James A. Mahoney is little known today, but in 1949, he was truly a Bristol pioneer on both sides of the state line. The 214 Solar Street, or “Solar Hill,” resident was the only surviving son of John Mahoney, who’d also been successful in Bristol. James lived in his parent’s mansion, today known as the Gautnier-Mahoney House. The 55-year-old had never married and had no children. Despite his affluence, his bizarre death would send shock waves across the nation and bring about the first questions of how veterans’ hospitals deal with patients.
Mahoney was part owner of the fledgling radio station, WCYB. He wrote numerous pieces for the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Century, and several other prestigious publications. He received the prestigious O. Henry Award several times from 1921-1923. He owned roughly 1/3 of the business properties on and around State Street. His buildings included the Central Building at State and Sixth Streets, Sterling House, the Sterchi Building, the building for Rose’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, the bank building, as well as many State Street properties behind the family house. Mahoney was an avid supporter of the Barter Theater, in Abingdon, Virginia, as well as the Jane Hammit Home for Underprivileged Children.
During the First World War, Mahoney served in France’s Ambulance Corps, where he developed his love of travel. He briefly studied art in Paris, but eventually returned to the United States. He was educated at Emory and Henry, before he went on to Columbia University. His family originated in Greene County, Tennessee, but Mahoney spent the majority of his life in Bristol.
He was also active in the realm of Southern politics. He supported Senator Estes Kefauver and helped him defeat the Tennessee Democratic boss, E. H. Crump, in the 1948 Senate race. Mahoney was worldly, traveled, and rumors persist of several homosexual relationships. A 1997 biography of composer Virgil Thompson mentioned his 1920s relationship with James Mahoney.
His affluence, wealth, and grit wouldn’t survive his final vacation. He planned a vacation in the Yucatan, with a stopover in New Orleans. He arrived in Louisiana on February 20, and planned to fly on to Central America on February 22. It was Mardi Gras season and the city was filled with bright lights and festivities.
He checked in at the chic and fashionable Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter, on Sunday morning. His activities while in New Orleans remain vague. He did not make or receive calls from his hotel room. Several witnesses said a female accompanied him on the bus when he arrived in the city, but she had to meet a friend and left. The identity of this woman remains unknown today. Police dismissed her as a suspect, perhaps a little too soon.
Another strange factor was that Mahoney requested an extra cot be place in his room when he checked into the hotel. No one at the hotel actually witnessed anyone in his company the entire time he was there.
On the morning of Monday, February 21, Mahoney visited a photography supply store, where he spoke with clerk Martin Gattis. He purchased a camera exposure meter, as well as an inexpensive gold ring he had engraved with, “mother to James.” This was strange because Mahoney’s mother died two years before. His whereabouts for the rest of the day were never established.
That night, no one saw Mahoney return to his room. The occupants on either side of his room didn’t hear anything unusual. The hotel employed house detectives to ensure guests were safe and to prevent theft. The detectives patrolled the floors through the night and, despite passing Mahoney’s room several times, didn’t hear or see anything unusual.
A call came from Mahoney’s room late that night to wake him up at 5:30 am the next morning. His South American flight was schedule for 8:00 am. The hotel operated called at the requested time, but couldn’t get an answer. At 6:15 am, she dispatched a bellboy with a passkey to wake him. The bellboy discovered Mahoney’s body.
His was upside down on the bed, with his feet on the pillows and his head at the foot. Other than a sheet draped across his midsection, he was nude. Half of his skull had been beaten in and a bloody towel was twisted around his throat. There were no signs of a struggle or fight in the room.
An autopsy revealed Mahoney sustained both a fatal concussion and broken neck. The coroner determined Mahoney sustained fatal head injuries before his neck was broken. There was no evidence he attempted to defend himself, except for a tiny cut on his right hand, which may or may not have been made in defense.
The authorities were stunned. The motive was not robbery, even though whoever did it went through Mahoney’s belongings. Mahoney’s keys, wallet, and watch were missing, but the slayer left loose change, $1,400 in traveler’s checks, and two expensive cameras. There was discussion that Mahoney carried another $2,000 in cash, but it was never substantiated. Mahoney might’ve carried something that only had value to an associate, be it incriminating or personal, but the possibility was never pursued.
The authorities didn’t know where to start. Their investigation was at a standstill, partly due to the tremendous influx of Mardi Gras attendees. Mahoney hadn’t formally traveled with anyone, no one knew anyone he might’ve visited, and there was no real evidence anywhere. The killer had wiped his or her bloody hands on Mahoney’s trousers and left. The handprints were so blurred and smeared they had no identification use.
The suspects were as vague as Mahoney’s activities. The police searched for an, “unnamed woman,” a “large man with big ears,” and a, “youth in a green, striped sweater.” Since no one had been seen with Mahoney, the police only had rumors and hearsay to work with.
Some witnesses claimed the large man had been Mahoney’s drinking companion Monday evening. In the first two days of the investigation, the authorities already questioned over 80 people. A few days later, that number was 120. A man named Edwin Lewis, a carpenter from Richmond, Virginia, bragged that he was friends with Mahoney in a French Quarter bar. The authorities brought him in for a series of interrogations. He was held for days.
The authorities developed three rolls of film found in Mahoney’s belongings, but didn’t find solid leads. They said they found a telegram in his suitcase from a Bristol woman who was to meet him in New Orleans, and from there she would accompany him to Central America. That was also a dead end.
Several witnesses reported a young man in a green striped sweater outside Mahoney’s room at the time of the murder. Unfortunately, no one saw the young man enter or leave the hotel. Sketch artists got as many details as they could from the few people who thought they saw the young man and compiled a sketch.
Four days later, the authorities apprehended a man named Eugene Lewis Hoover. The Louisville native just been released from the Veterans Affairs hospital after a lengthy stay. He looked somewhat like the sketch, and his sweater resembled what people reported seeing, so they brought him in. What followed became a media circus.
The infamous sweater became more of an icon during the trial than any human. At first, the youth in the sweater was only around 16 or 17. He somehow appeared and disappeared from the hotel with only a few witnesses guessing they saw him. Eugene Lewis Hoover, 25, was a mentally imbalanced World War II Veteran. He became the focus because he had a similar sweater.
Unfortunately, Hoover suffered from acute hysteria, which is a conversion disorder. The body takes the individual’s anxieties and they manifest in physical symptoms. This disorder can carry many symptoms, including black outs, hysteria, aggression, depression, sudden physical handicaps, and hallucinations. He was just released from the Veterans Hospital on Monday.
At first, police tried to say Mahoney had bloodstains on his clothes and bloody bruises on his hands. That notion was overshadowed by the fact that days had passed. Bruises would’ve been fading or gone a week later.
Hoover wanted the authorities to administer truth serum. He had no recollection of his activities that night, and no memory at all until he awoke on Tuesday. He believed pentothal sodium, a barbiturate used in lethal injections today, would give him his memory back. Judging by the authorities’ documentation, the drug gave Hoover an extreme high. A paper written in 1941 from a medical study conducted on war veterans showed pentothal sodium, or truth serum, had a beneficial effect on victims of acute hysteria.
Unfortunately, barbiturates cause innocent people to make false confessions. While under the drug’s influence, Hoover admitted to the murder. He couldn’t offer a reasonable motive and had no idea Mahoney was a millionaire. This creates another problem. If Hoover were in the hotel room, he would’ve noticed Mahoney’s expensive belongings and traveler’s checks.
Regardless, Hoover had no recollection of his statements when the drug wore off. The authorities were torn between convenience and justice. Hoover was open to every suggestion and wanted someone else to tell him what happened that night. The newspapers printed what he said under the drug’s influence.
With no other solution, Hoover was indicted and arraigned for murder on March 9. The authorities emphasized that the statements made under the truth serum did not constitute a confession, and they were still in search of the woman. The media already had Hoover convicted.
Hoover was recently married to his 19-year-old wife. She first believed the questioning would be the end of Hoover’s involvement. She had been somewhere for 2 weeks, but it was never specified. She called it a “personal leave.” When it became clear that Hoover wasn’t getting away, she became hostile and vindictive. Suddenly, Hoover made her work in seedy clubs while he enjoyed an easy life, although they’d only been married a few weeks and she was absent for most of them.
Alberta Stroh, a Topeka native, didn’t say Hoover was in the VA hospital in Topeka, where she met him. She also didn’t say he’d just been arrested on February 18, but the officer let him be admitted to the VA in New Orleans as opposed to jail. She said her husband was “a mental case,” and they were going to return to Topeka where he could get further treatment. He was released from the hospital on Monday, Feb. 21, the eve of the crime.
She said she was pregnant and too ill for further questions, at that point. She was fine by the time of the trial in November. She volunteered to take the stand even though police told her she didn’t have to testify against her own husband, even though she had divorced him. She said the trip to New Orleans was their honeymoon. At trial, she was particularly eager to discuss her husband in “gay” places. There was never any proof to support her allegations. She also told the court that Hoover said he, “dreamed he committed the perfect crime.”
Hoover’s attorney was Sam Monk Zeldan, and occasionally his associate Max Zelden. Contrary to many murder trials, Zelden pushed for a speedy trial. There was no real evidence against Hoover. The authorities dawdled for time and even demanded a psychiatric evaluation. Zelden protested stating the authorities had no right to such a request, but he was overruled. Hoover was given his evaluation in July, and the doctors declared him sane.
Hoover was clearly troubled in jail. He was taken to the scene of the murder, but only said, “I possibly may have done it, but I don’t remember.” That night, he was seized by an attack of hysteria and beat his head against the cell bars until he collapsed. In another fit, he used a tin cup to start cutting his wrists. The authorities overpowered him before he could inflict more than superficial wounds.
Jury selection was done under the watchful gaze of two of Mahoney’s alleged associates, although it remains unclear as to why they attended something as mundane as jury selection. Lum Doyle, a criminal attorney and boxing commissioner from Nebraska, was said to be some kind of distant Mahoney relative. Dick Rouse was a criminal attorney and Mahoney’s estate attorney. The most unusual aspect of the two in attendance is that, despite their combined decades of experience in the courtroom, neither man made a statement or any contribution to the case.
The case made it into several detective books. Official Detective featured an article written by Bennett Wright in 1949. The Real Detective Magazine carried the Mahoney story under the title Crimson Horror at the Mardi Gras. Inside Detective magazine also highlighted the case in a story called Mystery at the Mardi Gras.
The first trial began in November of 1949 and ran into the first day of December. It was over before it began.
A story had been crafted around the details Hoover mentioned while on pentothal sodium. The two men bumped into one another on the street and became friends. He dined with Mahoney, and for some reason came back to his hotel room to shower. The two lay nude on Mahoney’s bed while they talked.
Mahoney insulted Hoover’s wife. He beat Mahoney for the insult. He tried to shove the towel in his mouth to stop his yells, but it wouldn’t fit. So, he twisted it around his neck. He then washed his hands twice, stole Mahoney’s keys, wallet, and watch. He then went to another hotel and registered, where he slept and didn’t wake until mid-day. The story is not without glaring flaws and improbabilities.
Emma Harrigan was the telephone operator at the Monteleone hotel. She testified someone left a message with her between 11:21 pm and 3:00 am to wake Mahoney at 5:30 am. The call was probably made by Mahoney himself. A Royal Street Hotel Detective, Ansel Cook, claimed he also briefly saw a man in a green sweater in a different hotel, although the relevance to the case is unknown. A waitress named Loraine Baker testified that she saw Mahoney and Hoover dining together before the murder.
The star witness was a carnival worker named Milton “Lucky” Baker. He said he witnessed Mahoney and Hoover together. He also claimed to be an acquaintance of Hoover, and that Hoover showed him a watch and a roll of money. He claimed Hoover said he got in a fight with a man, but didn’t know if he killed him or not. Hoover could not recall that night, so he made no attempt to deny what Baker or anyone else said.
John W. Hartle was the night clerk at the hotel where Hoover registered at 1:31 am, Tuesday morning. He registered under his real name and had no baggage. When he woke and came down later that day, he asked for directions to the VA hospital. It should be pointed out that Hoover was just released from the VA the previous day.
Hoover was convicted of first-degree murder on December 2, based upon purely circumstantial evidence. The conviction carried an automatic death penalty at the time. Nearly a year later, the authorities still hadn’t found Mahoney’s wallet, keys, or watch. They were not in Hoover’s possession or anywhere Hoover said they would be.
Hoover did not remain composed once the verdict was read. He immediately wept and moaned. He was so devastated he didn’t eat the following day. He wrote Zelden from death row and stated, “as God as my witness, I did not kill James Mahoney.”
Hoover was formally sentenced on February 1, 1950. The judge sentenced him to be electrocuted until he was, “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Hoover again wept in court. Fortunately, Zelden had already submitted paperwork to the state supreme court.
The first trial was an exercise in lunacy that likely stemmed from desperation and the difficulty of investigation during Mardi Gras. Assistant District Attorney, Philip Thrice, Jr., overstepped his legal boundaries. He messed up during his closing arguments. He first said Hoover was a little too familiar with crime scene photographs, which proved he was familiar with the crime scene. This even though Hoover never took the stand or handled the photographs at any time during the trial. Hoover didn’t recall any contact with Mahoney whatsoever until after the police questioned him.
Thrice declared Hoover had stayed in five mental hospitals, and made multiple suicide attempts, not because he had psychological problems, but to give him an alibi for any future murder he might commit. The Louisiana State Supreme Court granted the request, primarily because of Thrice’s questionable statements.
It was at this point when Zelden began telling the court that Hoover killed Mahoney because he made an “unnatural proposition.” He also brought in Dr. Hubert Winston Smith, a doctor at Tulane University, to study Hoover. After an intense interrogation, Hoover still didn’t recall anything of that evening. Hoover believed what they told him and admitted he killed Mahoney because of his inappropriate suggestions.
The second trial was an expose of the dubious tactics used during the first. The “star witness,” Milton Baker, was a Federal prisoner by that time and couldn’t attend. Loraine Baker, the waitress who gave damning testimony of Mahoney and Hoover together in a restaurant, was forced to elaborate on her statement. She noticed the two men there, but they weren’t actually in each other’s company. Mahoney sat in a different part of the restaurant while Hoover ate, but she said she overheard Mahoney say he waited on Hoover to finish his meal.
New Orleans Policeman, Frank Marullo, also revealed he’d arrested Mahoney on February 18, 1949. The charge was not established, but Marullo told Hoover if he committed himself to the VA hospital, he wouldn’t take him to jail. Hoover did as ordered.
He was found guilty of second-degree murder and the death penalty was converted to life in prison. Afterward, Hoover made several pitiful statements. He first said, “I am the happiest guy in the world.” He then said, “I did this because I wanted a trial. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison asking myself if Mr. Mahoney’s death was murder in the first degree. If it was, I wanted to die in the electric chair. If it wasn’t, I wanted a jury to tell me.”
Mahoney had a sizable estate to disperse. The court appointed two distant relatives as executors, Tom Doyle of Chicago, Illinois, and J. D. Mahoney, of Richmond, Virginia. The estate still hadn’t been settled in July of 1949. The estate was to be divided among 14 heirs.
The Mahoney estate went to auction in November of 1949. The value of the home furnishings alone was estimated to be over $20,000. One of the executors of the will did not want the full amount disclosed to the public, so exact totals never came out. The collection of interior goods included a Steinway Grand Piano, believed to have been sold to a woman from Norton, Virginia.
It’s easy to see a number of glaring problems with everything surrounding this case. We can surmise Mahoney knew his killer, and it’s doubtful he’d just met him. Or her. There was no sign of forced entry or a struggle of any kind in the room. There were no real signs of defense. The first blow to his head probably knocked Mahoney unconscious, the rest of the brutality was strangely emotional and violent. Perhaps the killer was just intimidated and wanted to make sure he was deceased.
It appeared Mahoney had something of value to an undiscovered party. His belongings were searched, but whatever the killer searched for remains unknown. It was not money, although it seemed someone made a slight attempt to disguise the murder as a robbery. They didn’t bother to take the cameras or traveler’s checks. No one established why a thief would find anything of value on Mahoney’s keychain, unless he carried a safe or deposit box key.
The Hotel Monteleone remains in operation today. The Monteleone originally opened in the 1880s as the Commercial Hotel. The historic structure, along with the scene of this crime, was demolished in 1954. The owners constructed a modernized structure that remains a hot spot for travelers seeking luxury.
The Supreme Court eventually ruled confessions produced under the influence of truth serums were inadmissible. Truth serum, usually sodium pentothal or thiopental, remains controversial. The barbiturate is used for anesthesia, euthanasia, medically induced comas, and it is one component of lethal injections. The effects are known to be drowsiness, unconsciousness, cardiac or respiratory episodes, and some types of delirium.
The “hangover effect” lasts upwards of 36 hours. Professionals established the drug made recipients compliant and open to suggestion, which would fit Hoover’s story progression as the questioning went along. First, he didn’t recall even being in the hotel room. He then recalled being in the hotel room, but nothing more. Eventually, he recalled hitting Mahoney when he insulted his wife. Finally, he remembered hitting Mahoney repeatedly, stuffing a towel in his mouth, taking his watch and wallet and disposing of the wallet.
Hoover identified Mahoney by photograph, but that doesn’t prove much of anything. Mahoney could not have yelled, as Hoover described, or someone would’ve heard. Mardi Gras was ongoing, so people would have been coming and going at all hours. This was also long before there were televisions in every hotel room. When Hoover woke that Tuesday, one of the first things he did was grab a newspaper. He could’ve seen Mahoney’s photograph in the paper.
This is one case where the authorities changed their story as much as Hoover changed his. Mahoney’s murderer obviously did “get away with the perfect crime.”