Friday, December 6, 2013

The Bee's Knees Cocktail: Velma West, the Hammer Murderess {Macabre Meals & Dastardly Drinks}

In my post about Anna Marie Hahn, aka the Blonde Borgia, I discussed the origins and the rise of the female poisoner as a cultural archetype. And while it is more or less true that poisoners tend to be women, certainly not all murderesses are poisoners. Take Velma West, the Hammer Murderess; or, as newspapers of the time dubbed her, "A 12 O'Clock Girl in a 9 O'Clock Town."

In 1926 - the height of the Prohibition era in the U.S. - the 20-year-old West, nee Velma Van Woert - was working as a shopgirl in Cleveland, Ohio. She became engaged to a much older man, but broke it off abruptly after meeting her future husband, Eddie West, at a picnic. She married Eddie and moved from her beloved Jazz Age city of Cleveland to the small, repressive rural area of Lake County, Ohio.

Things did not go well for her.

She shocked the conservative and religious citizens of the town by smoking in public, and, to make matters worse, she was reputed to be a bad housekeeper. All she really wanted to do was go into the city, listen to music, dance, and drink. She was a young, fun-loving, modern city flapper stuck in a boring country town.

By all accounts she and Eddie fought constantly, and it appears likely that Eddie beat her. Things got even worse after the summer of 1927 when Velma met Mabel Young, who was visiting from Cleveland, and developed strong romantic feelings for her. In fact, it's likely that Velma married Eddie to cover up the fact that she was attracted to women, not exactly an easy situation for a woman in 1920s America.

Things came to a head in December, when Velma wanted to go out. Eddie didn't want to go, and a fight ensued. It's not certain what exactly was said, but the facts are these: Velma took a claw hammer and hit Eddie in the head 6 - 8 times. Once he collapsed, she covered his head with a pillowcase to minimize the spray of blood and continued to bash in his head. She then took a leg from a broken table and beat him some more. She later said that she was afraid he would wake up and kill her.

Next she covered him with a sheet, hog tied him, fished his keys out of his pocket and went to Mabel's bridge party in Cleveland, where she was reportedly the life of the party, singing, dancing, and undoubtedly drinking with the woman the newspapers called her gin friend. The next day, she went Christmas shopping with her mother, and even bought some handkerchiefs "for Eddie."

When Velma returned to her home, the police were waiting for her. Though she initially tried to cover up the murder as a burglary gone wrong, she quickly confessed. She was sentenced to life in prison and died of heart disease in 1959.

It's easy to see this as a sensationalistic and heartless murder committed by a good-time girl, but in truth I feel sorry for Velma. I suspect she was suffering from battered woman's syndrome, and the pressures of hiding her sexual orientation and living a suffocating life in rural America all became too much for her and she snapped.

I've made a version of the Bee's Knees cocktail here because it was a popular Prohibition gin drink, and I can easily imagine Velma downing one after the next with her "gin friend" Mabel. It contains a good bit of honey syrup, as the sweetness would have masked the flavor of the rough "bathtub" gin of the time.

I used extra gin in my version, as I think Velma was a "more is more" sort of gal. Rather than rot gut bathtub gin, I used Prairie organic gin, which has a lovely botanical flavor profile.

Velma's Bee's Knees

4 ounces Prairie Organic Gin
1 ounce honey syrup*
juice of 1/2 lemon
*honey syrup is equal parts honey and water

In a shaker filled with ice, shake all of the ingredients and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. 

Do not beat  your husband with a hammer after drinking. 

And by the way, Happy Repeal Day.


  1. I want to drink 10 of these and behave very badly.

  2. Better yet, don't beat your wife. But I do understand her rage. I absolutely hate it when I want to go out but my husband is not in the same mood.

  3. The cocktail sounds a bit too sweet for my taste, but I love Velma's story. I can imagine she really did have the time of her life at that party, feeling free for the first and last time in her life?

  4. Now that I have made my own hooch, I finally know why bathtub gin was so lethal. You have to throw away the first bit because it's all methanol, toxic and strong as hell. I imagine the homemade hooch makers used the whole run so the product was pretty evil.

    I do love this series... gin an honey is a lovely combination!

  5. Great photos. I do like gin based cocktails and this one sounds divine. And out of this series it is the first time too that I feel sorry for the accused. Sounds like she did snap and broke down psychologically.

  6. You have to watch out for those bad housekeepers, don't you...

    Glad to see you're picking the series back up with a libation twist!

  7. I guess you could call me a "9 O'Clock Boy in a 12 O'Clock Town". Especially after a cocktail like this. I guess that means my "husband" is safe. GREG

  8. What a story!. My, but you do find the most, um, interesting subjects. And that cocktail, well it's just swell.

  9. thanks very goooooooooooooooooood