Mary Busch was a 27-year-old beauty who's unfortunate misstep was the man she chose to fall in love with.
In 1935 she answered an ad for a job at a beauty parlor/barber shop in downtown Los Angeles. The owner of the shop, Robert James, was looking for a manicurist. Shortly after Mary was hired, the two were married and three months later the couple was expecting their first child.
On the evening of August 3, 1935 Mary fell ill while working at the shop. Her husband put her in a taxi and sent her home. The following Monday, August 5, Robert opened up the shop on his own. He told his employees that Mary was still feeling a little "under the weather" and would possibly come in later that day if she was better.
By 7:30 that evening Mary still had not put in an appearance and Robert closed up the shop for the night. He invited two friends to join him at his home for dinner - Viola Lueck, a close friend of Mary's, and her boyfriend, Jim Pemberton.
When they arrived at his pink stucco home in La Canada, a suburb of Los Angeles, Robert was surprised to find the house dark and no sign of Mary. After searching the house Robert and his guests headed out to the back yard garden where they made a ghastly discovery.
In the midst of the garden was a fish pond. Several goldfish could be seen darting beneath pink and white water lilies floating on top of the water. In the center sat a bearded gnome, smoking on a pipe, smiling down on an unexpected occupant in the pool.
Mary Busch James was lying face down in the pool with her arms and legs splayed out behind her.
When the police arrived they brought a physician with them and Mary was pronounced dead at the scene. At first glance it appeared to be an accidental drowning. Robert explained to the police that Mary was pregnant and had dizzy spells. She also loved to watch the goldfish. It was surmised that she had become dizzy, fallen and struck her head on one of the rocks used to rim the pool. When the physician examined Mary's body he found no evidence of a head injury but did notice that her right leg was discolored and swollen and that she had a cut on her right great toe.
When police searched the house they found a note to Mary's sister, Robert confirmed that it was her handwriting, in which she told her sister that she was pretty sick. Her leg was swollen; something had bitten her while she was watering her flowers that morning.
While they were searching, one of the detectives discovered something out of place. He found a bottle of black widow spiders in a dark corner of the James' garage. Given the unusual circumstances the police were about to rule Mary Busch James' murder suspicious until they spoke with one of their neighbors, a retired English Army Officer name Dinsley. He claimed to have seen a young woman walking alone in the garden near the pool.
A coroner's inquest was held and the question of how Mary Busch James died remained unanswered.
However, when Robert James filed a claim to collect on his wife's insurance policies totaling $21,400, he launched a chain of events that would lead to his downfall. His claim prompted the usual investigation by the insurance company but their findings were anything but usual.
Robert James had obtained policies totaling $10,000 naming himself as his "wife's" beneficiary from the Mutual Life Insurance Company and the Occidental Life Insurance Company. When James tried to push for payment under the double indemnity clause, the companies refused to payout and he filed suit. Unfortunately for James, he had to settle for $3,500 when he had to admit in court that he and Mary Busch were not legally married at the time he initiated the policies. Turns out he was still married and was in the midst of an annulment when he pretended to marry Mary. The two were not legally married until several months later on July 19th just weeks before her death.
The investigator continued digging and he also uncovered the fact that James had been married at least five times. Along with the fact that at least one of his other wives had drowned in a bathtub after being heavily insured. James' payout from her policies totaled almost $18,000. In each case both women died after the first premium had been paid. The investigator decided to go to the police with the facts his suspicions which resulted in them launching an investigation into James' past.
Robert S. James was actually born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895 to Alabama sharecroppers. He was saved from a dreary future of picking cotton when his sister's husband sent him to barber school. He married his first wife Maud Duncan at the age of 26. The marriage however, quickly ended in divorce when she accused him of being sadistic and engaging in perverted sexual practices.
Marriage no. 2 also ended in divorce when Lisenba skipped town after an angry father came after him with a shotgun for getting his young daughter pregnant. He ended up in Fargo, North Dakota with a new name, Robert James, and wife no. 3, Winona Wallace.
Within days of the wedding James took out insurance policies on his wife which included clauses for accidental death. The couple went on a honeymoon to Pike's Peak in Colorado. While his wife was driving down the mountain, according to James, she apparently lost control of the car and it went off the road. James claimed that he jumped from the moving car and went for help.
When the officials arrived at the scene of the accident they found the car resting against a large rock approximately 150 feet below the road. His wife, Winona, was just outside the car. Her feet still resting on the running board. Amazingly she managed to survive the precipitous drop and was unconscious. The officials noted that her head was covered with blood. They also discovered a large amount of blood inside the car and a bloody hammer lying on the floor.
Officials also couldn't help but notice that although James' claimed to have jumped to safety from the out-of-control car, his suit was amazingly neat. Not a piece of clothing was out of place, not a tear nor a speck of dirt could be found on the suit either.
Winona was immediately taken to a hospital in Colorado Springs and surgeons were able to save her life. Unfortunately she was unable to remember any of the facts surrounding her terrifying ordeal.
When Winona was finally released from the hospital Robert James took her to a remote cabin in Manitou Springs, Colorado on the premise that she needed a quiet place in which to recover.
Gerald Rogers worked in the local grocery store in Manitou Springs. In the early evening on October 14, 1932, James entered the store, ordered some groceries and asked that they be delivered to his cabin. In the end James decided to hitch a ride back to the cabin with Rogers and his groceries. When the two men arrived at James' cabin he told Rogers to take the groceries to the kitchen while James went in search of his wife, Winona.
James suddenly appeared in the kitchen visibly upset and motioned for Rogers to follow him. The two men entered the bathroom when Rogers saw Winona lying on her back in the tub half filled with lukewarm, soapy water. She appeared to have died from drowning. When the coroner arrived to examine the body James claimed that she must have attempted to wash her hair while he was out running errands, gotten dizzy and drowned. The coroner suggested an autopsy but James refused. Later James asked the coroner to change the death certificate to reflect that the drowning was a direct result from the previous car accident. Although her death seemed suspicious there was no official investigation launched and James was able to collect approximately $14,000 from the life insurance policies he had taken out on Winona immediately after they married.
James bought a new car, a Pierce-Arrow convertible, and a new wardrobe and headed back to his hometown of Alabama to share his good fortune with his family.
And how does Robert James repay his sister and brother-in-law for sending him to barber school and saving him from the life of a sharecropper? He seduces their 18-year-old daughter, his niece, Lois Wright and moves with her to Los Angeles where he sets up his barber shop and hunts for wife number four.
After his marriage, James files papers to have it annulled when wife number four refused to go to a doctor for the required physical examination. During this time he met and "married" wife number five, Mary Busch.
After Mary's suspicious death James moved back in with and openly continued his relationship with his niece, Lois. During their investigation into Mary's death, the police decided to bug James' residence and even though they could uncover any evidence to prove that he had murdered Mary they did have enough evidence to arrest him for having sex with his niece.
On April 19, 1936, Robert James was arrested and charged with incest, a felony under California law. He was convicted and received a sentence of 50 years. When the papers got wind of the arrest they also began to delve into James' background and printed his numerous exploits for the world to read.
The widespread press coverage got the exact result that the police were hoping for. A liquor store owner came forth and told a report from the LA Herald and bizarre tale involving a drunk named Charles Hope. When the lead was passed on to the police they were able to track Hope down through the California Motor Vehicle Department.
It was not long before the police showed up at a hamburger stand in Hermosa beach where Hope worked as a short order cook and brought him in for questioning. At first Hope denied knowing anything about Mary but after several hours of questioning he finally admitted that he knew she had drowned but refused to be more forthcoming with any of the details. However, after the police took him back to the pink stucco house where Mary was murdered, Hope finally broke down and related the gruesome details of Mary's murder to the police.
He claims to have entered the James' barbershop one day and told him that he was broke and could he receive a haircut on credit. James agreed and after Hope sat in the chair James asked him if he knew anything about snakes. When Hope shook his head in the negative James went on to explain he had a friend who wanted to get rid of his wife and wanted to use rattlesnakes to commit the deed. He also told Hope that he would pay him $100 if he helped him obtain the snakes. Hope, desperate for money, jumped at the chance.
James gave Hope $20 and a few evenings later he showed up with three rattlesnakes he purchased at a sideshow in Long Beach. James also gave Hope money to have two special boxes in which to house the snakes with sliding glass tops. When Hope came to the James' barber shop a few days later he found that James was dissatisfied with the snakes and had Hope go to the Ocean Park snake pit and purchase another pair of snakes. These also met with James' disapproval and Hope eventually ended up in Pasadena where he purchased two Colorado diamond-backs named Lethal and Lightning from a man named Snake Joe Houtenbrink. They were tested on chickens and definitely lived up to their names.
James had decided to use Mary's pregnancy as a way to get rid of her and somehow managed to get her to agree to an abortion. On August 4, 1935 Hope showed up at the James' residence and it was then that James revealed the real reason why he had Hope procure the snakes. James also warned Hope that he had no other choice but to assist he as he was in just as deep as James.
James convinced Mary that as the procedure was illegal, he would have to tape her eyes and mouth shut in order to protect the identity of the "doctor". After Mary had consumed several glass of whiskey as anesthesia, James helped Mary lay down on the kitchen table, taped her eyes and mouth, and strapped her down to the table. James then went to the garage where Hope was waiting and had him bring in one of the boxes containing the snakes. James grabbed Mary's foot slid back the glass top and stuck her foot into the box where the snake immediately sunk its fangs into her great toe three times. James then instructed Hope to take the snakes back to Snake Joe. After he had sold them back for half price he threw the special boxes out along the side of the road. Hope then returned to the James' residence where he and Robert James sat in the garage drinking whiskey while they waited for the snake venom to work its deadly course on Mary.
By 1:30 in the morning Mary's leg was swollen and turning dark purple. But instead of being dead Mary was very much alive and writhing in agony. It was then that James decided he had had enough and decided to fall back on the same method he had used with his previous wife. He carried her limp body to the bathroom and drowned her in the bathtub.
Later he insisted that Hope help her carry her to the fishpond and arrange her body to make it appear that she had tripped and fell in head-first.
When confronted with the facts of the case and Hope's account which it was obvious the police believed, James tried to turn the tables against him and blame Mary's murder on Hope.
Hope agreed to turn states evidence after he plead guilty to first-degree murder and received a life sentence. James went on trial for the murder of his wife Mary. The trial lasted five weeks after which the jury quickly returned with a guilty verdict. James was sentenced to death by hanging.
He fought the sentence for six years with appeals but eventually his luck ran out. On May 9, 1942 Robert "Rattlesnake" James kept his date with destiny. By that time however, California had adopted a more "humane" form of capital punishment. Unfortunately in James' case he was sentenced to death prior to the adoption of the gas chamber so he became the last man to be hanged in California. The rope was the wrong length and it took over ten minutes for him to die.