Mayhem on a Marriage-Go-’Round

On the near South Side, the 400 block of Page Street is sandwiched between Hemphill and South Main streets and, more tightly, between two railroad tracks.

The north side of the 400 block is covered by a natural gas well installation.

The installation is surrounded by a chain-link fence. Mounted on that fence one hundred feet from the corner street sign is another sign:

And that sign brings us to the story of Marguerite Bentley, Sam Jiles Flippen, and a supporting cast of ten ex-spouses, one pseudo ex-spouse, one widow, and one fiancee.

That “Danger” sign is mounted where a two-story wooden house once stood at 418 Page.

In 1915 the house was occupied by Mrs. Bentley. She was separated from her husband, Rufus Boyd Bentley.

Rufus Bentley worked for one of the railroads as a “stock keeper.”

Mrs. Bentley, thirty-six, living on her own and needing to make ends meet, rented rooms in her house to boarders.

In March 1915 she had three boarders, all railroad men.

One of them was Sam Flippen, twenty-eight, a switchman for the Katy railroad.

Flippen was born in Henrietta in Clay County in 1887.

By 1915 he had been a railroad man at least eight years. In 1907 at age twenty he had been a brakeman for the Rock Island railroad in Fort Worth.

In 1913 Flippen had worked briefly as a switchman for the Northern Pacific railroad in Montana.

By then he had been married twice: to Corrie Perry in Oklahoma in 1911 and to Ruth Murray in Utah in 1913.

On March 21, 1915, a Sunday, Flippen had been boarding with Mrs. Bentley at 418 Page Street about one month. But he had recently told Mrs. Bentley that he was going to move out soon because he was engaged to marry Bonnie Ivey of Oklahoma.

Mrs. Bentley’s bedroom and Flippen’s bedroom were on the ground floor of her boardinghouse. The two bedrooms shared a bathroom.

Mrs. Bentley later told the Star-Telegram: “I have had trouble with this boy [Flippen] for ten days. He kept forcing his attention upon me and writing endearing notes. One morning a week ago he forced his way into my bedroom when he came from work.

“He got so bad Saturday that I told him he would have to leave. He got me out of bed Saturday night several times to talk over the telephone. He told me that he wouldn’t leave and that I would have to accept his attentions.

“I was asleep when he returned to the house Sunday morning. I had the door leading out into the parlor locked and that opening into the bathroom fastened by a rope tied to the knob and my bed. Flippen came to the bathroom door and jerked it so hard that he pulled the rope loose.

“He came in and walked up to my bed. He insulted me. I objected, and he reached down and took hold of my throat, saying he was going to choke me.

“My throat is still sore.

“I ordered him five times to leave, and he refused. Then I stepped out of bed with my pistol in my hand. Flippen backed up against the door and stood there with his arms outstretched, barring the way. I tried to push him to one side and failed. I said: ‘If I can’t get rid of you, I’ll call for assistance’ and walked over to the phone. He replied: ‘I’ll cut your heart out if you have any, and if you haven’t I’ll cut you to pieces anyway.’ He stepped toward me, putting his hand back to his pocket, where he always carried a dirk [open-blade knife]. I warned him to stop and when he refused dropped him.”

A neighbor, H. G. Crawford (yet another railroad man), responded to the sound of the gunshot and found Flippen lying face up on the floor of his room. He was dead, shot once through the heart.

“I am a woman,” Mrs. Bentley told the Star-Telegram, “and I have no one to look to for protection. I shot Flippen in self-defense and have no regrets for the act. It is awful to take a human life, but I was justified, and I have no fear of the consequences.”

Mrs. Bentley was charged with murder and freed on $2,500 bond.

The newspaper in Duncan, Oklahoma, where Flippen had lived as a child and had visited three days before his death, wrote that “mystery surrounds the killing” and wondered if Mrs. Bentley falsely confessed to shield the real killer, even though the newspaper based its report on an article in the Dallas Morning News, which contained no hint of “mystery.”

Sam Jiles Flippen is buried in Duncan beside his mother. His tombstone bears the emblem of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.

In July, as Mrs. Bentley was awaiting trial for murder, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen was trying to locate Flippen’s widow Ruth, whom Flippen had made the beneficiary of an insurance policy. The brotherhood discovered that in 1913 Flippen had married Ruth while still married to first wife Corrie.

Corrie divorced Flippen five months after he married Ruth. Flippen and Ruth apparently were still married when he became engaged to Bonnie Ivey.

In January 1915 Flippen took out the policy benefiting Ruth and two months later was engaged to Bonnie Ivey while pitching unwelcome woo to Mrs. Bentley.

(Corrie’s divorce suit had accused Flippen of infidelity. She claimed that “other women” continually wrote him love letters and telephoned him.)

In August 1915, while free on bond awaiting trial for murder, Mrs. Bentley filed for divorce from railroad man Rufus Boyd Bentley.

In December Mrs. Bentley married another railroad man: John Francis Bidwell, who worked for Texas & Pacific.

Fast-forward to March 1916—one year after the shooting of Sam Flippen. Mrs. Bentley went on trial for murder.

One of her attorneys was Charles Mays, one of Fort Worth’s most successful criminal defense lawyers of his time. He defended First Baptist Church pastor J. Frank Norris in 1912 and 1925.

During jury selection in the Bentley case prospective jurors—all male, all white—were asked if they could assess the death penalty to a woman and if they felt a woman has “a right to kill in defense of her virtue.”

Most of the prospective jurors who were disqualified had said they could not judge a woman the same as a man.

One of the jurors selected was numismatist Max Mehl.

Mrs. Bentley was present during jury selection, flanked by two female friends. The Star-Telegram wrote that Mrs. Bentley seemed “emotionless” and only politely interested in the proceedings.

She chewed gum.

On March 21 testimony began. The defense would argue that Mrs. Bentley shot Flippen in self-defense. The prosecution would argue that Mrs. Bentley shot Flippen because she was in love with him and had learned that he intended to move out of her boardinghouse and marry Bonnie Ivey.

Mrs. Bentley claimed that she shot Flippen in her room, but his body was found in his room. He was lying on his back, his head near the door.

The prosecution argued that the position of Flippen’s body indicated that she went to his room and shot him as he faced his door, not that he went to her room and was shot there.

On the second day of testimony the prosecution played the matrimony card.

It revealed that Mrs. Bentley had been married nine times—ten if you count a marriage that turned out to be less than legal.

The courtroom was packed with three hundred spectators to hear special prosecutor A. J. Baskin attack the character of Mrs. Bentley, declaring that she had “disregarded the most sacred thing given to the human family—the marriage relation.”

After that bombshell, Mrs. Bentley took the witness stand.

She testified that one morning just before the shooting Flippen kissed her in the kitchen.

“I was perfectly furious,” she testified. “I asked him what he meant by it, and he said he couldn’t help it. I slapped him.”

On the Friday night before the shooting on Sunday, she testified, she told Flippen he would have to move out of her boardinghouse.

When he asked why, she told him it was because he hadn’t apologized for kissing her.

He told her, she said, he had no intention of marrying fiancée Bonnie Ivey and “I think more of your little finger than I do of her whole body.”

Mrs. Bentley testified that during the night before the shooting Flippen, who worked nights at the Katy yard, telephoned her five times.

During one phone call, she testified, Flippen said to her: “You ought not to be alone up there.”

To which she replied: “What have you got to say to me this time of the morning? What do you mean by calling me at this hour?”

“I mean just this: I’m going to have you or kill you. I’m going to get a day job and stay with you. You’re lonesome; that’s what’s the matter with you. I’m too good a reader of human nature not to know that you need companionship.”

(A man who worked with Flippen in the Katy yard testified that Flippen would had to have left the yard to make telephone calls and that Flippen’s absence five times would have been noticed by fellow workers.)

Mrs. Bentley testified that about 7:30 on Sunday morning she heard someone come in the front door and go into Flippen’s room. He appeared to stagger or stumble, she said, and she heard him knock over the gas stove in his room. Then she heard him come to the bathroom, between her room and his, and heard him try to open her door, which was “locked” with the rope.

She told him to go away, but he persisted, and on the third attempt broke the rope. When he came into her room she tried to reason with him kindly, she testified, because she had always heard that kindness is the best way to handle a drunken man.

Flippen put his hand under her chin and patted her cheek. Then he placed his hand on her neck, she testified.

“Please keep your hands to yourself,” she said she told him. Flippen leaned over her, however, and when he did she seized him by the hair and slapped him. Then she leaped out of bed, still pushing and slapping at him, and pushed him through the bathroom door. Before she could close it, however, he got his arm and railroad lantern in the opening. She pleaded with him to leave, she testified, but he reached for her throat again and repeated his threat that he would either “have possession of me or kill me.”

Flippen saw her gun lying on he bed. He declared that he wasn’t afraid of it.

Mrs. Bentley testified that she told him: “God knows I don’t want to have to use anything like that.”

She took the gun to the telephone stand and placed it on a shelf. Then she called the central switchboard to telephone her neighbor.

“I’ll cut your heart out, woman. Don’t you try to do anything like that,” she said Flippen threatened.

When she attempted to telephone the South Side police station, Flippen threatened to cut her to pieces.

But he left her bedroom, Mrs. Bentley testified, and she “relocked” the bathroom door with the rope.

But about 8 a.m. Flippen pulled the rope loose again and opened the door into her bedroom.

This time, Mrs. Bentley testified, she raised her pistol and fired one shot at his chest.

On March 23 the prosecution continued to malign Mrs. Bentley’s character and her claim that she shot Flippen in her room in self-defense, whereas the truth was that she shot him in his room because he was going to move out and marry Bonnie Ivey.

Bonnie Ivey was in the courtroom during this presentation.

Captain George Cooper, the first policeman to reach the scene of the shooting, testified that he found no knife on Flippen’s body, contrary to Mrs. Bentley’s account. Cooper said he found “a sort of dagger” on top of Flippen’s trunk in his room.

He said Mrs. Bentley appeared “calm” at the scene.

The Star-Telegram wrote: “J. F. Etheridge, who was rooming at the Fort Worth Undertaking Company establishment at the time of the killing, testified for the state that Mrs. Bentley came to the parlors about 5 or 6 o’clock the evening Flippen was killed. She looked at Flippen’s body about five minutes, he said, walked off and left it, then returned and looked at it again. Then, he said, she walked into an adjoining room and sat down and read a funny paper.”

After closing arguments the judge instructed the jury to consider verdicts of murder, manslaughter, and self-defense.

The jury found Mrs. Bentley guilty of manslaughter and assessed a suspended five-year prison sentence.

When the verdict was read, Mrs. Bentley—now Mrs. Bidwell—her husband, and the two friends who had sat with her during the trial shook hands with jurors and court officers.

Marguerite Bidwell was a free woman.

In more ways than one:

In February this classified ad had begun appearing in the Star-Telegram.

In May 1916 John Francis Bidwell, Mrs. Bidwell’s ninth official husband, filed for divorce after six months of marriage.

Perhaps he saw signs of danger:

In seeking a divorce, Bidwell cited his wife’s “cruel treatment” and claimed that she had threatened to kill him.

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One Response to Mayhem on a Marriage-Go-’Round

  1. Justin Tate says:

    Alot of class….

    Too bad it was all low

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