Erna Janoschek was only seventeen when she brutally murdered the baby she was hired to care for
Ernestine “Erna” Mazie Janoschek was born on April 2, 1911, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, California. Her father was a German immigrant named Edward Janoschek, and her mother, Maria Worthy, hailed from England.
Edward and Marie were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They married during the summer of 1905 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Their first child, Grace, was born there in 1905. Shortly after, Edward received a missionary calling, and the family moved to Los Angeles, where Erna was born. The Janoscheks bounced between California and Utah as the church called before settling in Oakland, California, in 1920.
Edward served as a missionary to the western states, but also Sudan and Mexico. As a church elder, he wrote at least one book, The Latter-day Zion, its redemption and chosen instruments. The US Federal Census lists his occupation as a magazine salesman, and Marie as a teacher.
The family valued education greatly, as well as the literary arts. However, Edward was fervently religious almost to the point of fanaticism. He abandoned his family in favor of church work. Edward served as an editor for a pro-polygamy publication, The New Era: A Periodical Dedicated to the Interest of Zion and Her Cause. The church officially excommunicated Edward in 1930.
As a single mother of two girls, Maria did the best she could with what she had. She instructed her daughters to work hard in school to build careers and stable lives. Grace graduated high school in 1923 and attended the University of California, Berkley.
Erna was beautiful, articulate, and inherited her father’s talent for writing. She attended University High School and was well-liked by students and teachers. Later, her teachers would testify to a drastic change in Erna’s personality during the spring of 1928.
Erna had always been extraordinarily outgoing and vibrant but suddenly became withdrawn and sullen. She insisted nothing happened to her and claimed that she preferred her own company for now, instead of friends. Seventeen is, after all, a difficult age to be, and this change of attitude might have been very typical. Sadly, in Erna’s case, her symptoms warned of an impending and dangerous deterioration of her mental health.
In early June of 1928, Erna answered an advertisement for a live-in nanny position. Maria allowed her daughter to pursue the job, hoping it would cheer her up and help Grace, who was paying her way through college and footing the household bills.
Maria knew Erna would be safe since she was going to work for the Liliencrantz* family. Dr. Eric Liliencrantz, a third-generation physician, headed the household. The mother was a well-connected socialite named Thais Scott Liliencrantz.
Initially, the situation seemed perfect. Erna had private sleeping quarters where she could rest after caring for the Liliencrantz children, a one-year-old girl called Thais Diana after her mother and 3-year-old Francora. They were beautiful, happy, and well-behaved children, although Francora could occasionally run Erna ragged, as toddlers sometimes do.
As time went on, Erna became overwhelmed. Between the housework, the children, and occasional criticism from Mrs. Liliencrantz, Erna’s patience and sanity began to wear thin.
The complaints were mild ones, as Erna described them. Erna would accidentally break something, or Francora would have more tantrums than usual in Erna’s care. Erna took the criticism to heart and started to resent Mrs. Liliencrantz.
On June 25, 1928, the family had Mrs. Liliencrantz’s parents over for dinner. The guests didn’t leave until 8:30 in the evening, and Erna was tasked with the cleanup duties. Erna had a pounding headache but pushed through. Begrudgingly, Erna washed all the dishes and cut her finger on a knife in the process. She scrubbed hard at a pot, crusted over with burnt berries. The stove was covered with burnt fruit as well. Mrs. Liliencrantz tried her hand at making preserves earlier that day and allowed the pot to boil over. Erna was practically obsessed with neatness and saw Mrs. Liliencrantz’s jam-making mishap as a personal attack instead of an accident.
Erna finished her chores and made it to bed at half-past 10. She fell asleep above her covers with the light on while thumbing through a magazine. The slumber would be short-lived; the light woke Erna at 2:30 AM, and baby Thais began cooing at 5 AM. By 6, Thais was crying. Erna forced herself up, made the girls ready for their day, and presented them to their mother.
Realizing she was in over her head, Erna decided to quit. On June 26, she gave her employer verbal notice stating the job was too strenuous for a girl her age. When she asked about her pay, Mrs. Liliencrantz admonished, “If you were to pay for all the things you have broken, I don’t believe you’d have a cent coming to you.”
At that moment, Erna made a plan to hurt Mrs. Liljencranz in the worst way a person could hurt a mother.
The Last Day
Although Erna gave notice that morning, Dr. and Mrs. Liljencranz had plans to see a movie together. Erna agreed to stay with the children one last time.
“Well, you will be sweet to my babies, anyway, won’t you, Erna?” Mrs. Liliencrantz asked.
“Oh, of course, I will!” Erna chirped back.
“I know. You always are,” Mrs. Liljencranz smiled, kissed her children goodbye, and left.
Within the hour, Mrs. Liliencrantz’s mother unexpectedly stopped in to check on her grandchildren. Erna told her the children were fine and about to have their evening cereal. Satisfied, the grandmother left. “She doesn’t know the half of it!” Erna muttered to herself, aware of the deadly plan forming in her head.
“That night, two people will be asleep in one bed; one will be taken, the other left.” The bible verse intruded her thoughts and caused Erna to laugh maniacally as she considered which child to take. Erna chose baby Thais because she believed Mrs. Liliencrantz loved her better, and Erna thought it was more dramatic to take the littlest child.
The girls finished their cereal, and Erna tucked them in for the night. Francora asked, “What makes it get dark?” With all calmness, Erna explained the earth’s rotation around the sun and kissed Francora’s forehead.
Erna sat on her bed and wrote a “death poem” for Thais Diana. Without a single emotion, she took a towel from the linen closet and tip-toed to the children’s room. Erna lifted Thais out of her twin bed and woke the child enough to look into her eyes. As she met Thais’ gaze, Erna wrapped the towel around the baby’s neck and strangled her.
As Erna pulled the towel tighter and tighter, the scripture repeated in her mind, “That night, two people will be asleep in one bed; one will be taken, the other left.” She felt nothing while she watched life depart from that little baby. When she stopped moving, Erna covered Thais’ head with a shower cap, placed her between her mattress and box springs, and applied pressure with her knees.
When Erna was sure the baby was dead, she methodically went to the kitchen and tossed garbage and food around to make it look like an intruder. She realized there was no real use in that, and called the police.
“The maid killed the baby,” Erna claimed over the phone before she gave the Liliencrantz’s address. She next placed the death poem in her mouth and swallowed it. When the police arrived, Erna laughed and introduced herself as the maid.
“Oh, mad hour! Where was God?” Erna to The San Francisco Examiner, September 19, 1928
Police arrested Erna on site. During interrogation, she didn’t put up any resistance or attempt to deny her actions. Instead, she giggled and laughed about them. She boasted that she was surprised she felt so little about the murder. “I’d rather deal with the police than Mrs. Liliencrantz!” Erna giggled out during initial questioning. When inspector Brodie Wallman reminded Erna that this was no laughing manner, Erna shook her head and claimed she always laughed when she was upset.
The next day, Erna faced arraignment in the court of Judge Leon Gray, Judge Gray remanded Erna to juvenile hall where she underwent a preliminary psychiatric evaluation. Erna insisted she was sane. The psychiatrists agreed; she was peculiar, but she knew right from wrong and understood the severity of her actions and their consequences.
Erna’s murder trial began on September 17, in Oakland. Judge Fred Wood presided. Erna was represented by Public Defender William Shea, who thought it was in Erna’s best interest to plead insanity. Erna had no such intention. She didn’t mind being labeled a murderess, but she would never claim to be insane. She called insanity distasteful and insisted she knew precisely what she was doing when she killed baby Thais. Erna was a minor, however, and her attorney pleaded insanity on her behalf.
The judge, defense, and prosecution agreed they needed to protect Erna’s interest as well as serve justice for the murder of Thais Diana. District Attorney Earl Warren hired psychiatrist, Dr. OD Hamlin, to evaluate Erna’s mental state. Shea hired a separate team of psychiatrists to diagnose Erna.
The insanity defense was still relatively new in 1928, California, and introduced ethical dilemmas in the courtroom. If Erna were ruled insane, she would have spent some time in the state hospital, and left a free woman. If she were ruled sane, a 17-year-old schoolgirl could be facing life in prison or even the gallows.
Erna’s mother and sister testified for Erna’s defense. They explained how depressed and sullen she had been and admitted they had no idea how to handle her. Edward, Erna’s father, couldn’t be bothered to show up. Erna’s mother cried throughout her heartfelt testimony. Erna continued to giggle and shrug her shoulders.
A psychiatrist for the defense, Dr. Richards, used Erna’s trial as a platform for mental health reform. At the time, people diagnosed with insanity were committed to psychiatric hospitals. To make that happen, the person in question had to be a danger to life or property. Often, this distinction came too late. Dr. Richards suggested to the court and reporters that outpatient facilities and psychotherapy could catch symptoms early and perhaps prevent such terrible tragedies.
When the time came for Erna to give testimony, she continued to act like the courtroom was her stage.
“Do you like my new hat?” She asked the judge as she flaunted a new cloche, batted her blue eyes towards the jury, and erupted into laughter. “I just can’t help it. When I feel the urge to laugh, I just have to give in to it.”
Erna held nothing back regarding the crime. She told the story with no emotion, aside from the occasional fit of giggles. Erna even wrote her account of events from her jail cell and sent it to the paper. When asked why she killed the baby, she said she just had to have revenge on Mrs. Liliencrantz.
Erna happened to be distantly related to stage actress Fanny Janoushek. Because of this, Erna felt predestined for stardom and fame. Mrs. Lilliencranz enjoyed an active social life throughout the bay area and ran in circles that wouldn’t likely accept Erna. It was a delusion of grandeur meshed with a deep-seated sense of inferiority. But why baby Thais?
She claimed she chose baby Thais because she was Mrs. Liliencrantz’s favorite. It is more likely she killed her because Francora was bigger and stronger.
In the end, all of the hired psychiatrists found Erna to be perfectly sane. The jury found her guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced her to life in prison.
“Pretty little puss! Who could resist her smiles? Whatever resentment I might have held toward that early bird as I dragged my sleepy person down the stairs was dissolved immediately as I responded to the outstretched arms.” — Erna to the San Francisco Examiner, September 19, 1928, recalling baby Thais the day of the murder.
Erna’s home for the foreseeable future was California State Prison at San Quentin. Erna thought she was a genuine shot caller. She picked fights with other prisoners who she saw as less good than herself.
Erna refused to call other prisoners by their names. Instead, she looked down her nose with her famous smirk and called them by their crime. “Ms. Petty Theif” or “Ms. Grand Larceny,” for instance. The other prisoners looked upon her with disgust and sorrow because they saw her for who she was — a young person who killed a baby in cold blood, and ruined her own life. For this, Erna cried to the matron that the other ladies were high-hatting her.
Erna didn’t limit her outbursts to fights with other prisoners. She broke windows, kicked over the prison Christmas tree, and leaped for the poor prison matron. Once, Erna even set a bed on fire. When the matron wouldn’t put up with it, Erna turned her violence toward herself. Erna attempted suicide at least twice by slitting her wrists.
“I don’t care to associate with the other girls — I don’t consider them to be of my caliber. The idea of a mere drunk and disorderly assuming equality with a real murderess!” — Erna to the Oakland Tribune, August 16, 1928
After a year in prison, Erna attempted suicide on two occasions. Prison psychiatrist Dr. Stanley and Prison physician Dr. Hewit spent months with Erna and diagnosed her with dementia praecox or schizophrenia as it is called today. “She is moody, sullen, depressed, and subject to outbreaks of a dangerous character, both homicidal and Incendiary.” Dr. Stanley testified to Judge Edward Butler. The judge couldn’t reverse her sentence, but he did remand her to California State Mental Hospital at Mendocino in. Erna finally stopped laughing.
The judge tried to point out the bright side, “Erna, wouldn’t you rather know you can be cured in the hospital?”
She only shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t care anymore what will become of me.”
During May of 1929, Erna thought she might be cured and agreed to go under the knife. Reporters didn’t say if she was an early lobotomy recipient or she had some other psychosurgery. However, after this surgery, Erna’s name stopped appearing in the papers except when she was up for parole, and when San Quentin lost its status as a coed prison and female inmates were sent to the new women’s prison in Tehachapi.
Erna recovered at Mendocino Hospital for a few months and returned to San Quentin. She began to accept her reality and attempted to make the best of a terrible situation through writing poetry. She earned a name for herself as the prison poet.
Erna wrote letters to her estranged father and expressed her desire to become an accomplished writer outside of prison. In response, Edward came to Oakland, purchased a typewriter, and asked the clerk to mail it to Erna Janoschek in San Quentin. He whispered shamefully, “I am her father,” and once again walked away.
“Maybe I am insane. I don’t feel any horror. Something must be wrong, of course. But I feel more like laughing than shuddering when I think of it.” Erna to Judge Butler
Erna first asked for parole in 1935. The parole board denied her request, stating that she needed to serve ten years minimum before they could consider a release. She tried again in 1937. Naturally, the murder of baby Thais was still fresh in the minds of the parole board, and Erna was once again denied.
Erna achieved life-long parole on December 11, 1940. Earl Warren, who prosecuted Erna, became governor of California three years later and went on to become chairman of The Warren Commission. He was also a civil rights activist, far ahead of his time, and an early advocate of prison reform. He must have seen something in Erna that was redeemable — in 1953, Earl Warren commuted her sentence and made Erna a free woman. No parole, only freedom. No amount of prison time for Erna, a mentally ill woman, would bring back baby Thais, and justice for her murder was impossible.
Today, we better understand the symptoms of mental illness. Loss of interest in usual activities, inappropriate laughter, and excessive sadness are all possible warning signs of an impending break with reality. If a person experiences such symptoms, there are options outside of involuntary commitment that can prevent tragedies such as the murder of Thais Liliencrantz.
After her release, Erna was married, changed her name, and disappeared among the people of Northern California. She passed away in 2007. Her assumed name will not be published here out of respect for any living family members.
Maria Janoschek passed away in 1953. Erna’s father Edward continued his efforts for the LDS Church. He died in 1947 in Kingston, New York. Grace Janoshek went on to become a teacher like her mother and married a Harvard grad. She passed away in 1984.
Dr. Eric Liliencrantz, Mrs. Lilencrantz, and Francora attempted to live normal lives. Francora grew up as an only child, but grow up she did and blossomed into a beautiful woman. She died in 2014.
Mrs. Liliencrantz became a widow in 1942 when Dr. Liliencrantz died in a tragic Florida plane crash. The Aerospace Medical Association still gives an annual award in his memory. Mrs. Thais Liliencrantz passed away in 1988. The location of baby Thais grave is unknown. No known public photograph of the baby exists.
*The name is spelled Liljencrantz on official documents, and Liliencrantz in the newspapers. The family has used both spellings.