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.”

Subsequent testimony by a psychiatrist and by Dr. Ivan M. McCullom, head of the psychology department at San Diego State College, contradicted the idea that Dora was helpless and “dim-witted,” that she in fact had scored a respectable 105 on the IQ test he administered. When the court session concluded, Tolin met with reporters and recounted humiliating and unusual tasks Dora was required to perform for the Ingallses. He informed the gathering that Elizabeth had all of Dora’s teeth extracted and not fitted with dentures. She also made sure Dora’s hair was always cut short, presumably to lessen her attractiveness to men.

Veteran defense counsel Clifford K. Fitzgerald, a former Army captain and director of the San Diego Bar Association, labeled the prosecution’s claims as so much rubbish and revealed he had tried to work out a deal with prosecuting attorneys to allow Elizabeth to exchange correspondence with Dora. (He would later introduce as evidence a letter written by Dora showing some affection for Elizabeth). On the fourth day of trial prosecution, witness William Toomey, a policeman from Lynn, Massachusetts, testified that in 1936 Elizabeth had voiced to him her suspicion that Dora was “losing her mind” and plotting to kill her with poison. This reinforced her ongoing narrative that Dora could be or should be declared insane. The first week of trial had taken a toll on Elizabeth’s composure. Mary Mathes Simpson, a friend of her daughter Helen’s since childhood who had testified she had watched Dora doing menial work “while poorly clothed,” during recess was reported to have been accosted in a courthouse corridor by Elizabeth, a tall stoutly built matron, who slammed her against a wall, cursed at her, and called her a “dirty, dirty skunk.”

On July 1, at the start of the second week of trial, a serious disturbance broke out when an unexpected crowd of 400 determined persons assembled to claim just 80 seats in the courtroom. The crowd was mostly African-Americans. Though smaller than San Francisco’s and far smaller than that of Los Angeles’, the black population of San Diego, thanks to wartime and post-war economic expansion, more than tripled in the decade of the 1940s from 4143 inhabitants in 1940 to 14,904 by 1950 — about 2 percent of the total population. The presiding federal judge of the U.S. Court of the Southern District of California, Jacob Weinberger (namesake of the Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse on F Street downtown and a president of the United Jewish Fund of San Diego) declined to take the bench until order was restored in the noisy, congested hallway. Two women in the crowd fainted, two men got into a fistfight, and those who could not be seated began chanting loudly, “Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” It was feared the situation might degenerate into a riot. Responding to a call from the judge for emergency assistance, the two assigned U.S. marshals were reinforced with city policemen who locked arms to prevent entry into the courtroom and warned the crowd that troublemakers would be arrested.

The trial of Dora’s alleged enslavers had captured headlines in black newspapers coast to coast, including the Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American. The Los Angeles Sentinel, the largest black newspaper in the West, sent its editor Leon H. Washington Jr. and special reporter Clinton M. Arnold to San Diego to cover the trial. They not only interviewed the Ingallses, attorneys, and key witnesses, but also gauged the opinions of local African-Americans, among them Dr. Edward A. Bailey, a physician and former president of the San Diego branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who expressed optimism that justice would be done. “I served under Judge Weinberger on the grand jury when he was in superior court, and I know he is fair. I also feel that the U.S. Attorney is a good man and will handle this case right.”

While in San Diego, Washington and Arnold roomed at the Douglas Hotel, the city’s premier black-owned business enterprise, then located downtown at the corner of Second Avenue and Market Street. Its Creole Palace nightclub was patronized by blacks and whites.

The hallway distraction over with, the main witnesses that day took the stand. Sgt. William G. Hoyt of the Berkeley Police Department said that on October 11, 1946, at the Berkeley Police Station he heard Elizabeth threaten to have Dora either jailed or committed to a mental institution if she refused to travel to Coronado and continue working for her and Alfred. He further stated that Elizabeth said she had quit paying Dora and that she had only kept her in the Ingallses’ home because she believed the housemaid “might tell the outside world” about the affair with her first husband.

On Tuesday, July 2, the Ingallses’ daughter Helen was called to testify. As she approached the stand, Elizabeth began to weep. Helen testified to witnessing Elizabeth strike Dora, scratch her face, push her down stairs, and verbally demean her. She spoke of one instance when she grabbed her mother’s arm to stop a beating. As her mother continued to cry and wipe away tears, Helen, who continued to face toward her mother, recalled being accused of being a “Judas” by the woman who bore her. She further testified to once seeing her father standing over Dora beating her with his fists.

The atmosphere in the courtroom grew tense as Helen recollected: “I remember from my earliest childhood my mother telling me that Dora Jones was a criminal and had been paroled to my mother. I never was told what the crime was.”

It came out in court that sometime between the federal grand jury indictment in March and the start of the trial in June the Ingallses traveled back to Berkeley to try to persuade their daughter to lie about their treatment of Dora, but she steadfastly refused even though they hinted at suicide if she did not agree to go along with their scheme.

Next on the stand was Dora’s older sister, Myrtle N. Turrentine, from Athens, Alabama, who remembered the only time Dora, minus teeth, was allowed to visit home (in 1924) and had confided she had “done wrong.” Brother Arthur W. Jones from St. Louis, Missouri, told the court when he showed up at the Ingallses’ home in Lynn, Massachusetts, to see Dora he was met at the door by Elizabeth, who barred his entry and rudely turned him away. He reported the matter to the police but when they telephoned the residence to check on Dora’s welfare, the prosecution alleged, Elizabeth coerced Dora to speak to them and pretend everything was fine and to say that Arthur had best return home.

At the close of court session, the black newsmen from the Los Angeles Sentinel interviewed defense attorney Fitzgerald and Elizabeth, who, citing her diary as proof of her noble intentions, offered: “All my life I have been a true friend to the Negro people.... I only regret that on the advice of my counsel I am unable to permit the Sentinel to publish the true facts.”

The week ended with the first questioning of Dora, who cried while describing hardships she endured in the homes of the Ingallses. In particular, she underscored Elizabeth’s insistence she have an abortion when apprised of the affair with Walter Harman. She testified that she was told she had the mentality of a 12-year-old and that she deserved to be in an insane asylum. Responsible for serving distinguished guests like Massachusetts governor (later U.S. senator) Leverette Saltonstall, she was never given a day off from working 4 a.m to 10 p.m. and was not allowed to eat or sit in the presence of the Ingallses. She had not seen a movie in more than 20 years, which meant she had never seen a movie with sound. She cooked meals for the Ingallses, as well as laundry, dusting, childcare, gardening, and snow-shoveling. She washed and polished the Packard and pushed it when it was disabled. She was led to believe that she was not being paid for her labors because money was being deposited in two bank accounts and that stocks had been purchased in her name, neither of which she ever drew money from. “[I] never held the money they paid me in my hand,” she stated.

Still guilt-ridden about the decades-old affair and abortion, when cross-examined Dora said she felt she owed her life to her tormentor. There were, Dora said, “Often little chats we had in her room when [Elizabeth] would become angry, call me an adultress and murderer, and tell me I could go to jail. Sometimes I thought I’d rather go to jail.”

Questioned by assistant U.S. Attorney Betty M. Graydon, Dora had earlier testified: “[Elizabeth] told me that church was no place for a person who had done what I had done. She said that I would pollute the people around me. She said I couldn’t go to the movies because it was dark in the theater and that was no place for a girl like me.”

The defense countered with a female character witness for the Ingallses, a tenant in one of their Boston properties, who swore she heard Dora say she did not need money, that all of her worldly needs were being met at the Ingallses’ Beacon Hill residence, where U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once lived. The woman added that when the Ingallses’ daughters married they each invited Dora to come work for them as a paid housemaid but that she indicated she was content to remain with Elizabeth and Alfred.

At the beginning of the third week of trial, Dora, over the objection of defense counsel, was permitted by Judge Weinberger to display to the jury her deformed hands caused by decades of hard work. She broke down sobbing as she related how Elizabeth would provoke arguments and disparage her work and intelligence. Judge Weinberger called a brief recess.

San Diego psychiatrist Dr. Harold O. Cozby, a prosecution witness, attributed Dora’s passivity and acceptance of her condition under the Ingallses in part to having been plucked from semi-rural Alabama at a youthful age and relocated to urban metropolises lacking a lifeline to home or to others who might extricate her from a bad situation.

“From that time [forward] she was subjected to authority as a maid,” he said, “and acquired an attitude of submission and dependence.” Witness Vivian C. Nelson, a resident of Coronado and a neighbor of the Ingallses, testified to having observed Dora collecting driftwood along the shore between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and hauling it in a wheelbarrow to the Ingallses new home.

On July 11, Elizabeth took the stand. According to her, she paid Dora for one year only, from 1907 to 1908, when she was in DC as her housemaid, but that she ceased paying her because her then-husband, Walter Harman, needed all the money the family could scrape together to attend law school at Georgetown University, and that not only did Dora fully approve of this arrangement, she never accepted pay again. Elizabeth, who said she had forgiven the affair Dora had with Walter, portrayed Dora as heartless because she occasionally mentioned the affair to bedevil her and quoted Dora as once saying: “You’re so very nice about everything. But Mr. Harman liked me better. I may be dirty but I’m what men like.”

Elizabeth portrayed herself as a long-suffering, self-sacrificing, abused woman. “[Dora] was just like one of us,” she explained. “I never considered her a servant or treated her like one.”

Concerning Dora’s innate abilities, Elizabeth contradicted herself on the witness stand. If one accepted her testimony at face value, Dora’s natural abilities devolved over time, for she said that early on she “had great hopes for her becoming a leader of her race,” that she had dreamed of sending her to Howard University. But a few days later, Elizabeth declared in court that as an adult Dora lacked basic competences to survive in a competitive society. She also averred that “the reason Dora didn’t associate with Negroes was that Dora didn’t seem to like Negroes” and that she didn’t attend church because she “wasn’t interested in church.” During the trial, Dora stayed at the home of Logan Heights cleric Rev. E. Major Shavers and was counseled by Rev. Richard P. Harris, pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Both were African-American.

Having earlier claimed Dora preferred sleeping in cars, later in the week on cross-examination Elizabeth admitted that during their stay at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley Dora was made to sleep in a hallway. “She liked to sleep on the floor,” she contended, like the times when she had toothaches and felt the warm kitchen floor would bring her relief. Prosecutor Tolin pounced on this: “Since the slave in question had her teeth pulled in 1924, she hasn’t had trouble with her teeth for some time, has she?”

Her calmness shattered by Tolin’s pointed jab, Elizabeth, who he called “power mad,” began to exhibit signs of being unhinged. She had previously testified that Dora had a “heart of gold and never wanted anything for herself [whose] main desire was to help,” but now complained she was “very dishonest.” She said her daughters had “been working behind my back for six years to do this to me.”

Called to the witness stand again at the start of the fourth week of trial, she lashed out at prosecuting attorney Tolin calling him “a Stalin” who depicted her family members as “monsters.” She was cautioned by Judge Weinberger to tone down her accusations. Seemingly on the verge of hysteria, she blamed her daughters for all the recent trouble she and Alfred were experiencing. She labeled her daughter Ruth L. Castendyk of Chicago a “Nazi sympathizer” and upbraided Helen for having been radicalized by “communistic” influences while a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At wit’s end, she begged in vain to be allowed to meet with Dora face-to-face to straighten out everything.

During Alfred’s brief appearance on the stand he tried to account for why he had used Dora’s name to purchase industrial stock that was transferred to Elizabeth. He reasserted his wife’s contention that Dora never requested payment for her work. He provided as evidence wills (impugned as “spurious and phony” by the prosecution) that guaranteed Dora with $15 per week for life upon the death of the Ingallses, and a joint bank account (Dora and Elizabeth) of $1000 that Dora never used. Alfred claimed that stepdaughter Ruth’s Nazi sympathies prior to World War II had cost him reelection to the Massachusetts state legislature. It was an odd accusation to level at someone who had flown in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and taught military flight classes at the University of Missouri. The canard about Ruth’s Nazi sympathies was probably imagined to seem plausible because she had made several trips to Germany, enjoyed its people and culture, had a German flag displayed in her bedroom, and had been heard singing German songs with friends. There had never been any evidence, as the Ingallses suggested, that Ruth was ever a member of the subversive German American Bund. At a grand jury hearing on March 19, 1947, she affirmed her values: “I believe in civil liberties, the equality of all peoples, and in good race relations.”

You can throw a dog a bone

After 16 days of trial over four weeks, the case went to the jury of nine men and three women for deliberation on July 19. The jury foreman was British-born Neil Nettleship, the prominent businessman who had managed property development in Pacific Beach, including the construction of Crystal Pier and the Crystal Ballroom. What had to be decided was whether or not federal law was violated when Dora Jones was transported by Alfred and Elizabeth Ingalls for the purpose of maintaining her as a slave. In making his final bid to convict the Ingallses, prosecutor Tolin used an analogy to get the jury to comprehend the mind of a person enslaved and accustomed to abuse using this analogy: “You can throw a dog a bone and then beat him, but when it comes time to eat, the dog will come back to you.”

Judge Weinberger, during his jury instructions, read a dictionary definition of a slave: “...a person who is wholly subject to the will of another, one who has no freedom of action, and whose person and services are wholly under the control of another, and who is in a state of enforced compulsory service to another.”

After 30 minutes of deliberation, a verdict was read at 5 p.m. Elizabeth was found guilty as charged. They had difficulty arriving at consensus on Alfred and were ordered back to the jury room to try again. Five hours later they returned to announce further deliberation was pointless; thus, charges against Alfred were dropped and the jury dismissed.

Elizabeth was remanded to the custody of U.S. marshals, who, in a bizarre demonstration of deference and civility, escorted the couple to dinner. Courtesy and kindness aside, Elizabeth’s anger at her daughters would not soon abate as she grumbled after sentencing: “I loved them and did everything I could for them, and this is the harvest I reap. They are responsible for this, and I hope they are happy.”

The ensuing debate over extending bail prior to sentencing of Elizabeth was joined by Alfred, an attorney himself, who tearfully pleaded to have taken into consideration the stress of the trial that, he insisted, put his sickly wife in jeopardy of suffering a nervous breakdown or worse.

Defense counsel Fitzgerald downplayed Alfred’s intimation to both Ruth and Helen that he planned to kill both himself and Elizabeth should they lose the case — a possibility prosecutor Tolin argued was grounds to deny bail. Returning from a recess, the judge denied bail and sent Elizabeth to county jail to await sentencing on July 29.

Ten days in a dreary two-cot basement jail cell was quite a descent from her Boston and Coronado digs. Her distinguished visitor while in confinement was Rev. Harry Nash, rector of Coronado’s Christ Episcopal Church of which she was a parishioner. Rather than imposing the maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and a $5000 fine, Judge Weinberger, concerned about her health and noting she was “no hardened criminal” and had been “subjected to national disgrace,” instead gave Elizabeth a three-year suspended prison sentence with five years’ probation, a $2500 fine, a stipulation to receive psychiatric care, and a warning not to attempt acts of retribution against witnesses who testified against her at trial. Additionally, attorneys and Dora agreed on a $6000 settlement for lost wages.

Appreciative of the highly unusual nature and significance of the case, in denying defense counsel’s motion for a new trial for Elizabeth, Judge Weinberger felt obliged to publish his legal opinion summarizing the most pertinent facts. It has been noted that the case was also groundbreaking in one respect: in requiring the perpetrator (Elizabeth) to pay $6000 in restitution to the victim (Dora) — the practice of being fined was expanded to recognize that not only had harm been done to the nation but also to an individual.

Adjustments to a life of freedom

Dora did not wait around to hear the verdicts. While Fitzgerald was branding her an “absolute liar” in closing arguments, she was boarding a train headed east accompanied by her brother, Arthur Jones, and sister, Myrtle Turrentine. During a brief stopover in Los Angeles she was interviewed by a reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel. She evinced no animosity toward the Ingallses and expressed relief the matter was finished. In St. Louis she was joyfully received by relatives who had not seen or heard from her in 23 years or more. Cornered by reporters wanting to know her reaction to the verdict, she seemed to have mixed feelings about her nemesis. “You can’t be with anyone for 40 years and not feel sorry for her,” she told one newsman. “I can’t explain the way she treated me, but I really think there is something wrong with her head.”

She admitted it felt a bit strange making adjustments to a life of freedom but was nevertheless very glad to leave behind the Ingallses in California and never wished to see them again. Dora turned down offers with pay to speak publically about her long ordeal as a slave. She joked she would consider working again in California — maybe in the movies.

Thinking ahead for her future, she had asked assistance from the government to have the $6000 restitution payment from the Ingallses placed in an annuity for her. She lived in St. Louis at the homes of Arthur and Myrtle, slipped quietly from the gaze of the press, and died there on March 1, 1972.

The Ingallses’ internationally publicized fall from grace made retiring in Coronado untenable. Exactly one month after Elizabeth’s sentencing, she and Alfred trekked back to Boston to wrap up some business before returning in November to the Crown City. Soon thereafter they relocated to Santa Barbara, where they lived out quiet, unassuming lives at 800 El Bosque Road.

Alfred may have been more adversely affected by the scandal than his wife. He suffered the supreme indignity of being asked to resign from the public morals guardian organization New England Watch and Ward Society, and completely vanished as a public figure. Elizabeth, however, though no longer invited to soirées of the rich and powerful, seemed to find solace in art and charity work on behalf of the University of California at Santa Barbara. She lived alone after Alfred’s death in 1965. The characterization of her as sickly and close to mental collapse during trial was obviously a gross exaggeration, as she died in 1972 at age 86.

The Ingallses are buried next to one another at Santa Barbara Cemetery. On the grave marker of Alfred there is mention of military service and on Elizabeth’s marker is written “Dearly Beloved Wife of Alfred W. Ingalls,” but no hint to lead anyone to suspect they had been parents.

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