July 20, 2016

Intrigue at Pasadena

For about the past twenty years, my sister has been engaged in the research of our family history. In the course of this project, she has turned up dozens of relatives that we didn’t know we had. Sometimes she confirms information that we already knew, while occasionally she discovers that we had it all wrong.

This week she discovered an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Examiner (a Hearst newspaper, now defunct), dated December 31, 1908. As a writer, I was amused by the curious grammar and word choices. The headline:

Due to a massive earthquake, two cities in southern Italy – Messina and Reggio – were destroyed. Fire, flood, and crumbling buildings conspired to kill thousands. Shiploads of injured refugees to Naples and other cities are called fugitives. King Victor Emmanuel and Queen Helena came to visit. Telegraphs at railroad stations became the only means of communication with the outside world.


Separately, the Pacific Coast Syrup Company plant burned to the ground in Los Angeles. I was taken by the great amount of fine details in the story: Southern Pacific Railroad workers discovered the fire, and the fire alarm in the factory was installed by the Los Angeles Fire Alarm Company. I wasn't familiar with the syrup company, so I looked it up: In January the same year, a U.S. District Court ordered the confiscation of a large amount of cane sugar syrup, because it was mislabeled as Canadian maple syrup.

But I digress.

Just below the fold appeared the story that caught my sister’s attention:


Because of the quirky writing style, I had to read the article several times before I could understand it. But there it was: My great-grandmother Emma hired a hit man to kill her husband, my great-grandfather Albert. Yup. This was her third attempt.

“T. Smith of Pasadena was arrested at San Diego yesterday morning by Deputy Constable O. F. Kunzman and brought to Los Angeles, where he is now in the city jail. He is charged with conspiracy to kill A. Hutson of Pasadena, agent of the Siezers Oil Burning Company. The other party to the conspiracy being, it is alleged, Emma Hutson, wife of the last named.”

Apparently, great-grampa Albert was wealthy. He had $3,000 in life insurance and lived in Linda Vista (an upscale section of Pasadena). The article describes him as having “money in the bank, being in comfortable circumstances, industrious and highly respected.” Apparently, great-grandma Emma wanted that money and property for herself.

The weapon of choice? Mr. T. Smith, it seems, slipped a dose of sulfuric acid into great-grampa’s drink (he was known to be fond of beer and whiskey). But all three attempts failed.

Great-grampa discovered this scheme when he found a letter addressed to “Mrs. Hutchinson.” But we Hutsons are accustomed to having our surname misspelled and mispronounced. Mr. Smith was angry because he had not been paid.

“I thought you was a truthful woman to your word. You asked me to kill your husband for you, and I told you it was worth a thousand dollars. You ain't going to see me no more, for I am going to Newton, Kansas, Sunday. You are going to get yourself in a jam, not me.”

The discovery of this letter led to the arrest of Mr. Smith. Great-grandma was nowhere to be found. I found the last sentence of the article amusing:

“All of the parties concerned in the affair are negroes.” This part, I know, is inaccurate. Emma was full-blooded Cherokee.

This story contradicts much of what we’ve always “known” about my dad’s family. I know that my grandfather lived much of his youth in Pasadena, so that checks. His parents were Albert and Emma, and the article correctly gives her maiden name as Nowell.

But were they wealthy? Everything I've heard for the past 50 years, says no. Albert was a self-employed tinkerer and inventor, not (as the article claims) an agent of an oil company. (He, and my grandfather, built the world's first self-propelled parade float. Many of their creations appeared in the Rose Parade.) By one account, one of our relatives worked as a household servant for David Gamble, one of the founders of Procter & Gamble. (Gamble lived in Cincinnati, but wintered out west.) The “Gamble House” in Pasadena is now a museum and a state historical landmark.

Is there a hidden fortune that we don’t know about? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

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