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.

Cops Behaving Badly: Edward P. Nolan, Part 1

During Prohibition people drank whatever they could get their hands on, and it wasn’t always quality juice.  Shady characters who distilled booze in basements and warehouses weren’t concerned with anything other than profit.  Manufacturing overnight whiskey made from “…refuse, burned grain or hay or any old thing that will sour” posed a serious danger to people’s physical and mental health.


According to a St. Louis newspaper article from August 30, 1933 (just a few months prior to repeal):

“Here are some of the things called for in different formulas that go to make up our modern whisky:

Peppers, all kinds; prune juice, caramel, Acetic ether, tobacco, creosote, sulphuric acid, butyric ether, extract vanilla, sorghum waste, artifical bead, cenanthic ether, amyl alcohol, butyrate of amyl, fusel oil, extract of orris, acetic acid, tannic acid, oil bitter almond, muriatic acid, tartaric acid, oil of cedar, oil of fennel, catechu, alum, cloves, castile soap, and a little pure aged whisky.”

The article continued:

“Not too much whisky should be added, as that might be expensive; about 1 gallon to 20.  Blend is what the public is getting drunk and sodden on today, and not whisky, but whisky gets the blame.  The man over stimulated from alcohol makes a quick recovery.   The soft-nerved wreck depressed with blend, mentally and physically mortified and shattered, seldom makes a complete recovery.”

After several cocktails containing a noxious blend of chemicals a person might be capable of anything.


A native New Yorker, Edward P. Nolan had come to Los Angeles to make his fortune in the budding film industry. He was much luckier than most Hollywood hopefuls because during 1914 and 1915 he appeared in shorts with Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Marie Dressler.  His most noteworthy appearances were in The Face on the Barroom Floor and Between Showers (both from 1914). He doesn’t appear to have worked in film between 1915 (Hogan’s Wild Oats) and 1920 when he appeared opposite Leatrice Joy and James O. Barrows in Down Home.

Nolan played the bartender in "Face on the Barroom Floor"

Nolan played the bartender in “Face on the Barroom Floor”

What Nolan did for a living during the five years between acting gigs is anyone’s guess, but by 1922 he had joined the LAPD and risen to the rank of Detective Lieutenant.  Maybe policing wasn’t such a big stretch for Nolan; after all, he’d played a cop several times in the movies.

On June 16, 1931, Nolan made a dramatic arrest of an extortionist, George Freese.  Freese had sent anonymous death threats to A.H. Wittenberg, president of the Mission Hosiery Mills in an attempt to get $700 out of him. The bust went down like this: Freese instructed Wittenberg to hand the pay-off over to a taxi-cab driver-messenger who would then deliver the cash to him.  Nolan had been living with the Wittenberg family for several days as their protector.

When the phone call from the extortionist came, Nolan took down the details and made a plan. He prepared a dummy package and when the cab driver appeared outside the Wittenberg home Nolan concealed himself in the auto and told the driver to proceed to the rendezvous point. Detective Lieutenants Leslie and McMullen followed in a police car.

Freese was waiting at the corner of First Street and La Brea Avenue to collect the money. As he accepted the dummy package he was grabbed by Nolan and the two other detectives.

Freese confessed immediately–he held a grudge against Wittenberg because six months earlier he had been turned down for a salesman’s job at the hosiery company. Freese said that he and his family needed the money because they’d fallen on hard times–a common enough predicament for people during the Great Depression.

The day following the successful conclusion of the Wittenberg case, Nolan and his 36 year old divorced girlfriend, Grace Murphy Duncan, were together at the Lankershim Hotel. The couple spent a lot of time at the hotel while Nolan sought a divorce from his wife, Avasinia. Once the divorce was final Duncan and Nolan planned to marry.

Photo of Lankershim Hotel courtesy of LAPL.

Photo of Lankershim Hotel courtesy of LAPL.

At about 6:30 pm on the evening of June 17 1931, Mrs. Helen Burleson, who was visiting from San Francisco, left her upper floor room and headed for Nolan’s room on the second floor. She had wanted to consult with him on a private matter. When she entered the room she saw that Grace was there and noticed that the couple had been drinking heavily. The lovers began to quarrel and Nolan shoved Duncan out of the room and threw her coat into the hallway after her.

helen burleson_crop

Helen and Grace went up to Helen’s room and talked about Nolan’s bad behavior. Grace wanted to drop a dime on him to the LAPD brass, but Helen talked her out of it.

While Grace and Helen were talking a trio of traveling salesmen, Robert V. Williams, Dan Smith, and Jimmy Balfe went up to Robert’s room to catch a ball game on the radio. Robert said:

“After a while the lights went on in a room across the light well and we saw two women enter the room.  Smith said he recognized Mrs. Burleson and he telephoned to her room and asked her if she wanted to come over and listen to the radio. Mrs. Duncan with her, and I don’t believe the two were in the room five minutes before Nolan burst in.  The ball game had ended and I had dialed some music.  It was about 10:30 o’clock.  Mrs. Duncan and I were dancing.  Nolan walked right up to her and said: ‘What do you mean by making up to this fellow?’  He pushed her over on the bed.  Then he turned to me and said, ‘I saw you kissing her.”  Then he hit me.  I staggered back into the bathroom.”

 The violence was about to escalate.

NEXT TIME:  Murder in room 815.