The Mitchell Brothers: Sex, Murder, and a Pioneering Video

Last week, we met a tony British murderer and poseur. Our crime journey this week takes us to San Francisco, California, where we meet the infamous Mitchell brothers. Jim and Artie Mitchell established a porn empire in 1969 that took porn mainstream.

The Mitchell Brothers Discover Porn

Jim Mitchell was a part-time film student when he took a job at the Follies theater. He noticed that the short films with little or no plot but copious on-screen nudity often drew a full house. This gave him the idea that porn might be a profitable business.

On July 4, 1969, Jim and brother Artie, recently discharged from the U.S. Army, opened the O’Farrell Theater. It was to be a combination strip club and adult movie theater. They chose a run-down building at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk streets near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Artie’s wife at the time, Meredith Bradford, put her Ivy League education to use helping the pair.

The Mitchell Brothers, Jim (L) and Artie (R)  in 1977
The Mitchell Brothers, Jim (L) and Artie (R) in 1977

Starting with the theater’s upstairs room and later expanding into an additional location, the Mitchell Brothers began making pornographic movies. Even their fans conceded that their films were mediocre at best, if not outright terrible. The lack of artistic quality didn’t bother the brothers and they kept making movies.

A recent photo of the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater
A recent photo of the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater

A Stunning Success and an Equally Stunning Flop

In 1972, the Mitchell Brothers produced a feature-length porn picture, Behind the Green Door, staring an unknown actress named Marilyn Chambers. Chambers had previously been the model for the box cover of Ivory Snow detergent. The juxtaposition of Chambers’ wholesome image on soap boxes with her new identity as a porn icon was great publicity. It also sent staid Procter & Gamble, makers of Ivory Snow, scrambling to pull boxes with her image off store shelves.

The Mitchell Brothers, Artie (L) and Jim (R) at the O'Farrell Theater in 1989
Artie (L) and Jim (R) at the O’Farrell Theater in 1989

Behind the Green Door cost $62,000 (in 1972) to make and grossed $25 million. The Mitchell brothers used profits from it to fund a series of additional adult films. Their last major film was Behind the Green Door: the Sequel. This film starred Artie’s girlfriend, Missy Manners (real name: Elisa Florez), who had no experience with acting or public sex. Furthermore, this was a “safe sex” film in response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis. The result was one of the worst adult films ever made. Washington Post writer Michael J. Ybarra wrote that “[the] movie—a smorgasbord of latex and lubricants—proved to be just as unsexy as the concept sounds.”

The Mitchell Brothers’ Deadly Showdown

Being in a hedonistic business, it isn’t surprising that the Mitchell brothers enjoyed partying. But Artie took partying to an art form. His alcohol and cocaine consumption were prodigious. Friends and associates demanded that Jim “do something” about an out-of-control Artie.

On the night of February 27, 1991, Jim took a .22 rifle to the rented house where Artie lived with Julie Bajo, his girlfriend at the time. In the encounter, Jim shot and killed Artie. Bajo called 911.

Jim’s trial for murder set a legal precedent. The court allowed the prosecution to present a 3D animated video “recreation” of the shooting to the jury. Jim’s defense attorney attacked this early version of virtual reality. However, its success led to the use of similar videos in subsequent trials. It’s perhaps ironic that Jim, who made a career of producing movies, faced video evidence in court.

Jim Mitchell on the witness stand during his trial for murder.
Jim Mitchell on the witness stand during his trial for murder.

The jury rejected the murder charge and instead convicted Jim of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years in prison.


Jim Mitchell served three years in San Quentin. He was released in 1997 and returned to run the O’Farrell Theater. He died in 2007 of an apparent heart attack at age 63.

Jim’s son, James “Rafe” Mitchell, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend with a baseball bat in 2011. His daughter, Jasmine, became addicted to methamphetamines and was arrested in 2014 for her alleged part in an identity theft ring.

Marilyn Chambers tried, largely unsuccessfully, to cross over into mainstream films before returning to porn acting. Years of alcohol and drug abuse led to her death at age 56 in 2009.

Marilyn Chambers in 2008
Marilyn Chambers in 2008

The Mitchell brothers case inspired two non-fiction books: X-Rated by David McCumber (1992) and Bottom Feeders by John Hubner (1993).

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

John List — A Killer’s Secret Life Exposed by Art

The bombings I featured last week shock us because the random act of a stranger can cause such widespread damage. This week’s case is even more chilling. It’s the story of John List, a seemingly normal guy who murdered his entire family, then disappeared. He successfully eluded law enforcement for 18 years before television and an artist led to his arrest.

John List – Outwardly Normal

John Emil List was a native of Bay City, Michigan born in 1925. He joined the army in 1943 during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1950, the Army recalled List to active duty in Korea (he was a reserve second lieutenant). While in the military, he met and married Helen Taylor, the widow of an officer killed in Korea.

After his discharge from the Army in 1952, John List took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. Next, he worked as an audit supervisor for a Kalamazoo paper company. He and Helen had a daughter and two sons in Kalamazoo. After working at Xerox in Rochester, New York, he assumed a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. He moved his family, including his mother into a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey.

The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)
The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)

To his friends and neighbors, John List was a successful professional with a typical American family.

Signs of Trouble

Despite their normal outward appearance, all was not well in the List household. For one thing, John List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. One might even call him a religious zealot. He convinced himself that his family members were leading unholy lives. Another problem was that Helen List was an alcoholic and was becoming increasingly unstable.

Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty and burned down nine months after the murders.  Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.
Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty after the murders and burned down nine months later. Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.

Then List lost his job and bills started to pile up. With debts mounting, List’s world was crashing in on him. He began to dissociate from reality. He pretended to commute to work each day. Instead, he sat in the Westfield train station and reading the paper. He also siphoned money out of his mother’s bank account to pay the mortgage on the mansion.

In this state of mind, List feared his family was straying from the paths of righteousness. He decided to “ensure their place in heaven” by killing them all. He expected to join them there later. At least that’s the story he told authorities after his arrest.

A Family Murdered

On November 9, 1971, John List put his plan into action. When the children left for school, he shot his wife and his mother to death. When his daughter and youngest son came home, he shot them in the back of the head. That left his oldest son. He watched John Jr. play soccer at school, then drove him home and killed him, too.

List left his mother’s body in her upstairs apartment. He laid out the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion’s ballroom. He then turned on all the lights, tuned a radio to a station that played classical music and walked out.

John List planned his exit carefully. He closed his and his mother’s bank accounts. Next, he stopped the mail, milk, and newspaper deliveries. List even sent notes to the children’s schools and part-time jobs saying the family was taking an extended vacation. Consequently, no one knew anything was amiss for almost a month.

Neighbors noticed that the lights in the List house burned day and night, although they saw no activity. When the lights began to burn out one by one, they called police, who found nothing wrong and left. A few days later, police were again called to the mansion. They found daughter Patricia’s drama coach calling to her from the front of the house. He convinced officers to enter the home through an unlocked basement window. Once inside, they found the bodies.

John List had left behind a five-page letter to his pastor that was essentially a confession. But there was no sign of the man himself.

John List on the Lam

John List was in the wind. Police later learned that he had traveled to Michigan and then on the Denver, Colorado. He settled there as Robert “Bob” Clark (he “borrowed” the name from someone he knew in college). Like List, “Bob Clark” was a CPA. Also like List, he joined a Lutheran church, where he ran a carpool for shut-in church members. In 1985, he married an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller.

In May 1989, the television program America’s Most Wanted featured the List murders. By now it had been seventeen and a half years since John List disappeared and old photos would have been of little use. Instead of photos, the program commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to create an age-progressed clay bust of List. The bust featured prominently in the broadcast.

Frank Bender's age-progressed bust of John List
Frank Bender’s age-progressed bust of John List

By this time, “Bob Clark” had moved with his new wife to Midlothian, Virginia. However, one of his former neighbors in Denver recognized the bust and notified authorities. They arrested List on June 1, 1989. Bender’s bust had been almost a dead ringer. Strangely, List continued to insist he was Robert Peter Clark. That is, until faced with a fingerprint match to John List’s military records.

Photos of Bender's bust of List (left) and of List  (right) taken after his arrest show the  uncanny resemblance between the two
Photos of Bender’s bust (left) and of List (right) taken after his arrest show the uncanny resemblance between the two

Trial and Conviction

At trial, John List claimed that financial stress and concern for his family’s spiritual well-being led to the murders. He was convicted anyway. The judge sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. During his appeals, List contended that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. He also tried to claim that the letter left behind was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible. Not surprisingly, these arguments failed.

John List prison mugshot ca. 2005
John List prison mugshot ca. 2005

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008.

Join the Mailing List

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.


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.

Join the Mailing List

Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner

This week, I’m reaching way back to 1751 for a murder by arsenic poisoning. This is a classic English case of the use of “inheritance powder.” Unfortunately for her, the poisoner, Mary Blandy, didn’t get away with it.

Setting the Scene

Mary Blandy was a young woman living at home with her father, Francis Blandy, an attorney in Henley-on-Thames. Mary was 26 in 1746, which in those days would have put her well into spinsterhood. However, that year, she met Captain William Henry Cranstoun, a Scottish military officer. The two planned to marry in 1751.

Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner
Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner (Public Domain)

There was just one problem. Cranstoun already had a wife and child in Scotland, having married Anne Murray the year before he met Mary.

Francis Blandy approved of his daughter’s proposed marriage—that is, until he learned about the wife in Scotland. Consequently, he forbade Mary to see Cranstoun. Cranstoun, for his part, claimed that his marriage to Murray was invalid. He even made several trips to Scotland to have his marriage annulled. But Anne was having none of it and Cranstoun was unable to obtain the annulment.

Poisoning Francis Blandy

Francis Blandy died on August 14, 1751 as a result of what authorities determined was arsenic poisoning. Servants had noticed a white powder in the bottom of a pan Mary had used to prepare her father’s food and saved a sample of it. So, naturally, Mary Blandy came under suspicion. But did she intend to murder her father?

Mary claimed that Cranstoun had sent her a “love potion” that she was to put into Francis’s food to make him approve the of her relationship with Cranstoun. Mary put the “potion” in Francis’s food. Of course, the “potion” turned out to be arsenic.

Mary Blandy on Trial

Mary went on trial at Oxford on March 3, 1752. Her trial was notable for being the first murder trial to include scientific evidence. Her father’s physician, Anthony Addington, testified that the powder given to Francis Blandy was arsenic. Addington proved the powder was arsenic by heating it and detecting arsine gas, which has the odor of garlic. (A more precise test for arsenic was decades in the future.)

Bottle of Arsenic
Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelf

Mary presented the love potion story in her defense, but other facts brought out during the trial contradicted her. Not surprisingly, the jury convicted her.

Mary Blandy was hanged outside Oxford Castle Prison on April 6, 1752. Her last words were purportedly, “Do not hang me too high, for the sake of decency.”

Cranstoun fled to France and thereby escaped prosecution, but he died soon after on December 2, 1752.

How Guilty Was Mary?

Mary admitted feeding the “love potion” to her father, so there is little question of her technical guilt. But was she morally guilty? Was she simply a lovesick woman who believed her lover’s story of a “love potion?” Or were she and he more interested in the £10,000 dowry the elder Blandy had promised? The debate continued for several years. At the time, few people accepted her story on the witness stand, as most believed she was lying. Nineteenth century reexaminations of her case were more sympathetic to the “poor, lovesick girl” view.

Mary Blanchard had a reputation as a well-educated young woman, so I find it difficult to believe she could swallow the “love potion” story. I think it is more likely that she knew what she was doing. Mary may or may not have poisoned her father for love, but I believe Cranstoun’s motivation was the £10,000. However, more than two and a half centuries after the fact, determining the exact truth presents a challenge.

Join the Mailing List