Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: A Snapped-Worthy 1920s True Story

Eve Rablen, the real-life model for Alma in this story. Newspaper crime reporters, showing the restraint they are known for, dubbed her “the Borgia of the Sierras.”

Calling All Cars, December 11, 1934

The story you are about to hear is true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Fortunately, producers didn’t bother to change the name of the town, the sheriff, or the star witness in this story, enabling us to uncover the details of a Snapped-worthy 1920s murder.

Calling All Cars, which aired from 1933 to 1939, was an early police procedural show that focused on real California cases.

Tuttletown is the setting for this episode, and Tuolumne County Sheriff J.H. Dambacher opens the story of what he calls his most interesting case.

First, we hear a crotchety old man scolding his son “Herb” for corresponding with a woman named “Alma”–a woman Herb met through “that there matrimonial agency,” as Pap puts it.

Pap is comically over-the-top with his objections, which include his son’s young age (26) and Alma’s previous marriage (“God-fearing people don’t get dee-vorced!”). Herb doesn’t listen, though. He marries Alma and moves her and her young son in with him and his father.

What could possibly go wrong?

In real life, Herb and Alma were Carroll and Eva Rablen, and the radio drama presents an accurate picture of what happens next. At a school-house dance on April 27, 1929, Eva froliced on the dance floor while her husband waited in the car outside.  At one point, she brought him a cup of coffee. Shortly thereafter, he cried out in pain, told his father that his coffee had tasted bitter, and died.

Sheriff Dambacher tell listeners that the killer was “the last person one would logically suspect.”

That might be true–if one had never encountered a crime story before.

The police investigation nailed Eva pretty quickly. The prosecutor later doubted that he’d ever see such a strong circumstantial-evidence case again. The evidence included:

Post-mortem testing that showed strychnine poisoning killed Carroll.

The discovery of a bottle containing traces of strychnine near the spot where Carroll died.

A druggist’s positive identification of Eva as the woman who’d purchased the strychnine from him a few days before the murder.

Forensic testing that found strychnine present on the coffee-stained dress of another dance-goer. While Eva was taking Carroll his coffee, she bumped into this other woman and spilled some coffee on her.

Prosecutors’ star witness would be Edward O. Heinrich, a forensic science pioneer who earned the nickname “the Wizard of Berkeley.”

Newspapers had a field day with “mail-order bride” murder story, and local interest reached such a pitch that Eva’s arraignment was held outdoors to accommodate crowds.

How could a newspaper make its murder coverage even more disturbing? By using this picture to illustrate Eva Rablen’s “juvenile-minded” nature.

Ultimately, her defense attorneys focused on Eva’s supposedly arrested mental development.

As one expert told the media: “The response of the ductless glands to situations varies with their congenital capacity and acquired susceptibility. In the ability of one endocrine system to inhibit another we have the germ of the unconscious. Hence the modus operandi of the repressions and the supressions, compensations and dissociations, which may unite to integrate, or refuse to integrate, and so disintegrate and deteriorate a personality.”

Well, that makes sense.

I won’t spoil the outcome of this case for you, but you can read more about the case’s resolution and what happened to Eva later in newspaper accounts.

 

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