(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1939, 57-year-old Charles Augustine McLachlan was gassed at San Quentin State Prison in California. He’d murdered a six-year-old neighbor girl at his home in Downey, California the previous year.
McLachlan was a widower who was half Irish-American and half Mexican by descent but described as white. A master painter and decorator, he owned a plot of land with a few houses he’d built himself.
McLachlan lived alone in the smallest of the houses, an eight-by-twelve-foot shack; the largest building was occupied by his son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Carmen, and their child. The parents of the victim, Jennie Moreno (her name is spelled “Jenny” in many accounts), had known McLachlan for about thirty years. Although he was occasionally seen drunk, he had a reputation as a kind, likeable man.
That is, until April 14, 1938.
At 10:00 that morning, Jennie Moreno and her younger sister went to give a magazine to Carmen McLachlan.
Jennie’s parents last saw her at 11:00 a.m., while she was getting ready to go to church. When she didn’t return home at noon as expected, her parents began searching for her. At some point a neighbor smelled a strange odor and noticed smoke pouring out the windows of McLachlan’s shack, which had no chimney or flue.
The police were summoned. They arrived at his house at midnight and found bloodstained, partially burned clothing belonging to both Jennie and McLachlan lying on a sheet of metal on the floor of the shack. The floor had been washed and was still sopping wet.
A search of the premises turned up Jennie’s shoes and a bloodstained hammer. McLachlan’s mattress was saturated with blood and there was blood on the floor beneath the bed as well. He was arrested on the spot.
At the same time the sheriff’s deputies were arresting McLachlan, a search party that included Jennie’s father and uncle found her partially nude body concealed among the weeds in the vacant lot next to McLachlan’s property.
When they saw McLachlan being led away in handcuffs, they guessed he must be the murderer. Jennie’s uncle struck McLachlan in the face and several others in the crowd called out, “Lynch him!” But the police were able to disperse these aspiring vigilantes without too much difficulty.
McLachlan, who had been drinking wine and whiskey since 9:00 a.m., was quite drunk at the time of his arrest and at first said he had no memory of what happened. He ultimately made a confession to murder. McLachlan stated he’d been lying in bed resting with the door open when little Jennie wandered inside. He took her into the bed and began to fondle her, then struck her in the head with a hammer after she screamed. He waited until after dark, and then carried her body to where it was later found.
Jennie’s body showed evidence that she had in fact been violently raped, something McLachlan never admitted to.
He would go on to repudiate his entire statement, saying the police had kept him in jail without sleep or food and coerced the confession. He pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, waived his right to a jury trial and was heard by a judge.
McLachlan claimed he heard “witches” speaking to him and said the voices “say most anything.” While in jail he would refuse to eat or speak for days at a time, and he refused to cooperate with his defense. A psychiatrist hired to examine him found “evidence of pre-senility and psychic pain” but believed he was feigning mental illness.
Found both guilty and sane, he was condemned to death. The judge to whom McLachlan had entrusted his fate called Jennie Moreno’s murder “one of the most brutal and horrible ever perpetrated in Los Angeles County.”
Charles McLachlan walked into the gas chamber at 10:10 a.m., eighteen months after his crime. “Twisting and straining against the straps that bound him,” he took seven minutes to die.