A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery
A summer morning in Salome, 107 miles west of Phoenix. The day starts cool and impossibly bright. No place on earth is brighter.
The heat comes later, but soon enough. Early in the afternoon the horizon begins to shake under the immense sun, and by 3 o'clock, it's a boiling lake surrounded by three weeks of desert. Tourist brochures and toothy salesmen will tell you a dry heat is better. Reptiles know this is so, but everyone else begs for relief that never comes.
Salome is flat, with a handful of trees, no shade, no water, only burning sand on either side of the two-lane highway that splits the town on its way west to Blythe and Los Angeles, or east back to Phoenix. The witness-protection people should put Salome on their list. A person could settle in here and vanish. Get a double-wide with a propane feed, a Sony big screen and say goodbye to the world.
When Gabriell Dollie Wiley moved to Salome in 1937, with her whores and her fifth husband, she must've believed she'd found her Eden. The longtime madam had just married an ex-whiskey peddler and hard-rock miner named George Wiley, who operated a combination liquor store, cafe, auto court and gas station in Salome, and was actually turning a profit, no easy task in the lingering Depression.
Good-natured George loved Dollie so much that he didn't squawk when she began running girls out of the cabins behind the cafe and from the three shacks in the backyard of their home. The Wileys lived a quarter-mile east of Sheffler's Motel on the south side of U.S. 60.
As houses in Salome go, it's still among the nicest. Cement-block, five rooms, set into a depression off the road, the front porch shaded by a few pecan trees. The rear room was set up as a kind of lounge. When a customer arrived, he tossed his fedora onto the flowered couch and sat jiggling his knee and sipping whiskey until his girl came in, working her imitation desire.
If the scent of her nickel perfume didn't knock him out, off they went to one of the shacks. Each consisted of a single room spacious enough for a man to pull off his boots, a mattress on the floor and a bathroom, nothing more.
The business that went on there was entirely private. Even if the whiskey led to trouble, papering it over was a simple matter. A lot of evidence could vanish before the sheriff made the 140-mile drive from the county seat, 85 of those miles over an unpaved, washboard road.
In those days the nearest lawman was Yuma County sheriff T.H. "Pete" Newman, a gangly Texan who ran his jurisdiction like a good friend. When the Sheffler brothers came to town from California to open their restaurant and drug store, they brought in a truck full of slot machines. Gambling was against the law in Arizona, but the slots offered businesses along the highway help paying the light bill, and before long most were in on it.
When shocking reports of illegal gambling filtered back to Yuma, Pete sprang into action. His investigative technique involved phoning ahead to let everyone know he was coming. Minutes after the call ended, all of Salome was alerted, and slots were stuck under counters, covered with blankets or stashed into back rooms. A few hours later, Pete breezed in, chatted with his friends as they whistled at the ceiling, then drove off, never discovering much to burden his sleep.
An aging madam incapable of following any law but her own could find a lot to love about Salome. She could live as she wished, follow her own voices. She could even trick her husband into drinking a glass of rat poison without fear that Pete might cobble together a murder case.
Early on the afternoon of January 10, 1941, George Wiley was found on the floor of his bedroom, the bottom portions of his body cherry red from blood pooling caused by cyanide. A fellow doesn't get much deader.
It came as only a small surprise that sweet George should die that way. Ever since Dollie arrived in Salome, she'd been followed by whispers and the sound of clucking tongues. Everyone knew she'd worked as a whore in Arizona's Territorial mine camps, prior to statehood in 1912, and later a madam in Prescott, northeast of Salome. A few had even heard about the man she had supposedly killed in California.
Her past generated considerable disgust in town, but it was blunted somewhat by her personality. She was generous when out-of-work miners and stranded travelers stopped at her restaurant, and she carried herself with a pleasant reserve unexpected for one in her profession.
Dollie was always finely turned out, too, refusing to appear in public in her corn-silk-white hair. She dyed it chestnut red, wore expensive jewelry and carried a drippy-eyed poodle under her arm wherever she went. She saved her best outfits for meetings of the Salome ladies club, where she was a member in good standing, rarely missing a meeting. Dollie wore gloves, a hat with a veil pinned on top, bright red lipstick, a modest amount of rouge, and often sat next to Constance Kaufman, a prim sort whose collar was always buttoned to the chin.
"Connie knew about Dollie, but she'd never say anything. Oh, my gosh, no," says Dorothy Matthews, another club member who still lives in Salome. "They'd sit side by side and talk about sponsoring local girls in 4-H competitions and things like that. They'd never talk about prostitution. They were ladies."
But even Dollie's friends figured her for a killer. One of those is 86-year-old Hayden Brown, a retired highway-department worker and a good friend and former employee of the Wileys. He thinks Dollie probably killed George, but he kept going to Wiley's bar and taking his beer with her just the same.
"What're you gonna do? It was one of those deals. Back then, people didn't get so worked up about things."
Hayden explains that back in the late 1930s, the only other bar in town was an open-air job, a patch of dirt surrounded by an ocotillo-rib fence. It had no chairs, only a makeshift countertop to belly against.
When the sun is beating down and the lizards are running, a roof, a chair and 10-cent bottles of Apache Beer can bring a lot of forgiveness.
What Salome thought it knew about Dollie Wiley was only a shadow of the truth. Her life is a wicked little puzzle. Every rock you flip turns up something nasty. A savage beating here, a sidewalk assassination over there. None of the men she loved, and even a few she didn't love, escaped her assembly-line mayhem.
One by one, they wound up dead or insane. She might have been the model for crime-novel women, the original dame. Tough, beautiful, always working the angles, a lover of sparkling diamonds and Saturday-night men with absolutely nothing going for them.
Oh, and one more thing: You never, ever wanted to cross her.
Early evening, January 1, 1915. Darkness had just fallen over West Seventh Street in Los Angeles as Gabriell Dardley, about 25 years old, walked along the sidewalk. She stopped at a liquor store window, peered inside and saw the man she'd been hunting.
Leonard Topp, her pimp. He had promised repeatedly to marry Gabe, as she was known in those years, but never made good. Instead, he stole the fortune in diamonds she had earned working Prescott's tenderloin district, then skipped town to marry someone else.
Gabe grinned and kept walking. She went a few feet past the window and stopped. The hatred she had been containing for weeks broke loose inside of her, and for a moment she was blinded by it. The city blurred before her eyes. Her breathing quickened and her heart bulged into her throat. She wondered if she could go through with it. But when her eyes focused again, she knew she could. Hadn't she told friends in Prescott that Leonard had better not leave her? Hadn't she told Leonard himself, straight out, "Leave me, and I'll kill you"?
Yes, she had. He got his warning and split anyway.
Gabe was clad in silk and furs, a muff covering her hands. The fur should have kept her warm against the ocean chill. But her fingers were bloodless, almost without sensation. She wondered if they'd work at all. She shifted the small black revolver from one hand to the next, thinking the movement would loosen the muscles. The steel of the gun was ice to the touch. But when she tightened her finger around the trigger, she felt a returning warmth. The fury in her grew bigger than the whole world.
Sorry, Leonard, darling, but it is time to settle up.
Gabe turned and walked into the liquor store. She stood behind Topp for a few seconds before speaking.
"Hello, Leonard," she hissed.
He spun around.
Without removing the gun from the muff, Gabe fired a single shot into Topp's chest. The ex-soldier -- a six-foot-tall, 190-pound part-Chippewa Indian -- proved hard to kill. The bullet nicked his heart, giving him a few precious seconds to live. He used them to beat Gabe. He knocked her down and repeatedly smashed her head against the floor. When she passed out, Leonard staggered to his feet and said, "Well, I guess I'm about through for good," then fell over dead.
Topp's killing isn't difficult to piece together given the level of detail in the newspaper stories about it. His death and the subsequent murder trial caused such a sensation in southern California that on some days it knocked World War I off the front pages.
The facts were so shocking then. Words like pimp and "sporting woman" had never been bandied about in such a public way. Reporters crowded into Gabe's jail cell, brooming the ground for every morsel about her past. The coverage in the Los Angeles Evening Herald was written by Adela Rogers St. Johns, then a 21-year-old working her first story. In the vernacular of the time, she was known as a "sob sister" whose job was to make readers cry. Day after day, St. Johns delivered descriptions of Gabe that read like something from a 25-cent pocket paperback, circa 1949:
"In her blood pulsates the forces of fiery love and quick revenge. And in her wonderful gold-green eyes, fire flashes as she calls for her sweetheart -- calls again and again, unaware that she is calling across the gulf of an open grave."
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.
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."
In the conflagration that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, her mother vanished. Gabe searched the rubble of the city for her, but found no trace. At 15, alone in the world, she hooked up with an older woman and moved briefly to Oakland, then hitched a ride in a horse-drawn wagon with a group heading east.
Nevada was the first stop in what would become a vagrant life. Gabe made the rounds of that state's gold camps, working in hash houses in Reno and Rawhide during the day, and turning tricks for miners in the back rooms at night. She met her first husband while waiting tables in a Las Vegas restaurant, but he was shot and killed two years later, again leaving her with no one.
"Now, while in a courtroom on trial for my life," she testified, "I have experienced for the first time in my life the feeling of having a protector."
Neither the spectators, nor, evidently, the prosecution knew that Gabe's story was largely a con job. She actually was born in France sometime around 1890, and came to this country as a teenager to work as a maid for an Italian couple.
But her inventions played beautifully. So did Rogers' effort to put Leonard Topp on trial. He was in his early 30s, a strikingly good-looking bartender with an eye for diamond scarf pins and cuff links paid for with other people's money. Gabe had lived with him in Prescott for several years, loving him even though he pawned her jewelry and forged checks on her accounts.
When Leonard got into trouble for embezzling money from the local bartenders' union, she covered for his theft and saved him from the penitentiary. "He was handsome and had been a soldier," Gabe testified. "I loved him, and for a while we were happy. He was my master. I was content to do anything he ordered me to do, just so he would reward me by saying he loved me."
Rogers pounded the point home. "Women, so help me, must love something!" he thundered.
Gabe believed Leonard's promise of marriage, and bought him diamond rings to keep him happy. In return, he sold her car and spent the money, and if she complained he beat her bloody. A friend of Gabe's from Prescott testified that Leonard beat her severely three or four times a week. Pearl Valley, described in news accounts as a "substantial blond," said that one of Leonard's favorite pastimes was to "scuff the toes of his boots against her." With such testimony before the jury, all that remained for Gabe was to repeat her contention that she remembered nothing of the shooting.
"I don't know. He grabbed me and tried to take my purse."
Now, what happened after he grabbed your purse?
"I don't recall. Everything was a daze."
How long . . . after you followed Topp into the store did the shooting take place?
"I don't remember any shooting. . . . There was a whole lot of noise, people pushed me about, and then, it seemed days later, I found myself in bed and there were bars across the door."
The defense's closing argument was the final wallop. Frank Dominguez, Rogers' partner, invoked fatherhood: "I say that as fathers of daughters, gentlemen of the jury, you should repent and condemn the malignant and vile action of this man who took from the field of life a defenseless 17-year-old girl and carried her down to lifelong shame."
Repent they did. The all-male jury brought back an acquittal in eight minutes, even before their tears from Dominguez's closing had dried. Foreman Peter Amestoy told reporters that whether Gabe killed Topp intentionally or not didn't matter. "She righted a wrong that had been done her," he said.
In all the copy produced about the case, the best line came decades later in Final Verdict, St. Johns' 1962 memoir. She wrote that with men like Topp, homicide was not only justifiable, but obligatory.
With cameras popping, Yaw escorted Gabe from the jail and drove her to the singer's estate in West Covina. A few weeks among the rich was just the recuperation she needed. "I went through the fire of purgatory," she told reporters from her temporary home. "But it was my creator's way of washing away my sin. From this moment on, I shall live so that good women will not draw aside their skirts when they pass me." She declared her intention to become a nurse.
Gabe's promise to straighten up, it turns out, was another line. By 1920, she had returned to Prescott and was back turning tricks, only now she had moved into management. She became a madam operating out of a series of downtown rooming houses and hotels.
In Gabe's day, Prescott was a wide-open frontier town, a fine place for a career whore to make money. Cowboys worked the sprawling ranch country of Yavapai County, and after roundup descended on the old territorial capital to drink skull-bust rye and beat each other senseless along Whiskey Row, a stretch of saloons dating to the 1870s. Gabe could've lived quietly there, selling $5 tricks and watered-down corn whiskey, occasionally undoing the sash on her red robe to convince the cops that a beating or knifing at her place was no cause for worry. But her radar for trouble was always working.
In February of 1928, the Elks Theater, a longtime Prescott landmark, featured a silent picture called The Red Kimona, which had gotten national release but decidedly mixed reviews. Gabe, then a prominent businesswoman, owner of the nearby Mason Hotel, set out one afternoon to see it. Near the theater, she was approached on the sidewalk by boys handing out promotional flyers.
"A startling exposé of the white slave trade, fearlessness told!" screamed the handbills printed in bright red ink. Propped on a chair in the lobby was the wax figure of a woman dressed in a kimono and bathed in red lights. When she sat down in the packed theater, Gabe still had no inkling that it was her story playing on the screen. Not only did the movie mirror the details of her life, with a few artistic embellishments, but it used her real name.
Kimona was a mostly female production, a Hollywood first, adapted from a 1924 short story by Adela Rogers St. Johns. The producer was Dorothy Davenport Reid, widow of Wallace Reid, Paramount's most popular leading man before talking pictures. After his death from a morphine overdose in 1923, Dorothy Reid became a crusader dedicated to fighting vice through films. She formed her own production company to produce the movie, and brought in Dorothy Arzner to write the screenplay. The latter was an avowed lesbian who went on to become a pioneer in women's filmmaking. Between 1927 and 1943, Arzner directed 17 features, making her one of the few women of that era able to earn a living in pictures.
In Arzner's hands, and with Reid herself looking mournfully into the camera to provide narration, Gabe's life played like a feminist melodrama. She was portrayed as a "modern Magdalene," an innocent brought to ruin not by her choices or circumstance, but by the machinations of men. With the exception of the Yaw character's chauffeur, with whom Gabe finds love, every male in the picture was a mustache-twirler.
With early feminists added to the list of users, the cynicism train was really rolling now, and Gabe's reaction stoked the engine even more. Rather than accepting the highly sympathetic portrait, and avoiding another legal fight, she followed the handbook for crime-novel dolls and pounced at the chance to make a big score. In June of 1928, she sued Dorothy Reid and Diamond All-Star Features Distributors, Inc., claiming that after her 1915 trial, she'd returned to Arizona, remarried and become an exemplary wife.
The complaint stated that the film's public recounting of her past exposed her to the world "as a woman of lewd characteristics, a prostitute and a murderess" causing "deep humiliation and grief, untold suffering and loss of self-esteem." And for a new twist, Gabe and her lawyers argued that using her real name, and the facts of her past infringed on her property rights. She demanded $50,000 in damages.
The suit was unprecedented and drew wide notice, including coverage in the New York Times. Never before had the burgeoning movie industry been called to answer for using the facts of someone's life in a production. The case bounced through the California courts for five years. Reid argued that no such privacy or property rights existed under California law, and the superior court of Los Angeles County agreed.
But California's fourth district appellate court reversed that decision, stating that no matter how unsavory her past, Gabe had a right of privacy that could not be opened to public view. The court further said that had the producers stopped at the facts made public in her trial, no action could be taken.
But the movie went beyond those facts. The appellate court dismissed Gabe's novel claim that the movie had violated her property rights. Only when California's supreme court declined to hear the matter, did Reid agree to settle. In doing so, however, she lost everything, including her West Hollywood mansion, believed to be the first in southern California with its own swimming pool. She filed for bankruptcy in Los Angeles on September 21, 1933.
The irony of Hollywood trumpeting Gabe as a feminist heroine, in a movie written by a lesbian, with the intention of ending the scourge of prostitution, is too rich for words. Gabe was the scourge. But what is most remarkable about the Kimona fight was her boldness in waging a five-year legal war against Hollywood big shots, based on the lie that she'd shed her sordid ways, and winning again.
It's unclear how much money Gabe pocketed from the settlement. Whatever the take, it didn't change her life appreciably. She continued in the business to which she was born, only now, thanks to coverage of the legal wrangling in the Prescott papers, her infamy had grown. She became a figure of high curiosity, rarely seen on downtown streets in daylight hours, but when she was, it set lips flapping. Gabe spoke little, walked quickly and sought no public recognition. The only accouterment of her character that drew significant notice were the diamonds she wore.
"You'd see her walking downtown wearing the nicest clothes you ever saw, and shiny diamonds," says Paul Toci, a longtime Prescott resident. "She was a beautiful-looking woman. Unless you knew she was from the whorehouse, you'd never guess it."
Scottsdale resident John Brusco, whose family knew Gabe as well as anyone, says she was at one time reputed to have the largest diamond collection in the state. They added to the mystery surrounding her, and, at the same time, let the world know she had risen from her beginnings and had made it.
Gabe's profile rose considerably past midnight. After she closed shop on the second floor of the Rex Arms Hotel, where she ran her business for much of the 1930s, she sometimes escorted her girls around the corner for a nightcap at Whiskey Row's Palace Saloon. The girls were decked out in feathers, boas and stage makeup, but the madam was never so flamboyant.
"She wasn't a floozy, let me tell you," says Mary Swartz, 84, whose late husband, Bob, managed the Palace at the time. "She was plump, pretty and usually dressed in suits. Very businesslike. But she had a different shade of red hair every time. Those dye jobs didn't cut it in those days."
Swartz says Gabe cared for her girls, even paying to put several through a local business college. "She did that for three girls I know of who didn't have family of their own. One of them was a friend of mine. She did a lot around here, and everybody thought she was great, except the Sunday-school people. They didn't like her much."
But the cowboys loved her. Texas-born Leonard Black, now 95, remembers the commotion Gabe caused when she raised her rate to $5 from $3. "She was one of the first whores to do it, and believe me, she got it, too," he says, sitting on the front porch of the Arizona Pioneers' Home, a great brick building on a hill above downtown Prescott. Leonard wears jeans and boots and a shirt that snaps up the front, his eyes shaded by a beat-up straw cowboy hat.
"At the Rex Arms, you could stay all night for $12," he remembers. "They'd ask for $15, but they'd take $12. But you didn't get to know Gabe too well. It was just business with her, and it was business with me, too. I tried her a few times, and she was about like the rest. I tried every whore around here one time or another. When I was a young cowboy, why, I'd ride anything with hair."
Frank Polk lives a few miles south of Prescott in the tiny town of Mayer. He lives in what used to be the Mayer State Bank, a square-front brick building that looks like one of those banks that movie outlaws are always holding up. The safe is still inside. It has a huge black door with a silver handle, and you have to screw up all of your strength to tug it open.
In his day, Frank was well-known around Arizona as a cowboy, rodeo rider, sculptor, boozer and brawler. The pictures hanging on his walls are all of horses, corrals and one that he swears is Wyatt Earp faking a quick draw. He shuffles around his one-room home with the help of a walker. But he remembers Gabe, and even dedicated a few passages to her in his 1978 autobiography.
"Yeah, in those days she was quite a high-toned gal," he says. "She bootlegged and had some slot machines at her place. We'd come to town after roundup, and first thing we'd do is hit the Palace Bar and get a bath in back, then we'd get ourselves a new shirt, and go see Gabe. Everybody went to Gabe's. We'd drink and fight."
He tells of the time he and some other cowboys finished a roundup and hurried to Prescott to see Gabe. But Frank had to stop at the dentist first. By the time he got to the hotel, all the girls were busy. Gabe loosed the sash on her trademark red robe and said, "Come on, Frank. I'll screw you."
"Her pussy was so big she had to reach down underneath and squeeze it around my pecker just to keep it in there," he says without hesitation. "Now that's something that don't happen every day.
"No, far as screwin' was concerned, she was awful poor. She was wore out, I guess. But she was a good ol' gal, I'll say that much."
Both Black and Polk were probably lucky that their relations with Gabe were strictly commerce. Anything more and they might've fallen before the curse that followed the men in her life.
Gabe referred to the first one in her 1915 court testimony. He was Ernest Presti, an Italian-born drifter, gambler and prize fighter, known throughout the Southwest and California. He boxed under the name Kid Kirby. He and Gabe were married in the gold-mining town of Congress, Arizona, on October 6, 1909.
It was a match made of the police blotter. In 1910, Presti was shot and seriously wounded in a Tucson bar fight, and early the following year, he was arrested and fined $75 for beating a Prescott prostitute. Newspaper accounts do not name his victim, but it likely was Gabe. The two had divorced months before, and she was earning her living in the same district. In May of 1911, Presti was murdered on a Prescott sidewalk by Bill Campbell, a shoe-shine man. The papers called him a "Negro bootblack." He'd given Presti a $20 check to pay off a blackjack debt, then stopped payment on it. Presti responded by walloping his adversary behind the ear with brass knuckles. A short time later, after buying a .38 caliber pistol, Campbell ran up behind the boxer and shot him in the back.
After Presti came Topp. Then Gabe married Bernard Sohn Melvin in Orange County, California, in 1919. They split after six months and were legally divorced in 1923.
Just before Christmas, 1922, Gabe traveled to Los Angeles from Prescott to have Melvin arrested on a charge of embezzling $2,000 from her. Her return to the city of her acquittal was big news, only this time it was Melvin giving sensational interviews from behind bars.
"Gabriell called herself the plaything of men when she was on trial for killing Topp," Melvin told the Los Angeles Times from the county jail. "She still is, but she makes them pay. She's wealthy and has thousands in the bank. I didn't steal that money from her. She gave it to me. We loved each other once, but we're through now, and she hates me. She hated Topp and she killed him. I'm in jail. The man pays, I guess."
Melvin's last years were bizarre. He lived in a shack at the Prescott dump, where he worked as caretaker, refusing to communicate with the outside world. He had no family and hadn't received mail in 20 years. In 1927, according to Yavapai County probate papers, he was attacked at the dump and beaten to within a whisker of his life by several shadowy men. They obviously knew that he stashed his $800 life savings there and made off with it. The crime wasn't pinned on Gabe, but it was never solved either. Melvin, who refused to speak of who attacked him or why, died a pathetic loner in 1929 at age 70. The official cause of death was pneumonia.
Gabe's next husband was a barber and manicurist named Everett L. Fretz. Something went haywire in his head, too, and in 1935 he was committed to the Arizona State Asylum in Phoenix. He raved through terrible nights about his gold mine near Prescott, demanding to be deputized to protect it. But the mine existed only in his imagination. A month after arriving at the asylum, he died of what state records cryptically describe as "general paralysis of the insane." He was 40.
Six men either shot, poisoned or dead under mysterious circumstances. But there might be more. Mine-town whores aren't exactly easy to track, and what Gabe did prior to marrying Presti in 1909 is a blur, as are the years immediately following her trial.
There's also no accounting for the name Dardley, or Darley. She left Prescott to kill Topp as Gabrielle Layral and stood trial as Gabriell Dardley. A marriage record couldn't be located, nor could any information about what happened to Mr. Dardley.
Gabe's nephew, Gil Layral, a retired food-service worker in southern California, thinks he knows. In 1948, at age 17, he moved from his home in France to work for Gabe in Salome, and stayed six months. Shortly after arriving, Gil was pulled aside by one of Gabe's best friends, an American woman fluent in French, who gave him the lowdown on the madam. "She said my aunt had killed every man she had," Layral recalls in a telephone interview. "How many were there, eight?"
Then he laughs in a lilting way. "Rat poison, eh. That was her preferred method."
Layral doesn't think his informant had any reason to lie to him. "I didn't leave because my aunt had killed her men. It didn't affect me at all. I slept very well at night."
He laughs again. "I had just come from France, remember, where I had seen many Nazis barbecued in their cars by the Resistance. No, I left Salome because I didn't like it there. I didn't like taking care of her chickens. I was a boy from Paris, you see."
George Wiley presumably didn't see rat poison in his future when he proposed to Gabe in 1937. If he was aware of her previous dalliances, and their unfortunate conclusions, it didn't play too heavily on his mind. He had traveled to Prescott from Salome for a romp at the Rex Arms and that was enough to turn his head.
Gabe had different motives for marrying again. She was nearing 50, and according to court records, having trouble paying her rent. Maybe after hooking up with George, she could sell girls for a few more years, then as much as she was able, settle into a kind of small-town respectability.
The two were married in Prescott in what must have been a sight to behold: an old whore, plump, unsmiling, glistening with diamonds, standing beside a grinning ex-bootlegger with a tomato for a face, with the ceremony performed by Yavapai County Judge Gordon Clark, who stood three-and-a-half-feet tall in his cowboy boots.
The midget judge, as he was called, joined the happy couple in matrimony on July 31, 1937. Adopting her longtime nickname of Dollie, Gabe Fretz moved to Salome and became Dollie Wiley.
The desert west of Wickenburg looks like the moon. It consists of mile after mile of scrub and creosote, lifeless except for jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and stiletto-spined cactus best appreciated from the window of a speeding car.
Salome, farther west, seems mostly empty, too. The afternoon wind blowing through town this day can twist your nerves to steel. It makes the Harcuvar Mountains to the north look smoky behind the dust it throws up, and it turns tumbleweeds into flak. Sometimes it churns up funnel clouds of dust, 100-foot-tall monsters whirling across the earth. At least they're something to look at, breaks in the deadening sameness of a place where the afternoon heat could bend a spoon, and the shrill whistle announcing the arrival of another train on the Arizona-California line is a welcome racket.
Salome's founder must have been seeing mirages when he started a town on this barren desert. Iowa-born DeForest Hall is one of a long line of characters who emigrated to Territorial Arizona, shed his skin and invented an entirely new man, even taking a new name, Dick Wick Hall.
In one way he found huge success. Hall came to Yuma County in 1904 and later started the Salome Sun. He filled his newspaper with witticisms and country humor and distributed it to travelers out of his business, the Laughing Gas Station. His work was noticed by a New York editor, and by 1921, Hall was contributing to the nation's most influential magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Over the next five years, he developed a national following writing about such characters as the Salome frog, who was 7 years old and still hadn't learned to swim.
But the Hall everyone thought they knew, the corny philosopher, was mostly bunk. Behind the façade was a hustler of shaky mining stock, thought by some to be as much swindler as sage. If the truth be known, he didn't pump any gas out of his station and hated Arizona's summers so much he fled to Los Angeles. Still, Salome hosts Dick Wick Hall days every fall, and the image of his frog is still plastered on buildings all over the place, testimonies to the value of mirages.
Dollie's Salome is a different, darker place, straight from the pages of the controversial 1934 noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Her old business, now called the Free Lunch Cafe, is a virtual copy of James M. Cain's fictional Twin Oaks Tavern. Nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, Cain wrote, like a million others, with a lunchroom part, a house part, a filling station and auto court. The Free Lunch has a few wobbly tables, sticky menus, and is divided into two parts, with a lounge on the far side, accessible through bat-wing doors that thump when you let them go.
The bar has a warm beer smell, Shania Twain is playing on the juke, and the sign on the mirror behind the cash register reads: "Sorry, We're Open."
Dollie is still a celebrity here, almost four decades after her passing, and when someone comes around asking questions about her, it doesn't take long for word to get out. Old-timers heat up the phone lines and the stories about her are told again. Like the time she leashed her beloved poodle to the bumper of her car, forgot it was there and drove into town. The poor pooch ran alongside as long as it could, then collapsed and bounced like a beach ball along the highway the rest of the way. The dog was badly roughed up, but survived. An accident, they say around here, simple forgetfulness. Dollie was heartbroken, they say, and that might be true.
But, as with every story in her life, you have to wonder. Maybe it wasn't an accident at all.
The similarities between Dollie's life in Salome and Cain's Postman go beyond the look of the cafe. The book's main character is Frank Chambers, a young tough on the loose, wounded by life and so wrung out he's begging for more. He lands in a cafe outside Los Angeles, orders a breakfast he can't pay for, and before long, hell is collapsing in pieces around him. His mistake is falling hard for Cora, the cafe owner's wife. Their passion leads to a murder plot that goes wrong and finds Chambers, in the last chapter, preparing to meet his executioner.
Cain got the idea from a sensational real-life murder case in L.A. in 1927. A woman named Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, conspired to murder her husband. They concocted an alibi in which Judd would be out of town the day of the killing. Snyder saw Judd off by handing him a bottle of booze spiked with enough arsenic to kill the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The story of George Wiley's poisoning began, naturally enough, with one of Dollie's whores. Mae Moore Grisson, a skinny dishwater blond from Madison, Kentucky, had worked for the madam at the Rex Arms in Prescott, and followed her to Salome.
The 42-year-old Grisson probably saw it as a good career move. The Wileys catered to highway travelers at a time when drivers were just beginning to brave the trip across the desert to the west coast. Hundreds passed through each day, and if they had more than pie on their minds, the red light shining from Wiley's building let them know this was the place. It attracted a fair helping of men who wouldn't look you in the eye, the beer parties sometimes got raucous, and there was that odd, sweet smell hanging over the highway on warm, summer nights. Before long, even Salome's churchgoers knew it was marijuana.
Grisson's good idea turned bad on November 23, 1940, when she and George got into an argument in the cafe. At issue were some furs she had left behind in Prescott. She demanded that George pay the monthly fee to store them, but he wanted no part of Dollie's business or her girls and refused. The fight heated up, and the normally good-natured businessman snapped, lunging at Mae. She lost her balance and fell back off her stool, hitting her head on a water cooler. She couldn't be revived and was taken to the hospital in Wickenburg, 60 miles east.
But two weeks later, a coughing fit burst a blood vessel in her brain and she was dead; and George was charged with murder. Dollie and four others put up a $3,000 bond to free him, and the trial was set for early the next year. It never took place.
On the day of his death, George worked at the restaurant from midnight to 9 a.m. After Dollie relieved him, he went home, saying he was planning to read. When he failed to show up at noon for lunch, as was his custom, Dollie sent Fred "Buttons" Terrell, a hired hand, to look for him. Terrell discovered the body, and on the kitchen counter sat a partly filled glass of water mixed with cyano gas.
Rumors about the death were immediate, and they prompted Pete Newman, the Yuma County sheriff, and county attorney Peter Byrne to promise an exhaustive inquiry.
But evidence-gathering was hampered in the crucial time right after Wiley was found. Salome had no phone service, and a drenching rain the night before had washed out portions of the highway, delaying for seven hours the arrival of investigators.
Members of the coroner's jury, Salome residents who knew something of Dollie's past, struggled to make sure they didn't have a murder on their hands. One juror demanded an autopsy and got it. The official ruling was suicide. News accounts in the Yuma Daily Sun stated that Wiley, who was 59, suffered from a bad heart and was despondent over his impending trial. "The ruling didn't change a lot of minds," said Salome resident Albert Nord, whose brother, Jack, a member of the coroner's jury, insisted on the autopsy. "Everybody had their ideas about what really happened."
Among the unanswered questions was why did Dollie send Terrell to check on George instead of doing so herself?
"That's what made people think she left the glass out for him," says Hayden Brown. "In a way, I thought that, too. Something was going on there. I don't think George would've took his own life."
Dollie surely was asked why she didn't check on George when she appeared before the coroner's jury, but her testimony is missing. It can't be found among the records kept by the justice court in Salome or in the various storage rooms at the superior court building in Yuma. Also missing are the testimonies she and others gave at the preliminary hearing.
Not surprisingly, missing documents is a recurring theme in Dollie's life. She was vigilant about covering her tracks, even giving a different birth date every time she filled out a form. She probably had powerful help in her zeal to keep the law away. For decades, Dollie cultivated friendships with Arizona's most powerful business and political leaders, men willing to look the other way in exchange for her favors. She even carried a letter of introduction from Joe Conway, Arizona's attorney general from 1937 to 1945, vouching for her good character.
Another question: Why did the district attorney insist on charging George with murder? Eyewitness Brown said then, and repeats today, that Wiley never struck Mae. When George raised his hand to her, she leaned back in anticipation of a blow that never came and lost her balance.
"When you're sitting four stools from somebody, and there's only three people in the building, you know what's going on," Hayden says. "George never touched her. But somebody wanted to try that case in the worst way."
Dollie used her connections to hire Hosea H. Baker, a prominent Democratic state senator, to represent her husband. Baker told the Yuma Sun that the facts might support a charge of manslaughter or aggravated assault, but not murder. Why was George Wiley so despondent when he had powerful help in a trial he almost surely would have won?
As for Grisson, her death certificate lists the cause as cerebral hemorrhage. But rumors flew through Salome on that, too. No one thought Grisson had experienced anything more than a bad bump on the head and would be released from the hospital any day. So residents could not help but notice that her surprising death came just hours after a visit from Dollie.
"A lot of people around here thought it was very mysterious," says onetime Salome resident who asked not to be identified. "She's about to be released, then Dollie pays a visit and next day she's dead. Folks were thinking it was revenge for what happened to George. Or something was going on between George and her, and Dollie took care of them both."
The whispers led nowhere. Evidence was too sparse to mount any additional inquiries. It could well have been that in both cases the official explanation was exactly correct.
Alone and aging, Dollie continued to run the restaurant until she sold out in the early 1950s. Sweet George had left her in good enough financial shape that she no longer needed to sell girls, so for the first time in her life, Dollie's days and nights were quiet. She made frequent trips back to Prescott with carloads of clothing and other items she had collected, donations for the Episcopal church there, and she attended regular seances held by her psychic. At home, she entertained visits from girls who had worked for her and former customers.
Many of the local gold miners gathered at Dollie's home every year for a Thanksgiving feast. They were the only family she had known since coming to America as a girl. But she was not one to carry sentiment too far. As the men left the house, she checked for bulges in their coat pockets and made an inventory of her silverware to make sure nobody had carried off anything valuable.
Dollie might have lived this way to the end, passing on quietly without notice or controversy. But it was not her way. Especially when she had the chance to stick herself in the middle of another killing.
On August 15, 1962, a 36-year-old service-station operator named Bill Gabbard shot and killed a man in the desert outside Salome. He and three others were hunting rabbits when their pickup bogged down in a mud hole. John Davis, the truck's owner, along with 17-year-old Marie Miller and her 32-year-old brother-in-law, Ralph Montgomery, went back to town for help. As they returned in a dune buggy, Davis heard Gabbard gunning the truck trying to free it and worried that he had damaged the engine. According to reports in the Yuma Daily Sun, the two argued bitterly.
"You sawed-off punk," said Davis, who weighed 225 pounds to Gabbard's 135. "I want to shoot it out with you, you and your little .22 pistol. I'm going to show you what a real gun is like."
As Davis headed for the pickup, Gabbard said, "John, don't do that. I'll have to burn you."
Davis retrieved his shotgun and threw down on Gabbard. The latter fired four shots from a .22 pistol, killing the 26-year-old with two rounds in the chest and two more in the shoulder.
The Gabbards rented a home Dollie owned, right next to her own. Bill Gabbard and his wife, Catherine, known as Birdie, and their kids, had grown close to their aged landlord, a relationship born of more than proximity. They came from Barstow, California, to Salome to manage a Richfield station on the highway, but the experience had been bitter. They were ostracized and harassed, they say, because their station was a success at a time when competition for the traveler's gas dollar was intense. Bill Gabbard put up signs along the highway, cleaned up his shop and opened a 24-hour garage, and pretty soon he had cars lined up for business. The people at the other filling stations hated him for it, and the Gabbard family was whispered about, called names and treated as outsiders.
Dollie saw that Bill and Catherine were facing exactly what she had faced in Salome and took them in. "They wanted rid of me bad down there in Salome," says Bill Gabbard, speaking by phone from his home in Tennessee. "But Dollie, she knew the kind of family we were, and she kind of fell for us. We weren't no low-class people like they were sayin'. We were decent."
Birdie says that Dollie, feeble and shaking from Parkinson's disease, showed up at the Gabbard home immediately after hearing of the shooting. Without a handrail on the steps, Dollie couldn't make it onto the porch. So she pounded on the wood with her walking stick until Birdie came out to help. Birdie describes herself as being in a state of near-shock. She was a young wife, in a strange and hostile town with no idea how to hire a lawyer.
"I remember that day. I sure do," Birdie says. "I told Dollie I didn't know nobody here, and they ain't nothin' but a bunch of pure devils anyway tryin' to run us out and that's what it's come to. Dollie looked at me and said, 'Nobody's runnin' you nowhere. Get in the car. We're goin' to Yuma to get you a lawyer.'"
Dollie took Birdie to the office of Ron McKelvey, a top defense lawyer in Yuma, and hired him on the spot. She also put up the money for Bill's bail and went with Birdie to the jail to get him out.
The trial opened in superior court in Yuma on December 12 and lasted four days. The jury believed Gabbard's claim of self-defense and delivered a verdict of not guilty.
Ironically, Gabbard's case looked much like Dollie's in 1915. Both involved a shooting, a claim of self-defense, the defendant receiving unexpected help and ultimate acquittal. Either way, it was the perfect coda to her crime-novel life.
Five days after the verdict, on December 21, Dollie fell at her home. She was admitted to the hospital in Wickenburg with a broken hip and pneumonia. Knowing the end had come, she telephoned Prescott and asked old friend Lester Ruffner, a funeral home operator, to contact the Episcopal minister and hurry to her bedside to administer last rites. The two men hopped in the car and rushed to Wickenburg, making it in time to square her with God.
Dollie was about 72 when she died on Christmas Day 1962. The body was cremated, and, at her request, the ashes were buried in Prescott beside E.L. Fretz, the husband who raved about his gold mine from his bed at the asylum.
"I remember that four-by-eight foot cell down there in Yuma," says Bill Gabbard. "The jailer come and opened the door, and I said, 'What's going on?' And he said, 'You're going home.'
"I went out to the front, and there was my wife and Dollie standing there. Dollie didn't say nothin', and she was bent over and shakin', but she was smiling that little smile she always had. I tell you, if it wasn't for her, I'd still be in that jail. I think about her a lot. She sure was a fine lady."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.