Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Vance Avenue Alma” (Alma Theede): Black Widow - 1927


Alma’s 7 marriages:

1917    Halprin Cox; Alma Herrin, aged 17, married
1919    Roy Calvert, marries; she murdered him in 1919
1920?  Halprin Cox; remarried (Cox dies in car wreck)
1926    Michael McClavey, she and Charles Miller; she murdered him in 1927
1931    William Theede (a convicted murderer), married
1946    Ed Gill, she murdered him in 1948
1960    William Massey, married, later divorced

(NOTE: The Theede case is filed under the date of 1927, the year she made her second husband-kill: Michael McClavey.)

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FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): A sailor in Memphis, Tenn., leagues from the ocean blue, is a sailor just the same. Thus William E. Rhodes, boatswain’s mate,  grumbled about the fog and the drizzling rain at 1 a. m., last Jan. 2, just as if he were standing watch on a battlewagon.

As a matter of fact, Rhodes was on shore patrol duty in Memphis that night. His chin deep in his peajacket collar, Rhodes never glanced up at the ugly, darkened shack he passed at Ford and Dixie Roads in Grant’s Corners, on the outskirts of Memphis. As a shore-patrolman, Rhodes really should have looked because he was passing the home of “Vance Avenue Alma.” Alma was a one-time beauty who gone down, down to a slattern.

A mile past Alma’s shack, Rhodes snapped out of it. There was a man lying in the middle of the Peebles avenue. One tough and he knew the man was dead. Rhodes thought the fellow was the victim of a hit-and-run driver.

Men from the office of Sheriff James L. Thompson dispelled that notion quickly. The dead man had been shot through the head with a .38 caliber bullet. A deputy sheriff recognized the corpse.

“That’s Ed Gill, Vance Avenue Alma’s husband!” he exclaimed. “Heh! Heh! Alma’s gone and shot herself another husband!”

• • •

WHERE there’s smoke there must be fire, and the smoke of gunpowder had long hung like a cloud around Vance Avenue Alma.

Five husbands – three of them slain – will get any woman talked about, even one less colorful than Alma. Bust then, most of her life Alma had been a subject of conversation among law enforcement officers, gay young blades, and derelicts of the town. Hers is one of the “short and simple annals of the poor.”

Alma was born to Ruby and W. M. Herrin on the wrong side of the Memphis railroads tracks a half century before her fifth husband was murdered.

At 16, Alma was pretty and pert. Under happier circumstances she would have been a natural for the musical comedy stage. Alas, the one stage, on which Alma could play, and at that a strolling part only, was Vance ave, on the edge of Memphis' red light district. Alma's folks needed what quick support she could give them.

Occasionally Alma had fun, for some good sport took her to Oakey’s for lobster or oysters and absinthe frappes. More often Alma’s shabby admirers took her to dives where the flotsam and jetsam, male and female, ate spaghetti and horseradish for a mere dime a plate.

Alma played her strolling part – street walking, the police called it – for $1, if that was all the traffic Would bear, or $2 when she could get it. But she gave what earnings she could to her mother.

Strange that Alma could find a man willing to marry her? Not really. With Halpin Cox, stickman running the dice table in a gambling house in Gayese ave. in 1917 Alma eloped to Arkansas, just across the Mississippi. She was 17.. Before she was 18, Alma was back with her mother and seeking a divorce from Cox in a' Memphis court.

~ ALMA REMARRIES HER FIRST MATE ~

Alma didn't stay single long. Soon she was in Arkansas again marrying Roy Calvert, 24, a railroad worker with a job near Little Rock. The Calverts lived in Little Rock, fighting like cats and dogs one day and cooing the next. Alma said, "Roy drank. My! That marriage was a wild one!"

In 1919 Alma shot Roy. About all we need to know of Alma's first “divorce by lead is -what the United Press reported 30 years ago:

Alma Cox Calvert. 20, young wife of Roy Calvert, was freed in a Pulaski county circuit court today of a murder charge by a jury verdict of justifiable homicide.

The Widow Calvert returned to her mother in Memphis and to the only breadwinning occupation she knew – strolling the Vance ave. But she didn’t work long. Her first husband, Halpin Cox, found her “looking for company.” He remarried her.

In a way, life with Halpin was peaceful. But a gambler has so little free time for home life. He works nights and sleeps days. Alma, accustomed to much male society, was lonely. She was altogether lonely when Cox was killed in an automobile crash on an Arkansas highway. But Alma didn’t go into morning with Cox.

A widow’s weeds are unattractive to the customers of a sporting house, and the first job of itsd inmates, competition being keen among the girls, is to be attractive to men.

Alma became a “housegirl,” swapping the fine independence of a streetwalker for the smaller but more assured profits of organized sin at the sign of the red light. And for a while Alma was a success, after a fashion.

But time, liquor and the exigencies of her profession gradually robbed Alma of her looks. Her mother’s needs and her own gambling ate up her hard won earnings.

“You’re crow bait,” the madam finally told her. “Take your time about getting out. But you’re thru here. I’m really sorry.” As the madam said, “business is business,” so Alma moved her negligees in a cheaper house.

• • •

It was in a second-rate bawdy house that Michael McClaver found her.

At 50, Mike, a fairly prosperous contractor, married Alma. She called him “a good scout.” Some called him a “humanitarian.” More dubbed him “a sucker.” Anyway Mike undertook to lift Alma “out of this life of degradation” to make a lady of her.

Having always been a good daughter to her mother, Alma, accepting Mike’s honorable proposal, now did her best to be a good wife. This despite the fact that her husband was many years her senior, a bit deaf, dim of sight, and not much to look at.

Mike had a heart of gold. He set Alma u in his house at 254 Avery st. in a good neighborhood. To his wife’s delight, he invited his mother-in-law, Mrs. Ruby Harrin, to live with them. It was probably the first time that anyone, besides Alma herself, had been “good” to Ruby.

Furthermore, since gambling was now Alma’s only vice Mike gave his wife pin money with which to gamble, saying he could afford it. In time, however, Mike found Alma’s gambling too expensive. He restricted her allowance.

Irked by his parsimony and bored by his “goodness,” McClavey’s wife considered returning to the streets to earn gambling money. But as often as she considered it, Alma rejected the thought of letting her husband down that way.

“Mike, I’ve an idea to make some extra money.” Suppose we take a boarder,” Alma suggested.

Mike laughed and agreed.

The boarder proved to be C. E. Miller, an ex-jockey and a man of the world. He was good-looking and younger than Mike by 20 years. The inevitable happened.

Alma and Miller made eyes at each other. Tho dim of sight, Mike was not fully blind. Almost from the first, her knew the score.

“My dear,” Mike cautioned his wife mildly, “you’ve got to be careful.”

~ BULLETS ENDED MIKE’S WARNINGS ~

Mike’s last warning was delivered the morning of Dec. 20, 1927.

At noon an ambulance stood in front of the McClavey house on Avery st. Police crowded thru the front door and found Alma leaning over her husband, lying on the floor of his bedroom. McClavey had a bullet thru his heart and the ambulance took away a dead man.

“Oh, who could have shot my poor husband!” screamed Alma. Calmer at the police station, Mrs. McClavey said:

“I haven’t the slightest idea who killed Mike. I was in another room and I heard three shots. When I got to Mike’s room, he was on the floor. No one else was there. I didn’t see anyone.”

“Where was Miller?” the police wanted to know. That the distracted widow couldn’t tell.

“He seems to have vanished,” she said.

The police were not in the least impressed by her story. They recalled that this woman had dispatched a husband with a pistol in Little Rock. However, Alma was not detained.

Police began a quiet investigation. They found witnesses who knew Alma’s association with her boarder and of Mike’s mild protests.

Miller, according to these witnesses, had boasted that he would kill McClavey “if the old fool ever tries to bust up things between me and Alma.”

There were those who said that shortly before McClavey’s sudden death Alma had given her boarder a present – a gun. There were others who said that Miller hadn’t “vanished” as Alma had suggested.

The police watched Alma in the hope of getting a clue to Miller’s whereabouts. Sure enough, the watchers were rewarded and Miller was soon in police hands.

A Shelby county grand jury indicted Miller for McClavey’s murder. Alma was named as an accessory before the fact, virtually a co-defendant equally responsible with Miller.

The trial of the pair was scheduled before Judge Tom Harsh in second criminal court.

State’s Attorney Tyler McClain was to present the case and his reputation was that of “the most hard-boiled prosecutor in Tennessee.”

• • •


The trial started in the spring of 1928, and Chief Inspector of Detectives W. T. Griffin was the first to offer evidence that Alma encouraged Miller to rid her of McClavey, and that Miller had carried out her wishes.

This Alma stoutly denied from the stand.

“Mike made a lady of me!” Alma shrieked “By God he did! I worshipped him. He found me in a house of shame. He knew what I was, but he loved me. He drank, but he was good and kind and I loved him.”

Alma’s protests of innocence were so loud that attendants were instructed to close doors in the courtroom.

“Look at me!” Alma raved. “Look at me good. Can’t you see I’ve paid? I’m only 29 – I look 50. I’m no longer pretty. The police are down on me. That’s why I’m here. I know I used to be bad, but I’ve been good ever since the day Mike took me out of that house!”

Miller was as silent in the courtroom, as Alma was loud. He did not take the stand, an omission which made Alma bitter toward him. She felt he should have spoken out for her.

In a vitriolic summation, State’s Attorney McClain paid less attention to Miller than he did to Alma. He described her as “Memphis’ meanest woman, unfit for the companionship of mongrel dogs.” Her “degradation was at its lowest,” McClain told the jury, when she “plotted her husband’s murder, supplied the pistol, and repaid with death the kindly man who took her out of a bawdy house and gave her a decent home.”

The jury quite agreed with the prosecutor. They found both Miller and Alma guilty. As an accessory. Alma was sentenced to 15 [?; illegible] years imprisonment in the state prison at Nashville. As a second-degree murderer. Miller was sentenced to 15 years in the same prison.

Alma hugged her weeping mother, then shouted her defiance to the courtroom, “I’ll be back!”

Life in prison was hard for Alma, but it had romantic moments.

Alma was employed in a prison workroom and there she met and fell in love with a fellow prisoner, William Theede. Bill was doing time for the murder of a 15-year-old boy killed during a grocery store holdup in 1921.

“I got a 21-year sentence,” whispered Bill to Alma. “But with time off for good behavior I ought to be getting out of here about the same time you do. I’ll meet you on the outside.”

When Alma had served about four and one-half years of her 10-years sentence she was parroted in the care of the Rev. Ben Cox, a Baptist minister. Theede was paroled a few months later. With the state’s permission these two killers were married in 1933 at Hernando, Miss.

• • •

Prison had given Alma a kind of claustrophobia. Or let’s be generous about it and say she wanted to get away from the old associates and the sordid temptations of Memphis. Anyway, with money her mother had saved for her, Alma made a down payment on seven acres of land and a three-room shanty at Grant’s Corners at the edge of town.

~ ALMA’S FOURTH HUSBAND LIVED IN DIRT AND FEAR ~

There Theede and her mother moved with her, and to make a living they raised chickens and pigs.

During the next three years, police bothered Alma only once. Then they charged her with petty theft. Fearing return to prison as a parole violator, Alma talked fast. The police dropped the charge and Gov. Henry Horton gave her a full pardon.

Alma, by this time, had lost all of her beauty. She was slight, wisp, and gray-haired, and it may be that her husband’s ardor failed. In 1936, Theede sued for divorce, declaring that Alma had threatened to kill him. Even if he were not afraid of his wife, said Bill, he wouldn’t want to live with her any longer.

“Living with Alma, and her mother is like living in a pigsty. They keep fout parts, two dogs, and a cat. They even let the chickens and pigs run thru the house.”

Theede’s divorce turned out to be a bad idea. He got it readily enough, but Memphis newspapers printed his and Alma’s pictures. Promptly, they were identified by Mrs. George Calhoun as the couple who had stolen linen, and silver from her home not long before, from her home not long before. Alma and Theede were tried, convicted, and given short sentences as the Shelby county penal farm.

When Theede was turned loose he disappeared. Alma went back to her Grant’s Corners shanty, returning to her mother and their menagerie.

There followed long years of sordid poverty,  and grinding hard work. Alma struggled to keep up the payments on her little acreage and to support her mother and herself. Only once during this period did she get into trouble. She stole a cow and served 90 days in the workhouse.

The cow, Alma explained was badly needed for “the babies.” The court, lacking curiosity, didn’t ask about the babies. Just the cow concerned the judge. But Mrs. Alice Saxby, a Shelby county probation officer, went to the farm to see the babies. Mrs. Saxby found three children, including one 22-month infant whom she identified by name.

“This baby,” Mrs. Saxby later testified in probate court, “was born at St. Joseph’s hospital in Memphis. The hospital has a record of its footprints. The mother, of Forest City, Ark., girl, gave the baby away because it was illegitimate. And Vance Avenue Alma got it!”

With the police frowning on Alma, of course the babies were taken from Mrs. Herrin, who was caring for them while Alma was in the workhouse.

It was in 1946 that Alma took her fifth husband. Ed Gill, a 62-year-old planning mill sawyer, married her and moved into the shack with Mrs. Herrin, the pigs and Alma’s other pets.

Three years later Sheriff Thompson knocked on her door.

“C’mon,” he said. “Your husband’s been killed.”

“Dead?” Alma showed surprise. Then she shrugged her shoulders. “He’s been terrible drunk for weeks. How’d he die?”

“You got a .38 caliber pistol, Alma?” asked the sheriff, brushing aside her question.

“Yeah,” but I didn’t shoot Ed. Honest I didn’t”

Her 76-year-old mother moved into the situation then, screaming, “The gal’s tellin’ the truth. Ed came home last night awful drunk. Then he want out again. But Alma slept right here in her bed.”

Alma produced her pistol and was taken off to jail.

• • •

Ballistics experts soon showed Gill was killed by a bullet fired from his wife’s gun. Alma changed her story.

“Saturday night,” she said, we visited some friends and drove home in the truck. Ed had been drinkin’ all day and we were arguin’ as usual about his wantin’ to leave me.

 “He told me to stop the truck. Then he reached in a glove compartment, unwrapped a pistol and loaded it. We both got out and began scufflin’ over the gun. As we scuffled, Ed slipped. The pistol went off and Ed slumped to the ground.”

~ HOW DID LITTLE ALMA GRAPPLE WITH BIG ED? ~

In terror of the police and “big trouble,” said Alma, she drove away leaving Ed lying in the middle of the dark street.

For four days investigators worked. The technical evidence they discovered did not corroborate Alma’s story.

Alma, explaining the killing in detail, said she jumped from the right door of the truck and Ed from the left. But there were neighbors who knew that the left door of Alma’s old truck was jammed so tight she hadn’t been able to open it for months.

Furthermore, although Alma and her mother both said Gill had been drinking for a week, his employers at the screen door mill where he worked for 10 years said, “We have never known Ed to drink steadily.

Police were puzzled about how Alma, who stood only 5 feet 2 ½ inches and weighed only 101 pounds could grapple at all with Gill, who stoof 6 feet 1 and weighed nearly 200 pounds.

In general sessions court for arraignment, the gnarled, prematurely aged slattern was philosophical and at times there appeared the flippancy of her long gone strolling days on Memphis streets.

 “I’m no more afraid of this trial than I am of God,” said Alma. “Ed didn’t marry me blindfolded. I laid my cards on the table. No woman in Memphis has tried harder to be law-abidin’ than me. the trouble is when you try to be upstandin’ other women won’t let you. And, of course, the police always hound you.”

Judge Francis Holmes had come up in the world even as Alma had fallen. He was the man who had prosecuted her for the cow theft. Now, as judge, he presided at her arraignment.

Alma greeted him breezily with a wave of the hand and said, “Hi, Judge!”

Indicted shortly thereafter by the Shelby county grand jury, Alma commented, “I’ll go free if I’m tried just for the slaying of Gill. But how can I tell if Judge Holmes won’t remember the cow stealing and the killing of Mike McClavey?”

Alma must have decided that the risk of trial was too great, for last March [1949] Judge Holmes accepted her plea of guilty to second degree murder. State’s Attorney John Heiskell, his heart touched by this miserable target of poverty, asked for a sentence no longer than 10 years.

Muttering “the whole world is against me,” Alma, who may, or may not, have had a hand in the death of three husbands out of five, was led away. This time she did not say she would be back.

For a time Mrs. Herrin, for whose keep Vance Avenue Alma had slaved so long, had only the parrots, a Pekinese dog and a mongrel to share her shanty. Then a new family moved into the Grant’s Corners house.

Recent research failed to determine what had become of Alma’s mother. Perhaps nobody cares in a world of tangled big affairs.

[Ruth Reynolds, “Three of Five Mates Of Vance Avenue Alma Meet Violent Deaths; Justice is Aroused to Pity by Miserable Target of Poverty,” The Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.), Jul. 3, 1949, p. 13]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 3): Memphis, Tenn. (AP) – A woman who served prison terms in the slaying of two of her six husbands, and was freed on a “justifiable homicide” finding in the death of a third, died of natural causes Thursday. Alma Theede, 75, known as “Vance Avenue Alma” in her younger days, died at Baptist Hospital.

At 17 Alma married gambler Halprin Cox, but soon divorced him and eloped with Roy Calvert, a young railroader. She first made headlines in 1919 on charges of killing Calvert. She contended that it was self-defense and the jury ruled “justifiable homicide.”

She returned to Memphis and remarried Cox. He was killed in an auto accident in which she was not involved.

In 1926 the two-time widow married Michael McClavey, prosperous contractor, and opened a boarding house. In December 1927 she and Charles Miller were charged in the pistol slaying of McClavey. Miller, a 31-year-old former jockey and a roomer at her home, was convicted of second degree murder and served 15 years.

She was convicted of being an accessory before the fact and sentenced to 10 years. Paroled in 1931, Alma married William Theede, a convicted murderer whom she had met prison.

She and Theede lived quietly just outside of Memphis for several years, until she sued for divorce. In 1946 Alma married Ed Gill, two years later Gill’s body was found on a lonely road. His widow pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years.

She was paroled again in 1955. Shortly after her release from prison she married again. That union ended in divorce and she reverted to the use of her fourth husband’s name.

[“Woman Who Killed Two Husbands Dies,” The Press-Courier (Oxnard, Ca.), Oct. 16, 1970, p. 7]

[Image is taken from a long 1949 article: Ruth Reynolds, “Three of Five Mates Of Vance Avenue Alma Meet Violent Deaths; Justice is Aroused to Pity by Miserable Target of Poverty,” The Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.), Jul. 3, 1949, p. 13]

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FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): Memphis, Tenn. (AP) – A woman who served prison terms in the slaying of two of her six husbands, and was freed on a “justifiable homicide” finding in the death of a third, died of natural causes Thursday. Alma Theede, 75, known as “Vance Avenue Alma” in her younger days, died at Baptist Hospital.

At 17 Alma married gambler Halprin Cox, but soon divorced him and eloped with Roy Calvert, a young railroader. She first made headlines in 1919 on charges of killing Calvert. She contended that it was self-defense and the jury ruled “justifiable homicide.”

She returned to Memphis and remarried Cox. He was killed in an auto accident in which she was not involved.

In 1926 the two-time widow married Michael McClavey, prosperous contractor, and opened a boarding house. In December 1927 she and Charles Miller were charged in the pistol slaying of McClavey. Miller, a 31-year-old former jockey and a roomer at her home, was convicted of second degree murder and served 15 years.

She was convicted of being an accessory before the fact and sentenced to 10 years. Paroled in 1931, Alma married William Theede, a convicted murderer whom she had met prison.

She and Theede lived quietly just outside of Memphis for several years, until she sued for divorce. In 1946 Alma married Ed Gill, two years later Gill’s body was found on a lonely road. His widow pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years.

She was paroled again in 1955. Shortly after her release from prison she married again. That union ended in divorce and she reverted to the use of her fourth husband’s name.

[“Woman Who Killed Two Husbands Dies,” The Press-Courier (Oxnard, Ca.), Oct. 16, 1970, p. 7]

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For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.

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