The Pistol Packin’ Mama, 1934
Originally Titled: “Fiendish Plot of the Pistol Packin’ Mama,” by Jack Harrell, Front Page Detective, March, 1944.
Note: This story lacks clarity in some passages, but if you power through it all comes together in the end.
Download PDF File of The Pistol Packin’ Mama
Wyoming, July, 1934
LIKE MANY ANOTHER successful city businessman, Sewell Combs—”Charlie” to his friends—hankered for life in the country. Fortunately he lived where his desire to be in the open could be indulged, in Casper, Wyo.
Some 50-odd miles south of that central Wyoming city he owned a ranch to which he retreated when he could free himself of the demands of a prosperous law practice. Life out there, he felt, not only was good for his soul but greatly benefited his physical condition. His lungs still showed traces of tuberculosis he had contracted in the Midwest years earlier, although the vitalizing, dry climate of the West had all but eradicated the disease.
Combs and his wife arrived at the ranch house early in the evening of July 10, 1934. Bill Satterlee, a tall, powerfully built young man, ambled toward the lawyer’s sedan from one of the outbuildings, waving a cheery greeting. Bill’s two young nieces ran shrilling from the house where Grandma Satterlee stood smiling in the doorway, wiping her hands upon her apron.
These were the only inhabitants of the ranch in the absence of the owner. Bill was the caretaker, and his mother and his brother’s children lived with him. There would have been room for no more. The ranch house was small, having only a combination kitchen-living room and two bedchambers.
Consequently Joe Ludwitz, a handyman whom Combs frequently employed in Casper, and who had ridden out in the back of the sedan to help with the haying on the ranch, had to sleep in a small cabin on the creek, perhaps a mile from the main buildings.
It was some time after 11 P.M. when Combs and his wife retired to their bedroom. Grandma Satterlee already was in bed in the other chamber with the children, and Bill had made up his bunk on a cot in the main room of the ranch house.
The breeze which rustled the plain curtains at the windows and scented the bedroom with the odor of sage was dry and hot. The lawyer paced across the floor twice, then spoke casually.
“I believe I’ll drive down and get a cold bottle of beer from the creek,” he said. “I’d like to see Joe a minute, anyway.”
His wife looked at him, a peculiar foreboding in her eyes. “Charlie,” she murmured, “please don’t . . .”
“Now, Hazel,” he interrupted, “don’t worry. I’ll watch myself. Just one bottle, no more.”
It was Combs’ only real fault, his taking too much to drink occasionally. Not that he ever made a spectacle of himself; he was most apt to give way to his weakness when alone, or when there was only his wife to censure him. They did not always get on too well.
Preparing for bed out in the living room, Bill Satterlee heard the door which opened from the rear bedroom—the chamber which the boss and his wife occupied—slam shut. He smiled wryly to himself, guessing who had gone out—and why.
Sometime later Hazel Combs came out into the kitchen. She poured herself a drink of water from a pitcher, making some noise in the dark. Then she stepped to the other bedroom door.
“Mrs. Satterlee,” she called softly. “Charlie’s gone down to visit with Joe. Wouldn’t you like to come in and sleep with me until he returns? There’ll be more room than in there with the kids.”
Grandma Satterlee got up and made the change. She did not awaken again until daylight, when she aroused suddenly, wondering why it was that Combs had not come in and dispossessed her of her sleeping quarters. Then she sighed, sure she knew why he’d stayed out all night—he’d been drinking again, she believed. She got up to prepare breakfast.
Bill already had a fire in the range. Mrs. Combs followed Grandma Satterlee into the kitchen, and began taking down the dishes. Just then Joe Ludwitz’ voice hallooed the house.
“Where’s Charlie?” he called. “He said for me to be up bright and early to start the hayin’.”
Death Believed Suicide
The three persons in the kitchen exchanged quick, puzzled glances. Hazel Combs stepped to the door.
“Didn’t he stay with you?” she asked. “He left here to get a bottle of beer and go on down to the cabin to talk with you. I thought . . .”
She left her last sentence incomplete, but Joe nodded.
“I reckon I know where he’s at,” he chuckled. “I seen a car down the trail as I come up. Looks like Mr. Combs didn’t get as far as my place.”
The lawyer’s wife shrugged resignedly. “Go down and rouse him, Joe,” she said tonelessly. “We’ll get on with breakfast.”
Ludwitz set out for the machine, sitting in the narrow roadway about a quarter of a mile from the Rancki house. In 15 minutes he was back, yelling as he entered the ranch yard.
“He’s there!” the old fellow gasped, trotting up to the door. “Charlie’s down there in the car! He’s killed hisself!”
Bill Satterlee stepped from the door and seized the handyman roughly by the shoulders. “What’s that?” he demanded. “Are you crazy?”
“He’s down there in his car,” Ludwitz repeated. “The bloodiest durn mess you ever saw. Shot. Must’ve done it hisself.”
Satterlee ran to his own auto, and before he could start it Ludwitz and Mrs. Combs piled in beside him. He jounced the car at full tilt over the rutted valley road and slid up with squealing brakes behind the Combs’ Ford.
A glance into the front seat told him that Sewell Combs was dead. He was slumped over the steering wheel with broad streaks of blood running down his cheeks and neck.
“Stay back,” the young ranch caretaker cautioned Ludwitz and Mrs. Combs. “This is a job for the sheriff and the coroner, not for us.”
Although it was nearer to Casper, the seat of Natrona County, the ranch was situated in Carbon County, so Satterlee phoned Sheriff John McPherson in Rawlins, 90 miles away. It was noon before the sheriff arrived with Coroner Alget Hall.
“Looks like suicide,” Bill Satterlee told the officials, before going with them to the attorney’s car. “You want to talk with Mrs. Combs before you see the body?”
“It isn’t necessary now,” said McPherson. “We’ll get the details later.”
Satterlee told of hearing Combs go out shortly after 11 o’clock the night before, and voiced his belief that the lawyer must have taken his own life while in a fit of depression doubtless deepened by drink. “You know, he was a swell fellow,” Bill explained. “But he did hit it up a bit too much now and then.”
The sheriff nodded. He knew Combs, both personally and by reputation. The dead man had at one time been city attorney in Casper, and he had made a good city prosecutor. He was prosperous, popular, had a fine son Russell, and there seemed to be little reason for his suicide. Somehow McPherson found it hard to believe he had killed himself under the influence of liquor.
That doubt was established as a fact when he and the coroner examined the body. The sheriff turned gravely to Bill Satterlee.
“Charlie Combs didn’t kill himself,” he said. “He was murdered!”
Murdered? Even the officers admitted the discovery was an amazing one. Who could have slain the Casper attorney out in this lonely country? Yet the evidence was unmistakable.
“There are five bullet wounds,” Coroner Hall reported. “Two are in the head, and three in the body. The shots were fired at very close range, all right. There are powder burns to indicate that. But every slug hit him from the back. He couldn’t possibly have inflicted those wounds himself.”
Supporting that deduction, although it was indisputable from the obvious evidence, was the absence of a gun in the car or nearby. Sheriff McPherson scanned the ground around the machine, seeking either the prints of the killer’s feet or of a horse’s hooves. However, the sunbaked earth, he noted, was too hard to retain tracks; his own feet left no mark upon it.
Who Dropped the Stubs?
His search, though, was not in vain. On the hard, dry ground beside the sedan on the driver’s side, he saw a collection of cigarette stubs. He picked them up.
All were of the same brand. His quick mind leaped to the logical inference; the killer had stood beside the car, talking with Combs for some time before the murder. That meant the slayer was an acquaintance, probably a friend of the victim.
McPherson turned again to Bill Satterlee.
“This brand?” The sheriff extended the cigarette butts in his palm. Satterlee looked at them, his brow wrinkling.
“Yes,” he said huskily. “I smoke that kind when I have tailor-mades. Mostly I roll my own, though.” He met the officer’s gaze squarely, almost defiantly. “You think maybe I did it, but I didn’t. I was up at the house. I went to bed right after Charlie left, and I stayed there.”
Inside the sedan McPherson found a clue indicating that the attack upon the lawyer had come suddenly and unexpectedly. Combs’ pipe lay on the floor with its stem bitten in two.
“The shock of the first bullet produced a muscular spasm, and his jaws contracted, snapping the pipe stem,” Coroner Hall explained.
“Dry-gulched by somebody he trusted,” the sheriff said bitterly. “Bill, you better let me have any guns you got around the place.”
“Okay,” the caretaker nodded. “There are only a little .22, a rifle and a shot-gun.”
“Combs was killed by a six-gun,” the coroner broke in. “A big one, most likely a .38. I’ve seen too many wounds not to recognize what a .38 does at close range.”
Sheriff McPherson was inclined to agree with Hall. After all, he reasoned, the murderer must have concealed his weapon for some time while he stood talking with his victim, and a rifle or shotgun would have been impossible to hide, as well as an ungainly weapon to handle at such close range.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ll get back to the house and arrange to haul the body and that car into town. There may be fingerprints on the machine, and we should get at least one slug out Charlie’s corpse for a ballistics test.” The sheriff was disturbingly impressed, as he drove back to the ranch house, with the fact that his search for the midnight slayer would be limited a very few persons who had the opportunity to commit the crime.
He could count them upon the fingers of one hand—Bill Satterlee, Joe Ludwitz, Grandma Satterlee and Hazel Combs were the only people he knew who were in the vicinity of the bend in the road where Sewell Combs had been shot the night before.
Grandma Satterlee, of course, he crossed off his list of suspects immediately. Ludwitz did not occupy his unenviable niche as a possible killer for long, either. McPherson quickly ascertained that not only did the handyman literally worship his employer, but he never smoked—he chewed, but he did not smoke, and there were those cigarette stubs to point to a slayer who burned cigarettes, one after the other.
Mrs. Combs? Or Bill Satterlee? The sheriff studied them closely. She was a dark-haired woman who, although nearing middle age, still was strikingly handsome. The caretaker was a strapping, bronzed young fellow, far from unpleasant in any woman’s eyes, the officer realized at a glance. He led all the witnesses carefully through their accounts of their activities the night before.
The widow, her eyes red-rimmed, her voice hoarse from weeping, spoke dully, almost automatically.
“Charlie said he was going to drink a bottle of beer and go down to talk to Joe. I went into the kitchen for a drink of water, and asked Mrs. Satterlee to come to bed with me. Bill was sleeping on the couch in the living room. Mrs. Satterlee and I went back to bed, and that’s all I know about it.”
Mrs. Satterlee substantiated this story. Bill, she declared, was snoring before she dropped off to sleep.
“How long was it after Mr. Combs went out that Mrs. Combs went into the kitchen for a drink?” McPherson asked.
“Just a few minutes,” replied the grandmother. “It didn’t seem but a little while.”
Bill nodded. “I was awake,” he said, “when Charlie left, and just dozing when Mrs. Combs came out into the kitchen. I heard her ask mom into her bedroom, and then I fell asleep right away.”
“And you didn’t wake up later and tiptoe out of the house?” the sheriff snapped.
“Oh, it couldn’t have been Bill,” Mrs. Combs protested earnestly. “I’m sure he didn’t kill Charlie.”
“They ever have any trouble?” the officer queried sharply, not failing to note Hazel Combs’ intercession in behalf of the young caretaker.
Admits Minor Quarrels
“I’ll answer that, sheriff,” Bill Satterlee volunteered. “We did have words a few times. Mr. Combs accused me of being lazy once or twice when he found something around the place that didn’t quite suit him. But there wasn’t what you’d call bad blood between us.”
McPherson was thoughtfully silent for a moment. Then he addressed the caretaker’s mother again. “Before everyone retired last night,” he said, “what did you do? Were there any unfriendly words spoken? Were your son and Mrs. Combs out of the living room together at any time?”
The lawyer’s dark-haired widow obviously resented the implication in the sheriff’s question, but his quick glance at her kept her silent.
“No,” replied Mrs. Satterlee slowly. “We were all together here all evening. It was a pleasant time. We just sat and talked. Mr. and Mrs. Combs were telling us about their visit back in Illinois. Mr. Combs and Bill talked about the hay and the weather. That’s all there was.”
“Sheriff McPherson,” said Mrs. Combs, the hot anger in her eyes flashing through the brittle coolness of her voice, “it seems that everyone here has been rather well accounted for. It is just possible that Charlie met someone after he left the house, someone perhaps on his way here to see him. There’d been some trouble, you know, about other ranchers using the spring on our place. My husband often talked of fencing it off.”
Here, the officer reflected, was a promising angle for investigation. In a land where water was scarce, especially in the hot, arid summers, possession of it many times had been the cause of gun-fighting. He left, intending to check up on neighboring landowners.
He made the rounds that afternoon, but nowhere could he turn up anyone without a good alibi for his time between the previous midnight and 3 A.M. From the fact that rigor mortis had set in before Joe Ludwitz discovered the corpse, Coroner Hall placed the latter hour as the latest at which the murder could have occurred.
As the shadows lengthened, the Carbon County sheriff turned his car north toward Casper. There he conferred with Sheriff Jim Housley of Natrona County, who had heard of the crime several hours earlier.
“We’ve already started to work on the case up here,” the Casper officer said. “Combs has a brother in town who used to room with him. Art ought to know if Charlie had any enemies. I expect he did—I never heard of a prosecutor who didn’t make them if he was worth his salt, and Combs did a good job as city attorney here.”
However, Arthur Combs could name no one as a likely suspect, He told of several minor quarrels or petty enmities, most of them engendered. Through legal conflicts, but could think of no person with whom his brother ever had had a quarrel.
“I wonder,” McPherson asked, “if you can tell me whether Charlie carried much insurance?”
“He couldn’t get it,” said Arthur Combs. “His lungs. I happen to know that he applied for a policy before he and Hazel took their trip to Illinois some time ago, and he was turned down.”
The two sheriffs sat discussing the case for some time after the slain man’s brother left. There was one circumstance which McPherson could not forget.
“Who could possibly have known Combs would be driving his car down that lonely road, miles from any habitation except his own, between ten o’clock last night and midnight?” he asked. “Not a soul except the people in the ranch house. Not even old Joe Ludwitz could have known that, and I’ll bet my neck he wouldn’t kill anybody.”
“Well, that don’t leave you many suspects,” Housley reminded him.
“I know. But who did it? Their alibis are airtight—or seem to be, anyway. Now if we’d only found the gun that shot Combs.
He broke off speaking, a frown creasing his forehead. “Say,” he said, “that danged pistol must be out there someplace. Hidden, probably, where the murderer figures it never will be found. Tell me, when Mrs. Combs called did she say anything about the funeral?”
“She asked about getting the body from the coroner, and had me call the undertaker.”
“Tell him he can have the corpse whenever he goes for it. We only wanted to get at least one bullet for ballistics tests. Let the funeral go on. There won’t be anybody at the ranch during the services up here. I’ll want some men to help search the place while they’re all away.”
The next day McPherson returned to his own bailiwick where he learned that a bullet had been taken from Combs’ body.
On the following day Sewell Combs was buried in Casper. The Rawlins sheriff and a group of picked men drove to the ranch and began a foot by foot search of the premises.
The sharp eyes of Camden Sheffner, a game warden and old friend of the murdered lawyer, saw a board ripped off the side of an outbuilding and carefully replaced. He took it down and found a pile of ashes in the wall-space inside. Sheffner gingerly probed the ash heap and his fingers touched cold steel.
He summoned the others of the group, and a bent wire thrust into the aperture hooked onto and withdrew a .38-caliber Colt’s revolver. The slug taken from Combs’ body had been a .38.
Sheriff McPherson called his men into a circle around him. “This is the gun that killed Charlie Combs,” he said solemnly. “I don’t believe there’s a doubt in the world about that. I don’t know who shot him, but I sure aim to find out. Let’s not give the skunk any chance to get out of it. Let’s keep mum about this gun. Maybe we can trap the murderer into showing his hand. Are you with me?”
They were. The posse disbanded. Sheffner rode back to Casper with the sheriff.
“You were pretty fond of Combs, weren’t you?” the Rawlins officer asked.
The game warden nodded. “He taught me in school. We’ve been friends ever since.”
“I’ve been thinking,” McPherson went on, “there’s two ways to make a critter show himself when he’s trying to hide. One’s to put out some bait he’ll grab for, and the other’s to scare him so bad he’s afraid to stay in his hole.”
“What kind’ of bait do you figure our murderer would reach for?”
“There ain’t anything I can think of. But he might scare. That is, if you’re willing to help.”
The game warden promised eagerly, and McPherson outlined his scheme.
“Just drop a hint here and there that you met up with somebody who claimed to be right close by when the shooting started the other night,” he instructed his protege. “Maybe an old prospector was coming across the valley to bunk up for the night, and just maybe he saw who did the killing. If a rumor like that don’t grow big enough to fret Charlie’s slayer, then I don’t know a thing about the gossips in this neck of the woods.”
Sheffner saw the rest of the plan. The sheriff hoped the slayer would go quickly after the gun, knowing it to be necessary for the authorities to build a case against him, and then, “I’ll have a man watching that hole in the wall every minute from tonight on,” McPherson said.
The game warden planted his story judiciously, and let that mischief loose afoot to run what course it would. Then he called upon Mrs. Combs to offer his apologies for not having paid his last respects to his dead friend by attending the funeral services.
“Sheriff McPherson had an idea we might be able to find the gun that killed Charlie,” he said. “I was helping him look for it.”
“Did you find it?” she asked eagerly. He nearly told her, but his promise to McPherson to reveal to no one the secret of the weapon’s recovery forced him to lie.
“No,” he said. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” he offered, and took his leave.
She’s Heard Stories
The next day she asked him to come and see her. “There is something you can do,” she declared, reminding him of his promise. “I heard that gun was found. Is that right?”
“Who said it was found?” he asked.
“I can’t tell that. I promised not to. Was it?”
“Camden,” she implored. “You’ve got to help me. I heard something else, too. There’s a story around that you know who killed my husband, that somebody saw the shooting and told you about it.”
“That’s true,” he nodded, hating himself for practicing deception upon the widow of his friend. “It was an old prospector. But he didn’t tell me who it was. Said he’d come back after he thought it over and was sure he hadn’t been mistaken about the killer. But he hasn’t shown up since, and now we can’t find him.”
“That’s not the story that’s going around,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “They’re saying I shot Charlie. They’re saying you were told it was me . . .”
“You? Nobody ever told me you had anything to do with it.”
“That’s the nasty story that’s all over town, just the same. You’ve got to help me, Camden. I’m going to tell you something that I held back from the sheriff. Something woke me up about an hour after I went to bed. Perhaps it was the faint sound of the shots, I don’t know. Anyway, I lay awake for several minutes, and I heard something or somebody moving around outside. At first I thought perhaps it was Bill Satterlee. Then I was sure I heard him snoring out in the living room . . .”
“Why didn’t you tell McPherson about this?”‘ the game warden interrupted.
“I was afraid he’d arrest Bill, and I was sure Bill was asleep at the time. I thought maybe it was only some animal, but now I wonder if it wasn’t this prospector of yours. I wonder if he didn’t kill my husband. Maybe,” she went on excitedly, “he even hid the gun out there, thinking if it was found one of us would be accused. Camden, will you go out and help me look for that pistol?”
“Sure,” he agreed. “I’ll go tomorrow with you, but I don’t think you’ll find it.”
The next day he drove Mrs. Combs to the ranch. When they reached the ranch house he let her lead the search.
She took him around the house itself, peered hastily beneath the foundation, then straightened and marched slowly but directly toward the building where the weapon had been concealed.
She took down the board, which the sheriff had replaced, and thrust her hand confidently into the ashes. Sheffner stood looking down at her, smiling grimly.
“You won’t find it there,” he said. “We beat you to it.”
She flinched as if he had struck her, and her face grew suddenly white.
She rose and opened her mouth to speak, but a voice from behind caused her to whirl in frightful surprise.
“Nice work, Camden,” said Sheriff McPherson. “She fell for it.” He had stepped from behind a boulder. With him stood two deputies.
Mrs. Combs’ eyes flashed from Sheffner to the sheriff. She turned upon McPherson like a cornered wildcat.
“What do you mean?” she screamed. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting to arrest you for your husband’s murder,” he told her calmly.
She laughed shrilly. “Are you crazy? Have you forgotten that I was in bed with Mrs. Satterlee when my husband was killed?”
“We haven’t overlooked a thing,” the sheriff assured her. “When you uncorked that phony yarn about hearing the old prospector prowling around, and when you were so eager to come out and find the gun that killed your husband, so you could hang the murder on this fake prospector, you gave yourself away.
“There wasn’t any witness to that murder, but you were afraid there might have been. So you thought fast, and believed you could pin the crime on him.
“Well, we talked with Bill and his mother again yesterday afternoon. They couldn’t give us any good idea of the time between your husband’s leaving and your coming to the kitchen for a drink. They agreed it might have been as much as 20 minutes. That was long enough for you to have ridden a few hundred yards in Charlie’s car, pumped him full of lead and then run back to your bed.”
She was still defiant. “What motive have you got for my killing him? How do you think I could have smoked half-dozen cigarettes and dropped the butts, and still made it back to the ranch house in 20 minutes?”
“You picked up those cigarette stubs and took them with you, just to plant a phony clue for us to find. As for a motive, well, I learned Charlie took out a $40,000 life insurance policy back in Illinois. Before he left you tried to bribe a doctor to pass him for a policy, but he wouldn’t. When you got back, Charlie, who had no idea of what you were up to, kidded the doc about turning him down, and said you’d fixed it up for him to, get the insurance back fast.”
Hazel Combs would not confess. She was lodged in jail at Rawlins to await grand jury action, and Sheriff McPherson set out to tie up the loose ends in the cast.
Ballistics tests had shown that the .38 Colt found at the ranch was the murder weapon, but there were no fingerprints on it. McPherson noted its serial number, with the intention of tracing it to Mrs. Combs if possible.
He went to Nokomis, Ill., where the $40,000 double indemnity life insurance policy had been issued on Sewell Combs. There he talked with Mrs. Christine Johnson, with whom the Combs family had roomed the previous spring.
She told him that M Combs had Wed to find a crooked doctor who would pass her husband in an insurance examination, but could find none to accept her bribe.
“Then she vowed she’d get the policy, no matter what the doctors said,” Mrs. Johnson added.
And she had. One doctor had not noted the traces of Combs’ lung disease, and had passed him on a physical examination for the policy, which would pay $80,000 in the event of his death by accident—or murder!
The sheriff journeyed on to Hazel Combs’ girlhood home in Hillsboro, Ill. There he learned two things of importance. The first was that while visiting in Hillsboro shortly before she and her husband returned to Wyoming, she had tried to buy a revolver.
“The only thing I could offer her,” said Charles Keer, a hardware merchant, “was a .32, but she said that wasn’t big enough.”
From an old friend of the accused woman McPherson obtained a damaging statement.
“Hazel was always crazy about guns,” the sheriff was told. “When she lived here she was always packing a pistol around. She was good with it, too. Why, she used to be able to hit a tin can thrown in the air for her. She’d hardly ever miss, either. She had the reputation of being the best pistol shot around.”
McPherson figured Mrs. Combs, after trying unsuccessfully to get a revolver in Hillsboro, must have purchased the .38 Colt somewhere on the way home.
He retraced the route the Combs family had taken on the return trip, stopping in each city and town to inquire of hardware merchants, pawnbrokers and second hand dealers about the weapon’s purchase.
His quest dragged slowly on, but he refused to give up. Finally, in Cheyenne, Isadore Goldstein, a pawnbroker, said he believed he had disposed of the death weapon, and to a woman. He brought out his ledgers and found a record of the sale.
“She didn’t want to sign the registry, as required by law,” the dealer smiled, showing the record of the sale which disclosed the same serial number as that upon the .38 which killed Sewell Combs. “But at last she consented. Here it is. She signed ‘E. J. Burke.’ She paid $12 for the gun. It was a bargain, too.”
Goldstein went to Rawlins and identified Mrs. Combs as the purchaser of the revolver. McPherson had the pawnbroker’s registry examined by a handwriting expert, who pronounced the signature of E. J. Burke identical with specimens of Mrs. Combs’ penmanship.
With what he considered an airtight case against her, despite the fact that it was based upon circumstantial evidence, Prosecutor A. R. McMickin of Carbon County filed charges of first degree murder. Trial was set for January 7, 1935, six months after the crime.
Mrs. Combs, although still protesting her innocence, offered to plead guilty to second degree murder, but the prosecutor refused. Premeditation, he pointed out, was clearly indicated by her long efforts to obtain a large insurance policy upon her husband, and by her purchase of the gun some time before she shot Combs.
Confined in the county jail, Mrs. Combs threatened to commit suicide. She talked to a trusty of killing herself, but lamented that she had no means of taking her life.
“Why not try a gun?” he jeered. “You did all right with one on your husband, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “I kept one bullet for myself that night, but a horse came by and scared me out of using it,” she said. It was her only confession to the slaying.
Early on the morning of January 5 she was found lifeless in her cell, hanged with an electric light cord.
Her suicide, however, did not end the strange drama. For two years litigation dragged out in the federal courts between the heirs of Sewell Combs, seeking to collect $80,000 insurance, and the insurance company, which claimed fraud.
In December of 1937, after one jury had disagreed, a second jury awarded the heirs full payment with interest. The amount was nearly $97,000.