Successful Suicide Leap from the Famous Hollywood Sign

Some landmarks are so iconic that the association with their city or place is instant and automatic. The Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, are immediately recognized as symbolizing New York. Similarly, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower evokes the City of Chicago. One of the most recognizable such structures is the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in Los Angeles, California. This week’s blog is about the famous sign and the part it played in the death of a young actress.

The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)
The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)

Origin of the Hollywood Sign

You might not know it, but the sign that’s become synonymous with Hollywood and movie-making didn’t start out saying “Hollywood.” Instead, real estate developers Woodruff and Shoults erected it in 1923 to advertise a new housing development: Hollywoodland. The original Hollywoodland sign included about 4,000 light bulbs. The lit sign spelled out “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND” in individual segments, then the three segments together as “HOLLYWOODLAND.” A searchlight near the base attracted even more attention.

Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.
Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.

When first constructed, the individual letters in the Hollywoodland sign were 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. Woodruff and Shoults planned for their glorified billboard to stand for only a year and a half. But in that time, the sign became an internationally recognized symbol of the American film industry, so it stayed.

The Suicide of Peg Entwistle

Millicent Lillian Entwistle (she went by “Peg”) was born in Wales. She came from a theatrical family: her father was an actor and her uncle managed actor Walter Hampden. Peg and her father ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio and then New York City around 1913.

Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle

In 1925, Walter Hampden gave Peg an uncredited part in a Broadway production of Hamlet (she carried the king’s train and brought in the poison cup). For the next seven years, she acted in numerous Broadway plays, the last in 1932.

Peg was in Los Angeles in May 1932 with a role in the play The Mad Hopes. When the play closed, she won her first and only credited film role. She played Hazel Cousins in the Radio Pictures (precursor to RKO) film Thirteen Women.

Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You" by James Zenuk, Jr.)
Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You” by James Zeruk, Jr.)

On September 16, 1932, Peg made her way from her Uncle’s house where she was staying to Mount Lee. From there she made her way to the top and to the Hollywoodland sign. She leaned a workman’s ladder against the giant “H,” climbed to the top, and jumped. Two days later, a woman hiker found Peg’s purse and a shoe near the Hollywoodland sign. She then saw Peg’s body about 100 feet below. In her purse was a suicide note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.

The Hollywood Sign in Later Years

As the years passed, the sign designed to last 18 months deteriorated a lot. The “H” was destroyed in the 1940s when, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, heavy winds knocked it down. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted to have the sign repaired. However, they had the “LAND” removed so the sign reflected the district and not the real estate development. The Chamber also decided not to replace the 4,000 light bulbs because of the expend of illuminating the sign.

The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)
The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)

By the 1970s, the sign had deteriorated again. The Chamber solicited donations and in 1978 replaced the sign with a more permanent structure. The new sign had letters slightly smaller than the original but was made of metal instead of wood. In 2008, workers stripped the letters down to the metal and repainted them white.

More About Peg Entwistle

James Zeruk, Jr. wrote a biography of Peg, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography. Another take on the Peg Entwistle story is H.P. Oliver’s The Truth Be Told. In this book Oliver claims that Peg didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by a Hollywood drug dealer.

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June Devaney: Unique Strategy Solves a Horrific Murder

This week we return to England, and the case of a horrific child murder. What makes this case noteworthy is the technique the police employed to find the man who killed June Devaney.

June Devaney Goes Missing

June Anne Devaney was only three years old in the spring of 1948 and had a mild case of pneumonia. Her parents, Albert and Emily checked her into Queen’s Park Hospital in Blackburn on May 5. She was placed in Ward CH3 under the care of nurse Gwendolyn Humphreys. By May 14, little June was much improved and due to go home the next day. However, at 1:30 on May 15, nurse Humphreys went to investigate a draft from an open door. She found June’s cot empty, surrounded by footprints from adult stocking feet plainly visible on the highly polished floor. The side of the crib-like cot was still up, meaning someone had taken the girl from her bed.

Ward CH3, Queen's Park Hospital. June Devaney slept is the cot second from left. Note white footprints on the waxed floor.
Ward CH3, Queen’s Park Hospital. June Devaney slept in the cot second from left. Note white footprints on the waxed floor.

Nurse Humphreys frantically searched the ward looking for June before raising the alarm. She and other hospital staff continued to search for the child for about 30 minutes without success. Then they called the police.

Police didn’t have to search for long. At 3:17, they found little June’s body lying face down next to an eight-foot wall. It was clear from her injuries that the police had a murder to investigate. Detective Chief Inspector John Capstick caught the 6:20 train from Euston Station in London to Blackburn.

Scotland Yard Investigates the June Devaney Murder

June’s autopsy showed that she died from shock following severe blunt force trauma to the head. The pathologist theorized that her killer had held her by her legs and swung her against the wall near where police found her body. She also suffered other injuries both internal and external prior to death.

The Winchester bottle found near June's cot. White marks show where Inspector Colin Campbell found fingerprints.
The Winchester bottle found near June’s cot. White marks show where Inspector Colin Campbell found fingerprints.

Ward CH3 revealed two significant clues. First, footprints on the waxed floor indicated the killer had prowled through the ward. Apparently, he had peered into each of the cots before selecting June Devaney as his victim.

Police found a second and potentially more useful clue in the Winchester bottle they discovered near June’s cot. Examiners found several fingerprints on the bottle, but they didn’t match any in Scotland Yard’s files. The bottle was not in its proper place, leading investigators to conclude that the killer had moved it. This meant the fingerprints were likely his.

An Unusual Strategy for the Investigation

Since there was no match for the fingerprints on the bottle, DCI Capstick took an unusual step. He decided to take the prints of every male in Blackburn age 16 and over. The printing was voluntary, and police promised to destroy the prints after the investigation was over. No police force in England had ever attempted an operation of this type before.

Armed with the Electoral Registry, Inspector William Barton and 20 other officers began the task of taking fingerprints. After two months, they had visited over 35,000 homes and collected more than 40,000 prints. Frustratingly, the killer’s prints were not among them. Next, they compared the Electoral Registry with people registered for ration books at the local Food Office. They found over 200 men whose prints they hadn’t taken.

Police log and check the fingerprints of the more than 40,000 men in Blackburn to find the killer of June Devaney
Police log and check the fingerprints of the more than 40,000 men in Blackburn.

The expanded search led them to 31 Birley Street, the home of one Peter Griffiths. Griffiths, 22, was an ex-serviceman who worked nights at a local flour mill. And his niece had been in Queen’s Park Hospital the night June Devaney disappeared. When police compared his fingerprint card to the prints from the Winchester bottle, they matched.

Arrest and Trial

DCI Capstick arrested Griffiths on August 12 as he left his home to go to work. At first, Griffiths denied any involvement in the crime. That changed when Capstick confronted him with the fact that his fingerprints were on the Winchester bottle. Soon police had a complete confession.

Peter Griffiths' mugshot. He confessed to murdering June Devaney shortly after police took this photograph.
Peter Griffiths’ mugshot. He confessed to murdering June Devaney shortly after police took this photograph.

Griffiths went on trial before Mr. Justice Oliver on October 15, 1948, six months after the murder. The prosecution relied on forensic evidence, the most significant being the fingerprints. Inspector Colin Campbell testified to the prints and showed enlarged copies of the to the jury. The defense argued that Griffiths was legally insane at the time of the killing.

Griffiths' fingerprint card proved his guilt in the June Devaney murder
Griffiths’ fingerprint card, proved his guilt in the June Devaney murder

The jury retired to consider its verdict after a two-day trial. They only took 23 minutes to return with a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Oliver donned the ceremonial black cap and sentenced Griffiths to death.

Epilogue

Griffiths did not appeal his conviction. He was hanged at H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol) on the morning of November 19, 1948.

H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol)
H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol)

Just weeks before Griffiths’ hanging, authorities publicly destroyed the fingerprint cards they collected during the investigation at a local papermill. Several local journalists were present to witness as the cards became pulp.

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Stella Nickell: No Bonanza in Murder for Money

Like last week’s case, this week deals with murder by poison. But this time, it happened on the West Coast of the United States in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. There Stella Nickell poisoned two people trying to get her husband’s life insurance money.

Bruce and Stella Nickell

Stella Maudine Stephenson was a native of Colton, Oregon. By age 16 she was pregnant with her first daughter, Cindy Hamilton. She later moved to Southern California where she married and had another daughter. Stella also had more than her share of legal troubles. These included convictions for fraud and forgery and a charge of beating Cindy with a curtain rod.

Stella Nickell about the time of the poisonings
Stella Nickell about the time of the poisonings

Stella met Bruce Nickell in 1974. Bruce worked as a heavy equipment operator and had a fondness for alcohol. Bruce’s heavy drinking suited Stella just fine. Later, however, he entered rehab and gave up the bottle. Stella resented Bruce’s newfound sobriety because it deprived her of their visits to bars. Her bar-hopping drastically reduced, Stella began to request more night shifts at her baggage-screener job at SEA-TAC airport. To fill the now empty hours at home, she began keeping a home aquarium.

Bruce Nickell
Bruce Nickell

In 1986, the Nickells lived in Auburn, Washington, a suburb south of Seattle not far from SEA-TAC airport. On June 5, Bruce came home from work with a headache. As Stella told it, he took four extra-strength Excedrin capsules before collapsing minutes later. Rushed to Harborview Medical Center, Bruce did not respond to doctors’ efforts to revive him. He died shortly after arriving. Authorities ruled his death to be from natural causes—emphysema, the attending physicians said.

Another Death in Auburn

Less than a week later, Sue Snow, a 40-year-old bank manager took two extra-strength Excedrin capsules for an early-morning headache. Sue’s husband also took two capsules from the bottle for his arthritis before leaving for work. At 6:30 a.m., Snow’s 15-year-old daughter, Hayley, found her lying on the bathroom floor, unresponsive and with only a faint pulse. Paramedics rushed her to Harborview, but she died without regaining consciousness.

Sue Snow
Sue Snow

Snow’s suspicious death triggered an autopsy. During the autopsy, an assistant medical examiner noticed the odor of bitter almonds, a tell-tale indicator of cyanide. Tests confirmed that Snow had died from acute cyanide poisoning.

Investigation

Death by cyanide poisoning was big news in Washington. After all, it had been less than four years since the unsolved Tylenol poisonings in the Chicago area. When another bottle of contaminated Excedrin turned up at a grocery store in Kent, the manufacturer, Bristol-Myers launched an immediate recall of all Excedrin in the Seattle area. The company followed this on June 20 with a recall of all their non-prescription capsule products.

In the face of the publicity blitz, Stella Nickell came forward on June 19. She told authorities that her husband had died suddenly after taking Excedrin. The bottle had the same lot number as the bottle in Sue Snow’s home. Investigators exhumed Bruce Nickell’s body and found evidence of cyanide. They also found cyanide in two bottles of Excedrin capsules Stella turned over to the police.

The FDA quickly ruled out Bristol-Myers, as the source of the cyanide. Investigators concluded they were dealing with product tampering. This, in turn, brought in the FBI. Sue Snow’s husband, Paul Webking, agreed to undergo a polygraph examination and passed. Stella refused, her lawyer saying she was too shaken up. (Note: Polygraph tests are not evidence and failing or refusing to take one is not evidence of guilt).

Stella Nickell Under Suspicion

Gradually suspicion hardened on Stella Nickell. For one thing, authorities found only five contaminated bottles of painkillers in all of King County. Stella had two of them. She claimed to have bought the two bottles at different times in different stores. The odds of her selecting two contaminated bottles by random chance were astronomical.

Other evidence pointed to Stella. The FBI laboratory determined that the contaminated capsules contained small particles of an algicide called Algae Destroyer. Investigators verified that Stella had bought Algae Destroyer from a local aquarium supply store. They speculated she used the same container to crush both the Algae Destroyer and the cyanide without washing it.

May 9, 1988, U.S. Marshall Merry Moore leads Stella Nickell from the federal courthouse after a jury convicts her on five counts of product tampering.
May 9, 1988, U.S. Marshall Merry Moore leads Stella Nickell from the federal courthouse after a jury convicts her on five counts of product tampering.

Then there was the insurance. Stella had taken out $76,000 of life insurance on Bruce. But the policy would pay an additional $100,000 if he died from accidental causes. Like cyanide poisoning. Examination showed that Bruce’s signatures on at least two of the policies in his name were forgeries.

Enter Cindy Hamilton

Despite a strong circumstantial case, there was no direct proof that Stella Nickell had bought or used cyanide. The clincher came when Stella’s oldest daughter, Cindy Hamilton, contacted police. She told them her mother had often spoken of wanting Bruce dead. She claimed Stella admitted to researching poisons and told her of an unsuccessful attempt to poison Bruce with foxglove.

Cindy Hamilton

Records from the Auburn Public Library showed Stella had checked out numerous books on poisoning. The records tended to confirm at least that part of Hamilton’s story.

On December 9, 1987, a federal grand jury indicted Stella Nickell on five counts of product tampering. Police arrested her the same day, and she went on trial in April 1988.

Stella Nickell Convicted

The jury convicted Stella on all counts on May 9, after five days of deliberation. The judge sentenced her to two 90-year terms for tampering with the bottles that caused the deaths of Bruce and Sue Snow. The other three charges each drew a 10-year term. win all terms to run concurrently.

A more recent but undated photo of Stella Nickell
A more recent but undated photo of Stella Nickell

Epilogue

Stella appealed her conviction but none of her appeals succeeded. Her lawyers have also petitioned, unsuccessfully, for a new trial. She continues to maintain her innocence, saying that Cindy lied to get the $300,000 reward money (she received $250,000). She became eligible for parole in 2018 but remains in prison. Her release date is set for July 10, 2040, when she will be almost 97 years old.

The Seattle cyanide poisonings are the subject of several true-crime television episodes and at least one book Gregg Olsen’s Bitter Almonds, published in 2013.

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Major Armstrong: Greed and Obsession Make Murder

From last week’s New York case, we’re back to Britain this week for the case of Major Armstrong. The major, a solicitor, killed his shrewish wife with arsenic and used it to try to eliminate a rival.

Major Armstrong

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was born in Plymouth in 1869. After obtaining a law degree, he began practice in Liverpool. Then in 1906, joined the firm of an elderly solicitor, Edmund Cheese, in the market town of Hay-on-Wye. With his prospects promising, he married his fiancée, Katherine Friend, the next year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Armstrong was increasingly successful as a solicitor and Cheese made him a partner in Cheese & Armstrong. With continued success, he moved his family into a rather grand house called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle. He was popular and active in the social life of Hay-on-Wye and, among other organizations, joined the Volunteer Force.

Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong

Armstrong was called up to serve when the First World War broke out in 1914, He achieved the rank of major in the Royal Engineers and served for a time in France. After the war, almost everyone called him “Major Armstrong.”

Mrs. Armstrong’s Unfortunate Death

Katherine was the dominant force in the Armstrong marriage. Her attention to etiquette bordered on obsession. As for her husband, she strictly ordered his life and had a habit of humiliating him in public.

Katherine Armstrong
Katherine Armstrong

Katherine had always been nervous with a tendency toward hypochondria. But in 1919, she began to have health problems that her doctor, Dr. Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as “brachial neuritis.” She appeared to recover from this, but a year later both her physical and mental health deteriorated precipitously. Admitted to a private mental asylum in August, she was delusional and had symptoms that included fever, vomiting, and heart murmurs. She improved at the asylum, but after returning home in January 1921, her symptoms came back with a vengeance. She died on February 22, 1921.

Mayfield in Cusop Dingle
Mayfield in Cusop Dingle

Major Armstrong Tries to Poison a Rival

Before the war, Cheese & Armstrong were the most successful solicitors in Hay-on-Wye. After the war, however, a rival firm solicitor, Robert Griffiths, took on a new partner named Oswald Martin. Martin had a keen knowledge of the arcane British tax laws. He used it to set up trusts and other instruments that helped minimize taxes. This was a field that Cheese & Armstrong were not able to compete in. Furthermore, Martin began to poach some of Armstrong’s other business.

Armstrong and Oswald Martin represented opposing parties in the complicated sale of the Velinewydd estate. The sale had become a drawn-out affair, ostensibly because Armstrong was dragging his feet. Martin was threatening to terminate the contract. On October 26, 1921, Armstrong invited Martin to his house, where he served tea and scones. If Martin expected to discuss the sale, he was disappointed. The two men only discussed ordinary things (although Martin could have brought up the sale if he’d wanted to).

Later that night, Martin became violently ill, which his doctor diagnosed as stomach flu. However, Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies, insisted that this was a case of arsenic poisoning. Davies just happened to be the local chemist (druggist) and had sold arsenic to Armstrong. Martin contacted Scotland Yard, who agreed there was cause for suspicion. They advised caution—Major Armstrong was a prominent man in the community after all—and agreed to investigate.

Ten months after her death, Katherine Armstrong was exhumed. The eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury conducted an autopsy and ruled that she had died of a massive dose of arsenic poisoning. Unsurprisingly, Armstrong found himself in the dock charged with murder and attempted murder.

Major Armstrong on Trial

No direct evidence linked Major Armstrong to either his wife’s death or Martin’s alleged poisoning. But there was considerable circumstantial evidence. Over time, the major had purchased quite a bit of arsenic from the chemist Davies. The major said he used the arsenic to kill dandelions. He divided the powdered arsenic into little packets. Then dissolved a packet in water, put the solution in a squirt gun, and blasted away at the weed’s roots. He had one of the packets in his pocket when police arrested him.

Armstrong at his magistrate's hearing
Armstrong at his magistrate’s hearing

Probably the most damning witness against Major Armstrong was the renowned Spilsbury. Once the great man made up his mind, nothing could move him to change it—or his testimony. Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, K.C. tried on cross-examination to shake the pathologist but only ended up strengthening his testimony. That left the defense up to Major Armstrong himself, who testified on his own behalf.

Armstrong, a lawyer himself acquitted himself well in the witness box. Despite a somewhat lackluster defense, when he stepped down, courtroom observers thought the odds were tilting toward acquittal. Until, that is, the judge called him back.

Mr. Justice Darling
Mr. Justice Darling

Mr. Justice Darling had a few questions of his own and gave the major a very uncomfortable time in the witness box. By the time the interrogation from the bench ended, so had Armstrong’s chances for acquittal. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. Mr. Justice Darling, known as a hanging judge, sentenced Armstrong to death. He was hanged on May 31, 1922 at Hereford Shire Hall, Gloucester, proclaiming his innocence to the end. Armstrong remains the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England.

Did It Really Happen That Way?

The summary above is the ‘accepted” version of the Hay poisoning case. The major’s guilt was a foregone conclusion for over seventy years. Then in 1995, Martin Beales reexamined the case in Dead Not Buried, later republished as The Hay Poisoner. Beales, a solicitor himself, bought and lived in the Armstrong house, Mayfield. He also worked in the same office at the same desk as the major.

Armstrong's office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)
Armstrong’s office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)

Beales contends the evidence against Major Armstrong was weak and the case largely driven by Oswald Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies. He also cites a weak performance by defense barrister Curtis-Bennett and Mr. Justice Darling’s obvious prejudice. And he reminds his readers that it was common in 1920s Britain for people to use arsenic around the house. Furthermore, he disputes the idea that Martin was taking business from Armstrong and contends it was the reverse.

Beales died of cancer in 2010.

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