One morning in early December 1927, Eddie West doesn’t show up for work at his family’s nursery business. His brother James went to Eddie’s bungalow to see if something was wrong. He found the door unlocked and went into the house, and finally up to the bedroom. There he found a horrifying scene.
The room was in chaos. Blood stains were on the floor, the walls, and the bedding. A bloody hammer lay on the floor near the bed. On the floor lay a lifeless body, hands and feet bound with twine, a bloody pillowcase over the head, and covered by a blanket. It was his brother Eddie.
James immediately called the sheriff, “Big” Ed Rasmussen.
Big Ed’s first step was to find Eddie’s wife Velma. He finally found her at her mother’s house in Cleveland. He took her back to Perry for questioning.
Velma, known as Val, was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Catherine and Bert Van Woert. At the age of 3 she won the “Perfect Baby” contest at a theater in Cleveland. She spent most of her childhood ill with diphtheria and mastoidal problems.
Val met Eddie in the summer of 1925 at a picnic. Eddie was 24 and Val was 19. She was a petite blonde with a lively personality. Eddie was tall dark and handsome. Eddie convinced her to elope with him on the 4th of July 1926. They drove from Cleveland to Ripley, NY. After they were married, they drove to Pennsylvania and took a train to Chicago. They soon ran out of money and Eddie left Val with some friends while he looked for work. He returned a week later with enough money to get them home to Perry. Eddie went back to work at his father’s nursery business for $112 a month and free rent on their bungalow. Everything seemed fine for the newlyweds.
The trouble started July 1927 when Mabel Young, came to Perry to spend a vacation with some neighbors of the West’s. Val and Mable met and instantly became close friends. They went swimming and fishing together almost every day. Val at this time had taken to wearing boy’s clothing and had cut her hair. Mabel had to go back to Cleveland. Val used to visit her often in Cleveland. When they weren’t together, they wrote long letters to each other. Eddie began to resent the friendship between Val and Mabel and began intercepting the letters addressed to his wife. Val went to Big Ed to complain about Eddie reading her mail and Big Ed said he would speak to her.
On the night of Eddie’s murder, they started fighting again. They had both been invited to a Bridge Party at Mabel Young’s house. Eddie was jealous of Mabel and said that Val neglected him because of her love for Mabel. Eddie refused to go to the Bridge Party and told Val that she could not go either. Val fought back and Eddie hit her and made her nose bleed. Val became so enraged that she picked up a hammer that she had used earlier to hang curtain rods and hit Eddie in the head with it while he sat on the bed, knocking him to the floor. He tried to get up and she hit him again. He tried to get up four times in all, and Val hit him each time. Finally, when he lay still, she got some twine and tied up his hand and feet, put a pillow case over his head, hit him some more and finally stopped and covered the body with a blanket.
She washed up and changed her clothes and headed for the party at Mabel’s.
According to witnesses at the party, Val and been gay and carefree. She played bridge, laughed, sang, danced, and played jazz tunes on the piano. The party ended at 11:30 and she spent the night with Mabel. The next morning, she went to her mother’s home and the two went shopping. Val apparently bought Christmas presents for Eddie. The two ate lunch at home and then Big Ed showed up and took Val back to Perry.
After four hours of intense interrogation, where Val chained smoked and would not admit to her guilt, the Prosecutor, Seth Paulin came in with a newspaper with a big bold headline T. Edward West Found Slain.
Val fainted and when Seth left to get her some water, she told Big Ed that she would tell the truth and wrote out her confession. In her confession besides the murder, she also admitted to having a love affair with Mabel.
The Iron Flapper
On December 12, 1927, Val was formally charged with First Degree Murder, as indicted by the Grand Jury in Painesville Municipal Court before Judge Marvin Helter.
Val screamed when she heard the judge order her held without bail and collapsed on a chair and slowly slid to the floor. Her mother and the deputy ran to her, but she was already recovered by the time that they reached her, and she pushed them away.
“It can’t be; it just can’t be”, she wailed.
“It wasn’t planned, You know it wasn’t I don’t see how they could do it! If they had been there when it happened, I know that they would have looked at it differently!” she finished.
She then rose to her feet and looked around the room and started hysterically crying which ended up in a second swooning fit. She then left the room on the arm of Big Ed Rassmussen out to the fire escape to get some air.
When she returned, she seemed to be more in control. Her defense lawyer pled for a lesser charge so that she would be allowed bail but was denied.
Judge Helter spoke to the crowded courtroom that spilled out into the hall and called the murder, “The most unspeakable crime in the history of Lake county.”
Val then fainted again. Her uncle told reporters that she thought that the Judge Helter had sentenced her to death. Val was tormented by thoughts of the Electric Chair especially after Ruth Snyder in New York was sentenced to die by the Electric Chair in Sing-Sing prison.
Reporters reached out to Clarence Darrow, (remember him? He defended Emma Simpson) for a comment. He told reporters, “Velma West was brought up on velvet. She married and went to a life in the moralled, dull small town. Like any other woman that was brought up in luxury and with companions used to luxury and independence, she naturally reacted against everyone and everything when forced to continue the cramped, small town life. It was as if she was locked in a gloom, overwhelming, restraining room away from the things her heart yearned for and in a frenzy of rebellious passion broke down. “
Darrow further stated that Val need medical treatment and not punishment.
On February 18, 1928, prospective jurors were called for the trial. The jury pool consisted of thirty-two men and sixteen women.
March 5, 1928, exactly three months to the day of the murder, the trial began. Val was self-possessed as she entered the courtroom wearing a gray fur coat over a knee length black silk dress. There was a huge crowd of people fighting for seats, which were all filled an hour before the court was scheduled to begin. Almost all the spectators were women. But the trial was delayed as Judge J.D. Barnes met with attorneys from both sides.
While the trial was delayed, she gave an interview to a reporter. “I’m ready for the ordeal”, she told the reporter. She also tried to explain that she was not the sophisticated flapper that the press had made her out to be. She said that she had tried to settle down in Perry and be a real housewife and had dreamed of having babies.
While Val was giving her interview, and stressing about being sent to the electric chair, startling new evidence showed up.
Mabel Young, Val’s best friend sent an eight-page letter to the Sherriff. In it she revealed many of the details of Val’s activities before the murder. The letter was said to tell the true nature of Mabel and Val’s relationship. The letter was not made public, but if the trial were to go forward it would involve a 17 year old girl that had not been mentioned before.
“Velma’s intense desire to break the shackles married life and get away from her husband to do what she wished was the motive for the slaying”, stated the sheriff.
The sheriff then recapped the crime, stating that Mabel Young was the person having the all-night girl party that Val drove the 35 miles from Perry after murdering her husband and burning her bloody clothes in the furnace.
Val re-entered the courtroom, removed her fur coat sat and waited for the trial to begin. As soon as the court began her chief counsel Francis Poulson stood and stated, “The defendant, Velma West, offers to plead guilty of murder in the second degree.”
Seth Paulin, the prosecutor then rose. “Your honor, my associate, Homer Harper and myself have considered the question of accepting this plea offered by counsel for the defense and we recommend that it be accepted.”
Paulin then motioned for Velma to stand up and she did and stood beside him in front of the judge.
Judge Barnes then addressed her, “Is it your decision – to plead guilty of murder in the second degree?”
“It is”, she whispered.
“Have you anything to say at this time as to why the court should not now pass sentence?” asked the judge in tones that a father would use in addressing his daughter.
“No, sir. I have not.” Said Velma nervously clasping and unclasping her hands.
“This matter of you being allowed to plead guilty in the second degree did not come up suddenly. The lawyers took the matter up with the court and asked what they should do under the circumstances. We went over the matter thoroughly. I also consulted with Judge A. G. Reynolds. “
“This court and Judge Reynolds came to the conclusion that in view of the evidence the state could not expect to get a conviction higher than second degree. I do not think that it is time for talking about the case, the community knows all about it. It has had its regrettable aspects. The mandate of the law is the most potent of all and that mandate has to be fulfilled.
“Never before in my career as a judge have, I sentenced a woman in a case of this kind.
“The law says that the punishment for second degree murder shall be confinement in the reformatory for women for the rest of your natural life. That is the sentence that this court imposes upon you.”
As Velma returned to her seat her father and attorney tried to cheer her up telling her that Second Degree murder is eligible for parole after ten years. Unfortunately, if Velma were released, she wouldn’t get to see Mabel Young. Mabel worked for the Cleveland Clinic and a disastrous fire broke out there in May 1929, and Mabel lost her life in the fire.
Prosecutor Paulin stated, “We decided to accept the guilty plea to save the parents of the murdered man and also the witnesses that had to be called.”
The West family, Eddie’s parents, financially and politically powerful had hoped to avoid a trial.
SO, story over! Velma off to Marysville Women’s Reformatory and that’s it…
Velma goes off to Marysville Woman’s Reformatory hoping to be paroled in seven years. But that comes up and the parole board says that Velma must wait until 1938 for a parole hearing. November 1938 comes around and the Parole Board rescinded Velma’s rights to parole, giving her the maximum penalty a life sentence.
So, Velma gets busy. Even though Mrs. Reilley the prison supervisor is her best friend, has given her lots of privileges including escorting visitors through the prison, wearing “Honor Dresses” which weren’t part of the normal blue uniform, having access to the entire prison, studying stenography, she decides that she needs one last adventure.
June 19, 1939, Velma West, 31 along with Virginia Bawdy, (an incorrigible), Mary Ellen Richards, 23, (serving a term for robbery) and Florence Sheline, 23 (convicted of breaking and entering) escaped from Marysville Reformatory. Velma left a note saying that she wanted one more fling.
Between 9:30 and 10:00 pm on June 18, 1939 Velma and the three other inmates escaped from the Marysville Reformatory. At 9:30 Velma slipped a piece of paper with a key in it under her door. Lenora Leach who was an inmate whose cot was in the hallway unlocked the door for Velma. Velma came out of her room wearing blue overalls and an orange jacket. She carried a pink dress over her arm. She then went to Florence’s room and opened it and gave Florence the pink dress to wear. They then unlocked the barred door at the end of the hall with another key, after they left Lenora relocked the door. Velma warned all the inmates on that hallway to keep their mouths shut and that she would get anyone that told. They then unlocked the doors for Virginia and Mary Ellen and left. When they didn’t show up for breakfast the following morning a search of the reformatory was performed, and an alarm was sounded.
Marguerite Reilly the reformatory superintendent thinks that Velma may have gone to Canada. Three prisoners had escaped April 28, 1939 and were headed to Canada. They told Velma that you couldn’t be returned from Canada. Velma’s mother wrote an open letter which was published in many newspapers across the country. “You do not know the heart ache that you are causing me. Your little fling will only mean more suffering and God knows you have had plenty of that.”
Mrs. Reilly the reformatory superintendent told the press that she was considering asking for a new lock system to replace the 20-year-old one that they were using at the time of the escape. She was also considering of a fence around the building and a guard at the front gate. Let’s see they had an escape in April, and then this one in June, and no fences or guards at the gate? Maybe that isn’t a bad idea? You think?
Lenora Leach who had been accused of making the prison escape possible, told Mrs. Reilly that she got the key from Florence Sheline and opened her door, nor Velma West’s door.
June 22, Velma and Virginia are spotted in Kenton, OH. Sherriff Norman said that two women one in a red plaid dress and the other dressed as a boy stopped in Kenton at 10:45 am and were fed in a private home and given a ride out of town. Reformatory officials stated that Virginia had a red plaid dress like the one described and that Velma had often dressed as a boy
June 23, Cleveland police interview Velma’s mother and her 18-year-old brother. They were asked to take a lie detector test. Escapees still on the loose with no clues. A travelling salesman came forward two days after he gave them a ride to Defiance, Ohio. But there was no trace of them there. No clues as to the whereabouts of Velma, the story has been posted all over the country with photographs, no one has come forward in a timely manner.
July 24, Velma still on the run. Still in all the newspapers. Mrs. Reilly says “She can’t keep hidden forever. I feel that someone helped them escape and is now maintaining them. Velma is unable to support herself and is of no value to the underworld.” She also expressed surprise that there were no clues.
July 26, 1929 Detective CO Buchanan, JE Daniel and Ben Sanford arrested Velma and Mary Ellen Richards not far from a tavern that they were working, in Dallas. The officers were cruising the area when their headlights flashed on the two women as they crossed the street. Velma was dressed in slacks and Mary Ellen in a blue dress. The arrest was peaceful. The officers had heard that they were in the area from a tip they received from someone that recognized their pictures in the newspaper.
When questioned Velma said, “After seven years, the board of pardons told me it was useless for me to seek my release anymore. Ever since then I was looking for a chance to escape.
“I found the world changed. I had never been outside of Ohio until I escaped. I wanted to see some night clubs but the nearest I got to them were a few honky-tonks. However, I found lots of changes.
“I don’t know whether you would call this a fling, but I did want to see some of the outside world. I wouldn’t call my last three weeks exactly a good time, and I wouldn’t escape again if I had the chance. It isn’t worth it. But it was easy for us to get away. I was a trusty and so was Virginia. We secured a set of keys opened the gates and walked out.
” I wanted to go back and walk into the reformatory by myself.”
As they had hitchhiked to Dallas, Florence Sheline gave up on the way, and Virginia Brawdy had left Dallas, so they were still on the loose.
When the inmates in Marysville heard about Velma’s capture, they threatened to beat up Velma on her return. Her escape precipitated the suspension of privileges for all the inmates. The capture of Velma was cause for celebration among the prisoners because their privileges including visitors would be restored.
Mrs. Reilly the reformatory superintendent told the press that as punishment for the escape, that Velma and Mary Ellen would have their heads shaved, be in solitary for 30 days and exist on bread and water during the solitary. There was a lot of uproar across the country for such harsh punishment, some newspaper editorials suggesting it was vengeance for Mrs. Reilley’s hurt feelings. Velma had garnered a lot of publicity and a lot of sympathy.
Velma West – Iron Flapper – A sad ending to a sad life
Two months later in September 1939, Virginia Brawdy was arrested in Van Wert, OH. She had died her hair black and had been involved in several robberies of gas stations and stolen a car from a dealership saying that they wanted a test drive. She was returned to Marysville. In April 1941, Virginia was paroled.
October 1941 Florence Sheline turns herself into the Denver Police. Florence did not go to Dallas with the other three, but went her own way. She said she had been working as a waitress most of the time after her escape and had taken a Secretarial Class. “I want to pay off my debt to society and make something of myself. I suppose I’ll have about 2 years facing me when I get back but there will be no more attempts to escape. The temptation was just too much, I left with the other three.” Florence was paroled January 1944.
Mary Ellen Richards, the one who had stayed with Velma throughout the escape was paroled December 1, 1943.
From the time of the recapture, Velma was just an ordinary prisoner with no special privileges. Her mother and sometimes her brother came and visited once a month. Velma worked in the laundry and began have serious heart issues.
In 1950, The parole committee refused to hear from Velma, even though her mother pled with them to release Velma because of her bad health. Velma had been classified by the prison as physically unfit to work for over a year.
Dr. George Watson diagnosis of Velma was ill with an almost complete heart blockage. “It would be humane to release her, there is no question that her number is up. But outside she would only live a couple of months, inside prison the good care and routine is all that keeps her alive.”
Margueritte Reilley wrote a book Prison Bars with Curtains. In that book she called Velma her famous failure.
“I was the prize fool Mrs. Reilley. I don’t have much time now: I’d like to spend it with my mother. We need each other.”
“We’re both getting old Velma,” was all the Superintendent said.
In 1958, Velma was interviewed by the Chillicothe Gazette.
Velma has a heart condition and has lived on borrowed time for at least 5 years. She weighs 98 pounds. She has no duties at the reformatory and spends most of her time in bed. The reformatory Drama Coach encouraged Velma to write songs. She wrote over 134 popular songs and 10 sacred ones. She spends at least an hour a day on her music. Hammering out tunes on an old upright piano.
“I have changed. I have become a Catholic since coming here. Don’t think I just jumped right into it. One year after I had been here, I tried to kill myself. It didn’t work. I was just despondent.
“It may sound corny, but this is true. We pray more from others than ourselves. I committed a crime, took another human life. Regardless of whether you are justified, you just don’t do that. Every time I say Communion it is for my husband. If his soul can’t be saved, I don’t want mine to be. I pray for him every day. It is my belief that God has let me live this long to let me do this.”
October 27, 1959 Velma West died in the Marysville Reformatory. She was only 52 years old and weighed only 86 pounds.