The Imaginary Friends of the Monkey Mask Bandit

Ingenius LA Bank Heist, 1927 March 30, 1927
Los Angeles

Afterwards, when they examined the attic, they found evidence that he’d hidden for days up there, nourishing his evil plans with a diet of orange juice and liquor, quietly scheming during banking hours, constructing his army of robot helpers after everyone went home.

Ah, yes, the robot helpers. These were artificial arms with toy guns in their “hands,” constructed with ropes and weights to smash through the ceiling of the Merchants’ National Trust and Savings Bank branch at 24th and Hoover just as the robber, clad in a hideous monkey mask, confronted his prey. Who would dare take on the robber while unseen, if strangely still, friends held the room at gunpoint?

And so it was that the robber, Luger in one hand and .22 in the other, held up Manager Philip Simon and five employees and relieved Simon of about $8400 in bills prepped for the day’s banking. He was hard to ID beneath the gruesome cheesecloth monkey mask covering the upper portion of his face, but his victims noted that he was a small man, with a distinctive jaw and thick foreign accent with which he called some of them by name, apparently having spied on the workers during his time above.

This was the second peculiar robbery to befall Merchants’ National in less than a week;  on March 25, two cliche Old West cowboys armed with .45s ambled into the branch at Jefferson and San Pedro and courteously relieved the cash drawers of about $2000 after suggesting customers and staff find comfy spots on the floor.

As for our mad attic genius, he made a clean getaway, and his identity remained mysterious until November 2, 1929, when officers stopped a man named Pete Marzec (aka Pete Nanzec), 33, while he was walking near Seventeenth and Main. They asked if they could open his suitcase, and Marzec obliged, but around the time they pulled out his gun, rope ladder and mask collection, he made a dash for a nearby fence. He didn’t make it; a bullet through the gut sent him to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital in critical condition. Later, more burglary tools and guns were found in his room nearby at 1622 Santee Court.

Marzec recovered in time to be indicted on the 1927 job and an earlier bank robbery that netted $12,600. Despite the claims of a confederate that he was in Kansas City at the time of the crimes, Marzec was damned by the discovery of guns recognized by his victims, masks matching those worn in the robberies, and a notebook in which the dates and amounts taken from the banks was noted in Polish.

Marzec was a three time loser who as Michael Blevika had escaped from a New Mexico Prison in 1922, so his conviction came with a minimum sentence of 14 years in Folsom Prison. Superior Judge McComb, perhaps in recognition of the extra robbers unable to be tried for the crimes, doubled the sentence to 28.

Marzec appealed on the grounds that it was unfair to convict someone of both burglary and robbery for the same crime, but was denied, and shuffled off to prison, where we trust he built many imaginary friends to protect himself and keep off the lonelies in the long, dark nights.

Odd Masher Nabbed In Expo Park

Grace Kenny (Jerry) McFarlane headline 1927

March 29, 1927
Los Angeles 

Busted in Exposition Park on a vagrancy charge after aggressively flirting with passing fillies, licensed chauffeur (read: cabby) Jerry McFarlane was dumped in the men’s tank at the Central Jail, where fellow inmates quickly noticed what booking officers had not: trash-talkin’ "Jerry" was actually Grace Kenny McFarlane, 22, blonde and biologically female.

She was promptly pulled from the cell and plopped in front of an L.A. Times photog, who snapped a pair of mirror image pix highlighting the two sides of fair McFarlane, and a reporter whose all-too-brief interview revealed the unique philosophy of the Jazz Age youth.

"It’s much more fun to be a man. Besides, I get along better, too, and the life is freer and easier." Except, of course, when it lands one in the pokey. "I wish I could get out and get back with the gang. I was going to take a frail out the night I was arrested. It’s lots of fun to take a girl to a dance or a show and not have them get wise." And even more fun, we’d wager, when they do.

Grace Kenny (Jerry) McFarlane 1927

For more on the secret homosexual shadow worlds of early 20th century Los Angeles, see Daniel Hurewitz’ Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics or Faderman and Timmons’ Gay L.A.

Thrift Pays?

March 28, 1927
Los Angeles
A classroom of children from the Thornton Avenue School learned a little something about the value of a dollar this afternoon when they witnessed a hold-up outside the Merchants Trust and Savings Bank at 25th and Central.
Harry Harris, the bank messenger for City Dye Works (3000 Central Ave.), was accosted at gunpoint by two bandits and relieved of the $3000 deposit he was about to make for his employer. When guns were brandished, the children "set up a din of screams and wails that would do justice to the most powerful siren."  However, their cries did nothing to dissuade Harris’s attackers.  After being robbed, Harris commandeered a civilian vehicle and followed the getaway car four blocks east on 25th before losing the bandits. 
The school group had been taking a class trip to the bank to make their monthly deposits as part of the Los Angeles Banks School Savings Association’s "school thrift plan."  While similar programs existed elsewhere in the country, the Los Angeles plan differed slightly, in that it sought to give the children more face time with their local bankers.  Students were given home safes, passbooks, and made their own deposits.
Perhaps as a result of this hands-on approach, Los Angeles schoolchildren had the largest average savings accounts in the country. In 1927, 184 elementary and junior high schools in Los Angeles participated in the program, and students had close to 1 million dollars socked away in Los Angeles banks.

Blood & Dumplings Crime Bus Podcast

Jacob Adelman of the venerable AP rode along with the gang on the Blood & Dumplings Crime Bus Tour on St. Patrick’s Day, and produced a delightful little audio document of the day for the AP’s youth-oriented asap section. It includes an overview of the tour, some excerpted crime stories from the tour, and interviews with a few of the delightful passengers. Why would otherwise normal people choose to spend their Saturday hearing tales of mayhem and horror? Click slowly and see….

All Hail Jinx Ballantrae!

marie prevost and doggy

March 27, 1927
Portland, OR 

Moving Picture star Marie Prevost travelled all the way to Oregon to exhibit Jinx Ballantrae, one of the handsome Cairn Terriers trained by her husband of three years, leading man Kenneth Harlan, at the Portland Kennel Club’s fifth annual show. And for the first time ever, a Cairn Terrier was named best in show. We’re sure it had little to do with the pretty lady on the end of the lead, though. After all, her three Cairns also swept up all the prizes at last years San Fernando Valley Kennel Club meet.

marie prevost and kenneth harlan

A month later, Miss Prevost and Mr. Harlan would exhibit their Cairns at the first annual Glendale Dog Show, Miss Prevost clad in a handsome green John Held sports outfit. Also on the floor: Francis X. Bushman and Harold Lloyd with their Great Danes and Arthur Rankin with a whippet. This time, the silver cup was taken by Lloyd Bacon and his Wire Haired Terrier, and Jinx Ballantrae let out a terrific growl that was heard all the way to Tujunga. And in May, Miss Prevost filed for divorce from Mr. Harlan on grounds of cruelty, complaining that he kept her up all night before shooting days with drunken phone calls saying he’d be home soon, and that when he did come home he brought unsavory people with him and made lots of noise in the swimming pool. But everyone knows that Jinx made her do it, still miffed about his hometown loss.

And if we point our futurist’s spyglass further still, we see 1937, and that unpleasant business with alcoholic Miss Prevost starving to death and being gnawed on by another little doggy. Ugh, put the spyglass down. Let’s leave the pretty lady, her handsome husband and frisky pups to enjoy their moment in the sun.

A Final Fight

March 26, 1927mystery

It’s a crowded 3am at the Crescent Club in the heart of Hollywood…just another old bungalow reconstructed into a, uh, tea room. A variety of Volstead violations are in full swing when a fight started, the lights went out, there were sounds of a struggle and furniture cracking, and by the time police arrived to a nearly empty room, pugilist and actor Eddie Diggins, 24, lay dying, stabbed through the heart. Film comedian Lloyd Hamilton cared for the doomed Diggins, while Charles Meehan, noted local bootlegger, was unconscious on the floor with a split to the skull. Diggins died in Hamilton’s arms.


Those filmfolk known for frequenting barrooms were questioned (there being no small number there) but only Hamilton, having remained at the scene, could give a description of Meehan being hit by a chair before the lights were extinguished. While police found ten gallons of wine and five quarts of vermouth were uncovered, the murdering knife used on Diggins was unfound. Meehan, in the prison ward of General Hospital, could shed no light on anything.

Come March 27, Deputy Assitant District Attorney Dennison advanced a new theory: that Diggins had fallen on a crystal chandelier smashed in the melee. Sisters Rosie and Josie St. George, who had been in evidence that night, were found and questioned; Rosie had been working hat check. She stated that Diggins first became embroiled with Jack Wagner, and that Meehan then fought with stunt man Billie Jones, and that thereafter the great fight ensued, wherein Mrs. Diggins and Mrs. Irene Dalton Meehan escaped with the help of Diggins’ buddy John Sinclair.

mrsdiggOn March 28, a dozen witnesses gathered to present inquest testimony. The memories of all and sundry were hazy at best, agreeing that there was bar, chandelier, bottle and window glass involved, table legs used as clubs, and chairs swung with abandon. Members of a Coroner’s jury reached the decision that Diggins had met his death from “a sharp instrument in the hand of a person or persons unknown to us, with homicidal intent,” while an eighth juror agreed with Dennison’s theory, concluding that “the wound was caused by a piece of glass, accidental.” From the morgue he was taken to O’Donnell Sunset Mortuary, and from there to the grave, where he remains silent to this day.



March 25, 1927
Los Angeles

C. D. Fabrick had just stepped into the Jefferson and San Pedro office of the Merchants’ National Trust and Savings Bank to begin his canvass of the theft and burglary situation in that part of the city. Therefore he thought there was a gag afoot when a booted Olde West cowboy type approached him, twirling a gun. “I’m a robbery and theft insurance underwriter,” said Fabrick, “what are you trying to do, kid me?” But Fabrick was not the butt of a joke but on the business end of a .45.

blaisdellFabrick, bank employees and customers were invited in thick Texas drawl to find themselves “a nice cozy spot on the floor” after which another bandit scooped $2,000 ($23,390 USD 2007) from the tills. They then lumbered out to a dust-covered touring car where a third bandit sat with a Winchester rifle across his knees. As the two egressed, one of the bandits held the door for an incoming customer and with true Texas courtesy drawled “It’s all right, lady. It’s all right. Walk right in.”

While bank manager R. E. Blaisdell was not in attendance for the show, he had been present for an east side Merchants’ bank shootout earlier in the year that left one policeman and one bandit dead.

Showroom New

March 24, 1927
Los Angeles
Investigators from the State Board of Pharmacy began traversing the city today, in search of physicians who illegally supplied narcotizing agents to Miss Minnie Hines.  It seems that while under the spell of narcotics, Miss Hines develops a “maternity complex” which requires the purchase of infants.  When her mind clears some days later, it then becomes necessary to farm them out again.  Adding complexity to the case is the fact that due to her dope-addled brain, she rarely recollects the homes where she obtained or disposed of the babies.  She is currently under Narcosan treatment for her affliction.

Ms. Hines was arrested March 9th when she attempted to buy a baby at Pasadena hospital, and attempted to escape by putting pillows under her clothes and pretending she was an expectant mother.  Hines, 26, of Long Beach, has farmed out three of her own children (ages eighteen months to twelve years) and an estimated ten others.  Babies, incidentally, generally run between sixty and one hundred dollars ($700-$1,169 USD 2007).

litachaplinIn other baby news:  local actress Lita Grey Chaplin today dropped her renewed bid for temporary alimony for herself and her two toddlers in an attempt to force her husband, one Charles Chaplin, into court.  (Mr. Chaplin had impregnated Lita Grey when she was 16, he 35, resulting in a marriage and sensationally scandalous divorce which, when finalized in August of 1927, cost Chaplin $825,000 [$9,648,650 USD 2007].)

According to Charlie’s biographer Joyce Milton, the 1924 marriage was the inspiration of Nabokov’s Lolita.

…and to Matron I leave a wild goose chase

March 23, 1927
Los Angeles 

Notorious con artist Mrs. Mary Williams, aka Rose Mary Langhorn, has expired aged 65 in General Hospital while awaiting trial on charges that, shortly after making her acquaintance aboard the steamship Mongolia between Havana and L.A. last spring, she relieved Mrs. Marguerite Nonemacher of Highland, California of the burden of $3000 cash money, in exchange for some oil stock royalties which were certain to yield $10,000 shortly, and $500,000 in the longer term. Mrs. Nonebacher bit, and later squealed when not a nickel or a whisper was forthcoming from her shipboard pal or the phantom wells.

USS Mongolia

The APB that went out for the flim flam artist described a plump, cheery gal of later years, who was "full of conversation and bounced about the boat calling everybody ‘honey’ and ‘dear.’"

"Sure I stole her money," said Mary whatever-her-real-name-is on her deathbed, but merely for "the fun of the thing." It all started when she was a rich young woman ruined after trusting other wealthy people, and so devoted her career to exacting revenge on other members of her former class. And who can begrudge her that?

The dying woman made a will naming a New York friend as her executor. But as California law forbids wills to be executed by non locals, she was instructed to think again. Not having many friends in California, and perhaps feeling indisposed to benefit Mrs. Nonemacher, Mary chose Chief Matron Vada Sullivan of the County Jail.

And that’s why Matron is leaving work today to take a ride up to Ukiah, where Mary’s strongbox was stored, to examine its contents and her bank accounts. Assuming all are well-stuffed,  there will be numerous local souls benefiting from their proximity to the fading swindler, among them attorney M.W. Purcell ($1000), Father Vanderdoucht ($1000), three physicians ($1000 each) and nurse Florence McDaniel (a ranch).

jail matron vada sullivan

above left: Matron in 1937, and it’s pronounced Dee-KEY, sheesh. 

Recommended viewing, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, our favorite filmic treatment of the shipboard swindler’s art and love:

Small Image

and the new year is…

Gentle reader, we’ve concluded our explorations of the good year 1907, and now turn our jaundiced gaze to a fresh chronological target. Our next year is both keen and nifty, where the bubbles in the market are nearly as dangerous as the fizz in your bathtub gin. Come along with us now, not backward this time, but forward, as we make the leap from sweet little 1907 to scandalous, jazz-age 1927 L.A. Bye bye, ostrich farms and bungalows, success waves and lemon fiends. We’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know, but we just can’t stay. The lure of the unknown is just too strong, not to mention the rumors of dresses that show the knee. Hotsy totsy!

We’re pleased to announce a new contributor to the site, Mary McCoy. Look for her posts every Wednesday, and should you find yourself downtown on Thursday March 29, drop by the Central Library at 12:15 to hear her 45 minute presentation on "L.A. True Crime-Fact or Fiction."

What secrets does 1927 hold close to her pretty chest? Stay tuned as we unwrap the flap, exposing scandals, oddities, horrors and delights, and maybe, just maybe, a murder on your block!