The Honeymoon Murderers

Was Pearl O’Dell a murderess or a mistreated victim?

Richard J. Goodrich
Dec 15, 2020 · 17 min read
Edward Kneip, Pearl O’Dell, James O’Dell.
Edward Kneip, Pearl O’Dell, James O’Dell.
Edward Kneip, Pearl O’Dell, James O’Dell. Buffalo Enquirer, Jan. 10, 1920. Public Domain.

dark January evening in the Year of Our Lord, 1920. Two men and a woman walked away from the intersection of Mosquito Point and Scottsville Road, just outside the city limits of Rochester, New York. The three were young, the men in their early twenties, the woman only eighteen. The older man wore handcuffs on his wrists.

They reached a grove of trees, standing in the snow near the Ballantyne Bridge. The younger man unlocked the handcuffs, and then, gesturing with a pistol, motioned the other man to put his hands behind his body and wrap his arms around the trunk of the tree. The older man complied. The handcuffs clicked shut. He was immobilized, unable to move his arms, fixed to the tree.

The other man shoved the snout of the .32 caliber pistol into his belt. He turned to the woman — still a girl, actually — and smiled.

“Pearl, if this man ever did anything wrong to you, go ahead and do what you want with him. He caused you many heartaches and much suffering.”

The girl’s eyes gleamed. The hand that clutched a large, steel file shook with suppressed anticipation.

She stepped forward eagerly.

On the morning of January 8, 1920, Train 9383 of the Pennsylvania Railroad approached the Rochester station on schedule. The train’s brakeman happened to be looking out window as the train steamed over a culvert west of the Ballantyne Bridge. As the locomotive passed, the brakeman spotted a corpse laying in the ditch.

The police, led by Sheriff Andrew Weidenmann, quickly arrived at the scene. There they discovered the half-naked body of a young man. His skull had been crushed at its base with a blunt instrument. The upper jaw was shattered. The victim’s ears were shredded, his face was badly cut, and multiple stab wounds disfigured his body. A slashed abdomen revealed a cold, glistening coil of intestine. Sheriff Weidenmann and his his experienced deputies were stunned by the savagery of the murder.

The snow-covered ground had captured the footprints of a man and a woman; the broken heel of a woman’s shoe was found embedded in the soil. A tree stood sixty feet from the body; the snow around its base had been packed flat and tattooed by the frenzied imprints of a woman’s shoes. She had apparently danced around hysterically while the victim was being killed.

A large stick, possibly torn from a nearby stump, lay nearby. One end was stained with blood. Investigators believed that the makeshift club had been used to smash the skull. As the police continued to search the area, they found the broken handle and chamber of .32 caliber pistol. Officers speculated that the pistol might have broken when smashed against a man’s skull.

The victim wore a shirt and underpants. The rest of his clothes, rolled into a bloody bundle, were found nearby.

As word of the violent murder spread through Rochester, witnesses arrived bearing pieces of the puzzle. Charles Scherer, a taxi cab driver, told the police that he had driven two men and woman out the Scottsville Road to Mosquito Point the previous evening.

The police escorted him to morgue, where the driver identified the victim as one of his passengers. The victim was Edward Kneip, a local machinist. When the sheriff’s detectives visited his place of employment — the Gleason Works — his foreman, told an interesting story. T

he preceding day, just before work ended for the afternoon, a man presented himself at the front office, asking to speak with Edward Kneip. The visitor flashed a badge and claimed to be “Detective Arnold” of the police department. Kneip, he said, was wanted for questioning in an assault.

Kneip did not appear to recognize the visitor when he came to the office. He passively submitted to handcuffing and left with the “police detective.”

Shortly thereafter, the fake detective’s car broke down and he had been forced to hire Charles Scherer to transport the two men and a woman out of town. The police found the car near Scherer’s house.

When the automobile license bureau looked the plate numbers up in their records, they discovered that the car had been purchased by a Mr. Arnold, and it was owned by his step-son, James O’Dell.

The police visited and searched the Arnold home. Although O’Dell was not home, they discovered a blood-soaked skirt and coat. Pearl O’Dell, who was home, was taken into custody.

Detectives soon spotted James O’Dell on the streets of the small town. He was arrested, and quickly joined his wife in jail. Before the night ended, the couple confessed to the murder of Edward Kneip.

Confessions

Honor was the motive for the crime, claimed the accused. The O’Dells were newlyweds. They had married December 15, 1919, less than a month earlier.

Nevertheless, Pearl had a dark secret that only emerged slowly. Two years earlier, as a girl of sixteen, Edward Kneip, a local swain, had seduced her, and she had presumably — no paper in 1920 would ever dare to state this explicitly — surrendered her virginity to the older boy. He had promised to marry her, but later had refused to fulfill his obligation.

The pair split. Pearl spent two years nursing her shame, the knowledge of which she handed on to her husband after their wedding. O’Dell vowed to exact revenge for what had been done to his bride.

Pearl’s secret was too much for her new husband to endure. He couldn’t clear it from his thoughts; he began to suffer from insomnia. “Every time I walked down the street I would imagine people would look at me and sneer,” said James. “I imagined they would say to themselves, ‘O’Dell, you needn’t hold your head up so high; your wife has been out with other fellows before.’”

Finally, O’Dell’s thoughts drove him to retribution. Since Kneip did not know him, it was easy to pose as a police detective and “arrest” him. “He never asked who I was,” remembered James. “I just told him he was wanted at headquarters. He asked me who made the charge and I said ‘Pearl Beaver,’ which was my wife’s maiden name. Then he turned red. He knew we had something on him. She was under age when he wronged her.”

James took Kneip to his home, and tried to extract a confession from him. Kneip refused to talk. James then placed Pearl and the handcuffed Kneip in the back seat of his car. As they tried to leave town, the car broke down. O’Dell couldn’t restart the engine, so he contacted the taxi driver, Scherer, to transport the trio out of town. Scherer did not like the looks of the young man, so he took his roommate, Spink, along for the ride. Scherer would later testify that he thought the threesome intended to rob him.

The taxi drove out the Scottsville Road and stopped where it crossed Mosquito Point Road. Kneip ordered Scherer to stop the car. The justice of the peace lived nearby, he told the driver. They would walk the rest of the way. He paid the fare, and the three got out.

The O’Dells’ account of the murder was vague. After they left Scherer’s taxi, O’Dell handcuffed their victim — arms stretched behind his back — to a tree and then encouraged Pearl to beat him with a heavy steel file.

“I struck him across the face with a file.” she said. “Even in the darkness I could see the mark the blow made and the flow of blood that followed.” She began to shout at her victim, “You’re to blame for my downfall. You would have made a woman of the streets out of me.”

She battered the helpless man around the head with a heavy steel, and when he passed out, they unlocked his handcuffs and left him laying on the ground beneath the tree. As the couple walked away, they realized that Kneip had a letter in his possession that their lawyer had written, warning the young man to stay away from Pearl.

That might offer the police a clue, so they returned to recover it. Kneip was evidently in better shape than anticipated. When James O’Dell reached for the letter, a revived Kneip attacked him.

“They fought a minute,” recounted Pearl. “My husband hit him and he went down. He was bleeding badly, but he got up and charged my husband. They grappled again, and this time my husband was getting the worse of it. I wanted to help — I couldn’t stand there and see him kill my husband, so I ran behind him, and caught him like this.”

Pearl then demonstrated grabbing someone’s shirt from behind and pulling. This, she claimed, unbalanced Kneip. He slipped, fell, and struck his head on a rock. “He struck his bead on something hard,” her confession continued. “His head was broken and he died.”

Pearl O’Dell denied that the murder had been premeditated. “We didn’t intend to murder him,” she said. “We meant to take him to police headquarters and have him arrested when we first got the man. I don’t know why we did it — I can’t tell! I know my husband was crazed with anger when Kneip admitted to him that he had been intimate with me before I was married.”

In his confession, James O’Dell blamed himself and expressed the hope that his wife would be released. For her part, Pearl O’Dell showed no remorse for what had happened. “If they send my husband to the electric chair,” said Pearl, “I will go with him. I am as much to blame as he is. Besides, after this affair there will be nothing for me to live for.”

The newspapers echoed the police view that the “slaying formed the most revolting crime in the history of Monroe County.”

James and Pearl both claimed in their confessions that they had not intended to kill Kneip — they simply wanted to rough him up, to make him pay for what he had done to Pearl and keep him from telling stories about her around town. The question of premeditation would be important in the State’s case: had the pair truly intended to kill Kneip, or was his death an accident?

Questions of Character

As newspapers began to probe the corners of the story, they discovered that Pearl might not have been the model of virtue that she claimed.

Her sister, Elba, was skeptical about Pearl’s innocence. Pearl had lived with Elba for a short time, and Elba remembered Edward Kneip courting her sister. Kneip had always appeared a “gentlemanly fellow.”

They had dated for a while, but then he suddenly stopped coming to the house. Before the two had become an item, Pearl had gone out with many young men.

“She was always rather wild, and we could do nothing with her,” said Elba. “She got to going out every night and my husband and I used to try to keep her home, but she would never mind us. We finally had to tell her to leave the house.”

This must have been a blow. The young girl had been virtually homeless since she was eight. Her parents had split up, and she had run away from her mother’s home, moving in with other family members. Deprived of schooling and the normal life of a young girl, she had worked since she turned ten.

A childhood companion, Millie Ryman, claimed that Pearl had been sent to work on a farm in Colley, Pennsylvania. She was “sort of a wild girl, but at that time she wasn’t a bad girl.” She liked the boys “and the boys liked Pearl, although she never tagged after them. She was always ready for fun and went to the dances every little while when we had them.”

Most shockingly, according to Ryman, Pearl had married and run away from the farm. “I haven’t seen anything in the papers about that marriage,” said Ryman, “and I guess she hasn’t said anything about it, but that’s what we all heard when she left town…I couldn’t swear that she was married then, but everyone said she was married. That was in 1915, I think, and Pearl was 14 years old.”

Pearl, when asked about Ryman’s story, denied that she had been married before meeting James O’Dell.

Although Pearl’s past suggested that the girl might not have been as innocent as she maintained, her husband James had apparently lived an upright life. Prior to his marriage, James O’Dell had a spotless record.

A Rochester native, he had served his country in the U. S. Navy, was a member of the Masons, Elks, Oddfellows, and the American Legion, and he played saxophone in the Legion Band. He was slight, weighing only 122 pounds, and wore tortoise shell rimmed glasses. It was unlikely that he would have worked up the courage to confront Kneip of his own volition. Someone must have goaded him into the crime.

“It now seems certain,” concluded a reporter for the Reading Times, “that rejected love, turned to smoldering hatred, transformed Pearl O’Dell, 18 years old, into a demon. Her fury at the loss of a favored lover impelled her to feed the mind of the youth she had married with venom until he became her partner in the ‘honeymoon murder.’”

The prosecutor believed Pearl had taunted her new husband, accusing him of being “yellow,” until, unmanned by her derision, he had agreed to join her in the attack on Kneip. Sheriff Weidenmann agreed with this assessment: “It was unmistakably the woman’s crime.”

James O’Dell’s role was minimized as the case coalesced around Pearl. After he had handcuffed Kneip to the tree, he had told Pearl to do what she wanted, and then turned his back. “The dance of death executed by the girl was no pretty thing,” opined the reporter for the Reading Times. “The ground at the base of the tree was churned up by her high heel shoes as she lunged time after time at her helpless captive.”

Pearl, rather than James, had been the prime mover in the crime. The prosecutor’s theory claimed that Pearl considered Edward Kneip her mate; in her mind, Kneip had married and then rejected her. When she lost Kneip, “Mrs. O’Dell reverted to a savagery that few men are capable of.” As Rudyard Kipling had observed, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

The defense team also intended to mine this vein of ore. The breakdown of Pearl’s relationship with Kneip had unbalanced her mind; she had become temporarily insane. The “terrible assault on her former sweetheart was a symptom of insanity, sweeping her back from the restraints of civilization to the ruthless impulses of her far-off savage ancestors.”

What accounts for the uptick in female crime, wondered newspaper writers?

Noted nerve specialist, Dr. John D. Quackenbos had an opinion: women were suffering from their expanded societal roles. “Women are living the lives of men and it is not surprising that being the mental equals of men they are becoming equally skillful criminals.”

This development, continued Dr. Quackenbos, surprised no one. Experts had long predicted that women would become more criminal. “Fifty years ago a leading London physician said that if women lived the lives of men, smoked and drank as they pleased, race deterioration would begin. That is exactly what has happened.” When Quackenbos was a young man, girls never went out at night, unless they were chaperoned. “Now it is not unusual to see a young woman in a hotel lobby with her legs crossed, smoking a cigarette.”

A lax, permissive society had allowed women to abandon old roles. Freed of restraint, criminality would naturally appeal to some of these women.

On January 14, 1920, the grand jury quickly returned two indictments, charging both James and Pearl with first degree murder. If a trial found them guilty, they faced the death penalty. There was, however, a complicating factor. Pearl announced that she was pregnant. If true — and she was refusing to allow a doctor to examine her — how might that complicate her trial and sentencing? Could you send a pregnant woman to the electric chair?

James in the Dock

The prosecutor chose to try the couple individually. James O’Dell faced justice first. His trial opened on April 19, 1920.

Public opinion was not with the hapless young man: men and women lined the entrance to the courthouse and hissed at him as he arrived for the first day of his trial. The crowd’s hostility compelled Sheriff Weidenmann to issue a public warning that his officers would make arrests if the demonstrations didn’t stop.

The prosecutor, using the couple’s confession against them, quickly laid out the state’s case: James and Pearl had abducted Edward Kneip. They tortured and killed him. Their action had been premeditated and deserved the maximum penalty available to the court.

Pearl O’Dell was the star witness for the defense. She claimed that on December 28, 1918, Edward Kneip had visited her at her sister’s home. He brought a box of chocolates. “I ate some,” testified Pearl, “but noticed that he refrained from doing so. I became dizzy. When I came to I was on the couch. I realized what had happened to me. I told him he would have to marry me. I said that if he didn’t I would have him arrested. He said that he would marry me, and we fixed the date for February 28, 1919.”

Unfortunately, Kneip quickly reneged on that arrangement. He kept postponing their nuptials, until finally, in June, she broke their engagement. In September she began seeing James O’Dell. O’Dell proposed in December. At first Pearl refused his offer because she had “had illicit relations with another man.” O’Dell prevailed, however, and the pair were married.

Kneip, after he learned about the wedding, approached Pearl in the street. He sent her a letter that James found in his wife’s purse; she snatched it from his hand and threw it into the wood stove. Suspicion haunted James; was his wife still involved with Kneip? He had difficulty sleeping.

Finally, said Pearl, “I said, if you don’t believe me go out and get him where he works. I want to see him. Bring him up here and we’ll make him tell the story.”

James had, setting the tragic story in motion.

Pearl’s attorney, Louis Fuller, interrupted her testimony before she could narrate the actual killing of Kneip. Knowing that she would soon be on trial, he did not want his client to make any statements that would haunt her in the subsequent case. “While I thought it no more than fair that she should testify for her husband,” Fuller told the court, “I think that she should not proceed further.”

Pearl’s testimony ended.

The trial was completed in four days. Although James O’Dell’s attorney attempted to build a case for manslaughter, emphasizing the idea that O’Dell simply intended to punish Kneip for his attack on Pearl’s virtue, the jury did not buy it. On April 23, after ten hours of deliberation, the foreman announced the verdict: guilty of first degree murder.

Judge Thompson sentenced James O’Dell to execution by the electric chair.

Pearl’s Trial

The excitement in Rochester had barely subsided from Jame’s trial, when the courthouse doors opened again and Pearl had her moment in the legal limelight.

Her trial began May 27, 1920. District Attorney William Love had a clearcut case, one that merited a charge of first degree murder. The police investigators again related the details of their investigation; the coroner testified to the savagery of the attack; Love capped his presentation by reading Pearl’s confession to the jurors. Her attorney, Louis Fuller, didn’t even waste the court’s time by cross-examining several of the state’s witnesses.

After a long weekend recess, the defense mounted its counterattack on Tuesday, June 2, 1920. Louis Fuller was aiming at a verdict of justifiable homicide, so it was important to curry sympathy with the jurors.

He put Pearl O’Dell on the stand and walked her through the tale of her difficult life. She told of a childhood destroyed by her parent’s separation at age four. She had been raised by her sisters and put to work as a teenager. Innocent in the ways of the world, she had fallen to Kneip’s machinations and then was devastated when he refused to make an honest woman of her.

Ultimately she had yielded to James O’Dell’s desire to marry her, despite her fallen state. Although O’Dell had said her past would not bother him, it obviously gnawed at his mind.

“He would get up in the night,” said Pearl, “and cry and sit in the parlor for two or three hours. He seldom ate anything but he never abused me.” Nevertheless, all was not well. “He said I hadn’t told him the whole truth. He called me his ‘second-handed wife’ several times.”

Her story unfolded with the tale of abducting Kneip, the taxi ride to the lonely country spot, and then handcuffing him to the tree. James O’Dell urged his wife to right the wrong that had been done to her. Pearl asked Kneip if he was sorry for what she had done to him.

“No,” he replied.

“I struck him across here [the temple] with the file,” she said, “and the handle slipped off. He called me a prostitute again. I threw the file and handle away, and James struck him with the gun once. The handle broke and he handed it to me, and I threw it away. James undid the handcuffs, and Kneip slid down the bank.”

After the two blows, Pearl claimed that she and O’Dell had started to walk away. Then, remembering that Kneip might have a letter from the attorney that mentioned her name, they returned to collect the incriminating evidence. Kneip was conscious. He suddenly attacked James O’Dell. He flung himself on top of James and began choking him. “I tried to pull Kneip off,” said Pearl, “but I couldn’t, so I struck him. Then I pulled James out from under Kneip.”

Was this justifiable homicide?

“Did you believe Jimmy was in great danger?” asked Pearl’s attorney.

“I certainly did.”

“Did you at any time have any desire to kill that man?”

“No,” she said, tersely.

“Did you at any time have any idea that you were killing him?”

“No, I did not.”

Pearl’s attorney spent a considerable amount of time portraying James as the responsible party in the affray. He was known to become violent when he drank, and Pearl attested to the smell of liquor on his breath the night of the homicide.

She, in fact, was the victim in the case. Kneip had victimized her; James O’Dell, incapacitated by his inability to let the past go, had victimized her by involving her in this murder. She was not a masterful manipulator of men: she was simply a traumatized woman who had been dealt a terrible hand.

The defense team’s strategy, throughout the trial, was to make her appear sympathetic. She could have been the misused, hapless daughter of any of the fathers sitting in the juror’s box.

It worked. The closing statements by both sides ended at 4:08 on Thursday afternoon. The jury retired for deliberations, and at 11:40 that evening, returned with their conclusion: guilty of murder in the second degree. Pearl would not face Old Sparky, the electric chair, at Sing Sing Prison.

Judge Thompson thanked the jurors and immediately levied his sentence: Pearl would serve twenty years to life at Auburn State Penitentiary.

Aftermath

James O’Dell was executed almost a year later, electrocuted on April 28, 1921. Pearl gave birth to their child, a daughter that she named Gloria, on September 12, 1920.

State law permitted her to keep the baby by her side in Auburn Prison for the first two years of its life. There was a public outcry when little Gloria was taken from Pearl after two years. More than 10,000 people submitted petitions to Governor Nathan Miller, asking him to commute her sentence and release her to raise Gloria.

Miller refused, but seven years later, after Pearl had served ten years in prison, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered her release.

Sources: Auburn Prison Records, 1816–1942; Buffalo Courier, Jan 12, 1920; Buffalo Enquirer, Dec. 24, 1923; Buffalo Times, Jan. 14, 1920; Elmira Star Gazette (NY), Jan. 15, 1920–Apr. 18, 1922; Reading Times (Penn), Jan. 15, 1920; Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (NY), Jan. 9–June 4, 1920; Shreveport Times (LA), Apr. 9, 1920–Apr. 25, 1922; Washington Times, Feb. 15, 1920.

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Richard J. Goodrich

Written by

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Richard J. Goodrich

Written by

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

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