Clara Eunice Barker–Vampire

The early 20th century witnessed a clash of old and new technologies, as well as a period of rampant civil unrest. The role of women in the new millennium had yet to be defined. In 1919, when this story takes place, women in the U.S. were one year away from celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave them the right to vote. The hard-won right was a victory, but it was still a man’s world.

On March 2, 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mrs. Grace Munro, the wife of wealthy zinc manufacturer Charles W. S. Munro, filed suit for alienation of affection. She sought $50,000 in damages, which is equivalent to $826,000 today, from Miss Clara Eunice Barker. Clara was Charles’ mistress for five years. Grace’s suit alleged her twenty-three-year marriage to Charles was a happy one until Clara entered their lives.

According to Grace, Clara enticed Charles to leave home with “an offer of money and otherwise.” We can guess what the otherwise referred to. Charles abandoned Grace without means of support; but he purchased a home for Clara and gave her cash. About $30,000 worth.

In the early morning hours of March 5, 1919, with a warrant sworn out by Grace, Deputy Constables Bright and Hayes arrived on the doorstep of 1201 Mountain View Street in Glendale, the home that Charles and Clara shared. They took Charles into custody for a felony statutory offense against Clara. Grace instigated the charge, and she clearly meant to put the screws to Charles. Having him arrested was enough—she dropped the charge.

William’s arrest came as a shock to Glendale society. They thought Clara and Charles were cousins, which was how they introduced themselves at first. They also did not know Charles had a wife and three daughters in Trenton, NJ.

Police wanted to speak with Clara but they could not find her, and Charles refused to talk. They discovered Clara fled to Salt Lake City, Utah, as soon as she got word of Grace’s lawsuit. Anger and outrage fueled Grace, who tracked Clara down and confronted her in a Salt Lake City hotel lobby. Grace walked up to Clara and exclaimed, “So you are the vampire”.

Theda Bara — the original vampire

Grace was not accusing Clara of being a blood sucking bride of Dracula. She used the term to imply that Clara was a seductress, a femme fatale, a vamp (ire) of the type made famous by actress Theda Bara in the 1915 film A FOOL THERE WAS.

The Glendale home in which Clara and Charles lived was in Clara’s name. She wanted to keep it, along with the furnishings, an automobile, and any other trinkets that Charles gave her. She filed a countersuit

Clara told reporters, “I am fighting for my honor as well as my legal rights. I have been cruelly mistreated and imposed upon by the man in whom I had implicit faith, and I intend to test the justice of the courts.”

Clara alleged there was a conspiracy against her. She accused the recently reconciled Munros, and a few of their friends, of seeking to deprive her of her property.

She demanded damages of $51,500. Some of which were for the Glendale property, the furniture, the car, and $25,000 for damages suffered by the conspiracy and threats she claimed were made against her.

According to Clara, while in Salt Lake City, she was called a vampire and was plagued by mysterious telephone calls, loud knocks on her bedroom door after midnight, and attempts by strangers to “force their acquaintance on her.” These incidents, Clara said, were part of a plan to harass and frighten her.

Grace intended to fight the conspiracy charge and to pursue her alienation suit. She would not back down. “I said she (Clara) is a vampire, and she is.”

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Grace claimed she and Charles were happily married for years before Clara entered their lives, but Grace lied. Prior to his affair with Clara, Charles had been involved with his stenographer, Miss Mary Pierson, with whom he had taken an auto trip. Grace was obviously aware of the liaison because she knew where Mary lived. She even appeared on the doorstep with questions for Mary’s landlady. Charles had long possessed a wandering eye.

If Angelenos expected a lurid trial, they would not be disappointed. Wife vs. Mistress was going to be a battle royal.

NEXT TIME: A vampire’s love letters, and the wages of sin in Part 2 of Clara Eunice Barker, Vampire.

The Jokers & a Newsflash from Deranged!

NEWSFLASH! I am very excited to announce that my book, Of Mobsters and Movie Stars: The Bloody Prohibition Era in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is being published by WildBlue Press. The expected release date is the end of May, so it is coming up fast.

The book covers true crime tales from 1919 to 1939, twenty of the most corrupt years in the city’s history. For the next several weeks, I will focus on stories from that era. Some of the posts will be encores, and others will be brand new to the blog.

All I have right now is an edited manuscript and a title. As soon as I get a cover, I’ll post it here to get you in the mood. I will also let you know when I have a firm release date.

Thanks again for following Deranged L.A. Crimes. I appreciate your readership.

Joan


The 1920s were a time of rapid growth in Los Angeles. During Mayor George E. Cryer’s tenure, the population of Los Angeles surpassed 1,000,000, and the city undertook several important civic development projects, such as constructing Central Library.

Estimated at $350,000 to construct, (equivalent to $4.8 million in today’s currency), the Olympic Auditorium ended up exceeding $500,000 because of cost overruns. With seating for 15,300 people, the architects designed the building to be a combination convention hall, exposition building, and boxing arena, making it the largest venue of its kind upon completion.

Olympic Auditorium [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The Olympic wasn’t just for mugs and pugs. In May 1925, the Los Angeles Times reported that a “…colossal presentation of ‘Aida’ with elephants and camels, a chorus of over ninety voices and a ballet of twenty-four dancers…” would be on stage at the auditorium. I love opera and it would have been a treat to see live elephants and camels at the Olympic.

Of course, now you’re asking “what has civic pride and operatic spectacle got to do with cops behaving badly? Alas, not much except to point out that where there is big money, there is an opportunity for misbehavior.

The auditorium opened to fanfare and sold-out crowds; but there was a problem—at least sixty contractors had not been compensated for their work. Liens totaling $400,000 had to be paid. Newspaper accounts never made it clear why the contractors were stiffed; but the city formulated a plan for restitution.

The process of repayment was a breeze. Sheriff’s deputies collected the box office receipts and secured them in the office vault. Once the deputies deducted taxes and overhead from the gross, they took the balance and applied it to the outstanding claims.

For several months, everything went like clockwork. But on April 16, 1926, Mrs. M. Q. Adams, a bookkeeper in the Sheriff’s civil department, observed that the vault door was partially open. She called to Chief Civil Deputy Arthur Jewell, who discovered the previous night’s deposit of $1182 was missing. Sheriff Traeger decided not to publicize the burglary—making it a need-to-know basis only. Theft of money from his office vault was damned embarrassing.

They assigned Undersheriff Biscailuz and Chief Criminal Deputy Wright to the case. Whoever took the money must have known the combination to the outer door and possessed duplicate keys to the inner door. It was an inside job.

Deputy Karl Wallich (38), one of the few people who had access to the vault, was a suspect. During questioning, Wallich said that after he left the Hall of Justice in the early morning, he had turned back at the Plaza to buy a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t find a store that was open, so he ended up driving to a small market at Fifth and Spring. Wallich’s story didn’t hold up. Deputy Wright found seven stores between the Plaza and Fifth and Spring Street that were open early in the morning.

Deputy Sheriffs Heller and Johnson dropped in on Karl Wallich at his home to take his statement. They confronted him with his lie about the stores and he caved in on the spot. He was unsuited for a life of crime. He produced half of the missing funds and ratted out his friend and accomplice, Harry Adler (19), a civilian clerk who relinquished the other half.

Adler confessed he had hidden himself in the vault about 10 o’clock Wednesday night, waiting for the auditorium’s receipts to be deposited. Deputy Sheriffs Wallich and Barton came to the vault door about 11:30 p.m., locked up, and left the building. Once he figured everyone had gone, Adler took a screw driver and removed the plate from the combination lock and exited the vault. Nobody saw him leave. He then met Karl in front of the Hall of Records, where they divvied up the cash.

The most surprising thing about their confessions was that both men insisted they hadn’t stolen the money to enrich themselves—the theft was a joke.

According to the merry pranksters, their intention was only to seek revenge on Deputy George Barton, a co-worker who had teased and played jokes on them. The theft was their way of getting even. They figured since Barton was the only person who had keys to the inner vault, it would be his ass in a sling when the money disappeared. The plan was to let Barton twist in the wind for a bit, then return the cash to the vault, but then “things got so hot” they couldn’t see their way out of the mess.

Wallich and Adler’s little stunt didn’t amuse Sheriff Traeger. He covered the full $1182 loss out of his own pocket until the thieves returned the money.

Wallich and Adler lost their Sheriff’s Department jobs. Adler pleaded guilty at his arraignment. He spent ninety days in a sheriff’s detention center and upon his release and the court granted him three years of probation. Wallich first entered a not guilty plea, but then he changed his mind and entered a guilty plea and requested probation. There was no follow-up story in the newspaper, but Wallich expected probation.

I wonder if the men stayed friends or if their criminal misadventure ended it. I like to think that with their penchant for pranks, the guys opened a brick-and-mortar joke shop—the kind that sold whoopee cushions, rubber vomit, joy buzzers, and fake dog poop.

NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime historian, and curator of the Sheriff’s Department Museum, Mike Fratantoni, for introducing me to this tale.

P.S. This is an encore post from 2013.

The Red Lipstick Murder

Born in a small New Mexico town in 1902, Jeanne Axford came of age during the Roaring ‘20s. Perfect timing for the free-spirited girl. At 17 she married David Wrather, and they had a son, David, Jr.

Jeanne Axford (L) with her cousin Clara. Photo from Ancestry

JEANNE’S EARLY YEARS

In 1922, after training in New Mexico, Jeanne worked as a nurse in Amarillo, Texas. According to Jeanne, David abused her. She and David divorced in 1924; she won custody of their son.

In 1925, Jeanne married again. That marriage, too, failed. Rumors have circulated that Jeanne appeared in a film, yet she remains absent from the Internet Movie Database, even under an alias. She may have appeared in uncredited roles. Whether she appeared in movies, Jeanne had an interesting Hollywood connection. She worked as a private nurse for Marion Wilson, Rudolph Valentino’s last date, maybe his last love. Known as the “Woman in Black” for many years, Marion put flowers on Valentino’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death.

Marion Benda Wilson aka The Woman in Black

Sometime between 1925 and 1931, Jeanne learned to fly and earned the moniker, “Flying Nurse.” She worked for a large oil company in South America, flying from one oil field to another, caring for workers. She became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, and the 99 Club, an organization of women aviators.

Either an optimist, or a glutton for punishment, Jeanne married for a third time in Dallas, Texas on October 8, 1931, two days after her 29th birthday, to Curtis Bower. It took the couple five weeks to realize their mistake. The dissolution of her marriage earned Jeanne another nickname, “air-mail divorcee.” The divorce papers, prepared by her attorney, Allan Lund, went via air to Juarez, Mexico for filing. A new law in Mexico provided for a final decree by proxy. Neither Jeanne nor Curtis needed to appear in court.

WHERE IS JEANNE?

On July 5, 1932, Jeanne’s mother, Oma Randolph, went to police to file a missing person report. Jeanne left home the morning of June 27 to drive to the Mexican border, where she planned to board a private plane for Mexico City.

The week following the missing person report, Jeanne cabled her mother from Mexico City. “I can’t understand the worry I have caused in the United States by flying to Mexico. I am flying back for the Olympics. I assure everyone that I am okeh.”

By the mid-1940s, Jeanne had unspecified medical issues, possibly a hysterectomy. In pain, she turned to alchohol and drugs.

Jeanne kept a low profile for the next several years. She married in 1944 for the fourth and final time to a former Marine, Frank French.                   

ANOTHER LOS ANGELES WOMAN IS MURDERED

On February 10, 1947, less than a month after housewife Betty Bersinger found Elizabeth Short’s bisected body in a Leimert Park vacant lot, Hugh C. Shelby, a bulldozer operator, found the battered, nude body of a woman in a field near the Santa Monica Airport. The Herald put out an extra edition with the headline, “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body.”

Within hours, police identified the victim as forty-five-year-old Jeanne French of 3535 Military Avenue. Near her body they found a black plastic purse, like the one Elizabeth Short carried. Inside was a lone penny, some hairpins, and handwritten notes.

The area where they discovered her was a type of Lover’s Lane, situated seven miles from the location on Norton Street where they found Elizabeth Short.

Police speculated her attacker stripped Jeanne naked in a parked car and then beat her. He struck her multiple times after she staggered from the vehicle. Then he dragged her body into the field, some feet from the highway, where he then wrote his obscene message on her torso. Afterwards, he stomped on her chest so hard he left a clear shoe print behind.

He threw her clothing on top of her. A powder blue coat trimmed with fox fur and a burgundy dress. Except for her bra, they did not find any underwear. She wore no stockings.

Her slayer arranged her shoes, one on either side of her head, about 10 feet from her body.

Detectives gather at the scene of Jeanne’s murder

Someone savagely beat Jeanne. She suffered blows to her head administered by a metal blunt instrument—a socket wrench or tire iron. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by her killer stomping on her. Heel prints marked her chest. One of her ribs pierced a lung. It took a long time for Jeanne to die. The coroner said she gradually bled to death.

Jeanne was probably unconscious after the first blows to her head, so she may not have witnessed her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, or feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso, “Fuck You, B.D.” and “Tex.” Police looked for a connection between Jeanne’s murder and Elizabeth Short’s death; but they found nothing.

On the night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. She and Frank recently separated. Frank said they planned a 6-month trial separation to see if they could work out their problems. Jeanne arrived drunk at Frank’s apartment and he said she started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left.

Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son, David Wrather, came in for questioning. As he left the police station, he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said, “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate. He looked at David and said, “I swear to God, I didn’t kill her.”

Both Frank and David had a history of abusing Jeanne. Neighbors heard violent arguments between Jeanne and David, as well as with Frank. Neither of them treated her with kindness or respect.

Jeanne’s neighbors knew her as a hard partying, mouthy drunk. The local bars she frequented confirmed Jeanne’s belligerence. Loud, profane, and promiscuous, Jeanne hung out with a rough crowd. The men she knew took advantage of her. She courted danger, and according to Frank, she feared nothing and no one. Her alcoholism and drug use suggest she was committing suicide, one drink and one needle at a time.

Despite his declaration of innocence, police booked Frank for murder. Then, as now, a woman is most likely to be killed by her husband or a lover. The forty-seven-year-old former Marine gunnery sergeant was arrested days earlier for viciously beating Jeanne, resulting in blackened eyes and a broken arm. Police cleared him when his landlady confirmed he was in his apartment at the time of the murder; and his shoe prints failed to match those found on Jeanne’s chest.

Police traced Jeanne’s whereabouts for part of the night. Ray Fecher, the operator of a drive-in café at 11925 Santa Monica Blvd., told detectives Jeanne came in between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. Sunday. She drank coffee and chatted with Fecher. “She said her husband was sadistic. She said he liked ‘dark things,’ and had beaten her several times. Then she raised a pair of dark glasses she was wearing to show me a couple of black eyes she said he had given her.”

After she left the drive-in, Jeanne entered a bar at 10421 Venice Blvd. According to Earl Holmes, the bartender, in a loud voice, she announced her plan to commit Frank to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital the next day. She had threatened Frank with hospitalization before, and he beat her. As abusive as their relationship was, Frank was not her killer.

Jeanne was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance of the Pan American Bar on West Washington Place. The bartender told police Jeanne took a stool next to a smallish man with a dark complexion. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.

Fuck You. B.D.

Jeanne did not drive herself to the place of her death; someone took her there. Police found her cut-down 1929 Ford roadster in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, the Piccadilly at Washington Place and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said the car was there at 3:15 on the morning of the murder, and a night watchman saw a man leave it there. The police never accounted for Jeanne’s whereabouts between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death.

Even though Jeanne was not sexually assaulted, police rousted scores of sex degenerates. The brutality of the crime and the fact that she was found naked led the police to infer a sexual motive. None of the men rose to the level of a serious suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that Jeanne ate a Chinese meal before her death.

THE RED LIPSTICK MURDER GOES COLD

Jeanne’s slaying became known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case. Like the Black Dahlia case, it went cold.

Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., the District Attorney assigned investigators from his office to re-investigate the case.

Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked on Jeanne’s murder for eight months, but they never closed it. They found a few suspects. One of the most promising suspects was a man who was seen with Jeanne on the night of her death. The man submitted to a lie detector test, but the examiner told detectives the subject was one of a small percentage of people who could beat the test. They never cleared the man, but neither did they arrest him.

Like the murder of Elizabeth Short, there have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades. Their killers took their bloody secrets to their graves.

Aggie & Leona

I first encountered Agness “Aggie” Underwood while researching crime in Los Angeles. Aggie’s name appeared many times in various accounts, which piqued my curiosity. I had to know more about one of the few women reporters working in the field during the 1930s and 1940s.

Aggie’s 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, was a revelation. Here was a woman who reported on the major crime stories of her day, including the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.

Agness May Wilson was born to Clifford and Mamie Sullivan Wilson in San Francisco in 1902.

Clifford Wilson

Her sister, Leona, followed four years later. By 1904, the family had moved to Belleville, Illinois, and it was there Mamie, 25 years old, died of rheumatism of the heart. Before she died, she had Aggie promise to care for Leona. That is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a little girl.

Aggie’s father, Clifford, was a glassblower who traveled for work. After Mamie’s death, he passed Aggie and Leona to relatives. Eventually, relatives placed them in separate foster homes. Aggie fought to keep Leona with her, but her best efforts were no match for the adults who tore them apart. The sisters lost touch.

Aggie’s life in the foster home was hard. She struck out on her own in her early teens. Eventually landing in Los Angeles, she worked at the Pig ‘n Whistle downtown. Things looked up when Harry Underwood, a soda jerk at the Pig, proposed to her when a greedy relative threatened to report her for working underage—unless she turned over her entire paycheck. Aggie gratefully accepted Harry’s timely proposal.

Mamie Sullivan Wilson

We characterize the 1920s as a free-wheeling time when liquor and money flowed. It didn’t hold true for everyone. The Underwoods, like many other families, struggled financially. By 1924, they had two children, Mary Evelyn, and George Harry. They realized they could not make it in Los Angeles, so they traveled out-of-state, seeking new opportunities. During their travels, Aggie located Leona, and they reunited.

The Underwoods returned to Los Angeles, and Leona moved in to the family’s home on the city’s east side. Even with Harry and Leona working day jobs, money was tight. At least Aggie had achieved her dream of having a family. What more could she ask for? How about a pair of stockings?

By October 1926, Aggie grew tired of wearing Leona’s hand-me-down stockings. She went to Harry and asked for the money to buy a pair of her own. He told her they couldn’t afford them.

Incensed, Aggie said if he wouldn’t buy them for her, she’d get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She hadn’t worked outside the home in several years. What could she do to earn a living?

Before she could turn to the want ads, Evelyn Conners called. She and Aggie had remained close since meeting at the Salvation Army Home several years earlier. Evelyn worked at the Los Angeles Record and got Aggie a temporary job at the switchboard. Evelyn knew Aggie was qualified because they once worked together at the telephone company.

Leona and Aggie

Aggie enjoyed being at the Record, and she hoped to stay through the New Year. She got lucky. Gertrude Price was the women’s editor and wrote an advice column under the name Cynthia Grey. Each year, Gertrude organized a food drive for the city’s poor, and she needed help to fill and deliver the baskets. She asked Aggie if she would stay and help. Without hesitation, Aggie accepted; it meant seven or eight more weeks of steady work.

Aggie & Getrude surrounded by Christmas baskets

Aggie assumed she would return to her housewifely chores at in January 1927, but Gertrude had other plans.

Aggie–housewife

Her conscientiousness had not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Gertrude offered Aggie a part-time job as her assistant. It didn’t pay as well as the switchboard, only five dollars per week. Once she did the arithmetic, Aggie realized she wouldn’t net a dime after she paid a babysitter to watch her kids. Why did she stay if she wasn’t making any money? Aggie didn’t know it yet, but she was in love with the newspaper business.

Throughout 1927, Aggie tackled each task that Gertrude handed her with enthusiasm. In return, Gertrude became her mentor and confidante.

By the time the 1928 holiday season rolled around, Aggie was a fixture at the Record. She again assisted Gertrude Price with the Christmas baskets program. The Underwoods’ financial woes were far from over; but if their holiday was lean, so be it. She felt fortunate to be surrounded by her family.

Ironically, even though Aggie cherished family life, she revealed few details about hers in her autobiography. In fact, she never mentions Harry by name, only referring to her unnamed husband. The reason is simple, she and Harry were divorced a few years before the publication of NEWSPAPERWOMAN. Aggie chose to highlight her professional achievements. 

Bob Hope and Aggie read each other’s autobiographies

Aggie’s omissions make sense when you consider her position at the time. She was still only a couple of years into her city editorship at the Herald. Personal details might negatively impact her career. I think perhaps the most important thing for Aggie was he desire never to be a “sob sister.” She didn’t want to tug at people’s heartstrings in the copy she wrote for the paper, and especially not in her autobiography. That said, I really wish she had made good on her plan to author a more complete autobiography in her retirement. She never got around to it.

It is no surprise she never wrote about an event that must have devastated her—the death of her sister, Leona, on December 6, 1928. Without Aggie’s input,, we can only speculate on what happened, and what impact it had on her.

The Underwoods

Like most families, the Underwoods had a work week routine. December 6 was a Thursday, so Leona dropped her niece and nephew off at the babysitter, as she usually did. While the rest of the family was out for the day, Leona consumed ant paste.

The principal ingredient is arsenic. Ant paste was a common poison found in most households. At twenty-two years old, Leona may have believed that taking poison would be a quick and easy death. She could not have been more wrong. Death by arsenic poisoning is excruciating. Depending on the dose, it can take hours or even days to kill.

Aggie’s established routine was to swing by the babysitter after work, pick up the children, and then go home. When Aggie arrived home, she found Leona. I cannot imagine how Aggie felt. Records show they transported Leona to Pohl Hospital on Washington Boulevard. They admitted her at 3:25 p.m. By 4:00 p.m. her body was in the county morgue. Why did Leona take her life? Her death certificate gives two reasons: “Love affair & financial difficulties.”

Leona’s death notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times the next day. The brief notice said they would hold funeral services on Saturday, December 8, 1928, in the chapel of Ivy H. Overholtser on South Flower Street.

Without input from Aggie, it is difficult to calculate the impact that Leona’s death had on her, but it must have been enormous. Did she feel guilty about failing to honor her mother’s dying wish for a second time? As tragic as Leona’s death was, with two children and a husband to care for, Aggie had no choice but to turn her attention toward the living.

NOTE: The holidays are not a joyous time for everyone. If you or someone you care about is in a crisis, please call 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 to talk with a caring, trained counselor. It is free, confidential, and available 24/7.

Aggie and the Los Angeles Record


Exterior view of the Los Angeles Record building (top, middle of photo), located next to the Pacific Electric Railroad tracks. Building has three large arched windows on the second floor. Photo dated: September 12, 1933.

Aggie’s newspaper career began at the switchboard of the Los Angeles Record in October 1926. The Record was at 612 Wall Street near the Pacific Electric station at Sixth and Main. The streetcars rumbled past the building providing an industrial soundtrack for the “weird wonderland” of men pounding away on old typewriters. Aggie enjoyed the ambient hum, occasionally punctuated by the shouts of reporters as they called out phone numbers for her to dial.

Gertrude Price, the woman’s editor, approached Aggie when her temporary job at the switchboard was almost over. Price wrote a column under the pseudonym Cynthia Grey. Each year at Christmas, she organized a food and gift basket program for the needy. Hundreds of letters poured in from donors and the poor alike. The job of putting together the baskets was an enormous one, and Gertrude asked Aggie to assist. 

At the end of the 1926 holiday season, Aggie contemplated her return to domestic life when Gertrude surprised her with an offer of a part-time job. Price asked Aggie if she would work two hours a day taking phone messages and handling Cynthia Grey correspondence. Aggie gratefully accepted the offer.

William Edward Hickman [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Gertrude Price became Aggie’s friend and mentor. One of the most important lessons she learned about the newspaper business came near her twenty-fifth birthday. Los Angeles reeled from the kidnapping and mutilation murder of 12-year-old schoolgirl Marion Parker. Authorities identified William Edward Hickman as the killer. He became the subject of the biggest manhunt in Los Angeles’ history. Aggie saw a United Press flash announcing Hickman’s capture in Oregon. She was so excited she telephoned her husband and shared the news with him. 

Price overheard the call and warned Aggie about discussing a story before it circulated on the streets. At first, she felt ashamed because she’d disappointed her mentor. Then she realized Price was instructing her on a fundamental principle of the news business. She would not make the same mistake again.

Aggie couldn’t stay at her desk while the bulletins of Hickman’s capture continued to flood the newsroom. She finally committed the “unpardonable sin” of hovering over the shoulder of Rod Brink, the city editor. Brink said to her, “All right, if you’re so interested, take this dictation.” In that instant Aggie realized she wanted to be a reporter.

His Girl Friday & The Front Page

Deranged L.A. Crimes celebrates reporter Agness “Aggie” Underwood this month in honor of the 121st anniversary of her birth on the 17th.

Aggie liked His Girl Friday (1940), in which Rosalind Russell portrayed a female newspaper reporter. I would love to show the film, but it is not in the public domain. Instead, listen to the 1941 Screen Guild radio version with Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, and Ralph Bellamy reprising their movie roles.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell

Even though I can’t show the film version of His Girl Friday, I will show the 1931 version, The Front Page, based on the 1928 stage play.

I love the 1940 film for casting Russell as Hildy Johnson–a role originally written for a man–but the 1931 film is also excellent. Billy Wilder remade it in 1974, casting Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the starring roles.

Here is what TCM says about The Front Page (1931).

Chicago’s ace reporter Hildy Johnson wants to quit newspaper work and get married, but his editor, Walter Burns, is determined to keep him on the job. Hildy refuses to talk to Walter, knowing his persuasive powers, so Walter sets off a fire alarm outside the apartment of Hildy’s fiancée, Peggy Grant. Unable to resist, Hildy runs to the street, after which Walter corners him and takes him out for drinks. While the two men drink, Walter reminisces about the great stories that Hildy covered and paints a boring picture of married life. Hildy manages to escape, and drops in on the press room at the courthouse, where the reporters are waiting for the hanging of Earl Williams.

Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood, and Deranged L.A. Crimes!

This is a big month for the Deranged L.A. Crimes blog. On December 17, 2012, the 110th anniversary of the birth of the woman whose career and life inspires me, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, I started writing this blog. I also authored her Wikipedia page, which was long overdue.

Aggie Underwood. Photo by Perry Fowler

By the time I began, Aggie had been gone for twenty-eight years. I regret not knowing about her in time to meet her in person. But, through her work, and speaking with her relatives over the years, I feel like I know her. I have enormous respect for Aggie. She had nothing handed to her, yet she established herself in a male-dominated profession where she earned the respect of her peers without compromising her values. She also earned the respect of law enforcement. Cops who worked with her trusted her judgement and sought her opinion. It isn’t surprising. She shared with them the same qualities that make a successful detective.

This month, I will focus on Aggie. I want everyone to get to know and appreciate her. She was a remarkable woman.

Agness “Aggie” Underwood never intended to become a reporter. All she wanted was a pair of silk stockings. She’d been wearing her younger sister’s hand-me-downs, but she longed for a new pair of her own. When her husband, Harry, told her they couldn’t afford them, she threatened to get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She did not know how to find employment. She hadn’t worked outside her home for several years. A serendipitous call from her close friend Evelyn, the day after the stockings kerfuffle, changed the course of her life. Evelyn told her about a temporary opening for a switchboard operator where she worked, at the Los Angeles Record. The job was meant to last only through the 1926-27 holiday season, so Aggie jumped at the chance.

Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]

Aggie arrived at the Record utterly unfamiliar with the newspaper business, but she swiftly adapted and it became clear to everyone that, even without training, she was sharp and eager to learn. The temporary switchboard job turned into a permanent position.

In December 1927, the kidnapping and cruel mutilation murder of twelve-year-old schoolgirl Marion Parker horrified the city. Aggie was at the Record when they received word the perpetrator, William Edward Hickman, who had nicknamed himself “The Fox,” was in custody in Oregon. The breaking story created a firestorm of activity in the newsroom. Aggie had seen nothing like it. She knew then she didn’t want to be a bystander. She wanted to be a reporter.

When the Record was sold in January 1935, Aggie accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Evening Herald and Express, propelling her into the big leagues. Working for Hearst differed entirely from working for the Record. Hearst expected his reporters to work at breakneck speed. After all, they had to live up to the paper’s motto, “The First with the latest.”

From January 1935, until January 1947, Aggie covered everything from fires and floods to murder and mayhem, frequently with photographer Perry Fowler by her side. She considered herself to be a general assignment reporter, but developed a reputation and a knack for covering crimes.

Sometimes she helped to solve them.

In December 1939, Aggie was called to the scene of what appeared to be a tragic accident on the Angeles Crest Highway. Laurel Crawford said he had taken his family on a scenic drive, but lost control of the family sedan on a sharp curve. The car plunged over 1000 feet down an embankment, killing his wife, three children, and a boarder in their home. He said he had survived by jumping from the car at the last moment.

When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanor, and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded Laurel was “guilty as hell.” Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance.

Hollywood was Aggie’s beat, too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers. On December 16, 1935, popular actress and café owner Thelma Todd died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her Pacific Palisades ho9me. Thelma’s autopsy was Aggie’s first, and her fellow reporters put her to the test. It backfired on them. Before the coroner could finish his grim work, her colleagues had turned green and fled the room. Aggie remained upright.

Though Aggie never considered herself a feminist, she paved the way for female journalists. In January 1947, they yanked her off the notorious Black Dahlia murder case and made her editor of the City Desk, making her one of the first woman to hold this post for a major metropolitan newspaper. Known to keep a bat and startup pistol handy at her desk, just in case, she was beloved by her staff and served as City Editor for the Herald (later Herald Examiner) until retiring in 1968.

Aggie at a crime scene c. 1946

When she passed away in 1984, the Herald-Examiner eulogized her. “She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”

They were right. Aggie dined with judges, cops, and even gangster Mickey Cohen. I hope you will enjoy reading about Aggie, as much as I will enjoy telling her stories.

Joan

Bessie’s Revenge

The beautiful neighborhood of Verdemont lies ten miles north of downtown San Bernardino. In 1925, nestled against the hills, it offered the perfect vantage point to witness San Bernardino’s growth and prosperity.

San Bernardino, E Street

Twenty-three-year-old Bessie Jones may have wished she could get out more, but her father worked as a Santa Fe railroad section foreman and was gone all day. Bessie cared for her invalid mother, and for her four-year-old daughter. She sometimes went down the hill to the A.B.C. root beer stand on Third Street to get a cold drink and socialize.

On one of her trips in 1924, she met Jack Croft, who worked at the stand. Several years her senior, he was nice looking and easy to talk to. She sometimes used the root beer stand as an excuse to bump into him. Bessie lost track of Jack for about a year, until one Sunday, when he and a friend, Bobby Cline, stopped in front of Bessie’s home. She went out to talk with them.

On Sunday, September 13, Bessie saw Jack outside the house talking to her father. He had a hat pulled low on his brow. At first, she did not recognize him—then he lifted the hat. He asked her what had she been doing, and she told him most of her days she spent at home with her mother and daughter. Jack said, “Let’s go down to the corner and get a coke.” Bessie told him she could only be gone for thirty minutes to an hour at the most. Jack said that was fine with him. “Go tell your folks you will be back in about an hour.”

Bessie got in Jack’s car and he drove down to the corner of Highland and Mt. Vernon, where a small grocery was attached to a soft drink place. He got out of the car and said, “I will be back in a few minutes, if you don’t mind waiting.”

Jack returned with a package of bottles. Bessie heard them clanging together. He got behind the wheel and started for Bessie’s place. When he got to Highland, he turned up a road and drove past farm houses to a quiet spot.

Jack pulled over. He took a bottle of Delaware Punch and a bottle of something that smelled like liquor to Bessie. Jack mixed them together and took a drink. He tried to get Bessie to take a sip, but she refused. She asked him to let her out of the car. He said no. He got out of the car, walked around to the passenger side of the car, and tried to pull Bessie out. She got away from him and slid under the steering wheel and hung on.

She saw a bottle at her feet and kicked it out into the dirt. Bessie faced Jack and asked him to let her go. He said, “Well, if you are really good to me.” Bessie got out and took a few steps. Jack said, “Are you coming back?” She said yes. Instead, she ran down the road as fast as she could, hoping to get to the main highway. She hit a dead-end in an orchard and turned around.

She saw the lights of Jack’s car coming and she ran. Bessie was not a match for Jack’s car. He pulled up beside her. “Bess, I’ll take you home. I will show you I am a real man. I will take you home.”

Bessie got back into the car. Jack drove down the road in the opposite direction of her home. Fed up, she demanded to be released and said she would walk home. Jack ignored her. He stopped the car and started fighting with her again. Bessie kicked, scratched, and bit him hard. He raped her. She thought he would drive away and leave her in the dirt. He did not. Bessie told him she would cause him trouble. He laughed and said a woman cannot cause a man any trouble.

Bessie got back into the car, and Jack headed toward her home. She told him he would have to explain to her parents, if they were still awake, why the one-hour trip to the root beer stand had turned into hours. He agreed. He would say he blew a tire.

When they pulled up in front of the house, Bessie ran inside. Bessie told her mother Jack “insulted” her in a nearby wash. She said, “I’ll fix him so he will never insult another woman if I can help it.” She grabbed her father’s gun and ran outside.

Jack sat in his car with the door open. Sneering, he asked, “Is your father asleep?” Bessie lifted gun and pulled the trigger. She said, “I fired at him. I only meant to hurt him for what he had done to me—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

Critically wounded, Jack started the car and drove nearly 100 yards before he collapsed and died. The car crashed into a telephone pole.

San Bernardino deputy sheriffs arrested Bessie while they investigated further. They also needed the coroner’s jury report. Before the jury convened, deputies learned the dead man gave Bessie an alias. He was not Jack Croft. He was Albert Burress.

The coroner’s inquest was surreal. Bessie sat fewer than 20 feet from Albert’s body as she testified. In fact, they asked her to identify him as the man she shot. From the stand, Bessie described her growing rage as Albert drove her home following the assault. She admitted she planned to shoot him, and she was not remorseful. She said, “He got what he deserved.”

Today, Bessie might be on the hook for voluntary manslaughter. In 1925, the coroner’s jury listened with empathy to Bessie’s ordeal and reached the same conclusion as Bessie had. Albert deserved what he got. They ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.

Death of a Gridiron Great, Conclusion

Former USC football idol, Johnny Hawkins, was arrested for burglary in the home of Biltmore orchestra leader, Earl Burnett. They found him in the living room holding a flashlight and listening to the radio. Hawkins immediately confessed to over two dozen residential burglaries over the period of a few months, and he told the police that he had committed the crimes because he was desperate for money, in part because his wife had major medical bills.

Hawkins was about the last guy anyone would expect to turn to crime. He had been the captain and quarterback of the USC football team. In fact, he was an all-around fine athlete playing football, baseball, and basketball with equal skill. He could have had a career in any of the sports in which he excelled, but the first couple of years following his graduation from college had proved difficult for Johnny.

Cops were baffled when Johnny led them to the attic of his parent’s Fullerton home and showed them his ill-gotten loot because he had tried to sell none of the items. If he desperately needed money, why would he have kept the loot?

Another odd wrinkle in the case came when it was discovered that about a week before Johnny’s arrest, one of his younger brothers, Jimmy, was taken into custody for grand theft.

In early June 1928, just days prior to Johnny’s arrest, Jimmy Hawkins stopped in at the home of Mrs. Betty Sheridan on Normandie Avenue. While Betty was on the telephone with her sister, Jimmy disappeared, taking with him $1500 worth of her jewelry. It isn’t clear how Jimmy became acquainted with Betty. She said she knew his father was a prominent citizen in Fullerton, but didn’t seem to know anything else about the young man or his background.

While he was cooling his heels in a jail cell, he got a visitor, Johnny. Johnny delivered a severe lecture to his sibling and convinced the younger man to return the stolen jewelry. The D.A. declined to press charges, and released Jimmy.

Unfortunately, Johnny’s encounter with the law didn’t go as well as his brother’s had. They charged him with thirty-one counts of burglary. If Johnny thought his life couldn’t get any worse, he was wrong. The law arrested Johnny’s brother, again. This time, it was as an accomplice.

The L.A. Times likened Johnny to Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods and leader of a group of thieving children in the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist.” Not a flattering comparison, and it showed how far Johnny had fallen, at least in the eyes of the press.

Jimmy didn’t hold up well under interrogation, and he confessed. He shifted the bulk of the blame onto his older brother. He told cops when he became unwilling to continue the residential crime spree, Johnny became domineering and forced him to continue the illicit activities.

Johnny hired an attorney, Joe Ryan, who appeared to believe in his client. Hawkins confided in Ryan he was stealing because he was seized by an uncontrollable mania, which he believed had been caused by an injury to his head while playing football. He had a lump over his left eye that may have been the outward sign of severe brain trauma.

Johnny finally got a piece of good news when his brother Jimmy recanted his confession. Jimmy said,

“I was so sleepy. They (the cops) wouldn’t let me sleep for two nights and I didn’t know what I was signing.”

In August 1928, Johnny Hawkins appeared in Superior Court to plead guilty to five out of thirty-one counts of burglary and to apply for probation so he might avoid a prison term. Hawkins’ attorney, Joe Ryan, told the court that his client was under the care of Dr. Cecil Reynolds, a brain specialist, who intended to perform brain surgery to relieve pressure believed to have been caused by a football injury. The injury on which Johnny blamed his recent criminal tendencies.

While awaiting a probation hearing, Johnny fainted. He fell to the concrete floor of the attorney’s room in the jail and received another serious head injury.

Despite the argument that his repeated head injuries had caused Hawkins to pursue a brief life of crime, there was no recommendation for probation, and Superior Judge Fricke sentenced the former college gridiron great to from five to seventy-five years in prison.

Given an opportunity to address the court, Johnny said, Don’t you think I would be a respectable citizen after all this trouble if I were given another chance?”

To which Judge Fricke replied, “I am sorry, but I am not certain that you would be.”

After the pronouncement of sentence, Johnny shook hands with his counsel, who was also a friend of his from his glory days at USC, then bowed his head and walked from the courtroom manacled to a deputy sheriff.

Nothing ever came of the brain operation that Johnny had hoped for.

Hawkins served twenty-nine months in San Quentin before they paroled him. For seven years following his release, he held a position in M.G. M’s art department; he even coached the studio basketball team to championships.

On May 22, 1939, thirty-seven-year-old Johnny Hawkins died of an apparent brain abscess. Dr. Louis Gogol, assistant county autopsy surgeon, stated that in his opinion the injury Johnny had received while playing football at USC was the probable reason for the string of burglaries that he’d committed eleven years earlier. He said that the previous injury was undeniably the cause of his premature death.

Death verified Johnny Hawkins’ innocence, yet shockingly, very little has changed. Other than repeated brain trauma, the risk factors for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) remain unknown. The disease can only be accurately diagnosed postmortem.

Death of a Gridiron Great, Part 1

Johnny Hawkins had the college sports career one can only dream of. He was a gridiron hero who was equally skilled at basketball and baseball. During the 1924 season, Hawkins was quarterback and captain of USC’s football team.

Despite his sports successes, Hawkins found the transition from Big Man on Campus to Joe Everyman a difficult one. Following his graduation from USC, he bounced from job to job.

By 1926, Johnny had settled into a career as head coach the South Pasadena military school, the Oneonta Academy. It thrilled Oneonta to have Hawkins on their coaching staff. They were so proud they took out a half-page ad in the L.A. Times to announce his hiring. But Hawkins’ career took a downturn that same year when the Hollywood Generals, a Pacific Coast Football League team he organized and played with, failed.

The death knell for Johnny’s post-college dreams of success came on an evening in mid-June 1928 when he was busted in the home of Earl Burtnett, leader of the Biltmore orchestra.

Clarence Thomas, a houseboy at the Burtnett home on South Catalina Street, spied a man entering the rear door of the house and promptly called the law.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Steed, Green, and Mole of Wilshire Division answered the call and found Hawkins sitting in the living room listening to the radio.

Portrait of Earl Burtnett, director of the famous Los Angeles Biltmore. Photograph dated February 16, 1929. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Hawkins wasn’t a hardened criminal, and he confessed to dozens of burglaries. He told his interrogators that he desperately needed to raise money because his recent career as a real estate salesman had gone to pieces and his wife, Thelma (his college sweetheart), needed major surgery.

Hawkins said,

 “I know I’ve got it coming to me, but what torments me the most is the thought of my family and my wife’s family. I was driven to desperation by financial troubles.”

Johnny was with his parents in their Fullerton home while his wife was in Vancouver, Washington, for treatment. He said he waited night after night until his parents were in bed before going out to commit the burglaries, then returned home to stash the loot in their attic.

Police valued the recovered property at more than $35,000 ($622,482.16 in 2023 USD). It surprised them that Hawkins had stolen such a hodgepodge of high and low dollar items, including furs, old silverware, gowns, blankets, percolators, typewriters, lingerie, and jewelry.

According to Johnny, he never carried a weapon, a fact borne out by the arresting officers. Johnny had a flashlight, jimmy, ice pick, pass keys, and was wearing white gloves when the police found him in the Burtnett home.

It was strange enough that the football idol had perpetrated a series of at least 25 residential burglaries, but it was stranger still that never attempted to dispose of the loot. He purportedly committed the thefts for a few months, but all the items, except a suitcase full of “presents” for his wife, were traced.

If he was in dire need of cash, as he’d said, then why didn’t he borrow money from his folks or his in-laws? Perhaps the former gridiron star was too proud to ask for help. The alternative, having his name splashed all over the local newspapers, was even more humiliating.

What was going on with Hawkins? Why would he jeopardize his freedom and his reputation in such a stupid way?

NEXT TIME: A unique defense strategy.