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 POODLE SPRINGS starring James Caan and Dina Meyer.
Enjoy the movie!
Television movie based on the novel by Robert Parker, from the final Philip Marlowe story begun by Raymond Chandler. Hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe is 15 years past his prime, as cynical as ever, but also a newlywed. Moving to the small desert town of Poodle Springs after marrying Laura, the daughter of billionaire P.J. Parker, Marlowe becomes immersed in deadly intrigue surrounding the murder of another investigator. When he uncovers a scheme to move the state border of Nevada, which may involve his father-in-law, the world-weary private eye from the 1940s encounters a ’60s web of greed, lust and murder. With a talent for attracting trouble, Marlowe finds it in the form of murder, bigamy, gambling, pornography and double identity.
A Coroner’s jury found Gray McNeer responsible for the murder of his wife, Betty. The gun used in the murder and attempted suicide was a weapon Gray had stolen from Harry Harris, a friend of his. Harris, a harbor guard, discovered his gun and some shells were missing after Gray’s visit the night prior to the shooting. When detectives showed Harris the weapon, he identified it as his own.
Gray wasn’t able to appear at any hearings because he was in serious condition. On August 6th his attorney, S.S. Hahn, announced that Gray would appear in court that morning. The defendant was in bad shape as a result of the gunshot wound to his head. He was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, partially paralyzed and he still had a bullet lodged in his brain. Despite the gravity of his injuries, Gray appeared for his preliminary hearing before Municipal Judge Galbreth, just as S.S. Hahn said he would. The defendant’s head was swathed in bandages and he was in a wheel chair, but at least he’d made it.
Gray’s mother, Lola, remained at her son’s bed side and on August 24th it was reported that she had given her official consent for an operation to remove the bullet from his brain. It isn’t clear why a man in his 30s would need his mother’s consent, but it may have been that he was in no condition to give it himself. S.S. Hahn told the court that in his present condition Gray was in imminent danger of death and that, even if he survived, he might be become “an imbecile.” The operation was given odds of 100 to 1 that it would succeed; but it was Gray’s only hope.
S.S. Hahn requested a continuance of the trial so that Gray could undergo the potentially lethal surgery. The request was granted. But would any of the local surgeons be willing to undertake such a delicate procedure? The answer was no. Specialists at General Hospital declined to perform the surgery even though they agreed that Gray was doomed without it. The same group of surgeons put Gray’s odds at less that 1000 to 1 for survival.
Of course S.S. Hahn had a lot to say about the doctors’ refusal: “His mother wants that chance to be taken. She wants to save her son and we are going to operate if it takes a court order to do it.” The attorney found four brain specialists who were willing to volunteer for the surgery, but General Hospital balked. Hahn said: “They tell us that nonresident physicians are not permitted to operate at the General Hospital and since the patient is charged with murder he cannot be removed from there. Well, we will see what the courts have to say about that, too.” Judge Schmidt responded with a court order which permitted the outside physicians to perform the surgery on Gray’s brain.
Surgery was scheduled for September 8, 1934, but after he took a turn for the better the operation was put on hold indefinitely. Ten days later, Gray appeared in court once again. He was still bandaged and in a wheel chair. He entered a not guilty plea and he still publicly contended that Betty had shot him first and then killed herself.
McNeer and Hahn were in court on October 25th for opening statements. Gray was a pathetic sight. Would the jury be swayed in his favor even if they believed his misery was self-inflicted? Hahn outlined his case for the jury. He said that he was going to prove:
That Mrs. McNeer on three previous occasions had threatened to end her own life.
That several nights before the shooting, Mrs. McNeer went to the home of Harry B. Harris, special officer, at 1030 Hyperion Avenue, and sought to borrow his gun.
That the day before the shooting Mrs. McNeer called again at Harris’s home and remained there alone for some time.
Court adjourned when Gray collapsed and had to be returned to the County Jail Hospital.
The following day Gray was in court moaning, groaning and muttering incoherently. He yelled out: “You wouldn’t treat a yellow dog like you are treating me; why don’t somebody give me something?” Following a few more outbursts, Judge Burnell addressed Gray: “You will have to keep quiet; this sort of thing will not be allowed at all, Mr. McNeer. Thi sort of theatricalism has got to stop right now, and you might as well know it.” Then the judge turned to Hahn and said: “Can’t you do something with your client, Mr. Hahn?”
Hahn objected to the Judge’s admonition and there was a short recess. Once back in the courtroom, Judge Burnell spoke to the jury: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am making this statement to you at the suggestion and with the consent of counsel for both sides, the People and the defendant. You, of course, could not help but observe the fact yesterday afternoon that the defendant was making more or loess noise, talking and groaning, and the Court made some remarks about ceasing the theatricals, or something of that sort. That, of course, is something that you haven’t any business to pay any attention to, and I want you to entirely disregard it. The defendant is here on trial for one specific offense, and all the jury have any right to consider whatever is the evidence in the case and nothing else. I know you will appreciate that and be able to do that, but for your information, in view of the apparent condition of the defendant, I am trying now to get hold of Dr. Blank, the jail physician, to come down here and tell us whether he thinks from his examination of the defendant there is any reason why the case should not continue. In other words, whether or not the defendant is in a condition physically and mentally that will preclude going ahead with the trial. Until we hear from Dr. Blank, we will go ahead, and if there is any demonstration on the part of the defendant, you will disregard it. You are not here to try anything except the facts in this case.”
Dr. Blank examined Gray and ascertained that he was in more pain than he had been in previously and that he was on sedatives continuously. The doctor feared that Gray’s sanity was being affected and advised the judge to suspend the proceedings until a determination could be made.
The judge did exactly what Dr. Blank had advised him to do, and the trial was continued to October 29, 1934 at 10:00 a.m. Gray’s sanity would be decided then based on an examination conducted by Drs. Benjamin Blank, Victor Parkin and Paul Bowers.
Los Angeles has been home to some of the wiliest and most wicked criminals in the world. And where there are criminals there are attorneys to defend them. I’ll leave it to you to decide which group is worse.
Among the defense attorneys who practiced in the city, one of the most fascinating was Samuel Simpson Hahn. Known as S.S. Hahn, which makes him sound like a luxury liner, Hahn was born Schrul Widelman on September 18, 1888 in Ternova, Besarubia, Russia. He is believed to have arrived in the U.S. on June 30, 1906 and changed his name to Samuel Needleman. Contrary to the persistent belief that xenophobic immigration agents arbitrarily changed the names of newcomers many people opted to change their surnames to adapt to their new lives in America. In any case, by 1912 the newly minted Samuel Needleman had moved to Los Angeles and had changed his name one last time. He became Samuel Simpson Hahn. That moniker stuck with him for the rest of his life.
S.S. Hahn with a witness in Aimee Semple McPherson’s trial. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
On July 22, 1915, having passed his exam, Samuel Hahn was admitted to the California State Bar and for the next four decades he defended some of the most notorious criminals in the city. Hahn’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of local crime. Among those who sought his services were serial killer Louise Peete and naughty evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
Hahn didn’t limit his practice to felons. Following WWII there was a sharp uptick in divorces. Starry-eyed couples who married in the heat of passion during wartime found themselves dreading the prospect of thousands of dreary days in each other’s company. In 1945, LIFE Magazine featured Hahn in an article on divorce mills. Interestingly, he appears to have met his second wife, Mary Monroe, when she came to him to dissolve her marriage.
I intend to write more about S.S. Hahn in the coming months. I find his career worthy of multiple posts. He was disbarred as a young attorney in the 1910s, possibly for suborning perjury, but appears to have won an appeal to restore his license. His death by drowning in a backyard swimming pool in 1957 was ruled a suicide, but it was highly suspicious. I’ll get to more of Hahn’s life later—I think you’ll find it compelling.
Today I’m going to cover a 1934 case from the Hahn files in which he defended a man accused of murdering his wife.
Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, June 27, 1934, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Kilborane of 4919 Bemis Street were driving on a lonely stretch of dirt road between the Southern Pacific tracks and the Los Angeles River. They were about 200 feet West of the intersection of San Fernando Road and Colorado Boulevard when they noticed a car. It isn’t clear what caught the attention of the couple but they decided to investigate. They found a woman sitting upright and dead on the passenger side. Seated next to her behind the steering wheel was a man. He was severely wounded and semi-conscious. Both had suffered gunshot wounds to the head.
Police identified the victims as Gray (Grey) Everett McNeer and his estranged wife, Beatrice (Betty) Helene Harker McNeer. While fighting for his life in the General Hospital Gray managed a brief statement in which he laid the blame for the shootings on his dead wife. Unfortunately for Gray the physical evidence suggested a far different scenario.
There were a couple of major problems with Gray’s statement. First, Betty had been shot three times in the head and second, she was right handed. Even a contortionist would have found it difficult to shoot herself on the left side of her head if she was right handed. Besides, if Betty was the shooter why would she leave her intended victim moaning and alive? Wouldn’t she have made certain he was dead before she turned the gun on herself—three times? Detectives were convinced Gray was a killer and placed him in the prison ward of the hospital—not that he was capable of taking it on the lam. Doctors weren’t convinced that he would make it through the night.
With Gray in the hospital, Detective Lieutenants Sanderson and Hill of the police department began their investigation into the backgrounds of the McNeers.
At 33 years of age Gray already had an extensive criminal record. The 1930 Federal Census lists Gray as an inmate in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where he was a machine operator in the pants factory. He was in prison for his part in the robbery of a paper company in Oklahoma City. If his life since his release from prison was any indication of his future plans he had no intention of going straight, ever. At the time of the shooting Gray was wanted for questioning in a recent string of robberies in Los Angeles.
Betty was 29 when she died and she had been married and divorced twice before she tangled with Gray. She was 19 when she married a wealthy Altadena inventor, E.P. Pottinger. They divorced after two years and Betty wed Arthur Nollau who owned a knitting mill at 1409 West Washington Boulevard. The marriage to Nollau also lasted roughly two years. Twenty-four months seemed to be limit of Betty’s attention span for marriage. In the days prior to her death she had filed for divorce from Gray to whom, you guessed it, she had been married for approximately two years.
Gray’s condition appeared to be improving; which meant that the ex-con would likely be indicted for his wife’s murder. In that case he would require the services of an attorney.
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. Today’s feature is I WAKE UP SCREAMING starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar and William Gargan.
Enjoy the movie!
After beautiful Vicky Lynn is killed, New York City police question Frankie Christopher, a promoter who sponsored Vicky, “glamorized” her and got her jobs as a model. Especially tough on Frankie is obsessed inspector Ed Cornell, who has never failed to get his man. Jerry MacDonald, a more sympathetic policeman, asks Frankie to tell them how he met Vicky, and Frankie tells his story.
I’m pleased to announce that I will be the featured speaker at the May 7th meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime! I’m looking forward to it and I hope that you will come out to the beautiful South Pasadena Library for the presentation. If you are not familiar with Sisters in Crime, I suggest that you consider joining. The membership is comprised of mystery and true crime writers as well as librarians, booksellers, readers–anyone who loves the genre (men are welcome to join too!)
For details regarding the location of the meeting visit the Sisters in Crime website.
Joan Renner—“Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: The Real L.A. Noir”
Los Angeles has inspired writers of crime fiction since the Golden Age in the 1930s. The reason is simple, the City of Angels has been home to the most depraved killers and deranged crimes ever recorded. In her presentation, “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: The Real L. A. Noir”, writer and social historian, Joan Renner, will introduce you to a few of L.A.’s grittiest true tales and most fascinating real life characters, and offer tips on how to research them.
Joan Renner is a social historian and writer specializing crime. She’s been an invited speaker at the California Association of Criminalists, and has appeared in over 20 episodes of numerous Investigation Channel programs including Deadly Women. Her blog, Deranged L.A. Crimes, tells true tales of murder and mayhem from the 20th Century.