Thursday, August 6, 2009


The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach (Simon & Shuster, 1992)

Megan Abbot's next book, Bury Me Deep, is loosely based on the 1931 Winne Ruth Judd "Trunk Murders" (not, as one or two pinheads suggested, the Brighton Trunk Murders.) Naturally, this sent me scurrying to my library to do a little background reading.

The first book on the case, 1973's Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders, is little more than as assemblage of newspaper clippings tediously re-written into narrative form. Definitely not worth the bother. Bommersbach's book is definitely the one to get, and as a read it goes done painlessly. But accurately? That remains to be seen.

First, the facts. Winnie Ruth Judd was a 26-yr old medical typist trying to may a go of it in Phoenix in 1931. For friends, she had x-ray tech Agnes LeRoi and TB patient Hedwig Samuelson. For fun, she had big-wheel lumberman Jack Halloran. And she did have a husband, but he was conveniently out-of-state looking for work and played no role in subsequent events.

On the night of October 26th, Judd visited her pals. There was an altercation caused, Judd later claimed, by her introducing Halloran to a woman with a arrested case of syphilis. Two days later, her erstwhile friends were found in a pair of leaky trunks in the checkroom at Los Angeles's Union Station; Samuelson's body had been cut into four pieces to fit. Judd was quickly arrested. In a trial that can only be described as "unusual," she was convicted of LeRoi's murder and sentenced to death. She was ultimately found insane and remanded to a state mental hospital. She would escaped seven times over the next 30 years (once staying AWOL for seven years) before being finally paroled in 1971

Bommersbach makes a good case for the investigation being flawed, the trial unfair, and the whole process skewed by official efforts to protect Halloran. But to protect him from scandal, or prosecution? Bommersbach has her explanations; in fact, she has two. Unfortunately, her solutions are as problematical as the prosecution's. To run them down, they are:
  • Single Woman Theory: Acting entirely alone, Winne Ruth Judd shot her two friends, did her own chopping and stuffing, and then put a bullet in her hand to make it look like self defense. This is the official prosecution theory.
  • That Nasty Man: Jumped by her two friends, Judd somehow wrested the gun away after sustaining a bullet wound in the hand and proceeded to kill them in "self defense." She summoned loverboy Halloran, who arranged to have the bodies loaded in trunks. This is Judd's personal story.
  • The Second Gunman: There was another gunman who shot one, or possibly both, of the women, leaving Judd entirely innocent.

All are flawed. Although it isn't as hard to chop up a body as Bommersbach makes out, she does make a good case that Judd's hand was injured before the bodies went in the trunks. Dissecting assistance is probable. But Judd's self-defense claim flys in the face of physical evidence. LeRoi was killed by a single shot to the head fired at extremely close range. But would Halloran, a businessman with ready access to trucks that could easily transport the bodies out into the desert, bring in a second witness to chop up Samuelson and then send the injured and no doubt thoroughly rattled Judd on a lengthy, idiotically conceived trip with no clear plan to get rid of the evidence?

The second gunman theory is simply silly. Not only does this beg why Judd would spend the rest of her life screaming self defense, the only basis is the early news stories that had the women being killed by different guns. Where Bommersbach sees evidence of a sinister conspiracy protecting important men, I see another screw-up by know-it-all newshounds.

My theory is that Judd sneaked into the house, shot LeRoi and then brawled a bit with Samuelson before shooting her. If she did have some post-mortem help, I think it was a third party that lacked access to more convenient methods of body disposal. But who... and why?

It is with keen anticipation that I await Ms. Abbott's novelization (and hopefully, rationalization) of these events.