The collapse of a major newspaper is fascinating to watch unfold, but any suggestion that this is an unprecedented media scandal the likes of which has never before been seen is, simply, balderdash. Take away the trapping of modern media tools, and the situation in the News of the World newsroom is revealed to have been nearly identical to what was happening in 1947 Los Angeles, during the investigation of the murder of Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia.
The News of the World folded, not because it lacked readers, but in a desperate effort by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to deflect political fallout from an escalating newsroom phone hacking scandal that included interfering in the investigation of the murders of children and spying on the families of dead soldiers and victims of terrorism.
Top British politicians appear to have had knowledge of these crimes and to have been intimately involved with some perpetrators. Further, editors have confessed to paying large sums to the Metropolitan Police for scoops on celebrities and crime victims. The scandal is an evolving thing, with fresh revelations coming by the hour.
Popular opinion holds that the entire working staff of the paper has been sacrificed to save the skin of former editor, current News Corporation chief executive, Rebekah Wade, an intimate of Murdoch and of Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, the entire affair is subject to passionate commentary by rival journalists, stalked celebrities and the scandalized public via Twitter and other social media.
But how does this relate to the Black Dahlia and 1940s yellow journalism?
For Rupert Murdoch, powerful and much-despised king of the yellow media, read William Randolph Hearst, whose Examiner was the best capitalized paper in post-war Los Angeles, and whose reporters did much more to further the Black Dahlia murder investigation than anyone else, including the detectives of the LAPD. For ruthless Murdoch editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade, read Hearst’s top execs James Richardson and Aggie Underwood.
For the Metropolitan Police, implicated in the current privileged-information-for-cash scandal, read the Los Angeles Police Department, who were so deep in Hearst’s pocket that they didn’t balk when Examiner city editor James Richardson invited detectives to join reporters in the newsroom for the opening of murder victim Elizabeth Short’s missing luggage, which a reporter had located at the downtown Greyhound station and illegally purchased from the bag check desk. The evidence inside was promptly photographed for publication in the paper, and only then was handed off to detectives.
For Milly Dowler’s long-suffering parents, newly victimized by the news that their kidnapped daughter was not alive and deleting her own mobile phone messages in 2002, but rather her phone was being checked by News of the World hacks, read Phoebe Short, Elizabeth’s mother, tricked into telling a telephoning reporter all about her 22-year-old daughter with the ruse that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest. Only when she had nothing left to say did the reporter confess that in truth her daughter had been found naked and hacked in two in a vacant lot.
In both instances, 1947 Los Angeles and 2011 London, the motivation was the same: to sell newspapers, and advertising, by appealing to the most base instincts of the general public. Then as now, people are fascinated by stories of sex and violence, and willing to pay for the publication that gives them seemingly factual information they can’t get elsewhere. Reporters have always been able to justify their intrusions by laying their work on the altar of Truth. And unscrupulous publishers have always been willing to pay whatever it takes to hack into private lives of public people, to feed the information hunger.
As the dust settles in England over this latest manifestation of a very old story, the real question is why gossip is so powerful a thing, alluring enough to make fortunes and bring down empires. Why are we so interested in other peoples’ private lives?
March 16, 1927
If the drys are gonna catch the wets, they’re gonna have to wet themselves. So to speak.
At the trial of John H. Wyncoop, former chief field agent for the boys of the California/Arizona Federal Prohibition Enforcement Department, Wyncoop said “I knew that if I had liquor in my possession I could more easily get bootleggers to believe that I was handling booze and therefore make it easier to arrest bootleggers.”
Wyncoop is on trial because he turned twenty-nine bottles of liquor to his own use, instead of turning it into the government warehouse. Can’t those government know-nothings see that you need that hooch to go under deep cover? That he only took home that demon rum in the solemn performance of his duty?
(Convicted by a jury of illegal conversion, he was given a short term in the county jail.)
August 6, 1927
Councilman Carl I. Jacobson was arrested in a morals raid at 4372 Beagle Street in the company of a woman who said her name was Mrs. Hazel Ferguson, but who later admitted her real name was Mrs. Callie Grimes.
The married councilman insisted that he was framed and that the raid was the underworld’s retaliation for his much publicized crusade against vice in the city.
Jacobson, who lives in a small bungalow at 3014 Terry Place with his wife of thirty years, told cops that he had called upon Mrs. Ferguson to discuss a matter of street assessments with her. He said Mrs. Ferguson had telephoned him at his home and asked him to look over her property to see if it was worth paying the assessments.
When he arrived for their meeting Mrs. Ferguson poured two cocktails, and then moments later all of the lights in the house went out. It was then that police announced themselves and placed Councilman Jacobson and Mrs. Ferguson/Grimes under arrest.
The four arresting officers, Captains of Detectives Wallis and Williams, and Detectives Lucas and Raymond related a version of events substantively different from Jacobson’s account. They stated that they went to the Beagle street house, watched through a window and then observing what they felt constituted criminal behavior, crashed down a door to arrest the couple on morals violations. The arrest of Jacobson and Grimes begs the question: why were four high-ranking LAPD officers creeping around in the shrubbery with their noses pressed to a window like four Peeping Toms?
The case against Jacobsen would drag on. Jacobson would be tried twice on morals charges. In the first trial the jury would vote 9 to 3 for acquittal; in the second trial the jury would be evenly divided and the DA would decide against trying him for a third time. Mrs. Callie Grimes would confess to her part in the frame-up, and then recant. Grimes along with the four officers who conducted the raid would be tried for conspiracy, and the charges against them would be dismissed in 1929.
One of the detectives, Harry Raymond, would leave the LAPD and become a private investigator. He’d turn up again in the news as the victim of an attempted assassination by car bomb, in a 1938 corruption scandal involving Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw, members of his administration, and the LAPD.
August 30, 1907
Get talked up by a booster…wend your way through the hall…step on the special stair which emits a loud buzz, warning those you approach. You’re one your way into the Venice Club, Windward Avenue, Venice, California.
The windows are covered in black oilcloth to keep out light and sound and prying eyes. Inside there’s a roulette wheel, stacked high with gold and silver, emitting its seductive clicky whir, counterposed by the atonal, plangent clack of chips. Verdant young society men huddle around the faro layout. You may or may not notice—they’re all losing. Certainly your luck can’t be as bad!
Your luck would be bad indeed this night, as Deputy District Attorney John North kicks in the door and announces that everyone is under arrest. This would not phase the roulette dealer: “He looked coldly at the officers and his slender gambler fingers toyed idly with the stack of chips at the edge of the table; his little, ratty, sharp face was a slight sneer, half of amusement.”
The Venice Club, run by an aggregation of Arizona sure-thing men, is as crooked as they come. It is said that the reason the faro dealer has one eye is due to time spent having to look crooked at the bent ends of marked cards.
As the room was pinched, a sudden epidemic of sick wives befell Los Angeles. But the cops would have none of it, and everyone was hauled in. The gamblers were allowed to kitty their boodle—some $1486 ($30,498 2006 USD).
The club kept a register of all the tenderfoot gilded youth they’d fished, and, amusingly, the paper printed it in full:
Ah, would that the story should end there. The bust of the Venice Club opened wide a scandal that shed no new good light on the already suspect “beach towns.”
The Venice police were as fixed as the card games, and got fat from the brace games that lined the seashore. (During Fiesta week, the same underworld figures who ran the Venice Club ran a crooked [and police protected] gambling hall downtown on Broadway between First and Second.) Venice men “higher up” had cemented relationships with blind pigs, dens of ruination for young girls, and that special element adept in fixing elections. Abbot Kinney and (Ocean Park magnate) G. M. Jones battled it out and the cops pledged their various allegiances in the war.
The corruption scandal lingered long and luscious...September 11, 1907: