Bullets And Betrayal In Miami
On March 19, 1928, a diminutive Australian-born woman named Jessie "Chubbie" Keith-Miller became one of the most famous female aviators alive when she and her lover, Captain William Lancaster, a British ex-RAF pilot, touched down in Darwin, Australia, after flying 8,614 miles from England in a rickety biplane. No other woman had flown so far in a light aircraft. At the start of their epic flight, the 28-year-old Chubbie had not known one end of a joystick from the other, but during the course of an extraordinary incident-packed journey – think Indiana Jones – she became an accomplished pilot. For a while, she and Bill soaked up the adulation and the paychecks of an adoring public. But this was an era in which aviation records were being broken almost every week, and it didn't take long for this couple to fade from the headlines.
In an attempt to revive their fortunes they moved to America, where Chubbie participated in several air races for women only – so-called "powder puff derbies." However the novelty of female aviators was beginning to wear off and before long she and Bill found themselves adrift in Miami, flat broke and drinking hard. They rented a rambling house in Coral Gables. To make ends meet, Bill secured the occasional flying job that took him out of town, and it was while he was away in, in February 1932, that Chubbie chanced to meet a square-jawed, bushy-haired young writer named Haden Clarke.
Chubbie was bowled over by Clarke's sexy smile and slick manner, especially when he suggested that he ghost-write an account of Chubbie's flying experiences. Bound to be a best-seller, he said, and they could split the royalties. When Bill returned to Miami he was equally impressed with the plausible writer and it was agreed that Clarke should move into their Coral Gables home and begin work on Chubbie's life story.
Lancaster Flies To Mexico
Shortly thereafter, Bill found another job that took him to Mexico. Before leaving he implored Clarke to look after Chubbie in his absence, as he was increasingly worried about her drinking and erratic behavior. Clarke promised. But a Haden Clarke promise was utterly worthless. Within a matter of days, he had insinuated himself into Chubbie's bed and soon rumors began to fly. Details of the torrid affair found their way into letters addressed to Bill's friends in Mexico. One malevolent acquaintance gloatingly showed Bill a letter that read, "Chubbie and Clarke came round tonight … all ginned up. I really think now that Clarke has gained Chubbie's affections, and Bill lost them … Don't tell Bill, but I believe she is well satisfied." The last two words were underlined.
When Bill read this, a red mist of jealousy descended on him. For weeks he had been sending every cent he made back to Chubbie, only to discover that she was cheating on him with a younger man. Jealousy turned to simmering rage. That rage finally boiled over when a letter arrived from Chubbie, stating that she and Clarke intended to marry. Frantically, Bill dashed around, begging and borrowing every cent he could lay hands on. At the same time he managed to find a plane to fly back to Miami. On the way he stopped off at St. Louis, where he purchased a .38 caliber revolver – to replace a company weapon that he had pawned earlier, he explained later. Then, after another stopover in Nashville, he set out on the last leg of his journey back to Miami. He landed at Viking Airport in Miami on April 20, 1932. There to meet him on the runway were Chubbie and Haden. The time was 7 p.m.
Seven house later a single gunshot shattered what had been a moody silence at the Coral Gables household. When paramedics arrived they found Clarke on his bed, unconscious, blood pouring from a gaping bullet wound to the head. He was rushed to hospital, only to die later that morning.
Initial police inquiries centered on an assumption of suicide; a gun had been found alongside Clarke's body and two typed notes were found on a table at the foot of Clarke's bed. One addressed to Chubbie, one to Lancaster. In both, Clarke apologized for his misconduct and wished the couple well. Originally, Bill had wanted to destroy these letters, but Chubbie refused. Just as well, really, because the police soon established that that the letters were forgeries – typed and signed by Bill Lancaster.
The way Lancaster told it, he had been asleep in the same room as Clarke, when he was jolted awake by the gunshot. He put on the light and found Clarke bleeding profusely from a head wound. Horrified to see his .38 caliber revolver lying on Clarke's bed, Lancaster had panicked. Instead of immediately aiding the injured man, he had dashed off the notes in an attempt to convince Chubbie that he had played no part in this tragedy.
But why, asked skeptical detectives, had Miller shot himself? Remorse, said Lancaster. That evening the young man had confided to Lancaster that he was suffering from a venereal disease and that Chubbie had banished him from her bedroom until he was well. Deeply ashamed of his own profligate lifestyle, the young writer had been mired in depression. In that case, officers wanted to know, wasn't it kinda reckless, leaving a loaded revolver on a nightstand between the two beds, knowing that Clarke might be suicidal? Lancaster just shrugged. He had no answer, certainly none that made sense to the Miami PD, and it therefore came as no surprise when, three months later, William Lancaster stood trial for first degree murder. Most considered the outcome a foregone conclusion. Even Lancaster's own counsel, on first reading the brief, had snorted, "He's as guilty as hell."
Miami Media Circus
The killing of Haden Clarke had made international headlines and the eyes of the world were on the Miami courthouse when the trial opened on August 2, 1932. The prosecution case was straightforward: this was all about jealousy; Lancaster, having trusted Clarke to look after Miller in his absence, only to see that trust betrayed, had decided to exact a terrible revenge. The prosecution told the jury that witnesses who'd been with Lancaster in Mexico stated that he "paced the floor saying, 'I'll get rid of him [Clarke].'"
To illuminate some of the murkier corners in this tragedy, the prosecution called Chubbie Miller. A volley of flash bulbs greeted Chubbie as she took the stand. Although no longer in love with Lancaster, she was now determined to stand by him in his hour of greatest need. As the reporters scribbled eagerly, Miller disclosed ever more intimate details of drunkenness and sexual intrigue at the house. She spared no one, least of all herself. She told of Clarke's admission that he was suffering from a venereal disease, lowering her head as she spoke,"[I told him] there would be no marriage until he was cured." Underpinning her testimony was the bitter knowledge that Clarke had repeatedly lied to her. He was not a writer, as he'd claimed, nor was he 31 and single. In fact, not only was the 26-year-old Clarke married, but was also a bigamist with a serious drug habit. But on one point Chubbie was adamant: on the night of his death Clarke had been suicidal. "We were lying on the [chaise] longue," she told the court. "I said I wished I could put an end to it all. Haden answered that he felt the same." Two hours later a bullet ended his life.
But had it been Clarke's finger on the trigger? Indeed, was it even physically possible for Clarke to have shot himself? The autopsy showed that the bullet had entered Clarke's right temple from front to back, then tracked upward before exiting above the left ear. Because the .38 Colt revolver in question was a long-barreled, heavy weapon, with a trigger pull of between 8-14 pounds, it meant that, in order to produce the bullet trajectory found in his own shattered skull, Clarke would have had to lie down, balance the gun against his temple, then, unless he was extraordinarily flexible, depress the trigger with his thumb. Such dexterity sounded both implausible and unnecessary.
On the other hand, the prosecution argued that the bullet trajectory was exactly what one might expect had the shot been fired by someone standing between the two beds. Fired from slightly below and to the side of Clarke's head as it lay on the pillow, the bullet would naturally follow the path taken through Clarke's skull. When several prosecution ballistics testified that everything about this shooting pointed to it being homicidal, Lancaster looked destined for the electric chair.
Hamilton Takes The Stand
What he needed was an unequivocal display of support. It came courtesy Albert H. Hamilton, a controversial expert witness with a long and highly checkered history. Shades of gray simply vanished whenever Hamilton took the witness stand. And he was the supreme courtroom showman. To audible gasps, he produced Haden's skull in court, rolling it expertly in his hands as he spoke, pointing out to the jury that "the bullet was fired across the head and slightly backward." The absence of scorching or powder burns on the surface, and the presence of subcutaneous powder staining, led him to describe the wound as "sealed contact," by which he meant that the gun had been held so tightly against the head as to prevent any explosive gases escaping. Had this happened while Clarke was asleep, said Hamilton, he would have awoken instantly and knocked the gun away.
Nonsense, jeered the prosecution, after all, how long does it take to press a gun against a sleeping person's head and pull the trigger? But Hamilton always sounded wonderfully plausible on the stand. He didn't deal in ambiguities or qualified maybes, he gave the jury 24-karat certainties. And he didn't fail here. Having examined the bullet wound, he issued his verdict: "Absolutely suicide. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support a theory of homicide or murder… I found nothing to support anything but suicide. I say this not as an opinion, but actual knowledge."
If Hamilton was good as a witness, then Lancaster was downright sensational. He came across as every inch the honorable British officer, frankly admitting his "unworthy, foolish, and cowardly" actions in forging the suicide notes. No matter how many times the prosecution trapped him in lies and discrepancies, Lancaster always managed to shade the exchanges in his favor. He had captured the heart of the court and it showed. Several times the gallery burst into spontaneous, boot-stamping applause at his answers, prompting Judge Henry Fulton Atkinson to pound his gavel and thunder, "This is not a vaudeville show!"
In final speeches, two very different pictures of this tragedy were painted. The defense portrayed Clarke as an alcoholic, drug-taking, backstabbing bigamist whose only decent action in life had been putting a bullet in his own brain; while Captain William Lancaster was given a lump-in-throat depiction of the gentlemanly officer and all-round decent chap. According to the State, Lancaster was "a supreme actor, shrewd beyond degree. Cold, calculating." And they urged the jury to set aside any prejudices they may have held about Clarke's unconventional lifestyle and judge the case on its facts. "Do not let sympathy or emotions play a part. Decide simply if Haden Clarke committed suicide or if William Newton Lancaster killed him." On August 18, 1932, it took the jury just five hours to find Lancaster not guilty. To a chorus of almost frenzied cheering he left the courtroom and entered the Miami sunshine.
Bill and Chubbie never did get back together and eight months later Lancaster was alone at Lympne airfield in Kent on April 11, 1933, when he set off on a mission to break the air-speed record between England and Cape Town in South Africa. Hastily contrived and poorly prepared, Lancaster's record attempt struck problems immediately. Already behind schedule, on April 13, he and his plane disappeared somewhere over North Africa. As search parties failed to find any wreckage, so rumors festered and grew. The most common had Lancaster, consumed by guilt, deliberately crashing his plane into the ocean, having the last laugh on the world by committing suicide, just like he had fooled everyone into thinking Clarke had done.
Another three decades would pass before the mystery of Lancaster's disappearance was solved. On February 12, 1962, a French army patrol in the Sahara found the twisted wreckage of a tiny plane and the mummified remains of William Lancaster. Until dying of thirst, Lancaster had kept a meticulous diary of his eight-day vigil in the burning desert. In it he expressed his undying love for Chubbie. There was not a single mention of Clarke. His final despairing entry – "I have no water" – was dated April 20, 1933. The next day he died, one year to the day after a bullet ended the life of Haden Clarke.
For a fuller account of Albert H. Hamilton's courtroom misdeeds, why not read: