Rossi case: Mabel Strikes Back

Rossi post 9.1:  I’m stepping out of time sequence with this draft post, jumping ahead to after Herman J. Rossi’s murder trial to a brief consideration of the initial situation surrounding Herman’s suit for divorce against Mabel and her vigorous response.  Not to forget:  This is a work in progress.  Comments welcome, as always.

— See Roster of Rossi posts


The Shoshone County judge Mabel would address her appeal for a change of venue to.

Herman J. Rossi, at his murder trial, made a point of declaring, in sworn testimony from the stand, that he’d rather be hanged or sentenced to life in prison than allow his wife’s testimony to save him.  He wouldn’t stoop, his assertion suggested, to having someone he now so thoroughly disdained help him out of his jam.  There was bravado, of course, in Rossi’s declaration.  Yet there was also, one guesses, some false bravado too.  Why wasn’t Mabel present at the trial?  Was Mabel’s nowhere-to-be-found absence a strategic choice made by Rossi and his defense team?  Her absence and her silence certainly harbored weighty rhetorical advantages for Herman’s defense.  He could paint her, in effect, in any way he wished without fear of rebuttal or counter-painting offered in her own trial testimony or even in the press.  Why the prosecution did not think to interview or call Mabel as a witness is not known.  Maybe it never occurred to them.  Or maybe they thought Mabel’s presence would on the whole help Rossi’s defense.  Or maybe they tried and could not find her – or found her and decided her potential remarks at trial would be unhelpful.  She was still Herman’s wife, of course, and thus could not be compelled to testify against him.

With Rossi’s acquittal, on Saturday, October 14th, 1916, the field of forces surrounding Herman’s and Mabel’s relationship suddenly shifted.  His freedom restored, Herman very soon after filed for a divorce from Mabel — on Thursday, October 19th, at the Shoshone County courthouse in Wallace.  Whatever their understandings with each other during the murder trial, Herman’s divorce action now locked the two parties into a fiercely adversarial relationship.  Herman’s complaint charged Mabel with three defaults on her marital duties:  (1) a single act of adultery, committed with Clarence Dahlquist on June 28, 1916, (2) additional acts of adultery committed with other persons at other times and places (curiously described as) unknown to Herman, and (3) “habitual intemperance.”  This third charge, Rossi asserted, had rendered life with Mabel unbearable for him.  Rossi’s divorce complaint also noted that he was “heavily indebted in large sums of money.”

Rossi also filed papers with the court, on the same day, the 19th, documenting that Shoshone County’s sheriff, Robert H. Pfeil, “after diligent search and inquiry” (KCC, p. 33),  had been unable to find Mabel in order to serve her with Herman’s summons.  The summons would alert Mabel to Herman’s divorce filing and call upon her to respond to the court.  Rossi suggested that Mabel was not residing in Shoshone County but instead had moved, some time in the past, to Spokane and then, thereafter, had left for another place; her present whereabouts, somewhere else outside Idaho, unknown.  Herman requested that the summons be published in a newspaper by the judge, the procedure for dealing with an unfindable party to whom an in-county summons had been sent.  Judge William W. Woods, of the Idaho’s 1st Judicial District, Shoshone County, duly issued an order for the publication of an “Alias Summons” (i.e., a second summons).  Woods ordered that the summons would appear for at least one month in the Weekly Press Times, a weekly newspaper in Wallace; he also ordered that it be mailed, along with the divorce complaint, to Mabel’s last known address in Spokane.  All of the documents just mentioned bear the date of October 19th, 1916 – suggesting that some pre-planning and orchestration was involved in choreographing their joint and timely production.

Mabel was quick to respond.  The 19th fell on a Thursday.  On the following day, Friday, the 20th, William H. Plummer of the firm of Plummer and Lavin in Spokane, acting on Mabel’s behalf, announced that Mrs. Rossi would contest the divorce.  Plummer had only days before served as one of Herman’s four defense attorneys in the murder trial.  Yet now, and nevertheless, he’d taken on Mabel’s side of the divorce dispute with Herman.  “If she bears out Plummer’s announcement,” reported the Idaho Statesman the next day, “it is expected that a divorce trial which will outstrip the highly sensational Rossi murder trial will be staged in the little mountain metropolis.” Herman Rossi, the Statesman’s article also noted, had threatened Mabel with still more defamation if she challenged his suit.  He “announced immediately after starting the action Thursday that if his wife chose to fight the case he would make things interesting.”  The Oregonian’s report on Saturday, October 21st, added the detail that Herman played carrot-and-stick with Mabel’s threatened countersuit.  Herman relayed that he would name only Dahlquist in his own suit’s infidelity charge if Mabel did not contest his divorce complaint, but “he would bring in several other men” if she did.  Both the Statesman’s and the Oregonian’s reports noted that Mabel was fighting for a share of Herman’s estate.  The stage was now being prepared for an epic and lurid inter-spouse court battle.

The next move in the Herman-Mabel divorce’s chess game happened on Wednesday, November 1st, twelve days after Plummer’s initial announcement of a looming countersuit.  It was the bombshell newspaper reporters had doubtless been hoping and wishing for.  Mabel, perhaps with her lawyer’s concurrence, had decided that Herman’s divorce complaint had to be fought both in the courtroom and in the press.  Thus, Mabel, on the 1st, staged what was in effect a press conference at Plummer’s Spokane office, laying out her counter-case in uninhibited and dramatic detail.  She wore simple tailored blue suit “of the late military design” (as one newspaper reported).  Her “mass of black hair” was complemented with “a simple, dark, stiff brimmed hat.”  She was 30 years old, tall, and slim.  Her voice “choking with emotion” and “her eyes wet with tears,” Mabel arrayed the main points of her defense — of herself and her good name.  She took the occasion to describe her life story since first meeting Herman.  The centerpiece of her story was Herman’s responsibility for her downfall caused by King Alcohol.

“He gave me the first drink of liquor that ever touched my lips,” Mabel said.


Reno Gazette Journal, Nov. 9, 1916

She was only 17 – Rossi, at that time, at age 33, was about twice her age – and, as Mabel put it, “innocent of the danger that lurks in drink.”  These were routine rhetorical touchstones in the contemporary temperance movement’s characterization of alcohol’s destructive powers.  Even the first drink, according to the movement’s tenets, launched unwary, innocent, and unsuspecting souls on an inescapable path toward illness, insanity, and death.  Herman was Wallace’s mayor, he was “rich and experienced,” and he was regarded as “a big man” in the “Coeur d’Alene country,” said Mabel.  “He went everywhere,” she added, “with the best of people.”  She, on the other hand, was young, inexperienced, and from a poor background.  She’d been an telephone girl at the time of their romance.  Marrying Herman J. Rossi, said Mabel, had thrust her into a fast-paced and high-living crowd unlike anything she’d experienced before.  For instance, her husband had taken her to Boise one year, when he attended the state legislature there.  She’d encountered “the fastest crowd” she’d ever met.  “The started the day with gin fizzes,” Mabel elaborated, “and ended up every night with highballs and champagne.”  All this exposure to alcohol sickened her.  On her return to Wallace, Mabel conveyed, “I was sick in bed for a week from the effects of boozing that Rossi had encouraged in me.”  “I was dazzled by the bright lights of this life he introduced me to,” said Mabel.  And she was “susceptible to allurements,” Mabel confided.  Beyond her youth, innocence, and impressionability, Mabel also suffered from the rejection she felt from Rossi’s upscale circle.  Mabel told of “…how she met and conquered the snobbery of her Wallace acquaintances and how in desperation she shought to drwon her sorrows and her loneliness in gay revelry” (Idaho Statesman, 11/2/16).

Regarding Herman’s trial, Mabel was no less emphatic.  “I kept my mouth shut and saved Herman J. Rossi’s neck,” she said.  Her silence, in effect, allowed her pride and dignity to be trampled.  Rossi’s account of the events preceding the murder, Mabel suggested, had been grossly and conveniently overdrawn.  Yes, there had been a party at their home, as had been mentioned in the murder trial.  “Clarence was there,” said Mabel.  “So were several others, but there were no improper acts.”  Yes, she had become intoxicated during the party, but when she came out of her stupor she saw Clarence and immediately dispatched him.  “I drove him out,” said Mabel, “and he went without protest, so drunk he staggered from the house.”  No other improprieties had occurred, save that “we were both unconsciously drunk together.”  “I’m not excusing myself, or attempting to evade the consequences,” said Mabel.  “It was something I did not and could not anticipate, for I was under the influence of intoxicating liquor…”

The tell-tale evidence on her body that Herman had remarked upon at the murder trial were, said Mabel, not Clarence’s doing but Herman’s.  In her own words, “The bruises and marks on my body which my husband testified to, were never put there by Dahlquist, but were the result of numerous beatings administered to me by Mr. Rossi himself some time prior.  Beatings were a frequent occurrence during the last five years of my married life with him, the marks of which I still carry.”  The bodily evidence and Mabel’s alleged act of infidelity with the victim of the murder were of course crucial to the picture the defense had painted.  Now, two weeks after Herman’s acquittal, Mabel was asserting that these foundations for his not guilty verdict were faulty and incorrect.  Moreover, Mabel added a crucial additional detail regarding her denials in relation to Dahlquist – namely, that her husband was aware of what she regarded was a truer picture of the party at 221 Cedar St. and her conduct vis-à-vis Clarence Dahlquist.  “Knowing the circumstances of Dahlquist’s visit to my home, as Mr. Rossi also knew them,” asserted Mabel, “I did not think that my husband had sufficient provocation to kill Dahlquist.”  Mabel’s contribution to the trial, in short – and had she been in a position to offer it – might have proved disastrous for Herman Rossi.  Mabel’s silence during the trial, it would seem, represented a profound gift she’d laid at her husband’s feet – even as he went about savaging her reputation in order to cement his defense.  “I permitted the network of accusations he had leveled against me during all his trial to go on without raising my voice against it, so as to create the sympathy of the jury in his behalf,” Mabel declared.  “No one but a woman,” she added, “can understand what I have suffered during these months of silence.”

Mabel also sought to counter the image of her as an uncaring, selfish, and uninvolved wife to Herman. She was not, she said, the ingrate that she’d been painted as at trial.  At  Plummer’s office, in her fitted blue suit, she detailed, to this end, the help and support she had tendered her husband specifically after Dahlquist’s murder and during his trial.  She’d sent her husband flowers at his jail cell, and numerous letters.  She’d sold the Wallace home – which, said Mabel, was her “separate and personal property” – for $20,000, keeping only $3,000 for her personal expenses and turning over the rest to Herman in order to help fund his defense.  “And now, despite the fact that Herman Rossi is worth nearly $200,000, he would take his name from me and give me a few hundred dollars,” she complained.  “With me,” said Mabel, “forebearance [sic] has ceased to be a virtue, and in justice to myself, and to the world, I shall contest every inch of the divorce suit, and the public will hear the other side of the story.  I shall not only contest Mr. Rossi’s application for a divorce,” she added, “but shall file a cross bill myself, demanding a divorce from him.”

Mabel had a vision, it would seem, of righting the wrongs done to her by Herman J. Rossi, and balancing the scales of the public’s perception of the troubled couple.  “When the matter is all over,” she remarked, “I think the public will not believe that Mr. Rossi is ‘the angel without wings’ and that I am the vile creature that he and his so-called friends would have the public believe me to be.”  The occasion for her dramatic and revelatory press conference was the official filing of Mabel’s own documents at Wallace’s courthouse. Her attorneys filed three items on Mabel’s behalf – a demurrer respecting Herman’s charges against her, a notice and motion for a change of venue, and an affidavit in support of her change of venue motion.  What new light will these documents shed on this new stage of our story?



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2 Responses to Rossi case: Mabel Strikes Back

  1. Charlie Birschbach says:

    One cannot appreciate the drama as this story unfolds. Noting the immediate event AFTER the trial, I have a flood of thoughts that the author will probably answer…
    1. Attorney Plummer’s client privilege Trial vs divorce?
    2. Herman and Mabel’s true relationship from day one.
    3. What was not presented at trial only to be used during the divorce.
    4. Murder was only a speed bump in their relationship
    5. Alcohol in the early 1900’s leading to suffrage, prohibition and in
    this story… marriage protocols (17 yr old bride to an older powerful businessman)
    6. Author Ron exploring his true expertise in Number 5. I suspect
    this is his deepest interest to the story.

    Yes Ron, this a great true story to explore for your readers.

    • ronroizen9 says:

      You’re reading my mind, Charlie! The next post, upcoming, deals with “The Plummer Problem,” including his confidentiality problem with particularly Herman, owing to participating on Herman’s defense team. And, yes, I’m assembling material for a bit fuller discussion of temperance ideology and the interesting history of temperance and prohibition in rough and ready Idaho. There’s a splendid University of Idaho doctoral dissertation (1979) on this very story by a guy named Edison Klein Putman. And the ILL service at Wallace’s public library has secured it for me. Incidentally, there may be some treats in store in upcoming posts, too. For instance, I think I’ve unearthed one or two contemporary photos of Mabel in the Barnard-Stockbridge collection, also down at the U. of I. in Moscow. I’m getting in touch with Special Collections down there about securing these. Mabel had pluck, but she was up against a formidable opponent in Herman and she entered the divorce fray with no little disadvantaging baggage. I appreciate your comment, Charlie. Thank you. And stay tuned! — Ron

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