Researched by Roy Wilson

In 1929 the game of bridge was a national rage and the newspapers across the country carried this story of the Bennett murder, much like they did of the OJ Simpson murder a few years ago.   Here's what happened...

It was the evening of September 29, 1929, when John and Myrtle Bennett hosted a rubber bridge game with two friends, Charles and Myrna Hofman.  They played for 1/10 cent a point, which in 1929 was often a substantial amount at the end of the evening.  The Bennetts and the Hofmans lived in the same apartment building in Kansas City, and Mrs. Bennett's mother lived with the Bennetts.  The Bennetts neither had an ideal partnership, nor an ideal marriage, as it was said that John Bennett often slapped his wife during moments of anger.  Mrs. Bennett considered herself the better bridge player, and John thought her evaluation was faulty.  In any case, It was not a happy night.

At the beginning of the evening, the cards ran in the favor of the Bennetts, and they were ahead by a good margin as the game was coming to a close.  Perhaps that was why, late in the game, John decided to risk a somewhat light opening bid.  Although the exact hands are not known, the press speculated that this was the hand that John held.  He opened it one spade.

                                                   K J 9 8 5
                                                   K 7 6 2
                                                   8 5
                                                   K T

Charles Hofman overcalled two diamonds, and Mrs. Bennett jumped to four spades, and that ended the auction. 

Myrtle Bennett was convinced that her dummy, added to the values her husband should have for his opening bid, would be enough for the game and made some remark about another 42 cents.   However, when the hand was over, John Bennett had gone down two tricks and lost 10 cents.   It was during the post-mortem that Bennett's hand was revealed as holding less than the high cards that good players supposedly considered a requirement to open.  It was at this point that Myrtle Bennett referred to her husband as, "a bum bridge player" and an argument started which soon became very heated.  At one point in the exchange, John grabbed Myrtle and slapped her at least twice.  While she sobbed and continued to call him a rotten bridge player, her husband left the room and said, "I'm not staying here tonight, and tomorrow I'm leaving you!"

Myrtle Bennett then asked the Hofmans to please go, but before coats could be gathered she turned and went into her mother's bedroom, just as John returned.   She had gone to retrieve a loaded pistol which was kept there.  When she returned, Charles Hofman tried to calm the hysterical woman while Bennet ran to the bathroom and locked the door.  Mrs. Bennett screamed for him to come out like a man, and then fired twice through the bolted door.  Both shots missed her husband who quickly left the bathroom through a second doorway.  Myrtle Bennett found her husband in the living room trying to open the front door and fired twice more, killing him with the second well-aimed shot.  Charles and Myrna disarmed her and called the police.

When the detectives arrived, Myrtle Bennett was charged with first degree murder and taken to the Kansas City jail to await trial for killing her husband.  The Hofmans went home to a sleepless night.

Myrtle Bennett was an attractive woman, and played the "tearful widow" at her trial, a strategy that seemed to pay off handsomely.  She wept throughout the proceedings and said the entire event was just a tragic accident and that she was in no way responsible for her husband's death.   At the trial, her story was that as the game ended, John, instead of saying, "I'm not staying here tonight, and tomorrow I'm leaving you!" as the Hofmans testified, had actually said, "I'm staying here tonight, and tomorrow I'm leaving on a business trip."

According to the testimony given by Mrs. Bennett, which was supported by her mother's account, Mr. Bennett had asked her to bring him a pistol for his trip.  She said that it was common practice for him to routinely carry a pistol when traveling, and she further claimed that while bringing the gun to the living room she had stumbled, which caused the pistol to go off, and only accidentally wounded her husband.  It was at that point that Bennett had grabbed her arm and the gun went off a second time, this time killing him, she swore.

Myrtle Bennett was found not guilty.  The jury ignored the eye-witness testimony of the Hofmans, the two bullets found in the bathroom door, and the fact that Bennett's body was found lying by the front door far from the damaged bathroom door.  Even though she had chased her husband into the bathroom and then to the living room and fired four shots, hitting him twice in front of witnesses, Mrs. Bennett was acquitted on the grounds that her husband's death was an accident.  Myrtle Bennett was able to collect the grand sum of $30,000 on her husband's life insurance policy.  Not much by today's standards, but a significant amount of money in 1929.  (Money was probably not the motive, though.)

Unfortunately the exact hand that led to the terrible evening and Mr. Bennett's death will forever be unknown.  None of the three people at the game could remember all of the cards, and the cards themselves were scattered during the argument.  However, based on testimony at the trial and a reconstruction by some of the experts of the day, the hand below is believed to be the most likely.

                                                Mrs. Bennett
                                                   A T 6 3
                                                   T 8 5
                                                   A 9 8 4 2
                   Q 7 2                                           4
                   A J 3                                           Q 9 4
                    A Q 10 9 2                                           K J 7 6 3
                   J 6                                    Q 7 5 3
                                                Mr. Bennett
                                                   K J 9 8 5
                                                   K 7 6 2
                                                   8 5
                                                   K T

The contract was four spades after Hofman had overcalled two diamonds, and for months after, the trial experts analyzed the bidding and layout, concluding that it was not an easy hand but might have been made with careful play.  What do you think?

At the trial some time was spent on the hand itself, and we know that the opening lead was the ace of diamonds.  After some study, Hofman shifted to the jack of clubs.  According to the testimony of the Hofmans, Bennett took the king of clubs and then played the king and ace of trump, finding the bad split.  Although he managed to establish the club suit he was unable to reach them and went down two. 

Bridge experts of the day, notably Ely Culbertson and others, were called upon for their opinions, and were not shy about giving them, sometimes arguing with each other, but nobody disputed that it was a difficult hand.  (Just as an aside, most players today holding the East hand would bid five diamonds, but that was in the early days of bridge.  If Myrna Hofman had made that bid, John Bennett might have lived to old age.)

How would you play the hand?
Did John Bennett deserve what he got?

Final Note:
Alexander Woollcott wrote in his 1934 collection of essays that, Myrtle Bennett continued to play bridge long after the death of her husband, and on one occasion, while playing with a partner who did not know of her past, is reported to have had the good graces to faint when her partner put down a rather poor dummy with the comment, "Partner, I'm afraid you'll want to shoot me for this."