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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

A Lady-Killer Ensnared by a Rattlesnake

September 18, 1995|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

By 1936, Angelenos had already seen their fair share of captivating criminal acts such as the Tiger Woman and Winnie Ruth Judd--monstrous murderers who kept the public enthralled. Yet few held the sinister intrigue of Rattlesnake James, who earned his living and his nickname by marrying, insuring and murdering women.

His real name was Major Raymond Lisemba, but he called himself Robert S. James. He captured the nation's attention on his fifth marriage, when he put his wife's leg into a box with two rattlesnakes, then drowned her in the bathtub when she didn't die fast enough to suit him. This was the case that sent James into the dock, and eventually to Death Row. But during his trial, details of his other four marriages emerged in court, and the newspaper headlines took to calling him a "genuine lady-killer" whose greased-back red hair and suave, pleading Southern drawl women found hard to resist.

Born in 1895, the Alabama sharecropper's son was rescued from the cotton fields by his sister's husband and sent to barber school. In 1921, he married Maud Duncan, but she soon filed for divorce, accusing him of kinky, sadistic sex.

He moved to Kansas and married wife No. 2, but she divorced him after the father of a pregnant young woman ran James out of town.

He ran as far as North Dakota, and changed his surname to James.

When his mother died and left her life insurance to him, a new world of possibilities opened up: life insurance fraud. He bought a life insurance policy for his nephew, then, two weeks later, tampered with the steering in his car, lent it to his nephew and immediately sent his sister a telegram announcing her son's death--before it occurred.

In 1932, he opened his own barber shop and married wife No. 3, a beautiful blonde named Winona Wallace, whom he persuaded to buy a life insurance policy worth $14,000, making him the sole beneficiary.

On their Colorado honeymoon, he hit his wife on the head with a hammer, then sent her down a cliff in their car. Amazingly, she lived--but fortunately for James, she had no memory of the incident. James, growing annoyed at her increasing good health, picked her out of her bed and drowned her in the bathtub. The death was judged accidental and James collected the insurance money.

With his pockets full, he headed home to Alabama to show off his dapper new clothes and Pierce-Arrow convertible, his old car having been trashed when he sent it off that cliff with his wife inside.

No sooner had he arrived home than he seduced his 18-year-old niece--the daughter of the man who had set him up in barber school. James and his niece left her angry family behind and headed for Los Angeles, where he set up a barber shop at 8th and Olive streets.

Convinced that he could pull off another scam, he married again and kept his niece on the side. But when he sought to take out an insurance policy on wife No. 4, the woman refused the required physical examination--she didn't like doctors--so James had the marriage annulled.

Even before the annulment, James had hired a 25-year-old strawberry-blonde manicurist named Mary Busch.

After he talked Busch into a $10,000 life insurance policy, he paid a wino $50 to impersonate a minister. Weeks later, when the annulment from wife No. 4 came through, he marched wife No. 5 before a real minister.

The couple moved into a new home in La Canada. Within months, James came home from work with two friends and found his pregnant wife dead in the fishpond, face down in six inches of water.

James confidently tried to redeem the insurance policy Mary Busch had signed. But when an insurance investigator stumbled upon the fact that the barber had been married five times, and that James' third wife had also died by drowning, he tipped the police.

Police had James' house bugged. After a month of listening to James having sex with numerous women--most often his niece--James was caught in the act with her and booked for incest.

The newspapers began to delve into the untimely deaths of his wives. The day the incest headlines hit, police learned that a fry cook knew more about James than even the newspaper stories hinted.

Charles Hope, the cook, told police that James had given him $100 for two rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightning.

James had persuaded his wife to have an abortion but because the procedure was illegal, he told her he must tape her mouth and eyes shut to protect the doctor's identity. As an anesthetic, she chugged a pint of whiskey.

Once James had strapped his wife to the kitchen table, Hope came in with Lethal and Lightning in a box. James lifted his trusting wife's leg and thrust it into the box. The snakes bit her three times.

As her leg began to swell, she writhed in agony--but she wasn't dying fast enough for James. As he had done to a previous wife, he drowned her in the bathtub, then carried her off to the fishpond to make it appear that she had tripped and plunged in head-first.

During the five-week murder trial that followed James' incest conviction, Lethal the snake reappeared as evidence, and caused a panic when he slithered free during the lunch hour.

Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James' impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.

James, who was found guilty of Mary Busch's murder, kept himself alive for several years on Death Row with appeals. His luck ran out in 1942, when he became the last man to be hanged in California, which thereafter adopted the gas chamber.

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