In early January 2023, there was the sad news that an employee of a building on Broadway in downtown LA had been killed in a elevator accident there. During recent talks and Zooms, I’ve found that people are both fascinated and repelled by such (often grisly) accidents, probably because in many ways it’s the ultimate nightmare.
Rare as they are today, 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.