Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Torch Killer, or The Wickedest Stepmother Ever

by Laura James
I remember visiting a prison for women, where, out of 163 inmates, I found but three or four with regular features and only one who could be called pretty; all the rest, old and young, were more or less of an ugly and repulsive appearance.
--Raffaele Garofalo, Criminology (1914 Textbook)

If Mrs. Mumbulo's victim had been a man, you'd know her name today. But her ill-starred victim was her 11-year-old stepdaughter.

On March 21, 1930, Mrs. Edna Mumbulo of Erie, Pennsylvania, threw a pan of gasoline on little Hilda and set her on fire, not only killing her, but inflicting a slow and agonizing end.

Later that morning, as Hilda lay in the hospital gasping her last breath, her father and stepmother were already in their insurance man's office cashing in her $6,000 life insurance policy.

Edna admitted it. She said she didn't intend to throw the gasoline on little Hilda -- the pan accidentally ignited, see, and Mrs. Mumbulo was only trying to throw the blazing pan outdoors; she was aiming for the window in the girl's room, and, gosh, it was closed, and the lit gasoline splashed back six feet onto Hilda's bed, without, somehow, ever singeing Mrs. Mumbulo.

That was her defense. In other words, the case was as open-and-shut as rotten meat in the refrigerator.

Okay, there is a bit more to the tale than that. None of it, I assure you, in the least helpful to Mrs. Mumbulo's attorneys.

I came across this case in an article recently printed in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, which resurrected the Torch Killer case from total historical obscurity. The article is a very well written account of the murder investigation and subsequent trial -- a brilliant rendering of the case, though bracketed with some curious commentary. The author posits that Edna Mumbulo was a victim of old stereotypes about wicked stepmothers -- that locals were able to assume the worst of her because the "wicked stepmother" opinion had a ready-made foundation in our fairy tales.

"The stepmother stereotype has been harmful," he states. "The Erie public, having consumed a lifetime of fairy tales and myths, organized the known facts of the Mumbulo case into the 'wicked stepmother' framework. In doing so, they condemned a woman to prison...Whether she committed the act or not, she was convicted because she was the living embodiment of the 'wicked stepmother.'”

And yet justice was not actually blind to Edna's individuality. Edna Mumbulo was gorgeous. Look at her photo, that hair, that smile. Imagine her weeping on the stand before her all-male audience. Yep, file Edna under Too Beautiful To Be Bad.

The author, Joseph Laythe of the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, was kind enough to clarify for me that Edna did not put in as good an appearance at the trial as the photo run by the Associated Press might imply. And yet I am reminded of a comment once made by an Illinois State's Attorney in 1912 on women defendants: "The defendant need not be beautiful; if she merely appears feminine on the stand she is safe."

One lone juryman held out for an acquittal, and hours of wrangling with others who wanted to send her to the electric chair led to a compromise verdict of second-degree murder.

Mrs. Mumbulo's imprisonment was a mere lull in the legal battle. It was common knowledge in 1930 that only ugly women commit brutal crimes. Edna was an attractive young woman and a mother. During her trial for murder, she was reunited with a daughter she didn't raise, and everyone saw them weep and fall into one another's arms. What is clear from the newspaper coverage of the case -- surprisingly sparse at the time -- is that the men on the jury and on the bench did not want to believe this attractive woman -- a mother, forget the step -- could commit such an atrocious crime.

Over time, they convinced themselves that it might have been an accident after all. The judge recommended a pardon. Instead, the governor gave her a Christmas commutation in 1938, sentencing her to time served. Edna ended up serving a mere eight years and three months for murdering her stepdaughter.

Who locked Cinderella in the tower on the night of the ball? Who poisoned Snow White's apple? Who abandoned Hansel and Gretel in the woods? Rather than perpetuate stereotypes, our fairy tales fail to paint a portrait as horrifying as Pennsylvania's unfortunately all-too-real, gasoline-wielding wicked stepmother.


cheryl said...

Mr. Mumbalo was right there with her trying to cash in on the poor girl's death. Was that suspicious?
Look at old Lizzie Borden. A fairly attractive church going woman would never wield a hatchet, right?
Stereotypes are still in existence, but I hope to God less so than a century ago.

Anonymous said...

Lizzie Borden from all I have read DIDN'T do it.

dixieborn said...

Humm, well now I have to do some research because I always was told that Lizzie did do it.