Saturday, December 12, 2015

On This Date in Minnesota History: December 12

December 12, 1914 – The media called her the “sphinx woman,” the “woman who can’t weep” and the “sword widow.” Her face also called an “iron mask,” Charlotte Sharpless remained emotionless throughout her trial for the murder of her husband Leaming Sharpless the evening of Nov. 14, 1914. Even after being found guilty of first degree murder yesterday, and sentenced to life in prison today, her composure was unshaken.

When asked by the judge if she had anything to say why the sentence should not be passed upon her, Mrs. Sharpless insisted again that she was innocent.

The speed with which the jury made their decision was a record. Not for more than 20 years, according to the District Court records, has a jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first or second degree in three hours, one of them spent in lunch, the new record established by the Sharpless jurors.

The Sharpness Trial1

More than 50 percent of the spectators at her trial were women. Thousands of people stood in line to be admitted to the courtroom, only a small percentage of those getting a seat to watch the biggest spectacle of the day. Those that did not get in, waited in the hall for someone to leave their seat; but that rarely happened—most people brought bag lunches so they could retain their seats throughout the day.

The Defense’s version of what happened that Saturday evening apparently didn’t sway the jury. Mrs. Sharpless said her husband was asleep on the couch while she was in the bedroom reading a motion picture magazine; her head was at the end of the bed where the light was better so she could not see into the living room. She said she left their rooms for a few minutes to empty the garbage and to retrieve a coat she had hung in the attic to air out the mothball smell. Walking back into the apartment through a doorway that did not put her in the room where her husband lay on the couch, she said she didn’t know anything was wrong until she heard her husband moan and roll off the couch, falling to the floor.

Mrs. Sharpless believed her husband’s murder was related to a family secret. Leaming Sharpless had a daughter out of wedlock before he and his wife had met. The child never shared the Sharpless name. As she grew up, the girl acquired a suitor; a man Mrs. Sharpless told the jury, she believed was her husband’s killer, in retaliation for the way Sharpless had ignored his daughter.

The State’s witnesses, including Leaming Sharpless’ brother Louis and several neighbors, testified that the Sharpless’ marriage was not as perfect as Mrs. Sharpless claimed. Neighbors said they heard yelling often, and Louis Sharpless said Mrs. Sharpless had been having an affair while her husband was on his railroad runs; a claim Mrs. Sharpless vehemently denied. 

Detective Crummy, another State’s witness, testified that on the day following the murder, he took Mrs. Sharpless to the Morgue and showed her the body of her husband. He said she screamed: “Oh, my husband!” and attempted to kiss his dead lips, refusing to believe her husband was really dead. She became hysterical, he said, when he led her away and said over and over again, “I wish I could cry like other women.” But her wish was not granted, he said, and dry-eyed she rode back to her cell in the City Jail.

Her lack of emotion over the murder of her husband played a significant role in her guilty verdict, as did the evidence found in the apartment: the murder weapon standing in the corner of the living room, bloody clothes found in the back of Mrs. Sharpless’ closet and on the street below the Sharpless’ apartment window.

In the right hand picture panel is shown the lodge ceremonial sword with which Leaming Sharpless was slain in his rooms at the Lowenhaupt Apartments Saturday night. Finger prints of the person who yielded it, impressed in blood, can be seen near the hilt. As a background there is some of the clothing worn by Mrs. Sharpless, the police say, when she was arrested. No. 1 shows a part of the living room where Sharpless was found, and the couch upon which he was asleep when stabbed to death. The sword stood in the corner behind the couch when the police arrived. No. 3 is Mrs. Charlotte Sharpless and No. 2 is that of her slain husband.2

Who else had the time or the inclination to murder Leaming Sharpless? Plus, as widow of the dead man, she would inherit his $5,000 insurance policies.

My question is, did Charlotte have the strength and/or height to murder her husband by stabbing him three times with a sword? I would suspect any good lawyer worth their salt today would require a reenactment test. (If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.)

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Man Slain with a Lodge Sword; Wife Arrested. Leaming Shartless Stabbed to Death in Lowenhaupt Apartments. Mrs. Charlotte Shartless (sic) Is Questioned by the Police. She Says She Was in Next Room—Knew Nothing of Killing. Blood-Stained Clothing Is Found in Street and Hidden in Closet. Telltale Finger Prints on Ceremonial Fraternal Weapon.”; Nov. 15, 1914; p. 1.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Finger Prints on Sword May Solve Killing. Mystery in the Slaying of Leaming Sharpless is Still Uncleared. ExpertsWill Scrutinize Telltale Marks on the Stained Weapon. Two Impressions Remain Despite Hasty Attempt at Cleansing. Motive Occupies Attention of Police—Coroner’s Verdict ‘Murder.’ Mrs. Sharpless Maintains Innocence—Displays Little Interest.”; Nov. 16, 1914; pp. 1 & 3.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Witnesses Tell How They Found Sharpless’ Body. His Wife, They Said, Declared She Discovered Him With Sword Through Heart. Mrs. Sharpless Not Allowed to Attend Funeral Held in the Afternoon.”; Nov. 18, 1914; p. 1.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Sharpless Had Insurance. Two Policies for $5,000 Make Wife Beneficiary.”; Nov. 23, 1914; p. 7.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Sharpless Trial, Dec. 2. Trial of Woman Charges With Husband’s Murder Set for That Date.”; Nov. 24, 1914; p. 12.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Crowd of 1000 Watches Sphinx Woman’s Trial. Half of Curious throng That Jams Court Room Are Women. State to Offer Evidence of Stormy Life in Sharpless Family. Mrs. Sharpless Unmoved as State’s Attorney Outlines Case. She Declares, at End of Day, She’ll Be Found Innocent. Defendant’s Character Attacked by Brother of Slain Man.”; Dec. 5, 1914; pp. 1, 7 & 9.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Sword Widow to Bare Secrets of Family Life. Mrs. Charlotte Sharpless to Tell of Her Husband’s Nameless Child. Skeleton in Closet Haunted Husband’s Life for Years, She Says. She will Give Hint of Outcast Girl’s Life and a Vengefull Lover. The Story of the Sphinx Woman Will Be Theory of the Defense. State Will Call Long Line of Police Witness in Court Tomorrow.”; Dec. 6, 1914; pp. 1B & 2B.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Janitor Relates Story of Ritual Sword Murder. Fred Crisman Gives Glimpse of Sharpless Family Life. He Chatted With Engineer Few Moments Before Murder. Mrs. Sharpless Called ‘the Woman Who Can’t Weep.’ Dry-Eyed, Detective Says, as She Views Body of Husband. State May Complete Its Case Late This Afternoon.”; Dec. 8, 1914; pp. 1 & 2.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Mrs. Sharpless Unmoved When Found Guilty. First Degree Murder Verdict Is Found in Three Hours. Life Imprisonment Sentence Will Be Imposed by Court This Morning. ‘I am Innocent’ Is the Only Break From Stoical Calmness. Jury Agrees on the Third Ballot—One Voted for Acquittal. Verdict in Three Hours Is the Shortest in 20 Years.“; Dec. 12, 1914; p. 1.

The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune; “Life Sentence Pronounced on Mrs. Sharpless. Woman’s Composure Unshaken as She Listens to Judge Leary. ‘Nothing to Say Except That I Am Innocent,’ She Tells Court. Judge Says Law Gives Him No Option in the Sentence. No Motion for Retrial Made by Attorneys for the Defense. Stay of Sentence Till Monday to Settle Her Affairs Is Granted.”; Dec. 13, 1914; p. 1B.

1The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; Dec. 5, 1914; p. 1.

2The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; Nov. 16, 1914; p. 1.

Leaming Sharpless murdered by saber; wife in next room hears nothing; see Nov. 14, 2015 blog.

Blood-stained imprint of fingers on the sword that killed Leaming Sharpless may be the principal means of determining the murderer; see 
Nov. 15, 2015 blog.

Mrs. Sharpless indicted by the Hennepin County Grand Jury for murder in the first degree in the killing of her husband; see Nov. 17, 2015 blog.

Sharpless had two insurance policies for $5,000; made wife beneficiary; see Nov. 23, 2015 blog.

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