This is Part 3 of a Phantom Murderer in San Francisco.
The police investigation turned up some puzzling clues. The gas to heat and light had never been turned on. The only furnished room in the house was the one where Nora’s body was found. The police inventoried its contents: a bed, two new sheets, a blanket, a quilt, a towel, and an old chair. The butt of a cigar was on the floor and a nearly empty whisky bottle was on the mantle. The police found many advertisements for furniture and the like addressed to Mrs. Hawkins. One of the letters had been opened and was found in Nora’s jacket.
When she left her home on January 11, Nora had been carrying the postcard from Bennett but this item was not found with Nora’s belongings. It was never located. Mr. Severbrinik, the man whose card was found in Nora’s purse, was quickly eliminated as a suspect. He had sailed for China on January 11, several hours before Nora left home. Her family didn’t recognize his name. No one knew why his card was in Nora’s purse.
Investigators descended upon the Golden West Hotel in search of Hawkins but no one there had heard of him. The police went to the Chronicle to inquire about Bennett, the man who placed the ad. The newspaper handed over the written message they received from Bennet ordering the ad that Nora answered. When police compared this handwriting sample to Hawkins’ signature on the lease, they matched perfectly, confirming suspicions that Bennett and Hawkins were the same man.
The furniture in the room proved to be the best lead. It was traced to a nearby store called Cavanaugh’s. A man named Hawkins had come in, probably directly from the real estate agency, and requested a cheap bed, a chair, and some second-hand bedding. The clerk remembered Hawkins well. He was well-dressed but he bought inexpensive items and was suspicious that the store would swindle him by delivering a mattress of lesser quality than the one he had chosen. The owner allowed him to initial the mattress. When the sheets were stripped from the bed Nora had been found in, the initials C.B.H. were plainly evident. Hawkins also stood out because he demanded the store deliver the items that very evening or the sale was off. The delivery boy Hawkins met him at the Sutter Street house and recalled he wore a silk hat.
The cruel murder of Nora Fuller was meticulously planned. This man, whoever he was, carefully constructed a trap and Nora had fallen into it.
But who was Bennett-Hawkins and why did he commit this crime? People initially speculated he was a stranger. But at the coroner’s inquest, the victim’s friend, Madge Graham, testified that Nora was infatuated with an older man named Bennett. Nora liked him very much, her friend revealed, and often stayed out late with him. Madge said she covered for Nora on more than one occasion, telling others that they were together so her friend could meet up with Bennett. Madge thought the advertisement was a trick Nora and Bennett concocted to deceive her mother. A grocer testified that Nora occasionally used his telephone to make phone calls, which was odd since her family had a telephone. The newspaper’s liked Madge’s theory, but the police and the Fullers rejected it. It didn’t fit with what they knew of Nora.
A lone suspect emerged. Charles B. Hadley, an accountant for the San Francisco Examiner, vanished a few days after Nora’s disappearance. Shortly after his unexplained absence, the Examiner discovered Hadley’s accounts were short. Just how much money Hadley stole is unknown.
Charles Hadley’s ex-girlfriend, Ollie Blasier. brought him to authorities’ attention. At first, investigators didn’t think Hadley could be the right man since he was always clean-shaven and Bennett-Hawkins had a moustache. But Ollie said Hadley wore a false moustache at times. She said he was “greatly disturbed” by the newspaper accounts of Nora Fuller’s disappearance. Most damning of all was Ollie’s claim that while doing the laundry in mid-January, she found some blood-stained clothing that belonged to Hadley in the pile. She burned the items. On January 16, Ollie received a telephone call from Hadley, informing her that he was leaving for good. When she approached police in February, Ollie said she suspected Hadley of murdering Nora.
Police weren’t sure whether Ollie’s account was a sincere attempt to help them or the machinations of a vengeful ex-girlfriend, but they gladly accepted the photograph of Hadley she offered to them. Police showed it around and got mixed reactions. Some witnesses, like the delivery boy, said the man in the photo looked exactly like Hawkins. Others noted some likeness. Krone, the restaurant owner, did not think it was Bennett.
Police learned Charles B. Hadley was an alias. His real name was Charles Start, and he had a record. Two years before Nora’s murder, he assaulted a girl in San Francisco. A warrant had also been issued for his arrest for embezzling money in Minneapolis 15 years earlier.
Whether Hadley-Start was Bennett-Hawkins was never ascertained. He was never found. The rumor was he had committed suicide, but in any case, no one was ever charged with Nora’s murder.
The house on Sutter Street is still there, by the way, though the number has changed to 2209.
I’m curious to hear what you all think of this unsolved case! Did Nora know her killer? Was Hadley-Start really the murderer? Was Nora targeted or was he seeking a random victim? What happened to her killer?
Note: I typically only reference contemporaneous newspapers and documentation, but in this case I supplemented those resources with several good write-ups other people have done.
Here are the links to those articles: