On Mosquito Point Road
Pearl and Jimmy Odell take 'justice' into their own hands
At noon on January 8, 1920, a young man’s body wearing only underwear was found off Mosquito Point Road (now Ballantyne Road in the Town of Chili). The body was seen by a train conductor inadequately stashed on the ice under the stone trestle that took the Pennsylvania Railroad across Black Creek just south of Genesee Junction and the Britton Field airstrip that would in increments grow into Rochester International Airport.
The man under the trestle had been stabbed, horribly slashed, disemboweled, his head caved in, and—most disturbingly—his head, with the exception of his face, had been skinned, the scalp flayed, his ears shredded, one ear hanging by a slim thread of cartilage.
Sixty feet from the trestle, Monroe County Sheriff Andrew Wiedenmann found two sets of footprints in blood-stained snow, a man’s and a woman’s. In nearby mud they found the heel of a woman’s shoe. The sheriff envisioned a woman dancing in distress as she watched one man gruesomely kill another.
As it turned out, he had it all wrong.
A break in the case came when cabdriver Charles Scherer told Rochester city police that he might’ve given the victim and his killers a ride out Scottsville Road as far as the Ballantyne Bridge. In the morgue, the cabbie viewed the corpse and, after wincing and losing his lunch, he verified that this was the man who’d been in his cab. As far as the man and woman with him, he’d overheard them discussing a man named Arnold, who lived on North Washington Street.
The next clue came when two employees of Gleason Works came voluntarily to the morgue and ID’d the corpse as their coworker, Ed Kneip. Kneip, they said, had been plagued at work by phone calls from a man accusing him of raping his wife.The man was Jimmy Odell, and the alleged victim was his wife, eighteenyear-old Pearl Beaver Odell.
The Odells had a landlord named Arnoldand lived on North Washington, so that clinched it. They were hauled in—Jimmy tried to make a run for it, but Pearl went timidly—and questioned separately. The couple quickly confessed to the murder. Asked why, Pearl said, “He had it coming to him. I was an innocent girl of sixteen when I was wronged by Kneip.”
The Odells had only been married for three weeks at the time of the murder, and the union had been blissful until she confessed her affair with Kneip, who’d promised marriage while they were alone in her boarding house but reneged once the deed was done.
Jimmy Odell let Pearl’s sullying eat at him until he vowed to kill Kneip—and made Pearl help him, to prove her true feelings. They kidnapped Kneip. Jimmy handcuffed him to Pearl and put them in the cab that took them to Chili. Jimmy used a rusty old gun that didn’t work to keep Kneip at bay. They took him back by the trestle and handcuffed him to a tree. Jimmy then handed his wife a large file and said, “If this man did anything wrong to you then go ahead and do what you want to with him.” Pearl grabbed the file and went to work on Kneip’s head, and the victim screamed into the night. Jimmy said Pearl was so brutal he had to look away. The victim went limp and was untied from the tree. But he was playing possum and went after Jimmy, who took a piece of a railroad tie and used it to put a hole in the victim’s skull. He then used the pistol to further whip the man until the gun broke into pieces.
The Odells were arraigned in Supreme Court on January 31. Both pleaded not guilty to Murder One. Jimmy’s trial began April 19. Throughout the trial the courtroom was standing room only, and a crowd gathered outside the courthouse as well, hoping to be first to hear a new development.
Most days, Pearl sat behind her husband wearing a blue cape with a green flapping collar, which was thrown open as she sat in the courtroom. Under the cape was a dress with a Georgette waist and hand-worked rosebuds on it. She wore a black straw hat and patent leather pumps.
The prosecution established the crime scene, then paraded witnesses who had seen the Odells going to and from the crime scene, with Kneip on the way there and without him coming back. The case against the couple was airtight. Besides, both had confessed.
The highlight of the trial was Pearl’s testimony on Jimmy’s behalf. She scandalized Rochester first by admitting that she’d lived with Jimmy for a couple of weeks before they were married. Women in the gallery swooned at the testimony’s earthiness, and smelling salts were administered. Then came this exchange:
District Attorney Bill Love: “You’ve had improper relations with Kneip about fifteen times, is that correct?”
Pearl: “Yes, it wasn’t any more than that.” A hubbub was squelched by Judge Thompson’s pounding gavel.
“You are pregnant, Mrs. Odell?”
That did it. There was chaos in the courtroom. More gavel.
“How far along are you with your pregnancy?”
Gears ground as the gallery calculated. The baby had to be Odell’s.
On April 23, 1920, the judge charged the jury, and deliberations began. Outside the courthouse, the streets were clogged with increasingly rowdy citizens waiting for news. After twelve hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Pearl was not in the courtroom, having collapsed earlier in the day. Pearl was allowed to see Jimmy one last time, before he was led away into the prison system and a date with the electric chair. They embraced.
“It was all for you,” were Jimmy’s last words to Pearl.
In May it was Pearl’s turn to face justice. Judge Thompson declared that the gallery would consist of press only, to avoid all of the fainting and caterwauling that had plagued the first trial.
Again, Pearl’s time on the witness stand, this time in her own defense, was the emotional highlight.
Regarding Kneip’s mistreatment of her, she testified, “He asked me to do unnatural things and said he was out with other girls. He struck me in the face when I broke it off with him.”
Jimmy Odell, too, had abused her when he learned that she was not a virgin. “Once when I was in bed, Jimmy shoved his knees into my stomach and called me his second-hand wife.”
As Pearl’s jury was deliberating, a reporter cornered District Attorney Love in the hall outside the courtroom: “If Pearl gets the chair, will she be allowed to have her baby?”
“Better she is executed before she gives birth,” Love said. “No child should be born under such circumstances.”
The district attorney had called for the execution of an unborn child, yet the comment yielded nary a ripple of controversy.
Once again there was a near riot outside the courthouse as jurors contemplated Pearl’s fate. Eight hours later they found her guilty of murder in the second degree, which spared her and her child the electric chair but bought her twenty years in Auburn Prison. In the courtroom, Pearl broke down when she heard Judge Thompson’s sentence, sobbing violently in an otherwise hushed courtroom.
On September 13, Pearl’s baby, Mildred Naomi Odell, was born in Mercy Hospital. Pearl was allowed to care for the baby for two years—plenty of time to bond, to say the least—before the child was taken from her and placed in an orphanage.
On April 27, 1921, Jimmy Odell sizzled in Sing Sing’s Ol’ Sparky. His body was returned to Rochester and buried in Riverside Cemetery.
In 1929 a false rumor gained considerable traction that little Mildred had been adopted by baseball legend Babe Ruth and his first wife, now news because the wife had just died in a house fire. The rumor forced the press to seek out the actual location of Pearl’s child, and they found her living happily with a well-to- do family in the Rochester area.
Pearl ended up serving ten years. For most of that time she worked as a nurse in the prison hospital. New York State Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt commuted her sentence.
At the train station after her release, she told a reporter that she was not returning to Rochester. She had a nursing job lined up in New York.
She added joyously, “The woman who was raising Mildred recently died, so there’s a chance I’ll get her back.”
Pearl had always been buoyed by light-hearted dreams, and this one turned out to be pure fantasy. Pearl boarded a train heading toward New York City and disappeared into the mists of time.