On April 10, 1940--seventy-two years ago today--a man named Edmund M. Hart walked the streets of Medford, Massachusetts in the county of Middlesex, knocking on doors and making inquiries about the people who lived behind them. He was the designated U.S. Census enumerator, and the personal information he gathered has just this month been placed online.
On Salem Street, at number 115, Hart recorded the particulars of three separate households.
The owner of the property (valued at $5000) was Myer Winer, aged 59. A widower, he lived with his sons Samuel (21) and Allen (19), his daughter Dorothy (29) and her husband Eli Reingold (30). The young people were all born in Massachusetts, Myer Winer in Russia. He was a tailor in a retail clothing store, earning $700 for the previous year (for only 18 weeks work). Son-in-law Eli Reingold was employed as a clerk in a wholesale tea company, earning $1200 for the previous year (52 weeks). His wife, a stenographer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, earned the same wage for her 52 weeks of work. Although the census did not ask, we know from other sources that theirs was a Jewish family.
Paying $35 in monthly rent was Edwin F. Jones, 58, and his wife Minnie, 56. He was from Maine, she from Massachusetts, and both had been living in the same house for at least five years. Jones was a newspaper printer, with wages of $2350 for the previous year (47 weeks work).
It is the third and final family which draws our attention, for reasons having nothing to do with their quiet life in Medford, Mass. The head of the household is Phoebe Short, 39, native of Maine. She tells Mr. Hart that her family of six has been living in this place for at least five years, and pays $28 rent--$7 less than Mr. and Mrs. Jones, perhaps a reflection of Myer Winer's charity. Although unemployed, she has an unspecified income of more than $50, not from wages. This is, we assume, money provided to her by her estranged husband Cleo.
Living with Phoebe are five unmarried daughters. Virginia M. (19), is the only one seeking work outside the home, claiming 34 weeks unemployment through the end of March 1940. Her occupation is given as New Worker, meaning she had left school but had not yet secured any position. The other Short sisters are all in school: Dorothea (17), Elizabeth (15), Elenora (14) and Muriel J. (11).
Although history records that Phoebe Short's husband Cleo was still living, she identifies herself to the census as a widow. Maybe at this time, Phoebe really thought her husband was dead. Maybe she claimed to be a widow instead of admitting to a stranger that she had been abandoned. We do not know if the story she told Edmund Hart was the same one that she told her landlord and her daughters. The bare facts of the census record cannot reveal the nuances of any family's tragedy.
Phoebe's pretty daughter Elizabeth (15) is frozen in time by the census keeper's ink. She is still safe with the women who know and love her, still free to walk out the front door on a balmy day and turn west on the Salem Road, which is will not for some years be bisected by I-93, a highway which seems to have obliterated 115 Salem Street. Half a mile from her home, past the movie theater and the city hall, is the old Salem Street Burying Ground, a neglected cemetery dating to the late 17th century. Maybe she wandered there, among the winged skull markers and crumbling walls, and thought about her own mortality and imagined the joys her life would contain before the grave.
She's still a couple of years away from her ill-considered escape from the limited opportunities available to a poor, fatherless girl in the Boston suburbs. When she runs, she will go to California, to be reunited with Cleo Short. Their relationship will quickly fracture, and she will become a vagabond, moving often and forming short-lived, intimate relationships with strangers. She will travel from California to Florida, to Chicago, then west again. She will lie to her mother, and she will not look for work. She will sink into depressive obsession over a promising relationship cut off when the man dies in a plane crash. She'll make some foolish choices, and some stupid ones.
And at 22, they will find her body cut into two pieces, naked and brutalized, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She will find posthumous fame as the beautiful victim of one of the most heinous unsolved crimes in American history. They will call her The Black Dahlia, leer over the terrible photographs, and they'll never stop talking about her.
But for this moment, she is still frozen in time. The census taker knocks on the door, and wants to know: who is the head of this household? What are the names of the children, and their ages?
Elizabeth Short is 15 years old, and it is springtime. The possibilities are limitless. And we are far away, and remembering a girl we never knew.
Thank you, Joe Cianciarulo, for the detective work.
January 2, 1927
The good people of Los Angeles were reminded today of a quieter, simpler time—a time known as "1921". A magical time of Teapot Domes, and Tulsa Tumults, and shotgun blasts to the face. We collectively remembered the sensational trial of Arthur C. Burch and Madalynne Obenchain, dismissed following jury disagreements, regarding the August 6, 1921 Beverly Glen shooting and .12 gauge buckshot that took apart J. Belton Kennedy’s head. (And now, our obligatory Kennedy "Gaelic For Ugly Head" Kennedy evidence: the shots were fired from a clump of bushes [California: growing better grassy knolls since 1850]; the first shot missed; there was a beautiful woman at the scene, and mysterious tramps...anyway.)
Seems that J. Belton’s father, John D. Kennedy, of 844 South Westlake, never got over the death of his son, or the exoneration of the accused. So today the sixty two year-old is in court on the charge of assault and battery. He headed over to the Terminal Warehouse Building on East 7th where Burch worked in the insurance game. As Burch was innocently hauling some fire extinguishers from one place to another, he suddenly heard “I’ve been waiting a long time but now I’ve got you!” – and was then struck in the face and seized by the throat, but was rescued before he felt the last bit of life choked from him.
Authorities were summoned, and said Kennedy the Elder, later, “The affair occurred when my emotions overcame me. I have no regrets and will gladly account for my actions at the proper time and place. When I went in the building no such idea entered my mind, but when I saw him [Burch] coming down the hall I could not restrain myself.
“This is the fist time I have met him fact to face since his trials for the murder of my boy. At the sight of him I was seized with a frenzy and choked him until he began squealing and they came and separated us.”
“I believe he has some pathetic obsession toward me,” Burch declared.
Mrs. Obenchain, living in seclusion in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the matter.
On February 21, John D. Kennedy changed his plea from not guilty to guilty and Municipal Judge Richardson gave him thirty days, suspended, with the caveat: that if Kennedy saw Burch coming, Kennedy was to “go to the other side of the street.”
That, Kennedy said, he could do.
San Fernando, CA
The body of an unidentified woman was discovered off of Mulholland St. (now called Foothill Blvd.) in San Fernando today.
Her hands were bound across her chest with twine. Her knees were bent, and her feet tied to her back with a length of cord. Her body had been wrapped in canvas. She had been struck in the forehead with a blunt instrument; however, a preliminary autopsy revealed that the blow was not hard enough to have killed her. Most likely, she was knocked unconscious by her assailant, tied up, then left to die of exposure.
The dead woman was approximately 45 years of age, and was found wearing a black crepe dress, "cheap cotton underwear," and hose. Her shoes had been removed. She had false upper teeth and a scar. She had been drinking the night she was beaten and left to die. She had been dead for approximately 24 hours before she was found, and lay in the San Fernando morgue for four days until she was identified as Amelia Appleby of 229 N. Hobart Blvd.
The fourth wife of a wealthy Chicago inventor, Appleby had inherited a $1 million estate upon his death, taken the money, and moved to California. She was not well-liked by her late husband's family, nor by her Los Angeles neighbors, who described her as "eccentric" and "a troublemaker." However, she did have one friend who cared enough to tell police what she knew. Prior to her death, Appleby was known to keep company with a "doctor" named Charles McMillan, 57. Appleby had confided to her friend that she feared McMillan would kill her if she refused to marry him.
McMillan was rounded up at his 531 S. Western Ave. apartment, where police found him poring over a stack of Appleby's personal papers. They later found more of her personal items, including her diamond jewelry, in McMillan's possession. Police investigators later found two versions of Appleby's will, one which left her estate to McMillan, and another which left it to a long-lost daughter, although her relatives claimed that she'd never had a child. Neither will was signed, and both were strongly suspected to be forgeries.
The evidence against McMillan was circumstantial, but strong. The stolen papers and jewels, a blood-stained jacket, the forged will, and the fact that he was the last person to be seen with Appleby were enough to convince jurors of his guilt. McMillan was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on February 24, 1928.
January 23, 1927
Following up yesterday’s story about whether one Ray McCoy was lynched for looking too much like Edward Hickman…
The verdict of the Coroner’s jury? Jail officials and other prisoners, all vindicated. Nevertheless, it seems that Ralph “Ray McCoy” Fuller raised the ire of Angelenos in the grip of Hickman fever, whose Hickmanmania (Hickmania? Hickmentia?) led an angry mob to chase down and beat Fuller something fierce, believing the twenty year-old to be Hickman, after Fuller robbed a store at 242 South Main and was chased two blocks on foot.
Fellow prisoner Fred Meadows told the Times that once in the hoosegow, the sullen and reserved Fuller was regarded as just another popped burglar. Meadows related how he and the boys started playing “Sundown” in an outer tank and when he returned, Fuller had hanged himself with Meadows’ scarf. (Must be nice to have scarves. And pianos.)
In other lynching news, any and all information regarding Hickman’s departure and route from Pendleton (where he was exhibited in a cage like a circus animal) to Los Angeles County Jail is being kept under strict secrecy.
December 17, 1927
Mrs. Ruth Snyder has a date with Sing Sing’s electric chair on January 12, 1928, unless her plea for executive clemency is granted.
The seductive blonde and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray (see photo), were both tried and convicted of murdering Ruth’s husband by caving in his skull with a window sash weight, strangling him with a garrote fashioned out of picture wire and a gold pen, and finally stuffing chloroform soaked rags into his nostrils.
If there is an explanation for the obvious overkill in the murder of Albert Snyder, it must be that Ruth’s previous attempts to snuff out the life of her husband (twice by asphyxiation and once by poison) had failed – and she wasn’t about to give up. Ruth had persuaded her husband to take out a double indemnity policy, which would pay her in the event of his accidental death. It was the lure of the $97,000 worth of life insurance that compelled her to continue with her diabolical schemes until she succeeded.
Fueled by two bottles of whiskey and profound stupidity, the criminally-challenged duo staged the murder scene as a burglary gone horribly wrong. But their pathetic plan was doomed to failure. They threw an Italian language newspaper on the floor as a false clue to the identity of the killers. They emptied dresser drawers and overturned chairs. And in an act that would eventually help prosecutors to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Ruth hid her allegedly stolen jewelry under her mattress, about three feet away from Albert’s battered body!
The trial of Ruth and Judd would be a media circus, and celebrities such as director D.W. Griffith, and evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson would attend. Ruth would be called “ruthless Ruth”, “vampire”, and the “blonde fiend” by the press. Evidently not all men found those appellations a turn-off, because Ruth received at least 160 marriage proposals during her incarceration.
Unfortunately for Ruth, her plea for clemency would be denied by Governor Al Smith. Her execution would be famously recorded by newspaper man Tom Howard. The ingenious reporter had strapped a miniature camera to his ankle beneath his trousers. Just as the executioner threw the switch on the whimpering murderess, Tom raised the cuff of his pants and snapped the tabloid photo of a lifetime.
The murderers were unexceptional, but their crime inspired art. “Machinal”, a play by Sophie Treadwell was deemed one of the best of 1928-29. James M. Cain’s brilliant novels “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” are said to have been inspired by Albert Snyder’s murder. And, of course, each of the novels translated into two of the finest examples of film noir ever produced.
December 15, 1927
Miss Grace Shannon, national secretary of our own YWCA, has just returned from Turkey, and good news: there’s no Dumb Doras there! Sure, it’s all right for a man to have four wives (“to which every good Mussulman says ‘Amen,’” chuckles Ms. Shannon), but the crafty gals there under Atatürk (we say atagirl!) have found some loophole that goes on to contradict such (referring to the famous Koranic Koran 4:3/Koran 4:129 Paradox). Yes, it seems the new republic’s progressive divorce laws and campaigns for women’s sufferage have made it a veritable heaven on earth for the gentler gender.
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!
November 25, 1927
Those of you who have taken a club to an elderly woman know, that’s six months in County. Everybody knows that. And just as those of us who have wielded a pool cue at a mother-in-law are looking at the ol’ six mos and that $500 ($5,515 USD2007) fine, that's what shoulda faced Anaheim’s Walter J. Jewell—except in his case there were extenuating circumstances.
You see, he’s a man who loves his children. He wuvs them. In that bloodlusty kinda way.
Seems that Jewell arrived at wifey’s house (they’re separated) to pick up the kids for the customary week-end visit. But despite his being a prominent citizen, he just doesn’t see fit to pay his alimony, which sent wifey’s mother—the aforementioned mother-in-law—into a huff. Crone in question, Mrs. Marion Blake, also of Anaheim, refused to allow Jewell possession of the youngsters. Enraged, Jewell rushed back to his auto and retrieved his trusty billiard cue. Back in the house he did, though, stop short at cracking her skull open like a soft-boiled egg.
The court informed Mrs. Blake that it was “inadvisable” to take the law into her own hands—that would be apparent. Mr. Jewell was scolded that he was “old enough to know better” than to “assault an aged woman with a club.” That may be. In any event, because everyone loves children so durn much, Judge Ames decided to knock Jewell’s punishment down to ninety days and nix the fine. Awwwww.
November 24, 1927
Frank E. Foster once stared down the blazing Enfields and Richmonds of Johnny Reb, Bragg’s cannons and Forrest’s cavalry, but it took some punk kid from Long Beach to put him down for good.
That punk kid is Richard Robert Haver, 16, whose penchant for driving other people’s cars landed him in Chino, where police interviewed him today about a spate of Long Beach robberies last September. Sure, during one robbery he pushed an old man. Haver hasn’t been told that the old man died.
“I saw him coming, although it was dark,” Haver told Detective Sergeants Smith and Alyes. “At first I tried to avoid him by slinking back against the wall, hoping the man wouldn’t see me. But he grabbed me by the coat with both hands.” (Apparently the 85 y.o. Foster figured the whippersnapper wouldn’t be reconstructed.) “I kept pushing him into the screen porch where he slept. The door was open as I rushed for it and I pushed the man out of the way. He tripped on the steps and fell outdoors onto the sidewalk. Then I ran toward the front of the house and headed for the ocean. I’m sorry I pushed him so hard, now that I know he is an old man.” Haver’ll be sorrier once the authorities inform him that, on top of being popped for the eight homes he ransacked while the occupants slept (earning him the sobriquet "The Pants Burglar", in that he stole away with trousers in the night and emptied their pockets), he’s a murderer.
(Haver was sent to the State Reform School to remain until he turned 21, at which point the courts would again pass upon his case; the papers make no mention of that event or its outcome.)
In further news of the Boys in Blue, another Damn’d Yankee, this one in Spokane, has problems of another variety. “I’m living on borrowed time,” said Enoch A. Sears, 84, “far past my allotted three score and ten, and I only want peace and quiet.” He has filed for divorce from his wife of one year, and has departed his home, leaving it to his wife, 59, and her mother, 79. Enoch simply stated he was “too old to become accustomed to living with a mother-in-law.”
November 11, 1927
Mrs. Marie Steen was minding her own beeswax tonight in her home at 8619 Grape Street, when a short, heavy-set man appeared at her door. He informed her that her husband had been in an accident, and that she’d better board the eastbound R car, go to the end of the line and meet the man who’d take her to her husband. Marie did as she was told, and at the end of the car line was met by a man in a new automobile who took her north on Eastern Avenue. When they reached an isolated spot, he, for reasons unknown, ripped her dress open at the neck, struck her over the head, and threw iodine in her face.
She was treated at Gardens Hospital and returned home.
Mrs. Steen certainly looks like she can take care of herself. On the other hand, Grape Street can be a pretty rough place.
November 1, 1927
Trick or treat... or how's about a smattering of hammer blows about the head?
Such was the reward for would-be good Samaritan C.P. Kirsch, who picked up a shabby fellow who was hobbling along on crutches in the darkness beyond the Adams Street train line. The guest sat in back with Kirsch's mother-in-law Edith Kneale, and once they were underway, pulled out a hammer and began hitting Mr. Kirsch over the head—but rather gently, since Kirsch turned around and fought back, chasing the would-be slayer away with his crutches under his arm. The victim and Mrs. Kneale both reside at 2353 West 29th Place.
And on the subject of folks hit over the head with more accuracy, R.I.P. Linda Stein. The Ramones curse strikes again.
October 22, 1927
Frederick D. Mason told District Judge G.A. Bartlett that he was seeking a divorce from his wife Louise for a few very good reasons. He said that Louise believed that “she had been born to rule”. He moaned to the judge that his domestic life was utterly miserable. Louise insisted upon picking his friends, clothing, and leisure activities. And then to add insult to injury, she forced him to do the housework!
Formerly in the real estate business in Hollywood and Los Angeles, Mason said that it was bad enough that his wife was so domineering but when she began to smack him around and to bring other men home, he knew it was time to pack his bags.
Did Louise bring the other men home to help Fred vacuum the rugs and dust the tchotchkes? The abused husband didn’t think so.
East Los Angeles
October 5, 1927
Found wandering in a dazed and bloody state near Ninth and Dacotah, all attorney Frank Sweeney could say to police in the Georgia Street Station was "please don't hit me!" Taken round the corner to the hospital, he was discovered to have a possible skull fracture.
In a moment of clarity, Frank suggested officers talk to his sister-in-law Mrs. Jack Sweeney at 101 South Bunker Hill Avenue (a now lost street, one tail of which remains). The lady promptly admitted that Frank had been over the night before and had said unpleasant things about her, whereupon her Jack knocked him into the stove. Why yes, he had suffered head injuries in the fracas. But gee, a skull fracture? He must have gotten that after he left.
Entirely possible, of course. Bunker Hill's not known as the Historic Skull Fracture District for nothing!
September 29, 1927
Following a frenzied search, three year old Betty Jane Wagner is finally back at home where she belongs. The little girl went missing during a downtown shopping trip with her mother, Mrs. Agnes Wagner.
Covered in painful welts and bruises, the tiny victim recounted her ordeal to Detective Lieutenants Cawthorne, Harrah, and policewoman Vesta Dunn. “A naughty old woman took me and hurt me a lot”, she sobbed. She told police that she had been walking alongside her mother when she was suddenly grabbed by a strange woman who stuffed a handkerchief into her mouth, then carried her away. Unfortunately Betty Jane is much too young to give a detailed account of her kidnapping, but police are following up on a tip given to them by an elevator operator. The tipster works in a building downtown and told police that he’d taken a woman and child to the top floor. He was suspicious when the woman later exited the building without the tot.
Police are seeking a woman whom they have described as a being a “mental case who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others”. Her identity is unknown, so a warrant for assault has been issued in the name of “Jane Doe”.
Betty Jane’s family is relieved that she has been returned to them, but they are bewildered by the brutal treatment that the toddler received at the hands of her abductor. The girl’s mother said that she could offer no reason for the pitiless attack upon her child.
There was no follow-up to little Betty Jane’s story in the Los Angeles Times, so we’ll never know if Jane Doe was caught – and we’ll also never discover if she was a sad mental case, or a monster. There would be one account later in the year of a mystery woman’s failed attempt to lure a child into her car, but no arrest was made.
Jane Doe may have resurfaced in 1929 when several children in the Los Angeles area were abducted in department stores, taken to a restroom, and severely beaten by a woman who then released them. If it was the same woman who snatched Betty Jane Wagner and so cruelly battered her – where was she from 1927 to 1929?
During the 1920s, one of the most common methods of treatment for mental disease was to dose the patient with barbiturates and other depressants to induce sleep. Was the mystery woman confined to an institution and subjected to “narcosis therapy” for two years? It’s conceivable that Miss Doe spent time in a dreary hospital room, sleeping fitfully on a narrow metal-framed bed, tortured by her drug induced nightmares.
September 21, 1927
West Los Angeles
Oh, Officers? When you decide to go out and arrest a lady who's been threatening to chop up her neighbors with a carving knife, you might not want to knock on her door and stand there like waiting until she sprinkles your faces and ears with acid from a bottle. Eventually, Mrs. Mary L. Ward of 11014 Santa Monica Boulevard was captured, halted by the effects of tear gas as she prepared another acid bomb from the large store in her bedroom. She's in the psycho ward at County General tonight, which has a special program in becoming a better neighbor.