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Quiet Man Left Trail of Dead Wives

Long before the current era of virtual sex, lies and cyberspace, there was peril as well as companionship to be found among the prosaic columns of newspapers’ personal ads.

From the turn of the century until 1920, James “Bluebeard” Watson, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered Southerner, eluded law enforcement officials, leaving a bloodstained trail of dead wives in cities from Canada to Washington to Idaho to Los Angeles. He wed 22 women who responded to his ads in newspapers, and he murdered at least a third of them in his quest for fortune.

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Far from being a suave rakehell, the much-married, “gnome-like fellow” simply placed advertisements for wives, counseling his correspondents to keep their replies confidential. Hundreds of women were lured by promises of a home, money, trips around the world and the opportunity to be the wife of a banker, federal agent or traveling salesman--depending on the pose Watson had adopted. But it was the rich, emotional women he liked the most, the ones who needed comforting and a little help spending their money.

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He didn’t just wine and dine them at expensive hotels--he endeared himself to the widowed ones with children. At one time, Watson, who had several aliases, found himself married to three women at the same time--in the same town.

But in 1920, while two other women were making wedding plans, Watson was arrested with a list of 60 other prospects.

The con had begun to unravel while he was living in Hollywood, when one of his brides became suspicious of his sudden out-of-town business trips and reported him to authorities.

In 1919, Kathryn Wombacher, a Spokane, Wash., dressmaker married a man calling himself Walter Andrew, who said he worked as a federal agent. And soon after, he was hitting Wombacher up for thousands of dollars in loans.

He fled to Los Angeles, with Wombacher close on his heels. She unexpectedly joined him and set up house in Hollywood. She finally became suspicious when he left town on a second business trip to investigate a diamond-smuggling ring. A locked, black bag, constantly in his possession, also aroused her curiosity. She hired the Nick Harris Detective Agency to follow him.

He didn’t go far. Less than a mile away, he walked into another house and didn’t leave until morning.

Detective J.B. Armstrong called for backup, and he and a sheriff’s deputy were soon breaking into the house, where they picked the lock on the black bag. Scores of tokens from his crimes fell out, including savings bonds, marriage licenses, love letters, pictures, telegrams, storage receipts, bank books, safe deposit keys, women’s jewelry, wedding rings and property deeds.

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When Watson returned, they arrested him. Although in handcuffs, he managed to extract a small pocketknife and cut his throat. While in the hospital, he attempted to slash his wrists.

As Watson recuperated, law enforcement officers pieced everything together, and national publicity about the case got Watson’s other wives to identify themselves. Some were too embarrassed to press charges, but all of the remaining dozen filed for annulments and divorces.

For weeks, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Thomas Lee Woolwine interrogated Watson in an effort to elicit a confession. Finally, Watson confessed to killing seven wives and thought there were possibly three more whose whereabouts he failed to account for.

“Something just told me to go and marry them, and yet something told me not to,” Watson told Woolwine. “Yet, I would go do it, and it seemed all at once an impulse came over me to go someplace and make away [kill] with them. It seemed like I had done something I was ordered to.”

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Watson led a posse to a shallow grave in El Centro, where he buried his last victim, and told the group where it could find another. But he couldn’t remember where he placed the rest of the bodies.

Angelenos demanded that he hang, but instead, he was sentenced to life in prison.

According to Watson, he was an uneducated orphan who endured beatings with a baseball bat throughout his childhood. He said he didn’t know his real name or when he was born. But when the mutilated bodies of two of his wives, Nina Lee Deloney and Elizabeth Pryor, were found, psychologists called him “Jack the Ripper.” He also killed by strangling, drowning or beating his victims with a hammer or hatchet.

While in prison, Watson sent Los Angeles newspaper journalist Wyclife A. Hill on a five-year treasure hunt, digging for a pot of “life insurance” money, allegedly converted into $50,000 worth of Liberty Bonds and stuffed into three Mason jars. The weekly newspaper Hill worked for published a series of stories with maps, sending the public scurrying all over the desert. Watson allegedly agreed to give Hill $20,000 when he found the pot, and the paper allegedly agreed to give Hill 50% of the proceeds from all the newspaper sales. But the series eventually came to an end, and the “pot of gold” was never found.

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In 1930, Hill sued Watson for $25,000 for causing him to waste five years of his life on wild goose chases. Watson countersued for $50,000 in damages, stating that Hill called him a “bluebeard” and threatened to publish damaging stories. Two years later, a judge removed both lawsuits from the court calendar, saying they would have to wait until Watson was freed from prison.

But Watson was never freed.

He became a model prisoner. He was kept in isolation at San Quentin’s hospital for fear of retaliation from family-minded inmates. But he became an assistant to the chief medical officer.

When fellow inmate Edwin Booth, a successful Depression-era writer until he ran afoul of the law, tried to escape by knotting sheets together, Watson happened along and cut the makeshift rope. Booth fell a bruising 1 1/2 stories.

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Watson, who died of pneumonia at 61, now lies in San Quentin’s Boot Hill Cemetery in a grave marked only with his prison number.


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