The podcast, 1000 Words, began here. It was the final project for HIST 542: Public History. The purpose of this podcast is to illustrate how, with a photo, a little information, and a world of open public records, anyone can uncover history. Every episode, I describe a photo and then tell its story in 1,000 words and hope people find it as interesting as I did.
The podcast now has its own home at 1000WordsPodcast.com.
This was the episode where it all began.
Episode One – The Case of the Hard-Boiled Criminals
Welcome to premiere episode of One Thousand Words. I’m your host Jessica Bell. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In this show, I’ll be taking a vintage photo that’s been hiding in plain sight in archives somewhere and using a variety of resources, tell the story of that photo…in one thousand words.
Before the word count starts, I’ll describe the photo and where it came from. Then I’ll give a signal that will start the story and of course a signal to indicate the end of the story. Let’s get started!
This episode has two photos, mugshots to be specific. We’ve all seen a mugshot or two in our lives, maybe even been in one. No judgement. These mugshots and hundreds more like it are from the Vancouver Police Department, Photographs of Criminals, 1896 – 1940, held by the Washington State Digital Archives.
The first one is of #2147, Eugenia McCool aka Myrtle Kidder. The young woman is smiling innocently at the camera. She has a short-bobbed haircut and the accompanying information describes her as 5’1”, 142 pounds with a “chunky build.” The photo is in black and white but we can almost see her light blue eyes sparkling with amusement and her red hair framing her face. It also says that she is 18 years old and a nurse.
The second shot is #2148, Alta Brooks aka Miral Kidder. She looks similar to Eugenia with her dark hair in a short bob but she is not smiling. She stares stoically ahead at the camera. The details section of her mugshot is completely blank, so we don’t know her hair color, her height or most importantly to this story, her age.
Both girls were arrested on November 10, 1919.
Eugenia McCool was born to Sydney and Flora McCool of Walla Walla, Washington and had a history of criminal behavior before her final arrest. Sometime in 1918, she was involved in crime spree with three men: Charles Green, Len Ayres and a man who we will only know by his last name, Britner. While she and her partners in crime were occupying a cabin near Walla Walla, police received several reports of hogs disappearing, autos being stolen and abandoned by roadsides, and the theft of groceries and other supplies. Eugenia was taken into custody while in a restaurant and the police decided to end the crime spree by surrounding the cabin where the men were hiding. The event quickly turned into a shootout, leaving Green dead. Ayres surrendered and Britner seems to have escaped.
Eugenia was sent to the Salvation Army home in Spokane. Commodore True Earle of the Salvation Army home had this to say about her time at the facility.
“She was a steady worker, and we paid her a salary while she was serving her sentence. She made her escape when she had only a little more than a month to serve.”
She was again arrested and sent to the Home of the Good Shepherd in Portland.
Alta Brooks was adopted at an early age by a couple near Gaston, Oregon.
Her adopted father died and her adopted mother found her to be a difficult girl to manage.
“I have never known the joy of having a mother who cared for me enough to take me in her arms and love me. I have always wanted that”
So she was sent off to the Louise Home, presumably a home for girls with disciplinary issues in Portland. Due to good behavior, she was allowed back home soon after. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. After staying out all night after a dance, she was once again sent to the Louise home, but this time she ran away to Astoria.
It was there she met a 35-year-old married man, Burt Ryder. For reasons we can only speculate he wanted to take her to Montana and she agreed. Ryder got a job as a forest ranger. Alta found a job taking care of and living with an invalid woman. At some point, Reverend MacLaren from the Pacific Coast Rescue and Protective society had heard about where she was. He had known Alta since she was a child and decided to retrieve her. Ryder panicked, and long story short, he escaped arrest with a gunshot wound never to be seen again. Alta surrendered in Libby, Montana. She was given room and board in exchange for housework and childcare and she worked in a laundry. She attempted to reunite with her adopted mother, but that was not meant to be.
Eventually, Reverend MacLaren sent her back to Portland to live in the Home of the Good Shepherd where she assumed, she would only be for two weeks. Four months later, Alta had had enough. She decided she had served her time, so she, along with Eugenia McCool walked away from the home.
It’s not clear when the girls met, but they had plenty of time together to come up with alias: Myrtle and Miral Kidder. The girls had $13 between them and no plan. They headed to Troutdale, then Hood River and finally took a steamer on the Columbia River to Vancouver. By the third night, they’d made it to Battle Ground. Lonely, hungry and cold, walking the streets in the rain, they made the decision that would earn them the mugshots. They stole a car.
They had planned on making it to a logging town where Eugenia’s father was living but the highway was closed so they had to head back to Portland. The girls decided to head south with the stream of tourists going to winter resorts. Another terrible decision as they were in a collision with another car and soon their joyride was over. They were arrested at the corner of Killingsworth and Union Avenues in Vancouver.
Sticking to their bad girl personas, they refused to answer questions.
“We won’t tell you anything! We are hard boiled.”
The owner of the stolen car chose not to press charges, but the district attorney did. Both girls were tried, found guilty and sentenced to two and a half to ten years of hard labor. Neither girl had legal representation in the courtroom. However, Alta still had a friend in Reverend MacLaren who intervened on her behalf, informing the courts that she was 15 years old and should have been retained by the juvenile system. Around December 27, 1919, a courtroom erupted in cheers when Judge McGatens announced that Alta was to be set free saying,
“No man can look in the face of that girl and say she is of age. I wonder what the court at Vancouver was thinking of when it sentenced her to the penitentiary.”
That’s where Alta’s story seems to end. I was unable to find out what happened to her afterward. No one came to the rescue of Eugenia. She was sent to the penitentiary where she presumably served a couple of years.
A quick search of Ancestry.com and the Washington State Digital archives shows that Eugenia was a prisoner in the 1920 census and that she married Ernest Brickner in 1922 at the age of 19. Wait, if she was 18 in 1919 at her arrest, how could she be 19 in 1922? How indeed? In fact, that 1920 [I say this incorrectly as 1922 in the audio] census lists her as 17 and Ancestry.com says she was born around 1903.* This makes her 16 years old at the time of the crime. A minor just like Alta. We will likely never know why Alta was released while Eugenia went on to do time. It seems like a huge miscarriage of justice.
In any case, records show that Eugenia married three times and died in 1967 in Santa Clara, California and that’s where this story ends.
Thanks for listening to this episode of One Thousand Words. Links to the photos and other resources used are listed at jessicalbell.net I have left one little footnote there that may help any determined detective. Maybe one you can solve the mystery of Eugenia McCool and find out what happened to Alta Brooks.
*The 1940 census lists Eugenia as 31 years old which changes her age yet again. Most of the evidence found points to her being born in 1903. There may be some confusion due to her having a sister that died as a baby with a similar name.
The mugshots from the Washington State Digital Archives:
Special thanks to Skyla Pritchett and Tristan Bell for their voices.
This podcast uses these sounds from freesound: https://freesound.org/people/BristolStories/sounds/51710/