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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thompson

Murder By The Sea

The serene majesty of our coast was elegantly captured in the paintings of Mary DeNeal Morgan and Helen Smith. Especially enchanting are their depictions of Carmel's summer fog as it brushed against the pines near the mouth of the Carmel River. The two women would set their easels next to one another there, furl their brows in pensive contemplation, and squint out through owlish glasses at those foggy pines and gnarled cypresses. Those enchanted paintings give no hint that they would be part of Carmel's first murder.

In 1914 Helen confided that she was having an affair with a handsome Japanese artist who used the name George Kodani. He was a thin man with the manners of a diamo, a strong chin and a small mustache, his slick black hair receding. He was a listener and it wasn't easy to tell how he felt about what he heard.

Helen disappeared on the night of August 13, 1914, shortly after she had lunch with Mary. Within the next week a search for the five-foot-four-inch 120-pound woman began. A local policeman spoke to Kodani who admitted only that he had arranged to rendezvous with Helen for a midnight picnic at the mouth of the Carmel River. He said they embraced at eight o'clock and enjoyed a romantic meal, but Helen could tell something was bothering him. He explained reluctantly that his brother and he had argued, and that his brother had forbidden him to live in Carmel, and that he must leave. Helen begged to go away with him, but George declined. An argument ensued and, in a rage, George picked up one of the ornamental abalone shells that decorated their picnic and struck her with it.

In his fury, he repeatedly struck Helen and then strangled her with fishing line. After the fury passed, he wept and held her cold body, then dug a shallow grave with his bare hands. Wrapping her in their picnic blanket, he buried her in the sand, the fishing line around her neck.

Kodani lay atop the hastily dug grave, his mind spinning and fell asleep there. He awakened at dawn to the sound of the crashing waves.

Kodani would never speak of the crime again and remained silent during the hearings, waiting for two mysterious witnesses to testify. For reasons unknown, Kodani waited for certain key pieces of evidence to be admitted - a photo of him with Zella Lenquist and a letter. Subpoenas were sent out to Zella Lenquist and Blanche Baldwin, to whom George had shown the photo and letter on August 12, 1914, but when the police tried to deliver the subpoenas to Zella and Blanche, the two mysterious women left town, leaving no forwarding address.

There is a theory that the Japanese murderer may not have been named George Kodani, and that he gave the police the name of a local eight-year-old boy. A second theory was that Kodani's family here disowned him, even though his eight- year-old nephew was named after him, and a third was that he was innocent but forced to take the blame to protect someone else. In any possibility, the evidence of the mystery women may have been needed but never obtained.

George Kodani, was sentenced to a life term in San Quentin, but was paroled after World War IL Mary Morgan and her sister Jeannie rarely spoke of Helen's murder, and Mary painted alone, capturing Carmel beach's pewter skies and the foaming breakers that raced up onto a mile of glistening white beach. Mary and Helen's paintings captured the spirit of long-ago Carmel when it was a sleepy little village with stepping-stone paths; gardens full of golden poppies, fuchsias and fragrant hydrangeas and carved wooden signs rather than street numbers.

Some of the galleries there sold paintings, signed M. DeNeal Morgan, without mentioning to the customers that these landscapes were painted by a woman. The art market defended their prejudice by saying that most buyers were men, and that most men would not hang paintings by women in their homes. And, as the gallery owners felt that no man would want to hang the painting of a "murdered woman" on his walls, Helen Smith's work was mostly destroyed after her death, erasing her contribution to our coastal heritage.

We wish to thank John Thompson for his contribution and it is reprinted as submitted without editorial comment or change.

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