Trunk of Emma LeDoux
This trunk was used by Emma LeDoux in her attempt to dispose of the body of her third husband, Albert N. McVicker, in Stockton in March 1906.
LeDoux was found guilty of first degree murder and became the first woman in California to be sentenced to death.
The trunk is currently on display in the Storefronts Gallery, where you can find recreated interiors of businesses from a turn-of-the-century California town.
Pack Up Your Troubles
One of Stockton’s most intriguing court cases took place just over 100 years ago, but it had all the elements that make today’s cable news networks salivate: sex, drugs and murder.
Our tale begins on Saturday evening, March 24, 1906 at Stockton’s Southern Pacific Depot. Earlier that afternoon an express-man had delivered a large trunk to the station for shipment on the 4:00 PM to San Francisco. However, the trunk bore no baggage tags and was left at the station when the train departed.
Later that evening the station’s employees became suspicious when they traced the peculiar odor that was permeating the baggage room to the unmarked trunk. Police were summoned and an officer arrived with both a search warrant and a chisel. He pried open the lock, lifted the lid and was met by the shoeless feet of a lifeless man.
The following morning the police began to run down their leads. The express-man told them that a woman had purchased the trunk from a local store on Saturday morning and had instructed him to deliver it to the California Hotel on the corner of Main and California Streets. She also told him to call for the trunk later that afternoon for delivery to the train station.
The California Hotel's landlady identified the deceased as Albert N. McVicar, who along with a woman she supposed was his wife, had checked into Room 97, on Friday, March 23.
Based upon photos of the suspect found in a valise left behind in the room, police wired a detailed description of "Mrs. McVicar" to all towns between Stockton and San Francisco.
On Monday morning a woman fitting the suspect’s description was arrested in Antioch and brought back to Stockton that afternoon. In route she indignantly informed the authorities that her name was not McVicar but LeDoux... Emma LeDoux.
The news of the grisly murder was the topic of conversation in Stockton. The city’s three daily newspapers had run the story with headlines, prose and photos that would make the editor of any supermarket check-out line tabloid proud. In addition, thousands of men, women and children had been allowed to parade past the autopsied remains of Mr. McVicar, whose body had been placed on public exhibition at the city morgue. Remember—this is long before radio, TV or the internet.
The alleged killer of poor Mr. McVicar was born Emma Cole and grew up around Jackson, California. She was first married in 1892 at the age of 16 to Charles Barrett but the couple divorced in 1898. She then married a local miner by the name of William S. Williams. They moved to Arizona where he died in June of 1902 at the age of 30. The circumstances surrounding his death were somewhat suspicious, but it was finally determined that he died of heart failure. The fact that he was heavily insured, however, was never in doubt.On September 1, 1902 — a little over two months after becoming a widow — Emma married Albert N. McVicar in Bisbee, Arizona. She received a life insurance settlement of nearly $10,000 and returned to California. Some accounts say with McVicar, others say without him.
She supported herself as a dressmaker and through "gentlemen friends." One such friend was Jean LeDoux, whom she married on August 26, 1905 in Woodland, California without the benefit of a divorce from Husband Number 3 — the late Mr. McVicar.
The Trial of Emma LeDoux
She might have remained the hot news item right up until the time of her trial — slated for May 22 — had it not been an event which took place two days after her April 16 arraignment. It is worth noting that it took the great San Francisco earthquake and fire to bump Emma from the front page! Not only did the Bay Area tragedy steal the headlines, but it also caused the dispersal of witnesses and the destruction of material evidence and the trial was postponed until June.
Emma’s defense team was headed by Charles H. Crocker, a Jackson attorney and friend of Emma’s family, but it was noted Stockton attorney Charles Fairall who provided the criminal defense muscle.
District Attorney Charles Norton and Assistant District Attorney George McNoble represented the people. Both were highly regarded in the legal community and each realized the importance of this trial. It was a heinous crime and come November's elections, a grateful public might see fit to bestow certain political rewards to those who helped make Emma pay her debt to society.
The presiding judge was the Hon. W. B. Nutter who reportedly spent months preparing for the case. He also was acutely aware of the trial's popularity and therefore he increased the number of chairs in his courtroom and provided special tables for the press.
The trial began on June 5. Fairall immediately presented a challenge to the entire panel of jurors, arguing that Sheriff Walter Sibley – whose deputies had summoned the prospective jurors –had already formed an opinion as to the defendant's guilt. However, the challenge was denied and the prosecution began its case.
The first group of witnesses served to connect Emma with the California Hotel, the trunk in which McVicar’s body was found, and the Southern Pacific Depot.
In addition, a salesman for Bruener's testified that McVicar and LeDoux had purchased some furniture the day before the murder and had asked that it be delivered to Jamestown in Tuolumne County. He then stated that Emma returned on the day of the murder and asked to have the furniture delivered to Jean LeDoux at Martel's Station, just west of Jackson in Amador County.
Next the prosecution sought to link Emma to the victim's death. Dr. John F. Dillon testified that he had sold morphine to Emma for stomach pains when she was in San Francisco on March 13. Dr. S.E. Latta, one of the doctor's who had autopsied McVicar, described the physiological effects of morphine poisoning and told how the victim's organs were shipped to San Francisco for chemical analysis. (It's nice to know that at least a portion of McVicar finally reached San Francisco.) The forensic chemist who performed the analysis, Professor Roy Rogers, testified that McVicar's body contained 10 times the amount of morphine needed to kill a healthy male of McVicar's size — i.e., 6' 1" & 185 pounds.
In an effort to establish a motive for the killing, and thereby prove murder in the first degree, the prosecution first brought up the matter of bigamy. They contended that Emma saw McVicar as a threat to her relationship to Jean LeDoux, and that he might try to expose her bigamous situation.
The prosecution ended its case with a bombshell from Professor Rogers. The coroner's inquest had stated that death was due to the combined effects of morphine and chloral (knock-out drops) and a lack of oxygen in the trunk. The prosecution, however, maintained that had he not been poisoned, McVicar would not have died in the trunk—as uncomfortable as it might have been.
Professor Rogers pointed out that because the trunk was not hermetically sealed, it could sustain human life indefinitely. During cross-examination, in an effort to discount Rogers' testimony, Fairall asked him if he would like to take his chances in the trunk under similar conditions. Rogers was quick to reply:
Fairall was taken aback and asked the circumstances. Rogers explained that in the DA's office they had conducted an experiment to determine if one could breathe inside the trunk. District Attorney Norton sat on the trunk with Rogers inside while the two carried on a conversation.
The defense began their presentation on June 19 and opened with an attempt to disprove the prosecution's alleged motive. A Mr. Garlinghouse was called to the stand to testify that Emma had once prostituted herself with him for McVicar's benefit.
It was Fairall's contention that any woman willing to do something this drastic for a man she loved could never bring herself to kill him. Nutter, however, refused to let Fairall develop this rather tortuous argument.
Expert witnesses lined up by the defense sought to refute Professor Roger's testimony concerning the morphine. They all contended that the analysis conducted by Rogers was both biased and inaccurate.
The defense brought its case to a close by bringing Emma's mother to the stand. She tearfully testified that her daughter was a habitual morphine user and ventured the opinion that Emma may have enticed McVicar to take up the habit and that he had simply over-dosed.
On June 20, the prosecution’s summation stressed the following points:
Defense Attorney Fairall was in his glory as he closed. He pointed out that:
On Saturday, June 23, Judge Nutter read the jury its final instructions. There were three options open to them.
The latter verdict, without a penalty recommendation, would be tantamount to a death sentence.
At 2:30 in the afternoon the jury began their deliberations. They were out just over six hours and then returned to the courtroom. Emma was found guilty of murder in the first degree with no penalty recommended and was sentenced by Judge Nutter to be hanged on Friday, October 19, 1906, at San Quentin Prison.
This was the first time in the history of California that a woman had been given the death penalty. At the same time, the sentence was automatically stayed by an appeal to the State Supreme Court. Emma’s appeal was originally to be heard in the summer of 1907, but it wasn't until May of 1909 that a decision was handed down. That was a lot of time to kill in the old San Joaquin County jail.
Like many convicts, Emma turned to religion and became a member of St. Mary's Church. Her addiction to morphine was real and her withdrawal was rather difficult. With a bit of time on her hands Emma entered newspaper contests and won $92 from a local music store; unfortunately, it was good only toward the purchase of a grand piano.
For Emma, it was worth the wait for the State Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The decision was based primarily on the Court's belief that Sheriff Sibley had indeed tainted the jury pool.
Set for January 25, 1910, the new trial never took place. The D.A. realized that another trial would cost the County an additional $10-15K. The defense was aware of the fact that they jury had reached its guilty verdict very quickly; the only reason they were out for six hours was because they originally had split on the penalty to be imposed.
So on January 26, Emma appeared in court once again, but this time, through her attorney Charles Fairall, she pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Life In (and Out of) Prison
On February 2, 1910, Emma said good-bye to Stockton and was transferred to the women's block of San Quentin. She served 10 years of her life sentence before being granted parole on July 20, 1920.
Unfortunately, things did not go that smoothly for Emma on the outside. Paroled to the custody of a sister living in the Los Angeles area, she was back at San Quentin in less than a year.
Her sister and brother-in-law had testified that she had been associating with men in a less than respectable manner, coming home inebriated on numerous occasions, and carrying on a rather inappropriate relationship with their 19-year old son--the 45-year old Emma’s nephew.
It took three more years, but Emma was paroled once again on March 30, 1925. Sometime around 1926 she married a Bay Area man by the name of Fred Crackbon — who apparently never read newspapers. He died of a stroke in August 1929.
There followed a series of minor run-ins with the law and when it was discovered that she was running a bogus matrimonial service, with herself as the sole object of lonely men’s attention, her parole was revoked again and she headed back to San Quentin in April 1931. In November 1933 she was transferred to the new California State Prison for Women at Tehachapi. For two more years she submitted applications to the parole board, but gave up after both were denied.
On July 7, 1941, Emma Cole Barrett Williams McVicar LeDoux Crackbon died of ovarian cancer at the age of 69, still a prisoner of the State of California.
Some have said that she missed true notoriety by not becoming the first woman legally hanged by the State. Emma would probably have considered that a rather dubious distinction. Instead she may well have taken some small measure of pleasure in knowing that she had outlived all of the other principle players in her trial.
This article originally appeared in ACROSS THE BAR, the bi-monthly publication of the San Joaquin County Bar Association, in 2007.