced felon when he became acquainted with Dorothy. His ex-wife was serving a term for felony forgery. Dorothy was 15 at the time they met.
Dorothy was attracted to Connors, even though she knew he was married. Whether she knew of his past as a criminal is not known, but even if she did, it made no difference.
Perhaps it was her father’s relentless pressure for Dorothy to agree to Tommy’s courtship that turned her off from him, perhaps it was something else: when she was arrested for Tommy’s murder, the press made no secret that Connors had “ruined” Dorothy, and there were claims that she even had a child by him.
Connors and Dorothy apparently met in June 1924 when he wed the mother of one of Dorothy’s girlfriends. After that marriage, Connors moved away from Greenwich Village, but kept in contact with Dorothy on the sly. Meanwhile,
“The Perkinses felt easier at this,” wrote one reporter, referring to Connors’s move. “Tommy Templeton was calling at the Jane Street house more frequently now…and Rudolph felt and said that his young comrade-in-arms was the man for Dorothy. And Dorothy did not seem to dislike Tommy. Rather, she seemed indifferent to him. Rudolph though she might come to love Tommy, if Mikey Connors stayed out of the way.”
But Connors did not stay out of the way.
On February 13, 1925, the Ninth Battery held a review at a nearby armory followed by a dance. Tommy gave two tickets to the event to Dorothy, assuming she would invite a girlfriend.
“The regiment paraded, marched in review past the colonel, countermarched, formed batteries, manned the big guns,” reads an article in the American Weekly magazine. “Telescope under his arm, Sergeant Templeton sprang up the ladder to the gun-pointing platform…As he stood there above the gun, his eyes wandered to the balcony filled with the guests of the regiment, seeking Dorothy. He found her — and Mickey Connors. Side-by-side they sat.”
Dorothy watched the drill but skipped the dance, although Connors opted to stay. Confronted by both Rudolph Perkins and Tommy Templeton, Connors disclaimed any intentions of any sort toward Dorothy.
The crisis came the next night at the party celebrating Rudolph’s 47th birthday. Tommy was invited, Connors was obviously not. His presence was not needed, however, for there to be trouble. Just what happened that night — aside from Tommy dying — remains a bit of a mystery because of the numerous versions of the shooting that witnesses recounted during Dorothy’s 15 minutes of infamy.
“Dad was in the hall waiting for him when Tommy got to the house,” Dorothy told police later. “I was dancing in front, but I heard them and came out. And then Dad shouted that he never wanted me to speak to Mickey again.”
Rudolph once again promoted Tommy to his daughter.
“Why do you want a bum like Connors when you can have a nice fellow like Tommy?” he asked.
Dorothy testified that she wasn’t interested in Connors any more, and that their encounter the previous night was really just a chance meeting.
“I told him I didn’t want to hear anything about it,” she said. “He slapped me in my face. I ran to my room, trying to think. It looked like trouble — everyone was drinking.”
People at the party said they assumed she was going to the room to get away from her drunken father. What no one knew was that Dorothy was heading to her room to fetch a .22-caliber revolver which she had stolen from an aunt in Connecticut. The Perkinses did not know their daughter had a gun, but Tommy had apparently seen her with it at least once before, according a witness at her trial.
Joseph Harssel, a soldier in Tommy’s regiment testified that after a double-date at a local movie theater, Dorothy opened her bag and displayed the gun.
“Templeton asked her what she carried the gun for,” Harssel testified. “She said she was a ‘blonde-haired bandit.’ Then…she said ‘I am carrying the gun with me for protection in case someone approaches me on my way home.'”
At Dorothy’s arraignment, the family minister testified to what he had been told by the family in the aftermath of the shooting. The Rev. Truman A. Kilborne of the Greenwich Presbyterian Church said that after Dorothy heard that her father threatened to shoot Connors, she retrieved the gun from her dresser, fearing that Rudolph had found it and was going to use it. She returned to the house with the revolver hidden in her sleeve, Kilborne said.
“Someone told her father that she had a revolver and he attempted to take it away from her,” The New York Times quoted the minister as saying. “She resisted and in the struggle for its possession the revolver went off. Templeton, who was standing nearby, pitched forward, his heart pierced by the bullet.”
Previously, at the grand jury hearing, Harry Brown, a friend of Tommy’s, testified to a wholly different version of events — one in which Mickey Connors made an unwelcome appearance at the party.
“Things were going all right until somebody said something about another fellow being downstairs to see Dorothy. Tommy left the room for a while and walked into the hall, He said. “When he came back, Dorothy was standing near me when Tommy said, ‘That mutt is downstairs. He’s got a rod, and he’s too yellow to use it.”
According to Brown, Dorothy ran down stairs and came back with the pistol, saying “I’ll show you whether or not my friend is yellow.” Brown said Dorothy then fired two rounds and “Tommy dropped dead to the floor.” He claimed to have grabbed Dorothy and locked her in her bedroom awaiting the police. It was Brown’s testimony that led to the murder charge.
In her interview with the American Weekly, Dorothy said the shooting occurred before she ever left the house. She slipped the gun into the sleeve of her coat and tried to leave.
“I thought I would get out of the house and give it to somebody to keep for me,” she said two months before her trial. “But dad stopped me. He struggled with me. He tried to hit me. Then the gun slipped down the loose sleeve of the coat. I grabbed for it. It went off. I saw Tommy staggering. He said something. Mother says he said: ‘She’s got me now, Mrs. Perkins!'”
Aside from Tommy being dead by a gunshot wound, the only other fact in evidence was that the bullet went through Rudolph’s coat and eyeglass case on its way to Tommy’s heart.
“I held Tommy in my arms until they said he was dead,” Dorothy continued. “Then I — I don’t know — I guess I ran.”
Prior to Dorothy’s trial, Rudolph tried to take the blame.
“I saw the glint of the revolver in her coat sleeve,” he said. “I grabbed for it — and she got a grip on it, too. Tommy was behind me, trying to stop the fuss. Then there was a shot. Tommy staggered, and Dorothy began to scream. Maybe I did it. “Both of us grabbed the gun. No one will ever know who pulled the trigger — Dorothy or I. But it was an accident.”
When she was on the stand, Dorothy said she took the pistol from her aunt because Tommy promised to teach her how to shoot. She testified at her trial that she fought with her father, grabbed the pistol — without explaining why — and left the house. Dorothy said she was walking around for about an hour, cooling off. She returned home, assuming her father had relaxed as well. It was not the case.
“The minute I came in the door, Dad began again,” Dorothy continued in her confession. “As I came up he called me a name and said he’d kill me. He stopped me and took hold of my hands and my mother grabbed him.”
She told police that she did not remember what happened after that moment, and stuck with that story during her trial.

Q — Do you remember whether the gun was in your hand?
A — No, I don’t.
Q — Do you remember if it was your finger that pulled the trigger?
A — No.
Q — Did you shoot that gun?
A — Not that I remember.
Q — Do you love Tommy?
A — Yes.
Q — Do you still cherish his memory?
A — I do.

She claimed on the stand that her standoffish treatment of Tommy was an attempt to make “him jealous by flirting with someone else.”
On June 17, 1925, the jury rejected the state’s case that the shooting was murder and convicted Dorothy of manslaughter. A week later she was sentenced.
“I wish to say that I feel very sorry for you. It is to be regretted that a young woman like you should find herself in the position you occupy today.” The judge, identified only as McIntyre, appeared to be preparing to lower the boom on Dorothy. “You did a heinous wrong. You have led a very bad life for a young woman. You led from a very early life a meretricious relation with a man whom I regard as a beast and a boor. I do not know whether the information imparted to me is correct or not, but I am told that the child at your aunt’s house is your child.”
McIntyre’s claim hit Dorothy like a punch in the gut and she reportedly staggered back into her seat. He then said if she disclaimed the allegation, he would believe her. He once again said he had sympathy for Dorothy, but that he could not overlook the fact that a serious crime had been committed. He berated her for bringing the pistol to New York and for claiming she was a blonde-haired bandit.
“You are a girl, it is true, but women are not exculpated because of their sex,” McIntyre went on. “When a woman is bad she is vicious and worse than a man many, many times over. There is too much of it. Women seem to feel that they may do that which they please and get away with it.”
With that tongue-lashing, McIntyre sentenced Dorothy to 5-to-15 years in the women’s prison at Auburn.
Dorothy Perkins ended up serving four years of the sentence, during which time she was trained as a stenographer. She was released in January 1929 for good behavior and The New York Times reported that she had a job waiting for her when she got out.
Mickey Connors served a few months in the Tombs for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.