George A Thacher.

Why some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed online

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B 3 Tib 5DS



Murder Mysteries Revealed

George A. Thacher




Murder Mysteries Revealed



George A. Thacher, LL.B.

President Ore}ron Prisoner's Aid Society. Chairman Committee on Juvenile

Phases of Viee, Portland Vice Commission 1012. Chairman Portland

Prison Commission 1913. Author "Feeblemindedne.«s and

Crime in Oregon," and other essays.

Copyrighted 191P, by GEORGE A. THACHER





Introduction by Dr. Henry H. (loddard 1

Chapter 1., The Delinquent Moron 5

Chapter II., Psychology of Confessions of Crime ir>

Chapter III.. Tlie Murder of William Booth and the Convic-
tion of William Branson and Mrs. Booth 22

Chapter IV., WilHam Biggin Shows Warden Murphy

Where He Concealed the Bevolver ',\2

Chai)ter V., Appeal to the Public for the Belease of Wil-
liam Branson and Mrs. Booth 40

Chapter VI., The Murder of Mrs. Daisy Wehrman and Her

Child \:y

Chapter VII., The Crime Indicates the Criminal 'A)

Chapter VIII., The Hair Found in Mrs. Wehrman's Dead

Hands ,"(>

Chapter IX., John Sierks' Letters About the Murder (iO

Chapter X., Confirmation of John Sierks' Confession of the

Murder (51

Chapter XI,, Circumstantial Evidence (58

Supplement to Chapter XL, Containing Judge Pipes' Brief . 80

Chapter XII., Characteristics of Sadism 87

Chapter XIIL, Personal Character of Mr. Pender 01

Chapter XIV., The Sadistic Murder of the Hill Family 04

Chapter XV., William Biggins' Confession 101

Chapter XVL, The Murder of Mary Spina 112

Chapter XVIL, Conclusion 115

Press of Pacific Coast Rescue and Protective Society


John Ci. H. SitRKS. :i nicdiuni grade
moron, who confessed to killing Mrs.
Wehrman and her child in Columbia
County, Oregon, in September, 1911, antl
then repudiated his eDnl'essiou. Chap-
ters f.-i:i.

John Arthir P);m)i;r, who was wrong-
fully convicted of the murder of Mrs.
Wehrman and her child. Mr. Pender has
been in different jails and the peniten-
tiary since September 15, 1911.


Some years ago I spent a Sunday afternoon at the Oregon
State Penitentiary in Salem with one of the officers of the insti-
tution and a "trusty." The latter was a veiy intelligent man,
who had received a college education. The conversation turned
to the question of mental defect among the inmates of the insti-
tution, who at that time numbered about 340. Neither of my
companions was an alienist nor a psychologist but they both
knew the men in the institution, and referring to the prison
records they named about 70 men who were (in their opinion)
defective. The deputy warden, to whom I mentioned the sub-
ject of our conversation, said, "Yes, and I could add some to
your list."

I did not feel confident that the list was entirely accurate,
but I realized that eveiy day association with the prisoners prob-
ably made the designation of defective by these men worthy of
thoughtful consideration at least. In jotting down the names of
these prisoners I asked what offenses they had committed. In
this list approximating 70 defective prisoners 36 were serving
sentences for rape and of the 36 there were 13 who had raped
their own daughters. One prisoner was serving his third term
for this same offense. Seventeen of these prisoners were guilty
of the offense which has made ancient Sodom a byword through
the centuries. Six of these men had committed murder and all
of the six were sex perverts.

Naturally these defective beings often have a defective moral
sense. My observation has often confirmed that fact. Kraft-
Ebing remarks that "this psychic degeneration, however, has a
more profound pathological foundation, because often it can be
referred to distinct cerebro-pathologic conditions, and often
enough is associated with anatomic signs of degeneration.

"The sexual instinct in particular is very frequently

It is my purpose in presenting the facts contained in this short
volume to bring the matter before the people of the nation, or,
at least, before those interested in criminal problems and in
social service work.

I also wish to point out the vagaries of the average trial jury
in the matter of so-called circumstantial evidence in cases where
some terrible crime has been committed and where the evidence

iv. Preface

criminal acts, in spite of their apparently harmless natures, that
I submitted the material to Dr. Heniy H. Goddard, who is recog-
nized as the foremost authority on feeble-mindedness in the
United States. Dr. Goddard was for years director of research
at the institution for the feeble-minded at Vineland, New Jersey.
At the present time he is director of the Bureau of Juvenile
Research under the Ohio Board of Administration at Columbus,
Ohio. Dr. Goddard has published several books on the subject:
"Feeble-Mindedness, Its Causes and Consequences"; "The Kal-
likak Family," an account of feeble-minded and normal heredity
for six generations, beginning with a young man in the revolu-
tionary army who had a child by a feeble-minded girl and who
later married a normal woman and left many distinguished
descendants. Their histories are compared with his descendants
by the feeble-minded girl. He also published "The Criminal
Imbecile" describing three feeble-minded murderers, one of
whom, by the way, is serving a life sentence in the Oregon Peni-
tentiary at Salem.

Dr. Goddard writes:
"My Dear Mr. Thacher :

"I have read your manuscript very carefully and have been
intensely interested in it. I have prepared the enclosed intro-
duction which, if it is of any service to you, you are entirely
welcome to use."

The introduction follows.

Portland, Oregon, March 15, 1919,

George A. Thacher


The subject matter contained in this book constitutes an
important human document. Society has had three stages in
its attitude toward crime: The earUest stage was that of re-
venge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth — a very primi-
tive view seemingly based upon the conception that the crime
and injury were atoned for if the perpetrator was made to
suffer in an equal degree. While there are still some people
who maintain this primitive way of thinking of crime, society
has long since passed into the second stage which was the idea
of punishment in order to deter others from committing similar
crimes. This view is still held by many although it is recognized
by the most thoughtful that both in theory and in fact this is
a wrong attitude. It has been proved beyond question that very
few if any of our crimes are of such character that the fear of
punishment, however great, would deter others froin committing
them. The third stage which has grown out of a more humani-
tarian attitude toward our fellowmen is expressed in the dec-
laration that all punishment should be designed to "reform the
criminal." And we have been busy, in the most enlightened
centers of civiliation, evolving methods for such reform. Even
the names of penal institutions have in many instances been
changed from prison to reformatory.

We are now beginning to glimpse a fourth stage which is
that of a prevention. In other words, we are awakening to the
fact the better plan is not to wait until a person has committed
crime and then reform him, but to anticipate the crime and
prevent its being committed. The social value of such a pro-
cedure can not be questioned. The possibility of success, how-
ever, has been questioned and is still denied by many persons.
It is still declared to be too ideal for practical purposes. Never-
theless it is a proposition that all must admit that if we do not
strive for the ideal we will make no progress. The wise pro-
cedure is obviously to keep the ideal before us and proceed as
fast as we may to ascertain what are the necessary conditions
for obtaining the ideal.

Let us then face the question frankly — Can crime be pre-
vented? Logically the answer is clear. It can if we can deter-
mine the causes and then remove them. We therefore come
at once to the fundamental question — ^What are the causes of
Crime? Some will answer vaguely "human frailty," and con-

2 Introduction

elude at once that human frailty is a thing that we shall always
have, and, therefore, we shall always have crime. But the
conclusion does not follow. It may just as well be argued that
we shall always have physical weakness and all those other con-
ditions which result in sickness and disease. Nevertheless, pre-
ventive medicine has already accomplished wonders for the
comfort and welfare of the human family. The task is no less
hopeful on the moral side. We must discover those people who
are more than usual subject to these frailties that lead to crime,
and if we can not remove the frailties we can at least care for
the people that are subject to them so that they will not be likely
to fall into crime as the result of their weaknesses. It is now
proved beyond question that the one great weakness that leads
all the rest put together is weakness of mind.

Mr. Thacher has collected in this book facts in regard to a
number of crimes that were clearly due to weakness of mind.
He has thus given us a vast amount of data that are of convinc-
ing significance to all those persons who are seeking for the
facts in this great problem. The recognition of weakness of
mind as a potent cause of crime may be considered an unex-
pectedly pleasant surprise. Unexpected certainly, pleasant be-
cause we see at once how easy it may become to prevent it. It
is now possible to detect weakness of mind, and it is perfectly
clear to those who are familiar with the necessary methods, that
the mental weakness of every one of the persons whom Mr.
Thacher describes as the real criminals in these cases could have
been determined when they were still young and they could
have been cared for in such a way that their crimes never would
have happened.

The methods of measuring intelligence in children and in
adults have now become so perfected that there is no longer any
question about them or about the accuracy of the results. The
United States Government after most careful and rigid exam-
ination and testing has set its stamp of approval upon the meth-
ods and given full authority for their use in examining the rela-
tive mentality of men in the United States Army.

We are justly proud of the achievement of our Expeditionary
Force in France, and no small factor in the efficiency of that
force is to be found in the fact that twelve per cent of the drafted
men were kept at home on account of their low intelligence, with
the result that those who were sent over seas were men capable

Introduction S

of carrying forward the purpose of the army with a high degree
of efficiency. Not only was the rank and file selected on account
of superior intelligence but the officers also were selected on
the basis of intelligence as determined by these tests. With this
demonstration before us we can not, as intelligent citizens, long
delay putting into practice the same or similar tests for deter-
mining the mentality of all school children and youth, and then
providing the necessarj' care in some form or other which shall
prevent those of low mentality from ever having the opportunity
to commit crime. This clear setting forth of the facts showing
that these atrocious, but all too common, crimes were committed
by people of low intelligence is of the highest value, and should
lead promptly to putting into operation the necessary machinery
for testing out the population and determining those people who
are of too low mentality to be trusted to manage their own

It is unnecessary to discuss here the methods that may be
used to care for these people. Suffice to say that their care
does not mean imprisonment but merely providing an environ-
ment and an oversight which will at the same time render them
harmless and make them happy and contented in their sphere.

Incidentally the facts set out by Mr. Thacher in these cases
involve another question, namely, that innocent persons are suf-
fering punishment for crimes that they did not commit. Some
way for righting the wrong should of course be found as soon
as possible. The fact that some officials entrusted with the
administration of justice may have made mistakes should not
be allowed to interfere with the righting of the wrong or of
introducing better and surer methods. Nor should these offi-
cials feel sensitive that their errors have shown up. Undoubtedly
similar errors have occurred the world over, but they occurred
through lack of knowledge which was not possessed by any
one. In other words we did the best we could in view of the
facts at hand. Until recently we have known almost nothing
about mental defect or its relation to crime. Now that that
relation is discovered it is the part of wise intelligence and broad-
mindedness to utilize that knowledge to the fullest extent. A
way should be found of righting such wrongs as it is still pos-
sible to correct and of inaugurating methods looking toward the
prevention of such errors in the future.

The writer of this introduction has no means of verifying Mr.

4 Introduction

Thacher's statements but apparently he has made his case and
it is certainly true from the standpoint of psychology; and in
view of what is known today of feeble-mindedness his arguments
are sound and his conclusions must be accepted. His methods
of formulating a working hypothesis for determining the true
criminal on the basis of the character of the crime is entirely
sound and has been worked out with remarkable insight, and
this method should be of enormous value as a contribution to
criminal procedure. The facts and explanations of these crimes
as given by the author are not only plausible but agree perfectly
with the vast amount of data that has been collected by others
in other places in connection with similar crimes. We believe
that a perusal of the book will convince any unprejudiced reader
that there is a well-founded hope for preventing a great deal of
crime and that it is well worth working for.

Henry H. Goddard.


These two brothers were high-grade morons and they lived together on a poor little
farm which they cultivated. They were unmarried and passed as somewhat incapable and
liarmless citizens, though the family physician knew them to be weak-minded. One day they
went to the home of a middle-aged single woman, who lived alone near Philomath, Ore-
gon, and they alternately made repeated sexual assaults on her and finally murdered
her. They then carried her body to a pond near by to conceal it. On being arrested, they
both denied the crime, but made damaging admissions. Later they confessed. They
wei-e both convicted and hanged. They exliil)ited a stolid demeanor on the gallows,
which the newspaper correspondents described as an indication of hardened depravity.

Chapter I

Tlic word Moron is a recently coined addition to the English
hinguage, and is not to be found in any but the latest and most
up to date dictionaries. It lacks one letter of spelling Mormon,
for which it is sometimes mistaken by the careless reader.
Moron is taken from the Greek word meaning a grown-
up person who is a fool — the kind of person who was
born a fool and for whom, therefore, there is no hope.
The Moron has considerable cunning but no foresight and the
delinquent moron has force enough to try to get what he wants
but not sense enough to foresee consequences of forbidden acts,
and so he becomes a criminal fool, if a born fool can properly
be called a criminal. Solomon had something to say on the
subject in the book of Proverbs, but his bitter comments ex-
pressed more scorn and disgust than anger at the wickedness of

The conduct of the moron, under stress of temptation, is
strikingly illustrated in the case of Giovanni Monaca, and many

Pretty seventeen-year-old Mary Spina was living with her
father and mother on a quiet street in East Portland in 1918.
Over a j^ear before, a fellow countryman was a boarder in the
family for seven months. His name was Giovanni Monaca and
he was thirty-two years old and had been a day laborer of the
drifting sort. He became infatuated with Mary, and wanted to
marry her, but her family refused their consent and Mary would
not run away with him so he promptly threatened to kill her.
Marj^'s father had Giovanni arrested and he was held in jail one
day and then ordered to leave town. In six months Giovanni
returned and renewed his plea and his threat of murder as an
alternative, and was again arrested and again ordered to leave
town. This was in the Spring of 1918. In August Giovanni
returned to Portland with an automatic revolver he had pur-
chased in Seattle the first time he left Portland and entered the
home of the Spinas at night through a window and went to
Mary's room and shot her seven times as she lay in her bed.
Her dead body looked as if it had been riddled by bullets from
every direction. When Giovanni was arrested after running
away and brought back and questioned he said, "I was crazy

6 Why Some Men Kill

that I was put in jail. I been in jail twice and been ordered out
twice when I love this girl, and I get sore for this. I wanted to
marry her and 1 made up my mind if she going to marry me
it is all right. If not, I kill her."

Q. "Why did you run away?"
"I was scared of the police."
"You knew what you had done?"
"Yes, I knew what I had done."
"You knew it was wrong to do that?"

"Don't you feel badly that you killed this girl?"
"Yes, but I am satisfied now that I have."

Very similar was the case of Fred Tronson. Miss Emma
Ulrick was an attractive and efficient stenographer in a business
office in Portland in 1914. Tronson, aged twenty-four, was ele-
vator man in the same building and decided that he wanted to
marry Miss Ulrick and gave her a trifling present of some letter
paper. Miss Ulrick declined the proposal of marriage, where-
upon Tronson threatened to kill her. Tronson was arrested and
lectured by the police judge and released upon his promise to go
away and go to work and forget his folly. He went away for a
few weeks and brooded over the matter and finally bought two
revolvers in Vancouver and one evening followed Miss Ulrick
home and into the house where he fired all the shots in one of
the revolvers at her as she tried to escape, killing her almost in
the presence of her family. Then, much as Monaca did, he threw
away the revolvers and ran away. Monaca got as far as Canada
before he was arrested, but Tronson only succeeded in getting
one hundred miles from Portland, before the police caught him.
When he was brought back to Portland he said to the District
Attorney, "Yes, I am sorry I had to do it; I acted like a gentle-
man. I had given her one present already."

He said he bought two revolvers and loaded them both, so
that if one failed he would still have the means of killing Emma
Ulrick. Tronson said he felt satisfied, in doing what he did, but
he was afraid they would put blood hounds on his trail. At his
trial his confession to the District Attorney was read in evidence
and he was very obviously proud of the story as a literary pro-
duction in which he had the principal part. He leaned over and
asked the minister who sat by his side, "Well, what do j^ou
think of it?"

The Delinquent Moron 7

When Tronson was being sentenced to prison for life after
his conviction he acted Uke a frightened chiUI who was being
scokied for bad conduct. On the direct question being asked
him by the District Attorney, he admitted that he had no right
to take Emma Llrick's Hfe, which he could not restore to her, but
said that lie did not think of that at the time he killed her.

At Tronson's trial for the murder of Emma Ulrick I secured
the consent of District Attorney Walter H. Evans and his first
assistant, John A. Collier, to the introduction of expert testi-
mony as to Fred Tronson's mental weakness. Mr. Dan Powers,
Tronson's lawyer, placed Miss Grace Lyman, a psychologist from
Leland Stanford University, on the stand, and she testified that
the mental test showed that Tronson had a mental age of about
nine years.

This is the first time in Oregon criminal practice that the
testimony of a psychologist on the subject of feeble-mindedness
has been admitted in a murder trial.

A full account of this case wdth Tronson's confession may be
found in Dr. Henry H. Goddard's, "The Criminal Imbecile."

Tlic same year in New^ York state, Jean Gianini assassinated
an interesting young woman in the most brutal fashion and
dragged her body into the bushes by the side of the lonely road
where he had persuaded her to walk wath him.

Expert testimony of psychologists was admitted at the trial
to show the murderer's mental capacity and with the following
result :

"We find the defendant in this case not guilty as charged; we
acquit the defendant on the ground of criminal imbecility."

This was the verdict of the jury in Herkimer County, New
York, on March 28, 1914, in the case of Jean Gianini who killed
the young woman who had the misfortune to be his school

Jean Gianini was a high grade defective who could not make
any progress in his studies, and he said that his teacher humili-
ated him in school, wliich shows that he had brains enough to
realize that he was a failure in his classes. At the same time he
was apparently attracted by his teacher because he had fre-
quently asked her to go with him to visit his family. She finally
consented to go with him and somewhere on the road he
attacked her, whether with a sexual motive, or because of his
"humiliation" in school, will never be proven. He admitted

8 Why Some Men Kill

striking her with a wrench three times and then hitting her with
a knife several times (24 was the number, one blow finally reach-
ing the jugular vein) "to be sure to finish her," Then Jean
dragged her body aside so that it would not be readily discovered
and went home. The next day after breakfast at the place where
he was employed, he went to work for a short time, but soon quit
work and went to the village where he was picked up at the rail-
road depot. He went back without any objection and on being
accused of the murder he readily confessed.

He had started to leave home the night before but as he
missed the train he went back and went to bed. He said he was
as happy as usual, adding, "I did not think anything about it as
I thought I had revenge."

This characteristic murder by a feeble-minded man is de-
scribed in detail together with the evidence at the trial in Henry
H. Goddard's "Criminal Imbecile." The murderer was held to
be irresponsible in view of his weak mentality as pointed out by
experts on the witness stand, but provision was made for his
permanent detention in an institution instead of sending him to
the electric chair.

In both of these last two unprovoked murders of intelligent
young women, who had every possibility of useful and honorable
careers, the immediate cause of their deaths is a matter deserv-
ing consideration.

There was so much of the "ego" in the cosmos of both of
their murderers and so httle abihty to foresee consequences that
they were without any sense of their personal responsibility to

Dr. Goddard points out that these young men understood per-
fectly the character of their acts as shown by their preparations
and the actual killing, but he insists that these feeble-minds did
not realize the quahty of their acts or the inevitable consequences
to anyone (themselves included) of taking human hfe. That
looking ahead and foreseeing results calls for a considerable
abihty in abstract reasoning which the feeble-minds do not pos-
sess. They never get beyond the childish stage of wanting things
and threatening to kill if denied.

There probably never lived an aggressive small boy who did
not fly into a rage and threaten to kill when he was completely
obstructed in his desires. His moral sense, which must be sus-
tained by his ability to reason, has not been developed. He must

The Delinquent Moron 9

be controlled by authority, and in practically all cases he is con-
trolled by the kind, but decisive, will of his parents until his own
reason supports and sustains the moral teaching he has received.

About 1916 two small boys under twelve years of age, who
had been as completely neglected as two little animals, killed a
man in Idaho. They knew the nature of the deed and carried

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Online LibraryGeorge A ThacherWhy some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed → online text (page 1 of 13)