When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case

In the 1930s, Yvor Winters Legitimized Literary Studies at Stanford—but Hollywood Should Make a Movie About His Skills as an Amateur Detective

I.

I’m not a Hollywood scriptwriter, but if I were, I know what screenplay I’d write. Imagine a violent murder at the epicenter of early Santa Clara Valley—soon to be renamed Silicon Valley in the popular imagination—and an innocent man sent to Death Row at San Quentin. But a famous literary critic emerges as the super sleuth who gets him freed, amid dark evocations of scandal involving corrupt politicians and murky underworld figures.

You don’t need to imagine it, because it really happened. It’s like the movie Chinatown—in fact, it took place during the same era as that scrumptiously vintage film—but with intriguing literary twists and turns. And, like Chinatown, it possesses all the same overtones of a brutal California origin myth. It would make a riveting film. But in this case the story is true.

On Memorial Day in 1933, a woman’s naked body was found, apparently bludgeoned to death, in her Stanford campus home. Within an hour of their arrival on the crime scene, the police had already decided that the husband—always the prime suspect in a case of this sort—must be the murderer.

But David Lamson was such an unlikely killer. He was a genial litterateur who worked for Stanford University Press. Five years earlier he had married Allene Thorpe at Stanford Memorial Church, and the couple were well known in campus cultural circles, highly regarded and seemingly very much in love. Allene’s diary, entered as evidence in the ensuing trial, gave no evidence of marital discord.

In all fairness, Lamson’s situation was suspicious. He had been doing yard work shortly before the body was discovered, chatting with neighbors while raking leaves and burning some trash. After entering his house from the backyard, to let a visitor in the front door, Lamson was heard screaming. What he said during the next few minutes would be the subject of debate and disagreement—but by at least one account, he exclaimed “My God, my wife has been murdered” and “"My God, why did I ever marry her?"

When he reappeared his clothing was stained with his wife’s blood—perhaps not surprising, given his later description of his attempt to revive her, but something the police could easily construe as evidence of guilt. And almost from the moment they arrived, the investigators started constructing a narrative to explain how and why David Lamson killed his wife.

The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. A pipe found in the trash might be a murder weapon, although that was never more than hypothesis. His pregnant housekeeper might be Lamson’s lover—which seemed plausible until she gave birth to a redheaded baby who looked just like her redheaded boyfriend. Another woman in Sacramento might be Lamson’s mistress, but the evidence there never held together, and the prosecution didn’t dare put her on the stand during the ensuing trial. Above all, Larson’s character and personality—described by many acquaintances as “kind” and “considerate,” especially in his relationship with his wife—might be a charade, a violent, angry man hiding behind a gentle exterior.

The police never took any other explanation seriously. A student named John Venderlip had seen a suspicious character near the Lamson home the morning of the crime, as well as the night before. But no effort went into investigating this lead. The possibility of accidental death was ruled out, too, although it would later play a decisive role in the case.

This web of speculation and insinuation proved sufficient to get a conviction after a three-week trial that was front page news day after day. The jury only deliberated for eight hours before delivering a guilty verdict. The judge handed out the death penalty—a court-mandated hanging within 90 days. And David Lamson was sent off to San Quentin to await his imminent execution on Death Row.

And that would seem to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t. And the main reason for this surprising turn into the biggest crime story of its day was a mild-mannered poet and literary critic named Yvor Winters.

II.

When I studied literature as an undergraduate at Stanford, Winters’s name was still said with awe and respect, although he had been dead for almost a decade at that point. But, more than any other individual, Winters had put literary studies at Stanford on the map. His work as poet and critic was known and cited all over the world, conveying an authority and erudition that none of his peers in the Department of English could match in those days. It’s important to recall that Stanford wasn’t yet an ultra-elite institution when Yvor Winters joined the faculty in 1934. And it definitely wasn’t a university associated with poetry. But he changed all that—a list of writers whom Winters taught or mentored would eventually include Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, J.V. Cunningham and Kenneth Fields. People even talked about Winters as the progenitor of a whole school of poetry.

So I heard Winters’s name often during my student days. But no one ever told me about his involvement in a tabloidesque murder case decades before—or that he got a man off of Death Row. I only learned many years later about this strange crime story. And the reason for this silence, I now realize, is that many of Winters’s peers mocked and derided his fixation with a murder case and subsequent decision to play the role of amateur private eye. He was almost a laughingstock for this obsession—and it undermined the dignity both of Winters the professor, the Department of English, and the entire University.

While Lamson was incarcerated in San Quentin, awaiting his death by hanging, Winters compiled his own investigative report, published in an extraordinary pamphlet entitled The Case of David Lamson. Here the literary critic applied all the analytical tools he had shown in describing the leading currents in modernist poetry, but now channeled in a new direction. Somehow Yvor Winters had transformed himself from arbiter of literary tastes into a kind of Silicon Valley Sherlock Holmes.

The whole effect is stunning. In the course of this 100-page booklet, Winters aggressively debunks every detail of the prosecution’s circumstantial case and offers his own alternative interpretation of events. The scope of his effort involved an acumen and interpretative skill the equal of any possible lit-crit project. Here we find an analysis of the crime scene worthy of a forensic investigator combined with a shrewd assessment of motivation and character based on deep insight into psychology and behavior. Every detail of the prosecution’s case is assessed at a granular level of detail—from body wounds to the layout of the house—and when Winters extends his arguments beyond his own levels of expertise, he draws on the knowledge of an impressive list of authorities.

Over the course of preparing The Case of David Lamson, Winters relied on the support of 13 educators, 10 writers, 6 physicians or surgeons, and 3 members of the clergy. In its pages, he presents the testimony of numerous people who knew the Lamsons, or had some other important first-person testimony to share. Along the way, he adds his own observations and interpretations, which are presented with dramatic flair and clarity.

This type of scholarly performance is rather unexpected in a high-profile murder case, to say the least. Yet, to some degree, Professor Winters was merely applying the same techniques that had established his credentials as the leading modernist literary critic in the Western United States. His approach had always been rationalist, detail-oriented, and sensitive to the subtlest matters of text and context. Only now he was applying these techniques to save a man on Death Row.

III.

Winters, as it turned out, concluded that no murder ever took place. Allene Lamson had a history of faintness, especially in hot rooms, and suffered from weak ankles. Winters showed, in his reconstruction of events, how she must have fallen while getting out of the bathtub. From the very start of the investigation, David Lamson had remarked that his wife felt ill in the hours leading up to her death—although the police showed little interest in this information. They had already made up their minds about the cause of death. Instead, it took a poet to follow leads and sift through evidence the authorities had missed.

Winters also had to refute the persuasive web of evidence and conjecture presented in court by the prosecution. This he did in masterful fashion. The pipe, proudly displayed to the jury as murder weapon, had been discarded in the trash long before, according to a credible witness. The woman who was supposedly Lamson’s mistress was actually engaged to another man who bore a slight resemblance to the murder suspect, and this explained why some thought Lamson was romantically involved with her. Most significant of all, a prominent surgeon who had conducted ten thousand autopsies—fifteen hundred involving skull injuries—concluded that Allene Lamson had died as result of a fall, not an assault with a pipe.

By any measure, The Case of David Lamson is as impressive as any of Professor Winters’s celebrated essays. It’s a shame that the book is out-of-print, and almost completely unknown nowadays. But some matters of government malfeasance were apparently too murky to include in this pamphlet, although Winters hinted at them in other contexts. “The prosecution in the case,” the professor told The Stanford Daily, “is a very corrupt group. They are typical representatives of Santa Clara County government which is thoroughly corrupt.” Winters hinted at perjury committed by “important officials”—and though he refused to reveal specifics, he conveyed a clear sense that more than just one man’s guilt or innocence was involved in this high-profile crime.  

We would like to know more of the kind of corruption Winters attacked. Santa Clara Valley back in those days had lots of unincorporated land which made it a suitable place for gambling and other vices. Exploitation of farm workers was also a serious issue, especially because agriculture was the biggest business in the valley during that era. (Hard as it is to believe, the economy of Silicon Valley in those days was largely dependent on prunes and apricots.) Police enforcement was probably haphazard at best—except in the case of David Lamson, where the effort to prosecute and execute showed extraordinary determination and perseverance, as subsequent events would demonstrate.

Over the long run, Winters’s ability to mobilize support would prove as impactful as his sleuthing. In time, a host of influential parties would join in the efforts to free David Lamson—most notably Alexander Woollcott, renowned as one of the leaders of the New York’s famous Algonquin Round Table, as well as a media celebrity in those days. He featured the Lamson case on his CBS national radio show, The Town Crier, and played a key role in shifting public opinion towards acquittal.

But Winters had an especially close ally in his wife Janet Lewis, who would later make her name as a novelist. Her breakout book, the estimable The Wife of Martin Guerre, wouldn’t be published until 1941—but would be, curiously enough, an indirect result of her efforts on Lamson’s behalf.

Lewis deserves an essay in her own right (which I hope to write in the future). But her growing literary reputation in the 1940s and 1950s was based primarily on stories involving complex court cases and murky motives. It’s hard not to see these as indirect results of this tabloidesque murder case of the 1930s.

The efforts of this group of literary advocates, supported by Lamson’s own book about life on Death Row (published with Winters’s assistance as literary agent) and a detailed appellate brief submitted by defense attorney Edwin McKenzie, had a dramatic impact. In October 1934, the California Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction and demanded a new trial. 

IV.

The Lamson case would eventually go to trial four times before the prosecution dropped the case. David Lamson was released—but only after spending three years in prison. He succeeded admirably in rebuilding his life, making a career as novelist and scriptwriter, and eventually even working as a computer analyst around the time Santa Clara Valley got renamed as Silicon Valley.

Lamson died a few days before I showed up on the Stanford campus as an undergraduate. During all my student years, I never heard any mention of his name or notoriety. But there was another high profile murder around that same time, also involving a young female victim—killed inside Stanford’s Memorial Church, where the Lamsons had been married 40 years before. According to rumor, this recent killing had overtones of some dark satanic ritual. That murder would remain unsolved for decades.

If I were writing my great Hollywood screenplay, I would draw on elements of both Stanford murders, and also incorporate ingredients from the birth of Silicon Valley. I would take a few liberties with the historical record to ensure that the film maximized its dramatic potential. But I wouldn’t need to change much. The real-life story of the famous poet and literary critic who saved a man from Death Row is already perfectly suited for cinematic reenactment.