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Blog: Murder by a War Bride

A robbery goes wildly wrong.

They had a slick crime plan going. Apparently, the young woman, Jadwiga Curtin (described in the newspapers as a Polish war bride), would pick up men in San Mateo County bars and would then be followed by her boyfriend, Howard Durham, to a deserted stretch of road where the unsuspecting man would be robbed at gunpoint by Durham. They were accused of doing this to an editor of the Stanford Daily in October 1947.

But then the plan hit a snag on the night of October 14. Curtin picked up a man, George Conner, at a bar in East Palo Alto, and the two drove to Los Trancos Road on the San Mateo County/Santa Clara County border. Curtin thought the car behind them was Durham, so she got Conner to pull over. But it wasn't Durham. He was in jail on a disturbing the peace charge. Unfortunately for Curtin, the car behind them was being driven by a policeman.

Here it gets confusing. At some point, Curtin shot Conner, and he died instantly. The policeman took Curtin into custody.

On initial questioning, Curtin stated that she had met her husband, George Curtin, in Germany after the war. He was currently living in Havre, Montana, and it would never be clear whether the couple was estranged or whether they had filed divorce papers. Curtin claimed to have spent years of her young life in a concentration camp and that she had formerly been a member of the Polish underground. She claimed she had only pulled a .32 caliber pistol on Conner to scare him into slowing down as he was "driving like a madman." There had been a struggle, and the gun had gone off accidentally.

The policeman's report and circumstantial evidence made for a strong case against Curtin, but her defense attorney claimed the prosecution was "like drowning men clutching at a straw."

Prosecutors charged Curtin with murder. By this time, the relationship between the two lovers had soured. Although Durham told reporters he would marry Curtin if her divorce were finalized, a young mystery woman showed up at court appearances sitting with Durham's parents, which infuriated Curtin. She would repeatedly "hiss something to Durham and turn her back partly on him." When told of his intention to marry her, Curtin responded with, as the newspapers stated, "a hearty horse-laugh."

Curtin's stability was questioned from the start. A matron at the jail described the prisoner as "to be in a daze." There were also questions about her ability to speak and understand English.

However, she understood enough of the proceedings to plead not guilty to the murder charge in December. But her confusion would continue. In one statement, she admitted: "I know I shot this man…" but later in the same statement, claimed: "I no shoot him. I grab his gun…and throw away from window." Her admitted unfamiliarity with guns was contradicted by a man who sold Curtin and Durham a .32 caliber pistol soon before Conner's shooting, who stated that "she appeared to be thoroughly familiar with firearms."

Her trial was a circus. The newspapers swarmed the courtroom, and spectators clamored to get a look at the defendant. The breakneck pace of the trial contributed to the madness, as on one day of the trial, 24 witnesses were whipped on and off the stand.

It took the jury less than a day to find Curtin guilty of manslaughter. Infuriated, she went back to her cell and ripped up clothing sent to her by Durham and several important papers, stuffing everything down the toilet, which had to be unblocked by a plumber.

She was sent to Tehachapi women's prison. About this time, she gave her final statement about her partner in crime: "Love him? Ha! He has a wife (in Hawaii) and three kiddies. He fooled me all along when he brought me to California - to put me in jail."

There would be one final drama and one final puzzle to Curtin's story: she became terrified when, while serving her jail time, she was threatened with deportation back to Poland after her sentence was up. This made some newspapers question her supposed participation in the Polish underground and concentration camp stories. They wondered if, in fact, she had been a Nazi collaborator and was afraid of going back to face former crimes in her homeland.

Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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