Bridge Murder case

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The Bridge Murder case, also known as the Bridge Table Murder case was the trial of Myrtle Adkins Bennett, born on March 20, 1895, in Tillar, Arkansas, a Kansas City housewife, for the murder of her husband John G. Bennett over a game of contract bridge in September 1929.[1]

Murder[edit]

Myrtle and John spent much of Sunday, September 29, 1929, with their upstairs neighbors, Charles and Myrna Hofman.[1] The husbands played a round of golf at the Indian Hills Country Club that morning, and then went back to the links that afternoon with their wives joining them. At dusk, they returned to the Bennett apartment at 902 Ward Parkway in the Country Club District of Kansas City. After sharing dinner, they sat down to a game of bridge in the Bennett living room, the couples playing as partners, the Hofmans versus the Bennetts. After midnight, as the Hofmans began to pull ahead, the Bennetts began to bicker. In the ultimate hand, John failed to make his four spades contract and Myrtle, frustrated by the failure, called him “a bum bridge player.” He stood and slapped her in the face several times, and announced he was leaving. He said he would spend the night in a motel in Saint Joseph, Missouri. As he packed his bag, and moved from room to room, he mocked his wife. Myrtle told the Hofmans, “Only a cur would strike a woman in front of guests.”

After an ongoing argument, John Bennett went to pack a suitcase as he told Myrtle to retrieve the handgun he typically carried on the road for protection. Myrtle walked down the hall to the bedroom of her mother, Alice Adkins. Still sobbing, Myrtle reached into a drawer with linens and pulled out his .32 Colt automatic, and walked into the den. There, she brushed past Charles Hofman and in a moment, the sound of gunfire filled the apartment. She shot at John's back twice in the bathroom of the apartment. John escaped into the hallway, but fell to the ground in their living room.

Trial[edit]

Myrtle Bennett’s murder trial, in the court of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw, began on February 23, 1931 and lasted eleven days. She was defended by attorney James A. Reed, former three-term U.S. Senator and onetime Democratic presidential candidate. Raised by Boss Tom Pendergast’s political machine in Kansas City (same as the judge and prosecutor in the Bennett trial), Reed was a riveting public speaker and trial attorney who put on a dramatic courtroom performance for the widow Bennett. Among other things, Reed showed jurors that John Bennett had struck his wife before.

High society women in Kansas City, many of them bridge players, turned out in their furs and boas to hear Myrtle Bennett’s story and to watch what was believed to be Reed’s final criminal trial. Throughout the trial, Jackson County prosecutor James A. Page objected to Reed’s tactics, once during the defense lawyer’s tearful opening statement. Seeing Reed and Myrtle Bennett weep, Page cynically asked Latshaw to pause the trial long enough to give “counsel for the defense and his client a chance to finish their cry.” Reed lashed back, “I wish I could be as cold-blooded about it as some in this courtroom.”

Reed constructed an elaborate defense. He set up separate defenses for Myrtle Bennett: accidental, emotional insanity, self-defense and also qualified self-defense, which meant too much force was used by the defendant to repel an assault. Reed told jurors that John Bennett sought to take the gun from his wife and they scuffled for possession of it, and that he was shot twice, once in the back and once beneath his left armpit, during the scuffle. Reed and his fellow defense attorney, J. Francis O'Sullivan, even pantomimed the shooting three times before the jury box, with Reed portraying Myrtle and O’Sullivan playing John.

During the trial, the prosecutor, James R. Page, had sharp exchanges with the judge, Ralph S. Latshaw; became angry at Charles Hofman when his testimony differed from that given to police the night of the killing and two weeks later in a preliminary hearing; and was also angry at Myrna Hofman for her memory lapses. Defense attorney Reed broke into tears at one point. Page and Reed sparred often, prompting the judge to send the jury from the courtroom over and over.

The judge ruled against the introduction of the prosecution's star witness, one of John Bennett's relatives, because the prosecution had called him as a rebuttal witness, instead of a witness offering direct testimony. Page had wanted to surprise Reed by introducing Byrd Rice, John Bennett's nephew, during rebuttal, but Judge Latshaw excoriated the prosecutor for failing to place Rice on his original list of witnesses, which denied the defense its right to hear Rice’s testimony before the trial. Latshaw was adamant that Rice could not testify at trial. Later, Rice told reporters what he had intended to testify that his aunt Myrtle Bennett had walked him through her apartment six weeks after the killing and narrated how she had chased John through the rooms of the apartment with a pistol in her hand. She told Rice that she had fired at him twice from the den and twice more in the living room, the last bullet striking him in the back as he reached for the front door. But the jury never heard this account.

On March 6, after eight hours of deliberations, the jury's verdict was that Myrtle Bennett was not guilty of murder.[1] Reed wondered only why jurors took so long. Page's assistant, John Hill, said, “It looks like an open season on husbands.” [2]

Press[edit]

The case caught the public imagination, and was subject to press attention by the New York Journal, not for the trial itself, but for the bridge game. The case was a media sensation and a flashpoint in the bridge craze sweeping the nation. The Journal invited speculation from bridge experts, including Sidney Lenz, on the game, what hands had been played, and whether different play, or alternative hands, would have prevented the murder.[3] This speculation was no more than speculation, however. None of the people present in the apartment at the time later recalled exactly what the hands were.[3] When the case came to trial, Myrtle Bennett was defended by former U.S. Senator James A. Reed.[1]

Ely Culbertson, the Barnum of the bridge movement, watched the trial closely from New York. Culbertson used the Bennett tragedy to his advantage. He sold bridge and himself, telling housewives that the game was a great way to defuse the marital tensions pent-up in daily life. He told housewives that, at the bridge table, they could be their husbands’ equal, and more.

Culbertson wrote about the killing and trial in his new magazine, The Bridge World.[4] In packed halls on the lecture circuit, he analyzed the so-called “Fatal Hand” – even as he knew the details were fabricated. In lectures, Culbertson suggested that if only the Bennetts had been playing the Culbertson System of bidding, then 36-year-old John Bennett might still be alive.[5]

Life after the trial[edit]

Only 35 years old at the time of her acquittal, Myrtle Bennett lived for another 61 years, dying at the age of 96 in Miami, Fla. in January 1992. She had moved into obscurity soon after the trial, her name fading from headlines. She never remarried, nor did she have children. After World War II and throughout the 1950s, Myrtle Bennett worked as executive head of housekeeping at the elegant Hotel Carlyle in New York City, living alone there in an apartment.[6] At the Carlyle, she developed friendships with the rich and famous, including actors Mary Pickford and her husband Buddy Rogers, and also Henry Ford II

The widow Bennett later traveled the world, working for a hotel chain, and played bridge until nearly the end of her life. In an interview with author Pomerantz,[6] Myrtle Bennett’s cousin, Carolyn Scruggs of Arkansas, said Mrs. Bennett never spoke with her about the shooting. Once, though, Ms. Scruggs told Mrs. Bennett, “I sometimes think of your life –“ But Myrtle Bennett interrupted, and said, “Well, my dear, it was a great tragedy and a great mistake.” Scruggs stammered to say, “I guess I want you to know that I understand it.” But Myrtle Bennett said, “No, my dear, you don’t understand it.”[citation needed]

At the time of her 1992 death, Myrtle Bennett’s estate was valued at more than $1 million. With no direct descendants, she left the lion’s share of her money to family members of John Bennett, the husband she had killed more than six decades before.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d William M. Reddig (1986). Tom's town: Kansas City and the Pendergast legend. University of Missouri Press. pp. 192–193. ISBN 0-8262-0498-8. ISBN 9780826204981. 
  2. ^ The Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Times, and The Kansas City Journal-Post. February 22, 1931 to March 7, 1931
  3. ^ a b Dan Bessie (2000). "Battle of the century". Rare birds: an American family. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 79–80. ISBN 0-8131-2179-5. ISBN 9780813121796. 
  4. ^ The Bridge World magazine, December 1929
  5. ^ The San Francisco Call-Bulletin, April 24, 1931
  6. ^ a b Pomerantz, Gary (2009). The Devil's Tickets. Crown. ISBN 1-4000-5162-2. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Andrew Ward (2002). "A Bridge Table Murder". Bridge's strangest hands. Robson. pp. 17–21. ISBN 1-86105-565-X. ISBN 9781861055651. 
  • Barbara Mikkelson (2008-12-26). "The Bennett Murder". Urban Legends Reference Pages. 
  • "The Bennett Murder". Bridge Guys. 
  • Daniels, David. The Golden Age of Contract Bridge. New York: Stein and Day, 1980. ISBN 0-8128-2576-4. pp. 179–184.
  • Chicago Tribune. "Slaps Wife in Bridge Game; She Kills Him." 1 October 1929, p. 1.
  • The New York Times. "Wife Kills Husband in Bridge Game Spat." 29 September 1929, p. 5.
  • The New York Times. "Says Bennett Murder Followed Bridge Row." 27 February 1931, p. 3.
  • The New York Times. "Wife Is Acquitted in Bridge Slaying." 7 March 1931, p. 5.

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