A robbery gone wrong or a hit by organized crime – the stabbing death of madam Bessie Jones remains an unsolved murder mystery.
Forty-five years ago this Sunday, the body of the elderly woman was found in a second-floor bedroom of the brothel she operated for decades at 20 E. Locust St., in Carlisle.
Someone had used a pair of nylons to tie her hands behind her back and had stuffed a washcloth in her mouth. A knife thrust had cut the pulmonary artery at the base of the heart causing Jones to bleed out.
The homicide investigation set her time of death at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, 1972. Borough police were first notified at around 6:10 a.m. Fifty-five minutes later, at 7:05 a.m., state police stopped a taxi about 12 miles west of Carlisle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The passenger was Georgia Ann Schneider, 24, of Pittsburgh, who was a prostitute and six months pregnant at the time. When police arrested her, they found $2,789 in cash on the cab seat and stuffed in her handbag and clothing.
The Sentinel covered the February 1973 jury trial that acquitted Schneider of murdering Jones. The prosecution argued the suspect stabbed the madam during a robbery attempt. The defense countered by saying the murder was a professional hit by the same crime syndicate that supplied the prostitutes.
Robbery gone wrong?
The story begins with Schneider arriving in Carlisle around 9 p.m. Sept. 30. According to testimony, she had worked at the brothel several times in the two years prior to the murder. She did not work that Saturday, but instead came by to spend the night because she was feeling sick.
According to testimony, Jones had asked a prostitute named Cassandra Jackson to help Schneider into bed. That was when Schneider allegedly told Jackson of her intent to rob Jones. As the key prosecution witness, Jackson also said she saw a knife similar to the murder weapon in Schneider’s room the morning of the murder.
A switchblade with the victim’s blood was found in the yard of the residence next to a wrapper from a package of stomach medicine that Schneider had admitted to have used.
Schneider testified that Jackson had warned her to stay in her room because a man from New Kensington, Allegheny County, was coming to rob Jones. Schneider heeded the warning and waited until after the noise died down to walk downstairs from her third floor room to check on Jones in her second floor room.
She opened the door, looked inside and saw lots of blood from the old madam. Schneider left the brothel 20 minutes after finding the body. From Carlisle, she took a taxi to Harrisburg before hailing another cab at the city bus terminal offering that driver $110 to drive her to Pittsburgh. She was stopped in transit.
Investigators found Jones on a bed. Her night gown, slip and house coat were stained with blood from three knife wounds to the left arm, left rib cage and chest.
Upon her arrest, Schneider claimed she had earned the money turning tricks in New York City, but the prosecution argued her pregnancy would have reduced her value as a prostitute. The Sentinel reported how Schneider could not recall the name of the club she claimed to have worked in.
Defense attorney Herbert “Corky” Goldstein said the syndicate that supplied the prostitutes for Bessie’s House was responsible for killing Jones and for several robberies leading up to the murder. The newspaper had reported Jones was under investigation by the FBI, the state attorney general’s office and the state police for her alleged ties to organized crime.
There was other testimony presented at trial to cast reasonable doubt. When Schneider tried to call for help, the phone didn’t work because the lines serving the building had been cut, Goldstein said. He added no blood was found on Georgia’s clothing, and her fingerprints were not on the switchblade. He felt the evidence was consistent with a professional hit.
There was also a mystery man. Jackson testified she last spoke to Jones between 3 and 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 1 when she received a phone call to meet a male friend at the Starlite Motel on Route 11. The man was last seen walking down Route 11 at about 6 a.m. Goldstein suggested to jurors the friend of the star witness may have been associated with the crime.
‘The Preference Book’
It took the jury only 2 1/2 hours to find Schneider not guilty of murder. Seventeen years later, on June 21, 1990, Goldstein held a news conference to announce he had in his possession an oversized ledger with the names of over 1,600 clients of Bessie’s House from 1947 to two days before Jones was murdered.
Locked away in a safe deposit box, this so-called Preference Book also includes information on the favorite services of each client, his occupation, customer rates and a record of money owed and paid.
Goldstein told reporters that Schneider had obtained the ledger from Jones who allegedly said “If anything should happen to me, I want you to make sure this book doesn’t see the light of day.” The ledger was never submitted as evidence during the trial, and it is believed several prominent names are listed on its pages.
The Sentinel in June 1990 interviewed Carlisle police detective Robert Warner who was skeptical of the ledger’s existence but curious over what it may contain on organized crime. At that time, the police department and District Attorney Michael Eakin expressed no interest in reopening the Jones murder case. They were convinced Schneider committed the crime even though she couldn’t be tried again in court.
The Cumberland County Historical Society has a file on this murder case, which includes an obituary from the Nov. 7, 2012 edition of Florida Today. The obituary reads that a woman named Georgia Ann Schneider, 64, died on Oct. 25, 2012 at her home on Merritt Island.
The obituary reported how Schneider came to Brevard County, Florida, in 1974, when her family relocated. She was survived by her mother, two brothers, a son and three grandchildren.
The legendary Bessie
As for Bessie Jones, she died a legend in Carlisle. The Sentinel published a retrospective on Jones on Feb. 24, 1990, mentioning how she was a savvy businesswoman who had inherited her “house of ill repute” from her mother. Known locally as “Bessie’s House,” it catered to only the most prominent judges, generals, lawyers, chiefs of police, legislators and businessmen.
“A plump woman, Bessie dressed in the latest fashions with floppy hats and more than enough face rouge,” the story reads. “She waddled up town on market days, dispensing broad grins and sly smiles, conveyed at a discreet distance and was usually accompanied by her maid complete with an overgrown market basket.”
As she walked downtown, Jones used a cane, but many suspect it was more for show. Many local residents overlooked or tolerated her business – believing her to be a kindly old madam who donated money to charity and served as a benefactor to black families who struggled during the great depression.
Though she took precautions to avoid being raided, Jones did not completely escape the clutches of the law. From 1939 to 1971, she faced eight counts of operating a house of prostitution and four counts of violating the liquor code. She was convicted twice of tax evasion and served time in both state and federal prisons during the 1960s.