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.