Past Horrors Await Bus Tour, Provided Today’s Don’t Intervene
"Nightmares of Bunker Hill" is a bus tour for those who revel in the murders, suicides, brothels, gambling palaces and opium dens of 19th century L.A. — you know, the good old days.
"The city was so strange and wide open back then," said co-operator Kim Cooper. "But they had a lot of the same problems as we do now. Wild kids … men and women not getting along…. "
Naturally, it takes a certain mind-set to be entranced by, say, a story about a woman throwing acid in the face of her lover (Chinatown, 1887). But the market evidently exists. The last group who signed up for an excursion were invited by Cooper and partner Nathan Marsak to pick a date. Easter Sunday was chosen. "Oh, you delightful sickniks!" the duo responded on their website, 1947project.com. And so the holiday was observed, in their own way.
The next scheduled jaunt is June 10. Cost for the five-hour experience is $47, which includes snacks and beverages.
Cooper and Marsak, incidentally, make this disclaimer: "Although it is extremely unlikely, the organizers reserve the right to postpone the tour in the event of extreme weather, riot, act of war or plague."
We’re talking, after all, about L.A.
Stupid criminal tricks, mid-20th century style: Cooper and Marsak recently completed a project in which they documented, for the fun of it, "the offbeat and criminal history of 1947 Los Angeles." A few excerpts:
• Busboy James Edwards, 57, who distrusted banks, was conked on the head by a thug and awoke to find $75 stolen from his wallet. What the robber hadn’t noticed was that Edwards was also wearing a cartridge belt holding $3,843, plus $1.17 in change.
• A taxi driver, saying he was "feeling sleepy," asked his passenger to take the wheel. The passenger, a young Marine named Patrick Crawford, did so — and drove to the Santa Ana police station. There officers arrested the somnolent man on suspicion of having shot the cab’s real owner earlier in the day.
• When forgery suspect Robert Putter, 49, was arrested in Alhambra, police found in his possession an 18-page how-to booklet for others in the trade. Ironically, he failed to observe one of his own rules: "When you don’t succeed in passing a check, get out of town but fast."
Lea Lion of the Los Angeles Downtown News rode along on the first Nightmares of Bunker Hill tour, and wrote a cool and moody piece about it in this week’s paper.
Nathan and I were appropriately thrilled when the legendary Gary Leonard took our picture, and we even made the front page (under the fold). You can pick up a copy most anywhere in the middle of LA, or read it online.
Murder, an Acid Attack and More Downtown Fun ‘Nightmares of Bunker Hill’ Bus Tour Finds an Audience by Lea Lion
I sneak a peak at the other passengers on the bus and wonder why they are really all here. It is Easter Sunday morning and we’re idling in a deserted Lincoln Heights parking lot, waiting for a couple of latecomers to arrive.
Of course, I know exactly why we’re here, but there is still something a little strange about the fact that a busload of people have elected to pay $47 a head to devote five sunny Sunday hours to a tour of Downtown’s most notorious crime scenes of the past century. We’ve gathered for the provocatively titled tour “Nightmares of Bunker Hill,” and as we wait, I start to feel a little suspicious of my fellow crime bus riders and their hunger for tales of long-ago murder and mayhem. The whole thing reeks of a sensational headline, maybe something like, “Maniac Trails Reporter Home From Crime Tour!”
I’m trying to keep my paranoia in check, when the man sitting across the aisle, a fellow solitary rider, leans over and introduces himself. He’s Victor de Anda, a West L.A. native who works in the film industry. Soon he slides over to the comfy coach seat next to mine and starts telling me about the Jack the Ripper-themed walking tour he caught on a recent London vacation.
Eventually, the stragglers show up, and de Anda’s story of murdered prostitutes gives way to a bus rolling along the narrow, bungalow-lined streets of Lincoln Heights into Downtown. We stop in front of a police car graveyard on the outskirts of Chinatown and a man dressed in a 1940s broad-shouldered suit, complete with vest and pocket watch, stands up. This turns out to be tour guide Nathan Marsak, who delivers a rapid-fire account of a turn-of-the-century crime that occurred roughly 50 feet to the right of the bus.
“May 12, 1887,” Marsak states bluntly. He pauses dramatically before continuing. “Imagine a Victorian rooming house – Queen Anne with turrets and gingerbread – right over there.” He gestures towards the parking lot and then dives into the story of a woman who threw a bottle of acid in her lover’s face. Marsak ends the story with a descriptive edict: “Picture him tumbling down the steps grabbing his face.”
Without missing a beat, Marsak’s partner-in-crime and fellow tour guide Kim Cooper launches into another grisly tale. Dressed in a vintage printed dress, Cooper stands at the front of the bus and details the story of the longhaired “Sanchez girl,” who was starved to death by her parents circa 1900. Her ghost is rumored to haunt a stretch of Broadway.
Self-professed (obviously) crime buffs, Marsak and Cooper are co-founders of the blog the “1947project” (1947project.com), which last year gained a fair amount of buzz as it documented that year’s most newsworthy crimes – from the heinous to the quirky – in a day-by-day account frequently accompanied by photographs. After completing the full calendar year of 1947, the duo has moved on, or, more accurately, turned back the clock. This year they’re blogging like it’s 1907, and the bus tour is a way both to promote the site and to share their enthusiasm and knowledge.
The year 1907, said Marsak, “fulfilled our giddy enthusiasm for Edwardian-era Los Angeles.” He loudly exhaled a puff of cigarette smoke. “People always go on about the good ol’ days and so forth and so on and we serve as a gentle reminder that there was as much villainy and mayhem and dastardly deeds then as now.”
Marsak and Cooper dig up most of their crime stories from local newspaper archives. According to Marsak, all it takes is a little imagination and a lot of ingenuity.
“The papers were rather circumspect, so you have to learn to read between the lines,” Marsak said. “The ‘yellow’ papers were more sensationalistic, so when you want to get the full story you read the Times and then you have to go down to the archives and go read the Examiner and the Herald.”
Cooper describes her researching technique as “very improvisational.”
“I tend to do it in the witching hour,” Cooper said with a laugh. “I get into the online L.A. Times archive and I start coming up with words that might trigger an interesting story. I’ll use a particular keyword like ‘gruesome’ or ‘ghastly’ or ‘severed’ or ‘weird’ or ‘gun’ or ‘police’ and just see where it takes me.”
The division of labor has Cooper looking through old newspaper files, while Marsak drives around locating historic crime sites and documenting the “what’s there now” aspect. It’s a tactic that has an intriguing tie to modern Downtown Los Angeles – 99 years ago, before the extensive sprawl of the city, most of the action occurred around Downtown.
Cooper and Marsak’s shared fascination dates back to when they met as undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz. In the past, the pair has done a noir-style radio show called “Manny Chavez” and hosted a Black Dahlia-themed bus tour that also included many stops in Downtown. The “Nightmares of Bunker Hill” tour was a quick sell-out, and the duo has scheduled another one for June 10.
“I think Nathan and I both have pretty twisted sensibilities, but we are not dark people,” Cooper said. “We are much more colored by the Addams Family than by Charles Manson.”
Back on the Bus
During the five-hour tour, we do in fact learn that Downtown has an often gruesome past. Surprisingly, a whole slew of sometimes horrific, sometimes humorous acts took place in the early 1900s around New High Street in what is now Chinatown. According to our tour guides, the area was a hotspot for bar brawls, gambling houses and opium dens. It was also the site of at least one gypsy kidnapping and an out-of-control goat (in separate incidents).
Countless brutal murders, fake s
A little bird sent us the above holiday card, issued from the magical Mount Kalmia seven years before the estate, overlooking the Sunset Strip, was the site of an especially seedy real estate scam. Somehow we doubt Johnny Depp has managed to preserve the landscaping…
Water is not the only thing that flows downhill, as switchmen at the downtown Southern Pacific freight yard discovered when two runaway flatcars made a 13-mile trip from the San Fernando Valley in 10 minutes.
Although the runaway cars sent people scrambling as they crossed the tracks, there were no trains running at the time, so a serious accident was avoided.
The flatcars, part of a gravel-hauling operation in Roscoe [Sun Valley], inexplicably came loose and had a four-mile downhill start before blazing through the Burbank station. The Burbank operator sent warning ahead that he saw something rip past