Love and Carnage in La Cañada

The yacht didn’t sink. There was enough dynamite on board rigged to a timer that it should have blown up, splintered into the proverbial million pieces, and sunk to the bottom of Newport Harbor. But that’s beside the point. Walter and Beulah Overell of La Cañada-Flintridge were already dead. The autopsy showed that the Overell’s (Walter, 62, and Beulah, 57) did not die from the explosion on their yacht; they had been bludgeoned to death. The likely instrument, a ball-peen hammer. The question of who wielded the hammer on that March night in 1947 was another matter altogether.

Beulah-Louise Overell

Walter and Beulah Overell were one of the first to purchase a home in the recently created tony subdivision of Los Angeles called Flintridge. Walter, a successful investor and owner of Overell’s furniture store in Los Angeles, produced successful relationships, which enabled his businesses to thrive. Apparently his home life was not as successful. It was rumored that his wife, Beulah, had romantic encounters with Senator Frank Flint, for whom Flintridge was named. The senator was enraptured enough with her that he actually named a street after her, Beulah Drive. “We know that Beulah Overell was one of the top socialites in Flintridge and that Senator Flint was a notorious philanderer and it’s likely that they were having an affair,” said John Newcombe, whose documentary Rancho La Cañada: Then and Now gives a historical account of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley. When I was a boy I lived on Beulah Drive in La Cañada-Flintridge but that’s as close to the Overell story as I had ever come until much later in life, long after I’d left the area.

Jurors tour the Mary E.

Walter and Beulah had an only-child and by all accounts Beulah-Louise was a spoiled little girl and no one really liked her. “At one point they had a birthday party for Beulah-Louise but no one came, so the mother, not wanting her daughter to be traumatized, discreetly paid people to show up,” Newcombe says. But that’s conjecture, a second hand story perhaps true, perhaps shades of the truth. What is true is that the Overell estate was initially valued at over $600,000, a massive amount by post WWII standards. It’s also true that Beulah-Louise just 17 and attending USC, met George Gollum, 21, and became enchanted with the man, though no one seems to have liked him much either. George Gollum and Beulah-Louise somehow found each other, two lost souls in a hectic and disconnected world, falling in love despite Walter’s protests. Allegedly Water disliked Gollum to the extent that he threatened to disown Beulah-Louise if she married him, which she had planned to do on April 30th, just 45 days after the explosion. What is also true is that the dynamite used to blow up the 47-foot yacht, the Mary E., was the same dynamite found in Gollum’s trunk, the same dynamite in fact he and Beulah-Louise purchased from the Trojan Powderworks Factory in Chatsworth days before the blast. Police arrested the lovebirds after a brief investigation. News accounts of the day offer different scenarios about where Gollum and Beulah-Louise were when the boat exploded. Some reports claimed they were rowing away from the yacht, others said they were getting hamburgers on shore in Newport. What we do know is that they were safely away from the Mary E.

George Gollum and Beulah-Louise at trial

Their trial began on May 26th, 1947 and lasted 133 days. People across the country were obsessed with the trial, which became the longest and most expensive trial in California history at that time. Broadcast on the radio and reported in newspapers from the LA Times to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and Time Magazine, the public was hooked on the salacious details. “The defendants enjoyed an illicit, perverted, sadistic sexual passion amounting almost to frenzy,” prosecutor Eugene Williams told a packed courtroom. “Lust, greed, frustration. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the raw materials of which murders are made,” he claimed. Certainly any child accused of killing their parents rouses a level of morbid curiosity. Beulah-Louise was young, reasonably attractive, the product of wealthy parents who lived in an exclusive area. That’s fodder for speculation right there. Added to that, Gollum and Beulah-Louise wrote weird love letters to each other from the confines of their cells including a planned jailbreak. The letters, leaked to the press, made front-page news across the country. In looking at the letters they seem sappy, just the sort of immature expressions you’d expect from immature people. “Would you still marry me if I were broke?” Beulah-Louise cryptically wrote to Gollum. “Oh Pops darling, please promise you will marry me. You’re an uplifted human being. You’re the most intelligent person I ever heard of. Einstein was a moron compared to you. Yes, sir, you’re the object of my adoration and the creature of my determination,” she wrote to her lover. But there were darker tones as well. “Because I love and adore and worship and cherish you with all my heart, I’ll kidnap you and carry you off somewhere where no one will ever be able to find us and I’ll make passionate and violent love to you,” Gollum penned. “If you ever marry another person, I will kill him,” he added. According to letters published in the LA Herald Examiner they both threatened to take sleeping pills if either one was unfaithful to the other. Ah, misguided young love. It seemed like a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Beulah-Louise had motive as the sole inheritor of her parents’ fortune. Gollum had the trunk full of dynamite. And Walter Overell apparently didn’t have the kind of enemies who would orchestrate his demise, well, except for his daughter. But zealous prosecutors made critical blunders, not the least of which was to try Gollum and Beulah-Louise together, not separately. That would prove to be a fantastic mistake, but it wasn’t the only one.

The jailbreak letter, leaked to the press

Prosecutors contended that specific screws used in the detonation device were exceptionally rare, and how was it that those same screws were found in Gollum’s car? The defense team went to a local hardware store and easily purchased the same screws, tossing them about the courtroom, their small tinny notes producing a much louder reaction from the gallery. The defense argued that Gollum purchased the dynamite at Walter Overell’s urging. Why? The jury eventually decided in October when the verdict was released, that Walter Overell was depressed enough over his deteriorating finances that the explosion was the result of “the accident of suicidal tampering with dynamite.” Did Water have a death wish? One news report quoted Gollum as saying he bought the dynamite so Water could remove tree stumps at his estate. Regardless the two were acquitted of all charges as throngs of court watchers exploded in applause. Insurance money based on a double indemnity claim resulted in a $140,000 award. “Afterwards, many of the jurors said they all believed that Gollum and Beulah-Louise had done it,” Newcombe says, “but they felt George acted like a Svengali over her and they wanted to give her a lesser sentence.” But they were tried together and the charges against them didn’t allow for individual verdicts. “The jury was stuck; are you going to throw them both in prison for the rest of their lives?” Newcombe asks. “The jurors never had that option. It was a real blunder of the part of the prosecutor.” It was later learned that the initial jury vote was 11 to 1 to convict.

Remnants of the bomb

By the time the trial was over Gollum and Beulah-Louise were no longer planning on wedded bliss, their infantile letters had ceased. Their love resembled the Mary E., which had been put on display in Long Beach as a tourist attraction, coercing 150,000 people to wander through the death ship. Admission was 50 cents, then reduced to 25 cents and finally to a paltry 15 cents as a fickle public looked elsewhere for things to occupy their meandering thoughts. Billboard Magazine reported that in 1949 the Mary E. was sold at auction for a mere $1,900. There was a rumor it ended up in Coney Island, no longer an attraction, merely junk; a twisted, broken memory, sold for scrap. Time Magazine reported that the Overell estate was in reality “valued in probate at $309,997,” perhaps a fact that Beulah-Louise wasn’t aware of. But there were bills to pay and attorney’s fees. According to the LA Times the now single heiress began drawing $500 per month on the inheritance and $300 each month from the insurance policy, her total inheritance amounting to only $70,000 according to Newcombe.

Beulah-Louise towards the end of the trial in 1947

By age 20 Beulah-Louise decided to marry, but not George Gollum. The Los Angeles Times reported her upcoming nuptials to Robert Cannon, 28, a Los Angeles cop. In a peculiar comment she was quoted as saying there would be no honeymoon, “a ridiculous custom,” she called it. That marriage failed after two years. Then she married Joseph Kooyman, a bar keeper in Las Vegas in 1953. That too failed, and so did her life. Beulah-Louise had begun to drink heavily and was under the supervision of a psychiatrist. By age 36, just 18 years after her parents died, she died of alcohol poisoning according to Las Vegas Deputy Corner Harvey Schnitzer. She was found naked on her bed, two empty vodka bottles nearby, covered in bruises, a fully loaded .22 rifle at her feet. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times reported that Schnitzer quoted Kooyman as saying that, “she was always falling down,” thus offering his explanation of her bruises, but little else.

George Gollum tried to create a new life for himself; that is after he stole a car and spent nine months in jail in Georgia. After that he vanished from sight. He became a professor, so he claimed, but no one ever knew what school he taught at. In 1988 the Los Angeles Times tracked him down and wrote a short article on the 40th anniversary of the crime. Gollum was living “near Lake Tahoe” and told the reporter over the phone he was involved in real estate speculation. He claimed to have a daughter and son, though he’d been separated from his wife of 20 years. George Gollum died in February 2009 in Wasilla, Alaska. He was 83. “What fascinates me is that by spoiling the kid, they (the parents) kill themselves in a sense,” says Newcombe. “They allowed Beulah-Louise to become rotten and it bites them back.” Maybe. Probably. We don’t know for certain.

The fundamental flaw with history is that it is recorded with a bias and as news accounts of the day differed so dramatically it’s nearly impossible to fully uncover the truth of the deaths of Walter and Beulah Overell. And what was the real story? Was Beulah-Louise a spoiled rich kid who finagled Gollum into her scheme to kill her parents and inherit a fortune? Was Gollum the mastermind who saw opportunity in a young, naive La Cañada-Flintridge girl? Did Walter and Beulah Overell, in a failed attempt to over-parent their only child, set in motion a string of events that lead to their demise? The truth of that night will never be known. All four of the participants in this tawdry drama are dead. What remains becomes a perpetual parlor game — did she or didn’t she? And what about him? Questions destined to be part of the lore of La Cañada-Flintridge, asked but never answered, speculated but never put to rest, and like the Mary E., are eventually dismantled and ultimately disregarded.

(See more of Michael’s work at Photos courtesy of USC)

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