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Rattlesnake Lisemba


On this date in 1939, a former Fargo barber learned he would be hanged for his most recent wife’s murder. She was his last victim, but not his first; his first was Winona Wallace, of Fargo.

Raymond Lisemba was born to Alabama sharecroppers in 1895 and was living the life of a cotton picker when he learned he was the sole beneficiary of his uncles’ $4,000 life insurance policy. Lisemba moved to Birmingham, changed his name to Robert James, and went to barber college. At age 26, he married Maud Duncan, who quickly divorced him for sadistic cruelty.

James moved to Kansas, opened a barbershop and married again. Things worked out until a stranger came at him with a shotgun for getting his young daughter pregnant. James skipped town, leaving his wife behind. He moved to Fargo in 1932, bought another barbershop and married a Fargo woman, Winona Wallace. He immediately took out a life insurance policy on her, and three months later, they went to Pike’s Peak for their honeymoon. In 1941, a legal document in Lisemba vs. People stated: “...while driving down Pike’s Peak, their automobile went off the road. James went for aid. When the persons called upon reached the automobile they found James’ wife lying partly outside the car with her head badly crushed and a bloody hammer in the back of the car. James appeared unhurt.”

Winona recovered after two weeks in the hospital, and the couple stayed in a tourist cabin near Colorado Springs. Jay Robert Nash, author of Bloodletters and Badmen, writes, “...a short time later James arrived at a police station to report that his poor wife had drowned in a bathtub. He explained that she must have still been dizzy from the mountain mishap and slipped unconscious beneath the water.”

James collected a $14,000 insurance settlement and headed back to Alabama to marry wife number four. When she learned he wanted to take out life insurance on her, she said, “People you insure always die of something strange,” and divorced him.

His next victim was his accident-prone nephew, Cornelius Wright. James took out insurance on the young sailor, invited him to visit while on leave, and gave him the use of his car. Nash writes, “Wright promptly drove off a cliff, killing himself. The mechanic who towed the wreck back to James told him that something was wrong with the steering wheel...”

James next opened a large barbershop in Los Angeles, where he insured and then married a tall, blond, 26-year-old manicurist named Mary Busch. In 1935, James and a friend, Charlie Hope, procured two rattlesnakes, and for half the life insurance, Hope helped James kill Mary. Mary was pregnant and allegedly wanted an abortion, so James had Hope pose as a doctor who could help her out. Hope arrived at the house to find James had blindfolded Mary and tied her to the kitchen table. They reportedly gave her whiskey so she wouldn’t feel anything and then stuck her foot into a box containing the snakes. They left her to die, but when James came home, Mary was still alive. Hope testified that James then drowned her in the bathtub, dragged her to a lily pond in the back yard, and left her face down in the water to be “accidentally” discovered the next day.

Police first believed Mary had gotten drunk and accidentally drowned. But a few months later, James – now going as Major Raymond Lisemba – was arrested on a different crime. A subsequent investigation finally landed him in San Quentin for Mary’s murder. On May 9, 1942, he was the last man to die in the gallows in California. Unfortunately for Robert James, the hanging was poorly maneuvered; it took more than ten minutes for him to die.

Sources: People v. Lisenba (14 C2d 403), October 5, 1939; Lisenba v. People of State of California (314 US 219), December 8, 1941; Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, 1995; Fargo Forum, March 22, 1939

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm