WEBINAR–Dead Woman Walking: Louise Peete

Louise Peete had a sketchy past. Acquitted of murder in Texas, she sought a fresh start in Los Angeles. In 1920, Louise met wealthy middle-aged mining executive Jacob Denton. Jacob was a widower, having lost both his wife and child in the recent influenza epidemic. Louise quickly sized him up as a man she could charm.

She wooed him non-stop for several weeks but he refused to marry her. Louise concealed her annoyance and ordered Jacob’s caretaker to dump a ton of earth into the basement of the home because, she said, she planned to raise mushrooms. One of Jacob’s favorite foods.

Jacob disappeared on May 30, 1920.

Louise concocted an outrageous story for people who came by to call. She said Jacob argued violently with a “Spanish-looking woman” who chopped off his arm with a sword! Who was gullible enough to buy her explanation? Evidently, everyone. If pressed, Louise said Jacob survived the horrific amputation, but he was so embarrassed by his missing limb that he’d gone into hiding. If pressed further, Louise said that not only had Jacob lost an arm, he’d also lost a leg! She allayed everyone’s concerns by telling them he’d come out of hiding once he had learned to use his artificial limbs.

Jacob was missing for a few months before his attorney became suspicious. He phoned the cops and asked them to search the house. After digging for about an hour in the basement they uncovered Jacob’s body. All four limbs were intact, but he had a bullet in his head.

Investigators had questions for Louise, but couldn’t locate her. They finally found her and she returned to L.A. to face justice.

On February 8, 1921, a jury sentenced Louise to life in prison for Jacob’s murder.

Louise filed motions for a new trial to no avail. She spent 18 years in prison. Did Louise leave prison a changed woman?

Hell no.

Join me as I delve into the mysterious life and vicious crimes of Louise Peete.

The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s,  it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort—no gathering evidence, no investigation, nada. Read on.

cold turkey pinch

Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was grim. Thanks to Old Man Depression, misery was on the menu. The street lacked all the warmth, joy, and delicious aromas present in other neighborhoods in the city.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson pulled the holiday shift. They sat in the Chicago Café at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past oblivious to those who saw them as easy prey.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators. Drunk rollers were the vultures who robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions.

A man, down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said: “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.”  After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

Chicago Café at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937 [Photo is from Schultheis collection courtesy LAPL]

The man sat quietly nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had passed out.  “Watch me”—then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and rummaged through his pockets.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said: “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as he pulled out his badge and arrested 35-year-old Jack Orchard, their would-be benefactor, for robbery.

May your Thanksgiving be much happier than Jack ‘s (although he got a free beer!) 

Have a great Holiday and stay safe. 

Norris Stensland:The Human Bloodhound

Norris Stensland poses with his homicide car

Norris Stensland was a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from the early 1920s until his retirement in 1951. During those three decades, he worked on many of the most sensational crimes in county history.

Single-handed he captured a fugitive cop-killer, for which he received a diamond studded badge. He was in shoot-outs, interviewed killers, grieving parents, and delinquent children.

When he wasn’t catching crooks, Norris was a keen inventor with an interest in forensic science. His most spectacular invention was a camera gun. It must be seen to be believed.

Was Norris Stensland a law enforcement Renaissance man? I believe he was.

The bespectacled lawman’s unassuming appearance lulled many felons into a false sense of security, but he didn’t earn the nicknames The Human Bloodhound, Sherlock and Little Satan for nothing.

Join me as I uncover facts about the life and career of this legendary Los Angeles lawman.

Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder: 

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 

Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, Crime Reporter

Aggie interviews a tearful dame.

“There is no killer type.  Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover.  It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.

They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.

Killers do not run true to form.  What they have in common is killing.”

The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.

During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.  

Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity. 

Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.

Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.

Film Noir Friday: The Stranger [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is THE STRANGER starring Orson Welles (who also directed), Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.

TCM says:

In post-war Germany, Wilson, an American delegate to the Allied War Crimes Commission, demands that Nazi prisoner of war Meinike be allowed to escape so that he may lead the Commission to his former boss, Franz Kindler, the most dangerous and elusive Nazi of all. Watched carefully by Wilson, the freed Meinike travels to Latin America and there contacts a former Nazi cohort about the whereabouts of Kindler. After some resistance, Meinike learns that Kindler, an avowed clock enthusiast, is living under the name Professor Charles Rankin in a small Vermont town called Harper. 

Dear Mr. Gable, Conclusion

In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.

There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.

In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.

Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,

“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other.  Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”

Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,

“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.” 

The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.

CLARK GABLE WITH HIS STUNT DOUBLE

Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.

Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:

“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable.  It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables.  Hence Clark Gables.”

Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.

The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.

MAE WEST IN ‘EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY”–1937

The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:

“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child.  Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”

Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon. 

Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.

JOSEPHINE DILLON–CLARK GABLE’S FIRST WIFE c. 1919

“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes.  To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”

Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.

In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:

“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”

In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.

For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:

“That’s him.  I’d know him anywhere.”

Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.

Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.

“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”

Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.

The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm.  They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.

As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:

“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began.  It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”

U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.

“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”

Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:

“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”

Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.

“She was simply calling to her sweetheart.  She was sincere,” he said.

It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)

The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.

The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”

If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.

In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.

Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.

Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.

Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.

As Judy writes she sings, You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.

Dear Mr. Gable

From 1931 to 1932, Clark Gable went from relatively unknown to a superstar. Bags crammed full of fan letters from adoring women, and the occasional man, arrived at MGM. One male fan described Gable in a letter to Picture Play magazine:

Tall, dark, and steely eyed, he walks among men, yet strangely apart from his fellows. One minute a nobody, and then–a giant of the screen! Just one more actor looking for his coffee and cake and then–a star of stars!

Seeing him in films like “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “The Finger Points,” and “A Free Soul,” women compared Gable to earlier heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.

Movies provided a welcome escape for Depression-weary audiences. Among the throngs of movie-goers was Violet Wells Norton.  She sat in a darkened theater in Canada, her eyes glued to the screen. Everyone else in the audience saw Clark Gable. Violet didn’t see Gable, she saw Frank Billings, the father of her daughter Gwendolyn.

Frank Billings?

Violet met Frank Billings in 1923 in Billericay, Essex, England.  Billings was her neighbor and one night he overheard Violet and the man she called her husband arguing. Offering a shoulder to cry on, and a warm bed to lie in, Frank Billings fathered a daughter Violet named Gwendolyn.

Frank had no interest in fatherhood, and even less in a woman he considered damaged goods. He abandoned her and left for his home in the U.S.  Violet did not see Frank again until years later when he appeared before her on a movie screen.

In 1925 Violet married Herbert James Norton and moved with him to Winnipeg, Canada. They separated on November 23, 1934.

For two years Violet wrote to Gable. She never received a reply. Gable was aware of the letters and ignored them as the ravings of a crank.

Violet traveled to Hollywood in October 1936 to confront Gable with his teenaged daughter Gwendolyn and convince him to set up a trust fund for her education. Or, failing that, purchase one or all of the four scripts she penned: Gipsy Nell’s Revenge, Love in a Cottage, Love at First Sight and The Spirit Mother.

Gable turned Violet’s letters over to police. He said he was never in England, never met Violet, and was not a papa.

Federal authorities indicted Violet for mail fraud. The letter on which the Feds based the mail fraud charge came from 451 Cumberland Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, mailed on March 9, 1936, addressed to Clark Gable, MGM, Beverly Hills, and signed Violet N.

Following her indictment, Violet addressed the press.

“Don’t misconstruct (sic) me!” she said.

She explained that she merely asked “Gables”, as she called him, to support her daughter or buy her scripts. Violet asserted her requests were reasonable. From her jail cell, she said, “He looks like the Frank Billings I knew in 1923. I’d like to see him in person.”

Gable dismissed Violet’s accusations as “silly and fantastic.”

Were they?

NEXT TIME: Violet Norton, delusional, or. . . ?