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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

August 08, 1994|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Clara Phillips was never one to mask her feelings.

After removing her husband's latest lady friend by beating the woman to death with a claw hammer, she returned home still clad in her blood-dappled clothes, threw her arms around her man and said, triumphantly:

"Darling, I have killed the one you love most in this world. Now I'm going to cook you the best supper you ever had."

Phillips, dubbed "Tiger Woman" by the Los Angeles newspapers of the 1920s, was ultimately convicted in the grisly murder of her husband's paramour, a beautiful, 21-year-old widow.

During the early part of the Roaring '20s, when oil wells were springing up across the city, Phillips' husband, Armour, was beginning a career as an aggressive, persuasive oil stock salesman. Charming and handsome, he bought expensive suits and a big house--all on credit--for his 23-year-old wife, whom he had married when she was a teen-ager.

As his credit began to dwindle and other problems arose, he started turning his attentions to a seductive bank clerk, Alberta Meadows.

Clara Phillips, a former hoofer with a toothpaste-ad smile, began spending her days surreptitiously following her husband. She soon found out whom her husband had been seeing and decided what to do about it.

*

She stopped by a dime store and bought a claw hammer.

The next day, July 12, 1922, she told a friend, former chorus girl Peggy Caffee, of her pain and outrage over her husband's infidelities. The women decided to drown their woes in bathtub gin at a Long Beach speak-easy, before catching a cab back to Los Angeles.

By then a bit unsteady on their feet, the two waited outside the bank at 9th and Main streets for Meadows to finish work.

When Meadows saw them, she recognized Clara, who coolly asked Meadows to drive them to the house of Clara's sister in Montecito Heights, then a new subdivision below a hilltop in northeast Los Angeles.

At the end of Montecito Drive, then a winding dirt road, Meadows stopped the car when Clara accused her of having intimate relations with Armour. When Meadows denied it, Clara punched her hard, knocking her out of the car.

Fleeing down the hill, Meadows fell when the heel of her shoe broke. Phillips caught her, hoisted the hammer and brought it straight down into Meadows' face, over and over again.

Then Phillips attacked her with the claw end of the hammer. A police detective would later say that it looked as if she had been mauled by a tiger. Thanks to the newspapers, that comparison to Clara Phillips would stick.

When a hysterical Caffee had finished vomiting in the grass, Phillips dropped her off at her house, then casually drove home in Meadows' new Ford.

Her husband panicked as she drove up in his girlfriend's car. Calmly, she told him what she had done. He insisted that she flee.

With her husband following in his car, they drove to Pomona, abandoned Meadows' car, returned to Los Angeles and spent the night at a Downtown hotel. Armour Phillips then put his wife on a train heading toward Arizona.

But then he had second thoughts. Hoping to save his own neck, he turned her in. She was arrested in a raid on the train.

Her trial created a sensation. Letters, candy and flowers were delivered to her cell.

Armour Phillips went further into debt, borrowing heavily to pay for his wife's defense. But a jury found her guilty.

*

"The three women (jurors) wanted to see her hang, but compromised on second-degree murder," said the jury foreman. Supposedly, her smile had softened the hearts of male jurors.

As she walked from the courtroom back to her cell after the judge sentenced her to 10 years to life in prison, a besotted spectator whispered to her that he would set her free. Her attorney overheard and laughed at the notion.

A few days later, Phillips escaped. A hacksaw had been smuggled into her cell.

But within four months, after a newspaper reporter tipped authorities to her whereabouts in Honduras, Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz brought her back in handcuffs.

During Phillips' 12 years in prison, she found religion, organized a seven-piece orchestra, trained as a dental technician and slashed her wrists in a suicide attempt.

In a 1931 jailhouse interview, Phillips said, "I don't know whether I killed Alberta Meadows or not, but if I did, I did it for mother love.

"I fought with Alberta on the top of Montecito Drive to protect the only love I have ever known. I did what any mother in the world would do if she saw her baby being taken from her.

"Armour L. Phillips is my baby. He has been my only baby. He is my very life, and when I realized he was being taken from me, I fought, fought, fought--so that I might always have him."

Upon her release in 1935, hundreds gathered at the prison and shouted, "Tiger Woman! Tiger Woman!"

For a time, she lived in San Diego, caring for her ill mother. Before she divorced her "baby" in 1938, she petitioned for permission to move to Texas. And there, she vanished from public view.

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