The unsolved mystery of Caroline Slupsky's death
This account is based on newspaper articles that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Star-Times and St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the transcript of testimony heard at the St. Louis coroner's inquest into the death of Caroline Fischer Slupsky in 1938.
By Martin Fischer
The incident that occurred on St. Louis’s upscale Lindell Boulevard on the morning of Tuesday, May 31, 1938, was doubly shocking. Mrs. Caroline Slupsky, 67, widow of a well-known former Republican Party ward boss and beer industry lobbyist in St. Louis, had been shot in the abdomen at or near her front door. And the prime suspect was her daughter, Mrs. Elda Duke, 33, a mother of two, who claimed to have been on the second floor of the house doing household tasks at the time of the shooting.
To complicate the police investigation, telephone lines inside the 14-room house at 3852 Lindell Blvd. on both the first and second floors had been cut and a .38-caliber revolver known to be in the house was missing.
At the time of the shooting, both Duke children were at school; Mrs. Duke’s husband, Orell, an Illinois Central Railroad telegrapher, was at work in Rosiclaire, Ill., 170 miles away from St. Louis; and Mrs. Slupsky’s four sons were at their places of employment. The only people known to be in the house were Mrs. Slupsky and her daughter.
Mrs. Duke initially told police she had heard a scream and a shot, ran down the stairs and found her mother staggering in the front hall about five feet from the front door. She helped her mother to the floor. Mrs. Duke said her mother three times told her not to go near the door, which was standing open. When she tried to telephone for help, Mrs. Duke quickly discovered the phone wires had been cut and called out a window to men working on the front lawn of the Arthur J. Donnelly funeral home next door to ask them to call a doctor for her mother.
It was not immediately obvious that Mrs. Slupsky had been shot, but she was bleeding and in pain.
Mrs. Slupsky, who reportedly had poor eyesight and hearing, had in fact been shot in the left hip and suffered an exit wound in the right front side of her abdomen. When police did arrive, the injured woman told them that she had not heard any doorbell and had not seen anyone on the front porch. When she heard the shot and felt the pain, she thought someone had thrown a bomb. It was not known exactly why she had gone to the front door, but a plumber had been expected and Mrs. Slupsky had plans to go to a bank that morning.
After the shooting, Mrs. Slupsky was found to be wearing her two diamond rings, and scattered on the front porch were three unsigned checks totaling $570 and a few coins. The checks, proceeds from her husband’s sizeable estate, had been inside her purse, which was found open on the floor, police said, according to the local newspaper reports.
She was taken in a police patrol vehicle to Jewish Hospital, where she was in grave condition and received a blood transfusion.
One of Mrs. Slupsky’s sons, Abe Jr., told police that the missing .38-caliber revolver had belonged to him and he had kept it in his bedroom dresser in the house on Lindell until about three months earlier, when his mother took it from him. She had put it in a dresser drawer in another second-floor room, Abe Jr. said, but it wasn’t there after his mother was shot. The last time he saw the gun, it was fully loaded, he told the police.
Mrs. Duke told police that her mother had told her some time earlier that she had moved the gun, but didn’t tell her where she had placed it.
A few weeks before Mrs. Slupsky’s shooting, Mrs. Duke had seen a stranger inside the house trying to open a safe. She had chased the man into the street, and he had fled. A suspect had been arrested, based on Mrs. Duke’s description of the man, but no charges were filed after she failed to appear at a police station to identify him.
The man was again taken into custody on Thursday, June 2, two days after Mrs. Slupsky’s shooting, and Mrs. Duke identified him as the prowler she had seen in the house several weeks earlier. But the man was released when the police investigation found that he could not have been in the Slupsky house at the time of the earlier prowler incident, according to the local newspapers.
After Mrs. Slupsky’s shooting, no one was seen leaving the area, according to neighbors and other witness accounts to the police. The family’s gun was missing, and the bullet that had passed through Mrs. Slupsky could not be found, but a pair of scissors with bits of copper and silk was found in a box on the dining room table. When questioned about the scissors, Mrs. Duke told police she remembered one of her brothers having used them to repair a light fixture cord.
As part of the police investigation, the family safe in the house was opened after the shooting, but nothing of value---only mementos and financial papers---were found.
The afternoon of the same day as her mother’s shooting, Mrs. Duke was taken to police headquarters in downtown St. Louis and a paraffin test was performed on her hands. The left hand was negative, but the right showed traces of nitrate, which, according to the police technicians, indicated that she had recently fired a gun.
Because of the paraffin test and because Mrs. Duke had been the only other person known to be in the house at the time of Mrs. Slupsky’s shooting, St. Louis Assistant Circuit Atty. James E. McLaughlin ordered Mrs. Duke held for further questioning.
She was questioned by the police and the prosecutor for more than four hours on Friday, June 3, three days after the shooting. Mrs. Duke reiterated her explanation of what she had seen and heard, denied shooting her mother and said she could not explain the positive paraffin test results.
She said she got along well with her mother and had been living in her mother’s home since the death in 1936 of her father. Her husband visited nearly every weekend, and she had visited him in Rosiclaire the previous weekend.
After the questioning, under orders from Assistant Circuit Atty. McLaughlin, Mrs. Duke was not charged but taken into custody and booked as “suspected of assault with intent to kill,” the St. Louis Star-Times reported. She was held in the matron’s room at police headquarters until she was freed on $5,000 cash bail, posted by a bondsman, Moe Kanner of 3330 Union Blvd., at 7:40 p.m. June 3.
Reporters were allowed to interview Mrs. Duke during her detention. She told them: “I did not shoot my mother. Why should I shoot my mother? I love my mother, and my mother loves me. We never quarreled. She was sweet to me. She gave me money every month, and she took care of my two children.”
Morris Slupsky, one of Mrs. Duke’s brothers, told reporters that the whole family believes in her innocence. “We are convinced mother was shot by a prowler, and we will stand by my sister,” he said.
In regard to the pair of scissors that had traces of copper wire and silk thread, Morris Slupsky told reporters that he had used the scissors the previous week to repair a floor lamp for his mother.
He and his sister also told reporters that their mother had received a strange phone call the previous week from a person claiming to be from the phone company who asked her the locations of the telephones within the home, information which Mrs. Slupsky provide the caller. Afterward, Morris Slupsky reported the incident to the police and to the phone company, which denied making such a call.
On the issue of the nitrate found on Mrs. Duke’s hands, she told reporters that it could have been washing powder, because she and her mother had been washing clothes in the basement.
“We had hung out some of the clothes in the back yard, forming a screen which shut off a west areaway from Lindell,” Mrs. Duke said. “I believe a prowler did this shooting and that he came into the areaway, shielded by the hanging clothes, and slipped into the basement, going from there into the upper front hall.”
All three daily St. Louis newspapers covered this story in great detail, usually on their front pages. The Post-Dispatch and the Star-Times seemed to be fair and factual in their accounts, but the Globe-Democrat at the beginning seemed to have it in for Mrs. Duke.
In its Saturday, June 4, 1938, edition, the Globe-Democrat’s front-page news story editorialized by describing Mrs. Slupsky’s daughter as “slightly contemptuous of the entire proceedings.”
“No vehement denials, no tears, nor emotion marked Mrs. Duke’s answers [to reporters] as to why she might have been held as a suspect in her mother’s shooting,” the unnamed Globe-Democrat reporter wrote. “There was rather a truculence of a spoiled child, being detained against her will. She spoke with a half smile, and in spite of red rimmed eyes was composed and quiet.”
She was described further as “tiny and blonde. Yesterday at Police Headquarters she wore an ill-fitting shabby black dress and light tan sandals. She wore no hat.”
The June 4 Globe article, mentioning the late Abe Slupsky’s $144,911 [later reported as $149,847] estate left in trust for his widow and children since his October 1936 death, commented: “Although Col. Slupsky left his widow well provided, and apparently his daughter as an heir might have been expected to be comfortably off, Mrs. Duke did not give the impression of having money. Neither her dress nor her shoes, nor the permanent in her blond hair, had the air of costing too much.”
On Monday, June 6, six days after she was shot, Mrs. Slupsky, still in grave condition in Jewish Hospital, was briefly interviewed by the police in the presence of two doctors, J.G. Probstein and George F. Rendleman. Her daughter’s arrest was not mentioned.
Mrs. Slupsky told Police Capt. Francis X. McCormack and Detective Capt. Leonard Murphy that the morning of the shooting, she was preparing to go downtown to deposit $570 in checks she had received from her son Edward in his capacity as co-executor of her late husband’s estate. She said she had planned to go downtown by herself while her daughter waited at home for a plumber who was expected.
Mrs. Slupsky said that after doing some washing and dusting, she put on her hat and picked up her purse from the dining room table with the intention of going to the bank. “I went then to open the front door and something gave me a hit,” Mrs. Slupsky said.
She could not remember whether she opened the door, but she had seen no one when she heard what she thought was a bomb and felt a sting in her side. (Mrs. Duke had said she found the door open, but the screen door closed, when she came downstairs after hearing the shot.)
When asked where her daughter, Elda, was, Mrs. Slupsky said: “Up on top of the steps---I don’t know.” Under further questioning, she said she did not know where her daughter was at the time of the shooting, but that Elda came quickly to her afterward: “She kept saying, ‘Mother, what happened?’ I told her I didn’t know.”
Mrs. Slupsky was also asked about the missing revolver. She told the police she had disapproved of her son Abe carrying the gun and had placed it in a chifforobe around Christmas after taking it from him. She had not seen the weapon since then.
After less than 15 minutes, the doctors stopped the interview with the police when Mrs. Slupsky seemed to tire.
In a brief interview afterward with a Post-Dispatch reporter, Dr. Probstein said that the patient’s condition was critical and her prospects for recovery were uncertain. Since her arrival at the hospital only medical personnel had been allowed to speak with her. But on Saturday, June 4, Probstein told the Post-Dispatch, a woman entered Mrs. Slupsky’s room without authorization, stated she was a Globe-Democrat reporter, and told the patient that she had been shot and her daughter had been arrested---facts that until then had been unknown to the patient.
In the Globe-Democrat account of that unauthorized hospital room interview, published June 5, Mrs. Slupsky was said to have been surprised that her daughter had been arrested as a suspect in her shooting: “That’s a terrible thing to do to that girl,” she said. “Why she wouldn’t do that to me.”
Mrs. Slupsky “was greatly disturbed” by the news about her daughter, her temperature immediately rose from 100 to 105 degrees, and her condition worsened, Dr. Probstein told the Post-Dispatch, but since she had rested quietly Sunday night, the doctors had agreed to permit the police to question her on Monday.
On Tuesday, June 7, Mrs. Slupsky’s condition worsened and she received a blood transfusion. She was reported to be unconscious on Friday, June 10.
Five days after the police questioned her and 11 days after she was shot, Mrs. Slupsky, who had fallen into a coma, died in Jewish Hospital at 6 a.m., Saturday, June 11, 1938.
Her daughter was ordered re-arrested the morning of her mother’s death, and she surrendered at police headquarters, accompanied by her brothers Amedee and Abe Slupsky Jr., and Henry Finkelstein, another relative. Mrs. Duke, who had been out of jail on $5,000 bond, then had to post $15,000 bond under order of the circuit attorney’s office. The bond was signed by the prominent Jewish undertaker Herbert I. Berger and his wife, Rosalie. The increased bond was to ensure her appearance at the coroner’s inquest. After posting bond, she was questioned by Chief of Detectives John J. Carroll in police headquarters for another two hours and 20 minutes, but nothing new was learned, police said.
The inquest convened on Monday, June 13, starting with testimony from the police about what they found when they arrived at the Slupsky home: The wounded Mrs. Slupsky on her divan, having been bandaged by an employee of the funeral parlor next door. The phone wires cut. The scissors that may have been used to cut the wires found in a box. Mrs. Duke’s paraffin test results, which could have meant that she had fired a gun recently, or smoked a cigarette. But Mrs. Duke had said she didn’t smoke.
Police also explained that they could not find the bullet and that they could only see a bullet hole at the back of Mrs. Slupsky’s corset, which also had an open space through which the bullet could have passed after exiting her abdomen. The police also told of their brief interview with Mrs. Slupsky in which she mentioned that she had been wearing glasses at the time of the shooting, but the glasses had not been found, only fragments of what might have been the lenses were found at the foot of the staircase.
A doctor testified at the inquest that it could not be determined definitively whether the wound in her back was the entry wound. Dr. D.L. Harris, who was in charge of the autopsy, explained that surgery in the hospital had removed marks of the wound. Mrs. Slupsky’s death was caused by peritonitis resulting from the bullet’s passage through her abdomen.
The afternoon of the day of the first session of the inquest, Mrs. Slupsky’s funeral was held at the Berger undertaking establishment.
The next day, Tuesday, June 14, the coroner’s jury reconvened and Mrs. Duke was called to testify, but at the suggestion of her attorney, Sigmund Bass, she declined to testify.
Dr. Probstein testified about Mrs. Slupsky’s injuries. He concluded that the entry wound, on the left side of her back, was three to four inches below the abdominal wound that he theorized had been the exit wound. A hospital intern, Dr. Morton D. Pareira, told of noticing powder burns around the small back wound and noted that the front wound had a jagged edge, but no powder burns.
After only 10 minutes of deliberation, the coroner’s jury ruled that Mrs. Duke had shot her mother in the back, which resulted in abdominal injuries that led to her death by peritonitis.
The day of the inquest, a grand jury also heard testimony in the case from police, employees of the neighboring funeral home and two of Mrs. Slupsky’s sons, Morris, owner of a tavern at 2905 N. Vandeventer; and Abe Jr., a buyer and manager for the Sears and Roebuck electrical department at 1408 N. Kingshighway Blvd. Mrs. Duke declined to testify at the grand jury.
After hearing a total of 4½ hours of testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, the grand jury on Thursday, June 16, took less than 3 minutes to decide to indict Mrs. Duke for first degree murder in her mother’s death. Mrs. Duke’s $15,000 bond, under which she had been previously released from custody, was continued.
On Friday, June 17, Mrs. Slupsky’s will was filed in Probate Court. Her estate was worth an estimated $30,000, including $10,000 in real property. It provided bequests of $500 each to her five grandchildren and divided the rest among her five children. The family of her son Sol Slupsky was to be allowed to continue to live in the house at 7228 Pennsylvania Ave. for rent of $10 per month.
At some point after Mrs. Slupsky’s death, Mrs. Duke and her children, a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, moved out of the house on Lindell and relocated to 711 Syracuse Ave. in University City.
Six months after her indictment, Elda Duke appeared in Circuit Judge David. J. Murphy’s courtroom on Monday, Dec. 5, 1938. At that time the case was continued until Jan. 16, 1939. Although Assistant Circuit Atty. Henry L. Simpson was ready to try the case, Mrs. Duke’s lawyer, Sigmund M. Bass, asked for the delay because of new evidence and because recently a detective story magazine had been advertising an article about her case. Representatives of the magazine had been wearing sandwich boards publicizing the case as they walked past thousands of spectators at the Armistice Day parade, Bass told the court, according to the Globe-Democrat.
The St. Louis Star-Times reported that Bass told the judge: “There’s a little mob spirit prevalent now. I think we should pass this case until the public has returned to normal.”
The new evidence was the discovery by a carpenter on Friday, Dec. 2, inside the Slupsky house of a revolver with one discharged and four loaded shells. Workmen, who were removing the front of the now vacant house to make room for a small restaurant, had found the gun behind a wooden panel under the staircase. After the gun was found, Abe Slupsky Jr. told police that it resembled the weapon he had borrowed from a tavernkeeper and his mother had taken from him. Abe Jr. had testified at the inquest that his mother had told him she had taken it away and “I would never find it.” The barkeeper, Joe Dattilo of 6105 Gravois Ave., who ran the Electric Club at Gibson and Boyle Avenues, told police the weapon found behind the panel was the gun he had lent to Abe Jr. about 2½ years before.
After the continuance in her trial was granted, Mrs. Duke was asked to report to police headquarters, where she was briefly questioned about the gun.
On Jan. 15, 1939, it was reported that Mrs. Duke’s trial was again delayed at defense attorney Bass’s request because one of her children was soon to graduate from school.
Jury selection finally began on Monday, Feb. 13, 1939. This time it was in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Edward M. Ruddy. The Star-Times reported that Mrs. Duke appeared in court dressed in “a wine-colored suit, gray coat and black felt hat.” The newspaper also noted that she had black hair, a pointed chin and “rather wide mouth.”
Assistant Circuit Atty. Henry L. Simpson questioned potential jury members to determine if they had any problem with imposing the death penalty. One of the first 12 people interviewed was excused because he didn’t believe in the death penalty; another was sent home because he considered the indictment nearly equivalent to a conviction. Other jurors were dismissed when they didn’t satisfactorily answer defense attorney Bass’s question as to whether they would convict “this woman on suspicion.”
Bass told the court he would seek to have the charges dropped due to lack of proof.
Testimony in the trial began Tuesday, Feb. 14, 1939. Simpson explained in his opening statement that his case would be based on circumstantial evidence. In addition to the fact that Mrs. Duke was the only other person known to be in the house and the results of the paraffin test, the prosecutor cited contradictory statements by the defendant on whether or not she had heard her mother scream and whether her mother had fallen to the floor at the foot of the staircase or was staggering in the front hallway; and the structure of the late Col. Abe Slupsky’s will that provided income only for his widow as long as she lived. Mrs. Duke and other members of the family could only receive money from the estate that Mrs. Slupsky chose to give them. According to the will, only after Mrs. Slupsky’s death would income go to Mrs. Duke and her brothers, while the principal would go eventually to the grandchildren.
According to the Star-Times account of the first day of the trial, Simpson, in explaining the defendant’s alleged motive, told the jury: “As long as Mrs. Slupsky was alive, the children got no money from Mr. Slupsky’s estate except what Mrs. Slupsky gave them out of the goodness of her heart, which amounted to about $25 a month each, in addition to other money they asked her for from time to time.”
Dr. D.L. Harris, who did the autopsy, testified about the wound, but under objections from Bass, he was not allowed to say that it was caused by a gunshot.
Dennis Cunningham, an employee of the Donnelly funeral home located next door to the Slupsky home who had been cleaning the front sidewalk the morning of the shooting, testified about being called into the house by Mrs. Duke. He said he saw that Mrs. Slupsky was bleeding and lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. He helped pick her up to put her on a couch and applied ice to her forehead and wrists.
“Mrs. Duke was crying. There was a little dog there, a Spitz I guess, which made some fuss about my being there, but not much, as the dog had seen me in the next yard,” Cunningham told the court.
Under questioning from the prosecutor, the workman explained that because of his location when he was working outside the funeral home, he had not been in a position to notice whether anyone had entered or left the Slupsky house.
Thomas M. Brennan, a clerk at the funeral home, told of Cunningham asking him to call a physician. Before making the call, Brennan went into the Slupsky home to find out which doctor to call and why. Brennan told the court that Mrs. Duke was crying hysterically, and he had to calm her before she would give him the name of a doctor to call. At the time, he did not know that Mrs. Slupsky had been shot and didn’t learn of it until he was later told by a police officer.
Under questioning from the defense lawyer, Brennan said he picked up Mrs. Slupsky’s purse inside the house and the three checks that were on the front porch.
The funeral home manager, William J. Roderick, testified that when he arrived in the Slupsky home he asked Mrs. Duke what had happened to her mother. “I don’t know. It looks like mama’s got a hemorrhage,” he said Mrs. Duke responded. Roderick said he saw blood on the stairs and heard Mrs. Duke ask her mother what happened, and Mrs. Slupsky several times said, “My stomach hurts.”
Mrs. Duke’s younger brother, Abe Slupsky Jr., cried as he testified about the day of his mother’s shooting. “Slupsky broke into tears several times under Simpson’s questioning, and appeared to be under considerable nervous tension,” the Globe-Democrat reported. He had been called home by an employee of the next-door funeral parlor who had told him his mother had fainted. When he arrived, he found only his mother and sister at home. He tried to reach his brothers by phone from the house, but found that the wires had been cut.
Abe Jr. verified that the gun that had been found several months after the shooting was his. The last time he saw the revolver was more than 2 years earlier, shortly after his father’s death in 1936, when his mother took it away from him because he had threatened to commit suicide.
Abe Jr. testified that he went next door to the funeral home to call a doctor, and when he returned home, his brother Morris had arrived. No police had been called, but two patrol officers had noticed Morris Slupsky go through a red light as he sped west on Lindell Boulevard and soon arrived at the Slupsky home. One of those officers, Ernest von Nida, testified that when he arrived, he heard Mrs. Duke tell her brother Morris, “Mother hurt her head.”
When von Nida heard Mrs. Slupsky say her back hurt, he examined her back, found that she had been bandaged and realized she had been wounded. The officer also testified that he heard Mrs. Slupsky say that she had heard an explosion that sounded to her like a bomb.
Six photographs of Mrs. Duke were published in a bizarre front-page display in the Feb. 15, 1939, Star-Times. The photo package was headlined: “ON TRIAL: Six Candid Camera Studies of Mrs. Elda Duke Charged With Murdering Her Mother.” The explanatory lines above the photos said: “What does a woman---a mother of two children herself---do when she goes on trial charged with shooting to death her own mother? Mrs. Elda Duke, so charged and on trial before a jury in Circuit Judge Edward M. Ruddy’s court, gives the answer to the Star-Times Candid Cameraman in the defendant’s witness room as she waits for resumption of the trial.” Each photo had a brief caption below it to describe Mrs. Duke’s pose: “She holds up her head … She smokes a cigarette … She smiles … She looks at the floor … And she thinks … And just waits!”
Trial testimony resumed Wednesday, Feb. 15, with a Jewish Hospital nurse, Miss Virginia Decker, telling the jury she had undressed Mrs. Slupsky when she first arrived at the hospital. She said the bullet that had passed through Mrs. Slupsky’s abdomen was not found and may have lodged in her clothing. Although there was a bullet hole in the back of her dress, there was no hole in the front, she said.
Abe Slupsky Jr. also testified, telling the court that his sister and mother had a good relationship. He said his mother “did all an affectionate mother and grandmother could do” for Mrs. Duke and her two children, who lived with Mrs. Slupsky so the children could go to school in St. Louis. He added that his sister did some of the housekeeping for the family.
Abe Jr.’s oldest brother, Morris, testified that on the day of the shooting he had been told by phone call from his wife that his mother had been hurt, and hurried home from his downtown real estate office, driving 60 m.p.h. He did not know she had been shot until a police officer told him later. Morris arranged to have Mrs. Slupsky taken to Jewish Hospital to save time.
Police Capt. Francis McCormack testified that when he arrived at the Slupsky house, he found the back doors to be locked. He told of two alleged statements by Mrs. Duke, one made to himself, in which she said she had heard her mother scream; the other, made to police Sgt. Fred Holman, that she had not heard an outcry.
Holman said Mrs. Duke told him she had been in the bathroom on the second floor when she heard a noise, went to the stairs and saw her mother stagger from the front door.
Dr. R.B.H. Gradwohl, a scientist who had been director of the police department laboratory for many years, was called to testify as an expert witness concerning the paraffin test, known as the Lunge test, of Mrs. Duke’s hands. He explained that the positive result from applying “Lunge’s re-agent” to the paraffin was an indication of nitrates that can be produced by gunfire, but also could be produced by some fertilizers and a type of toothpaste, but he had never conducted a test for toothpaste.
In the Star-Times report of Gradwohl’s testimony, he was quoted as saying: “The test will reveal the presence of nitrate in any form, but that deposited by gunpowder has a peculiar formation. It appears in the form of minute dots. All other substances I have experimented with show up as irregular smudges.”
Also on Wednesday, the wills of Abe and Caroline Slupsky were both put in as evidence for the prosecution. Up to this point, defense attorney Bass had successfully objected to any attempts by the prosecution to elicit testimony concerning the wills on the grounds that the documents would speak for themselves. But the prosecution presented the wills as the motive for the shooting, because Mrs. Slupsky’s death resulted in Mrs. Duke receiving a quarter of the income from her father’s estate.
On Thursday, Feb. 16, Dr. Gradwohl continued to testify on the paraffin test of Mrs. Duke’s hands. Defense objections successfully prevented Gradwohl from answering the question: “As a result of your study and previous knowledge, and considering the reaction you found, would you say that on or about May 31, 1938, Elda Duke fired a gun?”
But when he was asked, “Can you tell of any other way that pin-points of nitrate could get on a hand, other than being driven there by gunpowder explosion?” Gradwohl responded, “No.”
Gradwohl told the jury he tested the revolver that had been found in the Slupsky house by having a man shoot it, then applied a paraffin test to his hands. He found four blue nitrate spots on his right hand and no such spots on his left hand.
Then he showed the jury the casts that were taken of Mrs. Duke’s hands, showing six yellowish green spots on the right hand between the thumb and forefinger, and no spots on the left. He testified that the spots had originally been blue shortly after the tests were made.
Bass asked Gradwohl whether the spots could have been caused by tobacco smoke. He said yes, but that they would have been larger and more diffuse. The defense attorney conceded that shortly after Mrs. Slupsky’s shooting Mrs. Duke had told police she had not been a smoker, but he suggested that someone else smoking in police headquarters might have caused the spots.
Carl Smith, a carpenter, told of finding the missing revolver on Nov. 19, more than 5 months after the shooting. He explained that in the process of removing the front part of the house, the gun was found in paneling beside the stairway. It could have fallen into a hole that had been cut to install the upstairs telephone extension, he said.
Mrs. Duke took the stand in her own defense on Friday, Feb. 17, 1939. “Testifying in monosyllables for the most part, Mrs. Duke, a small woman, 33 years old, told without outward emotion of finding her mother near the front door of the Slupsky home last May 31,” the Post-Dispatch said.
The Star-Times reported that “Mrs. Duke testified for seventy minutes in a quiet, firm manner, with no trace of emotion either in her voice or in her face.”
“I heard a noise,” she said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “I didn’t know what it was. I ran downstairs to my mother and asked her what had happened. She told me several times not to go near the door, that a bomb had exploded.”
Under questioning, Mrs. Duke denied shooting her mother and denied having any reason to do so.
The defense attorney made a point of asking Mrs. Duke how she compared in size with her mother. She said they were about the same size. In the prosecution’s opening statement, Simpson had asserted that Mrs. Slupsky was taller than her daughter, which might have explained the upward path of the bullet through her mother’s body. Dr. Rendleman had told police that the path of the bullet from entry to exit had angled upward 45 to 65 degrees.
Mrs. Duke told the jury that the night before the shooting she had brushed her teeth with sodium perborate and had applied a face cream using her right hand. The morning of the shooting she again brushed her teeth and helped her mother wash some clothes, including wringing out some items by hand. She had washed a pair of her son’s pants to remove rust stains.
When questioned by the prosecutor, Mrs. Duke said that after her mother’s death she began receiving $60 a month from the estate, which was more than the $25 a month she had previously received from her mother. However, Mrs. Duke added that her mother had not charged her rent to live in the house on Lindell, but now she had to pay rent.
In a similar vein, Mrs. Duke, when questioned by her own lawyer, said that her mother had bought clothes for her and her children and had sent the children to music school, benefits she no longer received because of her mother’s death.
In the morning session, Mrs. Duke testified for more than an hour, mostly under cross-examination, but she remained unruffled, the Post-Dispatch reported.
When testimony resumed in the afternoon, Simpson showed Mrs. Duke the revolver and asked whether it was the weapon that killed her mother. She said, “I don’t know.” She said she had known about the panel near the stair, but didn’t know the gun was in there.
She conceded that, as far as she knew, she and her mother were the only people in the house and she saw no one leave the house. She did not know if the back door was locked, and she denied cutting the phone wires. She said her mother had told her that she had taken the gun away from her brother Abe Jr. after he had threatened suicide after their father’s death.
Also called to testify was Miss Flora Kaiser, the Globe-Democrat reporter who had interviewed Mrs. Slupsky in the hospital a few days after the shooting. Miss Kaiser claimed that, when she interviewed her, Mrs. Slupsky already knew that her daughter had been arrested and accused of the shooting. She said Mrs. Slupsky told her: “They shouldn’t do that to my daughter---she wouldn’t do a thing like that to me.”
Among defense witnesses who testified that Mrs. Duke was a truthful and good person were two people from Rosiclaire, Ill., the town where her husband worked and lived, and which she regularly visited; and two people from St. Louis.
Carl G. Hinrichs, a consulting and pharmaceutical chemist, was called by the defense to comment on the police department’s paraffin test. He offered to perform paraffin tests before the jury to show that the toothpaste, the face cream and the Oxydol laundry powder that Mrs. Duke used could result in positive paraffin tests.
The prosecution objected to the proposed demonstrations unless Gradwohl was also present, so a recess was called so he could be called back to court.
After the recess, Hinrichs, using a miniature laboratory, showed the court that several substances, some with and some without nitrate, could produce apparently positive paraffin tests. He tested dioxygen face cream, sodium perborate toothpaste and rust. Mrs. Duke had earlier testified that she had been exposed to all three substances in the hours before the shooting.
Hinrichs told the court that the Lunge’s test was of no value and it was not a test for nitrates but rather for oxidizing agents. “There are thousands of substances containing no nitrate which would react to it,” he said, according to the Star-Times.
In his questioning of Hinrichs, Bass sought to challenge Gradwohl’s expertise. The previous day, the police scientist had testified that there were 45 chemical elements and that gun cotton was used to make gunpowder. Hinrichs testified there were actually 92 chemical elements and that gun cotton was not used to make gunpowder.
After the shooting, police had interviewed neighbors, but found no one who had seen anything that might confirm the Slupsky family’s theory that a prowler had shot Mrs. Slupsky. But on Friday, Feb. 17, the defense presented what seemed initially to be a surprise witness.
Mrs. Lola S. Hilburn ran a boarding house at 3916a Lindell Blvd., which was on the same side of the street as the Slupsky home, but separated from that residence by a vacant lot, Vandeventer Avenue, a large apartment building and another residence. On the day of the shooting, she was sitting on her front porch.
For the court, she recalled that after having noticed the arrival of police at the Slupsky home the morning of the shooting, she had remembered having seen a little earlier a man run down the Slupsky lawn, cross Lindell and the triangular park in the middle of the street and continue north on Vandeventer toward McPherson Avenue, where he turned the corner. She was unable to describe the man.
When Bass asked her why she hadn’t come forward earlier with this information, she admitted she hadn’t “wanted to get mixed up in the matter.” But her account had come to the attention of Bass’s office after she had discussed what she had seen with one of her tenants.
Simpson was apparently not totally surprised by the new witness, because when it was his turn to question Mrs. Hilburn, he said, “You mean to say that a woman was murdered in your neighborhood, that another woman was indicted for the crime, and you did not report your knowledge to police, yet you did report a minor attempt at burglary at your own house?”
The prosecutor tried to show that the witness was upset with the police because they only gave routine attention to her attempted burglary report.
Simpson then tried to catch her in a possible lie: “Did you ever discuss your testimony with Mr. Bass?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Wasn’t Bass at your house last Tuesday?” he continued.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, I’ll refresh your memory. I’ll tell you he was. I saw him on the lawn in front of your house,” Simpson said.
The prosecutor was then put on the witness stand, where he said that when he was on his way to work the previous Tuesday, he had seen Bass in front of Mrs. Hilburn’s home, going up the steps, but he had not seen the defense lawyer enter the house.
Bass volunteered the information to the court that he had been in the area to take photographs.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, after both sides summarized their cases and the judge rejected Bass’s repeated calls for a mistrial, the case went to the jury.
Bass’s main demand for a mistrial was based on the fact that in the prosecution’s final summary, Simpson had mentioned that when Abe Slupsky Jr. had discovered that his gun was missing from its place in the chifforobe, he had exclaimed, “My God, my gun is gone!” This had been part of the police report, but had not been allowed as evidence at the trial because it had not been said in the presence of Mrs. Duke.
Simpson made a point of showing Mrs. Slupsky’s bloodstained clothes to the jury. “He charged that the extent of their saturation proved a long period had elapsed between the time the shot was fired and the time police were notified,” the Globe-Democrat said.
Bass emphasized the testimony of the neighbor, Mrs. Hilburn, who had seen a man running away from the Slupsky house on the morning of the shooting.
The prosecution did not specifically demand the death penalty, but urged the jury to “do your duty.” The defense told the jury to return Mrs. Duke to her two children. In instructing the jurors about first- and second-degree murder, the judge explained that the penalty for a conviction could range from 10 years in prison to death.
At 5 p.m., after only 2½ hours of deliberation and one ballot, the jury brought forward a verdict of not guilty, causing many of the nearly 200 spectators in the courtroom to applaud. When she heard the decision, Mrs. Duke buried her face in a handkerchief, then rose and walked toward the jurors, apparently with the intention of thanking them, at the same time as a group of well-wishers approached to congratulate her. In the excitement, the Star-Times noted, Mrs. Duke fainted.
She was taken to a witness room where ice and stimulants were used to revive her. Her brothers and husband were present in the courtroom. Her children had not been present during the trial. Throughout the ordeal, the Post-Dispatch noted, “she had made almost no showing of emotion.”
Postscript: Elda Duke died on July 28, 1996, at age 91 in Waveland, Miss., where she had lived for many years.
The Sea Coast Echo, a newspaper based in Bay St. Louis, Miss., published her obituary in their issue of Aug. 1, 1996. It said: "Elda S. Duke, 91, of Waveland, died Sunday, July 28, 1996, in Waveland. Mrs. Duke was a homemaker. She was a native of St. Louis, Mo., and a member of First Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis. She was officer and member of the Bay-Waveland Garden Club, past president and treasurer of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Garden Club, member of the Bay St. Louis VFW, president of the World War I Auxiliary for seven years, treasurer of the Hancock General Hospital Auxiliary, treasurer of the Historical Society of Hancock County, member and original organizer of the Hancock County Fair Association, member of the Gulf Coast Rose Society, Hancock County Living Association and state board member, member of the American Association of Retired Persons and was voted outstanding person in Hancock County in 1972. Mrs. Duke appeared in Personalities of the South in 1973 and was featured in the International Biographies of 1975. She was preceded in death by her husband, Orell Duke. Survivors include her son and daughter-in-law, William M. and Joanne Duke of Baton Rouge, La., and a daughter, June Owings of Memphis, Tenn., 12 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. Visitation was Monday at Riemann Funeral Home in Bay St. Louis. Services were conducted Tuesday at the funeral home chapel. Burial was in Garden of Memories Cemetery in Bay St. Louis."
Do you have someone on your family tree with a history of problems with the law? Experienced amateur genealogist Martin Fischer may be able to track down the details. He is available to conduct freelance family history projects including searching online databases, creating family trees, editing memoirs and developing genealogical Web sites. For more information, go to http://www.the-efa.org/, click on find a freelancer, and type Martin Fischer in the search box, or go to http://www.apgen.org/, click on search by name, and type Fischer and Martin in the search boxes.