Nightclub Girl in a Curfew Town

Some places in America don’t really accept outsiders until their grandchildren are born there. In the 1920s, Perry, Ohio was one such place. Although the village was an easy drive from Cleveland, it was a close-knit community that had little tolerance for change. When Cleveland native Velma West moved to Perry with her husband Edward in 1926, she didn’t realize until it was too late that her big-city ways were anathema to the people of her new home.
 
Velma was different from the young ladies in Perry. She spoke openly about the “kicks and thrills” of life, and in a time when women didn’t smoke in public, she liked cigarettes — and plenty of them. The 21-year-old flapper got off on the wrong foot with the community when she lit up at the reception Edward’s parents held for the newlyweds.
 
The West family was well-respected not only in Perry, but across the United States for their nursery and horticultural products in an area of Northern Ohio that calls itself “The Heart of the Nursery Industry.” Their wealth and influence in the community didn’t protect Velma, who soon became a pariah.
 
“She was invited out a little at first,” a newspaper account of the time states. “But Velma was bored by the parties. Besides, the invitations seemed to die a natural death.”
 
For a time the Wests made the 25-mile trip to Cleveland where they partook of the city’s nightlife and palled around with Velma’s old friends. Soon, however, Velma realized that the Edward of Perry, Ohio, was not the same man she knew in Cleveland. Edward suffered from “fits” of depression and was cruel to his wife, her attorney said. Worst, perhaps, Edward was at heart a homebody and he soon became tired of the fast city ways.
 
“Let’s stay home tonight, Velma,” he told her on the night his flapper wife took a hammer to his head. “Let’s just stay here alone and you play and sing while I sit in the chair with the paper. It will be cozy.”
 
But that night in early December 1928 Velma wasn’t interested in singing and playing the piano. She had been invited to a bridge party in Cleveland and after a day of sitting alone at home while Edward worked in the nursery, she wanted to go out.
 
Earlier in the week when the invitation to play bridge was extended, Edward not only agreed to let her go, he volunteered to accompany her to Cleveland where they would spend the night with her parents. However, when the time came to prepare to leave, Edward balked.
 
“I won’t have you running with that crowd,” Velma recalled her husband saying. “Why won’t you play bridge with some of these nice Perry girls?”
 
Edward was also unhappy with his bride, her attorney admitted. She was more interested in the bright lights, big city lifestyle than she was in housekeeping, which in the 1920s, was her duty and lot in life.
 
On December 6, the dispute over the bridge party grew more and more heated. Each used the argument to vent their deepest resentments toward the other.
 
Upstairs in their bedroom, while Vera dressed to go out and Edward undressed for bed, the fight grew physical. Velma said that Edward threw the first punch. She also admitted that she landed the last blow.
 
When Edward hit her, Velma said she “saw red.”
 
“I’m going to leave you and never come back,” she shouted. According to Velma, Edward said he would kill her before he let her go. That afternoon Velma had been hanging curtains and left a hammer in the bedroom. She grabbed it.
 
“Don’t come any nearer or I’ll strike,” she remembers yelling.
 
But Edward did take a step forward and, true to her word, she hit him in the head.
 
“He tried to rise and she struck him again and again,” Lake County Sheriff Edward T. Rasmussen said. “Six times or more.”
 
Edward was still conscious and he raised himself on all fours and she hit him again. This time he fell on his face.
 
“He lay quiet and I didn’t want him to get up,” Velma confessed. “I tied his hands behind his back with wrapping cord, and I tied his feet together at the ankle. Then he seemed to come to himself so I rolled him over and hit him again on the head with the hammer.”
 
Thinking that Edward was merely unconscious, she covered his body with a quilt and tied a handkerchief over his mouth. Then Velma changed her blood-soaked dress and burned it. After that Velma took the keys and went to the bridge party, staying overnight with her parents, the Van Woerts.
 
The next morning Velma and her mother went Christmas shopping, where Velma bought presents for the Wests — including her husband. By the time they returned to the Van Woert home, the Perry police and Lake County deputies were waiting for her to return her to Perry, where her husband had been attacked — by an intruder, they thought. After all, a 100-pound woman could not have overpowered a large man like Edward.
 
On the trip back to Perry, Velma confessed to the crime and was charged with first-degree murder. At the time that crime could have put her in Ohio’s electric chair.
 
The case made the papers across the country, and journalists sought out alienists to explain why a young lady would commit such a heinous crime.
 
“When Velma struck at her husband, she was striking at everything that tortured her in Perry, Ohio,” said Homer Croy. “Every young husband is in danger during his early matrimonial life because he wants to put his wife into his own chains. When you start to chain a wife, it is like trying to chain the submerged seven-eighths of an iceberg. It cannot be done.”
 
She was scheduled to go to trial in March 1929, but on the day of jury selection, she agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in return for a life sentence.
 
The plea probably saved her from the chair. The State of Ohio was prepared to introduce evidence that Velma was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the hostess of the card party. Their investigation had uncovered explicit romantic letters between them that would have roiled the staid community — already shocked by her cigarette smoking.
 
Later, Velma denied any sexual relationship with another woman and expressed bitterness toward her reputed lover.
 
“Why should I get so much blame, rather than her?” she told noted reporter James Kilgallen in a jailhouse interview. “She was the same toward me as I was toward her. She wrote me letters as bad as I wrote her.”
 
In the Kilgallen interview Velma predicted that she wouldn’t spend the rest of her life in prison.
 
“Within 10 years I shall be eligible for parole,” she said. “That gives me hope.”
 
Her prediction was wrong. In 1934, the parole board rejected her plea for release and continued the case for life — essentially condemning her to die behind bars.
 
In 1939, she walked away from Marysville with three other inmates and was captured a month later in Dallas. She blamed the escape on a need to “have one last adventure in this dull life of mine.”
 
She wrote to the warden that she “lost hope of getting out as I would like to get out. I am being torn two different ways — my desire not to hurt you and my folks whom I love — and my desires to have just one little adventure before I get too old and too dulled by pain to ever enjoy life.”
 
Velma West died in Marysville on October 10, 1959.