The Strange Case of Wilma Frances Minor and Cora Mickle-Hoffer

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MYSTERY AT THE BLUE SEA COTTAGE James Stewart
Find out more about the Fritzie Mann murder case here

A key prosecution witness in the Fritzie Mann murder case of 1923 in San Diego was a woman named Wilma Minor, who five years later became the most famous person involved in the case due to her involvement in a bizarre hoax. Nobody in San Diego would’ve predicted this any more than they would’ve believed that Wilma had been involved in a very different but even more bizarre episode ten years before. Judging by the news coverage of the case, she didn’t seem like a person capable of such things.

In the news coverage of the case, Wilma came across as decidedly normal, an ordinary person selected by fate to play a role in the most sensational crime story in the city’s history. Her only noteworthy traits seemed to be a striking beauty, stylish attire, and an actress’ flair for the dramatic—when Wilma made an entrance, everybody noticed. This was no accident. Few people in San Diego would’ve known it, but before settling there in 1922 she’d traveled around the country for years as an actress in vaudeville musical comedies. Her mother, Cora, ran the vaudeville troupe, which also included her husband, Frank.

Thirty-seven in 1923, Wilma gave the impression of being younger and if asked her age would’ve answered with something closer to twenty-eight or nine. She lied about her age throughout her life, including in official documents. With each ten-year census, Wilma’s rate of aging appeared to slow. She’s listed as twenty-one in 1910 when she was actually twenty-four; twenty-seven in 1920 when actually thirty-four; and thirty-one in 1930 when actually forty-four. Her official age never caught up to reality. It’s unlikely that any of the men in her life, including the four men she married, knew her real age.

Wilma had inherited some of her traits from her mother, most notably the hypnotic effect she had on men, her multiple marriages, and her exaggerated sensitivity to the passage of time. But whereas Wilma was charming and sensitive, her mother, Mrs. Cora Mickle-Hoffer, was domineering, eccentric, and something of a grifter.

Cora billed herself at various times as an actor, a singer, an author, a playwright, a poet, a medium, a lecturer, a Reverend, the publisher of a magazine called The Thinker’s World, and founder of a secret society based in Chicago called the Society of Natural Science. The existence of the society came to light in 1913 when a row between Cora and one of her acolytes turned into a legal brouhaha that shocked the public.

“Doctor” Herbert Ross Bumpass, a “recalcitrant prophet” of the Society of Natural Science, defended himself against a charge of disorderly conduct by revealing the peculiar goings on within the organization. A self-described philosopher and soldier of fortune, Bumpass testified that Cora had hired him to write about his war adventures in the Boxer Rebellion and Spanish-American War for her magazine, then refused to pay him. She suggested instead that he come live at her house rent-free as compensation. Bumpass agreed. At Cora’s house, which doubled as the Society’s headquarters, Wilma mesmerized him.

“I discovered that Mrs. Minor was my affinity,” Bumpass said. “I thought I deserved an affinity as well as my room and board for my work on the magazine.”

His affinity no doubt had much to do with Wilma’s curvaceous figure, gray-green bedroom eyes, and flirtatious charm. Cora, more liberal than average in sexual matters, agreed that Bumpass deserved an affinity with her daughter. So did Wilma’s husband, Frank, who said he and Wilma were married in name only. Bumpass promptly moved into Wilma’s room.

You see, Bumpass said in court, the Society of Natural Science was not a spiritual society as Cora claimed, but a free-love cult. And Cora’s house was not the headquarters of a legitimate organization but a “love temple.” Then, out of the blue, Frank, whom Bumpass referred to derisively as a “ham actor,” objected to the arrangement, as if he’d just discovered another man sleeping with his wife under the same roof. He forcibly ejected the prophet from Cora’s house.

Cora later accused Bumpass of conspiring with his brother to burn down a printing company and Cora’s house. Bumpass defended himself against the arson charge by trashing the reputations of his former guru and her daughter. Mrs. Mickle-Hoffer’s so-called “natural science,” he said, condoned and even encouraged free love. He dwelt at length on his sexual affair with Wilma, going into such explicit detail that the judge had to repeatedly warn him to moderate his language. On the stand, Wilma wept and denied all of Bumpass’ sleazy accusations. Cora, referred to in the papers as the “High Priestess of an Alleged Love Utopia,” was not so easily cowed. She dismissed Bumpass’ allegations and hurled invective of her own, calling him a crazy man. Bumpass was ultimately acquitted.

The bizarre episode caused quite a stir in Chicago—this was 1913, after all, long before the carefree Jazz Age loosened up the Victorian moral code. Free-love cults were definitely not a thing and certainly not talked about in public.

By 1920 Cora and Wilma had given up the vaudeville lifestyle. Wilma was living with Frank in Long Beach, Ca, Cora with her latest husband in Chula Vista, a small suburb near the south end of San Diego Bay.

Wilma moved to San Diego in early 1922. That year she ran a short-lived dress design company called My Lady’s Dressmakers out of her house. She divorced Frank around this time and began a career as an associate editor and writer for Southwest Magazine, a now-defunct San Diego monthly. She wrote features on light human-interest subjects such as Snooky, who Wilma described as an “almost-human” chimp at the zoo.

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Sometime after her involvement in the Fritzie Mann case, Wilma became a part-time writer for the San Diego Union. She wrote a human-interest column called “Sidelights on Life” for a few years. Known for her distinctive purple prose, Wilma once described a book as “so full of fresh air and high zest of living that it plays on jaded senses pleasantly like the muted strings of a violin.”

San Diego 1923

By late 1928 Wilma was in her second marriage. Using her writing skills and making maximum use of her hypnotic effect on men, with encouragement from her allegedly clairvoyant and conniving mother, she became a nation-wide celebrity overnight as the protagonist of one of the most audacious literary hoaxes of all time.

She submitted an article called “Lincoln the Lover” to Atlantic Monthly magazine. Her submission included letters that Abraham Lincoln had reputedly exchanged with a woman named Ann Rutledge. Back up evidence included a bible Rutledge had supposedly gifted to the future president and her friend’s diary. Rutledge, some historians believed, was Abe’s first love. Some Lincoln scholars theorized that her death in 1835 accounted for the depression that plagued him the rest of his life. Wilma’s letters seemed to confirm the theory.

Lincoln biographers Ida Tarbell and Carl Sandburg excitedly authenticated the letters. This was enough to convince well-regarded Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick. Swiftly, he edited out Wilma’s purple prose and serialized her piece in three parts. The magazine paid her $1500 for the articles and another $1,000 as an advance towards a book, considerable sums in those days. Wilma gave talks and basked in the attention.

Soon, Lincoln experts spotted the letters for what they were—crude forgeries. The handwriting in the letters bore no resemblance to Lincoln’s. Nor was the composer of the Gettysburg Address known to write sentences such as, “Night, like a black sinewy panther, crawled cautiously through the unbending straight directness of the saplings on the river bank.” Embarrassed, Sandburg and Tarbell recanted their previous statements, leaving Sedgwick to twist in the wind.

After months of adamant denials, Wilma admitted writing the letters and the fake diary but insisted that it was no fraud. A spirit guide, she claimed, had dictated the contents of the documents to her mother, now known as Cora Deboyer. Because the spirit guide was in direct contact with Abe and Ann, now together in the afterlife, the materials were authentic. Needless to say, nobody bought this.

Cora, of course, was the real mastermind behind the hoax. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press, Edward Weeks, described her as “…tall and beady-eyed, with hair suspiciously black for her age.” Her general look “reminded him somehow of a fortune-teller.”

An L.A. private eye the Atlantic Monthly hired to investigate the hoax described Cora as “…the hard nut of the two…a hard boiled old hen, who does not know what the word truth means.” Wilma, on the other hand, was “very badly disrupted and plainly showed the ordeal she had been through. At one point Wilma seemed like she was ready to pass out.”

The weird episode stamped a permanent black mark on Ellery Sedgwick’s otherwise distinguished career. Along with another man involved in the scandal, he’d been duped in no small part by his electric attraction to the comely Wilma.

Wilma’s celebrity-notoriety flamed out as quickly as it had ignited, and she drifted back into obscurity. She married two more times, continued writing, became an artist and a scrap booker and lived a quiet life in the San Diego area until her death in 1965.

Her obituary, which does not mention the Lincoln letters, lists her age as sixty-seven. She was actually seventy-nine.

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