A Murder, a Mistress and a Scandalous Trial

Despite the current hue and cry in Washington, sex in the workplace--and the media's fascination with it--is hardly a new topic. Take the case of a miscreant Los Angeles dentist whose alleged murder by his unhappy mistress occurred in the oh-so-proper Victorian era.

In the sensation-hungry so-called "gutter press" of the 19th century, which often made today's tabloids seem restrained, Hattie Woolsteen was an O.J.-quality star, the so-called "repellent she-devil" or " Wicked Woolsteen" who allegedly killed her married lover, a well-known dentist. Compton residents discovered her grisly deeds after gunshots rang out and the unmistakable stench of burning flesh filled the air.

His death and her trial mesmerized late 19th century Los Angeles reporters and became a citywide obsession. The news coverage was filled with all the dramatic elements--murder, sex, abuse, charges of a police frame-up and a "dream team" of high-priced defense lawyers--but it left the public and jurors confused on all counts, unsure of the truth and uneasy over the power of the press.

Sounds familiar.

In 1886, two sisters, Hattie and Minnie Woolsteen, both in their early twenties, left Peoria, Ill., after their father, Henry, a general contractor, paid $150 to free them from jail, where they had been confined for stealing a watch from a jeweler.

Arriving in Los Angeles the following year, both girls began working as servants for two prominent Angeleno families before moving into a boardinghouse at 5th Street and Broadway.

Drugged, Seduced

Experiencing dental problems, the sisters visited the office of Dr. Charles "Cap" Harlan, a Spring Street dentist. Immediately, Harlan took a fancy to Hattie, who presumed he was an unmarried, shameless flirt.

Within weeks Harlan proposed to Hattie and earnestly set out to seduce her. Concocting a "preparation" and a lie about a decaying tooth, Harlan put Hattie to sleep in the dental chair, partially undressed her and--in the polite parlance of the day--took improper liberties.

Greatly distraught, Hattie went to visit a friend, Mrs. Barbey, at her Compton farm.

Harlan pursued her, and a steamy--presumably conscious--affair began, with Hattie hoping it would end in marriage. She was, by all contemporary accounts, a confirmed romantic, but Harlan was in a hurry.

Soon after Hattie returned to the boardinghouse with Barbey in tow, Barbey mysteriously died. Shortly afterward, Hattie and Harlan cashed in a large bond left by her dead friend.

Suddenly rich, but still single, Hattie soon found out that Harlan was married. She tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself.

Unable to endure the disappointment, she bought a hand-gun, intent on trying again. With her gun tucked inside her handbag, she and Harlan set out on a buggy ride to the vacant Barbey farm on Lemon Street (now Compton Boulevard), which Harlan said he wanted to buy for her. It was here they struggled over the gun, which went off; the bullet struck Harlan in the head.

Hattie would later testify that she killed him in self-defense in the empty barn, and before returning to town she stopped at an isolated spot near the intersection of West 8th Street and Garland Avenue and buried the gun and Harlan's watch. At some point, the barn where Harlan's body rested somehow went up in flames.

A Cause Celebre

Within a few days, Harlan's wife reported him missing, while others revealed that he was last seen with Hattie, who had arrived home at 3 a.m., only a few hours after the slaying. Her late arrival aroused little attention because she was allegedly known to come and go at all hours in the company of different men.

Los Angeles Police Chief Patrick Darcy brought both Hattie and her sister, Minnie, in for questioning. But when Hattie requested a lawyer, Darcy allegedly answered, "Damn you, I'm lawyer enough for you." Darcy later denied making the statement. He in turn claimed that Hattie confessed, and he released her purported confession to the press. Darcy knew where she buried the gun and the dentist's watch, but whatever else she told him was never made clear.

Minnie and Hattie charged that Darcy threatened to rape them if Hattie didn't confess and that Darcy only filed a murder charge against Hattie after she refused his sexual advance.

"Consider the source," replied Darcy.

Behind bars, Hattie once again tried suicide unsuccessfully.

Cursing Minnie for supplying Hattie with the chloroform used in her suicide attempt, Darcy ordered her strip-searched, ostensibly looking for additional drugs.

Within a week Hattie's case was a cause celebre and women's rights advocates rallied to her side. Regarding her as a victim of gender inequality, they helped finance her defense along with her faithful father, who also happened to take on several building contracts while in town for the trial.

Defending Hattie were L.A.'s leading criminal attorneys, G. Wiley Wells and soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Stephen M. White.

In a scenario worthy of film noir, prosecutors charged that the beautiful temptress lured her lover into a barn, shot and robbed him, set fire to the barn, then buried the gun and his watch, taking with her his diamond ring, a locket and some cash. Her motive was revenge for seducing her and promising her marriage.

Defense attorneys shouted that Harlan was a habitual gambler in debt to loan sharks, an unfaithful husband who was sexually out of control and had boasted of drugging several unsuspecting female patients before taking his pleasure with them, including the defendant, whom he then wooed with beseeching love and little gifts.

Killer or Victim?

Throughout the preliminary hearing the press called Hattie a "fiendish murderess." And newspaper accounts referred sarcastically to the large number of women in court.

"With a morbid craving after the sensational that is anything but creditable to them, a large number of ladies again occupied seats outside the bar," went one account. "During the morning, when testimony of a highly indecent character was being given regarding the coldblooded seduction of Hattie Woolsteen by Harlan, several ladies left the room, but, unabashed, the remainder with unmitigated gall drank in the lewd details that were rendered all the more disgusting by the snickering way in which the so-called 'Dr.' Schim [Harlan's dental associate who verified Harlan's sexual misconduct] related the fact."

By the time the trial began, five months later, the police chief had been fired. The press was now sympathizing with Hattie, speculating that someone else killed Harlan or that Harlan faked his death--the burned body never was conclusively identified--to escape heavy gambling debts, leaving Woolsteen to cover for him and calling the case "a tale of a young girl's sorrow and a man's lustful brutality."

Yet evidence showed that a bloody and badly bruised body (charred beyond recognition) was dragged through the dirt and into the barn. Nearby residents said they heard three shots before the barn caught fire, but Hattie testified she knew nothing about the fire.

Without clear and convincing evidence, there was inconsistency and confusion. Even the jurors left the jury box shaking their heads when the two-week trial ended.

Their deliberations lasted 12 minutes; Hattie Woolsteen, they found, was not guilty.

She and her sister returned with their father to Illinois, where they lived quietly for the rest of their lives, according to Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, and Roger Humes, research associate at the Claremont Colleges, who helped research this story.

Rasmussen's new book, "L.A. Unconventional," a collection of stories about Los Angeles' unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.

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