Was It Murder?
In 1933, Allene Lamson was bludgeoned to death in her campus home. Or did she slip and fall in her bathroom? Her husband's trial -- and his journey from Faculty Row to death row -- gripped the nation.
Courtesy Stanford Archives
By Bernard Butcher
Shortly before 10 on Memorial Day morning, 1933, Palo Alto real estate agent Julia Place arrived unannounced at a bungalow along Stanford's Faculty Row. With her was a San Francisco couple looking for a summer rental.
Place knocked on the front door at 622 Salvatierra Street, home of David and Allene Lamson and their 2-year-old daughter, nicknamed "Bebe." David, '25, was a former Chaparral editor working as advertising manager at Stanford University Press. Allene, '26, MA '28, had edited the women's section of the Daily and the Quad as an undergraduate and, after a stint as assistant editor at the Stanford Illustrated Review, worked as executive secretary of the campus YWCA. Married at Memorial Church in 1928, the Lamsons were a popular couple who enjoyed socializing with the literary set on campus.
Getting no response at the front door, Place strolled to the backyard, where she found David, shirtless and hoe-in-hand, chatting casually with a neighbor while presiding over a bonfire of leaves and yard waste. David shouted a greeting to the realtor and asked her to meet him at the front door while he went inside to alert his wife. Moments later, standing on the front steps, Place heard David shriek, "Oh my God, my wife's been murdered!" What happened next would shatter Stanford's suburban tranquility -- and unleash a storm of national publicity lasting more than three years.
When David opened the door, Place noticed that the shirt he had just put on was covered with blood. In the pandemonium that followed, Place phoned David's sister, Margaret, a Palo Alto physician, while neighbors ran to the scene. Buford Brown was the first to arrive. "When I entered the bathroom," Brown said the next day, "Mr. Lamson was kneeling on the floor, his wife's head in his arms, sobbing hysterically and calling her. I induced him to leave to go into the other room. He staggered and then fell to the floor in a faint."
Palo Alto police officers arrived to find Allene's naked body draped face-down over the edge of a bathtub full of water. There was a gruesome wound on the back of her head, with blood splattered on the wall and pooled on the tile floor. David seemed stunned with grief and confusion. The officers quickly ruled out the possibility of an accident and concluded Allene had been murdered. Seeing no evidence of break-in or robbery, they took David into custody for questioning.
The story David told police that Tuesday morning became familiar to millions of Americans over the course of three protracted and intensely publicized criminal trials. It went like this: with their housekeeper on vacation and their daughter visiting her grandmother, the Lamsons had returned from playing bridge with friends at about 11 the previous evening. Allene complained of indigestion, so David slept in the back bedroom -- as he often did when she was ill. At about 4 a.m., Allene called to him. He brought her some soup and a sandwich and gave her a back rub. At 6, he got out of bed, had breakfast and went to work in the backyard. At about 9, he woke his wife, drew her a bath, helped her into the tub and fixed her breakfast on a tray. Then he returned to the backyard until Place and the San Francisco couple showed up.
With David Lamson held as a suspect in San Jose, the press leaped on the story of a possible wife-murder on the bucolic Stanford campus. On the other side of the country, the hottest crime story of the era -- the 1932 kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh baby in New Jersey -- was capturing the nation's attention. By May 1933, no arrests had been made in the Lindbergh case, but newspapers were selling in huge numbers on the strength of sensationalist speculation. West Coast publishers took note and, when the Lamson case came along, reached for a similar bonanza.
It had all the elements of a great tabloid story: a gory death under mysterious circumstances, an unlikely murder suspect and an incongruous setting. Packs of journalists wearing snap-brimmed hats and carrying flash cameras swarmed the campus and the Santa Clara County Courthouse. Police had to close down Salvatierra Street the Sunday after the tragedy to control the crush of gawkers. The case was front-page news throughout the summer as reporters turned up fresh evidence, rumor and speculation. San Francisco papers -- the Examiner, the Call, the Chronicle -- hired motorcycle couriers to speed the copy and photos back from the courthouse and police headquarters in San Jose by deadline. The June 15 preliminary hearing was filmed by newsreel crews and shown -- three nights in a row -- at the American Theater in San Jose. The local Mercury-Herald called the courtroom the "pulsating center of a drama -- a tragedy in which the public has shown more interest than any similar hearing in the history of Santa Clara County."
Sheriff William Emig and District Attorney Fred Thomas hardly shied from the spotlight. Their position never wavered: Allene Lamson was killed, they said, and David Lamson is the only suspect. The press set out to find the motive. Many friends and neighbors spoke of a loving relationship between Allene and David, but several mentioned signs of strain in recent months. Some said David's pleasant demeanor masked a quick temper. One line of speculation: on the night before her death, David was angry with Allene for spurning his romantic advances with the claim that she was menstruating. He discovered her alleged deception, the theory went, when he found a used but clean sanitary napkin on a stool in the bathroom the morning Allene died.
A second set of rumors suggested David was having an affair. The alleged evidence: he was responsible for the pregnancy of his housekeeper -- a claim soon dismissed when she gave birth to a redheaded baby by her redheaded boyfriend. And then there was Sara Kelley, who became known simply as "the blonde divorcée from Sacramento." David and Sara had met at Stanford 10 years earlier and had worked together one summer at a Merced newspaper before either was married. By chance, David ran into her again at the Sacramento Union, where he went for meetings in 1932 to persuade editors to serialize a garden book published by the Stanford Press. Prosecutors turned up witnesses who said they had seen the two at various Sacramento restaurants and at her apartment, although always in the presence of others. He sent her flowers on five occasions, with the bill always coming to his home address. Prosecutors also found a pink sheet of paper on his office desk with two love poems from Kelley, ostensibly submitted for his perusal prior to possible publication in the Stanford Illustrated Review.
The murder trial of David Lamson began in the San Jose courtroom of Superior Court Judge Robert Syer on August 24, 1933. Jurors were drawn from throughout Santa Clara County, a rural area known then as the "prune capital of the world." Led by an aggressive and emotional deputy district attorney, Allan Lindsay, the prosecution aimed to prove that David murdered Allene. The defense argued that Allene slipped coming out of the bath and cracked the back of her head on the porcelain sink opposite the tub in the couple's small bathroom.
The three-week trial settled into a battle of expert witnesses. The prosecution called A.W. Meyer, respected head of the Medical School's anatomy department, who testified that the wounds on the back of Allene's head could have been made only by four separate blows, not the single strike required by the defense's accident theory. Prosecutors then brandished for the jurors the alleged murder weapon, a 10-inch length of pipe fished from the smoldering embers of the fire David had been tending on the morning the body was discovered. The county pathologist even testified that he had found a speck of burnt blood among the pipe threads. Defense attorneys countered with their own experts, who testified that the fatality most likely resulted from a single blow to the head -- an argument consistent with the theory that she slipped getting out of the tub.
In their daily front-page coverage, Bay Area newspapers reported on the technical cross fire but focused more heavily on speculation that the "Sacramento love triangle" provided Lamson a motive for the crime. Although the "blonde divorcée" was never called to the stand, she was a constant refrain in the prosecution's closing argument. So, too, was an alleged statement Lamson made on the veranda immediately after the incident. Deputy Sheriff John Moore testified that he had heard him exclaim to his sister: "My God, why did I ever marry her?" (Both David and Margaret denied he said it.)
When Lamson himself testified, he repeated almost verbatim the story he had told investigators immediately after the tragedy. Prosecutors seized on his admission that the body had slid back into the tub when he first picked it up, suggesting he was trying to wash away any evidence. In response to the parade of defense witnesses testifying to the apparent stability of the marriage and to Lamson's genuine outpouring of shock and grief, they noted that he had acted in high school and college plays.
Looking at the trial transcript now, it seems clear that neither side presented an especially persuasive case. Prosecutors declared that a murder had been committed and argued that circumstances pointed to Lamson as the killer. But they failed to produce a compelling motive and never demonstrated any history of aggressive behavior or marital discord. Nor did they explain how Lamson could have been nonchalantly hoeing weeds and chatting with a neighbor just after bludgeoning his wife to death in the bathroom.
Defense lawyers, for their part, may have made even more missteps. They didn't seem to anticipate the vigor of the prosecution or grasp the public relations war being waged in the press. They failed to call to the stand Sara Kelley, who, it turns out, could have rebutted the "love triangle" motive. And one of their expert witnesses testifying to the "single-blow theory," surgeon Blake Wilbur, '22, son of then-Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur, was a personal friend of David Lamson's and therefore presumed biased.
Perhaps most damaging, the defense adhered too stubbornly to its "accident theory." As the prosecution demonstrated at trial, a review of the bathroom layout makes it difficult to believe that Allene could have sustained such massive head wounds by slipping in the bathtub. At the same time, the defense never seriously explored the possibility that a third party might have been involved -- even though Business School student John Venderlip told campus police he saw a suspicious stranger near the Lamson home both the night before and the morning of Allene's death.
On the evening of September 16, 1933, after eight hours of deliberation and three ballots, members of the seven-man, five-woman jury filed silently into the courtroom to render their verdict. Unnerved by their demeanor, defense attorney Edwin Rea inferred the worst. "Take it on the chin, kid," he whispered in Lamson's ear. Sitting behind the defendant, sisters Margaret Lamson and Hazel Thoits gasped as the foreman read the unanimous verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree. David sat impassively as the jury was polled. Judge Syer sentenced him to hang at San Quentin State Prison within 90 days, subject to appeal.
The conviction received widespread media coverage. The New York Times reported that "the academic calm of Palo Alto was shattered by the verdict. Friendships were disrupted, and academic circles were divided into two camps." Friction surfaced between the lawyers, too. Outside a hearing room 10 days later, defense attorney Rea and prosecutor Lindsay ("the battling barristers," according to one press account) got into a fistfight and had to be separated by a swarm of reporters. (Rea emerged with a swollen lip.) Later, in a letter to University President Ray Lyman Wilbur, Rea would conclude that "the tactics of the prosecution in this case, both those shown by the record and otherwise, are worse than murder."
News of the conviction -- and the severity of the sentence -- galvanized a group of Stanford friends to form the "Lamson Defense Committee." Much of Lamson's campus support came from the English department; the chairs of philosophy and geology also signed on. Margaret Lamson organized the appeals process, soliciting contributions to defray legal expenses and urging academic criminologists to speak out against the ruling. Defense attorney Edwin McKenzie prepared a 608-page appellate brief challenging every aspect of the prosecution's case. Stanford English professors Frances Russell and Yvor Winters condensed the argument into a 103-page pamphlet for public consumption.
The pamphlet, The Case of David Lamson, was signed by 20 noted professors, writers, physicians and clergymen. In its foreword, San Francisco novelist Peter Kyne emphasized the "Kafkaesque" aspects of the case. University of California criminologist August Vollmer referred to Lamson's predicament as "the most amazing situation that has ever arisen in American jurisprudence -- a man condemned to die for something that has never happened, and every bit of circumstantial evidence pointing to his innocence."
Meanwhile, officials moved Lamson from the county jail to San Quentin's death row. His nephew, Warren Thoits, '43, JD '48, now a Palo Alto lawyer, was 11 years old at the time of the trial. He remembers going with his mother to deliver hot meals to his uncle in both San Quentin and the Santa Clara County jail. "The cost of this case in terms of both money and the disruption of our family life was huge," Thoits says, "but, as scary as the process was, it was an unbelievable education that greatly influenced my choice of profession."
In San Quentin, Lamson sought refuge in writing. Even as he faced imminent execution, his letters to supporters had a strangely detached tone -- one suggesting he was simply away on an extended trip. In a letter to Elinore Cogswell, the reporter who covered his case for the Palo Alto Times, he revealed that introspective letters "are very hard for me to write. Because, you see, this faith lay deeply between Allene and myself, and it is as hard for me to speak of it as of our love. I feel as if I were exposing Allene and myself both to public gaze -- and I feel that our love, our faith, are between ourselves and God."
Lamson also recorded his thoughts about life on death row. "The men I knew on the Row, waiting to be hanged, were just people," he later wrote. "And not very smart people; for smart people don't get sent to the Row, no matter what their crimes. The smarty pulls the strings, the cons say; and the square-john stretches the rope." He compiled his observations into a 1935 bestselling book, We Who Are About to Die. In it, Lamson downplays his own case and instead writes with clarity and empathy about the conditions, inmates and guards he encountered at San Quentin. Sprinkled throughout are observations still relevant to the national debate about criminal justice. "I would like to know clearly, explicitly and finally," he writes, "just what people expect of a prison. Is its purpose to reform? To punish? To prevent? To rehabilitate? What? Does anyone know?"
Portions of his book were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. One chapter is devoted to a mass murderer nicknamed "Hamlet's Ghost" by the other cons. After recounting the man's execution, Lamson writes: "I feel quite sure that hanging the Ghost will have done little or nothing to restrain such other Ghosts if they ever get to the condition of mind that Hamlet's Ghost was in when he cut open five people. The Law, however, assumes that with this particular Ghost dead, all such Ghosts are laid. A sentiment, I say once more . . . open to doubt."
In September 1934, seven months after Lamson's legal team filed its massive appeals brief, the Lindbergh case returned to the headlines. A German carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann was charged with the murder of the baby. Like Lamson, Hauptmann had a young wife and a 3-year-old child. Like Lamson, Hauptmann vigorously asserted his innocence and was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence.
On Saturday, October 13, as running back "Bones" Hamilton was leading Stanford to a 20-0 football victory over Northwestern, the seven-member California Supreme Court reached a decision in the appeal. "LAMSON WINS NEW TRIAL FOR MURDER" blared the headline in the Sunday Examiner, followed by the full text of the four-part decision covering two pages of newsprint. The court held that the trial judge had failed to require prosecutors to fully prove their case. When the government relies solely on circumstantial evidence, the Supreme Court ruled, "the prosecution must show not only circumstances consistent with guilt, but circumstances inconsistent with any reasonable theory of innocence." When it comes to David Lamson, the court wrote, "every statement tends to support his claims. It is true that he may be guilty, but the evidence thereof is no stronger than mere suspicion."
Though the court unanimously ordered a new trial, there was a catch. In a concurring opinion, three of the justices, including Chief Justice William Waste, said they based their decision on technical grounds only and didn't question the judgment that a murder had been committed. It was Waste, as chief justice, who announced the ruling to the press. In what the New York Times called an "extraordinary statement," Waste declared they were ordering a new trial even though "a majority of the justices feel Lamson is guilty." The remark drew tremendous attention, in effect undercutting the substance of the order. The San Francisco Chronicle decried Waste's statement as "irresponsible" and "highly prejudicial to any new trial that may be ordered."
Lamson, of course, was relieved -- even if perturbed by the chief justice's remarks. Reporters and photographers accompanied Margaret Lamson and attorney Edwin McKenzie to the San Francisco ferry terminal and on the trip across the Bay to San Quentin. Photos the next day showed Margaret with a happy David Lamson as he prepared to be transferred back to the Santa Clara County jail after 11 months on death row.
His second trial began in Judge Syer's courtroom on February 2, 1935. While the first trial lasted three weeks, this one went on for three months. In all, 173 witnesses testified. New "experts" argued endlessly about angles of impact and the probable trajectory of blood splattered on the bathroom walls. The defense called housekeeper Delores Roberts, who testified to the couple's tranquil and harmonious home life, and the now-remarried Sara Kelley ("the blonde divorcée from Sacramento"), who powerfully rebutted the "love triangle" hypothesis. In May, an exhausted jury of seven men and five women returned to the courtroom after four days of deliberation. The result: a hung jury, nine for conviction and three for acquittal. Lamson voiced dismay to reporters at his failure to win full vindication -- but also maintained his usual equanimity. Asked if the verdict was a surprise, he told reporters: "After what I've been through, it would take a great deal to surprise me."
Attention shifted to District Attorney Fred Thomas. Would the government put Lamson on trial for a third time? With his reputation and political fortunes at stake, Thomas forged ahead. The trial began in November 1935 but was aborted due to jury list irregularities. By the time the fourth and final trial began in late January 1936, public attention had moved on -- to the slow economic recovery from the Depression, to the upcoming presidential election, to the storm clouds gathering over Europe. As Time magazine reported in February 1936, "the Palo Alto 'wifemurder' now excites California's press considerably less than it did three years ago."
The fourth trial proved something of a replay, though with a new judge and jury. It lasted three months. The jury took 10 ballots in 36 hours of grueling deliberation before finally giving up. It had failed to reach a verdict by the same margin as the previous jury -- nine for conviction, three for acquittal. Again, the government had to decide whether to keep pushing for a conviction.
The endgame in both the Lindbergh and Lamson cases played out on exactly the same date, April 3, 1936. In New Jersey, Governor Harold Hoffman declined to issue a second stay of execution. Bruno Hauptmann marched silently and defiantly to his fate in the electric chair. In California, Superior Court Judge J.J. Trabucco announced that the prosecution had decided to drop the case against Lamson. The defendant was free to go home for the first time in nearly three years.
He went straight to his sister's shingled cottage on Creek Drive in Palo Alto. His 5-year-old daughter ran into his arms, shouting "Daddy!" Daily writer Bob Eisenbach attended an impromptu party at the house later that evening. Lamson seemed serene and grateful, Eisenbach reported, as his attorneys and longtime supporters celebrated the end of a long ordeal.
The mystery of Allene Lamson's death was left unresolved. But as the sensational case faded into history, a troubling question remained: was David Lamson a violent master of deceit or the tragic victim of overzealous prosecutors?
A few days after his release from jail, Lamson took a short vacation with his daughter to Catalina Island. A few months later, he moved to Southern California to work on a screenplay for the film version of his book, We Who Are About to Die. There he met and married film magazine writer Ruth Smith Rankin. They lived briefly in North Hollywood, where Lamson continued to work on screenplays and on a novel based on a freak childhood hunting accident. In the late 1930s, the couple moved to a small farm near Nevada City in the Sierra foothills, where they raised David's daughter, Allene Genevieve -- now called Jenny. During the next 15 years, he wrote some 89 short stories that were published in the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines. In 1954, burned out as a writer, he and Ruth returned to the Bay Area, where he took a job as a maintenance manager with United Airlines. He died in Los Altos in 1975, at the age of 72.
Jenny, who raised three children and lives in the Bay Area, has no doubt of her father's innocence. "He never discussed the specifics of the case," she says, "but he always spoke lovingly of my mother. I had a very normal and happy family life growing up, but the experience clearly had a deep psychological impact on him for the rest of his life."
Bernard Butcher, '64, MA '95, is a frequent contributor to Stanford. His last article was the May/June 1999 cover story on the Hoover Institution's acquisition of secret Soviet archives.
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