30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

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Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

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Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan

 

 

 

Death By Dermatology, Part 1

The hypodermic needle was invented in 1854 and the first effective local anesthetic was cocaine, which was used in an eye surgery in 1884. Those discoveries, and the many others that followed, paved the way for modern doctors to perform surgeries and other invasive medical procedures that patients could actually hope to survive.

The first facelift is said to have been performed by Eugen Hollander in 1901 in Berlin on an elderly Polish aristocrat who wanted her cheeks and the corners of her mouth lifted. The
surgery was successful and the patient was reportedly pleased with the outcome. The first textbook on facial cosmetic surgery was written by Charles Miller of Chicago and was
entitled: The Correction of Featural Imperfections (1907).

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“All Is Vanity” [1892] by Charles A. Gilbert

Legitimate medical professionals and their patients benefited from scientific advancements but sadly criminals also found a way to profit.

For decades medical quacks have made their homes in Los Angeles. The degree to which they have believed their own advertising has varied —  some of the practitioners may have been sincere and deluded, while others have undoubtedly been conniving and cynical seeking only to separate gullible Angelenos from their cash.

By the early 1900s personal ads in the local newspapers hyperbolized the wonders of modern medical science for the removal of pimples, wrinkles, crows feet, double chins, thin necks and superfluous hair. One ad exclaimed:

“Premature Ugliness is a Crime which has its effect on coming generations.”

I have no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean, but presumably answers could be found at the Cosmetic Surgery Company in the Johnson Building at the corner of Fourth and Broadway.

Among the early practitioners of cosmetic procedures in Los Angeles were Professor David and Mme. Gertrude Steele. This advertisement for their services appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 21, 1907:

gertrudesteele_ad

It seemed that there was no dermatological miracle the Steele’s couldn’t perform — that is until March 1908 when they permanently disfigured Mrs. G.W. Du Bois.

Mrs. Du Bois said that she’d read the Steele’s advertisement which guaranteed the harmless removal of wrinkles and spots from the face, and filling in of hollows by a unique chemical substance. The Steele’s promised a refund if their work was unsatisfactory, so what did she have to lose?

A money back guarantee for a medical procedure wouldn’t inspire confidence in me, but Mrs. Du Bois went ahead with a visit to the Steele’s downtown clinic.

A few days following her treatment lumps had formed on either side of Mrs. Du Bois’ nose, on top of it, and on the left side of her neck. She found it impossible to lie down at night, was in constant pain, and was informed by doctors that the lumps could not be safely removed. Arsenic, prescribed to cure the facial spots, affected Mrs. Du Bois’ health so adversely that the roots of her eyebrows were burned out.

In her lawsuit the injured woman stated that she was permanently disfigured and her health was ruined. She requested $1000 [approximately $26,000 in current U.S. dollars] in damages and the refund of her original payment of $100.

During the one day hearing in Judge Hutton’s court, Mrs. Du Bois and the Steele’s each presented their side of the case. Mrs. Du Bois spoke of the pain and suffering she had endured, while Gertrude Steele insisted that the disfigured woman was attempting to extort money from them.

steele_disfigure

Judge Hutton ruled against the Steele’s and they were required to pay Mrs. Du Bois every penny she had asked for in her suit. The injured woman went home to her life of constant pain and deformation, and the Steele’s remained in business. In fact Mrs. Steele continued to deliver lectures on “How to Remain Young Forever”.

Either the Steele’s managed not to disfigure anyone else for the next decade or no one who had been harmed came forward because there was nary peep out of them, except for their advertisements, until 1919.

In December 1919, Gertrude Steele (who by that time was calling herself a doctor) killed her son-in-law George Blaha with an accidental overdose of chloroform. The “doctor” had administered the anesthetic to ease the pain caused by the mixture of chloroform and carbolic acid she had used in an attempt to remove freckles from his face.

Maybe the so-called doctor would be held to answer in criminal court for the death of her son-in-law. Maybe not.

NEXT TIME: Dr. Gertrude Steele’s reign of error continues.