Husband arrested in brutal wife murder
Newspapers described Hermina Reed, 26, as a “curvaceous, pretty young woman, whose olive complexion, fashionable clothing, and jeweled fingers attracted attention wherever she went.”
Amite Attorney Amos L. Ponder described
Police charged her husband, Leroy Reed—a 40-year-old carpenter and part-time taxi driver from Amite—with “disfiguring his wife’s face beyond recognition” by repeatedly swinging a ship’s carpentry hammer found at the scene.
Reed told police he only discovered his wife’s body after returning home from work and that his wife lived in fear of a former suitor visiting from El Paso, Texas.
Reed said he spent the night in a barroom trying to erase the horror he had witnessed from his mind.
Hours earlier—just before midnight on a Friday night, March 14, 1919—a drunken Leroy Reed stumbled into Warren’s Saloon in Madisonville and announced he had found his wife murdered two hours earlier. Those nearest the bar heard him and laughed, thinking he had made a joke. Horrors of that sort never happened in St. Tammany Parish. However, bartender Brian Warren listened intently, and when he closed his establishment three hours later and walked Reed to the door, Deputy Sheriff Guy A. Smith stood waiting outside.
In tears, Reed told the deputy how he found the mutilated body of his wife as he led a team of police to the home to see for themselves.
At the house, they found three locked doors: the front and side doors secured with padlocks on the outside and the rear door held by a latch on the inside. Reed told Deputy Smith he lost his keys to the padlocks months before and that he kept the windows nailed shut. He said that he usually opened the backdoor with a knife.
The New Orleans States-Item described what police found inside the home:
“Lying on her bed in one of the four rooms of a wooden house situated in what is usually called the District—the block opposite Addison Grocery—the finely-shaped body of Mrs. Reed presented the appearance of one sleeping. Her small feet protruded from the covers and hung inches from the floor, but when police uncovered her face, the ghastly sight caused all in the home to shudder at the horror and one officer to run for the door.”
“The open breast of her black and white checked dress exposed silk embroidered underwear, and Mrs. Reed wore a diamond solitaire ring on her finger and diamond earrings in her ears. The general fittings of the bed appeared posher than the other furnishings in the room, but blood saturated the mattress along with a fancy pillow beside her head.”
“When the coroner lifted what remained of her head, all gasped at the horrible work of a monster. Blood clotted closed eyes. Her forehead and the back of her skull rattled like a bag of ice crushed by a hammer.”
“Near the bed, police found the bloody weapon, an automobile hammer, which must have been wielded in a frenzy to cause such damage with blow after blow eventually causing the wire-wound handle to break, rendering the tool useless.”
“The coroner also found a wound on the side of her face, clean cut by a different instrument, something sharper than the edge of the hammer. One of these wounds severed an artery and would have caused the woman to bleed to death without the follow-up blows from the hammer.”
In a trunk, Deputy Smith found correspondence, legal documents, and newspaper clippings from California. From these papers, investigators learned that Mrs. Reed was of Spanish descent but preferred to use the English name Edna instead of her given name. They also discovered that she used several surnames, including Abbott, Sweeney, Reeves, and Reed.
Court documents showed that Leroy Reed had served 90 days in a Sacramento jail for violation of the Mann Act—for transporting “Edna Abbott” from Haven, Nevada to San Francisco, California and forcing her to sell “her favors” to other men.
Sheriff T. E. Brewster signed an affidavit that Saturday morning before Judge Prentiss B. Carter, shortly before Deputy Ernest Quatrevaux transported Leroy Reed to the parish jail.
Police searched the state fruitlessly for a mysterious “man from El Paso” whom Reed said his wife saw at the French market in New Orleans and had identified as a former boyfriend who would either kill her or take her to Mexico.
After weeks of searching by police, Coroner H. D. Bulloch told the St. Tammany Farmer that he believed Reed was a liar. “This is the vilest crime that’s ever occurred in Covington,” he said. “Sheriff Brewster has every available officer of the law tasked with solving this case. Our investigation this morning collected evidence that seems to discredit the husband’s story. I believe in a day or two; he will break down and confess.”
But Reed never confessed. His trial came four months later.
In court, three witnesses testified that at approximately 10:00 PM the evening of the murder, they heard screams from the house after seeing Reed enter through the front door. To counter, Ponder presented two witnesses who testified that Reed drove them in his taxicab at exactly that time.
Only one witness remained. Ponder called Maurice O’Neil of the New Orleans Police Department. Today, history considers O’Neil a pioneer in law enforcement. In 1919, he was Louisiana’s only expert on a relatively new crime-scene testing tool called Finger Print Classification. O’Neil had offered his services to police agencies statewide, but St. Tammany Parish was the first to consider the new technique.
Investigators discovered two beer bottles on the Reed’s kitchen table the night of the murder. Police believed that Hermina Reed had drunk one and that her assailant emptied the other. Before the court, Ponder asked O’Neill to discuss the “finger marks” and to identify the killer.
O’Neil testified that his tests proved conclusively that someone other than Leroy Reed had a beer with his wife, and the jury found Leroy Reed “not guilty” of all charges.
Today, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office still tracks the Hermina Reed murder as an unsolved cold case, but there is one interesting side note.
Before Hermina, Leroy Reed married another woman in California, and one year after Reed’s release from the St. Tammany parish jail, the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department discovered the lifeless body of Ruby Reed, partially dressed and laying across her bed, wearing silk undergarments, a diamond solitaire on her finger, and diamond earrings in her ears.