I’m experimenting with a new style I’m calling From the End. I’ll tell you the end of the story first, and then give you the background. If it goes well, I’ll write more posts like this.
There is a prison at the base of the mountains near Tehachapi that was constructed in 1932 to rehabilitate women. Today, the facility is a supermax all-male prison known as the California Correctional Institution.
In February of 1941, the cells were still filled with female prisoners. Through the grim passages passed a tall slender woman in her late 40s, following a matron.
Eva Rablen had been paroled by the board of directors at the California Institute for Women at Tehachapi, over numerous protests and against the recommendations of the Tuolumne County Superior Court and officials. She had been a prisoner longer than most other inmates: 11 years, 8 months, and 8 days. Eva was one of the original prisoners who was transferred from San Quentin to Tehachapi, as the new prison was typically called.
She had been infamous but it was a forgotten woman who emerged from behind Tehachapi prison walls. No one appeared to be waiting to greet her when she stepped outside, but she dunked into a waiting car that spirited her away.
In December 1927, Eva Lee, a divorcee from Texas, arrived in Tuttletown, California, an outpost about 50 miles east of Stockton. Tuttletown was a gold rush town – around 1850, there were a thousand residents. Today, there are around 660 people living there. Eva was moving to California to live with her soon-to-be husband, Carroll.
Carroll was a 34-year-old Great War veteran, who had come back home to live with his father, Steven. The elder Rablen greatly disapproved of his son’s “mail-order bride”, as he called her, in part because he suspected Eva’s real motive was the $3,500 life insurance policy his son had purchased – and also because she was divorced. Carroll was also divorced, a fact that did not seem to trouble Steven as much.
Carroll wasn’t overly-concerned by his father’s disapproval. For nearly a year and a half, he and Eva lived together in relative harmony. Carroll was known as a moody guy, and there were rumors about frequent arguments with his wife. But in general, they got on well together. Steven Rablen’s protests were silenced. He still distrusted his daughter-in-law, but he said no more to Carroll because his son seemed happy.
All seemed well between the two on April 26, 1929, when the couple attended the Tuttletown Grammar School dance. At least, Eva attended. Carroll had sustained an injury during the Great War that left him deaf. While his wife danced and laughed, Carroll waited in the car outside. Eva promised to bring him refreshments at some point during the evening.
As promised, Eva crossed the dancefloor, carrying a cup of coffee and a sandwich. She crashed into another dancer and the coffee spilled on the other woman’s dress. Eva apologized profusely, and was assured the stain would easily come out. She headed outside, bearing a nearly-full cup of coffee and fully intact sandwich in her hand.
Carroll thanked his wife and settled back to eat his sandwich. Shortly thereafter, a scream of pain caused the music in the little schoolhouse to cease abruptly. Dancers ran outside to find Carroll writhing on the ground in agony. Between gasps, friends and neighbors heard Carroll say something about the bitterness of the coffee. It was difficult to make out most of what he tried to say and 45 minutes later, he was dead.
Tuolumne County Sheriff J.H. Dambacher investigated. Initially, nothing untoward – beyond Carroll’s demise – seemed to have occurred. An initial survey of the veteran’s organs turned up no red flags. Eva vehemently told police that her mercurial husband did not commit suicide. Far from suspecting any foul play, everyone assumed Carroll, 38, had died of natural causes.
A restless Steven Rablen had been expecting some kind of misfortune ever since the mail-order divorcee showed up. He insisted – demanded – that Sheriff Dambacher return to the schoolhouse to search for clues. The harried sheriff finally agreed to return to the school to look around. He searched for an hour and found nothing. He turned toward the door and stopped, his hand frozen in the act of placing his hat on his head. His eyes were fixed on the steps – a broken step, in particular. Instinctively, he crouched beside it and reached into the hole. A moment later, his hand reappeared clutching a small bottle. The sheriff squinted at it. STRYCHNINE was written in small letters. He looked at the base of the bottle. “Bigelow,” he said aloud.
“Calm and inscrutable” the newspaper wrote of the accused murderess four days later. This, despite being confronted with very convincing circumstantial evidence. The police went to Bigelow’s Drug Store, and inquired about recent sales of strychnine. The apothecary pulled out the poison register. Just one sale in the past week, he informed the officers. A sale of strychnine had been made to Mrs. Joe Williams. Police took the poison register away with them. Handwriting analysis later determined the handwriting to be that of Eva Rablen.
Meanwhile, post-mortem testing confirmed Carroll died by strychnine poisoning. Forensic science, still in its infancy, proved a valuable resource. The woman Eva bumped into at the dance, whose dress had been splashed with coffee, had produced the stained dress and the famed scientist Edward O. Heinrich was able to show traces of strychnine.
Eva’s arraignment was the hot ticket in town. It was so crowded that the court decided to accommodate the public by holding the hearing outside, in an open-air dance pavilion, where there was no shortage of space. The trial would take place June 10, 1929.
The planned defense would focus on the mental state of husband and wife. Eva, they would argue, was manic-depressive, handicapped with developmental disabilities, with an IQ equal to her 11-year-old son. Carroll, meanwhile, was suicidal. They found his first wife, who was prepared to testify that Carroll had made suicidal remarks to her.
Ultimately, Eva and her defense team got wind of the very strong case against her. To the surprise of everyone involved, on the day of her trial Eva suddenly changed her plea to guilty, which enabled her to evade the death penalty. Eva was sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin Prison.
One thing that is unsatisfying about this case is that it’s not really clear what Eva’s motive was. Was she out of her mind, as her lawyers planned to argue? Or did she murder her husband of less than two years for $3,500, as her father-in-law believed? (In 2019, that’s the equivalent of about $52,000.) Or was there some other reason?
She disappeared behind the prison walls of San Quentin, the newspapers said, where she would spend the rest of her life; she would never again be free.
Never say never, guys.
- Oakland Tribune Tue May 14, 1929
- The Ogden Standard Examiner Sun Jul 14, 1929