June 17,2000 -- Foothill Leader


Legend of Rattlesnake James, Part II

By Anita Susan Brenner

Metal detector? Check. Shovel? Check. Flash light? Check.

Our team of investigators is hard at work. We continue to search for the house where Rattlesnake James killed his wife.

Former Mayor Carol Liu is a consultant to our team. LC Outlook editor Eileen Ferber is an honorary member of our team. Al Decker and Mignonne Walker are in charge of Beulah-Chevy Chase research, including the unrelated homicide of Walter and Beulah Overell in 1947. (The Overells will have to wait. To prevail, our focus must remain fixed on the tragic case of Rattlesnake James.)

To recap: In 1935, James decided to kill his fifth wife. He liked her but he needed the insurance money. He chose rattlesnakes because he had already drowned his third wife, and he didn't want to get caught.

James shopped around for his weapons. At the snake pit in Long Beach, the snakes were too tame. So he went to Pasadena. He bought Lethal and Lightening from a man named Snake Joe.

Alas, Mary did not die from the bites, so he drowned her in the bathtub and carried her body out to the pond. The next day, he sold Lethal and Lightening back to Snake Joe for half price.

The location: 1329 Verdugo Blvd.

Christy Baxter, a member of the La Canada Elementary School eighth-grade class of 1938, called to say that the murder house is gone. Kaput. She says it was 200 yards south of the Church of the Lighted Window. "It's certainly not underneath the freeway."

"Oh?" I said.

"It's probably under the church parking lot," said Christy.

*

Christy's great uncle was rancher Joe Perizzo, who lived up on Fairview. Her parents moved her in 1935. They lived on Grand near the old elementary school. It was a great place to grow up. The post office was at Grand and Foothill. Guedero's grocery was nearby.

"Kids today would not understand what La Canada was like unless they saw a photo." Baxter said. "Foothill Blvd. was a two-lane highway without sidewalks. It was so quiet that I dribbled my basketball down the middle of Foothill Blvd. on the way to school."

Baxter recalled that the murder house was near a crooked oak tree.

One reader, speaking on a strict condition of anonymity, bought a house on Union in the 1960's. He dug up the back yard to plant a garden and was surprised to find the concrete footings for a pond. Someone had buried the pond. The crooked oak tree was a few feet away.

*

John Klann called. He's a 91-year-old retired bricklayer, race car driver, and an ex-columnist for the Foothill Leader. At my request, he dug around his attic until he found his Rattlesnake James clippings.

Klann showed me the contemporaneous LA Times clippings, including a photograph of Viola Pemberton, "the statuesque blonde" dinner guest. Viola and her husband found Mary James' body in the pond.

In the photo, Viola wears a hat. Her polka dot dress is sleeveless, with a pointed collar and a dozen white buttons. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a French twist. She does not wear gloves.

Viola points at a large blueprint marked "1329 W. Verdugo." The diagram is legible. "Bedroom No. One." "Living Room." "Fish Pond."

"That's gold!" I shrieked.

"You can borrow it. But bring it back," Klann said.

"Do you need collateral? My shoes? "

"No," Klann said. "I trust everyone else, I might as well trust you."

*

Back home, I pored over the clippings. My favorite passage described the appeal: "The constitutional question involves the propriety of the prosecution in bringing into the trial courtroom a box containing rattlesnakes, whose hissing and general effect on the jury was such that the defendant was denied a fair and unbiased trial, according to the defense argument." (LA Times, 1941)

Nobody writes like that any more.

As for John Klann's columns about Rattlesnake James, published in the 1980's, they were engaging and well-punctuated.

I'm lucky he's retired.

Feedback to gnp@latimes.com