It was a little after 10 p.m. on a Friday evening in the summer of 1921. In their little house on Druid Street in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Robert Green and his family were getting ready for bed when they heard the screams.
Rushing to the front porch, they found their neighbor, Ann Louise Agee, in her nightclothes, wild-eyed and disheveled.
“Help! Come quick! They’re killing Harry!” she screamed.
Green looked across at the Agee home. From where he stood, by the light of streetlamps and the few lights inside the house, he could dimly see the front porch. The door was opening and a figure was staggering out of the front door, clutching at its throat. Then it collapsed on the porch.
Green sprinted across and leaped onto the porch. There he found his neighbor, carpenter Harry Agee, in a pool of blood, dying.
Looking up at him, Harry opened his mouth and tried to speak. Only a ghastly gurgling resulted from the effort.
Harry’s throat had been slashed open. Whoever had done it had missed the jugular vein, but had cut through his windpipe. Harry’s lips were moving as if he were speaking, but no words were coming out. It was as if he were trying to tell Green who had attacked him, but could not.
And before he could figure out a way, he lapsed into unconsciousness from the blood loss. He died a few minutes later, on the way to the hospital.
This was the opening act in a murder drama that would hold Portland spellbound throughout the summer of 1921 -- and one that would convince thousands of Portlanders to lock their doors at night.
HARRY AND LOUISE Agee appeared to be a model couple. He was 29 years old, she 26. They had been married for nine years and had two lovely, well-behaved children, ages 2 and 6. They were relative newcomers to Oregon, having grown up on adjacent farms back east in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, but had wasted no time getting socially plugged in in Portland. They attended church each Sunday, and were active in the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Woodmen of the World lodges. In fact, Louise was taking trombone lessons to play in the local Rebekah Lodge’s brass band.
Those trombone lessons were to play a somewhat sinister role in the events of that day.
Police were soon on the scene to investigate. What they found left them initially baffled. The house was disordered, as if a burglar had ransacked it, and some jewelry and other valuables had been collected and deposited under the dining-room window as if a thief had dropped them there. But the window was locked, and the things weren’t scattered as if thrown. Someone had either carried them around the house and placed them there, or locked the window after they’d been dropped.
A blood-spattered straight razor with a black handle was found in the middle of the street, 25 feet from the front door. Louise Agee told the police she didn’t recognize it, and added that Harry had only one razor, which was still in its box in the bathroom.
Looking at the bed, investigators could see that that was where Harry had been when attacked. Specifically, it looked to them like someone had stood directly behind the head of the bed and slashed with the razor, down and across.
Louise told them she’d been awakened by her husband yelling for help. Starting up, she first saw the blood, which frightened her; then she saw a man wearing a long overcoat and something white on his head, sprinting from the room and out the front door. She followed him, screaming for help. When she got to the porch, there was no sign of him; so she ran to the neighbors’ house for help.
It was hard to imagine a burglar slashing the homeowner’s throat on spec, as it were; and the valuables being placed on one side, with the murder weapon dropped on the other, made it seem unlikely this was a caught-in-the-act burglary. Suicide was briefly considered, but was ruled out based on how and where the cut was made.
That left the only other possibility: That it was an inside job -- that is, that Louise Agee had slashed her husband’s throat as he slept peacefully in their bed.
By June 14, four days after the killing, the tone of the newspaper coverage was starting to harden against Louise Agee. That was the day the inquest was held, and Louise testified as a witness. She did not make a good impression.
“Mrs. Agee … said she and her husband retired Friday night at 10,” the reporter writes. “She went to sleep at once and was awakened by the screams of her husband, who cried ‘help.’ Dr. Frank Menne, coroner’s physician, who examined the body, had testified earlier that it would have been impossible, in his opinion, for a man having suffered such a wound to speak a word.”
No one reading the newspapers could possibly have been surprised when, the next day, Louise Agee was arrested. She and her trombone teacher, J.H. Klecker, both were lodged in the jail as “detained witnesses.”
It may not have been a surprise to newspaper readers, but it was clearly a nasty and unexpected shock to Louise.
“Placed in jail in the early afternoon, Mrs. Agee was as a caged tigress,” The Oregonian reported. “Asked by newspaper photographers to pose, she raged in fury when she thought her picture had been made and dared that it be run.”
“Tawny, reddish hair and her quick movements in the cell gave her a tigerish look,” the reporter continued. “She … was dressed in an attractive blouse of sheer silk and a checked sport skirt of modish cut, short, as the fashion is, with neat shoes and silk stockings.”
The reporter did not use the word “strumpet,” but one gets the distinct impression that he wanted to!
Louise Agee’s father, J.D. Swing, arrived later that same day.
After her arrest, Louise Agee stopped talking to anyone but her attorney. Her stubborn silence seems to have annoyed the reporters, because shortly after this they started calling her “The Grim Widow” in the headlines, and missed few opportunities to mention her coldness of demeanor, sometimes even in the same sentence in which they describe her shedding tears.
Klecker, her trombone teacher, had no such reticence, and soon he had talked his way into becoming the state’s star witness against her. His testimony was that he and Louise had had a little affair going on in the months before the killing. He told the cops Louise had been wild for him, but he’d been uninterested, because he had a sweetheart in San Diego whom he had been urging to move to Portland and marry him. He had, however, succumbed to her seductive “Mrs. Robinson” moves once or twice in spite of himself.
“I’ll never give a woman trombone lessons again,” he said.
All of this, of course, was a classic boys’-locker-room story of the “panting vixen” type, and as such it’s pretty suspicious; but to the investigators it sounded legit. They theorized that maybe Louise, desperate to ensnare Klecker before his girlfriend came to town to claim him and finding that her marital status bothered him, thought she’d have better luck if her boring old husband were out of the way.
Through it all, Louise wore her stoicism like a mask, refusing to engage in any way.
“Mrs. Agee has already made a complete statement of all the facts so far as she knows them,” said John Collier, her attorney, in response to questions from the press. “Her statements have been distorted and garbled in building up a fabric of circumstances that can be used against her.” Therefore, he added, she had decided to say nothing at all.
She kept that silence up in the face of obviously severe temptations to break it. It probably helped her legal case, but it did her no favors in the “court of public opinion.” Even some of her neighbors and acquaintances started to turn against her, and to believe in her guilt.
AS PORTLAND DISTRICT Attorney Walter Evans and his team ramped up their case against Louise Agee, the tone of the newspaper coverage got darker and darker. At one point The Oregonian quotes prosecutors and investigators (anonymously, of course) as saying she was not acting like an innocent person, and even comparing her with Lady Macbeth -- she of the Shakespeare play.
“She is regarded as a woman without imagination and to whom the finer feelings are undiscovered,” the Oregonian writes, describing the state’s position. “It is believed she could not know remorse. Bloody scenes could be endured, for they were details and a little blood could soon be washed away, and a state official connected with the prosecution quoted Lady Macbeth briefly yesterday, believing the words fitted into the character of Louise Agee: ‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ’tis the eye of childhood fears a painted devil.’”
This line, of course, was delivered in Act II of the play, just after the scene in which Lady Macbeth’s husband murders King Duncan in his sleep.
Meanwhile, members of Harry Agee’s family had started arriving from Missouri. The prosecutors likely expected to find in these in-laws allies who would help convict his wife of murdering him; but if so, they were surprised and disappointed. All of them were unwavering in their support of Louise and belief in her innocence.
ALTHOUGH THE TRIAL was initially scheduled for September, it was moved back to July to reduce the amount of time the family members from Missouri would be stuck in town. By an odd coincidence, that change meant that this case was the last major murder case tried in Oregon before an all-male jury. The Nineteenth Amendment had passed the year before, and women were now voters; the jury system had taken an extra year to respond. Given the domestic nature of this crime, there was much speculation over whether women as jurors would be more or less sympathetic to the “Grim Widow” in court; but the question turned out to be moot.
As the jurors were interviewed, the primary question the state was asking each one was whether he would be OK with sending a woman to the gallows. Anyone who said “no” was dismissed from consideration.
The trial started on July 27 with the state presenting its evidence. It looked pretty damning, at least at first. The physician who was called to help the dying Harry Agee testified that as far as he could tell, Louise’s side of the bed had not been slept in; the pillow was still fluffy.
Klecker, the music teacher, took the stand and told his stag-magazine story about Louise’s unrequited passion for him. He went on to “confess” that they had been “inappropriately intimate” several times during trombone lessons. The crowd murmured disapprovingly. Louise looked through him as if he weren’t there.
Then it was attorney Collier’s turn for cross-examination. He immediately put Klecker on the defensive with a series of questions about the timing and relevance of the “infidelity” testimony, which culminated when he suddenly stooped and pulled a dark, blood-stained overcoat out of a traveling bag at his feet.
“Did you ever see that coat before?” he demanded.
It was a complete surprise to everyone in the courtroom: a dark overcoat corresponding to what Louise Agee had said the intruder wore, liberally stained in human blood, with a sharp (and also bloody) hunting knife in one pocket and a sheet of trombone music in the other.
As everyone subsequently learned, the coat had been found rolled up under a fern by J.D. Swing, Louise Agee’s father. Swing said that after it became clear that the police had quit looking for further clues, having become convinced that they’d already solved the case and need not bother further with it, he’d spent most of his time in Portland hunting through the neighborhood looking for more evidence. He doesn’t specifically say, but he probably had some idea of finding the murder weapon. Medical examiners had already testified that the wound in Harry Agee’s throat was of an odd shape for a razor cut. It was deep in the middle and shallow at both ends, with impact damage on the lip of the cut as if the fixed hilt of a knife had struck the flesh as the blade sliced through. The wound could have been inflicted by a razor, probably, they said; but a short, very sharp knife was a more likely weapon.
During Swing’s search for that weapon, he had come across a tightly rolled bundle under a clump of ferns. He saw it tucked in there when he parted the ferns with his walking stick; then, before touching it, he ran down the block and got a couple of passers-by to witness his find. They came and, as they watched, he unrolled the coat and found the knife and music sheet in the pockets.
Swing had then contacted attorney Collier to ask him what he should do with the find, and Collier told him to hand it over and keep his mouth shut. Then, at the exact moment in the trial when it would have the greatest psychological impact, he produced it in court with a flourish. (This is the sort of legal tactic that would never fly on “Perry Mason,” but apparently in 1921 the rules of discovery were different.)
Was it real, this coat, or was it a plant? Subsequent testing gave conflicting answers. The blood on the coat and knife was human, and there was a lot of it. It was hard to imagine how the thing could be faked up; somebody would have had to “donate” several pints of blood to do so. But a late summer storm had dumped over an inch of water on Portland in the four weeks the coat had supposedly been rolled up under the fern, and the blood wasn’t washed away and the sheet music wasn’t water damaged. Maybe that could have happened, if it was rolled up very tightly?
Also, the presence of the trombone music seemed suspiciously on-the-nose. It wasn’t the kind of thing a burglar would take from the house, and if Klecker was the killer, why would he pack sheet music around in his overcoat pocket? It only really made sense as planted evidence.
In any case, there was enough ambiguity that the state’s case probably could have survived this blow, if not for several other things that the court learned about Klecker: First, that he hadn’t had a steady job for more than a few months at a time since the First World War ended; at the time of the murder his day-job was as a janitor. (Teaching trombone lessons and playing in various brass bands was a side hustle for Klecker.) This, of course, gave everyone the strong impression that he was very flaky; and it has to have crossed the jury’s minds that no woman with two young children would be stupid enough to murder a strong, well-employed husband in an attempt to “catch” a man like that, no matter how attractive she found him personally.
Secondly, Klecker admitted that he had told between 12 and 25 people his “panting vixen” story since the murder had happened. This, of course, made him look like a locker-room boaster.
Finally, it was revealed that Klecker had, two weeks after the murder and while out on bail, traveled to San Diego and hastily married his sweetheart there. Had he done that on the spur of the moment? Or was there some reason he wanted her to be kept from testifying against him?
After this day of revelation, the state continued to stand by its star witness, but the smart money shifted from “conviction” to “acquittal.” The tone of the newspaper coverage shifted as well, as the papers mostly stopped calling Louise Agee “The Grim Widow.”
Basically, at the conclusion of the trial, everyone was utterly baffled by what might have happened, but it was clear that there just wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Weird inconsistencies remained -- Louise Agee’s testimony that she heard her husband cry out when his windpipe was severed, witnesses testifying that she’d told them she only married Harry to please her folks, the apparently un-slept-in bed, and a few other things -- but by the end of the trial, most people were convinced she hadn’t done it.
It took the jury just half an hour of deliberation to return the “Not Guilty” verdict.
Louise Agee took the good news with the same sang-froid with which she’d greeted most of the rest of the events of the trial, and shortly afterward she left with her father and in-laws on an auto tour of the Oregon Coast. Later she returned to Portland and offered her services in any way she could to help the police find the “real killer”; but nothing seems to have come of this.
Early the next year, The Oregonian reported that police were suspicious that a notorious burglar known as “The 5 O’clock Burglar” might have been the killer. This burglar had been very active in Portland up until the time of the killing, then laid low for eight months before starting up again. Similarities in his methods -- he liked to break in in the middle of the night and steal while his victims slept, and took mostly low-value items like silverware and trinkets -- led the cops to think it was the same person.
The theory would be something like this: The burglar gets into the house, grabs a bunch of loot, takes it outside and stashes it in the bushes by the window from which he expects to leave the house. When he goes back in, Harry Agee wakes up. Burglar slashes at him with the knife, cutting his throat just after he yells for help, and runs for the door.
Or maybe the burglar was already in the house when the Agees came home, and was trying to sneak out without being heard.
In any case, that seems to have been the final word on the killer of Harry Agee. The Five O’clock Burglar was caught a couple months later, and turned out to be just an old jailbird well known to police.
As far as I’ve been able to learn, nobody ever figured out for sure what happened that night.
(Sources: Archives of the Portland Oregonian, Portland Journal, and Oregon Statesman, June 1921–April 1922. Special thanks to the Albany Regional Museum staff for the story tip via their Facebook page @albanyregionalmuseum)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.