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Serial Killer Robert "Rattlesnake" James

Updated on March 9, 2012

He was born Major Raymond Lisemba; in Alabama sometime in 1895. But the son of a sharecropper called himself Robert S. James. His nickname of "Rattlesnake" was earned by the method he attempted to use to murder at least one woman.

The case that spelled the end for James was the murder of his fifth wife, Mary Busch a 27 year old strawberry blond. News Media which gave the story wide coverage labeled him as “The Diamondback Killer.” His subsequent execution also gave him the dubious distinction of being the last man to be hung in California before the gas chamber was instituted.

James’ sordid life began to unfold upon the death of his mother who named him the beneficiary in her life insurance policy. That was a mistake, as it only served to teach the young man it would be easy to make a living by defrauding insurance companies. He insured his nephew, then, meddled with his car’s steering mechanism before loaning it to him. His sister was informed by telegram of her son’s death before it happened. The type was cast.

James had no qualms about killing, but to pull off the scams he needed a job to hide behind. That had been provided by a brother-in-law who paid his way through barber school.

His first two marriages failed, which was a stroke of good luck for his spouses. In 1921, he married Maud Duncan, but she quickly filed for divorce, finding his bedside manner much too kinky. His second wife divorced him after finding out he impregnated another young woman and her irate father had ran him out of town with a shotgun. When he reached North Dakota, he stopped running and that’s when he decided to change his name.

He was still in North Dakota in 1932, when he opened his own barber shop and married Winona Wallace. The silver tongued Romeo with a southern drawl found it easy to sweet talk his new wife into buying a $14,000 life insurance policy naming him as sole beneficiary. Little did she know she had also just bought herself a one way ticket to eternity.

The newlyweds honeymooned in Colorado where James struck her in the head with a hammer. Still alive, he sent her down a cliff in their car. The lady still refused to die. She survived but had no recollection of the foregoing events. James became frustrated as he watched his wife recovering in bed. He decided to end it once and for all by drowning her in the bathtub. The death was ruled accidental and James got the money.

With his new found wealth burning a hole in his pocket James splurged, buying expensive clothes and replacing his old wrecked heap with a fancy new Pierce-Arrow convertible. He returned to Alabama where he strutted around like a peacock. It wasn’t long before he seduced his impressionable 18 year old niece, Lois Wright. That didn’t set well with her father, the man who generously had put James through barber school. So, James and his niece packed up and moved to Los Angeles where he opened a barber shop at 8th and Olive streets.

With funds beginning to run out, James decided to hunt for wife number four, while he continued fooling around with Lois. However, after his new marriage the wife refused to get a physical examination, required for life insurance because she dreaded doctor visits. James immediately set about having the marriage annulled and began looking for a new victim. That was pretty 27 year old, Mary Busch who applied for a manicurist job at his shop.

James, a suave and debonair red headed charmer, easily conned her into buying a $10,000 life insurance policy. He then found a down and out street person and paid him to impersonate a minister. As soon as his annulment came through he and his prospective bride had a sham wedding. That was done to get a running start on the insurance money. He married her later with a real minister.

The couple moved into a new home in La Canada, a suburb of Los Angeles. Within months, James came home from work with two friends, perhaps to be witnesses, and found his pregnant wife face down, dead in the fishpond. When police arrived they also brought a physician who examined the corpse and pronounced her dead at the scene.

James explained his wife had been ill lately and having dizzy spells. He suggested maybe she had gotten dizzy, fell and hit her head on one of the rocks in the fish pond. But there were no injuries to her head. One thing the doctor did notice was her right leg was discolored and swollen and there was a cut on her right big toe.

James went to collect the $10,000. However, this time a sharp insurance investigator came across some startling information about the bereaved husband. He discovered James had been married five times and one of them had also died by drowning. He informed the police of his suspicions.

Police also suspected something strange was going on and bugged James' residence. After a month of listening, James was arrested…not for murder, but having an incestuous affair with his niece, a felony under California law. He was sentenced to 50 years. This was juicy gossip for the newspapers and reporters began digging into James’ past to find more dirt on him.

The key to James’ murderous past however, was uncovered by police. There had been an accomplice in Mary Busch’s demise, a fry cook by the name of Charles Hope. Hope said James hired him to buy a pair of rattlesnakes, which he did and put them in a box out of Mary’s sight. James then persuaded his wife to have an abortion.

But that was illegal, so he told Mary in order to maintain the doctor’s identity, which was supposedly on the way, he would have to tape her eyes and mouth shut. Once he had accomplished that, he strapped Mary to the kitchen table and ordered Hope to bring in the snakes. James opened the box and thrust his wife’s right foot into it. She was bitten three times.

Once again, his plan didn’t go as expected. Mary didn’t die from the bites. Her leg began to swell and she was in great pain, but she wasn’t dying quick enough to suit her fiendish husband. So, James went back to the tried and true method of drowning her in the bathtub. She was then dragged to the fish pond and positioned to where it looked like she might have stumbled and fallen in head first.

The cook turned state’s evidence, plead guilty to first-degree murder and was given a life sentence. James was sentenced to death by hanging. He languished on death row for several years filing appeals.

His luck ran out in 1942, when he became the last man to be hanged in California. But even that didn’t go as planned for James. The rope wasn’t the correct length and it took over ten minutes for him to die.

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    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Interesting read. Hard to believe sometimes such evil is in this world.

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Tsk Tsk Tsk paradise. He was just so misunderstood.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 

      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Interesting in very macabre way. This guy deserved to suffer before he died.

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