Dakota Datebook

Rattlesnake Lisemba

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Raymond Lisemba was born to Alabama sharecroppers in 1895. When he learned he was the sole beneficiary of his uncles’ $4,000 life insurance policy, he changed his name to Robert James and went to barber college. At 26, he married Maud Duncan, who quickly divorced him for sadistic cruelty.

James moved to Kansas, opened a barbershop and married again. Things worked out until a stranger came at him with a shotgun for getting his daughter pregnant. James skipped town, leaving his wife behind. He moved to Fargo in 1932, bought another barbershop and married a Fargo woman, Winona Wallace. He immediately took out a life insurance policy for Winona. They went to Pike’s Peak for their honeymoon. While driving down from the peak, their automobile went off the road. James went for aid. When the persons responding reached the automobile they found James’ wife lying partly outside the car with a head injury. They also found a bloody hammer in the back of the car.

Winona recovered, but a short time later James arrived at a police station to report that his wife had drowned in a bathtub. He said she must have still been dizzy from her injury, slipping unconscious beneath the water.

James collected a $14,000 insurance settlement and headed back to Alabama where he married wife number four. When she learned he wanted to take out insurance on her, she divorced him, saying, “People you insure always die of something strange.”

His next victim was his nephew, Cornelius Wright. James took out insurance on Wright, invited him to visit, and gave him the use of his car. The nephew promptly drove off a cliff and died. The mechanic who recovered the car said something was wrong with the steering wheel.

James next opened a barbershop in Los Angeles. He insured and then married a manicurist named Mary Busch. In 1935, he and a friend procured two rattlesnakes. Mary was pregnant and allegedly wanted an abortion, so James had his friend pose as a doctor, promising him half the insurance settlement. They gave her whiskey so she wouldn’t feel anything and then stuck her foot into a box containing the snakes. They left her to die, but when James later returned, she was still alive. His friend later testified that James drowned her in the bathtub and dragged her to a lily pond to be discovered.

Police believed Mary had gotten drunk and accidentally drowned, but when James was arrested on a different crime, a subsequent investigation landed him in San Quentin for Mary’s murder. On May 9, 1942, he was the last man to die in the gallows in California.

Sources: People v. Lisenba (14 C2d 403), October 5, 1939; Lisenba v. People of State of California (314 US 219), December 8, 1941; Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, 1995; Fargo Forum, March 22, 1939

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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