Thelma Todd: Strange Death of a Famous Hollywood Actress

Old Hollywood is a treasure trove of old crimes and scandals, some famous, some unknown. In this blog post, I present the case of Thelma Todd. She was a renowned actress and owned a popular café situated along the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. Her mysterious death in 1935 remains troubling today.

Thelma Todd Goes to Hollywood

Massachusetts-born Thelma Alice Todd planned to be a schoolteacher. But she also liked to enter beauty pageants and won the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925. A Hollywood talent scout noticed her while she represented her state in that capacity. He signed her to a contract with Paramount Pictures, preempting her career as an educator.

Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)
Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)

Todd’s film career started slowly. Movies were still silent in the 1920s, and in her first screen appearances, she served as little more than an on-screen ornament. As sound came to the pictures, however, producer Hal Roach offered her the opportunity to appear with some of the noted comedy stars of the day. Before long, Todd was a respected screen comedienne.

With experience came better and more prominent roles. She appeared with Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, and others. You can see her with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. She even appeared as Miles Archer’s wife, Iva, in an early screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. However, few people remember this 1931 film since Humphrey Bogart’s 1941 version completely eclipsed it.

In all, Todd appeared in some 199 films, including short subjects. The studio’s publicity machine occasionally promoted her as “The Ice Cream Blonde.”

Thelma Todd: Party Girl and Businesswoman

Off-screen, Todd could be a wild partyer, earning herself the nickname “Hot Toddy” among her friends. She also gravitated toward destructive and abusive relationships with men. A brief marriage to agent and producer (and reputed pal of mobster Lucky Luciano) Pat DiCicco resulted in numerous brawls.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya's. Thelma Todd's apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya’s. Thelma Todd’s apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.

Thelma’s marriage ended in divorce, after which, according to rumors, she began a relationship with Roland West. West was still married to actress Jewel Carmen at the time.

Whether or not her relationship with West was romantic, they were business partners. In August 1934, Todd and West opened a restaurant along the Roosevelt Highway (now the Pacific Coast Highway) in Pacific Palisades, California. They named their establishment Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café to capitalize on the actress’s screen fame. The café occupied the first floor of a Spanish-style building at the intersection of the highway and Porto Marina Way. The second floor housed a private nightclub—and rumored gambling joint—called Joya’s.

Actress and entrepreneur Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)
Actress and entrepreneur Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)

Thelma Todd Found Dead in a Garage

Thelma Todd met her death in a garage on the hillside above her café. On the morning of Monday, December 16, 1935, Mae Whitehead, Todd’s maid, found her body slumped in the front seat of her chocolate-colored Lincoln Phaeton convertible. She still wore the silver evening gown, mink wrap, and jewelry she had worn to a fashionable party at the Trocadero Saturday night. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. She was only 29 years old.

Captain Bert Wallis of the police homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd's body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
Captain Bert Wallis of the LAPD homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd’s body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The real mystery, though, was the manner of death. Was it an accident, suicide, or murder? The official investigation by the LAPD concluded that the death was “accidental with possible suicide tendencies.” Friends thought suicide was unlikely since Todd had left the Trocadero in good spirits, and police found no suicide note. Others claim that Todd was a victim of foul play.

Author Andy Edmonds postulates that Lucky Luciano killed her because he wanted to take over Joya’s and turn it into a gambling establishment (if it wasn’t already one). Donald Wolfe proposes a similar scenario with Bugsy Siegel as the gambler/gangster killer. Neither scenario is likely since a mob-sponsored gambling operation didn’t sprout in the private club space after Todd’s death. Other theorists finger ex-husband Pat DiCicco, business partner and rumored lover Roland West, or West’s wife Jewel Carmen (she owned the garage).

What Happened to Thelma Todd?

Although the press and the public love a good scandal, especially if it involves a conspiracy, the official explanation of accidental death is the most likely. Dropped off in the wee hours of Sunday morning by a chauffeur and perhaps a bit woozy after an evening of nightclubbing, Todd started her car to warm it or herself. She then succumbed to the carbon monoxide fumes before she realized what was happening.

The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author's photo)
The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author’s photo)

Nevertheless, the definitive story of her death has been a mystery for nearly ninety years and is likely to remain so.

Epilogue

Interest in Thelma Todd’s life and death continues, and several books detail her life and story. One of the earliest is Andy Edmonds’ Hot Toddy. Recent works include Testimony of a Death by Patrick Jenning and Marshall Croddy, The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan, and William Donati’s The Life and Death of Thelma Todd.

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Room 1046: Unusual Murder of Man in Hotel Room

My blog this week presents you with an unsolved murder mystery. It involves Room 1046 of a Kansas City, Missouri, hotel and dates to January 1935.

Roland Owen Checks Into Room 1046

Early in the afternoon of January 2, 1935, a man checked into the Hotel President in Kansas City. He asked for an interior room several floors up, and the desk clerk assigned him Room 1046. He said his name was Roland T. Owen, gave a Los Angeles address and paid for one night. Bellhop Randolph Propst accompanied Owen to the tenth floor and unlocked the door to Room 1046 for him. Owen had no luggage but removed a hairbrush, comb, and toothpaste from his overcoat pocket while Propst was in the room. The two then left, with Propst locking the door and giving Owen the key. After reaching the lobby, Propst observed Owen leave the hotel.

The Hotel President in 2012 (Nightryder84/Wikipedia)iid
The Hotel President in 2012 (Nightryder84/Wikipedia)

A short time later, a hotel maid, Mary Soptic, came into the room to clean and found Owen there. The shades were down, and only one dim lamp lit the room. She would find this to be the case in her subsequent encounters with Owen. She had been cleaning for only a few minutes when Owen put on his overcoat, brushed his hair, and left. On his way out, he asked Soptic to leave the room unlocked as he said he expected friends in a few minutes.

Soptic returned to Room 1046 with fresh towels and discovered the room dark and Owen lying on the bed, fully clothed. A note she saw on a bedside table read, “Don: I will be back in fifteen minutes. Wait.”

More Strange Goings-On in Room 1046

Mary Soptic paid another visit to Room 1046 at about 10:30 on the morning of January 3. She found Owen alone in the dark as he had been the previous afternoon. The phone rang. Owen answered it and said, “No, Don, I don’t want to eat. I am not hungry. I just had breakfast…No, I am not hungry.”

Sketch of Roland T. Owen distributed to help identify him (AllThatIsInteresting.com)
Sketch of Roland T. Owen distributed to help identify him (AllThatIsInteresting.com)

Around 4:00 p.m., Soptic returned with fresh towels. A male voice, not Owen’s, told her they didn’t need any towels, even though Soptic had removed all of them from the room earlier.

Two hours later, Jean Owen (no relation to the man in Room 1046) from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, checked in and received Room 1048. She later told police that she heard men and women talking loudly and profanely all over the tenth floor.

Violence in Room 1046

At 7:00 a.m. on January 4, switchboard operator Della Ferguson attempted to place a wakeup call to Room 1046. Seeing the light that indicated the phone was off the hook, she sent a bellhop—coincidentally, Propst—up to the room. He found the door locked and a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the knob. A voice told him to “come in” in response to his knocks, but he couldn’t. He left after telling the guest, presumably Owen, to hang up the phone.

By 8:30, the phone in Room 1046 was still off the hook. Another bellhop, Harold Pike, went up to the tenth floor. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was still out, but Pike had a key and let himself in. He found Owen in the dark, lying on the bed naked. The telephone had been knocked off its stand. Assuming the room’s occupant was drunk, Pike put the phone back on its stand and replaced the handset.

Photograph of "Roland T. Owen" that Ruby Ogletree identified as her son, Artemus (Kansas City Public Library)
Photograph of “Roland T. Owen” that Ruby Ogletree identified as her son, Artemus. The patch of missing hair is from a childhood injury. (Kansas City Public Library)

Two hours later, another operator reported that 1046’s phone was off the hook again. Propst drew the assignment to check on it. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was still in evidence, and the door was locked. This time, Propst had a key and let himself in when he didn’t get a response to his knocks. Owen was on his knees and elbows about two feet from the door, and his head was bloody. Propst replaced the phone’s handset and noticed blood on the walls of the room and bathroom and on the bed itself.

It’s Murder

Propst went downstairs for help and returned with the assistant manager. They could only open the door a few inches, as Owen had fallen on the floor after Propst left for help. He eventually got up and sat on the edge of the bathtub, allowing the two hotel employees to enter the room. The assistant manager called Kansas City Police.

Someone had bound Owen with cords around his neck, wrists, and ankles. Additional bruising on his neck suggested that someone had tried to choke him. He had been stabbed several times in the upper chest, and a blow to the head left him with a skull fracture. When asked who did this, he answered, “Nobody,” and claimed to have fallen and hit his head on the bathtub. He then lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. He was comatose when he arrived and died shortly after midnight on January 5.

Who was the Man in Room 1046?

Police quickly learned that “Roland T. Owen” was an alias. Los Angeles police could not locate anyone by that name at the address he gave. A corpse with no name left detectives little to go on, but it made a great newspaper story. Papers worldwide circulated a sketch and postmortem photo of “Owen.”

Artemus Ogletree in a photograph provided by his family (Public Domain)
Artemus W. Ogletree in a photograph provided by his family (Public Domain)

In 1936, Eleanor Ogletree saw an issue of the Sunday newspaper insert, The American Weekly, containing an article about the murder. She felt the image of “Owen” strongly resembled her missing brother, Artemus Ogletree. Her mother, Ruby Ogletree, agreed and contacted the police in Kansas City.

Epilogue

On March 3, 1935, the funeral home that had been holding Ogletree’s remains announced it would bury him in Kansas City’s potter’s field the next day. That prompted a call from an unidentified man asking them to delay the service so that the caller could send money for a proper burial. The funeral home received an envelope on March 25 containing $25 (about $563 in 2024), sufficient to cover the funeral’s cost. A florist received $10 in two separate envelopes for an arrangement of 13 American Beauty roses to go to the grave. A hand-lettered card accompanying the payment read, “Love Forever—Louise.” The sender was never identified, and neither was “Louise.”

Identifying Ogletree did not help in determining who killed him. The case remains unsolved.

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Lane Bryant: Old Murder Case Needs a Breakthrough

My blog post this week concerns an unsolved crime from sixteen years ago. In 2008, a man shot six women inside a Lane Bryant clothing store in a Chicago suburb, killing five of them. The crime remains unsolved today.

Intruder at Lane Bryant

It was a little after 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 2, 2008. A tall man, six-foot to six-foot-two, entered the Lane Bryant store in the Brookside Marketplace shopping center in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. He claimed to be a deliveryman. Soon, however, he dropped the pretense. Pulling a .40-caliber Glock handgun, he herded the two employees and two women customers to a back room. He then bound them with duct tape and ordered them to lie face down on the floor.

The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)
The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

Two other women, potential customers, came into the store and were also herded to the back and bound.

The Lane Bryant Murders

According to police, the intruder was in the store for 40 minutes. During that time, he sexually assaulted at least one woman before shooting all six, killing five. One victim, a part-time Lane Bryant employee, survived but declined to be identified.

The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the Lane Bryant suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)
The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)

During the attack, Lane Bryant store manager Rhonda McFarland managed to call 911 from her cellphone, pleading with the operator to “hurry.” A Tinley Park police officer was on a call in Brookside Marketplace a few hundred yards away. He was on the scene within a minute, but the gunman had already escaped.

  • Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)
    Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)

The dead women were store manager Rhoda McFarland, 42, of Joliet; Jennifer Bishop, 34, of South Bend, Indiana; Sarah Szafranski, 22, of Oak Forest; Connie Woolfolk, 37, of Flossmoor; and Carrie Hudek Chiuso, 33, of Frankfort.

Epilogue

The Lane Bryant murders remain unsolved today (2024), sixteen years later. Tinley Park police still have a detective assigned full-time to the case.

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Lizzie Borden: Fascinating Murder is Never Forgotten

In this blog post, I present a well-known crime that has piqued public interest for over 130 years. The 1892 slaying of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, shocked Victorian sensibilities in that community. Even more shocking was the arrest and trial for parricide of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie Borden. Although an all-male jury acquitted her, a cloud of suspicion hung over her for the rest of her life. The crime also inspired a popular, if inaccurate, schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden and Her Family

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born in Fall River on July 19, 1860. Her mother died when Lizzie was three years old. Three years later, Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray. There were indications that Lizzie and her stepmother were not close. She later said she called Abby “Mrs. Borden” and shied away from saying whether or not they had a cordial relationship. Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid, reported that Lizzie rarely took meals with her father and stepmother.

Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)
Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)

Andrew had grown up in modest circumstances and had little money as a young man, but by 1892, he had accumulated considerable wealth. He had interests in many local businesses and was president of one bank and a director of another. Despite his financial success, Andrew preferred a frugal lifestyle. For instance, the Borden house at 92 Second Street did not have electricity or indoor plumbing, despite this being common in homes of the well-to-do.

Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)
Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)

Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, had a religious upbringing. As a young woman, she devoted considerable time to church and charitable activities. She was 32 years old in 1892 and, given the standards and expectations of the time, would have been considered a spinster.

The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)
The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)

Tensions in the Borden Household

The summer of 1892 was not a pleasant time at the Borden residence. As mentioned, the Bordens lived well below their means. Lizzie, in particular, would have preferred a more elegant home on “The Hill,” the section where Fall River’s wealthiest citizens lived.

Another issue was the real estate Andrew gifted to several of Abby’s relatives. A visit from Emma and Lizzie’s maternal uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, raised suspicions that more property transfers were in the works.

Finally, for several days at the end of July and the beginning of August, members of the household had been violently ill. Some speculated that the cause was food poisoning. Abby feared someone might have been trying to poison Andrew, as he was not particularly popular in Fall River.

Bridget Sullivan, the Borden's live-in maid (Public Domain)
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid (Public Domain)

Murder in the Borden House

August 4, 1892, was a hot Thursday in Fall River. John Morse, who had arrived the day before and spent the night, ate breakfast with Andrew, Abby, and Maggie (the family’s name for Bridget Sullivan). Afterward, he and Andrew retired to the sitting room, where they talked for over an hour before Morse left for some errands. He planned to return for lunch. Andrew also left after 9:00 for his morning walk.

Abby Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Abby Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Sometime between 9:00 and 10:30, Abby went upstairs to the guest room to make the bed. She was facing someone who struck her on the side of the head with a hatchet. The blow caused Abby to turn and fall face down. The attacker then delivered multiple blows—nineteen in all—with the hatchet, killing her.

When Andrew Borden returned to the house, his key wouldn’t open the lock. He knocked, and Bridget went to unlock the door. Finding it jammed, she swore. She later testified that immediately after, she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs. If true, that meant that Lizzie would have seen her stepmother’s body since Abby was already dead by this time. However, Lizzie denied being upstairs.

Andrew Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Andrew Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Bridget Sullivan was resting in her third-floor room after cleaning windows all morning. At 11:10, she heard Lizzie call from downstairs. Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew lay on a sofa in the sitting room where he had been napping. He had been struck, probably while asleep, ten times with a hatchet or hatchet-like weapon.

Lizzie Borden Suspected

Lizzie was naturally a suspect because she was the only person besides Bridget Sullivan in the house (Emma was in New Bedford visiting a friend). Her behavior following the discovery of the murders also invited suspicion. She changed her story several times, and some investigators found her unusually calm and poised. However, they did not check her for bloodstains, and the search of her room was cursory at best.

The following Sunday morning, Alice Russell, a friend of both sisters, went into the Borden kitchen and found Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove. She said she had ruined it by brushing it against wet paint. No one ever determined if it was the dress she had worn the day before.

Lizzie Borden around the time of her trial (Fall River Historical Society)

The district attorney convened an inquest into the murders on August 8. Lizzie’s testimony was confused at some times and combative at others. Her family doctor prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and this likely affected her performance as a witness. In any event, the DA conducted the proceedings more like an interrogation than an impartial inquiry.

At the conclusion of the inquest on August 11, police served Lizzie with an arrest warrant.

Lizzie Borden on Trial

Lizzie’s trial began on Jun 5, 1893, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In a victory for the defense, Justin Dewey, the presiding Justice, refused to allow Lizzie’s inquest testimony in evidence.

A prominent piece of evidence was a handleless hatched head found in the Borden basement. However, the prosecution failed in its attempt to prove it was the murder weapon. Whether Lizzie was even in the house at the time of the murders was also in dispute.

The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)
The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)

Observers viewed Justice Dewey’s summation to the jury as supportive of the defense. They deliberated for only 90 minutes before returning with a “not guilty” verdict.

Epilogue

Lizzie and Emma moved into a large, modern house on “The Hill,” complete with a staff of servants. Lizzie named it “Maplecroft.” Around this time, she began styling herself as Lizbeth A. Borden.

Maplecroft in 2008 (Author's Photo)
Maplecroft in 2008 (Author’s Photo)

Despite her acquittal, Fall River society ostracized Lizzie. She came into the public eye again in 1897 when she was accused of shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1905, the Borden sisters argued over a party Lizzie had given for actress Nance O’Neil, and Emma moved out. They never saw each other again.

Lizzie Borden died from pneumonia on June 1, 1927, in Fall River at age 66. Emma died from chronic nephritis nine days later. The sisters, neither of whom ever married, were reunited in death, buried side by side in the family plot in Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

The Borden house on Second Street in Fall River is now a museum and a Bed & Breakfast.

An immense number of books relate the story of the Borden murders and Lizzie’s trial. Some of the more recent are The Borden Murders by Sarah Miller, The Case Against Lizzie Borden and Lizzie Borden Uncut: A Casebook of Theories by William Spencer, One Hot Day in August by Victoria Strachan, and Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden by David Kent.

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