The Astoria Apartments were located in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. A tourist hotel with 125 rooms, it had a reputation for quiet comfort and being a place where people could settle in for an extended stay for a reasonable price.
But that all changed on April 4, 1937.
When hotel staff noticed that one of their guests, twelve year-old Marguerite Worden, failed to come down to borrow the Sunday paper, they became concerned enough to check on Marguerite and her mother. After an elevator operator put his ear to their door and heard a low moan, he called in the hotel manager, J.E. Harrigan, who climbed a stepladder and looked into the apartment through the transom. What he saw was enough to call in the police.
Investigating officers kicked in the apartment door and found a scene of utter horror. Marguerite's mother, 48-year old Edna Worden, lay sprawled over the cot with her head on the floor. There was blood all around her head. Marguerite's body was found in her bed where her head had been covered by a pillow. A discarded brick was also found on the bed, still sticky with blood and gore. Both women had been sexually assaulted before being beaten to death.
Edna Worden had lived quietly with her daughter since divorcing her husband who still supplied her with a small monthly stipend for child support. That, along with the meager salary she drew as a civil servant, was barely enough to keep her and Marguerite fed and sheltered. As for Marguerite, she was a student at Belmont Junior High School and had been preparing to start at a Beverly Hills school for girls at the time of her death.
Police investigating the murders found that Edna's purse had been turned inside out but there was no other sign that anything had been taken. Nobody had heard anything since their nearest neighbour was partially deaf. Investigators determined that the intruders had forced their way into the apartment through the kitchen window. Based on the circumstances of the crime, it seemed certain that the death of the Wordens was linked to a similar incident that had occurred on March 2 when a woman was raped and her skull smashed with a brick while her infant slept nearby.
Those two crimes were only the latest in a series of brick attacks on women in previous months. Since a black man had been seen running from the scene of one of the attacks, police began questioning suspects who appeared to match the description they had. Through careful analysis of the Worden crime site, investigators found their first solid clue: a fingerprint on a milk bottle.
Since there was no national fingerprint database at the time, the clue was not as helpful as it might have been today. The killings stopped in Los Angeles but a new murder took place on May 28, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois. Florence Johnson, the wife of a Chicago firefighter, was killed with repeated blows to the back of the head with a brick. Her killers had apparently broken into the South Side apartment she shared with her sister. The sister, who had been asleep in another bedroom, saw two men flee the scene. Based on her description, Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks were arrested a short time later. Both men were nineteen years old and accused each other of committing the murder.
Nixon also reportedly confessd to another murder, that of Florence Thompson Castle in 1936 though newspapers became suspicious of how police obtained the confession. Police interrogations were far more extreme at the time than methods used today and physical beatings were not uncommon. Given that Nixon was of below-average intelligence (some newspapers were already describing him as "feeble-minded"), the possibility that police had obtained a false confession hardly seemed implausible.
What ultimately convicted Robert Nixon was the fingerprint he had left behind in the Worden apartment. After learning about his arrest and how Florence Johnson had been killed, the L.A.P.D. investigated and found that Johnson had been living in Los Angeles at the time of the of the Worden murders. Once L.A. Police chief James E. Davis announced that fingerprint evidence linked Nixon to the Astoria Apartments killings, Robert Nixon confessed. He also confessed to the murder of student nurse, Anna Kuchta in 1937 and to assaulting as many as seventeen other women. Earl Hicks later admitted to striking Marguerite Worden with a pistol butt but denied sexual assault. He also admitted that he and Nixon only found eight dollars in the apartment.
Publicity over the case inflamed racial tension in Chicago and police took added precautions to protect Nixon and Hicks from potential lynch mobs. Almost from the beginning, the media focused primarily on Nixon given his darker skin and reported lack of remorse. The mainstream press described Nixon as being extremely dim-witted and even gave him the nickname of "the Brick moron." News stories of the case typically described Nixon as a "slow-witted colored youth" or "colored moron."
In one characteristic news story about the case, Charles Leavelle wrote an article titled "BRICK SLAYER IS LIKENED TO JUNGLE BEAST" which was published in the Chicago Tribune on June 5, 1938. The article quotes a police officer who said of Nixon, "Look at him go. Just like an ape." The article was filled with racist references and stated that Nixon, "has none of the charm of speech or manner that is characteristic of so many southern darkies" despite his coming from a "pretty little town in the old south, Tallulah, LA". He described Nixon's "hunched shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle almost to his knees; his out-thrust head and catlike tread all suggest the animal. He is very black - almost pure Negro. His physical characteristics suggest an earlier link in the species." Talking about Nixon's violent behaviour, Leavelle argued that he was similar to the "roustabout" working on Mississippi steamboats where were known to be "ferocious and relentless in a fight. Though docile enough under ordinary circumstances, they are easily aroused. And when this happens the veneer of civilization disappears." When the sheriff of Nixon's home town was interviewed, he described Nixon's long history of property crimes and concluded that, "It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon. Only death can cure him." Leavelle even went so far as to compare Nixon's crime to the savage killings in Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue - for which a large ape was ultimately found to be responsible.
When the newspapers were not focusing on Nixon's race, they dealt with the heinous nature of his crime. Pictures of Florence Johnson's two children with headlines reading "Orphaned By Crime" stoked racial tensions and many white residents began moving away from neighbourhoods regarded as too dangerous due to the high concentration of African-Americans living nearby. While the case was going to trial, the Illinois House of Representatives approved a bill to curb "moronic attacks." The International Labor Defense appointed lawyer Joseph Roth to help the African-American lawyers defending Nixon.
As for the trial, it only lasted a week. Both Nixon and Hicks accused each other of murdering Florence Johnson but Nixon was accused of lying. After a jury deliberation that lasted a single hour, Robert Nixon was sentenced to death and the sentence was quickly carried out. He died in the electric chair at the Cook County Jail on June 16, 1939. As for Earl Hicks, his testimony against Nixon saved his life although he later received a lengthy prison sentence for his role in the killings.
Aside from the shocking racism that characterized the trial and questions relating to Robert Nixon's mental capacity, the case would have been largely forgotten had it not been for Richard Wright. One of the greatest African-American authors of the 20th century, Wright's classic novel, Native Son, was first published in 1940. Featuring a 20-year old African American man named Bigger Thomas, the novel provides an unforgiving look at the social and economic conditions of ghetto life in the 1930s and Wright largely based his character on Robert Nixon. Many of the details of Bigger Thomas' crimes and the racist trial he received afterward were directly based on Nixon's trial (Richard Wright had keenly followed all details of the trial while writing his book). Though he changed many of the details to fit his story, Wright also used the novel to reflect his own views on how African-Americans were treated in American society. Despite being an immediate best-seller, Native Son generated enormous controversy during Wright's lifetime. Now regarded as a classic, The Modern Library ranks Native Son as number 20 of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.
Along with the strange literary immortality he received, the trial and sentencing of Robert Nixon highlighted the racial divide that characterized American society during much of the 20th century. Although the graphic racism displayed by the media is no longer tolerated (for the most part), many of the same attitudes prevalent then still surface during high-profile cases where race is deemed to be a factor. Whether a judge and jury allows these attitudes to interfere with the proper dispensing of justice is a challenge that is faced all too often.