More than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a mental hospital and into a new identity, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and got the shock of her life. She was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing through The Washington Post. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro section, where the top story was headlined “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”
Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the photos accompanying the article.
“That’s Joan!” she screamed.
Her husband looked over, confused. Carliner showed him the layout, which included five snapshots of a middle-aged black woman looking radiant in various settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by friends in one image, resplendent in a wedding gown in the next.
The woman was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former family employee. In the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was a teenager and her mother decided to go back to work, her parents had hired Joan to make the beds and help with the cleaning. Joan was an excellent worker, and she was warm and unfailingly trustworthy — so much so that when they left on family trips, the Carliners asked her to watch after their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mother had often said that Joan was highly intelligent — “too smart to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made reading the story that much more bewildering.
The article reported that Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the only revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the murder of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely beaten naked body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, the story said. She stood trial, was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington.
That’s when the story went from shocking to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for more than 12 years. After she was finally arrested again, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as straightforward as it was unbelievable: She seemed to have simply melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a new name, and plunged into a new life.
Over more than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling community of adoring friends and employers who were oblivious to the considerable baggage of her old life. Even more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, every one of these acquaintances stood by her. The Post story was filled with the kinds of adulatory tributes usually reserved for retirement parties. Friends and former employers described her as a “high-class woman” and someone “of the highest character, the most honest person.” In an article in the Washington Evening Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing back: “She’s astute, intelligent, vivacious, sincere, honest, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”
Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her parents could imagine that the woman they knew as Joan could murder anyone. If she had, the Carliners figured there must have been a plausible explanation. “We did not believe the story about Joan,” Debbie told me this summer. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened.”
I stumbled across the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this year while researching politics in the 1970s. I was so fascinated that I spontaneously abandoned what I was doing to look for other articles about her. The more I found, the stranger and more interesting the story became. For example, she told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything of her life from before she was Joan Davis — but she believed she had been kidnapped from the mental hospital.
The more I found out about her in the weeks that followed, the more I became consumed by a question: What was the truth about Jannie Duncan?
Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there seemed to be only two possibilities: She’d been railroaded on a murder charge and slipped free of a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everyone, cleverly concealing her status as a fugitive who had engineered a great escape.
She was a model citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I decided to find out which.
The woman the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community outside of Richmond. Public records indicate that she was the fourth of seven children. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.
The marriage was likely an act of heedless teenage passion. She left her husband after a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she worked as a clerk and maid during the day and plunged into the city’s boisterous nightclub scene by night, according to the Post. The divorce became official a few years later when Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, married a comedian named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1946.
“He was the love of my life,” Jannie told Post reporter Maggie Locke decades later. “I think that’s when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.”
Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room tourist home (essentially a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW. In 1950, she married again, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, but the turbulence in her personal life didn’t seem to inhibit her business acumen. Within a few years, she employed a handful of people and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.
In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a gambling syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of operating a lottery and possession of number slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, but within a few months, they were living at different addresses.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened while she was working at the boarding house on 7th Street during the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court records and newspaper reports is that Orell turned up around 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation took place, and she pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and again began struggling with her. Two of Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later found dead from multiple contusions to the head.
Within a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and introduced a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That detail became a staple in newspaper reports about the killing.
She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty. At the trial that autumn, the government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the trigger several times, but it never fired.
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The crux of the trial centered around the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants finished him off in the car, while Jannie and the others testified that they were talking calmly when the men began arguing and struggling with Orell, and he fell out of the car and died from his injuries.
After a full day of deliberation, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.
Her incarceration at Occoquan women’s prison initially passed without incident. One then-inmate later told the Post that Jannie was quiet and tidy and kept to herself, studying law books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Almost exactly two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.
Reconstructing a life from decades past takes time and effort. To dig deeper than the newspaper stories went, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I asked a relative who specializes in genealogical research to dig into Jannie’s family history. I wrote letters and called the people connected to the story who were still alive. (There weren’t many.)
Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. Once out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie began quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a classified ad in the newspaper for a job as a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Security card under the name Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that family, according to newspaper accounts.
After she proved herself a solid and reliable worker, she parlayed strong references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a prominent Washington attorney whose work, according to his New York Times obituary, “helped define modern immigration law.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie in the Washington Evening Star as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.”
Jannie never left the Washington area, except for the year she spent in Detroit with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her friends flew from Washington to attend the wedding. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a year later.
In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, frustrated in its attempts to find her, had issued a wanted poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” The document shows all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. In the photo, her face is tilted just to the right, her mouth slightly downturned; her hair is closely cropped and forms a little wave on the right side of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds.
Jannie made no attempt to leave the area; rather, she doubled down on Washington, steadily building a community there. Irene Carroll described her friend in the Post as fun-loving and generous. “She was a lover of children,” Carroll said. “She would get us all together and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t bring nothing. I’ll take care of the food.’”
But cracks eventually began to show in the foundation of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated around May 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with another woman named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, according to the Post. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening phone calls and left menacing messages at her house. One such note, Dodd said, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd filed harassment charges.
Public records show that the Lassiters were officially divorced nearly a year later, after Wilbert learned that his estranged wife had been “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”
That infamous offense came to light in a remarkable way. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment charge on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and sent home. As her paperwork was being filed — the sets of prints placed among about 310,000 others — a clerk noticed something surprising: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, perfectly matched the prints on the FBI wanted poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped murderer.
On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the apartment complex in Arlington where Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted murderer on the lam, so he brought along two other agents as backup. They watched the building for a while, and when a light popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.
When Agent Niemala told Jannie that she was under arrest, she “kind of froze,” he says. He saw astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t expected to hear the name Jannie Duncan again. “When you’re out that long and somebody suddenly steps up and puts cuffs on you, it’s not easy,” he says.
She stood stiffly, eyes wide and blank, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “almost catatonic.”
The other two agents each took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the walk to the car. She was still so immobilized that when they reached the FBI office in Alexandria, Niemala brought the fingerprinting equipment to the car rather than haul her up to the third floor where she would normally have been processed.
Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of evaluation, officials there declared that she had no mental issues and shipped her back to prison.
Con men and women have been around for at least as long as humans have traded currency, and everyone who has received emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune knows they’re still thriving. As I learned more about Jannie, I began to view her exploits more cynically. Several elements of her story fed into this.
For starters, Jannie’s explanation of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She told Margot Hornblower of the Post that she had no memory of anything prior to her life as Joan Davis. She said her mind was “like a blank.”
But during that same interview with the Post, she did recall that rather than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who were intent on killing her. “I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she told Hornblower. “I remember waking up and this lady told me to call her ‘Mama.’ She said I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or where I was …. She said, ‘I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.” (Hornblower, whose name is now Margot Roosevelt, said recently that she didn’t remember any further details about the interview.)
The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 suggested that “Joan Davis” was invented to help perpetuate her escape. Those menacing notes offered evidence of her old, true self leaking out.
Most significant was another Post article that focused on Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who is deceased) relayed that she was contemplating trying to escape, but Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would only end up with a longer sentence. One passage near the end stands out. “She mostly listened to others and never talked about herself — except her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeths Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.”
When I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman told me she was permitted only to confirm the dates that Jannie entered and left the facility. The law prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s diagnosis or care.
But the Post passage suggested the possibility that Jannie had planned the whole thing: She had engineered the transfer not because it would be easier to be paroled, but because it would be easier to escape.
I felt I had a firm handle on Jannie’s exploits by the time I scored my most significant research breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her murder trial, I learned that the case file is stored in the National Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I might learn.
In the research room, I flipped open the first box, which contained the first few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on thin onion-skin-type paper. Though I would eventually read everything, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.
What I read stunned me. It began with a description of her life over the previous year — the entire duration of her marriage to Orell. She said that her husband drank almost daily, and that when he did so, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”
She testified that a month into their marriage, he came home from a night of partying and “started beating me and picking me up and throwing me back down on the bed and knocking me about,” she said. “He finally knocked me on a table that was sitting beside the bed and it cut me up here with my eye.” She fled to the bathroom and called her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.
Soon after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Shop selling tickets to a church event, when Orell “came in and jumped on me and struck me about the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the shop and pushed me into his car …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”
Jannie soon moved out but didn’t divorce Orell, and in May 1955 they were in a bar and he wanted to leave just after she’d put a quarter in a jukebox. When she said she wanted to hear the music, he began “striking her about the head.” She fled, but he jumped in their car just after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a short distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and began hitting her while she was on the ground.
The violence escalated. In one instance, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gas tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun right up here and he pulled the hammer back on his gun and said, ‘Well, yes, you did put sugar in my car.’”
She escaped that situation, but another time he threatened to stab her to death. She made several hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the staff closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was treated for a one-inch laceration over the right eye, abrasions on her legs, and multiple contusions to the head.
Then she took his gun one night when he had passed out from drinking, and on February 18, he came into the boarding house at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it back. She said she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district attorney put through an arrest warrant. “I have an open cut on my left knee and bruises all over my body and I am still in pain,” she was quoted as saying in the warrant. “Also my husband has phoned since and said he was going to beat me to death before Monday morning.”
When Orell learned about the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, but still, Orell was never once arrested for any of the attacks. (The warrant and hospital reports were introduced at the trial, and other witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)
All of this culminated with his arrival at the boarding house just after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had finished fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me in the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he started choking me,” she testified. “So he said, ‘I could kill you right now. No one knows I’m in the building.’”
Just then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her back toward the hotel’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “I can come up here any time I get ready. You’re still married to me.” He wanted his gun back. When she said she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the head …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And when I got up, I pulled this gun on him. He said, ‘Oh, so you do have it.’”
She had gone to the bedroom and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an employee while she called Edward James. A few minutes later, James and Simms arrived.
Carl Winchester was the key witness against Jannie. In his testimony, he said Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and almost knocked her down” — when she pulled the trigger. But the employee had removed the bullets when she called James.
James and Simms began scuffling with Orell, but eventually they stopped. Several bystanders broke up the altercation, and the four of them cooled down, settling into a temporary détente. Orell asked Jannie to give him a ride home, and she agreed on the condition that the two other men came along. They headed outside and climbed into Jannie’s car, witnesses said.
A postmortem toxicology report in the file showed that Orell was heavily intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the car suddenly sounded more plausible: Simms testified that they were arguing and scuffling in the back seat, and at one point Orell said, “Well, I ain’t going to stay in here.”
“And just before I noticed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”
This was the 1950s, and the nation’s high tolerance for violence in the home at that time has been well documented. While some states began to criminalize domestic violence as early as the 1800s, those laws were rarely enforced, and cases of physical and sexual assault were largely viewed as marital issues best worked out within the domicile. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited that a husband beating his wife was a positive development, because it served as “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.”
Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. Yet none of it seemed to register with anyone: not the judge nor the jury nor the reporters covering the drama. There was no mention of it in newspaper coverage. At one point, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said of Jannie: “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone.” He defined that as someone who “make[s] claims against her paramour or husband for the purpose of harassment and to get various pieces of property from him.”
Smithson also questioned whether Orell was capable of beating Jannie in the ways she described, noting that he only weighed marginally more. He wanted the jury to ignore Orell’s obvious physiological advantages—and that in some cases he was wielding weapons.
I was also struck by another aspect of the transcript: It raised serious questions about Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had issues with the IRS; court records showed that she owed $26,369 in back taxes. But she testified that she’d been on the agency’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce evidence that “would show an investigation was underway long prior to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in fact, had represented her during the IRS proceedings.
Independent proof suggests that this was almost certainly true. On April 4, 1956, a few weeks after Orell’s death, the IRS ran a classified ad in the Evening Star announcing an auction for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS typically auctions off property only after expending significant effort, often over the course of several years, to extract back taxes.
But Judge Joseph McGarraghy refused to allow testimony or evidence about Jannie’s IRS history, and the jury apparently accepted the contention — introduced by the police within days of Orell’s death, repeated frequently in newspapers, and advanced by the prosecution — that Jannie was furious at Orell for snitching.
In light of all of this information, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — like it couldn’t possibly have been a factor, even in a crime of passion like Orell’s killing.
But even a casual reading of recent American history reveals that none of it is particularly surprising. The idea that a black woman’s version of events would be ignored in a trial in the 1950s, and that the word of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of everything about this strange story, that was the shortest leap of all.
Viewed through the lens of the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard, everything about Jannie’s story looks different. Orell died from a result of Jannie’s acts of self-defense during a series of drunken brawls. He could easily have killed her, and probably would have eventually.
Seemingly minor details suddenly take on new significance, like the physical description on Jannie’s wanted poster: “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder.” All of them correspond to injuries she described.
The transfer from prison to St. Elizabeths? It could have been her scheming, but one document among the court papers shows that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which would be understandable, given what she’d been through.
As for the memory loss, that could potentially be explained by dissociative amnesia. That’s a condition in which a person blocks out certain information, often associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law noted that the disorder “is associated with crimes that are committed in a state of extreme emotional arousal and in which the victim is known intimately by the offender. Frequently, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”
The alleged threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That charge was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated or even fabricated their interaction. U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole application, noted that because of the way the charge was abruptly dropped, the incident “could not have been particularly substantial.”
Then there was her public support. Given all of the above, it suddenly seemed far more plausible that she’d simply been a genuinely good person caught up in a horrible situation who had navigated her way out as best she was able. In February 1975, a group of 30-plus people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, raising money and circulating a petition seeking her release; they collected 5,000 signatures. Friends recruited the support of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a prominent politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. More than 20 friends and employers offered to provide character statements in court on Jannie’s behalf.
Silbert was the U.S. attorney in Washington then, so he wasn’t necessarily in the business of letting people out of prison early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s uncommon odyssey. It’s obvious, reading between the lines, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterized as “a somewhat singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal someone in whom these employers have complete trust and confidence and even more — as a person. In addition, this office has had contact with other members of the community who also demonstrate an equally high regard for Ms. Duncan. These comments cannot be lightly ignored. To the contrary, they are most persuasive.”
Jannie was released in April 1977. The Post showed up to cover her departure from prison, taking her picture for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Lady in the Dark’ Is Free at Last.” She said she hoped to one day seek a presidential pardon and write a book about her ordeal. The friend who fetched her from prison suggested a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”
But after this brief bit of fanfare, she was never heard from publicly again. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.
Her family is content to let her story fade out of memory. Jannie’s sole remaining close relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mother. Shown evidence to the contrary, the woman replied that she preferred not to participate in this article. I subsequently sent her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had more alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Impossible,’” the daughter emailed back to me. “All this just explains a lot. I must commend you on the great details you uncovered. However this still does not change my mind. I’d rather remain silent and not open up old wounds.”
But one friend filled in Jannie’s final chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a friend from the Joan Davis years, kept in touch with her by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her release from prison, working and spending time with friends. She evinced no interest in garnering further attention. “She was a very loving and giving person,” Sterling says. “She had friends, but she kind of stayed to herself at times too.”
When Jannie became frail, her daughter moved her into a nursing home. She died in May 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her relatives held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Home in Richmond on a warm May afternoon, then wended their way to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, near her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was complete.
I understand her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complex tale. But as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two things stood out. The first was that initial assumptions about people are often wrong. Mine were in this case — and in a time when we’re seemingly growing more alienated from each other, I was reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.
And second: Jannie’s story is more relevant in 2018 than ever. She was a black woman who lacked power or standing while facing a justice system dominated by white men aligned against her. She was easy to brush aside; her telling was easy to dismiss and distort.
There are some lingering questions that may never be fully answered, but this much is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we know, after these last couple of years, that there are countless survivors today facing the same systemic hostility, the same biases, the same obstacles arrayed against them.
Finally, then: This is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives were damaged by what happened one night in March 1956, it’s tragic that no one listened then, more than six decades ago. For the rest of us, it’s not too late.