Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and concluded he was innocent. Her interview earned her a by-line. As far as I know she was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the case.
Several people have taken credit for uncovering the Black Dahlia moniker; Aggie among them. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, a LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”
Like it? Aggie loved it. Los Angeles, in particular the Hearst newspapers, seemed to have a penchant for naming homicide cases after flowers. Over the years orchids, roses, and gardenias would feature in many grim headlines.
Aggie longed to be back in the field chasing leads and sniffing out suspects, but she was officially off the case for the second time. About her newsroom embroidery project Aggie said: “Although I got damn tired of it, I kept my needle going until the quitting hour. Early the next morning the assistant city editor announced that the city editor had made an overnight assignment for me to go back to homicide and continue on the ‘Black Dahlia’ case.”
Once again Aggie was pulled off the case, but this time she learned that her new assignment was the city desk. She said she was: “Completely unwarned. I was the most surprised person in Los Angeles.” She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily!
Aggie at a crime scene (not the Dahlia) c. 1940s.
Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? People are drawn to conspiracies, no matter how unlikely, and there are those who believe there was a cover-up and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder. Theorists have suggested someone with enough juice got Aggie promoted to keep her out of the way. That doesn’t make sense to me, as city editor she directed the activities of all the reporters working the case, and she wasn’t the sort of person who would take a pay-off. Nevertheless, the timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part Dahlia lore.
With Aggie back in the thick of things, the Herald continued to follow every lead. Sadly, the victim of a homicide is often re-victimized by the press and the public. Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed, and in an effort to fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Elizabeth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s very own shrink. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master and the victim was the slave”.
Dr. De River
In one of his most chilling statements, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died”.
People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth (who frequently called herself Betty, Bette or Beth) were interviewed by reporters and they weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.
In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.
When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by, “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.” Fowler did not claim to be a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.
Robert “Red” Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]
During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said Red phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”
January 19th, 10:00 p.m.–LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, staked out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive. When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest. Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.
Robert “Red” Manley busted in Eagle Rock — handcuffed by LAPD Sgt Sam Flowers. Photo courtesy LAPL.
Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:
“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers. That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.
“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied. Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.
“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled. “You’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole story; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”
Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.
Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.
Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red was forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.
If there was one thing Aggie detested, it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”
Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL. Yes, that’s a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had her own a way of dealing with over zealous Hollywood press agents. Concealed in her desk drawer is a starter pistol which she used to gain the attention of dozing reporters. She’d fire it at the ceiling and shout, “Don’t let this paper die today.” Aggie had a flair!
It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos.
Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story? Without any warning or explanation Aggie found herself benched. The city editor pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.
Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. Other newsroom denizens snickered. Another newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”
The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time. What the hell was going on?
It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or drunk woman, passed out near the sidewalk. Had she been thrown out of a car by a boyfriend? That particular area was known as a lover’s lane. Once Betty got a closer look, she realized she was in a waking nightmare. The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”
Over the years several reportera claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One them was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were near Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an announcement on the shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”
Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. After all these years does it really matter who was first
Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.
All those who saw the murdered girl that day were shocked and horrified. Aggie described what she observed in her 1949 autobiography.
“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.
Two LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.
The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.
Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered–the Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
Frank Lovejoy with Betty Winkler and director, Himan Brown
From February 6, 1950 to September 25, 1952, Frank Lovejoy starred as Randy Stone in the NBC radio series Night Beat. The series was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Wheaties breakfast cereal.
On September 18, 1950 at the end of the episode entitled Wanna Buy a Story? Frank Lovejoy was presented with an award by none other than Aggie Underwood. At the time Aggie was only a few years in to her post as City Editor of the Evening Herald and Express. Her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, had been out for about a year before this episode of Night Beat aired, and it was a great opportunity for her to plug the book.
According to Wikipedia, Ripperologist editor Paul Begg offered this description of the series:
Broadcast on NBC, Nightbeat… starred Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone, a tough and streetwise reporter who worked the nightbeat for the Chicago Star, looking for human interest stories. He met an assortment of people, most of them with a problem, many of them scared, and sometimes he was able to help them, sometimes he wasn’t. It is generally regarded as a “quality” show, and it stands up extremely well. Frank Lovejoy (1914–1962) isn’t remembered today, but he was a powerful and believable actor with a strong delivery, and his portrayal of Randy Stone as tough guy with humanity was perfect. The scripts were excellent, given that they had to cover much in a short time. There was a good supporting cast, orchestra and sound effects. “The Slasher,” broadcast on 10 November 1950, the last show of season one, has a very loosely Ripper-derived plot in which Stone searches for an artist.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.
Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.
The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I will be making remarks at about 7pm.
I hope to see you there!
Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar.
Portrait of Aggie Underwood taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy of Scott Martinez.
Agness “Aggie” Underwood passed away 29 years ago today. We never met but she has had a profound influence on my life, particularly during the last several years.
I’ve been obsessed with crime novels and true crime since I was a kid, and my compulsion to read it has never diminished. Writing about true crime is a relatively new endeavor for me and I attribute that, in large part, to Aggie’s influence. She is the inspiration for this blog and for the Deranged L.A. Crimes Facebook page, and I am proud to have authored her Wikipedia page — she was long over due for recognition.
As I’ve dug deeper into the crimes that have shocked and, in some ways, defined Los Angeles, I’ve felt Aggie’s presence. Aggie worked in Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the late 1960s — and for nearly two decades she was a reporter. My interest in history and crime set me on the path to write about it, but it’s been my admiration for Aggie that has made me want to tackle many of the same cases that she wrote about.
I gave a lecture at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles on June 29th entitled SLEEPING BEAUTIES: DERANGED L.A. CRIMES FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF AGGIE UNDERWOOD — here is an excerpt from my presentation. I hope you enjoy it.
In 1926 as a young wife and mother Aggie had no interest in working outside the home, but she wanted a pair of silk stockings in the worst way. When her husband, Harry, told her that there wasn’t enough money in the budget for her to buy them, Aggie said she’d get a job and earn the money.
Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]
Aggie quickly realized that she may have put her foot in her mouth rather than into a new pair of silk stockings; she didn’t have a clue about where to find work. Fate intervened when a friend of hers, who worked at the THE RECORD, phoned and told her that the newspaper needed someone to temporarily operate the switchboard. Aggie took the job and it would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of her life.
Aggie came to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the newsroom and she loved being in the midst of a breaking story. In December 1927, the city was horrified when William Edward Hickman, who called himself “The Fox” murdered and then butchered twelve year old school girl, Marian Parker. Hickman fled after the murder and the resulting manhunt was one of the biggest in the West.
Marian Parker [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
In her autobiography Aggie recalled how she felt when they got the word that Hickman had been captured in Oregon:
“As the bulletins pumped in and the city-side worked furiously at localizing, I couldn’t keep myself in my niche. I committed the unpardonable sin of looking over shoulders of reporters as they wrote. I got under foot. In what I thought was exasperation, Rod Brink, the city editor, said:
‘All right, if you’re so interested, take this dictation.’
I typed the dictation—part of the main running story. I was sunk. I wanted to be a reporter.”
She eventually got her wish and began reporting on stories for THE RECORD. Smart and hardworking, she made a name for herself locally and was courted by William Randolph Hearst for his publishing empire.
She resisted his overtures (and even his offers of more money) because she was happy at THE RECORD. The smaller paper gave her the opportunity to learn all aspects of the business – she thought working for Hearst might pigeon-hole her.
It wasn’t until THE RECORD folded in 1935 that Aggie agreed to become a reporter for THE HERALD. She said that she had heard the term “working for Hearst” uttered contemptuously; but she had been too busy learning her craft to pay much attention to the gibes.
Aggie interviewing a mourner at Angelus Temple.
“…I did not feel I stigmatized myself when I accepted the HERALD-EXPRESS offer. The invitation was a life line, and one did not need to be bereft of ideals to tie onto it.”
In her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie described what it was like to be a reporter on the Herald:
“The Herald-Express is too fast for the sort of reporter who flounders when he is required to produce a new lead on a running story for each upcoming edition “
Aggie never floundered. She had reported from the scenes of disasters like the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and she’d also covered some of the most heinous crimes committed in the city.
1933 Long Beach earthquake [Photo courtesy LAPL]
During the 1930s there were several daily papers in Los Angeles and Aggie had to be a fierce competitor. In her autobiography Aggie wrote about the time she beat another reporter to some photos:
“Once, on a rather cheap murder and suicide, Casey Shawhan, then an Examiner reporter, and I were rifling a bureau drawer for pictures—no we weren’t housebreaking—when we grasped a pile of photographs simultaneously. The tug of war was unequal, for Casey had played football at U.S.C. So I kicked him in the shin. He let go of the pictures and, clasping his bruise, danced on his other leg, howling, ‘O-o-h, gahdammit. I’ll get even with you, Underwood. You wait and see.’” I didn’t wait. I was scurrying off to the office with the pictures.”
Aggie thought of herself as a general assignment reporter; however, she gained a reputation as a crime reporter. Good detectives are observers and so are good reporters, which may explain why stories circulated that Aggie had solved crimes.
Aggie interviewing an unknown bad dame at Lincoln Heights Jail. [Photo courtesy of CSUN Special Collections]
In late 1939, Aggie went out on a story that appeared to be a tragic accident – a family of five had been killed when their car had tumbled hundreds of feet down a mountainside near the Mt. Wilson Observatory. There was one survivor, the husband and father of the victims, Laurel Crawford.
Aggie wasn’t allowed to interview him because cops felt he’d been through enough; however, Aggie made a deal with one of the deputies who allowed her to listen in while Crawford was being questioned. Aggie observed the man, and she had a hunch. One of the Sheriff’s department homicide investigators asked Aggie:
“What do you think of it, Aggie?”
She didn’t hesitate, and replied:
“I think it smells. He’s guilty as hell.”
Aggie had observed not only Crawford’s demeanor, which led her to believe his display of grief was disingenuous, but she had also noticed that his shoes weren’t scuffed, and his clothing wasn’t dirty, torn or wrinkled, which made his story of climbing down the mountain to the wreckage of the family sedan pretty tough to believe. Additionally, Crawford had stated that he had picked up the body of one of his daughters and held her, but there was no evidence of blood on his clothing. Aggie’s Spidey-Sense was engaged.
A thorough investigation of the case proved that Crawford had taken out insurance policies on each of the victims, worth a total of $30,500 (that’s over half a million in today’s money!) Laurel Crawford was sentenced to four consecutive life terms with a recommendation that he never be paroled.
For years Aggie covered everything from celebrity trials to gruesome murders. In January 1947 arguably the most infamous murder case in L.A.’s history broke; the mutilation slaying of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short.
Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia [Photo courtesy LAPL]
Underwood was assigned to the story. There have been several people over the years who have claimed credit for naming the victim The Black Dahlia; and Aggie was one of them. Aggie said that the Black Dahlia tag was dug out on a day when everyone was combing blind alleys. She decided to check in with Ray Giese, a Det. Lt. in LAPD homicide, to see if any stray fact may have been overlooked.
According to Aggie, he said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach”. Like it? She LOVED it!
Aggie interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first serious suspect in the Black Dahlia case, and she was prepared to follow the story to its conclusion when without warning, she was benched.
Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]
After a couple of days of cooling her heels in the newsroom she decided to bring in her embroidery hoop. Pretty soon she heard snickers. Aggie said that one of her colleagues laughed out loud and said:
“What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”
Aggie was quickly reassigned to the Dahlia case, and just as quickly yanked off of it. It was then that she was given the news that she was being promoted to city editor! Aggie said she never understood the timing of her promotion – she would have preferred to follow the Dahlia story until it went cold. But it was an important moment in her career and for women in journalism – Aggie was the first woman in the U.S. to become the City Editor of a major metropolitan newspaper!
Louise had never denied burying Mrs. Margaret Logan’s body in a shallow grave at the deceased woman’s Pacific Palisades home, but she told several colorful stories about how Logan ended up dead in the first place.
As in her first murder trial for the slaying of Jacob Denton over twenty years earlier, Peete claimed to be broke and was assigned a public defender, Ellery Cuff. Cuff had an uphill battle, the evidence against Peete was compelling.
For the most part Louise sat quietly as the prosecution drew deadly parallels between the 1920 murder of Jacob Denton and the 1944 murder of Margaret Logan; however, she disrupted the trial during testimony by police chemist Ray Pinker. From the witness stand Pinker testified to a conversation between Louise and LAPD homicide captain Thad Brown. (In 1947 Thad Brown’s brother, Finis, would be one of the lead detectives in the Black Dahlia case.)
Pinker said that prior to the discovery of Mrs. Logan’s body in a shallow grave in the backyard of her home, Brown had faced Peete and said: “Louise, have you blow your top again and done what you did before?” To which she replied: “Well, my friends told me that I would blow my top again. I want to talk to Gene Biscailuz (L.A. County Sheriff).” Louise spun around in her chair at the defense table and shouted “That is not all of the conversation.” Her attorney quieted her.
Pinker testified to how he had found the mound covering Mrs. Logan’s body. He said that he had observed a slight rise in the ground which was framed by flower pots. The cops didn’t have to dig very deep before uncovering Margaret Logan’s remains. When Louise was asked to face the grave she turned away and hid her face with her handbag.
All of Pinker’s testimony was extremely damaging to Peete’s case. In particular he said he tested a gun found Mrs. Peete’s berdroom, and when he tested the bullets they were consistent with the .32 caliber round found lodged beneath the plaster in the living room of the Logan home.
The prosecution’s case was going to be difficult to refute. It must have been a tough call for the defense when they decided to allow Louise to take the stand. Louise could be volatile and unpredictable.
Louise testified that Mrs. Logan had phoned her to ask if she’d keep house for her while she was working at Douglas Aircraft Company. Louise went on to say that when she arrived at the Logan home she found Margaret badly bruised, allegedly the result of Mr. Logan kicking her in the face.
Mr. Logan would be unable to refute any of Louise’s allegations because he had died, just days before, in the psychiatric hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Logan had been committed to the hospital by Louise, masquerading as his sister!
Logan’s death was a boon for Louise and she took full advantage of it by blaming him for his wife’s death. Louise was asked to recreate her story which had Arthur Logan shooting and battering his wife, but she appeared to be squeamish. When she was shown the murder gun and asked by the judge to pick it up to demonstrate how Arthur Logan had used it to kill his wife, Louise said: “I will not take that gun up in my hand.”
Louise’s attorney tried valiantly to contradict the evidence against his client. Would the jury believe him and acquit her?
In his summation District Attorney Fred N. Howser addressed the jury:
“Mrs. Peete has violated the laws of man and the laws of God. She killed a woman because she coveted her property. Any verdict short of first degree murder would be an affront to the Legislature. If this crime doesn’t justify the death penalty, then acquit her.”
The jury of 11 women and 1 man found Louise Peete guilty of the first degree murder of Margaret Logan. With that verdict came a death sentence.
Judge Harold B. Landreth pronounced the sentence:
“It is the judgement and sentence of this court for the crime of murder in the first degree of which you, the said Louise Peete, have been convicted by the verdict of the jury, carrying with it the extreme penalty of the law, that you, the said Louise Peete, be delivered by the Sheriff to the superintendent of the California Instution for Women at Tehachapi. There you will be held pending the decision of this case on appeal, whereupon said Louise Peete be delivered to the warden of the State Prison at San Quentin to be by him executed and put to death by the administration of lethal gas in the manner provided by the laws of the State of California.”
It was reported that Louise took her sentence “like a trouper”.
On June 7, 1945, Louise Peete began her journey from the L.A. County Jail to the women’s prison at Tehachapi to wait out the appeals process.
Louise lost the appeals which may have commuted her death penalty sentence to life in prison. On April 9, 1947 an eleventh hour bid to save her life was made to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court denied the appeal.
Louise would die.
A crush of reporters spent time with Louise on her last night; among them was, of course, Aggie Underwood.
Aggie had interviewed Louise numerous times over the years, and she managed to get at least two exclusives. In her autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie devoted a few pages to her interactions with Louise, which I’ll share:
“With other L.A. reporters, I interviewed her there for the last time before she was taken to San Quentin to be executed April 11, 1947.”
“Like other reporters, I suppose I was striving for the one-in-a-million chance: that she would slip, or confess either or both murders, Denton’s in 1920 and Mrs. Logan’s on or about May 29, 1944.’
Louise would not slip; but Aggie gave it her best try. Interestingly, Aggie said that she never addressed Louise as anything but Mrs. Peete. Why? Here is her reasoning:
“I called her Mrs. Peete. A direct attack would not have worked with her; it would have been stupid to try it. She knew the homicide mill and its cogs. She had bucked the best reporters, detectives, and prosecutors as far back as 1920, when, as a comely matron believed to be in her thirties, she had been tagged the ‘enigma woman’ by the Herald.”
“So I observed what she regarded as her dignity. Though I was poised always for an opening, I didn’t swing the conversations to anything so nasty as homicide.”
And in a move that would have occurred only to a woman, Aggie spent one of her days off finding a special eyebrow pencil for Louise:
“…with which she browned her hair, strand by strand. I didn’t go back to jail and hand it to her in person. Discreetly I sent it by messenger, avoiding the inelegance of participating in a utilitarian device to thwart nature which had done her a dirty trick in graying her. Royalty doesn’t carry money in its pockets.”
About Louise, Aggie said: “She wasn’t an artless little gun moll.” No, she wasn’t.
Lofie Louise Preslar Peete was executed in the gas chamber on April 11, 1947– it took about 10 minutes for her to die. She was the second woman to die in California’s gas chamber; two others would follow her.