The location was Kansas City, Missouri. The players in the scene are Mr. John Bennett and his wife Mrs. Myrtle Bennett, maiden name of Myrtle Adkins. We are dealing with a rather successful business man who had over the years become prosperous selling perfumes. Mr. and Mrs. John and Myrtle Bennett had met Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Myrna Hoffman, who lived in the same building. All four persons shared a common interest. They all played bridge. It was to become a fateful evening.
However, during the court trial, which ensued, it became apparent that John Bennett had at several times abused his wife physically during heated arguments. These arguments had also occurred during the times they played bridge together. Knowing this fact in advance gives the reader a better understanding of the character of John Bennett.
Note to the reader: Pictures of the trial can be found at the Kansas City Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri. Among other pictures the visitor can find:
A picture of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw, the presiding judge of the trial. A picture of the courtroom scene at the murder trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett, who is pictured in the foreground on the far right. A picture of spectators crowding into the courtroom at the murder trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett. James A. Reed, J. Francis O'Sullivan, defense counsels, and Mrs. Bennett (with hat) are seated at the counsel table. A picture of J. Francis O'Sullivan, one of the defense attorneys at the murder trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett. A picture of Defense Attorney James A. Reed, who speaks to the jury at the murder trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett. A picture of Assistant prosecuting attorney, John V. Hill, who opened final arguments for the state at the murder trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett. A picture of both Mr. and Mrs. Hofman, friends who were playing bridge with the Bennetts when Mrs. Bennett shot and killed her husband John G. Bennett on September 29, 1929. This photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Hofman appeared in the Kansas City Journal-Post, Thursday, February 26, 1931. A picture of Byrd Rice, claimed to be the Chicago, star state's witness in the Bennett murder trial.
Note to the reader: The Defense Attorney James Alexander Reed, born November 9, 1861 and died September 9, 1944, born in Richland County, Ohio, attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and graduated a lawyer. He relocated to Kansas City, Missouri in 1887. In the year 1910 he was elected to the United States Senate, served three terms until 1929, and retired at the age of sixty-eight. It is this man who defended Mr. Mrytle Bennett at the trial. Mr. James Alexander Reed appeared on the cover of Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine, issue of March 7, 1927, Volume IX, No. 10.
Note to the reader: The American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) has published an account of this private bridge incident, which turned tragic and public, for many years in The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge. However, the published account states that the trial was held in Kansas City, Kan., or in Kansas City, KS. This is a false entry since the actual location is Kansas City, Missouri.
Note to the reader: The presiding judge in the murder trial of Myrtle Bennett was the Honorable Ralph S. Latshaw, born October 7, 1865, in Paris, Ontario, Canada, died May 19, 1932, Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Henry Joseph Latshaw (1835-1906), was also born in Paris, Ontario, Canada, but was an American citizen because his father, Peter Joseph Latshaw (1804-1878), had been born in Virginia. Judge Latshaw's parents married on October 7, 1861. His mother was Arminda America Steele (1839-1870) of Canton, Illinois. The family settled in Kansas City, Missouri, from Canada, very shortly after Judge Latshaw's birth.
It was on the evening of September 29, 1929, a Tuesday, when the game of bridge was still in its early stages, that John and Myrtle Bennett invited Charles and Myrna Hoffman to their apartment for an evening of rubber bridge. The stakes were friendly. Only $0.01 per point.
During the evening, it was quite evident that Myrtle Bennett had become tense and curt with her husband for not bidding and playing correctly, although the two had quite a winning streak during the first several hours of playing. However, Charles and Myrna Hoffman were quickly catching up, and this fact increased the intensity of the play. After the last quick tally of the score, it became evident that Charles and Myrna were ahead in points, although only by a small margin.
Myrna Hoffman related later on, that as the game continued, the Bennetts' criticism of each other grew more and more caustic. Finally, a Spade contract was bought by John and Myrtle in the following manner.
Myrna Hoffman continued to relate later on that Myrtle Bennett, as dummy, laid down a rather good hand. But her husband evidently did not plan the play well. John Bennett managed to fail in his contract by two tricks. This seemed to infuriate his wife and she began goading him with remarks about, as she put it, bum bridge players.
As Myrna Hoffman described the situation, John Bennett came right back at her. She did not remember the exact words, but this confrontation continued for several minutes. She related how she and her husband tried to stop the argument by demanding cards and a new deal, but by this time the row had become so pronounced that John Bennett, reaching across the table, grabbed Myrtle's arm and slapped her several times.
Myrna Hoffman described how she and her husband tried to intervene, but that it was futile. She described further how Myrtle Bennett had repeated over and over in a strained sing-song tone, that nobody but a bum would hit a woman. John Bennett then shouted, after jumping up from the table, that he intended to spend the night at a hotel, and that he was leaving town the next day. It was then that Myrtle Bennett turned to Charles and Myrna Hoffman and said that they had better leave. Charles and Myrna Hoffman politely began making preparations to leave.
It was while Charles and Myrna Hoffman were making preparations to leave the apartment that they noticed Myrtle Bennett quickly going into the bedroom of her mother, Mrs. Alice B. Adkins, and it was there that she retrieved an automatic gun from a dresser drawer. It was reported later that Myrtle Bennett said to her mother that John was going to St. Joseph, Missouri, and that he wanted to be armed. Her mother did not seem alarmed by this.
John Bennett had gone to his den, which was located near the bathroom, to pack for the intended trip to the hotel and for the days he wanted to be out of town. Charles Hoffman, putting on his muffler, had turned back and saw his friend, John Bennett, alone. It was during this time that Myrna Hoffman, who was standing at the front doorway, was waiting for her husband, when Charles Hoffman decided to approach John Bennett, hoping to say a few words of comfort which could relieve the feeling of anger and depression. Charles Hoffman engaged John Bennett in a conversation, and it was at this time that Myrtle Bennett seemed to dart into the room with the pistol unconcealed in her hand.
In a matter of seconds, John Bennett saw his wife brandishing the gun, ran hurriedly to the nearby bathroom, and slammed the door behind him. As soon as the door slammed shut, Myrtle Bennett fired two shots which penetrated the bathroom door. As it was pointed out later at the trial, she missed both times. John Bennett dodged the bullets.
Charles Hoffman, evidently too astonished at what had just happened, became immobile and stood standing in the den. Myrna Hoffman, after hearing the shots, ran down the hallway of the apartment building and began pounding on the door of the nearest apartment, apparently seeking help. Myrtle Bennett simply remained standing in front of the bathroom door with the pistol hanging by her side. However, in the commotion, Myrtle Bennett realized that she had not shot her husband. She heard him nearing the door which lead to the street. She followed, still furious about the play of the hand, the slaps she had received from her husband in front of friends, and determined to take revenge. She fired two additional shots, which allegedly killed her husband.
John Bennett did not die immediately, but was able to drag himself back into the apartment, where he staggered to a chair, sat down, and moaned that: "She got me." His last words. Afterwards, he slumped to the floor unconscious. Myrtle Bennett stood rigidly in the room with the pistol in her hand, and then it seemed that whatever power had held her left her mind and body. She had become again a rational person. She immediately went to her husband, she kneeled down, and began to cry uncontrollably. This is how the police found her. Myrtle Bennett was charged with first degree murder.
While this scene was being acted out, it seems that the bridge cards were neglected. When John Bennett was hitting his wife, the cards were flying around and off the table. The exact nature of the holding between North and South, and East and West, will most likely never be revealed, although Charles and Myrna Hoffman attempted to reconstruct the hands as best they could remember. The four hands played that evening, reconstructed by memory, began to circulate in periodicals shortly after the crime, and they were analyzed by the governing authorities on bridge of that time. The hands, as delivered to the present time, are illustrated below.
After the shooting, many bridge players became intrigued by the cards. They were reconstructed by the three remaining survivors to the best of their ability. Mr. Sydney Lenz and Mr. Eli Culbertson actually proved that John Bennett could have successfully fulfilled the contract. However, the opening by John Bennett was criticized as being too light since he did have insufficient values to make an opening bid. The lead, by West or Charles Hoffman, was the Ace of Diamonds, which took the trick. Charles Hoffman, after seeing the dummy void of Diamonds shifted to the Club suit, and lead the Jack on the second trick. John Bennett won this trick with his King of Clubs and began pulling trump. The more appropriate play would have been for John Bennett to establish the Club suit after ruffing his last Diamond.
If John Bennett, after winning the Club trick with his King of Clubs, had led his last Diamond and trumped it with one of the dummy's small trumps, he could then lead a trump and go up with the King. Then he would lead the Club 10, and , when Charles Hoffman followed suit, his worries would have been over. John Bennett would play the Ace of Clubs and lead the Nine or Eight. If Myrna Hoffman would have played the Queen of Clubs, John Bennett would have trumped and allowed Charles Hoffman to overtrump, if he decided to overtrump.
If that were the case, then Charles Hoffman, if he led a Heart, the contract would have been fulfilled. If Charles Hoffman had instead led a Diamond, the contract would also have been makeable. If Charles Hoffman had decided to lead a trump, then John Bennett may not have been able to fulfill the contract. The conclusion of both Sydney Lenz and Eli Culbertson was that John Bennett did not plan his strategy before playing the cards, and that was his fatal mistake.
Note: The above picture of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw, the presiding judge at the trial of Mrs. Myrtle Bennett, is by courtesy of Mr. Randal J. Loy, who has proof-read this account, contributed information to the actual facts and events of that time, and reminds the reader that a certain society level existed in the state of Missouri in the early 1930s. We wish also to extend our thanks to the family members, who provided Mr. Randal J. Loy with the picture and allowed its publication. Visitors should be aware that any copy should carry the permission of these family members. The reader may address Mr. Randal J. Loy personally by email.
Note: Legend and rumors have been spread and spoken that Judge Ralph S. Latshaw was himself an avid bridge player. However, the present family members of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw have requested, through their spokesperson Mr. Randal J. Loy, that the following information be made availalbe to the reader, which we do so willingly and readily. The reference of that statement refers to the rumor that Judge Ralph S. Latshaw was an avid bridge player.
"However, Judge Latshaw's surviving family members have no written evidence to confirm that statement. They do know, unquestionably, that Judge Latshaw was an extremely ethical man, who would have been extremely impartial while on the bench. Furthermore, it is known that Judge Latshaw was extremely disappointed with the verdict the jury returned in this case.
His widow expressly requested that a full-page tribute, which appeared in The Kansas City Star newspaper on the day of Judge Latshaw's death, not contain any reference to this highly-publicized case, since Judge Latshaw felt that in his instructions to the jury he had not impressed upon them the weight of the evidence entered in the case by the prosecution."
Note: Although neither confirmed nor substantiated it is related that the fatal last hand was supposedly replayed at the trial and bridge experts called in to examine the deal. These bridge experts are, as of today, unknown and unnamed. They subsequently determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Mr. John Bennett had completely misplayed the hand.
Note: The reader must be aware of the fact that the above is only hearsay since there is no actual transcript of the dialogue at the trial.
Although the story occurred in Kansas City, Missouri, the larger metropolitan newspapers got a hold of the details and the New York Time and the Chicago Tribune reported it. At the trial for first degree murder of her husband, Myrtle Bennett was advised by her lawyer to alter somewhat the alleged confession. Myrtle Bennett wept ostensibly throughout the proceedings, and at one point avowed that she would rather have been dead than to have in any fashion caused the death of her husband.
It seems that this line of defense was advantageous when the judge declined to admit into evidence the original statement Myrtle Bennett had given to the police. Even the last words of John Bennett had been altered to the degree that the impression was left that John Bennett had meant to state that he was leaving his wife forever, and that he was conducting business the next day in St. Joseph, Missouri. During the trial it seemed that Myrtle Bennett convincingly stated that her husband had requested her to retrieve the pistol, since he normally carried the weapon while on trips out of town. This statement was backed up by her mother, Mrs. Alice B. Adkins.
Myrtle Bennett was also able to alter the circumstances to leave the impression that while she was retrieving the weapon, she stumbled over a chair and the pistol went off accidentally, wounding her husband, and when her husband grabbed her arm in order to remove the pistol, the pistol once again discharged, this time fatally wounding her husband.
Myrtle Bennett, born in the year 1895 and died in the year 1992, was acquitted, because the jury decided to ignore the physical evidence of the two bullet holes found in the bathroom door. The jury also found nothing strange that the body of John Bennett was found lying on the living room floor and no suitcase to be found. The jury also ignored the fact that the pistol had been fired four times. The jury found that the death of John Bennett had been an accident. After the acquittal, Myrtle Bennett collected $30,000.00 from her husband's life insurance policy, which was a significant sum during the years of the depression.
Mrs. Myrtle Bennett - 1928
Myrtle Bennett resumed her hobby of playing bridge soon thereafter, but it seems that her partners were rather cautious in their bidding and playing.
Mr. David Daniels, in his book, The Golden Age of Contract Bridge, described the scene, the characters, and the events that followed.
In his 1934 collection, While Rome Burns, originally published by Arthur Baker, London, England, drama critic and essayist Alexander Woollcott, 1887-1943, reported on the delicate matter of Myrtle Bennett, the shooting, the trial, and the acquittal. It was Thornton Wilder who convinced Woollcott that his work was important enough to deserve reissue in book form. While Rome Burns was a surprise bestseller and further cemented Woollcott's reputation nationally. It is light reading but includes much that is amusing or quaint and one very fine piece, Hands Across the Sea, about justice during the war. The picture below shows him in the year 1939.
Mr. Alexander Woollcott was a close friend of Dorothy Parker and also fellow member of the Algonquin Round Table, and he was literally larger than life. Mr. Harpo Marx, one of the Marx Brothers of Hollywood fame and also an ardent bridge player, described him as something that got loose from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Mr. Alexander (Aleck) Woollcott had a charismatic personality that drew people to him. He was a theater and literary critic of the highest order from the 1920s to the early 1940s, and was at the time one of the most famous people in the nation. He was also a windbag and a social dervish, or, by definition, a Turkish or Persian monk, especially one who professes extreme poverty and leads an austere life, such as he did, but not parasitically in the New York circles of that era.
In his original collection While Rome Burns, Mr. Alexander Woollcott provided the reader with the following, excerpted account of the acquitted, but still fair and beautiful murderess about her experiences at the bridge table:
Myrtle Bennett has not allowed her bridge to grow rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in finding a partner. Recently, she took on one unacquainted with her history. Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence,
Partner, he said, I'm afraid you'll want to shoot me for this.
Mrs. Bennett, says my informant, had the good taste to faint.
This incident happened during the time when the game of bridge was emerging as a favorite pastime. But this pastime was headed by the males of the bridge community, and women had very little to say when it came to the conventions, the guidelines, conduct and propriety. Women were not exactly quoted in the many books published by the so-called authorities. It was, however, Myrtle Bennett who gave the woman of the bridge world an impetus to become more bolder in their conduct, and not present themselves as the weaker sex. It seems that the males heard the message, and understood it. It was not that Myrtle Bennett was idolized in any fashion by the female bridge players of that era, but her example and acquittal were the talk of the bridge community for some time.
Very little is known about Mrs. Myrna Hoffman and Mr. Charles Hoffman, the bridge opponents and social friends of Mr. John and Myrtle Bennett, and who witnessed the proceedings of that evening and to which they testified in court. The picture portraits below show these two bridge players from the previous year, presumably at the closing of the year 1928. These picture portraits of Mrs. Myrna Hoffman and Mr. Charles Hoffman appeared in the newspaper publication Kansas City Journal-Post on February 26, 1931, and were approved by Mrs. Myrna Hoffman and Mr. Charles Hoffman for publication. Since the two bridge players had also become accessible public figures as a result of the public trial by jury they were no longer anonymous.
With the presentation of these picture portraits of Mrs. Myrna Hoffman and Mr. Charles Hoffman no disrespect is intended to any member of the family and these picture portraits are only presented in a dignified manner for historical reasons. Existing copyright laws may be in effect and we hope that this aspect will be honored.