The case of David Lamson had all the ingredients to excite newspapers in the 1930s: A young victim, a mysterious death and an unlikely suspect. (Courtesy Photos)

The case of David Lamson had all the ingredients to excite newspapers in the 1930s: A young victim, a mysterious death and an unlikely suspect. (Courtesy Photos)

David Lamson’s Ordeal, Part I

I don’t care what Jiminy Cricket sings in “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Fate is not kind. Just ask David Lamson.

Lamson and his wife Allene were Stanford’s golden couple in the 1920s. David, who had been student body president at Palo Alto High School, was a leading writer and editor on campus. After graduation he became the sales manager for Stanford University Press. Allene had been women’s editor of The Stanford Daily and had received a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford.

They had a house on the Stanford campus, a beautiful 2-year-old girl and by all accounts a happy marriage.

On Memorial Day 1933, with their maid on vacation and their daughter at her grandmother’s, the couple had the house to themselves. It was 9:00 a.m. on a hot morning and David was working in his backyard garden. He had taken off his shirt and was chatting casually with a neighbor while stoking a bonfire of leaves and yard waste.

At 10 a.m., Julia Place, a local realtor, came by with a client to look at David’s house, which the Lamsons were preparing to rent out for the summer. David told her that he needed to check with his wife first to make sure she was out of the bath. Place and her client waited outside the front door. A few minutes later they heard a strange cry from inside the house. David opened the front door wearing a shirt covered in blood. “My wife has been murdered!” he cried.

What followed was a criminologist’s worst nightmare. Mrs. Buford Brown, the first neighbor to arrive, found David “kneeling on the bathroom floor, his wife’s head in his arms, sobbing hysterically. I induced him to leave to go into the other room. He staggered and then fell to the floor in a faint.” She started cleaning up the blood in the bathroom.

By the time police arrived, a half dozen neighbors and friends had been in and out of the tiny 70-square-foot bathroom, moving evidence and tracking blood over the house. It was like a horrifying version of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera. Palo Alto police officers arrived to find Allene’s naked body draped facedown over the edge of a bathtub full of water. There was one large and two small wounds on the back of her head. The sheriff arrived and quickly decided it was murder.

The sheriff interrogated David Lamson, whom he felt was the only person with the means and opportunity to commit the murder. Lamson, who was still in a state of shock, was fuzzy on the details of his day’s activities, which made the sheriff even more suspicious. Police found a foot-long metal pipe at the bottom of the bonfire David had been stoking. Preliminary tests said there was blood on the pipe. They also found what were thought to be bloodstains on the back porch, but none on the front porch — through which any intruder would have had to exit. Lamson, the only person with the means and opportunity, was obviously guilty. All they needed was a motive.

The press was only too happy to oblige. The Lamson case had all the ingredients to make a city editor drool like a Pavlovian dog: A young beautiful victim, a mysterious death, an unlikely suspect, all in the pastoral setting of Stanford University. All it needed was a little spice. “Cherchez la femme!” the newspapers declared.

It was rumored that David had impregnated Doris Roberts, the Lamsons’ beautiful maid. This rumor dissolved when her baby’s hair matched that of her red-headed fiancé.

“Find another woman!” said the newspapers. And they did. She was Sara Kelley, “the blonde divorcée from Sacramento.” David and Sara had known each other at Stanford 10 years earlier and he had run into her recently at the “Sacramento Union,” where she worked. The district attorney found witnesses who saw them having dinner together, but always as part of a larger group. Police found love poems Kelley had written in Lamson’s office drawer, but they were poems that had been written for publication.

Doris Roberts, their maid, described the Lamsons’ relationship as warm and loving, and an examination of Allene’s diary revealed no trace of conflict. Clara Malwitz, the substitute maid, had a different story. “It is time somebody told the truth,” said Clara. “It is plain to be seen that someone has Dora Roberts frightened.” Malwitz claimed that David had a bad temper and that Allene was afraid of him. Clara also confirmed reports that Mrs. Lamson was in poor health.

The district attorney and sheriff tried the case in the press, painting Lamson as a devious person and stating medical testimony that an accidental death was physically impossible. To buttress their case the prosecution hired the foremost criminologist of the day, Dr. E.O. Heinrich.

The defense made a tactical error by sequestering Doris Roberts and Sara Kelley, who hated the harsh public spotlight, but who could counteract the prosecution’s attacks on David’s character. This left the narrative with Clara, who loved being the center of attention.

Still, there were questions. If David Lamson had killed his wife before 9 a.m., how could he have been so relaxed talking to his neighbors just a few minutes later?

As the case moved toward the trial, a startling development occurred. Dr. E.O. Heinrich, after examining the death scene, concluded that Allene’s death was an accident and joined the defense team.

In early September, the trial began.

The next installment of Notorious Crooks will conclude the story of the David Lamson case.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit

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