A classic American "bluebeard," Watson led a life of subterfuge and mystery, with question marks beginning at his birth. Christened Charles Gillam, he was born at Paris, Arkansas, sometime in 1870, his father absent at the time of the event.
As a child, he was told of his father's death, discovering the truth -- that he had been deserted -- at the age of nine. When his mother remarried, she added further confusion to the situation by calling her son "Joseph Olden," after his new stepfather. Man and boy clashed immediately, with cruel punishment prompting "Joseph" to run away from home around age 12. By all accounts James Watson was a marrying machine, although the number of his brides -- and victims -- still remains uncertain.
Carl Sifakis, in The Encyclopedia of American Crime, credits Watson with 40-odd marriages and "at least 25" murders, but Watson's own confession was somewhat more modest, listing 19 wives and seven murder victims. Of course, his memory left much to be desired -- the names of two wives had completely slipped his mind, though he recalled their anniversaries -- and victims listed in his final affidavit only span the last two years of his career in lethal matrimony.
There may well be others, murdered and forgotten during 12 years on the road, but we cannot retrieve their names at this remove. "Olden" was working on his second marriage by the time he settled in St. Louis, entering the advertising business, but his creative bookkeeping led to criminal indictment around 1912, and he fled into Canada, adopting the Watson alias that would see him through the rest of his life.
On June 12, 1913, he married Katherine Kruse in British Columbia, later deserting her without benefit of a divorce. At that, she was one of the lucky ones. As Watson summarized their relationship in his later confession: "No violence attempted on her -- had impulse but was able to resist."
He resisted, also, with a certain Mrs. Watts, married at Winnipeg in early 1918. In March of that year, he married Marie Austin in Calgary, Alberta, afterward moving to the United States. Perhaps the first to die, Marie was bludgeoned with a rock, her body weighted down and dumped in a lake near Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. Later in 1918, Watson married a Seattle widow, whose name he could not recall.
They honeymooned at Spokane, and Watson cut the relationship short by pushing her over a waterfall. "There was no controversy," he wrote later, "just an impulse." Drifting around Tacoma in early 1919, Watson married Maude Goldsmith in January and Beatrice Andrewartha a month later.
Beatrice survived until spring, when they paid a visit to Lake Washington, near Seattle, and Watson felt "something come over me," compelling him to drown her on the spot. Watson picked up two more brides, in Vancouver and Sacramento, before marrying Elizabeth Prior on March 25, 1919, at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
They were touring near Olympia, Washington, when they began to quarrel and Watson "accidentally" knocked her unconscious, seizing the opportunity to finish her off with a hammer. Three wives later, in June 1919, Watson married Bertha Goodrich at North Yakima, Washington.
They were honeymooning near Seattle when Watson bludgeoned her "on impulse," dumping her weighted body into a convenient lake. In July, he was boating with new bride Alice Ludvigson, near Port Townsend, Washington, when she "accidentally" fell out of the boat and was drowned in the St. Joe River. At least two more survivors followed Watson to the altar before he married Nina Delaney at El Centro, California, in December 1919.
A month later, her nude body was found outside of town, strangled, her skull crushed, breasts and genitals slashed with a knife. Jealousy, rather than homicide, proved to be Watson's undoing. In the spring of 1920, wife nineteen suspected him of infidelity and hired a private investigator to check out his background. The detective found a suitcase filled with wedding rings and marriage licenses, deciding he was "dealing with no ordinary criminal."
Arrested on suspicion of bigamy in April, Watson was still in custody when an unidentified woman's body was unearthed near Plum Station, Washington. Afraid it might be one of his -- ironically, it wasn't -- Watson struck a bargain with the prosecutor and issued a detailed confession on May 7, accepting a life sentence three days later.
Confined at San Quentin, he died in prison on October 15, 1939.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia
of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
Watson, James B.
SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE:
VICTIMS: 25+ alleged
"Bluebeard" slayer of wives
DISPOSITION: Life term on
confession of seven counts, 1920; died in prison Oct. 15, 1939.