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The Ouija Board Murder

Artvoice Halloween Issue

Ouija knows all the answers. Weird and mysterious. Surpasses, in its unique results, mind reading, clairvoyance and second sight. It furnishes never failing amusement and recreation for the entire family. As unexplainable as Hindu magic—more intense and absorbingly interesting than a mystery story. Ouija gives you entertainment you have never experienced. It draws the two people using it into close companionship and weaves about them a feeling of mysterious isolation. Unquestionably the most fascinating entertainment for modern people and modern life.”

—William Fuld, known as the “Father of the Ouija Board”

The bizarre death of the White Witch of Riley Street

Early on the morning of March 6, 1930, the wind was deathly still on the reservation. Cattaraugus Creek, still frozen in places, wound through tall stands of denuded trees, stark and silent against the grey dappled skies while two figures wrapped in dark overcoats and scarves walked slowly below the branches crowded thick with black crows. Among the snowy hilltops in this bleak tableau, the only moving elements were these two Cayuga women—Lila Jimerson and Nancy Bowen.

They were making their way five miles across the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation to catch the electric trolley that whisked riders up the Lake Erie shoreline from Dunkirk to Buffalo in just one hour, at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. In one of the deep pockets of her long, wool coat, Bowen—a 66-year-old Native American herbalist and traditional healer—clutched a crumpled wad of paper. In the other pocket, her calloused fingers ran along the smooth glass bottle of chloroform procured from a village near the Indian Territory.

She also carried a heavy heart filled with grief over the recent death of her husband, Sassafras Charlie, with whom she’d practiced traditional medicine for most of her life. Bowen was well versed in the uses of native plants and herbs in healing. Here, passing a white oak, she may have thought how she’d been taught to boil the bark and drink the tea to calm an upset stomach. She knew where to dig for pokeroot to chew, and how to make a poultice from the secretions of earthworms and other herbs to heal wounds.

Jimerson, 30 years her junior, was at a different, more improbable point in her life. For the past five years, this resident of the reservation had been working as a model for a gifted French sculptor named Henri Marchand, who had honed his skills in Europe under the tutelage of continental master Auguste Rodin.

Marchand had come to Western New York at the request of Chauncey “Chan” Jerome Hamlin, president of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. Hamlin, a Buffalo attorney who served as Theodore Roosevelt’s Western New York campaign manager for the Bull Moose Party, ran for lieutenant governor of New York himself in 1914, but lost badly. After service in France in World War I, he gave up practicing law. Instead, he dedicated himself to public service, sitting from 1923 to 1929 as president of the American Association of Museums, among many other civic endeavors.

Hamlin admired Marchand’s expertise in making dioramas—the lifelike three-dimensional displays that depicted scenes from nature and history using wax figures and other objects placed against a painted background, usually encased in glass. Marchand had built a reputation as a master in this field through his work at the New York State Museum in Albany, where he constructed their celebrated dioramas depicting Iroquois life.

In 1925, Henri Marchand arrived in Buffalo with his wife Chlotilde and children. Sons Paul and George would help in the construction of the dioramas commissioned to coincide with the grand opening of the Buffalo Museum of Science, scheduled for 1929. Another son, Henri, Jr., was just six years of age when the family arrived and took up residence at 576 Riley Street, a short walk from the museum site.

In the course of doing research for dioramas depicting Seneca life, Henri and Clothilde would stay in a cottage on the Cattaraugus Reservation. The Native Americans tolerated their benign presence there. Clothilde, an artist herself, did sketches of plants and animals, and collected wild mushrooms. While mushroom hunters were common in Europe, the practice was a strange curiosity to the locals. Meanwhile, as he had done on reservations in the eastern part of the state, Henri set about posing models in primitive scenes in an attempt to depict what was already by then a vanished Native American way of life.

In this way, Lila Jimerson entered her little corner of the art world. As the relationship between artist and subject grew more candid, he would take her for rides in his automobile. It was for Marchand that Jimerson had consented to bare her breasts as a model, for the sake of historical authenticity—but only after the two had made love.

Much later, speaking under oath, Marchand would describe this behavior as a “professional necessity” for an artist in need of topless models to inspire his work.

Mise en scene

Twelve-year-old Henri Marchand, Jr. returned home from school on March 7, 1930 and walked in on a gruesome scene: Blood spattered the wallpaper and baseboard in one corner of the room. A tall, electric floor lamp had been tipped over. His mother’s pretty flower vase lay smashed and scattered on the rug, stems bent and broken with a few petals soaked and sticking to the dark, hardwood floor. The large cabinet radio, around which the family gathered to listen to music and dramas of the time was now toppled over at the foot of the stairs. Beneath it, his mother, Clothilde, lay dead. Blood was congealing on her forearms, and savage wounds to her forehead marred her sweet, lifeless face.

The terrified boy ran the few blocks across tree-lined Humboldt Parkway to the Buffalo Museum of Science to get his father and older brother Paul. Upon their return, his father summoned a doctor from Deaconness Hospital, which was then located across the street from their home on Riley. When the physician examined her, he estimated that Clothilde had been dead for about two hours.

Two detectives and one police officer soon arrived on the scene. The appearance of foul play was obvious, and an official autopsy was ordered. Clothilde’s body was removed from the house while detectives took notes on the scene, and went outside to question the few neighbors who’d begun to gather curiously around the police presence. One witness claimed to have seen two Indian women casing the house earlier.

“Every time they passed the place they would pause, appearing to be examining it,” the witness reported.

The autopsy revealed blunt trauma to the head, and wounds consistent with those left by a hammer claw. Upon inspection of the dead woman’s throat, the examiner extracted a tightly bound wad of paper that had been soaked in chloroform and stuffed there, it was determined, while she was still alive.

After gathering more specific information from Henri Marchand, the police drove to a remote part of the Cattaraugus reservation and arrested Lila Jimerson at her father Anson’s house by 10 o’clock that night. In custody back in the city, she implicated Nancy Bowen. Again the authorities drove onto the reservation and made an arrest, bringing Bowen to back to Buffalo the next morning. She was discovered to have kept bloodied pieces of her Clothilde’s clothing, and other articles.

The results of police questioning

In short order, both women confessed to the crime. Bowen, belonging to a traditional community among the Iroquois, was more adept at her native tongue than she was at English. Later, at trial, she would speak through an interpreter. What follows is the story that emerged at police headquarters.

Lila had known the Marchands for nearly 10 years, through Henri’s forays onto various reservations. The intimacy of their relationship had evolved into an infatuation, and she determined to kill Clothilde to get her out of the way before ultimately marrying Henri. Nancy was recruited by Lila to carry out the scheme.

According to their confessions, this recruitment included the use of a Ouija board. Nancy, whose traditional beliefs may have predisposed her to accepting the spirit world as real, was readily convinced by an experience with the “talking board.” In one alleged session shortly after Sassafras Charlie’s death, the two asked questions about his sudden passing. Fingers lightly touching the planchette, Nancy asked Charlie why he had died.

Letter by letter, the heart-shaped piece of wood under their fingertips moved around the board, spelling out a shocking revelation. “They killed me,” was the reply. Pressing for more details, Charlie, from the spirit world slowly revealed the name of his killer: C-L-O-T-H-I-L-D-E.

Continuing the séance, “Charlie” added details like the murderer’s address on Riley Street, and a description of the short woman with missing teeth and a bob. Lila, awestruck, told Nancy she knew a woman fitting that description to a tee.

Soon thereafter, Nancy began receiving a series of strange, mysterious letters from an unknown “Mrs. Dooley.” From one of the letters:

I know something Secret. I decided that I’d better tell you and help you out. What I can. This is what I know Charlie Bowen is killed by a witch in this City of Buffalo. It was from a French woman…She killed Charlie because he have good medicine to sell in the city. Her witchcraft didn’t work so good so she decided to kill him...She kill many, many that way, Indians & white. But let me tell you more. She said she fixed another doll the same this doll is his wife Nancy.

Not only had Clothilde killed Sassafras Charlie, but she was now focusing her hex on Nancy! The widow decided she was done fooling around.

As Nancy and Lila rode on the trolley toward Buffalo, Nancy was determined to slay the evil white witch responsible for her husband’s death. Chloroform in hand, she purchased a 10-cent hammer at a shop on Jefferson Street. They then headed to the Marchand house on Riley.

After determining that the coast was clear—which is to say that Clothilde was home alone—Lila called upon Henri at the science museum and asked him to take her for a ride around town in his car. Later, Henri would confirm this. “Indians loved to go for automobile rides,” he explained. The two cruised around town from 2pm to 3pm, when he dropped Lila off to “meet her friend.”

As they embarked on their ride, Nancy knocked on the door at Riley Street. Clothilde answered, and, recognizing her from the reservation, allowed Nancy in. Nancy may have been further astounded by the voices coming from the strange piece of furniture she’d never seen on the reservation—a large radio. Nancy, cutting to the chase, asked Clothilde: “You witch?”

Amused by the odd question, Clothilde laughed and confirmed that she was.

Nancy brought the hammer down on her head, and after a struggle in which the chloroform ball was forced down her throat, Clothilde succumbed to the larger woman.

The circus

Erie County District Attorney Guy Moore felt he had everything he needed to rush forward with a speedy trial. In just two weeks, the jury had been selected for the capital case against Lila Jimerson. In the interim, Moore was generous to the ravenous press who’d converged on Buffalo from around the world. He deliberately characterized the bizarre scenario as an “Indian” crime—seeking to make the case an indictment of the Iroquois people as a whole, and specifically the traditional Iroquois.

State law enforcement officials began invading the reservation. Initially, they began a search for the hammer used in the murder. Nancy claimed to have tossed it in the creek near Lila’s house. When that search turned up nothing after a week, law enforcement used the pretense of this quest to enter people’s homes, and generally poke around where they had no right to do so. Indiscriminate searches with no warrants became their method of operation. Ray Jimerson, a Seneca Chief, protested the trespassing to no avail.

The witchcraft angle went wild in the press. The state went so far as to exhume Sassafras Charlie’s body to debunk a widespread rumor that Nancy had in fact shot her husband—accidentally—while aiming at demons near him. No gunshot wound was discovered.

It was not until March 15 that DA Moore turned any suspicions toward Henri Marchand. On that day, he was arrested as a material witness. Moore had little choice, considering the fact that a newspaper called the Buffalo Times printed four love letters Henri had sent to Lila over a period of two years. Now the widower was seen as having a motive to kill his wife. The letters also proved that he had consistently lied to the police about the nature of his relationship with Lila.

The fact that the damning letters were handed over by Lila’s family to journalists shows the level of alienation people on the reservation felt toward the state’s legal system. Ordinarily, that sort of evidence would be entrusted to the police, not to a reporter.

The feds step in

Sensing an inadequate defense of the two Indian women, Seneca leaders sought legal help from the federal government. The assistance was denied until Chief Clinton Rickard made a trip up to Buffalo as the trial began. Here is his account, from his autobiography Fighting Tuscarora:

The next day I went to Buffalo to visit United States Attorney Richard H. Templeton and asked him to represent Lila Jimerson, as he was required to do by law. He became very angry at this and claimed that there was no such law. He said it was not the business of his office to help murderers. He and I argued quite heatedly for a time, and then I produced a law book that contained my proof. It was the 1926 edition of the Code of the Laws of the United States and had been given to me by Congressman Clarence MacGregor. Title 25, Chapter 5, Section 175 said: “In all States and Territories where there are reservations or allotted Indians the United States district attorney shall represent them in all suits at law and in equity.”

Upon reading this, Mr. Templeton put in a call to Washington, DC. While he was in his office making the call, his assistant told me: “He’s going to beat you with a bigger book!” The response from Washington, however, reaffirmed my claim. Thereupon, Templeton called the court, where the trial was in process, and requested a recess until he could enter the case.

When the trial finally began, Henri Marchand’s testimony stole the show. The free-loving Frenchman described Indian women as “naturally shy,” and explained that he had seduced too many of them to count over the years, in order to get them to pose topless for his projects. It was done out of necessity. Lila was just one of them, and he did not love her. Further, because his wife knew all about his infidelities and accepted them, he had no reason to murder her.

Throughout the proceedings, a white audience filled the courtroom, while Native Americans filled the halls of the court house, eager to bear witness to daily developments that splashed across headlines everywhere.

The defense took one day to present its case. The letters from Mrs. Dooley were shown not to match Lila’s handwriting, which suggested at least a third party in on the scheme. This discounted DA Moore’s “jealous lover” argument because there are rarely collaborators in such crimes of passion. They were trying to spare Lila from a trip to the electric chair.

Because Nancy Bowen was 66 years old, and appeared to have been an unwitting dupe distraught over her husband’s death, she was not a candidate for capital punishment. Her heartfelt belief in “Iroquois witchcraft” also rendered her incapable of understanding her actions. The mens rea for murder was not there. No specific intent to kill this innocent woman.

On April 1, both sides were to do their summaries when Lila collapsed with a lung hemorrhage due to tuberculosis. In her hospital bed, she limply confessed to second-degree murder. She later recanted the confession.

The Red Lilac

It would take another year for the rest of the affair to play itself out. In March, 1931, Lila, dubbed the “Red Lilac of the Cayugas” in the press, was tried again. This time, her defense was very direct. She had an affair with Henri Marchand, but did not kill his wife or convince Nancy to do so. Rather, she argued that Marchand had asked many Iroquois to kill his wife because he was “tired of her.”

The artist had not helped his case by casually describing his sexual conquests. It also did not help convince the all-male jury when it was learned that he had already remarried to an 18-year-old and had moved to the Albany area.

Lila was acquitted. It was a victory for the Iroquois defense who had successfully fought off a wildly racist prosecution.

Henri Marchand, who called the verdict “a terrible injustice,” died in 1951 at the age of 73. Lila Jimerson eventually married a white man. She lived in Perrysburg, near the reservation, until her death in 1972 at the age of 79.

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