Marie, Fay, Ted and Will McDonald were four Spokane siblings charged with the murder of real estate man W. H. McNutt in 1919. McNutt was last seen walking to their apartment to confront them over a money dispute. Five months later, a mysterious tipster directed police to search a ranch near Newport, where McNutt's corpse was exhumed. Marie, Fay and Ted McDonald were arrested for murder in Los Angeles. The fourth sibling, Will McDonald, had vanished. The trial in Spokane was one of the most sensational in Spokane's history. The three siblings admitted that McNutt had been murdered with a hammer, but blamed it all on the missing Will McDonald. The three other siblings were acquitted, but Marie and Fay were subsequently tried and convicted on forgery charges stemming from the murder. Both sisters fled before being sent to prison. A detective subsequently located Fay in Mexico and she served three years in prison. Marie was never found. Neither was Will McDonald, making the McNutt murder, officially, unsolved.
A Mysterious Fire
Marie McDonald first tangled with the law in 1915, when firefighters were called to a fire at her home at 308 S. Haven Street in Spokane. The fire did not cause extensive structural damage – but it certainly aroused the suspicions of the Spokane fire marshal.
After a lengthy investigation, Marie was arrested on November 27, 1915, on charges of second-degree arson. Investigators found a number of odd circumstances. All of the home's window shades had been tacked down, preventing anyone from seeing inside. Most of the furniture appeared to have been removed. Firefighters said they arrived to find "big fires burning in the stoves" on a day when there was little call for heat ("Jail Actress"). Marie claimed that a number of valuable artworks – painted by her – were destroyed. Yet investigators found the frames stacked near the stove, with the pictures cut out. Most suspicious of all, the fire marshal found oil or kerosene splattered on the floors.
The fire marshal also found that Marie had purchased a $1,500 fire-insurance policy on her personal property, although the fire marshal estimated that the furniture's value was barely a third of that. Investigators noted that she and her 15-year-old sister Fay (sometimes rendered as Faye) were both living in the home at the time of the fire, although both said they were downtown at the movies when the fire started. The Spokesman-Review identified Marie by her married name, "Mrs. Marie Wilkinson" and called her "a pretty young actress and artist" ("Jail Actress"). She was the daughter of the late Judge William McDonald of Whitman County.
Marie's explanation for tacking down her shades raised a few questions. She told investigators she did it to "prevent her enemies spying on her since her divorce action" and also that "someone had stolen her groceries and killed a canary bird" ("Jail Actress"). The prosecutor noted that she had recently divorced William Wilkinson, a street-railroad man. By the time Marie was formally charged a month later, prosecutors discovered another eyebrow-raising fact. Wilkinson was no longer married to Marie – he was married to 15-year-old Fay. Marie's kid sister had married Wilkinson in Sandpoint, Idaho, soon after his divorce from Marie, and five days after the fire.
Marie pleaded not guilty and was released on $2,000 bond. Her bail was procured in part by a certain Mr. and Mrs. W. H. McNutt. The tragic irony of those names would not become apparent for years.
The case went to trial on February 14, 1916, and immediately caused a sensation. The defense strategy was to implicate William Wilkinson in the fire, even though Fay, who testified on her sister's behalf, was now married to him. Probably for that reason, Judge Joseph Sessions "refused to let the girls say who they thought burned down the house" ("Arson Case Kid Letters"). Meanwhile, the case against Marie was based on two factors: the presence of coal oil on the floors, and the fact that she had taken out so much insurance on so little property.
"Hundreds of spectators … craned their necks" in the courtroom gallery, but not because they were fascinated by fire scene testimony. They were probably there because they were titillated by what The Spokesman-Review called "the unusual love triangle" between Marie, Fay and Wilkinson. The spectators got what they came for. At one point, Marie testified that she let Wilkinson live at the house after the divorce "as a boarder" ("Arson Case Kid Letters"). This was even though, according to a later account, she had divorced him on the grounds "that he was diseased" ("Seek to Unravel").
The sisters' attitude about the so-called love triangle was matter-of-fact. "After I divorced Wilkinson, he insisted on marrying my sister Fay," Marie told the court. Fay explained it on the stand by saying, "Well, when I was so determined to marry, she let me" ("Arson Case Kid Letters"). Yet the marriage had apparently already gone sour. Fay had "soon left him" and came back to Spokane to stay with her sister ("Seek to Unravel"). When Fay was asked in court whether she had ever considered taking her sister's "advice" about whether to marry Wilkinson, she said, "No, much to my regret" ("Arson Case Kid Letters").
In fact, there was even more to this love triangle than most people knew. In July 1914, when Fay was 13, she blurted out something shocking about William Wilkinson. Fay told Marie that Marie's husband had "wronged her," to use the euphemism employed by the press ("Girl's False Story"). Then Fay repeated the story to a deputy prosecutor -- evidently at Marie's behest. The prosecutor issued a warrant charging Wilkinson with a felony. Wilkinson was arrested and interviewed, but the case against him quickly fell apart when Fay "backed down on her story and admitted the falsehood was told in a spirit of revenge" – revenge against her sister ("Girl's False Story"). Fay confessed that she made it up in order to get even with her sister for a "severe reprimand given for her alleged misconduct" ("Girl's False Story"). The charges against Wilkinson were dropped and prosecutors apologized to Wilkinson, who was described as a railroad engineer who "bears a good reputation" ("Girl's False Story"). Fay was handed over to juvenile authorities and became a "ward of the Spokane juvenile court" for a time ("Seek to Unravel"). Some of the spectators in the gallery might have known about this, but the jury did not. The incident was never brought up in the arson trial, nor during any subsequent trials.
During the arson trial, Marie cut a striking figure – she showed up to court in a black velvet hat and gown trimmed in fur -- and the press ate it up. Her show-business background was also part of the story. When the prosecutor asked, "You say you have been a singer? Was it vaudeville or cabaret?" Marie replied, "I was on the Orpheum circuit. I sang at Frisco, Los Angeles, Kansas and other places. I got $150 a week" ("Arson Case Kid Letters").
As provocative as all of this was, the evidence that Marie had torched her own house was sparse. After hours of deliberation, the jury remained deadlocked, eight for acquittal and four for conviction. The judge declared a mistrial and sent the jury home. The prosecutor considered asking for a new trial, but two months later he dismissed the charges on the grounds that he no longer believed that a "conviction could be secured" ("Arson Charge Is Dismissed"). It seemed as if the McDonald sisters were out of the public eye for good.
Five Missing Persons
Then came the events of June 23, 1919. A real estate man named William H. McNutt – the same man who had bailed out Marie in 1915 – marched into to the Wolverine boarding house in an angry mood because a deal involving the property was going sour. He told his wife that he was going out to confront his partners in the deal, who were living at the Wolverine.
Yet McNutt never returned home. Weeks passed while his wife Pearl and three children waited for him to return. Finally, after a month, his wife frantically approached police with a "sensational theory" – she believed he had been murdered and his body secretly disposed of. Pearl McNutt was now "almost prostrate with grief over the disappearance" ("Fear Foul Play for McNutt"). She said that McNutt had gone to the Wolverine to resolve a dispute over a debt and something had gone tragically wrong.
She told police that his Wolverine partners owed him money and had once "threatened to shoot him if he came to bother them again" ("Mrs. M'Nutt Sure Husband Has Been Slain"). Mrs. McNutt also noted one particularly suspicious development. Those business partners had disappeared as well, right after McNutt disappeared, and they had shipped all of their household goods out of Spokane, "leaving no clues as to their destination" ("Mrs. M'Nutt Sure").
Those Wolverine partners were Marie McDonald, her sister Fay, and two of their brothers, Will and Ted McDonald. Marie had long forsaken the stage and had teamed up with McNutt to purchase boarding houses, fix them up, and sell them. She was also apparently more than just a business partner – she had been having an affair with McNutt for several years. This tangled the situation even further in the minds of the police and the Burns detectives hired by Pearl McNutt. Perhaps McNutt had embezzled money from his own firm and run off with Marie and the McDonald clan? The sheriff said he now believed that "McNutt may be alive and in hiding" ("Mrs. M'Nutt Sure"). But the reality was that the sheriff was no longer searching for one missing person. He was searching for five missing persons, including the four McDonald siblings.
He was also searching for a missing vehicle. On the day of the confrontation, McNutt had driven his new and expensive Stephens auto to the Wolverine. He had parked it on the street. At some point that night, it vanished as well. The investigators thought this indicated that McNutt had driven off, maybe to start a new life somewhere. But Mrs. McNutt believed his murderers had driven the car away themselves, with McNutt's corpse in the trunk.
In late July, investigators announced a breakthrough. They found McNutt's auto parked in Los Angeles – in the possession of Marie, Fay, and Ted McDonald. Marie and Ted were arrested and jailed by Los Angeles County deputies on a warrant for auto theft, sworn by Pearl McNutt. Marie was identified as Jewel Marie McDonald, a name that was at times rendered as Marie Jewel McDonald or Marie Jewell McDonald. They were arrested for grand larceny – but they were also held for questioning about McNutt's disappearance. They responded by threatening to file slander suits against Los Angeles authorities for falsely implying that they "know something about the disappearance of Mr. McNutt" ("To Solve Auto Mystery").
Their attorney said that "we will prove that all of these references to the so-called peculiar disappearance of Mr. McNutt are merely a figment of the imagination of the detectives" ("Stain on Rug Crime Clew?"). As for the auto-theft charges, the McDonalds' attorney said that McNutt had sold the auto to another brother, Will McDonald, who was in possession of a valid bill of sale. Will, conveniently, was nowhere to be found – authorities thought he was perhaps in Oregon. On September 12, 1919, the Los Angeles prosecutor reluctantly dropped the auto-theft charges because "of the inaccessibility of witnesses" – probably referring to both W. H. McNutt and the still-missing Will McDonald ("Theft Charge Fails"). This strategy – the missing-brother strategy – would presage the line of defense in the McNutt murder trial.
A Grim Discovery
Pearl McNutt refused to give up. She even went so far as to consult Selma Armour, a Spokane medium. Armour told Pearl that McNutt had been murdered and buried on a ranch. This strengthened Pearl's resolve to persevere – and would later prove spookily accurate. Yet it did nothing to advance the actual investigation, which was stalled.
The true breakthrough arrived not through a psychic, but through a mysterious tipster. A man phoned a Burns detective in Los Angeles and claimed to know exactly how McNutt met his death. He proceeded to describe a fatal attack with a hammer in the Wolverine. Then the caller hung up without giving his name. Detectives were intrigued but frustrated. Then the mystery man called again, and again. He called every few days for two weeks with even more information. He never gave his name, yet he called himself an intimate friend of the McDonald sisters. He said he was privy to their secrets.
The identity of the caller was never uncovered, but Los Angeles police believed it was an especially intimate friend: William Wilkinson. He was still married to Fay, but apparently not happily. He had come down to Los Angeles to be with her, but neighbors said he was there no longer than three weeks before they separated again. Neighbors reported that he "quarreled with his young wife on numerous occasions" ("Seek for Husband of Faye Wilkinson"). Los Angeles police were convinced Wilkinson had both the knowledge and the motive for informing on the siblings. Detectives soon tracked Wilkinson down, but he adamantly denied being the mystery caller. Whoever the tipster was, he finally gave detectives the lead that broke the case open on October 2, 1919. He told them where the body was buried.
Burns detectives telegraphed the news to Spokane and events moved swiftly. Before the day was out, Pearl McNutt and a deputy raced up to McNutt's ranch at Scotia, near Newport, Washington. They assembled searchers, who were told to look for a burned patch of ground about 400 yards from the house. The mystery tipster said that Will McDonald had killed McNutt at the Wolverine, drove his body to the ranch, buried him four feet down, and then set fire to a large pile of wood and brush to cover up the spot. Searchers found the burned area and started probing with a long iron pole. Soon they hit a soft spot, where it appeared tree roots had been cut. They began digging and dug up a bit of blanket. The blanket, they soon found, was wrapped around a decomposing corpse. The searchers beckoned Pearl McNutt over. "When the body was lifted from the grave, she was very brave and took a good look at it to identify it," said the deputy. "At one time, she nearly fainted, but I believe she stood the strain in a remarkable manner. The whole sight was a gruesome one, even for a disinterested party" ("Find Body of M'Nutt").
His hands and feet had been tied and a gag protruded from his mouth. His body was partially decomposed, but Pearl McNutt recognized his face, his clothes, a gold watch, and a gold tooth. She knew that her long search for her husband was over.
Arrested for Murder
The news was flashed to authorities in Los Angeles, where Marie and Fay McDonald were immediately arrested for murder. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that "there was a question of doubt in the minds of local officials regarding the guilt of all the McDonalds" but they believed "that all four of them were working together in the affair" ("Find Body of M'Nutt"). The Chronicle then noted, presciently, that "one of the four will doubtless try to shoulder the blame for the entire episode, exonerating the others" ("Find Body of M'Nutt").
The next day, Marie and Fay issued a defiant statement from the Los Angeles city jail. "We will fight extradition. On the other hand, we have nothing to fear. If we are taken to Spokane we will not be afraid of any charges brought against us. … This whole action is a surprise to us, as all our dealings with Mr. McNutt were pleasant" ("Girls Say Arrest Here Unwarranted").
Ted was arrested the next day in Fresno, where he had gone for a job. He admitted that he was living at Marie's apartment at the Wolverine when the murder was committed, but denied having taken part in the murder. Authorities were still searching for Will McDonald, "said to be in a northern city." The McDonalds' lawyer asserted that "he will be brought here as soon as possible," a statement which proved either naïve or deliberately misleading ("Girls Say Arrest Here Unwarranted").
A few days later, Will was still being hunted "in every state on the Pacific coast," without success ("Conduct Search for M'Donald"). Yet authorities had at least succeeded in tracking down his wife, Augusta McDonald. Will had met and married her in Los Angeles that summer. The couple had then moved to Spokane briefly, but then Will McDonald learned that police were looking for him, so he sent her back to her parents in Los Angeles. That's where detectives found her and interviewed her. "Of course I know he is innocent," she told them. "My heart tells me that, for I love him devotedly. Though he has been my husband for little more than two months, he has been a wonderful husband" ("Says Husband Innocent"). She had no idea where he was – she said he disappeared several weeks ago. "If I knew where he was, I would go to him and fight for him with my life" ("Says Husband is Innocent").
Detectives claimed to have a hot lead, whether from her or another tipster. They believed that Will was "working in a lumber camp, a three-day trip from Spokane" ("Says Husband Is Innocent"). Detectives declared that his arrest was imminent. They were wrong. When they checked out the lumber camp tip, he was not there, nor had he ever been.
The other three McDonald siblings fought hard to avoid extradition back to Spokane, but ultimately lost. In late October, Marie, Fay, and Ted were escorted under guard by train to Spokane, where they were held in the Spokane County Jail on murder charges. They were being represented by Spokane lawyers Thomas and Robert Corkery, and also the siblings' uncle, attorney C. T. McDonald. Ted told reporters that it was a consolation "to have our uncle by our side" ("Idea of Death Penalty").
Sordid Family History
While they awaited trial, sensational new details emerged about their family history. Having a judge for a father may have sounded respectable – but not this judge. The judicial career of Superior Court Judge William McDonald had lasted only four years, and it was the most "strenuous and sensational" in Whitman County's history (Nessly). Some observers went even further, calling his tenure a "joke" ("Alleged Murderers"). Others called his courtroom a "kangaroo court" ("Judge McDonald An Apostle"). He was elected in 1896 as the Populist Party nominee on a platform of economy and reduced expenses. He was not a trained attorney – he was a preacher who had hung up a law shingle – and he had already gained a reputation among the Whitman County bar as a man with a limited knowledge of the law. When he ascended to the bench, he showed exactly how limited. He "made some bad blunders and nearly all cases decided by him were appealed" (Nessly). He fought constantly with lawyers and "fined and imposed prison sentences on a number of attorneys and others for contempt, but all cases were lost on appeal" (Nessly). At one point, 50 lawyers signed a stipulation in which they mutually agreed not to allow any of their cases to be set before Judge McDonald. At another point, he was charged with suborning perjury.
Most galling of all, Judge McDonald immediately forgot his promise to reduce expenses, and hired three relatives -- two brothers and a son -- to be bailiffs. That son was Will McDonald, who was 12 years old at the time. Judge McDonald bragged that Will was "the youngest bailiff in the United States," which was no doubt correct (Nessly). When Judge McDonald was defeated in a bid for a second term in 1900, he moved to Spokane, where he made news by claiming he could predict the Wall Street stock market through "telepathy" ("Spokane Man Able to Read Secrets").
He also showed up in the news in 1908 when his 8-year-old daughter's career as a "child evangelist" was thwarted by authorities ("Child Preacher Taken Into Custody"). That child evangelist was Fay McDonald. The ex-judge had contracted Fay to preach sermons at a Spokane Apostolic mission, in the belief that she was a "divinely inspired exhorter" ("Child Preacher Taken Into Custody"). After "lisping the Gospel," she was arrested as a juvenile delinquent ("Child Preacher Taken Into Custody"). The probation officer reported that she "had been mingling with improper associates" and "had contracted a loathsome disease" ("Must Give Up Daughter"). The court ordered Judge McDonald to take her home – he was now living in Hoquiam – but he promptly violated that order and allowed her to return to the custody of an unnamed sister, "who is one of the associates complained of" ("Must Give Up Daughter"). She was sent back to juvenile detention, but a few weeks later, she was permitted to return to the custody of her father.
Judge McDonald moved at some point to Shoshone County, Idaho, where he immediately got into various dustups with his neighbors. At one point, 60 Shoshone County residents signed a statement saying that the former judge "does not know right from wrong, nor the truth from a lie," and "should never be believed, even under oath" (Nessly). They filed that statement with the county auditor. Shortly afterward, Judge McDonald "drifted to the coast and took up with the Holy Rollers and became a preacher of that cult" (Nessly). He suffered a stroke in December 1912 and eventually turned up, sick and destitute, at the Seattle home of an old friend. He was taken to a hospital, where he died on January 11, 1913.
A Sensational Trial
Loose standards about truth, evidently, were part of the McDonald family upbringing. By the time the McDonald case went to trial on January 14, 1920, the two sisters had totally abandoned their fiction that "all of our dealings with Mr. McNutt were pleasant." They were telling a new, and much more violent story. Here's how Marie, dressed stylishly in black turban hat and fur coat, described it when she finally took the stand in Judge Bruce Blake's courtroom:
"I had refused to make a deal which McNutt wanted me to do. McNutt came to my apartment in the Wolverine and walked into my room. He called me vile names; said that I had played hell and blocked the deal. I started for the door when he hit me in the chest and knocked me down. He grabbed me by the hair and threw me on the floor. He kicked me several times. My sister tried to interfere. Just then, my brother Will burst through the door. [Marie broke down and cried for a time at this point in the testimony.] When my brother came into the room, McNutt left me alone and said to him, 'You want some, too, do you?' There were several blows and then McNutt pulled a gun. He fired two or three times. Will picked up a hammer then and hit McNutt on the head. I didn't know anything more until I woke up on a couch in another room. A little while later Will came in and said, 'Girl, McNutt is dead.' I told him to call the police, but he said he was going to take McNutt away. Ted was not there until late that evening. We told him all about it when he came in. I was afraid that Will would kill himself, so I sent Ted to the Scotia ranch to get Will" ("Missing Brother Named as Slayer").
Fay told substantially the same story on the stand, and neither sister strayed from it under intense cross-examination. Ted, in his testimony, said that when he arrived at the Wolverine and heard about the bloody deed, his sisters told him that Will had ignored their pleas to notify the police. Instead, Will had taken the body away in a truck. "My sisters wanted me to hurry to the place at Scotia and try to get Will to bring the body back and notify the police," testified Ted. "The car [McNutt's] was the only way I had to get out there, so I left about 1:30 in the morning, after I had trouble starting the car. I drove to the farm and just as I reached there, I saw Will in the truck turning around to come back. I told him he had better bring the body back and tell the police, as the girls wanted him to do. He said it was too late; that he had already buried the body" ("Can't Find Holes").
Had the McDonald siblings finally told the truth? Joseph Lindsley, the same prosecutor from the arson case, certainly didn't think so. He poked a hole in the siblings' stories by showing that no bullet holes were found in the Wolverine apartment. He scoffed at the notion that the sisters were innocent bystanders and even accused Marie of taking part in McNutt's burial. He also emphasized the siblings' extensive attempts to cover up the crime. The prosecutor "made capital of the fact that the body was stripped of diamonds and cash" ("Jury Again to Visit").
The day after the murder, Fay had answered an inquiry about McNutt's whereabouts by saying he had "gone fishing with Marie" ("McDonald Trial Jury"). The prosecutor noted that all four McDonalds lit out for Oregon – some in the dead man's car -- and eventually to California. Nobody could know for certain who fractured McNutt's skull – although Lindsley had a witness who told the court that Fay herself had once threatened to hit McNutt in the head with a hammer. Yet all four, he was convinced, had aided and abetted in the crime and the sordid aftermath.
The prosecution also told a story that would later have serious implications for the McDonald sisters. As McNutt lay dead on the floor, someone rifled his pockets and found a check for $93.36. The morning after his death, said the prosecutor, Marie showed up at the Whitehouse department store with that check and attempted to use it pay for a selection of hosiery. The salesperson said she needed to get the check approved, and went off to the office. Marie "became visibly nervous, so much as to attract attention" and confronted the head salesperson, demanding to know that the holdup was ("McDonald Trial Jury"). Then Marie declared she could wait no longer, marched out of the store, leaving the check behind. Later examination showed that the endorsements on the check -- from a "Dolores Steely" and a "Mrs. Wunderlich" -- were forged by Fay and Marie, respectively.
The trial attracted large crowds and press from around the West, lured partly by the promise of lurid disclosures. The trial certainly delivered. Marie admitted that she had been having an affair for several years with McNutt. She claimed that, at first, he represented himself as a single man and she did not learn he was married until later. She said McNutt bullied and mistreated her at times, but she did not leave him because she "cared so much for him" ("Missing Brother Named As Slayer").
In closing arguments, defense lawyer Thomas Corkery made the case that the murder was committed in self-defense. He tried to turn McNutt into the true villain. "The wonder is not that McNutt was killed that night, June 23, 1919, but that with his carousing and drinking around late at night, it was a wonder that he had not met death before that," he told the jury ("Jury Again to Visit"). He added piously that he had "no desire to besmirch the memory of a dead man" ("Jury Again to Visit"). C. T. McDonald, the sibling's uncle, went even further. He accused McNutt of choking Marie and threatening to "knock her brains out with a bottle" and, during another incident, threatening her with a gun ("M'Donald Murder Jury Out"). He made much of Marie's current ill health. "Are you going to send this tubercular girl to the chair?" the uncle asked the jury. "Are you going to send these children to the penitentiary?" ("M'Donald Murder Jury Out").
Prosecutor Lindsley's closing argument was straightforward. He called the siblings' story "a fabrication from start to finish" ("M'Donald Jury Out"). He urged jurors to ignore their lies and to concentrate instead on their behavior – not just in the aftermath of the crime, but also in their behavior when they first arrived in the courtroom, where he said they "laughed, smirked and smiled" ("M'Donald Jury Out").
Yet they certainly weren't smiling by the end. Both sisters began weeping as their uncle pled for their lives. When the jury filed out, "Fay again broke into tears and left the courtroom sobbing" (M'Donald Jury Out"). Spectators in the jammed gallery rose to their feet "and remained standing as the bloody exhibits were taken to the jury" room ("M'Donald Jury Out").
When the jury came back the next morning, there was not one, but two surprises.
Next: In Part 2, the jury returns a verdict and the McDonald siblings scatter into the wind.