Film Noir Friday: The Man Who Cheated Himself [1950]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF [1950] starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, and John Dall.

IMDB says:

A veteran homicide detective who has witnessed his socialite girlfriend kill her husband sees his inexperienced brother assigned to the case.

Enjoy the movie!

The Myth of the Black Dahlia

I was interviewed recently about the Black Dahlia case by Penny Griffiths-Morgan for her Haunted Histories podcast which originates in the U.K. (I have provided a link to the episode below.)  I find it intriguing that a 73-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery has drawn global interest.  What is it about the case that resonates with people even today?

It must be the Hollywood connection.

HOLLYWOOD & VINE c. 1945
THE BROWN DERBY IS IN THE BACKGROUND
Photo courtesy: Water & Power

Almost every contemporary article I have read about the case has described Elizabeth Short as an aspiring actress or starlet, which makes her murder the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.

But there are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.

ELIZABETH SHORT

The second story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy young woman looking for marriage.

The myth has been repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story we have largely ignored the real person at its heart.

We have lost sight of the troubled young woman who came to California to find her father—not to break into the movies.

The tragedy in Beth’s life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no credible evidence that she went out on a cattle call, spoke to an agent, or asked any of her acquaintances, the ones with Hollywood ambitions, to get her an audition.

Beth was looking for what most people her age in the postwar period longed for—marriage and a home. She vigorously pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform with shiny brass buttons and a bungalow with a white picket fence.

Judging by an undated letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she didn’t hesitate to press for marriage.  Wolak’s letter reads in part,

“When you mention marriage in your letter, Beth, I get to wondering.  Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love.  I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”

Wolak’s response to Beth’s letter is a frank assessment of their relationship—which in his estimation was not serious.  You can gauge her desperation from his response.   

How many other men in uniform with whom Beth corresponded received letters with suggestions of marriage? 

A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride isn’t the stuff of novels or movies.

Beth’s tragic life saddens us and makes us uncomfortable; but the myth of the Black Dahlia is an epic tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.

I imagine in the years to come we will continue to hold fast to the myth. It is one hell of a story.

Here is the link to the Haunted Histories podcast.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “A naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too… Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 73-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

Ray Pinker

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: Jane Doe #1 is identified.

REFERENCES:

Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.

Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.

Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.

Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman.

Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.

The Black Dahlia – January 9, 1947

About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.

Robert “Red” Manley
LAPL photo

What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

Red and his wife Harriet had been having problems. There were so many adjustments to being married with a child, and Red wondered if they were meant to be together.

In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he justified his interest in Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near a beautiful woman, he would conclude that his marriage was meant to be.

Harriet forgave Red.
LAPL photo

Following a platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.

In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A.  Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?

Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way – but he wouldn’t leave. He told her that he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to conjure up a plan to ditch Red. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.

Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel.  The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.

Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.

She may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive.   She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.

When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police. By day the bar catered to the lunch crowd, lots of men escorting women who were not their wives. By night the clientele was mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal there were only a few places where men could meet.

No one who was will to talk could say for sure that Beth had been in the bar on the 9th — and if she was there, no one saw her leave.

No one would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.

December 1969

On October 13, a paragraph in the Los Angeles Times’ Southland section covered a raid on a “Hippie Commune” in Death Valley National Park twenty-one miles west of Badwater, CA. The raid, conducted by sheriff’s deputies, national park service rangers and the CHP, turned up several sawed-off shotguns, handguns, rifles, and ammunition.  The raid went off without a hitch which, given the number of weapons found, is a small miracle. 

Fifteen people were arrested. A scruffy little man named Charles Manson was among those taken into custody. A Sheriff’s deputy dragged him out of the 12×16-inch cupboard in which he was hiding.

The raid had nothing to do with the August murder spree which took the lives of seven adults and Sharon Tate’s unborn son. Manson wasn’t yet a suspect. The raid was all about the auto theft ring operated by the family.

While Manson sat in jail on the auto theft charges, did some free members commit murder on his behalf?  Manson’s paranoia about squealers had already resulted in Donald “Shorty” Shea’s murder on August 26.  

SHORTY SHEA

The following five cases have connections to the Manson Family.  Some of the connections are compelling, others are peripheral.

On November 5, John “Zero” Haught was found in his Venice Beach home with a single gunshot wound to his head after losing a game of Russian Roulette. At least that is the story told by witnesses Catherine Gillies, Bruce Davis, Sue Bartell, and Madaline Joan Cottage “Little Patty” – all of them Manson family members.

JOHN “ZERO” HAUGHT

Each witness was interviewed separately and recounted Zero’s death. Investigators thought the accounts sounded rehearsed. They were suspicious, but couldn’t prove a thing.

When Leslie Van Houten learned of Zero’s death, she made it clear she didn’t buy the Russian Roulette story.  She was incredulous that he was playing the deadly game by himself as the witnesses stated. An anonymous man told a newspaper reporter he was there when the shooting occurred, and that one girl had pulled the trigger.  The man was never identified and the death is officially a suicide.

On November 7, an early morning walker discovered the mutilated bodies of teenagers Doreen Gaul and James Sharp. The victims were stabbed so many times that police thought they were shot gunned to death. The overkill was like the Tate/La Bianca murders and there is a Manson/Scientology/The Process (a cult) connection. But without proof the murders remain unsolved.

REET JURVETSON “JANE DOE 59”

Reet Jurvetson, known for over 40 years as Jane Doe 59, was another victim of random violence in 1969. Years after her death Manson was asked about Reet.  He said he didn’t know her and knew nothing about her murder. Was he telling the truth?

December 1, 1969, Joel Pugh, estranged husband of Sandra Good, was found dead in a London hotel room.  His wrists and throat were cut. No suicide note was found. Was it a coincidence that Bruce Davis was in the UK at the time of Pugh’s death?

JOEL PUGH

In recent years, the LAPD has said that as many as a dozen murders may be linked to Manson and the family. While decades of dust gather on the open case files, at least the Tate/La Bianca murders are solved.

We can thank now-deceased Susan Atkins for busting the case wide open. The hippie girl who looked like a babysitter to her Sybil Brand Institute cellmates told them some horrific stories that they, at first, figured were bullshit. But after Susan described in gruesome detail Sharon Tate’s last moments, without showing remorse, the inmates went to the jail authorities to turn her in.

If not for Susan, the perpetrators of the August murders may not have been identified for many more months.

On December 1, 1969, LAPD’s Chief Edward Davis held a press conference.

Standing behind 15 microphones, Chief Davis announced the official end of the case.

“I am Edward Davis, chief of police of the City of Los Angeles. Today warrants have been issued for the arrest of three individuals in connection with the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Anne Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent and Thomas John Sebring.”

He explained that the same people were also involved in the murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. 

“The development of information from the two separate investigations, the Tate and La Bianca cases, led detectives to the conclusion that the crimes in both cases were committed by the same group of people.  At one time two lieutenants and 17 men were working on only the Tate case.  The Tate investigators interviewed 625 people, some four and five times each.”

Chief Davis referred to a break in the case that occurred two weeks prior to the warrants. He didn’t mention her by name, but he meant Susan Atkins.

Also not mentioned by name was the first victim of the summer murder spree, Gary Hinman. Chief Davis referred only to the “Topanga Canyon murder case.”

GARY HINMAN

Chief Davis wrapped up the press conference as a late arrival, Mayor Sam Yorty, took the stage.

“Sorry, I got here so late,” said the mayor. “The city government and the Police Department are very grateful to the news media for the cooperation we have had . . . many people could have damaged our case if they hadn’t been so cooperative . . .”

The round-up of the Family members implicated in the murders was underway. The case against them was solid enough to bring to the grand jury.

December 5, 1969, Susan Atkins testified before the Los Angeles grand jury. Prosecutors got first degree murder indictments against Manson, Watson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Kasabian.

December 21, 1969, Leslie Van Houten talked to cops about her possible cooperation. One week later she recorded a confession with attorneys, but decided against cooperating with prosecutors.

TEX WATSON

By Christmas 1969, Manson and his co-defendants, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were in jail facing capital murder charges.

SUSAN ATKINS, PATRICIA KRENWINKEL, LESLIE VAN HOUTEN

With Manson and his band of murderous nomads behind bars, Angelenos breathed a sigh of relief. The ‘60s ended on a miserable note. They thought the ‘70s would be better. They were wrong.

During the 1970s the risk of homicide increased six-fold from the 1950s, and by the early 1980s the term serial killer began to turn up in mainstream media reports.

New monsters stalked the streets of Los Angeles.

The real carnage was just beginning.

Film Noir Friday — Sunday Night: The Street With No Name [1948]

There’s a great double feature on Movies! tonight, THE STREET WITH NO NAME and WHITE HEAT. Two of my favorite films noir. If you don’t have the channel (it is 13.3 in my L.A. neck of the woods) here, for your viewing pleasure, is The Street With No Name starring Richard Widmark, Mark Stevens, Lloyd Nolan and Barbara Lawrence.

Ignore or read the subtitles — in any case, enjoy the movie!

It’s Aggie Underwood’s Birthday Month!

Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.  In her honor the Central Library downtown is hosting a party on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.

I will speak about Aggie and her many accomplishments from her time as a switchboard operator at the Record to her groundbreaking promotion to city editor at the Evening Herald and Express.  And yes, there will be cake. 

Aggie inspired me to create this blog and her Wikipedia page on December 12, 2012.  Aggie loved the newspaper business as much as I love writing for the blog and connecting with all of you.

Aggie hoists a brew.

Deranged L.A. Crime readers are an impressive group. They include current and former law enforcement professionals, crime geeks (like me), and the victims of violent crime.  I have even been contacted by a serial rapist (a despicable scumbag).

Each December I reflect on the year that is ending and make plans for Deranged L.A. Crimes. In 2020, the blog’s reach will extend to encompass all of Southern California, which includes the following counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.

I look forward to new stories, personalities and challenges.

Please join me as we enter the Roaring Twenties.  This time, no Prohibition.

Four women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s.
Image by © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

Film Noir Friday: Road House [1948]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is ROAD HOUSE starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Celeste Holm.

IMDB says:

At a seedy nightclub and bowling alley near the Canadian border, owner Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) is in love with his new cabaret singer, Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), who only has eyes for Jefty’s best friend, bar manager Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). Although he tries to keep his distance, Pete soon falls for Lily’s charms. But when the couple tries to run away together, Jefty and jealous cashier Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) conspire to frame them for a crime they didn’t commit.

Enjoy the movie!

End of Watch: Nathan Oscar Longfellow — Thanksgiving Day, 1923

There is no such thing as a routine day in law enforcement. On Thanksgiving Day, 1923, a City of San Fernando motor officer, Nathan Oscar Longfellow, rode out to the scene of a reported riot on the 1300 block of Celis Drive.

NYPD motor officer on his motorcycle c. 1920

One hundred people filled the street, none of them too stuffed with turkey and pie to celebrate the holiday. There was no riot. The large gathering was peaceful except for one man, Francisco Casade, 45, a laborer who was drunk, loud, and creating a disturbance.

Longfellow rolled up on his motorcycle prepared to quell a riot. He found one unruly drunk.

Nathan Oscar Longfellow

Before a crowd of witnesses, Longfellow placed Casade under arrest for disturbing the peace and placed him in the sidecar of his motorcycle.  As the motorcycle pulled away Casade attempted to escape.

Witnesses watched as Longfellow tried to restrain his prisoner.  Casade produced an automatic pistol he had concealed under his vest. He fired three times. Longfellow dropped to the pavement.

The crowd, enraged by the shooting, fought Casade to the ground and held him until other officers arrived.

An ambulance transported Longfellow to the San Fernando Hospital where he died a few days later. The officer was a 21-year-old former clerk who had had joined the San Fernando Police Department 13-months earlier.

Fearing that citizens in the neighborhood would storm the local jail and lynch him, police took Casade to the Los Angeles County Jail and held him without bond.

The county grand jury heard testimony from J.W. Thompson, Chief of Police in San Fernando, Deputy Sheriff Charles Catlin, who investigated the case, and Mrs. G. Strathern, a witness to the shooting. The statements were enough indict Casade for Longfellow’s murder.

On January 11, 1924, the jury in the Francisco Casade trial informed Judge Reeve that they could not reach a verdict. The judge ordered them sequestered until the morning of the 12th. Maybe all the jury needed was an overnight incentive.

The jurors tried, but they squared off: six for hanging and six for life imprisonment. A conference between the District Attorney’s office and the judge resulted in a continuance until January 14.

Judge Reeve had no choice but to dismiss the jury after the foreman told him that six of the jurors held out for hanging and would not budge. They ordered a second trial to begin on January 18.

Casade’s public defender tried to use his client’s intoxication as a mitigating circumstance. He failed to convince his recalcitrant client to plead guilty and avoid the death penalty. Casade rolled the dice.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty for first degree murder. They sentenced Casade to hang.

Appeals are automatic in a death penalty case, and Casade’s snaked its way through the system to the State Supreme Court.  In September 1924 the court upheld the sentence.

Holidays proved unlucky for Casade. He killed officer Longfellow on Thanksgiving Day 1923 and hanged for the crime on Valentine’s Day 1925.

On this day when we give thanks, let’s honor those people who have paid the ultimate price to keep us and those we love safe: law enforcement, firefighters, members of the military. They deserve our respect and support.

Nathan Oscar Longellow

In memory of Nathan Oscar Longfellow, a young man who never got the chance to fulfill his dreams, the following poem by an unknown author.

“Policeman’s Prayer

When I start my tour of duty God,
Wherever crime may be,
as I walk the darkened streets alone,
Let me be close to thee.

Please give me understanding with both the young and old.
Let me listen with attention until their story’s told.
Let me never make a judgment in a rash or callous way,
but let me hold my patience let each man have his say.

Lord if some dark and dreary night,
I must give my life,
Lord, with your everlasting love
protect my children and my wife.