Essays

The Trunk Murders, 1931

Notes on a killing

Harold Schechter
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

Some murders inspire ghoulish fascination not because they are especially grisly but because the methods used to dispose of the victims are so gruesome. John Colt’s slaying of printer Samuel Adams in 1841 was, in many ways, a routine act of manslaughter. What made it into an early media sensation was Colt’s attempt to conceal his crime by stuffing the corpse into a packing crate and trying to ship it to Boston. Likewise, Professor John White Webster’s murder of Dr. George Parkman in 1849 would not have provoked such widespread horror if the dead man’s body parts hadn’t turned up in the professor’s furnace, tea-chest, and privy.

The same principle applies to one of the most sensational crimes of the 1930s, the case of the so-called “Trunk Murderess,” Winnie Ruth Judd. In themselves, the killings she perpetrated would have earned her a few fleeting moments of tabloid infamy before she was consigned to oblivion. It was what she did with the bodies afterwards that turned her into a criminal legend.

Born in Indiana in 1905, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Ruth–as everyone called her–displayed frighteningly vengeful behavior from an early age. At sixteen, to get back at a boyfriend who had jilted her for another girl, she staged her own abduction and had him arrested for kidnap and rape. The following year, while working as a student nurse at a state mental asylum, she met and fell in love with William C. Judd, a drug-addicted physician twenty-two-years her senior, who had ostensibly become hooked on morphine after being wounded in the Great War. Soon after their marriage, they moved to Mexico, where he worked as a medic for an American mining company. After suffering two abortive pregnancies and contracting a mild case of tuberculosis, Ruth returned by herself to states, where–after an eighteen month stint in a California sanitarium–she settled in Phoenix, Arizona.

It wasn’t long before the slender, strikingly pretty Ruth, now living on her own, found herself engaged in an adulterous affair with one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen, a married forty-four-year-old playboy, known to his many friends as “Happy Jack” Halloran. After working for a time as a governess, Ruth took a better-paying job as a secretary in a private medical clinic. There, she befriended another recent arrival to the city, an X-ray technician named Annie Leroi, a stunning, twice-divorced thirty-two-year-old who had relocated to Phoenix with her twenty-four-year-old companion (and reputedly lesbian lover), Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson. Before long, Ruth had become roommates with the pair, sharing a small three-room bungalow that, according to most accounts, served as a party place for Halloran and his circle of hard-drinking, philandering buddies. Within a few months, unspecified tensions in the little household led Ruth to move out, though she remained on the best of terms with the two women. At around 9:30 PM on Friday, October 16, 1931, Ruth showed up at the duplex to spend a quiet evening with her friends. No one ever saw Annie LeRoi or Sammy Samuelson alive again.

On Sunday, October 18, after informing her landlord that she was taking the night train to Los Angeles to visit her husband, Ruth enlisted his aid to transport two unusually heavy trunks to the Union Depot. Despite a bandaged right hand–burned, so she claimed, while ironing–she herself carried a battered suitcase, a hatbox, and a small leather valise. By the time the train reached its destination early the following day, the two trunks–the larger weighing over two hundred pounds, the smaller around ninety–were oozing blood and emanating a powerfully repulsive smell. When Ruth, who had been met at the station by her brother, showed up at the baggage claim to retrieve the trunks, the supervising agent demanded that she open them for inspection. Explaining that her husband had the keys, Ruth left with her brother, promising to return shortly. When she failed to reappear, the agent summoned a policeman who broke open the trunks. Crammed inside the larger one was the decomposing corpse of Annie LeRoi. Sammy Samuelson’s body, neatly cut into three sections, was stuffed into the smaller.

“TWO WOMEN’S BODIES SHIPPED HERE IN TRUNKS BY FIENDISH KILLER!” screamed the headline of the following day’s Los Angeles Times. Back in Phoenix, the evening newspaper ran ads–placed by the owner of the “murder house”–offering tours of the crime scene at ten cents a head. So many people responded that, according to one outraged observer, “the entire population of Maripoca County” eventually traipsed through the place.

Another four days would pass before Ruth–“The Blonde Butcher,” “The Tiger Woman,” “The Trunk Murderess,” as the tabloids variously dubbed her–surrendered herself in response to an emotional appeal issued by her husband. In a statement transmitted through her attorney, she claimed that, while visiting her former roommates on the night of the killing, she had gotten embroiled in a violent argument with Sammy Samuelson, who “got hold of a gun and shot me in the left hand, Mrs. LeRoi grabbed an ironing board and started to strike me over the head with it. In the struggle, I got hold of the gun, and Sammy got shot. Mrs, LeRoi was still coming at me with the ironing board, and I had to shoot her. Then I ran from the place.” Returning to her apartment, she had found Jack Halloran waiting for her. It was Halloran, she claimed, who had returned with her to the crime scene and packed the bodies into the trunks while she mopped up the blood.

The findings of the medical examiner, who determined that both victims had been shot in the head at close range, cast serious doubts on this story. For decades, the events of that fatal night would be shrouded in mystery. The truth would not emerge until 2014, when a confession, handwritten by Ruth to her attorney in 1933, unexpectedly came to light. In it, she revealed that she had been lashed into a rage by the incessant “taunts” of Annie Leroi, who had tormented her by flirting openly with Jack Halloran in her presence. “Those taunts kept me awake,” Ruth wrote. “I could not sleep. I cried. I even prayed. I was losing my mind…No human was ever going through so much turmoil of mind.”

Finally, after days of this agony, Ruth was driven to act. On the night of Friday,

October 16, after lying awake for hours–her “brain whirling” with “ insane thoughts”–she “got up and went over to Ann’s house,” carrying her .25-calibre handgun. By then, both her former roommates had retired for the night. Sneaking in through the unlocked front door, she “sat down on the couch in the semi-dark living room and soon fell asleep clutching the gun.” Suddenly, she started awake. “Sammy had gone to the bathroom. Remembering “what I had come to do,” she crept towards the bedroom,” but she was “shaking inside” so violently that retreated to the living room, “curled up and went to sleep again. All night I don’t know how many times I started for that bedroom and retreated each time, so exhausted I immediately went to sleep.”

She awoke to the early morning sound of the milkman outside the door. She could hear Sammy in the bathroom again. Determined to carry out her mission, she tiptoed past the bathroom, stepped into Ann’s bedroom and shot her in the head. As she turned to hurry away, Sammy burst from the bathroom, saw the gun, and snatched it away. Ruth tried to grab it back. As they grappled, Sammy fired, shooting Ruth in the left hand. “We fell to the floor,” Ruth recounted, “struggled, and I finally got the gun and in my wild state I shot her in the head.”

After dragging Sammy’s body into the bathroom and cleaning the blood from the hallway floor, Ruth went out to the garage, “tugged and pulled” a large steamer trunk into the house, and wrestled Ann’s corpse into it. She then went to the office, put in a full day’s work, and made a brief stop at her own apartment to feed her cat before returning to the bungalow. Sneaking in through the bathroom window, she attempted to stuff Sammy’s body into the trunk, “but that was utterly impossible, I couldn’t possibly lift her, she was too heavy and her body was stiff. I then got two cheap knives from the kitchen and severed her body into portions I could lift.” She eventually managed to cram most of Sammy’s dismembered corpse into a smaller trunk, though not all of it would fit, so she packed a piece of lower torso into a suitcase.

Following a three-week trial that got underway in mind-January, 1932, Ruth was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged. Less than a week before her scheduled execution, however, Arizona authorities–responding to an outpouring of support from political leaders, clergymen, and ordinary citizens who believed she was mentally ill–agreed to a sanity hearing, at the climax of which Ruth was judged insane and committed to the Arizona State Mental Hospital.

On October 24, 1939—eight years, almost to the day, of her arrest—she concocted a crude dummy out of boxes, bath towels, and bottles, arranged it under her bedclothes, and escaped from the hospital, remaining at large for six days. Just over a month, later, she escaped again, making her way to Yuma, Arizona, mostly on foot –a distance of nearly two hundred miles. Captured a few days later, she was returned to the asylum and placed in solitary confinement for two years. Between November, 1951 and the following November, she managed three more escapes, none lasting more than a five days.

She absconded a final time in October, 1962. Ending up in the San Francisco Bay area, she assumed a new identity—“Marian Lane”—and found employment as a live-in housekeeper in a mansion owned by an elderly woman. She remained at large for almost seven years before the law caught up with her. Extradited to Arizona, she was judged sane by medical examiners and consigned to the state penitentiary, where she remained until late 1971. Upon her release, she returned to California, where—under her identity as Marian Lane—“The Infamous 1930’s ‘Trunk Murderess’” (as the New York Times called her in its obituary) lived quietly until her death in October, 1998 at the age of 93.

Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. He is also the author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
Originally published:
May 27, 2018

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