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Rev. John A. SPENCER





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Preacher
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 26, 1921
Date of arrest: August 20, 1921
Date of birth: ???
Victim profile: His wife Emma Spencer
Method of murder: Drowning
Location: Clear Lake, Lake County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in 1921

Rev. Spencer Trial On

Prosecution Working on Circumstantial Evidence

Spencer’s Character Assailed – eyes of Entire Country on Trial – No Proof of Murder

Lake County Bee

Thursday, October 6, 1921

With the eyes of the entire country turned on the trial of Rev. John A. Spencer, charged with the murder of his wife on Clear Lake on the night of July 26th and with the town teeming with visitors who have arrived for the trial, and amid an atmosphere of interest and anxiety the jury which is to decide the fate of the minister was sworn in at noon Tuesday. 

The jury was selected after sixty four were examined out of the hundred names drawn.  Many jurors disqualified themselves because of their prejudice toward circumstantial evidence and others because prejudiced against capital punishment.  The jury selected is as follows: Bert Sayre, H. Deverman, N.C. Fowler, J.T. Butler, John F. Garner, Herbert C. Mosher, H.W. Lathrop, T.J. Turner, Peter S. Pluth, Ray W. Young, Eugene W. Rose, Henry Herman.  Alternat juror: H.C. Norman. 

Working from three angles, that of poisoning, choking, and drowning, the prosecution is basing its fight on a plain case of circumstantial evidence.  The autopsy revealed that no poison was contained in Mrs. Spencer’s stomach, testimony proves that there were no marks of violence on the body and that there could have been no choking, and the last theory is that she may have been drowned. 

Up to the time that we go to press, no damaging evidence has been presented by the prosecution, which would serve to show that Spencer murdered his wife.  The testimony by the witnesses for the prosecution has the attacked the character of Spencer violently and laid his past life as an open book.  However, the defense has brought out that most of the testimony has been given by persons who hold a personal animosity against Spencer.  Robt.  Siddell, one of the star witnesses for the prosecution, admitted that he had always disliked Spencer. 

Mrs. Ella F. Palmer, who offered strong testimony against Spencer’s character, also acknowledged that she held a personal dislike for the minister. 

The prosecution began examination of witnesses on Tuesday after County Surveyor McIntire was the first witness and produced maps showing the location of Spencer’s cabin and the spot where the tragedy took place. 

Mrs. Robt. Sidell, to whose home the Spencers were bound on the night of Mrs. Spencer’s death, related the events that took place the night of the tragedy. 

Robt. Sidell testified that on the night of the death of Mrs. Spencer, he was awakened by his wife at about 9:30 and heard a voice calling to him from inside the door of his house.  He and his wife ran out, meeting Spencer who was calling for a rope and saying that his wife was in the lake.  While Mrs. Sidell ran for nearby help, her husband followed Spencer to the wharf where thye found Mrs. Spencer’s body floating near the boat, face-downward.  The body was pulled out and attempts made to resuscitate, but the body was already lifeless. 

Spencer explained that his reason for going to the Sidells was that his wife had a skirt which she desired to fix and not having the thread to match suggested on going to the Sidells and having Mrs. Sidell obtain the thread for her the following day on her trip to town, as Mrs. Sidell had been making regular trips to the dentist. 

Spencer further explained to Sidell that on getting out of the boat to fasten it to the wharf, he heard a splash and turning, saw that his wife was missing from the boat. 

He then jumped into the lake and dove down four times is an effort to rescue his wife, before going for assistance. 

Dr. Bonar, of Santa Rosa, testified that according to the testimony given by Sidell, Mrs. Spencer met her death by drowning, although characterizing it very unusual that the body did not sink.  In answer to the defense, the doctor stated that in the event that Mrs. Spencer died from heart trouble her body would have floated.  He also testified that he had examined Mrs. Spencer on May 27th and at that time her heart was normal.  However, he did not make an examination of the urine nor take the blood pressure, which tests are necessary for a thorough heart examination. 

On Wednesday morning Dr. Chas. Craig who examined Mrs. Spencer’s body at the autopsy, said that he had found a thickening of the valves of the heart and although he did not consider it probable that this would cause her death, stated that such a thing was possible. 

Hudson Jack, an Indian from the Indian Camp close to the scene of the tragedy took the stand and testified that he had heard someone call on the night of Mrs. Spencer’s death.  The defense broke down this testimony, making him admit that the voice which he heard may have been that of a man, woman, or animal. 

W.A. Miller, who has a lease on land owned by Spencer in San Jose, stated that Spencer told him that his wife was a burden to him, and that after Mrs. Spencer’s death Spencer never seemed so happy.  The defense brought out that Miller had some dealings with Spencer in a controversy over water on the leased land but Miller would not admit that the dealings were of an angry nature. 

The most violent assailing of Spencer’s character was given by Mrs. Mary Caldwell and Mrs. Ella F. Palmer, who were neighbors of the Spencers in Santa Rosa.  The testimony given by these witnesses was that Spencer had carried on intimate relations with Mrs. E.D. Duncks (Barber) and was often seen bgoing into her apartment. 

Mrs. Ella Palmer stated that Spencer had abused his wife on several occasions and that Mrs. Spencer had accused her husband of trying to poison her. 

On being interviewed Spencer said: “My wife was troubled with melancholy brought on by a change in life.  At times she was unduly excited and her feeling got beyond her control.  In this condition a person is liable to suspicion their best friends and often suffer hallucination, being possessed with a thought that someone wishes to harm them.” 

A letter addressed to Mr. M. Charmley, Santa Rosa, dated July 27, 1921, is as follows: “A sorry accident has entered my household while visiting an old friend.  Mrs. Spencer, in stepping from the boat to the wharf, lost her footing and fell into the lake.  I at once dived overboard.  The water was very deep and although I dove down four times, I could not find her.  Our kind host and wife together with other friends that gathered on the wharf assisted in the rescue.  It was not until some moments later that we saw the body floating at the far side of the boat.  The very place where we had not thought to look. 

Everything that kind and willing hands could do was done to revive her but without avail.  A coroners jury was summoned at once (composed of men and women the best in the county) and returned a verdict of accidental drowning. 

Hard as this misfortune is to me for I had, in common with herself, made many nice plans for the future.  Yet I am grateful to think that it took place in the presence of witnesses and at a public wharf.  The evil tongues that have done so much mischief in the past can find nothing here.  Hoping this finds you well of your troubles, I remain, very sincerely yours, J.A. Spencer. 

P.S. I am leaving Lake County for the southland where I expect to remain for a time.” 

This letter has been introduced by the prosecution as evidence. 

Another letter introduced by the prosecution, and which carries with it a violent blow to Spencer’s character, and which was claimed to have been sent by him to Mrs. E. D. Duncks (Barber), but which Spencer claims was left in his desk at his home and never mailed, is as follows: 

“My only Sweetheart: I am writing a late letter to you tonight darling for I have just returned from Mrs. P. and find Mrs. S. very poorly.  Mrs. P. says it will not be best for you to come see her for a few days for her poor weak mind has been so poisoned by falsehoods that she does not know her best friends.  Of course I know that Mrs. P. has had her share in this, in spite of her statements to the contrary and I accused her of it tonight love. 

But dearest in spite of this or anything else there will be no change in our love, we will see each other and confess our love to each other just the same darling.  My love do not come before 7:30 tomorrow night as I will have to visit Mrs. S. until about that time dear.  I will have the room warm for you and we will have a lovely hour together sweet love.  Do not tell anyone dearest that Mrs. S. is this way toward you and they will not know.  She will change in time.  Your loving letter did me much good darling.  And I shall count the minutes until tomorrow evening.  You can tell D. that you are going to Mrs. P. as you intended.  I am a little anxious about the letter you gave Mrs. C. to mail for you.  It would be --- if she ever read this.  We won’t ever give a letter or notes dear to any other again; they may mean our great loss to each other.  Good night my very own forever.  J.” 

The presence of District Attorney Hoyle of Sonoma County has caused considerable comment as it is a rare thing for a district attorney to assist in a case outside his own county.  Spencer’s version is that Hoyle holds a personal animosity against him because Spencer took an active part in a recall for Hoyle in Santa Rosa a year and a half ago. 

Hoyle’s statement is that he is assisting on the case at the request of the district attorney of this county and because of the fact that the Spencer case originated in Sonoma County.


Beneath the Surface

At half-past 9 on July 26, 1921, Robert Siddell and his wife had just retired for the evening in their cabin near Konocti Bay on Clear Lake in California when they were awakened by shouts coming from their neighbor, the Rev. John A. Spencer, who was standing in their living room.

“Siddell, Siddell, a rope!” Spencer was shouting. “My wife is in the lake! This is Mr. Spencer calling!”

Reverend Spencer was standing near the front entrance, drenched from head to toe. When he saw the Siddells, he raced from the house toward the Siddell’s wharf. Robert Siddell followed him, while his wife headed next door to another neighbor’s home to fetch more help.

Spencer was standing on the dock when Siddell arrived next to him, and the minister pointed to something floating near where his boat was tied to the Siddell wharf.

“There she is now,” Spencer said, referring to his wife, Emma, and Siddell noticed that his voice and demeanor had changed a bit.

Looking out into Konocti Bay, Siddell saw a woman’s body floating face down in the black water, with “a considerable portion of her body exposed” above the surface. She was dressed, but the evidence reports that she “wore no hat” and her hair was “down or torn loose.”

Quite calm now, Spencer jumped into his boat and moved toward the bow, reaching into the water to pull his wife’s body out of the water. With Siddell’s help, they took her limp form from the water and laid her on the wharf.

“While all of this was going on,” the record shows, Spencer “exhibited no signs of emotion. Indeed, his manner was rather that of complacency of mind than an indicium of excitement or sorrow or grief.”

When they had her on the dock, he turned to his neighbor and remarked, “She does not look as though she suffered any.”

Although Spencer might have been willing to write-off his wife, Siddell was not. He told Spencer to lift Emma’s upper body as she lay face down on the dock. As he did so, a large amount of water was expelled from Emma’s mouth. Siddell pushed on her abdomen, and more water flowed out. They turned the woman on her back and Siddell tried to get her to breath by working her arms back-and-forth.

“But all efforts at resuscitation were futile,” wrote a California appeals court. “It was obvious that life was extinct, as undoubtedly was the fact before the body was removed from the water.”

After the coroner removed Mrs. Spencer’s body, the minister told how they had happened to end up on the Siddells’ dock so late after calling hours. Emma, it seems, was sewing a skirt and needed a particular type of thread and she knew that Mrs. Siddell was planning to go into town the next morning. According to Spencer, she persuaded her husband “against his wishes” to leave their dock, on the opposite of Konocti Bay from the Siddells, and ferry her across to the Siddell cabin.

Spencer said he was in the act of tying up the boat when his wife must have stood up, lost her balance and fallen into the water. He tried three times without success to rescue her, and then headed up to the Siddells to seek help.

The next morning, the coroner held an inquest, during which a panel of six citizens heard testimony from the witnesses, Siddell and Spencer.

At one point during the hearing, when one one of the jurors posited whether it was possible that Emma had suffered a heart attack or seizure of some sort, Spencer told the court that his wife did have “serious heart trouble.” Friends noted that this was the first time that they had heard this.

After the brief hearing, the coroner’s jury ruled that Emma Spencer met her death through accidental drowning.

It wasn’t long after Mrs. Spencer was buried that ugly rumors began circulating that perhaps the death wasn’t an accident. For one thing, those who had experience with drownings said, normally a drowned body sinks beneath the surface and will remain there until the gasses of decomposition reverse the negative bouyancy and cause it to float. That usually takes four to six days.

The body of a person who is dead before he or she hits the water will float, however.

The Rev. Spencer didn’t help his case, either. Shortly after the funeral, he wrote a letter to another minister, discussing the unfortunate events. His version of what happened, however, bordered on fiction.

“I am grateful to think that it took place in front of witnesses, and at the public wharf,” he wrote. “The evil tongues that have done so much mischief in the past can find nothing here. I have at least cause to be thankful that it took place where it did at the home of a prominent and much respected family, with they and other friends present.”

At another time, he told other friends that Emma had fallen overboard in the middle of the afternoon during a party while she was waving to neighbors on the shore and that several others had also dived into the water to try to save her.

A quiet investigation began and the police soon learned from a youth named Hudson Jack, that he was camped near the wharf near the Spencer home and that at about 8 p.m. on the night Emma died, he heard a scream coming from the waterfront near that dock.

A little more than two weeks after she had been buried, Emma’s corpse was exhumed and an autopsy was performed. Although Mrs. Spencer’s mitral valve in her heart was a trifle thick, that would not have caused her death or even prompted a heart attack, the medical examiner ruled.

When friends of Mrs. Spencer told investigators they thought it very unusual that Emma had left her home without a scarf and hat that she “always” wore.

“It was known that the deceased always wore a hat and certain shawl when visiting among her friends or sailing with her husband on the lake,” the appellate court wrote. “As seen, when her body was first observed floating in the bay… the deceased wore neither a hat nor the shawl referred to.”

Working from the theory that perhaps Mrs. Spencer did not drown where she was found, authorities began poking around the dock near the Spencer cabin and when dragging the area of the lake around the Spencer dock, managed to bring up a red-and-white shawl that Emma’s friends subsequently identified as the victim’s favorite.

In August 1921, Spencer appeared at the offices of a real estate firm and demanded some documents that his wife had prepared shortly before her death. The papers signed over rights to some property and a promissory note held by Emma Spencer to her husband in the event of her death.

Next, the police began looking at the marital relationship between the minister and his wife.

“It was discovered that for a number of months before the death of Mrs. Spencer the relations between the defendant and his wife were of the most unhappy character,” the investigation revealed. “Spencer had often been heard to abuse his wife by addressing to her opprobrious epithets of the most indecent character and expressing himself when quarrelling with her in the most offensive profanity.”

At one point, a weeping Emma told a friend, “that man in the next room is killing me.” Another neighbor heard her telling Spencer that “she knew enough about him to send him to prison.”

Most damning of the circumstantial evidence that was accumulating against the Rev. Spencer was the fact that he was carrying on an affair with a married woman referred only as “Mrs. D.” He not only was her lover, he was paying for an apartment for her in San Jose and at times was living with her as if they were married.

Authorities unearthed a letter written by Spencer in December 1920 to Mrs. D., where he referred to her as “My only sweetheart.

“We will see each other and confess our love to each other, just the same, darling,” he wrote in it.

Other evidence showed that Emma was well aware of the affair, although she certainly did not approve. In fact, as Spencer became more and more infatuated with Mrs. D. — there is no mention of Mrs. D.’s husband, and it seems likely that because she was living in an apartment paid for by Spencer she was at least separated — the Spencers’ relationship became more fractious.

In August 1921, the Lake County Sheriff and district attorney concluded their investigation and arrested Spencer. During a boat trip back to Lake County, Spencer asked District Attorney Churchill how much he earned annually. When Churchill replied that he received $1,500, Spencer replied, “That’s not enough!” He then offered him a bribe.

“I know of a case where the district attorney was given $200 for not prosecuting a case,” Spencer said. “Do you think that would be a proper thing to do?”

Churchill knew what was going on and began to play along. He talked about how poor he was and about his high mortgage. Spencer asked if he wanted to live on Konocti Bay, which Churchill said sounded very nice. Spencer then proposed giving him 50 feet of frontage along the bay as well as enough lumber to build a home.

When Spencer discovered a recording device in a room where he and Churchill were to discuss the bribe further, he dropped the subject.

The matter went to trial, and the Rev. Spencer was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, arguing that the corpus delicti was not proved, but was unsuccessful.



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