Pretty as Poison: The Life, Crimes & Accomplices of California’s First Black Widow Part 1

May 4, 2024 | 2024 Articles, Hometown History, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sarah Peterson-Camacho

by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho

It took a fiery earthquake—and over 3,000 lost lives—to boot Mrs. Emma Ledoux to page two. Mother Nature had to literally move Heaven and Earth herself to wipe the smirk of the simpering, beautiful murderess from the front of every single newspaper across the Golden State.

At 5:12 on the cool, sunny morning of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay Area to its very core, rupturing the northernmost 296 miles of the San Andreas Fault—killing over 3,000 people, destroying over 80% of the famed City by the Bay.

And with tremors reaching as far north as Oregon, and as far south as Los Angeles, it had rendered the horrific, blood-soaked March 24 Stockton murder of one Albert N. McVicar—drugged, beaten, and buried alive inside a Saratoga steamer trunk—insignificant in the thundering wake of its fiery destruction.

The San Francisco Bulletin, dated Monday, March 26, 1906

Emma Theresa Cole Barrett Williams McVicar LeDoux was no great, ravishing beauty. But with fine, porcelain features, raven tresses piled high, and a haughty, dark-eyed gaze beneath the slim midnight arch of her ebony brows, the petite, curvy Mrs. LeDoux—as she came to be known in the press—was as lovely and lethal as any modern-day femme fatale, exuding a darkly hypnotic pull over the men who made the mistake of crossing her path.

But was she really a lone she-wolf in the execution of her legendary crimes, as shrewd and stealthy as any mid-century Bond girl? And were her husbands—dead or otherwise—really as naïve and innocent as they appeared to be?

Or was there more to the story of this murderous Victorian vixen and her hypnotized male harem? Because, simply stated: wouldn’t “a pretty little thing”—as so eloquently called by literary great Ellery Queen some five decades later—need just a little bit of help drugging, beating, and stuffing an unconscious 6-foot, 200-pound man into a four-foot steamer trunk?

Born on Friday, September 10, 1875, in Pine Grove, California, Emma Theresa Cole was the oldest of eight children, a lovely but moody girl given to romantic flights of fancy.

After a childhood spent caring for her seven younger siblings, mainly on the Oregon prairie, she married the dashing Charles A. Barrett, 22, at the age of only 16, after her mother granted her consent. (However, disapproving of the reckless match, her father Thomas Cole left her mother Mary Ann a mere eight days after their daughter’s first wedding in early 1892.)

But Emma and Charles’ fledgling marriage was a stormy one at best, resulting in accusations of infidelity on both sides. The couple separated in 1895, divorced in 1898, and each went their separate ways. (But, unlike later reports that had Barrett meeting his demise at the hands of his wily teen bride—her first victim—Emma’s first husband actually went on to outlive every single one of the primary players in this sordid saga, dying in 1954 at the ripe old age of 85.)

Now 22, the newly single Mrs. Barrett moved back in with her equally divorced mother, now remarried to well-off rancher James Head in Jackson, California. She quickly found work as a domestic servant, and just as quickly caught the eye of British transplant William S. Williams, a 26-year-old miner with a strong Cornish brogue.

And with the ink still fresh on her just-granted divorce papers, Emma Theresa Cole Barrett wed husband #2 in a whirlwind ceremony that swept the newlyweds down to Bisbee, Arizona, as its arid climate was prescribed for Williams’ “miner’s consumption.”

But domestic bliss was just not in the cards for a wife with a roving eye, and the newly christened Mrs. Williams attracted the attentions of Canadian transplant Albert N. McVicar, 30, a luxuriantly mustached timber man who dabbled in mining here and there.

The San Francisco Call & Post, dated Monday, March 26, 1906

One person who noticed McVicar’s newfound attraction to Emma—and did not appreciate it—was her husband William. “…according to reports, he had occasion to take his wife to task for her familiar associations with McVicar, whose attentions gave him much concern,” true crime author J’aime Rubio quotes The San Francisco Call of Friday, March 30, 1906.

But Emma’s second spouse was not long for this world, as it turned out. “Williams died under suspicious circumstances,” writes Rubio via the March 30, 1906 Call, “being attended by Dr. C.L. Edmundson at the last. Poisoning by nitric acid was suspected, but it was later decided that Williams had died of natural causes…. The official death record by Dr. Edmundson states that the cause of death was ‘gastroenteritis,’ which is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.”

Inheriting in the range of $2,000 and $4,000 (about $72,635.35 to $145,270.70 in today’s dollars), Emma Theresa Cole Barrett Williams, 27, became a widow on Friday, June 20, 1902—and less than three months later, on Monday, September 1, 1902, entered into holy matrimony for a third time, with one Albert N. McVicar in Cochise, Arizona.

But suspicion hung like a dark storm cloud over the unsavory proceedings—had Mr. and Mrs. McVicar just gotten away with good old-fashioned murder…and a whole lot of cash?

The ensuing three years of Emma’s third marriage would have remained shrouded in mystery were it not for Stockton attorney H.R. McNoble, an early defender of the scheming widow in the immediate wake of McVicar’s Stockton murder in late March of 1906. His words would later fill in many of the blanks.

“McVicar and his wife went to San Francisco and opened a retail store there,” reported The Stockton Evening & Sunday Record of Friday, March 30, 1906. “Neither of them had had any experience in the retail trade, and consequently, their venture was not a success. Mrs. McVicar put in all of the money she had left out of the $2,000 she had received on the death of Williams, and McVicar put in what capital he had. They finally failed in business, and went to Jamestown, where McVicar went to work at the Rawhide Mine.

The San Francisco Bulletin, dated Monday, March 26, 1906

“Our client,” said Mr. McNoble, “had a great affection for McVicar—and he exhibited the same feeling for her—but they had their quarrels, and she finally left him and went to her mother’s home at Jackson. There she worked out as a domestic for some time. McVicar sued her for divorce in Amador County, and was granted an interlocutory decree.”

Though obviously biased in his client’s favor, McNoble inadvertently revealed a possible motive that holds a ring of truth to it well over a century later.

“Subsequently, Emma married [fourth husband] Jean LeDoux,” the defense attorney continued in the March 30, 1906, Evening & Sunday Record, “and as I remember it, she married him in Reno, because of the new divorce law in California, which compelled a divorced person to wait a year before marrying again.

“McVicar maintained that Emma was still his wife. He wrote to her as such, and begged her to come back to him. He wrote to her that she was not married to LeDoux. I believe that he did not get his final decree, and if that is right, Emma was still his wife—although she believed that her marriage to LeDoux was legal.”

By 1904, Emma Theresa Cole Barrett Williams McVicar had divorced—or believed herself to be divorced from—Albert N. McVicar and had found employment again as a domestic servant while living in Jackson on the ranch of her mother’s second husband, James Head. And it was at this time that she crossed paths with plumber Joseph E. Healy, 33, who had just completed some work at the Head ranch.

Healy fell fast and hard for the petite, thrice-wed brunette, knowing virtually nothing of her tumultuous romantic past. So of course it was only a matter of time before he proposed.

“In the summer of 1904, we became engaged,” the lanky, sandy-haired plumber told The San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday, March 27, 1906, in the wake of McVicar’s murder. “On June 21st, I gave her an engagement ring …We were to be married the following year. Certain rumors and hints dropped by my friends caused me considerable pain, for they impugned the character of my fiancée. I never listened to them…”

But as the date of their April 1905 nuptials drew nigh, Healy got word of the existence of his fiancée’s ex-husband Albert McVicar—and he confronted her.

“She said that he was dead, and [this] satisfied me for a time. About this time, she asked me how much life insurance I was carrying. I told her that I held a policy for $3,000 in favor of my mother. She asked me if it was to be made out in her favor after we were married. I replied that I would always maintain the policy for my mother, but when we were married, I would take out another for the same amount in her favor.”

Two days later, Emma tearfully broke off her engagement to Healy—a mere week before their wedding was to take place—and the day after that, Healy’s mother received an anonymous, typewritten letter in the mail, lambasting Emma’s character. But the jilted plumber was of the opinion that Emma herself had written the maligning correspondence.

But fortunately for Emma, waiting in the wings was one Eugene “Jean” LeDoux, 30, whose family’s ranch abutted that of Emma’s stepfather’s. Described by an acquaintance as “a Frenchman…very dark-complexioned…about five feet six” (The San Francisco Bulletin, Monday, March 26, 1906), he was “a teamster whose folks conduct a miners’ boarding-house near Martelle’s Station, Amador County” (The Stockton Evening Mail, Monday, March 26, 1906).

Married at the County Clerk’s office in Woodland (not Reno) on Saturday, August 26, 1905, Emma Theresa Cole Barrett Williams McVicar, 29, acquired a fourth husband far wealthier than bachelor plumber Joseph Healy. She settled in at the LeDoux ranch in Jackson, right next door to her newly widowed mother.

And forty-six miles to the south, in Jamestown, Albert McVicar was biding his time.

The San Francisco Examiner, dated Monday, March 26, 1906

So how did it come to be that only six months later, on the evening of Monday, March 12, 1906, Dr. John F. Dillon would pay a visit to the Lexington House in San Francisco—to render aid to one Albert N. McVicar, at the behest of a Mrs. Emma LeDoux?

McVicar had become violently ill after a meal of beer and clams, Emma reported, though she herself was not sick. But suspecting morphine poisoning, the doctor administered an antidote and sent McVicar to bed.

Then, turning on the tears, a distressed Mrs. LeDoux requested a prescription for cyanide of potassium to develop some photographs, as well as some morphine for her ongoing addiction. Dillon acquiesced to her tearful demands, furnishing her with the requested prescription and one dram—or 60 grains—of morphine.

And the very next morning, none other than Mr. Joseph E. Healy, now living at his mother’s in San Francisco, received a telephone call from his former fiancée, claiming that her former husband Albert McVicar—whom she had sworn to Healy, the year before, was already dead—was now dying.

“She had called a doctor,’ she said, but McVicar would not live long,” Healy would tell The San Francisco Examiner two weeks later, “‘He was dying like all miners,’ she declared, meaning that he was dying of consumption.”

Only a week later, McVicar was tendering his resignation at the Rawhide Mine in Jamestown, liquidating his assets into gold, and boarding a train to Stockton with Emma. Before departing on the morning of Friday, March 23, he told acquaintances that his wife had persuaded him to quit the mine to take charge of her widowed mother’s ranch in Jackson.

The San Francisco Call & Post, dated Monday, March 26, 1906

And as they pulled into the Union Pacific station in Stockton that afternoon, the enterprising couple proceeded to make a flurry of purchases at Breuner’s Furniture Emporium—paid for in gold—which was all to be shipped to Jamestown. They then dined and retired to room 97 at the California House, one of Stockton’s premier hotels.

“After the couple had retired to their room Friday evening,” reported The San Francisco Bulletin of Monday, March 26, 1906, “McVicar left the woman there and went out for a ‘time’. He made the rounds of several saloons and drank freely. He returned to the room shortly before midnight.”

As Saturday, March 24, dawned, Emma Theresa Cole Barrett Williams McVicar LeDoux bustled over to D.S. Rosenbaum’s for a Saratoga steamer trunk, then to H.G. Shaw Hardware for a length of sturdy hemp rope.

Then “she went to Breuner’s and paid the balance due on the furniture that McVicar had purchased,” continued the Bulletin, “and she directed that it be shipped to Martell’s Station…and she directed that the furniture be shipped to ‘Mr. LeDoux.’”

Expressman Charles Berry delivered the steamer trunk to room 97 at the California House, then returned later to haul the trunk—now packed to the brim with “dishes,” according to Emma—to the train station. But the trunk proved to be so heavy, he needed an extra man to assist him in its transport.

“When the woman came down on the street, she was accompanied by a short, slight, dark-complexioned man, who answers the description of LeDoux, to whom the woman is married,” the Bulletin revealed. “The couple were seen by several bystanders…The pair walked to the Southern Pacific depot, the man carrying a suitcase…At the depot, the man and woman paced nervously up and down the platform. The man bought a ticket to Jackson, and had his suitcase checked…

“…the man, believed to be Mr. LeDoux, hurried up to Baggage master T.R. Thompson and asked him to check a valise to Martell… ‘The man seemed to be greatly agitated,’ said Mr. Thompson, ‘but it was just about train time, and I concluded that he was afraid he was going to miss his train. He kept saying ‘Hurry up, here’… Then he pulled out his ticket and exclaimed: ‘I want that [suitcase] checked to Martell, but the agent sold me a ticket to Jackson.’ ‘That’s all right,’ I replied. ‘You take the stage at Martell for Jackson.’ I checked the grip and he hurried away. That’s the last I saw of him…

“Later the woman bought a ticket to Jackson, and stated that she would have a trunk to check,” concluded The San Francisco Bulletin. “Shortly before train time, the couple were heard conversing about the non-arrival of the trunk. The woman went to the Wells-Fargo express office…and asked permission to telephone the California House. She was so flustered that she was unable to get her number…”

But “she had seen [expressman Charles] Berry coming with the trunk…He placed the trunk on the truck that held the baggage for that train, and the woman started for the baggage room. At that moment, the locomotive bell began ringing and the woman’s companion called to her to hurry. As she turned to look, the baggagemen threw her trunk into the baggage car. She joined her companion, and they boarded the train.

“In the meantime, the baggagemen in the car noted that the trunk was not checked, and [they] threw it off on the truck. The train pulled out.”

Nick Vizelich knew a dead body when he smelled one. The pungent, overpowering aroma of decay wafted through the hot, stuffy baggage room at the Union Pacific station, and the young baggageman had handled enough coffins barreling through the freight room to know that there was something mighty peculiar about the untagged Saratoga trunk abandoned therein, on that sunny Saturday, March 24, 1906.

It had been languishing there all afternoon and evening, past the point of no return, its fetid odor blooming like a rotting blossom in the baggage room’s airless close quarters. And as the hour grew ever later, Vizelich found he could stand the stench not a moment longer. So he called the authorities.

“Just before 10:00 p.m., Police Captain John Walker entered the baggage room with an order from the district attorney’s office to open the trunk,” writes Charles F. Adams in Murder by the Bay (2005). “With the help of the baggagemen, he removed the rope that bound the trunk, and then he cracked open the trunk itself. When he raised the lid, a pair of shoeless feet popped out into full view.

“Inside was the bloodied body of a man lying on its back with its legs doubled up, so that the feet were on either side of the head. The body was fully dressed, except for the shoes. The face was covered with blood, which still ran freely from the nose and mouth, and the interior of the trunk was smeared with gore. It was the body of a tall, spare man with brown hair and what was then known as a ‘waterfall’ mustache.”

It was none other than Albert N. McVicar himself.

Works Cited
“Trunk Murderess Captured: Confesses—Names Accomplice.” The San Francisco Bulletin, Monday, March 26, 1906, pp. 1, 5.
“Woman Confesses Part in Trunk Murder.” The Stockton Evening Mail, Monday, March 26, 1906, p. 1.
“Woman is Accused of Killing Man Whose Body was Found in Trunk at Depot.” The San Francisco Call & Post, Monday, March 26, 1906, pp. 1-2.
“Mrs. LeDoux Said M’Vicar was Poisoned: Reveled While Victim was Dead in the Trunk.” The San Francisco Examiner, Tuesday, March 27, 1906, p. 3.
“Joseph Healy Singularly Freed from Woman’s Net: Youth Tells His Story to Police.” The San Francisco Call & Post, Tuesday, March 27, 1906, p. 3.
“Got $2000 Insurance.” The Stockton Evening & Sunday Record, Friday, March 30, 1906, p. 1.
“The McVicar Murder.” The Amador Ledger (Jackson, California), Friday, March 30, 1906, p. 2.
Jackson, Joseph Henry. “‘Other Than a Good One’: The Case of Emma LeDoux.” San Francisco Murders. New York, NY: Duell, Sloane, & Pearce, 1947. pp. 175-209.
Queen, Ellery. “The Body in the Trunk.” The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, January 20, 1957, p. 142.
Adams, Charles F. Murder by the Bay: Historic Homicide In and About the City of San Francisco. Sanger, California: Word Dancer Press, 2005. pp. 121-139.
Rubio, J’aime. Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous, and Unremembered. Createspace, 2016. Ch. 18.
Dowd, Katie. “‘The Trunk Murderess’: The Forgotten Tale of California’s First Black Widow Killer.” SFGate, July 10, 2020.
Ruhstaller, Tod. “Little Trunk of Horrors.” Soundings Journal, Aug. 26, 2020.

All photos provided by the author unless otherwise stated.

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Sarah A. Peterson-Camachois a library assistant with Fresno County Library, with a Bachelor’s in English and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from California State University, Fresno. In her free time, she makes soap and jewelry that she sells at Fresno-area craft fairs. She has written for The Clovis Roundup and the Central California Paranormal Investigators (CCPI) Newsletter.


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