It was January 5, 1975. A woman named Debbie Carliner was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C. on a typical Sunday morning. As she was thumbing through The Washington Post, she got the shock of her life. In the Metro section, the top story’s headline read: “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”
Debbie couldn’t believe her eyes. The “her” in the article was a woman she knew. “That’s Joan!” she yelled out. Her husband, who was right next to her, looked at the paper, confused. Debbie showed him the five photos of a middle-aged black woman in different settings. They were looking at Joan Davis, then 54, a beloved former family worker. Debbie couldn’t believe the story she was reading about a woman she thought she knew. It turns out that Davis had led a double life…
During the 1960s, when Debbie was a teenager, her parents hired Joan to help out around the house. Joan was warm and trustworthy. In fact, when they went on family trips, the Carliners asked Joan to watch over their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie remembers her mother often saying that Joan was very intelligent — “too smart to be a maid.”
It was all too surreal for Debbie to see their beloved family friend on the front page of The Washington Post, in an article that claimed she was actually a criminal. According to the article, Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was the least shocking thing Debbie read…
In 1956, Jannie was arrested for murdering her husband, Orell Duncan, whose body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, according to the article. Jannie then stood trial and was ultimately found guilty of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. After a few years in prison, she was transferred to a mental institution – St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington.
The story doesn’t end there. In fact, it was just beginning. In November 1962, Jannie literally walked off the hospital grounds and disappeared for over 12 years. On January 2, 1975, she was found and arrested again. As it turns out, Jannie simply faded into the streets of Washington, miles from the hospital she escaped from. That’s when she became Joan Davis and made a new life for herself.
During those 12 years in her new identity as Joan, she became a real part of the community, accumulating adoring friends and employers – none of whom were even vaguely aware of the considerable baggage she was carrying from her past life. Eventually though, in the wake of her arrest, her secret obviously came out.
Believe it or not, despite the shocking revelation, every one she knew stood by her. The Washington Post story was even filled with flattering tributes. Friends and former employers described Joan as a “high-class woman” with “the highest character, the most honest person.” All this was about a woman accused of murder and of escaping the “looney bin.”
Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was unconvinced. Neither she nor her family could believe that their dear Joan would ever harm let alone murder anyone. And if this report was true – if she was a murderer – the Carliners assumed there must be a plausible explanation. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened,” Debbie said of Joan’s deceased husband.
The Joan/Jannie story has bewildered most people who hear about it, and that’s because it proves to be stranger than fiction. For example, Joan told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything about her former life before she was Joan Davis. She believed (or at least claimed) that she was kidnapped from the mental hospital.
So what is the truth about Jannie Duncan aka Joan Davis? Her double narratives differ so much that it seemed as though there were really only two possibilities. One possibility: she was forced into a murder charge she never deserved. Another possibility: she actually did kill her husband, managed to escape, fooled everyone, and hid her status as a fugitive who had contrived a masterful escape.
Which one is it? Was she a model citizen who was wronged… or was she just a con artist? And what were the circumstances? To get to the bottom of it, it would help to learn a bit about the woman in question.
Jannie was born Jane Waller (to possibly confuse you even more) on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia. According to public records, Jane was the fourth of seven children. She left high school after the 11th grade and married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Bowman, when she was 19.
It was most likely a case of reckless teenage passion. Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, ended up leaving him after a few months and heading for Washington. There, she was a clerk and maid by day, and a fan of the nightclub scene by night. She divorced him a few years later to marry another man, a comedian named Telfair Washington, in 1944. He died two years later… of a heart attack.
Decades later, Jannie described Telfair’s death to a reporter: “He was the love of my life. I think that’s when my problems started; after he died, I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.” After his death, Jannie took over a 17-room tourist home (basically a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW.
By 1950, she was married again, this time to a gambler by the name of James Terry. As history tends to repeat itself, Jannie divorced him, too. As the pattern went, her relationships all tended to end after a couple of years. But, despite all the failed marriages, she kept her focus on her career in business.
Within a few years, Jannie employed a few people at the boarding house she lived in. She was able to purchase a full-length mink coat as well as a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood. It was in 1954 that she met the man she would eventually be charged for murdering, Orell Duncan, then 37, a member of a gambling organization run by the notorious kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake.
Orell had been arrested in 1952 and convicted of operating a lottery and being in possession of number slips. That didn’t deter Jannie; she married him in 1955. But, only a few months later, they were living in separate locations.
This is when the story gets muddled and conflicting accounts begin to emerge. What exactly happened while Jannie was running the boarding house during the early morning of March 11, 1956 is a little murky. What is clear from the court records and newspaper reports, however, is that Orell showed up around 12:30 a.m.
Reportedly, there was a confrontation and Jannie pulled a gun on him. Orell managed to get the gun out of her hand while the two were physically struggling. That’s when Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined to help stop the fight. Orell was ultimately found dead with multiple contusions to the head. It took three days for police in Virginia and Washington to arrest Jannie Duncan as well as her friends James and Simms.
Once the three were behind bars, a motive for the murder was introduced. Jannie’s estranged husband had apparently been snitching on her to the IRS. This popular motive became the staple of newspaper reports about the killing. Jannie was eventually charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty.
At the trial, the star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, who was a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified against Jannie. He stated that he saw Jannie point the gun at Orell and pull the trigger several times, but it never fired. The core of the trial revolved around the drive that the three assailants took in Jannie’s Cadillac, which occurred directly after the incident.
According to the prosecution, the three defendants finished Orell off in the car. The defense, however, claimed that Jannie and Orell were talking calmly until the men began arguing and wrestling with Orell. At that point, Orell fell out of the car and essentially succumbed to his injuries. In the end, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder.
As for Simms, she was convicted of manslaughter. During her time in prison, a fellow inmate later said that Jannie was quiet, tidy and spent much of her time studying law books. Three and a half years into her sentence, on November 14, 1960, she was relocated to St. Elizabeth’s. It would be another two years before she walked off the grounds and vanished.
Once she left, Jannie started to reinvent herself. She saw a classified ad in the newspaper for a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland. She then managed to secure herself a driver’s license and Social Security card. Her new identity was Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for the Carliner family.
After she proved to be a reliable employee, she earned strong references and got other jobs with the Carliners and others. Debbie’s father, David Carliner, was a prominent lawyer in Washington. He described Jannie as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.” Jannie stayed put in the Washington area, except for the one year she spent in Detroit with her new (fifth) husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a man from Michigan, whom she married in 1972.
It had been about 10 months after Jannie’s escape when, in September 1963, the FBI issued a wanted poster that read: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. Participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” Despite the poster with her face clearly on it, Jannie never fled the area.
What she did, instead, was double down and build herself a tight-knit community in Washington. But with time, cracks started to show. Jannie and Wilbert separated in 1974. By December 1974, according to the Post, Jannie had formed a new relationship with another woman also named Jannie — Jannie Dodd. That same month, Dodd reported to the police that Joan Lassiter was making threatening phone calls and leaving frantic notes at her house.
One note, Dodd claimed, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd decided to file harassment charges against Joan. About a year later, Joan’s divorce to Wilbert was finalized after he learned that his estranged wife was “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”
That “infamous offense” was actually revealed in a remarkable way. Arlington police arrested Joan on the harassment charge on New Year’s Eve 1974. She was fingerprinted and all, but then she was sent home. As the paperwork was being filed with 310,000 others, a clerk noticed something unusual. The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, a documented housewife, matched those on the Wanted poster for the fugitive Jannie W. Duncan.
On January 2, FBI Agent Niemala went to Jannie’s apartment in Arlington. When he told Jannie that she was under arrest, using her full name, she “kind of froze.” After 12 years of freedom, she wasn’t used to hearing her real name. Niemala handcuffed her. He said she was “almost catatonic,” with her eyes wide and her body stiff.
Jannie was sent back to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. After a thorough evaluation, officials declared that she had no mental issues, and she was sent back to prison. Later when she spoke to Margot Hornblower of the Washington Post, she started by telling her that when she originally left the hospital, her mind was “like a blank.” But, in the same interview, she said she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who she claimed wanted to kill her.
“I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” is what she told Hornblower. She then described waking up and having some lady tell her to call her “Mama.” This woman told Jannie that she didn’t know who she was, but what she said was, “I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.”
The main narrative suggested that inventing “Joan Davis” was a way to help prolong her escape. And those threatening notes to Dodd were proof of her true self leaking out. Then, there was another newspaper article that detailed Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, a fellow inmate whom she met back in 1958. Delaney revealed that she herself was contemplating an escape, but Jannie talked her out if it.
According to Delaney, Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.” The article in The Washington Post suggested that Jannie might have planned the entire thing: that she engineered the transfer because it would be easier to escape.
Jannie’s testimony in court began with a description of her life during the year leading up to her arrest, while she was married to Orell. She described how her husband drank daily, and when he did, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”
She said that a month into their marriage, Orell turned extremely abusive one night when he came home drunk. She fled to the bathroom, called her mother-in-law, and was taken to the hospital. Jannie described other abusive incidents during their marriage that left her badly wounded and emotionally depleted. She soon moved out of the house but didn’t file for a divorce.
Even after their separation, the violence escalated. She made several hospital visits; there are hospital records to prove the stitches that she received after a violent incident. Jannie then testified to having taken his gun one night after he passed out from drinking. When he demanded it back, she told him she had turned it in to the police.
When Orell learned that there was an arrest warrant for him, he threatened to kill Jannie. Yet, for some reason, Orell was never arrested. All of this turmoil led to a boiling point on the night of March 11, 1956 at the boarding house–. A postmortem toxicology report showed that Orell had high volumes of alcohol in his system.
Given how intoxicated he was, the defendant’s testimony about him falling out of the car sounded more plausible. Unfortunately, during the 1950s, there was a tolerance for violence in the home. Some states criminalized domestic violence in the 1800s, but those laws were rarely enforced. Physical and sexual assault were largely seen as marital issues that needed to be worked out in the home.
Believe it or not, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1964 concluded that a husband beating his wife was “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.” The times have clearly changed.
Orell’s abuse was verified by witnesses, but none of it registered with anyone. Neither the trial judge nor the media relayed Jannie’s story of domestic abuse. The newspaper coverage never even mentioned it. in fact, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone,” referring to Jannie.
Smithson also called into question whether Orell was physically capable of beating Jannie, noting that he only weighed a little bit more than she did. But the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard gives a very different version of the story than was reported in the papers. It seems pretty clear that Jannie killed Orell in self-defense.
He could easily have killed her and probably would have. That wanted poster of Jannie – “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder” – were all the injuries she had described. So what, then, was the transfer from the prison to the mental hospital all about?
Being transferred to St. Elizabeth’s could, indeed, have been the result of Jannie’s scheming, but there’s one particular document that would prove otherwise. It showed that she was moved to St. Elizabeth’s after she was diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Anyone who understands what she had been through would find that completely understandable.
There was also the issue of her alleged memory loss. That part could be explained by dissociative amnesia – which is when a person blocks out certain information, like a traumatic event. According to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 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.”
Okay, so what about the reported threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? Well, that charge was dismissed as it appeared that Dodd had either exaggerated it or made it up entirely. And we can’t ignore the fact that everyone Jannie knew supported her. It really could just be that she was a good person caught up in a really bad situation.
In 1975, over 30 people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee. They raised funds and started a petition seeking her release, resulting in 5,000 signatures. Furthermore, over 20 friends and employers offered to make character statements in court on her behalf. In the end, her story was heard and she was let go.
Jannie was released from prison in April of 1977. She stated that she hoped to one day receive a presidential pardon and write a memoir about her story. But, after a few moments in the spotlight, Jannie was never heard from publicly again. Jannie’s only remaining close relative is her daughter, now in her 60s, who initially denied that Jannie was her mother.
Despite being shown evidence that proves that she was, indeed, her daughter, she chose to remain silent “and not open up old wounds.” But Jannie had a friend named Lorraine Sterling (who was technically Joan Davis’ friend). She and Jannie kept in touch by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina.
Sterling said that Jannie lived a quiet life in Maryland after her release, working and spending time with her friends. It seems as though both Jannie and her family chose to let sleeping dogs lie and let her story fade out of memory. Eventually, Jannie was put in a nursing home. She passed away in May 2009, at the age of 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
While there are lingering questions about Jannie’s story, one thing is pretty clear – that she was a survivor. She survived the abuse of her husband and the flaws of the justice system. Today, there are still countless individuals facing the same hostility and biases. Let Jannie’s story be one of the many that deserves a spot in the limelight. And let’s hope that cases like these will slowly become fewer and father between.
Seeing as how Jannie escaped a mental hospital, you might be interested in reading about a real-life journalist who spent 10 days posing as a patient. Nellie Bly exposed the system for what it was. And it wasn’t pretty…