Not if there’s an insurance company in the picture, baby. So long as you’re honest they’ll pay you with a smile, but you just try to pull something like that and you’ll find out.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there’s a death mixed up in it, you haven’t got a prayer. They’ll hang you as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar, baby.
~”Double Indemnity,” Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.
When Louis Gosden was on trial for the strychnine poisoning of his third wife for the insurance money, he probably realized his days were numbered when his only supporters turned their backs on him.
During his 1935 trial in Oakland, Gosden was warmly greeted by his elderly parents every time he appeared in court until the last day of testimony. It was then that they learned that Louis probably had them on the short list for murder until a better target came along.
One of the key prosecution arguments at the trial was that Gosden forged his late wife’s signature on an accidental death insurance policy. Gosden denied this assertion, so Deputy District Attorney Warren Olney sought to hammer home the point by proving Gosden previously forged his parents’ signatures on similar policies.
Courtroom observers could clearly see a change come over the older Gosdens when Olney showed them each insurance policies on their lives and asked if the signatures were valid. Both answered that the signatures were forgeries.
“Gosden has been accustomed to greet his parents at the end of day’s court session, but last night the greeting was refused by his parents, Mrs. Lucy Gosden and Nick Gosden, who had also testified on behalf of his son,” the Oakland Tribune reported. “Both parents brushed by their son without sign of recognition, even when he raised his manacled hands in his customary salute.”
An unemployed plumber, Gosden killed his wife of five years, Laura, on November 20, 1934 at their home in Oakland, California. As one might expect, the motive was money, but there was a sideshow featuring a pregnant “girl-bride” and a “criminal operation” (i.e., an abortion).
There was also a great irony: Gosden killed two women for the insurance payout and never received a nickel, even though the deaths were not ruled suspicious at the time. It turned out that Gosden did not read the fine print and confused accidental death policies with ordinary life insurance.
This was not the first time Gosden, 31, lost a wife due to sudden illness. In 1928, his second wife, Vivian, died under mysterious circumstances in Sunnyvale six months after their marriage. Gosden’s first marriage was annulled in 1925 after four years.
Details of how Vivian, who was 17 when she married Gosden (His first wife was also 17 at the time of their marriage), died are vague, but the similarities between her death and that of Laura are remarkable. By all accounts both women were healthy up to the time they were stricken, which indicates Gosden had not been giving them poison over a long time period. Both were dead within hours of being poisoned. No medical aid was called until 20 minutes before each died and both times Gosden told the first responders that he did not call earlier because his wife did not want him to leave her side. Gosden also told doctors that both wives had gone into convulsions after eating.
Vivian’s death certificate issued by her attending physician listed double pneumonia as the cause of death. This same physician testified at Gosden’s trial and after learning more of the facts and circumstances surrounding her death, admitted he was in error in issuing the certificate, and that he was of the opinion that Vivian Gosden’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. It is not fair to be too critical of the attending doctor for assuming Vivian died of pneumonia. The poison prevents the proper operation of the chemical that controls nerve signals to the muscles. When this signal does not get through, muscles throughout the body have severe, painful spasms.
Strychnine poisoning’s effects also include nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing in common with pneumonia. Considering that people who are exposed to large amounts of strychnine have trouble breathing within 15 to 30 minutes of ingestion of the poison as their muscles weaken and combined with the other symptoms, a physician who is not expecting foul play could easily call it pneumonia. Vivian’s doctor said he had not been told of her muscle spasms, which would have caused him to investigate further.
Approximately a week before Vivian died, Gosden took out accidental death policies on himself and his wife. It is clear that Vivian knew of the policies because her signature was on the various forms and the insurance agent testified that Vivian did not want to take the physical exam because she was pregnant. That decision came back to haunt Gosden; when he went to collect on her life insurance Gosden learned that the policy had never been in force because there was no medical examination.
Having wasted money on an invalid insurance policy and now without a potential victim, Gosden began looking at his parents as potential targets and forged their signatures on accidental death policies. It was probably simplicity, rather than familial love, that prompted Gosden to find a more suitable victim in the form of a new wife.
Things were going well for the family until Gosden lost his job as a plumber in August 1934. When he lost his position, his bank account had been reduced to slightly over $50. However, Gosden took out two policies of insurance on September 5, and one on September 8, 1934, paying premiums of $19.75. These policies were all on Laura’s life with Gosden as the beneficiary. Two of these policies were payable in case of accidental death, and the other was payable in the event of death due to natural causes.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Laura knew, or at least realized, about any of these policies, or that she signed all three, or any, of the applications.
“This question is not of any material importance, as we view this case,” wrote the California Supreme Court in upholding the conviction and sentence. “The fact remains that Gosden either with or without the knowledge of his wife procured policies of insurance upon her life payable to himself as beneficiary, and these were secured only a short time before the death of his wife.”
Three weeks later, Gosden purchased strychnine from a local drug store under the assumed name of L. N. Larsen and listed a fake address. The druggist’s register showed that the purpose of his purchase of the poison was to “kill a kitty”.
At the time of his arrest Gosden first denied the purchase of the strychnine, but later admitted that he bought some to kill rats at his father’s home in Sunnyvale. He testified at the trial that he used the strychnine to exterminate the rats, but that he did not tell either his father or mother what he was doing.
“I did not tell my father because I thought he might object to having poison put out,” Gosden testified at his trial. “I told my wife what I was going to do and she told me not to give my right name when I bought the poison. I asked her why I should not and she said ‘it’s better not to.'”
He told his defense attorney, a very young Melvin Belli, that he did not tell the police he bought the poison because, “I figured if I did they might try to frame me.”
A short time after his arrest a small bottle, corresponding in size and shape with the bottle in which the druggist sold the strychnine to Gosden, and in which there had been strychnine, was found under Gosden’s house. Gosden testified that his wife knew of his purchase of the poison and had access to it.
According to his testimony, on the day of Laura’s death she was in usual health but became ill about 7 p.m. At about 10:30 p.m. she said she was getting worse. Gosden said he suggested that he get a doctor but she would not let him. A little later in the evening Gosden went for a doctor but returned without one, stating that the stores were all closed at that hour of the night. The Gosdens had no telephone in their home and evidently Gosden wished to have it appear that he endeavored to find a telephone at some of the near-by stores to be used in telephoning for a doctor.
A witness who lived next door to the Gosdens, testified that she went into her bathroom at about about 11 p.m. From her window she saw Gosden and his wife in the kitchen. She could hear indistinctly their conversation.
“After Gosden returned from his unsuccessful search for a doctor, which was about 11 o’clock, Mrs. Gonsalves heard Mrs. Gosden tell her husband to go across the street to the Cereghinos and phone for a doctor,” the appellate decision reads. “Again she told him to hurry and get a doctor. Gosden left the house, but instead of going for a doctor stood outside under the kitchen window listening to the groans and cries of his wife. He walked back and forth in the shadow of the house, but in plain view of Mrs. Gonsalves, for about an hour.”
About two hours later, Laura herself called her neighbor, who rushed to the Gosden home.
Immediately on hearing this Gosden went into his house and said to his wife: “What did you want to bother that woman for?” Laura replied that she had to have somebody. The doctor arrived at the Gosdens’ house in about ten minutes. He remained with her until the time of her death, which occurred about one-half hour after his arrival.
On the day of his wife’s death Gosden called an undertaker and ordered a $500 funeral, offering as evidence of his ability to pay the cost of the funeral first one and then the other of the two accident policies.
One can imagine Gosden’s shock when the undertaker rejected the policies because they were payable only in case of accidental death, while Laura’s death certificate listed pneumonia. However, a helpful employee of the funeral parlor “helpfully” suggested that they could say she died after eating tainted tuna fish. Unfortunately, that meant an autopsy, so Gosden had now killed two women for the insurance money, gotten away with the murders, and still not collected a dime.
It was the last of Gosden’s teenage lovers who brought about his downfall.
Lydia Sanborn, a 17-year-old bride of just two months, had come back to Oakland from Calaveras County to get her marriage annulled, when she met Gosden. Again, details are lacking about how the two connected.
When I met Mr. Gosden, I was working in the neighborhood where he lived with his wife,” Lydia told The Oakland Tribune. “When his wife died, I went over to see if there wasn’t something I could do. Later he offered me the job as his housekeeper and I accepted. Before long we were living together as man and wife.”
At some point in the relationship, Lydia became pregnant and Gosden helped her procure an abortion. When the operation required medical attention, Lydia was arrested for delinquency and spilled the beans telling everything she knew, which was not very much except that Laura had died a painful death.
Gosden was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was while he was in jail that authorities exhumed the body of Laura Gosden and discovered the unmistakeable signs of strychnine poisoning.
From there it was basic gumshoe detective work. Once Vivian’s body was exhumed and strychnine found, it was pretty much over for Gosden.
His feeble attempt to blame Laura’s death on her suicidal tendencies was easily shot down and the jury quickly convicted him.
He died on the gallows in San Quentin on June 19, 1936.