Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Please note that this, and all episodes of Thrice Cursed have been adapted from their original spoken form to text by myself, and some additional ad-libbed content may have been omitted. All content within is the sole property of Thrice Cursed Podcast. Please don't plagiarize. Plagiarism sucks.
Hello, I’m Rebekkah Rosewood, and this is Thrice Cursed.
Happy April, everyone! I hope everyone had a fun and safe Passover, Ostara, or Easter celebration. Whatever you celebrate, I don’t discriminate. Hehe, rhymes. Anyways, last month you heard about a spooky forest and some pretty straight-forward murder cases. This week, I’m going to tell you all about a doozy out of California. I know almost half of my episodes at this point are out of California, and I promise I’m not purposely choosing a bunch of California cases, but sometimes I just find a case that sounds SO interesting I can’t resist telling it. Even if it does seem like I’m playing favorites to my home state.
I had actually never heard of the case I’m about to talk about until I was researching dumb criminals for my former podcast. Somehow, this crime came up, and I threw it on the very top of my 3,000+ list of cases to cover. Hopefully you’ll find it as interesting and horrifying as I do, and if not, sorry you dislike weird things I guess?
Now that we’re past my apologizing for non-existent favoritism… 𝅘𝅥𝅮I hate it heeeerreeeee𝅘𝅥𝅮… I’ll get right into it.
On the night of August 5, 1935, 38-yr-old Los Angeles Barber, Robert James invited two friends over to join him and his wife for dinner at their home in La Canada. Robert and his friends Viola and James Pemberton arrived at the house to find it empty and dark. This was odd, as they had been expecting Mary Emma Busch, Robert’s wife, to meet them at the door. When that didn’t happen, the trio decided to search the home. No evidence of her presence was found inside the home, so at the insistence of Robert, they grabbed flashlights and searched the backyard.
James Pemberton focused on an area near the fishpond, which was surrounded in dense shrubs and foliage. He recalled “I had the flashlight pointing to the other side of the pond. I nearly stumbled on the body before I saw it. I looked down and it was right at my feet. Then I turned my light upon it and saw Mrs. James lying with her face in the water. Her yellow hair was floating.”
Mary Emma Busch had been found face down in the pond, with her left leg badly swollen and black. Depending on which source you believe, police believed that Mary had either gotten drunk, fallen into the pond, and drowned; or she had been bitten by a rattlesnake, and in her shock, fell into the pond where she ultimately drowned. Based off of the black and swollen appearance of her leg, I’m going to say it’s safe to believe that police likely figured she’d been bitten by a snake, and the rest were just reported incorrectly. Regardless, due to the presence of water in her lungs, the coroner's ruling stated that Mary had died of an accidental drowning.
For those of you that don’t know, rattlesnakes are suuuuper common in California. Like, I’ve encountered maybe 7 in my lifetime, and hiking is not a thing I do. So… it genuinely is plausible that someone could be walking around barefoot outside and be bitten by a rattlesnake. If that were the case though, I wouldn’t be here talking about it. And I should probably clarify that just because I’ve seen rattlesnakes doesn’t mean I’m not absolutely terrified of them. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a snake, but not of the living rattler variety. The taxidermied kind? Sure. Anyways.
At the time of her death, Mary had only been married to Robert for 3 months. She had met Robert when she applied for a position at his barber shop. She worked as a manicurist in his shop for an indeterminate amount of time before eventually getting married to him.
Upon her death, James collected a life insurance policy for Mary, and attempted to claim double indemnity. Double indemnity is basically a payment by a life insurance policy that is two times the policy’s original face value when the death results from an accident. Something like a car accident, a drowning at the beach, or any number of things would qualify for this so long as it wasn’t caused by an underlying health problem, or murder. However, despite appearing to fit the criteria, the insurance company refused to pay out. Something in his past made them highly suspicious. Because of this refusal, James decided he would sue. So now I’ll ask, who was Robert? Well, that’s super fucking complicated.
Robert had slicked back, bright red hair, green eyes, and a high nasally voice. As someone with a nasally voice, let me just say, no thanks. Those who knew Robert described him as a strange kind of ladies’ man with a certain kind of dumb charm. --What is a DUMB charm? Do people find dumb men charming? Is that… is that what’s being said here? I’m not going to lie, this concept is so entirely foreign to me that I actually attempted to google it. I… found nothing. Someone explain to me what dumb charm is? Seriously. Email me. Comment on the instagram post about this episode. Something.
When it came down to it, Mary had NO idea who she’d been married to. She didn’t even know his real name. Robert James had been born Major Raymond Lisenba. He grew up in Alabama, raised by an abusive father who worked as a sharecropper. --For those of you not versed in old-timey professions like myself, I googled it. A sharecropper is a tenant farmer who gives a share of their crops instead of paying rent. From this we can kind of gather that Lisenba didn’t grow up wealthy, and could be considered poor. This isn’t the important piece of information Mary was missing though. Sure, knowing your husband’s first name might be considered important. Maybe. But there were several other things she missed. Robert James, who going forward will just be referred to as James, was a seasoned con man.
It’s not her fault for missing this, of course. In fact, the police themselves didn’t even catch it. Despite James offering up the “helpful” information that Mary had a propensity for dizzy spells, and a bottled jar of living black widows (no fucking thank you) in his garage, police weren’t at all suspicious of the man. That is, until Mary’s policy-holders discovered James’ secret past. Here’s where I tell you to buckle up, because shit’s about to get wild.
An insurance investigator revealed to police that James had been married previously. Not once, not twice, but FOUR other times. And while that in and of itself isn’t a crime in the legal sense --the societal sense, ABSOLUTELY --the fact that one of his previous wives also met an untimely fate raised some red flags. And let me tell you… ALL of the red flags should have been raised at this point. Honestly, there are so many red flags this guy might as well be soviet Russia.
Before we figure out exactly what happened with Mary, we’re going to get into James’ past a bit here. In 1921, at the age of 26, James, then Lisenba, married his first wife, Maud Duncan. She quickly divorced him, citing extreme cruelty and “kinky, sadistic sex.”
From there, he moved to Kansas and married his second wife, Vera May James, sometime around 1925. She too, divorced him. Not due to extreme cruelty or sadistic sex, but because he impregnated a young girl, whose father then showed up at James’ barber shop with a shotgun. Once again, James moved, this time to Fargo, North Dakota. Shout out to Katrina, my favorite listener in North Dakota.
It was at this point that he changed his name.
By the time James married his third wife, Winona Wallace, he had inherited either an uncle’s or his mother’s $4,000 life insurance policy. There were varying reports on whose policy it actually was. Now, $4,000 doesn’t sound like much, but this was sometime around 1932. In today’s money, $4,000 is equivalent to approximately $76,792.41. Not bad, right? Well, it would be for Winona, sadly. This inheritance caused James to set his sights on committing fraud. So, he inherits this $4,000, then marries Winona Wallace and takes out a life insurance policy on both Winona and himself through Prudential Insurance. Some sources state that each policy was for $5,000, and others say $14,000, with James being the sole beneficiary of Winona’s policy. After just a few months, James allowed his own policy to lapse, but kept Winona’s active.
After 3 months of being married --pattern?-- the couple went on a honeymoon trip to Colorado. They intended to climb Pikes Peak. During the trip, however, on September 21, 1932, an unthinkable car accident occurred on the Pikes Peak highway in Colorado. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly in hindsight, James was unharmed, while Winona’s skull was cracked in the crash. Upon investigation of the crash, James stated that he’d been able to jump from the out-of-control vehicle just before it impacted with a large boulder approximately 150 feet below the road. Winona was at the wheel, and the majority of blood in the vehicle was on the passenger side of the vehicle. Seems believable, right? Well… try not to gasp. When police were investigating, they found a BLOODY HAMMER in the back seat of the car and THOUGHT NOTHING OF IT.
How many people do you know that take a bloody hammer with them on vacation? Or on a hike? Personally, I NEVER leave my house without my bloody hammer. If you’re annoyed by the overlooking of this GIANT, OBVIOUS clue, welcome to my life. Honestly, James basically left a neon fucking sign in the car that said, “Hey! Hi! Police officers? Yes. I attempted to murder my wife and make it look like an accident. Don’t bother with an investigation, because I got you covered boo.” But NO. They detected nothing out of the ordinary. Rescuers stated that Winona smelled of alcohol and had a massive wound behind her ear.
Despite the severity of her head wound, Winona managed to pull through, and was discharged from the hospital after two and a half weeks on October 8th. --Today, that hospital stay would have cost more than he would have even made in the life insurance policy. ‘Murica amirite? -- Due to the extent of her injuries, or just emotional trauma, no one can be sure, Winona had no recollection of the incident. She and her husband returned to the cottage they had rented in Manitou Springs where Winona worked towards her recovery.
Within about a week of her release, Winona was found dead, on her back in a half-filled bathtub. James told the medical examiner, George B. Gilmore, that she had still been suffering vertigo from her head injury, and must have disregarded her doctor’s instruction not to wash her hair because of the wound, and ultimately drowned. Winona Wallace’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, and James collected on her $14,000 life insurance policy. No autopsy was performed.
James then moved back to Alabama. It’s there that James married his fourth wife, Ruth Thomas in 1934. All was well in this marriage. For a total of a few hours, anyways. James quickly discovered he was unable to take out a life insurance policy on Ruth, as she didn’t like doctors and refused to get the required physical. Within the very same day of their wedding, James filed for annulment, stating that he “wasn’t sure about their marriage because he was drunk.”
Within the same year, James took out an insurance policy on his nephew, Cornelius Wright. Cornelius was a young sailor who was on leave when his uncle invited him for a visit. During this visit, James granted Cornelius use of his car. Almost immediately, Cornelius and the car went off a cliff. The mechanic who towed the vehicle back to James informed him that there was something wrong with the steering wheel. The insurers paid out on this policy, and once again, James evaded detection despite the fact that James had sent his sister a telegram informing her of her son’s death before it had even happened. --I bet he was probably just a very unlucky psychic. No way he’s guilty. If you can’t tell, I’m rolling my eyes so hard it’s amazing they’re still in my head.
Now even wealthier, James moved to Los Angeles, where he opened his barber shop and met, then married Mary Busch. Now, surprise! There’s something else Mary didn’t know.
When James had arrived home in Alabama, he groomed and seduced his 18-year-old niece. The two carried on a relationship together, and were eventually found out by their family. His niece moved with him to Los Angeles though I have no clue where she lived during his marriage to Mary. Throughout their entire marriage, James kept his niece on the side. So he was having an affair with his own flesh and blood through 2 marriages. Granted, one only lasted a day, but still what the fuck?
This all came to light after the insurance investigator in Mary’s death turned JAmes over to the authorities, who immediately bugged his home. They discovered his incestuous relationship with his niece after a month of listening to James have sex with numerous women, and arrested him, due to incest being a crime in the state of California. It was during the interrogation for this crime that James let slip that Mary’s death was far from accidental. He held it together for quite some time, but interrogation methods in California at that time were far more brutal than they are today. A full confession was eventually extracted from James.
Shortly after their marriage, James convinced Mary to take out a $10,000 life insurance policy on herself. He quickly began plotting her demise. Robert sought out the help of one of his customers. This customer was a struggling ex-sailor and fry-cook by the name of Charles Hope. In his testimony, Hope claimed that James had not only hypnotized him, but “James came to [him] early in June last year and said he had a friend who wanted to kill his wife, and that it would be worth $100 to [him] to get a couple rattlesnakes.” He then added,” I said all right, it was none of my business what he wanted the snakes for.” To which I say, at that point you clearly KNEW what the snakes were for. So, you’re as guilty as he is.
James refuted Hope’s statements. According to him, Hope led the conversation when it came to the murder method. First, he supposedly suggested that James throw black widows in the bed with her. I think it’s far more likely that James came up with the Black Widow idea on his own. At one point, they did actually try this method. Mary complained in a letter about a badly swollen leg from a bite she had received in her garden. Though it didn’t kill her. That makes a lot of sense since it’s actually quite rare that a bite from a black widow kills someone.
He then said that the pair discussed “burning down the house about the unfortunate woman, poisoning her through a scratched skin with a chemical, and shooting her in a fake hold up.” Ultimately, what happened seemed far more cruel. When the black widow bites didn’t work, they eventually came up with a plan: death by rattlesnake. This idea, Robert admitted, was partially inspired by Cleopatra.
James instructed Hope to buy the deadliest rattlers he could find. Initially, three rattlesnakes were purchased from Mike Alman at the Reptile Gardens on Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica. Robert deemed these three snakes no good, stating that they wouldn’t bite anything, and sent Hope on a search once more. This search led him to Joseph C. Houtenbrink, otherwise known as “Snake Joe.” --It’s always a fuckin’ Joe, isn’t it?
Joe recalled that Hope stated, “I’ve got a big bet that a rattlesnake will strike and eat a rabbit, and I want the meanest thing you’ve got to make sure I win.” --Do people make real life bets like this? That sounds ridiculous to me.-- Regardless, Houtenbrink sold Hope two 6-year-old desert diamondback rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightning. Shortly after this sale, Mike Alman and Joe Houtenbrink got together and swapped stories. While the two felt suspicious about the exchanges, their suspicions were never voiced beyond their private conversation. Until the trial, that is.
As most pathetic criminals do when cornered, they lied on the stand. A lot. But from what both Hope and James himself revealed at trial, we have a pretty clear picture of what happened on August 4th, when their plan was set into motion. Keep in mind that anything going forward that has not been proven with evidence has been surmised through the testimony of two guilty parties attempting to lay the blame on one another. While we know what the general details and final outcome were, some of the events going forward have allegedly tacked on in front of them. I won’t be saying it every single time because it would be highly annoying to listen to, but just know that it’s there.
According to James’ testimony, Mary had come to him, stating that she was pregnant with his child. For whatever reason, James then convinced her to get an abortion.
Keep in mind, in the 1930s in California, abortion was illegal. Despite this, James convinced Mary that he was able to find a doctor willing to perform the operation in their home. This doctor’s terms were that her eyes would have to be covered to protect the man’s identity. She agreed to this, and drank a pint of whiskey in conjunction with bromides, which were once used as an anticonvulsant and sedative. (Large doses could cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, coma, and paralysis. It can also break down the human tissues inside your body. I first wondered why they didn’t use this to kill her, as they obviously had access to it. But then I factored in his motive, and remembered he had to make her death look like an accident. It seems unlikely he’d be able to do so if he overdosed her with Bromides.)
Once she downed the concoction, Mary, in her soft pink pajamas, was placed onto the table in the breakfast nook of their home. She was then tied to the table with cotton rope, and her mouth and eyes were taped shut. Hope joined James in his home after this. Upon his entry, Hope claims to have seen her already tied to the table and nearly unconscious before James thrust her left leg into the box occupied by Lethal and Lightning. It’s said that the snakes bit Mary three times.
Contrary to common belief, Diamondback Rattlesnake venom isn’t exactly fast-acting. Had James purchased an infant rattler, the bites may have killed Mary more quickly due to their inability to control the amount of venom they use. However, even still, if the bite is left untreated, according to healthline.com, it could still take a period of 2 to 3 days for the bite to break down your bodily functions, eventually resulting in death. Because she was bitten 3 times, it seems like the fastest the hemotoxin might kill her would be 16 hours. This… is an agonizing way to die.
Her suffering wasn’t James’ goal. And frankly, she wasn’t dying fast enough for him. When Hope returned to the home several hours later, Mary was still alive, in pain and moaning. According to Hope, James told him “She’s not dead yet. The damn rattlesnake poison’s not working right. I won’t waste any more time. I’ll drown her.” Of course, James’ version said Hope came up with the idea to drown her, but, to me that seems highly unlikely. After holding her down in the bathtub, the two men took her outside to the fish pond, and left her body there to be discovered by James’ guests. The vicious and bizarre method of murder earned James the moniker “Rattlesnake James.” Which honestly just sounds like a bad villain from a B-rated Western movie.
Both Hope and James were arraigned on May 6, 1937, and were charged with first-degree murder. James threatened Hope “If you plead guilty, I’ll break your neck!” At the same time, in the DA’s office, the prosecutors were testing the venom of Lethal and Lightning, who had both been returned to Snake Joe by Hope after the murder.
On June 2, 1937, James was sentenced to 150 years for the morals charges involving his niece. On June 19th, Hope pleaded guilty to first degree murder in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. This, along with additional evidence sealed James’ fate. The jar of black widows, as well as the fragments of Mary’s pajamas found in a downtown incinerator, exactly where Hope said they would be, backed up Hope’s story.
James’ murder trial began on June 22, 1936. Like a coward, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. On the 25th, Hope testified against him. On July 15th, James himself took the stand, claiming that his confession had been coerced. Oddly enough, lawyers in the case decided to have the two men reenact the night of Mary’s murder. “James climbed on the… attorney’s table. He lay on his back as Mary James is supposed to have been lying. Hope was led alongside. In the little play, he was supposed to seize James’ foot and jam it into the replica of the original snake box.”
This ended about as well as you’d expect, with the two men brawling. While this caught the attention of headlines, probably the most written about part of the trial was Lethal and Lightning. The two snakes had been brought into the courtroom in a large glass box that reporters said looked like a see-through coffin. The two snakes repeatedly struck at the jury, and left venom dripping down the glass. Snake Joe testified that Hope had been the man who had purchased both sets of snakes, and that this was one of them. Lethal managed to escape his enclosure during the lunch 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.” Snake Joe and another man familiar with rattlesnakes, my guess is Mike Alman, captured Lethal before he was able to bite anyone.
On July 25th, when the final verdict was in, James was convicted of first-degree murder. This verdict carried a mandatory sentence of death by hanging.
Over the next few years, James appealed numerous times, with his lawyers arguing that his confession had been beaten out of him by interrogating officers, and that bringing the snakes into the courtroom was unnecessarily inflammatory. Regardless, none of his appeals were granted. He spent his final years supposedly finding Jesus with the aid of a religious worker named Helen Atkinson. I don’t believe he truly found Jesus, but simply found a way to absolve himself of any accountability for the crimes he committed.
Upon the denial of his final appeal, James said “I can take it. Let’s just say that Rattlesnake Bob James is not afraid to die.” Hopefully that was true, because on May 2, 1942, Major Raymond Lisenba or Robert S. James became the last man to hang in the state of California.
By this point in time, the majority of death row inmates had already been switched over to gas chamber executions. It was known at the time of his death that he would be the last hanged execution. The reasoning for which was underscored when the hanging was botched. The rope was the wrong length, and Robert James was left writhing in agony for 10 minutes. And while I would never wish pain on another human being, I can only say that Mary died far more painfully, and karma is a bigger bitch than I’ll ever need to be.
Due to the time frame this took place in, I was unable to find much information on either Winona Wallace, or Mary Emma James. I will say that Winona was only 28 at the time of her death, and Mary only 25 or 26. Both are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. I could find no additional information about his nephew, Cornelius Wright. It seems that the bizarre nature of Mary’s murder overshadowed the other two victims. I’d also like to note at the end here, that the niece James groomed was Cornelius’ sister. She was his victim too.
This has been the cursed tale of both literal and figurative snakes. And while I don’t blame the rattlesnakes, I will forever blame the monster. Let it be known that snakes don’t just hiss. Sometimes, they call you love, babe, or wife.
I think the lesson we can all learn here is, if anyone starts asking you to take out a life insurance policy on yourself, run for the hills and never look back. And that’s coming from the QUEEN of backsliding. I can gaslight myself better than anyone’s business and life insurance is a big no from me. And if you do take out a life insurance policy, never let your partner know. While it’s not likely someone would get away with a life-insurance motivated murder nowadays, that doesn’t mean someone won’t be dumb enough to try. My life motto is, people are basically dumb…. Nothing more, that’s it. And frankly, in a marriage without life insurance, it’s probably more likely you’ll divorce than be murdered. Just saying.
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Until next time, keep your curses hexy, and your hexes sexy.