Winnie Ruth Judd: The “Blonde Butcher” & Her “Trunk Murders” That Mesmerized America

Winnie Ruth Judd [Wikimedia Commons]Winnie Ruth Judd [Wikimedia Commons]

PHOENIX, AZ — On October 16, 1931, Winnie Ruth Judd, 26, apparently decided she’d taken quite enough guff from Agnes Anne LeRoi, 32, and Hedvig Samuelson, 24. Up until this moment, the three women had been dear friends.

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Tensions had arisen among the trio over businessman and philandering playboy John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran. As an endless flirt (and more), Happy Jack had charmed all three ladies, but it was Judd with whom he chose to have an affair.

LeRoi and Samuelson expressed annoyance over the situation. Judd, in turn, said she was irritated by Halloran’s ongoing expressions of affection for the other two.

In the wake of much reported arguing, Judd settled the issue by sneaking a pistol into the apartment shared by LeRoi and Samuelson. She then reportedly shot her two erstwhile pals to death while they slept. Afterward, Judd cut up the bodies, tossed the parts in steamer trunks, and carted them off with her via train to Los Angeles.

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Upon arriving in L.A., a railroad employee noticed a nasty smell and what appeared to be blood leaking from Judd’s luggage. He insisted that she open the trunks. Judd promptly responded she didn’t have the keys on hand. She then hopped into her (unwitting) brother’s car and took off.

Police came by and broke open the trunks to discover the gruesome contents. A manhunt immediately went into effect. Judd eluded the authorities for nearly a week, though, finally turning herself in at (of all places) a funeral parlor on October 23.

San Francisco Chronicle — October 24, 1931 [front cover image]

Once the press got hold of the story, a new villain lit up the nation’s headlines. Newspapers dubbed Judd the “Blonde Butcher” or the “Tiger Woman,” and the public, deeply beset by the Great Depression, couldn’t get enough of the tabloid-ready “Trunk Murders.”

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The saga grew only juicier once Judd went to trial in January 1932, just three months after the slayings.

The defense team pleaded self-defense, claiming that LeRoi and Samuelson had become so infuriated over the Happy Jack Halloran affair that they physically attacked Judd.

Adding an even more salacious twist, however, Judd also told the court that not only had Halloran himself had been her accomplice in cleaning up the mess and getting her out of town, but that the whole thing was his idea in the first place.

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The Happy Jack theory managed to get Halloran indicted as an accomplice by a grand jury. Judd acted as the “star witness” and told the court:

“I am going to be hanged for something Jack Halloran is responsible for … I was convicted of murder, but I shot in self-defense. Jack Halloran removed every bit of evidence. He is responsible for me going through all this. He is guilty of anything I am guilty of.”

The case fell apart relatively quickly, with Halloran’s attorney pointing out, convincingly, that Judd’s claims added up to “the story of an insane person.”

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Happy Jack Halloran walked, although the community shunned him, and his businesses never recovered. Judd’s trial, in the meantime, moved forward.

On February 8, 1932, the jury found Judd guilty. Two weeks later, a judge sentenced her to the gallows. A mental competency hearing, however, determined that Judd was, in fact, off her rocker.

The state overturned Judd’s death sentence and dispatched her to the Arizona State Asylum for the Insane. Over the next 30 years, Judd escaped from the facility seven times.

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Most of Judd’s breakouts were just short jaunts to nearby areas, but one time she walked from Phoenix to Yuma along the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, traveling nearly 200 miles.

Following her last flight in 1963, Judd made it to northern California. Once there, she posed as a married woman fleeing a husband who beat her, and a San Francisco area church took in Judd and found work for her as a maid in a mansion overlooking the bay.

Judd maintained the ruse, wherein she lived on church grounds and was well-liked as “Sister Ruth,” for more than six years before getting busted.

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Upon being returned to Arizona, Judd hired an ace legal team to negotiate her release. She received parole in 1971 and an “absolute discharge” in 1983. For the next 15 years, the “Blonde Butcher” lived quietly and died at home at age 93.

Throughout the years, speculation has continually cropped up regarding Judd’s actual guilt. Was Halloran really in on it? Did a friend named “Dr. Brown” help Judd cut up the bodies? Did Judd even pull the trigger?

Numerous journalistic investigations, true-crime books, documentaries, and even an all-marionette dramatic production have explored the case in depth. In the end, though, the public loves a shocking, scandalous story, and the “Trunk Murders” continues to reign as a vintage favorite.

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Read more:
New York Times
Phoenix New Times
San Francisco Chronicle

Main photo: Winnie Ruth Judd [Wikimedia Commons]



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