On This Day in 1947 – Louise Peete, the ‘Belle of Bienville.’

A free chapter from my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California.’

“I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a long time.” – Louise Peete minutes before she died.

   Bienville Parish is in north-western Louisiana and its county seat is familiar from previous chapters, Arcadia. Bienville was the site of the ambush that killed Bonnie & Clyde on May 23 1934. Two of the ambush party, Henderson Jordan and Prentiss Oakley, served as Bienville Parish Sheriff, Jordan from 1932 to 1940 and Oakley from 1940 until 1952. It was also once home to Louise Peete, one of California’s most notorious and rarest murderers.

   Bienville might be Cajun French for ‘good town’ or ‘good place’ but there was nothing good about ‘Lethal Louise.’ A petty thief, prostitute and small-time con-artist, she eventually turned her hand to serial murder. She was one of California’s original black widows. Born Lofie Louise Preslar on 20 September 1880 in Bienville, Louisiana she was one of only four women to enter California’s gas chamber.

   Portraying herself as a delicate and quiet soul who avoided confrontation, the archetypal Southern Belle when that was still fashionable, Peete was plausible, convincing and remorseless, using her manners and charm to manipulate and lure potential victims. She was actually a calculating, cold-blooded killer, thief, fraudster and sociopath who murdered for money.

   By her own death on 11 April 1947 she had murdered at least twice and was suspected of at least two more. Two of her several husbands had definitely taken their own lives and so had another (at least according to her). The truth would likely have added at least one and possibly three to her list of known victims. Her dislike of confrontation was entirely genuine, usually because it involved being caught stealing or defrauding people. Had she hanged for her first murder it might (and probably would) have saved several lives.

   One of the sadder things about Peete was her having no real need to what she did. She was from a prosperous background, the daughter of a newspaper proprietor. She certainly didn’t endure the kind of desperate circumstances that might readily explain her crimes. According to ‘Women Who Kill Men: California Courts, Gender and the Press’ she once remarked that she “Came from cultured, educated people. My parents were not delinquents, and did not raise delinquent children.” Many who met her and survived might have disagreed. 

   From her mid-teens she lied, cheated, stole and eventually killed to get what she wanted. Aged only fifteen she had to leave the expensive boarding school her parents had sent her to. Repeated lying and regular petty thefts from students and teachers alike forced her departure. In those less liberated times serial promiscuity did her no favors, either. Expensive, respectable boarding schools usually remove students regarded as petty crooks and harlots. The incident caused her family no small embarrassment. It was the first of many.

   The idea of working or securing a sufficiently prosperous husband, fashionable though that might have been in the South, never seemed to occur to her. If it had she might have been a garden-variety gold-digger rather than a serial murderer. Her seeming inability to feel remorse for her actions and their consequences paved her path to the gas chamber. Peete was as culpable in her own death as those of her victims.

   Her first marriage was to travelling salesman Henry Bosley in 1903. He was away frequently on business and, being a travelling salesman, was not a high earner. Certainly not high enough earner for his new wife at any rate. After several years of Bosley scratching an honest living the marriage came to a tragic end. In 1906 Bosley returned home to find Louise in bed with another man, his business trips offering ample opportunities for infidelity.

   Distraught at her actions, Henry Bosley took his own life. It would be unfair to call him her first victim. His passing was by his own hand, not hers, and she hadn’t encouraged or manipulated him into doing so. He was however the first of several people who died after having met her. He would not be the last by any means.

   Another relocation was called for, this time to Shreveport, Louisiana. For the next few years the educated, refined Peete supported herself as an expensive, high-class prostitute. A string of wealthy and outwardly-respectable gentlemen became her clients and supported her lifestyle. They were also her victims. Peete stole from them whenever opportunity allowed knowing full well they dare not report the thefts.

   After a few years down South she decided to find another hunting ground. Shreveport had been a gold mine and been played out like one. Even calling herself ‘Louise Gould’ hadn’t kept her from achieving notoriety around Shreveport. Southern high society was and remains a small world and word eventually got around. Once widely known as a prostitute and sneak thief it was time to relocate again.

   In 1911 she headed for the high society of Boston, Massachusetts. Boston’s wealthy, outwardly-respectable gentlemen were often as privately-respectable as Shreveport’s and equally vulnerable to seduction, theft and blackmail. Now claiming to be heiress ‘R.H. Rosley’ from Dallas, Texas, she had added a hard-luck story to her arsenal. She claimed to have been confined to a convent before fleeing north.

   That would have been news to her family if Louise still had any contact with them, but their absence only made her latest con routine even easier. Discarding her old life as an expensive prostitute she opted for fraud and petty theft instead. Reasoning that society families prefer to avoid the embarrassment of pressing charges, she had found a fresh hunting ground. Boarding school and Shreveport had done nothing to curb her criminal tendencies, merely taught her how to avoid punishment.

   Several of Boston’s society families took an interest in her and her cleverly-crafted tale of woe soon saw her taken in by one. She lost no time in doing the same. Like any major city Boston had plenty of high-end stores catering to wealthy and exclusive clients. It wasn’t long before they were catering to Peete who began charging her purchases to the family accounts.

   Shrewdly she was banking on their being more concerned with avoiding embarrassment and the society pages of Boston’s newspapers. Again she was right. When she was finally exposed it was privately, not in public. To avoid embarrassment the family and the Boston police simply let her leave town for a fresh start in a new location. Waco, Texas would be next on her itinerary. So too would oil millionaire Joseph Appel.

   Appel was wealthy and available, natural prey for someone like Peete. According to Louise he was also an attempted rapist and so she shot him in self-defense only a week after they had met. Southern morals had an unwritten rule regarding a lady’s right to preserve her honor. With no reason to disbelieve her version of events they released her. Relocating again, the former ‘Dallas heiress’ now actually arrived in Dallas in 1913.

   The result would be another death. Harry Faurote was her second husband and the second to take his own life. The couple had been married less than a year. A clerk at the upper-class St. George Hotel, Faurote came under suspicion when over $20,000 of jewelry vanished from the hotel’s safe. Louse had done the stealing and whether Faurote helped her was never proved. Faurote, however, was blamed and then fired.

   Despairing at his ruined reputation, Faurote was also destroyed by Louise’s serial infidelity and shot himself. At least that was the generally-accepted version. It is quite likely that Louise knew Faurote was the only person who could convict her and simply tied up a loose end. For so serious a theft she knew the Texas penal system was both her likely destination and an extremely unpleasant place to be. Her subsequent record strongly suggests killing to avoid detection was not beyond her.

   Denver, Colorado was her next stop. There Lofie Louise Preslar and her many aliases finally became Louise Peete, for once legally. Her short-lived marriage to salesman Richard Peete was punctuated by constant arguments and the birth of her only known child, daughter Frances Ann. After marrying in 1916 the couple constantly argued and by 1920 the marriage was over. Years later Richard Peete probably heard about his ex-wife’s career and downfall. It could have been worse. At least he escaped alive.

   Few of her male associates did and Jacob Denton was not one of them. From Denver she moved to Los Angeles leaving her daughter and ex-husband behind. Los Angeles was home to retired (and very wealthy) mining engineer Denton. Denton had made a considerable fortune in the mining business and Louise doubtless knew it. Before long they would be friends although it was never confirmed that they were lovers. It made no difference to Louise, Jacob Denton was prey worth catching. He was also worth murdering.

   In May of 1920 she moved into Denton’s luxurious mansion on Wilshire Boulevard, an expensive area inhabited only by the wealthy. Denton, hoping to rent out the property while he visited Denver on business, mysteriously rented it to her for only $75 a week, far below the $350 he originally wanted. At the beginning of June he vanished. Louise, described variously as his tenant, housekeeper and girlfriend, had only been there a week.

   She immediately began taking advantage, making free with his money. Only three days after his disappearance she forged Denton’s signature, withdrew $300 from his bank and accessed his safe deposit box. Part of the $300 probably paid the gardener who delivered a large quantity of earth not to the garden, but to the basement. Louise had told him she was growing mushrooms.

   Her accessing the box caused problems, especially when a bank official questioned the signature. Her explanation was at best weak, that Denton had been attacked by a mysterious woman who cut off his signing arm with a sword. For so practised a liar this was out of character, perhaps she made it up on the spur of the moment not expecting to be questioned. She had got away with too much for too long and probably grew complacent.

   If the initial lie was a bad one giving several different versions to different people was even worse. What precisely had happened to him, his friends wondered. Was he really recuperating and too ashamed to go out in public as Louise claimed? Or was there some far darker reason they were unaware of? Denton’s teenage daughter went further than asking questions. Actively suspicious, she hired a lawyer to uncover the truth.

   Again Peete performed badly under questioning and the lawyer was entirely unconvinced. In the meantime Peete began spending Denton’s money, driving his car, pawning his jewelry and belongings and renting out rooms in the mansion. Naturally her unsuspecting tenants paid her the rent money.

   Their taking her at face value would not last much longer, especially when she began having checks from Denton’s rental properties in Arizona made out to her. The Arizona tenants also grew suspicious and Peete fled. Renting out Denton’s property she returned to Denver, Richard Peete and Frances May. It was her biggest blunder.

   Denton’s daughter lost no time in having the mansion searched including the basement, site of Peete’s supposed mushroom-growing. Inside a wooden cubicle investigators found earth but no mushrooms. They also found the decomposing corpse of Jacob Denton with his supposedly-missing arm still very much attached. He had been shot in the head and strangled, his corpse wrapped in a quilt and stuffed into the box. Louise Peete was now wanted on suspicion of murder and before long she faced her accusers.

   Denver police had no difficulty finding her. They had even less trouble dismissing her tales of Denton’s missing arm or that he died because of a sword-wielding stranger. The fact that his arm was still attached and no attack was ever reported for once made Peete the easy prey. Found in Denver it took little time to arrange her return. The hunter had become the hunted. The deceiver was about to be deceived.

   She foolishly agreed to return to California to give further testimony. It was purely a formality, just a few small questions according to Los Angeles District Attorney Woolvine’s assistant when he visited her in Denver. On her return she was almost immediately arrested. She had been lured back inside Californian jurisdiction and possibly Hangman’s Hall.

   Her first (but not last) murder trial in California was a media sensation. Her lurid past was recounted in reams of equally lurid newsprint beginning on 21 January 1921 and lasting almost a month. Thousands of spectators and hundreds of reporters crowded the Hall of Justice throughout, especially when the verdict was delivered on 17 February; Guilty as charged.

   The sentence was comparatively lenient. California was never shy about hanging murderers, but women tended to be exceptions to the rule. Superior Court Judge Frank Willis handed down life imprisonment. He declined to send her to the gallows as the prosecution case was largely circumstantial and the state had a long tradition of not executing women. It may have been better if he had condemned her instead.

   Richard Peete was distraught. Despite their history he always firmly asserted his wife’s innocence even after she told him to divorce her and free himself to begin a new life. When she abruptly cut off contact after he refused it was too much. Depressed and distraught, Richard Peete was in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona when he shot himself in 1924.

   His wife enjoyed a brief return to fame when she involved herself in the unsolved death of movie star William Desmond Taylor. Taylor’s death remains unsolved to this day. His shooting in 1922 spawned any number of conspiracy theories. Louise Peete’s drew the attention of reporters when she claimed Taylor was murdered for knowing too much about the death of Jacob Denton.

   According to her Denton had been supplying Taylor with illegal narcotics and Taylor had been dealing them to his fellow actors. Like most of the theories about Taylor’s death it lacked credence and was quickly dismissed. Louise, meanwhile, was still asserting her innocence to no effect.

   To be fair to Peete she for once had a perfect alibi. She was in prison at San Quentin then the women’s prison at Tehachapi. The eighteen years at Tehachapi were as a model prisoner with a clean record. While incarcerated she became firm friends with Clara Phillips, there for murdering her husband’s lover with a hammer. In 1939 she left Tehachapi on parole, Phillips having been paroled in 1935. She soon returned to her crooked ways costing both her and Margaret Logan her life.

   During her imprisonment two women in particular had lobbied hard for her release, both of whom died after she moved in with them. Jessie Marcy was recorded as dying of natural causes. Peete’s probation officer Emily Latham then took her in before dying from a heart attack in 1943. Her place as Louise’s benefactor was taken by Arthur and Margaret Logan.

   Many might think Louise already deserved to die. Margaret Logan certainly did not. After Emily Latham died the Logans took Peete into their comfortable Pacific Palisades home, believing that everybody can redeem themselves given the right encouragement. It was a fatal misjudgement.

   The Logans were outstandingly kind, even caring for daughter Frances after Richard Peete’s untimely death. Moving in in late-April 1943 Peete also married banker Lee Borden Judson who had no idea she was a convicted murderer. It was her last marriage and Margaret Logan her last victim.

   Peete almost immediately began a whispering campaign against Arthur Logan who suffered from dementia. Only a month after Peete arrived Margaret Logan suddenly vanished. Within days Arthur was committed to the Patton State Hospital, Peete claiming he was violent and unmanageable.

   For six months the Judsons occupied the Logan home. By Arthur’s death in December 1944 the Judsons lived comfortably although Lee Judson received no proper answer to his questions about Margaret Logan’s disappearance. He still had no idea he had married a murderer or that Margaret Logan was buried on the property.

   His domestic bliss was about to be shattered. When the bank discovered checks forged in Margaret’s name and dated after her disappearance police quickly visited. Knowing Louise’s record they searched the property, finding Margaret Logan buried under an avocado tree in the garden. ‘Lethal Louise’ had murdered again only weeks after serving eighteen years for her previous murder. She was immediately arrested and this time California’s courts showed no mercy.

   The police also disbelieved her story. Margaret was shot in the back of the head after suffering a fractured skull, a death very similar to Jacob Denton’s in 1920. Louise blamed the murder on Arthur’s alleged violence, claiming she buried Margaret out of fear of Arthur. Margaret’s death, she claimed, was nothing to do with her.

   Another death quickly followed her arrest. Arrested and charged with murder Lee Judson’s world collapsed around him. His new wife had murdered at least twice, Judson himself had been arrested for a crime he nothing about and Louise was obviously guilty. The shame and strain were too much. When charges were dropped on 11 January 1945 he lasted only another day. On 12 January he jumped off the Spring Arcade building in Los Angeles. Widowed yet again, Peete had little time to grieve.

   Her final murder trial, her third after Joe Appel and Jacob Denton, began on April 23 1945. It was another media frenzy despite Hitler’s suicide only days before. The result was scarcely doubted. Prosecutors claimed she killed Margaret Logan after being caught for forging Logan’s checks. A jury of eleven women and one man convicted her on May 31 1945. The date was a bad omen for her.

   On 1 June 1945, exactly one year after Logan’s murder, Superior Court Judge Harold Landreth condemned her. Barring legal miracles or Governor’s clemency (neither was likely under the circumstances) she would visit San Quentin’s gas chamber. Condemned Row being men-only, female condemned waited at female prisons. Peete returned to her old abode, Tehachapi.

   Her stay was brief. Her court-appointed lawyers had a hopeless task despite their very best efforts, appeals courts ruling her trial fair and conviction just. Her previous record did her no favors. Having received mercy only to kill again also told against her. By Spring 1947 all was lost.

   A car arrived at Tehachapi on Thursday 10 April 1947 taking her to San Quentin’s ready room. Once secured only steps from the gas chamber Warden Duffy visited. She was the second woman he executed and familiarity made it no easier. She slept fitfully until she was woken at 5:30am. Black Friday had dawned again.

   Duffy visited again before she died. She asked him what to wear, Duffy suggesting a plain brown dress. California’s male condemned usually had no choice of wardrobe but, women being a rarity, they got to choose. Louise would die in her own clothes, not prison-issue denim shirt and blue jeans.

   The final chat was both brief and unexpectedly profound. After suggesting the dress the pair talked quietly as the clock ticked down. After a brief delay they both knew the courts had finished with her and the Governor was not going to call. He asked her one final question minutes before the end. “Are you ready?”

“I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a long time.”

   The walk was brief and the straps and stethoscope quickly secured. As the guards left the chamber one of them offered the now-traditional farewell. “Goodbye, good luck. Breathe deep and don’t fight the gas.” With the door sealed and everything ready the clock struck half-past the hour. Seconds later she looked through one of the observation windows and gave Duffy a slight hand motion. He could read her lips as she spoke.

“Let’s go.”

   Duffy instantly complied, silently nodding to the executioner. A sudden pull of the lever mixed cyanide eggs with acid and Louise Peete died. Thirteen minutes after the lever was jerked the ‘Belle of Bienville’ was officially no more. Duffy confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis before leaving the chamber and entering the room filled with over seventy witnesses.

“That’s all, gentlemen. Please leave.”

   It was 10:43am. The witnesses left and Louise was left to steep in the lethal fumes. Removed that afternoon, her clothes were burned and the chamber decontaminated. She was interred quietly at the Angelus-Roseville Cemetery in an unmarked grave. She was sixty-six years old. 

   By her death in 1947 Joseph Appel, Harry Faurote, Jacob Denton, Richard Peete, Lee Judson and Margaret Logan had all died as a result of knowing the ‘Belle of Bienville.’ Denton, Logan and probably Faurote had died directly at her hand. Their deaths were mourned and their graves were eventually marked but hers was not. Decades later the Angelus-Roseville Cemetery would be used as a location for popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

   Nearby lies Mabel Monahan from Burbank. An elderly widow, she was murdered in her home on 9 March 1953 by Barbara Graham, Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins. Graham would be California’s third woman in the gas chamber only hours before Santo and Perkins paid their debt. Just as Monahan’s resting place became a filming location Graham’s life and death would inspire ‘I Want to Live!,’ the movie that won Susan Hayward an Academy Award in 1958. Barbara Graham was not alive to see it.

Graham is the subject of the next chapter in ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California’ available in book stores and online from May 24..

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