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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The Vast New York Shoe Conspiracy: 

The Human Rat Eater of Philadelphia:


A Forgotten Stories Buffet: 

[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.


The Human Blowtorch

“I have a singular phenomenon in the shape of a young man living here, that I have studied with much interest,” wrote Dr. L.C. Woodman to the Michigan Medical News, “and I am satisfied that his peculiar power demonstrates that electricity of the nerve force beyond dispute. His name is Wm. [William] Underwood, aged 27 years, and his gift is that of generating fire through the medium of his breath, assisted by manipulations of his hands.”

Lest the modern reviewer think that Woodman had stumbled upon an early X-man, the fire-breathing marvel required a long break after his performance “He will take anybody’s handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, and rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it, and immediately it bursts into flames and is consumed…It is impossible to persuade him to do it more than twice in a day, and the effort is attendant with the most extreme exhaustion. He will sink into a chair after doing it.” Having Underwood along could be quite handy. One respectable citizen of Paw Paw, whose name is not preserved, recorded that Underwood joined him on a hunting party, and kindled a fire after matches failed.

Underwood charged  $0.25 per show, good money in 1882, especially for a black man with no literacy skills living in the small town of Paw Paw, Michigan. Of his talent’s origin, reported Woodman “he is ignorant, and says that he first discovered his strange power by inhaling and exhaling on a perfumed handkerchief that suddenly burned while in his hands.”

Reportedly, Underwood passed every test. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that the clerk of the Paw Paw School Board, Mr. David Fisher, saw the performance and didn’t believe it could be anything but a trick. As the Gazette reported “Mr. Fisher, not being satisfied, went to the fellow’s house in the night, got him out of bed, made him wash his hands and arms, then swabbed out his mouth, gave him a drink of water, and  bid him go own with the show. The result was that the paper (ordinary newspaper brought along for the purpose) was set on fire. Mr. Fisher says there is no humbug about it.”

After the story hit the Michigan Medical News, it was picked up by Scientific American, and from there by newspapers from as far away as Smithville, Texas and Middlebury, Vermont. Woodman asked the reading public, “It is certainly no humbug, but what is it?”

…and for almost a year, there was no response to Dr. Woodman’s question. Underwood continued to draw crowds, and the public was at a complete loss to explain his pyrokinetic abilities. Then, shortly before Underwood, Woodman, and the whole lot disappeared into history, a Dr. R. Thomas of De Pere Wisconsin proposed an explanation, after his son Dr. A. F. Thomas reported seeing Underwood in action.  Underwood, he claimed, used phosphorous.

Indeed, Thomas pere had done just such a trick as a boy. “The way I used to do it was to place a small piece of phosphorus in my mouth…out of sight when the mouth was opened. Then when I wished to perform, I would borrow a handkerchief – seldom my own – hold it to my mouth with both hands, blow hard through it a number of times, but off a little piece of the phosphorus, push it into the handkerchief with my tongue, and rub it vigorously between my hands, when lo! It would burst into a flame, to the astonishment of all present. ” The piece could be minute, smaller than a mustard seed. Thomas used to carry his “between my cheek and gum above the upper teeth, as tobacco chewers carry  their quid, so that what answered for a minute inspection of the mouth and rinsing it with water, would not reveal it.”

Phosophorus, according to Wikipedia, ignites at slightly more than room temperature, and can be induced to ignite by friction. If it is indeed true that Underwood was using phosphorus, which is pretty dangerous stuff to carry in one’s mouth, than we have to acknowledge that Woodman, Fisher, and a whole host of other examiners failed to notice the phosphorus which from what we can gather is yellowish-white and glows when exposed to light. If he wasn’t using phosphoros or some other combustible material, then Underwood had the power of pyrokenisis, which shouldn’t exist outside of a  Stephen King novel.

What do you think?

Post Script – Bryan Eno’s first album, Here Come the Warm Jets, contains a song which dimly references Underwood, titled “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch.”  The lyrics don’t particularly make much sense given the backstory (“You’ll have to choose between the Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and Me”), but then not much of the 1970s makes sense anyway.

Thought-Full Voters

History has blessed us with combinations that just seem to work, the Spork for instance, or William Shatner and Ben Folds Five performing “In Love”. Some of these combinations border on the bizarre, like dipping French fries in chocolate milk shakes at Wendy’s. One of the strangest combinations of all took place in Illinois during April of 1908, when temperance met telepathy.

Telepathy and Temperance 1

Americans, then as of now, liked to have a drink. In 1907, the consumption of wines and liquors per capita was 23.53 gallons; it was up from 20.38 gallons in 1905 and 7.7 gallons in 1870. The Anti-Saloon League viewed these statistics with alarm, and deployed a formidable army advocating for Prohibition. With $500,000 in yearly funds available, the League deployed a thousand paid speakers to rail against demon rum and released 35 different publications with a combined circulation of 250,000. They’d had some recent success, with Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma all having just banned liquor sales statewide. Despite pressure on Congress, national success eluded the League. Instead, they focused on what was called the “local option,” a county by county crusade to outlaw saloons.

Anti-prohibitionists fought back with some rhetoric of their own. Charles W. Darr, speaking on behalf of the Personal Liberty League to a group of pro-liquor ministers, told a gathering in Washington D.C. that his organization stood as a bar to “frenzied fanaticism”. Darr claimed “[t]his is not a question of prohibition prohibiting, but an economic one. Prohibition is led by the short-haired women and the long-haired men, 99 per cent of whom do not pay taxes, and will not if they live hundreds of years.” Temperance should begin not at the ballot box, but at home, “where the mother should be, instead of attending congressional meetings, attending women’s club engagements, and up to the House meetings where the short-haired women try to deprive us of our rights.”

If appeals to disregard short haired women didn’t work, there were other reasons to allow a man a drink, as The Spokane Press pointed out: “The Russians who are anarchists are the men who remain sober and brood over the oppression of the masses. The sodden vodka drinkers make no trouble…The Italians who furnish most of our anarchists are one of the most temperate peoples in Europe. Scandinavia, where the increase in drunkenness is looked upon by statesmen as a great national danger, is a land without anarchists.”

At the same time the Prohibitionists were trying to reform men’s palates, others were at work exploring men’s minds. The newspapers of the day were filled with telepathic advice and encounters. A gentleman known only as P.S. wrote to his local paper, “[m]y wife and I were discussing the annoyance caused by cats gathering in our yard of nights. Both of us were at a loss to remedy it. Five minutes later, while upstairs, the thought occurred to me that sprinkling black pepper on the lawn would make the cats seeks some other spot. I said nothing, and as I came downstairs met my wife, who at once said: ‘I have a scheme – what’s the matter with sprinkling black pepper in the yard.’ Neither of us had heard of the black pepper plan before. Why did we both think of it at the same time.” Astounding!

Another writer, who went by the name Inquirer, related “I believe telepathy gave me my wife. I was in Chicago in 1903 on business. While discussing affairs with the purchasing agent of a railroad I happened to look at a young lady who sat at a typewriter. I had never seen her before. She was a pretty woman, but, as she will admit, not dazzling.” Then it happened, and Inquirer was struck, “A strange current seemed to course through my brain. Actually, I lost my words. And as plainly as could be I heard a voice saying: ‘She will be your wife’”.

He continued, “I quickly recovered myself and pursued my interview. Three hours later, on crowded State street, I came face to face with the same young woman. I had not spoken a word to her in the office, and had never expected to see her again. Instantly the strange voice whispered again: ‘She will be your wife.’ I was so impressed that I boldly addressed her. In six weeks we were married, and on our wedding day my wife revealed to me a secret that she had promised to tell me on that date. She said: ‘When I first saw you I felt that a voice was saying to me, ‘That’s your future husband’”. Imagine her amazement then when I returned the compliment by relating the story of my own experience.” Love at first think, methinks.

Dr. Van Eeden, a Dutch sociologist, advised American readers that “Every home should be conducted along the lines of mental suggestion, for it is only then that harmony can exist throughout the household…When the child is drowsy just before retiring is the best time for the mother or father to transmit thought. Its mind is receptive and it responds more easily to ideas. The childish mind is impressionable, and a mother or father by verbal and mental suggestions forms either a worthy or wicked character for the child.”

Telepathy and Temperance 3

The telepathic process itself was simple according to Edward B. Warman, who billed himself as an “Eminent Psychologist and Hygienist”. “If you desire to aid one – mentally, morally, or physically – at home or at a distance, you may readily do so after you retire…just before dropping asleep hold the thought of helpfulness on and for the one whom you wish to benefit. What takes place? Your messages are received by the non-sleeping mind of the one to whom they are sent…the recipient, during his waking hours, will be impressed to follow an impulse coming from he knows not where; an impulse that will be wholly the result of your desire; an impulse to spur himself on to higher aims, greater ambition and the exchange of hope and courage to displace fear and discouragement; an impulse to lay hold of every hygienic measure for the restoration of health; in other words, whatever you desire for him, he will desire for himself, if you hold the though sufficiently strong for him to get it subjectively.”

Mrs. Marvin Miller, of Jacksonville, Illinois, was a passionate Anti-Saloon League member, and a believer in telepathy. To Mrs. Miller’s credit belongs the idea of wedding temperance to telepathy. Mrs. Miller spoke of the idea to her friends, and urged it at several talks to Illinois daughters and mothers. She and her friends even gave a demonstration. According to the Ocala Evening Star of April 3, “[a]t Aurora last week the Rev. William Wasson, rector of the Episcopal church, was scheduled for an address in opposition to the local option. The women…sat in the audience and launched thought waves at him. They say he was so confused that this thoughts became muddled and his language halting.”

With a county by county election on the Prohibition question scheduled for April 7, 1908, the Temperance Thinkers mobilized some 500,000 women to dress all in white and to direct thought waves at voters. “Women arrayed in white will assemble at the polls,” described one paper, “and by concentrated mental effort endeavor to influence the men. The male-citizen will also be subjected to visual influence of an extraordinary character. In order to get to the voting booths he will be compelled to walk between lines of women and girls.” With only a small handful of urban counties dissenting, Illinois barred some 1,500 saloons. Twenty counties voted for an absolute ban on liquor.

The Arizona Republican, reporting on the results, sounded a note of alarm. “We can think of no more powerful influence than the concentrated effort of a half million feminine wills directed towards a certain object. There was nothing unlawful or improper in the exercise of such an influence, provided the thought currents are turned off when the polls closed and were not permitted to play after the counting of the ballots began. In that case, the mental suggestion of the ladies to the election boards would have amounted to hypnotism, which, though not expressly inhibited by the statutes would have been reprehensible.”

As an electoral tool and fad, telepathy seems to have faded after 1908. Prohibition did not. It won the passage of the nationwide ban on alcohol, which was repealed in 1932. Even today, many counties remain “dry”, but perhaps with concerted mental effort, we can make a change. Who thinks so?


 Telepathy and Temperance 2

            While we strongly support telepathy when it comes to temperance, we doubt its efficacy when it comes to blogging. If you like our stuff, tell the twitterverse, tell a friend, and subscribe yourself! Links are up at the top right.

Forgotten Person Benjamin Zimmerman, Wealthy Mendicant

Benjamin Zimmerman

Benjamin Zimmerman

Benjamin Zimmerman was a common sight on the Southern Pacific train which regularly plied back and forth between San Jose and San Francisco. Conductors and porters saw him board the train three or four times per day for the round trip, a process made more difficult because Zimmerman was missing both an arm and a leg, and got along on crutches. It being February 1903, handicapped accessible railway cars were nonexistent, and during the 90 minute journey, Zimmerman shuffled his way up and down the aisles of the passenger cars carrying in his hand a card that read: “The object of this appeal is to get the bearer an artificial leg and arm by which means he will be enabled to make his own living….Anything you wish to give will be thankfully received.” Dressed in raggedy clothes, and with a haggard appearance, Zimmerman aroused sympathy from most of the passengers who dropped their dimes, nickels and pennies into Zimmerman’s satchel. A few fellow travelers did complain that Zimmerman turned verbally hostile if they refused to turn over coins, but most were generous to the kindly Zimmerman, who explained that he had lost his arm and leg in a railway accident as a boy while selling newspapers on a train.

Zimmerman was no dummy. He always bought tickets for each trip he took, and thus could not be thrown off of the train without the railway inviting a lawsuit for damages. Officials sensed danger in the wind should more beggars discover this particular ploy as an Achilles Heel of the railroad; their respectable line swarming with all manner of roving mendicants.

Frank J. Kelly Esq., did what men of his ilk do and found a loophole. San Francisco’s statute book required the deportation of any “vagrant” found within the City limits. All the railway had to do was to prove that Mr. Zimmerman was in fact a vagrant no employment, and so he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. If successful, they could prefer charges and have him shipped out of town. Southern Pacific Superintendant B.A. Worthington, with all the weight of the Southern Pacific behind him, requested that Police Chief Wittman dispatch detectives to look into Zimmerman’s activities.

The case fell to detectives Fitzgerald and Graham, and it didn’t take them long to come back with results. It seemed that Zimmerman didn’t really need a new artificial arm and leg; he already had perfectly good ones. They were so good in fact, that he’d regularly placed them in hock to the local pawn shop as security on a short term loan. When his work day on the train was done, Zimmerman typically skedaddled home as fast as a man with one leg could to put on his top-of-the-line artificial limbs, and some fancy duds. He would then step out with the gait of a millionaire and pickup his girlfriend for a fancy dinner and wine at a popular café. In the event the girlfriend was unable to attend, Zimmerman would dine alone, and then spend the remainder of the evening shooting billiards at a local hall where his skill with a cue earned admiration, and even a few extra nickels.

Zimmerman sans artificial arm for some reason

Zimmerman sans artificial arm for some reason

Fitzgerald and Green reported their findings back to Chief Wittman and they picked Zimmerman up on a charge of vagrancy as he walked down Mason Street after a fancy dinner. Lodged in City Prison overnight, Zimmerman awoke from his less than comfortable slumber to appear before the frowning eyes of Police Judge Cabaniss.  Any chance Zimmerman had of escaping the charges faded to nonexistence when the Judge appointed Attorney Frank Kelly of the Southern Pacific as a special prosecutor. Zimmerman’s counsel, Attorney Shortall was quite skilled (he would sit on the bench in just a few years), and managed to get Zimmerman freed provided he stayed away from the Southern Pacific.

But Zimmerman wasn’t quite done with the Southern Pacific yet. With plenty of moxie, and little thought to the young lady who had come to like nice dinners, Zimmerman approached Attorney Kelly and said “Say, if you can get me a pass, I will leave the city.”  Kelly got him his pass, Zimmerman shook the dust of San Francisco off his feet and moved on, Neville St. Clair style, to bother someone else.

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