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.