James E. Mahoney is hanged on December 1, 1922, for the murder of his wife.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 4/25/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7286
On December 1, 1922 at 7:02 a.m., James Edward Mahoney (1885-1922), age 38, is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the premeditated murder of his 68-year-old wife, Kate Mooers Mahoney (1853-1921). What began as a mysterious disappearance was eventually revealed as one of the most elaborately planned crimes of the decade. This notorious murder, which took place on April 16, 1921, received national media attention as Seattle Police detectives slowly unraveled the complicated plot and finally found Kate's body.

A Hasty Marriage

In December 1920, Jim Mahoney, on parole from the Washington State Penitentiary for assault and robbery, moved to Seattle to live with his mother, Nora Mahoney, and his sister, Dolores Johnson, at the New Baker House, a small hotel owned by Kate Mooers, a wealthy divorcee. Nora Mahoney soon introduced her son Jim to Kate and a short courtship ensued. Despite the age difference, they were married six weeks later in a civil ceremony at the King County Courthouse and moved into Kate's apartment on Denny Way.

Two months later, Kate Mahoney announced to friends and relatives that she and Jim were taking a belated honeymoon trip to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and other East Coast cities, and would be away for about one month. They were scheduled to leave on the train Saturday night, April 16, 1921. And that was the last time that Kate was seen.

Jim Mahoney returned to Seattle 10 days later, telling her friends and relatives that Kate decided to travel to Havana, Cuba, with friends and would be gone for several months. Mahoney said he came home to take care of Kate's business interests. Kate's two nieces were not convinced and, suspecting foul play, asked Captain of Detectives Charles Tennant to investigate. Since Mahoney was a known criminal, it didn't take much persuasion.

Suspicious Events

It wasn't long before Seattle Police detectives began to uncover a series of highly suspicious events. A few day before departing on his alleged honeymoon, Mahoney had visited a houseboat on Lake Union and rented a small rowboat. On the night of April 16, 1921, he hired a transfer company to move a large steamer trunk to Lake Union where it was put in the rowboat. Upon returning to Seattle, Mahoney began to systematically plunder Kate's assets using forged documents and live in high style.

Detectives kept Mahoney under surveillance and three weeks later, when it appeared he was preparing to leave Seattle, he was picked up for questioning -- with most of Kate's diamond jewelry in his possession. To prevent his escape, Mahoney was charged with forgery, but the King County Prosecutor needed to find Kate's body to substantiate a murder charge.

Captain Tennant had a theory and ordered divers to begin searching the bottom of the northeast end of Lake Union near the University Bridge for a steamer trunk. Finally, having survived 11 week of criticism, the police found the trunk containing Kate Mahoney's body. It bobbed to the surface on August 8, 1921, almost exactly where Captain Tennant said it would be. The autopsy revealed that Kate had been poisoned with 30 grains of morphine, stuffed in the trunk, then had her skull smashed with a heavy blunt instrument. Two days later, Jim Mahoney was charged with premeditated murder.

Trial and Conviction

The trial, held King County Superior Court, began on September 20, 1921, and ended on October 1, 1921, when the jury, after only four hours and 40 minutes, found Mahoney guilty of first-degree murder and recommended the death penalty. Mahoney proclaimed his innocence, claiming that he had been framed -- the body in the trunk wasn't his wife. Kate Mahoney was alive and well, but her whereabouts were a complete mystery.

After the state's appeals process had run its course, Mahoney was sentenced to hang at the Washington State Penitentiary on December 1, 1922, the day after Thanksgiving. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a new trial was denied on November 29, 1922. Although the press predicted that Mahoney would remain silent, he finally confessed to the murder in a written statement to his attorney. The following day, his sister, Dolores Johnson, confessed to killing Kate Mahoney in self-defense, insisting that Jim had merely helped dispose of the body. The authorities believed it was nothing more than an eleventh-hour attempt for a reprieve. Acting Governor William J. Coyle chose not to interfere with the execution.

The Gallows

Finally, on the morning of December 1, 1922, witnessed by only prison officials, the gallows' trapdoor was released at exactly 7:02 a.m. and James E. Mahoney dropped four and a half feet to his death. His body was taken down 12 minutes later and Walla Walla County Coroner Joseph Chamberlain pronounced him dead. Seeing no abrasion from the rope on Mahoney's neck, prison officials said that it was the cleanest execution in the institution's history. After funeral services at Saint Patrick's Catholic Church on December 11, 1923, Mahoney was buried in an unmarked grave in the Catholic section of the Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla.

Although authorities were convinced that Nora Mahoney and Dolores Johnson were also involved in Kate's murder, they were never charged as conspirators. But in November 1921, Dolores Johnson was convicted of forging Kate Mahoney's signature and grand larceny, and sentenced to serve from five to 20 year at the woman's facility in the Washington State Penitentiary. She was released on bail pending an appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court. Two appeals were denied and on January 19, 1923, Dolores Johnson, still proclaiming that she had killed Kate Mahoney, not committed forgery, was arrested and taken to prison to serve out her sentence.


Sources: Don Duncan, Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle, The Seattle Times, 1989); William R. Hunt, "Nostalgia: The Trunk Surfaced and the Killer Was Sunk," Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest Magazine, December 2, 1971, p. 4; Don Duncan, "Driftwood Diary," The Seattle Times Magazine, January 28, 1968, p. 4; "Mahoney Will Hang Friday," The Seattle Star, November 28, 1922, p. 1; "Confession Heard on Eve of Hanging," Ibid., November 30, 1922, p. 1; "Wife Slayer Is Executed," Ibid., December 1, 1922, p. 1; "Both Mahoney and Sister 'Confess' as Murderers," Ibid., December 1, 1922, p. 17; "Dolly Johnson Denied Appeal," Ibid., January 20, 1923, p. 1; "Douglas Rejects admission Made by Dolly Johnson; Wife Slayer, in Confession, Gives Details of Crime," The Seattle Times, December 1, 1922, p. 1; "Slain Woman Blamed," Ibid., December 1, 1922, p. 14, "James Mahoney Pays Life Penalty at State Prison," The Walla Walla Bulletin, December 1, 1922, p. 1; "Mahoney Remains Are Still in City," Ibid., December 3, 1922, p. 13; "James Mahoney is Buried Here Today," Ibid., December 12, 1922, p. 6.

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