Shootout at the Selma Hotel

There was a time when Los Angeles was a wild west outpost. Cowboys rode into town and got into trouble. They drank too much, chased women, and often drew a gun without contemplating the consequences. But by 1925 the city was modern and civilized, after a fashion, and the only cowpokes to be seen were likely on their way to a movie studio for a day of dress-up and make believe.

On August 9, 1925 Edward “Red” Carmichael and Thomas Bay, both movie cowboys, called on another film cowpoke, James Anson (aka Yakima Jim), at his hotel room. The Selma Hotel was adjacent to the LAPD’s Hollywood station.

LAPD's Hollywood Station.  [Photo courtesy of LAPL

LAPD’s Hollywood Station. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Anson, Bay, and Carmichael may have been in the movies but they were more than rhinestone cowboys–they had credibility. Yakima Jim was from the Yakima Reservation in Washington, and Red was a range rider from Texas. Bay was a western showman who hailed from Oklahoma.

Famous Players Lasky [Photo found at http://www.hollywoodlegends.net/paramount.html]

Famous Players Lasky [Photo found at http://www.hollywoodlegends.net/paramount.html]

The three men had recently worked together at the Famous Players-Lasky ranch on a picture, The Pony Express, directed by James Cruze. There had been some discord–Bay intended to confront his fellow movie buckaroo about some nasty remarks Yakima had allegedly made about Bay’s wife.

PONY EXPRESSAll three men had been drinking and the confrontation went from verbal to violent in short order. At least one gunshot was were heard and a man was seen jumping from a second-story window at the rear of the hotel. It wasn’t known who had fired the shot nor was the identity of the jumper known until LAPD Detectives arrived at the scene.

Yakima was conscious but in bad shape. One shot had entered his body under his right arm pit, traveled through both lungs and then exited under his left arm. He was immediately transported to the Receiving hospital. When Detectives questioned him he said that Bay had shot him. When asked why Yakima said that the man was “…just trying to be tough, I guess.”

Detectives brought Bay and Carmichael in for questioning. Bay clammed up. Mrs. Bay appeared at the police station and gave a statement in which she said that the disagreement between her husband and Yakima was about money. Yakima had asked Bay to loan him $25. Mrs. Bay nixed the plan, evidently believing that Yakima was a bad risk. Yakima didn’t take the rejection well at all; he supposedly said to Anson: “You wouldn’t let that bitch tell you what do to, would you?” It was not surprising that Mrs. Bay supported her husband’s story–but what was Red’s role in the shooting?

Red claimed not to know the nature of the beef between Yakima and Bay. He said he’d left the hotel room for a moment but the crack of a gunshot brought him back in a hurry. He witnessed Bay jumping out of the window of the room and saw Yakima on the floor bleeding. He said he was very surprised to see his own gun, which he thought was in one of his suitcases, on the floor. Was Red telling the truth? Bay denied shooting Yakima and waggled his j’accuse finger squarely at Red.

SELMA SHOOTOUT1While cops weren’t looking Bay climbed out of a window at the Hollywood Police Station shimmied down a small pipe and fled. Fifty officers were immediately dispatched to find him. He was recaptured in Whitley Heights in the Hollywood foothills. His escape was a dumb move but it wasn’t the worst of his problems–Yakima had died in the Receiving Hospital.

Now it was murder case. But who was the shooter?

NEXT TIME: Sorting out the facts in the Selma Hotel shootout.

Dog Spelled Backwards, Conclusion

clarke_arraigned_pichim in all sorts of schemes, most of which smacked of extortion. The cops thought that the scams were primarily small ones, until they uncovered evidence that John was attempting to merge several cults into a “spiritualist trust”. Among the plans he had for the trust were: Mexican distilleries, deals in bat guano, and investments in copper mines and oil stocks.  He planned to operate the trust out of a home offered for sale by Mrs. Dorothy Parry. John represented himself to Dorothy as the agent for a purchaser who could afford the asking price of $70,000 (equivalent to nearly $10M in 2016 dollars). But rather than putting Dorothy together with a buyer, John bombarded her with letters and poems. Dorothy told investigators: “The man’s persistence was so annoying that I had to move and asked my hotel not to give my forwarding address. But somehow Clarke managed to obtain it and followed me to this address. As the result of his visits I have been afraid to answer the door bell or go to the telephone.”

While continuing to pursue Dorothy, John was able to convince several more women to sign “soul contracts.” Helen Isabelle McGee’s contract read in part: “I agree with John Bertrum Clarke to enter with him into a higher spiritual development for at least two years. I will do everything possible to permit him to restore my full youth…and will be guided by him in both objective and subjective…”

love pirate caseSoul contracts and shady real estate deals were bad enough, but what about the  possibility that John had been involved in the suspicious deaths of two women with whom he had been involved?

The first death was that of John’s former housekeeper. Her body was found in the lake at Westlake Park across the street from the apartment John occupied at the time. Shortly before her death the unnamed woman had deeded a piece of property she owned in Ventura to John. He was questioned but subsequently released.

The second death was that of a 22-year-old girl. She was a student of the occult and at the time of her death she was helping John sell his books. It was rumored that the two had been lovers. She shot herself while in the vestibule of a local church–allegedly she was despondent over ill health. If John had played any part in her death it was never proved.

John flatly denied any knowledge of the drowned girl: “There is nothing to that story,” he said. According to him the story had originated at Patton State Hospital where he had been an inmate in 1920. He told investigators that the basis of the story was a play on his name. John explained that if you eliminated the first and fourth letters of his surname you were left with the word “lake”. Hmm. Really?

The hospital, originally known as Southern California Hospital for Insane and Inebriates, first opened its doors in 1893. Exactly why John had been confined in the hospital isn’t clear. At that time, and for many years after, it was a place where the seriously ill, or the seriously inconvenient, were confined. But he could have been there for any one of a number of issues–the place housed people suffering from mental disorders as well as physical ailments, specifically syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

John’s immediate problem, and the one for which he was in legal trouble up to his eyeballs, was the contributing charge. He came face-to-face with Clara Tautrim and her mother, Caroline, in the anteroom of the District Attorney’s office. They, along with Cecyle Duncan, had given their statements to D.A. Buron Fitts and Deputy D.A. Joos. John didn’t appear to be distressed by the presence of his accusers. In fact when they left he turned to Detective Berenzweig and said: “Give me credit for picking good looking ones.”

Only Clara Irene Berry seemed to be upset. Clara admitted that she’d been a party to luring the Tautrim girl to John’s apartment, but she denied knowledge of John’s real intentions.

D.A. Fitts questioned John, but the accused couldn’t be persuaded to stay on topic. When he was asked how many women he’d had love affairs with he said: “Most of them didn’t keep their dates, but when they didn’t show up I went out and got another. What I wanted to do was get a wife. I didn’t care if I had to marry her sixteen times. I wanted to transfer over to her my patents which will soon be in use by the government and which will bring me in $3000 a day.” John was returned to his jail cell.

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

John had several days’ growth of beard and was wearing the same soiled white suit when, on July 22nd, he was arraigned on the contributing charge. Clara Berry was arraigned as his accomplice. When she heard the charges against her she cried out: “No, no!”

While John and Clara were held in the county jail, each on $5000 bond, Chief Deputy District Attorney Buron Fitts held a press conference. He said: “The arrest of John Bertrum Clarke, ex-convict and former inmate of the asylum at Patton, undoubtedly removed a grave menace to the safety of the womanhood of Los Angeles. Under the guise of a minister of the Church of Cosmic Truth, Clarke planned in a systematic manner to prey on the girls and women of the city, evidence in our hands indicates. Neither the grey-haired woman nor the girl in her teens was immune from the menace. His conviction on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor is of the utmost importance to this community, and anyone possessing information regarding the activities of the man should place it in our hands at the earliest possible moment. Detectives Berenzweig, Hoskins and Harris, as well as Captain Plummer and Lieutenant Littell of the vice squad, deserve the highest commendation for their clever and untiring efforts in bringing Clarke before the bar of justice. Men of Clarke’s stamp are as dangerous in every respect as the ‘bad man’ who seeks his victim with a gun. They are certainly not worthy the same respect.”

John’s sanity, or lack thereof, was to be determined by the Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up). They heard from Clara Tautrim who described her interactions with the so-called love-pirate. She told of his promises to make her a motion picture star, and she also told them about the time he had grabbed her and kissed on on the neck. An overture she didn’t appreciate.

A doctor who had examined John testified: “He has been quiet and cooperative, but talkative. He has an exalted opinion of himself. He said he has discovered an automatic alphabet which enables him to communicate with God. He told me he is one of the greatest spiritualists in the world. He boasted that he had saved 40,000 persons from becoming insane. He says that he has invented an automatic mail sorting machine that has a human mind, and that he wrote President Coolidge about it.”

Another doctor, named Carter, testified: “He (John) was in the Psychopathic Hospital in 1919. Then he was sent to Patton where he stayed one year. His present actions indicate that he did not thoroughly recover at Patton from hi mental illness. He has proven himself a menace to be at large regarding his annoyance of children and a menace to himself.”

“He is a thorough case of dementia praecox,” declared Dr. Allen.

John loudly reiterated his demand for a jury trial. However he was soon bound for the Patton Asylum where, on November 16, 1924, he picked the look on his door and escaped. LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department were keeping an eye on his usual haunts on the chance that he would return to the city. He never turned up.

In early April 1925 District Attorney Asa Keyes learned that John was in Reno; however there was no legal procedure in place to extradite an insane person.  John may not have realized it but the Lunacy Commission had done him a favor.  If he’d he gotten his wish of a jury trial he may have been found guilty and sentenced to prison. It would have been much more difficult to escape from San Quentin than it was from the Patton Hospital.

John was in the wind for months before being discovered in Reno. Several weeks after that he was under arrest in Seattle, Washington. Police Chief Severyns contacted the LAPD and District Attorney Keyes for advice.

The situation was the same as it had been when John had been found in Reno–he couldn’t be extradited. As long as John stayed away from Los Angeles he could continue to operate his crack-pot schemes and cons with impunity; at least until he ran afoul of the law elsewhere.

I’ve found copies of some of John’s writings, but I haven’t been able to track him any further than 1925. I’d love to know what happened to him. If anyone knows please share.

Baby Borgia

borgia1On February 3, 1925 a bizarre story broke in the local news — it was alleged that seven year old Alsa Thompson had attempted to murder a family of four with a mixture of sulphuric acid and ant paste she had added to the evening meal. The intended victims tasted the food, but it was so awful they pushed their plates away.

Could a seven year old actually conceive of such a fiendish plan? Evidently the Platts family, with whom Alsa had been living following her parents’ separation, thought so. It was  also revealed that Alsa had taken the blade from a safety razor and slashed the wrists of her 5-year old sister, Maxine, with with whom she’d been playing.

borgia3Alsa was taken by Policewoman Elizabeth Feeley to the Receiving Hospital where she was questioned by police and surgeons about the poisoning plot. The little girl cheerfully confessed that she had indeed attempted a quadruple homicide and that she’d done it because: “…I am so mean.”

Inez Platts told the police that Alsa had come to live with the family in their home at 1540 1/2 McCadden Place, Hollywood, only two months before the poisoning incident. Alsa’s mother, Claire, worked in a downtown department store and her father, Russell, worked in Santa Ana. Apparently neither could manage custody of Alsa at the time. Inez said that ever since Alsa had arrived family members had fallen seriously ill and were under the care of their family physician. Mr. Platts had lost his voice and a couple of the children had suffered from mysterious pains.

Investigators spoke with anyone who had come in contact with Alsa and discovered that she was extremely gifted — she was already in the eighth grade. Her teachers described her as one of the best students they’d ever had, and added that she had never caused them any trouble in the classroom.

Alienists were baffled by Alsa, the doctors said that they had never before encountered a case of homicidal mania in a person so young, particularly when there was no apparent grudge against the victims.borgia2

Russell Thompson was vocal in defense of his daughter: “Alsa never poisoned any one.” When Russell was informed that Alsa had further confessed that as a 4 year old she had put ground glass into the food of her twin sisters and killed them, he said that the statement was absurd.

“The twins died when they were 2 years and 2 months of age. That was in Canada. We had two doctors and a nurse in constant attendance on them when they were ill, and they said death was due to intestinal troubles. Alsa couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with that.” No one could fault Russell for believing in Alsa’s innocence, but had he been deceived?

In his 1954 novel THE BAD SEED, William March tells the deeply disturbing tale of 8-year-old  Rhoda Penmark whose mother, Christine, begins to suspect her daughter is behind a series of “accidental” deaths. When Christine’s worst fears are confirmed she has to make the difficult decision–what to do about Rhoda.  If you’ve never read the book or seen the 1956 film adaptation you should. Each has a different, but shocking, ending.

Was Russell wrong? Had his beautiful daughter committed murder?

NEXT TIME: Find out if Alsa’s father was right about her, or if she was actually a high functioning sociopath capable of multiple murder, in the the conclusion of Baby Borgia.

NOTE: Many thanks to Alex Cortes. It was a conversation with him about this twisted case that lead to this post.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 2

Los Angeles Police investigators had been following three men whom they felt sure were conspiring to kidnap either actress, and “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford, or the grandchildren of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny.

Mary_Pickford_-_Aug_1916_Motion_PictureCaptain Home and Detectives Harry Raymond and George Mayer of the LAPD had learned that at least one of the conspirators had recently purchased a gun. The officers followed C.Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods to the Hayward Hotel  downtown and from an adjoining room they eavesdropped as the plot was discussed. The men had decided to take Mary Pickford, rather than the Doheny grandchildren, in part because they knew that they’d have an easier time grabbing Pickford off the street.

Their plan was ingenious. There was a Shriner convention in town and so the kidnappers were going to don Fezzes, decorate their car with banners and pretend to be fun-loving conventioneers. They would follow Mary when she left the studio and before she reached Pickfair they would force her car into a curb and grab her. They’d be armed, just in case there was any resistance, and Fairbanks would be contacted by letter. The goal was to walk away with $200,000.

Shriners,_1925

Los Angeles’ Shriner’s Arab Patrol in costume in the midst dance with people looking on, circa 1925 [Photo courtesy Wikipedia]

There was no way that the cops were going to allow three men, at least one of whom would be armed, to get anywhere near Pickford so they had to act fast.  Stevens and Holcomb were arrested outside of the studio and their co-conspirator,  Woods, was busted at his home in Alhambra.

Woods was the youngest of the gang and he confessed to his part in the plan immediately. Holcomb followed suit, with Stevens being the last domino to fall.pauline stevens

Pauline, Stevens wife of just one year, wouldn’t believe that her husband could be party to a kidnap plot, let alone be the “brains” of the operation. She said:

“Oh, it must be wrong; there must be some mistake–he couldn’t have done that!  We were pals, he was the best and most honorable of husbands.”

Pauline told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she and her husband had met on the battlefields of WWI–he was a lieutenant in the aviation corps and she was a Red Cross nurse.  It’s nearly impossible to conduct a romance during wartime, and Pauline and C.Z. lost touch. After the war Pauline settled in Los Angeles and eventually C.Z. did too. By a happy coincidence he located her in the city and the couple resumed their courtship, and then married.

Other than being occasionally moody and depressed, as were many veterans of the “Great War”, C.Z. was described by Pauline as being a model husband, ambitious and hardworking. Being willing to work doesn’t guarantee success and C.Z. had had some business reversals before he and Pauline reconnected. He had worked in a Mexican oil field for a Texas-based company and by the time he returned Dallas in 1921 he had saved $10,000. He used the money to invest in a gas station but the business tanked and C.Z. lost every dime.

When she was shown photographs of the other alleged conspirators she recognized Holcomb as a man C.Z. had employed as a truck driver a couple of years earlier in yet another failed business venture.

A man down on his luck, as C.Z. was, may have easily become desperate enough to commit a crime.

A special session of the grand jury was convened, and with three confessions in hand the district attorney asked for indictments. Mary Pickford, who was working on a new film, was too busy to attend the courtroom proceedings, but Doug was there. Fairbanks testified to having seen two of the three conspirators loitering outside the gates of the studio.

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Captain Holmes and Detectives Raymond and Mayer each took the stand and identified the men and testified to the plot they had overheard.

The grand jury handed down three indictments–Stevens, Holcomb and Woods were held on $50,000 bond each.

The case was a complicated one because it appeared that corpus delicti had not been established. Corpus delicti is the principle that a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.  Additionally, the men no overt act had been committed by the men.  Could they really be tried?

Pauline was taking no chances that her husband might be released on a legal technicality.  She hired a well-known local attorney, S.S. Hahn, to represent him.  The three conspirators, if tried and found guilty, could conceivably spend 50 years in prison. That’s hard time by anyone’s  measure.

NEXT TIME: The case against the kidnap plotters continues.

Death By Dermatology, Conclusion

steele noseIf you were a resident of Los Angeles during the 1910s or 1920s it would have been simple for you to locate a beauty doctor. Beauty doctors were rarely, if ever, actual physicians, they were practitioners of dubious skill, training, and ethics, and they advertised relentlessly in the personal columns of the local newspapers.

One of the many beauty doctors advertising her skills to Angelenos seeking to improve their looks was Gertrude Steele. Steele called herself a doctor but she was not a medical doctor, nor was she a doctor of philosophy, she was a registered naturopath.

Steele’s registration as a naturopath meant very little at that time because there were few regulations to which such a practitioner had to adhere. The lack of oversight many times resulted in disfigurement or death for the patients unlucky enough to be worked over by a scalpel wielding faux doctor.steele before after

Steele had caused the death of her son-in-law, George Blaha, who had only wanted his freckles removed — what he got instead was a premature death. Steele had administered an overdose of chloroform to ease the excruciating pain she’d caused him with the freckle removal procedure.

As a result of the botched operation on George, Gertrude’s naturopath license was revoked. There were a few months when it looked as though Gertrude would be held accountable for her son-in-law’s death, but her attorney successfully argued before the California State Supreme Court that Steele had the right to perform the procedure on George because the Legislature had not defined what her license permitted her to do! Steele’s license was restored and she was swiftly back in business!

But the LAPD, the State Board of Medical Examiners, and the District Attorney weren’t satisfied with the outcome in George’s case, and when another of Steele’s patients died it prompted a more thorough investigation.

steele licenseMrs. Christina Leslie was 67 years old and was seeking to restore the “youthful bloom” to her face as promised in Gertrude Steele’s ads. Instead of having her youth restored, Mrs. Leslie died of blood poisoning.

For many weeks the cause of Mrs. Leslie’s death was known only to a few of her closest friends — no autopsy had been performed. Finally the circumstances surrounding her demise reached the ears of Chief of Detectives George Home who ordered an immediate investigation.

Detectives discovered scores of Gertrude Steele’s patients, male and female, who had reported to the State Board of Medical Examiners that they had been mutilated and disfigured for life by Dr. Steele’s facial lotions and by her scalpel.steele_indicted

Gertrude Steele had never had a single day of instruction in surgery and her incompetence had lead to countless deformations and several deaths. Steele’s daughter, Mrs. Solomon, had acted as her mother’s assistant in all of her operations — it appears that Mr. Steele was no longer part of the practice — although it isn’t clear what happened to him. Solomon didn’t have any medical training either, although she appeared to have some compassion for the victims of her mother’s ineptness. She described the post-surgery horror that Mrs. Leslie endured:

“A few days after the operation, Mrs. Leslie came back. Infection had begun in the incisions. She remained at my mother’s house for ten days and all that time I begged my mother to call in a physician. But she would not. She would take the top of my head off for butting in and all the time she was trying to treat Mrs. Leslie who appealed more to the divine powers to help her rather that her own common sense.”

Mrs. Emma Graham, a close friend of Christina’s, arrived at Steele’s clinic and once she saw the condition her friend was in she promptly had her removed. But instead of taking her to a hospital, Christina was transferred to Emma’s home — where at least
she was under the care of a certified physician. Mrs. Graham told cops:

“I learned that Mrs. Leslie was in a bad condition and that she was being kept at Mrs. Steele’s house. I went to see her, I found her reclining on a window seat. Her face was in a terrible condition and her clothing was all bloody. I had her removed to my home.”

“At my home Mrs. Leslie grew worse each day. She told me Dr. Steele had performed the operation. Terrible abscesses were appearing all over her and she complained of pains in her swollen hands.”

Dr. James Reeve Dean, the physician who attended Mrs. Leslie for the last few weeks of her life told investigators:

“I found two incisions had been made upon Mrs. Leslie’s head. These incisions began at the hairline on the forehead and each extended downward and along the side of the face, in front of the ears and then curved back behind the ears. Upon Mrs. Leslie’s neck I found an ugly abscess, filled with infected matter with a drain at the top of the abscess instead of at the bottom where it should have been. The incisions on the forehead had left ugly wounds. Pyemia had set in and had centered on one of the patients hips and upon one of her hands, which was swollen to twice its normal size.”

After three long weeks of unbearable pain, Mrs. Leslie succumbed to blood poisoning. In Dr. Dean’s opinion the cause of Mrs. Leslie’s death had been infection due to the dirty conditions in the  surgery in which the facelift had been performed.

Investigators turned up the names of other people who had suffered at Mrs. Steele’s hands:

  • Michael Goane, 19, who died in Dr. Steele’s office while undergoing treatment for the removal of a scar from his cheek.
  • Martin J. Colbert, from San Francisco, who came to his death from shock caused by a carbolic acid application and anesthetic treatment.
  • Miss Pauline Hall, motion picture actress, won a judgement of $2500 against Dr. Steele for the mutilation of her face. Miss Hall testified in court that her lower lip had been “frozen” and that while Dr. Steele performed the operation the doctor communed with the Universe and prayed for the success of the operation.
  • Arthur Carew, had an operation for a hump nose. Dr. Steele cut a piece from his nose, cut strips of flesh from each temple and severed an artery which she first attempted to close with her fingers, later attempting to stop the flow of blood by prayer. Fortunately for Carew he was taken to a hospital and survived his ordeal.
  • Miss I. Vogel, formerly employed at the Ambassador Beauty Parlors reported that her face had been mutilated in an unsatisfactory nose operation.

The list of people maimed or killed by Steele seemed to be endless. One of Steele’s patients said that the doctor requested all of her patients sign a form absolving her from any after-effects of her operations:

“I hereby certify that the operation and subsequent treatment to be performed upon me is at my own request and I hereby absolve Dr. G.D. Steele and Company from all responsibility from any results therefrom.”

For her part, Dr. Steele advertised:

“The work is done conscientiously, with perfect technical skill in feature correcting under Divine Guidance. God does the healing.”

gertrude steel picFinally in October 1924, Gertrude Steele was indicted for manslaughter in the death of Mrs. Christina Leslie. When cops went to pick Steele up all they found was a “For Rent” sign on her property and her daughter, Mrs. Solomon, whom she had apparently left behind without a thought. Solomon said:

“She left me penniless and ill and with all of her own troubles to contend with — bill collectors, complaints from her patients and such. I am glad the investigation was made. It has taken a great burden of worry and sorrow from my mind. I feel so much better now.”

Solomon continued:

“She is my mother, but I believe, as the authorities believe, that she should be stopped from continuing with this work of which she has no scientific knowledge.”

Gertrude Steele’s license to practice naturopathy was revoked, but it didn’t matter — she was nowhere to be found. At last, in January 1925 she was discovered living in Oberhausen, Germany. California requested Gertrude Steele’s extradition, but I have not yet been able to find out if she was ever returned to the U.S. to face justice.german poster

Chilling, isn’t it, that a person could butcher people with impunity. I suspect that Gertrude Steele found herself quite at home in Germany during the mid-1920s, because by 1925 Adolf Hitler had begun his ascendancy to power.