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Viola Lueck, Robert James Murder Case
Alternative Title
Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection
Date Created and/or Issued
Contributing Institution
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Rights Information
Images available for reproduction and use. Please see the Ordering & Use page at for additional information.
Title supplied by cataloger.; Photograph was edited for publication purposes.
In 1935 Mary Busch, 27, answered an ad placed by beauty parlor/barber shop owner Robert James, who was looking for a manicurist for his shop. Soon after she was hired, she and James were married and she became pregnant three months later. On the evening of August 3, 1935, Busch became ill while working at the shop and was sent home. On Monday, August 5th, with Busch still "ill" and unable to work, James ran the shop on his own; after closing at 7:30 pm he invited two friends, Viola Lueck and her boyfriend Jim Pemberton, over for dinner. When they arrived at their home and didn't find Busch inside, they went out back and found her lying face down in the fishpond. Police and a physician arrived at the home, where they pronounced Busch dead at the scene, victim of an accidental drowning. It was surmised she had become dizzy due to her pregnancy, had fallen, and struck her head on one of the rocks used to rim the pool, though no evidence of a head injury was found. When Robert James filed a claim to collect on his wife's insurance policies totaling $21,400, he launched a chain of events that would lead to his downfall. After further investigation, it was determined that he and another man, Charles Hope, had concocted an elaborate scheme to murder Mary Busch. James convinced Busch to have an illegal abortion procedure, but instead, had her consume several glasses of whisky as "anesthesia", and strapped her down to a table with her eyes and mouth taped shut, he then stuck her foot into a box containing two Colorado diamond-back snakes who immediately sunk their fangs into her big toe. Hours passed and Busch still had not died, so James decided to drown her in the bathtub, and with Hope's help, arranged her body in the fishpond to make it appear as if she had tripped and fell in head-first. When confronted with evidence, Hope and James turned on each other. Hope agreed to turn states evidence and pled guilty to first-degree murder, receiving a life sentence. James went to trial for the murder of his wife, where the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced him to death by hanging. On May 9, 1942, Robert James became the last man to be hanged in California (capital punishment became more "humane" with the adoption of the gas chamber soon after).
Photograph article dated August 8, 1935 reads, "Midst the lily pads of a little fish pond watched over by the statue of a mysterious old gnome, death today had ended the life of Mrs. Mary James, three months the bride of Robert James, who found her lying face down in the pond when he returned to their West Eighth street home with friends last night. Arrow points out where Mrs. James' body was found. Standing is Viola Lueck, who had come with James to visit his wife. At right is the statue of the gnome, the only eye-witness to the tragedy, smoking his pipe silently."
1 photographic print :b&w ;21 x 26 cm.
Photographic prints
Herald Examiner Collection
HE box 5823
James, Robert S.--Trials, litigation, etc
Crime scenes--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
Fish ponds--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
Gnomes--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
Murder--Investigation--California--Los Angeles
Witnesses--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
Murder--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
Uxoricide--California--La Can~ada Flintridge
La Can~ada Flintridge (Calif.)
Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express photographs
Herald-Examiner Collection photographs

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