On April 16, 1921, James E. Mahoney, a paroled convict, drugs his wife Kate, stuffs her in steamer trunk, and smashes her skull with a club. He then pours quicklime over her body. After locking the trunk and securing it with rope, he calls a transfer company to move it to a houseboat on Lake Union. There, the trunk is placed in a skiff and Mahoney rows to the middle of Portage Bay just east of University Bridge and throws it overboard. Kate Mahoney's nieces, suspecting foul play, report to police that she has mysteriously disappeared. After authorities search the ship canal for weeks, the trunk finally bobs to the surface on August 8, 1921, and is recovered by the tugboat Audrey. Mahoney, already in custody for forgery, is charged with his wife's murder. A King County Jury, after a 10-day trial, convicts Mahoney of first-degree murder on October 1, 1921 and sentences him to death. He is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on December 1, 1922. Kate Mahoney's murder, which received national media coverage, was pronounced to be one of the most elaborately planned crimes of the decade.
Perpetrator and Victim
In May 1918, James Edward Mahoney, a former Milwaukee Railroad brakeman, was convicted of drugging and robbing a young man in Spokane and sentenced to serve from five to eight years in the Washington State Penitentiary. However, his mother, Nora Mahoney, and his sister, Margaret D. (called Dolores or Dolly) Johnson engineered an early release from Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929), supposedly a former neighbor of the Mahoneys. Released on parole on December 23, 1920, James (called Jim) E. Mahoney, age 36, came to Seattle to live with his family.
In 1920, Kate Mooers (1853-1921), age 68, was affluent, the result of a recent divorce settlement from Dr. Charles E. Mooers, a physician and surgeon. She owned a small hotel in Belltown called the New Baker House, located at 2327 1st Avenue, and was part-owner of the Sophia Apartments at 409 Denny Way, where she lived. She wore expensive diamond jewelry and drove a big seven-passenger Westcott sedan but was well known for her miserliness. Kate Mooers was eccentric, petulant, short and balding, and estimated to be worth at least $200,000.
An Odd Couple
The New Baker House was managed by Nora Mahoney, age 61, and her daughter Dolores Johnson, age 35, who maintained the rooms and collected the rents. During a visit to the New Baker House, Kate Mooers was introduced to Nora's son, Jim Mahoney. Following a short, if not peculiar courtship, they were married in a civil ceremony on February 10, 1921, using a wedding ring borrowed from Dolores Johnson, and took up residence in Kate's Denny Way apartment. Two months later, the Mahoneys started making plans for a belated honeymoon trip East to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and other cities. They planned to be away for one month.
On Friday, April 15,1921, Kate Mahoney visited her safe deposit box, withdrew $1,600, and then went to the Dexter-Horton Building bank and purchased $460 worth of American Express Travelers Cheques. She told neighbors and friends that she and her husband were leaving on their honeymoon late Saturday night. At about 10:00 p.m., April 16, 1921, the Mahoneys ostensibly closed up their Denny Way apartment and set off for the King Street train station.
Wealthy and Wifeless
Eleven days later, on April 27, 1921, Jim Mahoney returned to Seattle, alone. He explained to Kate's neighbors and friends that she had remained in the East and was planning a trip to Havana, Cuba, with friends. He had returned to take care of Kate's business interests and would meet her later in New York City.
Mahoney immediately filed a forged power-of-attorney with the King County Auditor, which gave him access to Kate's property. He emptied her safe deposit box, collected rents, and made several attempts to convert her properties into cash. He began living the high life, purchasing new tailor-made suits, wearing Kate's diamond pins, visiting night clubs, and driving her expensive automobile.
Kate Mahoney's relatives and friends became concerned when she failed to return to Seattle, and Jim declined to say where she could be contacted. They had received strange letters from Saint Paul bearing Kate's name but not in her handwriting. Jim Mahoney seemed to have a variety of excuses as to why she had stayed back East, ranging from a lovers' quarrel to Kate deciding to travel with friends to New York, Boston, and Havana, Cuba. Her nieces, Kate Stewart and Carrie Hewitt, suspected foul play.
Solving the Crime
On May 3, 1921, Kate Stewart met with Seattle Police detectives, Captain Charles Tennant and Lieutenant Chad Ballard, showing them the forged letters, providing samples of Kate's handwriting and describing Jim Mahoney's activities. She said Mahoney presented a typed letter to the William D. Perkins & Company, bankers, purporting to give him authority to use Kate's safe deposit box. The letter, written on stationery from the St. Francis Hotel in Saint Paul, was dated April 23, 1921, and signed with the name Mrs. Kate E. Mahoney. Mrs. Stewart could not determine how much cash and jewelry Mahoney had stolen from the safe deposit box but believed it to be well over $30,000. The detectives, convinced there had been a crime, began to investigate.
The detectives discovered that on the evening of April 16, 1921, Jim Mahoney telephoned the Seattle Transfer Company and asked the night dispatcher to send a truck to 409 Denny Way to move a heavy trunk. Alvin Jorgenson, the express man, arrived at the Sophia Apartments about 10:00 p.m. and, with Mahoney's help, moved a heavy steamer trunk secured with hemp rope, from the apartment to the truck. Mahoney rode with Jorgenson to a houseboat at 1415 East Northlake Avenue on Portage Bay where they loaded the trunk into a white skiff. Mahoney said he was going to take the trunk to his houseboat, and rowed away into the darkness.
The detectives interviewed Mrs. Grace A. Renton at 1415 E Northlake Avenue, and discovered that on Wednesday, April 13, 1921, a man she later identified as Jim Mahoney, inquired about renting the vacant half of her houseboat. Mahoney said he wanted to do some fishing and asked where the deepest part of the lake was. She also saw him roaming around the area on Thursday, April 14, 1921. Mrs. Renton said that she was gone on Friday, returning home on Saturday afternoon, April 16, 1921. She found a note from Mahoney pinned to her door which read, "Have missed you twice. Hope the boat will be where I left it." A white skiff from nearby A. E. Howard & Son Boat Builders was tied to a corner of the houseboat.
The detectives visited A. E. Howard & Son Boat Builders, located at 1435 E Northlake Avenue, just east of the houseboat, and learned that Albert E. Howard had rented a small white skiff on Friday morning, April 15, 1921, to a man he later identified as Jim Mahoney, for $4 a week. Mahoney, using the name George Glassford, said he lived in the houseboat at 1415 E Northlake Avenue and was going to go fishing with a friend from Montana. Mahoney never returned the skiff. Howard found it a week later near the houseboat, sunk in shallow water.
The detectives learned that on Friday afternoon, April 15, 1921, Jim Mahoney, accompanied by a woman purporting to be his wife, visited the office of Emil J. Brandt, attorney and notary public. The woman requested a power-of-attorney authorizing Mahoney to administer her estate and signed the document Mrs. James E. Mahoney. Brandt, who knew Kate Mooers, said it wasn't her and he was unaware of Kate's marriage to Mahoney.
E. K. Boyd, a clerk at Buchman Hardware and Paint Company located at 408 Cedar Street, just around the corner from the Sophia Apartments, told detectives that on Saturday morning, April 16, 1921, Jim Mahoney had purchased 30 feet of hemp rope and 5 pounds of quicklime, which he charged to Kate's account. Meanwhile, Kate Mahoney was busy telling her relatives and friends that she and Jim were leaving for Saint Paul that evening.
No one remembered seeing the Mahoneys on Sunday and their apartment was quiet. But on Monday morning, April 18, 1921, Jim Mahoney ordered two suits from McDonald & Collier, a tailor shop in Seattle. After the fitting, he gave the salesman a deposit of $30 using two American Express Travelers Cheques endorsed with the forged signature of Kate Mahoney. Later that day, Jim Mahoney traveled to Everett and visited with a friend before boarding the Great Northern train for Saint Paul.
His Other Wife
Investigators also discovered that Mahoney had married Irene G. Ford in St. Paul on October 16, 1914. On November 8, 1915, she sued him for divorce in King County, but a decree was never granted. She left him when she found out he was smuggling opium and he tried to kill her. Besides being a murderer, Jim Mahoney was also a bigamist.
Mahoney had been under surveillance for three weeks and it appeared he was preparing to leave Seattle. Captain Tennant decided it was time for some answers. On Sunday morning, May 22, 1921, Mahoney was washing the Westcott sedan in front of the Denny Way apartment when he was picked up for questioning by Detectives Chad Ballard and William E. Justice. He had almost all of Kate's diamond jewelry, valued at over $25,000, in his pockets. During questioning, Mahoney told Captain Tennant that Kate had given him the jewelry to bring back to Seattle for safekeeping because she was going to Havana, Cuba. He was preparing to meet her in New York City on June 1, 1921. When asked about the forged travelers checks, Mahoney said he wanted to speak with his lawyer, Lee Johnston.
On Monday, May 23, 1921, attorney Johnston, filed a writ of habeas corpus in King County Superior Court, complaining that Mahoney was being held without charges and demanded his immediate release. Meanwhile Detectives Ballard and Justice were driving Mahoney around the city, asking witnesses to identify him. Mahoney was released when they returned to the city jail but arrested immediately for forgery.
On Tuesday, May 24, 1921, based on Kate Stewart's information, Jim Mahoney was charged with first-degree forgery and held in the city jail under a $10,000 bond. King County Prosecutor Malcom Douglas, convinced that Mahoney had murdered his wife, was prepared to file murder charges based on circumstantial evidence but he really needed to find Kate's body. Captain Tennant had a theory and ordered divers to begin searching the bottom of the northeast end of Lake Union in Portage Bay for the steamer trunk. Meanwhile, detectives continued collecting evidence.
During a bail hearing on June 1, 1921, Attorney Lee Johnston advised the court that Jim Mahoney's early release from the Washington State Penitentiary also granted him a complete pardon upon the successful completion of his parole this month. Douglas immediately petitioned Governor Lewis F. Hart to forego the pardon, explaining that Mahoney was being held on a forgery charge and had committed other felonies including one of gravest character. Governor Hart responded that Mahoney would not receive a pardon unless and until all charges against him had been adjudicated and the mystery of his wife's disappearance solved.
A Sad End
On Monday, August 8, 1921, the divers, riding on an underwater sled pulled by a tugboat, inadvertently bumped into an object floating near the bottom about 200 yards east of the University Bridge in Portage Bay. It had been anchored to a large chunk of cement with a length of hemp rope, which broke. The Mahoney trunk bobbed to the surface and was recovered by the tugboat Audrey. Captain Tennant, having survived 11 weeks of criticism, finally had tangible evidence of the murder.
Although quicklime had obliterated the face of the corpse, it was positively identified as Kate Mooers Mahoney. In addition to her clothing and other personal items stuffed into the trunk, there were Kate's false teeth and wedding ring that witnesses identified. The autopsy, performed by King County Coroner Dr. Willis H. Corson, revealed that she had been poisoned with at least 30 grains of morphine, stuffed into the trunk while still alive and had the left side of her skull crushed by blows from a heavy blunt instrument.
On Wednesday, August 10, 1921, Prosecutor Malcom Douglas charged James E. Mahoney in King County Superior Court with the first-degree murder of his wife Kate. Mahoney entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment on August 18, 1921, and the trial was set for September 20, 1921.
Trial began on schedule in the King County Court House before Judge James T. Ronald, but was slowed by jury selection. After two days, only 12 jurors had been selected and the pool of prospective jurors had been exhausted. Many were excused because they professed opposition to the death penalty. Judge Ronald said it would take too long to summons another jury pool and ordered the trial to proceed without an alternate juror.
Opening arguments began on Thursday morning, September 22, 1921. The trial proceeded at a rapid pace and was concluded in just eight days. More than 60 witnesses took the stand to give testimony. Several witnesses identified Kate Mahoney's body and her personal effects found in the steamer trunk, while others documented Mahoney's movements in Seattle and Saint Paul. The main witnesses for the prosecution were Alvin Jorgenson, the Seattle Transfer Company teamster who identified Jim Mahoney and the steamer trunk, and criminologist Luke S. May (1892-1965), the handwriting expert who declared Kate Mahoney's letters and signatures to be forgeries. The prosecution rested its case on Wednesday morning, September 28, 1921.
Defense attorney Lee Johnston opened his defense on Wednesday afternoon stating that Jim Mahoney had an alibi. He would prove the body found in the steamer trunk was not Kate Mahoney and that she was alive after April 16, 1921, the alleged date of the murder. The defense subpoenaed 27 witnesses, including the defendant's mother, Mrs. Nora Mahoney, his sister, Dolores Johnson, and her 12-year-old foster daughter, Margaret. As expected, the witnesses all testified they had either seen or had contact with Kate Mahoney after April 16, 1921. Several testified about a party at the New Baker House on the evening in question, attended by Jim and Kate Mahoney, which lasted until 11:00 p.m. Mahoney wisely chose not to testify in his own defense. The defense rested its case Friday afternoon, September 30, 1921.
Closing argument were begun on Friday afternoon and continued on Saturday October 1, 1921. Deputy Prosecutor T. H. Patterson, outlining the overwhelming evidence against Jim Mahoney, all but accused Dolores Johnson and Nora Mahoney of engineering the plot to acquire Kate Mooers fortune.
Assistant Defense Attorney Louis B. Schwellenbach began closing arguments by accusing the police of framing Jim Mahoney for murder, suggesting that Captain Tennant planted the trunk containing a body in Portage Bay. He said the trunk Mahoney had delivered to Lake Union contained bootleg liquor found in one of Kate's rentals and that he was disposing of it so that his parole would not be jeopardized. He claimed that the police suggested to Alvin Jorgenson what to remember about the trunk delivery, and that witnesses who had identified Jim Mahoney and Kate's body had perjured themselves. Attorney Schwellenbach concluded by stating that Jim Mahoney hadn't killed anyone -- Kate's whereabouts were a complete mystery. At about 5:00 p.m., the case went to the jury.
At about 10:00 p.m., court was reconvened and the jury of eight men and four women returned the verdict. Mahoney was found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury voted to impose the death penalty. It had taken them only four hours and 40 minutes and 12 ballots to reach their decision. Nora Mahoney stood expressionless, Dolores Johnson fainted, and Jim Mahoney, who had made a bet with a guard on the outcome, won a cigar.
Siblings in Crime
Dolores Johnson was arrested on Wednesday, October 5, 1921, and charged with first-degree forgery and grand larceny. She was accused of complicity in forging Kate Mahoney's signature to a power-of-attorney giving Jim Mahoney full control over her assets. Johnson was also charged with grand larceny by obtaining money from an associate under false pretenses. Judge Everett Smith set her bail at $2,500, which she was unable to furnish. A codefendant in the grand larceny case told Captain Tennant that he and Johnson planned to hire perjured witnesses to clear Mahoney and, if possible, "fix" a juror.
On Friday, October 14, 1921, Attorneys Johnston and Schwellenbach presented arguments to Judge Ronald for a new trial on the grounds that there had been errors in the jury selection and in the court's instructions to the jury regarding deliberations. The motions were denied and Judge Ronald sentenced Mahoney to hang on January 6, 1922. Mahoney quipped, "Well boys, I have been given a suspended sentence" (The Seattle Star).
Attorney Johnston immediately filed a notice of appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court. Mahoney remained in the King County Jail until a decision was made. On September 6, 1922, the State Supreme Court denied Mahoney's petition for a new trial based on judicial errors.
On September 15, 1922, Judge Ronald set Mahoney's execution date for Friday, December 1, 1922, and ordered him to be taken immediately to the Washington State Penitentiary. Attorney Johnston said he was filing a petition for a new trial with the U. S. Supreme Court claiming that on May 22, 1921, Mahoney had been deprived of his liberty without due process of law, a violation of his constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment. A request for a 90-day stay of execution was denied. As Mahoney had been a guest in his jail for 16 months, King County Sheriff Matthew Starwich gave him a special farewell dinner of roast chicken before driving him to Walla Walla for execution.
On Wednesday, November 29, 1922, Mahoney learned from his attorneys that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected his appeal. Although it was predicted he would never confess, Mahoney did exactly that. He provided Attorney Johnston a written statement claiming full responsibility for his wife's murder and outlined the details, which corresponded to the evidence presented at trial.
Most believed it was an effort to exonerate his mother and sister from any complicity in the killing. Mahoney actually blamed Kate for the murder, claiming that he married her with the belief that he would be allowed to share in her wealth. However, that didn't happen. Mahoney complained that she wouldn't trust him with enough money to go across the street to get a bottle of milk (The Seattle Star). Kate's stinginess, petulance, and constant nagging were, according to Mahoney, the reasons she had to die.
Unknown to Jim Mahoney, the following day Dolores Johnson also confessed to Kate Mahoney's murder. In a written statement provided to her attorney, Thomas J. Casey, Johnson exonerated Mahoney, claiming that she killed Kate in self-defense after a heated argument and her brother merely helped to dispose of the body. The statement was immediately provided to Prosecutors Douglas and Patterson and Lieutenant and Acting Governor William J. Coyle for review. After examining the statement, Douglas and Patterson believed it was nothing more than an eleventh-hour attempt for a reprieve. They told Coyle the statement was rife with errors, recommending that Mahoney's execution proceed on schedule. After conferring with Warden John W. Pace at the penitentiary, Acting Governor Coyle said, "Go ahead, there will be no interference" (The Seattle Times).
The gallows was erected on Thanksgiving day, November 30, 1922, in the solitary confinement area of the penitentiary known as "Siberia." A special three-quarter inch hemp rope with the noose already tied, had been imported from San Quentin Penitentiary just for the execution. That night, Jim Mahoney ate his last meal, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. Later, he lay on his cot eating chocolates and reading Seattle newspaper accounts of preparations for his execution. Around midnight, Mahoney became apprehensive and asked for a Catholic priest.
Father Steven Buckley, from nearby Saint Patrick's Parish, heard Mahoney's full confession, administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and stayed through the night. At 4:00 a.m. Mahoney was moved to a holding cell near the scaffold, where he was shaved and dressed in new clothes. Just before 7:00 a.m. Warden Pace and Father Buckley escorted him to the prison yard. When asked if he wished to make a public statement, Mahoney said he did not and waived the reading of the death warrant.
The execution had been announced for 7:37 a.m., sunrise. James E. Mahoney was hanged at 7:02 a.m. on December 1, 1922, 35 minutes ahead of schedule. It was witnessed only by prison officials. His body was taken down 12 minutes later, and Walla Walla County Coroner Joseph Chamberlain pronounced him dead. Seeing no abrasion from the rope on Mahoney's neck, prison officials stated that it was the cleanest execution in the institution's history. After funeral services at Saint Patrick's on December 11, 1922, Mahoney was buried in an unmarked grave at the Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla.
The Mother and the Sister
Dolores Johnson went to trial on November 28, 1921. Prosecutor Malcom Douglas described her as the brains behind Kate Mahoney's murder. The main witnesses were Emil J. Brandt, the notary public who identified Johnson as Kate's impersonator, criminologist Luke S. May, the handwriting expert who identified Johnson's handwriting on the forged document, and Mr. A. T. Atkinson, a former codefendant, who testified about their grand larceny scheme.
On November 30, 1921, Johnson was convicted of first-degree forgery and grand larceny and sentenced to serve from 5 to 20 years at the woman's facility in the Washington State Penitentiary. She was released on $5,000 bail pending an appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court. The appeal was finally denied and on December 6, 1922, Dolores Johnson, still proclaiming that she had killed Kate Mahoney, not committed forgery, was arrested and taken to jail. She was released again on $10,000 bail pending an application for a rehearing of her petition for a new trial. On January 19, 1923, that application was also denied and Dolores went back to prison to serve out her sentence.
Other than for the $30,000 stolen from Kate safe deposit box -- which was probably used for attorney's fees -- none of the Mahoneys benefited from the murder. On March 1, 1921, three days after making a will leaving all her holdings to Jim Mahoney, Kate returned to her attorney and, explaining Jim had lied to her about owing a large amount of property in Tacoma, made a new will leaving everything to her two nieces. That will disappeared when Kate was murdered, but was reestablished as her last valid will by Judge James T. Ronald, based on a copy in her attorney's possession.
Although authorities were convinced that Nora Mahoney had also been involved in Kate Mahoney's murder, she was never charged. Jim was dead and Dolores, in prison, wasn't talking. Immediately after the execution, Nora Mahoney left for Bangor, Maine, to live with her brothers at their old homestead.