Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Katherine Aiken, a professor emerita of history at the University of Idaho with an emphasis in social and cultural history, women, and labor. She is the author of Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981
The combination of a salacious adultery story; a murder in front of eyewitnesses; and a circus-like trial is a recipe for an exciting tale. This is indeed true of the 1916 Rossi murder that is the subject of Ron Roizen’s book, The Rossi Murder: And the Unwritten Law in 1916’s Wallace, Idaho (2021). Herman J. Rossi was a Wallace, Idaho, community leader, serving at various times as the mayor of Wallace and as a member of the Idaho legislature.
In 1906, he married Mabel Rice, fifteen years his junior. Rossi soon discovered that, instead of the ingenue he expected, Mabel, in fact, struggled with an alcohol addiction. Although Rossi apparently doted on his young wife, prominent Wallace women declined to associate with Mabel due to her alleged drinking. Rossi believed that alcoholism was a disease, and he sought treatment for his wife on several occasions—but never found a permanent cure.
In late June 1916, Rossi returned from a political trip to the state capitol to find his wife had spent three days—much of it in bed—with a local musician and alleged bootlegger, Clarence Dahlquist. Rossi pulled his wife from her bed; slapped her; tore off her nightgown and threatened to throw her naked into the street. Next, he went to the kitchen and drank two cups of black coffee and then walked down the street to the Samuels Hotel lobby where he confronted Dahlquist and shot him. Dahlquist died the next morning.
Ron Roizen, a trained sociologist who has long studied and written about topics related to alcohol, recounts each day of Rossi’s murder trial. The high-profile prosecution attracted standing-room-only crowds to the Shoshone County courthouse and was reported in newspapers across the region. Rossi’s defense attorney John P. Gray argued that his client went temporarily insane after discovering his wife’s infidelity. Headlines such as “Fight Made to Rescue Wife from Liquor Habit” (p. 14) highlight the role that Mabel’s drinking played during the trial and in the wider court of public opinion. Rossi testified, for example, “My wife’s drinking kept me from being as prominent as I wanted to be in public affairs. Because of her vice or disease I kept out of public life to a great extent” (p. 151).
Rossi’s defense also centered around him as a victim due to his wife’s infidelity—a situation that for many warranted Rossi’s actions. This was the so-called “unwritten law.” He testified, “I realized the drinking woman was more likely to become immoral than other women. I have had that fear over me always” (p. 170).
While there was no doubt that Herman Rossi had shot and killed Clarence Dahlquist, the jury deliberated less than 20 minutes and found him not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity.
According to author Roizen, “Alcohol, in a word, was 1916’s heroin” (p. 267). Herman Rossi’s ten-year effort to save his wife from alcohol and his status as a cuckhold were enough to sway the jury. According to Roizen, these elements carried more weight with the 12-man panel than the expert witness testimony that both the prosecution and the defense presented.
Ron Roizen writes, “Blaming Demon Rum at Rossi’s trial undoubtedly drew upon the temperance movement’s remarkable strength in Shoshone County in the fall of 1916” (p. 271). But one key element of the story is the fact that Mabel Rossi was drinking at home—not in a public place. Much of the temperance movement in Wallace and elsewhere was directed toward that male bastion of the saloon.
Even the National Prohibition Act did not make it illegal to drink alcohol—only to manufacture and/or sell it. Roizen reports that Wallace electors voted 2 to 1 in favor of prohibition in 1916; but this statistic is not indicative of people’s attitude towards liquor. There is every indication that Wallace residents fully expected to continue having access to alcohol after Prohibition went into effect—which they certainly did.
Perhaps the best evidence of the continued prevalence of the drinking culture in Wallace and the rest of Shoshone County is the fact that in 1929, Herman Rossi once again found himself at the center of a controversy involving alcohol. Rossi was serving his fourth term as Wallace mayor when he and other officials, along with those in nearby Mullan, were arrested in what became known as “The Rum Conspiracy.” Rossi and his compatriots used fees collected from bootleggers to supplement their community budgets that suffered from a loss of liquor-license revenue due to Prohibition. Federal officers arrested the Shoshone County officials for violating the National Prohibition Act. In another widely publicized trial, the defendants were found guilty, and some served jail time—although most, including Herman Rossi, were freed when the Ninth Circuit Court over-turned their convictions.
Although the title of the work is The Rossi Murder: and the Unwritten Law in 1916’s Wallace, Idaho—and Roizen does successfully brings readers into this early-twentieth-century drama—this book is about much more than just the Rossi murder trial story. Roizen also provides a contemporary analysis of the insanity defense, contemplates James Bowman’s writings about honor and the decline of the honor culture, and discusses temporary insanity pleas. He theorizes about Mabel’s situation through a discussion of the possibility or her early involvement in “the Flapper” culture. In addition to his exploration of “The Rum Conspiracy,” Roizen’s book also follows the rest of Herman Rossi’s life through his divorce from Mabel and two subsequent marriages.
Ron Roizen conducted a prodigious amount of research for this book, and he has provided readers incredible details about Rossi, his associates, the trial, and its aftermath. What was true more than 100 years ago is still true today—readers are fascinated with well-told stories about sex and violence. The Rossi Murder provides this, but, the book also grapples with more nuanced concerns about the role of alcohol in early twentieth century America; attitudes towards women and their sexuality; and the vagaries of the American legal system.