(Editor’s note: This is the third installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series. Today we welcome New York City author Megan Abbott, who gives us the background to her new historical suspense novel, Bury Me Deep, which is based on a true, 1930s crime involving jealousy, abandonment, and homicide.)
On the evening of October 16, 1931, in Phoenix, Arizona, a pretty young doctor’s wife named Winnie Ruth Judd went to the apartment of her two closest female friends for dinner. An argument broke out, a gun was fired, and all three women were shot--Judd in her left hand, her two friends fatally. The 26-year-old Judd claimed self-defense. Prosecutors argued that she’d murdered in cold blood.
The story became one of the most notorious tabloid sensations of that decade, with Winnie Ruth Judd’s winsome face appearing on newspapers across the country under headlines branding her “The Blonde Butcher,” “The Velvet Tigress,” and, most famously, the “Trunk Murderess”--so named because both women’s bodies were found stuffed into trunks and abandoned at a Los Angeles railway station, one of the corpses cut into three pieces for easier packing.
But, of course, the story behind the “Trunk Murderess” sobriquet is so much more complicated than it appears, concealing far more than it reveals. Judd’s is a tale that lingers, that tantalizes. With so many decades behind us, free of the charged circumstances of the day, many elements seem clearer now, most clearly the ruinous handling of the crime scene (one example: blood samples were reportedly not taken for a month, after hundreds of people had traipsed through the “murder house,” being charged admission by the landlord). At the same time, however, the more veils we are able to tear away the more we realize that we will never have all the answers.
I can’t recall the first time I heard the name Winnie Ruth Judd. As a child, devouring true-crime books, I remember reading about her any number of times in accounts of “women who kill” through the ages. Somehow, over the years, I kept returning to the story. When I read journalist Jana Bommersbach’s excellent 1992 book, Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd, it deepened the tale for me. Detailing the miscarriages of justice, the dubious confessions, and the old-boy network operating in Phoenix at that time, Bommersbach makes a stirring case to support Judd’s contention of self-defense and ultimately throws into question whether Judd (shown at left) fired any gun at all.
The more I read about this case, the more I came to see it as a tale of a lonely young woman whose isolation and naïveté rendered her vulnerable. A minister’s daughter from the Midwest, married to a physician more than twice her age, Judd found herself virtually abandoned in Phoenix after her husband’s morphine addiction sent him off to Mexico to find work. It’s no surprise that she was eager for friendship, which she found with a young nurse and her tuberculosis-stricken roommate--Agnes (“Anne”) LeRoi and Hedvig (“Sammy”) Samuelson--a pair of single gals who were living hand to mouth, assisted in part by the kindnesses of the town’s businessmen, particularly the dashing, politically well-connected J.J. “Happy Jack” Halloran. The inexperienced Judd fell hard for the wild--and very married--Jack, upsetting the delicate balance of power among the young women and, under circumstances that still remain unclear, leading to tragedy.
To me, the story came to seem one part James M. Cain, one part Edith Wharton, and one part Edgar Allan Poe. I knew I wanted to write a fictionalized version of the case, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. The early 1930s era intimidated me. I’d never set anything quite that far in the past. For a while, I tried to move the whole story forward in time to the 1940s, or change the locale to Los Angeles, a more familiar setting.
But neither approach worked. In this case, specificity counted. The pivot the story marked, poised between a crushing hangover from the Jazz Age and the hard realities of the Great Depression, seemed critical. Phoenix at the time was a kind of dropping-off place for the TB-stricken, and the disease’s threat looms heavily over the story (Winnie Ruth Judd had also suffered from TB). Most of all, the fact that the slayings took place in the darkest days of the Depression was central to the story. All three women depended, both emotionally and economically, on keeping Jack Halloran “happy.”
I wanted to write a novel that would look at this “tiger women,” Judd, from another vantage point, free of the tabloid trappings--a novel that would place at its center the kind of woman so frequently portrayed as a femme fatale, as a party girl hoping to snag some sugar daddy, or as a vengeful mistress bringing ruin on her married lovers. I wanted to look at such a woman from the inside.
So I dug in, and immersed myself in all things 1930 through 1933, drowning especially in the glories of the riotous and seamy pre-Code Hollywood movies of that period, but also reading up on the culture of TB clinics at the time, Phoenix at this critical stage (half Western small town, half big-city-on-the-rise), and before long I was hooked. Traveling to Phoenix, I even got an eerie, and poignant, “insider’s tour” of the sites still standing, including the “murder house” (above), thanks to the Poisoned Pen bookstore’s Patrick Milliken, a true aficionado of the case.
While the novel that emerged, Bury Me Deep, obviously takes the Judd story as its inspiration, I wound up steering my heroine toward a different fate. Winnie Ruth Judd was incarcerated in a mental institution for nearly four decades and escaped multiple times before receiving a pardon in 1971. She died in Phoenix in 1998 at age 93. I’d always wondered what might have happened if she had eluded authorities and been able to put her formidable survival skills to the test. So my heroine, Marion Seeley, carves a distinct path for herself. I know it’s a cheat, but isn’t that, in part, what we hope stories will do? Give us the endings we want?
READ MORE: Author, screenwriter, and blogger Jedidiah Ayres offers a terrific new interview with Megan Abbott in Hard-boiled Wonderland. Read it now.