The Irene Chronicles. Part V. Bert to the Rescue

Dear Old Spirituals readers, before I dive into the latest installment of the Irene chronicles, I want to acknowledge some changes in the appearance of the site. I’ve been wanting to change it for some time, but I don’t know anything about website design and development. So please don’t worry if you see bizarre formatting… it’s nothing permanent and will be improved soon!

Now, where were we? Irene’s trial, of course! If you haven’t read the earlier Irene stories, I recommend beginning at the beginning with The Girl in the Blackbird Hat.

Irene’s trial was a sensation. District Attorney A. B. Tinning, representing the state, called a waiter from a popular Oakland restaurant to the stand. He told of watching Bert Garrett and Irene Johnson gleefully divide a sum of money soon after the robbery of Virgil Reed, the Richmond photographer. Clerks from a dry goods store testified they sold clothes to the girl, evidently purchased with her share of the money.

But the honors of the day belonged to the defense who managed to paint a sympathetic portrait of Irene. The girl’s mother, Mrs. J. T. Horgan, said that Irene had always been rather peculiar. She was not considered her weak minded, but she did not always seem to be normal. Mrs. Horgan said she would take her daughter to San Jose, if she were acquitted.

Irene’s best witness was undoubtedly Bert Garrett, who was tried and found guilty for the same offense, and was already serving his sentence in Folsom prison. Bert testified that he had compelled Irene to tie up the photographer and threatened to kill her if she did not.

Bert said he met Irene in early November. He had an automobile and he was working as a taxi driver. One evening he met two male friends of his and they introduced him to Irene Johnson.

“I asked the girl if she knew who she was with and, when she replied that she did not, I asked her if she would like to get away from them. She told me she would and so I took her to my apartment.” She was raggedly dressed and had no other belongings, so he purchased clothing for her, including a hat, coat, shoes and stockings. Eight days later, he robbed Virgil Reed.

Eight days! Until I read this, I assumed that Bert and Irene were together for quite a while prior to the robbery. Nope! Irene knew Bert for eight days and in that time, according to her original statement, Bert rescued her from evil opium den owners, they had fallen in love, and moved in together.  Bert had then taken to a life of crime, lost interest in Irene, and  she had vowed him to get him back. This culminated with Irene committing armed robbery and winning Bert’s love again. This was all within eight days.

Garrett testified that on the afternoon of November 15, he accompanied Irene Johnson to Richmond where she went looking for a job. She went to Virgil Reed’s studio and Garrett said that he waited outside for her to return but after 15 minutes, he followed her inside. Reed was busy with another customer and Bert quickly surmised he lived in the back of his studio and appeared to be alone. Garrett lied to Reed, telling him he would like to have his photograph taken, and said he would get a shave and return to have the picture made.

“I did not tell the girl anything about my plans to rob the photographer,” he said, “and she did not know what was going to happen until I had pulled the gun or Reed.” Garrett said that all the girl did was to tie the hands of the photographer behind his back when he pointed the gun in Reed’s face.

When closing arguments began at around 4 p.m., the defense surprised everyone by abandoning everything that had been said in court and throwing itself on the mercy of the jury. The state made a strong argument that Irene had knowingly, willfully broken the law and should be punished.

At 5 p.m., the jury left the courtroom. An hour later, they were back to deliver a verdict on Not Guilty. Irene collapsed upon hearing the news.

But her troubles and adventures were not over yet! Far from it.

Despite being imprisoned, Irene had managed to get into a bizarre new romantic predicament. And authorities were waiting at the Contra Costa County Jail to whisk Irene away to Alameda, where she was facing charges for burgling Mrs. Bessie Brown’s home and stealing, amongst many other items, a distinctive blackbird hat.

Visit Part VI to read about Irene’s new intrigue!