Archive for 1940s

Got Milk?

Walter Samples

Walter Samples was puzzled when he stepped out onto his front porch one cold day in February 1941 to find a bottle of milk waiting for him. Milk was delivered daily by a milkman, but Walter hadn’t placed an order. At first he assumed it had been left by mistake and he took the bottle to the neighbors living on either side of him to see if it belonged to them. It did not, so Walter placed the bottle in his refrigerator, probably figuring it was just his lucky day — after all, milk was going for 35 cents per gallon back then.
 
That evening Walter enjoyed some of his free milk with his dinner without any ill effects. The next morning he put some on his cereal but was almost immediately seized with spasmodic pains in his stomach. Over the next hour or so the pain got so bad that he summoned a neighbor, who called an ambulance. Apparently, Walter knew he had been poisoned.
 
“My throat is closing up,” he told his neighbor. “If I can’t talk when I reach the hospital, tell the authorities I was poisoned.”
 
His words proved prophetic: By the time he reached the emergency room at Veterans Hospital, Walter, exhibiting symptoms associated with strychnine poisoning, was unconscious. Four hours later he was dead.
 
The subsequent autopsy and an analysis of the leftover milk left police with a baffling mystery that was only going to get weirder before it was solved. It seemed like Walter would be an unlikely target for a killer, even if he was supposedly rich with a cache of cash hidden somewhere in his house.
 
A resident of Memphis, Tennessee, the 69-year-old retired engineer and Spanish-American War veteran lived alone in a tidy little bungalow, keeping pretty much to himself and living a “quiet, sober, almost hermit-like existence,” according to one article about the case.
 
Neighbors assumed he was wealthy because not only was he earning pensions from the War Department because of his military service and from his 15 years as a federal employee, Walter owned numerous rental properties around town. Beyond that, everything else about him was a mystery.
 
At first his brother assumed that Walter had been killed in an apparent robbery.
 
“My brother was murdered for purposes of robbery,” said Donald Samples. “The motive undoubtedly was greed for money.”
 
The problem was that Donald Samples’s theory of the motive for Walter’s murder made absolutely no sense when you look that the method his killer used: poison milk that took two days to make Walter sick, which makes for a patient robber indeed.
 
Police abandoned the robbery theory after a search of the house revealed no stash of cash tucked away and no signs that anything was disturbed. Walter’s bank account contained just $300, and at that time investigators could find no evidence that he had made out a will.
 
They also ruled out a random poisoning by someone at the dairy after the milkman told them that he did not stop at Walter’s house. His routine called for him only to leave a fresh bottle when a customer left an empty one on the porch. When the man passed through the neighborhood at dawn the morning the bottle appeared on Walter’s porch, he noticed that there was no bottle waiting for replacement so he passed on by.
 
It was clear to them that Walter had been targeted by someone who had watched the milkman complete his rounds and then placed the bottle where Walter would find it.
 
While the search of the house failed to locate any money, police were surprised when they found numerous photographs of “attractive women” among his personal effects. The investigation took a new tack.
 
“Walter Samples was a lamb by day and a wolf by night,” lead detective M.A. Hinds said.
 
Jealousy was now the primary motive, police suspected, and as the weeks went by, more than 150 people were interviewed in connection with the case; many of them were “heavily veiled women,” according to a published account at the time.
 
Over the next few weeks, police questioned the women in Walter’s life and a new picture of the man emerged.
 
Far from being the quiet, home-loving loner that he appeared to be on the surface, Walter was apparently quite the ladies’ man with a broad appetite for the fairer sex. His conquests ran the gamut of Memphis women: some were married, some widowed, others were young, others more mature.
 
“The aging Romeo’s trail is said to have led them through convivial gatherings where he dropped his customary cloak of austerity and became the veritable life of the party,” was how one reporter put it. “A sparkling conversationalist away from his home territory, he never lacked for dinner invitations.”
 
Neighbors, however, disputed the police claims.
 
“I was with the police when they inspected Mr. Samples’s personal belongings,” said one neighbor. “I saw the pictures they found which were described as being photos of beautiful women. They were nothing but pictures taken many years ago. One of the policemen remarked, ‘Gosh, these are old-timers, aren’t they?’ I don’t know whose pictures they were, but they certainly weren’t pictures of beautiful women.”
 
Another indirectly revealed how the neighbors kept an eye on each other.
 
“We can see into his house mighty easily from our yard. If women had been hanging around the Samples home some of us would have seen them,” she said. “I never saw any nor heard any of my neighbors say they did.”
 
Bertha HouseWhen the police announced they had broken the case, the news was almost as shocking as the murder itself.
 
Former trucking executive Louis Roy House was arrested on first degree murder charges and his wife, Bertha, was held as a material witness. The Houses were thought, like Walter, to be quite well-to-do, which only reinforced the jealousy motive.
 
The murder investigation revealed a different story, however. In October 1940 the Houses, both 36, purchased Green Acres Plantation, a 1,300-acre “local show place” outside Columbus, Mississippi. At the time everyone thought the Houses had paid $45,000 (nearly $725,000 today) in cash for the plantation, but the probe revealed that not only had they placed only a small down payment on the property, they were past due on making the mortgage payments.
 
“Mr. House is not as wealthy as he had been supposed to be,” said Inspector Hines. “Indeed, there are difficulties about the installments due on Green Pastures.”
 
Still, the authorities could not yet abandon the jealousy motive, however. Bertha House and Walter had a past that went back nearly two decades that began when she was selling washing machines and he bought one.
 
Louis HouseThe Shelby County grand jury added its own twist to the mystery when not only did it indict Louis for killing Walter, but also handed up an indictment charging Bertha with first-degree murder, as well.
 
Suddenly, jealousy was no longer the motive — police believed that it was greed that caused the Houses to kill their friend.
 
“Our investigation discloses that W.L. Samples sometime before his death executed a will under which he bequeathed all his real and personal property to Mrs. House,” said District Attorney General William Gerber. “The will was found in her possession several days after she was arrested.”
 
Once he learned of the will, Donald knew something was amiss.
 
“There was no evidence in my brother’s papers that Mrs. House would be named sole heir,” he said. “In fact, his papers indicated she would be the most unlikely person to get part of his estate.”
 
It was Donald Samples who pointed the cops in the direction of the Houses when, acting as the administrator of his brother’s small estate — now valued at less than $10,000 not counting the $1,000 insurance policy Walter took out on himself — he discovered that Bertha had made a payment of $7,600 ($121,000 today) to Walter shortly before he died. Donald said he believed his brother had assisted Bertha financially, but “as far as he knew,” their relationship was strictly business. The will was sent to a handwriting analyst with the FBI and he concluded that Walter’s signature on the document was a forgery.
 
After a 6-hour grilling by police, Bertha admitted that she had given the money to Walter as repayment for the loan, and that her husband knew nothing about it.
 
The Houses went to trial in September 1942 and were each convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but the story doesn’t end there.
 
A year later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the convictions after ruling that a statement by Louis House, where he agreed to plead guilty to murder on the condition that Bertha not be charged, was improperly introduced at the trial.
 
The final surprise in the case came when Bertha confessed to the murder and said that Louis had nothing to do with the crime. Prosecutors believed her when she said she acted alone. Bertha agreed to plead guilty and was once again sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The Tough Life of Toni Jo Henry

Toni Jo Henry

Religion was apparently very important to Toni Jo Henry, who went to her death at age 26 in the Louisiana electric chair in 1942.
 
When she was executed, Toni Jo held a small gold crucifix in her hands, a symbol of her new-found Catholic faith. When she killed Joseph P. Calloway, 42, a Houston car salesman who had the bad luck to pick up Toni Jo and her accomplice Finnon Burks, she ordered him to his knees in a cold rice field and told him to pray.
 
Then she put a bullet in his skull.
 
Toward the end of her life she told one reporter that “I always knew there was a God running the show. But I thought I could steal just one little act.”
 
The act that Toni Jo wanted to steal was to break her husband, Claude “Cowboy” Henry out of the Texas prison where he was serving a 50-year sentence for a barroom brawl that left an off-duty cop dead.
 
Toni Jo was the first and only woman to die in Louisiana’s portable electric chair and this hard luck murderer was probably as cold as any of the nearly 90 men who have followed her through the state’s death chamber.
 
“In the first place, the victim doesn’t return to haunt me,” she told reporter Elliot Chaze shortly before her death. “I never think of him. I’ve known all along it would be my life for his. I believe mine is worth as much to me as his was to him. I wonder though, sometimes, why it’s legal now for some fellow to kill me.”
 
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Toni Jo’s life was tough from the very beginning. Her mother died when she was just six, leaving a large family of children. Toni Jo’s father soon married again. Life was less happy than ever after that.
 
In her early teen years, Toni Jo ran away from home and went to work in a dance hall. By her own admission she was a prostitute by 13 (or 14 depending on the news story) and a cocaine addict by 16.
 
“I was awful ashamed of the things I did there,” she said. “But they wouldn’t let me quit. It’s that kind of a racket.”
 
It was bad man after bad man after that until she met the man who turned her life around (so to speak). She met Cowboy Henry in 1936 and the career criminal and the attractive drug addict/whore with a heart of stone were wed soon after. Toni Jo credited Cowboy with helping her kick the coke habit.
 
“He gave me a home and he got that drug monkey off my back — and that drug monkey is a big strong thing,” she recalled fondly in a jailhouse interview. “I remember the day I told him I was a cokie and the look on his face. He thought I just smoked marijuana and grinned. But when I told him my train went a lot further than marijuana he took me to a hotel room and I lay there in bed for a week and he would come in now and then and ask me how I was doing. He would slap my face with a cold towel and we would both laugh.”
 
Cowboy Henry and Finnon BurkeHer road to the electric chair began soon after she and Cowboy were wed when he received a 50-year sentence for murder. Although his victim was a law officer, Cowboy escaped hanging in Texas because the cop was off-duty and the killing was the culmination of a drunken brawl.
 
Toni Jo, who was born Annie Beatrice McQuiston, made the decision in the courtroom as Cowboy was being taken away that she would get him out. To her, get him out meant busting him from behind bars, not some kind of mealy-mouthed begging to the governor or hopeless appeals.
 
“When I stood there in the courtroom and heard the judge send him away it was like it was me they were locking up,” she told the authorities after she was arrested for Calloway’s murder. “I suffered all I could then.”
 
To free Cowboy, who clearly loved Toni Jo as much as she loved him, the ex-hooker needed two things: money and an accomplice. Using her beauty and exotic “Tex-Mex” accent, she enlisted the help of Finnon “Arkansas” Burke.
 
Burke was a drifter/career criminal who was head-over-heels in love with a woman he could never have for himself; however, it appears that Toni Jo was happy to lend herself to him if he was willing to help her get her man out of Huntsville.
 
The pair began a series of small-time robberies with Toni Jo setting aside her portion of the loot as part of her bankroll to free Cowboy.
 
First they robbed a small hardware store in Beaumont, Texas, and got sixteen guns. The sold most of the weapons, but with two handguns they started down a frozen highway toward Stuttgart, Arkansas, where they planned to rob a bank.
 
Part of that plan involved finding a getaway car. Once again, Toni Jo’s prettiness helped out.
 
While Burke hid in the weeds next to the highway outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Valentine’s Day 1940 Toni Jo stuck out her thumb and within short order found them a ride with Calloway, who was headed to Lake Charles from his home in Houston. The would-be yeggs immediately forced Calloway to strip and jammed him into the rumble-seat/trunk of his car. They drove on a few miles and pulled over beside an icy Louisiana rice paddy.
 
They pulled Calloway from the rumble seat and dragged him over the frozen ground toward a lonely haystack. Not just freezing and terrified, Calloway must have been in pain — when he was forced into the back of the car, Toni Jo slammed his hand in the lid of the rumble seat and broke most of his knuckles. Barbed wires that separated the hayfield from the rice paddy tore his skin, his autopsy revealed later.
 
What Calloway didn’t know as he knelt naked next to the haystack — not that it would have made much difference — was that Toni Jo’s pistol was not loaded. She waited until he had finished pleading for his life and talking of his family, before she made a show of loading the gun.
 
After advising him to say his prayers, but by her own admission before he even began, Toni Jo shot Calloway above the right eye.
 
Then she and Burke took the $15 Calloway had in his pockets and burned their victim’s clothes. They left the body uncovered, as if they didn’t care if or when it was found.
 
They started driving toward the Arkansas line, but when Toni Jo mentioned the bank they were going to rob, Burks wanted to call it a day. Partnership with this girl was more than he had bargained for.
 
“He turned yellow like a little rat,” she said in her confession. “And I hit him over the head with the butt of my gun.”
 
Toni Jo thought she knew where she might be safe and headed for a bawdy house in Shreveport where she used to ply her trade. But the madam wanted nothing to do with her and called Toni Jo’s uncle.
 
By this time Calloway’s body had been found and a manhunt was underway for the killers. Uncle George McQuiston convinced Toni Jo that her plan to spring Cowboy and live happily ever after was fruitless and convinced her to give herself up.
 
It took three trials to finally convict Toni Jo of Calloway’s murder. Jurors never wavered on her guilt; it was always this or that appellate issue that kept sending her back into the dock.
 
But in November 1942, Toni Jo’s luck ran out and on the 28th she finally was placed in the hot seat.
 
Though nervous and admittedly afraid, Toni Jo displayed remarkable calm as she went to the traveling electric chair set up in the Lake Charles Parish jail (It wasn’t until much later that the State of Louisiana would take over executing state criminals).
 
One of the things that bothered Toni Jo most before she met her fate was that she would never know how the radio serial “Abie’s Irish Rose” would turn out.
 
“Abie’s Irish Rose will go right on without me, laughing and fussing and making wonderful noises for everybody else,” she told reporter Chaze.
 
Leaving behind a small “death row” dog that she willed to her niece, Toni Jo wept when she was told that her head would have to be shaved for the execution. When she entered the chamber with the priest who had recently converted her to the Catholic faith, her head was covered with a bright red shawl.
 
As Toni Jo continued to cry, the executioner covered her face with the leather death mask and attached the electrode to it. The other electrode was affixed to her bare ankle.
 
Prior to leaving her cell outside the execution chamber, Toni Jo telephoned her husband and said goodbye.
 
“He was pretty broken up about it,” said one prison official.
 
Toni Jo had no public statement to make and her last words were a mumbled thank-you to the executioner who bid her goodbye as he lowered the death mask.
 
She was buried with the cross in her hands in a Louisiana county Potter’s Field after none of her relatives bothered to claim her body.
 
Burke’s death sentence was carried out shortly after.
 
Claude David (Cowboy) Henry, 31, was given a hardship parole in early 1945 and was drinking in a honky-tonk when he was involved in a vicious bar fight on July 15, 1945. The bar owner who shot him claimed self-defense and was never prosecuted.