David Marshall Trial: 1926

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David Marshall Trial: 1926

Defendant: David L. Marshall
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Abraham Wernick
Chief Prosecutor: Charles E. Fox
Judge: Harry S. McDevitt
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date of Trial: March 8-24, 1926
Verdict: Guilty: second-degree murder
Sentence: 10-20 years

SIGNIFICANCE: Illicit sex, blackmail, and a savage killing all combined to make this one of the most sensational trials in Pennsylvania's history.

When Anna May Dietrich, a milliner who lived in Philadelphia, failed to return home on the evening of January 19, 1926, anxious relatives contacted the police. Two days later her headless remains, expertly dismembered, were found in the nearby suburb of Media. Another 24 hours and the grisly jigsaw puzzle was complete, when the missing head, wrapped in newspapers, was discovered seven miles away. From the way in which the body had been almost totally drained of blood, detectives suspected they were seeking a killer with medical knowledge.

Investigation of Dietrich's social life revealed a fun-loving, liberated woman in her mid-thirties, fond of dancing and socializing. Nor was she encumbered by the rigid social conventions of the day, as it became known that for several years she had been having an affair with a married chiropractor named David Marshall, who, when interviewed, claimed not to have seen Dietrich in over a week.

Evidence soon surfaced which suggested that Marshall was lying and he was arrested. After several hours of what newspapers termed a "severe grilling," Marshall finally broke. He claimed that Dietrich had committed suicide, using poison she found in his surgery, and that he had cut up her body in order to dispose of it. Still the detectives weren't satisfied and another bout of rigorous questioning brought forth a different version of events, leading to Marshall being charged with murder.

Double Confession

The trial, which opened on March 8, 1926, generated lurid public interest. Prosecutor Charles E. Fox declared that although the crux of his case rested on the two confessions made by Marshall, there was plenty of other damning evidence, as well. First, a chauffeur named E. J. Barry described how the defendant had hired him on the night of January 20, to haul away some parcels from his surgery. As Barry lifted one of the packages its paper wrapping broke and out fell a human leg. Barry just gaped. Frantically, Marshall began thrusting fistfuls of dollars at him, begging him to get rid of the parcel, but Barry would have none of it and later approached the police.

When in custody, Marshall had been hustled off to the morgue by Delaware County District Attorney William Taylor. Testifying for the prosecution, Taylor told how he had assembled everyone around the remains of Anna Dietrich:

I made the others take off their hats, and I turned to Marshall and said: "In the presence of God and this girl's body, didn't you do this?" He smiled at me and put his hand to his mustache and took a cigar out of his pocket and said: "Why, certainly not."

After this, said Taylor, Marshall was returned to the station where he made a statement. Taylor then handed this alleged confession to Fox, who read it aloud to the jury. In it Marshall said: "I cut the body up, but I had nothing to do with her death. She committed suicide. She came into my office and took somethingI don't know what it wasand died there."

Listening to this, Marshall squirmed in his chair and had to be prevented by his counsel, Abraham Wernick, from attempting to leave the court.

Worse was to follow. Over heated objections from the defense, Fox was allowed to introduce the second confession, made just hours after the first. In this, Marshall described how Dietrich turned up at his office and tried to blackmail him over their longstanding relationship, demanding money for some items she had just purchased:

I refused, then a quarrel started. I tried to scare her. The result was that, I guess, I choked her I would like to say this, though I don't want the impression that I deliberately intended to choke her to death, for I didn't.

Which seemed an odd thing to say, in light of the fact that Marshall's next course of action was to cut Dietrich's throat. The court listened spellbound as his account of dissecting the bodya three-hour taskwas read out.

Desperate to impeach this second confession, Wernick attacked the new witness, Assistant District Attorney William B. McClenachan, who had been present at its dictation. Grudgingly, McClenachan admitted that the defendant had appeared "all in" when he signed the confession, having been grilled nonstop for almost 14 hours.

It was important for the prosecution to demonstrate that the victim had been fearful of Marshall, and to this end they produced Kenneth Gleason, a fellow commuter on the train used by Anna Dietrich, who had spoken to the woman on the night of her death. According to Gleason, she had produced a photograph of Marshall, then mentioned that she was attending a party the next night with another man. When Gleason said, "I hope you have a nice time at the party," Dietrich appeared edgy. "I don't know," she said ruefully. "Maybe the man I'm going to meet tonight will object to a date with another man."

Throughout the trial Marshall had remained an oddly peripheral characterso many of his words were read aloud by other peopleand it remained that way when he gave testimony. Glib and evasive, he insisted that the second confession had been beaten out of him by overzealous investigators, and he reiterated his claim that Anna had swallowed poison, that he had panicked and cut up the body to conceal his illicit relationship with her.

Cigars and Hilarity

To nullify the claim of police brutality, the prosecution produced Rodney W. Shaver, one of the detectives who had interviewed Marshall. He denied emphatically that the defendant had been abused while in custody and raised hoots of laughter with his comment that the defendant "was treated better than we were. He got cigars and we didn't!"

Gradually the trial developed into a fierce battle between the various expert witnesses. For the prosecution, Dr. Clarke Stull, who conducted the autopsy, would not be deflected from his belief that Anna May Dietrich had been strangled, while defense witness Dr. Henry Cattell maintained that there was nothing in the autopsy results inconsistent with Marshall's version of events. Had Miss Dietrich been strangled, Cattell said, then marks should have been left on her neck; he could find none. Nor did he rule out Marshall's claim that the victim had taken poison.

In rebuttal, the state called Dr. J. Atlee Dean, a chemist and bacteriologist who had examined organ tissue from the dead woman. He testified that there was nothing to suggest any hint of poisoning.

On March 24, after five hours behind locked doors, the jury signaled that their labors were complete by bursting into an impromptu chorus of "Show Me the Way to Go Home." They convicted Marshall of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years imprisonment.

It later emerged that several jurors were initially inclined to convict Marshall of first degree murder, only to be swayed by those who felt that, as an admitted adulteress, Anna Dietrich had in some way contributed to her own demise. Marshall's infidelity was, apparently, overlooked.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Grex, Leo. Stranger than Fiction Detection. London: Robert Hale, 1977.

New York Times. See Dietrich, Anna May, in the New, York Times Index, January 22-March 25, 1926.

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