The horrifying marriage career of James “Bluebeard” Watson

Janus looks at the trail of a serial bigamist/murderer.

The signature of Chas (Charles) Newton Harvey

The signature of Chas (Charles) Newton Harvey

Jim Cameron

“A gentleman, neat in appearance, of courteous disposition, well connected. Has property and connections with several corporations, a nice bank account and considerable government bonds. Would be pleased to correspond with a young lady or widow. Object matrimony.” Signed, H.L. Gordon, or James R. Ruit, or J. Huirt, Harry M. Lewis, Walter Andrew, Dan Holden and numerous others.

The ad never seemed to fail, and women — often refined, intelligent and well off — responded. It was the work of a man whose real name is still in doubt today.

He is best known as James “Bluebeard” Watson, one of the most prolific (and least documented) bigamist/wife murderers of the previous century. For those who replied to the ad his modus operandi was to arrange a personal meeting leading to a whirlwind courtship followed by matrimony. He would then contact his wife’s relatives and friends and convince them to give him money for the purpose of investing. He and his wife would make wills in each other’s name and, further, he would inform his wife that he was an U.S. Secret Service agent and would be away frequently — it is believed that he had up to four wives in one community at a time.

In short order he would take his wife out camping in the country and kill her, all the while keeping up a correspondence with her relatives via typewritten letters under her name.

It worked so well during the years 1918-20, that no one is sure how many wives he had or how many he murdered. Estimates over the years have run as high as 45 marriages and 20 deaths. He was captured in Los Angeles in 1920, when one of his wives, suspecting infidelity, hired a private detective. The detective located a suitcase full of jewelry and marriage certificates from previous marriages and reported it to the police who arrested Watson on suspicion of bigamy.

A short time later a body was discovered near Plum Station, Wash., and Watson, fearing it was the remains of one of his wives (it wasn’t), struck a bargain and confessed all.

A partial list of wives that Watson confessed murdering includes:

• Nina Lee Deloney, of Eureka, Montana, married in San Francisco, Dec. 5, 1919, struck on the head with a hammer and smothered in a blanket at Signal Hill, Los Angeles County, on Jan. 26, 1920;

• Elizabeth Prior, of Wallace, Idaho, married Mar. 25, 1919, at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Her skull was crushed with a sledge hammer and her body buried near Plum Station, Wash.

• Alice Ludvigon of Seattle, married at Port Townsend, Wash., Oct. 6, 1917, and drowned under logs in the St. Joe River near Spokane;

• Bertha A. Goodnich (or Goodrich) of Spokane, married at North Yakima, Wash., June 11, 1919, and drowned in Lake Washington, Seattle.;

• Agnes Wilson of Edmonton, Alta., married at Vancouver, Sept. 19, 1918, and drowned in Lake Washington;

• Beatrice Andrewartha, of Rossland, B.C., married at Tacoma, Wash., Feb. 10, 1918, and drowned in Lake Washington;

• Eleanor Fraser of Calgary, Alta., married in Seattle in 1919, and thrown into the Spokane River where, according to Watson, she was carried over the falls and crushed on the rocks below;

• Marie Austin of Calgary, who was beaten with a rock and drowned in Lake Coeur d’Alene;

• Mrs. M.A. Watt of Winnipeg, who was drowned in Lake Coeur d’Alene;

• Katherine Kruse, married at Nelson, B.C., and, at the time of the trial, was said to be living in Salem, Oregon.

The lack of specific details concerning the majority of the murders appears to have mattered little to the authorities in Los Angeles. They had Watson’s confession and he had pointed out the location of Nina Deloney’s remains. That was enough to earn James Watson life imprisonment in San Quentin penitentiary.

A concentrated effort was made by authorities in Nelson to place Katherine Kruse. No-one could find a record of her name. In fact, present day efforts seem to turn up little information on any of the marriages or the women involved, saving that of Agnes Wilson. The marriage certificate of Charles Newton and Agnes Wilson is found in the B.C. Archives.  Harvey is listed as age 38, a bachelor and salesman from Calgary. His bride Agnes Wilson, age 26, is recorded as a spinster employed as a companion/helpmate and states her address as 2346, 1st St. W., Vancouver, B.C. They were married on Sept. 19, 1918, at St. Augustine’s Rectory in Vancouver.

James Watson spent time in Cranbrook a year or so prior to 1920, where, according to the Cranbrook Courier, he posed as Charles N. Harvey, a collector of delinquent accounts. Following payment by a number of local merchants in the amount of about $300 — a tidy sum in those days — he promptly disappeared, apparently neither taking nor leaving a wife. He was not heard of again in Cranbrook until his arrest, when the news of his crimes flashed across the continent.

James Watson was, by all accounts, a man of average looks and build, well-spoken, intelligent and quite bereft of any remorse for the women he killed. He was likely born in the U.S., perhaps Arkansas. He took the name of James P. Watson upon his arrival in Moose Jaw, in 1912, after which he spent time in Calgary, Vancouver and points in between.

He proved to be a very compliant prisoner during his time in San Quentin, where he died of pneumonia on Oct.16, 1939. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery. The nickname “Bluebeard” refers to an old French folktale telling the story of a nobleman in the habit of murdering his wives.