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Murder of Minnesota woman leads to the execution of 'Rattlesnake James' by hanging in California

Greed, incest, murder and rattlesnakes tell the tale of a southern sharecropper turned barber turned murderer.

A picture of Mary Busch from an article in the Alexandria Citizen, written around the time of her death. 
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
A picture of Mary Busch from an article in the Alexandria Citizen, written around the time of her death.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
We are part of The Trust Project.

Editor's note: This is another installment of The Vault series, which examines crimes, missing persons, mysteries and other cases. Information is based on archived newspaper accounts. Warning: This story includes graphic accounts of violence.

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Robert James, born Raymond Lisenba of Alabama on March 6, 1894, would be dubbed "Rattlesnake James" during his murder trial of his fifth wife, Mary Busch of Alexandria, Minnesota, for his first cruel attempt at her death. But not his first alleged killing.

Barbered beginnings

Raymond Lisenba was born in Hale County, Alabama, in 1894 to a low-income family and worked as a sharecropper until his brother-in-law paid for him to attend barber school in Birmingham.

According to a 2017 article from Los Angeles Magazine, he was described as a pale, portly man with "beady, red-rimmed and green eyes, a high nasal voice," and red hair greased to the back of his head. "His neighbors said he was 'less than a half-wit'" as he never strived in the world of academics. But where he lacked intelligence, he made up with charm as he was popular with women.

Maud Duncan

During his time in Birmingham, James met Maud Duncan and formed a relationship with her. On Oct. 8, 1914, the two became husband and wife until his dark tendencies led to their divorce.

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James' desire for sadistic "activities" from Duncan startled her and drove a wrench into their relationship, and not long after the two were married, Duncan filed for divorce.

After his divorce, Lisenba started calling himself Robert James, moved to Kansas, and opened a barbershop, where he met his second wife.

Vera May

According to 1925 Kansas State Census records, while in Kansas, James married Vera May and lived a quiet life for a short while, as no records show any dubious doings.

That is until, one day, a rage-fueled man confronted James with the business end of a shotgun for allegedly impregnating the man's daughter behind May's back.

During this time, James received $4,000 from his uncle's death as he was the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

James abandoned May and hit the road for Fargo, North Dakota, where he opened up in yet another barbershop and married his third wife, who would prove not to be as lucky as the first two.

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A headshot of Robert James printed in the Oroville Mercury-Register
Contributed photo

Winona Wallace

James met Winona Wallace after opening his Fargo barbershop in 1932. The two married, and he immediately took out a life insurance policy on her of $14,000 — possibly inspired by his newly weighted bank account, thanks to this uncle's death.

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Three months after Wallace and James wed, the two took a trip down to Colorado Springs for their honeymoon, where things took a turn for the worse.

With Wallace behind the wheel, the newlyweds visited Pike's Peak, the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains just outside of Colorado Springs.

According to a statement made by James presented in a legal document, Lisenba vs. People of State of California, during their descent, Wallace lost control of the vehicle and drove off the side of the peak. James jumped out of the car in time, but his wife hurdled down, trapped inside their vehicle.

James fetched help, and by the time they reached Wallace, they found her unconscious but alive outside of the vehicle. Her head was badly wounded, and a bloody hammer laid in the back of the automobile.

Wallace spent two weeks in a Colorado hospital until she could finish her recovery in their Colorado Springs vacation rental. She had no recollection of the accident.

During her recovery, James walked to a grocery store for supplies and asked the grocer for a lift back to his wife. They found Wallace lying on her back in a water-filled tub, dead.

According to a medical examiner, James said she was self-conscious about her head wound and wanted to wash her hair, against the advice from her doctor, and that she must have slipped into the tub in her attempt after he left.

Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, and James collected the insurance money.

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It wouldn't be until his murder trial of his fifth wife that a request to exhume Wallace's body would reveal she received two skull fracturing blows to the head. Blows caused by a hard, moving object, like a hammer, rather than her head hitting against a hard object that a medical examiner would expect from a car accident.

An incestuous affair

With a small fortune, James returned to Alabama, where he took up a sexual relationship with his 18-year-old niece, whose father is the one that put James through barber school.

James convinced his niece to run away with him to California. He opened another barbershop where she could work as a manicurist.

Along the way, in an attempt to increase his fortune, he married a fourth woman, Ruth Thomas, in New Orleans, 1934. Their marriage was the shortest of all of James' as he annulled it right after she refused to take out a life insurance policy. She is reported saying, "People who take out a life insurance policy shortly end up dead."

However, James was able to add to his finances, thanks to his accident-prone nephew, Cornelious Wright, who, while home on leave from the military, was convinced by his uncle to take out a life insurance policy with James as the beneficiary.

James loaned Wright his vehicle, and Wright ended up driving off a cliff, killing himself. The mechanic who examined the vehicle afterward said it looked like someone tampered with the steering wheel.

James collected his money and continued with his niece to California.

Mary Busch

Mary Busch was a tall and beautiful blonde, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society in Alexandria, said a 1920 Douglas County census record shows that Busch spent her teenage years growing up in Hudson Township, modern-day Forada, south of Alexandria.

Eventually, she moved to California and answered an ad for a manicurist at a large barbershop ran by James in March of 1935.

James convinced Busch to marry him a month after taking the job. James took out a $10,000 policy on her, and three months later, she was pregnant, and James was looking to cash in.

Documents show that Charles Hope, a financially burdened ex-sailor and fry-cook customer of James', was convinced by James to conspire in the murder of Busch by promising him half of her insurance money, but they had to be creative as not to be suspicious. It had to appear like a death that couldn't be linked to them.

Their first attempt was to poison Busch with black widow spiders, which ultimately failed. Then Hope had an idea; he knew a guy named "Snake Joe" who would sell them rattlesnakes.

Daily Times.jpg
An article from the Daily Times about Robert James being denied a new trial.
Contributed photo

Lightning and Lethal

Hope sought out Snake Joe and purchased two diamondback rattlesnakes from him. He told Joe he had a rabbit problem and thought rattlesnakes might be the best way to fix it. Joe was skeptical but didn't read too much into it and sold two snakes -- Lethal and Lightning -- to Hope.

By the pond

According to court documents of the case, Lisenba vs. People of State of California , on Aug. 4, 1935, James blindfolded and tied Busch to a table and said a doctor would be arriving to perform an abortion, which James convinced her to have. Instead of a doctor, Hope came in with a box housing the two snakes.

Hope and James poured whiskey down Busch's throat, grabbed her leg and put it through an opening in the box. Busch suffered three strikes from the rattlers, satisfying her killers enough to end the torture and wait for the venom to set in.

Hope waited inside a car in the garage, and James would give him occasional updates.

After the venom failed to do its job, an impatient James hauled his wife to their bathroom and drowned her in the tub, according to court documents.

James went to Hope and said, "Well, that's it," according to later testimony from Hope.

Hope said he walked in and saw Busch lying on the floor outside the bathroom, dead. He helped James by grabbing her head while James grabbed her feet, and together they laid Busch's body next to a fish pond in the backyard.

The next day at his barbershop, James invited friends of his and Busch's to have dinner. They expected Busch to be home, possibly cooking supper, and were alarmed when she wasn't. Playing the worried husband, he told the friends how he hadn't seen Busch and that they should set out through the neighborhood to search for her.

After searching the neighborhood, James suggested checking out by the pond. They found Busch dead, with a black and blue punctured leg. The authorities came and dubbed the death an accidental drowning. James was in the clear, but not for long.

A bugged house

James attempted to seek double indemnity for the death of his wife but the insurers refused to pay, which resulted in lawsuits. The buzz around this attempt to collect money started a new investigation into Busch's murder and an examination of Wallace's old wounds, where they found she was struck with a hammer prior to her cliff-side crash.

The authorities bugged his house with audio recorders. They heard James engaging in acts with many women, including his niece, which was enough to arrest him for incest, a felony offense in California at the time.

In the meantime, Hope, drunk at a bar, bragged about how he and James got away with murder. The bartender informed the police, and soon Hope was arrested as well.

The death of Rattlesnake James

During his trial, which began on June 22, 1936, the media sensationalized James, referring to him as "Rattlesnake James" and the "Barbershop Casanova." They overlooked the cruelty he put women through and focused more on the novelty of the snakes and his looks.

They even had him pose for photos in his jail cell. One picture shows him trying to cut away at his cell bars with a saw, while another shows him sitting with a cigar in his hand and a smile across his face, with the prison bars in the background.

On May 2, 1942, Robert James became the last man to hang in the state of California in San Quentin Prison. He suffered as the rope was too long, which caused him to struggle for 10 minutes, according to newspaper accounts.

His eyes barely shifted as his last appeal was denied; all he said was, "I can take it. Let's just say that Rattlesnake Bob James is not afraid to die."

Sources used for this story

Research materials were compiled by the director of the Douglas County Historical Society, Brittany Johnson.

Sources used:

Related Topics: MINNESOTATRUE CRIME
Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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