mcj-2019-04-24-opinion-criminal-minds-caper-blankenbaker-scott

My cousin, Ruth Blankenbaker, left, visits the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California with her daughter, Kelli Blankenbaker Scott, to research the history of Emma LeDoux, the first woman in California history to be sentenced to hang for the murder of one of her husbands.

Giving a gift subscription of the Monroe Journal to a distant friend or family member can bring about some interesting, if not surprising, feedback.

I have a 98-year-old aunt living in Indiana with her daughter, Ruth Blankenbaker, who avidly reads the Monroe Journal weekly to keep up with her nephew who migrated to Mississippi around 35 years ago and never managed to find his way back to the family’s Midwestern roots. Ruth continues to carry on the research of the genealogy of our family these days since the passing of my father, who kept boxes of ledgers, scrapbooks and letters accumulated from family during his lifetime.

I received an email from Ruth recently after she happened upon Ray Van Dusen’s account of his conversations with Jim Clemente, a screenwriter for CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” which fictitiously included some character references linking the story of the Golden State Killer, who preyed on Californians from 1976 to 1986, with Monroe County.

Per my cousin, our family has its own California connection to the genre of criminal minds, which she recounted for me to perhaps generate the Ward family version of the series. I had heard mention of this character before, but never took the time to investigate for myself.

The saga begins with our great-great grandparents, William and Margaret Gardner Green. Margaret had a brother, Eli Gardner, whose birth was recorded in the year 1830, per family records documented by Eli’s great-niece, Margaret Larmon, a librarian, as well as a family genealogist in her own right. Her research, pooled with my father’s compendium of similar research and trove of family letters, shed some light on our ancestor in question – Eli Gardner.

There is a line in both Margaret’s and my father’s documentation that states, “Eli went to California in the Gold Rush of 1849 when he was 19 years old. He married and raised a large family and always lived there.”

Ruth never pursued our thrice-removed great uncle, Eli, however.

“...possibly because subconsciously I assumed he’d been ‘lost’ if your dad or Margaret Larmon made no further mention of him,” she wrote to me.

A couple of years ago, Ruth received a request for more information about the genealogy of the Gardner family that gave her a reason to look through my father’s and Margaret’s documentation again.

“I happened to see that single line about Eli and got to wondering if I could find out whatever happened to him,” she wrote.

Using Ancestry.com and starting with the 1850 census, Ruth found a clue.

“Amazingly, I found Eli in Gold Rush country,” she said. “I knew it was him because he was with John Van Dyke, a name I knew from our native Cumberland County, Illinois history, and two other men from there as well. I then located Eli, married with three daughters in 1860, again, in the heart of Gold Rush country. Later, I concluded that Eli’s first daughter probably died young but I found his second daughter, Mary Ann, had become important to why old Eli was probably reduced to a very small stump, pretty much chopped from our family tree.”

Digging further, Ruth got frustrated with the constant renaming of children and their ages, so she eventually started researching Eli’s name via Google.

“I was stumped when I found Eli Gardner and his wife, Eleanor, named in an investigative blog written by a J’aime Rubio, entitled ‘Dreaming Casually,’” Ruth continued. “Her blogs are ‘A Step Back in Time to Explore Stories and Mysteries of the Past,’ along with her series about Emma LeDoux and the ‘Trunk Murder of 1906.’”

Per Ruth’s findings, Emma LeDoux’s mother was Mary Ann Gardner Cole, a daughter of Eli and Eleanor Gardner.

“I wondered why our thrice-removed great-uncle Eli was named in a blog about Emma LeDoux, the first woman in California’s history to be sentenced to hang for the murder of one of her husbands,” she continued. “But there he was…. named as Emma’s grandfather, who had, in fact, hit veins of gold, and is named as one of Amador County, California’s Gold Rush pioneers. It appears Eli claimed at least three gold mines.”

Per information accessible on the website of the Haggin Museum of Stockton, California, a trunk was used by Emma LeDoux in her attempt to dispose of the body of her third husband, Albert N. McVicker, in Stockton in March 1906.

LeDoux had been convicted of killing him with a morphine overdose, packing his body in a trunk with the intent to ship it back to her native town of Jackson in Amador County, California. However, the trunk bore no baggage tags and was left at the station when the train departed. Later that evening, police were summoned to open the trunk to investigate the peculiar odor.

Accounts state she supported herself as a dressmaker and through “gentlemen friends.” One such friend was Jean LeDoux, whom she married without the benefit of a divorce from husband number three – the late Mr. McVicker. A motive for the murder speculated at her trial contended that she needed to dispose of the pesky extra husband before her bigamous relationship came to light.

The conclusion of my cousin Ruth’s research makes Emma Cole Barrett Williams McVicker LeDoux Crackbon our second cousin twice-removed.

Up until this revelation, the closest thing to criminal activity I ever heard of in our family history was that my grandfather once narrowly escaped getting sent up for throwing a brick at a hired hand in anger and hitting him in the head. I think since the county sheriff was kin, he helped get Grandpa off the hook.

Coincidentally with reading Ray’s article, Ruth encountered someone else doing research into the Ward family’s own connection with this “Criminal Minds” scenario.

She was flown to Red Wing, Minnesota early in April, where, in an 1800s hotel, she was interviewed by an ID Channel film crew for an upcoming “Deadly Women” episode, to air sometime later this year. The series first aired in 2005 on the Discovery Channel, focusing on female killers.

“As the film crew was doing its background research about Emma, they, too, came across J’aime’s blog series,” Ruth said. “When they contacted her, she mentioned that she and I had had several conversations and therefore knew I was a living, distant cousin of Emma’s. I guess the film crew thought a family touch might add an interesting flavor to their program.”

Per a story that appeared in a publication of the San Joaquin County Bar Association in 2007, the presiding judge in LeDoux’s trial reportedly spent months preparing for the case. He also was acutely aware of the trial’s popularity and therefore he increased the number of chairs in his courtroom and provided special tables for the press.

LeDoux was able to escape execution on appeals that stretched out through the next four years but eventually died in prison from ovarian cancer in 1941 after a life so full of scandal and disrepute. Ruth finds little wonder why the reference to old Eli was reduced to a single line in our family’s genealogical history.

“So, this makes YOU another local connection to an historic criminal mind, as Emma is YOUR cousin, too,” Ruth wrote me.

Suddenly, I seem to feel a chill in the air.

The final chapter of Eli Gardner’s story known to date was concluded when Ruth’s daughter, Kelli, eventually located his burial place in California.

“He was reduced to a very rusty 4” by 10” piece of tin, alone in an Amador County cemetery,” Ruth told me. “His wealth was very possibly drained by the extensive and expensive defense of his granddaughter’s trials.”

You might want to consider giving a gift subscription of the Monroe Journal to a distant friend or relative of yours. You just might get a surprise of your own.

John Ward is a staff writer for the Monroe Journal. He can be reached at john.ward@journalinc.com.

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