Politics Is A Dirty Business

Politics in Los Angeles has long been a dirty and corrupt business. This was never truer than during the 1930s.

I found this wonderful cartoon in an issue of the Evening Herald & Express. Any citizen of Los Angeles who was paying attention would have known exactly who all the players were. I didn’t understand several of the references and so I thought it might be fun to try to decipher them.

Here is the cartoon, and below that is my key to understanding just what in the hell the cartoonist was talking about.

1932 corruption cartoon_resize

On the second floor of the Payoff Villa Apartments one of the gamblers says: “Guy, send Eddie in.” The gambler was referring to Guy McAfee. McAfee, like thousands of others, had moved from the midwest to Los Angeles years before seeking his fortune. He didn’t find it as a firefighter, which he worked at for a while. But things began to look up for him when he joined the LAPD. His career trajectory ultimately landed him in the position of head of the vice squad. Oh, delicious irony! While serving as the head of the vice squad, McAfee owned brothels and gambling dens.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939.

In the late 1930s, when it appeared that LA might become less tolerant of vice (the possible crackdown was a momentary hiccup in the ongoing criminal enterprise that the city had become), McAfee moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. Bugsy Siegel gets the credit, or blame depending on your view, for establishing the desert gaming mecca, but it was men like Guy McAfee and his associate Milton B. “Farmer” Page who really kicked things off in the sleepy little cow town. McAfee was the co-founder of the Pioneer Club and was the President of the Golden Nugget until his death in 1960.

The “Eddie” referred to in the cartoon bubble was Eddie Nealis, a local bookmaker. Eddie’s name along with his fellow vice kings: Guy McAfee, Farmer Page, Tudor Scherer, Jack Dragna and Johnny Roselli, came up in the Los Angele County 1937 Grand Jury investigation into vice. Most of those named fled the city for Vegas in 1938.

Cathay_Circle_Theater (1)

Carthay Circle Theater c. 1937

On the roof of the Payoff Villa Apartments, you will find a cop named Mac D. Jones. He appears to be shoving a woman in a toga over the edge. Lysistrata is mentioned. Lysistrata was Greek play written by Aristophanes. This reference threw me for a loop. I couldn’t figure out what a cop had to do with the play. But I found out. The play, written in 411 BC, is a comedy in which a woman, Lysistrata, embarks on a mission to end the Peloponnesian War. And how does she plan to do it? Get all of the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers so that they’ll snap to their senses and negotiate peace. It still seems like a solid plan.

Apparently, Officer Mac Jones wasn’t a lover of Greek plays, he raided the show twice while it was on stage at Carthay Circle Theater (the beautiful 1926 building was demolished in 1969–a bad year for many reasons).  The cast filed a suit against Jones in the amount of $226,000 for damages. The judge who heard the case, Superior Court Judge Willis, was evidently no lover of Greek theater either He said that there were two scenes that “as written and acted are sufficient in the mind of the average person to condemn the play as indecent and obscene as hereintofore defined, and there can be found nowhere in the play any redeeming or ameliorating quality of uplift, or lesson, or message of good.” Judge Willis threw out the demand for damages. I happen to love the play for many reasons, one of which is its powerful anti-war stance.

A poster on the exterior wall of the Payoff Villa Apartments exclaims: “Radio fans hear Martin Luther Thomas preach on ‘No Vice, No Crime.'” I was intrigued. Who was Martin Luther Thomas? It turns out that Thomas was one of several local radio preachers who, when he wasn’t railing against the “Underworld”, was the chief investigator for City Prosecutor Johnson.

And the fellow crawling on his hands and knees in the street? He was Wells J. Mosher, confidential secretary to Mayor Porter.

In July 1931 Thomas and Mosher were linked by a so-called “snooping system” they allegedly ran to gather dirt on other city employees–particularly members of the city council. Director Knox of the Bureau of Budget and Efficiency was told to file a report with the Efficiency and Personnel Committee of the City Council. The report was specifically ordered to address whether or not Thomas and Mosher should lose their jobs. One of the councilmen declared that the two men were costing the city money that could be put to better use.

Mayor John Clinton Porter was a teetotaler and a xenophobe. Porter’s promise to clean-up the city’s political system won him the election in 1929, but it didn’t win him any friends on the wrong side of the law. Once sworn in the mayor began receiving death threats. He was the only mayor in LA’s history to be the victim of an attempted assassination.

On February 19, 1932, a federal warehouse worker, Jacob Denzer, who kept watch over confiscated booze, sat in the mayor’s lobby awaiting an audience. The self-proclaimed “messenger of the Lord” had had a vision for a “divine plan of salvation.” When 50 Fullerton Junior High School students, on a tour of City Hall, started to crowd into the lobby Denzer became agitated. He stood up, waved his gun and shouted at the startled students to “Get out of here, all of you.” A city janitor saw the ruckus. He managed to grab the revolver from Denzer’s hand.

Frank L. Shaw

Frank L. Shaw

Porter came through a recall effort and presided over the 1932 Olympic Games. Ever the teetotaler, no alcohol was served at the opening ceremony.

Porter enjoyed being mayor and ran in 1933, only to be defeated by arguably the most corrupt mayor in Los Angeles’ history, Frank L. Shaw (who, by the way, was recalled in 1938).

The Dime Murder, Conclusion

In late December 1930, Emery Ells went on trial for hiring Benjamin Brown to murder his estranged wife, Merle Ells. The prosecution called it “murder on the installment plan” because Benjamin had been given $2.20 worth of dimes to commit the crime with the promise of $2000 more to come.

merle sistersBenjamin confessed to police, but his trial was postponed until January 1931. His attorneys needed time to gather evidence regarding his sanity.

Emery retracted his confession and through his attorney, William T. Kendrick, Jr., accused the cops of giving him the third degree. The defense fought to keep Emery’s confession out of court, and they won the battle–for a while. The confession made to officers was continuously blocked, but Emery had apparently confessed not only to the police but in the presence of newspaper reporter, George White. Since White had been in the room during Ells’ statement he was able to testify that the suspect had not confessed under duress.

Merle’s five sisters appeared in Judge Schauer’s court ready and willing to testify against their former brother-in-law. Merle had often spoken to them of her fear that Emery might do her harm if she didn’t allow him to have custody of their toddler son.

Emery took the stand in his own defense. He reiterated his accusation of police brutality to force a confession from him. He testified that he had been denied food and sleep for four days following his arrest. He also charged that he was kept near Merle’s body in the County Morgue until 3 a.m.–all the while being peppered with questions. Deputy Coroner Russell Monroe refuted Emery’s claim.

emery_ells_mug2Emery’s trial lasted two weeks. On January 8, 1931 after deliberating for just a few hours the jury found him guilty of first degree murder. They recommended life in prison rather than the death penalty asked for by the prosecution. When Emery heard that his life had been spared he turned to his attorney and grinned.

Benjamin Brown withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Given Emery’s sentence Brown had good reason to expect the same treatment. Brown’s Public Defender, George A. Benedict, made an impassioned plea for leniency on his client’s behalf, but Judge McComb sentenced the defendant to hang.benjamin_brown_mug2

On July 31, 1931, Benjamin Brown climbed the thirteen steps to the gallows. On his way he tripped on Warden Holohan’s heel. “Sorry Warden” were his last words. Earlier in the day Emery begged the Warden to be allowed to see Benjamin. He said Benjamin could exonerate him. Pretty ballsy considering he was lucky to have escaped the gallows himself. Warden Holohan denied the request. When he was told about it Benjamin said: “We are equally guilty. We did it together and we ought to hang together.”

Cops Behaving Badly: Edward P. Nolan, Conclusion

nolan_picIn a drunken rage LAPD detective Edward P. Nolan shoved Robert Wilson, the salesman who had been dancing with his sweetheart, Grace Duncan, into the bathroom of room 815 at the Lankershim Hotel.

Nolan was shouting obscenities and waving his service weapon around. Wilson stayed in the bathroom and locked the door, the other occupants of the room, Dan Smith, Jimmy Balfe, and Helen Burleson, fled into the hallway where they watched through the doorway as Nolan beat and kicked Duncan. The woman’s screams were loud enough to bring Floyd Riley, a bellboy, up to the 8th floor—but he didn’t want to confront Nolan either.  He said:

“He looked like a wild man to me.  His eyes gleamed and her cursed incoherently.  I could smell liquor on his breath.

Grace rolled over onto her stomach but the beating continued. At one point Dan Smith yelled at Nolan to stop, but was told to “mind your own business”. Addressing no one in particular, the drunken cop declared:

“I’ve done everything for this woman.  I’ve paid for her room, bought her food and paid installments on her car.”

Apparently in his mind the things he’d done for her entitled him to beat her. The terrified witnesses watched as he drew his revolver and repeatedly bashed her over the head until she stopped moving. Then he fired a couple of shots into the floor.nolan headline2

Once it appeared that his rage was spent, Wilson, Balfe, Smith and Riley tentatively approached Nolan.  He allowed himself to be taken back to his second floor room. He muttered the entire way that he loved Grace, but her battered body told a different story—one of uncontrollable jealousy and bad booze. After arriving at his room he downed several more glasses of gin, then he passed out on the floor.

The LAPD was called and Acting Captain Frank Condaffer, who had been Nolan’s superior officer for years, swore to out the complaint charging the cop with murder.

Grace’s two daughters, Edna (17) and Mary Jane (14) visited “Daddy” Nolan in jail. Sobbing, whether in grief or self-pity, Nolan wrapped his arms around the girls. The girls told officers that he had always been good to them.

nolan sentencedNolan was denied permission to enter an insanity plea and jury selection began on November 9th. With several eye-witnesses to the fatal beating of Grace Duncan it didn’t seem that Nolan had much of a chance to beat the rap. Helen Burleson testified that Nolan had been in a frenzied rage when he cornered Grace Duncan in the 8th floor room and beat her to death.

Attorneys for Nolan tried twice more to get permission to enter an additional plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but the motion was denied each time. When the insanity plea went nowhere, Nolan took the stand and said that he had no memory of anything that had happened after he threw Grace out of his room.

Following four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder and Nolan was sentenced to life. He was lucky, the prosecution had wanted to see him hang.nolan_quentin_ancestry_resize

Nolan entered San Quentin on January 9, 1932. Look closely and you’ll notice that his stated profession was propman.  Cops, even those who have been disgraced, aren’t welcomed by the other inmates. If he was smart, Nolan never mentioned his decade on the Los Angeles Police Department to his cellmates.

On February 1, 1932 the State Board of Prison Terms and Paroles denied Edward Nolan’s request for release.  The Board informed him that he would have to serve 10 calendar years before they would review his application again.

Nolan was released in early March 1942, but he didn’t enjoy his freedom for very long. He died on July 20, 1943 in a VA facility in San Francisco.

The Black Owl

There were many gun crimes in Los Angeles during the 1930s—even purse snatchers were frequently armed; but there were two crimes which defined the era: kidnapping (the so-called “Snatch Racket”) and bank robbery.  Robbers, motivated by desperation, hunger or good old-fashioned greed, stalked Spring Street, the “Wall Street of the West”, hoping to pull off the perfect bank heist.

Security-First National Bank c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

Security-First National Bank on Spring Street c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

On December 31, 1931, twenty-four year old Timothy Blevins was finding Old Man Depression a formidable adversary. It seemed that no matter what he did he couldn’t climb out of the financial hole he was in.  The fact that millions of people around the world shared his predicament offered him no consolation. He had recently lost his job as a bus boy in a cafe at 5610 Hollywood Blvd, and then he had taken a job with a county road gang.

Working on a road gang is exhausting work, but he may have stuck with it if his eighteen year old wife, Cornelia, hadn’t left him and gone home to her mother.  She was just fifteen when the couple had married in Ojai, Arizona, much too young to grasp the seriousness of their vows.Even if they’d waited it probably would have ended badly between them. Timothy was moody and no picnic to live with. After three years Cornelia was fed up. Timothy had become terribly despondent and he told her that he was contemplating suicide.  Cornelia couldn’t take any more of her husband’s dark moods and she intended to get their marriage annulled as soon as possible. It wouldn’t be too difficult for an eighteen year old to start over again.

A few days prior to the end of 1931, Cornelia had bumped in to her soon-to-be ex-spouse when she returned to their former home at 1135 South Catalina Street to get some clothing.  She was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover that his mood hadn’t lightened, in fact he appeared to be as morose as ever.

Timothy had been sitting alone in the apartment brooding over how he could change his circumstances—and he had devised a plan.

The Spring Street financial district, located north of Fourth Street and south of Seventh Street, was the beating heart of capitalism in the city in 1931 and there were at least twenty banks concentrated within a few blocks.

It was shortly after 2 pm on the last day of 1931 when Timothy Blevins, clutching a small black case, stepped over the threshold into the crowded lobby of the Security-First National Bank hoping to get lucky.

black owl bomb

The Black Owl’s “infernal machine being shown off by two unnamed LAPD detectives. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Tracy Q. Hall, the vice president of the bank, was in his office and there were at least a dozen customers waiting to have a word with him.  Blevins strode up to the rail which enclosed Hall’s office and set the case he had been carrying down near Hall, then he handed the banker a note. The crudely printed note, written on a blank check from the Bank of America, contained a demand for $100,000 and stated that there was enough explosive in the bag to turn the block into smoke and ashes.

Hall quietly read the note and then glanced up slowly to take the measure of the man who would dare to make such a loathsome threat. Blevins decided to drive his point home and reveal the contents of the case; he snapped open the catch and suddenly the “infernal machine” (a bomb) was visible.

The two men continued to hold each other’s gaze but Blevins blinked first. He released his grasp on the case, whirled around and ran for the exit.  Hall grabbed at the fleeing man but just missed him.  The failed robber continued to run, and in his haste he knocked down Peter J. Anderson, a patron of the bank and proprietor of a garage at 221 East Fifth Street.

LAPD Traffic Officer Olson

LAPD Traffic Officer Olsen

Anderson let out a cry, and so did Hall who was in hot pursuit of the fleeing man. Blevins dashed out into Fifth Street and it looked like he was leading a parade. Behind him were Anderson, Hall, and Sam Sulzbacher, the bank’s doorman. When they reached Main Street, Traffic Officer R. W. Olsen joined the chase.

Blevins ducked into a theater on Main Street but Officer Olsen had seen him go into the building. Naturally Blevins tried to blend in with the theater crowd, but it was no use—Olsen found him and took him into custody.

While Blevins was being escorted to police headquarters, Hall turned the infernal machine over to LAPD Captains McCaleb and Malina. Upon examination of the device they found a dry battery wired to a quart jar full of ethyl gasoline. Also inside the case there was an empty milk can and a small bottle of carbide powder; above the quart bottle were two brown sticks of dynamite.

On the lid of the box, printed with black paint, was a bold threat:

 “The Black Owl.  Will deal you death.  Don’t talk”

Then McCaleb and Malina read the note that the suspect had handed to Hall:

 “There are enough explosive here to tear up the block.  Read carefully.  Do exactly as told.  Starting with biggest denominations fill bag.  We will go to the vault first.  When I have enough you will take me out back door.  Get me a taxi.  Then take your time going back, for I have to take care of you.  If you describe me too well this will not fail to work.  There is poison gas to kill every one within.”

At police headquarters Blevins, sullen and mumbling incoherently, refused to make any statement other than to tell the cops: “you can call me Dave Lowre.”  Then he made an attempt to grab Officer Olsen’s weapon, but half a dozen detectives jumped on him and prevented his escape. He became slightly more cooperative following his aborted escape attempt, but he never revealed the inspiration for his nom de felon.

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective.  [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy was arraigned in Municipal Court and his bail was fixed at $10,000—he was clearly going nowhere.

The complaint against Blevins charged him with burglary, attempted robbery and violation of Section 601 of the Penal Code in that he transported dynamite into a public building, thereby endangering the lives of others.

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Timothy originally pleaded insanity, but he decided to withdraw that plea.  Instead he entered a plea of guilty to the charge of illegally transporting dynamite into a public building. The likely reason for his change of plea was that he’d be permitted to file an application for probation if he wasn’t insane.

Obviously Timothy hoped that he’d be granted probation but it was not to be. He was found guilty, denied probation and sentenced to San Quentin Prison.

I haven’t been able to discover the length of Blevin’s prison term (he would not have been given less than one year) but following his release he must have kept his nose clean because his name never again appeared in the local newspapers.

The Black Owl had retired from his brief and unsuccessful life of crime.

NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime fiend, Mike Fratantoni, for introducing me to this deranged case.

Death of a Detective, Conclusion

Jack Green confessed to his role in the murder of Detective Lieutenant Crowley in the Fox Wilshire Theater in Westwood on January 11, 1932. He named his accomplice, James Francis Regan, as the the one who had fired the shots that felled the detective.

crowley obitWith Green in custody, LAPD officers were turning over every rock in the L.A. area. They had managed, through a lead given them by Green, to locate the doctor who had rendered aid to Regan shortly after the shooting. The cops figured that there was a better than even chance that Regan had succumbed to his wounds and was either lying dead along a roadside or his criminal companions had disposed of his body in some remote location.

Green testified at the inquest conducted by Deputy Coroner Monfort at the Hall of Justice. Green offered his pathetic excuse for the slaying:

“We didn’t mean to kill Crowley. We thought he was the manager. He just walked into it, that was all. We heard him enter the lobby while we were in the office and stepped outside to meet him. He saw us, jerked out his gun and started shooting. One bullet whizzed past my face and burned me. Regan then grabbed his gun and started shooting.”

According to Green, he and Regan ran from the theater:

“I looked back as both Regan and I ran from the theater and saw Crowley on the floor. Regan was wounded by a bullet from the officer’s gun, and we stumbled across a vacant lot to where an automobile was parked in front of a store. As we climbed into the car, a woman ran out, but we drove away and abandoned the car at Gardner Avenue and Sunset Blvd. We took a cab from there to Joe’s apartment.”

Once at the apartment Green tried to locate a doctor.

“I phoned a friend of Joe’s and he called a doctor. I don’t know the doctor’s name. After that I went home to bed. Before going home I burned some of Joe’s clothes and sent his suit to the cleaners.”

Deputy Coroner Monfort asked Green pointblank about his involvement in the attempted hold-up.

Green responded:

“I was in on the hold-up, but I didn’t shoot. I had a gun but threw it away after we left the theater.”

Green’s gun, discovered by a gardener, was introduced in evidence at the inquest. Green said he had no idea where Regan had gone after the doctor came and dressed his wound.

“The bullet went right through him and he was in bad shape,” Green said.

crowley spot killerInspector of Detectives Davidson issued a plea through the local press asking citizens to phone in with any tips as to Regan’s whereabouts. Davidson seemed to feel that the best chance law enforcement had of catching up with Regan was through a member of the public noticing something unusual and making a call.

“We have run down every clew leading through underworld channels without success. Green was caught through citizens observing him enter his room at 956 North Western Avenue after he and Regan had abandoned the stolen automobile they used to get away from the scene of the shooting. Perhaps the same kind of tip will lead us to Regan’s rendezvous.”

About a week after Crowley’s murder the nude, bullet-riddled body of a man was found near El Centro, but his description didn’t match that of Regan. Cops were back to square one.nude corpose

Detectives located two people they thought may have assisted Regan — Mrs. Joan Murray, who was suspected of having rented the Wilshire district apartment where Regan was kept for three days following the shooting; and Leo Boster who was supposed to have procured the car in which Regard was taken to San Francisco. During interrogation Murray and Boster provided cops with information which lead officers to the San Francisco flat where Regan was captured.

Regan was in bad shape as a result of the slug he’d taken to his abdomen, Crowley’s final act, but he was well enough to start shifting the blame for Crowley’s murder to his accomplice, Jack Green.

According to Detectives Condaffer and McMullen, during the trip from San Francisco to L.A. Regan admitted firing the shots that had killed Crowley, but when he was taken to the theater and asked to re-enact the shooting Regan was non-committal.

“Don’t ask me that; you know I can’t talk about it.”

When he was asked if he had anything to say for himself, Regan said:

“No, I guess not.”

Then, as if it was a valid excuse, he added:

“I was shot first.”

Regan was positively ID’d by the three men he and Green had bound and gagged in the office at the Fox Wilshire Theater. Regan’s only comment was:

“I suppose I’ll be hung.”

A jury found Jack Green and Joseph Regan guilty of murder in the first degree and recommended the death sentence — neither man showed any emotion as the verdict was read.

The verdicts were appealed, but the California Supreme Court upheld the murder convictions, as well as the conviction of the pair on a first-degree burglary charge.

A dead man walking can become extremely desperate, and Regan attempted to finger a third man who was supposed to have been involved in the robbery that resulted in the fatal shooting of Lt. Hugh Crowley. The man named by Regan was a Folsom convict, Thomas Kelly. According to Regan, Kelly was employed by a Los Angeles bond house and it was his idea, not Green’s or Regan’s, to hold-up the theater. Green and Regan each received a reprieve while the legal wrangling continued.hugh_photo

Governor Rolph had been urged by six of the jurors to sustain their original verdict and hang the two cop killers. Other members of the jury had evidently had second thoughts about the verdict and felt that the killers should be allowed to live.

Jack Green won the death penalty lotto when his sentence was commuted by Governor Rolph to life without the possibility of parole — but Regan would still walk the thirteen steps to the gallows because he actually fired the shot that killed Crowley.

Many citizens were outraged that Governor Rolph ignored the fact that Green had planned the crime which resulted in Hugh Crowley’s death, and it was Green who had asked Joseph Regan to be his accomplice.  It seemed obvious that both men should have been equally culpable but, as Mr. Bumble said in Dickens’ Oliver Twist: “…the law is an ass.”

 I agree.

Film Noir Friday: “M”


It’s Film Noir Friday at the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater. Tonight’s feature is the 1931 classic “M”, directed by Fritz Lang. The following is portion of a review written by Roger Ebert:

The horror of the faces: That is the overwhelming image that remains from a recent viewing of the restored version of “M,”Fritz Lang’s famous 1931 film about a child murderer in Germany. In my memory it was a film that centered on the killer, the creepy little Franz Becker, played by Peter Lorre. But Becker has relatively limited screen time, and only one consequential speech–although it’s a haunting one. Most of the film is devoted to the search for Becker, by both the police and the underworld, and many of these scenes are played in closeup. In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon “piglike.’ — Robert Ebert / August 3, 1997