History in Focus: The Black Widow of Yampa
On the afternoon of July 11, 1929, Elmer Stephenson of Yampa arrived home for lunch from his job growing and shipping high mountain head lettuce for A.E. Barker Produce. His wife, Lillian, served coffee, pot roast, and rolls before driving off to do errands. Within a half-hour, Elmer fell into violent convulsions and upon returning Lillian hysterically and frantically called Doctor J.T. Male. He arrived too late, and thirty minutes later 50-year old Elmer was dead.. (Steamboat Pilot, 7/26/29)
Area citizens were stunned by the news of Stephenson’s death. Fifteen days later the autopsy reported 36 milligrams of strychnine poisoning was found in Stephenson’s stomach! This electrifying news quickly settled the crosshairs of the investigation on Elmer’s widow.
In charge of the case was none other than long-time citizen, Ivy-League trained lawyer, and rancher Farrington Carpenter. Just elected as District Attorney of the 14th Judicial District this would be Carpenter’s first major criminal trial.
Inconsistencies in Lillian’s story soon surfaced. At first, she claimed Elmer drank some bad liquor, but the autopsy found no such evidence (7/26/29). Next, Lillian proffered that Elmer was depressed and committed suicide even producing a suicide note written on the inside page of Elmer’s Masonic Temple book. Carpenter sent the letter to several handwriting experts in Denver and Chicago, and it was not only declared a forgery but most likely the handwriting of Lillian herself! (Steamboat Pilot, 4/11/1930)
It was also well known the lights had gone out on Elmer and Lillian’s 25-year marriage. Research by Elmer’s great nephew, Bob Royer, sheds light on the relationship. Lillian, a divorced mother of two, married Elmer in 1904, and he helped raise the children as his own. By 1929, she was involved in a long term affair with their former hired hand, John Rundle. The toxic mix of infidelity, bouts of heavy drinking and quarreling, often led to fisticuffs (Cascadia Courier, 2/4/2016).
Convinced he had the motive and evidence, Carpenter ordered the arrests of Stephenson and “Mattress Man” Rundle. He intended to prove the adulterous lovers planned Elmer’s murder in order to collect $5,000 of life insurance, run off together, and purchase a ranch near Mancos (Steamboat Pilot, 2/14/1930)..
However, the trial did not go well for Carpenter. The testimony of writing expert J. Fordyce Wood was somewhat tainted when he admitted his services of $500.00 were paid for by Routt County. Other written reports collaborating Wood’s findings were not admitted by Judge Charles E. Herrick, fatally weakening this key evidence.
The coffee cup laced with strychnine had been long since washed, along with the whole kitchen, by sympathetic neighbors the night of the murder. Plus, the judge did not permit Carpenter to show strychnine was an easily obtained and common household poison used to kill coyotes (Carpenter, 123).
Finally, Lillian took the daring risk of taking the stand in her own defense, and it worked! The Steamboat Pilot reported, “Mrs. Stephenson made an excellent witness and retained her composure throughout the several hours of questioning and cross questioning” (4/11/1930).
Lillian also used her attractive beauty to its maximum effect on the all male jury. In his autobiography Confessions of a Maverick, Carpenter wrote that Lillian, “sported a new hairdo and wore a low-cut, tight-fitting velvet dress over her fulsome figure. The male jurors could not keep their eyes from her. Whenever their attention strayed, she would lean forward and pour out a glass of ice water, sipping this for some minutes just as I was trying to make an important point…to the oggling jurors (p.123).
On April 18, after forty-eight hours of deliberation, Lillian Stephenson was acquitted and Rundle’s charge was dismissed The couple left the Routt County courthouse together, collected the life insurance money, married, and returned to the 546 acre ranch near Yampa. They sold it in 1939 and moved to Oak Creek where Lillian died in 1958.
Elmer is buried in the Yampa cemetery with a still empty plot for his wife, while Lillian Rundle is buried just a few yards away. The case was never solved, and the ghost of the Black Widow of Yampa continues to float through southern Routt County.
James Neton can be reached at email@example.com