Inside the deranged mind of Clara Phillips, Hollywood’s first female psychopath


Even in the scandal-hungry world of roaring-’20s Hollywood, the story of psychopath Clara Phillips was in a category by itself.

“She came home covered in blood and kissed [her husband] Armour, and said, ‘I’ve taken care of everything for us. I’m going to make you dinner!’ ” mentioned Kate Winkler Dawson, host of the Exactly Right Media true-crime podcast “Tenfold More Wicked,” whose fourth season premieres Monday, Jan. 17. This season’s title, “Tiger Woman,” refers to the media’s nickname for Phillips, a 23-year-old showgirl who, in July 1922, savagely murdered one other younger girl with a claw hammer.

“Nobody had ever seen a woman like Clara Phillips,” mentioned Dawson, a historic true-crime writer, documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Phillips was associated, by marriage, to at least one of the most outstanding households in the United States — the Mellons, a Pittsburgh-based banking and oil dynasty. She was a singularly charming determine who enraptured the media along with her beauty and shows of affection for her husband — whilst she stood trial for the horrifying homicide of 21-year-old Alberta Meadows, a (wrongly) perceived romantic rival. And she was one of the first female psychopaths to seem on the public radar. 

Clara Phillips
Clara Phillips’ trial was extensively lined, and he or she basked in the media consideration.
Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Armour Phillips
Armour Phillips was “part of the Mellon family, but this was a poor part of the family that went to Texas — not the multimillionaire and billionaires.”

Lady killer

The time period “psychopath” had not entered the public lexicon then, and the media had two fundamental narratives for murderers, Dawson mentioned. “There were crazy, rabid people who killed, and there were people who had a psychological break instigated by something like a cheating spouse. But there wasn’t the cold, heartless killer who’s almost incapable of empathy or remorse.”

That was Clara.

Phillips’ actions have been initially dubbed a “crime of passion,” which Dawson mentioned couldn’t be farther from the reality. “It was a hundred percent premeditated,” she mentioned. “With psychopathy, their aim is achieving a goal, and they’ll remove whatever obstacle there is. For Clara, she thought there was an obstacle to her marriage.”

Phillips and her husband had moved to Los Angeles from Texas a number of years earlier. Armour Phillips was “part of the Mellon family, but this was a poor part of the family that went to Texas — not the multimillionaire and billionaires,” Dawson mentioned. Armour wasn’t a monetary mastermind, however he was a proficient grifter and con man, and he’d discovered an ideal companion in the fairly, risky Clara, whom he married after they have been each younger, she nonetheless in her teenagers. 

Clara got here with a historical past. “There were other people in her family who were very violent,” mentioned Dawson, and Clara herself had been identified to be manipulative, together with fabricating a narrative about being kidnapped as a toddler. In LA, “she got into fights with other showgirls,” mentioned Dawson. She additionally fought along with her husband, however was nonetheless fiercely dedicated to him. When she heard a neighbor gossiping about Armour having an affair with Alberta Meadows, a widowed younger financial institution teller, Phillips hatched a plan. 

Armour and Clara Phillips embrace at her arraignment on charges she murdered a woman who was supposedly having an affair with her husband.
Armour and Clara Phillips embrace at her arraignment on fees she murdered a lady who was supposedly having an affair along with her husband.
Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

‘It was brutal’

On July 10, Phillips went buying at a ironmongery store, accompanied by her pal and fellow showgirl Peggy Caffee. Phillips picked up a hammer and, as Dawson recounts in the podcast, bluntly requested a retailer worker if one may kill a lady with the software. (Assuming she was joking, the clerk reportedly replied, “Yes, if you hit her hard enough with it.”) 

The subsequent day, Phillips and Caffee confirmed up exterior Meadows’ office; Phillips, claiming to be drunk, requested Meadows to present them a journey to a home on Montecito Drive, an space that was distant at the time. Once exterior of the metropolis, she requested Meadows to get out of the automotive to debate one thing along with her — and, after the girl vehemently denied Phillips’ accusations that she was having an affair with Armour, Phillips fatally attacked Meadows with the hammer as Caffee sat shocked in the automotive.

“It was brutal,” mentioned Dawson. “Many of the police officers in LA said they had never seen anything like that.” Phillips had struck Meadows greater than 50 occasions, and for good measure rolled a boulder onto the girl’s lifeless physique earlier than driving house in Meadows’ automotive and cheerfully confessing every little thing to her husband. Armour put her on a practice headed to Texas the subsequent morning, then went to the cops. 

Clara Phillips and policemen walking to court in Los Angeles in 1922.
Clara Phillips strolling with policeman to court docket in Los Angeles in 1922.
Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Trial by liar

When Clara Phillips was hauled again to LA to face a trial, she discovered herself in the media highlight, which she had craved perpetually. She flirted with reporters, declared her love for her husband and implausibly pointed the finger at the mousy Peggy, who wasn’t practically as effectively acquired by the press.

Religious fundamentalists, who have been a strong presence in LA alongside flapper tradition, used the case to level to the period’s lack of morality. “This was an excuse to say, ‘This is what happens when women are given more independence,’ ” mentioned Dawson.

After a sensational trial, together with a second wherein Phillips dropped her appeal and screamed at Caffee whereas her pal was on the witness stand, the “Tiger Woman” was sentenced to 10 years on second-degree homicide fees. She “decided San Quentin wasn’t the place for her, so she organized a breakout” from the county jail, mentioned Dawson. “We don’t really know the details — there are stories of her scaling the roof and dropping down two or three stories, but we know she had help, including from her husband.” It’s seemingly she merely paid off the jail matron and walked out, mentioned the podcast host. Phillips fled to Mexico after which Honduras, the place she spent a number of weeks earlier than being recaptured.

Eventually, she settled into jail life, finding out theater and singing and studying dentistry. In an interview in 1931, the Los Angeles Times reported Phillips was nonetheless remorseless. “I fought with Alberta on the top of Montecito Drive to protect the only love I have ever known … Armour L. Phillips is my baby. He has been my only baby. He is my very life, and when I realized he was being taken from me, I fought, fought, fought — so that I might always have him.”

Kate Winkler Dawson
Kate Winkler Dawson is host of the Exactly Right Media true-crime podcast “Tenfold More Wicked.”
Paepin Goff
Tenfold More Wicked cover
The podcast’s fourth season focuses on Clara Phillips, whose surprising crime of murdering a younger girl riveted Twenties Los Angeles.

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