by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We complete this account of what was deemed “The Most Famous Murder Case in the History of the County” of Los Angeles, though there were, of course, others that could be cited, involving the January 1903 killing of William H. Broome, who was a scion of a well-known New York family, by Norman M. Melrose in the tiny burg of Acton, located in the Antelope Valley at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains about halfway between Lancaster and Santa Clarita.
The homicide terminated a long-running feud between the two, which involved accusations, mainly post-mortem by Melrose, of killed animals, desecrated graves of the defendant’s mother and sister on his Mount Gleason Ranch, the ominous display of guns and outright threats of violence and death.
While some of the press accounts made a conviction of Melrose a fait accompli, the April trial led, after some 45 hours of jury deliberations, to a “hung jury,” with four of the twelve men (there were no women on juries in those days, though one wonders, if there had been what difference could have occurred with the outcome) insistent on the guilt of the accused, while others were willing to convict on a lesser charge, even to the degree of simple assault.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney, John D. Fredericks, wasted no time in refiling the case, betting that, with a different jury, he could secure a conviction and the matter returned to the Superior Court of Judge B.N. Smith, who happened to be the same jurist who presided at about over the murder trial of Charles P. Temple who killed Thomas Basye in his years-long feud with the Basye brothers over the 1898 death of his late wife (and their late sister), Rafaela. In fact, Temple’s acquittal was handed down on 20 January 1903, the day Melrose killed Broome.
In the weeks before the second trial began on 6 July, there were some interesting developments in the case and its environment, including the Los Angeles Record of 12 June reporting that, as the headline put it, “Acton Feudists Are Ready To Shed Blood Over Melrose.” As the article expressed the situation,
Swallowed in the mountain fastnesses, the summit of the range, lost in oblivion, but still a terror to his fellow citizens, Melrose awaits, impatiently, the conclusion of his trial for murder.
If all the stories circulated in Acton about Normal Melrose be true, the average onlooker wonders why Melrose doesn’t move away and start life anew in a place where his reputation has not preceded him. Others say that Acton will never see the last of Melrose. Since he has attracted to himself such notoriety, it is necessary to find a retreat somewhere. What better place than Acton? What more desolate spot? Where, in all the mountains, might a man be hidden more securely than in this California village, composed of four or five houses, two grocery stores, a blacksmith’s shop, a post office and a saloon?
The Record previously wrote about Melrose as a “terror” in the sparsely-populated (and vegetated) hamlet and reinforced this by stating that locals said the defendant would never move and “that he is plotting revenge on men rash enough to oppose him on the witness stand” as “Acton is on hourly dread.” He was described as possessing a “fox-like sagacity in laying and evading snares” and using his strong personality and uncanny powers of persuasion to build his little fiefdom in the remote village and he was likened to a political “ward boss” common to the period. This included having devoted followers who “in his hour of tribulation, as a solemn duty stand by their chief.”
Asserting that “Melrose has split the town, as he has split the jury in the murder trial,” the paper continued that any new arrival disembarking from the train at Acton was immediately scrutinized with suspicion as to whether he was pro- or anti-Melrose and that “everywhere is that tense, strained, oppressive atmosphere, as though a crisis was imminent.” Whether exaggerated to sell a few more copies or not or animated by its Democratic Party political leanings, the Record averred that the small cadre of Actonites were “ready to draw revolvers and settle the ugly thing, once and for all, in a pitched battle.”
It doesn’t appear there was anything that developed along those lines, though five days later, there was more pre-trial drama as Fredericks received permission to exhume Broome’s body from his grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights as part of the prosecution’s strategy of identifying the wounds inflicted by Melrose, specifically one purported fired into the dead man’s brain. Remarkably, the Record reported that that remains were taken to a nearby vault “and there the head cut off” and then “out under a tree the skull was examined,” but “it all came to nothing” as “nothing but the [non-fatal] holes in the scalp were found.”
An assistant DA then ordered the skull cut into pieces, but the interior showed nothing nor “amongst the brains that were poured out” any evidence that Broome was killed by or would have died from the first shot to the head, which led to the implication that the subsequent shots and beating administered by Melrose caused the death. The account then concluded by noting that the head was only loosely reattached to the body in the vault and the remains then taken to the gravesite for reburial. The headline blared “Only Result of Exhumation Of Broome’s Body Is Another Heartache For Widow Wife.”
Fredericks, meanwhile, tried to pin the blame for the bad publicity on Melrose’s chief defense attorney, the well-known Earl Rogers, saying that, while the result of the exhumation proved nothing one way or the other, Rogers and his colleague Luther Brown alerted the Record to the grisly proceeding so that “a new and great heartache has been added to the grief of Mrs. Broome.” For his part, Rogers, at the second trial, scored Fredericks mightily for what he asserted was an underhanded effort to (literally) dig up new evidence.
Melrose, again, testified in his defense and the Times of 15 July commented that “the fact must be conceded that with one exception Melrose proved to be the strongest witness that the defense has thus far called to the stand.” This was reported at some length, but nothing really at variance with what he said at the first trial, though the paper noted “a lengthy and somewhat rambling cross-examination failed to shake the witness in any material detail.”
At one point, Judge Smith lectured Fredericks on seeking to admit evidence that “would constitute a rank error,” and, when the DA asked why Melrose didn’t run from Broome when he had the chance, the jurist “briskly remarked” that “an unoffending person, pursued on the streets by an armed man, does not have to turn and run, sir!”
Rogers also called Fredericks to the stand to testify about his efforts to get further evidence in the matter, while other defense witnesses attested to Broome’s proclivities with guns and his purported threats against Melrose, while some asserted that Broome’s demise was good for Acton. When Florence Melrose testified, she repeated what she’d said about Broome’s actions against her husband and the prosecution did not even seek cross-examination of her.
With examples like this, it was small wonder that, after testimony ended and arguments were offered by the two sides, the jury, when sent to deliberate by Judge Smith, took all of a half-hour to decide Melrose’s fate and it was a clear and simply acquittal. The defendant, who was reported to have been completely self-possessed during both proceedings and showing absolutely no emotion, betrayed a little when he turned to his wife and planted a kiss on her lips before the couple went to the jury box and thanked the dozen members. The Record of the 18th quoted Melrose as saying,
The thought of punishment never entered my mind. I wanted vindication and the good opinion of my neighbors. I will go back to Acton feeling secure in the possession of this, and not ashamed to go on through life looking every man in the face . . . I have my vindication and am happy.
The Times of the same day revealed that there were three ballots, the first two showing only two for conviction and these holdouts quickly changed their vote for the final one. The paper stated that the closing arguments of Rogers and Fredericks were free of “any great flights of oratory” with the former homing in on Broome’s ongoing threats and the provocation directed towards his client, while the District Attorney “declared impressively that he was not prosecuting Melrose for the first shot,” the one that proved to be a flesh wound, if that, “but for the others.”
The transcript that is the Homestead’s collection covers the early stages of the second trial and the bulk of it involved some rather mind-numbing detail about a map used for testimony and identifying key locations in the shooting. This includes significant coverage of the questioning of the doctor, C.E. Anderson, who conducted the initial review of Broome’s body, with Rogers particularly grilling the young medico on his experience and history dealing with shooting victims—including the “taking back the scalp from the head” to try to determine whether that first shot penetrated the skull and entered the brain as a fatal injury,
Also included are the testimony of young Ernest Duehren, whose mother ran the Acton Hotel, outside of which the shooting happened and with a good deal of focus by Rogers on Broome’s behavior, while Fredericks was interested in what Duehren saw and did not see; and Nelson Newton, who was also in close proximity but did not directly see the shooting. Most of the questioning was by the DA and Rogers, though Congressmember James McLachlan, who benefited from Melrose’s advocacy for this candidacies in his several races for Congress and was on the defense team, and Luther Brown were also involved, as was Assistant District Attorney Charles C. McComas.
Several images from the transcript are included here as illustrations and it is a remarkable surviving document of a strikingly notable case. There is, however, more to the story. As to the assertions made by the press and Melrose himself that he intended to remain in Acton for the long haul, this was not the case. In fact, within a year, he and his wife left and settled in Los Angeles and engaged in the real estate business for about four years and it was revealed in the press that, in lieu of paying for his defense fees, he deeded his 160-acre ranch to Rogers.
Whether it was the Depression of 1907 or other factors involved, Melrose then moved to San Francisco, where, it turned out, he identified himself in the 1910 census as an attorney, but press accounts showed that he was a private detective for the United Railroads, which consolidated streetcar lines in that city.
When there was a bribery trial in 1909 of the company’s president, Patrick Calhoun, who was accused of seeking to grease the palm of a city and county supervisor, the official’s defense attorney was none other than Rogers, who, clearly, secured Melrose his position with the firm. At one point, Melrose was accused of witness tampering, but Calhoun’s first trial ended with a hung jury with only two jurors voting for conviction and the second proceeding ended abruptly with a dismissal as a new district attorney took office—it should be noted that this trial was one of many during an era of incredible corruption and cleanup efforts in San Francisco.
While Melrose and his wife maintained a home in South Los Angeles where today a large parking structure for the University of Southern California and its Galen Center events arena, he kept his ties in the Bay Area intact. In early 1913, he was part of a company that formed to work the Ocean Star gold mine, situated in the northern reaches of “gold country” northeast of Grass Valley, and was its on-site general manager. Yet, his tactics developed in Acton from 1887-1904, including his feud with Broome, proved to be durable and, generally, quite effective.
For example, in 1916, he got into a dispute with neighboring miner William Duffney as Melrose was hauling pipe for use in the environmentally destructive technique of hydraulic mining through intense water blasting of mountain sides in the search for the precious metal. When Duffney took offense at Melrose traversing his property in this work, an argument burst forth and, while Melrose was purportedly running away from his adversary (does this sound familiar?), Duffney shot him in the back, nearly killing Melrose. Rather than face trial, however, Duffney committed suicide.
Three years later, there was another major legal episode in 1918-1919, involving a second feud, this time with E. C. Clinker, who crossed paths with Melrose while the two were residing in the Piedmont area of Oakland. A “Committee of Nine” posted flyers in that community claiming that Clinker was ran out of New Orleans on an accusation on an assault, apparently sexual, of a “crippled mulatto girl,” but also was said to have committed a variety of heinous crimes while managing a mine near Melrose’s Ocean Star, which was said to have been burned by Clinker in an attempt to collect insurance money. Moreover, the broadside accused Clinker of hiring Duffney to kill Melrose and it was asserted that the shooter did not take his life, but was actually murdered by Clinker.
Naturally, this followed Melrose’s penchant for attacking Broome when the latter organized an oil company near Acton and the former accused him of all manner of wrongdoing, such as bilking investors. In another astounding repetition, however, even though Melrose had to be tracked down at his Los Angeles residence and arrested after which he was extradited to Oakland, his trial ended up with (wait for it!) a hung jury with the exact proportion of jurors, four, voting for conviction, followed by (drum roll) an acquittal in the second proceeding.
Melrose continued his mining management operations at Ocean Star into the early 1920s, while also maintaining his Los Angeles residence, where his wife Florence apparently lived on her own for the extended periods that he was away getting into all manner of trouble and devoting herself to her late in life avocation as a painter. In early 1922, Melrose developed appendicitis and underwent an operation, during which peritonitis set in and he died on 1 February 1922 at age 67.
The story of Norman Melrose can definitely be filed under that larger-than-we-would assume heading of “the truth is stranger than fiction.” Whether or not, the Broome killing and the subsequent trials constituted “The Most Famous Murder Case in the History of [Los Angeles] County” or not, it certainly was among the most dramatic. More remarkably, however, Melrose kept displaying his character traits and utilizing the methods and techniques that got him into the notorious Acton feud with at least a couple of others in another remote, isolated area of California—its northern gold country region.
For more on the Acton incident, definitely check out Dr. Alan Pollack’s account for the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, which has done great work in preserving the history of that area of greater Los Angeles.