Lori Hammell-Davis's grandfather was a special man. He was reserved and carried himself with a sense of class. She always wondered about his past and suspected he grew up differently than she had in her middle class neighborhood, but she sensed she wasn't supposed to ask him any questions.
After his death, she felt it was safe to ask her grandmother about his past. Her grandmother said that she thought his family had been well to do and that his father had died when he was a young man. That was as much as she knew. Lori was shocked to discover that her grandmother knew so little about her husband of all those years.
The curiosity about his past lingered, and she finally decided to gather some clues. After two years of research, she finally had a breakthrough. While searching online, Lori found a connection to her grandfather's first cousin. This woman never knew her grandfather personally, but had heard many stories of his mother. Her mother told her that Lori's great-grandmother was a high society lady in San Francisco, but thought she may have been in some trouble with the law.
Now Lori's interest was soaring, so she decided to do a newspaper search to see if she could learn more. She went to the library and was guided to newspaper records for the San Francisco area. Looking for her great-grandmother's name, Dorothy Hammell, she came up blank, but she did find numerous listings for a Barbette Hammell. Could they be the same woman?
Pulling the actual articles, the first entry she found for Barbette contained a picture of a stunning looking woman wearing a suit edged in fur. The headline read, "Beauty Flees S.F. Fraud Net - Barbette Hammel Hunted on Jewel Theft Warrant - S.F. Beauty Suspected of $100,000 Fraud Plot in Bad Check Deals." This was certainly interesting! She went to the next article and the next until she came upon one that gave her great-grandfather's name as her husband. Lori remembers feeling exhilarated that she had found her and, at the same time feeling quite sad when she realized that this was her grandfather's mother. Now she knew why he never shared his past.
Since then, she has continued to gather articles on her great-grandmother. At last count, she had over 100 that span a period of almost 40 years. From the information she found, she pieced together a magnificent tale. Her story is best summed up by a March 1947 San Francisco Chronicle article which reads:
"Will you ever forget Barbette Hammel? Now there was a woman with chic, dash and imagination to say nothing of larceny. There was nothing bush league about Barbette. Big or small, she bilked 'em all. With money she fast talked out of others, she opened a swank beauty salon on Powell called Salon Barbette, promoted The Hammel School for Subnormal Children, and sold a bill of goods on The Hammel Vegetable Concession - an outfit to sell shelled peas to fancy hotels and restaurants . . .
The cops called her "the cleverest confidence woman to work here in years." The newspapers couldn't make up their minds whether she was Lady Wallingford, The Siren of Swindle, or The Female Ponzi. A jury in Superior Court eventually decided she was just plain guilty.
Pretty Barbette entered San Quentin with a flourish worthy of Hildegarde. She looked around and sighed, 'It's such a lovely old place.'
Yes, whatever happened to Barbette Hammel?"
You can be sure that this last question is one her great-granddaughter will answer!