In the early hours of Monday, May 28, 1934, two women lay in the same room in the Marion City Hospital with only a screen separating them. One of the women, a 38-year-old widow named Vesta Smith, was grievously wounded with a gunshot and would die a few hours later. The other woman, 39-year-old Bessie Myers, had been admitted after claiming she mistook bichloride of mercury – a potentially deadly poison – for aspirin.
Finally Vesta spoke: “Well, Bessie, you almost got me.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” replied Bessie.
Incredibly, it would soon come to light that Bessie was the person responsible for shooting Vesta earlier that night. The would-be killer and her victim were sharing the same hospital room.
“You’re coming on home”
On the previous day, Sunday, May 27, 1934, Bessie’s husband, 49-year-old Marion Steam Shovel foundry worker Charley Myers, disappeared. Bessie was certain he had gone over to Vesta Smith’s house for a tryst. Bessie suspected the two of them had been having an affair for around a year.
“I can’t stand it any longer,” Bessie wrote in a note investigators later found in the 671 Gay Street home she shared with Charlie. When he still hadn’t returned home by evening, Bessie decided to go find her husband and make him come home. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d gone to Vesta’s house to fetch her husband, but it would be the last time.
When Bessie arrived at Vesta’s house at 728 North State Street, Vesta’s 25-year-old daughter, Kleah, met her at the door and told her Charley wasn’t there. Ignoring her, Bessie pushed past Kleah and walked into the house to confront both Vesta and Charlie. Kleah, wanting to avoid an ugly confrontation, stepped out onto the front porch.
A few moments later, Kleah heard gunshots and rushed back into the house to find her mom on the floor and Bessie holding a gun. “Did you shoot my mother?” she asked Bessie, who then threatened to shoot her as well. Kleah fled the scene to get help.
Charlie stooped to lift Vesta’s prone body up off the floor and asked Bessie to fetch Vesta a glass of water. Bessie, still furious, grabbed a nearby bucket of water and threw it on Vesta.
Although Bessie had fired three shots, only one actually struck Vesta. The bullet entered just below her breastbone, passing through her stomach, kidney and liver before exiting her right hip.
In a panic, Charley and Bessie fled the scene in the direction of the fairgrounds. It was in this area that Bessie threw the gun away. (Although a search was made for the .38 caliber revolver later, police were unable to recover it before the trial.)
The couple then made their way to East Fairground Street and began walking west. As they reached North Main Street, Bessie told Charley she had taken bichloride of mercury and was starting to feel ill. Her husband persuaded a pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church to call a taxi for them, and they rushed to the hospital.
As Vesta was being treated at the hospital, police began searching for Bessie. They even sat outside of the Myers’ home that night hoping that Bessie might return. It must have been quite a shock, then, to the investigators questioning Vesta about where she thought Bessie might be when they heard the woman in the next bed over say, “Why, here I am.”
Bessie later made a sworn statement to Marion County Prosecuting Attorney Russell Wilhelm in which she readily admitted to shooting Vesta.
First Degree Murder
Unsurprisingly, Bessie Myers was immediately charged with first degree murder.
Charley Meyers, apparently deciding to stand by Bessie, hired Grant Mouser and Grant Mouser Junior, a father and son team of lawyers, to defend Bessie.
With her husband at her side, Bessie Myers was arraigned on June 6th and plead not guilty. She was held without bail in the county jail.
On June 21, 1934, a grand jury was convened and, in what must have been a disappointment to the prosecution, indicted Bessie on a reduced charge of manslaughter rather than first degree murder.
On June 27, 1934, The Marion Star reported that the trial date had been set for July 24th. In the meantime, Bessie would be out on bail. Her legal team was preparing a defense that argued the shooting was self-defense and therefore justifiable.
When the trial started, the Star reported that around two hundred people sat packed in the gallery. In fact, seats in the courtroom were in such high demand during the trial that many observers refused to leave them, even during breaks, for fear of losing them.
The first witness for the prosecution was Vesta’s daughter, Kleah. She testified that while Charlie Myers visited her mom frequently, the visits were social rather than romantic. Vesta, she said, made and sold beer for a living, and Charlie would stop by to buy beer and have a few drinks with her. She claimed she never saw the two of them embrace.
Kleah did, however, admit she knew Bessie was deeply unhappy about her mom’s relationship with Charley. She related one memorable incident where she and Vesta drove over to the Myers’ house. After pulling up in front of the house, Vesta called out for Charley who soon emerged and jumped in the car to go for a ride with them. When the threesome returned, Bessie came out of the house with a gun and fired a shot into the ground, warning Vesta to leave her husband alone.
After Kleah, the state only called two other witnesses: the Marion County coroner and the Marion City Police night captain who was on duty when the shooting occurred.
By contrast, the defense called nineteen witnesses, most of them character witnesses describing Vesta’s reputation as “bad” and Bessie’s reputation as “good.” The last two witnesses were the Myers themselves.
Charley Meyers took the stand on the last day of the trial. Frustratingly, The Marion Star provided only a cursory summary of his testimony:
Charles Myers testified…regarding his relations with the late Mrs. Smith and told of frequent visits to her home. He was on the stand for more than an hour.
Bessie was the last witness in the trial. She did not dispute many of the crucial facts. Yes, she had taken a loaded revolver to Vesta’s house. Yes, she had pushed her way into the house to find her husband. Yes, she had shot Vesta.
However, her testimony also provided jurors with some insight into both her state of mind and, critically, how she could claim self-defense for shooting a woman in her own home.
Over the previous year, Bessie explained, she had gone to Vesta’s house on a number of occasions to get Charley and bring him back home – incidents that caused her “mental grief over her husband’s conduct.”
She took the gun, she claimed, because she was afraid of Vesta, who had a reputation as a “fighter.” Bessie never intended on using it. In fact, she even reiterated Kleah’s earlier testimony about pulling a gun on Vesta. It seems Bessie wanted to emphasize she’d had the opportunity to shoot Vesta before but hadn’t.
Bessie testified that when she went to the kitchen that night, Vesta had backed up to a table where some knives were lying. Vesta had then approached Bessie with her hand behind her back saying, “If you value your life, get out.” Bessie then claimed she had fired the first two shots into the floor as a warning before firing the third shot directly at Vesta.
On the afternoon of July 27th, the state and the defense made their final arguments, and that afternoon the jury convened to decide Bessie Myers’ fate. One hour and ten minutes later, the jury of 12 men returned their verdict: not guilty.
Throughout the trial, Charley had stood by Bessie’s side, and when it was over, the Star reported that the two of them returned to their Gay Street home together. Whether they lived happily ever after is unknown.
The Marion Star, May 28, 1934
The Marion Star, May 2, 1934
The Marion Star, June 1, 1934
The Marion Star, June 6, 1934
The Marion Star, June 21, 1934
The Marion Star, June 27, 1934
The Marion Star, July 24, 1934
The Marion Star, July 25, 1934
The Marion Star, July 26, 1934
The Marion Star, July 27, 1934
The Marion Star, July 28, 1934