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.