Murder in Lower Berth 13

The scream piercing that cold Oregon night on the speeding train echoed a scenario reminiscent of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."

But there was no Hercule Poirot to solve the real-life murder mystery of the young woman in Lower Berth 13 on the Southern Pacific Railroad train racing through the Willamette Valley in the pre-dawn darkness on Jan. 23, 1943.

"This was probably the most widely publicized railroad murder of the century," said historian Larry Mullaly of Central Point.

"But it eludes an easy solution. The drama of the events surrounding the murder and peculiarities of the trial are very strong. The case is very complicated and driven by personalities."

Mullaly will present a free talk, "Murder in Lower Berth 13," beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the Gresham Room of the Ashland library.

Like the fictional Orient Express tale first published in January 1934, the Oregon railroad murder involved a killing by a knife-wielding murderer. However, unlike Christie's famous detective story, there was only one murderer on the Southern Pacific train.

The case smacked of racism, shoddy and questionable police work and a trial that was anything but fair and open, Mullaly said.

The assailant took the life of a 20-year-old Virginia woman in a Pullman sleeping car near Tangent, a farming hamlet just south of Albany.

The victim, Martha Virginia Brinson James, had been married four months earlier to a Navy pilot, Ensign Richard F. James. Her throat was cut. At the time, her husband was riding on a military train in front of the passenger train.

Like countless other newspapers, the Medford Mail Tribune carried the wire story the next day relating how an unknown assailant had "crept into lower berth 13 of a speeding Pullman, and slashed the throat of a navy ensign's attractive bride when she awoke and screamed in the night."

The public demanded the heinous crime be solved quickly.

Robert E. Lee Folkes, 20, a black cook on the train, was arrested when the train arrived in Los Angeles. Following a trial in Albany, he was convicted and sentenced to death. He died in the Oregon State Penitentiary gas chamber on Jan. 5, 1945.

Mullaly, co-author of the book "The Southern Pacific in Los Angeles, 1873-1996," became captivated by the story after he discovered documents at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

"I stumbled on it by accident," he said of what was called the railroad detective report on the crime. He later obtained the 1,000-page court transcripts of the trial and pored over newspaper accounts.

"I've always been interested in the social aspects of transportation," he said. "This trial gives you a real window in a very limited point in time."

Mullaly concluded that justice received poor treatment at the very least in the case that attracted national attention. He also wondered whether someone had gotten away with a horrible murder.

"It is never as clear as a black man wrongfully accused," he said. "But the trial took place in Linn County, where there were only two blacks in the entire county at the time."

Consider the editorial that ran in the Portland Oregonian newspaper on the same day the victim was buried in Norfolk, Va., he said.

Under the headline, "Reflections on a Murder," the editorial read, "When a Negro goes bad, his criminality is likely to take the form of attacks upon white women. And his misdeeds are likely to be associated in some way with a razor blade or knife."

While that blatant racist assertion represented some of the worst examples, the Fourth Estate did little to ensure the accused would receive a fair trial in the case that was front-page news across the country, Mullaly said.

"The race angle was extreme," he said. "She was a Virginia debutante who had gone to finishing school. He came from the other side of the track."

Folkes was described as the assailant by a Marine Corps private who had occupied the upper berth 13 that night, Mullaly said, although noting the Marine initially identified the assailant as white before changing the identity to black.

"When Folkes was arrested in L.A., he told the police he would give them a confession if they took him to his home and gave him some whiskey," Mullaly said. "His wife and his mother said he was drunk when he came to the home. He was later posed for photographs with knives in front of him."

Folkes later recanted his confession, but told a different story each time he was asked about details that night, the historian said.

"He was the accused from hell," Mullaly said, citing the difficulty the defense attorney had in dealing with him because he kept changing his story.

"Folkes himself said that every time he told the story it came out differently," Mullaly said.

In 1943, there was no requirement for prior disclosure. Neither the railroad investigators nor the Oregon State Police released pertinent information to the defense, Mullaly said.

"This was not uncommon at the time," he said, noting the defending attorney was forced to respond on the spot to new information presented by the prosecution during the trial.

"Defense lawyers considered this a trial by ambush," he noted.

The murder weapon was never found, and all the knives were accounted for in the gallery where the cooks worked, he said.

Finally, there was suspicion by some black porters that the Marine Corps private may have been the real murderer, he said. Perhaps it was just a coincidence the Marine Corps training manual used during World War II explained precisely how to cut an enemy combatant's throat, he noted.

"It's very hard to determine what really happened that night," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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