A Death on Garden Street
When Olga Duncan disappeared from her Garden Street apartment, her newish husband Frank wasn’t terribly concerned at first. We were less prone to anxiousness in that era. We feared neither gluten nor the anaphylactic shock brought on by a carelessly packed peanut butter sandwich. The habits of highly effective go-getters hadn’t yet caffeinated the life force and strapped it to a rocket sled. Someone could wander off for a day or two and we wouldn’t think anything sinister was afoot. Sometimes we were wrong about that, but not often.
Santa Barbara in 1958 was like most places in 1958. The young men all had jug ears and white t-shirts and looked like Martin Milner, the young ladies water-skied four-abreast with matching bathing caps, and daily life was the color of a Kodachrome© snapshot. Super-8 home movies were often silent and featured lots of waving at the camera.
Gas station attendants wore funny little paper hats (extremely flammable, it should be noted) and would helpfully swarm an incoming car like beach gulls converging on a dropped hot dog. 1958’s murderers were also of their time. Very broadly speaking, they were dour men with downcast eyes and the unkempt, swept-back hair of the perennially fleeing, their black and white mug shots often radiant with disappointment.
That year, a Friday night in this tumbledown beach town would find a parade of hot rods peaceably cruising down State Street, revving their customized engines in great clouds of smoke and generally ignoring the spirit of the Paris Accords. The automotive pageant would terminate at the corner of State and Valerio and the beloved Blue Onion drive-in restaurant there, the cars clustering around the place in the blanched light of their innumerable headlamps, drivers happily shouting about exhaust manifolds while devouring gigantic burgers brought right out to the car by gum-chomping waitresses on roller skates (is that safe?).
Into this milieu I’m now obliged to introduce Santa Barbarans Frank and Olga Duncan, and Frank’s mother, the checkered and complicated Elizabeth. Here they are in 1958’s present tense. Frank Duncan is a grown man, a practicing attorney, and a doting son with the iron will of a napkin. He lives with his single mother, Elizabeth Duncan (born Hazel Sinclair Nigh) and they are oddly, even uncomfortably, inseparable.
Elizabeth is a familiar and annoying fixture in the Santa Barbara courthouse, known for attending all Frank’s trials and gleefully applauding when he wins, to the chagrin of the local legal establishment.
In appearance, Mrs. Duncan is pinch-faced and bespectacled and nondescript, a flesh-and-blood version of the nice old lady who cares for Tweety Bird in the Warner Brothers cartoons. Since her nervous breakdown in 1948, ostensibly catalyzed by the tragic sudden death of Frank’s sister, Mrs. Duncan has been a wandering star, so to speak. She has married somewhere between 14 and 20 times, often remarrying without bothering to dissolve her previous union. She has lived on the disordered fringes of decent society—writing bad checks, engaging in shadowy financial schemes, and at one time managing a bordello. She is not a Donna Reed figure.
Nurse Olga’s Ill-Timed Mercy
Our story begins one evening at the Duncan home. Frank, as attorney, is going through his mom’s sheaf of marriage certificates and other paperwork in an attempt to sensibly establish her legal status. For reasons unknown, the task causes Frank to snap. He stands and boldly tells his mother he is moving out.
She protests, grabbing Frank by the Arrow Shirt and begging him not to leave, but to no avail. Frank goes to his room to pack, and Elizabeth goes to her room and chugs a bottle of sleeping pills.
Not surprisingly, the desperate gambit works. Frank finds her, rushes her to St. Francis Hospital and she is saved. Elizabeth Duncan lies comatose for four days and emerges to find herself in the tender care of a lovely young nurse named Olga Kupczyk, a kind-hearted beauty with whom Frank, briefly operating outside his mother’s controlling emotional purview, becomes quickly smitten.
Mom is Upset
Elizabeth’s rage at her smothered son’s suspected betrayal increases as her robust health returns, and when she is on her feet again she begins boldly visiting Olga’s Garden Street apartment during the work day, letting herself in with a key she has somehow procured, going through Olga’s drawers and cabinets looking for any tormenting evidence of the romance blossoming between the young lady and her Frank.
Olga’s landlady calls the intrusive Mrs. Duncan on the trespass, to which Frank’s mother goes ahead and hollers that she will kill Olga before she lets the two of them spend any more time together.
The stunned landlady reports this madness to a freaked-out Olga, who reports the threats to Frank. He responds with bland assurances and a knitted brow. He doesn’t believe his dear mother would say such a thing, let alone act on such crazy talk. Olga begs Frank for a commitment before his mom can tear them apart. His grasping mother, in turn, begs him to promise he won’t marry Olga without telling mom first. He makes that promise, then secretly marries Olga the next day.
She leans in to see Frank and is grabbed by the accomplice in the back seat, pistol-whipped and driven away, never to be seen alive again.
When he builds up the courage to tell his mother and move in with Olga, mom goes off like an overpacked roman candle, first raging like a madwoman, then falling pitiably to Frank’s knees and pleading. The weakling bends, acquiescing to mom’s wish that he return home. He will remain married to Olga but will live with his mother; not an arrangement the MFT licensure board would endorse.
Mom, Apple Pie, and a Blunt Object
Still, Mother Duncan is crazed with jealousy. Her criminal mind, such as it is, races. Not satisfied to have the young marrieds living at separate addresses, she hits upon the idea of annulling the marriage, hiring a Salvation Army boarder to impersonate Frank while she plays the role of Olga.
The two appear before a Ventura magistrate who, incredibly, falls for the cobbled-together skit and annuls the marriage, believing (among other things) the weathered 56 year-old Elizabeth Duncan to be a 30 year-old blushing bride with second thoughts. How long can the ruse last? Elizabeth knows the scheme will unravel quickly.
Soon enough, Frank’s uniquely awful mom is thinking the unthinkable. She recklessly offers a car-hop at the Blue Onion $1500 to hurl Olga off a cliff. The waitress politely declines, and goes directly to Frank to spill the beans (SB was an even smaller town then, of course). When Frank confronts his mother she denies it. “Okay, then,” Frank says, or something very like that, believing his dear old mom and dismissing the increasingly panicked pleas of his Olga. Next Mrs. Duncan tries to enlist an elderly lady friend to lure Olga into her apartment where Elizabeth will spring from a closet and bludgeon Olga. Her friend is taken aback by the scheme, and also declines to help. Nobody thinks to mention any of this to the police.
Mother and Child Reunion
Finally Ma Duncan finds a couple of jittery clods who will do Olga in for the sum of $6000, to be paid in two installments. On the evening of November 17, at around midnight, the two amateurs arrive at Olga’s apartment. One of them knocks on her door, claiming to be a friend of Frank’s. Olga’s hubby is reportedly very drunk and in the back seat of the man’s car. Could she come out and help get him into her apartment? She throws on a housecoat and slippers, walks with the gentleman across Garden Street to the car, leans in to see Frank and is grabbed by the accomplice in the back seat, pistol-whipped and driven away, never to be seen alive again. Olga is hastily buried by hand at the bottom of a Casitas Pass embankment, near Carpinteria. The murderers had forgotten their shovel.
Some days later the hired killers are apprehended on unrelated charges and in short order began to sing like canaries (to borrow from old Cagney movie terminology), implicating Ma Duncan forthwith. She and her accomplices are charged with first–degree murder, and when the case goes to trial, who should assist the legal defense of the murdering mom but Frank himself. The jury, likely disturbed and bewildered by the victim’s husband defending the accused murderess of his own wife, and having incontrovertible evidence besides, returns a guilty verdict in about four hours.
Elizabeth Duncan will go to her death in 1962, proclaiming her innocence to the end. In her final days she will repeatedly ask to see her Frank, who at the moment of his mother’s State-sponsored naptime is stuck arguing at the California Supreme Court for a stay of her execution. At this writing, Frank’s mother is the last woman to have been executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Frank will remarry and become a successful and highly respected Los Angeles attorney.
Santa Barbara & San Quentin; two saints with Elizabeth Duncan in common. Who knew? And you thought genetically modified lentils were scary.