Falling Down, Down, Down…

During recent talks and Zooms, I’ve found that people have been equally fascinated and repelled by (often grisly) elevator accidents. In many ways it’s the ultimate nightmare accident; you can search YouTube for some shocking recent examples, rare as they are.

I did a search through the Los Angeles newspaper archives and found that a hundred years ago or so they were more common than we might imagine, especially in hotels and banks. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, in the early days many people were not used to elevators, which is why there were so official operators.

Moreover, they were not automated, meaning that the doors – if they had them – didn’t open and close automatically when they reached a floor. Nor did they have sensors that would stop/re-open doors instantly when someone tried to get in or out.

Also, many elevators were powered simply by a stop/go lever, and the counterweights often weren’t distant or encased away from the carriage. Also, with sliding concertina metal gates it was easy to pull them back if you wanted to (stupidly) peer into the shaft. Many people also didn’t look before they stepped into the carriage – which wasn’t there yet (or had under or overshot the stop).

The lucky survivors of shaft falls often sued, which is probably part of the reason they became safer, but many didn’t survive, and these are some of the stories I found – including one building where three employees all died in separate incidents.   

Van Nuys Hotel (103 W 4th St) March 4, 1897 – Waiter Charles G. Gamble and the elevator boy, Robert White, were going down to the first floor and “joking” together when White turned the lever the wrong way, and it began going up again.

Having “lost their presence of mind,” White jumped out of the still-moving elevator at the third floor and Gamble, apparently frightened, tried to follow him out – but too late. Caught in the doorway, the rising elevator then pinned his legs, which “snapped like pipestems…”

The Los Angeles Times went on to graphically describe how Gamble’s body was dragged up by the foot until “that was smashed” and he fell head-first to his death, his skull fractured in multiple places and his left eye actually torn from the socket.

Amazingly Gamble was still alive, but “after nearly an hour of intense suffering,” he died in hospital.

Van Nuys Broadway Hotel (4th & Broadway) January 3, 1900 – Tragically (and creepily) a second hotel named the Van Nuys Broadway and also owned by the same person as the Van Nuys).

Bell boy Earl Newton, aged just 16, was on top of the elevator cage when he accidentally pulled on the power rope, causing the elevator to rise and trap him between the shaft and the ceiling on that floor. His internal organs were instantly crushed, and the blood rushing to his head turned his face purple.

Van Nuys Hotel (again) September 21, 1901 – Joe Kato, a Japanese assistant janitor, couldn’t overcome his curiosity about the open elevator shaft, and peeked into the darkness.

Predictably – and horribly – he was hit on the head by the 4800 lb counter weight that went down as the elevator went up, and was killed instantly. 

Hellman Building (411 S Main St, besides the Stowell Hotel/El Dorado Lofts) February 8, 190 – Head janitor Chris Larsen was hit by the descending cage of the elevator, and killed instantly. “Nearly the whole top of his head was torn off, and the unfortunate man’s brains and blood were spattered along the sides of the elevator shaft from the fifth floor to the basement.”

He had been standing on the top of another elevator cage, cleaning the ironwork on the inside of the shaft, and had leaned out several times – and been warned to be careful – but he laughed off any concerns: something that turned out to be a deadly decision.

Bradbury Building (304 S Broadway) November 22, 1908 – The head janitor was looking for his assistant, 34-year-old Carl King, but couldn’t find him anywhere – until he looked down the elevator shaft and saw his body, which had been there for several hours.

King’s skull had been crushed and many bones broken, and it emerged that he probably got caught between the 2nd and 3rd floors, and had been hurled about 35 feet to his death.

Alexandria Hotel (501 Spring St) December 22, 1910 – Two men were killed and two injured when the platform they were standing on in the elevator shaft, which also had barrels of plaster on it, collapsed.

Ernest Pearman and Joseph Lawrence, both plasterers, fell seven floors; Pearman’s skull was crushed and he died at the scene, but Pearman, also with a skull fracture and several ribs that had punctured his liver, lingered for several painful hours in hospital.

The other two men, Stephen Smith and Charles Lentz, managed to grab something and save themselves; they only suffered cuts and bruises.

Douglas Building, 257 S. Spring St December 20, 1905 – Clifford J Rudd, engineer of the building for past four years, entered the counterweight shaft and stood on a small platform he had constructed to adjust the tension of cables.

The elevator car was at the bottom of the shaft, and what happened next was unknown, but his body was found lying across an iron beam, crushed under that counterweight.  

March 31, 1941 – 80 year old elevator operator WP Brown ran to get into the elevator but was too late, and fell three floors down the shaft to his death. Apparently he had been unwell…

February 18, 1948 – John Goris, a 50 year old carpenter, was decapitated when the elevator balance weight struck him on the back of the neck. Goris had been working on an elevator repair, and put his head through a hole in a wall – and was hit by the weight.  

Related to that: May 6, 1945 – down in this basement at the E Clem Wilson Building at the corner of Wilshire/La Brea, when Bureau of Power & Light engineer Orin E. LaRue was working on one of the transformers when it accidentally exploded. He was electrocuted by 4800 volts, the shock setting him alight and – horrifically – ripping his head from his body.

Roosevelt Building (7th & Flower) January 7, 1927 – Laborer R. Ponce, 45, slipped into an empty elevator shaft and fell eight storeys to his death.

Spring Arts Tower (453 S Spring St) July 4, 1927 – Kevin Taylor, history graduate and former manager of the Spring Arts Tower, has done considerable research on the building, and he said that it has plenty of spooky stories:

“I first came here about seven years ago, and the third floor was like an abandoned old school. It must have been an adult vocational school because there were still desks there, old computers, chalkboards and even old gurneys – they must have taught nursing there too.”

It seems that the night watchman is still making his rounds on the 3rd floor; there have been reports of a ghostly figure going around opening and closing doors and the sound of a bunch of jingling keys.

Employees at the Citizens National Bank heard a man groaning around 10am the previous day, but could not find anyone in distress.

It emerged that sometime during the previous night watchman Al Brietenbecker had fallen from the 3rd floor down the freight elevator shaft to the sub-basement, severing a major artery in the fall. Evidence showed that he tried frantically to staunch the flow of blood with torn pieces of his own clothing, but his efforts were unsuccessful and his dead body was found around midday.

Los Angeles Courthouse November 25, 1927 – It appeared that “Congo”, a rat who had gotten fat off eating first the contents of a sack of peanuts that were evidence – and then from countless pieces of cheese left out in traps to try and catch him – had committed suicide by jumping down the elevator shaft.

Congo – who had also allegedly grown whiskers a foot long and had a huge, furry coat after apparently eating a Judge’s bottle of hair restorer, was best friends with Megan, a gray-haired stray cat that had become the Courthouse cat – and, instead of chasing down Congo as the employees hoped, had in fact become Congo’s best friend.

The pair were often seen together, both on the roof and inside elevators, and even sometimes climbing the sides, scaring passengers. But recently it appeared that Megan had been run over and killed on Temple Street, and it seemed that Congo could not live without his (or her) best friend….

Christie Hotel, Hollywood (now Scientology Building 6724 Hollywood Blvd) September 1, 1943 – Albert Bellerose, 28, an elevator operator who had only worked at the Christie for three days, was killed.

His head and neck were “crushed” when he was somehow dragged into the narrow space between the lift and the shaft. Witnesses said they heard a scream, and saw his legs extending from the top of the elevator door.

The fire department had to be called to “extricate his body.”

Spring Arcade (541 S Spring St) January 30, 1946 – Ernest C. Bean, 55, an employee for the Spring Arcade, tried to jump onto a sidewalk elevator in the basement, but mistimed his jump and was killed instantly when his body was crushed against an overhead beam.

Hollywood Bowl 100!

Perhaps the most famous music venue in the world – and one of my favorite places in Los Angeles – the Hollywood Bowl becomes a centurion on July 11, 2022. I’ve written about it often (including recently for the LA Times), but here’s something bite-size and fun. If you want, you can find out way more at the Bowl’s own website….

The Hollywood Bowl

Almost every major music artist – except for Elvis Presley – has played at the Bowl over the last century.

It has also hosted opera, ballet, circuses, presidents, religious revivals and Monty Python, among others, and during the roughly June-September season this year, over a million people will come to enjoy a show and see its spotlights shine across the night sky.

The fireworks concerts are particularly popular when darker nights arrive – there are around 1,600 colourful explosions at each one.

For its first concert in 1922 the admission price was 25 cents, and people still find it hard to believe that today you can buy some $1 tickets for performances by the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra.

Admittedly those seats are up in the gods (it’s 168 stairs from the stage to the back of the Bowl), but the large digital screens mean you won’t miss anything, and there’s a good chance you’ll see internationally-known soloists and performers, let alone the orchestra’s popular conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.

Originally a collection of rickety benches and a wooden, temporary stage, this natural ampitheatre in Griffith Park was first called “Daisy Dell”, and the first of their iconic white shell stages was installed in 1926.

There have been four more since, the first three only lasting a year each as the Bowl staff tried to work out the best shape to reach audience ears. The 1929 incarnation ended up on the official Los Angeles County seal, and it was “temporary” for 75 years, until it was fully replaced in 2004.

Reminders that the 88-acre Bowl is located in the wild – Griffith Park is over 4,200 acres in size, one of the biggest public parks in North America – have often been part of the Bowl’s history.

Six raccoons, presumably a music-loving family, once hung on the shell arches during a concert, and a fox once walked on stage and sat behind a pianist. Bats flit around overhead before the music starts, coyotes can sometimes be heard howling, and at the end of the evening it’s not uncommon for deer to emerge from the trees and snaffle up the leftover popcorn (well, what’s left of the 29,000 pounds sold every season).

The record number of tickets sold was 26,410 for a performance by French opera star Lily Pons in 1936. It will never be beaten, as the current limit is less than 17,500 – though many of them offer an amazing view of the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee opposite.

Over 700 are garden and terrace box seats, which seat up to six people each and are popular with celebrities, though fame and fortune is no help if it rains. It’s an entirely outdoors venue, and if the heavens open everyone gets the same emergency plastic ponchos – though that’s such a rare event, most people just leave early to beat the legendarily-bad traffic.

Finally, seats Q3 and U3 in row 9 are the only two-seater benches, and popular with couples looking for a romantic night under the stars. There may well have been proposals here at the Bowl over the decades, but it will be hard to beat what happened in 1928, when composer Percy Grainger and Swedish poet Ella Viola Ström were married on stage – right after he had finished his performance!

Oh, and yes: the Hollywood Bowl does feature in my books – specifically Gourmet Ghosts 2. An amazing picture, I think you’ll agree – but you’ll have to buy the book to find out the story behind it….

Extra! Extra! “Mad” Jack Morgan, the Pirate of Catalina Island

Right around Christmas Day and through the last days of 1937, “Mad” Jack Morgan captured headlines across America, and everyone wanted to know everything about California’s very own pirate, mutineer and maritime murderer.

Jack Morgan

He “blazed the bloodiest yachting trail in Southern California history,” said the LA Times when it was reported that Morgan had met his death in exactly the way everyone might have imagined: he was attacked by his prisoners, and thrown overboard to be eaten by sharks.

The rip-roaring tale of terror had begun on the serene waters around Santa Catalina Island, some 20 miles or so off the coast of Los Angeles, when 45-year-old Morgan chartered the 58-foot former racing schooner Aafje from Santa Barbara hotel owner Dwight L. Faulding.

Morgan hired Faulding as skipper, and said he was planning a two-day pleasure cruise with his pregnant 17-year-old wife Lillian. Also on the trip was Faulding’s fiancée Gertrude Turner and her 8-year-old son Robert, plus Faulding’s long-term crew employee Robert Horne.

Former high school football star George Spernak, 19, and 21-year-old nurse Elsie Berdan, who was to look after Lillian, rounded out the ocean-going party.They set sail on December 20 from Long Beach, and it wasn’t until they were several days overdue that Berdan’s sister raised the alarm. She told police that Elsie had been kidnapped by Morgan, and this allegation bought the FBI into the case.

On December 30, it was reported that a naval plane had spotted the letters SOS on the sail of the Aafje, which was 180 miles south of Long Beach or, in some reports, “drifting 300 miles off the coast of Mexico.”

Coast Guard cutter Perseus was dispatched, and they found the Aafje’s mainsail broken and the engine out of fuel. They began towing the blood-stained vessel back to Long Beach, and an FBI agent took a motorboat to meet the “yacht of death.”

The passengers were hungry and shaken, but otherwise unhurt – and both Faulding and Jack Morgan were missing. What had happened?

On New Year’s Eve, the public learned the sensational truth.

Just off Catalina, Faulding and Morgan got into an argument and Morgan shot his captain in the shoulder. Wincing in pain, Faulding tried to cool things down, saying: “Be a good fellow and put that gun away. We’re all out for a good time.”

Dwight Faulding

Unsurprisingly, he then went to get his .38, but when Morgan appeared on the stairs above him, he opened fire. Morgan shot back five times, hitting Faulding in the heart and killing him instantly.

Morgan ordered Faulding’s body weighted with an anchor and thrown overboard, closed the yacht’s hatches, and locked the passengers in their cabins. Over the next few days, he roughed up the men, withheld food, and grandly assumed the role of captain. He talked of his wild plans to head for the South Seas, raiding ports for supplies en route.

On Christmas Eve, the swashbuckling Spernak and Horne saw their chance for freedom, and attacked Morgan. Horne beat him with a wooden marlin spike, and then the pair threw him over the side too, probably not caring that sharks would be attracted by his bleeding injuries.  

Whether Morgan was alive when he hit the water was never revealed, but the “Mad Pirate” was now deep in Davy Jones’ Locker, and Spernak and Horne were arrested as soon as they set foot back on land.

Waiting in the crowd were members of the Faulding family, who had expected to collect Dwight’s body for burial; they left in tears.

Lillian Morgan, her head bandaged, was held as a material witness too, and a grand jury was assembled.

Charged with murder on the high seas, the two young men were going to plead self-defense and remanded overnight in the County Jail, but no one thought the case would even come to trial, especially when nurse Elsie told reporters that Morgan was “the cruelest man I ever knew.”

Elise (left) and her sister Lilian

She also said that Lillian had tried to restrain her husband, but he treated her “inhumanely,” forcing her to hold everyone at gunpoint when he wanted to sleep, and threatening to kill her if she refused. Elsie added that Morgan made “improper advances to her, bordering on the erotic.”

Spernak and Horne in court

Spernak and Horne had led the attempt to sail back to Long Beach, and were duly unanimously freed by the grand jury – as was Lillian Morgan.

Tall and handsome with a pencil mustache, Morgan had a colorful past. Born in Nicaragua to French and German parents as Jean Dee Barnette, he had come to with them to California as a child, and ran away to sea soon after. He worked on vessels around the world – when he wasn’t spending years behind bars.

He had convictions for sexual assault, burglary and petty theft, and had only been released from San Quentin Prison earlier in 1937, soon after which he and Lillian had eloped from New Orleans. Lillian’s father had not heard from her since that day – until now.

Time magazine wrote a detailed summary of events, and the LA Times wondered if Morgan was related to the infamous Sir Henry Morgan, who terrorized the Spanish Main in the 17th century (and inspired the famous rum).

Errol Flynn (Creator) - TV Tropes

Intrigued by its dark past, actor Errol Flynn, famous for playing a pirate called Captain Blood, was rumored to have considered buying the abandoned Aafje, but instead screenwriter John Taintor Foote (The Story of Seabiscuit) was seemingly the last owner.

The yacht’s tragic story never made it to the big screen. Maybe it spent years in development, or perhaps the glamour of the illegal casino boats the following year overshadowed it.

A month after the eight-day “battle” between the SS Rex and the police in Santa Monica Bay, World War II broke out in Europe, and that more or less ensured the terrible story of “Mad” Jack Morgan sailed quietly into history.

Extra! Refrigerator Deaths!

When I was a child, I was always warned against playing or hiding in refrigerators. This always seemed ridiculous to me; fridges were cold, and everyone knew the light went off when you closed the door, so why would you want to sit in the freezing dark?

That said, I do remember that many homes had, and still have, huge chest freezers. They didn’t stand upright, but instead rested lengthways – rather like a coffin, in fact – and some of these had latching handles that clicked shut.

They were the perfect size for hiding, but even then I wasn’t convinced that the stories of children being found frozen to death after a playtime game went horribly wrong could possibly be true.

But then I started researching the LA Times archives for my two Gourmet Ghosts books, and I came across a number of upsetting reports about just that: children who had hidden in fridges (or the even more basic ice boxes, as they used to be called) and found themselves unable to get out. They had died of the cold, or starvation, or even suffocation. Or a combination of all three.

It happened often, and not just in houses: children were found dead in broken fridges left on wasteland or at garbage dumps too. It was surely a terrifying, slow and lonely way to die, so imagine my surprise when I found out that some adults actually chose to climb into a fridge to commit suicide.

On February 4, 1955, Joseph M. Parker from Long Beach registered at the Hotel Wellington in downtown San Francisco. Sometime during the night he made his way to the kitchen, unplugged the refrigerator, attached a piece of string to the inside of the door, and then used it to close the door behind him. He left two suicide notes.

On June 13 that same year, 68-year-old Edith Boyd used a similar method to climb into the fridge in the garage of her cousin Berthina Clementson. Berthina and her husband had gone out to a housewarming, but Boyd, who seemed in good spirits, had declined to join them. She was reported missing the next day, but then her body was found: she had suffocated to death.

On May 10, 1968, the LA Times reported on the suicide of 17-year-old William B. Moore, an outstanding San Bernardino student who was described as a “Boy Genius.” The fridge was in a shed behind the house, and after removing the shelves, Moore climbed in. He was carrying a flashlight, his diary, and some sleeping pills.

Moore wrote that he had “sealed the inside with masking tape,” and that the pills had an “awful taste,” as she slowly faded away. “Goodby”, “thanks”, and “love” were a few of the other legible words, and it emerged that he had posted letters to four friends telling them of his plan to take his own life. But his friends, parents, teachers and police were mystified about the reason why.   

On July 9 that same year in Arcadia, 55-year-old Juanita Lanferman was found dead at her home, “jammed” into a three-foot-tall refrigerator. There were no indications of a struggle, but police were waiting for a detailed autopsy to confirm if she had died of suffocation…

Makes you look rather differently at the huge refrigerators we have today – there’s certainly plenty of space in them, isn’t there? No wonder they’re also used by killers. And it certainly makes a bit more sense now when you get told “Stay away from that fridge!”

Extra! The “Stairs to Nowhere” in downtown L.A.

I am a big fan of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A., and I’ve written about it for Atlas Obscura and many other places. If that name is not familiar to you, you’ll definitely recognize it from movies such as Inception, True Lies, Strange Days, In the Line of Fire, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, and more.

It’s the shimmering glass structure that looks a bit like a rocket ready to launch, and, irresistibly, it has a rotating lounge on the 35th floor (one of the few working ones left in the USA). No wonder the gull-wing, stainless steel DeLorean DMC-12 used it as a backdrop in promo images in the 1980s.

Anyway, on one of my many stays – and walks – the Bonaventure complex, a series of strange, abandoned, grass-covered concrete steps across one of the pedways from the Bonaventure caught my eye.

They were at the end of a featureless alley of the Citibank Center, between two buildings, and they went up to come to a stop at a brick wall: they literally lead nowhere.

I worked out they presumably once been a walkway to the US Bank Tower area, and I could even see the stairs through a small gap in that same brick wall, looking back at the Bonaventure from where I had come.

But when were they blocked off, and why? I set off down a rabbit hole to try and find out, and though I was able to get blueprints and maps from the city, I was never quite able to find out what the story was behind these lonely stairs to nowhere. Do you know?

Even so, I thought you might appreciate a few pictures. Next time you’re downtown, go and find these stairs and check them out – they’d appreciate a visit!

April Fool’s Day: Part 3 – Scams

The Lonely Hearts Scam

Today we’re used to people being conned or “catfished” by falling for someone they unwisely “meet” through social media, though the old term “lonely hearts” is still used to describe this kind of cruel deception.

The term originated when people would write what we’d know today as their “profiles” and send them, alongside their home address, to be listed in special columns of newspaper and magazines, with the plan to start a romance (or just a friendship) via letter-writing.

In 1950, a scam like this happened in Hollywood when Mrs. Claude J. Neal, 55, was conned by George Ashley into signing checks for $17,500. Ashley said he wanted the money for a deposit to buy the El Patio (now the shuttered Emerson Theatre), and promised her a job as hostess.

Though the married Neal said she had only joined the newspaper club to find friends, she did spend time with Ashley – though always denied there was any romance between them.

Either way, Ashley called her a “North Carolina hillbilly,” and once pulled out a gun and told her he didn’t want any more “monkey business.” Humiliated and ashamed, Neal finally went to the police after a frightening trip Ashley took her on to Nichols Canyon, where he pointed down the steep cliff and said:

“If I pushed you off there wouldn’t be one chance in ten thousand that your body would ever be found. Now, baby, you’d better fly right.”

Neal was one of an unlucky 13 woman who testified against Ashley and his co-defendants. Another of the victims was Ashley’s own wife, who was now suing him for divorce. No wonder the Los Angeles Herald-Express nicknamed him “Lord of Lonely Hearts.”

Swimming To Heaven (or Hell)

There are several notable historical stories of people going to a beach – or even out on a sailing vessel – and never being seen again. One of those happened here in Los Angeles, but in this case, it seemed the missing husband came back from the dead. Well, not quite.

On June 1928 the LA Times reported that Ferdinand Albor had been arrested in San Pedro for burglary. Police linked him to a smelter who had recently been nabbed for handling stolen gold and silver, and it emerged that Albor had been part of a San Francisco-based gang, but moved his operation to Los Angeles a year or so before.

There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about this until, a few days later, it was reported that K.L. Baumgartner, whose clothes had been found on a beach in Venice, California, some four years ago, had come back from the dead.

Albor the burglar had confessed to police that he was in fact Baumgartner:

Burglar Albor, really the missing man KL Baumgartner

“I was not drowned in the ocean, but fled because of an inner force that keeps me moving whether I really want to stay or not.”

Unhappily, Baumgartner’s wife – who had only been with him for four months before he “disappeared” – had remarried in the meantime, and, in a twist that seemed similar to the plot of the Irene Dunn/Cary Grant movie My Favorite Wife, she now needed to obtain an annulment and re-marry her new husband, a process that would take at least a year.

Baumgartner/Albor told detectives that he had received a head injury while working in the Seattle shipyards during WWI and “since then, I have not been wholly able to control my actions.” He and his wife had once owned a restaurant on Main Street in downtown L.A., but one day he “felt an irresistible urge to leave,” and he had worked as a cook in logging camps and “other out-of-the-way places” ever since.

An odd meeting between the Lazarus-like Baumgartner and his remarried wife took place in the County Jail, with Baumgartner whispering “How do you do?” before their awkward conversation began. He pledged to help her “regain her freedom,” while the shell-shocked woman simply told reporters that she and her new husband Robert Busby were happy together.

April Fools’ Day – sometimes the joke is on you…

It’s still a tradition amongst the mass media to plant a seemingly-false story on April Fools’ Day. Many places collate all their strange stories from the year so far, and then report them all on April 1 just so that readers (and their rival colleagues) can guess which one is the fake.

On April 1, 1925, a fun picture showed two suited men – a kayaker and an LA Times reporter – navigating a kind of kayak along the Los Angeles River, which at the time was more known for floods, pollution, and anything other than what we’d think of when we hear the word “river.”

Ironically, the joke turned out to be on the jokers. In 2008 a group of kayakers did indeed navigate the 51-mile concreted urban river, and paddlers can now indeed travel small sections of the L.A. River – it’s great fun. The cleaned-up L.A. River is now at the center of a huge, billion-dollar scheme to revitalize whole stretches, and the future should be a whirl of bike lanes, fishing, parks, sports, eateries and more.

Extra! April Fool’s Day: Part 2 – Hoaxes

Despite it being a real scam, the idea that a conman once tried to sell the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, to gullible tourists has become an urban myth. There have been legitimate sales of California landmarks – pieces of old Hollywood signs or the Santa Monica Pier ferris wheel – and the legend about selling London Bridge is real too.

In 1968, pieces of the deconstructed 1832-built London Bridge passed through Long Beach on their way to Havasu City, Arizona, where it was carefully reassembled and still stands over the Lonn Colorado Rover.

At one stage Universal Studios were said to want it for their studio tour, but they pulled out of the running. Seller Ivan Luckin always laughed off rumors that the eventual buyers who paid over $1m actually thought they were getting the more famous Tower Bridge, but it could explain why Universal suddenly got cold fee

L.A’s human hoaxes go back as far as 1895.

On April 1st (which should have been a clue), the LA Times reported that residents of Sonoratown (now Chinatown) had called police to say that that someone had committed suicide at the Monkey Saloon, and was lying dead on the floor.

Two off duty policemen, a deputy coroner and reporters from the Herald and Express newspapers went to investigate, but all they found was a dressed man of straw (like a scarecrow or doll). It was a hoax, and of course the Times reporter – who, naturally, had suspected this all along – had stayed at home and bested his hack rivals!

One of my favorite stories in Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles was a hoax, and it happened at the Alexandria Hotel, once home to Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Mae West.

The “Alex” opened in 1906 and stood right at the center of L.A.’s budding movie industry (it was here in 1919 that Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks created their United Artists studio and many early movie companies based their offices).

The hotel is said to be the home for several ghosts, and on November 28, 1922 the Los Angeles Examiner headline screamed:

Wealthy, young Oregon rancher Vaden Elwynne Boge had registered himself and his wife at the hotel, saying that she would be coming later with their luggage. He was given a room on the 4th floor, yet no one saw a woman or any luggage arrive before he ordered lunch for two from room service: the “Death Luncheon Menu” was chicken sandwiches, rice salad, two pieces of pie, and cranberry sauce.

The room service waiter saw no one else in the room, but soon after, houseman James Hirst heard cries, and Boge staggered into the hall shouting:

“I believe I have been poisoned. Get a doctor!”

Boge died soon after, and one of the coffee cups was found to contain potassium cyanide while the other was half-empty – yet there was still no sign of any other person, let alone his wife. Boge’s family thought he was engaged to be married, but even after questioning the hotel staff the police were still in the dark, and a search of the city’s docks was ordered.

The newspapers showed a picture of the lunch tray, complete with its crumpled napkins and coffee cups, but within a couple of days all was revealed: it had been an elaborate suicide plot that the Los Angeles Evening Herald suggested had been inspired by a short story called The Guest by Lord Dusany.

It turned out that Boge himself had bought the cyanide, and had apparently been “melancholy and morose” and “blue” for months, possibly due to ill-health. More shockingly, there were also rumors of love for a cousin.  

“Boge feasted to death alone” was the headline, and the real reason behind his “self-destruction” was probably en route in the mail; Boge had apparently written to his mother two days before he drunk the fatal dose.

An unlucky thirteen year later, former boxer Thomas Watkins admitted in court that he had faked a story about being kidnapped at gunpoint – not once, but twice – by three men who wanted the address of actor Victor Jory, who had been his boxing manager. Watkins said that the men told him they planned to kidnap Jory’s five-year-old daughter Jean, and hold her for ransom.

The kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh Baby in 1932 had been an international sensation, and there was a rash of kidnaps – real, threatened and botched – in that decade, as criminals felt it was an easy way to make some fast cash. Even when Watkins confessed, Jory was still spooked enough to send Jean out of state.

The reason for Watkins’ frightening lie? He wanted to drum up some publicity for himself.

Extra! April Fool’s Day: Part 1 – Selling Thin Air & Faking Streets

Over the last 10 years or so Gourmet Ghosts has found plenty of strange, weird and even deadly things that happened in Los Angeles, so we thought we’d share them with you on this very special day. Selling thin air for millions, creating counterfeit streets, faking your own death and more. Everything you’re about to read is true. Or is it?

Selling Thin Air

Paying millions for thin air might sound like the ultimate scam, but in crowded U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles—where property development the only way is up—owners can legally sell the empty space above their properties.

Laws concerning so-called “air rights” are said to date back to 13th century Rome, and if your building doesn’t reach the City’s height limits or sits on only part of your plot, then the clear cubic feet left behind (or above) are yours to “transfer” to someone else.  

In the mid-1980s developers of the US Bank Tower in downtown L.A. paid around $125m for the air rights of the Central Library. It was a win for book lovers, as part of the money went to the library’s redevelopment after its 1986 fire, though the 72 story US Bank Tower is no longer the tallest building in town (the Wilshire Grand Center, which opened in 2017, won that prize).

Perhaps more famous thanks to its appearance in 1982’s Bladerunner and others, the Romanesque Revival wonder that is the Bradbury Building also sold its air rights for $1m to Japanese developers in the 1980s. Since then, especially in cities like New York, prices have gone even higher.

Trap Streets

Remember Thomas Guides? Every Angeleno used to have one of these thick, bound map books in their cars, at least before the days of Waze, Google Maps and countless other traffic GPS apps.  

A 2012 donation to the Map Room at the Los Angeles Central Library included every Thomas Guide issued, and some of them had a surprise in their pages: trap streets.

Used in maps around the world for centuries, they were fictional or mis-drawn streets that were deliberately included as a way to help spot illegal copying. Some were genuine mistakes or just cartographic jokes, but often they could be reprinted for years before being removed – or not.

Librarians and collectors combed the new collection and found several fake San Diego roads in Guides from the early 1980s to early 1990s, several planned roads (and a golf course) in the SFV neighborhood of Porter Ranch that were in the 1969 edition, gone by 1977, then back in 1987, while maps in the late 1990s had a non-existent road connecting Scadlock Lane and Mulholland Drive in Sherman Oaks.

An article in the LA Times from March 1981 saw the then-VP of Thomas Brothers confessing they sprinkle fictitious names throughout their guides; he picked up a random guide on and pointed out La Taza Drive in Upland and Loma Drive in San Bernardino; both were in maps into the 1990s, but gone by 2005.

Trap streets aren’t just in California: they’re a worldwide phenomenon. There are even mystery towns and islands, and the famous London A-Z was said to have close to 100 incorrect or fake streets up until at least 2006. Map makers will usually deny this, as do Goggle Maps today, though they do place amusing “Easter eggs” in theirs.

Extra! Book Review – Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed The Nation

Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed The Nation by William Deverell Angel City Press, 2021, 164pp $30/£25

About now, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind) is due to start filming Thirteen Lives in Queensland, Australia. It’s the second movie adaptation of a 2018 news story that was seen around the world: the rescue of story 12 young teenagers and their soccer coach from a rain-flooded cave in Northern Thailand.

Two volunteers Thai Navy SEAL divers died during the rescue, which was broadcast, streamed, and commented on in real time, the horrific thought of anyone being accidentally lost in a dark, confined space something that terrified us all.

At the time of the Thai rescue an elderly lady in America named Alice Fiscus was asked for her thoughts, and the new digest-sized book by William Deverell explains why, as it covers the tragic story of Alice’s daughter Kathy, who fell down an abandoned metal-lined water well in San Marino, California in 1949.

Kathy was playing hide-and-seek with her sister and a cousin when she slipped or fell over 90 feet down the shaft, which was only 14 inches across (barely two thirds of the length of your arm).

Her attempted improvised rescue, and the enormous media circus (almost literally: little people, circus performers and acrobats volunteered to go down to save the frightened three-year-old), was one of the first live television news broadcasts in America.

Broadcast on radio for over 24 hours too, the event was a huge sensation. Crowds as big as 10,000 assembled to watch as ditch diggers, miners, WWII vets, engineers, police, firemen and countless others tried to help, and there was a chaotic, almost carnival-like atmosphere.   

The book features many family and rescue photographs, many of them unseen before and all arrestingly moving, and Deverell covers the period briskly but comprehensively. From a history of local water and wells, to the Famine-era Irish roots of the Fiscus family, to the chaotic and lengthy rescue attempt itself, and even tackling questions about what happened to Kathy.

The book also looks at the effect it had popular culture.

Since then, movies and television have often utilized Fiscus’s story to induce instant drama and tension, and to indicate how a family, community, country and even a world might temporarily join together in hope.

There was a television movie made of a similar 1987 incident, when 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas. That attempt frequently referenced Kathy – and spoke to Alice – and though McClure had fallen around 20 feet into an even narrower space, she was saved after over two days.  

This happy ending perhaps allowed for a humorous episode of “The Simpsons” a few years later, when Bart used a walkie talkie to pretend to be a boy who had fallen down a well – and then gets stuck there himself, only to find the Springfield citizens didn’t find his prank very funny.

Perhaps most notable is the famous cliché about Lassie running to the local sheriff or adult and barking until the human cottons on: “What’s that? Little Timmy has fallen down a well?” (a storyline that actually never happened in any Lassie episode or film).

The book might have benefited from giving the reader more of a sense of Kathy as a child and sister, young as she was, because in some ways the advanced media (at least of her era) turned her almost into a generic term for childhood accidents, her actual death being almost overshadowed.

Recently the “Ghost Adventures” reality program and Netflix documentary “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” (the latter, interestingly, co-executive produced by Ron Howard), featured the story of student Elisa Lam, who was found drowned in a water tank (water again), atop the Hotel Cecil in downtown LA in 2013.

The internet has arguably turned Lam into a mere backdrop for wild conspiracy theories about her death, with it even being linked to Dark Water, a 2005 US supernatural remake of an earlier Japanese film. In many ways, both have seemed to become a kind of catch-all phrase for “that girl/woman who died in the well/water tower.”

Different media, different times and different people to be sure, and while Deverell often writes that he’s obsessed with the Kathy Fiscus story, in part surely because he is a parent who, like other parents who hear such stories of disappearance must feel their blood run cold, here he’s shown restraint, and a welcome respect for the facts of an unhappy moment in history.

At the funeral, which was broadcast to 1,000 people outside the church, an Irish lullaby was played: it was Kathy’s favorite, and her mother often sang it to her. As Kathy’s name is perhaps slowly forgotten, even if her story isn’t, her short life is perhaps summed up by the message on her grave:

“One Little Girl Who United The World For A Moment”

Extra! My Halloween interview with Kia Rene on “The Satin Lounge”

Ages ago I did an interview with Kia Rene for her radio show “The Satin Lounge” talking about my then-new book Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles. It was about the first interview I did on this journey (as you can probably tell!). Anyway, she was great fun and I really enjoyed listening to it – and now you can too, thanks to her! It’s in two parts. Happy Halloween!