Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 17 2012
Eriksmoen: Horrific murder of North Dakotan made headlines
On Oct. 18, 1931, the body of Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson, from White Earth, N.D., was found in Los Angeles in train luggage belonging to her friend Winnie Ruth Judd. Samuelson’s body had been cut into three pieces to make it fit into one of Judd’s trunks.
Sammy Samuelson was born in 1907 to Anders and Marie Samuelson. Anders homesteaded a wheat farm a few miles south of White Earth in Mountrail County. Sammy took an active role in school activities and dreamed of becoming a teacher. After graduation, she enrolled at Minot (N.D.) State Teachers’ College (now Minot State University), where she received a standard degree on July 24, 1925.
Now able to teach, Sammy obtained a position at the school in Landa, N.D., that fall.
The next year, Sammy began teaching at the elementary school in Whitehall, Mont., 20 miles southeast of Butte. It was there that she had her only known boyfriend, the older brother of one of her students. When Sammy’s body was discovered in a trunk, one of the other items found was a photo of her and a young man standing on a front porch. Newspapers ran copies of this picture with the caption “Hedvig Samuelson and Unidentified Boyfriend.”
The man was later identified when famed NBC newscaster Chet Huntley wrote his autobiography, “The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood.” He wrote, “It was a snapshot of Sammy and me.”
Huntley added that she was “decidedly attractive, bright, and finely balanced between gay aggressiveness and reserved shyness. Sammy Samuelson was one of the very rare young teachers in that small community who managed the no mean feat of avoiding local gossip.”
During her second year at Whitehall, Sammy suffered a severe attack of pneumonia and was nursed back to health by Huntley’s aunt. Sammy’s doctor recommended that she consider moving to Alaska Territory, and she accepted a position at the elementary school in Juneau, Alaska, in the fall of 1928.
At Juneau, it was reported that Sammy “was well-liked for her bubbly personality.” At the conclusion of the first school year, she traveled to the interior of the territory, where she panned for gold at a placer mine near Fairbanks.
In February 1930, Sammy met Agnes Anne LeRoi, a registered nurse at St. Ann’s Hospital. The two realized they had a lot in common and became close friends.
In September, Sammy was diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after the start of the academic year. On Oct. 2, the Daily Alaska Empire newspaper reported that she left for Laguna Beach, where she hoped the mild climate of Southern California would restore her “good health.” Traveling with her was her good friend LeRoi.
With little progress in her health, Sammy entered a sanitarium in Phoenix, which closed soon after she arrived. The two women got an apartment together, and on Sept. 25, 1930, Sammy confined herself to bed.
Winnie Ruth Judd arrived in Phoenix from Mexico in June of that year. She was married to William C. Judd, a doctor who was addicted to morphine and had great difficulty holding a position.
In Phoenix, Winnie got a job at a local clinic where LeRoi was an X-ray technician. The two women became friends, and soon Winnie was introduced to Sammy. Winnie began visiting her two friends “every evening.”
On May 18, Winnie and her husband moved into a duplex next to LeRoi and Sammy near downtown Phoenix. When Dr. Judd returned to Mexico, Winnie became a roommate of LeRoi and Sammy, who introduced her to Jack Halloran, a wealthy married lumber yard owner who had powerful political connections. Winnie and Halloran started an affair, and she moved to her own apartment Oct. 2.
On Oct. 16, 1931, Sammy and LeRoi were shot to death at close range. LeRoi’s corpse was stuffed into one trunk, but the body of Sammy would not fit and, consequently, was dismembered so that it could fit into the other trunk. Winnie would later tell the police that Halloran decided the bodies needed to be moved far away because it would be too easy for police to identify the bodies in Phoenix.
Winnie had the trunks transported to the Phoenix railroad depot and bought a ticket to Los Angeles. She arrived at Union Station on Oct. 18, where a baggage man noticed what appeared to be blood dripping from one trunk. He asked her to open it, but Winnie said she did not have the key. She then had the trunks loaded into her brother’s waiting car and left the scene.
The baggage man wrote down the license plate number, and the police were called. After locating the car, police opened the trunks and discovered the two bodies. Four days later, Winnie was arrested and, after being taken to the mortuary, confessed to the murders. The nation’s newspapers had a field day, calling her the “trunk murderess” and the “tiger woman.”
Winnie was returned to Phoenix for trial, and thousands of people lined the streets hoping to catch sight of her. The owner of the building where the murders took place sold tickets to conduct a tour of the crime scene. At the trial, Winnie claimed she acted in self-defense because Sammy shot first, and she took the gun away, killing both women.
On Feb. 8, 1932, Winnie was convicted of murdering LeRoi and sentenced to be executed. She was not tried for the murder of Sammy. One of the points brought up by Winnie’s attorney was that she was mentally insane. Three days before the hanging was to take place, a jury impaneled for a sanity hearing pronounced her insane, and she was committed to the state mental hospital. At a grand jury, 30 years later, Winnie persuaded the jury that Halloran had played a significant role in the murders. In 1971, she was declared sane and was freed. Winnie moved to California and changed her name to Marian Lane. She died in 1998.
(We will follow up this story next week with an article about two North Dakota-born authors who were deeply affected by the murder of Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson.)
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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.