Testimonial #3: Arthur H. Hawkins

Suffice to say that conditions in my life were such that I apparently had nothing to tie to. After leaving the corporation I went with one of the independent companies and was successful in each territory assigned me to the extent that I did not have sufficient work to keep me occupied. Again drink became my master to such a measure that in the latter part of September 1930 I walked out of my office with the intention of going on a `tear’ until my money was gone and after that,—it just didn’t seem to matter what became of me,—I didn’t care to live. I am praising God that He over-ruled and led me to the Mission.

God reached down His hand in gracious mercy and through the blood of His Son cleansed what would have otherwise been another dreg in the social gutter. Today my feet are implanted on the solid rock of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and to me has come the ineffable peace which can only come from communion through Him to our heavenly Father, and in my heart is a song of praise for the power of God that reaches men through His Son.

The Lord has blessed me and kept me from falling back into the old habits. Now that I have a source of secret strength on which to draw in time of trouble and temptation I have my feet on solid ground. I have not taken a drink or even smoked since the Lord reclaimed me.”

Excerpts from what others have said about him (Arthur H. Hawkins):

“His life was filled with a clear, ringing testimony for the Lord whom he loved and served. His personal daily contacts were a source of blessing to all within his reach. His faithful testimony pointed many to a saving knowledge of Christ, strengthened the faith of the saints, interested them in Bible study and support of the Lord’s work.”

XXXX

“Realizing his need of the Savior he attended a Mission service. When the invitation was given, he went to the altar and though much better dressed than the average business man, for he had earned a magnificent salary, there on his knees at the altar, brushing shoulders with the filthy, infested shambles of humanity from Main Street, he surrendered his heart and life to Christ. His clothing and the few possessions that he brought with him to Los Angeles were gladly shared with the Mission men until he was soon without sufficient clothing himself. He was a genuine conversion,—the Lord cleaned him up,—saved him to the uttermost, and filled him with the sweet fragrance of His love and made him a channel of blessing.”

XXXX

“He was in the steel business approximately 40 years, 35 of which were spent with the various subsidiaries of the U.S. Steel Corporation. He served 22 years in the Denver, Colorado office of American Sheet 7 Tin Plate Co. as Assistant Manager of Sales, where he received a silver service medal in 1927.

He was later connected with the Granite City Steel Co. where he served as Manager of Sales in both Memphis, Tenn. And Dallas, Tex.

Devoted four years to the URM.

Ten years ago became identified with the Los Angeles office of Columbia Steel Co., subsidiary of the U.S. Steel Corp., where he remained until the time of his death (Sept. 3, 1944).”

It is the story of Arthur Hawkins which is told in the film Of Scrap & Steel, which will be screened on the roof of the Union Rescue Mission on Thursday evening.

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October 18, 2011 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

Testimonial #2: Eva Dugan

Introduction to Eva Dugan

Born in 1876, Mrs. Eva Dugan somehow managed to survive a hard-scrabble childhood to become an adult with few skills, and even fewer expectations. In photographs, Eva seemed to always have a tentative expression on her face, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop – and inevitably, it did. She had been married at sixteen, and bore two children. Eva’s husband abandoned her and the kids, so she turned to prostitution to make ends meet.

By January of 1927, Eva was in her early 50s and working in Arizona as a housekeeper for Mr. Andrew J. Mathis, a wealthy reclusive rancher. Mathis was demanding, cranky, and cheap. Mathis and Eva butted heads frequently during the two months that she was in his employ. Mathis even accused Eva of trying to poison him! An acquaintance of Mathis’ said that he’d been present when the man had finally given Eva her walking papers. Mathis had told her in no uncertain terms to leave the ranch and never return.

A few days after his friend had overheard him banishing Eva from the ranch forever, a group of Mathis’ neighbors reported him missing. The neighbors had become suspicious when Eva offered to sell them some of Mathis’ livestock. She claimed that Mathis had departed for California, and had turned all of his property over to her. A notorious tightwad, Mathis wasn’t a man who would have willingly turned over his property to a woman who’d only worked for him for a couple of months.

Not long after Mathis went missing, Eva also vanished. A search of the ranch by local authorities didn’t turn up a body, but they did find some troubling clues. An ear trumpet belonging to the hard-of-hearing Mathis was found in a small stove in the front room of the ranch. Carelessly discarded clothing and bits of automobile equipment, including a blood-stained cover for a roadster, gave cops little hope that the rancher would be found alive.

It was months before Eva was finally discovered living in White Plains, New York. Returning to Arizona to face auto theft charges, Eva was convicted. The judge sentenced her to a three to six year term in the state penitentiary.

Nearly a year after Mathis had disappeared, a camper on the property near the ranch noticed an odd depression in the soil. The camper scraped away some of the topsoil, and after a minimum of digging he unearthed the skeleton of a man. Tattered clothing and hair on the skull indicated that the body discovered in the shallow grave was that of A.J. Mathis.

Once Mathis’ body had been found, Eva had some explaining to do; however, she preferred denials to explanations. She told cops that if she had been responsible for Mathis’ death and subsequent burial, she’d have buried him deep enough so that he’d never have been found. Far from convincing, her denial sounded more like a woman trying to extricate herself from a capital murder charge than one proclaiming her innocence.

Eva finally settled on a story and stuck with it. She alleged that she’d met a young man named Jack outside of a local restaurant. The two started a conversation, and Eva told him that he could get a job on Mathis’ ranch.

Jack went directly to the ranch, where he was employed on the spot. Unfortunately, his first day on the job didn’t quite turn out the way he had planned. Maybe things would have been different if Jack had known how to handle the basics. Mathis’ took umbrage when Jack failed to milk a cow as he’d been directed. Mathis complained: “If you can’t milk a cow, what the hell are you good for?’’ Mathis struck Jack. The young man quickly recovered from the blow and hit Mathis, who fell to the ground and did not get up.

Eva insisted that she and Jack had tried unsuccessfully to revive Mathis. She also claimed that she wanted to go for aid but that Jack told her if she didn’t help him get Mathis’ body into the car so he could dispose of it, he’d leave her to face the music on her own.

Eva’s story had more than a few holes in it – the biggest one being Jack. Not everyone was convinced that the young man had ever actually existed, because only one person was ever found who could corroborate Eva’s statement.

Just as Eva was being charged with A.J. Mathis’ murder, a young dark-haired young man was confessing to a grisly child murder in Los Angeles. The young man was the infamous slayer, Edward Hickman (aka “The Fox’’). Hickman had kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered twelve year old Marion Parker.

Arizona investigators began to suspect that Hickman had been “Jack’’ in Eva’s story. Hickman stated that he’d been in Phoenix for a few days prior to Mathis’ disappearance, and that he’d also been in Kansas City during the same time that Eva said she’d dropped “Jack’’ off in that city on her way to New York.

When Eva was shown photographs of Edward Hickman, she said that she thought he and Jack were one and the same but that she wasn’t absolutely certain.

Even if Eva had been sure about the identity of Edward/Jack, LA cops were not about to allow anyone to interfere with murder charges against him. Although Hickman was never charged in the Mathis case, “The Fox’’ was hanged for Marion Parker’s murder on October 19, 1928.

Eva was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. The only thing that could have saved her from execution would have been a successful insanity plea. Two doctors testified that her mental state had been compromised due to the “inroads made by a disease she contracted more than 30 years ago.” Eva was syphilitic. Despite the medical testimony, a jury determined that Eva was indeed sane, and plans for her execution continued.

Because she had no wish to be buried in the prison cemetery, Eva made and sold embroidered items so that she would have enough money to pay for a proper burial. She also wired her father and asked him to send her $50 to help pay for her funeral.

As the date of her execution drew nearer, Eva asked the Warden what she should wear to her hanging. He advised her not to wear any of her best things, so the handmade, lovingly embroidered silk shroud she’d created for the occasion was set aside to be used later for her burial.

It was during the long hours leading up to her hanging that Eva was visited by Mother Benton from the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Mother Benton believed that Eva’s soul had been saved as a result of their prayers.

Eva remained stoic as she walked to the place of her execution. She even recited an ironic bit of doggerel:
“We came into this world all naked and bare; Where we are going, the Lord only knows where; If we are good fellows here; We’ll be good fellows there.’’

As it turned out, it was fortunate that Eva took the warden’s advice and didn’t wear her handmade silk shroud to the hanging. Due to a miscalculation on the executioner’s part when she fell through the trap at the end of a rope, her neck wasn’t broken; she was decapitated! Eva’s head rolled within a few feet of the 60 witnesses – all of whom fled in terror.

On February 21, 1930, Eva Dugan was the first – and last – woman to be legally hanged in the state of Arizona. Three years after the horror of Eva’s botched execution, Arizona switched from the rope to the gas chamber.

Eva Dugan’s Testimonial

Mission Mother [Mother Benton] prays with a notorious murderess in Arizona and believes god saved her soul. Apparently she remembered one hymn that she sang as a girl in sunday school and that hymn was “Shall We Gather At the River”.

Copied from LA Times Feb. 21, 1930

Poison given up by Mrs. Dugan as end nears. Slayer of employer recites doggerel and sings on death march.

Florence, Arizona. Feb. 21

Marching to her death with a firm step, and with never a show of emotion or breaking, Mrs. Eva Dugan, 52, was hanged here at 5:02am for the murder three years ago of J. H. Mathis, aged Tucson rancher, whose housekeeper she had been. To quote one of her guests, Mrs. Dugan “died like a man.”

When the trap was sprung the first impact of the knotted rope snapped Mrs. Dugan’s head from her body. She was the first woman to be legally executed in Arizona.

Collapse Expected

For use in case the woman collapsed four boards had been provided with which she was to have been strapped upright on the gallows, but they were unnecessary. Only the customary four leather straps were placed about her legs.

Given an opportunity to make a final statement as the back cap was adjusted, she merely shook her head to the negative.

Warden Wright clasped her hand.

“God bless you, Eva” he said.

“Good-by, Daddy Wright,” she said. Those were her last words.

Recites doggerel

The death march was accomplished quickly. as she walked to the execution chamber between two guards with her face set in a grim smile, Mrs. Dugan recited a bit of doggerel:

“We came into the world all naked and bare, where we are going, the lord only knows where, if we are good fellows here, we’ll be good fellows there.”

A sensation was created by the woman a short time before she was taken from the death cell when she voluntarily surrendered to her two women guards a safety razor blade and a small phial presumed to contain poison.

“Well, what do you thing it? Would your wait for the rope?” she remarked as she delivered the bottle and the keen bit of steel, indicating that she had considered cheating the gallows but had decided to let the law take its course.

Her request that she be given “one last pint of prescription whiskey” had been denied by prison authorities.

The execution was witnessed by approximately 100 persons who crowded into a small chamber that provided adequate accommodations for only 50.

Mrs. Dugan remained awake during all of her last night on earth, in company with the prison chaplain and a few friends from outside the prison and another woman prisoner.

Ignores death watch

Apparently she was unmindful of the death watch that paced firmly pack and forth outside her cell, while the hands of the clock raced toward the fatal hour when she was to pay her debt to society.

At Mrs. Dugan’s request she and her guests were served orangeade.

There was no outbursts of emotion from the doomed woman when Warden Wright and his assistants called at her cell this morning summoning her to begin the solemn death march.

She lighted a cigarette and inhaled deeply as she passed the corridor and joked with the guards as the party neared the execution chamber.

It was a leaden morning and a light rain was falling in the bit of open courtyard through which she was lead from her cell into the death house.

Sings on march

Mrs. Dugan apparently was trying to appear to be in higher spirits than any other member of the group. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way,” she sang as she crossed the courtyard.

Two of the women guards in the party left her at the door and she affectionately kissed them a last goodbye.

“I love everyone connected with this prison,” she said. “You have all been good to me and I can’t blame you for what the law is going to do to me.”

Then she walked firmly up the 13 iron steps to the death trap, said her last farewell to the warden Wright, and in a few moments her life was a closed book.

In the small prison plot behind the frowning grey concrete walls of the penitentiary Mrs. Dugan’s body will be buried with scant ceremony at 3’o clock this afternoon, it was announced by the ward.

She will have a better coffin then those provided the State of Arizona for hanged murderers, for by her sale of bead work, and by collecting 50 cents a piece from each of her visitors in the condemned cell, Mrs. Dugan raised the money to purchase a more elaborate casket.

Mrs. Dugan left instruction to send her trunk and her few small personal belongings to a cousin at Westin, Mo.

Among numerous telegrams and letter received by Mrs. Dugan at the condemned cell was a telegram from her daughter, Mrs. cecil lovelace, new york musician.

The telegram, dated South Bend, Ind, said: “My dear Mother: Be brave. God is with you. ALl my love. I will pray for you.”

Gold Rush Tale

A hitherto unrevealed chapter in Mrs. Dugan’s life came to light last night when she received from Seattle, washington a telegram signed by Ada Hostapple. It read:

“you have my admiration and sympathy for your grit and courage in this, your hour of greatest trouble.”

Mrs. Dugan said that she and “Ada” where “pals” during the gold rush in the Yukon.

Mrs. Dugan seemed to enjoy a “kick” at a farewell “party” with newspaper men last night. She called one of them “big boy” provided by cigarettes and cigars.

A rainbow over the arizona desert sunset brought tears to her eyes last night but her stoic calm otherwise was undisturbed as during the hour this morning when she was led slowly up the steps to the end of the rope.

She ate a dozen fried oysters and two boiled eggs last night. Her oder of three T-bone streaks and two lamb chops for breakfast this morning remained untouched.

By Pacific Coast News Service

Ceres, California Feb. 21—Alone in his little cottage here, William Mcdaniels, 82 year old father of Mrs. Eva Dugan, today received the news that his daughter had been hanged in Arizona for murder.

McDaniels had given up hope that she would be saved from the gallows, but his grief was uncontrollable when word of the Florence hanging reach him.

“She was innocent of that crime,” he declared. “They have hanged an innocent woman. I don’t think she was quite right in her mind, but I know that she did not commit murder.”

Neighbors tried to comfort the aged man, but he sent them away.

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October 14, 2011 at 4:55 am Leave a comment

Mother Benton

“Mother” Benton-and this is the only name by which we know this remarkable lady, although she was neither a mother nor a Benton when she began- was converted by Dwight L. Moody in November of 1899, at a revival meeting in Kansas City. He had asked her,  “Daughter, wouldn’t you like to be a missionary?”

She was 24, and her answer was yes. Moody then gave her a scripture text which would be the star by which she steered: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the almighty” (Psalm 91).

Moody collapsed before the meeting ended, and was never well enough to preach again. He died the following month, and his crusade was carried on that night and in years to come by R.A. Torrey. Perhaps the injection of Torrey’s charisma as Mother Benton’s heart was coalescing around her true path is what brought her to Los Angeles. Many missionaries were then looking to the west.

Torrey himself would soon arrive in this city to be both a founding Dean of The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), and pastor of the non-denominational The Church of the Open Door, both housed in the Romanesque Revival church and auditorium at 6th and Hope, built in the image of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. While in Los Angeles, Torrey would also edit the 4-volume 1917 edition of the influential text The Fundamentals produced at the direction of BIOLA supporter Lyman Stewart.

Mother Benton’s arrival, while less auspicious, would have a lasting impact on the charitable face of the city. On the evening of October 7th, 1907, she arrived at the Union Rescue Mission (URM). There was no pianist that night, so she volunteered. She returned the next day and the next, and soon she was out on the corner of 2nd & Los Angeles with her tambourine and her newlywed husband, Arthur L. Benton, assistant superintendent of the URM. In her 37 years at the URM, Mother Benton passed up through the ranks as pianist, clerk, and finally house mother. She would serve under 32 superintendents.

Mother’s husband Arthur Benton was a cabaret pianist from Grand Rapids, MI, whose life had been ravaged by alcoholism. He had been converted by Melvin E. Trotter of Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and had been sent out just a few years earlier to help Melvin’s brother William, who was then the URM’s superintendent.

A project which Mother Benton held particularly dear was the Women’s Auxiliary, organized in 1936. Gathering on the first and third Wednesdays, their meetings routinely attracted over 100 helpers for the mending of old clothes and linens for redistribution in the Mission and for the maintenance of the dormitories. In the late 1930s, the URM had 600 beds for the homeless. In 1946 alone, the Auxiliary produced almost 10,000 garments, nearly a third of the 33,000 items of clothing distributed to the needy at the URM.

In 1944, the aged Mother Benton stepped down from her supervisory responsibilities, but continued to be a consistent presence at the URM until 1952, when her declining health kept her close to home in Glendale. But when the URM’s 63rd anniversary celebration rolled around in 1954, Mother Benton could not stay away. She returned to Main Street in her old glory and rode on the famous Gospel Wagon, now a conversation piece, seated between Mayor Poulson and City Attorney Roger Arnebergh. Shoulder to shoulder, they sang “Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know,” “Rock of Ages” and “Rescue the Perishing.”

When asked about her long career on Main Street, Mother Benton replied,”My husband and I used to sing those hymns on the street corner to gather a crowd. Then we’d bring the listeners back to the Mission aboard the Gospel Wagon. I love this dear old Mission,” she told the anniversary crowd. “I’m thinking today of the boys I’ve prayed with.”

One of the boys with whom she had prayed in the URM chapel was the notorious outlaw Billy Stiles. She was sitting with him in the chapel on the day in 1913, shortly after he wandered in from the sinner’s road that was Main Street, when he experienced his rebirth. The next day Stiles presented Mother Benton with a suitcase of nitroglycerine, a gift from a retired safe-cracker who was now on the straight and narrow.

Mother Benton, looking back on her half decade of service at the URM noted, “While this is a man’s Mission, scores of women and girls in distress have been helped and guided.” Perhaps she was remembering the voyage she made in February 1930, when she traveled to the State Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona to sit by the side of convicted murderess Eva Dugan as she awaited her death sentence. Mother Benton sat up all night with Mrs. Dugan on her last night on earth, and heard her testimonial that faith in Jesus Christ had saved her soul. The following morning, Mrs. Dugan went to the gallows, dying instantly when her head was severed from her neck and rolled down among the witnesses. There were five women present, and two fainted, but we do not know if Mother Benton was among that number.

Mother Benton died on October 4, 1956, at the age of 81.

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October 14, 2011 at 2:57 am Leave a comment

226 S Main-The Swanfeldt Building

The photo on the right shows the Swanfeldt Building as it appeared in the late 1920s, with its northern half still occupied by the Swanfeldt Awning & Tent Company. The southern section is home to the Union Rescue Mission (URM).

In 1926, the URM purchased the southern half of the Swanfeldt building for $100,000. The City’s seizure by eminent domain of the URM’s building at 145 N. Main forced them to make a quick move to new quarters. The structure demolished, the old 145 N. Main property is on what is now the southern lawn of City Hall.

The Swanfeldt family operated Catalina Island’s celebrated “Tent City” from 1895 to 1902, and were the canvas kings of Los Angeles. Even after the tent concession monopoly was relinquished to the Santa Catalina Island Company, the Swanfeldts continue to set the bar for tent manufacturing in the southland. It is of peripheral interest to note that in its earliest days (circa 1893) the Union Rescue Mission operated out of a massive tent on 2nd Street near Main.

By 1931, with the URM still occupying only the southern half of the three-story Swanfeldt Building, 300 to 400 people were fed daily, with the number swelling to well over 500 on Sundays. 100 men were bedded nightly in the third-floor dormitory. The dining room was in the basement of the structure, and could accommodate 325 people at a sitting. Meals were served each morning and evening, with breakfast provided to those who had spent the night. The clothing commissary, which offered donated items including suits, work clothes, hats, shoes, neck-ties and socks, was on the second floor. The laundry, which in 1931 was a very recent addition, was on the ground floor. The URM’s managers immediately made note of the savings in time and money that this new laundry facility provided.

As the depression proceeded and the first hints of war were heard, the URM felt the need of more space. In 1938, the URM purchased the northern half of the Swanfeldt Building, and the Swanfeldts moved their plant to North Figueroa Street. In early 1942, the URM purchased The Oddfellows Club Building just to the north of the Swanfeldt—note the the “IOOF” in the upper coursework— and it became the Victory Service Club, a social club and assistance center for young Christian servicemen and their friends, which will be the subject of several forthcoming blog posts.

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October 14, 2011 at 2:51 am Leave a comment

Transience: Outreach & Enforcement #1

 

In anticipation of the October 20 rooftop screening of the Union Rescue Mission’s 1949 film Of Scrap & Steel, in this post we’ll examine two stills from the film as a window to understanding how two mid-century Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies dealt with the task of enforcing statutes concerning transients.

The first of the two film stills on the left was shot on Main Street in front of the Fun Palace at 243 South Main. The second still was shot on 2nd Street, just east of Main.  

The first, Fun Palace still shows one of the notorious LAPD “Black Maria” vans, with an officer shuffling an old “rummy” into the back. This scenario was common at the time. Arrest was the primary tool used by the LAPD for dealing with transients within the borders of Skid Row. In future blog posts we will delve further into the history of vagrancy statutes in Los Angeles, the evolution of the City’s Public Policy on the topic, and the role of the LAPD as an enforcing agency.

It is the second still showing an officer in what appears to be a dark brown uniform which is of particular interest. The nitrate print of the film was so badly damaged that when it was digitized, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s traditional green uniform appears as dark brown, so it is unclear what type of officer is patrolling Skid Row in search of drunks to roust. Closer observation reveals the familiar LASD deputy’s badge on the left breast. But what are LASD deputies doing on East 6th Street, in an area clearly within the jurisdiction of the LAPD? 

What the film does not show is that just moments before the deputies pulled up to the curb and hustled the transient into their car, an LA County Health Department official issued this man with a vagrancy citation. Working in tandem with the Health Department, LASD deputies would sweep through Skid Row, arresting anyone who had received such a citation and lacked the capacity to immediately flee the scene. Interestingly, this is the same method which would be used on larger scale social control operations like the clearing of the residential community Chavez Ravine in the early 1960s.

While we now understand how it is that LASD deputies might make arrests along Skid Row, within the boundaries of the LAPD, the motivation for such arrests still needs clarification. 

When the Hall of Justice was opened in 1925, the LASD was put in charge of running the Hall’s jail. Because prisoners in the Hall of Justice were put to work on road crews and doing other County work, it was in the interest of the powers that be to maintain at all times a capacity population. The routine arrest captured in the second still was one of the ways in which that population was maintained. When this man sobered up, he would be put to work.

 

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September 21, 2011 at 5:10 am Leave a comment

Two Sides of the Street

In anticipation of this weekend’s free walking tour The Flâneur & The City: Victorian Los Angeles, and the October 20 free screening of the Union Rescue Mission’s film Of Scrap & Steel, in this post we explore the Union Rescue Mission’s Victory Service Club at 220 South Main, which opened in August of 1942 in the newly-purchased northern part of the Swanfeldt Building. The URM had purchased the southern portion of the Swanfeldt Building in 1926, after having their original 1896 headquarters seized by imminent domain for the construction of City Hall.

The top photo on the right, which is a still from Of Scrap & Steel, shows the Fun Palace at 243 South Main. The second photo, not a still from the film, shows the URM’s Victory Service Club, across the street at 220 South Main. The third photo, another still from the film, shows the Victory Café, which was just a few doors south of the Fun Palace on the west side of Main Street. At first glance, the missionary-run Victory Service Club could not be more different from the penny arcade and its neighboring café, but a closer look reveals how these longtime neighbors coexisted and were shaped by each other.

The Fun Palace, run by veteran showman and coin-machine operator Fred McKee, was incorporated under the name Victory Amusements, which suggests a business connection to the Victory Café. Research reveals that the Fun Palace played a vital role in the leisure time activity of servicemen on leave in Los Angeles during WWII. Men in uniform who were seen hanging around the machines without playing were quickly identified by staff and given 50¢ in pennies. This was a wise investment in good will, and the establishment received a healthy return on its investment. 

Soon after the war began, Fred McKee determined that servicemen up from their bases for a 24- or 48-hour “R&R” leave needed more than just a bright, clean place to test their skill and try their luck. They also needed somewhere to bed down for the night, and a welcoming place where they could fortify their souls in the face of the tremendous job ahead of them. To that end, Fred maintained a list of private homes and religious organizations which offered free accommodations to servicemen, and the Fun Palace became known as a destination for men on leave seeking direction in Los Angeles.

In March 1942, the URM’s Board of Directors allocated the necessary funds to purchase the northern half of the Swanfeldt Building and open a center whose objective would be “a day and night ministry seeking for the men in uniform that vital experience of Christian realities” which the URM described by the phrase “response.” This venue would stand in stark contrast to the bars, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and amusement arcades which provided more earthly amusements along Main Street.

In August 1942 the Victory Service Club opened its doors under the direction of Rev. Robert Bolin Hubert Mitchell. He brought in directly under him the young Rev. Don Spencer McCrossan.

Don McCrossan would shepherd the Victory Service Club through WWII, Korea and the Vietnam War. By his retirement in 1975, the club had played host to more than three million servicemen, and provided an unexpected oasis of comfort on Main Street which deserves to be remembered.

 

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September 21, 2011 at 5:01 am Leave a comment

Testimonial #1: Bill Stiles

Introduction to Bill Stiles

Los Angeles in 1913 was fast becoming a modern metropolis. The streets were a crazy quilt of traffic comprised of pedestrians, horses, bicycles, and automobiles. It had grown from a small pueblo of fewer than 100 residents into a city of approximately 400,000 souls – many of them in need of saving.

The Union Rescue Mission had been leading people to God in the City of the Angels since 1891. One of the tarnished souls wandering the streets of Los Angeles on the evening of October 20, 1913 wasn’t a resident, he was a visitor to the city on a mission of his own – to rob a Southern Pacific Railroad train!

The man’s name was Bill Stiles, and he was in Los Angeles with two cronies making plans for a train robbery. When he’d left his downtown hotel to roam the streets of the city he had left all of the tools of his trade, guns, high explosives, and “soup” (nitroglycerin) in a suitcase in his room. As he was strolling along Main Street he spied a cop walking in his direction. Bill had been feeling uneasy about the upcoming robbery and seeing the cop did nothing to calm his nerves. He didn’t know if he was being shadowed by the law or if it was chance, but he wasn’t about to risk his freedom – particularly since he hadn’t been out of prison for very long. He had come upon the Union Rescue Mission at 145 North Main Street and figured it was as good a place as any to shake his possible pursuer.

Bill grabbed a seat near the front of the room, seeking anonymity in the crowd of worshippers. Stiles would describe the evening later saying: “I did not hear much of the service, for my mind was upon the work for the next day.” In fact his mind was so occupied with the next day’s work that he was just about to get up and head back to his hotel room when one of the Mission’s workers approached him and asked him to give himself up to God.

Stiles told the evangelist who had invited him into the fold that he didn’t believe in God because of the horrible life he’d lived so far. As he stood up to walk out of the Mission he realized that his legs wouldn’t move! He found himself fastened to the floor by, as he would later state, “a power not of this earth”. Bill may not have known it then, but he’d just been saved.

Despite an evening of tears, prayer and confession, Stiles returned to his hotel room that night. The next day he informed his co-conspirators that he’d found God and that he was finished with his life of crime. His friends told him that he was crazy and they went off to meet their own fates – both were gunned down in separate holdups.

It was barely dawn on the day after he’d cut his old life loose forever when Bill arrived at the Union Rescue Mission. The front door was locked, so Bill began tapping on a window until Mother Benton let him in. Mother Benton was surprised to have a visitor at such an early hour, but she was even more shocked when Stiles confessed to her that the suitcase he carried with him was filled with “soup”. With Stiles in agreement Mother Benton called the cops to surrender the explosives. When the officers arrived they asked a few questions then they carried off the suitcase, leaving Stiles uncharged.

Mother Benton was stunned by the contents of Bill’s suitcase, but if she’d known then that she was talking to a man who had been considered deceased for nearly 40 years she may have collapsed on the spot.

The man in Los Angeles who was calling himself Bill Stiles was at the center of a historical controversy that continues to this day. Bill Stiles was the name of one of the bandits who had been shot down during a raid conducted by the Jesse James- Cole Younger gang on a Northfield, Minnesota bank in 1876. And the man in Los Angeles was claiming to be the Bill Stiles that had ridden with the gang to Northfield!

The identity of the dead man in Minnesota has been the cause of controversy since the day of the robbery. So, too, has the actual number of bandits involved in the raid.

The reports contemporary to the time of the Northfield raid indicate that there were eight men involved in the crime. A poem entitled “The Robber Hunt” published in the Winona Republican in September 1876 refers to eight men:

“This is the eight, that smelled the bait,
That is, the malt, that lay in the vault,
That was in the bank at Northfield”

Was there a ninth man waiting outside of town? And if there was a ninth man, who was he? Could the man in Los Angeles be an imposter with nothing more than a good tale?

The speculation and controversy over the identity of the Los Angeles Bill Stiles (dead bandit, or live Christian convert) has continued unabated for 135 years everywhere but at the Union Rescue Mission. Once the Bill Stiles who presented himself at the Mission all those years ago found a faith in God, he found the acceptance of the Mission’s congregants who had no incentive to disbelieve him. In fact everyone at the mission felt that “a wonderful change had been worked in the heart of Bill Stiles”.

In the end perhaps it’s not important to know whether the Bill Stiles in Los Angeles actually rode with Jesse James and Cole Younger or not. A man who carried around a suitcase filled with guns and nitroglycerin would be considered an outlaw by anyone’s measure, and he would certainly be viewed as a man whose soul needed saving. Whatever had held Bill Stiles’ feet to the floor at the Union Rescue Mission on that October night in 1913 was true and good, for it was said of him that he was “our faithful night watchman, alert and watching while his fellows sleep, much as he used to, only for a different purpose”.

Bill Stiles passed away on August 16, 1939. As for the veracity of Bill’s story of his outlaw days – that’s between the old cowboy and his maker.

Note: If you’d like to learn more about Bill Stiles and the ninth man controversy, I suggest that you read The Jesse James Northfield Raid : Confessions of the Ninth Man by John Koblas.

Bill Stile’s Testament

It was on the evening of October 30, 1913, in the Union Rescue Mission, 145 North Main Street, Los Angeles, California that I was arrested by the Holy Ghost and gave my heart to God.

This was the first time I had been in a church service since a small boy, nearly 44 years before.

My criminal life began when I was 14 years of age back in New York as a pickpocket. I had Christian parents and a lovely home. My father was a practicing physician. They did all they could for me but the devil got hold of me in some way, and I seemingly could not keep from doing wrong. They sent me into the country, but I did no better there. I overheard them talking of sending me aboard the Schoolship St. Mary, and then I ran away.

I drifted westward, and in 1876 joined the James’ gang with the Younger Brothers, and was with them in the Northfield Robbery. I escaped the vengeance of the law, and made my way to Omaha, Neb. I had served three terms of one year each behind prison bars. In 1900 I was convicted of a crime and sentenced to life-imprisonment. When those doors closed upon me it was terrible; no one can know my feelings but those who have passed through such an experience. It was a life of torture; a living death.

On the 19th day of March, 1913, I got my release from prison, and friends took me to the state of Washington, where I found employment in a lumber town. I did not like it, however, and soon found a friend who gave me work for two months; but when he came to me one day and said that he could not employ me longer, I knew my past had been revealed, and became discouraged. At last I gave up trying to be good! I found it impossible, and determined to go back into my old life of crime. I knew it meant death to me, so I began to prepare for what I knew in the end would be the taking of life before they would get me. I was desperate, and once more the old outlaw spirit was upon me and I was becoming a demon at heart. I went to Tacoma and Seattle and looked up some of my old pals – men who did not care for their lives. With them I planned to go back into my old work of train robbing.

I came to Los Angeles on the 19th day of July, 1913, and began to look up this country, both along the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads, preparatory to “striking” and then striking again. I went into the mountains for a month, in the vicinity of what is now known as Pisgah Grade, and drew my maps and laid my plans. I came back into the city and put my men (as they had bad records and were wanted by the police) in hiding. The night before the intended robbery I walked down Main Street, thinking over my plans and the course mapped out, when I found myself in front of a mission. Just then I saw a policeman coming down the street and naturally feeling suspicious, I stepped inside to avoid him and walked way up front.

I did not hear much of the service, for my mind was upon the work for the next day. I felt a little uneasy, for I had left my suitcase in my room, and in it some of the “soup” (nitroglycerine), some high explosives, and my guns. I had everything ready and so far my plans had gone smoothly; but as I say, I felt worried, and was just getting up to leave when one of the workers came to me and asked me to give myself up to God. The life I had lived did not allow me to believe in a God. I do not remember his reply, for when I attempted to get up I had no control over my legs. I do not know what you think, but I know my legs were fastened to that floor by a power not of this earth. I kept trying to get up, when a woman came and sat down beside me, and urged me to go up to the altar. I listened to her pleadings for a time and then consented to go, thinking it would do me no harm anyway. What seemed so strange to me was that I did not have any power to resist. It was not the woman, for I had been a woman-hater since my early life; it was the power of God. As soon as I gave my consent my legs were released, and I went up and knelt at the altar. I heard them praying, and a strange feeling came over me. It seemed as though something in my heart was loosening up, and I began to feel happy; then a warm light came from above and made my whole body burn. How sorry I began to feel for my past life of crime! I could not keep back the tears – tears of real repentance. I heard them tell me to repeat a prayer, but I had found the Lord before that. Oh, what a joy came into my heart!

I went out of the mission knowing that first real joy and happiness in the Lord, for I was conscious that my sins were forgiven. I could not go to bed for joy, but walked the streets for hours. I forgot all about the train robbery I had planned for the next day; forgot the suitcase and guns. Next morning after my conversion, I told my companions what I had done and they said I was nutty. I told them if I was, I hoped God would give me more. I then separated from my old pals and they went their way. I am sorry to say that two of them have paid the death penalty already – one was killed in a raid in the north, and the other in Arizona. For a number of days I sat in the mission. I was happy – happy for the first time in my life. Finally I began to come to myself and to think about the law, knowing that I was liable to be arrested, for I had revealed my past life. I thought about going away, but was held from doing so by a feeling of love that seemed to draw me closer and closer: and such a delight was in my heart and soul that I knew I was in the presence of God’s Spirit. I was experiencing the greatest joy I had ever known, and the peace of God flooded my soul. I kept getting happier and happier until it seemed as though I loved everybody and everybody loved me. I knew no evil, nor thought no evil – I was “A new creature in Christ Jesus.”

That heart of mine was as hard as stone; nothing had ever melted it, and my soul was black with many a crime, but the Lord took me and washed me as white as wool. There is nothing but the power of God that can take the wickedness of life out, and keep it out. During all my life I had walked in the valleys and through dark paths, until up from the depths below He lifted me out – of darkness into His marvelous light. I know that a man who has lived the life that I have can never reform, but through the power of God he can be transformed and given a new nature; it’s the birth of a new spirit. I would not take the whole world for the joy the Lord gives me.

I broke my mother’s heart, and sent her to her grave in disgrace. A dear old father and sisters and brothers have all passed away, and their last thoughts were of me. I think I can see them now, their faces shining with the glory of God as they look down upon me from the glory-world beyond the skies, and rejoice, for “He that was dead is alive again, and he that was lost is found.” Now in place of carrying guns to destroy life, I carry the Word of God that gives life – eternal life.

There is no such thing as reformation for one like me. It takes the power of the Blood of Jesus Christ to blot out transgression and clean one up. Nothing else can take away our sinful appetites and set us free from the power of the evil. He that is free in Christ Jesus is free indeed.

“Wherefore He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.” (Heb. 7:25) The promise has been made and stands sure, but you can sit there until doomsday and it will profit you nothing until you come. Six hundred and forty-two times in His Word, God has invited men to come. “Whosoever will may come.” The “whosoever” covers every man, but the “will” may leave some of you out. “Whosoever will may come.”

I have had repeated offers to go back into the old life since my conversion. Men have even offered to supply the money for necessary outfit or equipment. But it was the strength that I got from God alone that helped me to stand.

[Signed] XXXXX

Note: After twenty-four years of a victorious life Bill Stiles recently passed to his eternal reward. His friends who were present the night he was saved and knew him intimately all during his Christian life, witness to the fact that he served his Heavenly Father faithfully to the end. – Ed.
March, 1937

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September 7, 2011 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

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