1936: Arnold Sodeman, Schoolgirl Strangler

5 comments June 1st, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1936, Australia’s Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Coburg, Victoria.

The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.

Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.

He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.

By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.

However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.

His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.

His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.

A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.

But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.

The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.

Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.

Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.

On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Belshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.

Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.

Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.

Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Belshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)

Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.

This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.

(The Belshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)

It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”

At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.

Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.

This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.

At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:

  • His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
  • His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
  • So did his father.
  • Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.

Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.

According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,

Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.

The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.

Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.

Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.

His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.

The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.

Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.

But it was too late to do anything about it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers

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1903: Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer

2 comments October 1st, 2011 Headsman

I know the vicinity of our old Dutch settlements to have been very subject to marvelous events and appearances. Indeed, I have heard many stranger stories than this …

-Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”

On this date in 1903, an“unusual if not unprecedented” execution occurred when three brothers died one after the other in the Sing Sing electric chair. (Correction: at Clinton Prison, not Sing Sing.)

Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer — stock, as their name suggests, of vintage Dutch family whose more reputable products ca be found on various Empire State placenames — were doomed for the Christmas Eve, 1901 murder of their uncle.

The family tree’s branching over generations had put family enmities between relatives; in this case, working stiff John van Wormer’s home in Columbia County, N.Y. was mortgaged to his brother-in-law (and the eventual murder victim), richie-rich Peter Hallenbeck. After John passed away, Peter lowered the boom and foreclosed on the widow, booting John’s sons out of the house.

The boys got even with an unsubtle gangland masked home raid, riddling their Uncle Scrooge with bullets.

(Signs of the times: the murder happened mere weeks after William McKinley‘s assassination, and testimony had one of the boys bragging with reference to the fatal gut-shot wound inflicted on the late president. “I made a Czolgosz shot. I shot him in the stomach.”)

Though these three attracted national public sympathy — someone even telegrammed a bogus reprieve signed, “The President of the United States” in a vain stab at delay — their case was pretty open-and-shut.

Since they were doing death as a brother act, it was only fair that they sort out precedence within the family: the condemned themselves decided the order of their execution, with Willis first, Frederick second, and Burton third. The whole thing took 15 minutes.

But leave it to the youngest child to stick out from the crowd. Frederick, the baby of the family, actually managed to survive the electric chair, sort of. Not walk clean away from it like Willie Francis would do, but impolitely revive when he was supposed to be laid out dead like folk used to do back in the bad old hanging days.

The executions went off without a hitch and the brothers were pronounced dead. Later, after they’d been laid out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them, Frederick Van Wormer, move a hand. Then an eye flickered. The prison doctor was immediately summoned. Putting a stethoscope to the “dead” man’s heart, he discovered it was still beating. Frederick’s heart (it was determined later) was bigger than that of anyone executed up to that date, so two charges of full current had failed to kill him. The convict was carried back to the chair and kept in it until he was dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. [he died without actually being re-executed -ed.]

In part because of accidents like these during the early decades of the electric chair, numbers of people weren’t convinced it was as deadly as it was supposed to be. (Source)

They’re not kidding about that brain bit, either.

A fellow by the name of Edward Anthony Spitzka autopsied the van Wormers, “direct[ing] my attention especially to the brains. The opportunity afforded by this triple execution was certainly most rare, and a similar case will not soon occur again,” and found Frederick with a robust 1.6 kg brain, compared to less than 1.4 kg for his siblings. Now that JSTOR has opened its oldest journal content, you can read all about Spitzka’s meddlings in the van Wormer grey matter here.

Additional historical artifacts: an original invitation to the proceedings.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Murder,New York,USA

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