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Around Town: The tale of 'Rattlesnake' James

June 06, 2013|By Anita S. Brenner

In July of 1936, a red-haired La Cañada barber went on trial for the murder of his wife. The best part of the trial was when a rattlesnake got loose in the courtroom.

The barber's real name was Major R. Lisenba. He was a World War I veteran who had served under the name Davies. By the time he went to trial, he was known as Robert “Rattlesnake” James.

Reporters from our mothership, the Los Angeles Times, described the scene:

“The last possible thrill was squeezed out of the Robert James murder trial yesterday. Lethal, one of the rattlesnakes, escaped in the courtroom during the noon recess after James had spent most of the morning on the witness stand in his own defense. Like a streak of brown quicksilver the reptile slid under a bookcase. His vicious rattling threw the courtroom into hysteria.”

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Finally, a witness named “Snake Joe” Houtenbrink caught the snake and displayed it to the jury before placing it in its box.

In the summer of 1935, Snake Joe sold two snakes to Robert James. The snake's names were “Lethal” and “Lightning.” Even though he had more than 600 snakes, Snake Joe liked to name his pets. He could tell them apart.

On the day the snake got loose in the courtroom, James was in the middle of his defense. He was on the stand, testifying that he knew nothing about a murder.

The loose snake upstaged the defendant. It was no surprise when James was convicted and sentenced to death.

Over the next decade, James appealed his murder conviction up and down the court system. He finally accomplished what no other La Cañadan had done: His case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed his conviction. There’s even a Wikipedia entry for the case, entitled “People v Lisenba.”

The evidence was gruesome. James claimed that his confession was coerced and that the police beat him. His partner in crime, a man named Hope, said that James tried to kill his wife by placing her feet in a bucket with the snakes. She went along with it because she thought Hope was an abortionist and her health was too frail to go through childbirth.

When the snakes didn’t work, James (or Hope) drowned her in the bathtub.

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