THE 1953 KISS-OF-DEATH MURDER: The Bizarre Saga of Hildegarde Pelton

At around 9 pm, on the evening of February 1, 1953, a man was driving slowly through the fog on a deserted road, when a grey figure emerged from the mist and stood directly in front of his car, and he was forced to slam on his brakes.

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Realizing that it was a woman, the man exited his vehicle to see if he could assist in any way. He would later tell the police that he noticed blood smeared across the woman’s face, and that she spoke with a thick German accent. She asked him for a ride to the nearest bus station and he agreed.

At the Greyhound Bus Station, the ticket seller remembered that the woman bought a ticket to Los Angeles at 12:30 am, and ten minutes later came back requesting a refund. Thirty minutes later she returned, and wanted to purchase another ticket to Los Angeles. The employee remembered her, because it was a lot of work to make refunds, and he asked the woman “Awwww lady, are you sure?”

He described her as being “hatless,” wearing a tan or grey coat, and carrying an overnight bag.

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Hidegarde Pelton was born and raised in Germany, and was 6 years older than her husband, William. They met when he was stationed overseas, and got married in Bavaria in 1947. Hildegarde left her friends and family in Germany, and accompanied William back to California when his enlistment ended.  If Hildegarde had dreams of living the perfect life, with her handsome new husband, in the United States of America, it would not come to pass. She eventually realized that she lived in a country, where she had no family or friends. The relationship deteriorated quickly, and by 1953 the couple had been separated 3 times. The month before, William had been granted an unconditional divorce. The couple had been attempting another reconciliation, when Hildegarde was discovered in the middle of nowhere, walking through the fog, down an old dirt road.

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It didn’t take long for William T. Pelton, World War 2 veteran and airline mechanic, to be discovered not far from where Hildegard had been picked up. He was found propped up against his English convertible, with nine 22-caliber bullets in his face, neck, and head. His body had been draped in a red hook rug.

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The blood on his forehead had been wiped clean, and a bold lipstick print had been pressed onto that area of his face.

On an old dirt road, located deep in the woods, the eerie scene lay before the investigators. The detectives scanned the area for clues, and found a scarf that contained the murder weapon wrapped up inside of it. It had been tossed into the woods, and the bright colors stood out against the brown hues of dirt and dried leaves.

As a result of finding the slain veteran, a hunt was on the way for his German war bride of 4 years, but it would seem that the elusive Mrs. Pelton had vanished into thin air.

Three bags containing Hildegarde’s possessions had been found in the “murder car.”

Every newspaper carried the story and the sensational headlines were splashed across the front pages. The entire nation was on the look out for the German bride who had given her dead husband a “kiss of death,” and then disappeared into the night

Then on March 31st, another headline:

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Hildegarde was arrested, while walking down a Manhattan street, on her way home from work. The agents later stated that she had freely admitted to shooting her husband, during an argument that took place in his sports car, as they fought, while parked on the isolated little road.

She had spent her time in New York living in a cheap hotel on West 47th St., while working in a Broadway theatre at the candy concession stand.

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The movie playing at the theatre, when Hildegarde was apprehended, was the Alfred Hitchcock film “I Confess.”

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Although Hildegarde was no longer the gorgeous young ingénue that Bill Pelton had married, she flirted with the police officers and admitted her guilt.

She relayed that she had met Bill Pelton in Munich, Germany, and they were married when his enlistment had ended there. She agreed to accompany her new husband to California, anticipating a home and a family, however, after moving to the United States, neighbors would later testify that they constantly heard quarreling coming from the couple’s apartment, and that they had separated on several occasions.

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Shortly before Christmas of 1952, during one of their separations, Hildegarde was working at another theatre in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was then, that she went out and purchased a 22 caliber Harrington and Richardson.

Hildegarde told the FBI that she bought it to “…kill my husband.”

In mid-January Hildegarde came up with an excuse to return to their South San Francisco apartment and brought the firearm with her. While Hildegarde was in Flagstaff, it seems that Bill Pelton had managed to obtain the “interlocutory decree of divorce,” by default. This infuriated Hildegarde, and had prompted her to purchase the gun.

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Five years of heavy drinking and brawling with her husband, had taken it’s toll out on Hildegarde’s appearance. Once a beautiful woman, the press would now refer to her as “frumpy.”

Finally, on Sunday, February 1st, William Pelton told Hildegarde to get out. To prove that he was serious, he had packed Hildegarde’s bags for her.

Before they left the apartment Hildegarde slipped the pistol into one of her bags.

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According to Hildegarde’s confession, they left their San Francisco apartment, where they had been arguing, and they went to a bar where they had more words, this time fueled by alcohol. Afterward, they climbed back into Bill Pelton’s English convertible, and drove to Alameda County, fighting the entire way.

At some point, Hildegarde asked Bill Pelton to stop the car, and the couple ended up on a back road near the town of Niles. The argument raged on.

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She finally pulled the gun from her bag and fired it “a number of times” in the direction of her former husband.

When the smoke cleared, Hildegarde told the police, she proceeded to walk about the crime scene. She cleaned the blood from her dead husband’s forehead and kissed him there. She threw the gun, wrapped in the scarf, into the woods, where the police would later find it.

The investigators speculated that Hildegarde had held it, hidden from her husband, until the moment she shot him.

Hildegarde quickly obtained a ride to San Jose, with the kindly stranger. There, she eventually would catch a bus to Tijuana, Mexico, but just for one day.

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It turns out that Hildegarde was arrested in Northern Mexico, and subsequently handed over to the police in Los Nogolas, Arizona, where she spent the night in jail. It is not clear what Hildegarde was arrested for, but the police in Arizona were not aware of her husband’s murder, and released her the next morning.

One week later, Hildegarde was in New York City, and was able to find work at a movie theatre. She subsequently rented a room in a mid-Manhattan hotel.

She was walking down the sidewalk, on her way back to the hotel room, when the FBI arrested her.

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Described in one newspaper as “plump and grey-eyed” with “strawberry blonde hair,” it was reported that she smiled frequently at the police, the FBI and the District Attorney, while confessing to killing her husband. “I kissed him after the shooting.” she said.

On June 24th, Mrs John Nunez testified, that she was riding in an automobile with the Peltons when Hildegarde said “I’m going to kill him. No kidding. I’m going to kill him.”

Mrs Nunez went on to say that Bill Pelton replied “I’m getting tired of waiting for you to do it.”

The news reports were saturated with colorful language, which furthered the public’s need to know.

It was a 6-man /6-woman jury, and they found Hildegarde Garne Pelton guilty of second degree murder, rejecting the prosecution’s argument for first degree, yet holding her responsible for the death of her husband.

Hildegarde received the verdict in stride, showing no emotion at all, and only a murmur arose from the crowd. The courtroom was packed, as she clutched a white handkerchief to her breast, and kept her eyes riveted on the leg of the counsel table in front of her.

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There had been indications early on that the panel was agreed that Hildegarde killed her husband, but was split on the degree of guilt.

The jury sentenced Hildegarde to 5 years to life, for the murder of her husband, but they were unable to go home and get back to their lives, and stayed in the public eye for years afterwards.

Then, on February 1, 1957, Hildegarde was in the news one last time:

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The article explained that the parole was conditional, and Hildegarde would have to return to Germany, which she eventually did.

Note: In 1953, the fact that this trial was so widely publicized, that William Pelton was in the military and his wife was German, the bloody kiss and the love story-gone bad, it all gave the press an excuse to sensationalize William’s murder, and therefore sell more newspapers. The crime, the “manhunt,” and the subsequent trial, dominated newspaper headlines for over a year. The public was captivated by the story for many reasons.  Hildegarde’s German heritage, the violent nature of the crime, the fact that William was a soldier who was stationed in Germany when he met her, and the psychology behind the bloody kiss, were so salacious, that newspapers could write about Hildegarde, using her first name only. She was also referred to as “The Kiss-Of-Death” murder defendant, because if you didn’t remember her name, you remembered the bloody kiss.

The final kiss on William Pelton’s forehead read like a Hollywood film script, and like many cases in the news today, while she was on trial, Hildegarde became infamous ( not to be confused with “famous.”)

Read Webster’s definition of “infamous” here…

After her conviction, however, just as it is today, Hildegarde was all but forgotten by everyone, except the friends and family of William Pelton.

 

About LindaP

Broadcast veteran. Over 20 years: CNN, MSNBC, LIFETIME, ESPN. NBC. ABC, CBS as Producer, Art Director, Animation Specialist. Over 16 years as a freelance writer: Jezebel Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Creative Loafing, Southhampton Press. Currently writing a book about a bizarre series of unsolved murders, that began in 1931 and ended in 1970, I have linked the crimes to one forgotten suspect.
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