June 3, 2000-- Foothill Leader
A kinder, gentler La Canada
Feeling nostalgic for the good old days? Be glad you didn't live here 50 years ago.
In 1936, according Cecelia Rasmussen, a local historian and L.A. Times columnist, "Los Angeles had become acquainted with a fair number of wicked wives and homicidal husbands. But for sheer viciousness and utter lack of conscience, none of these miscreants compared with ‘Rattlesnake' James."
As a lawyer, I was familiar with the case of Rattlesnake James. The trial was well-publicized. There are published opinions from state and federal supreme courts upholding his 1936 conviction for killing his fifth wife. These are no ordinary opinions, but seminal cases on the issues of voluntariness of confessions and admission of evidence of uncharged crimes.
The case was particularly heinous.
The victim was wife No. 5, a 25-year-old named Mary Busch. The defendant took out an insurance policy on her life. The weapon: a bucket of rattlesnakes.
I also knew Rattlesnake James was the last man to be hanged in California -- in 1942, just before San Quentin switched to the gas chamber. I knew a lot about Rattlesnake James, but there was one thing I didn't know: The crime occurred in La Canada.
I should have figured it out. After all, the California Supreme Court mentioned "The Italian Village" in its opinion. This was an obvious reference to the area east of the Lanterman House, where Italian-American truck farmers grew grapes in the 1930's. Cornishon grapes. I should have figured it out, but I didn't.
Cecelia Rasmussen figured it out first.
I began to look further. I learned that Rattlesnake James killed his wife with two diamond back rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightening and that he bought the snakes from a man named "Snake Joe" in Pasadena. Snake Joe's real name was Joe Houtenbrink. I know this because he testified at the trial.
After the snakes bit Mary, her leg swelled up. She was in agony, but she didn't die. So Rattlesnake James took her to the bathtub to drown her. Then he dragged the body out to the pond. Everyone had a pond in those days.
That night, when the guests arrived for dinner, Mary wasn't there. Everyone went looking for her. Eventually, one of the guests discovered her body.
"When the defendant was told of the gruesome discovery, he cried and otherwise expressed his grief," wrote the appellate justices.
The local sheriff arrived. He wondered how Mary could have drowned in only six inches of water. but he didn't have a case.
Meanwhile Rattlesnake James filed a claim with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. The insurance investigators discovered that he had made a similar claim for the drowning of his third wife.
It was all downhill from there.
At trial, Snake Joe testified that after Mary's death, he bought back the two snakes, Lethal and Lightening, for half price. During the trial an "argument arose between counsel over the prosecutions's proposal to bring into court the two snakes...” The court overruled the objections and "Snake Joe, still on the stand, identified the two snakes so produced as the two he had sold...and repurchased."
All this happened in La Canada. It's part of our town's history.
I decided to look for the home of Rattlesnake James.
I began by calling upon one of Pasadena's premier lawyers, a gentleman by the name of Richard Pierre Bartel Tyson. His secretary let me in. Richard was working on a criminal case. I sat quietly next to the wooden Indian, the English Bobby hat and the World War II sea chest. Finally, he looked up.
"Rattlesnake James?" he said. "La Canada?"
"Yup." I replied.
"I remember that case. It was headline stuff. But La Canada meant nothing to me. In 1936, I was a teenager. I only cared about South Pasadena, Pasadena, Alhambra and San Marino."
I reminded Richard about the execution. "He was the last man hung in the state." I said
"Hanged." said Richard.
"Hanged." I replied.
"Call Cecelia Rasmussen." he said.
Cecelia got out her notes. The house was at 1329 Verdugo Blvd. She had been unable to locate the house. That night, after work, I began to drive up and down Verdugo Blvd. I couldn't find it.
Suddenly, I noticed something quite stunning. Egads, I thought. The missing house is right across the street from the home of Carol Liu, a La Canada city council member and former mayor.
I went home to telephone Carol. Carol graciously began to walk the area, telephone in hand. Sure enough, there was no house numbered 1329 Verdugo.
"I find this very intriguing," said Carol, "I have no idea what happened to his house, perhaps it was taken by the freeway, but the local lore of this community is fascinating."
That's for sure.