HOME | FAMILY TREES | RECOLLECTIONS | SPOTLIGHT ON SOLVAY | ETC. | READ ABOUT IT | NAME DROPPING

The death of Mrs. Allene Thorpe Lamson  — murder or accident, you decide — occurred on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California. It was Memorial Day. The occasion and the setting seemed to assure that nothing bad could possibly happen, not on this holiday.

But something bad did happen, something that in many ways was a precursor to Ohio's famous Sam Sheppard case and the 2002 stairway death of Kathleen Peterson that resulted in her husband's arrest. The Palo Alto case also could have been a wonderful episode of "Columbo."

Syracuse Journal, May 31. 1933
Beauty Slain in Bathtub at Her
Home on Stanford Campus

PALO ALTO (INS) — Mysterious death of a beautiful young university woman in her picturesque little cottage on the Stanford campus near former President Herbert Hoover’s home puzzled detectives today.

The nude body of life-loving Mrs. Allene Thorpe Lamson, 28, executive secretary of the University Y. W. C. A. and a campus dramatic star, was found in her blood-stained bathtub by her husband, David Lamson, sales manager of the Stanford Press.

Her skull had been crushed by a heavy club or sharp instrument.

Detectives took Lamson to the county jail at San Jose, although no charges were preferred.

Sheriff William J. Emig announced he would seek a murder warrant today. The officer declined to state whether he would seek a “John Doe” warrant.

This death was a newspaper editor's dream — "beauty" in the headline, "nude body" in the second paragraph, a former President as a neighbor, and an educated, well-regarded husband as the prime suspect. Additionally, the location of the body — did I say "nude body"? — allowed for two scenarios: Allene Lamson was beaten over the head, perhaps by a lead pipe, or she slipped in the bathtub and hit her head on the nearby sink.

The scene had been disturbed by the husband, which hampered the investigation. It was never established where the body was, exactly, when Mrs. Lamson died. Was she in or out of the tub? Lamson claimed the body slipped back into the tub when he went into the bathroom and found her sprawled across the edge of the tub, half-in, half-out.

He cradled her head, he said, which accounted for the blood on his shirt. But just when did he put on the shirt? Minutes before Mrs. Lamson's body was discovered, her husband was in the backyard, shirtless, burning trash. A real estate woman and a client dropped by unexpectedly, hoping to look at the cottage where the Lamsons lived. David Lamson led them in, excused himself and went looking for his wife.

He broke down crying when he found her. Police were called. Lamson said his wife's death must have been an accident or the result of a beating by a prowler, which seemed highly unlikely since the husband was on the premises, though Lamson admitted that one door to the cottage was always unlocked.

Police weren't buying Lamson's story. They believed he had killed his wife in the bathtub, then went casually outside to burn trash. A piece of pipe would be found among the ashes, and on that pipe would be traces of blood. At least that's how police viewed the splotches.

Police also said Mrs. Lamson's head had been struck four times, which obviously would have ruled out an accident, unless the woman's head ricocheted from the sink to the tub to the floor. No matter. Lamson's attorney would claim there was only one wound on the woman's head.

Interpreting what little evidence was available would lead to a courtroom battle of experts, and that inspired this amusing report by Hearst columnist Winifred Black, who, at the age of 70 was nearing the end of her long career as one of the journalism's best-known "sob sisters." During the Lamson trial, Ms. Black was clearly annoyed by the tactics and performances of attorneys and witnesses for both sides, but she was especially peeved at the "experts."

Syracuse Journal, September 13. 1933
By WINIFRED BLACK
SAN JOSE, California (Universal) — “Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves.

“Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe.

“All mimsy were ye borogoves.

“And ye mome raths outgrabe.”

Don’t worry, Mr. telegraph operator, spell it just as it’s written.

Think back over your Alice in Wonderland and you’ll know exactly what it’s all about.

Now far be it from me to call a learned professor a “slythy tove” or even a “mome rath.”

But if this weird language doesn’t sound a whole lot like the strange scholastic gibberish which we plain people have had to listen to for the last three drab, monotonous, bewildering days in this courtroom, then I don’t know what does sound like which, where and elsewhere.

Experts — the very word makes my blood run cold.

First they prove one thing, and just as you’ve made up your mind that at last you really do thoroughly understand the difference between a clot of blood and a drop of blood, some other expert goes on the stand and turns all your hard-earned wisdom to the quaintest of all follies.

Professor Heinrich — he started out as a doctor, but they’re calling him professor now — has been lecturing us about arteries and veins for days, it seems to me.

And for all the effect of his scholarly words upon the average man and woman in the room, he might as well have been gyring and gymbling in the wabe.

Every time he was asked a question, the learned professor turned square in his chair, faced the jury and began an earnest, instructive, if somewhat condescending, lecture.

It was really rather wearisome and I couldn’t help wondering just when the courts will stop this tedious and, what seems to me, rather useless bit of showmanship they call expert testimony.

 

If David A. Lamson did kill his wife, what was his motive? Usually it's sex or money or both. In this case the prosecution decided it was strictly sex, but while there was much talk about Lamson's alleged affair with a San Francisco divorcée, the state failed to produce a witness to testify on the matter.

Yes, Lamson, in his role with Stanford's University Press, had met with a woman in Sacramento, a woman who wrote and edited a newspaper garden page. Lamson claimed these meetings had to do with University Press possibly publishing a gardening magazine.

Police found two love poems in Lamson's possession, poems written by the Sacramento woman. He claimed she had given them to him to read and critique, and apparently it was easy to believe he held on to them because he couldn't bring himself to tell her that her poetry was not very good.

Also, it turned out this woman was engaged to someone else and would soon be married.

There also was a well-circulated rumor that the problem between David and Allene Lamson indeed was sex. Seems she didn't enjoy sexual intercourse, especially after the birth of their daughter two years before her death. The story was she used any excuse to avoid having sex and that her husband's frustration boiled over on the day he allegedly killed her.

This would seem to be a very private matter, but perhaps Lamson or his wife confided in someone, and, as we all know, all it takes is one person to launch the gossip that soon will be heard around the world.

And no California case would be complete without a message from the afterlife:

Syracuse Journal, June 15, 1933
'Twas an accident, says the victim's "spirit"
LOS ANGELES (INS) — Doctors who told members of the American Medical Association, now in session in Milwaukee, there is no life beyond death are all wrong, according to Dr. Carl A. Wickland, M. D., president of the National Psychological Institute of Los Angeles, writer and friend of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And to prove his contention that the eminent scientists erred in their experiments beyond the grave, Dr. Wickland announced that through his wife, Mrs. Anna W. Wickland, his “trance medium,” he had talked to Allene Lamson, victim of the brutal Stanford campus murder mystery.

Mrs. Lamson’s “spirit” appeared last Friday at a “circle meeting,” he declared, and told him she had not been murdered.

“I was taking a bath and someone opened the door and frightened me. I fell and hit my head on the faucet,” Mrs. Lamson’s “spirit” was quoted as telling Dr. Wickland.

“Mrs. Lamson’s ‘spirit’ then said she was worried about her husband, David, and feared he was in trouble,” said Dr. Wickland.

 

As the trial wound down, Winifred Black, at least, was convinced the state had not made its case. The jury, however, disagreed, though it took a few hours for the eleven members who voted "guilty" to convince the twelfth member to change his or her mind.

And so it was that David Lamson was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Universal Press Syndicate published the following story, written by one of the jurors, who recounted the interesting way the jury arrived at its decision:

Syracuse Journal, September 18, 1933
By GEORGE H. HEGERICH
SAN JOSE, California (Universal) — In the first place, I want to pay my respects to the marvelous men and women who served with me on this jury. They were all exceptionally high class people and every one had only one thought in mind —to do his or her duty to the state and to David Lamson, and to do it honestly and well.

When we took our first ballot we found that we were 11 to 1 for conviction of murder in the first degree without recommendation. The one dissenting vote was for not guilty.

I am not going to say who that dissenting juror was, whether it was a man or a woman. I have the highest respect for this person’s integrity, honesty and faithfulness to duty.

We were all open-minded enough to want to let the holdout convince us that we were wrong and that Mrs. Lamson’s death was an accident.

To try this out, we constructed a “bathroom” in the jury room with chairs and desks. That was why we asked for the maps and charts of the Lamson home and the big picture of Mrs. Lamson’s body in the tub. We wanted to build our “bathroom” as close as we could to the one in the Lamson house, and we wanted the maps for measurements.

Then all of us tried to fall out of that tub in some way so that we could hit our heads on a washbowl hard enough to dash our brains out. I was one of the chief actors and I am black and blue all over from falling in various ridiculous positions.

Then we went into the lavatory and studied the washbowl there, still trying to see, with the bowl out, that it could be an accident. We succeeded only in convincing ourselves still further that it couldn’t be done, that Mrs. Lamson’s fall just could not have been an accident.

E. O. Heinrich, the defense criminologist, didn’t convince us of anything. We got that piece of pipe, and we looked at it, practiced hitting with it. Then we remembered what Mr. Heinrich had said, that those blows couldn’t have been inflicted with that pipe and we knew he was wrong there. It was plain common sense that they could have been, and we decided that they had been.

Another thing that we couldn’t explain away was the fact that Lamson’s blue coat, which was hanging on the bathroom door, had blood stains inside the sleeve halfway up to the elbow.

We couldn’t figure any way in the world for those spots to get there by spurting. they must have been put there by some human agency. Obviously there weren’t put there by Mrs. Lamson’s hands, so we decided the murderer put them there.

After we came back from dinner, the person who had held out suggested that maybe we’d better take another ballot. We did, and found that we were unanimously in favor of first degree without recommendation for leniency.

 

But the case wasn't over, not by a long shot. In this country you cannot retry a person who has been found not guilty, but you can retry a person who was found guilty. Lamson remained on death row long enough to get material for a book that he would write ("We Who Are About to Die"), but won an appeal that resulted in a second trial. This time the jury could not agree (the vote was 9 to 3 in favor of guilty), so a mistrial was declared.

The third trial was aborted before it could begin, because of a problem with the jury pool, but the state regrouped and tried Lamson one more time, again in front of a jury who voted 9 to 3 in favor of guilty. Lamson went free when the state chose not to try him again.

The California Supreme Court, in overturning the first trial, had done so on the grounds the judge had not permitted the defense to explore an alternative solution to the crime. In a highly unusual move, Chief Justice William Waste admitted that a majority of the justices felt Lamson was guilty. Nonetheless, they ruled that another trial was necessary. (And if you're counting, the vote among the three juries involved in the Lamson trials voted 29 to 7 to convict, until one juror switched, making it 30 to 6 against the defendant.)

In 1936 Lamson married Ruth Smith Rankin. A year later the movie, "We Who Are About to Die," based in part on his book, was released. Lamson wrote short stories — about 90 of them — over the next 15 years, then took a job with United Airlines. He and his second wife remained married until Lamson's death in 1975.

To dramatize this case on "Columbo," the writers would have to create a flaw in Lamson's plan, perhaps involving the pipe, which in an updated version of the story might contain incriminating DNA.

 

HOME CONTACT