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Ruth Farnsworth: A Life of Joy and Generosity

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 26, 2010

Newspapers throughout the United States repeatedly called 27-year-old Ruth Farnsworth “the prettiest girl on Guam.” They may have been right; the only photograph I have found, a grainy, irreproducible  print, shows a young woman with curly hair (reddish, I’m told) piled high on her head, high cheekbones, and full lips, gazing frankly at the camera. She probably looked up from her counter with that same frank gaze as three men entered her souvenir shop on the island of Guam on the evening of Saturday, December 11, 1948.

Ruth was only 5’4″, but the evidence shows she fought like a tiger when the men attacked her. Bobby pins were strewn around the shop; her watch and other jewelry were pulled off in the struggle; the cement floor was scratched where she kicked and wrestled; and part of a fingernail left on the floor showed she had clawed fiercely in her attempt to escape. But she was overpowered and abducted, as John “Red” Arnold, the shop owner, discovered at 8:30 when he drove by and saw the door left wide open but the shop lights out. He immediately called the U.S. Military Police, responsible for law enforcement on the Pacific island that was still under military control following its recapture from Japan during the recent war.

The search for Ruth Farnsworth began that Saturday night and continued all day Sunday. Not only did patrols search the surrounding jungle in ever increasing circles – where they found first one of Ruth’s slippers and later, in a more distant spot, the other – but the MPs also began body searches of military men and civilian contractors and local Guamanians, looking for the scratches or other injuries they felt Ruth must have left, given the ferocious nature of her defensive struggle. But it wasn’t until after 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning that two Navy privates cut their way through dense jungle grass in their assigned area and found Ruth, some distance behind the souvenir shop. Unconscious, gasping for breath through her shattered jaw, Ruth was first photographed and then carried to the hospital, where she died later that day, never having regained consciousness.

There is no point in reporting here the horrific injuries and terrible assaults suffered by the young woman, although they are reported in the newspaper accounts that swept across the United States for weeks afterward, and repeatedly described in full clinical detail in the court records of the trial that followed, when two Air Force privates and a civilian worker were arrested for her rape and murder. The trial of those three men (Robert W. Burns, and half-brothers Herman P. Dennis and Calvin Dennis, for Googlers) overshadowed the life of Ruth Farnsworth, and official records of their trial and appeals, their convictions and the reviews that went all the way to President Harry S Truman, and finally the execution of two of the men (the sentence of the third was commuted to life in prison) are available through Google Books and on numerous other websites.

The case was a landmark in the battle for civil rights, with questions about whether the three black defendants were guilty men who had received a fair trial, or were innocent victims who had been railroaded in the rush to convict someone – anyone – of the crime. I have read hundreds of pages of testimony and correspondence as background for this post, and I cannot answer the question of their guilt or innocence. I can only say that if the evidence presented by the prosecution is right, I have no question of their guilt; if even a portion of their defense claims are true – of confessions extracted through violence, of manufactured and planted evidence, of conspiracy to deprive them of due process – then the men were not fairly convicted, and one of them, at least, may have been innocent. But I cannot make that call today.

My interest is in the young woman whose life is completely overwhelmed by the trials of the men accused of killing her. Trial records give her name, her age, the fact that she was a Civil Service employee who worked in the curio shop as a second job, the fact that she was engaged to be married, and the manner of her death. That is all. Neither the trial records nor much of the newspaper coverage give any sense of her life.

Ruth Farnsworth was a Latter-day Saint.

She was born on April 5, 1921, in the Mormon colony of Colonia Juarez, in Mexico. Her father was Lester Burt Farnsworth; her mother Rosina Diantha Nielsen. There were eight children in the family (not counting a number who died in infancy); Ruth was number 6. All the children spoke Spanish fluently and maintained their language skills after the family moved to the Bay area of California, where her father served as a bishop. Three of Ruth’s older siblings had served missions to Mexico.

Ruth joined the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Her younger sister, Alene, served two years as a missionary in Mexico during the war, and both sisters returned home at about the same time. Still set for adventure and with the zeal of Alene’s mission firing them both, the two sisters decided to accept jobs in the Civil Service and go to Guam, where they could earn good money, enough to finance their younger brother Laurence as a missionary. So off they went, and a few months after their arrival on Guam, they had sent home enough money for Laurence to begin his mission. He was entirely financed through the contributions of the two young women.

When Ruth and Alene arrived on Guam, they found a branch of the Church struggling with only seven active members. The young women dug in with a will, and between the two of them they practically built the branch on Guam to what you see in the accompanying photograph, taken six months after Ruth’s death. They scouted up members, both military and civilian, who had not yet made contact with the local church, and they recruited interested investigators among both native Guamanians and overseas Americans. Ruth taught the children in Sunday School and managed both Sunday School and MIA as secretary. Returned missionary Alene took on the adult Sunday School classes and took full charge of all the music in the branch.

And they took on second jobs to earn more money, both to support Laurence and for another project that took shape by 1948.

The sisters were so enthusiastic about missionary service, and missionary work in Mexico in particular, that they inspired the branch on Guam to tackle a Mexican missionary project of its own: to raise the funds to support another missionary in Mexico. Their efforts were so successful that these few members were able to raise $1300 to send in a lump sum to the president of the Mexican Mission, who chose a young native man, worthy in all respects but too desperately poor even to outfit himself with missionary attire, to benefit from their generosity. The branch continued its fund raising efforts for “their missionary.” Before Ruth’s death, they had packed a huge Christmas box with clothing and food and other supplies and shipped it to “their missionary” in Mexico.

Amid promises that the branch would continue to support “their missionary,” Alene sailed for home in the fall of 1948. Ruth stayed on a little longer, intending to follow early in the new year to prepare for her scheduled March wedding in San Francisco. She took on extra shifts at the Jade Shop in order to earn just that bit of extra cash to contribute to the missionary fund … hence, she was on duty, alone, on the evening of December 11. Instead of going home in joy to be married, Ruth went home for her funeral, her casket escorted by her Marine fiancé, Sterling McGinnis, on a compassionate furlough.

The world remembers a terrible death on Guam, not because they remember Ruth, especially, but because of the legal issues raised in the trial of her accused killers. What matters more, though, is the life lived by Ruth Farnsworth, the love she had for her family and they for her, and her desire to bless the people of Mexico through the service of “her” missionary. Hers was a life of joy and generosity.

UPDATE (4 August 2011): See Ruth Farnsworth Revisited for a few additional details, together with two photographs of Ruth and her sister Alene, furnished by reader Michele Spangler.



26 Comments »

  1. Thanks.

    Comment by Bill West — August 26, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  2. Well said, Bill West.

    Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by David Y. — August 26, 2010 @ 9:11 am

  3. What a tragedy. Thank you for another in a series of posts on people who should be remembered, and might not be otherwise.

    Comment by Researcher — August 26, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  4. Thank you, friends. This may not be the typical feel-good Keepa story, but this morning I couldn’t think of anyone who more needed us to remember her and not to have her wonderful life buried behind the story of her death.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  5. Interesting. What a great life, ended so horrifically. Thanks for celebrating Ruth’s goodness.

    Comment by Amy — August 26, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  6. “What matters more,” indeed. Thank you for highlighting this. It’s an inspiration as I juggle my case readings and missionary calling.

    Comment by tired 3L student — August 26, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  7. Ruth’s picture was on the front page of the s.f. news call bulletin next to mine on dec. 13, 1948 my birthday. ” stork won race” a strange connection i know, but there is one

    Comment by shirley upvall — August 26, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  8. Ardis, I definitely consider this a feel-good story, and I really don’t know why, considering all the horribleness. She really sounds like an amazing young woman.

    Comment by Martin — August 26, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  9. Incredible story. I’m amazed at how she and Alene found seven active people in the branch and helped build it to where they could donate money for the Mexican missionary.

    Comment by Maurine — August 26, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  10. what a story, tenderly told through facts. i hope guam remembers ruth the way you have, and now we have.

    Comment by ellen — August 27, 2010 @ 7:20 am

  11. What an honor and gift to Ruth and her family (and the Church, really) to remember her rather than just the crime that ended her life. Thank you, Ardis. Thank you.

    Comment by michelle — August 30, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  12. I was on Guam when this happened and remember it well. I was in the Navy stationed about two miles from the site where she was found. I have no doubt the three were guilty. All of them were in the Air Force, Burns was a Sgt and the other two were Private’s.

    Comment by Bob — November 4, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  13. I’m Michele Ruth, the only daughter of Alene Farnsworth Babers and named after my Aunt Ruth. I have wonderful pictures of my darling Aunt, whom I was named after. I have lived with the emotional roller coaster of her life and death. As you state, she was so full of life, her love for everyone, evident in the acts of service she performed for each person in need. Someday, I hope to compile a book of the family’s side of this wonderful woman and the tragedy of her last days. Of her great and loving mother, her sisters and brothers who all loved her so. There has never been a family meeting or get together that Ruth isn’t mentioned. My mother Alene always blamed herself for leaving Aunt Ruth on the Island alone. My mother and father acted as the family representatives at the trails of the 3 men and the executions of 2. That was, in its self a horror that my father never forgot. My Grandmother, Rosine, called the mothers of the young men accused, not to voice her grief or anger, at the loss of her daughter Ruth, but to offer her sympathy for what the mothers were going through and their losses, of their sons still in prison at the time. To assure the mothers that she, as the mother of Ruth, held no harsh or harbored any ill will toward the three young men. She wanted the other mothers to know she could understand and feel their pain..

    Comment by Michele Ruth Farnsworth Babers Spangler — November 22, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  14. I would like to hear from those of you were know my Aunt Ruth Farnsworth, her fiancé, Sterling McGinnis or his family. We never stopped wondering what happened to him in life. We prayed that he finally found love and happiness

    Comment by Michele Ruth Farnsworth Babers Spangler — November 22, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  15. Michele, I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear from you, and especially to hear of the generous, forgiving acts of your grandmother.

    None of my regular readers knew Ruth, but if anyone reads this in the future and is willing to share their memories with Michele, just leave a note here and I’ll make sure she gets your email address to contact you.

    Michele, I’ve tried to find out a little about Sterling McGinnis, too. So far I know that he stayed in the Marines as a career military man, and one of his duty assignments was to guard the US Embassy in Moscow at some point. He died in 1986, still a fairly young man. I do not know of a marriage or children, or any of the other circumstances of his life, but like you, I hope his life was a fulfilling one.

    I found a book reproducing many of the documents relating to the trial. Not a great book, nothing, really, about Ruth, but I donated that book and some other materials to the Church History Library so that Ruth’s name would be listed in their catalog. This post and that donation are all I’ve been able to come up with to help her be remembered. I hope you are able to compile a book at some point that will stand as a memorial to her.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 22, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  16. I am the sister of Herman P. Dennis, one of the men wrongful convicted and hung for this crime. You speak about the evidence and that you read the papers. well if you read thoroughly you will note that the evidence points not only to my brother’s innocence, but to all three. You have your facts wrong, the owner of the store did not find Ruth and also the search did not take place until two days later. I have all the documents and in the process of getting my brother’s name exonerated. also I have written a book in his honor. This happened in 1949 where racial tension was extremely high. If you were to have read the facts, there is no way you can say that you do not know. Also concrete evidence fell into my lap just this year proving his innocence. Ruth was killed because she was about to report the illegal acitivity that was taking place. It just so happened the lady that worked with her happened to have left early for a dance. She said she spotted disarray and instead of reporting, she continued on. Well she testified that she passed the shop and spotted the problem on her way to the dance. The dance was no where in the area of the shop as a matter of fact she had to go out her way to pass the shop than turn around to go to the dance. so much evidence, if you read write, you will have known, maybe you just browsed to have something to say. I don’t know, but read the facts over again.

    Comment by Lucy Dennis — December 14, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  17. I have posted Ms. Dennis’s comment because of her unusual connection to this history. However, the topic of this post is the life of Ruth Farnsworth, not the guilt or innocence of the men convicted of her murder. It was necessary to refer to their conviction in order to tell Ruth’s story, but they are not — repeat not — the subject of this post.

    Readers, please do not debate the assertions made by Ms. Dennis. Let’s keep the focus on Ruth and her life and not permit that life to be obscured again behind her death and its aftermath. Numerous other internet sites are devoted to that aftermath. This is the only page I am aware of that attempts to restore the memory of Ruth Farnsworth.

    “What matters [here] is the life lived by Ruth Farnsworth, the love she had for her family and they for her, and her desire to bless the people of Mexico through the service of ‘her’ missionary. Hers was a life of joy and generosity.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 15, 2010 @ 3:23 am

  18. I am the daughter of Sterling McGinnis; Ruth’s fiance at the time. My mother met him on Guam and they married after they both returned to the states.
    He died near Riverside ca, almost 30 yrs. ago.
    I know this is the same Sterling because my Aunt; his sister has clippings from the case when it happened.
    It’s odd to think what part destiny plays in our lives.

    Comment by Jo McGinnis — December 17, 2010 @ 2:27 am

  19. I was in the 226th Military Police Co. on Guam and in the search party when Ruth was found. Someone a few yards away yelled that they had found her. As the M.P.’s had been instructed, I fired a shot as a signal that she had been found. (we had no radios then) I am now 81 years old and this sad event will be forever in my mind. At that time a new Military Police Station was under construction right across the road from the Jade Shop (Marine Drive). I have often thought if the station had been completed and in operation, that this tragic event may not have happened.

    Comment by Tom Weimer — December 29, 2010 @ 1:10 am

  20. Wow. Any parties in this event not currently represented here? It looks like there’s a book or article waiting to be written!

    Comment by Researcher — December 29, 2010 @ 7:09 am

  21. Ardis,
    I agree, there is a book here,so much research and so many stories to be told, that of my Aunt Ruth, the men accused, which I have been in touch with Ms.Dennis,sister of one of the men; and now Sterlings daughter along with 2 men that were actually where there on the Island at the time. I have already sent recorders off to 2 family members that are still alive during that time for them to record what they remember. Any thoughts for a good ghost writer—Looking at you (smile) Anyone else out there please contact us (Me) through Ardis, as he is helping screen contacts. I can never tell all of you who have replied to Arlis’ article and to Arlis for his help and prayers. Michele

    Comment by Michele Spangler — December 29, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  22. Sterling was my uncle. His brother, U.J. still lives in Ohio. There is a book written about this horrific crime. My uncle was a great marine. We all looked forward to him coming home. We would watch him work out, shine his shoes, and press his uniform.

    Comment by colin mcginnis — February 8, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  23. I am Michele’s cousin. My father Afton was Ruth’s brother. Although my dad has passed away, my mother is still alive at 92 years old and she has vivid memories of not only the murder, but of Ruth and Alene. In fact, I came across this site because Mom and I were talking about Aunt Ruth just today! Mom still sometimes tears up when relating her stories of visits Ruth made to my mom and dad’s house, and she gets miffed at those who try to skew the facts as she saw them unfold first-hand. She said today that she can still remember the drive to the funeral. She also related today the story that Michele had about Grandma Rosine asking for prayers for the parents of the perpetrators. What a forgiving soul. No wonder Ruth (and Alene) were such beautiful women!

    Comment by Steve Farnsworth — April 4, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  24. Extraordinary connections.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 4, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  25. This post and comments are incredible. Ardis, you are connecting the world. You are my heroine.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 4, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

  26. I am the granddaughter of Sterling McGinnis and niece to Jo McGinnis, who posted earlier. Unfortunatley, I did not have a chance to get to know my grandfather very well due to divorce.
    Thank you for sharing Ruth’s life and continuing her memory. The story of her life is much more important and beautiful then the story of her death. The forgivness of your grandmother is amazing.
    The story of Ruth would come up occasionly when discussing how my grandparents met on Guam. My granmother also accept a job in Guam and I remember her telling me that she remebered seeing my grandfather at the court house during Ruth’s trial. I think that our family has always had sence of sorrow for the Farnsworth family and for my grandfather and the loss that you went through.
    And thank you to the others that ahve posted their thoughts and memories.

    Comment by Amy Siller — April 13, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

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