Cheryl Crane: Sensational Murder or Something Else?

Our case last week looked at psycho former showgirl Clara Phillips who murdered a supposed love rival with a hammer. This week we delve into a Hollywood death that might or might not be murder. This is the story of Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato.

Lana Turner, Cheryl Crane, and Johnny Stompanato

Lana Turner, born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho in 1921, was a prominent film actress. Her career began in the 1930s. By the late 1950s, she was an established star. Despite professional success, Turner’s personal life was chaotic. Already married and divorced three times, she remarried her third husband, Stephen Crane in late 1942 when she discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Cheryl Crane, on July 25, 1943.

Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo
Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo

As the child of a famous movie star, Cheryl had little chance of a normal childhood. She later described herself as “famous at birth and pampered silly.” Cheryl’s parents divorced in 1944, a year after her birth. She and her mother lived in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles during most of her early years. Years later, in her autobiography, Cheryl alleged that Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, had sexually abused her many times.

Cheryl Crane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner
CherylCrane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner

Now we come to Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato was an ex-marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. By 1957, he was a bodyguard and enforcer for Los Angeles mobster Meyer “Mickey” Cohen. Stompanato became infatuated with Lana Turner in 1957, calling her and sending her flowers as “John Steele.” She was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer at the time.

Johnny Stompanato
Johnny Stompanato

Cheryl Crane Knifes Stompanato

Despite trying to break away when she discovered his ties to organized crime, Turner continued her relationship with Stompanato. It was one characterized by violent arguments and physical abuse followed by reconciliations.

Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Cheryl described Stompanato this way:

B-picture good looks…thick set…powerfully built and soft spoken…and talked in short sentences to cover a poor grasp of grammar and spoke in a deep baritone voice. With friends, he seldom smiled or laughed out loud, but seemed always coiled, holding himself in…had watchful hooded eyes that took in more than he wanted anyone to notice…His wardrobe on a daily basis consisted of roomy, draped slacks, a silver buckled skinny leather belt and lizard shoes.

(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him
(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him

On April 4, 1958, Stompanato showed up at Turner’s rented home in Beverly Hills. She had just leased the place just a week earlier. Cheryl, then 14 years old, heard the couple in a heated argument. Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, Cheryl, and Turner’s mother. He made other threats as well, including breaking Turner’s bones and cutting her face with a straight razor.

The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)
The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)

Cheryl had been watching television in an adjacent room. Believing her mother’s life was in danger, she grabbed a knife and ran to her mother’s aid. Meanwhile, Turner had ordered Stompanato out of the house. The door to the bedroom burst open and out stormed Stompanato, right into the knife Cheryl held in her hand.

Coroner's attendants remove Johnny Stompanato's body from Lana Turner's home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)
Coroner’s attendants remove Johnny Stompanato’s body from Lana Turner’s home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)

Cheryl Crane and the Coroner’s Inquest

Because of Turner’s fame as an actress and the involvement of her teenage daughter, the case quickly became a sensation.  More than a hundred people attended the coroner’s inquest on April 11, 1958.

Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest
Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest

Testimony at the inquest lasted for four hours. Witnesses who testified included Mickey Cohen (who refused to say anything), Lana Turner, and Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane. When testimony wrapped up, the coroner’s jury deliberated about 25 minutes before returning a verdict of justifiable homicide. The court released her to the custody of her grandmother. The judge also ordered her to regularly visit a psychiatrist accompanied by her parents.

Epilogue

Johnny Stompanato’s ex-wife, Sarah Ibrahaim filed a $750,000 wrongful death suit against Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen Crane. It implied that Lana Turner was responsible for stabbing Stompanato. The suit was eventually settled out of court in 1962.

A conspiracy theory endures that Lana Turner stabbed Stompanato, and that Cheryl Crane took the blame for her mother. The theory persists despite Cheryl’s repeated denials. She maintains that her mother never would have forced her teenaged daughter to falsely take the blame.

You can read more about the case in Movie Star & The Mobster: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Homicide in the Pink Bedroom by John William Law.

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Emmett Till: Disgusting Murder of a 14-Year-Old Boy

Last week’s case of Mary Winkler, the woman who shotgunned her minister husband to death was bad enough. But this week our case is especially heartbreaking. It is the racially motivated murder of a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till. And the killers got away with it.

Who Was Emmett Till?

Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, moved from Webb, Mississippi to Argo, Illinois with her family when she was ten years old. They were part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. By the time Emmett was born in 1941, his parents were living on Chicago’s South Side.

Mamie Till Bradley took this iconic photo of Emmett Till at Chrsitmas 1954 when Emmett was 13
Mamie Till Bradley took this iconic photo of Emmett Till at Chrsitmas 1954 when Emmett was 13

Emmet grew up in Chicago, except for a brief stay in Detroit when his mother remarried. A bout with polio at age six left him with a persistent stutter. By the time he turned 14 in the summer of 1955, his family described him as a fun-loving teenager.

Emmett Visits Money, Mississippi

Mamie Till Bradley had an uncle, Mose Wright, a sharecropper who was also a part-time minister. Wright lived in the tiny community of Money, Mississippi. When the uncle visited Mamie in Chicago in 1955, his stories of the Delta region of Mississippi intrigued young Emmett. He decided he wanted to see the area for himself and persuaded Mamie to let him visit his great-uncle there.

Emmett Till at age 13
Emmett Till at age 13

Before he left for Money, Mamie cautioned Emmett that Chicago and Mississippi were two entirely different worlds. She told him he needed to know how to behave in front of whites in the South. Emmett assured her he understood.

Emmett arrived in Money on August 21, 1955, a Sunday. On Wednesday, August 24, Emmett and his cousin, Curtis Jones, skipped the church service where Mose Wright was preaching. Instead, they joined some local boys and went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. It was a fateful decision.

Encounter at Bryant’s Grocery

Bryant’s Grocery mostly served the local sharecroppers. Its owners were a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. When Emmett and his friends arrived at the store, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant was alone in the front of the store. In the back of the store, her sister-in-law watched children.

Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market ca. 1955
Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market ca. 1955

Accounts of what happened at the store differ depending on who’s telling the story. In some versions, Emmett wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant. This would have been a bold and dangerous step for a black man (or boy) in Mississippi in 1955. However, if he did whistle, it may have been to overcome his stutter. His mother had taught him that technique to help him with his articulation.

What's left of Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in 2009 (L) and 2018 (R, photo by Eames Heard)
What’s left of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in 2009 (L) and 2018 (R, photo by Eames Heard)

In court, Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett asked her for a date. Then he allegedly grabbed her hand then her waist before muttering obscenities and bragging he’d “been with white women before.” She then testified that one of the boys with Emmett grabbed his arm and ordered him out of the store. However, Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright said that he entered the store less than a minute after Till and saw no inappropriate behavior. Emmett paid for his purchases, then he and Simeon left the store together.

Carolyn Bryant was 21 in 1955
Carolyn Bryant was 21 in 1955

Emmett Till Kidnapped and Murdered

In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 28, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam drove to Mose Wright’s house. Bryant was, of course, Carolyn Bryant’s husband and Milam was his half-brother. They forced Emmett to dress, then took him from the house.

Like the encounter at the grocery, there are differing versions of what happened next. Bryant and Milam later claimed they had only intended to beat up Emmett and throw him into a river to frighten him. However, according to their story, Emmett called them bastards and made other offensive remarks. But regardless of what did happen, no one saw Emmett Till alive again.

Three days after the abduction, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River found Emmet’s body. He’d been severely beaten and shot behind the right ear. His body had a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

Mamie Till Bradley demanded that authorities return Emmet’s body to Chicago instead of burying him in Mississippi. Despite advice to the contrary, she also insisted on a public, open-casket funeral so the world could see what had happened to her boy.

Mamie Till Bradley mourns at the funeral of her son, Emmett Till
Mamie Till Bradley mourns at the funeral of her son, Emmett Till

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went on trial for murder in September 1955 in the Tallahatchie County seat of Sumner. Two hundred eighty spectators crowded the tiny courtroom, including many members of the press. The trial lasted for five days but it only took the jury 67 minutes to acquit both Bryant and Milam of the murder charges. One juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” No one else ever stood trial for Emmett Till’s murder.

J.W. Milam (L) and Roy Bryant (R) sit with their wives in the courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi on September 23, 1955.
J.W. Milam (L) and Roy Bryant (R) sit with their wives in the courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi on September 23, 1955.

Epilogue

The murder of Emmett Till played a significant role in igniting the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks attended a rally for Emmett Till in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon after, she refused to move to a seat in the back of a Montgomery city bus. That action was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1956, Look magazine published an interview William Bradford Huie conducted with Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. In the interview, the pair confessed to murdering Emmett Till. However, because of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy, authorities were powerless to try them again. Civil rights laws used in similar situations a decade later didn’t exist in 1955.

In 2017, author Timothy Tyson claimed that, in a 2008 interview, Carolyn Bryant (now Donham) said that her trial testimony was untrue. But her recantation is not on Tyson’s tape of the interview. Also, Donham’s daughter-in-law, who was present for the two interviews, said Carolyn never recanted. Whether she did or didn’t recant remains a mystery.

Timothy Tyson included his interviews with Donham in his book The Blood of Emmett Till, which helped spark renewed interest in the case. It is one of the more recent books on the case, as is Elliot Gorn’s Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till.

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Ruth Snyder — Forbidden Love Leads to a Daring Murder

Last week’s post had its funny side but there is nothing funny about the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. The case became famous as the sash weight murder because the murder weapon was the weight from a window sash. Writer Damon Runyon dubbed it the “Dumbbell Murder,” because it was so dumb.

Warning: one of the pictures near the end of this blog may be disturbing to some people.

Ruth Snyder

Ruth Snyder (born Ruth Brown) was a housewife living in Queens Village in the borough of Queens, New York City. She married a man named Albert Snyder, art director for Motor Boating magazine. It’s unclear just why Snyder married her as his heart still belonged to his long-dead fiancée, Jessie Guischard. He even hung a picture of Jessie in their house. He told Ruth that Jessie was “the finest woman he ever met” and planned to name his boat after her. Who wouldn’t find that off-putting? Ruth certainly did. She tore down the picture and raised enough of a stink about the boat that Snyder named it “Ruth.”

Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.
Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.

Despite the unusual circumstances, the Snyders remained married and even had a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918. But Ruth decided to look for satisfaction outside her marriage. In 1925, she met traveling corset salesman Henry Judd Gray (he went by Judd) and the two began an affair. Gray was also married but that didn’t keep them from spending a lot of time together. They frequently met in the Waldorf Astoria. Ruth would leave Lorraine to entertain herself by riding the elevators while she and Gray carried on in private.

Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 - 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 – 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A Sinister Plot

Ruth Snyder wanted to be rid of her husband Albert. She and Gray conspired to kill Snyder after first taking out three life insurance policies on him. Ruth forged Snyder’s name to three policies worth a combined $100,000 (about $1.2 million today). She and Gray then set about killing Albert.

Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder's husband.
Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder’s husband.

It turns out, the pair weren’t particularly good at murder. At least seven times they tried, and every time Albert survived. The third attempt on Sunday, March 20, 1927, finally succeeded. Ruth and Gray hit Albert with the weight from a window sash. They then garroted him with picture frame wire, and stuffed rags soaked in chloroform up his nose. Albert died from suffocation.

The next part of the plot was to stage the scene to look like a burglary gone wrong. But here, too, Ruth and Judd were inept. Detectives were immediately skeptical of Ruth’s story and noted that there was little evidence of a break-in. More suspicious, police found that items that Ruth said the burglars had stolen were still in the house.

Mugshot of Ruth Snyder prior to her transfer to Sing Sing prison

The final breakthrough came when detectives discovered a small pin with the initials “J.G.” on it. It was a memento of Jessie Guischard that Albert Snyder had kept. Police matched the initials to the entry for Judd Gray in Ruth’s address book. When detectives asked her about Gray, a flustered Ruth asked, “Has he confessed?” Police ran a bluff, saying he had, and Ruth’s story quickly unraveled from there.

Trial and Conviction

Police found Judd Gray in Syracuse, New York. He folded quickly under questioning and confessed. The state tried the two jointly, a point that Gray raised on appeal (he lost). During the trial, both Ruth and Judd admitting to conspiring together. But each claimed the other had committed the actual murder.

Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Press coverage of the trial was intense. The New York tabloid press were vying with each other for readership and went all out in their coverage. The primary papers involved were the Daily Graphic, the Daily News, and William Randolph Hurst’s Daily Mirror. Newspapers reported every salacious detail of the Snyder-Gray affair. It was an age when reporters weren’t above fabricating details to spice up their stories. And Ruth was especially demonized, with papers frequently calling her “Ruthless Ruth.”

In the end, Ruth’s and Judd’s competing claims didn’t matter. The jury convicted both of first-degree murder. In New York in 1927, the punishment for murder was death.

Epilogue

Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray both died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York on January 12, 1928. Ruth went first, with Judd following about ten minutes later. In a macabre twist, photographer Tom Howard of the Chicago Tribune sneaked a homemade camera into the death house by strapping it to his ankle. As the “state electrician,” Robert G. Elliot sent the current through Ruth’s body, Howard clicked the shutter. The next day, fuzzy picture of Ruth Snyder appeared on front pages around the country.

Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.
Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.

Writer James Cain used the Snyder-Gray case as inspiration for a 1943 crime novella. The following year, Paramount Pictures released Double Indemnity starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. It was almost instantly a film noir classic.

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Dr. Crippen Murders His Wife — Or Did He?

From last week’s tale of scandal in old Hollywood, we turn this week to a genuine classic of the true crime genre, the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, dubbed by the press as the “North London cellar murder.”

The Crippens’ Backstory

Despite the very English flavor of this case, Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American. Born in Coldwater, Michigan in 1862. He qualified as a homeopathic physician and established a practice in New York. There he met and married an aspiring opera singer named Corrine “Cora” Turner (born Kunigunde Mackamotski) in 1894.

A well-known photograph of Dr. Crippen
Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner the SS Montrose, becoming the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy, he was found guilty and hanged.

In 1897 Dr. Crippen and Cora moved to London where he was a distributor for Dr. Munyon’s homeopathic patent medicines. Cora turned her attention from the operatic stage to the music halls, where she styled herself as Belle Elmore. Promoting Cora’s music hall career cost Dr. Crippen his job at Munyon’s and he took a series of lesser paying jobs.

Crippen's wife, Cora Crippen.  She also used the stage name Belle Elmore
Cora Crippen used the stage name “Belle Elmore” in her efforts to launch a music hall career

By 1910, the Crippens lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a respectable address in the Holloway section of London.  Their marriage couldn’t have been happy. Dr. Crippen was the meek and quiet while Cora was overbearing and flamboyant. She was also unfaithful, taking a series of younger lovers and flaunting them in public. In 1908, Crippen took a mistress himself, Ethel Le Neve (born Ethel Clara Neave), his secretary.

Dr. Crippen and Cora lived here at 39 Hilldrop Crescent.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (1135715a)
39, Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, the home of Dr Crippen and Cora in 1910

Cora Disappears

No one saw Cora after a dinner she and the doctor had at their home on January 31, 1910. To friends who inquired, Dr. Crippen replied that Cora had returned to the United States. Later, he added that she had died in America and had been cremated in California. This explanation looked fishy when Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent home and began to wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry in public.

Prodded by Cora’s friends, Scotland Yard charged Chief Inspector Walter Dew with investigating her disappearance. Dew interviewed Crippen, who confessed that he fabricated the story of Cora returning to America. He was too embarrassed, he said, to tell people that Cora absconded with one of her music hall lovers, Bruce Miller. Dew then briefly searched the house and, finding nothing, accepted Dr. Crippen’s story at face value.

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920

Dew planned to write a report on his investigation and close the matter. However, when he went back to clear up a couple of points with Crippen, he learned that the doctor had suddenly left town. His suspicions now aroused, Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and searched several more times. On his fourth search, a loose brick in the floor of the coal cellar led him to dig further. There he found a mass of rotting human flesh wrapped in a pair of pajamas.

The Chase is On

Unaware that Dew was about to close the investigation, Crippen and Ethel panicked and fled to the continent. At Antwerp, they engaged passage to Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner S.S. Montrose. On board, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy, they passed themselves off as Mr. and Master Robinson, father and son.

Despite the attempted disguise, the captain of the Montrose, Henry Kendall, recognized the pair. As the ship passed Land’s End, he sent a message to the ship’s owners using the new Marconi wireless. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers” The owners contacted Dew at Scotland Yard.

Now on alert, Inspector Dew boarded the faster SS Laurentic at Liverpool. With wireless updates from Kendall, the papers printed daily updates on the chase. Dew beat Crippen to Canada and, disguising himself as a pilot, he boarded the Montrose. There he arrested the pair of fugitives.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve landing at Liverpool after being brought back from Canada
Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat at left.

Trial and Conviction

Crippen’s trial at London’s Old Bailey started on October 10, 1910 and lasted four days. Bernard Spilsbury, who would make a name for himself as a brilliant forensic scientist, testified that he found an abdominal scar in the remains. The scar corresponded to a surgical scar Cora was known to have. The defense contended that what Spilsbury found was a fold in the skin, not a scar.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court
Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court
(Photograph by Arthur Bennett, 1910)

Home office chemists also testified to the presence of hyoscine (scopolamine) in the remains. This dovetailed with records showing that Crippen bought a large quantity of the drug prior to Cora’s disappearance. The prosecution contended he used it to poison his wife.

Throughout the trial, Dr. Crippen maintained that Ethel knew absolutely nothing of the business and denied that he killed Cora. It was all for naught. Based on the scientific and circumstantial evidence, the jury took just 27 minutes to convict him of murder. Mr. Justice Alverstone donned the black cap and sentenced Crippen to death.

Ethel was tried separately as an accessory and acquitted. She visited Crippen daily at Pentonville Prison up to the day before his execution. British justice being swift in the early twentieth century, he was hanged at 9:00 a.m. on November 23, 1910.

H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020
H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020 (Photography by Glyn Baker)

Did Crippen Do It?

The Crown presented a solid case of circumstantial evidence backed by one of the early uses of scientific testimony. But there is still some question as to whether Crippen was guilty. One puzzling question is that having successfully disposed of the head, limbs, and skeleton (they were never found), why bury part of the torso in his own coal cellar? Also, modern forensic science questions Spilsbury’s authoritative declaration that the tissue he examined was a scar rather than a fold in the skin.

In a stunning development in 2007, Dr. David Foran reported that mitochondrial DNA from Cora’s great-nieces did not match the remains. He also found that the flesh sample was male. However, there is room to question the validity of DNA testing on such an old sample.

Probabilities are, based on the evidence and on Crippen’s and Ethel’s behavior, that Dr. Crippen did, indeed poison Cora. Furthermore, it is possible (though not proven) that Ethel was not as innocent as she and Crippen claimed.

Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial
Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial

Epilogue

The Crippen case was significant for the role that wireless messaging played in capturing the fleeing doctor. The daily updates added spice to an already sensational case and aroused immense public interest. It also marks one of the very early uses of forensic science in a murder trial.

Ethel never spoke of the case after Crippen’s execution. She briefly moved to Canada before returning to England, where she married. She had two children who never knew she was the infamous Ethel Le Neve of the Crippen case. Ethel died in 1967 at the age of 84.

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