"I've had dreams of this day for so long, I am overwhelmed with joy," Jannie Washington Duncan said quietly when the steel door at the D.C. Women's Detention Center buzzed open for her at noon Thursday.
When it clanked shut behind her, it marked the last stop of a 30-year odyssey that had taken her through prisons, mental institutions, bouts of amnesia and a long, illegal freedom under an alias that was discovered in 1974.
She was finally freed after former employers, who knew her as Joan Davis, dependable housekeeper for Washington families for 13 years, and the longtime friends who rediscovered Jannie Duncan through newspaper stories of her last arrest in 1974 rallied to her support.
They trusted her even after the details of her strange story had been revealed. It started in 1956, when she was convicted of murdering her fourth husband, Orell Duncan, a convicted numbers operator. That put her in jail for three years. She was sent in 1960 to St. Elizabeths from where she disappeared in 1962.
After one year, which Mrs. Duncan says she still cannot remember, she became Joan Davis, cleaning and cooking for local families. Thirteen years later, in 1974, Arlington County police, in a routine fingerprint check, discovered her to be the missing Jannie Duncan. She was put back in prison on Jan. 2, 1975.
Since then she has been putting together the bits and pieces of her life before 1963 that she said had been lost to her.
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Thursday at age 57, she was prepared to come out. Wearing a bright red dress and patent leather shoes, her black hair combed into a neat Afro, she carried her few belongings to the car of a friend waiting to take her to her new home in Northeast Washington. Her bags had been packed for two weeks, since her 15-year-old-life sentence had been reduced. She had been anxiously awaiting release since five months ago, when she discovered she might be paroled.
The first thing she said she wanted was fresh grapefruit juice.
"Springtime, it's the perfect time to be released," she smiled, driving through Northwest Washington with Jesse Witherspoon Jr., the driving force behind winning her release. Witherspoon organized a Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, collected some 5,000 names on a petition to free her, and got influential people like Del. Walter E. Faunetroy and D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy to declare support for Mrs. Duncan.
They drove through their "old stamping grounds," around the Shaw area of downtown Washington and reminisced about the days when Witherspoon knew Mrs. Duncan in Washington's lively nightclub circuit. SHe had come to the city in the late 1930s from her Richmond, home with an 11th grade education and unhappy teen-age marriage behind her.
Witherspoon had employed Mrs. Ducan's second husband, Telefar Washington, as a comedian in his show, "Jimmy Witherspoon's Show and Band." Mrs Duncan had worked for Washington as a clerk and maid before marrying him.
"He was the love of my life," Mrs. Duncan recalled. "I think that's when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities."
When Washington died in 1946 at age 56 of a heart attack, Mrs. Duncan assumed ownership of his tourist home at 1622 7th St. NW. Her next husband was a gambler whom she married in 1950 and divorced two years later, taking ownership of the other tourists home he operated 939 Rhode Island Ave.
Mrs. Duncan's smile faded when they drove past the location of the former 7th Street tourist home, where on March 10, 1956, she and her fourth husband, Orell Duncan, began a fight that ended in his death.
Mrs. Duncan and two male friends was convicted of murdering Duncan in the tourist home. His nude and beaten body was found in a shallow grave in the Tidewater area of Virginia. The two men served their sentences and were freed several years ago.
"I'm so fortunate, and so happy I refuse to think of anything morbid," she said, looking away from the block of houses that has since become beauty parlors and storefronts.
After she was convicted in 1956 and sent to the District's prison in Occoquan, Witherspoon and scores of Mrs. Duncan's friends, who knew her as a social, well-off women who drive two Cadillacs and gave picnics and parties for hundreds of people, lost track of her.
By 1962, after she disappeared from the grounds of St. Elizabeths where she had been transferred for apparent mental illness, most of her friends had given Jannie Duncan up for dead.
She emerged in 1963 as Joan Davis, a well like housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Press of Potomac, a job she says she found in a newspaper want ad. For the next 13 years, she worked for scores of Washington area families who describe her as "a real lady," "an exceptional, intelligent woman," and "a woman of high class."
Life as Joan Davis abruptly ended in December, 1974, when Arlington police discovered that Davis' fingerprints matched those of Jannie Duncan on an old FBI poster. They had arrested her on a complaint for making threats filed by Jannie Dodd of Annandale, a charge that was later dropped. Dodd had been seeing Mrs. Duncan's fifth husband, Wilbur Lassiter, a construction worker whome she married in 1971. The FBI arrested Mrs. Duncan Jan. 2, 1975.
Since then, friends and family have helped Mrs. Duncan reconstruct the past before 1962, which she said had been "like a blank" during the years of her freedom. In the two years, and four months she spent in prison since her rearrest, she says much of her lost memory has returned.
"But nobody can help me remember the year I left St. Elizabeths," she said. "I'm not sure if what I know about my past now is clear because people described details for me, or if it's actually come back."
She said she remembers two men kidnaping her from St. Elizabeths grounds, a Spanish woman called "Mama" in the Mount Pleasant area whome she stayed with that year, but nothing else.
"More than anything now, I want to satisfy my curiosity," Mrs. Duncan said. "I want to return to Mount Pleasant and try to find people who might remember me then. Places I might recognize."
"Even while I was Joan Davis, I found out later, i met a least four or five of my old friends I never recognized, nor they me. "It's so strange . . ." Mrs. Duncan said. "All that time I was hoping something of my real past would return to me. But as you make new friends, start a new life, you don't push so hard."
When her real identity became clear to her she said, "It wasn't the relief I expected.
"You can't imagine what it's like being locked up if it's never happened to you," she continued, putting her hands to her face that looks far younger than 57. "I've aged in the past two years with anxiety. Prison does terrible things to a person. It has a left a scar on me, mentally, physically and financially. It stays with you when you are stripped to take a shower, regimented, forced to occupy small space with lots of people. You are less than a person."
Officials at the D.C. Women's Detention Center said Mrs. Duncan was resented by other inmates for her sel-contained manner, her meticulous neatness and her impending parole.
"To be frank, I never did associate with many the prisoners there, because I was different," Mrs. Duncan said. "If you didn't like drugs, they didn't like you; if you didn't swear, they didn't like you. I stayed to myself."
She says her friends, and Bible study under the Jehovah's Witnesses helped her keep "faith and balance through these last years, when I couldn't understand why this was happening to me.
"I have too many good people in my corner to be bitter. All these people, Witherspoon especially, they gave my life back to me. The employers and friends I had as Joan Davis did not turn their backs on me when they found I have been in prison."
Since 1975, Mrs. Duncan has undergone psychiatric examinations at St. Elizabeths, served at a federal women's reformatory at Alderson, W. Va. and returned to the D.C. Department of Corrections in November.
The D.C. Board of Parole in December requested the courts to reduce her sentence to the eight years and 11 months she had already served.
"The board feels that Jannie W. Duncan's response to her unauthorized liberty in the community, as well as response to rehabilitative programs available to her has been excellent, and also believes she will live and remain at liberty without violating the law . . ." the parole board request read.
The board granted her parole Wednesday. Without the reduction in sentence, Mrs. Duncan would not have been eligible for parole until 1983.
"I don't know how I would have gone though all thos eyears. I have so much to be grateful for to so many people," she said.
She plans a busy future. Among her goals is to write a book she hopes will prove "that Orell was not murdered in the tourist home, but that he died falling out of the car on the highway to Richmond."
She alluded to "underworld characters" involved in her case and said, "There's a lot more to be said." Witherspoon already envisons the title for her book: "The Case that Rocked the National's Capital."
She says she has "a little money" with which she hopes to enter a nursing school and eventually start a home for the elderly. She would not say how much money she has or where it came from. She hopes she will not be required to pay $26,369 in back taxes that court records indicate she owes.
"I don't think I owe anything more," she said.
Three sisters and one brother are remaining of the seven she grew up with in Richmond. With them she plans to shop for a new wardrobe and attend "coming out" parties.
Still further down the road she hopes to obtain a presidential pardon.
"But that's a long way off," she admits. "I am more than happy now to be sitting in fresh air and sunshine."