The yacht didn’t sink, even though there was enough dynamite rigged to a timer on board that it should have blown up, splintered into a million pieces and sunk to the bottom of Newport Harbor. But that curious fact is almost beside the point. Walter and Beulah Overell of Flintridge were already dead when the ship exploded. The autopsy showed that the Overells had been bludgeoned to death beforehand, the likely instrument, a ball-peen hammer. The question of who wielded the hammer on that grim March night in 1947 was another matter altogether.
The Overells were early residents of the tony subdivision of Flintridge (which became part of La Cañada Flintridge in 1976). The home they bought in the early 1930s, which still stands today, was valued at $600,000, according to published reports at the time. That was a massive amount by post–World War II standards. Walter, a successful investor and owner of Overell’s Furniture in Los Angeles, was known for cultivating business relationships that furthered the success of his enterprises. His home life may not have run so smoothly. His wife, Beulah, was rumored to have had romantic encounters with real estate developer and U.S. Sen. Frank Flint, who gave Flintridge his name. The senator was sufficiently enraptured with her that he named a subdivision street Beulah Drive.
“We know that Beulah Overell was one of the top socialites in Flintridge and that Sen. Flint was a notorious philanderer, and it’s likely that they were having an affair,” says John Newcombe, the filmmaker of Rancho La Cañada: Then and Now, a historical account of the Crescenta–Cañada Valley. In 1929, Walter and Beulah’s only child was born. Beulah Louise was a spoiled girl who had no friends, according to Newcombe. “At one point they had a birthday party for Beulah Louise, but no one came. So the mother, not wanting Beulah Louise to be traumatized, discreetly paid people to show up,” Newcombe says.
Later, as a USC student, she managed to find love with George Gollum, a World War II veteran, apparent loner and new USC student, four years her se-nior. No one seems to have liked him much either. But Beulah Louise and Gollum had found each other and planned to marry — over Walter’s objections. Police said they had other, more sinister connections: The dynamite used to blow up the 47-foot cruiser, the Mary E, was the same explosive material found by police in Gollum’s trunk, which he and Beulah Louise had purchased from the Trojan Powderworks Factory in Chatsworth days before the blast.
Police arrested the lovebirds. News accounts of the day offered various scenarios about where Gollum and Beulah Louise were when the boat exploded. Some reports claimed they were seen rowing away from the boat; others said they were on shore getting hamburgers. Since the crime occurred in Newport, the six-month trial was held in Santa Ana, where it drew a rapt audience across the country and became California’s longest and most expensive trial to date.
Certainly any child accused of killing her parents would arouse morbid curiosity. Beulah Louise was young, a fresh-faced 18, reasonably attractive and the heir of wealthy parents who lived in an exclusive enclave. Adding to the salacious mix, Gollum and Beulah Louise wrote bizarre love letters to each other from the confines of their cells, where they planned a jailbreak. The leaked letters made front-page news across the country. They seemed like the overheated ramblings of children, littered with so many declarations of “I love you” as to make one’s head spin. “Would you still marry me if I were broke?” Beulah Louise wrote to Gollum.
“Oh Pops darling, please promise you will marry me. You’re an uplifted human being. You’re the most intelligent person I ever heard of. Einstein was a moron compared to you. Yes, sir, you’re the object of my adoration and the creature of my determination.”
The letters held hints of darkness as well. “Because I love and adore and worship and cherish you with all my heart, I’ll kidnap you and carry you off somewhere where no one will ever be able to find us and I’ll make passionate and violent love to you,” Gollum wrote. “If you ever marry another person,
I will kill him.” Letters published in the Los Angeles Examiner on April 29, 1947, revealed that they’d both vowed to take sleeping pills if either one was unfaithful to the other.
It seemed like a slam dunk for the prosecution. Beulah Louise’s motive was said to be her position as the sole heir to her parents’ fortune. Gollum had the trunk full of dynamite. No one thought Walter had enemies who would want to orchestrate his demise. But zealous prosecutors made critical blunders. Prosecutors contended that certain screws used in the detonation device were exceptionally rare, and how was it that those same screws were found in Gollum’s car? The defense went to a local hardware store and easily purchased the same “rare” screws, tossing them around the courtroom. The defense also argued that Gollum had purchased the dynamite at Walter’s urging; his attorney claimed that Walter wanted to do something drastic because his unstable financial situation was becoming untenable, although that scenario was never proved conclusively. Gollum’s lawyer also planted doubt about the nature of the Overells’ head injuries, undermining the autopsy conclusion that the couple was bludgeoned to death.
The jury eventually decided that Walter was depressed enough over his deteriorating finances that the explosion was “the accident of suicidal tampering with dynamite,” according to court documents. The two were acquitted of all charges as the throng of observers, skeptical of such a well-brought-up young lady’s capacity for perfidy, exploded into applause. Insurance money based on a double indemnity claim resulted in a $140,000 award. “Afterwards, many of the jurors said they all believed that Gollum and Beulah Louise had done it,” Newcombe says. “But they felt George acted like a Svengali over her and they wanted to give her a lesser sentence.” Jurors thought they never had that option and, like much of the country, they felt sympathy for Beulah Louise.
By the time the trial ended, Gollum and Beulah Louise were no longer planning on wedded bliss. Their love resembled the Mary E, whose remains had been put on display in Long Beach as a tourist attraction; 150,000 people wandered through the death boat before it was sold for scrap and shipped, allegedly to Coney Island, as junk, a twisted and broken memory. Time Magazine reported that the actual value of the Overell estate at probate was $310,000. But there were bills to pay and attorneys’ fees.
According to the L.A. Times in 1949, the now single heiress began drawing $300 a month from the insurance policy and $500 from an inheritance that had shrunk to only $70,000.
By age 20, Beulah Louise decided to marry, but not George Gollum. Perhaps ironically, as the Times reported on June 25, 1949, she planned to walk down the aisle with Robert Cannon, 28, an L.A. cop. Curiously, she was quoted as saying there would be no honeymoon, dismissing it as “a ridiculous custom.” That marriage failed after two years. Then in 1953, she married Joseph Kooyman, a barkeeper in Las Vegas. That too failed, but with more tragic consequences. Beulah Louise had begun to drink heavily and was under the supervision of a psychiatrist. At age 36 — 18 years after her parents died — she drank herself to death, according to Las Vegas Deputy Coroner Harvey Schnitzer. She was found naked on her bed covered in bruises, two empty vodka bottles nearby and a fully loaded .22-caliber rifle at her feet. In her Times obituary, Schnitzer said Kooyman claimed “she was always falling down.” Newcombe suggests her bruises may have been self-inflicted, caused by guilt about the beating deaths of her parents.
After the trial, Gollum stole a car and spent nine months in a Georgia jail, according to the Times. After that, he seemed to vanish. In 1988, the paper tracked him down and ran a brief piece on the 50th anniversary of the crime. Gollum, then 62, told the reporter he was living “near Lake Tahoe” and dipping into real estate speculation. He claimed to have a daughter and son and mentioned that he’d been separated from his wife of 20 years. The Orange County Register later reported that Gollum died in February 2009 in Wasilla, Alaska. He was 83.
Was Beulah Louise a spoiled rich kid who finagled Gollum into conspiring with her to kill her parents and grab a fortune? Was Gollum the mastermind who saw opportunity in a young, naïve Flintridge girl? Did Walter and Beulah Overell, as parents of an only child, set in motion a string of events that led to their untimely demise? The truth of that night will never be known. All four principal players in this tawdry drama are dead. Left behind are speculation and questions that are part of the lore of La Cañada-Flintridge, occasionally asked but never answered.