Archive for August, 2009

Scandal at Highland Asylum for the Insane

Second and Spring Streets, ca. 1920
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

F.E. Howard would have plied his trade as a druggist at Dean’s Drugstore on 2nd and Spring Street in relative anonymity if it weren’t for the outcry raised by nurses at his former workplace, the Southern California Hospital for the Insane at Highland.

Allegations of cruel and inhuman abuse of the inmates at Highland surfaced in the summer of 1903, after San Bernardino papers published a series of investigations into graft and financial irregularities at the institution.  The nurses charged that female patients were routinely operated on without the benefit of anesthesia, and were punished by “protective sheeting” or immobilization in their beds under sheets of heavy canvas, sometimes for weeks at a time.  The nurses also testified to the common punishment known as “giving the hypo”, hypodermic injections of apomorphia, a violent emetic that causes hours of agonizing cramps, followed by hours of vomiting and eventual collapse. The injections were repeated usually twice a day, for five days at a time, for such mild infractions as insubordination and “talking in excess.”

State Hospital at Highland
Image courtesy of USC Digital Archives

Before he signed on as an assistant at Dean’s Drugs, F.E. Howard worked for two years as the druggist at Highland, and kept written records from his tenure that supported the nurses’ testimony.  He supplied the names of over forty victims of the body-wrenching, organ destroying emetic punishment, as well as the date the drug was administered. He also testified that the drug hyosine was used to punish recalcitrant patients, a medication which works on the kidneys and puts the victim to sleep.  He alleged that at least one patient died as a result of a punitive hyosine injection.  

In addition Mr. Howard provided records that supported allegations of graft and fraud in the institution.  Highland’s Superintendent Dr. Campbell, and chief medical officer Dr. Dolan rewarded his whistle-blowing with swift law-suits, accusing Howard of stealing government records.  But they were unable to deflect the public outcry, or the findings of the investigation ordered by the Board of Directors of the state institution.  By the end of the Highland scandal, both men resigned under pressure. Anticipating his own dismissal, a lower level official committed suicide on the grounds of the asylum.  One year after leaving Highland, Dr. Dolan also departed this life.  Whether he succumbed to heart disease or died by his own hand remains a mystery to this day.

August 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

Nobody got their dinner

At noon, butcher William F. Mosher, 53, left his shop at 1703 East Washington Street and drove his horse-drawn rig, a sort of open carriage, home to 232 ½ Winston Street, to dine with his family. His wife and adult children were waiting for him to come to the table when they heard a loud rattle as of a malfunctioning wagon, and ran outside to find Mosher lying half a block away, his rig on top of his crushed chest. He died moments later.

Later still, his horse was found at Winston and Wall, and it was presumed that Mosher had removed the bridle and been about to feed the animal when it was unaccountably spooked and took off running, dragging its master beneath the deadly wheels. The body was taken to Bresee Brothers on Mortuary Row at 855 South Figueroa, with a coroner’s inquest to precede burial.
Bresee Brothers detail

Map detail from the 1909 city map compiled by Worthington Gates, Western Litho Co.

August 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

“Love is catching like the measles.”

Today my new book, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City is finally out. As such, it seems like a fitting time to introduce InSROland readers to one of my two subjects, future LAPD chief William H. Parker. (The other, in case you’re wondering, is mobster Mickey Cohen.)


In 1922, Bill Parker — who would rule the LAPD with an iron hand from 1950 to his death in 1966 (and, some would say, beyond the grave) — moved to Los Angeles. He didn’t live inSROland, but he did work there — as an usher at the California Theater, an imposing Beaux Arts theater at the corner of Main and Eighth Street. A year later, he switched jobs, moving two blocks north to Loews State, a glorious, 2,600-seat theater, reportedly Los Angeles’s most profitable movie palace, in the heart of the Broadway movie district. There the man who would later emerge as one of conservative Catholicism’s most striden spokespersons encountered something new — the femme fatale.


The first was Theodosia Goodman, a tailor’s daughter from Ohio, who, in the hands of her press agents, became Theda Bara, “foreign, voluptuous, and fatal” — a woman “possessed of such combustible Circe charms,” panted Time magazine, “that her contract forbade her to ride public conveyances or go out without a veil.” Others soon followed — Pola Negri, Nita Naldi, Louise Brooks. Women weren’t the only ones steaming up the screen. In 1921, Rudolph Valentino rode off with the hearts of women around the world as The Sheik, the mesmerizing Arab who kidnapped, wooed, lost, saved, and ultimately won an English lady-socialite as his bride (Agnes Ayres).


As the movies heated up, so did the imaginations of the public. No one was more vulnerable than the people most exposed — theater employees. “Love is like the measles,” explained one girl usher to the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t be around it all the time without catching the fever.”


Bill Parker caught the fever.


William H. Parker as a police rookie in 1927 LA NOIR cover
Thedarose Mickey Cohen boxer, Los Angeles Times file photo, c. 1931
As chief of police, Parker would become a tribune of social conservatism. As a young man, however, he was ensnared. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles while he was working as an usher, Parker met Francette Pomeroy, a beautiful, high-spirited young woman, aged nineteen — almost two years older than himself. The exact circumstances of their first meeting are unknown. However, it’s easy to understand how Francette (who went by “Francis”) might have fallen for Bill. He was an unusually handsome young man — slender, of medium height, with a high forehead, prominent nose, and large, intelligent eyes. He was smart and attentive; even then, he had a sense of presence. On August 13, 1923, the two eloped and were married in a civil ceremony.


Despite (or perhaps because of) the failure of his own parents’ marriage, young Bill Parker had very conventional ideas about his relationship with Francis. Francis did not share these ideas. On the contrary, she saw no reason why marriage should interfere with the life she previously enjoyed, which involved music, dancing, and active socializing, including a continuing association with other young men. This came as a shock to Bill. In time, Parker’s family would come to view Francis as sex addict…


To learn more about Bill Parker — and his future rival, Mickey Cohen — please stop by my website or, better yet, pick up a copy of the book. Best of all, stop by Vroman’s on September 15th for my first reading. I’d love to talk more with inSROland readers there!


Photos, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library, Acme, WikiCommons.

August 25, 2009 at 6:08 pm Leave a comment

Marion Dayar…Detective

Marion Dayar, a twenty-three year old nightclub entertainer, was severely beaten by a brick bat wielding assailant in her Bixel Street apartment on May 20, 1939.  Marion vowed that she would find her attacker if it took the rest of her life. It wouldn’t take her that long.

Marion became an amateur detective; and for a few weeks she staked out local bars keeping her eyes peeled for the man whose face was seared into her memory.

I admire Marion’s pluck. Maybe she had been inspired by the famed girl detective, Nancy Drew. The series of novels debuted in 1930 and chronicled the exploits of the feisty young snoop as she solved cases that baffled mere adults. Or maybe Marion had decided to conduct her own investigation after seeing one of the filmed versions of the Nancy Drew tales which, starring Bonita Granville, debuted in theaters in 1938.

Marion Dayar

No matter what her inspiration, Marion’s quest for her assailant paid off when she spotted Tossie R. Bull.  She immediately recognized Bull, a dishwasher at a café located at 527 S. Main Street, as the brute who had invaded her apartment and beaten her senseless.  Marion didn’t hesitate; she telephoned the cops and informed them that she was holding the suspect at the café.  And so the “Case of the Violent Dishwasher” came to a successful conclusion.

August 24, 2009 at 12:05 am 1 comment

Brilliant Lawyer Pushed over the Brink of Sanity by Sensation-Monger Spook

He triumphed over a gaggle of LA’s most prominent legal minds, only to be undone by a second rate mentalist with a trumped-up Teutonic alias.  Shortly after establishing a law practice in Los Angeles, young George D. Blake, Esq. landed one of the city’s most sensational divorce cases, Mayberry v. Mayberry.  Mr. Mayberry, an original California pioneer and prominent landowner, possessed an estate valued at more than a million dollars.  In 1899 his wife brought suit against him for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery. George D. Blake represented Mrs. Mayberry in a bitter trial that lasted several weeks. Despite employing four separate law firms in his defense, amounting to a team of every well-heeled lawyer in town, Mr. Mayberry was found guilty of acts of atrocious cruelty towards his wife, who had become a paraplegic as a result of a beating her husband administered to her during one of his many violent rages.

But George Blake’s reign at the top of the LA legal establishment lasted only a few short years. After the tragic death of his wife, Blake sought out spiritualists who promised to put him in contact with his departed spouse.

In 1904 he became especially close with one medium, Maude Von Freitag, a slate-writer who often plied her mind-reading trade at regular séances in Harmonial Hall at 125 West Fifth Street.  During one of these events local authorities caught her sneaking peaks at folded slips of paper she alleged she could read without opening.

Attorney Blake, unperturbed by rumors of Von Freitag’s fraud, or by ample evidence of her fondness for liquor and morphine, took up with her with a passion, truly a passion, and accompanied her on a series of out of town trips of many days duration.  Von Freitag’s husband and two children did not accompany them on these spiritual journeys.

In the fall of that year, Blake suffered a mental and physical breakdown, and spent weeks in the care of physicians at California Hospital.  From there he went on to recuperate at a sanatorium near his mother’s house in Pontiac, Illinois, where he reunited with a childhood love, May Babcock.  When he returned to Los Angeles in January of 1905, Miss Babcock accompanied him.  But Maude Von Freitag still doted on her fellow spiritual traveler, and when she fell ill in March, she contacted Blake.  Within the week the dashing Miss Babcock had packed up and headed back to Pontiac, Illinois. 

George Blake took on the cost of Von Freitag’s care at a private hospital at no. 513 East Twelfth Street, and at Von Freitag’s urging even went so far as to try to obtain a loan for $5,000 dollars, in order to take part in a grand scheme involving millions of dollars, a complicated arrangement meant to insure the lifelong financial support of Von Freitag and her family. But the loan didn’t go through.  At this point Von Freitag, likely sensing her influence over Blake might soon wane again, pulled out all the stops. In early April, she invited Blake to her sick-room, where she told him she would soon “pass-out” of this life, and asked that he lie down next to her on her bed to have one last talk about her approaching death, the mortgage of certain properties, and the future of her two children.  During this conversation, as Blake later described to a friend, Von Freitag spoke to him of “high forces” and “lords of Karma”, she called herself Theodora, and explained to Blake that when she succumbed to death her soul would fly out of her body and into his, to be with him always, until he too passed out of the life, whereupon they would both sweep spiritward and dwell together on the astral plane. Von Freitag then fell into a fit of convulsions, and Blake let out a series of blood curdling screams that brought nurses and doctors to the door, only to find Blake in delirium, holding a limp Von Freitag in his arms.  In the wake of subsequent events, shocked Angelenos surmised that Von Freitag placed Blake under a hypnotic spell of sorts during this visit, a spell that led directly to his ultimate loss of all hold on reality.

For three weeks after this episode, Blake managed to resume his law practice, but on April 24th, his frayed cord to reason snapped. While attending a performance at a Main Street theater he found himself possessed by a spirit and was compelled to lead the orchestra.  The management didn’t care for this, and sent for the police.  Later in the evening Blake was thrown out of a café for disturbing the peace.  It seems the headwaiter was offended by Blake’s claim that he had assumed the genius and character of the late Emma Abbot, a famous opera singer of the past century.  Blake spoke loudly to anyone who would listen about his plans to sue all parties involved in the fracas for 150 – 500 thousand dollars.

Blake then spent several days calling reporters to tell them of a suit he was pursuing to recover an English estate worth 64 million dollars.  (Ah, Nigerian email-type schemes have always been with us!)  He raved to the police officer assigned to restrain him of his appointment as “Most High Master”, working for the forces of good, in the name of which he and others like him would, tomorrow, at 9 o’clock, erect a bank at Third and Broadway, the most magnificent bank human eyes have ever conjured or human brain ever conceived…  capitalized at 2 billion dollars, offering interest at 4%.  He, Blake would be president, and would make pawnshops of the other banks, usurers that they are, charging 10 percent!  A crowd gathered on South Broadway as Blake was escorted from his offices in the courthouse to an Olive Street Hotel, to await arrest and commitment to Highland Asylum for the Insane. Blake was taken to Highland on May 10th.  

As for Maude Von Freitag, her story continued after Blake’s sad exit from sanity.  Mere weeks after she claimed she lay at death’s door, Von Freitag experienced a miraculous recovery at the hands of an occultist colleague (or “sensation-monger spook” as the LA Times’ preferred to describe her). Von Freitag even returned to her lecturing career.  The medium responsible for Von Freitag’s complete restoration to health offered to try her technique on George Blake, but was turned away at the door of the asylum.   

George D. Blake, Esquire, never returned from Highland.  He refused food and medical attention, and died there in November 1906, at the age of 43. 

August 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm Leave a comment

Snake Oil: Mrs. Bridge’s Miracle Cancer Cure

Image courtesy of the LA Times Historical Archive

Mrs. Bridge’s unusually graphic ad for a cancer cure appeared bi-monthly in the LA Times. In 1906 she was prosecuted for practicing without a license, but managed to circumvent the law by joining forces with the licensed physician Dr. J.C Hewitt. This end-run maneuver worked for her until October, 1908, when she was brought up on similar charges in the wake of the death of one of her patients, a pillar of the Pico Heights Methodist Church, Mrs. F. W Vandenburg.  Mrs. Vandenburg suffered from advanced breast cancer, and rather than undergo the surgery her doctor recommended, she opted for an alternative therapy, namely Mrs. Bridge’s miracle cancer cure.  The cure included the application of a common topical treatment for lesions at the time. The ‘healer’ would apply ‘cancer paste’ or carbolic ointment to the external affected areas, a practice that licensed physicians claimed resulted in the cancer retreating deeper within the body to attack internal organs. Mrs. Bridge and other non-licensed healers alleged the carbolic paste drew the cancer poison out of the victim.  Whatever its efficacy, one thing was evident: the treatment caused excruciating pain.  Pain which Mrs. Vandenburg bore weekly, at the cost of $15 per treatment, and then daily in the last three weeks of her life.  During these last house calls Mrs. Bridge administered the cancer cure alone, without the presence of her beard, the properly licensed Dr. Hewitt.  After Mrs. Vandenburg’s death the LA Health Office jumped on the opportunity to prosecute Mrs. Bridge for medical fraud. We can only assume Mrs. Bridge did not fare well in court, as she swiftly moved her offices to the Majestic Building in the 400 block of South Broadway, notably without the accompaniment of Dr. Hewitt. Another clue — her advertisements in subsequent years became much more discreet, eventually shrinking to the size of footnotes, before disappearing altogether after what appeared to be a close-out, everything must go sale of cancer cures in 1913.

August 7, 2009 at 8:02 pm Leave a comment

This Is My Weapon, This Is My Gun…


Before it became home to B-girls in the 1950s, 513 South Main Street was the location of a shooting gallery.  I have never understood what would compel a person to open a business that involved handing a stranger a loaded weapon.   There’s just no way to tell if the person on the firing end of the rifle is depressed or angry until it is too late.

On December 2, 1939 a patron of the shooting gallery used his last quarter to buy six shots. He fired five times at the moving targets before he turned the weapon on himself and fired the remaining slug into his heart. He died at the scene.

It was December 14, 1940 when Duncan Adams, 37, an employee at a local dairy, strode up to the gallery, gave the clerk a quarter,  and started to pick off targets shaped like furry little squirrels. He emptied the rifle, but then reached over and grabbed a .22 caliber target pistol and squeezed the trigger. The gun misfired, but before any of the witnesses could stop the man he frantically pulled the trigger until the sixth chamber clicked into place and discharged a bullet which ripped a hole through his skull. He died four hours later at Georgia Street Receiving Hospital.

The last tale in this grim litany occurred on September 23, 1942. In exchange for the usual quarter, Thomas Nelson, the proprietor of the shooting gallery, handed 22 year old Willie Davis a rifle. Nelson said that Davis had attempted to steal the rifle, so he grabbed another weapon and pursued him down Main Street. Davis claimed that Nelson had tried to fight with him after renting him the rifle and he was just trying to get away. 

In any case the ensuing gunfight sent bystanders fleeing for cover, and tied up traffic along the busy street for at least twenty minutes.  Both Nelson and Davis were seriously wounded. Also wounded in the melee was John Hagen, an innocent bystander, who was seated at the counter of a nearby café. Hagen was shot through the right forearm. 

The B-girls who eventually replaced the rifles at 513 South Main Street could be dangerous when loaded; but perhaps less likely to kill.


August 6, 2009 at 11:21 pm Leave a comment

The Mystery Skull of Boyd Street

Walking in the alley behind the Sisters of Mercy building, where unfortunates were fed and housed, Fred Forsberg made a grim discovery: a partially mummified section of a human skull, with incongruously handsome, twirled moustaches above the former lips. The top of the skull had been neatly sawn off, suggesting the corpse had paid a visit to an anatomical laboratory.

Forsberg attempted to interest the police in his discovery, but to them it looked too old to be worth investigating. They did, however, deign to attach a note which read “ex-police reporter” and parked the relic in the station’s reporter’s room. And it was this prank which resulted in a few inches of column space in the Times the following day, and keeps alive the memory of this nameless posthumous denizen of SRO Land. Here’s to ya, fella, whoever you were.

August 5, 2009 at 2:45 am Leave a comment

Julian Pete, Loew’s State, and “the Decade of Debauchery”

CC julianC.C. Julian was the Bernie Madoff of 1920s Los Angeles, a charming Canadian con man who hit oil in 1923 and then discovered something even more lucrative, over-selling shares in oil syndicates to oil-crazed Angelenos. At its height, Julian’s “Million Dollar Pool” attracted investors from Louis B. Mayer to H.M. Haldeman (father to Wategrate’s H.R.) And from where did Julian and his trickster associate Jacob Berman run this scheme? Why take a look!

Loews state Yes, Julian worked just above downtown Los Angeles’s most glamorous movie theater. So the next time you stroll past this, spare a thought for Julian Pete!

August 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm Leave a comment


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