Murder of Forada, Minnesota, woman leads to final execution by hanging in California

ALEXANDRIA, Minnesota — Robert James, born Raymond Lisenba of Alabama on March 6, 1894, would be nicknamed “Rattlesnake James” during his trial for the murder of his fifth wife, Mary Busch of Forada, Minnesota, for his first cruel attempt on her death. But not his first alleged murder.

Beginnings as barbers

Raymond Lisenba was born in Hale County, Alabama in 1894 to a low-income family and worked as a sharecropper until his brother-in-law paid him to attend barbershop in Birmingham.

According to a 2017 article in Los Angeles Magazine, he was described as a pale, portly man with “protruding, red-rimmed and green eyes, a high-pitched nasal voice” and greased red hair at the back of the neck. head. “His neighbors said he was ‘less than half a wit'” because he never strived in the world of academia. But where he lacked intelligence, he charmingly made up because he was popular with women.

Maud Duncan

While in Birmingham, James met Maud Duncan and struck up a relationship with her. On October 8, 1914, the two became husband and wife until his dark tendencies led to their divorce.

James’ desire for sadistic “activities” on Duncan’s part surprised her and turned their relationship upside down, and soon after they were married, Duncan filed for divorce.

After his divorce, Lisenba began calling himself Robert James, moved to Kansas and opened a hair salon, where he met his second wife.

Vera May

According to the 1925 Kansas State Census records, while in Kansas, James married Vera May and lived a quiet life for a short time, as no records show any questionable acts.

That is until one day a furious man confronts James with the business end of a shotgun for allegedly impregnating the man’s daughter behind May’s back.

Meanwhile, James received $4,000 from his uncle’s death as he was the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

James dumped May and drove to Fargo, North Dakota, where he opened another barber shop and married his third wife, who wouldn’t have been as lucky as the first two.

Robert James Photo added

Robert James Photo added

Winona Wallace

James met Winona Wallace after opening her hair salon Fargo in 1932. The two married and he immediately took out a $14,000 life insurance policy on her – possibly inspired by her newly weighted bank account , thanks to the death of this uncle.

Three months after Wallace and James got married, the two traveled to Colorado Springs for their honeymoon, where things got worse.

With Wallace at the wheel, the newlyweds visited Pike’s Peak, the highest peak in the southern Frontal Range of the Rocky Mountains, just outside Colorado Springs.

According to a statement made by James presented in a legal document, Lisenba vs. People of State of California, during their descent, Wallace lost control of the vehicle and drove off the side of the peak. James jumped out of the car in time, but his wife rushed in, trapped inside their vehicle.

James went for help, and by the time they reached Wallace, they found her unconscious but alive outside the vehicle. His head was seriously injured and a bloody hammer was placed in the back of the automobile.

Wallace spent two weeks in a Colorado hospital until she was able to complete her recovery at their vacation rental in Colorado Springs. She had no memory of the accident.

While recovering, James went to a grocery store to stock up and asked the grocer to bring his wife back. They found Wallace lying on her back in a bathtub full of water, dead.

According to a medical examiner, James said she was embarrassed by her head injury and wanted to wash her hair, against her doctor’s advice, and had to slip into the bathtub in her attempt after his departure.

His death was ruled an accidental drowning and James recovered the insurance money.

It wasn’t until the murder trial of his fifth wife that a request to exhume Wallace’s body would reveal that she had suffered two skull fractures to the head. Blows caused by a hard, moving object, such as a hammer, rather than the head hitting a hard object that a medical examiner would expect from a car accident.

An incestuous affair

With a small fortune, James returned to Alabama, where he had sex with his 18-year-old niece, whose father is the one who put James through barber school.

James convinced his niece to run away with him to California. He opened another hair salon where she could work as a manicurist.

Along the way, in an attempt to increase his fortune, he married a fourth wife, Ruth Thomas, in New Orleans in 1934. Their marriage was the shortest of all of James’s as he called it off right after that she refused to take a life. insurance policy. She reportedly said, “People who buy a life insurance policy end up dying.”

However, James was able to increase his finances, thanks to his accident-prone nephew, Cornelius Wright, who, while on leave from the army, was convinced by his uncle to take out a life insurance policy with James as beneficiary.

James lent his vehicle to Wright, and Wright ended up falling off a cliff and killing himself. The mechanic who later examined the vehicle said it looked like someone had tampered with the steering wheel.

James got his money back and continued with his niece in California.

Mary Busch

Mary Busch was a tall, beautiful blonde, according to the newspapers of the time. Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society in Alexandria, said a 1920 Douglas County census shows Busch spent his teenage years growing up in Hudson Township, present-day Forada, south of Alexandria.

Eventually, she moved to California and answered an ad for a manicure at a large barber shop run by James in March 1935.

James convinced Busch to marry her a month after taking the job. James took out a $10,000 policy on her, and three months later she was pregnant and James was looking to cash out.

Documents show Charles Hope, an ex-sailor and financially troubled client of James, was convinced by James to conspire in the murder of Busch by promising him half his insurance money, but they had to be creative not to be suspicious. It must have appeared as a death that could not be linked to them.

Their first attempt was to poison Busch with black widow spiders, which ultimately failed. So Hope had an idea; he knew a guy named “Snake Joe” who would sell them rattlesnakes.

An article about Robert James who was denied a new trial.  Photo added

An article about Robert James who was denied a new trial. Photo added

Lightning and deadly

Hope sought out Snake Joe and bought him two Diamondback Rattlesnakes. He told Joe he had a rabbit problem and thought rattlesnakes might be the best way to solve it. Joe was skeptical but didn’t read too much into it and sold two snakes – Lethal and Lightning – to Hope.

At the edge of the pond

According to court documents in the case, Lisenba vs. California State People, on August 4, 1935, James blindfolded and tied Busch to a table and said a doctor would arrive to perform an abortion, which James convinced her to do. Instead of a doctor, Hope came with a box containing the two snakes.

Hope and James poured whiskey down Busch’s throat, grabbed his leg and pushed it through an opening in the box. Busch took three hits from the rattlers, satisfying his killers enough to end the torture and wait for the venom to set in.

Hope was waiting inside a car in the garage, and James was giving her occasional updates.

After the venom didn’t do its job, an impatient James dragged his wife into their bathroom and drowned her in the tub, according to court documents.

James went to Hope and said, “Well, that’s it,” according to later testimony from Hope.

Hope said he walked in and saw Busch lying on the floor outside the bathroom, dead. He helped James by grabbing his head as James grabbed his feet, and together they laid Busch’s body next to a fish pond in the garden.

The next day, at his barbershop, James invited his and Busch’s friends over for dinner. They expected Busch to be home, perhaps cooking supper, and were alarmed when she was not. Playing the worried husband, he told the friends that he hadn’t seen Busch and that they should search the neighborhood for him.

After searching the neighborhood, James suggested checking near the pond. They found Busch dead, with a black and blue punctured leg. Authorities came and ruled the death an accidental drowning. James was in the clear, but not for long.

A bugged house

James attempted to seek double compensation for his wife’s death, but insurers refused to pay, resulting in lawsuits. The buzz around this money-raising attempt has sparked a new investigation into Busch’s murder and an examination of Wallace’s old injuries, where they discovered she had been hit with a hammer before her sidehill accident. Cliff.

Authorities bugged his home with audio recorders. They overheard James engaging in acts with numerous women, including his niece, which was enough to arrest him for incest, a felony in California at the time.

Meanwhile, Hope, drunk in a bar, bragged about how he and James got away with murder. The bartender informed the police and soon Hope was also arrested.

The death of Rattlesnake James

During his trial, which began on June 22, 1936, the media sensationalized James, calling him “Rattlesnake James” and “Barbershop Casanova”. They overlooked the cruelty he put women through and focused more on the novelty of snakes and his appearance.

They even had him pose for pictures in his prison cell. One photo shows him trying to cut the bars of his cell with a saw, while another shows him sitting with a cigar in his hand and a smile on his face, with the prison bars back- plan.

On May 2, 1942, Robert James became the last man to be hanged in the state of California at San Quentin Prison. He suffered because the rope was too long, causing him to struggle for 10 minutes, according to newspaper accounts.

His eyes barely moved when his last appeal was rejected; all he said was, “I can take it. Let’s just say rattlesnake Bob James isn’t afraid to die.”

Sources used for this story

The research papers were compiled by Douglas County Historical Society director Brittany Johnson.

Sources used:

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