Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Two Worlds Collide – Podcast #153

A Seattle Couple in Love

Let’s turn back the hands of time to July 1932 and meet 20-year-old Seattle, Washington resident Sylvia Wilson who had just met the man of her dreams. He was 32-year-old Thomas Sherwood. This handsome prince was everything that Sylvia could have ever dreamed of: a highly successful Los Angeles stockbroker who showered her with flowers, gifts, and adoration. The great distance between their two homes was of little importance. When Tommy was back home working, the two sent love letters to each other on nearly a daily basis. While they were unable to see one another often, they were able to spend a good amount of quality time together. Tommy would either drive his shiny deluxe Ford coupe up to see Sylvia or when more pressed for time, he would hop a flight to Seattle.

Sylvia Wilson
Sylvia Wilson. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the October 25, 1932 publication of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Three months after they met, Tommy Sherwood was so head-over-heels in love with Sylvia that he decided to pop the question. Without hesitation, and with her parents’ approval, Sylvia agreed to marry Tommy.

What she could not have foreseen was that a seemingly unimportant event that was to take place in Redondo Beach, California, which lies approximately 1,000 miles (1600 km) south of Seattle, would forever change the trajectory of her life.

Not Your Typical Board of Education Meeting

It began with a small advertisement that ran on page three of the October 14, 1932 publication of the Redondo Reflex. It read: “NOTICE OF MEETING Regular Meeting of Board of Trustees of Redondo Beach City School District for October will be held at the superintendent’s home, 559 Avenue A, at 7:00 p.m., Monday, October 17.”

Advertisment that appeared on page 3 of the October 14, 1932 publication of the Redondo Reflex.
Advertisment that appeared on page 3 of the October 14, 1932 publication of the Redondo Reflex.

Having been a classroom teacher for thirty years, I can tell you that most board of education meetings, while highly essential to the operation of a school district, are quite monotonous. Lots of discussion about important things like policy, finances, and staffing, but rarely does anything occur that is earth-shattering.

This meeting of the Redondo Beach school board that day was no different. In attendance were Superintendent Elliott B. Thomas, board president C. C. Cribbs, board secretary Charles O. Pierpont, and board member George Streit. Perhaps the only unusual part of this meeting, at least from today’s point of view, was that Superintendent Thomas’s wife Olive served dinner to all of the guests. (Maybe they should try that today. Free meals would certainly increase attendance to the board of education meetings.)

Around 7:40 p.m., a matter was brought up for discussion that required paperwork that Thomas had back at his office. Thomas agreed to make a quick trip over to the school to retrieve the documents.

With his office just a few blocks away, he should have returned to the board meeting in no time. Yet, he didn’t return. Olive became alarmed and telephoned his office around 8 p.m. There was no answer. Fifteen minutes later, the board members decided to walk the few blocks to the school to see what was taking Thomas so long.

When they arrived, they found Thomas’s Buick sedan parked outside the building with its engine running and headlights on. Thomas was not in the vehicle, so they went into his office, switched on the lights, and were shocked by what they saw. The place was in complete disorder. Furniture had been overturned, curtains ripped from the windows, a wooden gate was twisted from its hinges, and a steam radiator torn loose from the floor. A coat belonging to Thomas was found, having been ripped in half along the back. The office safe had been marred in an attempt to crack it open, with a chisel, hand drill, flashlight, and a pair of work gloves lying in front of it. Rubber heel marks could be seen trailing down the hallway toward a building exit as if someone had been dragged along against their will.

It was clear that an incredible struggle had taken place. Investigators believed that Thomas may have walked in while his office was being burglarized, fought with his assailants for several minutes, and then kidnapped and driven away. Near the entrance was a broken chair that police thought may have been used to beat Thomas into submission. Detectives found a jimmied window, which was probably used by the bandits to gain entrance to the building.

The one thing that was not found in the office was blood, which was a hopeful sign that superintendent Thomas may have survived the attack.

World War I Registration Card for Elliott Boal Thomas.
World War I Registration Card for Elliott Boal Thomas.

Thomas was a well-respected member of the Redondo Beach community, so it was unlikely that he was personally singled out for attack. He was a graduate of La Verne College and did post-graduate work at the University of Southern California. Like many administrators, he began his career as a teacher in the Burbank city schools, became an elementary principal there, and then served as principal of Burbank’s John Muir Junior High School. Finally, in 1929, he was appointed to the superintendency of the Redondo Beach schools, placing him in charge of 1,300 students, four school buildings, and its staff.

The Search for Elliott B. Thomas

A search for Thomas began immediately. Residents of neighboring homes were questioned but none had seen nor heard anything out of the ordinary. All classes in the district were canceled the next day and an estimated 150 schoolboys helped search the area for any sign of Thomas. With the possibility that he had been murdered, police kept a constant watch on the coastline, should his body wash up on the shore. All of the vacant homes in the area were searched, while investigators questioned those with a known criminal history.

After two days of searching, only two things were certain: Mrs. Thomas was a complete emotional wreck and investigators had yet to uncover a single clue as to Mr. Thomas’s fate.

High school students start hunt for missing educator, Elliott B. Thomas, Redondo Beach vicinity, circa October 18, 1932.

High school students start hunt for missing educator, Elliott B. Thomas, Redondo Beach vicinity, circa October 18, 1932. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Well, that’s not exactly correct. While investigators were unable to uncover further information regarding Thomas’s possible kidnapping or murder, the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to come together to create a whole new scenario: On Thursday, October 20, 1932, Captain Norris Stensland, of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department, announced, “We have evidence now that Thomas met with no robbers when he went to his office Monday night, and that he was neither kidnapped nor killed.” He continued, “We are satisfied he went away of his own volition; although we do not know why, nor we have any idea. The case is a complete mystery.”

Olive Thomas just couldn’t believe that her husband would have done such a thing. “There is no motive,” she stated. “He had no worries of any kind. I know that!”

Yet, it had become clear to investigators that Elliott Thomas did have worries. They learned that he had lost a large sum of money in the stock market – keep in mind that this was during the Great Depression – and that his life was insured for $20,000 (over $385,000 today). Payout on that policy could easily erase all of his debt.

Olive and Elliott Thomas.
Olive and Elliott Thomas. Image originally appeared on page 26 of the October 26, 1932 publication of the New York Daily News.

Then there was the circumstantial evidence: The safe-cracking tools left behind by the supposed burglars weren’t strong enough to “blow a baby’s bank.” On the morning of his disappearance, Thomas took his car in for urgent repairs and the mechanic noticed that the back seat was filled with a large bundle that was covered by a blanket.

Around 3:00 that afternoon, school gardener J. R. Dent observed Thomas transferring his personal belongings from his Buick into a distinctive maroon-colored Ford that had red wire wheels. Dent stated, “At the time I asked Thomas if he needed any help, but he waved me on. Later he returned to the school house and said that he was ‘helping a lady.’”

Regarding this car, which police were already aware existed, Captain Stensland received a phone call from an anonymous woman who stated, “I just want to tell you to look in all the Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach garages for Thomas’s car.” Stensland played dumb and pretended that he knew nothing about this second car. He replied, referring only to the car found running outside the crime scene, “We found his car. There’s no mystery about that.” Her last statement before hanging up the phone was, “Don’t be dumb. He’s got another one. That’s the one I mean.”’

The fact that Thomas owned a second car was not a secret. Many people, including his wife, were aware that he had made the purchase. What was puzzling was that he had no longer owned it. And this is where the story begins to come full-circle and bring young Sylvia Wilson of Seattle into the story. That’s because Elliott Thomas sold that car to her fiancé, Los Angeles stockbroker Thomas Sherwood. When not in use, Tommy stored the car in a rented garage on South Union Street in Los Angeles.

Marriage License

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, seemingly unaware of the events unfolding down in Redondo Beach, Sylvia Wilson and Tommy Sherwood moved forward with their wedding plans. A wedding ring and bridal gown were purchased for the big event. On Thursday, October 20, 1932, the couple and her parents drove 125 miles (200 km) southward to Kelso, Washington, and obtained a marriage license. They then drove back to Seattle and planned to marry a few days later.

Sylvia Wilson of Seattle.
Sylvia Wilson. Image appeared on page 2 of the October 24, 1932 publication of the Los Angeles Record.

Shortly after obtaining the license, the couple was visiting at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vermont Hawley Wilson. When a radio news report came on that discussed the disappearance of Elliott Thomas, Tommy Sherwood quickly walked over to the radio and lowered its volume. Mr. Wilson would later recall, “He said it was too loud.”

The next morning, Mr. Wilson picked up that day’s newspaper and noticed something very peculiar about one of the pictures: The man who was about to marry his daughter looked remarkedly similar to the missing Redondo Beach educator. They say that everyone has a doppelganger out there. (I have been stopped several times over the years because people mistake me for Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos.) It was far-fetched, but could Tommy Sherwood and Elliott Thomas be doppelgangers? Or, how about twins? Or, even worse, could they be the same person?

The Wilson’s planned to ask Tommy Sherwood about his resemblance to Elliott Thomas at a prenuptial party to be held that evening. He was a no-show. Instead, Sylvia Wilson received a note that read, in part, that he was “very sorry” and that he was on his way back to Redondo “to make amends.”

Time to Face the Music

The truth was that Tommy Sherwood and Elliott Thomas were one and the same person. Elliott had met Sylvia while vacationing in Seattle, created the Tommy Sherwood persona, transferred ownership of his car to Sherwood, and then faked his disappearance so that he could leave his troubles behind, marry her, and start a new life.

Capt. Stensland requested that police in Washington find and arrest the missing superintendent, which they did. Since he had not gone through with the marriage to Sylvia Wilson, he couldn’t be charged with bigamy. As a result, they released him and Elliott Thomas agreed to drive back home and surrender to authorities there.

In a statement to reporters, Sylvia said, “It’s all over now.” She continued, “ All I want to say is that I am very, very sorry for Mrs. Thomas. She was fooled worse than I. I know that she must feel terrible about the whole affair. I want her to know that I am entirely innocent of trying to take her husband from her. He told me all along he was single.”

Elliot B. Thomas and his wife Olive Thomas await his trial, Los Angeles, November 1932.
Elliot B. Thomas and his wife Olive Thomas await his trial, Los Angeles, November 1932. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Surprisingly, Mrs. Thomas was willing to take her husband back. “I think I still love him. My heart holds no hatred for him, only pity.

“I am glad he didn’t marry this girl. He’s been wonderful to me for these twelve years.

“I don’t see any reason why he should have done this. Perhaps he doesn’t know either.”

Elliott arrived in Los Angeles that Saturday evening, having had ‘disappeared’ for less than a week. He voluntarily surrendered and made a short statement. “I’ve made a bad mistake. I’m sorry.”

Capt. Stensland then announced that there would probably be no charges filed against Thomas. “The only thing we have against him is breaking a 25-cent gate at the schoolhouse, where he staged his ‘kidnapping’ stunt and that’s a minor matter.”

Elliott and Olive Thomas are together in the top photo. Sylvia Wilson is inset.
Elliott and Olive Thomas are together in the top photo. Sylvia Wilson is inset. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the October 23, 1932 publication of the Tacoma Sunday Ledger.

Yet, there would be consequences for his actions. Redondo Beach school board president C. C. Cribbs announced, “Thomas was automatically suspended under the state school law. There will probably be official action on the matter this week when the board can meet.” In other words, Thomas had to either resign from his position or they were going to fire him.

His Confession

Thomas did more than hand in his resignation. That Monday, he admitted to Los Angeles County District Attorney Buron Fitts that he had diverted school funds for his personal use. He simply forged the signatures of Board of Trustees members on documents to release funds for the payment of maintenance work never done and materials never purchased. He then used these funds to pay off debt, to purchase a new car, for the airplane flights to Seattle, and to shower Sylvia Wilson with gifts.

Buron Fitts, Percy Starmmon, and Herbert Payne watch as Elliot B. Thomas signs a check, Los Angeles, 1932.
Buron Fitts, Percy Starmmon, and Herbert Payne watch as Elliot B. Thomas signs a check, Los Angeles, 1932. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Thomas expressed to DA Fitts, “I don’t know why I did it. I began to speculate in 1930. At first small amounts; then larger ones. I can’t remember just how many warrants I forged; probably between $8000 and $10,000.” Adjusted for inflation, he stole between $154,000 and $193,000 of public money. He then handed over to Fitts what was left of the money: $2,600 cash and $500 in traveler’s cheques. He accepted all of the blame. “No one else is involved in this; I did it all myself.” He added, “I knew I would be found out eventually and I wanted to confess so as to spare my wife any further sorrow.”

Before being locked up in the slammer, Thomas made one request: he wished to go visit with his 9-year-old daughter Genevieve, who had been staying with relatives. This was agreed to and upon his return, Elliott Thomas was charged with forgery of school warrants and placed in the county jail. He had no money remaining for bail.

Olive Thomas and daughter Genevieve.
Olive Thomas and daughter Genevieve. Image originally appeared on page 34 of the November 7, 1932 publication of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

His wife Olive told the press, “I am proud of him that he had enough courage to return and face what he has to face. I was the first one he told about this when he returned to the city last Saturday and he has followed my advice to make a clean breast of everything. I only wish I had known or suspected these things sooner – they never would have happened.”

In a nationally syndicated story penned by Erskine Johnson, Thomas said, “I guess I just went haywire. I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I would leave all this, the school and everything, and just go away and marry this other girl. I made plans to kill Thomas and live as Sherwood. I love my wife and could not just disappear and leave her to face the humiliation that was bound to follow.”

Elliott B. Thomas (right) with his attorney George Penney.
Elliott B. Thomas (right) with his attorney George Penney. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Thomas originally planned to plead guilty to any charges filed against him. Yet, his lawyer advised him to initially plead not guilty to buy him some time. Oddly, this was done so Thomas could help the county auditor find the funds that were stolen. Thomas had done such a good job of forging signatures that none of the Board of Trustees members could distinguish their genuine signatures from those that had been forged.

While the search was still on for the missing funds, Elliott Thomas was indicted on five counts of forgery that involved the theft of $768.50. On November 2, 1932, Thomas appeared in court and plead guilty to two of the five counts. District Attorney Fitts agreed to drop the other three counts, believing that the punishment on the two remaining counts was sufficient. Five days later, Thomas was sentenced to a term of 1 to 14 years at San Quentin.

Elliott B. Thomas and C. Jack Gaines as they report to San Quentin prison.
Elliott B. Thomas (right) and C. Jack Gaines as they report to San Quentin prison. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Afterwards

Thomas began serving his sentence on November 19, 1932. Sylvia Wilson made it clear that she would not be waiting for him to get out. She said she was “through with him.” According to Ancestry.com, Sylvia would marry four times. She passed away on November 5, 2002 at the age of 90.

Mrs. Thomas wasn’t waiting for her husband, either. Ten days after he entered San Quentin, she filed for divorce. She requested custody of their daughter Genevieve and $150/month (approximately $2,900 today) in support. A teacher herself, she became an administrator and was ultimately appointed as principal of the Nettie L. Waite school in Norwalk, California in July 1952. She passed away on March 13, 1956. Olive Sue Stouffer Thomas was just 54 years of age.

Photograph of Elliott B. Thomas taken at San Quentin prison.
Photograph of Elliott B. Thomas taken at San Quentin prison.

This leaves just one other principal character in this story to discuss: Elliott Thomas himself. He would be paroled from San Quentin on December 19, 1934, having served a little over two years. He was fully discharged on January 19, 1937. On May 6, 1939, 42-year-old Elliott would marry 38-year-old Olinda H. Kerby. It was a second marriage for both.

Professionally, what happened next is surprising. Today, a disgraced educator will most likely never teach again – it’s like being branded with a scarlet letter – but that is not what happened here. After his release, he obtained a teaching position in the Porterville, California school district. In 1943, he was appointed principal of the Woodrow Wilson elementary school in Oxnard, California. Then, on February 10, 1949, the district’s superintendent, Clarence A. Brittell, died, and they needed someone to quickly take over the position.

California Prison Record, San Quentin for Elliott B. Thomas.
California Prison Record, San Quentin for Elliott B. Thomas.

Just who did they have on staff who could fill that role? Any ideas? This is a tough one…

On February 19, it was announced that Elliott B. Thomas had been appointed as Acting Superintendent of the Oxnard district. It was at that time that the Board of Trustees first learned that Thomas had a prison record, but they kept their findings hush-hush and received permission from the state that allowed Thomas to continue in that role until the school year ended in June. On May 28, 1949, under threat by another Oxnard principal to out Thomas for his past sins, Thomas went straight to the Board and told them the whole story. It was headline-grabbing news in Oxnard for a few days but the district allowed him to stay on as acting superintendent. Based on his excellent work at the school, they opted to renew his contract that year as principal of the Woodrow Wilson School, a position that he would hold until his retirement in 1956.

1942 World War II Draft Registration Card for Elliott Boal Thomas.
1942 World War II Draft Registration Card for Elliott Boal Thomas.

Thomas would continue to play an active part in the Oxnard community. His main work was with the Oxnard Boys’ Club and with Rotary, having been appointed president of both organizations at different times.

Elliott Boal Thomas was 85 years old when he passed away on December 4, 1981, having completely repaired the life that he so badly damaged. A perfect example of how there can be forgiveness for one’s sins.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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