The Irene Chronicles. Part IV. The Curious Odyssey of Irene Johnson

New to Irene Johnson? Read the earlier parts of her story:
The Girl in the Blackbird Hat
The Girl Bandit Confesses
An Eventful Stay at the County Jail

Once it became clear that she was not going to escape from jail, Irene decided to tell her story to the press. Reporters from the Daily Gazette and other newspapers interviewed Irene in her cell. “A cell in such a stuffy place,” Irene told her jailer laughingly, in the reporters’ presence.  “I might just as well be happy as any other way. I’m here and that’s all,” she said. The reporter noted Irene was pretty and her real name was Dorothy Nelson.

Irene Johnson


“When it comes to having a hard life and taking the knocks and kicks, I guess my batting average would be around the thousand mark,” Irene told the reporter. “There isn’t much to say about my association with Bert Garrett or the event at Richmond. I didn’t know what was going to happen until I got there and then I wanted to show that was game enough to go through with it.”

Pressed to share more about her life, Irene said she had grown up and finished grammar school in Oregon. Then she ran away from home. “I have gone from one part of the west to another making the best living I could. I had hard luck from the minute I ran away from home, but I played the game square. I managed to finish the grammar grades and I went from place to place, earning a living.” Then she joined a show troupe, where she met her husband.

Ben Nelson was also a member of the same show as Irene. He was a tightrope walker, while she tamed the lions. “We fell in love, or at least I thought I was in love, and we continued to travel with the company from one part of Washington to another, until our little boy came. Up to that time Nelson had been good to me, but from then on it was awful. Many a time he has thrown me clear across the room.”

Things went from bad to worse, until Irene decided to leave him. “It happened one day early this year. He told me he was going out to borrow some money from a man and asked me to go, saying that we would leave the baby with a friend,” Irene explained. “I went with him and we drove to a Hindu camp, where over one hundred of them were living, and there he locked me up in one little room and let me stay for thirty days until I was nearly dead. When finally I escaped from that misery, I fled from the country and came to Oakland.” Note that when Irene says “country,” she is talking about that part of the world not a different country. Probably she was in Oregon or northern California.

This is one of those instances in which there is no explaining the reporters’ lack of curiosity. None of them asked Irene a single follow up question about her Hindu tale. What was this Hindu camp? Why was Irene imprisoned there for a month? Who forced her to stay? What did she do while she was there?

One reporter did ask her about the child. Irene said she never saw her son since he was born. “But I sure would like to and some day, if I can, I am going to look for him.” Talking of her son had evidently stirred a sentimental note in Irene’s heart. “I’m sorry now, but when my trouble is over, if it ever is, I’m going to go back and try and find my boy.”

She met Bert Garett after she arrived in Oakland. “He was good to me and of course anyone that treated me kind won me and he sure did. The event at Richmond seemed like a dream but how I certainly wish it had never happened.”

As she waited for her hearing in January 1920, Irene tried to amuse herself in prison. On December 22, the Oakland Tribune wrote, “Contra Costa county’s bad little girl was at it again. All day long she sings. People who live near the county jail frequently pause to listen. It is a sweet voice, they say. Once she sang and danced in the chorus. Sometimes she still tries out her steps in her cell when she thinks no one is looking. Dorothy Nelson, alias Irene Johnson, held up a shop and committed a burglary, the charges read. She is considered very bad.”

Would Irene be forced to do a “hitch in San Quentin,” as she gloomily predicted? Or is it possible fate again intervened in an extraordinary way in the life of the Girl Bandit?

Find out in Bert to the Rescue!