The attempted murder happened on an ordinary spring day at the Carmel artist colony in 1914. The novelist Alice MacGowan went to get something to eat from the cooler on the back porch of her home overlooking the bay. When she took a bite of leftover chili con carne, something tasted off. Assuming it was spoiled, she spat it out.
Also in the cooler was an unfamiliar tin of marshmallows. MacGowan thought it was a gift from a friend who didn’t want to disturb her while she was working. Since she didn’t like marshmallows, she gave the box to Aki, a Japanese man she had hired to work around the house. When he bit into the candy, he became violently ill—in some accounts, he fell down in convulsions.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
A doctor determined that Aki had been poisoned. The marshmallow had been hollowed out and filled with strychnine. Aki, who soon recovered, had ingested tainted candy meant for MacGowan. And not only that: a toxicologist confirmed that the chili con carne and some mayonnaise in the cooler were also laced with strychnine—enough “to kill the entire literary colony,” reported the San Francisco Call.
MacGowan, a successful novelist, was well-liked. The residents at the colony were baffled that someone would try to kill her, and so was MacGowan herself. When asked about the crime, she said, “My death could be of no possible interest to anyone. I would not believe at first that poison had been placed in my food. Since it is certain that was done, I am utterly unable to conceive the reason why.… I did not know I had an enemy; even now I do not believe I have one.”
The case made national news, reaching as far east as Washington, D.C., and New York. To make matters worse, two unnamed women living in the colony received anonymous letters threatening their lives. “ ‘Look out or you’ll be poisoned,’ is the tenor of these missives,” wrote the San Francisco Call.
What followed was one of the strangest summers in the history of the colony. While novelists played detective and the press salivated for scandal, a shadow settled over the little town on the Central Coast. Attempted murder as well as theft gave way to actual murder, all targeting female artists who lived alone. As the critic Van Wyck Brooks, who lived in the area, writes in his 1965 autobiography, “Carmel was a wildwood with an operatic setting where life itself also seemed half operatic and where curious dramas were taking place in the bungalows and cabins, smothered in blossoming vines.” But, he adds, “what was it in the Carmel atmosphere that so conduced to violence?”
The Carmel artist colony started in 1905, when the poet George Sterling moved to town. Jack London’s best friend and Ambrose Bierce’s student, Sterling was known for his romantic poetry, bohemian lifestyle, and Dante-like nose, which he showed off by frequently posing in profile. He came to the area after learning that the Carmel Development Company had slashed rates on real estate to a $10 down payment for a mortgage and $6 monthly rental fees—affordable even for writers and artists. Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain, soon followed, as did the photographer Arnold Genthe and the writer Jimmy Hopper.
But it was the 1906 earthquake that cemented Carmel’s reputation as an artistic utopia. Creative people fled the destruction of San Francisco for the town’s gnarled cypress trees, white-sand beaches, and—as they described it—a “peacock blue” sea. Over time, members of the colony would include authors Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, poet Robinson Jeffers, journalist Lincoln Steffens, and many painters, such as Xavier Martínez, Armin Hansen, Guy Rose, and William Ritschel. Jack London, who visited, wrote about the colony in his 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon.
Carmel wasn’t just beautiful. The low cost of living gave its residents the freedom to create without having to worry about money. “You could get good [red wine] for two bits a gallon, tubs of beans for next to nothing,” Elsie Whitaker Martinez, who lived in Carmel, told an interviewer. “You could go fishing for abalones, mussels, all free—raid orchards and a few things like that. You could get vegetables very cheaply from the Japanese or Chinese and you could live quite comfortably.” Early on, Sterling led the colony’s shenanigans, which included swimming, hunting, drinking, and “abalone-pounding parties” on the beach. He held pagan rituals in the woods and romanced women despite the presence of his wife, Carrie. He wanted the colony to be full of bohemians, whom he defined “as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life, as unconventional.”
In 1908, Alice MacGowan and her sister and writing partner, Grace MacGowan Cooke, moved to Carmel. They bought a two-story house above a beach that today is known as Cooke’s Cove. According to Kay Baker Gaston’s California History article, “The MacGowan Girls,” they’d “achieved wide popular success with their novels, short stories, essays, and poems, a success that began as early as 1888 with the publication of Grace’s first magazine stories.” At ages 50 and 45, the sisters brought clear-eyed professionalism to the bohemian colony. One collaborator, Caroline Wood Morrison, described their process in 1913:
They had an office, a stenographer, tables, books of reference. Someone wrote the story first by herself, then laid it out like a subject for the operating table. Paragraph by paragraph they went over it, often cutting whole pages up into puzzle pieces and refitting them—sentence by sentence.… They worked from morning until midnight, stopping only for meals and an afternoon drive. After dinner they read aloud the finished work. Often they would tear up a page, call in the stenographer, redictate it to her and go at something else while she typed it. It was delightful work for me.
As female writers in the early 20th century, the MacGowan sisters couldn’t afford the lifestyle of someone like Sterling, who frolicked on the beach and drank the day away. Growing up in Tennessee, they had begun publishing at a young age. While Grace married and had two daughters, Alice took to adventuring. In 1890, she rode a horse a thousand miles, to the far side of North Carolina’s Black Mountains and back, to gather writing material. She was, as one article put it, a “daring personality.”
In 1906, Grace left her husband. She, her daughters, and Alice joined Helicon Hall, an experimental community led by Upton Sinclair. With the proceeds from his celebrated book The Jungle, Sinclair had purchased a former boys’ school in New Jersey. He wanted to create a self-sufficient society based on his interpretation of the philosophies of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the lauded short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” One of the features was free childcare, which must have appealed to Grace. (Another, unfortunate feature: Helicon Hall banned Black and Jewish people from joining.)
Five months in, Helicon Hall burned down, killing one person and injuring 8 of the 70 residents, including the sisters. The night of the fire, Sinclair ran through the building yelling for everyone to evacuate. He heard screams from Alice’s room and found the women, terrified but unharmed, in their nightclothes. Sinclair tried to lead them to the stairs, but smoke forced them back into the room. To free them, Sinclair smashed a window with a chair and climbed outside. Then he and three other men stretched a blanket between them as an impromptu trampoline and urged the women and children to jump. The children landed safely, but Grace wasn’t so lucky. As Sinclair described it, “being quite a heavy woman, her weight ripped the blanket to pieces and she went through injuring herself very badly.” Alice, meanwhile, hit her back on a rock when she fell. The sisters went to the hospital to recover.
After that excitement, Carmel must have seemed like a peaceful new start. However, the artist colony had already had its own share of tragedy during its short history. In 1907, the poet Nora May French killed herself with cyanide in Sterling’s house. (He was away at the time.) Her suicide caused a media frenzy as morbid and inaccurate accounts of her death were printed in newspapers nationwide.
So when the poisoned marshmallows appeared in MacGowan’s icebox on that April day in 1914, the first impulse was to keep the scandal quiet. The Carmel Development Company, which was run by two businessmen, James Franklin Devendorf and Frank H. Powers, worried that the publicity would ruin the town’s reputation. As there was no local government, they maintained the roads and utilities in town, but their interest was in selling real estate, not protecting residents. Thus, they convinced MacGowan not to say anything about the poison. According to Cooke, her sister was “persuaded that her best course was to leave the village quietly, almost furtively, to say as little as she could to friends about the crime and to deny it altogether to newspaper men.” By the time the sisters decided to report the crime to the closest police force, the sheriff in neighboring Monterey, they were told it was too late to track down the culprit. The trail was likely cold.
This secrecy was, quite probably, creating a dangerous environment. Earlier that year, there had been several robberies. In one case, $2,000 in diamonds disappeared from the home of Josephine Foster, president of the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club. A local resident, Maud Greeley, was accused of the theft. The San Francisco Examiner described Greeley as someone who “formerly worked as a domestic” and now “owns…one of the most artistic cottages in the colony.” Strangely, Greeley returned the diamonds to Foster, saying she had found them in her backyard wrapped in newspaper. The case was tried in court, and she was exonerated. The police didn’t follow up on that either, or on any of the other thefts that occurred that year.
More troubling, MacGowan may have been threatened more than once. The artist Jennie V. Cannon wrote in her journal on May 26, “On the way I met Alice MacGowan. There have been several attempts to take her life, a strange thing for she is popular with everybody.” Cooke wrote in the San Francisco Call that “there was a savage and repeated attempt upon the life of my sister.”
When other women began receiving threatening letters, it only underlined the perilousness of the situation in Carmel. The sisters left for San Francisco, and Cooke’s son-in-law, author Harry Leon Wilson, hired a detective to discover the poisoner. When he came up with nothing, authors in the colony decided to play sleuth. Jimmy Hopper interviewed everyone in town, looking for clues and potential story ideas. “Hopper says he is going to put it all into a book some time,” reported one article. Perry Newberry, who later cowrote novels with MacGowan, made a map and noted that MacGowan’s and Greeley’s houses were next to each other. Other writers, such as Fred Bechdolt and John Kenneth Turner, also looked for clues. Nothing turned up.
Little did they know, things would soon get much worse.
As the summer approached, Carmel was abuzz with the arrival of William Merritt Chase. The well-respected painter opened a summer school in town as a continuation of his prestigious New York and Europe classes. (In fact, it was the last course Chase taught—he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1916.) On August 12, one of his students, Helena Wood Smith, disappeared.
Smith had lived at the colony for four years. Originally from Maine, she was a teacher at the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club and an accomplished artist who’d exhibited in Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. The last known picture of her, printed in the San Francisco Examiner, shows her in class looking on as Chase demonstrates plein air painting. She’s matronly, wearing spectacles, with her wavy hair tucked under a flowery hat. Her lips are turned up, half smirking, as she watches Chase work.
She was last seen at 4:30 or 5 p.m. entering her studio with George Kodani, a Japanese American photographer. Her home remained undisturbed, although a check for $252 was missing, and so was her pet spaniel, King. When questioned, Kodani said he had visited Smith to show her some of his photographs. The police released him, and he promptly disappeared. Later, a note was found in the pathway to Smith’s house that said, “I am away at San Jose. Please take care of house —HWS.” It was thought that Kodani had returned after being questioned and pinned the note to the door but that the wind had blown it off.
Carmel erupted. The anxiety that had been simmering all spring overflowed into outrage. Search parties of novelists and artists roamed the beaches and poked sand dunes with poles, looking for a body. They combed the trails for Kodani. Newspapers followed the progress with breathless sensationalism. “Carmel Posse Hunts Jap in Bandit Cave” reads one headline. The case even made the New York Times. A petition spearheaded by Mary Austin and the artist Mary DeNeale Morgan protested the police response: “We feel that the manner in which these cases have been handled to date endangers the safety of all citizens, and particularly of unprotected women.” It had 160 signatures.
Considering California’s history of anti-Asian racism, it’s depressingly predictable that Kodani was vilified and his guilt assumed. Some speculated that Smith’s disappearance was related to MacGowan’s attempted poisoning—perhaps Kodani was responsible for all of Carmel’s problems. “There are many in the literary and artist colony of Carmel who are satisfied that there is a sinister connection between the two crimes,” wrote the Oakland Tribune.
Kodani was from a prominent local family. His older brother, Gennosuke Kodani, came to California in 1897 on behalf of the Japanese government to establish abalone harvesting. He partnered with the landowner Alexander M. Allan and started the Point Lobos Canning Company. By 1912, he’d developed the modern abalone diving and processing industry in Monterey Bay. The company was responsible for 75 percent of California’s abalone market, and its canned goods were sold all over the United States. According to the 1910 census, approximately 1,100 Japanese people lived in Monterey County, mostly in the Salinas Valley. By 1920, the number would increase to 1,600.
An image of George Kodani in the San Francisco Call shows him with his pet collie. He’s fashionably dressed in trousers, a button-down shirt, suspenders, and a tie. The article, published in August 1914, describes him as “a talented photographer” possessing “esthetic tastes and cultures that won for him an entrance into exclusive homes of Carmel.” None of his photos have been found, although his work may have been published in Japanese magazines.
According to Austin, who was determined to save Smith’s reputation from associations with the “degenerate” Kodani, he and Smith had known each other since 1912, when, on a sketching trip to Point Lobos, she had offered to critique his work.
They likely had a romantic relationship. How far it went, and how serious it was, is unclear. In 1913, the Japanese poet Takeshi Kanno and his wife, the sculptor Gertrude Boyle Kanno, came to Carmel to put on his play Creation-Dawn at the Forest Theater. The striking couple presented a romantic picture of forbidden love to the artist colony. They met at the poet Joaquin Miller’s house in Oakland and later wed in Seattle because California banned interracial marriages. This racist law had been expanded in 1905 to include marriages between white and Japanese people, a situation that would have affected Kodani and Smith.
At the time, Kodani was pursuing more than one romance. The San Francisco Call printed love letters found in his trunk that he had written to three women other than Smith. “When I learned that Blanche is gone, my heart is as if it got broken,” went one. “I could not work; I just walked up and down. Oh, but my heart is still full of love.” In a poem, Kodani wrote, “Kiss me, sweetheart, the spring is here, / And love is lord of you and me.”
Romantic talk was the norm in Carmel, where men were inclined toward womanizing behavior. George Sterling was notorious for seducing women and even kept a San Francisco apartment for his liaisons. When he met Mary Craig Kimbrough, who later married Upton Sinclair, he dropped to his knees and declared, “Goddess!” Sterling wrote her so many sonnets that she published a book of his poetry after he died. So did another Carmel woman, Vera Connolly, whom Sterling had gotten pregnant (she either miscarried or had an abortion). Sterling’s behavior was extreme but also indicative of the early culture of Carmel. When it comes to love letters, Kodani was behaving in line with men of his milieu.
On August 22, 10 days after Smith disappeared, Kodani was arrested. Monterey County sheriff William Nesbitt said he used a “secret agent” to coax him out of hiding. It was likely Kodani’s brother, believes fisheries historian Tim Thomas.
“He took off into the hills above Point Lobos, and it was Gennosuke Kodani who found him and convinced him to give himself up,” Thomas says.
According to Robert W. Edwards’s book Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, the police worried about violence against Kodani. “Sedate Carmel had suddenly become carnivorous,” writes Edwards. “Monterey authorities…quickly dispatched Kodani under heavy guard to the County Prison in Salinas, thereby foiling the rumored ‘lynching mob’ that was gathering in Carmel.”
Kodani claimed that he and Smith had taken a nighttime walk on the beach, where they fought about whether they should marry. Sometime during this fight, Kodani said, Smith fell—or jumped—off a cliff into the bay. Many believed that Kodani had tried to rob Smith and killed her in the process. However, the motive of theft was contradicted by the fact that valuables had been left lying in her cabin, including a diamond ring. Kodani admitted that Smith had given him $252 to rent a studio in nearby Pacific Grove; when he was unable to cash the check, he destroyed it.
The next day, Fred Bechdolt, the author of many western novels, led a search near the mouth of the Carmel River and discovered Smith’s body in a shallow grave. She’d been strangled and wrapped in a rug. The rope was still around her throat, and gold jewelry was on her body. The autopsy revealed that she’d been bashed in the face with a blunt object hard enough to break her nose. At this point, Kodani confessed to killing Smith.
The trial, which happened in October, was quick, only a few days long, and the stakes were high. Since Kodani had confessed, guilt was assumed, and the jury would decide between life in prison and the death penalty. It’s unlikely Kodani received a fair trial: he didn’t have a lawyer during the preliminary hearing, for example, and tampered evidence—a pair of Smith’s broken spectacles—was presented in court. The Salinas Daily Index reported that “a vast crowd of spectators, more than half ladies, thronged the courtroom, overflowing into the corridor, the judge’s chamber and the jury room” as Kodani took the stand and admitted to killing Smith, but on accident.
On the day in question, he said, he had gone to Smith’s house to show her negatives of his latest photographs. At some point, he stepped outside and Smith snooped in his jacket pockets, finding another woman’s letter and photograph. When he came back, she was furious and they fought. According to the Monterey Daily Cypress, Kodani said that
[Smith] picked up a large abalone shell and struck him, the blow being received on the shoulder. He finally took the shell away from her and the woman then grasped him by the collar. Kodani now lost his temper and slapped Miss Smith with the shell an indefinite number of times. She commenced to scream and he tried to stifle her cries with his hand but she bit him.… Becoming excited he took a piece of cord which he had brought with him…and tied it about her throat. The woman sank to the floor.
Once he realized what he’d done, Kodani said, he wrapped Smith in a rug and buried her in the sand. He also killed her dog so it wouldn’t lead anyone to the body.
Two versions of what had happened emerged during the trial: either Kodani and Smith’s lovers’ quarrel had led to manslaughter, or Kodani was a thief who had ingratiated himself with Smith to rob and murder her. The jury ultimately sided with the first version and sentenced Kodani to life in prison.
The press was outraged. “The fiendish murderer,” editorialized the Salinas Daily Index, “richly deserves hanging and should thank his stars that his attorneys…saved him from the gallows.” In the courtroom, the judge expressed similar sentiments in an “awful excoriation” of the jury, saying that Kodani “deserved to be hung.” Saved from death, he was sent to Folsom State Prison, where he spent the next 32 years of his life. He was granted parole in 1946.
“In the Kodani family, he is completely erased,” says Thomas. “It’s like he didn’t exist. And when Helena’s family came from Maine to pick up the body, the entire Japanese community met them in the train station in Monterey and took them all around, got them what they needed, and made sure they were taken care of.”
Carmel didn’t show the same decency to the Japanese community. According to Edwards, many residents boycotted Japanese products and labor after Kodani’s conviction. “The blatant racism in the press and among many of the Carmel gentry in 1914 was and remains unforgivable,” he writes. “Equally unforgivable was the deliberate isolation of the Japanese community in Carmel in the months following.” By 1915, much of the Japanese population had moved away from Carmel.
The case of the poisoned marshmallows was never solved. The MacGowan sisters returned to the colony in 1915, and there were no more attempts on Alice’s life. Afterward, the city incorporated, established a government, and accepted the presence of a marshal. The publicity from the crimes didn’t ruin the area’s reputation as the Carmel Development Company had feared. In fact, more people moved to town, and mansions began appearing above the beaches.
Like a true professional writer, Alice MacGowan used the situation for story fodder. In 1921, she and Perry Newberry—who would later be elected mayor of Carmel—collaborated on The Million-Dollar Suitcase. This Bay Area–set mystery novel is narrated by a hard-boiled detective named Jerry Boyne, predating Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man series by over a decade. The detective is aided by Barbara Wallace, who, like Sherlock Holmes, has a genius for deductive reasoning. While the novel sags with stereotypes of women and Asian people, it was a hit in its time. MacGowan and Newberry went on to write a series together based on the book.
While The Million-Dollar Suitcase doesn’t directly reference the crimes of 1914, elements of that summer seep into the story. The mystery starts when a criminal walks out of a bank with a million dollars in, well, a suitcase. The bank, fearing publicity, decides it’s better to “keep this thing to ourselves” and hires a detective to track down the thief. Then a prominent person in Santa Ysobel, a fictional Carmel, suddenly dies. The suicide—or is it murder?—is kindling to the community, which harbors an unexplained darkness beneath its beautiful facade. Investigating the crime “means a stirring to the depths of that little town,” the detective says. “This underneath-the-surface combustion will get poked into a flame—she’s going to burst out, and somebody’s going to get burned.”•