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 10, 1927
Police received a tip that next to the home of Ray Foss in Bellflower, several people had been observed burying something that may have been the body of an infant. Thankfully, no bodies would be found. Police had discovered however, that Ray had an outstanding felony warrant from 1925 for operating a "baby farm" in Moneta (near Gardena). The fear of being nailed on the baby farm charge loosened his tongue, and Ray Foss began to relate a sordid tale of baby trafficking, illegal adoption, an alimony racket, bigamy, and narcotics addiction.
Ray told the cops that a woman being held in County Jail on forgery charges under the name of Minnie Williams was actually his wife, and that she had been the proprietress of the Moneta baby farm.
The baby farm had come to the attention of the authorities in 1925 when Minnie sold a baby girl to a woman who gave her name as Mrs. Johnson. The infant was found to be blind, and Mrs. Johnson returned the child and demanded a refund. The child later died. Mrs. Foss gave the woman $25 in cash, and in lieu of the remaining $35, she gave her another baby! Ray and Minnie fled a short time later to avoid standing trial.
During the next two years Minnie trafficked in babies, ran an alimony racket, and fed her drug addiction. She provided infants for women to carry into court when seeking alimony. Prior to being identified as Minnie Foss, she’d tried a variation of the alimony con in Judge Hardy’s court. Using the Williams alias, she made an emotional plea for probation on the forgery charge, alleging that she was about to become a mother. The court soon discovered that she was not actually Minnie Williams, and that she was wanted in the Moneta baby farm case. With the masquerade over, Mrs. Foss began to confess to Deputy District Attorney Costello.
Things got off to a strange start when Minnie was asked to state her name for the record. She told the Deputy DA that her last name was really Hines, not Foss. She said that she’d married Ray Foss when she was only 15 years old, and then met Clarence Hines in 1921. The three lived together in a ménage a trois until Foss left. Minnie claimed that she then married Clarence, but never went to the trouble or expense of divorcing Ray.
How did Minnie end up trafficking in babies? According to her, she was in fact, a "serial adopter". In 1922 she had noticed a newspaper ad about adopting a baby. She said that she went to the Mexican quarter near the Plaza and met with a couple who told her that they had a child they couldn't keep. Minnie took the baby home and passed him off to Clarence as his own child. She told him that the child had been born to her while she was away in Burbank!
Clarence may have been a very dim bulb, because over the next few years Minnie said that she brought home several other infants including a set of twins, and that she had informed him that he was the father! According to Minnie, Clarence never questioned her about any of the babies, so she continued to adopt.
Maybe Clarence wasn’t quite as gullible as Minnie had thought, however. When questioned by police, Clarence told a slightly different story. He said that he’d known that his wife sometimes placed “not wanted” babies. He also told investigators that he was aware of a black trunk which may have been used to store baby clothes or as a coffin for some of the unwanted babies. The trunk was later found at a home near Bakersfield that had once been occupied by Ray Foss.
When the trunk was examined by police it was found to contain baby clothes, a hypodermic needle, and a marriage license issued to Ray Foss and Minnie Magnolia Williams. Also found in the trunk were approximately twenty-four photographs of young girls and babies.
Even though Minnie said that she’d adopted the infants, the most likely scenario was that she occasionally kept unwanted babies born to women in her care. Where did all of the babies go? Police traced many of the children to foster parents who subsequently adopted them. Several infants remained unaccounted for.
Although there were many unanswered questions – particularly regarding the fates of the infants who could not be found, Deputy DA Costello dropped the baby farm charges because Minnie and Clarence had confessed everything to his satisfaction – including an addiction to narcotics for which Minnie was treated with Narcosan. The DA’s office couldn’t pursue the bigamy charges because the statute of limitations had run out.
Minnie pleaded guilty to issuing a fraudulent check and was given a sentence of from one to fourteen years in prison. Clarence received a similar sentence.
The sad story of Blanche and Grace Stauber was revealed today when the sisters, ages 44 and 51, respectively, landed in the poky after a trip to Judge Baird's court. It seems the college-educated spinsters fell on financially hard times after they moved to California in 1910 from their native Kansas. After their pleas to friends and family for monetary assistance went unheeded, Grace started forging checks. She did her best to keep knowledge of her wrongdoing from younger sister—they were daughters of a Methodist minister after all. But when Blanche inevitably discovered her sister's malfeasance, she made a pragmatic decision: they would "join forces in an effort to keep themselves above poverty" and, above all, avoid being separated from one another.
It worked like this. Blanche and Grace would move into a small town somewhere in southern California. They'd rent a house, and Blanche would write a check in the amount of $300 to $600 (roughly $3,600 to $7,200 in today's currency), drawn on a bank in another city. Grace would take the check to a bank in their new town, where she would open both savings and checking accounts, depositing half the check in each. Thus funded, the sisters went on a shopping spree, buying merchandise and often receiving change on their purchases. They'd be gone before the bank opened the following day.
Over the years, Blanche and Grace Stauber passed worthless checks to the total tune of about $25,000 (almost $300,000 today) in twenty-five different towns. The sisters "prayed frequently" for the success of their nefarious operations, prayers that appear to have been granted as they eventually opened a store in Palms to dispose of their hot items.
Judge Baird remanded the "elderly" sisters to General Hospital, where it was determined they were sane, though lacking in "moral appreciation." Blanche and Grace faced possible sentences of from two to twenty-eight years in San Quentin, but it was said their greatest fear remained being separated.
Update: Blanche and Grace Stauber were each sentenced to serve one year in County Jail for forgery and issuing checks without sufficient funds. They were also sentenced to five years' probation on a separate forgery charge. The sisters didn't go quietly: they "told probation officers they felt the church owed them a living" and only started passing paper when it didn't come through.
February 9, 1927
It’s a pretty simple scheme.
You own some stock. I approach and inform you that your stock is about to hit bottom. I suggest a trade—your stock for some of mine. The stock I’m offering you is about to go up, up, up, ya see. (Honestly, that’s the long and short of my plan; we swap my stock worth a penny for your stock worth a dollar—your greed does all the heavy lifting.)
When Mrs. Frances L. Derby of 502 North Ardmore was approached by some very nice men, she parted with 102 shares of John C. Frey & Assoc. worth $1,020, and 124 shares of California Guarantee Assoc. worth $498, and in exchange was given 4,700 shares of Silas Frank Mining. The Very Nice Men “talked down” her crummy old stock and represented the mining company stock as being worth $1 a share—when in fact it was worth 1 cent a share, or $47. Mrs. Derby was no ordinary rube, though, got wise, and alerted the authorities.
The aforementioned pleasant fellows being Leon F. Wessling, 36, and J. L. Johannes, 38. Detective Lieutenants Davis and Edwards of bunko detail say these two have, from their brokerage firm—a prestigious suite of offices in the Merritt Building—similarly swindled Los Angeles residents out of $75,000 in the past week.
According to Wessling and Johannes’ records, the duo finagled $18,000 out of one poor old widow alone.
Sad, true, but at least in a few years there’ll be a lot less stock to swindle.
January 25, 1927
"Wanna make some easy money? Come over here. Hang on a sec, let me just fix my coat, and now... here we go, will ya look at that! Looks like my wrist's broken, eh? Naw, I just popped it out of the joint. It's easy if you know how, especially if it's been broken as many times as mine has. Now about that money. See, I'll get a ride in your taxi, and while we're riding, I'll yell and come up with the broken wrist. Your boss'll pay me to go away! You do the talking, and I'll do the yelling. I can make my face look green, too, if I concentrate. And what we make, I'll split with you. I'll take nothing less than $2500. It can't lose!"
Alas, poor Calaway Rice and his gal Ruth Richardson, they thought Yellow Cab driver Paul C. Alexander had a dishonest face, but they were very wrong. Alexander took the scheme straight from Rice's downtown hotel room to his boss, who told him to go through with the charade. It went on under the scrutiny of a police escort, who broke in on the Main Street doctor's splinting party to put ol' Popped Joints Rice and Miss Richardson in irons.
The charge was conspiracy to commit fraud. And while Rice would be convicted of this crime, the lady was acquitted, which gave Rice's attorney the opportunity to appeal to the judge—how could a man conspire alone? It was a good point, and on May 9, our loose-limbed hero was turned loose to scam again.
January 6, 1927
Gladys Nolan, 22, of 5510 Lexington Avenue, had a craving for fine clothes and expensive perfumes. She needed them. Yes, there’s a difference between needs and wants. She NEEDED them.
Gladys was no klepto. She paid for the items, and not with money from the handbag of some white-glove spinster she’d clobbered and left twitching in her death throes down a urine-soaked alley. Gladys paid for these things with all the nicety befitting a girl of refinement, trouble being, she paid for the lovely things with forged checks.
A $200 ($2,206 USD 2007) fur coat and $34 bottle of perfume, she picked up at I. Magnin’s; a check signed in a fictitious name at Maison Blanche allowed her a gown and hat totaling $110. Some killjoy by the name of “Deputy District Attoney Frampton” got in a twist about this, convincing some other sourpuss called “Judge Ambrose” to hold her to answer in Superior Court and fix bail at $2000.
Gladys was given probation and told to keep her nose clean. Which she almost did.
Whatever became of Gladys Nolan? A lady whose refinement and obvious taste sadly outdistanced her pocketbook? Guess we'll never know.
December 31, 1927
Mrs. Evelyn Rosenkrantz has claimed in court that her dream to become the Queen of Holy City, California was reduced to ashes and bitter tears when the City’s self-anointed King, William E. Riker, retracted his marriage proposal. Evelyn is asking for $500,000 ($3.5 million USD 2007) in damages for breach of promise. The woman who would be Queen stated that William had sweet talked her in to posing as his wife. She said that they resided at a “love cottage” on 3679 Motor Avenue, Palms City.
Evelyn was not the first woman ever to have been disappointed by William. About 20 years ago, he fled to Canada to avoid bigamy charges. It was there that the former palm reader founded "The Perfect Christian Divine Way”. To achieve perfection, devotees adhered to a strict credo of celibacy, abstinence from alcohol, white supremacy and communal living. To make it easier for his disciples to concentrate on their spirituality, Riker required them to turn over all of their money and worldly possessions to him.
William and his followers returned to California and set up his “New Jerusalem” near Los Gatos. Surprisingly, he never got around to building a church in Holy City, but he did manage to construct a gas station (which sold “holy water” for over heated autos), restaurant, and an observatory where visitors could view the moon for ten cents. Located on the Santa Cruz Highway, Holy City became a tourist destination and was eventually bringing in over $100,000 ($1.2 million 2007 USD) annually. Tourists were lured by signs with such catchy slogans as: "See us if you are contemplating marriage, suicide or crime!" and "Holy City answers all questions and solves all problems!"
Things went so well that the city incorporated. There would eventually be a Holy City Post Office, newspaper, and radio station, KFQU. The radio station would lose its license in 1931 for “irregularities” (maybe it was the call letters).
Evelyn would lose her breach of promise suit, but she and William would tangle again in a couple of years.
In the spring of 1929 Evelyn was serving a life sentence in San Quentin for being a habitual criminal (her final conviction was for passing bad checks in Oakland). She swore in an affidavit that back in 1927 she had witnessed Riker strangle a Mrs. Margaret White to death in the cottage on Motor Avenue. Evelyn told the court that Mrs. White was another of Riker’s abandoned wives. Nothing would come of Evelyn’s affidavit, and she likely spent the rest of her life in prison.
Riker became known as “The Comforter” and made four failed attempts to become governor of California. He would be arrested in 1943 for his pro-German sentiments – he was writing letters of support to Adolf Hitler! Defended by well known attorney Melvin Belli, who constantly referred to his client as a “crackpot”, Riker managed to skate on the charges. The ungrateful crackpot would sue Belli for defamation of character, and lose.
Riker made it to the ripe old age of 93, when he shocked his few remaining followers by converting to Catholicism shortly before his death in 1966.
If you’re interested in owning a piece of California history, Holy City went on the market in 2006 with an asking price of $11 million. Maybe it’s still for sale.
November 30, 1927
Meet Nona Lesher, the cool 20-something check kiter whose arsenal of multi-hued hairpieces helped disguise her during a spree of bad paper pushing, busted in a market at 305 East Valley Boulevard.
But the wigs are only the tip of a hairy iceberg. For among the suspicious items discovered in the room shared by Nona, hubby Harvey (or Harry), half-brother Phil Rohan and pal Mike Garvey at 2048 West Twentieth Street were an unheard of 61 pairs of shoes and twenty hats, plus Harry, Phil and the aforementioned wigs.
The men soon became suspects in the November 1 drug store beating death of proprietor A.R. Miles (or A.M. Miller) at 2329 West Jefferson after Lesher allegedly confessed to friend H.S. Walton, "I pulled that West Jefferson job—I hit Miles over the head and when he came to and called me 'Heinie' I finished him with my feet." However, Walton later said he had been so drunk that night, he might have imagined the whole thing, had only spoken out because he'd been told charges against him would be dropped if he did, and anyway, he believed the trio was innocent.
Still, 10-year-old witness Eddie Yates ID'd Phil Rohan as the youth in a snazzy blue and white sweater who he'd seen dashing from the crime scene. Lesher and Garvey also looked familiar to the boy. Roberta Scriver, sitting in a car outside the drug store, also identified the trio. Simple robbery-murder case with eyewitnesses, eh?
But then a cop's badge was found in Mike Garvey's possession, leading to the arrest of 77th Street Division policeman George H. Foster, the Wig Gang's next door neighbor, on charges that he'd used the badge to shake down bootlegger John Sykes for $57 in exchange for not noticing a quantity of liquor stored in a vacant house; Rohan and Garvey supposedly served as muscle on the robbery, and somehow Garvey ended up with the badge.
By January, the male members of the Wig Gang had been convicted of murder and sent to San Quentin for life, while back in LA, Officer Foster was thrown off the force and tried on a series of bootleg shakedown charges.
But come December 1928, witness Roberta Scriver testified that she'd seen someone else leave the murder scene, one Harry Rosenfeld. The Grand Jury reopened the case, it was noted that the 10-year-old witness was actually watching a movie during the crime, and after begging San Quentin ex-con Rosenfeld to tell all he knew (he snarled he wouldn't do it, lest he get a knife in the back from breaking the criminal code), the hapless Wig Gang was released after two years and eight months.
Once freed, the trio sought $5000 each in payment from the state for their ordeal, while Lesher and Rohan's mother Carrie testified she'd spent $6000 on their defense and appeals. During this hearing, which was ultimately unsuccessful, an Alhambra Detective offered the hitherto unknown information that their arrest had resulted from a tip from the Wig Lady herself, Nona Lesher. It was unclear if she had remained true to Harvey during his incarceration, but one assumes the marriage didn't survive this revelation. At least their mother still loved 'em!
The pseudo-scientist claimed that he'd discovered the fountain of youth through proper diet and treatment, and had been restored from a 90-year-old man to a young man with a thick head of black hair. He said he'd grown four sets of teeth in his life. He was associated with a scheme to create a human body, saying he'd once crafted a 6 inch body, but had been unable to vivify it. He said he'd discovered a medicinal herb that could rejuvenate human life. And he claimed to be a Russian prince who had made millions during the regime of the Czar by devising a system of hydrating food.
Yes, Rex H.W. Albrexstondare said a lot of things, and oddly, some people believed him.
Unsurprisingly, the "doctor" made his living by preying upon women, preferably of the wealthy and lonely variety, and supposedly treating them for vague medical complaints, such as headaches and rheumatism. However thin his ruse may seem, the doctor found plenty of willing customers until 1923, when he hit a patch of very bad luck.
It was then that Albrexstondare treated two Orange girls, Myrtle Thompson and Evelyn Rohrs, who suffered from congenital heart disorders. He gave them a paste made of mashed vegetables, alfalfa, and pea pods, which probably did the girls no direct harm, but certainly did them no good either. Albrexstondare was charged with practicing medicine without a license.
Around the same time, a suit was brought by Jennie McFadden, a wealthy Altadena widow, who claimed that Albrexstondare had failed to repay over $20,000 in loans she'd given him over the space of a few months. He had befriended her, announced plans to embark on a course of scientific research, and set up a lab in her home. She periodically loaned him sums of money, which he perceived as gifts; he also claimed that during his stay, the 70-year-old McFadden made passes at him and tried to get him to marry her, as did her daughter.
Others came out of the woodwork, and by the middle of 1924, Albrexstondare had three suits filed against him totaling over $35,000.
But first things first. He was found guilty of the case involving the Orange girls (the jury's deliberation took only 5 minutes), and was sentenced to 180 days in prison. He promptly set about raising the $3000 bond for his release. There was no mention of the party who'd finally given Albrexstondare the money for his bond, but he or she must have been too embarrassed to make a stink about it when he failed to appear for his sentence in May of 1925. On the lam for three months, he was finally apprehended in Ensenada and dragged back to Orange County to serve his sentence.
Then in December 1926, things took a turn for the weird. Socialite and pianist Ruth Shaw, one of the women who'd previously filed suit against Albrexstondare back in 1924, pledged her loyalty to him and agree to help him with his legal troubles. This would mark the beginning of Shaw's second career as a professional swindler and full-time accomplice.
For reasons that were not specified, Jennie McFadden's case did not come to trial until October of 1927, but Albrexstondare's performance there may have been worth the wait. Prior to the trial, he and Shaw had hinted that they had some surprises up their sleeves, and today, the doctor let out all the stops.
He claimed that he was beaten so severely in prison that he lost his hearing, memory, and consciousness of his surroundings for nine months. He said that Jennie McFadden and her daughter had threatened to use their wealth and influence to have him arrested, and that McFadden herself had engaged the agents who followed him from San Diego to New York City and finally, to Mexico while he was a fugitive (although he never saw himself that way).
The judge didn't see it this way, however, and ordered that Albrexstondare repay Mrs. McFadden's money with 7% interest, as well as all court costs. You might that all of this would teach the doctor a lesson, or at least slow him down; however, Albrexstondare continued his schemes in Los Angeles with little variation or discretion for at least the next seven years.
In May 1930, he was in trouble again, accused of swindling a woman who said she'd paid $275 for a medical treatment that she never received. Ruth Shaw, who'd lined up a string of gullible female clients for the doctor, was charged as an accomplice. Last heard from in 1934, the pair were still up to their old tricks. They were again charged with swindling for their efforts to separate L.A. residents from their hard-earned cash, telling them that they were raising funds to file a federal suit -- allegedly, the $43 million fortune of the deceased Czar had been deposited to a San Francisco bank.
And is it just my imagination, or does our own Nathan Marsak bear some small resemblance to the good doctor? Watch he doesn't slip you any vegetable paste!
October 18, 1927
Lewis J. Patterson married Marie Misuraca in the morning in judge's chambers, then sent wifey off to work with plans that they would meet for lunch. We can imagine her morning, chattering gaily with colleagues, showing off her ring, perhaps passing around a photograph of her groom. Then the trip from office to restaurant, giddy with excitement to see him again.
And over a meal the contents of which we do not know, his graceless announcement that the marriage wasn't exactly legal, since whaddayaknow, he hadn't gotten around to divorcing the last Mrs. Patterson, but that shouldn't stop them from setting up house and marrying for real sometime in the future, should it?
According to the lady, it surely should. She appeared today before Judge Sproul and said, "He asked me to wait around until he could get it and then marry him over again. I told him that was not the way I married, and everything was off."
The Judge agreed. Annullment granted. (Marie seems to have landed on her feet: in October 1928 the Times published announcement of her marriage to Carl J. Lawrence. We can only hope there was no first Mrs. Lawrence lurking around to complicate things.)
August 6, 1927
"A lie told often enough becomes truth." –Vladimir Lenin
On July 17, 1918, Bolshevik authorities, led by Yakov Yurovsky, shot Nicholas II and his immediate family in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Since then rumors have circulated that one of the Romanovs, Grand Duchess Anastasia, had miraculously survived assassination.
The woman in the photograph on the right is Anastasia Manahan aka Anna Anderson. Anna was a patient in a mental hospital in Dalldorf, Germany until another patient said that she recognized her as royalty. Anna would spend the next 57 years of her life claiming to be Anastasia. Neither her supporters nor her detractors would be able to substantiate Anna’s claim during her lifetime. Several years following her death, DNA tests would finally prove that she was not a Romanov.
June 18, 1927
Egyptian mystic Hamid Bey claims to have received a message from deceased illusionist Harry Houdini – but Hardeen, Houdini’s surviving brother, doesn’t believe that Bey’s claim is any more genuine than many others made since the magician’s death last Halloween.
Hardeen would love to hear from his brother Harry, and has offered $10,000 ($119,510.92 USD 2007) to anyone who can name only one or two words of a secret code which he devised with Houdini, and another deceased brother, William. The brothers entered into the pact prior to William’s death last year in order to prove that the dead cannot communicate with the living. They agreed that the code would be the preamble to any communication from beyond the grave. Hardeen said that he and Houdini never heard from William following his death.
Bey has spent most of this year on the vaudeville circuit performing feats such as being buried alive and then revived. Mr. Bey asserts his powers are divine gifts, and he had intended to challenge Houdini’s well documented skepticism of spiritualists. Throughout his life Houdini had scorned spiritualists and had often stated that he could duplicate, by mechanical means, any of the stunts performed by a medium. Unfortunately Houdini died before the two could meet.
Prior to his current stint in vaudeville, Bey spent a few years traveling around the world publicly demonstrating powers had he learned at a Coptic Temple in Egypt. While in Brindisi, Italy, he had a near death experience. He had announced that he was going to induce a state of suspended animation, and allow himself to be buried alive for three days. His plan to fast prior to his entombment was foiled by the residents of Brindisi when they prepared a sumptuous banquet in his honor, and pressed him to eat several large plates of spaghetti.
When he awakened from his trance he was buried and unable to breathe – he then pulled the emergency cord which rang a bell above ground to summon help to his gravesite. Bey later stated that his trance had been disrupted by the spaghetti he had consumed.
Were cosmic forces responsible for interrupting Hamid’s trance, or were a bad case of indigestion and a subconscious desire not to remain buried under six feet of Italian soil the reasons for his premature resurrection? It is a shame that fate intervened and denied us the outcome of a confrontation between Hamid Bey and Harry Houdini.
Houdini’s wife Bess held a séance on Halloween every year through 1936 when she declared that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” No authentic message from Houdini has ever been received.
May 24, 1927
Whoo-Whoo! Get outta the road, here comes a cop, or an ambulance. Jeez, usually they drive better than that. This guy doesn't give an inch. Muscling his way south through heavy Vermont Avenue traffic after midnight in his Essex, he pushes through the Third, Sixth and Seventh intersections with only some shattered nerves and shouted curses.
By this point he's picked up a tail, Detective Lieutenant Vanaken riding with Auto Club man Harry Raymond, who wonder what the deuce this yutz thinks he's doing, and if this could be the same siren-happy individual who's been reported around town these past three weeks. And then at Wilshire, the inevitable sickening crash of metal on metal, leaving A.J. Hanker and cabbie Oscar Ruiz, thankfully uninjured, sitting in their wrecked cars as Vanaken forces the automotive bully to the curb a block south.
Inside, Dr. R.B. King, 25, X-ray technician out Alhambra way, who denies causing the accident, though he admits he used his siren while not on an official call. Well, since he's a doctor, they book King on charges of failing to stop and render aid at an accident scene, and hold him in the City Jail. Meanwhile, we trust, police mechanics are cutting that siren off the Essex, and none to carefully, either.
Original post: The editors of the L.A. Alternative contacted me a few weeks back, asking if I had any ideas for a way to mark the Sunset Junction street festival by looking back at the area's criminal past. The result: a cover story featuring a pull-out crime map designed by Heidi Fikstad in which 29 of the more notable criminal happenings of the neighborhood are encapsulated for your edification. You can pick up a paper copy anywhere in L.A. this week, or check it out online here. I very much hope that you enjoy, Kim
Update: since editor Martin Albornoz chose never to pay me for the Sunset Junction crime map that ran in the L.A. Alternative, yet continues to run ads for L.A.'s dopest attorney, hot roomates and male dating services alongside the digital version, I'm going to host my own archival copy right here at 1947project. The art is by Heidi Fikstad from images from my personal collection.
The Horrifying, Bizarre, Unnatural History of Sunset Junction
As illustrated by the Map of Infamy
The strange and unusual multitude of murders, suicides, robberies, car crashes, ukelele beatings, firefighting pups and other odd factual tidbits from the historic era of today’s Sunset Junction.
By Kim Cooper
Los Angeles is older than she looks-225-and her memory banks are piled high with forgotten oddities that were once big news. To celebrate the Sunset Junction street fair, we wanted to revive some of those memories via a crime geek’s digging through the historic L.A. Times. Just like your grandpa might remember when those fools blew their gun shop up every time he tools past in his flivver, you might raise a mental toast to Jac Zinder when driving Sunset Boulevard around November. These memory maps are the soul of our city; we lose so much when they fade. Here is a smattering of historic oddities, to make it a richer neighborhood for whippersnappers of all ages. May all the dead ones rest in peace.
1. 3709 Sunset: August 15, 1950- Max Blakeley’s gun shop erupted in flames and careening bullets after an employee making a movie prop rifle telescope ignited a box of blank cartridges with acetylene torch sparks. The building was destroyed by a series of explosions, followed by a high intensity fire that melted the burglar bars “like limp bananas.” Several people inside suffered bullet wounds and smoke inhalation, but somehow no one in the rush-hour traffic along Sunset was hurt. Blakeley told firemen that there had been 85,000 rounds of ammunition and a large quantity of black powder on the premises. Shot through the right shoulder, he estimated his stock losses at $100,000. Also damaged in the incident were a florist, beauty shop, liquor store, dry cleaners and a dress shop, encompassing 3701-3719 Sunset. (Three years later, Blakeley struck and killed a pedestrian near the intersection of Sunset and Edgecliffe.)
2. Sunset at Edgecliffe: Thanksgiving night, 1994- Fuzzyland club promoter, DJ and musician Jac Zinder, passenger in a car traveling on Sunset, is killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver who crossed into oncoming traffic while driving without headlights.
3. 3719 Sunset: December 1968- A flower power pigeon has made itself at home in a flower shop. It spends much of each day flying with friends, then zooms in the back door between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. to nap. The proprietors leave birdseed in a bowl in its favorite niche, and have to duck when opening the door in the morning because the beast is so anxious to soar.
4. 3724 Sunset: April 23, 1930- Larry Steere of this address got into an argument with three strangers in an L.A. restaurant, but agreed to give the surly fellows a ride to Rosemead. The 35 year old was discovered unconscious in his car at Rosemead and Foothill, alongside the apparent weapon: a smashed ukulele. October 6, 1940- The new alien registration law had Harry Cahill, 60, terrified. The Finn’s papers weren’t in order, and he was certain he’d be deported to the country he left as a boy. Far easier, it seemed, to hang himself in his apartment closet, leaving the poignant note, “I haven’t any other place to go.”
5. 3725 Sunset: November 22, 1934- Alex Vielmas just wanted to empty the till and patrons’ pockets at Nick Sands’ cafe, but he ended up with a jaw full of lead when Sands whipped a gun from the register and blasted away at the would-be robber as he menaced seven customers and the cook with the old finger-in-the-pocket routine. Vielmas fled the scene but was captured a block away by officers who followed the trail of gore to a stack of lumber, behind which he was attempting an amateur dressing. Almost three years later, Emmett Lee Baldwin, 20, lost his bankroll at the fights and fixed on the cafe as a good place to replenish his funds. To the barkeep he snarled, “Dish out the dough!” while waving a nickel-plated revolver. Then Baldwin told the man to come around the bar and fleece the patrons. At this indignity, unemployed machinist Emil Heyden balked. “No punk can talk to me like that,” he observed, rising. And before said punk could react, Heyden had Baldwin locked in a jiu-jitsu hold, disarmed and cracked over the head with his own gun. Down in the E.R., the woozy hood sang like a lark, listing his crimes (59 hold-ups, including a near-fatal liquor store shooting on Melrose) and fingering accomplice Bob O’Connor, who snapped, “You’re a rat. I just furnished you a car and gave you a place to live-what did you get me into this for?” “Bob, what could I do? They had me dead to rights. I just told the truth.”
6. 3728 Sunset: February 8, 1959- Traveling east on Sunset, Arthur R. Forsyth, 23, clips a light pole and loses control of his car, which crashes into the front of the liquor store here. Forsyth is killed.
7. 3814 Sunset: This was the home of Kentucky Boy III, the brave and clever Airedale doggy who, in 1929, famously snapped his lead and raced two blocks down Hollywood Boulevard towards a burning movie studio. His master Robert Milton Byrne summoned fire engines and an adjacent theater, packed with patrons, was saved. In 1932 a juvenile cowboy orchestra serenaded the pup on the steps of City Hall as he was presented with one of 19 medals he would receive. Kentucky Boy died, aged 15, in September 1937, leaving his master unprotected. On June 23, 1939, the 65-year-old Byrne was found dead in his bungalow, victim of a brutal hammer attack. Evidence suggested the man might have lingered in a confused and bloodied state for as long as two days before dying, just 10 feet from the phone. Concerned neighbors peeked in a window, saw blood, then called police. A table was set as if for breakfast for two, and in the sink a carpenter’s hammer had been wiped of fingerprints. Byrne had seven skull fractures, a serious eye injury, and was covered in abrasions possibly caused by multiple falls. Some partial fingerprints were found in the house, and sent to the FBI in hopes of finding a match. Neighbors reported Byrne often entertained strange young men, so the pool of suspects seemed limitless, but police expressed particular interest in speaking to the 6-foot, 200 pound man seen with Byrne on the evening of June 19. In late July, police picked up and released Emacora F. Foschia, 30, on suspicion of Byrne’s murder, and the following January they questioned taxi driver Knud Troelsen, 46, who was picked up for a robbery and discovered to have a collection of female clothing in his home. Troelsen protested that he was being persecuted for his labor activities. The slaying appears to have gone unsolved.
8. 3900 Sunset: November 9, 1928- A bald-headed man with a mouth full of golden choppers held up the California Bank today, with the aid of a less dramatic-looking associate, to the tune of $4,000. This is the fifth robbery at this particular branch in 18 months, including a notable incident last November, when a dapper (yet toothless) youngster appropriated $3,000 and fled in a stolen green limousine. (Shaken tellers showed no preference for gold teeth over missing ones.)
9. 4013 Sunset: December 26, 1960- Two suicide attempts by Sheridan Kimmel, a 24-year-old writer, were thwarted today. First, his stomach was pumped of 60 barbiturates. Later Officer D.E. Davis stopped Kimmel from jumping off the roof when he grabbed him under the pretense of handing over a cigarette, then took the woozy man back to Central Receiving Hospital for a second pumping. Kimmel, a Korean war vet with a plate in his head, was upset because his wife, Marjorie Cameron, was refusing to let him see their daughter. (Cameron had a long and fascinating career as a Thelemite magician, avant-garde film star and visual artist.)
10. 4017 Sunset: May 9, 1936- Despondent over ill health, taxidermist Joseph Colburn, 60, shot himself in his brother’s shop, surrounded by hundreds of beady eyes of the creatures he had stuffed.
11. 4212 Sunset: December 1931- More than 100 local businesses are donating food to the Jail Cafe, which offers free meals to about 1,000 needy women between 9 a.m. and noon daily, prepared by charitably-minded ladies from the westside. August 22, 1955- You won’t hear comic songbird Barbara Heller trill her Judy Garland parody, “I was born in a booth in a bar on Main Street, L.A.” at the Cabaret Concert Theater any more, now that Muriel Landers has dragged Heller into court claiming exclusive rights to lampoon “Born in a Trunk,” and asking $50,000 damages. Miss Heller says the songwriters gave her the tune in appreciation for her kindness and past loans, while Landers counters she bought the number outright, and made it her theme song. In the hall outside Superior Judge Hanson’s chambers, a scrappy Heller said she’s already working on a parody of her parody, “Born on a bunk in a junk in the middle of the China Sea.” (Two years later, the rivals were in a variety act together at Ben Blue’s nightclub.)
12. 4240 1/2 Gateway Avenue: November 17, 1927- When the cops busted in looking for Harold Thatcher, a suspect in September’s sensational $73,000 payroll robbery at the Bureau of Power and Light, they discovered his wife Mabel, 19, near death in a gas-filled room. Harold was found sleeping elsewhere in the house. Rushed to the hospital, Mabel admitted attempting suicide due to illness. The irony of her life being saved as her husband was arrested was not lost on officers or the Thatchers.
13. 4384 Sunset: January 30, 1942- Spiritual seekers can no longer visit the little shop on the Boulevard to satisfy all the questings of their souls, since Charlotte Jean Le Nord, 25-year-old crystal gazer, fired a bullet through the breast of her “adopted” mother, palmist Mme. Lorraine (née Celeste Frank), 50. The older woman fell dead on the floor of the combined kitchen/dressing room in back of the white frame structure, the scent of incense mingling with the coppery stench of warm blood, beside a dresser topped with a shrine to the ashes of the dead woman’s husband. Her killer placed a pillow under the victim’s head, then drove to the police station to confess.
Charlotte explained that the pair had met in a Michigan department store several years ago. Mme. Lorraine told Charlotte she looked just like her dead son, and asked her to come live with her and her husband. They traveled the country performing a spiritualist act as a trio. When Mr. Frank died last September, Charlotte stayed on, telling fortunes on Sunset while Mme. Lorraine read palms in a downtown shop.
Charlotte said she’d been drinking all day to appease a cold, and had parked her car on Sunset instead of in its space behind the building. Mme. Lorraine upbraided her for this, and Charlotte pulled out the .32 caliber revolver she’d previously hidden from the older woman, citing fears that the bereaved widow might kill herself. And then, the unthinkable.
Charged with murder, Charlotte panicked when she learned her trial would be held on the seventh floor-Mme Lorraine’s unlucky number, and the hour of her death. She sobbed uncontrollably on the witness stand, describing how she had “playfully” pointed the gun at her beloved benefactress and said, “Bang!” after the older woman snapped, “I could wring your neck!” The gun went off, despite Charlotte having, she swore, removed all but two bullets at the bottom of the chamber. She strongly denied police conjecture that they were playing Russian roulette in emulation of a film or that they had a suicide pact. A munitions expert testified that the weapon was defective, allowing the cylinder to spin without the trigger being pulled.
The jury of nine men and three women accepted Charlotte’s profession that the death was accidental, and acquitted her after an hour’s deliberations, calling it “a tragic but unavoidable accident.” Because folks just pointed guns at each other and said, “Bang!” all the time in 1942, but that didn’t mean any harm was intended.
14. 4400 Sunset: April 12, 1952- A spectacular fire gutted the Akron Army & Navy Store warehouse this afternoon, causing $100,000 in damages and sending Fire Captain Earl McKee to the hospital after he fell through the roof and fractured an elbow. Several thousand spectators watched as sixty firemen from ten companies failed to stop the enormous blaze, but kept it from spreading to an apartment house on Virgil Avenue or the ladder shop next door. Curiously, business continued as normal in the surplus store, while the overstock burned down the block.
15. 4415 Sunset: January 4, 1920- Celebrated inventor Dr. Harry Barrington Cox (”the father of the dry cell battery”) called journalists to his laboratory and announced today a revolutionary advance that will preserve fruits and vegetables indefinitely, without the use of ice or chemicals. Cox has found a way to harness the power of the Earth, the same energies that keep food fresh on the vine or branch, even after they’ve been harvested. He proved it by displaying perfectly fresh oranges, peas and other fruits which he swore had been picked more than a year before. This discovery, the product of two years of research, Cox offers to California and the world as a New Years gift. More research is necessary to confirm the findings, but Cox says as long as the food is placed in an ordinary can, with metal wires creating a circuit to earth or water, and a little bit of the good doctor’s top-secret “vitalizer” at the bottom, extended preservation is a certainty, and the world will be immeasurably improved.
16. 4419 Sunset: January 21, 1929- When officers of the LAPD gun squad raided this home they discovered $1,500 in illegal whiskey, plus evidence of a complicated bunko scam. Arrested were Joe Besso, 42, and Gino Cesare, 57. Also seized from Cesare was a wallet containing several hundred dollars in real money and significantly more in counterfeit bills and rolls of newspaper of the type swindlers use to stuff poor boxes in immigrant communities. Victims of recent poor box scams are being urged to visit Central Police Station to see if either yegg looks familiar.
17. 4443 Sunset: November 11, 1947- Somebody has it in for radio shop owner Ted Wells, who got little work done today while dealing with the fallout of this weisenheimer’s idea of fun. First there was the $1,000 TV set supposedly ordered by a downtown bar. Ted lugged the bulky machine up the tavern steps, only to discover no one had called. Back at the store, taxis arrived on the hour, seeking phantom fares. The Fire Department showed up looking for a fire, followed by seven LAPD cars responding to a call of a stabbing. Phoned by a reporter, Wells expressed befuddlement as to the identity of his tormentor, then excused himself to answer the door.
18. 4473 Sunset: April 18, 1971- Christopher Russell, a 29-year-old transient, emerged from the all-night adult cinema where a robbery alarm had just been pulled, and took a revolver from his back pocket. When he ignored police orders to halt, Officer R. L. Bassett shot him twice in the chest. He was taken to County USC in critical condition; the gun was a plastic toy.
19. 4480 Sunset: August 17, 1924- This is the home of Harry Lowe, who, while picnicking with his family near Mint Canyon, discovered a suspicious burial site and alerted the Sheriff on his return to civilization. Deputies returned to the remote site, where they disinterred the remains of a monkey.
20. 4413 Camero: December 19, 1922- Although it means giving up a $250,000 legacy dependent on her marrying within her Protestant faith, Mrs. Olga Crane Lynch, 18, today escaped from her father’s home where she had been held captive since confessing her September 1st elopement with Catholic T.J. Lynch. She smuggled a note out to her husband who asked the district attorney to intervene. Called to City Hall, Olga’s father claimed his daughter had gone to San Francisco for six months “to see if she really loves him. I understood that Lynch had acquiesced in this arrangement.” Moments later, the girl was brought in by Detective George Contreras, and raced into her husband’s arms. “I am of age, I love my husband, and I am going to live with him!” she declared. Her father told her to go to blazes, and he and his wife stomped out. The young Lynches plan to go to New York.
21. Sunset at Micheltorena: December 20, 1914- D.C. Porter visits police to complain about the jitney bus that struck his horse and buggy today, pushing man and beast about 100 feet before dashing them roughly to the pavement. Porter estimated the bus was traveling a potentially deadly 25 mph, and says the driver drove on another half block before striding back to curse at the man and horse tangled in wreckage, demanding Porter reimburse him for the smashed headlights on his machine. (It is unclear if this was the same unlucky D.C. Porter who, in 1908, purchased a revolver from a shop at 313 South Main and accidentally discharged it, causing powder burns to the face of a clerk, damaging two showcases and shattering the plate glass window.)
22. Micheltorena & Effie Street: September 5, 1926- Piloting a stock Packard 8, Frank Randall set a record on the Micheltorena grade of 58mph, having turned off Sunset at a full clip. He was then “pulled over” by LAPD motorcycle speed squad officers Snider and Goldy, who gave Randall a souvenir speeding ticket to commemorate the planned record attempt. Six years later, the makers of the Essex Terraplane used the same grade to prove the hill-climbing power of their vehicle, reaching a top speed of 39.5 mph from a standing start, in high gear, with two passengers.
23. 1600 block of Micheltorena: January 27, 1922- Four days after he was found gravely wounded on the ground on the Micheltorena hill, doctors removed one of two slugs from his brain and motion picture cameraman Paul Cramer was able to tell detectives that his mother-in-law Mrs. Mattie Hannon had shot him. It seemed Mrs. Hannon was upset that Cramer and her daughter had moved from her house at 1504 Golden Gate Ave. into their own home. The woman accosted Cramer outside the new place at 1135 North Hoover and solicited a ride. Along the way she pretended to have lost her keys, and while Cramer was looking for them, she unloaded a .32 into his head; four bullets penetrated, two entering the brain, and Cramer knew no more. After the bed-ridden Cramer made his statement, Mrs. Hannon was taken into custody and informed that she would be charged with murder should he die. Winifred Cramer (known on screen as Jean Marlow) declared she would not visit her mother until her husband recovered, which doctors said he would. Mattie Hannon was found guilty of attempted murder and served a year’s sentence. Fifteen months after the shooting, Winifred divorced Paul, charging cruelty. The marriage left him two lifelong keepsakes: a deafened ear and a bullet in the jaw.
24. 3516 Crestmont: January 21, 1937- Dr. Albert F. Zimmerman, ear, nose and throat specialist, enjoyed one final midday meal with his wife before descending into his basement bathroom where, gazing into the mirror, he fired two shots. One pierced the wall, the second his skull. The dead man had been sickly and depressed about financial problems.
25. 1406 Manzanita: April 11, 1924- “Sure, my buddies and I stole gas from William Hill’s gas tank,” admits Charles Duncan Brotemarkle, “But we had nothing to do with hitting him over the head with that claw hammer.” So is the claim of the Hollywood High ROTC sergeant, 16, discovered with a garage full of stolen automotive accessories behind his grocery store manager father’s house at 972 Hyperion. Hill’s brother Joe says otherwise, having seen Brotemarkle strike the vicious blow, and the lad is in Juvenile custody on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.
26. 3318 Descanso: October 2, 1945- Memo to treasure hunters: when pitching the notion of joining an expedition to locate $10,000,000 in Mexican treasure hidden by Pancho Villa, be sure the lady you met on a streetcar and asked to become your secretary/companion is not already employed by the LAPD Bunco Squad. Such was the misstep of Arthur Stuchal of this address, popped on suspicion of swindling.
27. Vendome Street between Bellevue and Silverlake: March 17, 1928- Mary E. Spangler had a cement block dam constructed behind her home on Vendome Street for use as a bridge. As the waters of the local stream began to spread, panicked neighbors sought legal redress, and all were called before Municipal Judge Bush. A visit to the scene and testimony from a city engineering inspector were sufficient to produce a verdict of guilty, and the lady was fined $25 and ordered to undo her beaver-work before the rainy season. She promptly appealed.
28. 4118 N Reno: March 10, 1926- Jesus Fernandez, formerly of this address, got one last moment in the sun today when his casket was unearthed from its plot in Calvary Cemetery and its lid cracked, all to appease the mania of his sister Mrs. Mary Burke. Ever since the 16-year-old meningitis victim’s body was hustled into the General Hospital morgue, Mary has been insisting that his body had been snatched for purposes of dissection. She claimed the family was refused an opportunity to view Jesus, and that his pallbearers had heard something rolling in the coffin. Deputy D.A. Fitts arranged for the exhumation, which revealed a perfectly ordinary burial. Mrs. Burke was apparently still upset that her father and another brother had been autopsied at General Hospital.
29. 1404 Westerly: February 23, 1941- E.D. Cassidy, hotel clerk, 36, phoned his sister Helen in Yuma and told her, “I’m going to die within a few minutes. I’m washed up. I’ve turned on the gas. Good-bye, sis. A lot of love.” She called her local Sheriff once the line was clear, and a police teletype message was rushed to L.A.’s City Hall. A call went out to radio cars in the vicinity, and Detective Lieutenants Parry and Brown responded within 10 minutes of Cassidy’s hanging up. They rushed the unconscious man to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital; he is expected to survive.
July 11, 1907
When poolhall manager G.M. Woodward's rented house on 17th Street burned on June 29, landlord Mrs. M. Sweetman was grateful no one was killed. But after discovering the fire was intentionally set by Woodward, who had hopes of claiming $1100 insurance on his furnishings, she is fuming herself. Woodward is in County Jail, unable to make his bail.
Meanwhile, passengers on the North German Lloyd liner Kronprinz Wilhelm arrived in Hoboken with a terrifying tale of their ship having struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on July 8. Authoress Gertrude Atherton and statesman Baron Speck Von Sternberg were among the shaken travellers.