The Department of Water and Power Caper, Part 1

The 1920s are often recalled as the decade of bob-haired flappers, bootleg booze, and giddy stunts (like flag pole sitting); but it was also a decade of less benign pursuits—like an audacious day-time robbery.

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Chief Ed “Two Gun” Davis, LAPD

On Monday, September 26, 1927, bandits robbed the city’s Department of Water and Power of $73,600 in cash (equivalent to $989,437.79 in current U.S. dollars). That was bad, but what was even worse was the proximity of the scene of the crime to LAPD’s Central Station–just a block away.

To say that Chief Davis was annoyed by the affront to his authority is an understatement. He told assembled reporters and concerned citizens:

“Our men have been sent out to bring into the station every suspected man on the streets, in rooming-houses, bungalow courts, apartments and hotels who cannot give a good account of himself.  We ask all good citizens who carry guns to leave them off because we are going to bring in every man with a gun and try to procure a maximum jail sentence for him.  We will bring in and attempt to get a maximum vagrancy sentence for every person who cannot explain his idleness or presence under suspicious circumstances.  We are going to search automobiles, persons and rooms and ask good citizens to be patient as we are trying to round up an incarcerate all of the type that has been precipitating these crimes.  Policemen have been instructed to be especially courteous and we appeal for public support because the move is for the public good.”

Obviously the Chief wasn’t a big fan of the Fourth Amendment. In fact a few years later, in 1933, when LAPD was hunting a married couple who had spent their honeymoon on a crime spree Davis would be quoted as saying that constitutional rights were of “no benefit to anybody but crooks and criminals”.  While I don’t agree, I understand his frustration with laws that sometimes do a better job of protecting perpetrators than victims.

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The robbers’ plan was as perfectly choreographed as a performance of the Ballet Russe. It began with the kidnapping of Fred C. Kimple, a watchman for the water and power bureau. As was his routine on paydays Fred left the Clovis and Ninety-Eighth Street warehouse branch at about 6:30 a.m. to go down to the main office and stand guard at the cashier’s office. He only got as far as Ninety-Sixth Street when a sedan with a man on the running board brandishing a blue-steel revolver crowded him to the curb. It must have been frightening when his kidnappers called him by name:

“Come on Fred, let your gun alone and you won’t be hurt.”

Fred asked them who they worked for and they replied:

“Well, we’re from the Aqueduct.  They made bums out of us and we’re going to get even.”

[NOTE: For those of you unfamiliar with the contentious history of the L.A. Aqueduct, I refer you to the 1975 film “Chinatown”; it is a fictionalized version for sure, but you’ll get the idea.]

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Fred was pulled out his car, shoved to the floor of the bandit’s sedan and covered with a robe.  He later  said they didn’t harm him and that after riding around for quite some time he was ordered out of the car. He found himself in the sparsely populated district near the Midwick Country Club.  It took him a while, but he finally found a telephone and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile, Cashier George Pessell arrived at the bureau office at about 7:30 a.m. He entered through a “trick” door into the counter clerk’s compartment that led to the cashier’s room.  George later told police:

“I saw two men seated at the desk with green eyeshades on their heads, and thinking they were clerks, I went on into the cashier’s office. Then the assistant, L.H. Brockway, came in and was opening up the smaller safe and Paymaster S.F. Arthur arrived.  As Arthur stepped in, the two ‘clerks’ came up.  One shoved a gun against his back and the other covered me through the little window, and they made their way inside the cage.”

Once they were inside the robbers worked fast.  They forced rubber balls, though which strings had been run, into the mouths of Pessell, Brockway and Arthur and tied gags on them. With a gun pressed into him Pessell was forced to open the large safe, and then the three employees were bound up with cotton web straps and made to lie on the floor.  One of the crooks pulled out a sugar sack and started cramming it full with every bit of cash he could see.

Milton Fischel, a bureau employee on his way to work, saw two men leaving the building through the entrance onto Broadway, but there was nothing unusual about them so Milton didn’t give them another thought until he found his three bound co-workers.  He released them and then contacted the police.

Police investigators arrived quickly, they were, after all, just a block away. They began to question the employees to find out if they had noticed anything strange. Frank Albith, an employee on the second floor, said he had noticed two men outside of the bureau at about the time of the crime. Police believe the men may have been lookouts for the two bandits who got the money.

Every employee who came in contact with the gangsters cooperated fully with Captains Cato and Curtis, Detectives Malino, Williams and O’Connor who were working the case. One of the employees, Louise Dolan, said she had noticed two men acting suspiciously a few days before—it was thought likely that the crooks had been casing the place.

Detectives were positive that the two inside men were part of a larger group of bandits, but how many and who were they?  At least the investigators were able to get general descriptions of the robbers who had been inside the bureau. One of them had a scar on his cheek, the other’s nose was taped, and both were between the ages of 30 and 35

It wasn’t much, but it would have to do until they got a break.

NEXT TIME:  The search for the bandits continues.

Aggie and The Fox, Part Four: The Fox Must Hang!

scientific_evidenceOn December 26, 1927 on a train taking him from Pendleton, Oregon to Los Angeles William Edward Hickman confessed to the senseless slaughter of twelve year old school girl, Marion Parker. He told District Attorney Keyes, Chief of Detectives Cline, and Chief of Police Davis that “I am ready to talk. I want to tell the whole story.” The cops said later that Hickman seemed to enjoy recounting details of the kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment.

Hickman admitted that he’d had no accomplice. He said that his motive for the kidnapping was to get $1500 to go to college, he claimed he wanted to go to bible school. And his motive for killing Marion? Hickman said : “I was afraid she would make a noise.” He had murdered her the day following the kidnapping.

The story Hickman told was beyond comprehension.  He said that he had killed Marion by strangling her with a towel. He had knotted it around her throat and pulled it tightly for two minutes before she became unconscious. Once Marion was out, Hickman took his pocket knife and cut a hole in her throat to draw blood. He took her to the bathtub and drained her body of blood.

He cut each arm off at the elbow, and her legs at the knees. Her put her limbs in a cabinet. He removed Marion’s clothing and cut through her body at the waist. At some point during the mutilations he realized that he would lose the ransom he’d demanded if he wasn’t able to produce the kidnapped girl when he arrived at the rendezvous with her father. He wrapped the exposed ends of her arms and waist with paper. He combed her hair, powdered her face and then with a needle and thread he sewed open her eyelids. He wanted to give Perry Parker the illusion that his little girl was still alive.

Local newspapers became obsessed with youthful perpetrators — Hickman was only nineteen. The Record (where Aggie Underwood was watching the case against The Fox unfold) published a photo of Hickman alongside one of Riichard Loeb under the headline: “Why Youths Commit Most Brutal Murders”.

Hickman1-2The photos of Hickman and Loeb compared their features in an attempt to reveal the outward signs of a homicidal youth.  The two young men look nothing alike to me, but that didn’t keep The Record from stating that their “sheik-like hair cuts with side burns, prominent foreheads, deep-set yes, straight and regular noses, and full lips with similar chins” were signs of a killer.  In particular the eyebrows of the young men were described as “one being straighter and lower placed than the other” which, said The Record, was known as a “stigmata of moral degeneracy”!

Richard Loeb was one of a pair of teenage wanna be Nietzschean supermen (his accomplice was Nathan Leopold) who, in 1924, kidnapped and murdered fourteen year old Robert “Bobby” Franks in Chicago. People around the country were horrified that two young men, both of whom came from wealthy families, could commit murder based on their belief that they were superior beings and, as Leopold had written to Loeb: “…exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men.”

The teenagers must have been shocked to discover that they were not exempted from ordinary laws.  In fact,  the two killers would have paid for the crime with their lives if not for their attorney Clarence Darrow. Darrow’s only mandate was to save them from execution, and in that he was successful.

While Hickman was being tried for Marion Parker’s murder, he was also being investigated for a series of pharmacy robberies, one of which had ended in the cold-blooded killing of druggist Ivy Thoms on December 24, 1926. Sixteen year old Welby Hunt was eventually identified as Hickman’s accomplice and he promptly confessed to his part in the fatal drugstore robbery. His confession saved him from hanging. Nothing would save The Fox.

Welby Hunt and William Hickman [Photo is courtesy of LAPL.]

Welby Hunt and William Hickman [Photo is courtesy of LAPL.]

Hickman didn’t have the same advantages as Leopold and Loeb, and he wasn’t represented by Clarence Darrow. He was, according to the district attorney, “…certain to hang”. Hickman was one of the first in the state to try the newly established plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but the jury didn’t buy it. They knew he was evil, but that wasn’t the same thing as being insane.

On February 14, 1928 The Record put out an extra edition with the headline ‘Fox to Hang on April 27″. Hickman and Hunt were each found guilty for the robbery/homicide and each was given a life sentence. The robbery/homicide trial and the inevitable appeals on his death sentence for Marion Parker’s murder delayed Hickman’s date with the hangman, but only for a few months.

HICMAN_HANGSOn October 19, 1928 at San Quentin, William Edward Hickman was taken to the gallows where he fainted as the black hood was placed over his head. According to reports his body sagged and fell sideways  He was unconscious when the hangman raised his hand and three men with poised knives behind a screen on the gallows platform drew the blades simultaneously across three strings. One of the strings released the trap and Hickman slipped through. It took fifteen minutes for him to die. There was a dispute over whether his shortened plunge caused his neck to break, or if he had strangled to death — as Marion Parker had done less than a year before.

Aggie and the Fox, Part Three: The Capture and the Confession

The news of the kidnapping and brutal mutilation murder of twelve year old school girl, Marion Parker, had shocked Los Angeles residents more than any crime in recent memory.

Everyone in the city was following the hunt for Hickman. Aggie Underwood watched the case unfold from the special vantage point of the newsroom at the Los Angeles Daily Record. She read the copy as it was transformed into the headlines that kept Angelenos on the pins and needles awaiting word of Hickman’s capture.

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William Edward Hickman [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The citizens’ outrage manifested itself in the near lynching of a young man who had the misfortune of resembling William Edward Hickman. Other Hickman-look-a-likes were tracked, taunted, and threatened all over the city. More than 7,000 police officers, augmented by 12,000 members of the American Legion, and cops from neighboring cities were out hunting the killer.

Because Hickman’s photo was on the front page of every newspaper from L.A. to San Francisco and beyond, cops were beginning to get a picture of him not only as Marion Parker’s killer, but as a bandit.  People were coming forward who were able to I.D. Hickman as a drugstore robber; and it seemed that when he hadn’t  been sticking up pharmacies he had been cashing bad checks.

Reporters were digging into every corner of Hickman’s life, including the inevitable interviews with neighbors, who described him as a “mild boy”, and his mother who predictably sobbed and referred to him as a “good, clean boy”.

Eva HIckman, mother of "The Fox".

Eva HIckman, mother of “The Fox”. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Mrs. Hickman’s good, clean boy had managed to elude the law from Los Angeles all the way up to Pendleton, Oregon where, on December 22, 1927, he was captured following a car chase on the Columbia River Highway.

Aggie was in the newsroom when the wire came in reporting the capture of William Edward Hickman.  In her excitement she decided to phone her husband with the headline that everyone in Los Angeles was waiting for. Aggie’s friend and mentor Gertrude Price overheard the conversation, and when Aggie was finished Gertrude took her aside and told her that she must never tell anyone, even a family member, about a story until it appeared in print.  At first Aggie was crushed, she’d never have done anything to disappoint Price.  It didn’t take Aggie long to realize that Price wasn’t upset, angry, or disappointed, she was teaching her a fundamental lesson about the newspaper business. It was a lesson that Aggie would never forget.

Hickman's hands.

Hickman’s hands. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

It took Hickman only a few minutes in captivity to begin to shift the blame for Marion Parker’s atrocious murder onto the shoulders of an accomplice he named as Andrew Cramer. He began to weave a story that absolved him from everything that had happened to Marion except for the initial kidnapping.

Hickman said: “Marion and I were like brother and sister.  She liked me but she did not like Cramer, and she said she would like to stay with me all the time.”  He went on to say that he had been gentle with Marion and had even taken her to see a movie on the night before she was killed.

As long as he was in a confessing frame of mind, Hickman admitted to several of the drugstore robberies that he’d been suspected of committing. He claimed to have had an accomplice for those crimes as well.

Hickman smiles as he reads a transcript describing Marion's murder.

Hickman smiles as he reads a transcript describing Marion’s murder.  [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Cops had to follow up on Hickman’s assertion that his accomplice, Cramer, had been the one to murder and mutilate Marion Parker. What they discovered was that there really was a Cramer, three of them actually — and it was Kramer, with a “K”.  The Kramer in question had an unbreakable alibi; he’d been in jail since mid-August. The other two Kramer brothers were also exonerated, which left no one but William Edward Hickman as the sole perpetrator of the unspeakable child murder.

Prior to being returned to Los Angeles, Hickman was examined by Dr. W. D. McNary, superintendent of the Eastern Oregon Asylum for the Insane. Dr. McNary said that Hickman’s mind “…seemed clear. He told a straight, coherent story and never was at a loss for words. There was nothing about him to indicate insanity. He did not differ a bit from hundreds of thousands of other young men”.

Hickman revealed to Dr. McNary that “…he does not like girls, that he is deeply religious and that his ambition was to become a minister. Several times he made mention of God and in discussing his capture took the attitude that since God willed it, that it had to be.”

While awaiting extradition from Oregon to California, Hickman attempted suicide by strangling himself with a handkerchief. He was subdued by a guard. When the first try failed, he immediately tried again to end his life, this time by diving heard first from his bunk to the concrete floor – he was caught around the waist by one of the guards.

Hickman and his captors, Chief Davis, Chief of Detectives Cline, and District Attorney Keyes, all of Los Angeles, were soon to be headed south on Southern Pacific train No. 16.

Hickman would be finally be held to answer for his crimes.

 NEXT TIME: JUSTICE PREVAILS.