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The Mad Butcher of O’Farrell Street, 1955

 

Originally published: “The Mad Butcher of O’Farrell Street,” by Mitchell Chaindown, Front Page Detective, April, 1956.

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San Francisco, December 25 – 28, 1955

The sound was a shriek that started high and piercing and ended in a gurgle that was scarcely audible. The man leaped from his bed and ran out into the hallway of the Eddy Street rooming house.

He saw his neighbor in Room 13, pretty 19-year-old Georgia Anne Barrett, standing nude except for her slip, and that was pulled halfway down her body. She was clutching her throat, staring ahead with eyes glazed by terror. Before he could reach her, he saw four separate rivulets of blood shoot out from between her clasped fingers and gush in dark streams down over her breasts. He reached out and caught her just as she collapsed.

“My God, my God,” he mumbled as he half-dragged half-carried her into her room and placed her on the bed. “Can you talk, Georgia? Can you tell me what happened?” he begged even as he reached for the telephone to call police. But the girl only rolled in a slow, agonizing rhythm on the bed and moaned intermittently. . . .

Inspector Bruce Jones, on general detail from the night bureau of inspectors, was the first to respond. He used the few minutes before the ambulance arrived .to ask as many questions as he could.

“Who is she?”

“Georgia Anne Barrett, a waitress, lives here in Room 13.”

“Any boyfriends you know of?”

“Yeah. Fellow named Dido.”

“Last name?”

The informant shrugged and Jones, hearing the final whirr of a siren, turned from the knot of roomers to help superintend the girl’s removal. He rode with her to the hospital, hoping she would come out of her coma long enough to describe her attacker.

With the first signs of life in her pain-wracked body, Jones asked, “Was it Dido?” Georgia’s answer was a negative roll of her head.

“Who was it then?”

Another shake of the head; an agonized, “Don’t . . . know. .”

“Man?”

“Yes . .”

“How did he get in?” Inspector Jones asked her softly. “Window,” Georgia said, wincing with the effort.

“Can you describe him?”

“Black man . . . young . . . wore hat . . . gloves . . . about five-nine. .” These were Georgia’s last words. The deep puncture-wound in her neck had claimed her life. And as Jones moved away from the bed, he saw that her fingers of her right -hand had been almost completely severed, apparently in an effort to ward off the fatal thrust.

Jones returned to the rooming house where he was joined by Homicide Inspector Alfred Nelder and Inspector Gerald Shaughnessy. The room was a crazy splash-work of Georgia’s own blood. There were several long smears on the window frame—and the window was shut and locked, indicating that Georgia had done that after she’d been wounded, before she ran into the hall. On a nightstand next to the bed was a heavy, stiletto-type butcher knife with a 12-inch blade. Crime technicians could find no usable fingerprints, bearing out Georgia’s death statement that the killer had worn gloves. All the blood in the room was type A –Georgia’s type.

 

THE MAN who had called police was the only tenant of much use in the questioning that followed. He said that shortly before he’d run into the hall, he’d heard what seemed to be a man in full-flight rushing past his door. Since that hallway led to the front door, it was apparently how the killer had escaped. The roomers also said that Dido lived in a rooming house just a few doors away. He might be able to help.

Dido, stunned by the news of his girl’s atrocious murder, remembered a Peeping Tom who had bothered Georgia. “It was about a week ago,” he said. “When he realized he’d been seen by Georgia, he just walked away. She wasn’t even worried enough to report it to the police.”

While the homicide men were still plying their questions, Inspector Nelder received a report that six hours before the murder there had been a burglary and assault just five doors away in an apartment occupied by a Mrs. Betty Luke. The assault had been in the nature of a “hot prowl,” a term used by officers when a burglar operates while his victims are on the premises.

At the Luke apartment, Nelder learned that the 28-year-old woman lived there with her 11-year-old daughter and year-and-a-half-old twins. On this Christmas night she had put the babies to bed and returned to the living room to watch television with her older child. There were several unopened gifts around the tree, presents for Mrs. Luke’s merchant seaman husband who was due in the next day from a voyage.

The woman and her daughter watched the show until about 10:30 when, as a special Christmas treat for the 11-year-old, Mrs. Luke agreed to make a divan bed in the living room and she and her daughter would watch the late show. At 12:10 on the early morning of December 26, Mrs. Luke was painfully awakened by a series of blows pounding down on her. She could make out the shadowy figure of a man by the bed.

She shrieked and began grappling with the intruder. She managed to back her assailant into the kitchen but her screams had awakened her daughter who ran to her mother’s aid. The assailant bent down and grabbed up a large butcher knife and began hacking away at both the woman and her child. The girl was nicked on the forehead before her mother could push her to safety and Mrs. Luke was hacked on the chin, hands, arms and legs, but she refused to give up the struggle and the knifer finally fled through a ground-floor kitchen window.

Victim-Betty-Luke

Victim Betty Luke

On a hunch, Inspector Nelder sent one of his men to the Barrett apartment to get the murder knife. While they waited, he helped Mrs. Luke fold up the divan bed. As the metal runners slid into place, Nelder knelt down and retrieved from under the bed a brown leather button with thread still attached.

“Yours?” he asked, holding it out to the injured woman.

Mrs. Luke shook her head. “No, it doesn’t belong to me nor to any member of my family. What’s more, I’m sure it wasn’t there when we pulled the bed out last night.”

Nelder dropped it in his pocket while he listened to a description of the attacker from the woman and her daughter. Neither of them was certain whether the man was negro or white, but they both agreed he was about five feet eight inches, wore a raincoat, hat and gloves—and the little girl thought she had seen a pair of glasses.

The description could fit the wanted slayer, and Nelder was sure it did when a few minutes later a police officer returned with the murder knife.

“Why, that’s mine,” Mrs. Luke exclaimed. “That’s the knife he grabbed off my kitchen table.”

“You were lucky, Mrs. Luke,” Inspector Jones said, recalling the pitifully tortured body he had just seen on the hospital bed. “Just plain lucky.”

The woman was taken to Mission Emergency Hospital for treatment, and Inspector Nelder drove to the Hall of Justice for consultation with Captain of Inspectors James English.

“I think our man lives right in that neighborhood,” Nelder told the captain. “There was about six hours between those two attacks, and if we’re right in assuming the same man pulled both he must have had some place to go during that lapse.”

English agreed, and six plainclothes officers were assigned to a roving patrol of the area. They were joined intermittently by Inspectors Shaughnessy and Nelder. A number of suspicious-looking men, both negro and white, were watched carefully as they moved in and out of the meandering little hill streets, but no arrests were made.

At midnight, police received a frantic phone call from Mrs. Luke. She had seen a Peeping Tom at the window of her home. About two tons of police hit that window, but there was no sign that anyone had been loitering there.

The button, which had been shown to every cleaning establishment in the area in the hope that one of them might remember a garment on which such buttons were attached, had not been identified. But every cleaner questioned said that he believed it came from a man’s sports jacket. Such buttons were almost universally restricted to that type of coat.

Nothing more developed on the case that night, but at 5:30 the next morning police received a hysterical phone call from Mrs. Gloria Simpson who lives at 1233 O’Farrell Street. “My baby’s gone and I can’t find her!” she screamed. “There’s blood all over her room!”

Patrolman James Higgins answered the call at the rooming house, which was run by Mrs. Simpson. It was true—the small bedroom of pretty little 13-year-old Elizabeth Simpson was almost awash with blood, but the child was gone and there was no trail of blood leading away from the room.

“We’ll check every room in this building,” Higgins said. He started up and down the narrow corridors, banging at the doors of sleeping tenants. He got a response at every door from sleepy-eyed roomers who let him into their quarters, showed him around without complaint, then joined in the growing swell of curious who wanted to know what was up.

But finally he hit one room where there was no answer. He pounded and called, and when there was still no response he tried the door. It was locked. The manageress brought a key, but the door still would not budge. Higgins threw his weight against it and shoved until he could let himself through a narrow opening. He found that a refrigerator had been pushed against the door. Then his attention riveted on one corner of the room.

In it lay the tiny body of 13-year-old Elizabeth.

“God,” Higgins whispered. “Dear God in heaven!”

She lay on her stomach with a sheet pulled over the lower half of her body. On the sheet was an eight-inch butcher knife. The small body had been so horribly mutilated that the patrolman could scarcely look at it.

Victim Elizabeth Simpson, Age 13.

Victim Elizabeth Simpson, Age 13.

 

At 6:15 that morning, Inspector Nelder was in the room looking down on what he has described as “the most ghastly sight I have ever seen.”

“Whose room is this?” Nelder asked.

“Reese’s,” Mrs. Simpson said, barely able to make herself understood as she struggled to maintain her composure. “James Reese. He rented it about six months ago, but I hardly ever saw him.”

“Young fellow?” Nelder asked.

She nodded. “About 23, or so. I think he was a janitor in one of the stores downtown. I just never had much to do with him. He asked to use my phone about a month ago, and last week he. . . .” Mrs. Simpson burst into uncontrollable sobs.

“Yes?” Nelder said gently. “Last week. . . .”

“That knife,” Mrs. Simpson said, a shudder shaking her whole body. “He borrowed it from me. But yesterday he brought it back. I keep it in the community kitchen.” Without turning her head she pointed in the direction of Elizabeth’s room. “Betty’s room opens right into the kitchen.” Her body shook again with a great spasm of grief. “Ever since those knifings around here I’ve said, ‘Betty, you keep your room locked.’ Last night . . . . last night I forgot to say anything.”

Six plainclothesmen were dispatched immediately to sweep the area in search of Reese. Two of these men, William Mojica and William Brazil, played a hunch. “Anybody here know Reese on sight?” they asked.

“Yeah,” one of the tenants said, detaching himself from the crowd.

“C’mon then.” They grabbed the youth and sped to the Greyhound bus depot at Seventh and Mission Streets. “Look in there,” they said, maneuvering the roomer up to the big window. “See anyone who looks like Reese?”

The youth scanned the handful of people that were in the station at that early hour. “Yeah, yeah,” he said excitedly. “There he is, just leaving the ticket window, heading over there toward the men’s room.”

Mojica and Brazil ran inside. They could hear their man whistling Love and Marriage as he disappeared into the washroom. They burst fin after him. Reese was standing over the basin, washing his hands—and the water ran red.

“Why did you kill that girl?” Mojica snapped.

Reese looked up, surprise and shock mirrored on -his face. “I guess the wine makes me crazy,” he said.

James Reese “The Mad Butcher of O’Farrell Street”

James Reese “The Mad Butcher of O’Farrell Street”

He was hustled into the car and returned to O’Farrell Street. In answer to early questions he said there was no blood trail from Elizabeth’s room to his because he had rolled her on a sheet and “rode” her body the 65 feet down the hall to his room.

But when he was taken into his own room and faced with the mutilated corpse, he suddenly started gushing denials. Although he could look at the body with scarcely any show of emotion, he grew agitated and upset when he spoke. “I didn’t do it,” he said. “I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it. I was in my room here all evening, but along about midnight I got up to go down the hall to the bathroom. When I come back, here was this body lyin’ here. I knew I’d seen this girl somewhere’s around this building. But I didn’t murder her . . . no sir.”

“If you didn’t harm her, why didn’t you call police, or tell someone?” Nelder pressed.

“I wasn’t going to be found in this room with no dead body,” Reese said. “No sir. I’m on probation out of San Quentin. I just shoved that old refrigerator over in front of that door and I took out of here through the window and down the fire escape.”

While Nelder had been questioning the man, other officers had given the rooms a careful search. They had found a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, some bloodstained dungaree pants, a raincoat and, hanging in the closet, a brown sports jacket, with woven leather buttons. The third button was missing.

Reese admitted that all of the clothing was his and seemed undisturbed when Inspector Nelder pulled a duplicate button from his coat pocket and matched it and the thread to the missing spot.

Police also found a ring with a red stone on the floor of Elizabeth’s room. It was a ring that had been reported stolen in a recent, robbery, but tenants in the building remembered seeing it on Reese’s finger.

Reese by now was making no further effort to deny the crime. He sat huddled in a corner of his tiny room and answered the questions put to him by Inspector Frank Ahern and Nelder.

“What about these other knifings?” Ahern said.

Reese jumped as though pinched. “No sir,” he said. “Not me. Why last night and the next morning I was with my girl. You ask her. You ask . . . . she’ll tell you. I was with her Christmas night and the next morning.” He rattled off the name and address of his’ girl and said she was a cocktail waitress.

“Yeah, we’ll ask her,” the inspectors promised.

 

WHILE REESE was taken off to Northern Police Station to be booked on suspicion of murder, Inspectors Nelder and Ahern sought out the cocktail waitress. They found her in the home of a girlfriend, but she denied having spent Christmas night with Reese. “I saw him for about an hour and a half in a Fillmore Street bar on Christmas Day, but I spent that night in Oakland . . and I wasn’t with him. On Monday afternoon he called me up and said I might be questioned. He said, ‘If you are, remember, you were with me from Christmas night until Monday afternoon.’ I asked him what he’d been up to and he just said. Never mind, you just tell them.'”

The girl said she’d seen Reese again on Tuesday night and when she told him she wanted nothing more to do with him, he threatened to kill her.

The descriptions of Miss Barrett’s killer and Mrs. Luke’s attacker fit Reese; the button found under Mrs. Luke’s bed seemed to be the one missing from Reese’s jacket; and now his alibi for that night and morning had been shattered. But Reese still continued to deny he’d had anything to do with those earlier attacks.

A report from Coroner Henry Turkel stated that Elizabeth Simpson had died from a knife thrust that passed completely through her neck. She had been raped. The sexual assault had taken place before she was wounded and her hands were laced with cuts from having tried to ward off her killer.

A check of Reese’s history revealed that he had been born in Amarillo, Tex., had worked at odd jobs there and in California, and had served briefly in the air force until he was discharged as an undesirable. He was sent up for burglary in Vallejo to do county jail time, but after an attempted escape he was sent to San Quentin where he remained until last May when he was paroled.

On the night of January 9, the grand jury voted to indict Reese on two counts of murder, one of assault with intent to murder, one of rape, and five of burglary. Reese is being held in jail awaiting further action.

One reporter who wanted all the information on James Reese that he could find, approached Inspector Nelder. “What was Reese doing out in Vallejo before he got picked up for burglary, Inspector?”

Nelder, drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. “Reese,” he said, snapping out the words with all the venom he felt, “was an apprentice butcher.”

Note: James Reese was later found guilty of the rape and murder of 13 year-old Elizabeth Simpson and was sentenced to death. He was executed in the San Quentin Gas Chamber on Feb. 14, 1958.

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