One of the most bizarre stories that I have ever researched. The nearly unbelievable true story from 1946 about a New York City woman hired to investigate another woman suspected in a jewel heist. What happened next is truly unforgettable.
Original Podcast Air Date: November 29, 2014
On December 22nd of 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen took the world’s first medical x-ray, in which one could clearly see the bones of his wife Bertha’s hand and her wedding ring. Upon viewing the picture, she commented “I have seen my death.”
While X-rays are commonplace in the medical world today, the vast majority of our population would probably be hard pressed to explain how they work. This mysterious, magical nature of x-rays makes it ideal for the world of espionage and plays an essential part in today’s story: The Woman with the X-Ray Camera.
19-year-old Pearl Lusk had recently graduated from high school in Quakertown, Pennsylvania when she decided to pick up and move to New York City in the fall of 1946. For a short period of time, the young blonde lived with her mother and stepfather, the Siemansky’s, in Brooklyn.
But as soon as she secured a job as a sales girl at the Oppenheim Collins department store in Manhattan, she high-tailed it out of her mom’s place. With a steady income, Pearl was now able to rent a small room on the upper West Side of Manhattan for $5.00 per week. Nothing fancy…
Everything seemed to be going smoothly for Pearl until December 24th, Christmas Eve. As with all seasonal jobs, the Christmas rush was over and Pearl found herself unemployed. Making ends meet was going to be tough and with her newly found freedom, the last thing she wanted to do was go back to live with mom.
A few weeks prior to losing her job, she met a personable, good-looking man while riding on the subway. He introduced himself as Allen La Rue and asked her to accompany him for a drink, but she declined the invitation.
Fast-forward to December 26th, two days after losing her job, and can you guess who she runs into again on the subway? Yes, the one and only Allen La Rue. And this time she agreed to have that drink with him at a restaurant on 14th Street.
As with nearly all first dates, at one point the conversation turned to what each other does for a living. Pearl, as you would expect, didn’t have much to say other than to tell her sob story about how she had just been laid off. La Rue, on the other hand, was dutifully employed as an adjustor for an insurance company. He explained that he was currently investigating a case of stolen jewels and that the main suspect was a 28-year-old woman named Olga Trapani of 1434 Fifty-Seventh Street in Brooklyn. Knowing that she was in much need of a job, La Rue asked Pearl if she wanted to come work for him as his assistant. Her job would be to trail Ms. Trapani and collect evidence for his company’s case against her.
Pearl, a big fan of detective stories, enthusiastically accepted his offer. Pearl Lusk, unemployed sales clerk was now Pearl Lusk Private Investigator.
LaRue took Pearl to the suspect’s place of work – the Croyden Hat Company – at 43 West Thirty-Ninth Street in Manhattan to point the suspect out to her. For the next few days, Pearl trailed Ms. Trapani’s nearly every move to and from work.
On Monday December 30th, LaRue handed Pearl a package that he said had a camera hidden inside. But this wasn’t any ordinary camera – it was a special model that took x-ray pictures. All Pearl had to do was follow Ms. Trapani and snap a picture.
That evening, Pearl picked up Ms. Trapani’s trail as she left work, boarded the subway at the Times Square BMT station and she sat near her until they exited the train at the Fifty-fifth Street elevated station in Brooklyn. As soon as the two women stepped on to the station platform, Pearl pointed the box at the suspect and pulled the looped trip wire that extended out of the bottom of the box. She then boarded the train back to Times Square and handed the camera to LaRue so that he could develop the film.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, Pearl met LaRue at 8 AM at the Automat near Union Square. He informed her that the picture “didn’t take.” No worry. He gave her another x-ray camera, one that was supposedly more powerful that the first. Concealed in red and green holiday wrapping paper, this camera was both larger and heavier. A similar trip wire extended from the box to trigger the shutter. Just before she left to carry out her day’s assignment, LaRue added that she should “Remember to aim it low, at her waist.” He added, “That’s probably where she’s carrying the jewels – pinned inside her dress at her waist.”
Pearl followed the suspect until they arrived at the Times Square station. As soon as they both exited the subway car, Pearl kneeled down on the platform, pointed the box toward her waist, and BOOM!
Ms. Trapani fell to the ground and started screaming. Transit Officer Joseph Bonistalli ran up to see what had happened and Pearl said “I just took this woman’s picture and somebody shot her.” It wasn’t until another officer ripped open her package to reveal that her x-ray camera was really a sawed-off shotgun encased in two wooden cream cheese boxes that Pearl realized that she was the one that had done the shooting.
Photo of sawed-off shotgun hidden in a Breakstone’s Cream Cheese box.