A few weeks after his wife had been badly injured in a car crash Robert James reported more bad news to police in Colorado Springs: “My poor wife has drowned in the bathtub. She must have been dizzy from the car crash and slipped unconscious beneath the water.”

The car crash had been significantly unusual in that James, the driver, was completely unhurt. Investigators had noted a bloody hammer in the back of the wrecked car but apparently took no notice of it.

Mrs. James’ subsequent death in the bath was written off as “accidental drowning,” and James, a barber, collected $14,000 on her life policy and went off to Alabama to marry again – for the fourth time. When his new wife learned that he wanted to take out life insurance on her she said, “People who get insured always die of something strange,” and divorced him.

James next called up his accident-prone nephew, Cornelius Wright. He took out an insurance policy on the youngster’s life, invited him to a visit while on leave from the US Navy, and gave him the use of his car. Wright promptly drove off a cliff, killing himself. A mechanic later told James that something was wrong with the steering wheel.

In Los Angeles James met and married tall, blonde, 26-year-old Mary Busch. In 1935, after he insured her life, the couple discovered she was pregnant. Mary insisted on an abortion, so James persuaded a friend, Charlie Hope, to pose as a doctor. In the meantime the two men somehow procured two rattlesnakes. Hope arrived at the house to find that James had blindfolded his wife and tied her to the kitchen table.

They poured whisky down her throat, telling her it would dull the pain, stuck her feet into the box containing the snakes, and left her to die.

But she didn’t die. When James came home from work she was still alive. Charlie Hope later testified that James then drowned her in the bath, dragged her to a lily pond in the garden, and left her face down in the water to be “accidentally”

discovered the next day.

Police believed that Mary had got drunk and had drowned herself, but subsequently James (now calling himself Major Raymond Lisemba) was arrested for a different crime. Police checked his background and found out enough to charge him with Mary’s murder. At the trial Hope helped demonstrate how Mary’s feet were introduced into the deadly box.

On Saturday, May 9th, 1942, James became the last man to die on the gallows in California. It was a botch job – it took more than 10 minutes for him to die at the end of the rope.