Filed Under Crime

Velma West

While gangsters, bootleggers and gamblers were among the cast of interesting characters drawn to the bustling Gordon Square business district during its heyday, the historic Four Corners intersection also has ties to one of the most infamous murderers of the 1920s. On December 7, 1927, Velma West and her mother Catherine Van Woert spent the day Christmas shopping in downtown Cleveland. Upon their return to Catherine's home in East Cleveland, they were met by the local police and Lake County sheriff. West was taken into custody and transported to the Lake County jail for questioning in the murder of Thomas Edward West. After three hours of interrogation, Velma West admitted to the murder of her husband. Local papers quickly picked up on the sensational story of a 21 year old, cigarette-smoking city-girl that beat her husband to death with a claw hammer.

Hailing from East Cleveland, West was employed at Rothman Variety on the corner of West 65th Street and Detroit Avenue at the age of 19. She worked there for about a year before being fired. During this time, West had agreed to marry the 56 year old owner of a nearby restaurant where she regularly spent her lunch breaks. Just weeks before the wedding, West met Thomas Edward West. She broke off her engagement and married the farmer in 1926, moving to his home in the small, rural community of Perry, Ohio. The following year, Thomas was found murdered; the young flapper accused of the crime quickly captured the city's attention.

Velma West's story was intriguing. Her childish persona did not match the callousness of the crime. She was spoiled, prone to extreme mood swing, in fragile mental and physical health, and inclined to faint in public. West also embodied the strangeness and excesses of city life. Descriptions of her short hair, choice of clothes, cigarette smoking, biting tongue, and care-free attitude were presented as clues to the underlying causes of Velma's violent outburst.

The mystery surrounding this case was not if West killed Eddie, but what led the young woman to commit such an unspeakable act. New angles to the drama were regularly presented in local papers, including physical abuse, a "strange" love for her girlfriend, and insanity. West quickly became a Cleveland celebrity. Reporters fixated on her fashion choices, newspapers were condemned for their sympathetic treatment of an accused murderer, and a local theater even offered the young woman a leading role upon her release.

On March 5, 1928, Velma West pleaded guilty to the second degree murder of her husband. The crime never went to trial. She was sentenced to life in prison, and transported to the Woman's Reformatory at Marysville.

Images

Thomas Edward West, 1927 On the night of December 6, 1927, Velma West picked up a claw hammer and struck her husband in the head between 6 and 8 times. Blood spatter and wounds suggested the victim fell to the floor early on and made multiple attempts to get up during the initial blows. The murderess then covered her husband's face with a pillowcase and continued her attack with the hammer. She then proceeded to roll the body over and strike her victim's head with a detached wooden table leg. Following his death, Velma tied Eddie's wrists and legs with twine in order to give the impression of a robbery. She then burned her clothes and some of the bedsheets in the cellar, dressed for a night out, and drove to a friend's home to attend a bridge party. It is not known what prompted the brutal attack. Accounts would later be given of Velma expressing her unhappiness with the marriage prior to that fateful night. She previously had told numerous people that Eddie hit her, and they were know to quarrel on a regular basis. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Velma West in Court, 1927 Questions concerning the nature of the crime were often raised in preparation for the trial. The main concern was whether the murder was premeditated or an act of rage. Velma stated that the hammer was upstairs in order to hang drapes, and that the twine had been purchased a couple days before during a visit to Painesville. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Mabel Young and Guests of the Bridge Party, 1928 On the night of December 6, 1928, Velma West arrived at the home of Mabel Young to attend a bridge party. She was later described by those in attendance as being in good spirits, and had even entertained everyone by playing piano and singing popular songs. In a statement given to the sheriff of Lake County, Mabel Young (on the far left) confirmed that Velma West had expressed sexual interest in her. Reaffirming sensationalist allegations already being printed in newspapers of a strange love triangle, the statement complicated Velma West's claim of self-defense. A sign of the times, the defense attorney saw this as valuable evidence of his client's insanity. As additional information came to light that Velma had returned to the crime scene in order to retrieve keys out of her dead husband's pocket, the defense and prosecution quickly made a deal. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Velma West After Her Capture, 1939 Seven years into her sentence, Velma was told by a parole board that she would spend the rest of her life in prison. Seeing her health failing, Velma West joined with three other prisoners to escape the reformatory for one last adventure in 1939. On the run for 36 days, Velma and her companions hitchhiked to Texas. Velma was apprehended in Dallas and returned to the prison in Marysville. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Home Of Velma and Eddie West, 1927 Early newspaper accounts of the crime centered on the unlikely marriage of a high spirited city girl and a straight laced boy from the country. According to the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, the murder resulted from Velma finally lashing out against her life in the ultra-moral, dull village of Perry. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Velma's Desk at the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville, 1939 After her escape, Velma settled into life at the Marysville prison. Due to a heart condition, she spent most of the last year of her life in the prison hospital. She died on October 24, 1959, at the age of 53. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections

Location

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “Velma West,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 19, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/216.