Today's Reading


He dipped into this bottle or that, drawing out a few drops of each with his glass pipette, and finally brought a test-tube containing a solution over to the table.... "You come at a crisis, 'Watson," said he. "If this paper remains blue, all is well. If it turns red, it means a man's life." —Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty, 1893

The sharp crackles in the back garden signaled a weekend ritual— the sporadic popping from a small fire, one of many bonfires in her yard over the past three years. Her husband was fond of burning the rubbish he collected from their small bungalow-style home in Northern California.

It was Tuesday, May 30, 1933. The fire sizzled, consuming an incredible amount of debris: garden trimmings, dead artichoke plants, long-dead snails, useless paper, pieces of canvas, and even old steak bones—anything David Lamson thought might reduce to ash by late morning. The pungent smell grew stronger, like charred meat served by a distracted chef, but Allene Lamson rarely complained. The fires helped satisfy her husband's compulsion to keep their home orderly.

It was an honor to live along Stanford University's prestigious Faculty Row in Palo Alto, an affluent community about thirty miles south of San Francisco. Now a high-tech hub in the heart of Silicon Valley, the city has always attracted the wealthy, the educated, and the kingmakers, even in the 1930s. The Lamsons' cottage was snuggled amid the palatial homes of professors and professionals, surrounded by the splendid coast live oaks and flowering eucalyptus trees on campus. The university had earned an international reputation by the 1930s—a sanctuary for future academics who could afford a pricey private education, even as most Americans struggled through the fourth year of the Great Depression, later called the toughest year.

The Lamsons' cottage on Salvatierra Street, with its Spanish-style red-tiled roof and stucco walls adorned with ivy, was modest compared to the other lavish homes in the neighborhood. The house was just a ten-minute stroll from former president Herbert Hoover's impressive three-tiered residence. His wife, First Lady Lou Henry, had an interest in architecture; in 1919, she'd helped to design the five- thousand-square-foot home in the newly popular International style of European estates. In the 1920s, she had overseen the construction of seven single-story cottages on the Row for younger faculty, with prices ranging from about $4,000 to $7,000, and the Lamsons had purchased one.

President Hoover had recently retreated to his sprawling California estate after being soundly defeated in the last election by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many Americans blamed Hoover for the Great Depression, the catastrophic economic collapse triggered by the stock market crash just seven months after the Republican took office in 1929. By 1933, shantytowns called "Hoovervilles" increasingly dotted America. Bread lines and soup kitchens served millions of impoverished people as Hoover returned to Palo Alto with a tainted legacy. While the former president's two-acre property might have seemed ostentatious, the Lamsons' cottage was cozy, the perfect size for a small family. David proudly, meticulously groomed his garden almost every weekend.

In 1933, many people in Palo Alto were certainly more fortunate than the rest of the country. The United States had been struggling to survive a world economic crisis since 1929. The Great Depression had devastated so many families—fifteen million Americans were unemployed at the time, about 25 percent of the country. But most people in Palo Alto seemed to be thriving, or at least maintaining.

Professors and scholars at Stanford University continued to teach classes and conduct research. Endowments suffered, but athletics and academics had expanded. The city relied on the university's faculty and staff to spend money—and they did.

The black smoke billowed from the bonfire. It was a glorious summer morning in Northern California—bright, blue skies with just a hint of warmth. Unlike San Francisco, its Bay Area neighbor to the north, Palo Alto was shielded from the cool summer fog by the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The yard trash slowly cooked. But buried inside the pile was an innocuous piece of metal that refused to melt as it seared beneath the embers. In just a few hours it would become a vital clue, but for now it remained one more piece of junk in David Lamson's bonfire.

Around nine that morning Allene Thorpe Lamson untangled her brown hair with her fingers, gently dividing it into sections and then weaving two long braids. Wrapped in her cotton nightgown, she gazed into the mirror hanging on the vanity in the couple's small master bedroom. Allene was a natural beauty, with a slender figure, pale skin, dark hair, and chocolate-colored eyes, but her most attractive feature was her mind. She had received both a bachelor's and master's degree from Stanford University, an impressive achievement for anyone in the 1930s, particularly a woman. Allene had belonged to a myriad of campus organizations—a leader in the Delta Delta Delta sorority as well as the women's national journalism fraternity, Theta Sigma Phi.

She was president of the Peninsula Women's Stanford Club.

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...