Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Winnie Ruth Judd: 'The Trunk Murderess' In Perspective


It didn't take the newspapers long to find a name for Winnie Ruth Judd, and it was "The Trunk Murderess." Plain and simple. For a while they toyed with "The Tiger Woman," but that seemed too generic and didn't quite fit the genre of this woman whose petite, angelic face ran large on the front pages of every newspaper across the nation. It was the kind of face that men fell in love with and women gaped at unable to understand how a face like that belonged to, obviously, a femme fatale. They thought that if a Hollywood director were to cast someone in a role of a character whose activities resembled her insidious actions, they never would cast anyone who looked like Winnie Ruth Judd.

Newspapers clawed for information, anything they could find on the Indiana preacher's daughter gone haywire. They uncovered her clothing sizes, her favorite foods, her bouts with TB, her family's first names, her marital history, even that she had a suspected boyfriend named Jack Halloran. And in the morals-conscious milieux of 1931, the fact she may have been adulterous met with as much scorn as her alleged murder.

Major gazettes offered rewards for her capture, and every columnist in every city fell upon each other for "hot-button" tips and the latest police findings in Phoenix and Los Angeles, the two cities currently sharing a history of the Winnie Ruth Judd crime and getaway.

While Los Angeles police combed their city for Winnie, who had vanished into thin air after departing in haste from the train station, they wasted no time in tracking down her husband, Dr. Judd, and her brother, Burton McKinnell. After briefly questioning both parties, they quickly realized that neither of them, who had strong alibis for their whereabouts over the weekend, had any previous knowledge of the crime. William Judd was clearly overcome with shock and anxiety. Burton, because he had accompanied his sister to the train station to pick up the telltale luggage, had at first been labeled a solid suspect, but his explanation of how he innocently happened to be with her was quite satisfactory.

Ruth had showed up on campus looking for him after her L.A. contact fizzled out. Knowing there was no one else to help her, he dodged his classes and drove her back to the station. It was only after they pulled out of the depot that he realized his sibling had no intention of retrieving them and was, in fact, preparing to go into hiding from the law. As they cruised through Los Angeles' lunchtime traffic, she grew more frightened.

When he asked her jokingly, "Ruth, what's in that trunk, a man or a woman?" she answered, quite solemnly, "I'm not going to answer any questions, and I can justify everything." She refused to talk about what had happened, her brother said, interested only in getting away. "She asked me for money because she said she had to leave, and I said 'I think that is the best thing you can do. I wish you all the luck in the world, kid.' And she left." Making him pull alongside a downtown curb, she alit from his Ford and melted into the noonday crowd.

After an unparalleled manhunt, she was found on October 23 hiding in, of all places, a funeral parlor. When questioned, she replied, "I am Winnie Ruth Judd." Hungry, disheveled, worn, she accompanied police to the jail where reporters enveloped her. "I had to do it," she moaned, "I had to."

But, with the first stuttering of self-defense, the entire case turned topsy-turvy; no one, the public nor the police, expected it. When newscasters announced the killer was apprehended, America braced to meet a snarling Hydra gloating over her wicked, wicked ways; instead, they were introduced to photos in the newspaper of a wide-eyed, tearful waif in handcuffs whose visage bespoke a blend of crucifixion and apology, and whose sobs of I had to do it brought the house down. Almost from the start, America sympathized with her; all except Phoenix officialdom.

Looking back, Phoenix was very much a Coliseum of lions and Winnie Ruth Judd the hapless Christian. Awaiting her extradition back to Arizona, the town's administration turned curiously and vindictively -- bent on Ruth's destruction.

To the point of sabotage.

City authorities closed ears to debate. Belief in City Hall Phoenix was that Ruth Judd had killed her two victims in cold blood while they slept. To corroborate this, they pointed to the fact that the mattresses of both the girls' beds were missing a finding that, when Ruth first heard it, puzzled and shocked her. (The last glimpse she had had of the bedroom, the mattresses were in place upon Anne and Sammy's beds.) But, in the detectives' assumption, the only reason why a suspect would have disposed of them was because they were soaked by incriminating blood.

There was a splattering of blood on the walls near one of the beds and Ruth knew that must have come from Jack Halloran's transporting of Sammy to the bedroom. But, they refused to listen to her explanations about the mattresses or the splatters. The intrigue was growing; she felt it tightening; and her words were not being heard.

After all, they were falling on those deaf ears.

To keep the smoky light of guilt on Ruth, Phoenix administrators kept autopsy reports of the murdered women vague. If they had not, the American public would have read that the mutilations performed on Sammy were not "mutilations" at all whoever cut up the girl had been experienced in anatomy. The dissections were clean and accurate. And not performed by an amateur like Ruth.

As well, police also surfaced their discovery of an ominous letter written by Sammy Samuelson the day she died. The three-page document, addressed to her sister, was found un-mailed at the scene of the crime. To the press, a police spokesperson cited a fragment of that letter as reading, "We are much happier by ourselves as Ruth and Anne clashed on so many things and their quarrels were sometimes violent."

The actual letter read, "We are so much happier here by ourselves. Ruth and Anne clashed in many things. We get along so well but it shows there has to be a lot of tolerance which comes from love."

Quite different.

When Ruth told her story to the police, she spoke of a scuffle, of Sammy attacking her with a pistol, of a .25 caliber bullet entering her hand while she tried to ward off the attack, of Anne clubbing her with an ironing board. She was left with bruises that, if apprised honestly by the police and prosecution, would have held weight in her defense.

Hospital photo of some of Ruth Judd's wounds
Hospital photo of some of
Ruth Judd's wounds
(Arizona Dept. of Archives)

When arrested, Ruth received emergency surgery to remove the bullet that had lodged in her palm; the hand had turned gangrenous. In the same examination, Dr. Grace Homman found an extraordinary number of fresh welts, cuts and discolorations 147 of them across her body. They were the type usually produced by assault. (Photographs still extant today) were taken that graphically depict the extent of the injuries. The attending physician's diagnosis was that, as she later wrote, "Mrs. Judd put up a tremendous fight for her life."

But, somehow the diagnosis and photographs of the wounds that Ruth suffered evaporated from the investigation reports as if they had never existed.

Police called Ruth a liar. Of her hand wound, they proclaimed she shot herself after the fact on Saturday to insinuate a struggle the night before. They had not uncovered one person who saw Ruth with a bandaged hand the day after the supposed attack so they asserted. Yet, in the most botched or plotted mishap of the whole investigation, they ignored the testimonies of five people who vouched they had seen her left hand bandaged early Saturday morning at work, as well as a crucial piece of testimony given by the streetcar driver who drove her home Friday night after the fracas.

Ruth's bandaged hand, after her arrest (Los Angeles Times)
Ruth's bandaged hand,
after her arrest
(Los Angeles Times)

Patients Grace Mitchell and Stella and Mike Kerkes saw the bandage and commented on it that Saturday morning at Grunow Clinic. Medical Secretary Faye Ayres and handyman Emil Clemmons vividly remembered her left hand in gauze. And as for the trolleyman B. Jurgemeyer, he had told police that when he picked her up at approximately 11:30 Friday night, to take her back towards her home, "her left hand was completely wrapped."

In retrospect, the bandaged hand did not fit with what the police wanted to say: that Ruth shot and killed her two friends in their sleep, butchered the bodies, shoved the pieces into an array of portables, went home to sleep soundly, appeared at work the following morning, blew a bullet into her hand for illusion of innocence in case she was suspected, then proceeded to machinate her escape plans to Los Angeles.

The reason for the suspected cover-up: to shield Phoenix's man of the hour, Jack Halloran. Ergo, had Ruth's hand been accepted as actually invalidated during the melee, then there wouldn't have been a ghost of a chance for any sane man or woman to believe that a 100-pound woman, by herself, with tuberculosis, and with one good hand, had lifted the much-heavier Anne LeRoi into a trunk, cleaved Sammy, cleaned the house and disposed of the mattresses.

Quite evident of Phoenix's fear of itself that is, its reputation was the fact that when Jack's name became implicated in the bloody mess as either Ruth's boyfriend or as an alleged accomplice all papers across the country, except in Phoenix, printed his name. According to Miss Bommersbach, the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette referred to him only as Mr. X.

Several neighbors had spotted Halloran's automobile on North Second Street, parked near the scene of the fatality, on both Friday and Saturday evenings. Ruth's neighbor, idling in the suspect's driveway on Friday, had also seen it. Police heard them out, checked the reported license plates against state records and concluded the car, a gray Packard, was indeed registered to Halloran. Sharp newspapermen got a hold of this bit of dynamite and, as every other major news outlet in the union ran the information page one, the local press in Phoenix simply disregarded it. As did the police when they failed to include the findings in the prosecution's dossier.

While American newspapers continued to consider a possible "other-person" theory, Phoenix mouthpieces refuted it. They disregarded Mr. X's presence as hearsay and never took pains in pursuing either an abettor or, for that matter, a motive that might have involved anyone else outside of Mrs. Judd's personal jealousy/animosity.

Considering all this, imagine the behind -the- scenes dither that must have ensued when the International Wire Service leaked a report that a diary belonging to Anne LeRoi had been discovered in her home, a diary that named certain members of Phoenix's upper-elite who had patronized the two women. According to the Wire, the alleged diary contained "intimate details" of the slain girls and their beaus. The State's Attorneys office was forced to admit its existence, but refused to comment.

Everyone wondered what was in that diary and [whom]. From its suggestion, it sounded like it name-dropped not only Jack Halloran but also several other married and prominent men in town of recognized high standing and moral caliber. "Hanky was the name and panky was the game," wrote Don Dedera, a well-known Arizona journalist in afterwards summing up the hypocrisy that these men led. They played the community pillar, but cracked its foundation in the interim. Respected and likeable, they glossed their activities by pose and charm.

But, of the general public, very few were fooled. They learned about the "summer bachelors" who sent their wives and children away to the cottage every June and July so they could party with the single pert young girls who saw their chance for a job promotion, a diamond ring, a fur coat or perhaps an advantage they could store away until they thought of something specific.

Releasing LeRoi's diary would have probably meant ruination for too many people, instant ejection from high seats and an embarrassing scandal all around for Arizona. But, whatever chaos ran amok among the conspirators was brief, for soon all further mention of the reputation-breaker was muzzled. Prosecutors forgot it and the diary never found its way into Ruth's trial.

The dissemblers remained safe.