It was a warm summer evening in Los Angeles on August 16, 1933. Beloved schoolteacher Cora Withington and newspaper publisher Crombie Allen were stopped at a traffic light at 3rd Street and Lafayette Park Place in Westlake. They had just seen the new movie Tugboat Annie. Cora was learning to drive, so Crombie let her take the wheel of his new Chevrolet coupe. Suddenly, a young man in a Graham Eight sedan jumped out, waving a gun in the couple’s direction.
“Shell out, sweetheart!” he sneered. “And that goes for you too, Bo!” Crombie quickly handed over what he had—$18 and a watch. Cora was fumbling with her purse, which had caught on a string on her skirt. “The first thing I knew,” Crombie recalled, “there was an explosion—and I felt a sting in my neck.” What he felt was a bullet, which had grazed the his neck before entering Cora’s eye.
As blood poured out of his companion’s face (she would be blinded for life), Crombie watched the sedan speed away. In the driver’s seat was a platinum blonde girl wearing a brown turban. She was laughing.
Around two weeks later, the bandit and his smiling blonde moll were married at her parents’ home in Santa Ana, “in one of the prettiest early fall wedding ceremonies.” The respectable guests had no idea that the new bride and groom were responsible for a crime spree terrorizing Los Angeles.
The two love-struck desperados were Tom White and Burmah Adams White, L.A.’s own Bonnie and Clyde. Over a few weeks in the hot, desperate summer of 1933, the couple would commit over twenty felonies in the L.A. area—stealing cars, robbing gas stations, and taking hostages.
Mercifully, none of their victims were killed, though this was cold comfort to L.A. residents. “This was a car town. And the fact that you had somebody out there that could at any moment leap out and shoot you—the terror was no less palpable than if it were bank robberies. It was actually worse,” says historian Julia Bricklin, author of the informative and entertaining new book Blonde Rattlesnake: Burmah Adams, Tom White, and the 1933 Crime Spree that Terrorized Los Angeles.
Bricklin, a historian and editor of the journal California History, discovered this long-forgotten story by accident when searching for a historical picture of a schoolteacher for the journal. “When I typed in teachers at the L.A. Public Library Herald Examiner archives, up popped a folio of photographs of Cora Withington, the teacher who was shot,” Bricklin says. “And I couldn’t believe nobody had written about this story that was on every front page in 1933.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Thomas White was a bad guy. He was already a career felon, with a long history of prison stints in both Colorado and California, when he met Burmah Arline Adams, a pretty 19-year-old hairdresser from Santa Ana who was living with a friend in L.A. By all accounts, she was a good girl—nice, smart, hard working, and charming. However, she had suffered a traumatic head injury as a teenager, which may or may not account for her behavior during her courtship with Tom.
In June of 1933, just two months after being paroled, Tom met Burmah at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, and the rest is true crime history. “When the orchestra struck up that dreamy melody, ‘Ah, But Is It Love?’ and I found myself gliding among all those bewitching lights and shadows, in the arms of Tom White, some strange new feeling stirred in my heart,” Burmah later recalled. “Something that I’d never felt before.”
It wasn’t long before Tom, who may have introduced Burmah to cocaine and drugged her drinks, initiated her into his life of crime. As the couple committed robbery after robbery, the smiling peroxide blonde became a boogey woman in Southern California.
“In almost every instance, the victim or victims were distracted either by the woman’s striking appearance or by her seeming indifference to the crime or both,” Bricklin writes in Blonde Rattlesnake. “For example, as his robbers drove away, [robbery victim] Jo Robinson took a good long look at the blonde woman driving the car. He was certain that—based on descriptions in the newspapers and radio—she was the accomplice who laughed as her beau pulled the trigger on the schoolteacher and her publisher friend. She laughed at Robinson, too.”
Burmah’s friends and family reported a complete change in character after she met the abusive Tom, who claimed to be a stockbroker. There were reports of bruising on her body, including several spied by her father on her wedding day. “There was quite a lump on her forehead,” he later told the court during Burmah’s trial. “And there were several bruises on her arm; and I noticed a bruise up here, around her chest. Just how many, I don’t remember, but there were several of them, and they were not very small, either.”
The newlyweds would be married only six days. The LAPD had been frantically searching for the man nicknamed the “rattlesnake bandit” and his “girl moll.” On September 6, undercover LAPD members dressed as mechanics spied Burmah driving a stolen car to the Casa Del Monte Apartments at 236 Coronado Street.
Police soon entered the building, speaking with her before confronting Tom in the hallway. Their confrontation was brief. As soon as they announced they were cops, Tom started shooting. Officers opened fire, and soon Tom was dead.
Unluckily for Burmah, the media had a front row view of the action. “The LAPD had an understanding with the Times and The Examiner that they would call before they raided a particular scene or went to the scene of a crime,” Bricklin explains. “It was perfectly acceptable for photographers and reporters to come along as they did during the raid.”
These reporters and photographers documented the new widow’s every move. Her odd, cold indifference to her dead husband was noted from the start, when Burmah stepped over Tom’s dead body with no emotion at all. Photos were snapped of her at the crime scene and at the morgue.“She haughtily walked into the morgue,” the Examiner reported, “and posed with icy indifference, then like an actress going into a ‘sob scene’ she managed to sniffle a bit.”
Burmah had been captured at an intolerant time. The Depression had made heroes out of gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd, and crime was surging throughout America and Southern California. Writers and government officials were obsessed with the psyche of criminals, and good-girl Burmah presented a particularly interesting case.
“I do not believe prison means anything to her but another thrill,” Sheriff’s deputy Nettie J. Yaw wrote. Criminals like her had a “sublime ego that absolutely obliterates any thoughts of the rights of others, the consequences of acts. Pleasures, pain, new drinks, new romances, new adventures make up their lives.”
Awaiting trial in the Los Angeles County Jail, Burmah found herself constantly hounded by the eager news media. “During the height of the Great Depression, sob sisters, female columnists, and of course Hollywood columnists became all the rage,” Bricklin explains. “So, people are looking for escapism and also a way to fill newspapers because syndicated newspaper groups were exploding at that time. So female reporters like Agnes “Aggie” Underwood and Louella Parsons and a few others saw themselves as the arbiters of news with these female convicts. Who better to get the real scoop than another woman?”
Burmah spoke to both these ace reporters, giving each her (constantly changing) version of events. “My mother came to see me today,” she told the unusually sympathetic Parsons. “She said that I am more normal than she has seen me in months. I am not a bad girl. …I was so terrified that I did exactly as he told me to do. That’s why I am here in jail.”
However, most of the media were not so sympathetic to the photogenic “girl bandit,” who now bore the brunt of her and Tom’s crimes. A more typical portrayal was found in a September 8 edition of the Examiner:
With a sneering smile on her face, 19-year old Burmah Adams White, icy blonde bride of the slain rattlesnake bandit, is pictured as she appeared in the glaring spotlight of the police shadowbox last night for identification by the bandit’s victims.
“I think she liked [the media attention] at first and then she realized very quickly that the media is very fickle and wasn’t necessarily going to report her in a glamorous and or sympathetic light,” Bricklin says. “But I think a lot of that too is all of a sudden you have light bulbs going off in your face and people asking questions and you’re raised as a good girl to just answer truthfully… She had no attorney holding her hand to answer any of these questions.”
Burmah’s trial in the fall of the 1933 was a sensation, trumped up by authorities eager to make an example of her.
“By the time Burmah came around in 1933, we had the Chief of LAPD, James ’Two Gun’ Davis,” Bricklin says. “Judge Fletcher Bowron… had his eye on future office. Certainly, District Attorney Buron Fitts had his eye on the governorship…. And the fact that she was young, female, pretty and seemingly had no reason to commit these crimes- It was a perfect storm. She really fell into this nexus of resumé building for all of these folks in Los Angeles trying to show they were as tough on crime and youthful crime and female crime as Chicago and New York and so on.”
Bricklin believes that Burmah did not receive a fair trial. Eager to clear his docket, Judge Bowron rushed through her trial, forcing an unprepared lawyer to represent her. Witnesses and victims were crammed together in the court room, watching each other’s testimony.
Burmah White was eventually convicted of six counts of robbery, three counts of assault with an intent to commit murder and one count of attempted robbery. Sentencing the teen to 30 years to life, Judge Bowron stated his reasons plainly:
It is not a pleasant duty to send a young person, and particularly a young woman, to the penitentiary. As an individual I have nothing but heartfelt sympathy and pity for this young woman who is about to be branded a convict. But as a judge, my duty is plain. Burmah White, the penalty I am about to impose is not retribution…But it is hoped that your case will serve as an object lesson to others.
Tom and Burmah’s crime spree would profoundly change laws in Los Angeles. Because Tom had been an unregistered convicted felon in L.A., laws were changed requiring all who had been convicted of felonies in the last ten years to register with the sheriff’s department, a precursor to the current criminal database.
This law came too late to save Burmah from the clutches of Tom White. On Dec 6, 1933, she boarded a train to begin serving her sentence at Tehachapi Women’s Prison in Kern County. Luckily for her, the newly opened prison focused on reform and rehabilitation instead of deprivation and punishment.
“She did really well there,” Bricklin says. “She really tried. She was always a model prisoner. The beginning I think was hard for her. I don’t think she really understood that she was in prison. It had to be a shock to go from a trial one day and then the next day be in prison, and everything that happened to her happened within a three-month period of time—including the crimes.”
As Burmah lived out her twenties in Tehachapi, resuming her work as a hair stylist, her infamy as the laughing “blonde rattlesnake” lived on. In 1933, the inaugural episode of the LAPD-backed radio program Calling All Cars aired “The Burmah White Story,” narrated by none other that Chief Davis himself.
“She would never have entered a career of crime had the parole system been stringent enough to prevent desperadoes from having their freedom,” he moralized. “It is my sincere hope that you, the citizens, will demand a proper parole system so that you and yours will not be in constant danger from the ruthless viciousness of men of the stripe of Tom White.”
Burmah was released on December 1, 1941. The media had bigger things—the advent of World War II—to worry about. She quietly moved to San Francisco, where she became the invaluable office manager of the flamboyant developer, lawyer and investor Edmond Herrscher. She also married again, becoming the wife of a structural engineer named Alfred Dymond.
The Dymonds eventually moved to Washington State. During the 1950s, Burmah tried desperately to get a pardon from the state of California, but to no avail. “I think she wanted a little bit of restorative justice,” Bricklin says. “I think she wanted to show that, look, I did my time. I’m rehabilitated. I’ve been working for the most part…And damn it, I should be able to be a full-fledged citizen.”
Perhaps it was memories of that fateful summer, but it appears Burmah eventually succumbed to alcoholism. She died of complications from the disease in 1962, leaving behind a mystery and the echoes of her mean-spirited laughter. What were her motives that crazy summer? Was it the head injury, the abuse, the drugs—or all or none of the above?
“When I started, I thought I was going to find a girl who was probably an orphan, probably starving…and was just a really bad egg coupled with the fact that she was potentially desperate because of finances during the Depression,” Bricklin says. “What I found was she was the opposite—she grew up in a stable home and one that relatively speaking was doing OK with the worst effects of the Depression. You know, her parents were very stalwart, but they loved her. So, she was not at all what I expected! I thought I would have an aha moment that showed me why she became bad.”
“It’s a very uncomfortable feeling because, of course, you want to put people in categories, right? And point to that one pivotal moment,” Bricklin relates. “But I did not find it. And I feel that perhaps, she was just a little bit of a bad girl.”
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