Thursday, June 9, 2011

Who Was Anna Corbin? One Of The Stories Behind The Preston School of Industry

There have been many sites that speak of Anna Corbin, yet no one had revealed anything about her life prior to her death. You see, when I heard about the untimely death of Mrs. Anna Corbin at Preston Castle, I noticed one thing, no one could really say who she was or what her life was like. It’s almost as if the ghost stories took on a life of their own and for some apparent reason people seemed to be far more interested in what happened after her death, rather than what happened before her death.

Anna’s Earlier Years

Anna Corbin was born on January 16, 1898 in Kansas as Anna Laura Lawton. She was the daughter of Etta Edna Little (1865-1945) and Wilber Austin Lawton (1857-1936) of Americus, Kansas. Her parents were farmers, although Wilber had been a banker, postmaster, politician, Justice of the Peace, under-Sherrif, and member of the School Board during his lifetime. (See Anna's Family Genealogy Notes). As a child Anna went with her older sister Loverna to live with their aunt and uncle in order to attend school in Emporia, Kansas.

After graduating from Emporia High School, Anna met and married Robert Travis Corbin in 1918. A year later a son, Harold Jay Corbin was born in 1919. Since Robert T. Corbin was a Truck Driver it seemed to have made them move around quite a bit. They moved to Colorado where their daughter Avis M. Corbin was born in 1924.  The US Census Records for 1930 lists that the Corbin's were living in Whittier, California (East Los Angeles). The records also show Robert as being 34 years old, Anna 32, Harold 11, and Avis 6. Sometime around 1935, they relocated up to Ione, California, where Robert became a group supervisor at the Preston School of Industry, while Anna became a housekeeper.  

In 1941, Harold Jay Corbin was listed on a draft register card during WWII. Sadly, in 1943 Harold Jay Corbin, only 24 years old, was killed in action during the war. His name is featured as one of the first Amador County residents who were killed in action while serving in the military on the recently made War Veterans Memorial in Ione. He was stationed out of Presidio of Monterey, Army Air Force (2LT # 0-666635). Buried March 14, 1950 at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.  The Social Security Death Index records indicate that her husband, Robert Corbin, died on May 29,1947 at the Veterans Home of California in Napa, California. He is buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Sacramento.

Let’s try to step into Anna’s shoes for a moment, shall we? Now imagine you are a middle aged woman, a wife and mother,  and both your son and husband had died. Anna's parents had died as well years prior. Now how would you feel inside? Think about it. There she was, the only parent left for her newly married daughter, Avis. How do you think she felt? Now imagine it is 1950, and here she was not only grieving for two of the most important men in her life but she also had to work full time as a head housekeeper as her only means of support.

Think about this also, her son Harold died in 1943, and yet the US Air Force had not brought his body back to be buried until 1950. His internment was March 14, 1950 a whole month after Anna’s death. So in her lifetime she was never able to visit her son’s grave or know exactly what happened to his body in order to find closure. That must have been agonizing to say the least. I am a mother and I know for a fact losing a child, at any age would be devastating. No doubt she was worn out about life, although many say it didn’t stop her from being a loving and nurturing person. Anna was considered as a second mother to many of the inmates at Preston.

“When I said she was a mother to the boys, I meant just that. She did a great deal to rehabilitate many of the inmates and was one of the greatest contributors to the fact that many of the youths who leave here never again wind up being police problems.”  -- Quote from Superintendent Chandler, Stockton Record. (2/24/1950)

 Another tidbit to add, Anna DID NOT live in an apartment at Preston as so many reports and television shows claim. In fact, the newspapers at the time wrote that Mrs. Corbin lived in a five-room home on Marquette Street in Ione. Well, anyone who knows Ione knows that there is no Marquette St. However, there is a Market Street and a Marlette either street is a possible choice. I have yet to learn the exact address of Anna's former home, but I hope to share this information with the public as soon as it becomes available.

The Day Of The Murder

It was Thursday- February 23, 1950. Many say that just before a staff meeting held by the Superintendent Robert V. Chandler, a ward discovered the body and notified the staff of the grisly finding. According to the Amador Ledger, dated February 24, 1950, it stated that a fellow staff member Lillian McDowell was the one who found Anna.

Many online sites that speak of Anna Corbin's death start to contradict themselves about this point. Some say she was killed in the kitchen, some say she was killed in a room in the basement, known as the “mattress room”. Some say she was stuffed in a cupboard while some say she was left on the floor.**

** (One note to add, I am posting what all the newspapers claimed at the time, it doesn't mean each account is accurate. As you will read on in this article, you will see that Anna was found in a room in the basement, as other archives, witness accounts and official reports confirm).

c/o Oakland Tribune 2/24/50
According to the Amador Ledger's article (2/24/1950) it states that Anna was found several hours after her death in a store room, wrapped in a rug and she had been beaten severely on the head and body with a rope wrapped around her neck. What people always leave out in their stories is the fact that the room Anna was found in was locked and the staff member had to unlock the door to access the room in which Anna's body was found. It was also mentioned in the paper that Director of the California Youth Authority Program, Karl Holton stated that not only the inmates would be investigated but also the staff.

Another newspaper article that confirms this (Oakland Tribune dated February 24, 1950) also states,  housekeeper Lillian Lee McDowell and her helper-inmate Robert Hall both noticed a trail of  blood from Anna's office leading into the school store room and into a padlocked closet where Lillian unlocked it to discover Anna's bludgeoned body.

The Head Gardener at Preston, Jeff Machado seemed to be the last person to see her alive as he claimed to have brought her the acacia blossoms around 9:30 a.m. Anna's body was discovered around 1:30-2 pm. Another housekeeper, Elizabeth Goodman stated that around 10:23 am she came into Anna's office and left an apple on her desk. That apple was still there upon the discovery of Anna's body.

According to Lillian McDowell, after seeing the blood trail leading to the store room from the supply room, she and her helper Robert Hall noticed that a ladder was overturned, mop buckets were tossed around and rugs covered in blood along with a pool of blood on the floor. The Coroner stated that she had been dead for at least 3-4 hours when her body was discovered. That meant she died between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. that morning. Another thing I want to point out is that according to other archives, the boy who found Anna's body,  Robert Hall gave a statement that Anna was actually found behind rolls of carpet in the storage room, not a closet, but a padlocked room that was 16 x 35 feet in size in the basement.

A source of mine revealed to me that another ward that was at Preston during that time that Anna was murdered, came to Preston as an adult and spoke about his memory of the event saying that he actually saw Anna's body in the basement, in the larger room when investigators had just got to the scene, which corroborates Hall's statement.  Another employee of Preston who has been interviewed also made a statement that Anna was found in a larger room and not a closet.  No matter where people want to claim she was found, an exact location is left for us only to speculate, one thing is for sure, we know that Anna was found in the basement, covered by carpet.

Update: (6/24/2015) "So after speaking to John Lafferty yesterday, and after discussing the murder of Anna Corbin, we have both agreed that Anna Corbin's body was found in the basement, but not where most people think. We believe she was found in the room where the disenfecting pool (plunge bath) was located.

This information corroborates the statements from Lillian McDowall and Robert Hall who found Anna's body. They claimed the room she was found in was 16 x 35 feet in size (another news account said the room was 10 x 17). In any case, I always knew she was not found in the cubby hole that has been told over and over for years. Thankfully that information given by eye witness statements and the evidence John Lafferty had found in a transcribed oral statement of a staff member, claiming that Anna's body was found in the room with the pool that had been boarded over, we finally know the exact location where Anna was discovered. 

I am glad that particular part of the mystery is finally put to rest. Thank you Mr. Lafferty for confirming a theory I had always suspected -- Rest in Peace Anna" - J'aime Rubio

Back to the Story.....


Initially the Superintendent, along with Sheriff  George Lucot and other investigators singled out the 22 wards on "housekeeping detail" before questioning other wards there who had been convicted of assault and sexual crimes. After those groups were questioned, they detained all wards to their rooms to further question and investigate each one. Superintendent Chandler made it very clear that everyone was a suspect, even staff and that they would be investigating thoroughly. Out of the 657 wards questioned only one was charged, Eugene Monroe. He was a 19 year old African-American inmate who was from Southern California.

What many don't realize is that Monroe was the chief suspect in a murder of a 17 year-old girl, Vesta Belle Sapenter in Southern California in 1947. The details of Vesta's murder were eerily “similar” to the details of Anna’s murder, as noted in my book, "Behind The Walls". But as I state in my book, due to lack of sufficient evidence, the authorities couldn't hold him on murder charges. How Monroe ended up in Preston was for a separate conviction of burglary charges.

One inmate William J. Mercer, who basically ruined his own reputation on the witness stand in the preliminary hearing, claimed he and Eugene were having a secretive homosexual relationship and that during a time when they were engaging in a sex act that Anna had walked in and witnessed them. He claimed that it infuriated Eugene and he said he was going to kill her for that.

Monroe's attorney tried to throw out any testimony of Mercer's at the trial due to the fact Mercer recanted his statement, and then during the trial he claimed that the entire story was in fact true, but that Monroe's attorney, Nathaniel S. Colley had threatened his life when he visited him at the Amador County Jail and told him that if he didn't take back his story that he would make sure Monroe's friends took care of him after he was released.  Despite his fear of retaliation, Mercer testified in the trial and aired out the whole story, stating that his initial statements were true, including his claims that the defense tried to intimidate and threaten the prosecution's main witness.

Everyone, including the inmates were shocked and infuriated that Anna had been killed. Inmates were even reported to have told the staff that if the assailant was found within Preston, that they better hire more guards because the inmates may "take the law into their own hands" in order to avenge the death of their beloved Housekeeper and motherly friend, Anna Corbin. Both Monroe and Mercer were too afraid to go back to Preston, so both were held at the Amador County Jail during the trials. 

I find it rather suspicious that after the three trials, two of which were ended in hung juries, and the third a final acquittal, that one year later in 1951 Eugene was convicted and confessed to the murder and rape of a pregnant woman, Mrs. Dorothy Waldrop in Tulsa, OK. He was sentenced to life in prison but only did 29 years.

TO READ MORE ABOUT EUGENE MONROE:  "Was Eugene Monroe A Serial Killer?" 

Sheriff Lucot with  a rope

The fact that Karl Holton's statement that not only the inmates but the staff were going to be investigated can make people think twice about this story. If you do research you will find that there had been several unexplained deaths of the wards at Preston. Some even say that the guards themselves were strict enforcers and even overly so, however if you read my book "Behind The Walls" you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that it was not a staff member who committed the crime.

Sheriff Lucot and other investigators searched the evidence to try and find any clue as to who could have committed this horrible crime.They even called in a fingerprint specialist to go through the room dusting for the killer's prints. Investigators also noticed that the killer used the rugs in the store room to mop up some of the blood on the floor to cover their tracks.

(see photo to the right: Sheriff Lucot holding a rope similar to the one used to strangle Anna Corbin, bottom: Lucot looking over the bloodstained rug in room where Anna's body was discovered)

Sheriff Lucot investigating


According to the Oakland Tribune (2/24/1950, page 25) it states that Anna's keys were found on a desk along with a vase of acacia branches and blossoms without water. The Superintendent explained that he believed she was starting to arrange a bouquet of flowers in a room right off of her office, before she was killed and didn't even have time to put water in the vase.

Regarding Anna's keys being left on the desk,  the Superintendent went on to say that it was a "Cardinal Offense" to leave your keys lying around and that Anna would NEVER in all the years she had worked there, have left her keys out on the desk that way intentionally.

The day before Anna was killed she appeared in the "Community Fashion Show" in Ione, as one of the models on the cat walk. She was a cheerful and happy person who tried to make the best of her situation. It was obvious by the archives and the way the inmates spoke of her that she was well liked within the community inside and outside of Preston.

This terrible tragedy was not only a horrific story but also a sad tale for all who knew her and loved her, including many of the inmates. To this day I have spoken to several people who worked at Preston and some who served time at Preston (the "Castle" and the newer school), and nearly every one states how sad they were that an innocent woman died on those premises.

Even after her death, her motherly reputation lived on through word of mouth over the generations of inmates coming in and out of that place. Despite the fact that evidence pointed to Eugene Monroe being her murderer, Corbin's murder is still considered to be an unsolved "cold case." Anna's body was taken to Daneri Mortuary in Jackson for her viewing and later was buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Sacramento (CLICK HERE TO VISIT ONLINE GRAVE). Anna was survived by her only daughter and last surviving child, Avis Corbin Barone of Sacramento.

Anna Corbin 




UPDATE: Thank you to Scott Thomas Anderson for briefly mentioning this article and blog in his article published in the Sierra Lodestar Newspaper JULY 18-24, 2012

© J'aime Rubio -- original post 2009-2011 (UPDATED ARTICLE WITH NEW INFORMATION LOCATED THROUGH RESEARCH AS OF 2012 & 2015)
Republished on new blog, "Stories of the Forgotten" as of 3/28/2018.

All the content that is published on this site under my profile is my property and is protected by all applicable Copyright Laws. No part of my work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission from me, the publisher/author J'aime Rubio.

Some of my many sources:
Amador Ledger Archives. - Feb. 24, 1950
Oakland Tribune Archives, -Feb 24, 1950 
Stockton Record- Feb 24, 1950
other various archived newspapers
US. Census Records
US Military Enlistment Records
Amador County Records
The Crisis (Magazine) June, 1950

Top Photo of Anna Corbin's grave in the cemetery is property of J'aime Rubio. 
Newspaper photos of Anna and Sheriff Lucot from Oakland Tribune (2/24/50)
Photo of Anna Corbin  on bottom to the right - I took a photo of a photo, although I restored my copy and saved it in a Sepia tone.

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