Saturday, August 31, 2019

Hattie Woolsteen.

The body of a man was found in the charred ruins of a barn that burned about a mile west of Compton, California, the morning of October 7, 1887. The man’s face was burned beyond recognition, but a bullet hole through his right temple indicated that the fire had been deliberately set to cover up a murder.

The case was handed over the Los Angeles Police Chief Darcy who set out to identify the victim. In the rubble, investigators found some cloth from the man’s suit and some sleeve buttons near the body. Dr. Charles N. Harlan, a Los Angeles dentist, had been missing for several days and his tailor recognized the fabric and buttons from a suit he had made for Harlan. Chief Darcy ordered the body exhumed, and the skull was shown to Harlan’s dentist who was able to identify his dental work. The victim was Dr. Harlan.

“Doc” Harlan was also a well-known Los Angles sporting man and gambler who allegedly ran a poker game with notorious Denver confidence man “Doc” Bagg. On the Saturday night before his disappearance, Harlan had won a gold watch worth $400 from an unidentified well-borer who became an early murder suspect.

The burned barn had belonged to Mrs. J. S. Barbey who had recently died; both her house and barn had been empty for at least six weeks. Police Sergeant Jefferies went to work trying to determine how the Los Angles dentist had ended up in a barn eleven miles away. He canvassed livery stables in Los Angles and found that Harlan had not rented a vehicle, but Hattie Woolsteen, known to associate with Harlan, had rented a buggy the night of the fire and had not returned it until the following morning. Jefferies brought her in for questioning. 

Hattie Woolsteen, who the Los Angles Daily Herald described as, “a tall blonde young lady with a candid and honest face, rather too freckled maybe but by no means, unprepossing” lived in Los Angeles with her sister Minnie. They had traveled west together from Peoria, Illinois. Chief Darcy brought Hattie in for questioning. After several hours he let her go, only to change his mind sometime after midnight the same day and bring her in again.

Hattie was held in Chief Darcy’s office, tightly guarded and questioned severely throughout the day. At some point, Hattie obtained a lawyer who demanded that the chief ether produce a writ of habeas corpus or release her. That afternoon Darcy obtained a warrant and arrested Hattie Woolsteen for the murder of Dr. Harlan.

Throughout this period, Chief Darcy refused to say anything to the press regarding the murder or Woolsteen’s arrest. Frustrated reporters finally got a statement from Sergeant Jefferies who had been present for the questioning. He said that Hattie admitted she had taken a drive with “her treacherous tooth-pulling lover.” She reproached him for his duplicity; he had promised marriage and seduced her under the assumption that they were engaged. He was unwilling to fulfill his promise, and she demanded he act like a man. “Hattie, I have acted badly,” he told her, “I am married, but I will now suffer the punishment of my sin. I die now!” He then took out a revolver and shot himself in the head. Knowing she would be charged if found with the body, Hattie took it to Mrs. Barbey’s barn, which she knew to be empty, then set the barn on fire. She said she had buried the pistol and Harlan’s watch. Chief Darcy forced her to show him where they were buried. They drove to the spot and there, under two inches of dirt, wrapped in a stocking were the revolver and watch.

According to Jefferies, Hattie changed her story several hours later. It was the same up to the point where Harlan told her he was married, now Hattie said she took a revolver from the folds of her dress and shot Harlan in the head. Allegedly, she asked Sergeant Jefferies which story was likely to be most effective in court. He told her to tell the truth, and she would probably go scot-free.

After being arraigned for murder, Hattie was taken back to Chief Darcy’s office where she wanted to change her clothes before she was taken to a jail cell. When no one was looking, she took a vial of chloroform from her stocking and drank it. She probably would have died there, but her sister saw that she was unwell and alerted the police. They rushed her to a doctor who saved her life by pumping her stomach.

At her trial the following December, Hattie Woolsteen told a third story of Dr. Harlan’s death. On the witness stand, she said that she had first met Dr. Harlan when she went to his office to have a tooth extracted. Later, she met him again on the street and he drove her home in his buggy. He began calling on her and soon after they were engaged to be married.

She said that she had never voluntarily been “criminally intimate” with Harlan, but once when she was having dental work done, he gave her a preparation that made her unconscious. When she woke, she was lying on a sofa, feeling very bad. She had pains, and when she was home, she saw that her clothes had been soiled; she believed the doctor had taken undue liberties while she was unconscious.

A few days later she saw him riding with another woman; she confronted him, and he admitted that the woman was his wife. When Hattie began to cry, he said he was going to divorce his wife and marry her. After this Hattie purchased the chloroform and revolver intending to kill herself. 

On October 6, he asked her to go for a drive, she agreed but said it would be the last time. They went to rent a buggy, but there were some men there that Harlan did not want to see, so he told Hattie to rent the buggy. They drove out to Compton, and when they got to Barbey’s barn he forced her out of the buggy and into the barn. He pushed her down on the hay and threw himself on her. Hattie pulled out the revolver and pointed it at her own heart, saying she would die before submitting any more such treatment. Harlan grabbed the gun and in the struggle that followed the gun went off shooting Harlan in the head. When she realized that Harlan was dead, she left quickly, unaware that the barn was on fire.

In his closing arguments, Hattie’s attorney, Judge C. C. Stephens, stressed the mistreatment Hattie had received from Chief Darcy whom he described as a “low-browed, perjured ruffian” and a “double-eyed scoundrel.” The confession made in his custody had been dragged out of Hattie under duress; she had been terrified by the treatment she received from him.

In the end, there was very little physical evidence against Hattie Woolsteen, and no way to contradict her version of events. The jury acquitted her after only twelve minutes of deliberation. She said she would remain in Los Angles to live down the slanders uttered against her, and possibly bring charges against Chief Darcy for his outrageous treatment of her.

“An Awful Atonement,” Daily Inter Ocean, October 16, 1887.
“The Argument,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, April 14, 1888.
“Crimimalties,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, October 14, 1887.
“Criminalities,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, October 13, 1887.
“Guilty of Willful MUrder,” Weekly Bee, October 13, 1887.
“Hattie Woolssteen's Case,” Fresno Morning Republican, December 6, 1887.
 Defenders and offenders (New York: Buchner & Co, 1888.)
“Hattie's Story,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, April 13, 1888.
“The Los Angeles Sensation,” San Francisco Bulletin, October 17, 1887.
“A Mysterious Crime,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 9, 1887.
“News Article,” Sacramento Daily Union, April 17, 1888.
“On the Stand,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, November 2, 1887.
“Pacific Coast Items,” San Francisco Bulletin, April 16, 1888.
“Tale of Horror,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, October 16, 1887.


Graham Clayton says:
September 13, 2019 at 6:32 AM

Who set fire to the barn?

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