Strange Times 75: "The Gun Went Off"

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Today brings an update from a sensational murder trial. Remember your purse pistol for…

March 16, 1921

  • The Austrian Anti-Semitic conference issues resolution calling for their government to expel all Jews by April 1 as the start of a global war on Judaism.

  • In Chicago, a Russian pianist is invited to play for mental patients in an attempt to gauge whether music may have a palliative effect on the insane.

  • José R. Capablanca and Dr. Emanuel Lasker begin play for the world’s chess championship in Havana. Capablanca, playing as white, opens with a Queen’s gambit which Dr. Lasker declines. The match is adjourned after 32 moves, and the contest declared completely even.

  • No update is issued on the health of Caruso.

  • The Weather: Showers today, followed by clearing and colder; Thursday, fair; strong south to northwest winds.

This story tells of the conclusion to the Jake Hamon murder trial, and features the testimony of the accused, Clara Smith Hamon—Jake’s lover and the wife of his nephew. For the second week in a row, I’ll issue a content warning: this story features some pretty graphically described violence. Skip it if that doesn’t sound like your speed.

Clara Smith Hamon, on trial for the murder of her employer, Jake L. Hamon, Oklahoma oil man, re-enacted on the witness stand today the same scene when she shot Hamon, who, she swore, had beaten her and cursed her, and at the moment of the shooting was threatening to strike her with a chair. She maintained, also, under cross-examination, that she had not intended to kill Hamon.

Her testimony was the last of the day, and the defense announced that except for the admissibility as evidence of letters from the woman to Hamon, it rested its case.…

Tells Her Story of Shooting

The woman spoke dramatically, in a cool, low pitched voice, hesitating only when she told that Hamon had cursed her. After answering a few preliminary questions she launched directly into her narrative, beginning with the morning of the shooting.

“We had breakfast about 11 o’clock,” she said. “After breakfast Mr. Hamon left me; I presume he went to his office; he usually did on Sunday morning. I went back to my room and in the afternoon about 3:30 or 3 o’clock, I don’t just remember, he came back to the room and we had a very pleasant conversation. He lay down on his bed to rest, but he only stayed a short time, perhaps less than an hour. Then he went back to the office, said he had some friends waiting or some politicians, I don’t just remember whom.

“I was busy cleaning up my room and getting my clothes ready to go away to California, and I decided that I would like to have a little ride, so I got in my car. That was about 6 o’clock.

“It was about 7, dark enough for the street lights to be on, when I came back. When I drove up to the hotel, Mr. Hamon was sitting in front in a chair. Between Mr. Hamon and the door of the hotel there was another chair.

“He immediately grabbed me as I passed and shoved me down in the chair and said he wanted to talk to me and used profane language.

“I told him, ‘Please don’t curse here, don’t make a scene. If you want to curse and be mean to me and abuse me, let’s go to the room.’ He continued to curse me and I noticed that the lights in the car were on and I said, ‘Wait a minute; I want to turn the car lights off.’ He turned me loose and I walked to the car and switched off the lights.

“When I passed by him, and turned to get through the door he again grabbed me by the arm, jerked me down on a chair and again cursed. I said, ‘Go to the room, Mr. Hamon, if you want to abuse me, there are some men standing there, you must not talk that way here in public.’ He got up and I went upstairs to my room. I was afraid of Mr. Hamon, very afraid of him. I saw a look on his face that I had never seen before. He was drunker than I had ever seen him in all the years I had known him. He was drunk and crazy. I don’t think the whisky was good red whisky as Mr. Nichols said. He usually drank good whisky and he wasn’t usually crazy like that. When I got ot my room the doors were locked between our rooms, and the bathroom door was locked. I rang for the porter. I thought I had better eat something. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. At breakfast I could not eat.

Says Hamon Entered Room

“When Bill, the porter, came in with ice water Mr. Hamon slipped in with him. I had to unlock the door for Bill. I was afraid of Mr. Hamon. I wanted him to keep away from me for twenty-four more hours so I could go to California and wait for him to sober up and come to me looking the sweet, kind lover he had been before. Mr. Hamon paced up and down, running his hands through his hair as he did when he was agitated, and the minute Bill went out Mr. Hamon said, with an epithet, ‘Where have you been,’ and grabbed me at the same time and choked me. He choked me until I was blind and I couldn’t seem to think.”

“And now, Miss Clara,” interrupted W.P. McLean of her Counsel—

“Just a minute, I will finish the story, Mr. McLean,” she said.

“He choked me and hit me, and somehow he threw me over on the bed. After he got me on the bed he beat me and slapped me and hit me two or three times and took me by one foot and jerked me off the bed on my back. I had been operated on in the back, and it hurt me extremely. He took pains to kick me in the back. I struggled to get up and did get up, and he choked me again and backed me up against the window and choked me again and again and slapped me, and then again; he wasn’t satisfied with that, so he twisted the skin on my hand. He wasn’t satisfied with that. He bent my fingers back and tried to break them, and then he said, ‘I will cut your throat,’ and he reached for his knife.

“The knife had fallen out of his pocket in the afternoon while he was lying on the bed and I had picked it up and put it over on the table after he walked out of the room. When he did not have the knife in his pocket he reached for the knife I had given him on a little gold chain and somehow, some way, that knife wasn’t there. He looked around and meantime he was choking me and beating me.

“He said, ‘You have been riding with somebody, haven’t you?’ and I said, ‘No, you know I haven’t.’

Asserts He Threatened Her Life

“When he didn’t find his gold knife he saw over on the dresser a knife he had given me a long time ago just to sharpen pencils. It was very, very sharp. He reached for that knife and said, ‘I would just as soon slit your throat as draw on this cigar.’

“Anyway, when he reached for that knife I knew the time had come. I unconsciously or consciously reached back and in my purse on the window sill got my little gun. I asked him to stand back and let me pass.”

“Well, what did you do with the gun, with the pistol, when you got hold of it?” her counsel asked.

“What would any one do with it if they thought their life was in danger,” the young woman replied.

“Never mind that, what did you do with it?” her counsel urged.

“I held it on him,” she went on.

“He did back away sort of behind a chair and put his hand on the back of the chair. He did not raise his hands. I didn’t ask him to. I wasn’t very far from him when I passed between the corner of the bed and Mr. Hamon and the chair to get to the door to get out. He backed around to the door between our rooms. Holding my hand like this [indicating] to back up to the door to unlock it, the lock he had locked when Bill went out, I could not see him.… When I unlocked the door to go, in that instant he turned off the light and raised the chair to strike me and did strike me. I could see form the light of the hall. He struck me with that chair and the gun went off.”

The defendant left the stand and walked before the jury box to illustrate her version of it.

“And I was unlocking the door like this and holding the gun on Mr. Hamon, but he was just out of my sight for a minute and he got around the corner and the chair came down on me and it knocked the gun out on the floor like that and it went off as it fell, or I pulled the trigger, or something as he hit me. I don’t know. The gun went off.”

She shot Hamon, but he did not die. In her telling, she asked to call him a doctor, but he insisted on walking to the hospital himself. He apologized to her, she says, and promised that if anyone asked, he would tell them it was an accident. He kissed her, asked forgiveness, reiterated his promise to marry her, and suggested she leave town to avoid scandal. She fled to El Paso, where her mother confirmed that she was badly bruised, “the skin almost twisted off the right wrist.”

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