A key prosecution witness in the Fritzie Mann murder case of 1923 in San Diego was a woman named Wilma Minor, who five years later became the most famous person involved in the case due to her involvement in a bizarre hoax. Nobody in San Diego would’ve predicted this any more than they would’ve believed that Wilma had been involved in a very different but even more bizarre episode ten years before. Judging by the news coverage of the case, she didn’t seem like a person capable of such things.
In the news coverage of the case, Wilma came across as decidedly normal, an ordinary person selected by fate to play a role in the most sensational crime story in the city’s history. Her only noteworthy traits seemed to be a striking beauty, stylish attire, and an actress’ flair for the dramatic—when Wilma made an entrance, everybody noticed. This was no accident. Few people in San Diego would’ve known it, but before settling there in 1922 she’d traveled around the country for years as an actress in vaudeville musical comedies. Her mother, Cora, ran the vaudeville troupe, which also included her husband, Frank.
Thirty-seven in 1923, Wilma gave the impression of being younger and if asked her age would’ve answered with something closer to twenty-eight or nine. She lied about her age throughout her life, including in official documents. With each ten-year census, Wilma’s rate of aging appeared to slow. She’s listed as twenty-one in 1910 when she was actually twenty-four; twenty-seven in 1920 when actually thirty-four; and thirty-one in 1930 when actually forty-four. Her official age never caught up to reality. It’s unlikely that any of the men in her life, including the four men she married, knew her real age.
Wilma had inherited some of her traits from her mother, most notably the hypnotic effect she had on men, her multiple marriages, and her exaggerated sensitivity to the passage of time. But whereas Wilma was charming and sensitive, her mother, Mrs. Cora Mickle-Hoffer, was domineering, eccentric, and something of a grifter.
Cora billed herself at various times as an actor, a singer, an author, a playwright, a poet, a medium, a lecturer, a Reverend, the publisher of a magazine called The Thinker’s World, and founder of a secret society based in Chicago called the Society of Natural Science. The existence of the society came to light in 1913 when a row between Cora and one of her acolytes turned into a legal brouhaha that shocked the public.
“Doctor” Herbert Ross Bumpass, a “recalcitrant prophet” of the Society of Natural Science, defended himself against a charge of disorderly conduct by revealing the peculiar goings on within the organization. A self-described philosopher and soldier of fortune, Bumpass testified that Cora had hired him to write about his war adventures in the Boxer Rebellion and Spanish-American War for her magazine, then refused to pay him. She suggested instead that he come live at her house rent-free as compensation. Bumpass agreed. At Cora’s house, which doubled as the Society’s headquarters, Wilma mesmerized him.
“I discovered that Mrs. Minor was my affinity,” Bumpass said. “I thought I deserved an affinity as well as my room and board for my work on the magazine.”
His affinity no doubt had much to do with Wilma’s curvaceous figure, gray-green bedroom eyes, and flirtatious charm. Cora, more liberal than average in sexual matters, agreed that Bumpass deserved an affinity with her daughter. So did Wilma’s husband, Frank, who said he and Wilma were married in name only. Bumpass promptly moved into Wilma’s room.
You see, Bumpass said in court, the Society of Natural Science was not a spiritual society as Cora claimed, but a free-love cult. And Cora’s house was not the headquarters of a legitimate organization but a “love temple.” Then, out of the blue, Frank, whom Bumpass referred to derisively as a “ham actor,” objected to the arrangement, as if he’d just discovered another man sleeping with his wife under the same roof. He forcibly ejected the prophet from Cora’s house.
Cora later accused Bumpass of conspiring with his brother to burn down a printing company and Cora’s house. Bumpass defended himself against the arson charge by trashing the reputations of his former guru and her daughter. Mrs. Mickle-Hoffer’s so-called “natural science,” he said, condoned and even encouraged free love. He dwelt at length on his sexual affair with Wilma, going into such explicit detail that the judge had to repeatedly warn him to moderate his language. On the stand, Wilma wept and denied all of Bumpass’ sleazy accusations. Cora, referred to in the papers as the “High Priestess of an Alleged Love Utopia,” was not so easily cowed. She dismissed Bumpass’ allegations and hurled invective of her own, calling him a crazy man. Bumpass was ultimately acquitted.
The bizarre episode caused quite a stir in Chicago—this was 1913, after all, long before the carefree Jazz Age loosened up the Victorian moral code. Free-love cults were definitely not a thing and certainly not talked about in public.
By 1920 Cora and Wilma had given up the vaudeville lifestyle. Wilma was living with Frank in Long Beach, Ca, Cora with her latest husband in Chula Vista, a small suburb near the south end of San Diego Bay.
Wilma moved to San Diego in early 1922. That year she ran a short-lived dress design company called My Lady’s Dressmakers out of her house. She divorced Frank around this time and began a career as an associate editor and writer for Southwest Magazine, a now-defunct San Diego monthly. She wrote features on light human-interest subjects such as Snooky, who Wilma described as an “almost-human” chimp at the zoo.
Sometime after her involvement in the Fritzie Mann case, Wilma became a part-time writer for the San Diego Union. She wrote a human-interest column called “Sidelights on Life” for a few years. Known for her distinctive purple prose, Wilma once described a book as “so full of fresh air and high zest of living that it plays on jaded senses pleasantly like the muted strings of a violin.”
By late 1928 Wilma was in her second marriage. Using her writing skills and making maximum use of her hypnotic effect on men, with encouragement from her allegedly clairvoyant and conniving mother, she became a nation-wide celebrity overnight as the protagonist of one of the most audacious literary hoaxes of all time.
She submitted an article called “Lincoln the Lover” to Atlantic Monthly magazine. Her submission included letters that Abraham Lincoln had reputedly exchanged with a woman named Ann Rutledge. Back up evidence included a bible Rutledge had supposedly gifted to the future president and her friend’s diary. Rutledge, some historians believed, was Abe’s first love. Some Lincoln scholars theorized that her death in 1835 accounted for the depression that plagued him the rest of his life. Wilma’s letters seemed to confirm the theory.
Lincoln biographers Ida Tarbell and Carl Sandburg excitedly authenticated the letters. This was enough to convince well-regarded Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick. Swiftly, he edited out Wilma’s purple prose and serialized her piece in three parts. The magazine paid her $1500 for the articles and another $1,000 as an advance towards a book, considerable sums in those days. Wilma gave talks and basked in the attention.
Soon, Lincoln experts spotted the letters for what they were—crude forgeries. The handwriting in the letters bore no resemblance to Lincoln’s. Nor was the composer of the Gettysburg Address known to write sentences such as, “Night, like a black sinewy panther, crawled cautiously through the unbending straight directness of the saplings on the river bank.” Embarrassed, Sandburg and Tarbell recanted their previous statements, leaving Sedgwick to twist in the wind.
After months of adamant denials, Wilma admitted writing the letters and the fake diary but insisted that it was no fraud. A spirit guide, she claimed, had dictated the contents of the documents to her mother, now known as Cora Deboyer. Because the spirit guide was in direct contact with Abe and Ann, now together in the afterlife, the materials were authentic. Needless to say, nobody bought this.
Cora, of course, was the real mastermind behind the hoax. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press, Edward Weeks, described her as “…tall and beady-eyed, with hair suspiciously black for her age.” Her general look “reminded him somehow of a fortune-teller.”
An L.A. private eye the Atlantic Monthly hired to investigate the hoax described Cora as “…the hard nut of the two…a hard boiled old hen, who does not know what the word truth means.” Wilma, on the other hand, was “very badly disrupted and plainly showed the ordeal she had been through. At one point Wilma seemed like she was ready to pass out.”
The weird episode stamped a permanent black mark on Ellery Sedgwick’s otherwise distinguished career. Along with another man involved in the scandal, he’d been duped in no small part by his electric attraction to the comely Wilma.
Wilma’s celebrity-notoriety flamed out as quickly as it had ignited, and she drifted back into obscurity. She married two more times, continued writing, became an artist and a scrap booker and lived a quiet life in the San Diego area until her death in 1965.
Her obituary, which does not mention the Lincoln letters, lists her age as sixty-seven. She was actually seventy-nine.
1. Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, and Louise Brooks became famous for portraying flappers in
silent films, but the first was Olive Thomas in the 1920 film “The Flapper.” Thomas died later
that year in Paris after ingesting husband Jack Pickford’s syphilis medicine (mercury
bichloride) in what was officially ruled an accident, though some believe it was suicide or
2. Olive Thomas’s death was the first of five notorious Hollywood scandals during the first half
of the 1920s. The others: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s manslaughter trials for the death of actress Virginia Rappe in 1921; director William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious murder in 1922; movie star Wallace Reid’s drug-related death in 1923; and director Thomas Ince’s death after a cruise on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924.
3. William Randolph Hearst pioneered the sensationalized, fact-challenged form of reporting called “yellow” journalism. His newspapers were largely responsible for shattering the careers of three major silver screen players—slapstick king Roscoe Arbuckle, slapstick queen Mabel Normand, and screen ingenue Mary Miles Minter—with lurid, often false innuendo, exaggeration, and outright fabrication.
4. The stereotypical flapper image, promoted by Hollywood, included a waif-thin, androgynous look, bobbed hair, a shapeless party dress with fringes, beads or sequins, rolled stockings, modish cloche hat or feathered headband, and a cigarette in a long holder.
5. Along with Hollywood, tobacco companies helped create and capitalized on the flapper image by advertising smoking as a weight loss method and a mark of sophistication for women.
6. Smoking is one of the flapper behaviors, often depicted on the big screen, that outraged traditionalists. Others included driving, visiting bars, dating, close dancing, and public displays of affection.
7. Jazz Age frivolity and progressive attitudes prompted a backlash from conservatives. The culture wars of the 1920s bore a close resemblance to those one hundred years later. Other than the more recent addition of LGBTQ rights, the flash points were the same: Gender, race, abortion, immigration.
8. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been in decline since the Civil War, had undergone a resurgence following D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which reinforced racist stereotypes and glorified the Klan as patriotic heroes. The revitalized Klan of the 1920s held enmity for Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and Jazz Age liberalism as well as African Americans. The organization also viewed itself as the arbiter of morality. By its peak in the mid-1920s, the KKK had grown to over four million members—approximately fifteen percent of the eligible U.S. population of native-born white Protestants.
9. Before the Jazz Age, the idea of two young people going on a date wasn’t a thing. Previously, suitors “called on” young women at their home, where their parents could keep an eye on them. Now the man picked the woman up in his “machine,” as automobiles were commonly called, and took her to a dance, a restaurant, or a movie. But with the more casual interaction between the sexes, parents worried that they might end up a speakeasy or a hotel. With birth control and abortion illegal, the danger of an unwanted pregnancy was ever-present.
10. An unwritten Victorian moral code in the patriarchal society placed a disproportionate burden on women to prevent pre-marital sex. Until married, a woman could not allow a man to touch her and the only birth control needed was to keep her legs closed. That shouldn’t be hard, it was thought, since women were not considered sexual beings anyway. The man was supposed to “do the right thing,” but when he didn’t the woman had no good options.
Like so many others, I got hooked on crime nonfiction back in the mid-70s when Helter Skelter came out. The best-selling true crime book of all time begins with a warning: “This book will scare the hell out of you”—the best introductory teaser for a book I’ve seen and absolutely true. Over the years I developed a fondness for narrative nonfiction books in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, particularly those about vintage crimes such as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson or Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I’ve wanted to write about true crimes almost as long as I’ve been reading about them.
I finally got around to it thirty-five years after reading Helter Skelter. After retiring from active duty in the Navy and settling in San Diego, I went back to school, earning a BA in English from National University followed by an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. The UCR course is a top-rated low-residency program where the majority of the work is done online, with intense ten-day residency periods twice a year. In 2012, while preparing to start the MFA program, I began searching for a thesis subject. I wanted to write a narrative nonfiction book—using the literary techniques of fiction but sticking to the facts—about an old crime, preferably obscure, unsolved, and untold. If possible, I wanted it set near my home in San Diego because I knew extensive research would be required. As I started the search, I came across a number of crimes that met these criteria, but none stood out and most of them aren’t well-documented. Access to source material became an additional criterion.
As I asked around, several people mentioned the Fritzie Mann case. Local historian and author Richard Crawford had recently rescued the story from obscurity by publishing an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called “1923 Death of Butterfly Dancer Becomes Shocking Mystery.” As I began looking into it, I noticed that the story seemed to have attained something of a cult status around town as an unsolved mystery, no doubt largely due to Richard’s article. A young woman who worked at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park referred to it as the city’s “Black Dahlia case.” She steered me to an old scrapbook packed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the 1920s, the majority of which covered the Fritzie Mann case.
The case, which met all of my criteria, drew me in at once. It had the added bonus of being set in the Jazz Age, to me one of the most fascinating periods in U.S. history. Over the next several years, during what proved to be a daunting research project, I learned that the story of Fritzie’s tragic death was much more than an intriguing Jazz Age murder mystery, although it was certainly that; in many ways it seemed to define the era, an era of change and societal conflict with striking parallels to today.
Telling the story, however, proved to be more challenging than I’d anticipated. In some cases, I found hard-to-fill gaps in the historical record that made it difficult to reconstruct scenes with the detail and characterization I wanted. In other cases, such as contemporary newspaper articles, I found an abundance of information but of questionable veracity. I learned some hard lessons about writing a narrative nonfiction book, at least a book about an obscure hundred-year-old murder mystery. The most important lesson: Real-world events don’t always cooperate with your story-telling desires and those pesky facts can get in the way of a good true story. I found that the best—and probably only—way to solve this problem was to get creative with how I told the story without getting creative with the facts.
My book is about the tragic unsolved death of Fritzie Mann, a beautiful interpretive dancer from an immigrant Jewish family. She left her San Diego home one evening in January 1923 to meet a mysterious man, telling her mother only that it was a “man from L.A.” who was taking her to a “house party in Del Mar.” The next morning Fritzie turned up dead on Torrey Pines beach, then a lonely spot. The scene, with her body in an odd posture and her belongings scattered around the beach, mystified the police. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a homicide? They couldn’t tell for sure and neither could the inquest but ultimately the coroner ruled it a homicide.
Two intriguing suspects emerged right away, a playboy actor and a debonair doctor, both sophisticated men from the east. Each of these men had a motive, a shaky alibi, and circumstantial evidence against him and in the early stages of the case both looked guilty. The doctor walked unbidden into the police chief’s office with his lawyer in tow. The cops couldn’t locate the actor for three days; when they finally did, it was in L.A. and it looked like he was about to flee out of state. The investigation uncovered Fritzie’s connections to Hollywood, her clandestine meeting on the night of her death at a beach cottage in La Jolla with a man called the “mysterious Mr. Johnston,” and secrets she’d been keeping that had threatened to ruin her killer.
Newspapers in San Diego and Los Angeles covered the case from the beginning. With each revelation the hype grew and the story spread to front pages across the nation. The more the papers sensationalized the story in this era of “yellow” journalism, the more the coverage shaped and distorted it. Later, an ambitious District Attorney battled a high-profile L.A. attorney in the most sensational trial in San Diego’s history amid allegations of corruption and legal dirty tricks on both sides.
But at the end, big questions remained. In my research I found information unavailable to the jury and newspapers at the time that sheds new light on this true Jazz Age murder mystery. Set against a backdrop of yellow journalism, notorious Hollywood scandals, Prohibition corruption and a lively culture war, this is the tragic story of a spirited young woman who practiced a now-forgotten art and loved the wrong man at a time women had few options.
In upcoming blog posts I plan to cover topics related to Fritzie’s story and the time and place: Ten things you didn’t know about the Jazz Age; San Diego’s unique law enforcement situation and corruption during Prohibition; the string of notorious Hollywood scandals in the early 1920s (e.g. Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor); the fact-challenged, sensationalized style of reporting called “yellow” journalism; and the history of the lost art of interpretive dance and Fritzie's experiences in the dance world. I also plan to cover side stories about some of the characters such as a prosecution witness who later became notorious for perpetrating one of the most audacious literary hoaxes in U.S. history involving fake letters from Abraham Lincoln and a colorful brothel madame who followed a successful system to stay one step ahead of the law—until her luck finally ran out.