1909 Newcastle killing recalled for Heritage tour

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
-A +A
Joanie Maxwell’s love of history is landing her in jail on Saturday. But in a good way. Maxwell, who guides Old Town Auburn walking tours, will be welcoming guests inside the intimidating confines of what was once the women’s jail. It’s tucked away below a staircase at the Placer County Courthouse. And Maxwell will be in character – dressed as lovelorn killer Alma Bell, a local lady who turned to homicide in 1909 after being cast aside by her lover. Maxwell, one of three women who will take turns telling Bell’s story during this weekend’s Heritage Trail tour of Placer County Museums, said she welcomed the opportunity to play the role of a woman whose murder trial constituted a local cause celebré and garnered coverage in San Francisco and Sacramento newspapers. “I think she’s fascinating – just on the basis of the fact that she killed a man, admitted she had, and was acquitted,” Maxwell said. Through the clouded window of time, Bell’s acquittal on the charge sounds ludicrous. But accounts in the Placer Herald of the killing, trial and acquittal indicate that the public sentiment overwhelmingly swayed toward the jilted female lover rather than 25-year-old Joe Ames, the man who had made the fatal mistake of trying to leave her behind. Bell, daughter of legendary gold miner Pike Bell, shot the man she said was her fiancé and the love of her life on a Saturday night in early June. She was incarcerated soon after in the Women’s Jail at the Old Town Auburn courthouse. She went on trial in late November and was acquitted by reason of insanity. The Herald account of the trial said a majority of jurors favored acquittal during deliberations and convinced the holdouts to come over to their side based on “the unwritten law” associated with men promising to marry women. The whole sordid affair turned out to be “a warning to young men and should prove a bitter lesson to young womanhood,” the Herald surmised. Jurors may have had some second thoughts a short time later after Bell – now working as a domestic for a family in Willows – threatened to kill them all and was subsequently fired. Maxwell said she’ll only be telling Bell’s story up to the trial. Then there’s the mysterious fire that burned down the farmhouse of her former boyfriend’s family four months before Ames was killed. There’s still plenty of mystery surrounding the case and Auburn’s Alma Bell – a woman who, much like California’s “Vigilante Mom” Ellie Nesler in 1993 – ignited a public furor by taking the law into her own hands. Nesler served three years in prison for the courtroom killing of a man alleged to have molested her son and three other boys. Fascinated by the century-old story, Maxwell said she recently visited the Bell family gravesite at the Old Auburn Cemetery. And while employees said Alma is buried there, there is no headstone. One living link to Bell and her trial is the jail cell – looking much as it did in 1909. Dank, dark and tiny, it served the county between about 1905 and 1941. The Museums Division has a display at the cell but people don’t normally get to walk through the heavy steel door to get an up-close look at Bell’s temporary home. Melanie Barton, museums administrator, said it isn’t uncommon during a rain to have water drip into the cell and, during the summer, the room can become hot and uncomfortable. Bell, 23, didn’t complain about the five-month sojourn behind bars and spent much of her time sewing needlepoint and lace that were sold at local churches to bolster her defense fund. “We wanted to open this up and let people see what it feels like,” Barton said. “It’s one way on the Heritage Trail that we’re giving people a chance to get a more intimate feel for museums.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at ------------------------------ Heritage Trail: Placer County Museums Tour When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday What: Free admission to open house at 18 museums throughout Placer County Information online: theheritagetrail.blogspot. com Information by phone: (530) 889-6500