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San Diego murders of long ago, Part 1: Fritzie Mann

Dead girl on Torrey Pines beach

Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks.
Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks.

A note from the editor: When the Reader held its writing contest at the outset of last year, we received two entries that were a mite too historical for our purposes, but which nevertheless stuck in memory — first because of their quality, but also because of their similarity. Each told the deeply researched story of an unsolved murder of a young girl in San Diego — one a century ago, one nearly that old. And in both cases, the writer suggested that he had, these many years later, figured out the killer’s identity. I put the entries aside for a rainy day — like the ones we’ve been having of late.

— Matthew Lickona

A note from the author: I first heard about Fritzie Mann and her mysterious death in 2012, while looking for a thesis topic for a creative writing MFA program. I wanted to write a nonfiction book about an old crime, preferably unsolved and set in San Diego. Several people mentioned this 1923 case. A woman at the San Diego History Center called it “San Diego’s Black Dahlia case,” and brought out a huge scrapbook of contemporary newspaper clippings. The story fascinated me: not only the murder mystery, but how the papers covered it. Yellow journalism ruled; sensationalism trumped facts and banner headlines about murder and mayhem screamed from front pages. This story had it all: a beautiful dancer found barely clad on Torrey Pines beach under mystifying circumstances, a sex scandal, intriguing suspects, Hollywood connections. The case went to trial, then disappeared from history. It remains officially unsolved. It took me years of dogged research to figure out what happened to Fritzie and why.

This story is also about place and time. San Diego back then was a small city with big city problems, rife with illegal vice and Prohibition corruption. As the saying went: to find a drink, just ask the nearest cop. Rapid social change marked the years following World War I. Victorian traditionalists struggled against Jazz Age liberalism, spawning a culture war eerily similar to the one being fought now. Other than the addition of LGBTQ+ rights, the flash points — abortion, gender, race, immigration — haven’t changed, nor has the rhetoric. In many ways, Fritzie’s story defines the age.

This story is also about an immigrant Jewish family that looked for a better life but found a nightmare. Above all, it’s the story of a high-spirited young woman who loved the wrong man and paid the price for it.

— James Stewart

On the morning of Monday, January 8, 1923, after performing in Los Angeles for two months, Frieda Mann rode the midnight train home to San Diego dressed like a flapper.

The outfit shocked her mother, Amelia. A party dress of brown silk crepe fringed with rows of copper beads and a brown hat with a tan ostrich feather? Who wears a get-up like that on an overnight train ride? Not her daughter, usually. Frieda said she’d borrowed the outfit from her friend in Long Beach for a house party on Sunday evening. It seemed odd to Amelia. She scolded Frieda for being careless with her friend’s fancy outfit, then put it away and told her to wear her own clothes.

Frieda behaved oddly for the rest of the week, but Amelia saw no hint of melancholy. If anything, the girl acted too cheerful, too much like herself, especially that last day.

“She was joking around the whole day and making happy her sick sister,” Amelia Mann said later in her thick Hungarian accent, “…and she made jokes, take her bath, and was lively — don’t show a thing — nobody can say this girl had something in her heart, because she was happy, and she always was a jolly kid.”

That jolly kid, twenty years old, went by a stage name better suited to her personality and profession: Fritzie. She remained jolly to the end, Amelia insisted, despite what some would claim. Still, something new seemed to be weighing on Fritzie.

What had she been up to in Los Angeles for the past two months? Filling dancing engagements and visiting friends, or so she said. Her visit home was supposed to be short — long enough to break a contract with her employers in San Diego and perhaps tie up some loose ends — then return to LA for work and from there on to San Francisco. But maybe she’d been doing something else, like consorting with the wrong kind of people, a danger in the interpretive dance world. Or, more dangerous still, trying to break into Hollywood, again.

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“Don’t worry, Mother,” Fritzie said when Amelia asked her to share her troubles. “Everything will work out.”

But Amelia did worry, perhaps more than she would have before, now that her older daughter, Helen, lay dying in a sanitarium, the consumption killing her by degrees, as it had her husband three years before. Fritzie’s cageyness about her plans for Sunday evening bothered Amelia the most. She mentioned the house party more than once but refused to share details.

“Between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said when Amelia asked where the party would be held, which meant nothing — it was a hundred miles between Del Mar and LA. At other times she answered, “in Del Mar.”

“Tell me the man with who you go,” Amelia said.

“A man from LA.”

Each time Amelia asked, Fritzie refused to give the man’s name, or pretended she didn’t know. She’d never done that before.

There were enough reasons to worry about a young daughter without her keeping secrets. Times had changed in the few years since the Great War, and not all in a good way. The shifting gender norms and rambunctious behavior of the younger set — the late-night drinking and dancing, the permissive attitudes towards sex — had come too far and too fast for traditionalists. There were no safeguards anymore. Suitors no longer called on a young woman at her home, where her parents could keep an eye on her; now the man picked her up in his automobile and took her out on a “date,” ostensibly to a restaurant, a moving picture, or a jazz dance. But they might end up at a speakeasy or a hotel.

Amelia had scrutinized Fritzie’s dates as much as any mother would, always asking questions and writing down the man’s name. Some of the men had seemed respectable enough. The soft-spoken Jewish doctor from the Veteran’s hospital, who Fritzie had dated on and off since the previous spring, fit into this category. Fritzie had seemed to care for him, at least before she left for LA last November. Was he the house party mystery man? Maybe. The doctor had telephoned her almost every day since she returned home, so they must still be seeing one another. But he lived in San Diego, not LA, and Fritzie would’ve had no reason to hide his identity.

Other suitors had vexed Amelia, one a man Fritzie had dated the previous fall. She had seemed smitten though it hadn’t lasted long — thank God. Supposedly an actor and director, the man never entered the house or stepped onto the porch, just waited on the street in his pretentious Marmon touring car and summoned her with that damn ahooga horn. One morning, he’d picked up Fritzie for a drive south of the border to Tijuana. Amelia hadn’t liked the idea one bit—nothing good happened in TJ, a place that teemed with bars and brothels. To size the man up, Amelia had created a pretext; she asked him to drop her of at the Paradise Hills sanitarium, where Helen was being treated at the time, on their way south. Riding in the back seat of the ritzy machine, Amelia had jotted down the man’s physical description, just in case. Was he the mystery man from LA? He lived there, and worked in the motion picture business, a business Fritzie wanted to join. Hopefully not. Fritzie’s troubles had seemed to start around the time she met him.

Not that Amelia had much control over Fritzie anymore, least of all her dating life and aspirations. Modern young women, the ones they called New Women and flappers, tended to do as they pleased, tradition and consequences be damned. Fritzie had been around more than most women her age anyway, especially for a place like San Diego, a rather provincial city of 80,000. She’d spent her early childhood in Europe, spoke several languages, and danced before large audiences in San Diego, Denver, and LA. But if Fritzie’s independence and self-assurance gave her certain New Woman sensibilities, no one could call her a flapper — she didn’t smoke cigarettes or hang out in speakeasies or sleep around or do other things flappers did on the big screen. Fritzie danced on stage, not on tables. She was a sensible girl who helped to pay her sister’s medical bills and pursued a career as a dancer on her own. And if “interpretive dance” had naughty undertones in some quarters, Fritzie considered herself a serious artist; any salaciousness rested in the minds of people who had such thoughts. But she had a twenty-year-old’s overconfidence and naiveté and moved in risky circles: the night world of the cabaret and on the fringes of Hollywood. A young lady could get herself into trouble if she weren’t careful. Attitudes and behaviors may have changed, but in many ways, things had not.

“Tell me who is the man”

On Sunday afternoon, January 14, 1923, as she watched her daughter get ready for the house party in Del Mar or wherever she was going, Amelia’s anxiety grew. Was Fritzie really going to a party? She seemed to be getting ready for one, putting on a real flapper outfit. She dolled herself up with makeup and curled her hair and donned her Long Beach friend’s “glad rags,” as the younger set called their fancy outfits. To the brown hat and dress, she added brown satin shoes and silk stockings. She accentuated the outfit with a necklace of black and white beads, a gold bar pin on her left breast, and a barrette pinning her hair on the left side. She topped it off with an electric blue coat. She packed an overnight bag with a pink satin night shirt and underwear, makeup, and a sheer peacock blue nightgown with longish sleeves and gray fur trim.

“If I’m not home by noon tomorrow,” Fritzie assured her mother, “I’ll call.”

At 5:15 pm, ten minutes after sunset, Fritzie grabbed her handbag and vanity case. With her usual flippant goodbye wave to her older brother William, she headed out the front door of their tiny rental house on Spruce Street, near the northeast corner of Balboa Park. Amelia, a small woman, walked with her daughter in the cool January twilight under a cloudy sky, past the California Bungalow-styled homes of the modest neighborhood, two blocks to the streetcar stop at 30th and Redwood. On the way, Amelia’s trepidation grew into a premonition. She implored Fritzie to stay home.

In five years in the coroner’s job, he’d recovered corpses all over the big county. He spent “many a night in the mountains, traveling in mud, rain, and snow, on an errand of death, bringing the body of some poor unfortunate person,” according to a San Diego Union profile.

“Tell me who is the man who takes you out,” Amelia said.

“He is a man from Los Angeles,” Fritzie said.

“Tell me the name.”

“I don’t know his name.”

“You told me always who you go out with and now you don’t want to tell me.”

Amelia continued to nag, but at the trolley stop Fritzie gave her a quick hug and stepped up onto the streetcar.

Photographs of Fritzie Mann, most of which show her in an exotic dance costume, reveal a pretty woman with delicate features whose self-assured, vibrant temperament is evident. Her dark brown hair, often tinted auburn by the red hairnets she wore, wasn’t cut in a flapper bob, but she kept it short, in line with Jazz Age fashion and the preferred style of the New Woman. Having seen these pictures, it’s easy to imagine her waving goodbye to her mother, confident that she had everything under control. No photographs of Amelia survive, but it’s not hard to imagine her face as she watched the streetcar disappear into the gathering darkness, the trolley pole sparking on the overhead wire: The worried look of a mother who knew or suspected that her youngest child had gotten herself into a fix and feared it was about to end badly.

Fritzie likely caught a south-bound streetcar, the shortest route to downtown. From there the car would’ve rattled down 30th Street on the eastern edge of Balboa Park, zig-zagged around the corner of the park through Golden Hill, and then due west along Broadway into downtown. Fritzie had kept the rendezvous point to herself, mentioning only that she was meeting the mystery man downtown. It might’ve been the U.S. Grant Hotel, a gathering place for the younger set in the heart of downtown that Fritzie and her chums frequented. Or the Golden Lion Tavern, another hangout. Or, if the man was coming by train, the Santa Fe depot.

Twenty minutes later, Fritzie called Amelia.

“Mother, that party will not be between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said. “It will be in La Jolla.”

A strange phone call on top of the other strangeness.

Did the house party change venues at the last minute? La Jolla was nine miles south of Del Mar, somewhat closer to home. If Fritzie hoped to allay her mother’s fears with this information, it didn’t work.

“You might think you know the place where you are going,” Amelia said. “I don’t. You don’t told me who you go, and I don’t know.”

Don’t worry, Fritzie said. “It is a very quiet place.”

“There is a boy on the beach”

Driving south on the coast highway through Del Mar, a little seaside resort twenty miles north of San Diego, John Chase and his wife decided to stop for a beach picnic lunch with their three children. They had travelled some one hundred and twenty miles from their home in San Fernando, north of Los Angeles. It was a substantial trip, given that many automobiles were open to the elements and most roads remained unpaved and turned rutted and muddy after winter rains. Road trips were the latest thing. With the economy thriving and Model T’s rolling of Henry Ford’s assembly lines at $319 retail, ordinary families like the Chases could now purchase “machines” and take road trips for pleasure.

Few road trips could be more pleasant than this, motoring down the paved highway on a stretch of coast renowned for its beauty on a warm, partly sunny Monday in January. As they descended the southern edge of the Del Mar mesa, a gorgeous vista opened looking across to the Torrey Pines Grade a mile away, and down the coast in the haze, Mount Soledad and the La Jolla peninsula. To the left lay the Soledad Lagoon, a salt marsh estuary. To the right, the blue expanse of the Pacific. Separating the lagoon from the beach, as sharp as a blade, ran a straight half-mile stretch of paved highway hugging Torrey Pines beach. At the bottom of the hill, they drove past the Torrey Pines Garage and a small cluster of houses on the edge of the lagoon, through a railroad track viaduct, and across a wooden bridge spanning the Sorrento Slough. They pulled of the road at the southern end of the bridge and parked near a Chevrolet sign.

As the car rolled to a stop, Chase’s nine-year-old son Russell hopped out and disappeared over the rocky embankment that led down to the beach. John Chase, a tall man with light brown hair, stepped out of the car into the fresh salt air. A bookkeeper in the fruit packing business, he was no stranger to the area and its ideal climate. The Chases had lived in Lemon Grove, a rural town east of San Diego, until a couple of years before, when John had taken a job in the lemon groves of the San Fernando Valley. John began to eat a sandwich. He had barely taken a bite when Russell came running back up the embankment.

“There is a boy on the beach,” Russell said. “He is laying very still.”

The edge of the embankment blocked Chase’s view of the beach below. He stepped onto the car’s running board for a higher vantage point and spotted a human form lying a few hundred feet to the northwest near the surf. He told Russell to stay with his mother and began walking toward the figure, still holding his sandwich.

Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks. Near the bottom of the embankment, Chase walked past a dark-brown beaded dress lying alongside a mound of pebbles and weeds. The dress lay fat and stretched out on a line toward the body, as though someone had dropped it and dragged it across the dry sand. As he neared the figure, he realized that it wasn’t a boy, but a young woman, wearing only a pink silk teddy and garters, dark-brown silk stockings, and matching satin pumps.

The obviously dead woman appeared to be in her early twenties. She lay on her back parallel to the beach, ten or fifteen feet from the water’s edge, embedded about one and a half inches into the wet sand, her legs to the south towards La Jolla, her feet close together and her arms across her torso. Her dark wet hair lay loose and splayed out, mixed with sand and strings of kelp. Her bloodshot, partially opened eyes stared skyward. Her tongue protruded between her teeth. There was a small bluish bruise over her right eyebrow. The sand in the vicinity of the body had been washed smooth by the waves.

Chase walked back to the road, the partially eaten sandwich still in his hand. He never did finish it. He and Russell flagged down a passing car, asking the driver to stop at the garage up the road toward Del Mar and call the police.

“She had throwed up her tongue”

The San Diego Evening Tribune once described sixty-year-old Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth as one of the last “remaining picturesque characters of the old, two-gun west.”

Harley Sachs, owner of the Torrey Pines Garage, didn’t get excited about the report of a body on the beach — probably a mistake or a hoax, he figured. He decided to check it out before ringing the police and wasting their time. John Chase walked with Sachs and three of his employees out to the body. Sachs noted a mark over one of the woman’s eyes and her hands folded neatly across her upper abdomen, one over the other. Sachs drove back to the garage and called the police. He and the other garage men soon returned and covered the body from head to knees with a piece of burlap, weighting down the corners with sand to prevent it from blowing away in the sea breeze.

County motorcycle officers Clarence Matthews and Robert Bowman, the first police on the scene, lifted a corner of the burlap. They noted, or later recalled, more precise details than the other witnesses. The woman’s feet were five or six inches apart. The right strap of the pink teddy was down on her shoulder, partially exposing her breast. A “half a thimble full” of blood, Matthews estimated, had pooled in the inside corner of her right eye. A froth of fine bubbles, resembling shaving soap lather flecked with enough blood to give it a slight reddish tinge, had oozed out of her mouth and nostrils. Matthews’ observations of the woman’s tongue starkly contradicted those of Chase and Sachs. The tongue, in fact, did not protrude slightly out of her mouth, as those men had observed, but way out, farther than Matthews had ever seen a tongue hang from a person’s mouth. As he described it, as if “she had throwed up her tongue.”

Curiosity seekers began to assemble along the slough bridge rail and at the makeshift parking area south of the bridge. Some people wandered onto the beach. The motorcycle officers tried to keep them away from the body and the dress, assumed to belong to the dead woman. Harley Sachs and a few other men waited with the cops for the coroner to arrive, anxiously watching the waves. The waves broke, spread across the sand, and dissipated with a sizzle, inching ever closer to the body as the tide began to come back in.

“If the coroner doesn’t hurry up,” one of the garage men said, “the water will be up over the body.”

“There ought to be some more clothes around here”

The law did not require the San Diego County coroner, the elected official responsible for determining the cause and manner of suspicious deaths, to have a medical background, and Coroner Schuyler Kelly did not. A square-jawed, gray-haired man in his mid-fifties, Kelly had spent most of his life in the newspaper trade. He’d worked at the Kansas City Star in his youth, and held editorial jobs at two small San Diego newspapers. In five years in the coroner’s job, he’d recovered corpses all over the big county. He spent “many a night in the mountains, traveling in mud, rain, and snow, on an errand of death, bringing the body of some poor unfortunate person,” according to a San Diego Union profile.

Now he stood over the body of another unfortunate person and pronounced her dead.

“Do any of you men recognize this woman?” he asked those assembled, who at this point included the garage men, the motorcycle cops, an ambulance driver, and Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth from Del Mar. No one recognized her.

“Well, boys,” Kelly said, “there ought to be some more clothes around here some place…a hat or something…” Something they could use to identify the woman.

The men searched the beach in the vicinity of the body and nearby areas, around a large, abandoned rock crushing machine and under the curving bridge over the slough entrance. They found nothing of interest.

Kelly feared the tide might be coming in to reclaim the body. He made a quick, general examination. He found rigor mortis “very decided.” He saw no marks on the woman’s arms or chest, but observed small scratches on the face, which he attributed to crab bites. He didn’t notice — or later couldn’t recall — a discharge emanating from the mouth or nose but noted a white substance across the lips. He thought this might be dried saliva or the residue of a poison, possibly cyanide.

Deputy Sheriff Bludworth noted a bruise over the eye, a drop of blood in the corner of one eye, and a foamy discharge on the face, which seemed to still be oozing from the nose and mouth. The tongue protruded about an inch out of the left side of the mouth, he thought.

The ambulance driver placed a stretcher alongside the body. He grasped the dead woman’s shoulders and the coroner held her by the ankles. They eased her onto the stretcher and covered her with a sheet. The woman’s body left an impression in the damp sand, a fleeting trace of her the surf would soon wash away.

“The old, two-gun west”

The San Diego Evening Tribune once described sixty-year-old Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth as one of the last “remaining picturesque characters of the old, two-gun west.” The longest-serving law officer in the county, Bludworth had joined the San Diego Sheriff’s Office in the 1880s, almost back to the day Wyatt Earp ran saloons and gambling halls downtown. He looked the part. His standard attire consisted of a white shirt, dark tie, black Stetson, and a dark vest with a watch chain dangling from the pocket. He carried a .38 Colt Police Positive revolver on his hip and wore the weathered visage of a law man with too much mileage on him.

He’d watched times — and bad guys — change since the days of Wyatt Earp.

“In the old days you had the best horse and the best gun or you didn’t get your man,” Bludworth once said. “You’re hunting gentlemen these days.” He’d replaced his best horse with a Model T. These days, he often waited in his machine at the Hotel Del Mar, which dominated the town, until the sheriff alerted him with instructions to intercept a bad guy, usually a bootlegger or a dope runner heading north on the coast highway, few of them actual gentlemen.

After the coroner had removed the woman’s body from the beach, Bludworth went home. Soon Harley Sachs called him back to the scene. He arrived to find Sachs and two other men combing the beach in the late-evening sunlight. They pointed out a spot some five hundred yards south of the bridge. The embankment, comprised of a thick bed of earth and crushed rock that kept the highway dry from the highest tide, was so steep at this point that the men had to half-walk, half-slide the thirty feet down to the sand. Four or five feet from the bottom of the embankment, above the most recent high tide line, lay a small metal vanity case. Two feet away lay an imitation leather handbag. Bludworth asked the men if they’d touched anything. They all said no.

He saw no foot tracks near the items. He noticed an indentation, roughly the width of the vanity case, in the dry sand, apparently an impact mark. One corner of the case lid had sprung open, also indicating a possible impact. It appeared that someone had tossed the items out of a moving machine.

Bludworth glimpsed a blue garment inside of the partially open handbag but didn’t investigate the contents further. He opened the vanity case. The mirror on the inside of the cover was cracked. Inside, he found several business cards, a photograph of a dark-haired woman who resembled the deceased, and various feminine items. A white card listed several names on one side. On the other side it bore a handwritten note in black ink:

I am

Fritzie Mann

2773 A Street

— James Stewart

(If you’d like to read the rest of the story, consider purchasing James Stewart’s Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage: A True Story of Murder in San Diego’s Jazz Age, available through the author’s website at jamesstewartauthor.com.)

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Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks.
Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks.

A note from the editor: When the Reader held its writing contest at the outset of last year, we received two entries that were a mite too historical for our purposes, but which nevertheless stuck in memory — first because of their quality, but also because of their similarity. Each told the deeply researched story of an unsolved murder of a young girl in San Diego — one a century ago, one nearly that old. And in both cases, the writer suggested that he had, these many years later, figured out the killer’s identity. I put the entries aside for a rainy day — like the ones we’ve been having of late.

— Matthew Lickona

A note from the author: I first heard about Fritzie Mann and her mysterious death in 2012, while looking for a thesis topic for a creative writing MFA program. I wanted to write a nonfiction book about an old crime, preferably unsolved and set in San Diego. Several people mentioned this 1923 case. A woman at the San Diego History Center called it “San Diego’s Black Dahlia case,” and brought out a huge scrapbook of contemporary newspaper clippings. The story fascinated me: not only the murder mystery, but how the papers covered it. Yellow journalism ruled; sensationalism trumped facts and banner headlines about murder and mayhem screamed from front pages. This story had it all: a beautiful dancer found barely clad on Torrey Pines beach under mystifying circumstances, a sex scandal, intriguing suspects, Hollywood connections. The case went to trial, then disappeared from history. It remains officially unsolved. It took me years of dogged research to figure out what happened to Fritzie and why.

This story is also about place and time. San Diego back then was a small city with big city problems, rife with illegal vice and Prohibition corruption. As the saying went: to find a drink, just ask the nearest cop. Rapid social change marked the years following World War I. Victorian traditionalists struggled against Jazz Age liberalism, spawning a culture war eerily similar to the one being fought now. Other than the addition of LGBTQ+ rights, the flash points — abortion, gender, race, immigration — haven’t changed, nor has the rhetoric. In many ways, Fritzie’s story defines the age.

This story is also about an immigrant Jewish family that looked for a better life but found a nightmare. Above all, it’s the story of a high-spirited young woman who loved the wrong man and paid the price for it.

— James Stewart

On the morning of Monday, January 8, 1923, after performing in Los Angeles for two months, Frieda Mann rode the midnight train home to San Diego dressed like a flapper.

The outfit shocked her mother, Amelia. A party dress of brown silk crepe fringed with rows of copper beads and a brown hat with a tan ostrich feather? Who wears a get-up like that on an overnight train ride? Not her daughter, usually. Frieda said she’d borrowed the outfit from her friend in Long Beach for a house party on Sunday evening. It seemed odd to Amelia. She scolded Frieda for being careless with her friend’s fancy outfit, then put it away and told her to wear her own clothes.

Frieda behaved oddly for the rest of the week, but Amelia saw no hint of melancholy. If anything, the girl acted too cheerful, too much like herself, especially that last day.

“She was joking around the whole day and making happy her sick sister,” Amelia Mann said later in her thick Hungarian accent, “…and she made jokes, take her bath, and was lively — don’t show a thing — nobody can say this girl had something in her heart, because she was happy, and she always was a jolly kid.”

That jolly kid, twenty years old, went by a stage name better suited to her personality and profession: Fritzie. She remained jolly to the end, Amelia insisted, despite what some would claim. Still, something new seemed to be weighing on Fritzie.

What had she been up to in Los Angeles for the past two months? Filling dancing engagements and visiting friends, or so she said. Her visit home was supposed to be short — long enough to break a contract with her employers in San Diego and perhaps tie up some loose ends — then return to LA for work and from there on to San Francisco. But maybe she’d been doing something else, like consorting with the wrong kind of people, a danger in the interpretive dance world. Or, more dangerous still, trying to break into Hollywood, again.

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“Don’t worry, Mother,” Fritzie said when Amelia asked her to share her troubles. “Everything will work out.”

But Amelia did worry, perhaps more than she would have before, now that her older daughter, Helen, lay dying in a sanitarium, the consumption killing her by degrees, as it had her husband three years before. Fritzie’s cageyness about her plans for Sunday evening bothered Amelia the most. She mentioned the house party more than once but refused to share details.

“Between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said when Amelia asked where the party would be held, which meant nothing — it was a hundred miles between Del Mar and LA. At other times she answered, “in Del Mar.”

“Tell me the man with who you go,” Amelia said.

“A man from LA.”

Each time Amelia asked, Fritzie refused to give the man’s name, or pretended she didn’t know. She’d never done that before.

There were enough reasons to worry about a young daughter without her keeping secrets. Times had changed in the few years since the Great War, and not all in a good way. The shifting gender norms and rambunctious behavior of the younger set — the late-night drinking and dancing, the permissive attitudes towards sex — had come too far and too fast for traditionalists. There were no safeguards anymore. Suitors no longer called on a young woman at her home, where her parents could keep an eye on her; now the man picked her up in his automobile and took her out on a “date,” ostensibly to a restaurant, a moving picture, or a jazz dance. But they might end up at a speakeasy or a hotel.

Amelia had scrutinized Fritzie’s dates as much as any mother would, always asking questions and writing down the man’s name. Some of the men had seemed respectable enough. The soft-spoken Jewish doctor from the Veteran’s hospital, who Fritzie had dated on and off since the previous spring, fit into this category. Fritzie had seemed to care for him, at least before she left for LA last November. Was he the house party mystery man? Maybe. The doctor had telephoned her almost every day since she returned home, so they must still be seeing one another. But he lived in San Diego, not LA, and Fritzie would’ve had no reason to hide his identity.

Other suitors had vexed Amelia, one a man Fritzie had dated the previous fall. She had seemed smitten though it hadn’t lasted long — thank God. Supposedly an actor and director, the man never entered the house or stepped onto the porch, just waited on the street in his pretentious Marmon touring car and summoned her with that damn ahooga horn. One morning, he’d picked up Fritzie for a drive south of the border to Tijuana. Amelia hadn’t liked the idea one bit—nothing good happened in TJ, a place that teemed with bars and brothels. To size the man up, Amelia had created a pretext; she asked him to drop her of at the Paradise Hills sanitarium, where Helen was being treated at the time, on their way south. Riding in the back seat of the ritzy machine, Amelia had jotted down the man’s physical description, just in case. Was he the mystery man from LA? He lived there, and worked in the motion picture business, a business Fritzie wanted to join. Hopefully not. Fritzie’s troubles had seemed to start around the time she met him.

Not that Amelia had much control over Fritzie anymore, least of all her dating life and aspirations. Modern young women, the ones they called New Women and flappers, tended to do as they pleased, tradition and consequences be damned. Fritzie had been around more than most women her age anyway, especially for a place like San Diego, a rather provincial city of 80,000. She’d spent her early childhood in Europe, spoke several languages, and danced before large audiences in San Diego, Denver, and LA. But if Fritzie’s independence and self-assurance gave her certain New Woman sensibilities, no one could call her a flapper — she didn’t smoke cigarettes or hang out in speakeasies or sleep around or do other things flappers did on the big screen. Fritzie danced on stage, not on tables. She was a sensible girl who helped to pay her sister’s medical bills and pursued a career as a dancer on her own. And if “interpretive dance” had naughty undertones in some quarters, Fritzie considered herself a serious artist; any salaciousness rested in the minds of people who had such thoughts. But she had a twenty-year-old’s overconfidence and naiveté and moved in risky circles: the night world of the cabaret and on the fringes of Hollywood. A young lady could get herself into trouble if she weren’t careful. Attitudes and behaviors may have changed, but in many ways, things had not.

“Tell me who is the man”

On Sunday afternoon, January 14, 1923, as she watched her daughter get ready for the house party in Del Mar or wherever she was going, Amelia’s anxiety grew. Was Fritzie really going to a party? She seemed to be getting ready for one, putting on a real flapper outfit. She dolled herself up with makeup and curled her hair and donned her Long Beach friend’s “glad rags,” as the younger set called their fancy outfits. To the brown hat and dress, she added brown satin shoes and silk stockings. She accentuated the outfit with a necklace of black and white beads, a gold bar pin on her left breast, and a barrette pinning her hair on the left side. She topped it off with an electric blue coat. She packed an overnight bag with a pink satin night shirt and underwear, makeup, and a sheer peacock blue nightgown with longish sleeves and gray fur trim.

“If I’m not home by noon tomorrow,” Fritzie assured her mother, “I’ll call.”

At 5:15 pm, ten minutes after sunset, Fritzie grabbed her handbag and vanity case. With her usual flippant goodbye wave to her older brother William, she headed out the front door of their tiny rental house on Spruce Street, near the northeast corner of Balboa Park. Amelia, a small woman, walked with her daughter in the cool January twilight under a cloudy sky, past the California Bungalow-styled homes of the modest neighborhood, two blocks to the streetcar stop at 30th and Redwood. On the way, Amelia’s trepidation grew into a premonition. She implored Fritzie to stay home.

In five years in the coroner’s job, he’d recovered corpses all over the big county. He spent “many a night in the mountains, traveling in mud, rain, and snow, on an errand of death, bringing the body of some poor unfortunate person,” according to a San Diego Union profile.

“Tell me who is the man who takes you out,” Amelia said.

“He is a man from Los Angeles,” Fritzie said.

“Tell me the name.”

“I don’t know his name.”

“You told me always who you go out with and now you don’t want to tell me.”

Amelia continued to nag, but at the trolley stop Fritzie gave her a quick hug and stepped up onto the streetcar.

Photographs of Fritzie Mann, most of which show her in an exotic dance costume, reveal a pretty woman with delicate features whose self-assured, vibrant temperament is evident. Her dark brown hair, often tinted auburn by the red hairnets she wore, wasn’t cut in a flapper bob, but she kept it short, in line with Jazz Age fashion and the preferred style of the New Woman. Having seen these pictures, it’s easy to imagine her waving goodbye to her mother, confident that she had everything under control. No photographs of Amelia survive, but it’s not hard to imagine her face as she watched the streetcar disappear into the gathering darkness, the trolley pole sparking on the overhead wire: The worried look of a mother who knew or suspected that her youngest child had gotten herself into a fix and feared it was about to end badly.

Fritzie likely caught a south-bound streetcar, the shortest route to downtown. From there the car would’ve rattled down 30th Street on the eastern edge of Balboa Park, zig-zagged around the corner of the park through Golden Hill, and then due west along Broadway into downtown. Fritzie had kept the rendezvous point to herself, mentioning only that she was meeting the mystery man downtown. It might’ve been the U.S. Grant Hotel, a gathering place for the younger set in the heart of downtown that Fritzie and her chums frequented. Or the Golden Lion Tavern, another hangout. Or, if the man was coming by train, the Santa Fe depot.

Twenty minutes later, Fritzie called Amelia.

“Mother, that party will not be between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said. “It will be in La Jolla.”

A strange phone call on top of the other strangeness.

Did the house party change venues at the last minute? La Jolla was nine miles south of Del Mar, somewhat closer to home. If Fritzie hoped to allay her mother’s fears with this information, it didn’t work.

“You might think you know the place where you are going,” Amelia said. “I don’t. You don’t told me who you go, and I don’t know.”

Don’t worry, Fritzie said. “It is a very quiet place.”

“There is a boy on the beach”

Driving south on the coast highway through Del Mar, a little seaside resort twenty miles north of San Diego, John Chase and his wife decided to stop for a beach picnic lunch with their three children. They had travelled some one hundred and twenty miles from their home in San Fernando, north of Los Angeles. It was a substantial trip, given that many automobiles were open to the elements and most roads remained unpaved and turned rutted and muddy after winter rains. Road trips were the latest thing. With the economy thriving and Model T’s rolling of Henry Ford’s assembly lines at $319 retail, ordinary families like the Chases could now purchase “machines” and take road trips for pleasure.

Few road trips could be more pleasant than this, motoring down the paved highway on a stretch of coast renowned for its beauty on a warm, partly sunny Monday in January. As they descended the southern edge of the Del Mar mesa, a gorgeous vista opened looking across to the Torrey Pines Grade a mile away, and down the coast in the haze, Mount Soledad and the La Jolla peninsula. To the left lay the Soledad Lagoon, a salt marsh estuary. To the right, the blue expanse of the Pacific. Separating the lagoon from the beach, as sharp as a blade, ran a straight half-mile stretch of paved highway hugging Torrey Pines beach. At the bottom of the hill, they drove past the Torrey Pines Garage and a small cluster of houses on the edge of the lagoon, through a railroad track viaduct, and across a wooden bridge spanning the Sorrento Slough. They pulled of the road at the southern end of the bridge and parked near a Chevrolet sign.

As the car rolled to a stop, Chase’s nine-year-old son Russell hopped out and disappeared over the rocky embankment that led down to the beach. John Chase, a tall man with light brown hair, stepped out of the car into the fresh salt air. A bookkeeper in the fruit packing business, he was no stranger to the area and its ideal climate. The Chases had lived in Lemon Grove, a rural town east of San Diego, until a couple of years before, when John had taken a job in the lemon groves of the San Fernando Valley. John began to eat a sandwich. He had barely taken a bite when Russell came running back up the embankment.

“There is a boy on the beach,” Russell said. “He is laying very still.”

The edge of the embankment blocked Chase’s view of the beach below. He stepped onto the car’s running board for a higher vantage point and spotted a human form lying a few hundred feet to the northwest near the surf. He told Russell to stay with his mother and began walking toward the figure, still holding his sandwich.

Torrey Pines Beach, though a popular bathing spot, was deserted at 12:30 pm on a Monday in January. The onshore breeze was strangely calm, the silence broken only by the light rush of the breakers and periodic seagull squawks. Near the bottom of the embankment, Chase walked past a dark-brown beaded dress lying alongside a mound of pebbles and weeds. The dress lay fat and stretched out on a line toward the body, as though someone had dropped it and dragged it across the dry sand. As he neared the figure, he realized that it wasn’t a boy, but a young woman, wearing only a pink silk teddy and garters, dark-brown silk stockings, and matching satin pumps.

The obviously dead woman appeared to be in her early twenties. She lay on her back parallel to the beach, ten or fifteen feet from the water’s edge, embedded about one and a half inches into the wet sand, her legs to the south towards La Jolla, her feet close together and her arms across her torso. Her dark wet hair lay loose and splayed out, mixed with sand and strings of kelp. Her bloodshot, partially opened eyes stared skyward. Her tongue protruded between her teeth. There was a small bluish bruise over her right eyebrow. The sand in the vicinity of the body had been washed smooth by the waves.

Chase walked back to the road, the partially eaten sandwich still in his hand. He never did finish it. He and Russell flagged down a passing car, asking the driver to stop at the garage up the road toward Del Mar and call the police.

“She had throwed up her tongue”

The San Diego Evening Tribune once described sixty-year-old Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth as one of the last “remaining picturesque characters of the old, two-gun west.”

Harley Sachs, owner of the Torrey Pines Garage, didn’t get excited about the report of a body on the beach — probably a mistake or a hoax, he figured. He decided to check it out before ringing the police and wasting their time. John Chase walked with Sachs and three of his employees out to the body. Sachs noted a mark over one of the woman’s eyes and her hands folded neatly across her upper abdomen, one over the other. Sachs drove back to the garage and called the police. He and the other garage men soon returned and covered the body from head to knees with a piece of burlap, weighting down the corners with sand to prevent it from blowing away in the sea breeze.

County motorcycle officers Clarence Matthews and Robert Bowman, the first police on the scene, lifted a corner of the burlap. They noted, or later recalled, more precise details than the other witnesses. The woman’s feet were five or six inches apart. The right strap of the pink teddy was down on her shoulder, partially exposing her breast. A “half a thimble full” of blood, Matthews estimated, had pooled in the inside corner of her right eye. A froth of fine bubbles, resembling shaving soap lather flecked with enough blood to give it a slight reddish tinge, had oozed out of her mouth and nostrils. Matthews’ observations of the woman’s tongue starkly contradicted those of Chase and Sachs. The tongue, in fact, did not protrude slightly out of her mouth, as those men had observed, but way out, farther than Matthews had ever seen a tongue hang from a person’s mouth. As he described it, as if “she had throwed up her tongue.”

Curiosity seekers began to assemble along the slough bridge rail and at the makeshift parking area south of the bridge. Some people wandered onto the beach. The motorcycle officers tried to keep them away from the body and the dress, assumed to belong to the dead woman. Harley Sachs and a few other men waited with the cops for the coroner to arrive, anxiously watching the waves. The waves broke, spread across the sand, and dissipated with a sizzle, inching ever closer to the body as the tide began to come back in.

“If the coroner doesn’t hurry up,” one of the garage men said, “the water will be up over the body.”

“There ought to be some more clothes around here”

The law did not require the San Diego County coroner, the elected official responsible for determining the cause and manner of suspicious deaths, to have a medical background, and Coroner Schuyler Kelly did not. A square-jawed, gray-haired man in his mid-fifties, Kelly had spent most of his life in the newspaper trade. He’d worked at the Kansas City Star in his youth, and held editorial jobs at two small San Diego newspapers. In five years in the coroner’s job, he’d recovered corpses all over the big county. He spent “many a night in the mountains, traveling in mud, rain, and snow, on an errand of death, bringing the body of some poor unfortunate person,” according to a San Diego Union profile.

Now he stood over the body of another unfortunate person and pronounced her dead.

“Do any of you men recognize this woman?” he asked those assembled, who at this point included the garage men, the motorcycle cops, an ambulance driver, and Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth from Del Mar. No one recognized her.

“Well, boys,” Kelly said, “there ought to be some more clothes around here some place…a hat or something…” Something they could use to identify the woman.

The men searched the beach in the vicinity of the body and nearby areas, around a large, abandoned rock crushing machine and under the curving bridge over the slough entrance. They found nothing of interest.

Kelly feared the tide might be coming in to reclaim the body. He made a quick, general examination. He found rigor mortis “very decided.” He saw no marks on the woman’s arms or chest, but observed small scratches on the face, which he attributed to crab bites. He didn’t notice — or later couldn’t recall — a discharge emanating from the mouth or nose but noted a white substance across the lips. He thought this might be dried saliva or the residue of a poison, possibly cyanide.

Deputy Sheriff Bludworth noted a bruise over the eye, a drop of blood in the corner of one eye, and a foamy discharge on the face, which seemed to still be oozing from the nose and mouth. The tongue protruded about an inch out of the left side of the mouth, he thought.

The ambulance driver placed a stretcher alongside the body. He grasped the dead woman’s shoulders and the coroner held her by the ankles. They eased her onto the stretcher and covered her with a sheet. The woman’s body left an impression in the damp sand, a fleeting trace of her the surf would soon wash away.

“The old, two-gun west”

The San Diego Evening Tribune once described sixty-year-old Deputy Sheriff John Bludworth as one of the last “remaining picturesque characters of the old, two-gun west.” The longest-serving law officer in the county, Bludworth had joined the San Diego Sheriff’s Office in the 1880s, almost back to the day Wyatt Earp ran saloons and gambling halls downtown. He looked the part. His standard attire consisted of a white shirt, dark tie, black Stetson, and a dark vest with a watch chain dangling from the pocket. He carried a .38 Colt Police Positive revolver on his hip and wore the weathered visage of a law man with too much mileage on him.

He’d watched times — and bad guys — change since the days of Wyatt Earp.

“In the old days you had the best horse and the best gun or you didn’t get your man,” Bludworth once said. “You’re hunting gentlemen these days.” He’d replaced his best horse with a Model T. These days, he often waited in his machine at the Hotel Del Mar, which dominated the town, until the sheriff alerted him with instructions to intercept a bad guy, usually a bootlegger or a dope runner heading north on the coast highway, few of them actual gentlemen.

After the coroner had removed the woman’s body from the beach, Bludworth went home. Soon Harley Sachs called him back to the scene. He arrived to find Sachs and two other men combing the beach in the late-evening sunlight. They pointed out a spot some five hundred yards south of the bridge. The embankment, comprised of a thick bed of earth and crushed rock that kept the highway dry from the highest tide, was so steep at this point that the men had to half-walk, half-slide the thirty feet down to the sand. Four or five feet from the bottom of the embankment, above the most recent high tide line, lay a small metal vanity case. Two feet away lay an imitation leather handbag. Bludworth asked the men if they’d touched anything. They all said no.

He saw no foot tracks near the items. He noticed an indentation, roughly the width of the vanity case, in the dry sand, apparently an impact mark. One corner of the case lid had sprung open, also indicating a possible impact. It appeared that someone had tossed the items out of a moving machine.

Bludworth glimpsed a blue garment inside of the partially open handbag but didn’t investigate the contents further. He opened the vanity case. The mirror on the inside of the cover was cracked. Inside, he found several business cards, a photograph of a dark-haired woman who resembled the deceased, and various feminine items. A white card listed several names on one side. On the other side it bore a handwritten note in black ink:

I am

Fritzie Mann

2773 A Street

— James Stewart

(If you’d like to read the rest of the story, consider purchasing James Stewart’s Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage: A True Story of Murder in San Diego’s Jazz Age, available through the author’s website at jamesstewartauthor.com.)

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