The Irene Chronicles. Part VI. An Intriguing Subplot Emerges.

I couldn’t wait to give you the next installment of the Irene Chronicles, so here is Part VI, probably before you finished reading Part V.

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

You might like a little musical accompaniment for this post. If so, enjoy this song from the wonderful Al Bowlly!


On March 6, 1920, Irene Johnson had another rendezvous with the criminal justice system, this time back in Alameda County. She pleaded Not Guilty to burglary, and claimed to have purchased the Mrs. Brown’s blackbird hat and other clothing at a rummage sale.

Her attorney basically duplicated his strategy from the first trial. Irene’s parents were there and told the jury how Irene was a little unusual. And once again, Bert rode into court on a white horse, intent on saving Irene. He said he had committed the Brown burglary alone and later gave Mrs. Brown’s things to Irene. Irene took the stand on her own behalf. When questioned, she said she had only told contradictory stories to the police to shield Bert Garrett.

This time, the stars did not align for Irene. She had, at some point, given a detailed confession to the police of her participation in the burglary, and Superior Judge Lincoln S. Church was not as sympathetic as the judge in Contra Costa County had been. And the jury didn’t buy it. After a 2-day trial, Irene was convicted of first-degree burglary. Though not as serious as armed robbery, burglary still meant a prison sentence. Irene would have to return for sentencing the following week.

But it was the subplot of this story that had everyone talking.

“Irene Johnson, circus rider and lion tamer, was today convicted by a jury of burglary in the first degree,” the Sacramento Bee trumpeted, “and James T. Lafferty, a love-sick youth, was taken into custody in the courtroom having in his possession a bottle of poison and a suicide note telling of his love for the convicted girl.”

Irene first drew attention to this new scandal during her hearing before Judge Church, when she appealed for protection from Jim Lafferty, age 23. He had declared that if she were convicted, she would never go to San Quentin, Irene disclosed. He meant that he would kill her rather than let her be punished. Irene said she didn’t love Lafferty—she was afraid of him, in fact. Matron Hattie White of the Sheriff’s office backed up Irene’s story, saying that Lafferty had been loitering around the jail for several days and that he hurled pebbles at Miss Johnson’s cell window.


Lafferty was in the courtroom during this dramatic disclosure and was taken into custody by Police Inspector William Kyle. During questioning, he insisted Irene did care for him. Their romance was nearly as star-crossed as Irene’s love affair with Bert Garrett. He had fallen madly in love with the girl in the Martinez County Jail, when he was there serving a brief sentence for disturbing the peace. As a trusty, he was in charge of serving meals to convicts and that was how he’d met Irene. Soon, they were exchanging love notes daily, and quickly formed long-term plans.

Lafferty tried “every legal means” of freeing Irene, but he was soon discouraged and shifted his focus to planning a jail break. He refused to explain how the jail break was supposed to work and perhaps he sensed it was all futile.

Police found a 10-oz. bottle of strychnine in Lafferty’s pocket and a letter to Irene, which they unblushingly provided to the San Francisco Chronicle who eagerly printed it:

Sweetheart: If trying to see you or writing etc., is a crime, then I am guilty, but I love you sincerely and you know it is true. Also you know in your heart you love me as before and if you let this or your people wreck your happiness and mine, then go to it. I am through and I’ll love you even in death.



Having dispensed with Lafferty, Irene was worrying a new bone. She had been in jail for months, but prison was unthinkable. Six days after she was convicted of first-degree burglary, she applied for probation and the request was referred to Probation Officer Leonard Compton.

On April 2, Irene got good news. She would not go to prison. Judge Church gave her 10 years probation and demanded she pay $25 a month in restitution to Mrs. Bessie Brown for the items she purloined.

Asked by a reporter about Bert’s role in keeping her out of prison, Irene replied, “He’s been a prince of a guy to me.”

What do you make of all of this? Do you think Irene was scared straight? Maybe she settled down, reflected on her wrong-doing, and became a temperance advocate?

Click here for the conclusion of the Irene Chronicles!