On the 10th February 1947, the body of 44-year-old Jeanne French was discovered. Brutally stomped to death, her killer was never caught. Was this just a horrific murder? Or was it a part of a series of killings that took place in 1940’s Los Angeles at the hands of just one man? Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at what became known as the Red Lipstick Murder.
The Life Of Jeanne French
Jeanne French (born Jeanne “Nettie” Axford) was born in 1902 on October 6th in Texas. Very little is known about her early life. Records indicate the family moved to Oklahoma and that “Nettie” had four younger siblings. Tragically two of her siblings appear to have died at young ages, Charles Axford was just 11 when he passed away and Frances was even younger, aged just 6 years old. At 18 years of age, we do know she would marry for the first time.
Jeanne’s first husband was a wealthy oilman named David Yandell Wrather, from Amarillo, Texas. In 1920 the couple welcomed their first, and only, child. The couple named the boy after his father, David.
Jeanne worked at St. Anthony’s Hospital as a nurse. However, by 1924 the couple’s marriage had hit the rocks and the pair were soon separated. After her divorce, French took her 4-year-old son and the two moved to Los Angeles.
It was in Los Angeles she would meet and marry her second husband. In 1925 Jeanne French was married to David Thomas. Again the marriage was short lived
Jeanne French continued to work as a nurse and was soon part of a team of nurses working with a Columbian oil company. During the time flying with the company, Jeanne became fascinated by the skies.
Jeanne decided to quit nursing and to study aviation. After passing her pilots exam she became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve. Jeanne also became a member of the International Organization of Women Pilots or the 99 Club as they are also known.
By 1931 and using the name Jeanne Axford Thomas, she had gained a small level of fame and attention as a pilot, even earning the moniker of “The Flying Nurse” in some of the media. During 1931 Jeanne would marry for the third time. Her new husband was pilot Curtis Bower. The third time wasn’t a charm however and the couple separated after just five weeks of marriage.
The next few years of Jeanne French’s life are not as well documented. It is known she was a friend of the oil heiress Millicent Rodgers and so some have speculated Jeanne spent time travelling and living the socialite lifestyle with her friend. I was unable to find any evidence that this was true but it is certainly what most believe to be the case. It was also reported that Jeanne had also had several small acting roles under the name Jeanne Axford Thomas, though again I was unable to find any actual proof of this.
What we do know is that by 1945 Jeanne was married for the fourth time. Her fourth husband was serviceman Frank French. During her marriage to Frank, Jeanne started to turn to drink frequently (it isn’t clear what turned her to drink). Whilst under the influence Jeanne would often become aggressive and abusive with her husband Frank bearing the brunt of it. Two years later, in 1947, the pair would separate. Jeanne would not see 1948.
The Discovery and Cause
At around 8 o’ clock in the morning on February 10, 1947 construction worker H. C. Shelby was making his way to work. On his route, he noticed what appeared to be a pile of women’s clothing amongst some weeds not far from the nearby sidewalk. Shelby decided to investigate the items closer, upon lifting up a coat with a fur trim Shelby uncovered the brutally beaten naked body of Jeanne French.
Jeanne French had been the victim of a brutal and savage beating. The tragic victim had initially been smashed in the skull several times with a blunt metal weapon, a socket wrench most likely, however, this didn’t deliver the fatal blow. Instead, the murderer inflicted the killer blows by violently and sadistically repeatedly stomping upon the poor, unconscious victims body. With her body covered in wounds and bruising, Jeanne French would slowly bleed to death.
Whilst bleeding to death the killer took the time to mark his/her heinous crime. The killer took Jeanne’s red lipstick from her purse and proceeded to write a message across his dying victim’s torso:
Fuck You, P.D
Beneath this the name “Tex” was also written.
The message left was misreported at the time by several of the press (and is still to this day). Despite the coroner stating that the words written in red lipstick included the words “P. D” many of the press instead reported this as “B. D”. This immediately led many in the media to link the murder of Jeanne French to that of Elizabeth Short a.k.a the Black Dahlia murder.
Elizabeth Short was murdered just three weeks prior. However, investigators weren’t high on the presses theory that the murders were of the same hand and instead believed that they were looking for two separate individuals. Investigators instead turned their attention to the latest victims ex-husband, Frank French.
Frank and Jeanne had a volatile relationship, with violence on both sides. Shortly before Jeanne’s murder, Frank himself had been arrested after he had punched Jeanne in the face during one particularly bad argument.
Upon Frank’s arrest, he admitted to the visit Jeanne had made to his apartment but said that was the last time he had seen her. Frank also stated that his landlady would be able to confirm his alibi that he didn’t leave his flat that evening.
Police also brought in Jeanne’s son David for questioning. After being questioned David was leaving the station when he encountered his stepfather. The 25-year-old son of the victim confronted the man who had potentially murdered his mother and said:
Well,I’ve told them the truth. If you are guilty, there is a God in heaven who will take care of you
Frank looked straight back at David and without any hesitation gave his reply:
I swear to God I didn’t kill her
Despite their initial belief police could find no evidence with which to tie the murder of Jeanne French to her ex-husband Frank. Furthermore, Frank’s landlady did indeed confirm his alibi that he hadn’t left his flat that evening. Finally, investigators couldn’t match the shoe prints found at the murder scene to Frank.
Despite no evidence against Frank French police still believed Frank could be the man they were looking for and so had Frank partake in a lie detector test. Frank passed the lie detector test and police finally moved on to other possible suspects.
Detectives next tried to find the man that was seen with Jeanne in the hours before her death. Jeanne was seen with a small man with a dark complexion in the Pan American Bar in West Washington Place. The bartender working on the night said that the pair had left together. Unfortunately, police were unable to trace the individual in question.
Detectives were getting nowhere fast and they had very few leads to go on. They traced the car Jeanne French owned to a parking lot. Witnesses said that the vehicle had been there since around 3 a.m on the morning of the murder. One of the witnesses spoken to, a night watchman, claimed that it was a male who had left the car at the location and not Jeanne. This man was never traced.
Whilst the murder of Elizabeth Short was constantly in the press and under investigation, it appears the brutal murder of Jeanne French was quickly forgotten and the Red Lipstick Murder case soon went cold.
Suspects and Theories
Some three years after the murder of Jeanne French an investigation by the Grand Jury was ordered. They gave a scathing report on the standard of investigations into a number of unsolved murders of women throughout the 1940s in Los Angeles.
This led to many of them been looked into again, including that of Jeanne French. Walter Morgan and Frank Jemison of the District Attorney’s office were assigned the French case and they soon discovered a prime suspect.
Four months before the brutal killing of Jeanne French, and whilst still with husband Frank, the pair hired a painter named George Whitt to work on the couple’s home. The investigators discovered that Jeanne and the man soon started seeing one another, with Whitt admitting to going on several dates with Jeanne.
Morgan and Jemison found the man’s behaviour during their investigation into him questionable. The pair also uncovered during there investigation that the painter had burned some clothing and several pairs of shoes around the time of the murder.
Despite the initial interest, George Whitt was seemingly able to provide a solid alibi and prove he wasn’t the killer. The man was soon cleared of any involvement.
It also seems
Police had discovered that Jeanne French had been sharing a post office box with an unknown male whilst using a name from a previous marriage, Jeanne Thomas.
Jeanne French had been receiving letters at the Palms postal station in West Los Angeles. Despite the appeal for the man to come forward, as far as I can find no one did. Could the man have refused to come forward due to having something to hide?
A Hidden Message
Several who have looked into the crime have tried to use the message left in Red Lipstick on French’s body as a clue (which makes perfect sense: it must have been left for a reason). Some of those have taken the changing “P.D” to “B.D” path to link French to Elizabeth Short, however, others have used the actual message left by the killer.
One theory is that “P.D” stands for
Jeanne French, of course, spent much of her early life in Texas, not leaving until after her first divorce. Could something or someone from Jeanne French’s past have caught up with her and led to her murder?
Dr. George Hodel
In the book Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius For Murder the author of the book, Steve Hodel, names his own father as the killer of Elizabeth Short. Hodel also believes his father killed several other women including Georgette Bauerdorf and Jeanne French.
Hodel claims that the murder of French was a message to the police after it was reported in the press that they had arrested a suspect for the murder of Elizabeth Short. Dr George
This, of course, does ignore the fact that the coroner clearly stated the initials written were “P.D” and not “B.D”. It also doesn’t explain the writing of the word “Tex” underneath. Hodel also makes several other mistakes such as writing that French died of blunt trauma due to the blows she suffered to the head when in fact she was still alive after those blows and she died due to injuries incurred from being stomped on so viciously.
Hodel’s book does make for an interesting read. However, it has to be questioned whether in his desperation to name his father as the killer Hodel opts to pick and chose which evidence to believe and incorporate in his book.
One final point to be made against George Hodel as the killer is pointed out by Larry Harnisch. Much like Frank French the shoe simply didn’t fit, in other words, George Hodel didn’t wear a size 6 or 7
The description of the last person seen with Jeanne French was that it was a small man with a dark complexion. The man was undeniably a suspect, as mentioned he was the last person seen with the victim and the fact he was small also stands out due to the killer only been a size 6 or 7 shoe. However, could he have been the cause of Jeanne’s death in a totally different way?
1940s Los Angeles had its fair share of problems with racism, in particular between white men and the Latino community. Just a few years before Jeanne French’s murder the Zoot Suit riots had taken place in the city.
Is it possible that someone took offense in seeing a white woman with a man of dark complexion? If they did and chose to confront French it isn’t hard to imagine the confrontation getting completely out of hand and leading to her brutal attack.
As with most theories, this one is interesting but there is one big downside: What about the man she was with? Was he too scared to come forward? Did the killer wait for the man to leave before confronting Jeanne? Was he perhaps murdered too but dumped somewhere else?
As is often the case in these really old unsolved murders I find it highly unlikely we will ever know who killed Jeanne French in the early hours of February 10, 1947.
Of all the known theories or possibilities I would suggest that the man she was last seen with was her most likely killer. My thinking is that it is possible the pair got into a drunken argument, things escalated all too quickly and ultimately led to French’s death that night. The only real problem with this answer is it doesn’t explain the message left in red lipstick on the body
I do find it strange how little Jeanne’s murder has been remembered. Jeanne French lived quite the life and yet her horrifically brutal murder seems pretty much forgotten and lost in the realms of time. Whilst searching for information on Jeanne French it was astounding how little information there was in comparison to that of Elizabeth Short, despite both terrible murders taking place just weeks apart.
Tragically, over time, it seems as if it was decided that Jeanne French was worthy of being nothing more than a footnote, worth mentioning only when talking about The Black Dahlia or trying to link her to other unsolved murders. Jeanne French wasn’t just a footnote, she was a victim just like Short and deserved to have her story known.