Clara Phillips: Sensational Murder for Love

In last week’s case, Richard Crafts murdered his wife and used a woodchipper to dispose of her body. The State of Connecticut convicted him of murder anyway. This week, our case is from California in the Roaring Twenties. There, in 1922, Clara Phillips used a hammer and a boulder to kill a supposed rival for her husband’s affections.

Armour and Clara Phillips

Clara Phillips had been a showgirl when she met Armour L. Phillips. Phillips was part of the über-wealthy Mellons of Pittsburgh, but his was a poor branch of the family from Texas. Nor did he have any of the business or financial acumen of his moneyed relatives. Instead, he was a grifter and a con man. Nonetheless, Clara adored him.

Armour L. Phillips
Armour L. Phillips

Clara had a volatile temperament. She invented a story about being kidnapped as a child in Los Angeles and frequently fought with other showgirls. She also fought with her husband but that apparently didn’t diminish her ardor.

Trouble started when Clara overheard a neighbor gossiping that Armour was having an affair with one Alberta Meadows. Meadows was a young widow who worked as a bank teller. She had been married less than a year when her husband died in an accident at work. Hearing that Alberta was dallying with Armour (she wasn’t), Clara hatched a plan.

Murder victim Alberta Meadows (Heald Examiner collection)
Murder victim Alberta Meadows (Heald Examiner Collection)

Clara Phillips’ Murder Plan

On July 10, 1922, Clara visited a local five-and-dime. There, in the hardware department, she selected a claw hammer. She asked the clerk if it was heavy enough to kill a woman. Thinking she was joking, he replied “Yes, it is, if you hit her hard enough with it.” Clara bought the hammer for fifteen cents.

Clara dn Armour Phillips embrace at her arraignment (Los Angeles Times Photo Collection)
Clara dn Armour Phillips embrace at her arraignment (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

After buying the murder weapon, Clara spent most of the afternoon in a Long Beach speakeasy. With her was her friend, another former chorine named Peggy Caffee. After bending Peggy’s ear about Alberta’s “affair” with her husband, the two went to Meadows’ house. There they made up a story about needing a lift across town. For some reason, Alberta agreed. When they reached a lonely stretch of Montecito Drive, Clara asked Alberta to pull off the road. She said she wanted to have a private conversation with Alberta. Clara then proceeded to pummel Alberta about the head with the hammer until it broke. She finished off her supposed rival by rolling a 50-pound boulder onto her chest.

The terrified witness, Peggy Caffee (Herald Examiner Collection)
The terrified witness, Peggy Caffee (Herald Examiner Collection)

With Alberta now dead, the two women fled in the victim’s brand-new Ford. Clara came home to Armour, still covered in Alberta’s blood, and promised to cook him “the best dinner he’d ever eaten.”

Clara Escapes—But Not for Long

Peggy Caffee, who had witnessed the whole scene from the car, was too frightened to intervene. Not wanting to end up like Alberta, she followed Clara’s advice and kept silent.

Clara Phillips during her trail. She relished the attention from the media (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)
Clara Phillips during her trial. She relished the attention from the media (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

For his part, Armour Phillips helped dispose of the car and put Clara on a train for Texas. However, he reconsidered his position the next day and went to the cops. She got only as far as Albuquerque before police hauled her off the train and arrested her.

Clara Phillips walking with policeman to court in Los Angeles in 1922. (Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection)
Clara Phillips walking with policeman to court in Los Angeles in 1922. (Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection)

At trial, Clara accused Peggy Caffee of killing Alberta. That strategy didn’t fly, as the jury (and everyone else) saw a timid, terrified Peggy Caffee when she testified. Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years to life, Clara didn’t wait for her transfer to San Quentin (the women’s prison at Tehachapi didn’t open until 1932). Instead, she bribed her way out of the county jail on December 5, 1922 and escaped to Honduras.

Women in Tehachapi, California's prison for women from 1932 to 1954
Women in Tehachapi, California’s prison for women from 1932 to 1954

Epilogue

Clara Phillips stayed on the run for four months before the law caught up with her. Extradited back to Los Angeles, she had no choice but to begin serving her sentence in San Quentin. She was released on parole from Tehachapi on June 21, 1935. By then she had divorced Armour Phillips. She told reporters she was going to San Diego to live with her family and work as a dental assistant, a skill she learned in prison.

Clara continued to insist that Peggy Caffee was the one who killed Alberta Meadows. As before, nobody believed her.

A detective on the case said Meadows looked like “she had been mauled by a tiger.” As a result, the L.A. press promptly dubbed Clara the “Tiger Girl” or “Tiger Woman.”

Crime writer R. Barri Flowers wrote about the case in Murderess on the Loose: The 1922 Hammer Wrath of Clara Phillips.

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