Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leta Arvilia Turpin - The 17th Child

Lettie Turpin - 1926
When we think of the wild west days in America, 19th century saloons, cowboys, and gunfighters come to mind.  But as I read about Leta’s life, I want to redefine the wild west as a 20th century period with women playing an equal role with men.  Leta lead an incredibly interesting, and perhaps a somewhat wild, life!

Leta was born 11 Feb 1888 in Mariaville, Rock County, Nebraska.  We know she lost her father in 1893 when she was five years old and there were two younger siblings at home as she was growing up in rural Nebraska.  Her mother Mary Ellen remarried in 1902 when Leta was 14 years old.   In June 1909 when her mother and step-father James Estlack relocated to western Nebraska and Leta was 21 years old and already very much on her own in the world.  She did not move with her family to Dundy County – she was in living in the big city.

In 1905 she married Bert Douglas.  From the 1910 census, where we find Leta and Bert living in a boarding house at 1815 Cass Street in Omaha, Nebraska, we learn they had a child between 1905 and 1910.  That child died.  

A man named John Alfreds, a divorced man, was a lodger in the same building where they lived in April 1910.  In that same year, on September 15th, Leta married John O. Alfreds, age 24, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  In less than 6 months, Leta has replaced her husband!  John’s parents emigrated from Sweden in 1884 and he was born in Nebraska.  He lists himself as a lather, an installer of wood lath and plaster for ceilings and walls, in the 1910 and 1920 censuses and in the 1918 WWI Draft Registration.  

Lettie and John stayed together for perhaps seven years.  When Leta’s sister Susan dies in March 1917, Leta is listed in the obituary as Lettie Alfred, living in Omaha.  But a year later in 1918, several items in the Omaha World Herald indicate that things are falling apart for Lettie. 

Lettie is in court in February accused of throwing hot coffee on Agatha Zimmerman who Lettie discovered keeping company at a local dance one Thursday evening with her “divorced husband” John.  The incident was reported in the January 25th Omaha World Herald.  

Escort’s Former Wife Attacks Girl at Dance

Boler of Hot Coffee Poured Over Head of Agatha Zimmerman

“This is the chance that I have been waiting for for a long time,” screamed Leta Alfred, 23-year-old divorced wife of John Alfred, as she poured a bollerful of scaling hot coffee over the head and shoulders of Agatha Zimmerman at the Metropolitan dance hall last night as Miss Zimmerman told the story today.

“I heard these words and felt the scalding water and fainted,” said Miss Zimmerman, as she lay on her bed, her head swathed in bandages in a general ward at St. Joseph’s hospital.

“I met Mr. Alfred about three months ago.  He had been divorced three months earlier from Leta and he learned to love me.  We were engaged to be married some time next month.  She was jealous of me and she wrote that she would get me.  She wrote several letters and she always said she would get me.” 

Alfred has been living at the Zimmerman home for some time and he accompanied her to the dance hall last night.  There was great excitement when the attack occurred and in the confusion Mrs. Alfred escaped.  She has not yet been arrested.

Miss Zimmerman was taken to the hospital and given treatment.  She was severely but not dangerously burned, and her features are liable to be permanently scarred.  She was removed to the home of her mother, Mrs. D. C. [illegible] 514 South Twentieth street, this afternoon.

Leta surrendered to police on Friday night and by January 27th was free on bond.

Agatha’s mother later reported that her daughter and John were leaving Omaha for John’s home in Genoa, Nebraska and planned to be married the week after the dance when the six month period following John’s divorce from Lettie expired.  In the end Agatha failed to appear in court to testify against Lettie.  Mrs. Zimmerman feared for her daughter’s safety.  She states that her daughter had received threats and feared for her life. Mrs. Zimmerman feared abduction. But John Alfreds reported that Agatha did not want to testify. 

This all makes Lettie sound like a wicked person but as the old saying goes, it takes two.  Agatha herself had an interesting history.  A series of news articles appeared four years earlier in the Omaha World Herald about then 14-year-old Agatha Zimmerman.  She’d testified against a group of men who were accused of contributing to the delinquency as a minor.  Apparently Agatha might have been living in a downtown Omaha hotel.  Another version says she was abducted on her way home from the five-and-dime and was missing for three days.  Yet another version talks of her frequenting the Shady Grove establishment to partake of liquor. No mention was made in any of the news reports about Agatha’s parents or relatives fretting over her well-being – she appeared to be out in the world on her own at a very tender age. Several establishments were involved in the reports.  While it was never stated as such, various descriptions made this sound very much like a prostitution ring.  Supposedly minors reportedly came and went from mens’ rooms at hotels.  Chaffeurs escorted men and women around.  A handful of Omaha businessmen were involved in the whole affair.  At least one of the accused men made a date with Agatha to go to a road house where he plied her with alcohol.  Four of the men involved were convicted, several were acquitted. 

So we should keep in mind that there were probably two sides to the hot coffee story even though Lettie definitely was an offender in the case.  John and Agatha did get married and Lettie moved on.  On September 12, 1918, John Oscar Alfreds lists Agatha Allen Alfreds as his wife in his World War I draft registration.  The 1920 census shows Leta as a single woman renting a home at 2813 Dewey Avenue in Omaha with several other women.  She is working as a dancing teacher.  Three years later, she is listed in her brother Francis Charles Turpin's obituary as Mrs. Lettie Alfreds of Omaha.

By January 1926, Lettie was using her maiden name again and she has moved to Los Angeles.  She is listed as Lettie Arvelle Turpin according to her mother Mary Ellen's obituary.  Leta found a home in California and remained in Los Angeles the rest of her life.  The 1930 census lists herself as widowed and working as a dancing teacher.  On February 20, 1940 she is listed as Leta A. Turpin, a resident of Los Angeles and the inventor in U.S. Pat. No. 2,190,895 for Body Developing and Correcting Apparatus.

Lettie's Patent for a Body Developing and Correcting Apparatus
The obituaries for brothers William and James in 1941 and 1943 include her as Lettie Turpin of Los Angeles.  Her 1946 address was 1142 West Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA.

Letters from Leta’s companion, William H. Meverden (b. 29 April 1891 IL and d. 14 March 1966 Los Angeles CA), say that he had to commit her to a hospital as she evidently suffered from dementia in the last years of her life.  Her instructions to the mortuary regarding her funeral are in the possession of Dennis Bell.  Leta left no estate however several of her silver rings were passed on to Turpin descendant Leta Clark Bell upon Leta’s death.  Leta Turpin died 4 February 1963 in Los Angeles.

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