The woman in the pink suit
The Life and Death of Olive Ruth Tilotta (1926-1957)
With help from her daughter Mary Craighead Nolte
All images courtesy of Mary Craighead Nolte
|Photo of Ruth Taken May or June of 1957|
The weather in July of 1957 Louisiana was its normal warm and humid. Temperatures were set to hit the mid 90’s and only cool off to a sullen 75 overnight. The skies were mostly clear but here and there fistfuls of clouds said the forecast for scattered showers and small thunderstorms just might come true. Cars passed with their windows down to catch every breath of breeze. Often blaring as they passed one of the top two songs of the summer. The soft and sensuous voice of Pat Boone crooned about “Love Letters in the Sand” and competed with the rock-n-roll Elvis Presley as he sang “Won’t You Be My Teddy Bear.”
At Grand Isle south of New Orleans the annual “Tarpon Rodeo” was getting started. It would run from July 18-20 and bring in hundreds of fisherman and people looking for fun to fill the cooler nights. Of course, New Orleans was a city where there was always a party or some entertainment to be found. The French Quarter, Pontchartrain Beach, dozens of restaurants and clubs added to the effervescent environment defined by the phrase ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ or ‘Let the good times roll!’ People were ready for some fun by July of 1957. Just the month before one of the deadliest hurricanes had come inland in western Louisiana causing tremendous damage and loss of life; before Katrina in 2005 the worst hurricane had been Audrey of June 1957. Over 400 people in Texas and western Louisiana had died in that storm.
Olive Ruth Tilotta, Ruth to all of her friends as she did not use the Olive outside the family, was born to Walter Humphries and Minnie Griffith Humphries on June 28, 1926 in Uvalde, Texas. She married Ronald Adair Craighead (1918-1947) and then Thomas Willard Tilotta (1916-2011).
Olive Ruth Humphries was born on June 27, 1926 in Uvalde Texas to Walter Emery (aka Emery) Humphries and Minnie Olive Griffith. Ruth was the 5th of their 7 children. All of her siblings survived her: Kitty Lou Huggins (Mrs. Fred) of Lufkin TX, Ella Mae Zingery (Mrs. Guy) of Dallas TX, Willard Emery (aka Shorty, & his wife Reba) of Lufkin TX, William Bascom (aka WB or Dub, & his wife Norma) of Stoy IL, Ida Lee Galloway (Mrs. J C "Jack") of Houston TX, and Minnie Jeanne (aka Jeanne) Day (Mrs. R E "Bob") of Kenner LA. Ruth's grandparents predeceased her, her father's parents: Bascom Humphries and Ida Lee Mosley, both born in GA but lived in TX all their adult life; her mother's parents: William Bragg Griffith (born MS) and Mary Ella Moore (born TX, both lived in TX all adult life.
Ruth was the mother of 14 year old Mary Agnes Craighead and the step-mother of 15 year old Thomas Samuel "Tommy" Tilotta and 12 year old Virginia Louise Tilotta. She and her family lived in Houston, Texas. Ruth was loved by all her family and many friends. Ruth's first husband was Ronald Adair Craighead; her 2nd husband was Thomas Willard Tilotta. She was a very beautiful and talented person, being an excellent cook, seamstress, and artist. She was buried on Aug 9, 1957 near her mother; her father was later buried between her and her mother. The difference in information is explained by Mary Craighead Nolte: “When tombstone was ordered, her true date of death was unknown so in my ignorance I ordered the date of her burial. She was killed on Jul 19 or 20, 1957.”
She willingly took on the raising of several step-children along with her own with both gusto and affection. Prior to that summer she died there had been some discord in the marriage. “Even before the summer of Mother’s death there were problems in the marriage. At least once a month Daddy came home drunk enough to hit Mama, once she was hospitalized.” Mary Craighead Nolte noted. “They separated several times but she always went back. That was the reason she went to Louisiana that last time. Her intention was to never go back to him. Before leaving she consulted an attorney because she wanted to take Virginia with her. She was advised not to take her as there was never an adoption. Daddy never gave Virginia any attention… Virginia suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and was retarded. Mama and I adored her!!!! Mother fought for Virginia’s rights to go to public school. She was very instrumental in getting Houston’s public schools to start special education.”
That spring, however, the low simmer of strife began to build. It was if in the home was a mirror of the storm clouds of Hurricane Audrey that brewed and bubbled in the Gulf of Mexico.
In July of 1957 the tension in her marriage to Tilotta reached a tipping point. She sent her daughter to grandparents and before long she was in her grey and green 1950 sedan driving to Louisiana where her sister lived. The decision was not an easy one for the loving mother but one made with a hope to make life better for them someplace else. She sent a postcard to allay worries in her daughter (see image). She could not remain. A husband with a growing attraction to alcohol and an out of control teenage step-son threatening violence were the last straw.
In her last communication to her daughter she wrote:
“Don’t worry honey, everything will be alright. God saw to it that I made it over here, broke, no tires, old car, up-set, and no license to drive (and I was caught, but let go). I just feel that something GOOD will happen someday. I truly do. We will forget the unhappiness of the past. Just remember the good things, grow stronger with our wisdom and look to the future. It will surely be brighter…”
Like those love letters in the sand Pat Boone sang about on the radio, a tide was coming in. It would serve to wash away all those bright hopes and dreams of the loving mother Ruth Tilotta, and carry them away off into a sea of mystery.
She had gone to New Orleans to stay with her sister and start a new life. Her plans included sending for her daughter as soon as she could. A police officer had stopped her but instead of a ticket he took her name and phone number. While she stayed with her sister she received many phone calls from the man she called “Trooper.” The police officer made a date to take her out on Friday, July 19. The probable target was the large fishing festival, the Tarpon Rodeo, held at Grand Isle.
From family accounts it is known she went to this event. “Mother did not go to Grand Isle alone, “ noted her daughter, “one of Aunt Jeanne’s neighbors went for the week end, hence the 2 cars. Mother followed Faye as she (Mother) was not going to spend the night.”
At the inquest a man, Carl Cardinal or Gardinal, gave testimony he saw the woman’s car stopped along a road and she was with a man. She was, he said, apparently vomiting from alcoholic overindulgence. Her daughter, however, adds significant information to this widely accepted scenario. “I, Aunt Jeanne, and all my family never believed Mother was drunk. If she swallowed even 2 swallows of liquor, she would get very ill. She might have tried to drink but could not drink enough for most people to become intoxicated. I am the same, just one swallow of any type of liquor and I am vomiting. She would not have willingly drank.”
On Sunday, August 4, 1957, two men hunting wild hogs, were in a spot about two miles from Barataria Blvd. It was only about a block from a so-called ‘lover’s lane’ and two miles from Crown Point fitting nicely between Marrero and Lafitte in Jefferson Parish and across from Estelle Bar in Barataria. As they walked the area they came across something laying in the undergrowth. In the nearby field was the body of a woman, clad only in her red underwear, her body at the foot of an old oak and her head in the fork of a big limb knocked down by strong winds. It was apparent she had been there for many days. Initial reports of the ‘headless body,’ identified the location only as an isolated wooded area in the Crown Point area of Jefferson Parish.
After some search the mysterious “Trooper” was identified as Barry Roberts an officer from nearby Luling. At first he denied meeting or knowing the woman. Evidence soon came to light that the man had been with the murdered woman on the last date anyone saw her alive, July 19.
He was fired from his position on the grounds of providing false information by denying he had met the woman and for conduct unbecoming on on-duty officer. Charges would be brought against him but the Jefferson Parish Grand Jury inquiry in December 1957 returned a verdict that implied not enough probable cause or evidence had been presented to categorically charge him with the crime (a “no true bill” verdict).
Strangely, a month after the woman’s body was found, a witness who had provided information to the Grand Jury, Carl Cardinal, committed suicide and left a mysterious note for the local sheriff. He had testified to seeing Tilotti apparently drunk at the side of the road. As her daughter affirms this could not have been the case and it calls into question his whole testimony. “The letter Carl Cardinal left was very incoherently written.” Her daughter added in an interview. “It was read several times in my presence. I do not remember all the content, I do remember it was written in a rambling manner and barely made sense. I think Carl saw Mother’s car near one of the wharves but cannot remember if on east or west bank of the river.”
Despite the potential impact of the death of a major witness in an unsolved murder, the Sheriff refused to share the contents of the note. Instead, he indicated the witness had made a statement but its release was tied to the final conclusion of the Tilotta case. What could that mean? Had the witness been incorrect in what was seen? Was the witness, perhaps, overcome by guilt for committing perjury? What could he have to say that was so important it had to wait till the crime was finally solved? Did he really commit suicide, or, did someone with something to hid silence the man? Most importantly, where is that note today?
The state of law enforcement, and government in general, in Louisiana during the 1950’s was a volatile one. Headlines informing of sweeping executive attempts to clean up politics and do away with corruption vied with stories of business as usual. Although, circumstantially, the local trooper seems the most likely suspect it may be that he was totally innocent. It may have been that the dignity of the local law outweighed the career of one man and Roberts might have been the sacrificial lamb to preserve the appearances for local civic government and law enforcement.
It is interesting to note that there was a 1950 murder of a housewife in the area, the 1956 murder and disappearance of Thomas Hotard and Audrey Moate also in the area, and in 1959 there would be another housewife who disappears from just north of the region in Baton Rogue.
|Ruth with Mary, ca 1947|
Through the gracious act of her daughter, Mary Nolte, the true nature of this lovely and loving mother can be shared through images and memory. She was a woman of joy, kindness, and great love. The world was made less when she was taken from it in such a cruel manner. Despite the attempts of the day to paint her in shades of scarlet, in truth, she was just an ordinary woman who loved the world and loved color. She was so much more than a woman in red underwear. She was… The Woman in a Pink Suit.