A Hollywood murder most foul…

Ann McKnight was a 23-year-old dancer and film extra, and one of the hundreds of hopefuls that arrived in Hollywood each year, eager to break into show business.

Ann was born in New Britain, Connecticut on November 19, 1906. Her father, John McKnight was a traveling optician and her mother Annie, was a housewife. Ann’s siblings included Mabel, Ada, Edward and Milton.

After Ann’s father died when she was young, her family moved to Denver, Colorado to live with her older married sister Mabel. In July 1924, Annie remarried to Harry Steck. Ann, along with her sister Ada got the acting bug and moved to Hollywood in October 1927 to try to make it in the movies.

Changing her name to Joy McKnight, Ada found a bit part in the film, Bitter Sweets (1928) starring Barbara Belford and Ralph Graves. However, that appeared to be the extent to her film career other than some possible uncredited extra and bit roles. Yet, in the 1930 Census, she labeled herself as an “actress.” Ann, too, only found extra work and possibly some dance gigs at the local clubs. Finally, she found work as a drug store clerk.

[Note: IMDB.com wrongly confuses this Ann McKnight with another who was a film editor. Their biography and death date is for the McKnight who was murdered in 1930, yet the films listed and birth date are for McKnight, the film editor (it’s not known when she died).]

Instead, both sisters found husbands and were married. Joy wed Jack Hoskins and had twins, Joy and Jack. Ann fell for the charms of William Henry Burkhart and married him on March 27, 1928. From the beginning, Ann’s marriage was filled with physical abuse. In addition, Burkhart was reportedly an alcoholic and took drugs.

Burkhart’s abuses were continuous until finally in July 1929, Ann left Burkhart and lived with her sisters’ family at 933 ½ La Jolla Avenue in West Hollywood. Ann filed for divorce, but Burkhart made threats, telling friends that if he couldn’t have her, “nobody else shall because l will kill her first.”

Burkhart intimidated and stalked Ann over the next few months. Finally, in March 1930, he set a plan in motion to get her back.

On several occasions, Burkhart met with Ann, eager to mend their marriage. Reportedly, Ann told her husband that if he rented an apartment and bought a car, she would give him another chance. He convinced Ann to meet with her on the evening of March 24, 1930, promising to surprise her. She agreed.

That afternoon, Burkhart resigned his position as a bookkeeper with the Los Angeles Gas Electric Company. Then, using a fake name (Charles G. Thompson), and counterfeit checks, he purchased a Ford coupe, and, under the name C. L. Burns, he rented a bungalow apartment at 6742 Franklin Place, one block north of the Hollywood Hotel. He told the landlady that he would return that evening with his wife.

Site of bungalow apartments at 6740 Franklin Place where murder of Ann McKnight was discovered. (click on image to enlarge)

At around 6:30 pm, the couple arrived at Franklin Place where Burkhart introduced Ann to the landlady who was sprinkling the lawn. A few minutes after they entered their apartment, the landlady saw the front door “jerked open” and Ann standing there between the door and screen door. Burkhart came up behind her, placed his arm around her and pulled her back into the apartment as she let out a “moaning cry.” Within the hour, they left in the Ford coupe and went driving while imbibing freely on wine tonic.

Three hours later, Burkhart had returned and knocked on the apartment door of his Franklin Place neighbor, James Thompson and his wife, who were playing cards with another couple. Burkhart introduced himself as their new neighbor and asked for a match. He admitted that he had been drinking, but added, “you might think that I am stiff, but my wife is stiffer.”

After Burkhart left, the Thompson’s and their guests heard a noise, like the falling of a body. Burkhart returned only a few minutes later. “May I speak to you as a friend?” Burkhart asked Thompson and his guest. The three men walked through Burkhart’s apartment and out the rear door to the alley where Ann was laying on the ground. Burkhart explained that his wife “had passed out drunk” and he needed their help to get her into his car.

Murder site photo of Ann McNight’s body: Warning: graphic. (Pinterest) (click on photo to enlarge)

Thompson knelt and checked for a pulse. Noticing blood on her blouse he remarked that she “didn’t look drunk.”

“Well,” Burkhart explained, “she always acts that way when she gets drunk.”

When Burkhart left to move his car closer, Thompson and his friend went inside and called the police. When they returned, they saw Burkhart dragging Ann’s body to the coupe, leaving a trail of blood on the cement behind her.

Aerial view of McKnight murder site at Franklin Place and Highland Avenue. (click on image to enlarge)

 

When the police arrived, they called an ambulance. Burkhart lit a cigarette and told them it was no use, adding, “She is dead.” Burkhart once again claimed that he was drunk but insisted that his wife was “dead drunk.” Officers observed that he did not appear drunk and one even accused him of being “spasmodically” intoxicated, or simulating drunkenness. Later, a stomach pump produced little alcohol.

When he was searched, officers found a fully loaded .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with blood on the handle in Burkhart’s pocket. “You can’t prove I shot my wife,” Burkhart blurted out. Until then, Ann’s cause of death had not been concluded. “Is your wife shot?” an officer asked. Realizing he had made a slip, Burkhart claimed he heard the other officers discussing it.

Ann McKnight Burkhart’s death certificate (click on image to enlarge)

An examination of the Ford coupe found blood and two bullet holes; it was apparent that Ann was killed in the auto at least two hours earlier.

The autopsy determined she had been shot five times; in the arm and chest, and three times in the back. Based on the crime scene evidence, police determined that Burkhart had sexual intercourse with Ann after she was dead. When confronted by police with this observation, Burkhart said nothing but only hung his head.

At Burkhart’s arraignment, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but later dropped the insanity clause and pleaded not guilty.

Several days later, Ann’s body was interred in a plot at Hollywood Cemetery, just several feet from the wall that still separates the cemetery from Paramount Studios. A wooden cross showing Ann’s name, and birth and death dates, was placed on her grave.

At Burkhart’s trial, Ann’s sister Joy Haskins testified that he allegedly said that no one else would have her sister even if “I have to spend the rest of my life in the penitentiary.”

Burkhart chose not to take the stand in his defense but based on witness testimony and police and ballistic reports, the jury found him guilty of premeditated murder. “I hope Joy is satisfied now,” Burkhart said, knowing that his sister-in-law had campaigned heavily to have him jailed. He later said that Ann’s family was responsible for turning her against him and convincing her to get an abortion shortly after they were married.

William Burkhart’s mug shot at Folsom Prison. (click on image to enlarge)

After the verdict, Burkart’s attorneys filed an appeal with California Governor James Rolph who was sent several petitions to pardon the convicted man. In his letters to Rolph, Burkart claimed he did not recollect killing his wife. He said that drinking and taking morphine tablets that day had dulled his memory. “I was riding around, and I didn’t know who I was with, where I went, or what I did. My mind is blank as to what happened that evening. The next I remember I was in jail; terribly sick and dizzy,” he wrote to the governor.

Burkhart’s mother, Sarah, knowing that her son was facing a death sentence, wrote to California Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Waste, begging him to “save his life”:

“…as I told you his wife is gone, and it will not bring her back, but it will make so many sad hearts so happy just to know he lives,” she pleaded with Waste. Likewise, Joy Haskins asked the governor to consider life imprisonment instead of death, but only because Mrs. Burkhart pleaded with her daily. “…for the sake of his aged mother,” Haskins wrote, “I will be willing to signe [sic] some [thing] for life sentence, but not to help him get out in a few years.”

After nearly a year and five reprieve requests from Governor Rolph, the California Supreme Court upheld the jury’s original decision that “the killing was the product of an abandoned and malignant heart [and] was premeditated finds ample support in the record and warranted the infliction of the death penalty.”

Attorneys made one more attempt to prove that Burkhart was insane, but the physician at Folsom Prison reported that the prisoner’s “emotional reactions are good” and he “does not show any delusions, hallucinations, or abnormal mental processes.”

Remarkably, Governor Rolph made a sixth attempt to save the condemned man from the gallows but Chief Justice Waste informed him that he would not recommend any further reprieves.

Burkhart finally accepted his fate and was scheduled to be executed at Folsom Prison on January 30, 1932, nearly two years after he planned and implemented the murder of his wife Ann McKnight Burkhart. The evening before his execution, he wrote letters to his mother and a sister, both living in Los Angeles.

On the morning of his hanging, Burkhart was nervous as he faced the prospect of the long walk down the corridor to the death chamber. He asked for a glass of water before being taken from his cell, not saying anything during the walk or while on the gallows. Rev. B. H. Householder, Methodist minister from Sacramento, gave him his final spiritual solace.

Burkhart’s execution marked the end of one of the longest and most varied series of appeals in the history of capital punishment in California at that time. Five attorneys, at various times prosecuted appeals for Burkhart, the State Supreme Court refusing three times to recommend commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment.

Location of graves at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (click on image to enlarge)

Though William Henry Burkhart had finally paid the ultimate price for the murder of his wife, there would be another affront committed against the murdered woman. In the area where Ann’s body rests, there used to be a road just a few steps away.

When William Burkhart was executed, he was also interred at Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) and remarkably his body was buried in a plot directly across that road from Ann, lying just a few feet away from his murdered wife. Most likely a last request from the convicted felon performed by his family. However, the road that once separated them, was filled in several years ago and new graves now rest between them.

Ground view of grave locations at Hollywood Forever (click on image to enlarge)

One last travesty; Ann’s grave is now unmarked because the wooden marker that was placed on it at her death in 1930, has since rotted and disappeared decades ago, yet Burkart has a permanent flat granite tablet to mark his grave.

Approximate location of Ann McKnight’s unmarked grave.

Grave marker of convicted and executed murderer William Henry Burkhart.


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5 Responses to “A Hollywood murder most foul…”

  1. Allan Landman says:

    Wow, what a story. Poor Ann, to be buried that close to the monster. Will there be any collection started to get a marker of sort for Ann? I admire your stories Allan, you do an excellent job of retelling the events. Thanks Allan.

  2. Another fascinating story, Allan, one which I’ve never heard before, and well illustrated with photos and research. I will search them out next visit. Thank you for another fine job.

  3. Allan Ellenberger says:

    Thanks Steve, lets go hunting sometime.

  4. Allan Ellenberger says:

    Thanks Allan 🙂

  5. Anne says:

    Very interesting murder case and well documented by Allan Ellenberger. Thanks.

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