by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There were almost certainly a great many trials that were bestowed the title of “The Most Famous Murder Case in the History of the County,” but, for a good part of 1903 that trial of Normal Melrose on the charge of murdering William H. Broome in the little unincorporated hamlet of Acton, situated roughly halfway between Santa Clarita and Lancaster at the base of the northwest end of the San Gabriel Mountains, garnered a great deal of media attention in the Los Angeles press.
Feuds in smaller communities are also not uncommon, as prior multi-part post here detailed when it came to the conflict between Charles P. Temple and the brothers of his late wife Rafaela Basye that lasted for several years from 1899-1903 and another multi-part post covered when it came to the King family of El Monte and its fights with neighbors and enemies broadly in the 1850s and 1960s. With the persistent prevalence of firearms, antagonisms could sometimes quite easily turn into gun battles and this was certainly the case in Acton.
Melrose was born in 1854 in Albion, Illinois, in the southeastern part of the state not far from the Indiana border, and raised in the Liberty township of Iowa, south of Des Moines, and was a druggist in his twenties. In 1887, he and his second wife, Florence, migrated west with his parents to Los Angeles, then deep in the ferment of the great Boom of the Eighties, before the couple headed to the newly founded Acton, which was near many active mining areas.
Quickly, Melrose became something of a local power broker, sparsely populated as this remote section of Los Angeles was at the time, but he secured patronage positions through his Republican Party affiliations, including as a deputy county sheriff, assistant postmaster and Department of Interior agent in the San Gabriel Mountains forest reserve. Perhaps this exalted position along with personality quirks led him to be something of a petty tyrant—at least if some of the news accounts are to be believed, but more of that below.
William H. Broome came from a distinguished New York family, with his great-grandfather, Colonel John Broome, having served in the Revolutionary War under John Jay and then as lieutenant governor of the Empire State from 1804-1810. His grandfather, John L. Broome was a well-known merchant, and his father, William H., Sr., was the deputy collector for the federal customs department in New York City. Broome was born Daniel J. Broome in Brooklyn, then an independent city in 1869 and was recorded under that name in some censuses before changing moniker to that of this father.
After his father’s death in 1876, the family moved to Springfield, New Jersey, west of Newark and then the tiny burg of Pembina, South Dakota, located on the Red River along the Minnesota border not far south of the line with Canada. By the time the 1900 federal census was taken, Broome, his wife Marguerite and their three children were living in Acton, though outside of town, as the enumeration showed only 27 residents in the village, including Melrose. Broome worked as a telegraph operator, but also had big ambitions, largely centered around his formation, with partners, of an oil company—that industry then booming in greater Los Angeles—that had substantial lease land in the area.
Almost immediately, there were problems between Broome and Melrose, though it also appeared that they had issues with others in the Acton area, as well. For example, it was reported that when Broome’s dog bit Melrose, the latter shot and killed his adversary’s hound. Melrose also claimed that Broome desecrated his the graves of his sister and mother, the only two surviving examples, in the Mount Gleason Ranch Cemetery. His sister, Hattie Farmer, was murdered in 1890, apparently by a Native American, while his mother, Nancy, died in 1901.
The bitterness continued until, on 20 January 1903, Broome was shooting pigeons next to the Acton Hotel on Fourth Street, now Crown Valley Road, and Cory Street when Melrose came by with a wheelbarrow full of materials for digging a well. The latter apparently remarked to a local that the former and another resident were drunk while firing at the birds. Naturally, accounts varied as to the particulars, but it was reported by some witnesses that Melrose then bumped into his adversary with the wheelbarrow, leading Broome to utter curses such as “god-damned son-of-a-bitch” and threatening to kill Melrose.
In his defense, Melrose insisted that he only shot his revolver once to prevent Broome from getting to his shotgun which he’d laid down, but, not only did witnesses hear four revolver shots, but the body showed these wounds, along with others inflicted when Melrose leapt upon the prostrate body of Broome and pummeled him with the pistol. He then stood up, put the shotgun in his wheelbarrow, warned bystanders to back away and calmly went home, while Broome’s body was conveyed into the hotel where he soon died.
That evening, with his wife in tow, Melrose rode his horse-and-buggy to Lancaster and turned himself in, after which he was conveyed on a late night train to Los Angeles and confined to the county jail pending the coroner’s inquest and a preliminary hearing before a judge. The inquest, held quickly as these proceedings were supposed to be, determined that the killing was done with homicidal intent, while the police court hearing, held about two weeks after the shooting, ended with Melrose held to answer the charge of murder and without bail being granted.
On Valentine’s Day, the arraignment took place and Melrose entered a plea of not guilty, while a trial date was set for early April. Though he returned to jail, Melrose was granted a bail hearing after another couple of weeks and was released after posting $10,000. One of the five bondsmen was his next-door neighbor and owner of the Acton general store, Paul Bachert.
Notably, in the aftermath of the homicide, the Los Angeles Record called Melrose the “Terror of Acton,” saying that the coroner had trouble finding a jury in the small hamlet “as most of the denizens . . . were in hiding” because, it asserted, “the murderer had the whole village almost to himself.” One woman, purportedly, would not appear to testify until she knew the accused was in cuffs, while the paper reported that the verdict was “perhaps the strongest ever rendered by a coroner’s jury in any case.”
The prosecution was led directly by Los Angeles County District Attorney John D. Fredericks with two assistant DAs and a fourth lawyer, hired by the widow, on his team. Melrose, meanwhile, was represented by Luther Brown and Earl Rogers, the last very well-known in the community for his defense work, but his defense was considerably bolstered a few days into the April trial when James McLachlan, who was a Pasadena lawyer and then district attorney after coming to the region during the Boom of the 1880s and was serving one of his six terms in the House of Representatives, returned from a Congressional recess and joined the team. To the press, this was a clear indication of how Melrose’s Republican Party connections bore fruit.
The strategy of the defense team was that their client acted in proper self-defense after being followed by Broome for quite a distance and being cursed at, while also insisting that the deceased was going for his weapon when Melrose shot him to avoid being fired upon. As for the prosecutors, they told the jury that the sheer fact that Broome was shot from behind will attempting to get away and, even worse, that Melrose fired three more shots after the first knocked Broome down but did not kill him and then beat him with the weapon, adding a kick as he got up to leave, was an obvious sign of murder with malice aforethought, based on the long-running few between the two men.
Though it is very rare for defendants to testify in their cases, Melrose did so, which might seem as if there was desperation by his team. He recounted how, in the aftermath of the incident with Broome’s dog, two of his canines and a cat were poisoned; how trees were felled on his property when he was in Los Angeles serving on jury duty; and that he purchased a gun at Hoegee’s sporting goods store in the Angel City because he saw Broome with a sawed-off shotgun next to his house, while he claimed the deceased frequently revealed a revolver he carried with him, as well.
On the day of the killing, Melrose testified that, with the shooting of the pigeons, he happened to be pushing his wheelbarrow and came up against his adversary, who yelled “don’t you run into me, you son-of-a-bitch” and then pointed his shotgun when Melrose bumped him with the wheelbarrow. Broome allegedly told bystanders to take his gun, which was said to have remain cocked as it was put down, while he would beat up Melrose and then cursed Melrose’s wife.
After Broome demanded they fight, Melrose said he took out his revolver while running to get the shotgun before Broome could get to it and he fired once, before a tussle ensued that led to the firing of more bullets and the mortally wounded man bellowed “the son-of-a-bitch has shot me, but I’ll get him yet.” This, the defendant insisted, is when he used his gun to beat Broome.
When Rogers asked if it was true that he shot Broome three times when he was down, Melrose replied that he couldn’t have as “my gun has missed fire” and that he wouldn’t have done so anyway. He admitted to telling people to stay back out of concern he would be confronted and then went home. Under cross-examination, Melrose asserted that “self-preservation is the first law of nature” and it was reported by the Los Angeles Express that nothing was offered during that testimony that was significantly different than what was said before.
Curiously, the Los Angeles Times reported that Rogers characterized the context of the feud as one in which Germans and Americans in Acton were at cross-purposes and he also attacked a witness, Hermione Kruger (a native of Germany), who ran the hotel and who had a beef with Melrose over his attempts to shut down alcohol sales at her place of business. Nelson Newton testified that Melrose cursed when criticizing Broome and others for shooting at pigeons and also repeated Broome’s invectives, but also about not having his gun as he wanted to fight Melrose. Notably, the prosecution wanted to take the jury to the nursing room of the wife of Acton railroad agent, Ira Houser, she having had a baby nine days before, but the judge agreed with Rogers that this was highly inappropriate.
The defense introduced witnesses who testified to the hated Broome bore Melrose, including threats to kill him and at least one instance in which he grabbed his shotgun to shoot his enemy, but Broome’s wife reportedly dissuaded him. Notably, the article under one of the Times summaries of the trial testimony concerned Charles P. Temple’s agreement, the same day, to waive any rights to he estate of his late wife, Rafaela Basye, the death of whom caused the feud that ended with Temple’s killing of Basye’s brother.
Florence Melrose, who was postmaster, also testified and backed up her husband’s statements about attacks on their pets and property, as well as the grave desecrations and her observing Broome stalking her spouse. She also stated that there was a time when Broome said to her, “the first time Mr. Melrose speaks to me, I will kill him.” Calista Rebbeck, another Acton resident, testified that she saw the two men tussle and that Broome fired his shotgun once, which affirmed one of Melrose’s main claims, while her son, Osmer, revealed that the slightly-built Melrose go the better of the larger Broome in prior scuffles, though he was scored by prosecutors for telling others that he didn’t see the shooting itself.
When the prosecutors sought to poke holes in Rebbeck’s story, Rogers jumped up after she left the witness box and bellowed that one assistant district attorney was overheard telling others outside the courtroom, “we will send that son-of-a-bitch Melrose to hell and all his damned witnesses.” Another stir was caused when a private detective called by the defense, who also averred that Broome threatened to kill Melrose, claimed that the latter’s gun was tampered with after the coroner’s inquest.
After forty-five hours of deliberations, the jury could not agree on a verdict with four of the twelve all-male jurors standing firm for a conviction while the rest were for acquittal and the jury foreperson, while stating that there was some talk of alternate verdicts (including as far down as simple assault, of which seven jurors were willing to agree, while five would agree to manslaughter), the gap between the factions was such that the final vote was purely on the first-degree murder charge.
Rogers claimed that one of the four men who stood for conviction sent someone to him to see if the attorney wanted to pay the juror off and added that the purported go-between was an officer of the court, but the juror strenuously denied any such overtures. The prosecution immediately announced its intention to file or a second trial, so Melrose posted a new $10,000 bond and a new court date was set for 6 July. We’ll return with part two, including a focus on a portion of trial testimony transcript from the Museum’s collection, so check back for that!