April 9, 1901. Catherine Coarum had been drinking whiskey and beer with Charles Daniels at her home on Clay Street. They started to argue and she seized a gun and shot the victim three times, killing him. After she shot him, she dragged his body to the cellar. A short time later, her neighbors heard her hysterical screams and summoned the police.

Initially, Mrs. Coarum blocked the door and only opened it after Officers Rodiger and Ward threatened to break it down. When the door swung open, it revealed a woman in what the officers later called “a state of hysterical intoxication.” She sat down at her kitchen table and resumed her drinking, but immediately told the officers she had killed a man and his body was in the basement. There was no doubt about any of this; Catherine admitted it all.

Her defense was that she had killed the victim in self-defense. At her trial, Catherine contended that Charles Daniels was a stranger who had been stalking and menacing her for months. He taunted her about her marriage to a black man, and that night, he showed up with a razor in his hand. “I had to kill him,” she told the court emphatically.

The San Francisco Chronicle obtained pictures of the defendant and the victim

The story she told the police the night of her arrest was quite different. She said she had been having an affair with Charlie Daniels for four years, and her husband, who was a cook on a steamship knew nothing about it.

However, Joseph Coarum would be returning home Tuesday, and his wife was anxious that he would not learn about her indiscretions. Catherine said she had been trying to break it off with Daniels but her lover did not take the news well. After trying unsuccessfully to persuade her to run away with him, he threatened her. She was frightened. She seized his gun and shot him. “I carried him down to the basement,” Catherine said. “I told him, ‘Charlie, talk to me! I wouldn’t kill you.’ He was trying to talk to me and I was so scared I didn’t know what to do.”

Police Detective Crockett confirmed that Catherine had been having an affair with Daniels, a German immigrant known for his frugality. The neighbors said Daniels came over a few times every week, and the victim’s landlord said Catherine came to Daniels’ boarding house three or four times a week. The only reason for that, Catherine assured the detective, was to persuade Daniels to end their affair and discourage him from coming to her home. “I did all I could to keep that man away from me,” she added earnestly.

Detective Crockett learned Catherine had not shot Charles with his own gun, as she claimed. In fact, she had purchased the weapon herself from a pawnshop the same day she murdered Daniels. The clerk who sold it to her gave her five bullets, for free.

 

Read the conclusion to this story!

This is the conclusion of Catherine’s story. Click here if you haven’t yet read Part 1.

December 1901. Catherine’s trial began in early December, and the proceedings lasted four days. Her attorney, Robert Ash, had done his best to defend her, but he was not sanguine about the outcome. The story was salacious enough to attract attention, but Mrs. Coarum was not a defendant who excited much sympathy. The newspapers described her as a large, powerful woman, with coarse features. She was known to be an incorrigible drinker. Ash had tried to portray her in the best light, a task Catherine made nearly impossible with her frequent outbursts in the courtroom.

The defendant’s husband, Joseph Coarum, had testified in Catherine’s defense. He said when he returned home and heard his wife was in the City Jail, he did his own investigation and turned up some evidence the police had overlooked, including the razor Catherine claimed Daniels had wielded, a bullet that was consistent with the ones that had killed Daniels, and a bullet hole in the steps that proved the victim had shot at his wife.

Greany, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case, scarcely had to work for the conviction. He raised questions about the nature of Catherine’s relationship with Daniels and referenced her contradictory statements.

On the last day of the Coarum murder trial, the jury began its deliberations shortly after noon and returned with a manslaughter verdict at 4 p.m.

“Catherine Coarum, charged with the murder of Watchman Charles Daniels, was yesterday found guilty of manslaughter,” ran a front-page article in the December 12 edition of TheSan Francisco Examiner. “The prisoner heard the announcement of the verdict without the slightest display of emotion.”

Robert Ash privately thought his client was fortunate to receive a manslaughter verdict. A conviction was practically a forgone conclusion, and Ash was only surprised that his client was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. She would still go to prison, but her sentence would be lighter.


On December 21, 1901, Catherine was back in Judge Dunne’s courtroom to be sentenced. She was dressed neatly in a dark suit but her face looked like a thunder cloud.

She listened as her attorney attempted to plead with the judge for a new trial. When she saw Judge Dunne shake his head, Catherine stood up. “Can I say something?” There was a surprised silence but no objections.

“I had to kill him, Judge,” Catherine protested. “If I had not, he would have killed me.” It was similar to what she had said throughout the trial and Judge Dunne looked unimpressed.

“I never troubled him, and I wouldn’t have killed him if he had not forced me to it,” Catherine said rapidly. “He’d been threatening me for months. He had a razor in his hand and he would’ve killed me. What could I do? What would any woman do?” She looked around the courtroom, seeking a sympathetic face in the crowd. Finding none, she turned back to the judge. “If I had not done it, my husband would have come in and found me murdered!”

Ash stood up. There was little he could do for his client at this point, apart from possibly influence the judge to soften his sentence. “Your Honor,” he said. “I would remind you that this woman is unfamiliar with our ways and customs. An American woman would have gone to the authorities, but she did not know enough for that– and she took the law into her own hands– ”

Catherine Coarum, incensed by what she saw as an inadequate defense, interrupted him. “A man would arm himself!” she shrieked. “He could go hunt up other men and shoot them down. And the law lets them off! But I am a poor woman, compelled to act in defense of my home and I am convicted. Where’s the justice, Judge? No, it’s most unjust!”

Judge Dunne stared her to silence and Catherine sat back down. The judge said, “It is the judgement of this court, Catherine Coarum, that you be confined in the State Prison at San Quentin for the term of 10 years.”

Two days later, Catherine was booked at San Quentin prison. Female prisoners were a rarity, but the prison would be her home for many years.

Mug shots were still in their infancy, and the custom at San Quentin was to take a front-facing photo of the prisoner wearing his or her hat. The profile picture was taken without the hat.

Catherine was released six-and-a-half years later, in June 1908. Her release went unremarked in the newspapers.


If you enjoyed this true crime story about Catherine Coarum, you might enjoy my book, The Poisoned Glass. It’s available for pre-order on the publisher’s website. If you order before August 8, you’ll get 15% off with the promo code PREORDER2019. Reserve your copy today!