Even in the scandal-hungry world of roaring-’20s Hollywood, the story of psychopath Clara Phillips was in a class by itself.
“She came home covered in blood and kissed [her husband] Armour, and said, ‘I’ve taken care of everything for us. I’m going to make you dinner!’ ” said Kate Winkler Dawson, host of the Exactly Right Media true-crime podcast “Tenfold More Wicked,” whose fourth season premieres Monday, Jan. 17. This season’s title, “Tiger Woman,” refers to the media’s nickname for Phillips, a 23-year-old showgirl who, in July 1922, savagely murdered another young woman with a claw hammer.
“Nobody had ever seen a woman like Clara Phillips,” said Dawson, a historical true-crime author, documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
Phillips was related, by marriage, to one of the most prominent families in the United States — the Mellons, a Pittsburgh-based banking and oil dynasty. She was a singularly charming figure who enraptured the media with her good looks and displays of affection for her husband — even as she stood trial for the horrifying murder of 21-year-old Alberta Meadows, a (wrongly) perceived romantic rival. And she was one of the first female psychopaths to appear on the public radar.
The term “psychopath” had not entered the public lexicon then, and the media had two basic narratives for murderers, Dawson said. “There were crazy, rabid people who killed, and there were people who had a psychological break instigated by something like a cheating spouse. But there wasn’t the cold, heartless killer who’s almost incapable of empathy or remorse.”
That was Clara.
Phillips’ actions were initially dubbed a “crime of passion,” which Dawson said couldn’t be further from the truth. “It was a hundred percent premeditated,” she said. “With psychopathy, their aim is achieving a goal, and they’ll remove whatever obstacle there is. For Clara, she thought there was an obstacle to her marriage.”
Phillips and her husband had moved to Los Angeles from Texas several years earlier. Armour Phillips was “part of the Mellon family, but this was a poor part of the family that went to Texas — not the multimillionaire and billionaires,” Dawson said. Armour wasn’t a financial mastermind, but he was a talented grifter and con man, and he’d found a perfect partner in the pretty, volatile Clara, whom he married when they were both young, she still in her teens.
Clara came with a history. “There were other people in her family who were very violent,” said Dawson, and Clara herself had been known to be manipulative, including fabricating a story about being kidnapped as a child. In LA, “she got into fights with other showgirls,” said Dawson. She also fought with her husband, but was still fiercely devoted to him. When she heard a neighbor gossiping about Armour having an affair with Alberta Meadows, a widowed young bank teller, Phillips hatched a plan.
‘It was brutal’
On July 10, Phillips went shopping at a hardware store, accompanied by her friend and fellow showgirl Peggy Caffee. Phillips picked up a hammer and, as Dawson recounts in the podcast, bluntly asked a store employee if one could kill a woman with the tool. (Assuming she was joking, the clerk reportedly replied, “Yes, if you hit her hard enough with it.”)
The next day, Phillips and Caffee showed up outside Meadows’ workplace; Phillips, claiming to be drunk, asked Meadows to give them a ride to a house on Montecito Drive, an area that was remote at the time. Once outside of the city, she asked Meadows to get out of the car to discuss something with her — and, after the woman vehemently denied Phillips’ accusations that she was having an affair with Armour, Phillips fatally attacked Meadows with the hammer as Caffee sat stunned in the car.
“It was brutal,” said Dawson. “Many of the police officers in LA said they had never seen anything like that.” Phillips had struck Meadows more than 50 times, and for good measure rolled a boulder onto the woman’s dead body before driving home in Meadows’ car and cheerfully confessing everything to her husband. Armour put her on a train headed to Texas the next morning, then went to the cops.
Trial by liar
When Clara Phillips was hauled back to LA to face a trial, she found herself in the media spotlight, which she had craved forever. She flirted with reporters, declared her love for her husband and implausibly pointed the finger at the mousy Peggy, who wasn’t nearly as well received by the press.
Religious fundamentalists, who were a robust presence in LA alongside flapper culture, used the case to point to the era’s lack of morality. “This was an excuse to say, ‘This is what happens when women are given more independence,’ ” said Dawson.
After a sensational trial, including a moment in which Phillips dropped her charm and screamed at Caffee while her friend was on the witness stand, the “Tiger Woman” was sentenced to 10 years on second-degree murder charges. She “decided San Quentin wasn’t the place for her, so she organized a breakout” from the county jail, said Dawson. “We don’t really know the details — there are stories of her scaling the roof and dropping down two or three stories, but we know she had help, including from her husband.” It’s likely she simply paid off the jail matron and walked out, said the podcast host. Phillips fled to Mexico and then Honduras, where she spent several weeks before being recaptured.
Eventually, she settled into prison life, studying theater and singing and learning dentistry. In an interview in 1931, the Los Angeles Times reported Phillips was still remorseless. “I fought with Alberta on the top of Montecito Drive to protect the only love I have ever known … Armour L. Phillips is my baby. He has been my only baby. He is my very life, and when I realized he was being taken from me, I fought, fought, fought — so that I might always have him.”