A Second Chance

March 19, 1927
Long Beach, CA

longbeachshootingFred and Lela McElrath had been married for 25 years, and raised three children together, now grown. But just as the couple should have been settling down into contented empty nesthood, a violent disagreement nearly destroyed it all.

Fred wanted to leave Long Beach for Freewater, Oregon, where they owned a ranch; however, Lela was determined to stay put. She moved out of their home at 45 Atlantic Avenue, and Fred spent nearly a week trying to track her down. On March 18, they finally agreed to meet at a neutral location, their daughter’s home at 32 Neptune Place, and try to talk things through.

However, Lela refused to reconsider, and walked away from the argument. As she was descending the stairs in her daughter’s house, Fred pulled out a gun and shot her twice in the back before turning the gun on himself, firing into his mouth. The shots didn’t kill Lena, and when she was admitted to Seaside Hospital, it was assumed that she would recover. However, Fred was barely clinging to life, and in fact, police arriving on the scene initially believed him dead.

Today, things looked drastically different. A bullet was lodged behind Fred’s left ear, but doctors expected that he would make a full recovery — and in all likelihood, be left to stand trial for his wife’s murder. The shots fired into his wife’s back had punctured her right lung, and she was not expected to live. Authorities stood watch at Fred’s bed, waiting to charge him either with murder or attempted murder.

Shockingly, the story has a moderately happy ending. On April 11, a frail Lena McElrath, appeared at her husband’s preliminary hearing and was helped to the stand by her son, where she made an impassioned plea on Fred’s behalf.

"I do not want to testify against my husband, nor do I want him prosecuted. I believe our trouble was caused as much by me as by my husband. I want to go back to him and begin all over."

Judge Stephen G. Long agreed she should have that chance, saying, "This is a very remarkable affair, but if both parties are willing to forgive and forget and to endeavor to patch up their broken lives, I think the kindest thing for this court to do is to give McElrath a chance."

The charge was dismissed, and the McElraths left the courtroom with their arms wrapped around each other. Lena’s wounds were expected to heal completely with time, though Fred would be forever incapacitated by the bullet, still lodged near his spine.

Just An Old-Fashioned Girl … Driving the Getaway Car

An Old-Fashioned GirlMarch 18, 1927
Los Angeles

Police are searching for “bandit queen” Rose Berk with renewed effort after today’s arrest of one of her henchmen, Fred J. Cook. Berk (aka Rose Buckingham, aka Rose Burke) is suspected of masterminding more than half a dozen “feminine lure” robberies during the last week alone. During the course of these hold-ups, Berk pretended to be a helpless female seeking “assistance in starting a stalled automobile.” She was perhaps particularly suited to this role because, “unlike the usual type” of bandit queen, Berk was described by police as “homely, awkward in her manner and so old-fashioned that she still wears her hair long.”

However out of style she may have been, Berk evaded capture by the L.A.P.D. On April 13, 1927, she was behind the wheel of the getaway car when a group of hold-up men, Fred Cook among them, robbed the Seaboard National Bank on Wilshire Boulevard of $21,000. The hapless Cook was arrested two years later, when in August 1929, he was recognized on a visit to Rose Berk, then jailed in Indianapolis. Alas, her trail goes cold here—we’ll never know if she finally bobbed her hair.

Modeling the “old-fashioned” look is one of the winners of the Times’s Mary Pickford look-alike contest in 1924.

Baby Farm

 

March 10, 1927
Bellflower

baby farm headline

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 wantedâ€Â 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.

baby farm trunk

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.

A Back Alley Death Leads to A Witness’s Collapse

Mrs. Bernice ClancyLos Angeles
March 4, 1927

Late last summer, 21-year-old Evelyn Frances Taylor and her 22-year-old friend, Mrs. Bernice Clancy, visited the offices of Dr. W.E. Williams at View Larger Map” target=”_blank” title=”Dr. Williams’s office”>1548 West Sixth Street. Evelyn, it seems, was a girl in trouble—she was looking for what the Times referred to as an "asserted illegal operation." Williams provided one, but there were complications, and Evelyn Taylor eventually died from the botched abortion (exactly when was open to question—the Times gave three different dates during their ongoing coverage of the matter). When the State brought murder charges against Dr. Williams in October, Bernice Clancy became the star witness for the prosecution. After all, she had accompanied Evelyn Taylor on the fatal day, and, she told the grand jury, Williams explained the details of the operation to her.

Clancy began receiving written and oral threats. Then, as she stood on the back porch of her father’s house one day in January, "a gloved hand closed over her face and mouth and she lost consciousness." Half an hour later, her father found her in the yard on the other side of the house. "A dish towel had been tied over her face and her feet bound." Clancy recovered from the attempted kidnapping.

Today, as the trial looms closer, Bernice Clancy collapsed in a faint at the home of Inspector Horn, where she has been living under guard. Apparently, "a lineman working on … the property made some joking remark to her, which she misinterpreted [or so says the Times]. She was unconscious for almost half an hour and it was necessary to call a physician to revive her," the Times reported. As a result, the district attorneys prosecuting the trial have ordered that she be held incommunicado "with instructions to not permit her to out on the street unless accompanied by an armed escort."

Update: Bernice Clancy testified without incident on March 9, 1927. On March 24, after twelve hours of deliberation, the jury found Dr. Williams guilty of manslaughter. His motion for a new trial was granted, but before it began, the original charge against him was thrown out on a technicality. The State of California wasn’t done with Dr. Williams just yet, however; in June, he was listed as one of six physicians who were to appear before the State Board of Medical Examiners on charges of behavior "inimicable to their profession."

The Candy Man Can

candy man headline

March 3, 1927
Los Angeles

"Who can take a sunrise,
Sprinkle it with dew,
Cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two?
The candyman, the candyman can,
The candyman can ’cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good."

When local school children crave a hand full of gum drops and a pint of whiskey, where can they go? Rumor has it that if they visit Frank Belioi’s candy store at 5973 South Broadway, they may leave with a few new cavities and a major buzz.

Sgt. Childers was in charge of the squad that raided the local sweets shop, and revealed in court that although the police department had reports that Frank was selling liquor to minors, they had failed to produce evidence against him.

Frank was lucky – the only thing the cops managed to bust him for was the one and one-half gallons of whiskey on the premises. He said he kept it on hand for party guests.

Frank pleaded guilty to the possession charge, and Judge Ambrose fined the candy man $300 [$3,639.31 current USD].

I could go for a pint of gin and a chocolate bar right about now. Are you with me?

Of Pachydermatae and Murder

shootinMarch 2, 1927
Los Angeles

The Wonderly shooting of Emerson over an elephant’s affection has been continued until March 15th.

George “Scottyâ€Â Wonderly is the keeper of the bloodhounds for the studios, George Emerson, trainer of the lions at Universal City.

The story has a Old West theme to it to boot: on 15 February last, the two were arguing over the affections of said elephant at Universal. Wonderly called Emerson out; Wonderly strapped on his single shot .45 and there, on a rain-soaked muddy street, surrounded by wooden shacks and gambling dens and dance halls, Emerson staggered and twisted and slowly fell, a bullet through his breast, out his back, and lodged into the Last Chance Saloon. Elephants and the Old West, together again.

emmerson

Here, Wonderly shows how his beloved raised its trunk…and went on to maintain that he acted in self-defense.

And of the love that dare not trumpet its name…the true heart’s desire of the elephant remains a sweet mystery.

Modes of Banditry, 1927

February 28, 1927
Los Angeles

Drivers in lonely climes like Topanga Canyon have recently been distressed when stopping to check on a "possum bandit" found napping in the middle of the road. Of course when the do-gooder leans over the prone figure, he leaps up with a gun, steals their valuables, and races off much faster than any marsupial.

Meanwhile, at 317 1/2 South Berendo, two dandified thieves of an agonizing refinement relieved Albert Zigman of $125 cash and $700 in jewels in his own apartment. The victim described one man as having kept his hands in his pockets while gazing at a picture on the wall, as the other flicked cigarette ashes from his lazy perch on the davenport. Shortly afterwards, they relieved neighbor Michael Kreel of his extraneous possessions before slipping off into the night with a yawn and a whip of their cashmere scarves.

L.A. Crimes of Passion Revealed!

This Thurday at Central Library, LAPL reference librarians Greg Reynolds and Mary McCoy will be sharing ghastly stories of love gone bad in the City of Angels.

  • The mild-mannered Marie Tucker claimed her husband stabbed himself in the stomach while making a ham sandwich – was it an accident or murder most foul?
  • Who shot Fred Oesterreich in his home in 1922?  Was it his lusty wife, Dolly, or her live-in lover, secreted away in an attic love nest?
  • And why did Hattie Woolsteen really kill her married lover?

Find out this Thursday, and learn the true stories behind some of Los Angeles’s most notorious crimes of passion. 

Los Angeles True Crime:  Crimes of Passion
Thursdays @ Central
Central Library, Meeting Room A
Thursday, Feb. 21, 12pm 

A Crime of Fashion

Bobbed Hair Headline

February 18, 1927
Whittier

The Whittier social set was agog at the forcible bobbing of Mrs. Evelyn Thompson’s hair by two of her former friends, Mrs. Florence Nutt and Mrs. Lucille Roulston.

All three young women had married men in the local oil business. The couples had become friends who frequently partied together. At a recent dance, Lucille believed that Evelyn had spent too much time in the arms of her husband, and in a fit of jealousy she plotted her revenge.

Bobbed Hair Babes

The bobbing incident unfolded like this: Evelyn had been out shopping for stockings, and as she passed by Roulston’s home she was flagged down and invited inside to see Lucille’s new hat.

Once inside the house, Evelyn decided to try on her new stockings. She was seated in a chair with one of her shoes off when she heard a snip and saw four of her curls fall to the floor. It was at this point that Florence held her down while the scissors wielding Lucille hacked off the rest of Evelyn’s curls, snarling “You used to be the center of attraction, but no man will ever look at you now.” Evelyn told police “It was over almost before I knew what was happening. I started fighting them without avail.”

Prior to the forced shearing, Evelyn had sported lovely long chestnut curls – they were her crowing glory. She said “I had never wanted to be a flapper. That’s why I didn’t bob my hair.”

Florence Nutt was arrested and charged with mayhem. A warrant had to be issued for the arrest of Mrs. Roulston, because she’d taken it on the lam. She was sighted in places as far flung as the Orient!

The mayhem charges would be dismissed, thus ending the criminal case. Evelyn had the option to seek damages in civil court if she wanted, but there would be no further mention of the bobbers or bobbee in the LA Times.

Patricide Interrupted

February 15, 1927
San Pedro

It’s a mysterious case indeed that enmeshes Mr. Alvin Hyder, wealthy inventor of diesel engines and proprietor of the motorship Nora, working the Channel Islands trade, and his daughter Nora Thomas, 22, wife of a local grocery man.

Seems that Nora went into her father’s room at 2315 South Grand Avenue and shot daddy in the head with a .38, before creeping back to her home at 2224 South Grand. Hard-headed Alvin did not die, but repelled the bullet with the force of his personality, sending the leaden lump on a one way trip off his cheekbone, around his face and into the back of his neck, where it remained. Following treatment at San Pedro Emergency Hospital, Alvin returned to Grand Avenue to reflect upon all that had brought him to such a place.

Nora, meanwhile, was arrested and charged with attempted murder. She pled not guilty, with local tongues wagging that this was really all about Nora’s baby who had died, or maybe $10,000 of her father’s money that she thought ought be hers.

But in May, the girl was released after the DA declared he had insufficient evidence to convict. Perhaps dad and daughter reconciled in time to take advantage of the Cabrillo Beach grunion run, the dates for which were published in today’s papers. It’s the least a captain can do for his ship’s namesake.

[update, July 2008: A descendent of the Hyder family kindly emailed with some additional information to add to this rather mysterious tale. We are always so appreciative when folks with personal knowledge write in to share it.

"Alvin was washed overboard off of his fishing boat the Nora II about 1936. A large sneaker wave overturned the boat off of San Nicolas Island. The Coast Guard responded, but his body never turned up. He was 56. His children Nora, Buster, and Alva are all gone now. Nora passed away at age 91 in 1995. She did not discuss her reasons for shooting her father until her 80s. Buster died in ’94 at age 87. Alva died in ’98 at age 73. In 1993, a book was published by the Santa Cruz Island foundation, edited by Marla Daily, entitled "Occasional Paper Number 6." She interviewed Buster about our family homesteading on Santa Barbara Island from 1914 to 1929. The National Park Service built a little museum onto the ranger house out there. In 1993, the TV program "California’s Gold" did a half hour program on our family reunion and the opening of the little museum. We had 3 generations there. So, there is a little update to your newspaper clipping."]