"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Mysterious Murder of Nora Fuller



On January 8, 1902, a man who gave his name as “C. B. Hawkins” leased an empty house on San Francisco’s Sutter Street. He paid a month’s rent in advance. He then visited a furniture store, where he bought just enough to temporarily furnish one room. He had an odd demand: his purchases had to be delivered that very night, or the deal was off. The store owner was surprised, and not terribly pleased, by these terms, but not wanting to lose the sale, he agreed. The next day, Hawkins went to another establishment, purchasing a second-hand bed and a cheap chair. He had the furniture arranged in a small room in the back of his new home’s second story, leaving the rest of the house empty.

Everything was ready.

On January 10, a fifteen year old girl named Eleanor "Nora" Fuller answered a job advertisement she found in the “San Francisco Chronicle”: “Young girl to take care of baby; good home and good wages.” The next day, she received a postcard from the man who placed the ad, who gave his name as “John Bennett.” He asked her to meet him at a local restaurant at either one or six o’clock that day. At five, Fuller left her home to meet her new employer. An hour later, she phoned home to say that she was at Bennett’s residence at 1500 Geary Street, and he wanted her to start work immediately. Mrs. Fuller told her to come home; she could begin her job on Monday. The girl agreed.

That was the last her mother—or anyone else—ever heard from Nora Fuller.

For reasons unknown to us, Mrs. Fuller waited an entire week to tell the police her daughter had disappeared. Perhaps she would have gone to them sooner had she known what Nora herself must have realized by the time she phoned—1500 Geary Street was a vacant lot.

The proprietor of a local eatery called the Popular Restaurant later recalled that at five-thirty on the evening Nora disappeared, a man who had frequented the establishment for many years—known to him only as “Tenderloin” because that was all this customer ever ate—told him that a young girl was on her way there, and could the proprietor send her to his table when she arrived? “Tenderloin” waited with visible impatience for about half-an-hour, then finally went outside where he presumably met her. That was the last time he had been seen at the restaurant.

Fuller’s disappearance remained a mystery for a month, until the lease expired on the home “C. B. Hawkins” had rented. On February 8, an inspector for the real estate brokers who owned the house came by to make sure it was in shape for new residents. It all looked quite in order until he looked into the small room on the second floor. On the second-hand bed “Hawkins” had purchased was the naked body of a dead young woman. She had been raped, strangled, and “frightfully mutilated.”

Nora Fuller had finally been found.

It did not take the police long to establish that the man who rented the house, the man who placed the babysitting ad, and “Tenderloin” must have been one and the same. The question is, who was he?

A search of the room where the girl was killed was fruitless. All they found other than the victim’s clothes and purse were a cigar butt, a half-empty bottle of whisky, (the autopsy showed that Fuller drank alcohol soon before her death,) and some junk mail addressed to “Mrs. C. B. Hawkins.” The postcard Nora received from her murderer was never found.

The inquest into her death was equally inconclusive. The most interesting testimony was offered by one of Fuller’s friends, a Madge Graham. She startled everyone by declaring that Fuller had a secret boyfriend, a much older man named Bennett. She believed the newspaper ad Fuller answered was just a ruse to fool the girl’s mother. Graham said that on one occasion, Nora had asked her to tell Mrs. Fuller that the two of them were going to the theater together, when in reality she was seeing “Bennett.” Corroboration of her claims was offered by a local grocer, who said that Fuller had often come into his store to phone someone at a hotel. Another friend of Fuller’s recollected seeing her in a local park with a man who matched the descriptions given of "C.B. Hawkins." Nora was stage-struck, and dreamed of becoming an actress. There were some suggestions that the mysterious “Bennett” had presented himself to the girl as someone who could help launch her theatrical career. No one at the time appeared to take Graham's story very seriously, which is surprising, because it would explain much about this peculiar case—most notably, Nora’s otherwise inexplicable unconcern when she inevitably discovered that “John Bennett’s” home address did not exist.

The closest thing to a lead the police ever got in Fuller’s murder came when it reached their attention that a bookkeeper named Charles B. Hadley had stolen money from his firm and disappeared. His girlfriend, Ollie Blasier, told investigators that his handwriting resembled a facsimile of the signature of “C. B. Hawkins” that had appeared in newspapers.

Hadley and Blasier had clearly not parted on the best of terms. She went on to eagerly tell investigators—not to mention the press—that before he vanished, Hadley had intently read articles about Fuller’s disappearance, which “greatly disturbed” him. She had found some garments of his that had blood on them, he was very partial to tenderloin, and, in short, she was convinced he was a murderer. The police became even more interested when they learned that Hadley was wanted for embezzlement in Minneapolis, under the name of “Charles Start.”

Blasier’s revelations—whether they were true or examples of a disgruntled ex-girlfriend seeking revenge—proved to be…absolutely no help whatsoever. A hunt was made for Hadley, but the errant clerk had vanished, never to be found. Even if the authorities had tracked him down, it is very uncertain whether they would have found a murderer.

As an aside, I doubt this was "Bennett's" first--or last--homicide.  Fuller's death was so obviously, chillingly, pre-planned, with an almost ritualistic air, that I find myself wondering if the poor girl fell into the hands of some unknown early serial killer.  Just some food for grim thought.

In any case, the dreadful death of Nora Fuller remains one of San Francisco’s most haunting mysteries.

4 comments:

  1. The killer seemed to have taken a long time to murder Nora, if indeed he had intended to do that from the start. Perhaps that was part of his game. The poor girl. I always feel particularly bad for murder victims who go unavenged.

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    1. I neglected to mention that her body was badly decomposed, leading the authorities to assume she had been killed the night she disappeared. It's a particularly creepy thought, to think of her lying in that empty house all that time.

      When I was 5-6 years old, my family lived in San Francisco, which is when I first read of Nora's murder. It spooked the hell out of me at the time, so I guess that's why it's lingered in my mind ever since.

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  2. A press report from the "San Francisco Call" dated the 9th of February 1902 claims that on the 14th of January, a waiter in a restaurant on 13 Sixth Street claims he saw Fuller and another girl enter the restaurant and have coffee.

    The same article also mentions the theory that Eleanor's father may have abducted her. He had apparently drowned a few years ago, but his body was never recovered.

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    1. One really frustrating thing about studying this murder is that all the official reports about her case--police records, autopsy and inquest transcripts, etc.--were destroyed in the San Francisco quake/fire. All we have to go on now are the contemporary newspaper reports, which are, as usually happens, incredibly contradictory and untrustworthy. When writing this up, I went with the details that seemed most reliable, but the news reporting of this crime really was an infernal mess.

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