The Irene Chronicles. Part VII. Into the Sunset… at Top Speed!

If you haven’t read the earlier Irene stories, I recommend beginning at the beginning with The Girl in the Blackbird Hat.

On July 4, 1920, a young man named Ben Nelson stood on the roof of the Colusa Courthouse and gazed down at the vast crowd ten feet below him. Much of Colusa County’s population of 9,000 was present, but he was not nervous. Nelson had been with the circus for many years, as a professional tight rope walker. Today, he had an easier mission: he was to slide down a rope from the courthouse roof to the ground to kick off his act for Colusa County’s Independence Day celebration. Ben seized a thick cable and yanked it, testing its strength. Then he waved dramatically and swung himself onto the rope.

Colusa County Courthouse


But something happened. Somehow Ben lost his grip. He hurtled downward ten feet, striking the pavement face first. Amidst the screams, people ran to Nelson’s aid. They lifted him and carried him to the closest hospital. A doctor closed the large gash in Nelson’s head with six stitches but, when asked for a prognosis, he shook his head. He was worried the skull was fractured.

On July 8, the Sacramento Bee announced Ben Nelson had succumbed to his injuries. They added: “His skull was fractured, and he sustained other hurts. He was taken to a local hospital and it was not until a day later that it was determined the skull had been broken.”

Nelson’s young widow came to Healdsburg where the funeral was to be held. On July 19, Colusa’s Fourth of July committee paid her $100 and along with all of Nelson’s final expenses. Kindhearted people from Colusa County raised an additional $100 to give the widow. $200 was a sizable amount, worth about $3,000 today. This, along with a small life insurance policy and Ben Nelson’s automobile, were what was left to the widow.

Irene Johnson was well-known in Oakland, California. But in Colusa County, situated some 120 miles north of the city, she was not recognized. It was not until she had cruised out of town, with a new man by her side, that people discovered the bereaved Mrs. Nelson was the Girl in the Blackbird Hat.

Irene was on probation for first-degree burglary, making her flight illegal. “The man for whom the young girl has broken her probation and become a fugitive from justice is Grover Campbell, a man of many aliases, according to the Oakland Probation office,” the Oakland Tribune explained. “Whether she is still on the Pacific Coast or has made her way into Canada is not known, although it is believed that she and Campbell were going toward the northern border.”

Campbell, like Irene and the unfortunate Ben Nelson, was a carnival performer. “He had meantime been in the shadows of her life and now he appeared to claim her. In her dead husband’s car, she and Campbell lit out, perhaps to amuse carnival crowds in Canada or Mexico.” The couple appeared to have successfully eluded the authorities.

On April 13, 1931, the Contra Costa Gazette published a brief update on Bert Garrett, who had been in prison for 12 years by that point. He had taken all the blame for the burglary of Mrs. Bessie Brown, whose blackbird hat had led to his and Irene’s capture back in 1919. He had also claimed sole responsibility for the armed robbery Irene confessed to committing. She later described him as a “prince of a guy.” This must have been a great comfort to him. It probably more than made up for the fact that he was serving 15 years in the state penitentiary, whilst Irene was joyriding around in Ben Nelson’s car with Grover Campbell.

In April 1931, Garrett won the promise of parole in 1934, over the objections of Contra Costa authorities, who insisted he was incorrigible. But there was reason for hope. While in Folsom prison, Garrett had done his best to make good use of his time. He had learned the trade of carpentry, which promised to serve him well.

As Bert was preparing  to leave prison in 1933, the blues great Leadbelly (himself no stranger to prison) released his hit single Good night, Irene. You almost wonder if Leadbelly had somehow heard of Bert’s troubles…


Upon his release in 1934, Bert moved to Washington state, where he was arrested later that year for stealing a car in Walla Walla. He was sentenced to five years in the Walla Walla penitentiary. Shortly after his release in 1940, he was brought up on charges for stealing a box of tools. He seemed like a guy who just didn’t know how to function on the outside.

James Lafferty, the man who planned a jail break for Irene and was ready to die for love of her, seems to have melted into the ether. Hopefully he comforted himself with someone else!

As far as Irene Johnson goes, I couldn’t find any more information about her. It’s difficult to track people who use aliases! I suspect she went on to have more adventures and maybe we’ll find out more about them one day. Fortunately, she left us with some words of wisdom.

“I always wanted to have a good time but I never meant to be very bad. You get led on when you are out with a crowd of young people, especially around the carnivals. They poke fun at the slow pokes and get you all excited. But I think I could have won my way to fame in the circus or stage if it hadn’t been for drugs and booze. When these things are done away with girls will have a better chance.”

Irene Johnson

Stay away from the circus, girls!