Clara Phillips is a forgotten figure today, but for one brief, but epic period she was the most popular psychopath in Los Angeles.
Phillips’ road to stardom began on a hot July evening in 1922, when the twenty-three year old arrived home, spattered with blood, and announced to her husband Armour, “She’s dead, and I killed her!”
“Her” was Armour Phillips’ mistress, Alberta Meadows.
When Phillips saw that Clara had driven home in Meadows’ car, which contained more blood and Alberta’s purse, he realized his wife was a woman of her word. He asked Clara what she was going to do.
“Nothing,” she replied. “I’m going to bed now, and to headquarters in the morning.”
Armour—who actually comes off as the stranger member of this very strange couple—thought otherwise.
He had Clara drive Meadows’ car to Pomona, where she abandoned the vehicle. He picked her up in his own car and deposited her in a downtown hotel. Armour then spent the rest of the night frantically raising enough money to send this admitted killer to Mexico.
By morning, he had enough cash to send Clara off on a train bound for El Paso. Only then, evidently, did magic little words like “accessory to a crime,” and “perverting the course of justice” begin to filter into his brain. He went to see a lawyer friend of his, and—to the future disgust of Clara’s fan club—he told all.
The story he gave to this attorney, and, subsequently, to a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, was one that held Angelinos enthralled for weeks. On the day of the murder, Clara had brought a friend, Peggy Caffee, along with her to “have a talk” with Alberta Meadows. When they arrived at her rival’s home, Clara, after a little pleasant chit-chat, asked Meadows to give them a lift across town. Meadows, for who knows what reason, agreed.
During the drive, Clara continued amicably chattering away about this and that until they reached a hilly, remote section of their drive. She asked Meadows to stop so they could talk more privately. When the two women got out of the car, Clara had a couple of questions for Meadows: Had Armour bought the new tires that were on her car? No, Meadows replied. Did he buy that gold watch Meadows was wearing?
Meadows again said no. Then, suddenly, Clara went from Little Bo Peep to Lady Macbeth. “He did buy it,” she growled. Unbeknownst to her rival, Clara had with her a hammer she had recently bought. She pulled it out and beat Alberta Meadows to death with it.
When Clara finished her work, she told Caffee, who was cringing and whimpering in terror at the ghastly scene she had just witnessed, “Don’t you dare tell your husband. Remember, you’re in this as much as I am.” She then dropped Caffee off at her home and went to announce the news to Armour.
Once the LAPD got an earful of Armour’s story—they already had had an eyeful of the mangled corpse that was once Alberta Meadows—they wired an alert to the authorities in Arizona and Texas. Clara was nabbed on a train in Tucson, and hauled back for trial and instant stardom.
The “Tiger Woman,” as the papers dubbed her, was a media sensation. Her combination of youth, good looks, and undeniable savoir-faire and can-do spirit kept a growing legion of admirers enthralled. By committing a particularly base, gruesome, shocking murder with an utter lack of any conscience or remorse, she became a heroine. While she was awaiting her trial, one local paper cooed, “In the face of many extreme discomforts, she has taken everything cheerfully. She is tolerant. She has never yet uttered a single complaint, has never asked for anything, taking all things as they come without a whimper.”
Alberta Meadows was unavailable for comment.
A large, admiring crowd met the train bringing Clara back to Los Angeles. She beamed at her fans, posed prettily for photographers, and merrily flirted with the reporters.
When she was installed in the County Jail, (“she said she was sure she would be happy up here, because everyone was so jolly and happy,”) more people were there to cheer her on. They sent her flowers, candy, love letters. In her cell, she spent most of her time eagerly reading the many newspaper reports about her crime. Clara Phillips, the former two-bit chorus girl, had finally become a headliner.
Clara’s first meeting with her husband since the day he saw her off for Mexico was front-page news. Clara dolled herself up for the occasion with a new lace-edged dress, and held a little press conference beforehand. A reporter asked her if she still loved her husband.
“Yes,” she replied sweetly.
Had their nine years of marriage been one long honeymoon?
“Well, I guess so. That is—yes and no.”
To those members of the press tactless enough to mention the reason why they were all there, she replied demurely that she was not allowed to comment on the subject.
Was it true that she had once created a scene in her husband’s office because she was jealous of his stenographer?
Was it true that she had once stabbed a man in a local theater?
Definitely no comment.
Armour finally appeared on the scene, wearing a dapper suit and carrying a box of candy. As one of the newspapers breathlessly reported, Clara “threw her arms around her husband…she looked up into her husband’s eyes and then buried her fluffy brown head of hair on his shoulder…She cuddled to him as a dove would to its mate, and when he kissed her and whispered to her, she played with the lapel of his coat.”
Clara’s legions of fans were, of course, expecting to see her greatest performance to date at her trial, and the lady did not disappoint. Each day, she swept in and out of the courtroom like a mezzo soprano coming on stage for one more encore. A woman covering the trial for one of the local papers sighed, “There really is some class to Clara. If she isn’t a gentlewoman born, she is certainly what Elinor Glyn would call one of nature’s ladies…” It was Armour Phillips, who cut such a pitiful figure compared to his hammer-wielding dynamo of a wife, who bore the brunt of public opprobrium. One journalist openly expressed his incredulity that Mr. Phillips could have been responsible for all this bother. “As he sat in court yesterday, hearing Peggy Caffee’s sordid testimony, it didn’t seem possible that any woman as bright as Clara could have considered him worth all that agony.” From the contemporary newspaper reports, one sometimes gets the feeling that the reporters rather wished that Clara had taken that hammer to her husband as well.
Everyone wondered what Clara’s defense would be. Her friend said she killed Alberta Meadows. Her husband said she killed Alberta Meadows. There seemed no possible way for her to squirm out of this one.
Clara showed the naysayers a thing or two. When she took the stand, she—with a few demure tears--explained how Alberta died. It was very simple, she said. It was Peggy Caffee—timid, traumatized, mousy little Peggy Caffee, who had practically turned into a weeping, quivering bowl of jello on the witness stand—who bludgeoned Alberta Meadows to death. This would surely be taking sympathizing with the troubles of a friend a bit too far.
Everyone applauded this magnificent playacting, and everyone realized that it was utter hogwash. In the end, Clara was convicted of second-degree murder, which earned her ten years to life in San Quentin, and it seemed that the curtain had at last fallen on her little show.
No one was counting on Jesse Carson. He was a stranger to Clara, claiming to be just one of the many men who had become spellbound by her charms during the trial. He swore that he would see to it that she stayed out of prison, and he meant what he said. His favorite prisoner somehow acquired a hack saw, which she used to cut the bars on her window. On the night of December 4th, 1922, she squirmed out that window, shinnied down a vent pipe, and made her way to where Carson was waiting in his car.
Clara’s play had spawned an unexpected third act.
While all of Los Angeles was working itself into a perfect frenzy over this latest plot twist, Clara hid out in an empty house in Pomona, happily reading in the newspapers about all the fuss she had created. On January 4th, the fugitive, heavily disguised, began the journey to New Orleans, where Carson arranged for her to get passage on a ship bound for Mexico.
Clara, as far as the authorities could tell, had vanished without a trace, and they were frankly stumped about what to do next. It took Morris Lavine, an enterprising reporter from the “Los Angeles Examiner” to do a bit of sleuthing. He managed to uncover financial transactions involving Armour and Jesse Carson which enabled him to deduce that Clara was in Mexico. Unfortunately, by the time the Mexican authorities were contacted, the Tiger Girl had fled to Honduras.
American law enforcement soon learned that figuring out where Clara was would be much easier than actually getting their hands on her. There were some unexpected difficulties with extraditing her. Honduras was in the midst of one of their periodic revolutions, and the powers-that-be were in no mood to cooperate with the despised Yankee government. Besides, it was rumored that some local official had the hots for our Clara.
The chorus girl turned hammer murderer was now an international political hot potato.
The American Ambassador in Honduras did a good deal of politicking with the Honduran government—a special meeting of their cabinet was even called at one point to discuss the Problem of Clara—but the best they could achieve was a stalemate. The Hondurans were quite happy to just turn the lady loose and wish her godspeed.
The Americans were desperate to get Clara back in custody. After all, there were a lot of hammers in the world, and who knew what she might do with them next? In any case, it seems to have become practically a matter of national honor that Clara not be allowed to continue making them look like so many fools.
A plan was hatched to get Clara to return to the United States voluntarily. Morris Lavine had a chummy breakfast with her one morning, where he cleverly played on her considerable ego. If she was truly innocent, he asked her, why not prove it? Since the appeal on her conviction was still pending, she could ask for a new trial. If she could clear her name, what a triumph that would be! The public would adore her more than ever!
Clara was cunning, but not very bright. She was so confident of her own ability to fascinate that she actually fell for this argument. She willingly took a ship back to America. Armour Phillips was there to greet her.
“My darling!” said Mr. Phillips.
“My baby!” cooed Mrs. Phillips.
The two lovebirds hugged for the cameras, as Clara explained how she had never, never wished to flee San Quentin. She had been kidnapped against her will, she said sweetly. Armour told reporters, "I would give my life to undo the wrong I have done this little woman."
There was, of course, no way to undo the wrong done to Alberta Meadows, but few seemed to care about that.
In California, Clara’s new show was given a disastrous review by the Los Angeles District Attorney. He informed her that as her lawyer (who had recently dropped dead of a heart attack, and who can blame him?) had missed the deadline for filing an appeal, the law decreed that she be returned to prison, without another trial. It was back to San Quentin for Clara, with no hope of a repeat performance to “clear her name.”
To do her justice, Clara took this defeat gallantly. She went back to jail vowing to be a “model prisoner,” and, for the most part, she kept her promise. (Her one fall from grace was when she entered into a clandestine love affair with one of her fellow prisoners, a handsome young burglar.) While behind bars, she found religion, trained to be a dental technician, learned to play the saxophone, wrote and directed a play described as "a satire of stage life," and organized a seven-piece orchestra. Clara continued to maintain Peggy Caffee was the real killer of Alberta Meadows. She was released on parole in 1935, saying that she hoped the world would give her "an even break."
Upon gaining her freedom, she told a reporter, “Please let me be forgotten.” And so she was. For a while, she lived quietly in San Diego with her mother, and then the ex-Tiger Woman changed her name and moved to Texas, where she worked as a dental assistant. Clara and Armour divorced in 1938. (Armour, incidentally, had had a lively time during his wife's incarceration. At various times, he faced charges for running a bogus film school, assault--at a Christmas party!--traffic violations, and grand theft.)
Only one man claimed to know this once world-famous woman's subsequent history. A. R. O'Brien, head of California's State Prison Board, kept in touch with his former prisoner, and in 1939 he reported that Clara was happily remarried and grateful to live in obscurity. He added the rather startling--and, as far as I know, completely uncorroborated--claim that Clara belonged to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country. According to O'Brien, it was her family connections that allowed her to escape prison and flee the country.
It's nice to know Clara remained such a resourceful fantasist to the end.