Slavery trial draws all eyes to San Diego

Blue-blood justice.

Alfred and Elizabeth Ingalls beat, berated, demeaned, and denied payment to their black servant for 40 years.
  • Alfred and Elizabeth Ingalls beat, berated, demeaned, and denied payment to their black servant for 40 years.

In October 1946, near the end of a 33-day cross-country trip from Massachusetts to San Diego, the prominent Boston blue-blood couple of Alfred and Elizabeth Ingalls stopped over in Berkeley, California, to visit their daughter, Helen Roberts, and her husband, Dr. Richard Roberts, a research chemist. It was in the Ingallses’ expensive new car parked near her apartment that Helen was appalled to find the Ingallses’ maid, 57-year-old Dora L. Jones, an African-American woman she had known since childhood, asleep, shabbily dressed, and crammed in with the luggage, her ankles swollen, her abnormally thin, diminutive body exhausted by the long drive. It had been a drive marred by the Ingallses’ insistence that Dora sleep in bathtubs or in their sedan parked near motels. Years of pent-up guilt and anguish immediately surfaced in Helen, who then summoned the courage to expose her parents’ decades-long cruel exploitation of Dora to state and federal authorities. The sensational legal battle that resulted uncovered adultery, abortion, deception, family dysfunction, and, above all, unrelenting vengeance. It caught the attention of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, and Time magazine. Witnesses were brought in from 3000 miles away, and a riot outside the courtroom was narrowly averted. The trial and landmark verdict reached in San Diego added another disturbing race-related entry in the annals of American jurisprudence. It was the first legal case of its kind since 1880 and woke painful memories of the nation’s slavery-stained past.

Interviewed by the Berkeley police, the Ingallses were imperious, clever, and convincing while denying insinuations of mistreatment and bondage claimed by their daughter. The previous evening Helen was told her inheritance was in jeopardy and so was her husband’s employment if she pressed the matter. The Ingallses characterized her daughter’s attempt to rescue Dora as a kidnapping. Turning to Dora, Elizabeth reminded her of her lack of intelligence, her diabetes that needed monitoring, and made veiled threats with the cryptic remark: “I will take care of you...others will not do so. Besides, you are a criminal. You know and I know what I refer to.”

Timid, speaking in whispers, and desperate to accommodate everyone, Dora was unaccustomed to defending herself and did not contradict the Ingallses’ version of events. Berkeley police permitted the Ingallses and Dora to proceed together south to their final destination, the coastal resort city of Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. A one-month stay at the Hotel del Coronado did not include Dora, who was forced to sleep on the beach. Meanwhile, an unnamed third party who had heard Helen’s accusation of her parents communicated details to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which gathered sufficient evidence to charge the Ingallses with a violation of Dora’s civil rights as delineated in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude.

Authorities arrested Alfred and Elizabeth and on February 25, 1947, at their newly purchased two-story retirement home at 911 A Avenue. Held overnight in county Jail, they were released on $2500 bonds the following day while Dora was taken into protective custody by the FBI to be called upon later in court as a material witness. A federal grand jury in Los Angeles returned an indictment in late March. Charged with having transported Dora within the state of California with the intent of holding her as a slave, the Ingallses’ trial in federal court commenced in San Diego on June 24. Both Alfred, age 64, and Elizabeth, age 62, pleaded innocent.

The accursed and the accused

Dora Jones, born Theodora Lawrence Jones in 1890 in Athens, Alabama, was one of nine children of former slaves Plato and Lizzie Jones. A bright child who grew to enjoy singing and playing the piano, Dora was noticed by Elizabeth Ingalls (née Myra Elizabeth Kimball) when the latter taught at Trinity Mission School in Athens, circa 1905. In 1907, Elizabeth, a graduate of Simmons College, married Walter P. Harman, a Harvard classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s who worked as a government clerk. She gave birth to her first daughter, Ruth, in Washington DC. She sent for Dora, then her admired protégé, to be her housemaid and nanny.

But husband Walter desired more than scrubbed floors and pressed shirts from the teenager. He seduced and impregnated Dora, who volunteered particulars of their affair to Elizabeth. Rather than returning Dora to Alabama to have the baby as the family doctor recommended, Elizabeth insisted on an abortion, which she personally arranged. The situation worsened when Elizabeth suffered a miscarriage and blamed it on an argument she had with Dora, thereafter accusing her of being both an adultress and a murderer of two babies which assuredly condemned her to hell.

Elizabeth, a descendant of colonial Massachusetts governor William Bradford, still had options after her divorce from Walter. She exercised one in 1918 when she married Alfred Wesley Ingalls, son of a factory owner, descendant of the founder of Lynn, Massachusetts, graduate of Brown University, and future military officer and attorney who was elected to be a representative to the Massachusetts state legislature. Helen was born that same year, and by all measures life appeared good for the family of four. But, with Alfred’s complicity, Elizabeth’s mistreatment of Dora continued, and their daughters grew up observing it. It was a family secret that caused the children to emotionally distance themselves from parents.

You owe me your life

There had been no blacks in the jury pool so there were no blacks seated on the jury when lead prosecuting U.S. Attorney Ernest A. Tolin (later himself a federal judge for the Southern District of California) asserted in his opening statement that Dora’s affair with Elizabeth’s first husband had intensified Dora’s misery. Even before the divorce, Elizabeth had ceased paying Dora for her work. Tolin said Elizabeth, who was the dominant spouse in her marriages, maintained control over Dora by repeatedly threatening to inform the police of Dora’s illegal abortion; by declaring Dora insane and threatening to have her sent to a mental institution; by isolating her from potential friends and relatives; and with frequent reminders of her past “sin” of adultery. “You owe me your life now because you have ruined mine,” Tolin quoted Elizabeth. The proud socialite succeeded in distorting Dora’s self-image. As Tolin explained, Elizabeth tried to convince Dora she was “dull-witted” and that she did not possess the ability to “go out into the world and make her way...that the only way she could expiate her original sin was by staying with her as a common maid for the rest of her life.”

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