The Bennett Murder
by Barbara Mikkelson, Los Angeles, CA, USA
- The first bridge murder took place in 1929, when a woman killed her husband
over his bidding and play of the hand.
- The Murder:
- It is wisely said there are three activities a married couple should never
attempt to undertake together: play bridge, hang wallpaper, or learn how to
drive. The disagreements so provoked can all too often prove to be murder.
- On the evening of 29 September 1929, John and Myrtle Bennett of Kansas City
were hosts to their friends Charles and Myrna Hofman for a friendly game of
rubber bridge. (A mere 1/10th of a cent a point was at stake.) The Bennetts were
well-to-do and lived in a large apartment with Mrs. Bennett's mother. The
Hofmans lived in the same apartment building.
- Like so many married couples who are fool enough to play as bridge
partners, the Bennetts formed a far from ideal partnership. They were a far from
ideal married couple as well, John Bennett being in the habit of slapping his
wife during moments of frustration. That night, these factors would combine to
bring about Bennett's undoing.
- For the first hour or two, the Bennetts were trouncing the Hofmans. As the
evening wore on, however, the Hofmans managed to catch up, and at the time of
the fatal hand were leading by a small margin. The tables had been turned; the
commanding lead of earlier in the evening had evaporated like dew before the
morning sun, leaving the two couples locked in a sprint for the wire.
- Although the precise composition of the fatal hand was not remembered, the
bidding was recalled in a consistent manner by all the surviving parties: John
Bennett opened one spade, Charles Hofman overcalled two diamonds, and Myrtle
Bennett ended the auction with a jump to game in spades. After Mr. Hofman made
the opening lead, Mrs. Bennett spread as dummy a collection of cards Myrna
Hofman later would term "a rather good hand."
- Though Myrtle Bennett clearly believed the dummy she'd laid out, added to
the values her husband had to have had for his opening bid, should easily have
produced game, Mr. Bennett managed to fail in his contract by two tricks. During
the finger-pointing that followed, Mr. Bennett was revealed to have opened on
less than full values.
- Non-bridge players may fail to appreciate this point, but in the pasteboard
jungle it is well understood that if one is in the habit of opening light, one
had better be able to play the spots off the cards. To both open light and fail
to make the resulting contract adds up to a bridge crime just a cut below
trumping partner's ace or raising one's own pre-empt.
- After Bennett played out the hand to its inglorious conclusion, his wife
gave voice to her opinion of his play by calling him "a bum bridge
player." Then, according to the testimony of Myra Hofman:
- He came right back at her. I don't remember the
exact words. This kept up for several minutes. We tried to stop the argument by
demanding the cards, but by this time the row had become so pronounced that
Bennett, reaching across the table, grabbed Myrtle's arm and slapped her several
times. We tried to intervene, but it was futile. While Mrs. Bennett repeated
over and over in a strained sing-song tone "Nobody but a bum would hit
a woman," her husband jumped up and shouted, "I'm going to
spend the night at a hotel. And tomorrow I'm leaving town." His wife
said to us: "I think you folks had better go." Of course, we
started to go.
- John Bennett went off to the bedroom and began to pack his suitcase. Myrtle
dashed to her mother's room to fetch her mother's loaded gun.
Hofman had turned back to have a word with John Bennett before departing and
thus was standing near him when an armed Mrs. Bennett came upon them. Upon
seeing the gun, Bennett immediately hurried into the bathroom, bolting the door
behind him. Mrs. Bennett was not to be deterred by a closed door: she shot
through it twice, each time missing her husband.
Bennett hastily exited
the bathroom through another door which opened onto a small hallway. He fled
down the hallway, out into the living room, and was trying to open the front
door of the apartment when his wife felled him with two more shots.
police were summoned, and Myrtle Bennett was charged with first degree murder
for the shooting death of her husband.
- The Trial:
- The trial of Myrtle Bennett did not go down in the annals of jurisprudence
as one of the more fair and even-handed examples of justice in action. Mrs.
Bennett wept copiously throughout the proceedings, at one point avowing that
she'd "rather have been dead" than to have caused the death of her
husband. (This line of defence was much facilitated when the judge declined to
admit into evidence Mrs. Bennett's original statement to the police, in which
she had told a rather different story.)
At the trial, a new spin was
placed on the events of that night. Bennett's ". . . and tomorrow I'm
leaving town" was transformed from an "I'm leaving you forever"
statement into an announcement that he had business the next day in St. Joseph,
Missouri. According to Mrs. Bennett's testimony (supported by her mother's
testimony about what Mrs. Bennett had said when she came to fetch the gun), Mr.
Bennett had instructed his wife to bring him the pistol. Mrs. Bennett claimed
that he routinely carried it with him on out-of-town business trips. Mrs.
Bennett further claimed that while bringing the gun to her husband, she stumbled
into a chair, causing the pistol to go off accidentally and wounding Mr.
Bennett. Bennett then grabbed her arm, either to help her regain her balance or
to take the gun away from her, at which time the gun went off again, mortally
Mrs. Bennett was acquitted. The jury chose to ignore the
physical evidence of two bullet holes found in the bathroom door, and of
Bennett's body lying by the front door without a suitcase in sight. Despite
having chased her husband through the apartment, having shot at him four times,
and having hit him twice, Mrs. Bennett was acquitted on the grounds that her
shooting of her husband was accidental. Myrtle Bennett then collected on her
husband's $30,000 life insurance policy, a far from insignificant sum in
those Depression years.
Although some now recall the case being ruled
one of justifiable homicide based on John Bennett's bidding and play, in truth
his death was deemed to have been brought about by an accidental discharge of a
firearm. Though Myrtle Bennett had succeeded in getting off scot-free for the
murder of her husband, she failed to set the precedent that would have made the
shooting of a bridge partner justifiable in the eyes of the law -- provided it
could be proved the victim's play had provoked a murderous response.
his 1934 collection While Rome Burns,
drama critic and essayist Alexander Woollcott had this to say of the fair
murderess in her post-acquittal years:
- Myrtle Bennett has not allowed her bridge to grow
rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in
finding a partner. Recently she took on one unacquainted with her history.
Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence. "Partner,"
"I'm afraid you'll want to shoot me for this." Mrs. Bennett,
says my informant, had the good taste to faint.
- The Hand:
- The famed Bennett Murder Hand will remain a mystery until the end of time.
None of the three surivivors remembered its exact composition, and the cards
themselves were sent flying during the altercation between the Bennetts, making
it impossible that any of the police called to the scene would have had a chance
to view it. As such, the hand widely believed to have been Mr. Bennett's
Waterloo is likely as much a fiction as the tale told by his wife on the stand.
Nevertheless, a "reconstruction" of the infamous hand began to
circulate in periodicals shortly after the crime:
| Dealer South
|| Mrs. Bennett
A 10 6 3
10 8 5
A 9 8 4 2
| Mr. Hofman
Q 7 2
A J 3
A Q 10 9 2
|| Mrs. Hofman |
Q 9 4
K J 7 6 3
Q 7 5 3
|| Mr. Bennett
K J 9 8 5
K 7 6 2
The bidding, as you will recall, had gone one spade by Bennett, two
diamonds by Hofman, and four spades by Mrs. Bennett. Four spades was a makeable
contract on the layout shown above.
(Only bridge players are likely to care about this part, but the opening
lead against this fictitional hand was the ace of diamonds, followed at trick
two by a shift to the jack of clubs. According to lore, after winning the king
of clubs, Bennett was supposed to have misguessed the location of the trump
queen and from there have gone on to establish but cut himself off from dummy's
good clubs, ending up down two. It was a badly played hand, but I've seen many a
layout butchered much worse by declarers who lived to tell about it.)
At the time of the Bennett murder, America was a country gone crazy over
bridge. That someone sooner or later was going to get shot over it was a given;
it was just a question of when. That the first bridge murder happened in the
heartland of America with a wife shooting her husband seemed only right --
countless spouses had by that time dreamed of doing the same thing to their
loved-one-turned-bridge-partner-monster. Just as Lorena Bobbitt would decades
later be seen as having struck a blow for the wives of cheating husbands
everywhere, so was Myrtle Bennett placed on a similar pedestal by beleaguered
bridge players across the land. Notice had been served that mishandling the
dummy might lead to more than one stiff being dropped at the bridge table!
Speculation over what the layout of the cards had actually been (and thus
how deserving Bennett had been of his fate) quickly gave way to duelling
analyses of the hand as touted in the newspapers. Several bridge authorities
(most notably Sidney Lenz and Ely Culbertson) were called upon to analyze the
bidding and the play. In the final analysis, though Bennett was deemed to have
not played the cards as well as he could have, nothing in his line of play was
so seriously flawed that his locating the errant queen of trumps wouldn't have
overcome it. "My kingdom for a horse," said Richard III.
"My life for a queen," was what Bennett should have said.
- Daniels, David.
- The Golden Age of Contract Bridge.
New York: Stein and Day,
- ISBN 0-8128-2576-4 (pp. 179-184).
- Chicago Tribune.
- "Slaps Wife in Bridge Game; She Kills Him."
1929 (p. 1).
- The New York Times.
- "Wife Kills Husband in Bridge Game Spat."
- 29 September 1929 (p. 5).
- The New York Times.
- "Says Bennett Murder Followed Bridge Row."
- 27 February 1931 (p. 3).
- The New York Times.
- "Wife is Acquitted in Bridge Slaying."
- 7 March 1931 (p. 5).