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murder of Nora Fuller

In 1902 a fifteen-year-old girl disappeared after she left her San Francisco home to attend a meeting about a job. A month later the body of the teenager was discovered. She had been raped and strangled to death. Her killer was never caught. This is the story of one of San Francisco’s oldest cold cases, the Murder of Nora Fuller.

The Job Ad

Fifteen-year-old Nora Fuller was born Eleanor Maude Parline in China, 1886 to English parents. Sadly Nora’s father passed away whilst she was little and her mother Alice took her and her siblings to reside in San Francisco. Nora’s mother at some point married a man named W W Fuller and the younger children took on his surname but by 1902 the couple had divorced. The separation left Alice Fuller struggling to support Nora and her siblings.

As was sadly often the case amongst hard-up families in the early 1900’s Nora Fuller found herself dropping out of school. Instead of continuing her education, Nora would focus on trying to find a job to help with her mother’s financial woes. She dreamed of working in the world of theatre, however, despite signing up with an agency no work was forthcoming so Nora began to look elsewhere for opportunities.

On January 8, 1902, Nora Fuller responded to an ad she had come across in the San Francisco Chronicle looking for a nanny. The ad read:

Wanted- Young white girl to take care of baby: good home and good wages: Box 120 Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle ad Jan 8, 1902

On January 11, a few days after applying for the role, Nora received a response in the form of a postcard. The postcard read:

Miss Fuller in answer to yours in response to my advt, kindly call at the Popular Restaurant, 55 Geary St, and inquire for Mr John Bennett at 1 o’ clock. If you can’t come at 1, come at 6.

J.B.

By the time the post arrived that Saturday afternoon Nora had already missed the 1 pm appointment but she still had plenty of time to make the later time of 6 pm. Nora got dressed and put the note in her pocket along with some money given to her by her mum to buy groceries on her way home before leaving the house at around 5 pm.

The Phone Call

At approximately 6 pm Nora’s brother Louis answered a phone call at the Fuller residence. It was Nora. She asked Louis to inform her mother that she had got the job and Mr Bennett wished her to start straight away and was already at his home, 1500 Geary St.

Nora’s mother, however, wasn’t best pleased with this development. She told Louis to tell his sister she should start the job on Monday and come home, not forgetting to collect the groceries on the way. Nora begrudgingly said ok and that she wouldn’t forget the groceries.

Nora never came home.

2211 Sutter Street

Despite her failure to return home, it wasn’t until January 16, five days after the phone call, that Mrs Fuller reported her daughter’s disappearance to the police. The police failed to share the concerns of Mrs Fuller, who believed her daughter may have been kidnapped. After a brief investigation, they discovered that one of Nora’s friends had recently run away from home and quickly concluded Nora Fuller had likely done the same.

This opinion would be proven tragically wrong three weeks later on February 8. 1902.

On that day rent inspector H E Dean, working for Umbsen & Co real estate, visited a property at 2211 Sutter Street. The two-storey property had only been rented the month prior by a man called C B Hawkins. On arriving at the property to collect the second months rent Dean found what appeared to be an empty home. He used his passkey to enter the premises and found the first floor had no furniture whatsoever.

H E Dean made his way up the stairs of the two-bedroom property and noticed the door to one of the bedrooms was closed. The rent inspector slightly opened the door, the room was dark as the shades had been drawn but H E Dean noticed women’s clothing slung across the floor before casting an eye on a human figure on the bed.

Dean retreated down the stairs and out onto the street where he finally came across a police officer. The two men returned to the small back bedroom of 2211 Sutter Street. Officer Gill apprehensively approached the figure on the bed and discovered it was the naked decomposing body of a young woman.

Cause Of Death

Image of Nora’s mum after viewing her daughters body

It was soon discovered it was the body of fifteen-year-old Nora Fuller when she was identified by a family member (some reports say this was the brother Louis who recognised a bow he had tied for Nora and others claim it was Nora’s mother Alice who identified her daughter through a vaccination mark on her leg). The cause of death was found to be strangulation. Nora’s clothes also appeared to be torn and there was evidence to suggest she had been raped.

She had consumed alcohol and eaten an apple no more than a couple of hours before her murder. The amount of decomposition on the body and the fact Nora had been seen eating an apple before she left home the last time she was seen led to the strong belief Nora had been murdered within hours of leaving her home on January 11.

The Investigation

A search of 2211 Sutter Street revealed little. Other than the bed on which Nora was discovered the only other furniture found was a chair located in the same room. Nora’s purse was found but the money given to her by her mother was missing, so too was the postcard asking her to meet Mr Bennett. An empty bottle of whiskey, several pieces of junk mail addressed to C B Hawkins, and the butt of a cigarette was also found but proved of little help in a time long before DNA evidence and when fingerprinting was still in its infancy.

Police quickly came to the conclusion that C B Hawkins and John Bennett were one and the same. Their opinion seemed to be backed up when witnesses who had seen Mr Bennett at the Popular Restaurant gave descriptions that were a close match to those given by several owners of second-hand furniture shops who remembered dealing with C B Hawkins.

F W Krone, the owner of the Popular Restaurant, told investigators his version of events. Krone stated that he had spoken to Mr John Bennett at around 5:30 pm on January 11 when he asked for the young lady to be sent to his table when she arrived. He said the man had been a regular for the last 10 years and had been given the nickname “Tenderloin” by staff but that this was the first time he had revealed his name as John Bennett. Mr Krone, however, told police that time never came as no woman arrived at the restaurant and around half an hour later Mr Bennett left the restaurant. Krone described John Bennett as being of average weight and height, with brown hair and moustache, and about forty years old. Bennett was seen pacing outside the Popular for several more minutes before departing the area alone.

Police also investigated the address Nora Fuller gave to her brother over the phone as the residence she would be working from for Mr Bennett. On visiting 1500 Geary Street police found it to be nothing more than a vacant lot.

The Curious Tale Of Madge Graham

Madge Graham tells her story at the inquest.

At an inquest into the murder of Nora Fuller a friend of the young girl’s made a claim which gave investigators another possible angle to the case. Seventeen-year-old Madge Graham claimed Nora had been secretly seeing an older man behind her mother’s back. According to Madge, the man went by the name of Bennett.

Madge stated that on several occasions she had provided an alibi for Nora whilst she was with Bennett to stop her mother from becoming suspicious. In fact, Madge Graham went even further and made the suggestion that the advertisement Nora answered was not a genuine job offer but placed by the couple to fool her mother.

Grocer A Menke seemingly backed up Madge’s claims of Nora being secretive. He stated that on more than one occasion, and despite having a phone at home, Nora had come into his store to use the telephone to call a nearby hotel. Despite been a plausible tale, Madge Graham’s yarn was largely dismissed due to Nora’s reputation within the neighbourhood as been nothing more than a devoted daughter.

Further Attempts To Crack The Case

In the hope of moving the investigation forward a $5000 reward was offered for information that would lead to the arrest of Nora Fuller’s killer. The department was flooded with calls and letters from people claiming they knew something that would help to capture the culprit responsible. Alas, the information the police received failed to lead to an arrest.

Another step taken by Captain John Seymour, the man in charge of the Nora Fuller murder investigation, was to bring in a handwriting expert. Theodore Kytka was brought in and examined over 30,000 pieces of handwriting. From his efforts, Kytka found what he believed to be four possible matches to the writing of CB Hawkins on the lease agreement for 2211 Sutter Street. All were quickly dismissed as having anything to do with the murder of Nora Fuller.

The Mysterious Charles B Hadley

On January 18 a story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner regarding a man named Charles B Hadley. Hadley had disappeared after he had embezzled funds from his employer. Police looked into the case and found he had been staying in a hotel with a woman named Ollie Blasier. Blasier was interviewed by police but she informed them she had no idea of his wereabouts as he had walked out on without warning.

Ollie Blasier would soon return the police station. The following day she saw an article in the newspaper showing CB Hawkins handwriting and came to the belief that it was similar to that of Hadley’s. She gave the police a photo which contained Hadley’s handwriting to enable a comparison. On comparing the two Kytka was convinced they were written by the same hand.

Ollie Blasier gave further reason to believe Charles Hadley was the man they were looking for. She told detectives he had a particular fondness for tenderloin, just like the mysterious Mr Bennett. The woman also claimed she had found several items of clothing with blood on them shortly after the murder and that Hadley was acting strangely, particularly when reading the newspaper reports into the murder of Nora Fuller. Finally, Ollie Blasier stated that although Hadley was clean-shaven, unlike CB Hawkins or Mr Bennett, he had a number of false moustaches that he liked to wear.

Detectives had a picture of Hadley mocked up with him having a moustache. When shown to witnesses who had seen Hawkins and Bennett the results were inconclusive. Several stated the man did bear a resemblance to the wanted man/men, but none were certain. Throwing a spanner in the works was the owner of the Popular Restaurant, he was adamant the man in the picture wasn’t the same man who had been a regular at his establishment.

The Hunt Goes On

Captain John Seymour was certain that all the men connected to the case, John Bennett, CB Hawkins and Charles Hadley, were all one and the same. If that was true then all of these names were aliases.

Police in Minneapolis got in touch and revealed that Charles Hadley was actually Charles Start. This was a man they had been trying to track down without any luck since 1889. He was wanted for embezzlement in the city.

Thousands of circulars were distributed containing information on the suspect police believed was responsible for the murder of Nora Fuller. However, despite the manhunt undertook Charles Start a.k.a Charles Hadley was never found.

The Arrest Of Charles Seifert

In March 1902, a pharmacist was arrested in Davisville for embezzlement. However, Captain John Seymour suspected the man of much worse, the murder of Nora Fuller. The man’s name was Charles Seifert.

Seifert had made an acquaintance with a young woman named Emma Searight around the time Nora Fuller was murdered. Emma also happened to be friends with Nora.

It seems a series of coincidences led to Charles Seifert been considered a suspect. Seifert was staying in the Winchester Hotel but quickly absconded without paying his bill the same week as Nora was killed. The new suspect also chose that same period of time to shave off his moustache. Charles Seifert was also known to have a penchant for young ladies and a taste for fine dining, including an occasional outing at the Popular Restaurant where Nora was heading when she was last seen.

Alas, it seemed Captain John Seymour’s initial suspicion was misplaced. He bore little to no resemblance to John Bennett or CB Hawkins according to witnesses. Handwriting also showed no similarities. Charles Seifert was quickly ruled out as a suspect in the murder of Nora Fuller. The press it seemed saw the arrest as a pitiful attempt at pinning the murder on someone to cover for the fact the case had been appallingly handled.

No one else is on record as been suspected of being the mysterious John Bennett or CB Hawkins. Tragically, the murder of Nora Fuller was never solved and her killer never brought to justice.

Sources And Further Reading

Cold Cases by Helena Katz

Mother takes last look at Nora’s remains

Inquest Fails To Throw Light On The Murder Of Nora Fuller

Police busily engaged in running down clews

Captain Of Detectives Makes Pitiful Attempt To Fasten Shocking Murder Of Poor Nora Fuller

Find A Grave