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Serial Killer “Texas Jim” Baker, Part One

Home | Feature Stories | Serial Killer “Texas Jim” Baker, Part One

 

This is part one of a two part story that is 9,500 words long.  A all-in-one post is available here.

 

Author’s Note: “Texas Jim” Baker was a serial killer who used poison and pistols to murder nine men around the world between 1924 and 1929. After he was captured in February, 1930, for the murder of a chemical laboratory employee, Baker bragged about these murders “with lip-smacking gusto” during several confessions to investigators and newspaper reporters. He thrived on the attention he received and often embellished his life story and the murders by describing them with overtly gruesome details meant to shock his listeners into thinking he was a special kind of monster. By doing so, Baker also hoped to increase his celebrity criminal status and gain more attention for himself. Several months after he was sentenced for one of his murders, International Features Syndicate paid him to write his autobiography. The story they published was filled with lies, half-truths, self-pity and Baker’s trademark overstated joy he felt while poisoning his victims. Through my research of New York newspapers, and five true crime magazine articles published after his trial, I believe I have separated fact from fiction as well as anyone could. Below, Baker’s “autobiography” is followed by facts gleaned from the investigation and his incarceration as reported by New York newspapers.

Wednesday, February 19, 1930

The Detroit detectives scrutinized the young man in front of them and didn’t know whether to believe him or not. If the story he told them was true, then twenty-four-year-old[1] James Baker was one of the worst mass murderers[2] they’d ever seen. He seemed arrogant, almost as if he was bragging about his confession to poisoning eight men around the world. They were used to liars in their line of work, but if “Texas Jim” Baker was a liar, he was one of the biggest. However, the liars they knew avoided specifics. They lacked details. All the made-up stories prisoners told were meant to get them out of trouble, not sent to the electric chair.

The confession Baker told them was rich in detail.

His claim to killing seven other men was news to them but they were sure they had the right man for the 1928 poison slaying of Henry Gaw, an employee at the Guggenheim Metallurgical Research Laboratory in New York City on the morning of December 28. His photograph, description, and tattoos on his right forearm matched the James Baker that New York City police were hunting the last fourteen months. However, since Texas Jim hadn’t killed anyone in Michigan that they knew about, this homicidal maniac was New York’s problem, not theirs. And as soon as he could be extradited, they would have to deal with him.

 Cropped-Jim-Baker-on-Train

Texas Jim Baker, 1930

Jim Baker’s “Autobiography”

According to his semi-fictional autobiography he wrote for International Features Syndicate, which was published in the Sunday edition of newspapers nationwide, “Texas Jim” Baker was born James Bakerien in Warren, Ohio, sometime around 1907. He wrote that his mother gave him up for adoption and he was taken in by a young couple he referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Plummer.” Baker described his adoptive parents as petty criminals who regularly beat him and guided him down a lawless path.

“At home I knew only cruelty—unmerciful beatings, harsh words—all under the guise of parental authority.”

While just a small boy, his adoptive parents taught him the value of having an alias and forced him to participate in their petty crimes and burglaries. His first stretch of jail time came at the age of five when all three of them were locked up for some scheme they had been working. By the age of ten, Baker described himself as an accomplished burglar and thief working with the “Plummers” between Greenville, Pennsylvania and Newton, Ohio. He was arrested twice during this period and served a one year sentence in an Ohio reform school for boys where he claims he was beaten often with “horse-harnesses, belt straps, clubs and blackjacks.”

When he was released, Baker returned to his adoptive parents who were now calling themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Parks.” In telling the story of his first killing which was later proven false, Baker described it as a case of self-defense. Instead of being sent to school, his adoptive father put him to work in a new contracting business he’d started. After three weeks of working with no compensation, the eleven-year-old boldly informed “Cyril” he wasn’t going to work for him anymore unless he got paid. This led to a heated argument and the older man began beating him. When his adoptive mother tried to intervene, Cyril began choking her. Fearing that he was going to kill her, Baker fetched a revolver, pointed it at their tormentor, and pulled the trigger.

“The bullet struck him above the left breast and he staggered out into the street and dropped. There was a hole near his head where the slug had came out. I turned him over and noticed a bloody froth on his lips. I never saw him again.”

Although local prosecutors did not file charges against him, a juvenile court judge did send him back to reform school to serve another year where he claims he was “beaten daily” by guards. When he wrote of this incident for International Features Syndicate, he felt sorry for himself for the one year sentence he received. “My only reward for saving the life of Mrs. Parks was a year’s sentence,” Baker wrote with a tone of self-pity.

After he had served his time, he again moved back in with his adoptive mother who by then had moved to Warren, Ohio. Although he thirteen-years-old, Baker claimed he obtained forged papers that said he was seventeen-years-old and found work in several different local factories. However, each time he got a job, company managers eventually discovered he served time in reform school and he was quickly fired.

Disgusted with those who denied his efforts to earn an honest living, Baker claimed he was forced to return to a life of crime. It was not his fault he became a criminal, it was society’s fault. In order to survive and support his adoptive-mother, he burglarized stores and had a successful run for a few years.

“In my years of burglary, I tried in every respect to be scientific. I knew in advance every detail of my coups, with such a degree of success, that while the whole town—even the whole country—was looking for the “The Lone Wolf,” I walked the streets a free man with plenty of money in my pockets and a comfortable home with Mrs. Parks. I always kept her in funds,” Baker boasted.

He was eventually caught when some stolen property was traced back to his fence who ratted him out. Instead of sending the teenager to a juvenile facility, Ohio authorities sentenced him to serve thirty months in the state penitentiary at Mansfield “because the police said I was too tough for the reformatory.”

After serving what he claimed was his fifth term in confinement, Baker migrated to Springfield, Missouri, where he “pulled some jobs.” He was caught again and sentenced to serve four years in the Boonville Training School for Boys. During this period, a national organization which inspected reform schools nationwide rated Boonville as “the worst or one of the worst” juvenile institutions in the country. After serving one year, Baker said he escaped and traveled to Kansas City where he burglarized a pharmacy and pilfered a bottle of strychnine pills. He then made his way the Texas coast where he found work as a steam fitter on cargo ships.

In 1924, the now seventeen-year-old wrote that he was exploring Houston when he ran into George Honeycutt, a down on his luck alcoholic. Honeycutt was begging for money on the sidewalk when Baker walked by. Instead of giving him money, Baker proposed to buy him a meal. As the two walked several blocks to a seaman’s restaurant, Honeycutt annoyed him by insisting he drink from a bottle of wood grain alcohol he kept with him. Baker was repulsed by men who drank alcohol and they may have reminded him of his adoptive father.

“In a flash, I saw a way of getting rid of him,” Baker wrote. “I took five strychnine tablets from my pocket and dropped them in his bottle. After we finished the meal, he ordered a cup of coffee and poured the poisoned wood alcohol into it. He drank it in a couple of gulps and remarked that it tasted awfully bitter.”

Honeycutt ordered a second cup of coffee and again poured the poisoned alcohol in it. “He said it was giving him an unusual kick,” Baker reported. “When the meal was finished, I paid for it and left with Honeycutt for I didn’t want to miss the fun.”

The “fun” came as the two walked down Congress Avenue with Honeycutt moaning in pain and misery as the poison did its work. The dying man told Baker he felt like committing suicide to escape his agony. With a broad smile, Baker informed him that wouldn’t be necessary since he’d already “attended to that for him.”

At the corner of Main Street and Congress Avenue, Honeycutt fell to the sidewalk and began shaking violently. His body arched so that only his feet and head rested on the curb. A crowd formed and an ambulance was called which took him away but he was already dead. In the newspapers the next day, Baker read that the Houston coroner had ruled Honeycutt’s death a suicide.

“People have often wondered how I could do it,” Baker wrote in a philosophical tone. “A strange question from my point of view since to murder when the urge to kill arrived has always seemed to me the logical and sensible thing to do.”

Even though he was heartless killer, he was a heartless killer with principles. He had scruples. “I have never killed women—only men. I killed for two reasons—because men have treated me badly since childhood and because of an overwhelming urge to kill that would come over me at times. After that, I used to get impulses to poison people. I liked to watch the effects of different kinds of poison. It gave me a funny sort of sensation,” Baker wrote.

He remained in Texas a few more years where he earned his nickname, “Texas Jim,” and when he moved to Florida in 1926, he found a job as a steamfitter on the outbound German ship Dalafven. Taking the advice his parents once gave him, Baker used an alias. This time, he was “Don DeVorl.” When the Dalafven reached Holtenau, Germany, Baker got that funny sensation that had been dormant for two years and he found his second victim at a Hamburg beer garden near the coast.

 

A fellow, quite drunk, sat down opposite me. He ordered a kummel[3] and a beer and started talking to me. I didn’t feel like talking to him or anyone else. My beer I left untouched. Inside me I felt the restlessness begin to take form. I began to see this fellow who had imposed himself on me as a very obnoxious person. Soon I was quivering internally with the desire to kill.

I held back for a few seconds—then dropped five strychnine tables into my beer and substituted my glass for his. I always carried them with me since the time I first stole them.

Then I raised the glass as a signal to drink and said “Prosit![4]” He responded to my toast and drained the glass. I spilled my glass on the floor for I seldom drink alcoholic beverages.

The fellow squirmed around. He passed some remark about the especially bitter taste of the beer. I asked him to come with me but he said he’d rather not, for he felt sick. I was sorry not to have the fun of watching him die but I valued my liberty too well to risk arrest so I wandered down to the waterfront.

 

In July of 1927, Baker was working on the oil tanker Gulfport with a crew that didn’t care for him because “he didn’t like to drink.” Disgusted with their drinking, Baker waited until the ship docked in Las Piedras, Venezuela, and followed the ship’s crew to a cantina where they ordered beer. Baker slowly made his way to the wooden keg, removed the bung, and dropped all twenty of his remaining strychnine tablets inside. After a few more rounds of drinks, the ship’s whistle sounded and the crew made their way back to the ship.

Some of them didn’t make it.

“A few blocks later, one of the men collapsed. The others were too drunk to notice him. I had to leave him before he finally died but from a reading knowledge and practical experience with strychnine, I estimated he had about fifty-seven seconds left,” Baker gloated.

Two more died before they could reach the ship and “flopped about, lost their voice, quivered and finally straightened out.” Back on the ship, four of his unsuspecting shipmates took to their bunks violently ill but managed to live.

When the Gulfport reached New Jersey, Baker jumped ship and knocked around New York City and Brooklyn until he grew tired of being a “landlubber” and signed on with the West Cusseta in June of 1928. The ship was bound for Asia and it was during this voyage that Baker would get his next urge to kill. This time, it came not because of alcohol, but from his disillusionment with the world.

When his ship reached the Bay of Bengal near India, he was overcome by a spectacular image which he eloquently described in his autobiography.

“The sea was as smooth as glass. There was a large, iridescent moon which cast a shimmering, silvery sheen over everything. The deck, the cabins, the funnels, the mastheads were enveloped in a beautiful coating of unmatched reality. The sea was burnished silver. The ship could be traced in the rays of the moon to the horizon where it seemed to drop off the edge of the earth. I went to bed that night inspired as I had never been before. For a few hours, I almost believed there was a God.”

But Baker’s romantic view of the world was shattered the next morning when the West Cusetta dropped anchor to take on a local pilot who would guide the ship up the Hooghly River. When he heard the telltale splash, Baker ran out on deck and instead of the beautiful scene that had played out the night before, he saw a revolting, vile infested wasteland of poverty and desperation.

“Imagine my feeling of disgust when I saw for the first time the cesspool of the world! After my dreams of the night before, I felt rotten. Nature had played me a prank.”

When the ship reached port, Hindu beggars came forward with tin cups asking for food. He took one of those cups from an older man and offered to get him some.

“I filled it inside the ship and sprinkled on some potassium cyanide to make it more appetizing,” Baker wrote. “The fellow bowed his gratitude and started eating. A minute later he lay down, quivered and was dead. I went to bed that night singing.”

Throughout his autobiography, Baker takes pleasure in his callous descriptions of the joy he felt when murdering his victims. This was his vanity creeping out of him, seeking avenues in which to further gain attention. He may have been a psychopath, or what they called morally insane, but Jim Baker was first and foremost, a malignant narcissist.

Baker found another opportunity within his life story to once again, astonish his readers, with a story of his time in China. This time, it was his enjoyment with public executions. “I got a great kick out of their executions. They cut of their heads with a sword—often as many as ten men!”

From China, the West Cusetta sailed to the province of Iloilo in the Philippines where the motive for his next murder, he wrote, would again be his disgust over another man’s drunkenness.

“A lot of natives were swilling down a local liqueur made from coconut palms. One was particularly drunk and getting drunker. I sat down beside him, dropped some powdered cyanide in his glass and dropped back in the crowd to watch the fun.”

Once again, the “fun” turned out to be similar to how Honeycutt, and the members of the ship’s crew died—by rolling around, moaning in agony before he died.

When his ship returned to New York City, he departed and acquired the most dangerous job a serial poisoner could have as a laboratory apprentice at the Guggenheim Brothers Metallurgical Research Laboratory. During his employment, Baker was a good employee known for his politeness and remarkable strength. After he had stolen a large quantity of poison, Baker resigned in October, 1928.

“I had always wanted to be a chemist and so I was glad to get the job at the laboratory,” Baker said. “I worked hard for a few weeks but I found that I was not going to be sent to South America for the company as I hoped, and I quit. I had been stealing quantities of poisons from them, especially cyanide.”

A short time after Baker quit, Gaw was hired on as a laboratory assistant –the same job Baker had. Baker next worked for the Edison Company but his position was terminated two days before Christmas. He then described to police how he murdered the lab assistant which eventually led to his arrest. Although he had already stolen a large quantity, Baker wanted more poison.

“I decided to go west and it struck me that I should lay in a fresh stock of poisons, which it would be easy to do at the Guggenheim place. I went up there the night of December 27, arriving a little before midnight.”

Henry S. Gaw was a twenty-nine year lab assistant who usually worked the day shift, but that night, he was assigned to watch over some experiments, and take the place of the night watchmen who called in sick that day. By all accounts, Gaw was a kind-hearted man who had recently moved to New York City from San Jose, California. He move in with his aunt and wrote his mother in Denver a few weeks before that he was pleased with his new job as a lab assistant. They made plans for her to come live with him.

A young Henry Gaw as a submariner during World War I.

 

According to Baker’s account of the murder, he was in the middle of stealing poison filled jars when Gaw discovered him. Baker took control of the situation by pointing his pistol at him. The two then went back to Gaw’s desk and began to talk. In the closing months of World War I, Gaw joined the navy and served as a submariner. Since Baker was also a sailor, the two talked about the different ports they had been to.

Baker then reported he got up to brew some coffee and after it was made, told the navy veteran, “Gaw, I am going to make you a good drink, one that will put you to sleep.”

Gaw drank the coffee but didn’t die right away. A deathly pallor came over his face and he seemed like he was in a daze, Baker wrote.

“I put cyanide in his cup, but he saw me do it and wouldn’t drink it. So I took him by the neck and forced some of it into his mouth. It came up. I tried again and it wouldn’t work. Gaw was yelling and struggling. I knocked him around, and then tied him in the chair until he could move only his head. I gave him more of the doped coffee. It did no good, it wasn’t strong enough.

“Then I took the rest or the cyanide I had with me—five grains in all—poured it into the other cup, added a little coffee and stirred it with the barrel of my gun. I put some on the muzzle of the gun and shoved it down his throat. He was dead soon.”

Baker dragged Gaw’s body into an adjoining room, reached for a telephone book, and left a calling card by tearing it in half and spreading the pages all around his victim.

When he was leaving, Baker ran into two truck drivers from Baltimore who had just arrived with a delivery. Acting as though he were the security guard, he let the truck through the fence and into the property, then tied up the two drivers, Elmer Mayhew and Chester McCauley, and robbed of them $24. He was ready to shoot both of them but when Mayhew pleaded that he had a wife and two small children, Baker let them live.

[1] Newspapers reported he was twenty-three but Baker was lying when he told them his age. His 1940 census record reveals he was born in 1905, and he was at least twenty-four in when he was arrested.

[2] The word serial killer hadn’t been created yet.

[3] A sweet liqueur flavored with caraway seeds.

[4] German for “good luck.”

End of Part One

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