"...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 1, 2024

California's Worst Crime: The Murder of Mabel Mayer

Mabel Mayer of Oakland, California lived a pleasant suburban life.  The teenager had such a cheerful, upbeat manner she was known to friends and family as “Sunshine Mabel.”  She was, at the same time, a quiet, obedient girl who never got into any serious trouble.  Mabel would probably have gone on to lead a happy, if totally anonymous existence, if not for the fact that at the age of 15, she was the victim of what was known for years afterwards as “California’s worst crime.”

Mabel’s last day on this earth was July 2, 1927.  It was an active one.  In the morning, she left home to visit a dentist and take a music lesson.  She had already arranged to have dinner and spend the night at the Berkeley home of her uncle, Christian Mayer.  After her lesson, she had lunch at a tearoom, and then took in a movie.  At about 6 p.m., she arrived at her uncle’s home.  She was her usual carefree self.

At about 8 p.m., Mabel’s brother William telephoned her.  A short while later, Mabel’s father also called.  He told her that he and William were going to a card party at the home of some friends.  Did she want to join them?  After a brief discussion with her uncle, she said that she’d take the next train home.  William agreed to meet her at the Blanche St. station at 10 p.m.

When William met the train, he found that Mabel was not on board.  When he returned to the party, his father told him that Mabel had probably just missed the train, and would be on the next one, which arrived at 10:20.  He was wrong.  Mabel was not on that train, or any other that arrived at the station.

Mabel’s relatives were still not alarmed.  They assumed she had changed her mind, and stuck to her original plan to stay overnight at her uncle’s.

Early the next morning, two workmen went to a long-vacant house near the Mayer home, where they were building a garage.  When they went to the backyard, they discovered the bloodied body of a young girl.  ID found in her nearby purse established that this was the corpse of Mabel Mayer.

Mabel had suffered a particularly savage death.  Two pieces of lumber from the half-finished garage had been used to batter her so severely that one arm was broken and her once-pretty face was so mangled it was nearly unrecognizable.  Her breasts were also mutilated.  Her shattered wristwatch had stopped at 9:55.  The cause of death was either blood loss or asphyxiation.

The yard where Mabel's body was found

It was easy to reconstruct what had happened.  Mabel had intended to take the train, but she missed it.  Then, instead of waiting for the next one, she took two streetcars, the last of which dropped her off at 9:45.  She was only three blocks from her home.  Then, as she walked past the vacant house, someone lurking behind the house (or, considering that two pieces of wood were used in the assault, possibly two someones) came out of the darkness to grab the girl and drag her to the backyard.  Bloody smears on the back door suggested that at some point during the attack, poor Mabel had escaped long enough to pound on the door in the vain hope that someone was inside.

The murder seemed to be as senseless as it was gruesome.  Although her clothes were badly torn, there was no evidence of sexual assault, and nothing had been stolen from her purse, ruling out robbery as a motive.  Another baffling feature of the crime was that even though it took place in a heavily-populated suburban neighborhood, no neighbors reported hearing screams or any other sign that a horror was taking place in their midst.  Indeed, a family who lived right next door to the murder scene came home from an evening drive at about 10 p.m.--right at the time when Mabel was being killed--without having a clue that anything was wrong.

"San Francisco Examiner," July 4, 1927, via Newspapers.com

Mabel had no enemies, or any serious boyfriends.  She was a happy girl, with a fine character.  Everyone liked Mabel.  Although the extreme brutality suggested a personal rage against the victim, how could anyone know that Mabel would miss her train and opt to walk home?  Police concluded that she must have been the victim of a completely random attack, committed by a stranger.  A stranger who seemed to have vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared.  It’s small wonder that the murder left Oakland deeply unnerved.

Police found one possible clue to Mabel’s murder, but it was an extremely weak one.  She left the movie theater at 4 p.m.  Half an hour later, she ran into two friends, and chatted with them for a few minutes.  These friends later told police that Mabel was accompanied by an adult woman who was a stranger to them.  (This woman was never identified.)  After that, it is unknown what Mabel did until she arrived at her uncle’s house at 6.  Did that unaccounted-for hour and a half have anything to do with her murder just a few hours later?  Or was it--as seems most likely--a red herring?  

A broken string of beads--that was established as not belonging to Mabel--was found near her body.  That, plus the fact that some bloody fingerprints found at the scene were small and tapering, led to the theory that Mabel was murdered by a woman, perhaps one jealous of the teen girl’s attractiveness to the opposite sex.

One intriguing suspect did eventually emerge.  Mabel’s schoolmates stated that in the period just before her murder, a stranger was often seen loitering around the schoolyard, and he seemed to take a particular interest in Mabel.  This mystery man was finally shooed away from the yard by Powell Pierce, a policeman who was acting as a school crossing guard.  Pierce, who went on to become a detective, believed it was very possible that this stranger was Mabel’s killer.

In 1929, Pierce was in the Alameda County Courthouse.  He was surprised to see the man he had chased away from the school sitting in one of the courtrooms.  He learned that the stranger was David Barnett, who was awaiting trial for attempting to kidnap a girl.  The District Attorney immediately launched a search into Barnett’s background, which proved to be a very interesting one indeed.  At the time of Mabel’s murder, Barnett was working at a lumber company that had sold material to the workmen who were constructing the garage at the house where she was killed.  One of Barnett’s co-workers, Walter Olmstead, was a neighbor and acquaintance of the Mayer family.  However, neither Barnett’s nor Olmstead’s fingerprints were found at the murder scene.  Olmstead had a stainless reputation, and police concluded that he was in no way connected with the crime.  Barnett, meanwhile, not only insisted that he knew nothing about the murder, but denied having been the man Pierce had chased away from the schoolyard.  He was adamant that he had never so much as laid eyes on Mabel Mayer.  No one could prove otherwise.

After this once-promising lead fizzled out, there were no further developments in the mystery, leaving Mabel Mayer’s murder as a particularly haunting “cold case.”


  1. I've read about this case, and it is so puzzling, as in what was the motive for such a violent crime and for this victim?

  2. Very puzzling and very sad. A senseless end to what would probably have been a happy life. Pierce was likely right in connecting Barnett to Mabel, but for lack of evidence nothing could be done.


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