A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

Some called it an American folk murder trial, a real-life version of the popular ditty, "Frankie and Johnny."

She killed her man because he done her wrong.

"I killed him because I loved him," cried Gabe from the lockup.

Gabe in Prescott portrait, circa 1920s.
courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum
Gabe in Prescott portrait, circa 1920s.
Mary Swartz knew Gabe well. Swartz's husband managed the old Palace Saloon in Prescott.
Casey McKee
Mary Swartz knew Gabe well. Swartz's husband managed the old Palace Saloon in Prescott.

District Attorney William C. Doran's case against Gabe was rock solid, and he didn't stand a chance. The defense was led by St. Johns' father, Earl Rogers, one of the greatest criminal lawyers of his time. He was flamboyant, a courtroom trickster who spent his free time drinking and carousing in L.A.'s whorehouses. But after a few hours in a Turkish bath, he was sober again and back in the courtroom, looking every bit the dandy in a cutaway coat with braided edges, spats, boutonniere and a loud tie. He rarely lost. Clarence Darrow once said that if he ever got into trouble, Rogers would be his man, and he proved it when charged with bribery in Los Angeles in 1912. Darrow hired Rogers to defend him and was acquitted.

Even though Gabe couldn't pay his fee, Rogers took the Dardley case because of its profile, and because of his own affinity for sporting girls. According to Take the Witness!, a 1934 book by Alfred Cohn and Joe Chisholm, which included a lengthy profile of Rogers, the money problem was solved one day before the proceedings began when Rogers' office door opened and a middle-aged woman entered. She said that she, too, had once worked in a house and risen to the level of madam, and now was a respected member of society. She wanted to help the Dardley girl, spelled "Darley" in some accounts.

The mysterious visitor, slowed by age, reached beneath her cape and retrieved a cigar box. "I no longer have much money," she said, "but perhaps you can raise some on these." At that she departed.

The box held a fistful of unset gems that brought $3,000 in pawn. The woman was never heard from again and never identified.

But Rogers, with acting skills that made him a courtroom Barrymore, could have won acquittal on 3 cents. Doran claimed the hole in the muff was made by moths, not a bullet, and that Gabriell had jerked the gun free of the muff to intentionally kill Topp. "If that isn't a moth hole," Doran hotly declared, "I'll eat the muff!"

Rogers demanded the remark be stricken. "I object to the statement for the reason that Mr. Doran has failed to lay any foundation of evidence to show that he ever actually ate a muff!"

The courtroom erupted in laughter and the objection failed.

Rogers also employed what was then a courtroom first, packing the spectator's gallery with society women sympathetic to Gabe's plight. Salvation Army workers in uniform, preachers' wives and prim philanthropists clutching flower-bouquet hats behaved like a Greek chorus, tsk tsking and gasping at every fresh outrage. Rogers even added a celebrity to the mix. Early in the trial, he begged the court's attention to introduce the beautiful and poised woman sitting at the defense table with her arm draped over Gabe's shoulder. She was the famed soprano Ellen Beach Yaw, known as the California Songbird. Doran jumped to his feet to object to Rogers' flaunting the entertainer's presence. But as usual he was a beat too late, and the jury was able to see which side the rich and powerful had chosen.

Reporters took up the celebrity connection, straining to paint the picture for their readers: Yaw, slender, blond, blue-eyed, brimming with confidence and compassion, next to the fallen Gabe, twisting a white handkerchief in her hands, dark eyes darting about, the pallor of her face framed by raven ringlets.

"She's been tried in cruel ways," said Yaw, explaining her support for Gabe. "But she has taken the test and come out a woman. Where I find womanhood, I respect it."

Yaw was helping escort her new friend from the gutter to the salon. Unbeknownst to Gabe, she was coming to represent a cause more noble than sex-for-money. She was standing for all women. "I'm giving Gabriell the strength of sisterhood," Yaw declared.

She probably didn't need it. Crime fiction is heavily populated with women who are expert at handling men, but none could top Gabe. Even before Rogers got involved, Gabe was spinning her defense to reporters from jail, presenting herself as an emotional child unable to comprehend that Leonard was gone, much less that her trigger finger had made it so. In numerous interviews and on the witness stand, she continued that line, telling a wrenching story of loss and heartbreak.

Gabe said she was born in Berganda, Italy, and her family moved to New York when she was a year old. At age 8, with her father gone, she and her mother, a seamstress, moved to San Francisco. She never again attended school of any kind.

"My mother had no means of supporting me but our needlework," she told the Evening Herald. "The earliest recollection I have is of pricking my fingers with a needle that my mother had given me to learn to sew. I don't know how old I was when I first learned to do fancywork. But I remember my mother looking at the clock, and then at me and telling me to hurry. We needed to work fast to make enough to live on. We lived in one little room. Then came the big disaster."

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