Unlocking History

Cemetery Tales: The Buttermilk Bluebeard

Cemetery Tales featured image of AL Cline, aka the Buttermilk Bluebeard. In the background is the Folsom prison cemetery, headstones and the Folsom dam.
AL Cline, aka the Buttermilk Bluebeard, was buried at the Folsom Prison cemetery.

A man linked to 11 disappearances or deaths, but only convicted of forgery, leads us to the strange tale of Alfred “Buttermilk Bluebeard” Cline.

(Editor’s note: Merriam-Webster defines the term “bluebeard” as a man who repeatedly marries and kills his wives. The female version, a woman who kills her husbands, is called a black widow.)

Cline was a seemingly successful insurance broker when he took a car trip with Martin Frame in October 1933. Stopping at a lunch stand on their return home, Cline said he wanted to step inside to use the phone. When he returned, he offered Frame a glass of buttermilk.

According to news reports, Frame said he “seemed to lose all control” and “wanted only to sleep” after drinking the milk.

Frame found himself unable to focus or think clearly and eventually passed out. When he awoke the next morning in a hotel room, Frame was short $240 as well as his house keys. Meanwhile, Cline was nowhere to be found.

“Frame testified that while he was under the influence of a drug given him without his knowledge by Cline, he had been induced to sign four blank papers, one of which later appeared as a will executed in favor of Cline,” according to news reports.

Latest in a string of swindles

With the police involved, and a full investigation underway, detectives began piecing together a tale of knock-out drugs, swindling, and possible murder.

“A trail of deaths, ascribed at the time to heart failure, and reports of poisoned buttermilk were under investigation by the district attorney’s office,” reported the United Press on Oct. 28, 1933.

When Cline was arrested, they found poison and “quantities of a hypnotic drug” in his possession.

Police began investigating a series of deaths tied to Cline, including his wife, Bessie Van Sickle Cline; her brother, Lucas Brandt McCreery; Reverend E. F. Jones; and Carrie May Porter.

Cline inherited his wife’s estate, as well as that of the reverend. His haul from the two estates totaled $44,000, equivalent to over $1 million today. The remains of the reverend and Porter could not be exhumed as Cline had them cremated.

McCreery’s sister, Helen Fisher, told investigators her brother was in good health when she saw him at his birthday in March the year prior. He died shortly after his birthday dinner when he drank a glass of buttermilk.

Porter died in a hotel room from apparent heart failure in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 16, 1931. Her death came only four days after she registered at the hotel with a man named A.L. Cline.

Two counties begin investigating

“Frame’s charges precipitated an investigation by the district attorney’s offices of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties into Cline’s association with a number of wealthy persons who died or became violently ill after willing their property to the insurance man. The investigation extended into Colorado, Nevada, and across the Pacific Northwest. The bodies of Cline’s late wife and his brother-in-law, who died suddenly after willing their property to Cline, were exhumed and tests of the vital organs are still in progress,” according to the United Press, Dec. 15, 1933.

The first death connected to Cline was his first wife in Colorado eight years earlier. He was arrested and charged at the time with a bond swindling scheme as well as forging his wife’s signature on a will naming him the sole beneficiary. The forgery charge was dropped after he pleaded guilty to the bond scheme, landing him in a Colorado penitentiary for a brief stint.

From the drugging and robbery of Frame, Cline was sentenced to Folsom State Prison to serve a sentence of five to 15 years. In 1943, he was paroled and wasted no time in getting back to his plans.

Buttermilk Bluebeard back on the hunt

After serving his time, he traveled quite a bit, meeting wealthy Chicago widow Eva Delora Krebs. They married in May 1944.

In November 1945, Cline was arrested after checks forged under Krebs’ name were cashed in San Francisco.

He claimed his 73-year-old wife died Nov. 29 in a hotel in Portland, Ore. Her will left him $250,000. That’s roughly the equivalent of $4.2 million today. Investigators believed there were two dead women now. One was Krebs while the other was a missing San Francisco widow named Isabella Van Natta. The Chicago widow had grey hair and dentures. The woman who was cremated in Portland had all of her teeth and dark hair, according to those who cremated her remains at Cline’s request.

In Cline’s car, police found Van Natta’s clothing and some of her personal items.

“That was definitely Delora Krebs-Cline,” the suspect told authorities about the woman cremated in Portland.

Studying the ashes, they found a gold-filled tooth, leading them to believe the cremated woman was Van Natta.

Van Natta’s friends said she left with Cline around Nov. 17 so the pair could be married.

Files from 1933 case go missing

The San Francisco district attorney had suspicions regarding the previous deaths linked to Cline and requested the records from the 1933 case. Those had also disappeared years earlier when a paroled convict from Folsom Prison, posing as an attorney, requested the files. The fake attorney swiped them before anyone noticed.

Also found in Cline’s car was a notebook listing widows across the country. In Chicago, there were 17 women listed. While they hadn’t met Cline, many were friends with Krebs.

A trail of bodies across the country

Suddenly, a string of interstate crimes with missing widows began emerging. A nationwide investigation, involving law enforcement agencies across multiple states, was now underway.

TEXAS — In October 1944 in Dallas, Cline posed as deceased 66-year-old Alice Carpenter’s manager. After it was determined she died of a “constricted” heart, he had her remains cremated. He also produced paperwork showing she had named him administrator of her estate.

FLORIDA — In Jacksonville, Elizabeth Hannah Klein died at a hotel Nov. 8, 1943. Cline, claiming to be her husband “F.L. Klein,” had her body cremated and took over her estate.

CALIFORNIA, NEVADA — Police were already searching for Elizabeth Hunt Lewis, an elderly Oakland widow who went missing in September 1943. That’s when Lewis told her friends she married Cline and the two were heading to Florida. Investigators contacted authorities in Nevada, believing she may have died before ever reaching Florida. Authorities found her property tax records were requested to be forwarded to A.L. Cline, St. Petersburg, Florida. At trial, prosecutors alleged the woman who died in Florida was Lewis, given a different name by Cline.

Still not enough evidence for murder

In the end, without enough evidence to prosecute a murder trial, he was only charged with forgery. With so many forged signatures, he was given a sentence totaling 126 years.

The man who earned the nickname “Buttermilk Bluebeard,” causing so many to perish due to heart issues brought on by poison, died of a heart attack at Folsom State Prison on Aug. 4, 1948. He was buried in the Folsom State Prison cemetery.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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