Grifters and Cons: Murder of “Lucille Marvin” 1937

Murder Victim

“Lucille Marvin”
Conwoman, Thief
?-1937
Cause of Death: Strangled
Motive: Concealing Criminal Activity

Murder Scene and Date

Lafayette Hotel, Third Floor
Clinton, Iowa
Clinton County
October 9, 1937

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By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2012

Postcard of the Lafayette Hotel in its glory days.

Nothing seemed amiss at Clinton’s upscale Lafayette Hotel on the evening of Friday, October 8, 1937.

Even if something had been noticeably wrong, it wouldn’t have stirred much interest in the five-story hotel at the corner of 6th Avenue South and South 2nd Street.

The hotel had seen plenty of famous people and infamous behavior since it opened in 1906, including out-of-state and home-grown gangsters.

location of Clinton County, Iowa

location of Clinton County, Iowa

When Chicago mobsters brought their entourages and own entertainment on special train cars to Clinton, they stayed at the Lafayette.

One visitor the Chicagoans likely received was Michael L. “Mike” Blumberg, the self-styled “Al Capone of Clinton.” He operated the city’s distribution system for a Capone-run liquor syndicate out of Illinois until he was sent to Leavenworth Prison in 1931.

Blumberg bragged he had the Lincoln Highway “greased” from Chicago to Clinton and brought two million gallons of illegal alcohol into Iowa before he was arrested.

Clinton was the first Iowa stop on the Lincoln Highway for travelers heading west. Suspects fleeing Illinois jurisdictions had only to cross the Mississippi River Bridge to be safe.

☛ Three Traveling Companions ☚

Lafayette Hotel lobby (courtesy Clinton City Library).

At 7:30 Friday night October 8, an attractive, well-dressed blonde in her early 40s checked in at the front desk with an older woman and a dark-haired, middle-aged man in a suit.

The blonde signed the register as Mrs. L. Marvin of Ft. Dodge and wrote the names of her companions as Mrs. J. Stewart of Des Moines and Mr. W.A. Casey of Minneapolis.

After checking in, Mrs. Marvin said she wasn’t feeling well. So she ate a small meal in the dining room and retired to her third-floor room, asking to be given a wake-up call in the morning.

☛ Unanswered Wake-up Call ☚

On Saturday morning October 9, the front desk dialed Mrs. Marvin’s room, but she didn’t pick up.

“Lucille Marvin” ate her last meal here (photo Clinton Public Library).

At 8:30, when Mrs. Marvin still hadn’t answered, 20-year-old Bellboy Norman Hoop was dispatched to the third floor to make certain she was awake.

Hoop opened Mrs. Marvin’s door and called her name. He could see her by the light of the bed lamp.

She was partially reclining in bed — her long blonde hair down, a magazine beside her, and an ashtray on a stand. But she didn’t reply to Hoop and seemed in a deep sleep.

Hoop returned to the front desk and, according to the Clinton Herald, told hotel manager Don Wallert:

“I can’t wake that woman up; shall I go up and throw some water in her face? She looks awful white.”

Wallert and other employees followed Hoop back to the room. Although she was warm to the touch, Mrs. Marvin was unresponsive; so Wallert summoned Dr. Guy F. Robbins.

Dr. Robbins pronounced Mrs. Marvin dead and sent for Clinton County Coroner Dr. L.O. Riggert.

When Riggert arrived, hotel employees could tell him only that the dead woman signed in the night before as “Mrs. L. Marvin.”

☛ Searching For an Identity ☚

Riggert and the others sorted through the woman’s belongings for identification. They found a rosary, which Riggert said indicated the woman was Catholic.

Clinton Herald headline

Inside a new purse was $207.50 — a lot of money in 1937, although perhaps not for a well-heeled Lafayette Hotel guest. Potentially more revealing were the ignition and door keys to a DeSoto.

A signet ring with the letters “F.D. H.S.” and “Aug. 22, 1929” inside the band promised to be a good clue to the woman’s identity.

However, the search took an odd turn when the woman’s suitcase yielded three expensive new suits with the labels carefully cut out.

And even more suspicious was the discovery of a white powder, which Coroner Riggert collected for analysis.

The victim’s personal items were taken to the Police Station, while officers searched downtown Clinton streets and garages for a DeSoto the keys would open.

☛ No Marks of Violence or Strangulation? ☚

The body was transported to J.L. Clarke mortuary, where Coroner Riggert pronounced the victim a “woman of refinement and culture.”

Riggert claimed he found no marks of violence.

This statement probably surprised undertaker Charles H. Snyder who could see that the victim’s tongue was clamped between her teeth and that her neck muscles were swollen like someone had strangled her.

Coroner Riggert dispatched the white powder to a lab and had a Clinton Police officer deliver Mrs. Marvin’s stomach to pathologist Dean Teeters at the University Hospital in Iowa City.

It was beginning to look like a drug overdose to Riggert. That, however, was before he learned the victim’s friends had fled.

☛ The Vanishing Companions and DeSoto ☚

After the discovery of the body, Lafayette Hotel manager Don Wallert called Mrs. Marvin’s traveling companion Mrs. Stewart into his office and gave her the bad news.

Stewart expressed what Wallert described as “a blasphemy” and hurried away, saying she needed to send a telegram. In her haste to leave the Lafayette Hotel, Mrs. Stewart left behind her luggage and never returned for it.

“Lucie Marvin” owned a DeSoto like this. Her friends used it to escape from Clinton (courtesy Chrysler Corporation).

The search for the victim’s DeSoto revealed that Mrs. Marvin’s friend Mr. Casey had directed mechanics in the Lafayette Hotel garage that morning to change the oil and grease the car, which employees said was blue and had Minnesota license plates.

Casey left the garage about 10:00 a.m. When last seen, he wore a dark suit and a light hat. Although he was alone when he pulled away in the DeSoto, it was likely he picked up “Mrs. Stewart” and the two drove off together.

The hasty departure of Marvin’s friends made Coroner Riggert suspect they had something to hide, and he announced he would investigate the death as a homicide.

Clinton Police Chief O.T. Roberts and Captain Martin Duffy worked the case with Clinton County Sheriff C.S. Petersen and Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent Joseph “Joe” Burke. County Attorney Leon P. Molloy was also extensively involved.

☛ A “Mother’s” Call ☚

Later on Saturday, Clinton Police received a telephone call from a woman who claimed to be Mrs. Ellen Arendt of 4108 Fifth Street in Minneapolis. She said she received a telegram about the death — perhaps from Mrs. Stewart, who was last seen scurrying away towards Western Union.

Ellen Arendt said the dead woman was her daughter Lucille “Lucie” Marvin of 148 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota; she wanted to provide details about where to ship the body.

According to the Clinton Herald, Arendt told investigators:

“[My daughter] followed a furtive and roving existence with friends and companions of doubtful occupation.”

Ellen Arendt swore she and Lucie were estranged and that she knew nothing about the two people traveling with her.

However, she admitted she had met Lucie’s husband, a man named Sam Harris.

Clinton Police then learned from Denison, Iowa, authorities that Lucie Marvin was recently detained there, along with a Sam Harris of Minneapolis. Harris was accused of pickpocketing, a charge he failed to appear on a week before Lucie’s death.

At last, the victim had a name. Or so it seemed.

☛ Inquest: Murder, Accident, or Suicide? ☚

Dr. O.L. Riggert convened a coroner’s jury of John F. Wareham. C.A. Hoffman, and Roy Lange to meet in Clinton City Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 11.

Beforehand, the three men viewed Lucie Marvin’s body at Clarke Funeral Home.

Dr. Riggert and County Attorney Molloy took testimony and asked questions at the inquest — a three-hour procession of witnesses, many relating contradictory stories.

West side of the Lafayette Hotel, taken on South Second Street. “Lucille Marvin” died on the 3rd floor (courtesy Penny Postcards from Iowa).

Hotel employees who discovered Marvin’s body all gave differing accounts.

One said she had on glasses when found; another said she didn’t. One said she was reclining on pillows as if reading in bed; another said she wasn’t. Lafayette Manager Don Wallert claimed he removed the pillows when he came into the room.

Dr. E.H. Boyer, who performed the autopsy, set the time of death on October 9 as early as 6:00 to 6:30 a.m., only two hours before Marvin was found lifeless.

Boyer testified that Marvin did not die of heart problems. When County Attorney Malloy pushed for a cause of death, Boyer bluntly declared: “I wouldn’t know.”

Undertaker Charles H. Snyder described the appearance of the body; to him, the tongue clamped between the teeth and the neck marks indicated strangulation.

Coroner Riggert argued against the murder theory. He said the white powder in Marvin’s room was determined to be morphine and her pupils did not dilate after death, a sure sign of an overdose from that opiate.

But County Attorney Molloy didn’t agree and pressed Riggert until he admitted there were no puncture marks on Marvin’s body and no syringe in the hotel room. In addition, University Hospital pathologist Dean Teeters found no morphine in her stomach.

After hearing conflicting witness statements and uncertain medical testimony, the jury could not decide whether the death was homicide, suicide, or accident.

Their verdict was “undetermined cause.”

☛ Closed Case? ☚

State BCI Agent Joseph J. Burke, who worked the case with Clinton County authorities, told newspapers that nothing in the investigation and inquest persuaded him the death was criminal.

But Burke still hoped to track down Stewart and Casey to confirm they had no part in Lucie Marvin’s death.

County Attorney Leon P. Molloy was not so easily persuaded. He told the Clinton Herald his office would leave the case open for future investigation.

☛ Request For the Body ☚

On the night of the inquest, a “Mr. Richman” called Clinton Police Chief Roberts long distance to say he was Lucie Marvin’s “sweetheart” and was inquiring on behalf of her mother to learn when the body would be released.

Although Agent Joe Burke and County Attorney Molloy had sworn to hang on to the body until the vanished friends could be found, the body was released on October 13 and shipped to Minneapolis.

☛ Grifters and Cons ☚

Police Chief O.T. Roberts agreed that the inquest brought little information about the death. However, he and his department had learned a good deal about the trio who checked into the Lafayette Hotel on October 8.

The other woman was Liz Stewart or Liz Story, known in the underworld as “Old Liz.” The Clinton Herald called her “a shoplifter of considerable reputation.”

The man was W.A. Casey, a known thief and highway robber who may have been from St. Paul.

Chief Roberts said no Clinton charges would be filed against the two in connection with “Lucie Marvin” because of the undetermined death ruling.

That did not mean they weren’t wanted somewhere, however. FBI records showed that Marvin, Stewart, and Casey were what Chief Roberts termed “small time racketeers.”

Investigators believed the “gang” maintained a base of operations — or a “hideout” — in the Twin Cities and then fanned out over the Midwest to steal and grift.

At that time, Minneapolis and St. Paul — like all large metropolitan areas — were rife with bootleg alcohol distribution, prostitution, and gambling operations run by varied ethnic gangs who bought off corrupt politicians of all persuasions.

☛ The Elusive Lucille, Marie, Mary, May or Emma ☚

As for “Lucille ‘Lucie’ Martin,” FBI Fingerprint records told the long story of her criminal career.

In 2012, the Lafayette Hotel was an apartment property for sale at six million dollars (photo Ruhl and Ruhl Realtors).

Her first known arrest was in 1913 in Philadelphia for conspiracy; she then called herself “Lucille Pickston.”

She lived in New York City during the early 1930s as “Marie Wilson.” When she was arrested there in 1931, she lived at 116 East 48th Street — just across the street from The Barclay, an upscale hotel. A 1932 arrest showed her living at 132 West 48th Street near Rockefeller Plaza.

Marvin was jailed in 1936 in Columbus, Ohio, under the name “Emily Moran.”

Other records showed she had been arrested and jailed all over the country with the various aliases “Mary West,” “Mary Wilson,” “Mary Watson,” “Mary Wood,” “May Burns,” and “Mary Nelson.”

Investigators believed that at the time of her death she was married to or in a relationship with Sam Harris, the pickpocket arrested in Denison, Iowa.

☛ The Life of “Mrs. Marvin” ☚

It’s difficult to tell the story of a person with so many identities and lives, someone who drifted and morphed and changed her name with every change of stolen clothing.

If her age was estimated correctly by the coroner, she was born in 1892. That would make her 21 years-old at her first known arrest in Philadelphia.

A woman claiming to be Ellen Arendt said Lucille Marvin was her daughter. In the 1920 and 1930 censuses, an Ellen Arendt lived at Minneapolis City Hospital (sometimes known as General Hospital), earning her keep as a maid.

Ellen Arendt claimed her daughter was married to Sam Harris. Was the victim’s maiden name, then, Lucille Arendt? Was she Mrs. Lucille Harris?

Although her mother said “Lucie” was the wife of Sam Harris, a man calling about the release of the body on behalf of Ellen Arendt professed to be Marvin’s “sweetheart.” He said his name was “Richman” – the perfect alias for a conman. Could she have been Lucie Richman?

Those using aliases often choose something close to their own name in order to remember it, and they keep it simple so it won’t attract attention.

The victim favored the alias first names of “Marie,” “Mary,” and “Lucille.” Was the woman’s first name actually “Mary”? Was she “Mary Lucille”?

The signet ring in her possession was engraved with what seemed to be lovers’ initials — “F.D. H.S.” – and the date “Aug. 22, 1929”; this suggested a special event like an engagement or marriage.

But did those initials and date mean anything in her own personal life or was the ring stolen and used as a prop for an identity? Or had she stolen and worn it just because she found it attractive or classy?

The rosary in the victim’s room caused the Coroner to declare her a Catholic. But was she, or was that religious item part of her assumed identify? Was it used to charm and win the confidence of her victims?

She made her way in the world through criminal acts, traveling in the company of pickpockets and robbers. But what exactly was Mrs. Marvin’s con, her expertise?

No doubt, she was a thief at the very least. Her clothing was stolen — the labels quickly cut out so the garments couldn’t be traced to a store.

Her brand new purse was also likely stolen and perhaps the large amount of money in it was what Old Liz and Casey or Sam Harris took out of wallets lifted from pockets and handbags.

Did the gang split their earnings equally? Did “Mrs. Marvin,” who owned the DeSoto, receive more than the other two because she provided the transportation?

These are questions we can’t answer, so we may never know the true identity of “Lucille ‘Lucie’ Marvin.” Probably no one in this case connected to the victim — including her alleged mother “Ellen Arendt” — was who they claimed to be.

We can only know that someone using that name died suspiciously in the Lafayette Hotel in Clinton, Iowa, early on Saturday morning, October 9, 1937.

Clinton County Attorney Leon Molloy — who pledged to keep the murder case open — never got to learn how the woman died or to prosecute anyone for the death. He passed away three years after the murder at the age of 37.
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Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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☛ David Jindrich contributed special research and correspondence to this article. ☚

References

  • ☛ “59 Accused in Booze Plot,” Milwaukee Journal, June 26, 1931.
  • ☛ “Hotel Death Is Unsolved At Inquest,” Clinton Herald, October 12, 1937.
  • ☛ “Inquiry In Marvin Death Is Complete,” Clinton Herald, October 14, 1937.
  • ☛ “Opiate May Have Caused Marvin Death,” Clinton Herald, October 11, 1937.
  • ☛ “Probe Death Of Woman In Hotel Room,” Clinton Herald, October 9, 1937.

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