by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While there has been some change in recent decades, women in the United States are much less likely to be arrested, charged and convicted or crimes than men and this particularly the case in the matter of violent crime. For homicide and aggravated assaults, for example modern rates of arrest for women are below 15% of the total, while it is under 10% for burglary and robbery.
It was undoubtedly much lower than that in the late 1920s, when Jane Ross, a 28-year old resident of East Hollywood, was arrested in early September 1929 with her husband, Bert, and a friend, Jack Richardson and charged with the robbery of two Los Angeles banks. What made her stand out is that, rather than being the driver or an accomplice, it was Jane who conducted the crimes herself while her husband, Albert, or Bert, and Richardson waited in the get-away vehicle.
As stated in a photo and caption published throughout the United States, this gave Jane “the dubious distinction of being the first woman to hold up a Pacific coast bank unaided” after “she confessed she robbed a Los Angeles bank alone and secured $1,500, according to [the] police.” The image shows a haggard-looking figure hunched forward in a chair and looking far older than her age.
An early newspaper account, from 5 September in the Los Angeles Express, reported that Ross, believed to have robbed two banks in the space of four months, was arrested “when police searched her apartment and found two loaded revolvers in her possession.” Further details proved elusive and the “mystery surrounding the woman’s getaway in each case was believed solved with the arrest of James Kelley, 25-year-old self-asserted actor.”
The Express observed that Kelley “is accused of waiting near the scene of each robbery in a car with the motor running while the woman raided the bank and then picking her up before pursuit could get under way.” Both were said to have confessed under questioning and, while Kelley was taken to the central jail, Ross was held at the county jail, perhaps because of her gender. It turned out that Kelley was an alias, perhaps for his attempt at a movie career, for Jack Richardson.
The following day’s Los Angeles Times went into more detail and provided a photo of “the comely companion,” as Ross was called, that was taken at the same time as the press image from the Homestead’s holdings. The paper reported that she helped with the April hold-up of a Bank of America on Pico Boulevard in the Mid-City area, west of Western Avenue, on the 3rd, while Ross was the “lone female bandit” who robbed the Citizens’ National Bank on Figueroa Street just south of Exposition Park on 15 April.
The Times added that Ross’s husband, Bert, tried “to take the fall” for his wife after her arrest “by insisting her had forced her to commit both robberies.” This was after Bert was picked up at Columbia Studios in Hollywood “where he was working as an extra.” He went to say that it was at his “urgent persuasion” that she committed the first crime, “but that he had accompanied her on the occasion of the more recent hold-up.” This led to him being booked on a robbery charge.
As is so often the case, the arrests followed tips “given to the detectives from persons who had overheard the woman talking of the robberies” and Ross told a detective that the total take was just over $2,000, with 70% of that from the Citizens’ job and the remainder from the more recent robbery. There was also a report that police were seeking another man who was paid $250, more than 30% of the whole amount pilfered, to be the get-away driver.
Sadly, it was also reported that the Rosses, who were both from Minnesota (Bert was in the Marines from 1919-1921 was stationed in Vallejo in northern Caifornia) and who came to Los Angeles in 1926, perhaps to chase entertainment ambitions, were the parents of a four-year old daughter, Shirley, who was being cared for at their apartment by Jane’s aunt.
About two weeks later, a municipal court judge held a hearing on the matter and employees of the two banks which were held-up testified to the identity of the Rosses. A teller from Citizens’ National Bank positively identified Jane as the robber who, in the April heist, pointed a gun at him, demanded cash and walked out with two grand, while a teller at the Bank of America said that Richardson accompanied Jane, but that she directed the weapon at him and nabbed $689. Bert Ross waited outside for his compatriots and this was determined because a bank patron observed the license plate number of the vehicle. With this evidence, the judge held the trio at $10,000 bail each and ordered a trial.
The trial was held above five weeks later and, on 29 October 1929, which just happened to be Black Tuesday on Wall Street in New York as the crash of the stock market ushered in the Great Depression, the two men changed their pleas from not guilty to guilty, while Jane “was allowed to file [an] application for probation in view of the fact that she is the mother of a small child.” Notably, “she told the court she participated in the bank holdup[s] to get atmosphere for a magazine story.”
The application, however, was denied and the trio, with their felony second-degree robbery convictions involving sentences of one year to life, which meant that the length would be determined by a parole board based on occasional hearings, were sent up to San Quentin State Prison. On 3 November, the Times reported, Richardson and the Rosses were among a dozen convicts shipped north, with Jane joining Adeline Thomas, who earned a sentence of 1 to 10 years for grand theft, as the only women in the group.
It was three days later, perhaps to allow time for what to do with her daughter, that Jane was processed at the notorious facility, where the Minnesota native was listed as a housewife standing 5′ 2″ tall with a “sallow” complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. The women’s mug book added that Ross weighed 103 pounds and the photo showed her with heavy bags under her eyes and she wore the same outfit as in the press photo. Her husband and Richardson arrived at the prison four days earlier
The 1930 census enumerated Jane as among one of about 120 women incarcerated at San Quentin and listed over three pages, while there are 88 pages listing male prisoners, making that number somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 or so. Her name was given as “Elda C. Ross” and the 28-year old’s father was shown as being from Kansas, while her mother hailed from Germany. Her prison occupation was as a “prison seamstress.”
Among the other female inmates were the 28-year old Clara Phillips, the notorious “Tiger Lady” whose story was covered by my colleague Gennie Truelock as part of the Female Justice series and who worked in the prison’s dental office as a nurse, and Louise Northcott, 63, and also a seamstress, who was sent to San Quentin for her role in the horrific “Wineville” murders (so called because that was a locality in modern Jurupa Valley between Ontario and Riverside where the Northcotts had a chicken ranch) and for which her son, Gordon, was executed in February 1930.
The mug book entry for Ross shows that she was paroled on 6 August 1931, though discharge did not happen right away, as was commonplace. Instead, she was released from prison exactly three years later in 1934, by which time the first California Institution for Women opened two years prior in Tehachapi (the facility was transferred to Chino after a major earthquake in the early Fifties.)
Bert Ross was paroled in April 1935 and walked out of San Quentin a year later, with he and Jane (well, Elda) resuming their marriage—at least for a time. As for Richardson, he was working on a state highway road project when he escaped from the camp in mid-November 1932. A $200 reward was offered for his capture and he was nabbed within two weeks. Naturally, that extended his stay at the prison and he was not paroled until just before Christmas 1939 and then released in late March 1941.
After serving their time in prison, Bert and Jane, who went by her birth name of Elda, reunited with their daughter. In 1940, the family lived in Pasadena where Bert was a car salesman, but trouble was not far off. Early the next year, Bert and Elda’s home was sold at a trustee’s sale for lack of payment on the mortgage. That was because the couple were back in the pokey, this time on guilty pleas for two counts, including forgery, which land a 1-14 year term for Bert, and likely the same for Elda.
Instead of going to the same prison as they did in 1929, Bert was sent to Folsom, while Elda went to the aforementioned Tehachapi location of the California Institute for Women. In Bert’s register, among all of the personal detail, is an inscription at the bottom, which reads “Elda C. Ross—Tehachapi #” and when he registered for the draft in April 1942 as America geared up for World War II, he listed their unfortunate daughter, who was still in her teens, as his next of kin
As for Elda, in September 1943, she was one of seven Los Angeles County woman who petitioned the board of trustees at that facility for parole. It could not be determined when she was released, but Bert, who earned good behavior credits for road and ranch crew work was paroled at the end of 1943 and released in November 1946.
Yet, within a short time, Bert was back in trouble, this time getting nabbed on a robbery charge and for which he was sent up again in March 1948, first incarcerated at San Quentin and then, just under a year later, rehoused at Folsom. His register listing, which has much less information than his previous one, did show that he was divorced from Elda.
There is a record of a marriage for a Bert Ross in 1957 in Burbank, while a press notice referred to an Elda Ross in Pasadena a decade later. Otherwise, the jailbirds disappeared from the public record after the late forties, though their story is a remarkable one, especially if it is true that Elda (Jane) Ross was, indeed, the first solo bank robber on the West Coast!