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.

Film Noir Friday: “M”

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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

http://youtu.be/WCEzfjERfvo