5 April: Time marches to a strange second murder trial

Poster for the bowdlerised film version of David Lamson's Death Row memoir. (Photo: RKO.)

Poster for the bowdlerised film version of David Lamson’s Death Row memoir. (Photo: RKO.)

Harry Von Zell will become so entrenched a comic presence in his career—announcer/foil for Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore; radio comic actor (Joan Davis’s show, on which he plays Verna Felton’s love interest); comic actor in Columbia Pictures slapsticks of the 1940s; announcer/foil for George Burns and Gracie Allen on television—that it may become simple to forget he is just as familiar to radio listeners as the voice of Time itself on the popular domentary drama The March of Time.

I have to sound as impersonal, as imperturbable, as time itself.

Remarkably, Von Zell succeeds. He might have taken a cue from, at least, one man who figures in one of tonight’s stories, a defendant in a second trial for murder, after his first conviction is overthrown on appeal in a case as sensational on the West Coast as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping is across the country.

David Lamson, a successful sales manager at the Stanford University Press publishing arm, is accused in the death of his wife, Allene, in 1933. Future scholars will remember circumstantial evidence that actually points more heavily to Lamson’s innocence, but he was sentenced to death after his original conviction.

The errors in his first trial were legion, from the prosecution’s failure to provide or prove a motive or history of aggressive behaviour on Lamson’s part to the defense’s failure to call key witnesses—particularly Sara Kelley, with whom Lamson was implied to be having an affair but who could have rebutted that theory (she knew Lamson, who never responded to her romantically, but approached him mostly as a poet who might be published)—and to pursue any theory of Allene Lamson’s death other than the accident. This despite it being generally known that Lamson was heard to scream, “Oh my God, my wife’s been murdered!” when he found her in the bath, after returning inside the house following a small turn of yard work as she bathed.

On San Quentin’s Death Row, Lamson took refuge in writing, according to Stanford Magazine; his correspondence, including richly detailed observations of days and people on Death Row and his own understated thoughts about his wife and his case, would be published in the best-selling We Who Are About to Die.

One month after Bruno Richard Hautpmann is named publicly as the suspect in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, David Lamson’s conviction and death sentence were overturned by the California Supreme Court, in a ruling that charged “the trial judge failed to require prosecutors to fully prove their case,” Stanford Magazine would recall.

When the government relies solely on circumstantial evidence, the Supreme Court ruled, “the prosecution must show not only circumstances consistent with guilt, but circumstances inconsistent with any reasonable theory of innocence.” When it comes to David Lamson, the court wrote, “every statement tends to support his claims. It is true that he may be guilty, but the evidence thereof is no stronger than mere suspicion.”

Recapped tonight on The March of Time—including the testimony of a San Francisco doctor whose hobbies include examining trial evidence, and who speaks about the actual distance splattering blood might travel in an accidental blow to the head—Lamson’s second trial will end in a hung jury, with three jurors holding out for acquittal.

A third attempt to try Lamson, in November 1935, will abort in its own crib, thanks to jury list irregularities; a fourth, beginning in January 1936, will end in a second hung jury—with the same margin hanging it as had hung the second trial.

On the same day as Bruno Richard Hauptmann went to the electric chair, California declined to try Lamson a fifth time.  Stanford Magazine would sum up Lamson’s life from the moment he will walk away a free man at last:

David Lamson. (Wire photo.)

David Lamson. (Wire photo.)

He went straight to his sister’s shingled cottage on Creek Drive in Palo Alto. His 5-year-old daughter ran into his arms, shouting “Daddy!” [Stanford] Daily writer Bob Eisenbach attended an impromptu party at the house later that evening. Lamson seemed serene and grateful, Eisenbach reported, as his attorneys and longtime supporters celebrated the end of a long ordeal.

The mystery of Allene Lamson’s death was left unresolved. But as the sensational case faded into history, a troubling question remained: was David Lamson a violent master of deceit or the tragic victim of overzealous prosecutors?

A few days after his release from jail, Lamson took a short vacation with his daughter to Catalina Island. A few months later, he moved to Southern California to work on a screenplay for the film version of his book, We Who Are About to Die. There he met and married film magazine writer Ruth Smith Rankin. They lived briefly in North Hollywood, where Lamson continued to work on screenplays and on a novel based on a freak childhood hunting accident. In the late 1930s, the couple moved to a small farm near Nevada City in the Sierra foothills, where they raised David’s daughter, Allene Genevieve—now called Jenny. During the next 15 years, he wrote some 89 short stories that were published in the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines. In 1954, burned out as a writer, he and Ruth returned to the Bay Area, where he took a job as a maintenance manager with United Airlines. He died in Los Altos in 1975, at the age of 72.

Lamson’s literary life to come would be remembered by Richard M. Elman in Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs:

Published in 1935 by Max Perkins of Scribners, despite the objections of others on the Scribners editorial board . . . We Who Are About to Die is, like much of the most convincing nonfiction, the performance of an amateur, a man compelled to write by the freakishness of his experience . . . When it was first published, [it] received considerable attention. The book was sold to a motion picture company and bowdlerised beyond recognition. Sales were boosted by a nationwide broadcast of Alexander Woolcott praising Lamson’s humanity. Though his temoignage did not remain in print very long and was, to my knowledge, never reprinted, it established Lamson as a professional writer. For a decade or more he became a very successful writer of Western pulp short stories for magazines . . . most set in and around his birthplace in Wyoming or California’s Antelope Valley where he had moved and eventually remarried.


The March of Time: Behind Closed Doors (CBS, 1935)

In other news tonight: Meeting Soviet diplomats, even as re-arming Germany declares itself the sole bulwark between Europe and Bolshevism, and a nervous world waits word on whether the British will cooperate with Stalin, Anthony Eden declares Hitler unreasonable but England unwilling to surround Germany with hostile powers just yet, while his Soviet counterpart warns of a comparable Japanese rising.

Also: Accusations of headline-seeking against First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from within the University of California; the protracted Scottsboro Boys’ case coming to its harrowing climax and appeals; and, the retirement of Metropolitan Opera general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, credited with the company’s “Silver Age” particularly for bringing aboard conducting legend Arturo Toscanini.

Time: Harry Von Zell. Additional cast: Unidentified. Music: Howard Barlow. Director: Possibly William Spier. Writers: Unidentified.


Further Channel Surfing . . .


The Great Gildersleeve: Apartment Hunting (NBC, 1950)—Harold Peary, Mary Lee Robb, Richard Crenna, Walter Tetley, Lillian Randolph, Gloria Holliday, Earle Ross, Richard LeGrand. Marjorie and Bronco hunt their first apartment, but Gildersleeve hatches an idea to keep the newlyweds-to-be close to home. Uh, oh . . .

Adventures of Maisie: Nick the Gambler (Syndicated, 1951)—Ann Sothern, Joan Banks, William Conrad, Peter Leeds, Arthur Q. Bryan. Maisie can’t collect an old debt until a gambler steps in—thinking she’s changed his luck for the better at the craps tables. And it might have been a load of crap except for the cast.


Crime Drama

Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Death and the Package (NBC, 1950)—Dick Powell, Virginia Gregg, Ed Begley, Wilms Hebert, unidentified additional cast. Beginning with a client who collapses dead from a bullet in the back at Diamond’s office, a lot of people seem willing to kill or die for an unusual and valuable Oriental statuette the would-have-been client carried. Stay with it.

21st Precinct: The Six Hundred (CBS, 1956)—James Gregory, Ken Lynch, Joe Santos, John Sylvester, Leslie Woods, Bill Quinn, Larry Hanes, Eric Dressler. An already overworking morning on the day shift gets just a little more wild for Cronin and his men when they’re called to a burglarised paint store from which its entire safe has been stolen. That’s going to leave a mark, somewhere.



Quiet, Please: I Always Marry Juliet (ABC, 1948)—Ernest Chappell, Margaret Draper, Abby Lewis, Ann Seymour, James Monk. A now-struggling Shakespearean actor makes Romeo his stage specialty and the actresses who play Juliet his romantic specialty . . . until his defiance of the tragic storyline haunts him well enough. One of this series’ unquestioned classics.



Gunsmoke: Trapper’s Revenge (CBS, 1959)—William Conrad, Ralph Moody, Howard McNear, Georgia Ellis, Parley Baer, Vic Perrin. A trapper returns to Dodge and puzzles Doc and Matt when he’s found barely hanging on from months-old wounds . . . and telling a disturbing story of how he got them and what he wants to do about them. Solid, if a little laboured in small portions.

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