Serial Killer Texas Jim Baker, Parts 1 and 2
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 1928 murder of a New York City 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 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 James Baker was one of the worst mass murderers 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.
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 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!” 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.
After Baker left, the two men loosened their ropes and discovered Gaw’s body while searching for a telephone to call police. Detectives and lab supervisors were able to piece together that Gaw’s killer must be a former employee because he knew where to find the cash box and where the poison was secured. For some reason, the killer did not take Gaw’s money, nor did he remove the valuable platinum bars the lab stored which were worth thousands of dollars. They were also able to quickly deduce that Gaw was killed with poison, which was odd since Mayhew and McCauley said the killer had a gun. Detectives wondered why did he use poison instead of a gun.
After the two drivers described the man that robbed him, lab supervisors were able to narrow that down to three men, one of whom was Jim Baker. An employee photograph of Baker was used to make a positive identification with the truck drivers.
When police searched Jim Baker’s room that morning, they were horrified to learn what kind of man they were dealing with.
“Convinced by their discoveries in Baker’s room that they are dealing with a psychopathic case—the police began the nationwide distribution of circulars containing Baker’s photograph and description, as well as a warning that he is a dangerous man known to be armed with a dirk and a pistol,” the New York Times reported the day after the murder. Like most newspapers during for that era, the Times maintained a certain decorum for their readers. Some of the more delicate topics of humanity were off-limits, and if they couldn’t be avoided, they used code-words the general public understood. What the Times didn’t tell their readers was that in addition to being a psychopath, Jim Baker was a sexual sadist. A 1937 detective magazine had no such problems reporting on what police found in his apartment.
“Vials of deadly acids stood in rows on a shelf. A large bottle, falsely labeled, contained cyanide of potassium. There were ingredients for manufacturing prussic acid, one of the most virulent of poisons. Several notebooks in Baker’s handwriting gave details about the effects of various toxins. Other jottings dealt with abnormal sex psychology, the emphasis being on sadism and flagellation rather than on homosexuality. Indeed, the youth’s passion for women manifestly was second only to interest in poisons. Prints of nude girls lined the walls, and a sketch book was filled with obscene drawings by himself. He had hoarded scores of letters from women, with many lascivious passages being underlined in red.”
Police claimed they discovered enough potassium cyanide in his room to kill 100,000 people. It was a discovery that seemed to negate Baker’s claim that he had to return to the laboratory to steal more poison—unless he was planning mass murder on a level that would have been history making. It was just the kind of thing a narcissistic psychopath seeking infamy might plan.
After the robbery and murder, Baker was smart enough not to return to his room. Instead, he took the subway to Jersey City where he hid out for one week. To satisfy his ego, he sought out newspaper articles about the Gaw murder and cut them out as a souvenirs. One of the articles featured the photograph police showed to the truck drivers. He was now a hunted man.
In spite of all his prior arrests and confinement, New York City police knew very little about James Baker. To them, their five-foot nine-inch suspect had no criminal history, or any history at all that they could learn. Guggenheim employees said he made remarks that indicated he may have once been a sailor, and he had sailor-like tattoos, but they weren’t positive.
Whoever he was, “Texas Jim” Baker was a mystery to them.
By the middle of January, 1929 he left New Jersey and traveled west. “I wanted a place on some little traveled road, where there was little chance of hearing a radio or seeing a newspaper,” Baker said when he was captured a year later. “A radio or a paper might have kept things fresh in my mind. I wanted a quiet place where I could forget.”
The quiet place he found was the Newton Roy Farm located fifteen miles west of Detroit near Farmington. There, he met Roy’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and the two fell in love. It was her love that tamed the darkness inside him, Baker declared in his autobiography.
“After I met Eleanor, my Eleanor, I never committed another murder. She changed my whole life,” Baker claimed to a reporter. “We were sweethearts, worthy of the name.”
But Baker’s big ego couldn’t keep his big mouth shut and when he started bragging about his strength, ripping up phone books, talking about his crimes and displaying his wanted picture from the newspaper to show people “what a dangerous character he was,”—his days with Eleanor were numbered. And to Eleanor, whom he trusted, he confessed to murdering two men in Detroit just before he came to her father’s farm in March, 1929.
Although the collective accounts of his downfall are confusing or unclear, someone associated with the Roy farm stole the newspaper clipping with the farmhand’s wanted picture and showed it to Detroit police who were impressed enough to have Baker put under light surveillance. To prevent him from becoming suspicious, the clipping was quietly returned to his shack.
A few days later, visiting New York City detective Thomas A. Smith made a special trip to the Detroit detective bureau to secure a prisoner who was being extradited back to New York. That’s when they told him the story about the man in the photograph.
“He lives on a farm outside of town, and he always acts as if he is expecting to be arrested,” Detroit police told Smith. Curious, Smith was taken out to the Roy family farm which seemed deserted when he got there.
“Quietly and secretly he went out to the shack which the mystery man occupied,” the detective magazine shared with its readers. “The occupant was not at home, so Smith made an exhaustive search of the premises. He found nothing incriminating, but in the drawer of a table was the picture cut from a newspaper. The face was unfamiliar to him. He turned over the clipping and read fragments of a news story referring to the Gaw murder.”
With the farmhand under surveillance, Smith took a chance and carried the photograph with him back to New York where the Identification Bureau identified it as James Baker, wanted for the murder of Henry Gaw. New York authorities’ telegraphed back to Detroit that all of their suspicions were right. Baker was wanted for murder and on the afternoon of February 19, 1930 he was arrested.
The anonymous writer of the detective magazine article claimed he was present in Detroit when “Texas Jim” was brought in by detectives and gave readers a description of the murder suspect whose name would soon appear in newspapers across the country.
“Baker’s physical appearance and cool manner were the contrary of what might have been expected. He looked tough, but it was a healthy toughness. The fellow was as swarthy as a Latin, and in addition had been tanned almost a mahogany brown by his outdoor life. He leaned back in a swivel chair talking fluently, while a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. His sleeves were rolled up, displaying the tattoo marks about which we had heard—a coiling blue and green snake with its head at the wrist of one forearm; a dagger with garlands, and the words “Ceylon” and “Bombay” in a flourished script.”
Once in custody, Baker’s big mouth started talking and it didn’t stop. His confession to killing Gaw and seven other men shocked Detroit investigators and newspapermen who printed his revelations in daily papers across the country. His devil-may-care attitude over his capture and confession perplexed them, and when a newspaperman asked him if he was afraid of Sing Sing’s electric chair, Baker responded: “I know I’ll burn in New York but I’m not worrying. It comes to all of us someday.”
“After I had listened to him for a few minutes,” the magazine writer confided to his readers, “I perceived that his poise was a bluff, that mentally he was not normal. His strong, deep voice rang with boastfulness. He had a fiendish, cold-blooded story to tell and it came from his lips eagerly. He was an exhibitionist of the first order.”
Instead of fighting extradition, Baker waived his rights and was taken to the train station where two enormous, grizzled detectives would escort him back to New York City. When arrested at the Roy farm, he asked and was allowed to put on his best clothes which included an expensive suit featuring a silk pocket square, matching cravat and a double-knit white cap. Although they had searched him three times, it wasn’t good enough and Baker had more than one surprise waiting for them up his sleeve, or, down his pants.
Before he left Detroit, Baker was asked if he ever murdered anyone in Michigan. No, he replied, he did not kill anyone in Michigan.
It was a lie.
As the Rainbow Express sped towards Grand Central Station in New York, Detectives George Fitzpatrick and Arthur Horey searched Baker a fourth time as they train neared Pittsburgh. It was a good thing they did for they discovered a revolver in his underwear and a stiletto in his sock. Baker was planning on killing them both, if he had to, in order to escape.
The revolver featured an important clue, nine notches cut into the handle. No matter how many tales he told, or murders he confessed to in order draw more attention to himself, in a private moment when he had no thought of being captured, Baker engraved what is likely the true number of his victims. Now, investigators just had to figure out who they were.
Baker was taken to “Murderers Row” at the infamous Tombs jail where he was interviewed over the next few days by police, doctors, and reporters eager to get the story of a multi-murderer. However, his story was a moving target that was difficult to pin down and the police didn’t know what to believe. Sometimes he claimed he killed twenty-five men, sometimes only nine, or was it twelve?
The Tombs physician Dr. Perry Lichtenstein, and Dr. Otto Schultz working for the district attorney’s office, pronounced him sane, but “morally insane” and a bit of a mystery. To the crime beat reporters who were there, well, they just wrote whatever he said because it was always great copy.
Both groups of inquisitors [police and psychiatrists] find plenty to excite their curiosity,” reported one news agency. “He is, of course, made to order for a psychiatrist… He is a somewhat more baffling problem to police. The fact that Baker is a lone wolf makes it all the more puzzling, say the police. If he were an eminent gangster, it would be much easier to explain, as he would be quite apt to make a business organization ready to help in emergencies of this kind. But everything about “Texas Jim Baker” indicates he is just a ham-handed ranch boy who, for some reason of his own, took up killing as a side-line more for sport than business.
So far as the psychiatrists are concerned, it is indicated that he will go down in the books as a ‘hypo-emotionalized’ case. That, as psychiatrists explain, ‘means under-emotionalized, as contrasted to the hyper-emotionalized or over-emotionalized cases. Mentally, he is way off balance. The under emotionalized types commit frightful crimes, seeking an emotion which does not come to them naturally.
Baker’s smiling indifference to what happens to him and his complete obtuseness as to any moral significance in his crimes is one of the unerring proofs of the under-emotionalized types of dementia. His distorted and swollen ego, as he boasts of his crimes, is another sure symptom.
Baker smiled a lot after he was brought to New York. He enjoyed the attention. Deputy Chief Inspector Edward Mulrooney of the New York Detective Bureau invited detectives from all over the Five Boroughs to witness Baker’s interrogation and more than 200 showed up to listen to the maniac killer answer questions. He surprised them all with his matter of fact answers but more so, by his confession to two more murders in Detroit. These murders were later verified by Eleanor and from evidence she helped police obtain.
On the night of January 20, 1929, while walking along the rails near Goulden Avenue at 2:30 a.m., Sergeant Walter Awe, with the Grand Trunk Railroad Police Department, caught Baker trespassing on railroad grounds. The two struggled and Baker shot him with his own pistol. When Detroit detectives discovered the revolver Baker was hiding on the train, it was Awe’s weapon which he had kept as a souvenir. It was a simple story; Baker overpowered Awe and came out the winner. But that’s not what he told reporters in New York. His story was presented like an old western quick draw shoot-out in which he was faster and a better shot.
After he killed Awe, Baker killed Otis South on January 29th. South was a taxi driver who objected too loudly to being robbed. Soon after he arrived at the Roy farm that year, the boastful psychopath told his new girlfriend, Eleanor, about murdering the two men. He gave her the taxi drivers’ knife and told her he pawned South’s watch in a Detroit pawnshop. She later took the knife and pawn ticket with Baker’s handwriting on it to Detroit police who were now fuming over having given up a double murder suspect to New York.
Eleanor had one other story to tell which made her claims even more credible, according to a Michigan Associated Press report. “On January 20 this year, the girl related, Baker saw an anniversary tribute to Awe from his widow in a newspaper In Memoriam column, clipped it and kept it for a time. Ten days later, he looked through the column for a similar reminder on the anniversary of South’s death but finding none, remarked that ‘the guy must have been divorced.’”
Baker knew that if he confessed to killing Awe and South to Detroit detectives, he never would have been extradited back to New York. When faced with being a celebrity criminal in Detroit, or a celebrity criminal in New York City, Baker chose the latter. The muckraking newspapers of New York were sure to make a big deal over his crimes and the trial he would get. Despite leaving Eleanor behind in Michigan, Baker had his sights set on being famous.
During his questioning by Inspector Mulrooney and others, Baker gave a thorough account of how he murdered Henry Gaw. He also claimed he shot and killed his step-father Cyril Parks in 1923. Although his interrogators were sickened by his smug and cavalier attitude, one of them had the sense to play into it.
“I don’t think much of your story to the Detroit police that you can tear a telephone book in half,” Inspector Donovan, head of the identification bureau remarked to Baker.
“Is that so?” Baker countered. “Well I’ll show you I can make good on that statement. Give me a telephone book.”
Baker gripped the back of the one-inch Manhattan telephone directory and ripped it in half without straining. Then, like he did with Gaw, he scattered the pages all around his chair.
Got you. Just like it was when we found Gaw.
James Baker shows off his strength for reporters by tearing in half the Manhattan telephone directory.
After his interrogation, Baker was returned to cell 101 where he was under constant watch.
“He talked freely with the guard and betrayed not the slightest concern over his future welfare,” the New York Sun reported. “He appears to take an obvious pride in his status as a celebrity criminal if substantiated, will gain him a place of doubtful honor beside the world’s most notorious wholesale murderers.”
This was exactly what Texas Jim Baker wanted. However, for a man who desperately wanted to be a famous criminal, he was too stupid to realize that embellishing the details and lying about his body count would only hurt his cause. When he tried to claim credit for murders that never existed, the newspapers recognized that he was trying to manipulate them and refused to play along. Reporters found a weak spot in his family life.
“Baker, or Bakerlein, which seems to be his real name, is touchy on one subject only, that of his family. Yesterday he adopted a sullen attitude when questioned regarding his parentage. He admitted being born in Pittsburgh, but refused to talk of his people,” the Sun reported.
Pittsburgh? Why was he telling everyone else he was born in Warren, Ohio? He never explained why, but a 1940 census report confirmed he was born in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, he was never given up for adoption by his mother, either. He had lied about that too. Mrs. Parks wasn’t his adoptive mother, she was his real mother.
“I don’t owe them nothing,” he said sourly. “All I got from them was a lot of kicks and beatings.”
“How about your mother?” a detective asked.
“The last time I saw her was six years ago in Pittsburgh,” Baker answered. “I don’t owe her nothing either.”
When he was ten, his mother remarried and it was his step-father, Cyrus Parks, who taught him to be a petty criminal. Baker also lied to reporters about his age by saying he was twenty-three when he was actually twenty-four going on twenty-five.
Later on, the New York Sun was able to substantiate part of his criminal record as a young man. “The probation officer’s report diagnosed Baker as a ‘poser’ who spoke of crime with emotional exaltation. The report showed that his father had died at an early age and that his step-father had coached him in a career of petty thievery. At nine years of age, Baker was sent to the Industrial Reformatory in Ohio for petty larceny, and a year later he was returned to that same institution for firing a shot at his step-father. At thirteen he was sentenced to the Ohio State Reformatory.”
The shot he fired at his step-father missed its mark, in spite of what he later wrote in his autobiography. A search of Ohio death records confirms that no man named Cyrus Parks or Cyril Parks died in Trumbull County between 1913 and 1930. The probation officer’s report never said anything about serving a term in the infamous Boonville Training School for Boys. In other versions of his story, Baker never mentioned Boonville. He also claimed that at the age of sixteen, he ran away from home and travelled to Texas where he became a steamfitter’s apprentice on freighters. However, in other stories in which he spoke of his Texas years, he was seventeen or eighteen when he began working there.
When Baker was brought out for his grand jury indictment on February 25 for the murder of Henry Gaw, and his not guilty plea on March 6, 1930, he was his typical, outrageous self in order to impress reporters who were present. First, he demanded the judge send him a manicurist because his fingernails were “getting raggedy.” Then, he requested the best lawyers possible, which the judge granted. When asked about the murders, he was over the top in his callous answers. About Gaw, “he told with lip-smacking gusto how he forced cyanide down the watchman’s throat.” In another statement about his other victims, Baker claimed he murdered “because he wanted to watch them suffer.” He also admitted he was vain and liked to wear dapper clothes, and seldom killed for money, but what money he did get was spent on nice suits.
After these two hearings, Baker was taken back to his cell on “Murderers Row” where he experienced the worst possible thing that could have happened to him: he watched helplessly as the “maniac-killer” Texas Jim Baker story died in the newspapers. Other than the initial reports of his arrest and two brief hearings, he never got the big headlines and stories he was hoping he would get. Instead, there was the unfolding depression, bank closures, prohibition lawbreakers and gangsters to read about. Gaw wasn’t a socialite housewife who was mysteriously murdered in her home, or a prostitute beheaded by some deranged lunatic, or a rich merchant murdered by his business partner. Gaw was just a low level employee who was killed during a burglary. It happened all the time in New York City. Although it was tragic when William Awe and Otis South were shot and killed, the capture of their killer didn’t rate front page headlines either. And besides those three confirmed murders, Baker’s other victims were far away. Distant. They were men without names or faces.
Nobody cared anymore and they wouldn’t care again until his trial. His headline disappeared into a sea of other headlines, and the more pressing matter of trying to cope with a sharp economic downturn.
A week before his trial was scheduled to begin on Monday, May 19, 1930, in Judge Charles Cooper Nott’s courtroom, a series of events, independent of each other, began to occur which altered the course of Jim Baker’s life forever.
Baker’s defense attorney, James Murray, successfully petitioned Judge Nott for his client to undergo a second round of “sanity observation” at Bellevue Hospital. The forty-seven-year-old attorney truly believed his client was insane. Unfortunately, Dr. Menus Gregory, chief of the psychopathic ward at Bellevue, disagreed and declared him medically sane but stated Baker was definitely “not normal.” However, there was one item in his report that Murray found interesting—brain damage. Dr. Gregory’s diagnosis nearly concurred with Dr. Lichtenstein and Dr. Schultz who in February found Baker to be medically sane, but “morally insane.” It was a term once used to describe psychopaths and anti-social personality disorder types before those terms had recently entered the medical dictionary. Morally insane was also a term still used by doctors from the old school and had not yet disappeared from usage.
The “morally insane” diagnosis was a break for defense attorney Murray who could use it to confuse a jury. With a little luck in the courtroom, Baker just might squeak by on the insanity defense he planned. On the first day of the trial, Murray’s questions for potential jurors revealed to Assistant District Attorney James McDonald what the defense was planning. If anybody could sell the jury on the idea that Jim Baker was morally insane, it was Jim Baker. If Murray put Baker on the stand, his outrageous descriptions of the pleasure he took in killing could be enough to get him a not guilty by insanity verdict.
That wasn’t the only problem McDonald had. Henry Gaw’s mother, Clara Gaw, was in town for the trial and pressuring him to back away from the death penalty. She was in his office that first morning and “between sobs she announced that she was not in favor of having Baker put to death if he was convicted,” the New York Times reported. “She told McDonald that after reading newspaper articles about Baker at her home in Denver, she believed her son’s killer was mentally unbalanced and should spend the rest of his life in an insane asylum. She added that she felt if Baker were freed, he would probably kill again.”
Sensing which way the wind was blowing, prosecutor McDonald reconsidered a defense offer to plead guilty to second degree murder. A verdict of murder in the first degree would have meant an automatic death sentence in Sing-Sing’s electric chair.
“I have no doubt that the jury would convict this defendant of first degree murder,” prosecutor McDonald told the court, “but on the basis of statements made by Dr. Schultz and Dr. Lichtenstein, his death sentence would no doubt be commuted by the governor.”
In his report to the judge, Dr. Lichtenstein described Baker as one of the most “peculiar persons” he’d ever encountered in his time as the lead physician for The Tombs. During his examination, Baker “spoke of his crimes with emotional exaltation and seemed to be swayed by violent hatreds, rage and pride, with a predominating idea of persecution.”
The persecution aspect was ambiguous. If he meant Baker felt persecuted, he was accurate because that was a central theme Baker used to describe his time with both his parents and in reform school in his “autobiography.” But if he meant Baker enjoyed the idea of persecuting others, then that was true too. He had said as much during his many interviews and the self-drawn sadomasochistic pornography found in his room, with its emphasis on flagellation, further supported that claim.
In accepting the guilty plea, Judge Nott said he was of the opinion that justice would best be served with the compromise and although Baker was accountable for his crimes, there was little doubt he was not a normal person.
When Baker was brought into court the morning of May 23 for sentencing, he was shackled to two guards and six others surrounded him. With all of his boasting of what a bad man he was, and how he looked forward to the electric chair, the assignment of eight guards showed reporters that authorities were taking no chances. If he was going to try to and go out like a true desperado, they were there to make sure it wasn’t going to happen in the courtroom. It was, in all likelihood, an unnecessary precaution since a narcissistic psychopath like Baker loved himself too much to ever seriously consider the 1930 version of suicide by cop. His agreement to second-degree murder proved he had no intention of dying young, despite his death-wish claims.
“Reports that he would insist on pleading guilty of first degree murder so that he might be sentenced to the electric chair failed to materialize and in all, he presented a docile figure as he stood before the bar,” the New York Sun revealed.
Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, Baker was more elated with the fact that with eight guards around him, it reinforced his own beliefs about himself as a super killer.
“The youth preened himself before the crowd in the room as he was marched from the detention pen to the bench,” the New York Evening-Post reported. “Apparently, he relished being the center of attention. He grinned cheerfully…and the smile did not fade as he was escorted back to the Tombs to await transportation to the penitentiary.”
Whether he knew it or not, Baker needed to revel in the moment as long as possible because it was the last time he would ever appear in public. Even with all those guards around him, Baker’s mere presence was enough to victimize one more person—the victim’s mother. A special correspondent for the Buffalo Courier-Express described the heart-wrenching scene: “While the mother of the man he just had been convicted of having murdered collapsed in hysterics before him, Texas Jim Baker, the strange ‘bad man’ who said he wanted to die in the electric chair, did not alter his frosty smile as he was sentenced here today.”
While Baker was preoccupied over Mrs. Gaw’s suffering, and with all the attention focused on him, he was unable to catch the significance of what his attorney did next. Before the sentence could be read, Murray “told the court that physicians had found evidence of an old depressed skull fracture, indicating that there might be some bone pressure on the brain, and asked that Baker’s head be X-rayed as soon as he was safely within Sing Sing.”
His request was granted. “As attendants carried from the courtroom Mrs. Clara Gaw, Judge Charles C. Nott, obviously regarding Baker’s swashbuckling attitude with distaste, sharply sentenced him to forty-years to life,” the Courier-Express reported. When he was hustled out of the courtroom, “the young man who still wants to be bad so badly,” never lost his arrogant sneer.
If he had understood what his lawyer had just done, it could have wiped that smirk off his face. Baker’s stay in Sing-Sing would only last five weeks. Acting on the judge’s orders, doctors there took an X-ray of Jim Baker’s brain and changed their mind about him; he was insane after all they decided. Forty years in prison, with a possible early parole, may have been tolerable to him, but a declaration by the court he was insane meant his transfer to Dannemora State Mental Hospital would require him to stay there for an indefinite period. Most psychiatrists understood then there was no cure for a psychopath, especially one with neurological damage. His forty year term had just turned into a life sentence.
But Baker’s luck was indomitable and more than one month later he was offered money by International Features Syndicate, a William Randolph Hearst news agency, for his life story, to be written by him. It was a bad idea if IFS wanted a true account because Baker was incapable of giving them that. However, that didn’t seem to matter to them so long as Baker wrote it and the more outrageous it was, the better.
After Baker’s two-part, semi-fictional autobiography ran in the Sunday magazine section of major newspapers in August, the narcissistic killer who desperately wanted to be famous lived out the rest of his life in obscurity. In an ironic twist, his lies and embellishments damaged his credibility and hurt his story which quickly became forgotten.
Seven years later, an August 1937 issue of Official Detective Stories published a short story about his case. In that article, the anonymous writer, who was likely a reporter for one of New York City’s daily newspapers, reported that six of his eight poisoning victims were confirmed: Gaw, Honeycutt, the German citizen, and the three sailors aboard the Gulfport.
“Baker’s crimes in Bombay and Ilio remained doubtful,” the magazine reported. His murders of William Awe and Otis South by gunshot were also confirmed, which brought his death total to eight—one less than the notch on his gun. With ‘Texas Jim’ Baker, it is impossible to know if he killed nine men, or eight. The ninth victim could have been anybody, or simply represented his deep desire to have killed his step-father, a man he truly loathed.
According to the 1940 US Census, thirty-five-year-old James Baker was still housed at Dannemora State Mental Hospital where he was patient number 22830. The author was unable to determine Baker’s fate after 1940. The New York State Archives is extremely sensitive when it comes to the mental health records of its citizens, and the process for obtaining that information is restricted to family members only.
“Ex-Employee Is Hunted in Poison Death,” Associated Press, Syracuse Herald, Syracuse, New York, Dec. 28, 1928, page 1.
“Chemical is Clue in Cyanide Murder,” New York Times, Dec. 29, 1928, page 5.
“Strong Man Sought in Perfect Crime, Fiend Rips New York Phone Book,” Associated Press, Syracuse Herald, Syracuse, New York, Dec. 30, 1928.
“Maniac Slayer Finally Caught-Murdered Many,” International News Service, Indiana Evening Gazette, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Feb. 20, 1930, pages 1 and 2.
“Poisoner Will Waive Extradition,” The Olean Herald, Olean, New York, Feb. 21, 1930, page 1.
“Says He Killed Nine to See Poison Act,” New York Times, Feb. 21, 1930, page 1.
“Youthful Killer of Ten Puzzles,” by Lemuel F. Parton, Consolidated Press Association, The Altoona Mirror, Altoona, Pennsylvania, Feb. 24, 1930, pages 1 and 20.
“Two Alienists Find Poisoner is Sane,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 1930, page 29.
“Baker Indicted in Gaw Murder,” New York Sun, Feb. 25, 1930, page 12.
“Poisoner Killer is Found Sane,” The Daily Argus, Mount Vernon, New York, Feb. 25, 1930, page 7.
“Girl Confirms Man’s Story of Two Murders,” Associated Press, The News Palladium, Benton Harbor, Michigan, Feb. 27, 1930, page 16.
“Ogre Baker Worried About Fingernails,” Special Dispatch, Rochester Democrat, Rochester, New York, Feb. 28, 1930, page 11.
“Baker Arraigned, Re-Lives Murders,” New York Evening-Post, March 4, 1930, page 5.
“Not Guilty Plea Made for Baker,” New York Sun, March 6, 1930, page 7.
“Tunney Visits Tombs on Inspection Tour,” New York Times, April 10, 1930, page 32.
“Trial Set for Youth Who Says He Killed 10,” New York Times, May 11, 1930, page 20.
“Texas Jim” Baker Under Observation,” Associated Press, Schenectady Gazette, Schenectady, New York, May 16, 1930, page 22.
“Baker’s Defense Will Be Insanity,” New York Sun, May 19, 1930, page 2.
“Cyanide Slayer Escapes Chair,” New York Sun, May 20, 1930, page 2.
“Baker, Held Sane, Tried As Poisoner,” New York Times, May 20, 1930, page 14.
“Baker Guilty Plea Accepted By Court,” New York Times, May 21, 1930, page 33.
“Baker Jailed for 40 Years,” New York Sun, May 23, 1930, page 8.
“Poisoner is Given 40 Years to Life,” New York Evening-Post, May 23, 1930, page 3.
“Baker Grins at Sentence of 40 Years,” Brooklyn Standard-Union, May 23, 1930, page 3.
“Bad Man Sought Chair; Gets Long Prison Term,” Buffalo Courier-Express, May 25, 1930, page 2.
“Texas Jim” Baker is Adjudged Insane,” Associated Press, Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, June 29, 1930, page 7.
Jim Baker’s Paid Autobiography for International Features Service
“Probing the Soul-Secrets and Weird Methods of the Recent World’s Mass Murders, Part One” by Jim Baker, International Features Service, The Miami News, Miami, Florida, Aug. 3, 1930, pages 20 and 21.
“Probing the Soul-Secrets and Weird Methods of the Recent World’s Mass Murders, Part Two” by Jim Baker, International Features Service, The Miami News, Miami, Florida, Aug. 10, 1930, pages 18 and 19.
“Death in the Laboratory-Snaring New York’s Jekyll-Hyde Slayer, by Assistant District Attorney P. Francis Marro, New York City, as told to Francis C. Preston, True Detective Mysteries, May, 1937
“Texas Jim” Baker – Mass Poisoner, by Ex-Operative 48, Official Detective Stories, Aug. 15, 1937
“Horror in the Laboratory,” by Julius I. Sanders, Inside Detective, February, 1939.
“Just a Moral Monstrosity,” Big Detective Cases, May-July, 1953.
United States Census
Year: 1940; Census Place: Dannemora, Clinton, New York; Roll: T627_2516; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 10-18.
 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.
 The word serial killer hadn’t been created yet.
 A sweet liqueur flavored with caraway seeds.
 German for “good luck.”
 In his newspaper autobiography, Baker wrote that he killed three men after leaving New Jersey and before he found the Roy farm, but only two of these were confirmed.
 The colloquial name for New York City’s jail.
 Some newspapers falsely reported Lichtenstein and Schultz declared him both medically and morally insane.