Summoned to the home of his mistress Grace Lusk by telephone, Waukesha veterinarian Dr. David Roberts found his wife, Mary, dying in the parlor, a bullet through her heart, and Grace bleeding from a self-inflicted wound, standing at the top of the stairs where she held the police chief and a doctor at bay for over an hour before she shot herself again.
When the married veterinarian Dr. David Roberts, a renowned expert on exotic cattle and distributor of a line of patent medicines for pets and farm animals, approached the spinster schoolteacher Grace Lusk about helping him edit a textbook on cattle, he sparked a three-year illicit relationship that ended in the killing of the doctor’s wife. The veterinarian and the school teacher would travel separately to hotels in Chicago and Milwaukee while working on the cow book and would take long rides in the country in the wealthy veterinarian’s touring car. On June 21, 1917, Dr. Roberts received a phone call summoning him to the boarding house where Grace Lusk lived, only to find his wife Mary bleeding on the parlor floor, a gunshot wound to her heart and Grace Lusk bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. For nearly an hour Miss Lusk held three grown men–including the chief of police–at bay from the top of the staircase, and even had a doctor take dictation for a farewell note to her father. Her plea would be insanity, and the trial filled with shocking revelations and torrid love letters. Read how the affair and all of its intrigues led to “The Blood-Soaked Woman at the Top of the Stairs,” A Two-Dollar Terror No. 5.
Now that we know the whole story, we have to wonder what was going through the veterinarian’s mind the day his girlfriend kept calling him.
Dr. David Roberts, former Wisconsin State Veterinarian and wealthy breeder of exotic cattle in Waukesha, had been watching his two-year relationship with Grace Lusk spin out of control for several weeks. His wife was onto them, for one thing, but he explained that away by saying the spinster school teacher was simply obsessed with him after they had worked together on his cow book, and that if they ignored her, she would lose interest. Still, Mary Newman Roberts said that she wanted to talk to the woman and warn her off. Roberts forbade it. That was an era where a man might be able to forbid his wife to do something, but it didn’t work. It was also an era where a man could go to jail for cheating on his wife. That threat apparently didn’t work, either.
Grace first called him at home early on the morning of Thursday, June 21, 1917. He put her off, saying he had to go to his office, which was next door. She soon called him there, and he tried to calm her, although he knew that his wife was on the warpath and did not know the true nature of their relationship. Grace came by the office early in the afternoon on her way to teach a class at the YMCA. Later, his wife came in and said she was going to go visit her friend Mrs. Noble.
Dr. Roberts had his associate, L.D. Blott, a young man whom the doctor had raised and was now a partner in his veterinary pharmaceutical business, follow her. They were both on foot, and in trying to be surreptitious, he lost her in the park, but noticed she was heading toward the library. So he went back to the office, got in the doctor’s motor car and drove around trying to find her, but could not. When Blott got back to the office, the doctor ran out and met him at the curb. Mrs. Roberts had just called, he told Blott, summoning him to the home of Bianca Mills, where Grace Lusk boarded.
By this time, the veterinarian surely knew something bad was going on, that his web of lies was getting irrevocably tangled, and within moments they were at the little brown stucco Mills house. As their machine pulled up in front, they heard a gunshot from within. The veterinarian frantically rang the doorbell and started to bang on the front door when he realized it was ajar. He opened it. The house was silent. He tentatively shouted out his wife’s name. No reply. He went first to the dining room, finding it empty, then doubled back to the parlor. In a corner of the front room lay the veterinarian’s wife, fatally wounded, breathing slightly.
“I’m afraid I’m going,” she said to her husband before she slipped into the final unconsciousness.
Roberts ran across the street to the home of Sam Mills, the house where he first met Grace Lusk, to call for a doctor and police. Blott stood in the front yard, and a moment later, he heard another shot and ran back into the house. He checked the downstairs room, then put a foot on the first step of the curved staircase just in time to see Grace emerge from her room pale, one hand pressed to the front of her bloody dress, flourishing a pistol with the other.
“Stop!” she commanded and pointed the pistol down the stairs. “Don’t come up here!”
Blott stepped back, and almost bumped into Dr. R.E. Davies, who had already checked on the wife and found her dead. So he turned his attention to the bleeding woman at the top of the stairs.
Davies greeted her calmly, then slowly moved past Blott and started up the stairs, but Grace waved the pistol at him and he stopped.
“If you come up I’ll shoot,” she screamed at him. The doctor quickly stepped back onto the landing.
Grace looked glumly at the hand placed over the gunshot wound in her chest.
“Will I die?” she asked.
“It is too low,” he said. “You missed your heart. I think you will recover.”
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I want to die. There can be no mental nor spiritual recovery, so why the physical?”
About that time, Chief of Police Don McKay arrived.
“This is Mr. McKay,” said the doctor. The chief of police bowed gravely.
“I know Don McKay.” Grace said in a hysterical burst of laughter. “I know something about him, too. I am very pleased to meet you, Chief. Are you really going to marry the pretty widow?”
“Yes,” the chief said in surprise, staying at the bottom of the stairs with Davies and Blott.
“Will you permit the chief of police to come up?” Davis asked.
“No!” she cried and kept the gun pointed at the three men.
She called for Roberts several times during the hour-long standoff. They told her he wasn’t here, even though he was in the parlor with the dead body of his wife. The other men advised him to stay put.
“Where is Mrs. Roberts?” Grace asked
“Mrs. Roberts is dead,” Davies said.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” she said.
She asked Dr. Davies to take some messages so he got some paper and wrote down what she said, a note to her father before she died. She wept as she dictated:
“Dr. Roberts told me again and that he loved me, and cared for no one but me. He said he cared more for me than for anyone in the world. He said that he and his wife never loved each other, that he cared for no one else. He said he would tell her by June 15th. He swore it on a Bible. When he came back with me across the park, I told him that he must tell her that he doing a dishonorable thing by deceiving her. I went to see her last night and he brought me back through the park. I asked him again if he loved me, and he said he did. I asked him if he would tell her, and he said he would. I called him on the phone, and he said that he had told her. But when she came to see me she said he had told her merely that I was infatuated with him, that I had been chasing him, and that I was the damndest fool he had ever met. She called me every name, every name. I loved him so dearly. Mrs. Roberts called me such awful things. Mrs. Mills must be paid for the damage to the place. Pay her for everything very well. Father, you will see to this.”
She said more, but Davies was out of paper. He pretended to continue to write, however, and summarized the rest of her dictation in court.
“She said the reason she shot Mrs. Roberts was because of the names the doctor’s wife called her,” Davies would testify. “She kept calling for the doctor, and when I said he wouldn’t come she said, ‘The dirty coward! Is he afraid I’ll hurt him?’”
For nearly an hour, either standing at the landing or seated on the top step, Grace kept the three men at bay, brandishing her pistol.
“I wouldn’t have done it but she called me such awful names,” she said time and again.
Finally, Chief McKay asked her if he could take her to jail.
“Never!” she said.
She began to poke her fingers around her wound, and then raise the gun to the spot, as if she had found the angle she wanted, then her shaking hand would drop. She did this a second, a third time, then told the men to go around the corner, out of her sight. They complied, and as soon as they were gone, they heard the explosion of a gunshot rang out and Grace’s weary voice coming from her room: “You may come up now.” Then they heard the sound of a body hitting the floor.
Davies and Chief McKay ran up the stairs to her room. She had shot herself again, but had apparently tried to find a more fatal spot with her hand, and ended up shooting off the end of her finger. The mistake probably saved her life, as the bullet once again missed her heart and passed through her slender body.
“That was the most unfortunate miss I ever made,” she said.
While they waited for help, Grace remained conscious, moaning over and over: “I love him and he is a coward. He left me to suffer.”
“It is so strange,” she said to Davies as the ambulance crew removed her on a stretcher, “but I love him still.”