Thursday, June 13, 2013

Around Town: The tale of Rattlesnake James

In July of 1936, a red-haired La Cañada barber went on trial for the murder of his wife. The best part of the trial was when a rattlesnake got loose in the courtroom.

The barber's real name was Major R. Lisenba. He was a World War I veteran who had served under the name Davies. By the time he went to trial, he was known as Robert “Rattlesnake” James.

Reporters from our mothership, the Los Angeles Times, described the scene:

“The last possible thrill was squeezed out of the Robert James murder trial yesterday. Lethal, one of the rattlesnakes, escaped in the courtroom during the noon recess after James had spent most of the morning on the witness stand in his own defense. Like a streak of brown quicksilver the reptile slid under a bookcase. His vicious rattling threw the courtroom into hysteria.”

Finally, a witness named “Snake Joe” Houtenbrink caught the snake and displayed it to the jury before placing it in its box.

In the summer of 1935, Snake Joe sold two snakes to Robert James. The snake's names were “Lethal” and “Lightning.” Even though he had more than 600 snakes, Snake Joe liked to name his pets. He could tell them apart.

On the day the snake got loose in the courtroom, James was in the middle of his defense. He was on the stand, testifying that he knew nothing about a murder.

The loose snake upstaged the defendant. It was no surprise when James was convicted and sentenced to death.

Over the next decade, James appealed his murder conviction up and down the court system. He finally accomplished what no other La Cañadan had done: His case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed his conviction. There’s even a Wikipedia entry for the case, entitled “People v Lisenba.”

The evidence was gruesome. James claimed that his confession was coerced and that the police beat him. His partner in crime, a man named Hope, said that James tried to kill his wife by placing her feet in a bucket with the snakes. She went along with it because she thought Hope was an abortionist and her health was too frail to go through childbirth.

When the snakes didn’t work, James (or Hope) drowned her in the bathtub.

The next day, dinner guests arrived. James and Violet Pemberton greeted their host. Rattlesnake James asked them, “Where’s Mary?” The three split up and went around the garden looking for her. The Pembertons found Mary’s body in the pond behind the house. James seemed distraught.

He applied to collect insurance. Soon, the insurance detective was all over the case. Eventually, the body of Mary Busch James was exhumed. The coroner found fang bites on her right foot.

Snake Joe Houtenbrink was a key witness. He testified that he originally sold the two snakes to the defendant, who returned them the next day because they were not vicious enough.

Houtenbrink made the headlines again 22 years later.

In June of 1958, Snake Joe Houtenbrink was bitten by one of his snakes. He lanced the bite and sucked out the venom, but within hours his hand began to swell. “A team of doctors from County General’s osteopathic unit performed a medical miracle in saving Snake Joe’s life” (“Agonizing return made from rattlesnake bite,” Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1958).

Remnants still remain of the infamous pond where the body of James’ wife was found. Right here in La Cañada.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at anitasusan.brenner@yahoo.comand follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.La Canada Valley Sun

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