Robert James: Astonishing Murder Shocks People in L.A.

Last week, the blog covered the death of George Reeves, the actor who was television’s Superman. It could have been a crime, but maybe it wasn’t. People still debate whether it was suicide or murder. This week, there’s no doubt: the case is murder. The killer: a slow-witted con man named Robert James. The victim: his wife. The murder weapon: two live rattlesnakes. This last bit earned the hapless wife-killer the sobriquet of “Rattlesnake James.”

Robert James

Robert James wasn’t even his real name. At birth, he was Major Raymond Lisenba (“Major” was a name, not a rank). He was a native of Hale County, Alabama (some sources put his birthplace as Birmingham). As a young man, he went to work in the cotton fields before his sister’s husband sent him to barber school.

Major Raymond Lisenba a.k.a. Robert S. James
Major Raymond Lisenba a.k.a. Robert S. James

Contemporaries described James as having a pasty complexion, a shock of slicked-back red hair, red-rimmed green eyes, and a high nasal voice. Nor was he the sharpest tool in the shed, one former childhood neighbor calling him “less than a half-wit.” But despite this unflattering description, Robert James seemed to have a way with women.

Robert James Marries—Several Times

James appears to have married his first wife, Maud Duncan, in Birmingham, Alabama. Sources provide conflicting dates but agree that she soon divorced him, citing his proclivity for “kinky” and “sadistic” sex.

By 1925, James had changed his name—legally or not—from Major Raymond Lisenba to Raymond S. James. That year, a state census records listed “R.S. James” living with a wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law in Emporia, Kansas.

Robert James, San Quentin mugshot
Robert James, San Quentin mugshot

On September 21, 1932, James and his third wife, Winona Wallace, were driving the Pikes Peak Highway in Colorado. Winona was driving when the car left the road and tumbled down a mountainside. James managed to jump free, but Winona was trapped in the car. Rescuers found her alive with minor injuries. She smelled of liquor and had a large wound behind her ear. A week later, with Winona recovering in a cottage in Manitou Springs, James and a grocer found her dead in the bathtub. He told investigators that she had ignored doctors’ orders not to wash her hair because of the head wound. She supposedly drowned as a result.

Sometime later, James apparently married Ruth Thomas while drunk. He reported having that marriage annulled in New Orleans in 1932.

The Fifth, Final, and Fatal Marriage

In March 1935, James was in La Cañada, California working as a barber. There he met and married Mary Busch. Barely three months later, he approached, Charles Hope, one of his customers who was in financial difficulties. He recruited Hope to help him in a plot to kill his wife. James promised to pay Hope $100 (more than $2,000 in 2022) to procure two rattlesnakes. The plan was to use the snakes to poison Mary.

Newspaper image of Mary Busch James with photo in the background
Newspaper image of Mary Busch James with photo in the background

On August 4, Hope brought two feisty diamondback rattlers to the James house. He found Mary strapped to the kitchen table, her eyes and mouth taped shut. James had coaxed the pregnant Mary onto the table with a ruse about a doctor coming to “perform some kind of operation on her for her pregnancy.” While Hope watched, James put Mary’s foot in the box with the two snakes, which, of course, bit her. Hope then left the house.

Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)
Detectives study the fish pond where Mary’s body was found (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)

Hope and James returned to the house at 1:30 a.m. only to find Mary was still alive. Outraged, and none too sober, James took her into the bathroom where he drowned her in the tub. Then he took her body and put it face down in the backyard fish pond to make it look like an accidental drowning.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled Mary’s death an accident, that is, until a drunken Hope began bragging to bar patrons about his role in her death. The bartender called police. Police arrested Hope and, under intense grilling, he spilled the whole plot. A snakebite on Mary’s toe, overlooked during the original autopsy, confirmed Hope’s story.

Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)
Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)

Hope got life in prison, but James got the death penalty. Since the crime occurred before the California adopted the cyanide gas chamber in 1937, James got the rope. On May 1, 1942, he mounted the gallows at San Quentin. All did not go smoothly. The rope was too long and, instead of breaking his neck, it took James 13 minutes to slowly strangle to death. A horrible end, you might say, but not as horrible as the one he made Mary suffer.

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