Wednesday, November 30, 2022

November 30, 1954: Swim Champion Dies Pursuing Hollywood Stardom

Virginia Hopkins Watson, an Illinois native, had been on a record-setting relay swimming team with Esther Williams in 1939. Virginia had herself set the world's fifty-meter record in 1938. 

When she was admitted to California Hospital on November 26, 1954, doctors had reason to believe that something fishy was going on. They provided care until around 8:00 on the evening of November 29, when they transferred her to General Hospital because her kidneys had shut down, requiring an artificial kidney machine that California Hospital didn't have.

The kidney machine was unable to save Virginia's life. She died shortly before midnight. An autopsy concluded that she had died from peritonitis, bronchopneumonia, and purulent pericarditis. An abortionist had punched a hole in her uterus with an instrument, leading to the fatal infection.

It wasn't until 4:15 the morning of November 30 that anybody reported the cause of her illness to the police for investigation. 

Virginia had been 32 years old and pursuing a Hollywood career, hoping to follow the trail blazed by her former teammate. However, after being offered a small movie role in "Jungle Jim" with "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller, she became pregnant. Since she couldn't do the movie in a visible state of pregnancy, Virginia arranged to have an abortion on November 18. 

An investigation uncovered that she had arranged for a lay abortionist, Roger Fred Brenon, to come to her house and perform the abortion there. Brenon had only been paroled three days earlier after serving 11 months of a jail term for perpetrating abortions that hadn't proved fatal to the women.

Virginia and her husband, Arthur, had been married for about ten years. They were living in a home shared with Virginia's mother. 

Arthur, who had to be compelled to testify in hearings and promised immunity, wept as he told his story. When shown a photo of Virginia that had been taken in the morgue, Arthur immediately looked away and cried, "Turn it over!"

Arthur seemed to have carefully avoided learning too much about what was going on even after observing Brenon in the kitchen evidently sterilizing some instruments  by boiling them on the stove. At Virginia's instruction, Arthur also wrote a check payable to cash for $150 and gave it to Brenon. (About $870 in 2020)

After the abortion, Virginia became sick with vomiting and bleeding before passing the dead fetus. 

By November 26, Virginia had difficulty in breathing and was taken to California Hospital. 

In telling the authorities about the events that led to his wife's death, he indicated that Brenon had visited Virginia two years earlier, spent time alone with her, and went off with a check Arthur had written. During  both visits, Arthur said, he'd been under the impression that Brenon was a physician named Rogers. 

Police Officer Herman Zander said that he had questioned Brenon after Virginia's death. Brenon had hedged about whether he knew Virginia. He attributed any possible acquaintance to the fact that he and his father had been members of the club where Virginia was a swimming teacher. When Officer Zander asked Brenon if he had used a catheter and a solution of tincture of green soap to induce an abortion on Virginia, Brenon reportedly responded, "I never used a catheter before. I always used a small glass syringe."

Brenon waived trial and chose to have his case heard before Judge Clement D. Nye. Brenon was convicted of second-degree murder in Virginia's death. He received a sentence of five years to life, along with a 1- to 5-year sentence for a probation violation. 

On appeal Brenon asserted that the testimony of Virginia's husband needed corroborating evidence, since Arthur was an accomplice, not merely a witness. Arthur had claimed 5th Amendment protection during Brenon's trial. He had admitted Brenon to the house, observed him cleaning instruments, written him a check, and destroyed the cancelled check when it was returned by the bank. Brenon's appeal was denied.


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