The World’s Worst Divorce Attorney

On the afternoon of July 7, 1914, Mrs. John W. Nelms of Atlanta, Georgia eagerly tore open the envelope bearing a San Francisco postmark. Although the handwriting on the envelope was unfamiliar, she presumed the letter was from her son Marshall, who’d recently moved to California for his health.  It wasn’t. Instead, the typewritten note bore the signature of her daughter, Eloise Nelms Dennis, and its contents sent her scrambling for the police. Eloise claimed she’d killed her sister Beatrice, and that she was in San Francisco to kill Marshall, after which she would take her own life.

Eloise Dennis

Eloise Dennis

After insisting that Marshall be warned via telegram, Mrs. Nelms told the police everything she knew. Eloise had been divorced a year ago in Reno, and she suspected her daughter of being in love with her divorce attorney, Victor Innes, who’d visited her in Atlanta and professed to be unmarried. Eloise was the mother of a little boy, and both Eloise and Beatrice were active women. After her divorce Eloise had served as postmistress at East Point, Georgia, and Beatrice was a successful investor. The sisters had been en route to Houston to look into some potential land acquisitions that Beatrice thought might suit her growing real estate portfolio. Eloise had left Atlanta on June 10, and met up with Beatrice on June 13 in New Orleans. Mrs. Nelms had received a telegram on June 14, confirming their safe arrival in New Orleans, another a week later, signed “E and B” and advising her they were in Houston, and then one final dispatch on the June 28, to tell their mother that they were back in New Orleans, but planning on travelling further west, and asking her to send a skirt Beatrice particularly liked to the San Antonio post office, care of Margaret Mims. Mrs. Nelms knew little else.

Police published a description of the missing women. “Beatrice Nelms is a blonde, 26 years old. She is a self reliant business woman and brusque in manner. She is of medium height and has blue eyes.” In turn, “Eloise Nelms Dennis is a brunette, 30 years old. She is slender and talkative. She is slightly taller than Beatrice.” Their mother offered a $400 reward, $200 per daughter regardless of if they were found dead or alive.

Eloise and Beatrice

Eloise and Beatrice

Inquiries sent to Nevada turned up that Victor Innes, a former assistant district attorney, had left the state with his wife and children, purportedly for Washington State. Finally tracked down in Portland, Innes said he knew nothing of either woman’s whereabouts, would be willing to publish in full their correspondence and business dealings, and had never been to Atlanta.

Police in San Francisco, San Antonio, Houston New Orleans, and Dallas were all baffled; but the Atlanta detectives managed to turn up a few leads. Bank records indicated that both Eloise and Beatrice had cut numerous checks to Innes, totaling some $10,000. Eloise had cashed a check in her own name for $1,400. A Mrs. Margaret Mims had arrived in Atlanta in early June, representing herself as an aunt to Mr. Innes, who’d followed a few days later to discuss some Mexican investments with Mrs. Dennis, flatly contradicting Mrs. Nelms’ statement.

On July 14, Marshall Nelms arrived home to assist his mother. Leads began to pour in. Beatrice and Eloise were sighted at Gulfport and Biloxi. A groundless report from Houston contained word that the Nelms sisters had been kidnapped, and were being held for ransom. Telegrams arrived from Mobile, San Antonio, and Petit Bois Island from persons claiming to have seen the women. None of the leads panned out, although police did find the package Mrs. Nelms had sent to San Antonio lying unclaimed in the post office.

Victor E. Innes

Further background information on Innes turned up. He’d been married at least twice before, to a Mrs. Caroline Green and a Mrs. Clarence Viola Adele Sickles, a cousin of General Sickles of Civil War fame, and who’d been a stenographer in Innes’ office. It wasn’t for a few years after they’d been married that Ms. Sickles discovered that Innes had neglected to divorce his first wife; Innes skipped town and took their four year old son James with him. Sickles hadn’t seen him since.

Marshall Nelms was determined not to let interest wane in his sisters’ disappearance, and in late July he travelled to Washington D.C., in an attempt to interest the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (which would later become the F.B.I.) in the case. With only 40 agents the Bureau’s resources were as limited as its jurisdiction. The Bureau was tasked primarily with investigating violations of the White-Slave Traffic Act, which forbad the interstate transportation of females for immoral purposes; a nice way of saying that one couldn’t bring a prostitute over state lines. The Bureau declined to get involved.

Nelms continued his own investigation, and by mid-August had amassed enough evidence to convince the San Antonio authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Innes and his wife. “Eloise and Beatrice left Atlanta on June 12 for San Antonio…They took dinner in New Orleans with some friends, stopped in Houston and were seen to leave the train in San Antonio and were later seen in company with two others believed to be Mr. and Mrs. Innes,” he told reporters. “In the meantime, Innes, I have learned, rented a cottage at 120 Wilkins avenue in San Antonio, into which he moved. It was discovered that the windows had been nailed down, canvas tacked over them and two stoves in the home were kept going for four days although it was the middle of summer.” Then Nelms revealed the grisly part. “Our theory is that my two sisters were done away with, their bodies cut into pieces, ground in a meat chopper and either burned or buried.”

Mrs. Victor Innes

Up in Portland, Mr. and Mrs. Innes were taken into custody. Ida May Innes was tubercular and weak, but her condition did not assuage Nelms’ desire for vengeance. He himself escorted them from Portland to San Antonio in the company of a deputy sheriff. They also brought along a large meat grinder, which the Portland police had discovered in the Innes’ home.

Nelms and the District Attorney continued to gather evidence; a San Antonio storekeeper recollected selling Innes a large quantity of lye. The remnants of a woman’s shoe were found in a cement cauldron in the backyard of 120 Wilkins Street, as were traces of the lye which they suspected had been used to dissolve the skeletons after the flesh and muscle had been ground into pulp and burned.

On October 12, 1914, the grand jury indicted Mr. and Mrs. Innes for Eloise’s and Beatrice’s murder. The next day Judge Anderson of the Bexar District Court held the couple’s bail hearing. Mrs. Nelms had arrived, and on Innes’ appearance shouted “There he goes, the old ghoul. He’s done that devilment and killed my two daughters.” Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, Innes and his wife were freed upon bail of $4500.  Trial was scheduled for November 15th. On the morning of the 15th, Innes’ lawyer filed a habeas corpus. Under Texas law, the prosecution could not bring the case unless they could produce a witness who’d seen the women’s corpses. Innes and his wife had done their job well, and when the prosecution failed to produce anyone, the judge ordered the jury to acquit the prisoners.

They never got to enjoy their liberty. Back in Georgia, a warrant had been issued for the couple’s arrest for larceny by trust, a rarely used charge that included all the elements of stealing, except for requirement that the prosecution prove that the initial taking was done with unlawful intent.[1] Since they couldn’t be charged with murder in Georgia, the prosecutor planned to charge them with taking Eloise’s and Beatrice’s money for investments which were never made.

Victor Innes and his wife Ida May fought their extradition to Georgia to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, insisting that while they may have committed the crime of larceny by trust in Georgia, they had fled to Oregon; thus, their presence in Texas was involuntary and they could not be extradited by the Texas Governor to Georgia. Over a strong dissent from Justice Davidson the Court disagreed. A further appeal to the United States Supreme Court went nowhere, Justice Edward Douglas White wrote the unanimous opinion which supported extradition.

In the middle of 1915, Mr. and Mrs. Innes were extradited to Georgia, after the Georgia governor guaranteed their safety pending trial. It took until May 1916 for Victor Innes to finally come before the court. He defended himself claiming he’d never been in Atlanta, had met Eloise Dennis while serving as her divorce attorney, hadn’t seen her since, and was in Oregon at the time he was purportedly in Atlanta. Completely devoid of funds and thus reliant on the state to provide counsel, Innes requested the Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners appropriate funds to hire a detective to journey to Oregon and establish their alibi. The Board refused.

The trial was a foregone conclusion. Victor Innes’ attorney C. L. Pettigrew introduced no witnesses, and the jury deliberation lasted only 45 minutes, efficiency aided no doubt by the prominent display of the meat grinder. Although Innes begged the judge for leniency, the judge gave him the maximum sentence for larceny by trust, seven years. A motion for new trial was denied, a decision upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Ida May Innes’ lungs were ravaged by tuberculosis, and she was deemed too ill to stand trial until she rallied briefly in February 1917. She was convicted and likely died in jail. Victor Innes lived to be freed in 1922; a brief mention of him in an Oregon newspaper notes that he’d been charged with mail fraud upon release, but nothing more is known. Neither is there any mention of the fate of the Innes children.

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In the meantime, some of our all time favorite forgotten stories are:

The Vast New York Shoe Conspiracy: http://tinyurl.com/bpjwnpm 

The Human Rat Eater of Philadelphia: http://tinyurl.com/bwoddgg

and

A Forgotten Stories Buffet: http://tinyurl.com/cftssve 


[1] For our legally inclined friends, an example of larceny after trust would be if A borrows B’s car, with B’s full permission, but then refuses to return it.

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2 Comments

  1. Bill Freeling

     /  August 4, 2014

    Fascinating story – especially to my wife who is a granddaughter of these Innes’ and knew nothing of this history. She always thought her maiden name was Harbaugh, the older half-brother who raised Victor H. Innes/Harbaugh and his twin sister Vinita.
    I’m trying to reconstruct the history of Ida May who – to me – is the most fascinating character in this whole saga. Can you point me to any useful sources for this research? Any help will be greatly appreciated.
    Bill Freeling

    Reply
    • Bill –

      If you drop me an email (rogersachar@gmail.com), I’ll get you the primary sources I used to write the story. I think I still have them somewhere.

      RS

      Reply

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