On June 16, 1926, 85 years ago today, the body of Sylvia Gaines, 22, was discovered in Green Lake Park.
By Casey McNerthney
It was the pair of slippers that stood out, sitting side by side on Green Lake’s north shore.
Two workmen walking by noticed them at about 7:20 a.m., then saw the blood trail and the young woman’s body, her clothes ripped and torn. Police theorized the jagged, blood-smeared rock found nearby was what finished the young woman.
The murder of Sylvia Gaines on June 16, 1926 — 85 years ago Thursday — captivated the city and made front-page newspaper headlines for months. Her father, who initially broke down when telling reporters of the search for Sylvia’s killer, had discrepancies in his story and those reporters were later called to testify.
Gaines’ uncle, chairman of the King County Board of Commissioners, pledged to do everything he could “to bring to justice the fiend who slew my niece.” But the commissioner cried murder years later when the governor refused to pardon the killer.
The shore area where Gaines was killed has changed since 1926, and a grove of alder trees at Green Lake planted in her memory was removed years ago because falling limbs caused public safety concerns.
The area where she died is still called Gaines Point. But most who pass it on one of Seattle’s top recreation trails have no idea what happened there.
‘From that moment on I lived in hell’
The workmen, J.L. Reynolds and O.B. Ripley, found Gaines’ white felt hat and saw evidence of a struggle in the water. Police said the man who killed Gaines tried choking her to death, but the 22-year-old resisted. In an effort to escape, she tried to swim away.
The coroner said Gaines died in the water.
Investigators found dirt in the right heel of her shoe that indicated her body was moved after she was dead. Her clothes were ripped off to suggest she was sexually assaulted.
Reporters tried to find a link between Gaines’ case and the assault of a girl in the University District, and a later attack of a girl on First Hill. Suspicious characters known to police were questioned. Gaines’ former boyfriend was investigated.
Gaines had recently been hired at the King County Title Trust Company and her father, Wallace “Bob” Gaines, voluntarily told reporters the story of her last night.
In his story, corroborated in part by neighbors, he said he met his daughter in front of the library on Fourth Avenue and drove home in his 1918 Buick Roadster. She ironed clothes after dinner, and seemed frustrated when her father said to rush so they could go to a tire shop by 8 p.m., he said.
“I was watering our lawn when she left,” Bob Gaines told the P-I. “It was about 8 o’clock. Some of our neighbors were on their porches at that time. That was the last I saw of her.”
Sylvia Gaines was born in Nantick, Mass., and had lived in Lynnfield for nearly 15 years. A member of the Peabody Camp Fire Girls and the Lynnfield Congregational Church, she graduated from Peabody High in 1921 and attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Her parents divorced about 15 years prior, and after graduation Gaines had come to live with her father and stepmother. She planned to return to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving.
Gaines’ next-door neighbor said Gaines helped him fix a basement stove the night his daughter left. That took about a half hour, then the neighbor said Gaines left.
“When I left the house in my machine,” Bob Gaines told the P-I, referring to his Buick, “I rode to Louis Sterns’ house at 39th and Second Avenue Northwest to keep a 9 o’clock appointment. I took Louis and another couple downtown, returning home about 10:15. I was worried about not finding Sylvia.
“I called my brother’s house, Bill Gaines, to see if she was there. She wasn’t. From that moment on I lived in hell. I jumped into my car and rode every street around Woodland Park where Sylvia had been accustomed to take her walks. It was useless. Long after daylight, without having had a wink of sleep, I rushed downtown intending to report to the police.”
Gaines said he learned what happened when talking with police.
“It was terrible!” he told the P-I. “I loved my daughter more than anything on earth. I was affectionate toward her. Why shouldn’t I be?”
A ‘strange and unnatural’ affection
At an inquest, Bob Gaines wept and demanded an early trial though he hadn’t been charged. Days later he was, and his murder trial began on Aug. 2, 1926.
Ten days later, the trial turned when Judge Robert M. Jones allowed testimony about Gaines’ “strange and unnatural” affection for his daughter.
A night clerk at the New Arctic Hotel, now the Arctic Club hotel at 700 3rd Avenue, said the previous November he’d registered Bob Gaines, Sylvia Gaines and Bob’s wife, Elizabeth.
Bob Gaines signed for all three, but only the father and daughter checked in, the clerk testified.
Hotel staff testified seeing Bob Gaines’ clothes and shoes by the bed in room 408 and in their adjoining room 407. A maid testified she saw an older man and a younger woman in bed together.
A Centralia woman told jurors that while visiting the Gaines’ home at 108 North 51st Street – a modest home that’s still there – Sylvia was sharing the one bedroom with her father. Her stepmother had gone to California.
Patrolmen testified that in four months before Gaines’ death, they were patrolling Woodland Park when they found a Buick Roadster with its lights off.
“I was just a step or two from the car when I heard a scramble in the car,” officer R.L. Davis told the court. “I stepped to the left side and I saw a young lady in the left seat. She had her hand on the door.”
Bob Gaines was in the other seat. The officers asked him how old the girl was, and took them to the Wallingford Precinct – now a clinic at 4422 Densmore Ave. N. They were released when Gaines showed that Sylvia was his daughter and convinced them he was doing nothing wrong.
Bob Gaines’ sister-in-law told the court of a time the previous spring when her husband knocked on the Gaines’ door unexpectedly. She saw Bob Gaines peek out the front window. Sylvia, wearing only a nightgown, rearranged the couch to make it appear she had slept there.
Prosecutor E.D. Colvin argued that, despite the nationwide prohibition, Bob Gaines would drink anything from raw moonshine to straight grain alcohol and became violent.
Sylvia’s stepmother allegedly became jealous of Sylvia and there were fights. The court was told that the previous November, Gaines’ wife tried to kill herself with a rifle at their home near Green Lake.
In the week before her death, Gaines seemed anxious and the prosecutor asserted Sylvia had decided to return to Massachusetts and expose her father’s actions.
But he killed her first, Colvin said.
Witnesses who had seen a stranger near the Green Lake path the night of June 16 didn’t identify Gaines, but Colvin questioned their ability to identify the man and said others saw Gaines’ Buick Roadster in the area. A reporter from the P-I and Seattle Star told of Gaines’ story discrepancies.
Sylvia left after an argument, and Colvin told jurors the evidence showed she didn’t flee from the man who approached her. But the argument continued and the attacker struck her, then wrapped his hands around her neck. She couldn’t scream.
The prosecutor said Gaines ordered a nearby man to keep moving, then went to his daughter’s lifeless body and dragged her to the center of a grove of trees.
Gaines then rushed home in his Buick, changed clothes and left two fires going while he went to his appointment, jurors were told. He returned to the neighborhood that night, waking neighbors with news of his daughter’s disappearance, then drove around the neighborhood in his Buick.
Police said they didn’t know where he’d been for several hours.
The prosecutor said Sylvia’s body was moved again after her clothes were torn off, which caused the dirt to collect in the right heel of her shoe. In the sand, investigators found imprints of a man’s heel and a woman’s foot.
The killer took off her shoes and repositioned her body to give the presumption she was killed during a sexual assault, Colvin said. A criminologist testified human blood was found on Bob Gaines’ clothes.
“Fear of exposure – fear that he would lose the object of his lust – that’s what prompted the murder of this girl,” Colvin told jurors.
They returned a death sentence in less than four hours.
‘Not a word to say’
A P-I reporter described Gaines as “icy calm” when the sentence was read, though his brother, the King County commissioner, crumpled onto the press table and sobbed. Gaines’ wife, seated next to him, stayed calm and squeezed her husband’s hand.
She believed Gaines would be spared, but a motion for a new trial was refused and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus were denied in August 1928, two years after his trial started.
The day before his execution, Walla Walla prisoners spread rumors that Gaines would confess.
Visited by his wife and brother, Gaines seemed hopeful that Gov. Roland H. Hartley would spare him – though Gaines sobbed during nights in his cell and took visits from spiritual advisors.
Hours before Gaines was to be hanged, his brother and wife at the Grand Hotel in Walla Walla listened as the governor made a speech, broadcast by Seattle station KJR.
Hartley refused appeals and a petition to spare Gaines, and made no mention of the case in his radio address. Before the governor left that night for a Bellingham campaign stop, a reporter asked him if he’d make a statement on the Gaines case.
“Not a word to say,” he told the P-I.
Gaines spurned help on his walk to the gallows and was hanged Aug. 31, 1928.
He was the 25th of 78 people executed in Washington since detailed records were kept in 1904.
A six-line P-I classified ad announced his funeral, inviting “all veterans and immediate family.” Gaines had served in World War I, but the American Legion demanded his body be removed after burial at Washelli Cemetery.
It remains there today, however, with a white headstone in the Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Gaines’ wife was awarded his estate, though it consisted only of the 1918 Buick Roadster he drove the night of the murder. She continued to profess his innocence, and one of the spiritual advisors who visited Gaines the night before his execution told the P-I he was uncertain of his guilt.
Gaines himself proclaimed his innocence to the end.
“I hate to hang for a crime which I am innocent of any knowledge of, but it looks like they are going to make me the goat,” he wrote in his last letter to his brother. “There isn’t any more I can write, so give my love to your two children, whom I love.
“Goodbye Bill, and good luck.”
More images from the Seattle P-I archives relating to the murder of Sylvia Gaines are available here.