In One of L.A.’s Most Outrageous Murder Cases, a Rattlesnake Was the Weapon

In 1935, Robert S. James became L.A.’s worst husband

It was a still summer evening in La Cañada in August of 1935. James and Viola Pemberton had driven with their friend Robert S. James to his lovely new home on Verdugo Road for dinner. They were expecting his 25-year-old wife, a strawberry-blond named Mary, to meet them at the door. But she was nowhere to be found and the house was dark.

The three began to search for Mary. James Pemberton went into the backyard and shone his flashlight on a fishpond, screened off by dense shrubbery. “I had the flashlight pointing to the other side of the pond. I nearly stumbled on the body before I saw it,” he later recalled. “I looked down and it was right at my feet. Then I turned my light upon it and saw Mrs. James lying with her face in the water. Her yellow hair was floating.” On the deceased woman’s left big toe was a strange, discolored puncture wound.

Robert and his wife had only been married for three months. She had met the 38-year-old barber when he hired her to work as a manicurist at his barbershop at Ninth and Olive in downtown Los Angeles. Robert was a strange kind of ladies’ man. Originally from Alabama, he had been born Major Raymond Lisenba to a poor, abusive sharecropper. He was described as pasty, with a shock of slicked-back red hair, red-rimmed green eyes, and a high nasal voice. His intelligence was not high—one childhood neighbor called him “less than a half-wit.” But Robert had a certain kind of dumb charm and had already been married at least five times.

Mary had no idea who she’d married. Robert was a seasoned—if bumbling—con-man and suspected murderer, who had no intention of settling down in the warm California sunshine. He had become enamored with running insurance scams after his mother died, leaving him a small policy. Soon after they met, Robert convinced Mary to take out a $10,000 life insurance policy on herself. He then enlisted the help of one of his customers, a financially strapped ex-sailor and fry-cook named Charles Hope. “James came to me early in June last year and said he had a friend who wanted to kill his wife and that it would be worth $100 to me to get a couple rattlesnakes,” Hope later testified. “I said all right, it was none of my business what he wanted the snakes for.”

According to Robert, it was a much more collaborative project, with Hope taking the lead. First, he suggested they kill Mary with black widow spiders. “All you have to do is throw them in bed with her!” Then they discussed “burning down the house about the unfortunate woman, poisoning her through a scratched skin with a chemical and shooting her in a fake hold-up, as alternate murder methods.” Hope bought some black widow spiders, but although Mary complained in a letter about a badly swollen leg from a bite she received in her garden, it didn’t kill her. Finally, they settled on murder-by-rattlesnake-bite and set off to find the perfect killers.

Two rattlesnakes were brought into the courtroom during the trial.

Herald-Examiner Collection /Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The pair bought three rattlesnakes from Mike Alman at the Reptile Gardens on Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica, but Robert decided they were “no good.” Hope then went to visit the legendary Joseph C. Houtenbrink, known as “Snake Joe,” at his snake farm in Pasadena. “I’ve got a big bet that a rattlesnake will strike and eat a rabbit and I want the meanest thing you’ve got to make sure I win,” Snake Joe recalled Hope telling him. Houtenbrink sold him two 6-year-old desert diamondback rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightning, but felt uneasy about the sale. “Mike Alman…came to my place,” Snake Joe recalled, “and in the course of our conversation, asked me if the man who wanted some hot rattlesnakes had been to see me. I told him he had, and we talked it over and the whole thing seemed suspicious.”

The two grizzled snake men had reason to be wary. On August 4, Hope and Robert set their bizarre plan in motion. Though their testimony was self-serving and filled with lies, we have a general outline of what occurred. Robert convinced Mary, who he claimed was pregnant, to get an abortion. He claimed he had found a doctor to perform the operation in the breakfast nook of their La Cañada home, but that her eyes would have to be covered to protect his identity. He then plied her with “whiskey and bromides,” and placed an unconscious Mary, who was wearing soft pink pajamas, on a table in the breakfast nook. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hope walked into a hellish scene:

“He saw Mrs. James tied with cotton rope to the top of a table, her mouth and eyes covered with adhesive tape. The woman gave only a little groan before [Robert] thrust her left leg into the box occupied by two vicious rattlesnakes.”

The snakes bit Mary three times. But though she writhed in agony, the venom didn’t instantly kill her. A panicked Hope sat nervously in a car in the garage, while Robert frequently came out to supply updates and give the jittery man whiskey. Hours passed. Finally, Robert came out and sat next to Hope in the car. “Well, that’s it,” he said. Tired of waiting for her to die, he had drowned Mary in the bathtub.

“I walked in and saw this girl lying on the floor just outside the bathroom door with her pajamas on and slippers,” Hope remembered. “I carried her feet. He carried her head. I laid her alongside the fish pond.”

After the murder, Hope stayed away from the barbershop, either out of guilt or fear. According to Lois Wright, Robert’s pretty, manicurist niece, he reappeared several weeks later, but “he didn’t let my uncle shave him,” she said. “He went to another chair.”

For his part, Robert quickly dispensed with any semblance of a grieving widower. “[Robert James] confidently tried to redeem the insurance policy Mary Busch had signed,” historian Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in a 1995 L.A. Times article. “But when an insurance investigator stumbled upon the fact that the barber had been married five times, and that James’ third wife had also died by drowning, he tipped the police.”

Unbeknownst to Robert, police had quietly begun to investigate him. Hope came forward, pinning the whole crime on the red-headed barber. Police bugged Robert’s house and indeed uncovered a crime—though not the one they were investigating. Robert and his niece were lovers—and police had it on tape. He was arrested for incest, and taken to a safe house to be interrogated. There he cracked and confessed (although he claimed Hope planned the murder). When Wright, who was taken into protective custody, was told of her uncle’s alleged plot, she exclaimed, “My God, I know nothing of this. It is too horrible to think about. I guess I am a lucky girl.”

The police dug into Robert’s past, and it was not pretty. At theLa Cañada home he shared with Mary, they found multiple pamphlets from “marriage bureaus,” which set up people with potential mates. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“Another prize exhibit officers found in an envelope…was a list of nearly 200 ‘special’ feminine matrimonial prospects. Heavily underscored in the list was the name of a New York widow, 53 years of age, who advertised that she ‘had an income of $10,000 annually.'”

Much more concerning was the suspicious death of a nephew, who had died in a car crash a few years earlier, after Robert had taken out a life insurance policy on him (he had also asked Wright to take out a policy on herself). And his third wife, a pretty blond named Winona Wallace, had “accidentally” drowned in a bathtub in Colorado in 1932, months after surviving a car accident which many believed Robert had caused. It was soon after he had cashed out Winona’s life insurance policy that he moved to California (with Wright) to start anew.

Robert and Hope, handcuffed together, were arraigned on May 6, 1937, and charged with first-degree murder. Now enemies, the two had to be separated when Robert threatened Hope, “If you plead guilty, I’ll break your neck!”

As the blundering murderers squabbled, in the D.A.’s office the prosecutors were testing the venom of Lethal and Lightning, who Hope had returned to “Snake Joe” after the murder:

“A weird and terrifying test was going on at the same time in a room in [the District Attorney’s]…office. There a little group of men huddled over a box. The mean hiss of angry rattlesnakes rose above their talks occasionally. ‘Snake Joe’ Houtenbrink bent over the box. With a looped wire, he caught a snake and deftly pushed its head at a jar. The angry snake struck, and its fangs pierced a rubber membrane stretched across the mouth. A bit of liquid fell to the bottom of the jar.”

On June 2, 1937, Robert was sentenced to 150 years on the three morals charges involving Lois. On the 19th, his fate was sealed when Hope pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, in exchange for not receiving the death penalty. His testimony, along with the discovery of a black widow spider nest at the La Canada house, and fragments of Mary’s pink pajamas in a downtown incinerator where Hope said he had put them, would seal Robert’s fate.

This didn’t stop the trial, which started on June 22, 1936, from being a media circus. Robert pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. On the 25th, his former partner in crime testified against him in a low mumbling voice. Hope “grimaced with annoyance when asked to repeat indistinguishable fragments of testimony.” But according to the Los Angeles Times:

“His indifference must have hidden an internal storm. Only a few minutes before being called to the stand he suddenly became ill and had to be removed from the courtroom to recover. James himself turned the color of clay at the same time that Deputy Sheriff Toohey testified to what he found when he reached the fishpond death house in La Cañada.”

Robert took the stand on July 15, claiming his “confession” had been coerced. That same day, he and Hope were at it again, when lawyers made the odd choice of having the two men reenact the murder scene:

“James climbed on the heavy mahogany attorney’s table. He lay on his back as Mary James is supposed to have been lying. Hope was led alongside. In the little play, he was supposed to seize James’s foot and jam it into the replica of the original snake box.”

Police re-enact the murder with help from Charles Hope (right).

Herald-Examiner Collection /Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The men got into a squabble and began to brawl while Lightning and Lethal, who had been brought in as evidence, “hummed their signal of death.” But there was more drama in store, according to reports:

“Lethal, one of the rattlesnakes escaped in the courtroom during the noon recess after James had spent most of the morning on the witness stand in his own defense. Like a streak of brown quicksilver, the reptile slid under a bookcase. His vicious rattling threw the courtroom into hysteria.”

“Snake Joe” and another rattlesnake man came to the rescue and captured Lethal before he bit anyone.

On July 25, Robert was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging. When he learned his fate, “his eyes barely shifted,” and he simply said, “I can take it.”

He spent his final years in prison appealing his conviction, gaining an enormous amount of weight, and finding Jesus with the aid of an enamored religious worker named Helen Atkinson. When his last appeal was denied “his eyes barely shifted,” and he simply said, “I can take it. Let’s just say that Rattlesnake Bob James is not afraid to die.”

On May 2, 1942, he became the last man to hang in the state of California. The Los Angeles Times reported on the grim scene:

“[Robert James] mounted the 13 steps to the hangman’s noose and death on the San Quentin gallows today. He was calm to the end…he was dressed in a black suit and a white collarless shirt. His red hair was neatly combed. His face was very white. There was a strange look of triumph in his sharp eyes as he glanced down at the 98 reporters, officials and guards who stood in the high ceilinged, raftered death house. His appearance, almost boyish, gave the impression he had been interrupted by his executioners while dressing for a dance.”

A “genuine lady killer” to the last.

RELATED: In the Footsteps of a Killer

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