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.


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.


Aggie and the Fox, Part Two:The Hunt is On!

Mariion, Mrs. Parker, Marjorie. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Mariion, Mrs. Parker, Marjorie. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

On December 15, 1927, twelve year old school girl Marion Parker was unwittingly handed over to a monster by the school registrar at Mt. Vernon Junior High School. Her abductor had come to the school that day and said that Perry Parker, the girl’s father, had been seriously injured in an automobile accident and was calling for his youngest daughter.  But Marion was a twin – which girl was the man talking about? Both Marion and her sister Marjorie were at school that day.

It was determined that Marion would be brought to the office for the simple reason that she was in class and Marjorie was on an errand on the school grounds, and so she was not immediately available. Marjorie was returning to the school office just as Marion was getting into a car with a dark haired stranger. Marjorie watched her sister and the man drive away.

Parker family home.

Parker family home.  [Photo is courtesy of LAPL]

The Parker family waited in agony for Marion’s return, or at the very least for a communication from her kidnapper. They didn’t have long to wait. The day following Marion’s abduction the first of four ransom letters was received. The kidnapper demanded $1500 in cash for the girl’s release with the threat of death if the demand was not met. The first of the ransom notes was signed “George Fox”, the last of them were signed “The Fox”.

On the morning of December 17, 1927, Perry Parker received a telegram reiterating the earlier demand for $1500 in exchange for his daughter’s life. That evening Parker took a call from the kidnapper.  The man instructed Parker to drive to the corner of Fifth Street and Manhattan Place in Los Angeles, and told him not to inform the cops or Marion would die. The plan was for Parker to sit in his car and wait for the kidnapper to pull up next to him and show him that Marion was alive. The kidnapper would then collect the ransom money and drop Marion off a block down the street.

Photo is courtesy of LAPL.

Instructions from “The Fox”.  Photo is courtesy of LAPL.

Parker followed the kidnapper’s instructions to the letter. He waited briefly at the designated meeting place for a few minutes before a Chrysler coupe pulled up beside him. He looked over and caught a glimpse of Marion sitting in the front seat. Parker sensed that something was wrong with the girl — maybe she was bound or drugged. Nothing could have prepared Mr. Parker for the reality.

The driver of the Chrysler had a white handkerchief over his face and pointed a large caliber weapon at Parker. The man said: “You know what I’m here for.  Here’s your child. She’s asleep. Give me the money and follow instructions.”  Parker did as he was told. He was too close to getting his little girl back to make any move that would spook the man with the gun. The money was exchanged and Parker followed the coupe to 432 South Manhattan Place. The passenger door of the car opened and Marion was pushed out onto the lawn.  Parker tried to get the license number of the car, but the kidnapper had bent the plate so that only a few numbers were visible.

The Chrysler roared off and Parker ran over to Marion. He felt a few moments of relief, his girl was going to go home with him and everything would be as it was. Except when Parker got to Marion and took her in his arms he saw that not only was she dead, but she had been savagely mutilated. His screams made an unholy sound that reverberated throughout the neighborhood. Someone phoned the police.

Marion Parker’s body was wrapped in towels. Her legs and arms had been hacked off and she had been disemboweled, the cavity stuffed with rags. A wire was wrapped tightly around her neck and then drawn up and wrapped around her forehead. Her eyelids had been sewn open so that she would appear alive when Perry saw her from a car length away.

Bundles of Marion’s body parts had been scattered around town. A woman who lived about a block away from where Marion had been dumped discovered a suitcase that contained blood soaked papers and a spool of thread. The thread was a match for that used to sew Marion’s eyelids open.

A reward of $1,000 was offered, but contributions from people all over the city brought the final total to $50,000 (over $600k in current U.S. dollars).

Artifacts from Marion Parker case are on display at L.A. Police Museum.

Artifacts from Marion Parker case are on display at L.A. Police Museum.

The first break in the case came when the towels that had been wrapped around Marion’s torso were identified as coming from the Bellevue Arms Apartments. A man named Donald Evans, who matched the description of the kidnapper, had rented a room in the building.  Evans was soon discovered to be an alias used by nineteen year old William Edward Hickman. Hickman had been a messenger at the same bank where Perry Parker worked, but lost his job after pleading guilty to forgery. He had had the audacity to return to the bank later and ask for his old job back, but Parker showed him the door. Parker also refused to supply a reference for Hickman when he applied for a job with another company.   The cops were beginning to glimpse a motive.

When the police arrived at the Bellevue Arms to search the apartment they discovered that Hickman had fled; but they picked up a couple of solid bits of evidence. A piece of a Brazil nut was found in a trash can in Hickman’s apartment, and it fit perfectly with another piece that had been found in the pocket of  Marion’s dress. The Chrysler coupe had been discovered and prints from the car matched prints on the ransom notes.  At least that’s what they thought; the prints on the car were later discovered to belong to someone other than Hickman

William Edward Hickman [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

William Edward Hickman [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Fingerprints or not, the rest of the evidence was compelling enough to formally charge William Edward Hickman with the murder of Marion Parker.

Life was getting scary for men who had the misfortune to resemble Hickman. One poor fellow was arrested five times before he was given a “get out of jail free” letter from the police.  Another man who resembled Hickman was chased down and surrounded by a mob at Sixth and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles. The police arrived just in time to save the man from being strung up on a light pole.

The real Hickman had left town the day after collecting the ransom from Parker. He’d carjacked a 1928 Hudson sedan on Hollywood Blvd, taken $15 from the driver, and headed north.

The hunt for “The Fox” was on.


Aggie and the Fox

Marion Parker

Marion Parker [LAPL photo]

It had taken less than two years for Aggie Underwood to work her way up from switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Daily Record, to part-time assistant for one of the paper’s columnists, Gertrude Price (who wrote the Cynthia Grey column).

On December 15, 1927, just a couple of days away from Aggie’s twenty-fifth birthday, she was working in the newsroom when reporters learned that twelve year old Marion Parker, the daughter of Perry Parker a prominent banker, had been abducted from her school.  Marion’s twin sister Marjorie had not been taken.

The kidnapper had arrived at Mount Vernon Junior High School where the twins were students and gone directly to the office of Mary Holt, the school’s registrar.  The young man told her that Perry Parker had been seriously injured in an automobile accident and was calling for his youngest daughter. Times were different then. Holt never even asked the man for his identification, nor did she ask him what he meant by youngest daughter since Marion and Marjorie were twins and presumably separated in age by mere minutes.

Any moment of doubt that Mary Holt may have had before releasing Marion into the custody of a maniac (who didn’t look maniacal at all) was overcome when the man insisted that he was an employee at Parker’s bank. When she was questioned later, Holt said the man had seemed sincere. He had been quick to suggest that if Holt doubted his word, she should phone the bank. If only she had.

Mt. Vernon Junior High School

Mt. Vernon Junior High School [LAPL photo]

Instead of phoning the bank for verification of the stranger’s story, Holt dispatched an office assistant to fetch Marion from class. The children were in the midst of a Christmas party when the assistant delivered the news of Perry Parker’s accident.  Marion didn’t hesitate; she accompanied the assistant to the registrar’s office where she was led away by the stranger.

Witnesses would later recall that the man helped Marion into his coupe and “…patted her reassuringly on the shoulder”. As Marion’s friends watched the coupe drive away they had no idea that they were witnessing a kidnapping, or that the abduction would result in one of the most heinous murders in the city’s history.

Once it had been determined that Marion had been kidnapped, terror and helplessness replaced calm and security in the Parker family home. They could not name a single enemy. The Parkers were prepared to meet any ransom demand, they simply longed for word that Marion was unharmed.


LAPD, the LA County Sheriff, and the District Attorney’s office put all available men into the search for Marion. At that time it was the largest single manhunt in the city’s history. The scope of the search would not be eclipsed until 1947 when LAPD conducted a massive search for the killer of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.


Aggie and the Oliver Hardy Incident

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

L.A.’s first official racetrack was opened in 1904 by gold prospector, Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin. Baldwin owned an enormous tract of land, the Rancho Santa Anita, and he was a regular at racetracks across the U.S., both as a gambler and as a horse breeder. No one was surprised when Baldwin founded a racetrack on his property in the early 1900s.


Lucky Baldwin and a woman (likely his fourth wife, sixteen year old Lillie Bennett). Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

From newspaper accounts of the time it appears that Baldwin’s death in 1909 ended the racetrack venture – in large part due to squabbles over his estate. Baldwin had left behind a widow, three ex-wives, and several daughters (at least one of whom appeared out of the blue to lay claim to a portion of his multi-million dollar estate). There wouldn’t be another Santa Anita Racetrack until the 1930s.

California legalized pari-mutuel wagering in 1933, and several groups of investors sought to open racetracks.  In the San Francisco area a group, headed by Dr. Charles H. “Doc” Strub, was having a difficult time locating a suitable site for a track. In Los Angeles a group of investors, led by movie producer Hal Roach, was in need of additional funds so the two groups combined and formed the Los Angeles Turf Club.

Photo from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Photo from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Santa Anita racetrack was designed in the Art Deco style by architect Gordon B. Kaufman. Kaufman had also designed the Los Angeles Times Building, and Greystone mansion (for the Doheny family).  The track opened on December 25, 1934 and quickly became a destination for Hollywood’s biggest stars, some of whom, such as Bing Crosby, Joe E. Brown, Al Jolson, and Harry Warner, were stockholders.

On January 4, 1936 Aggie Underwood and photographer Perry Fowler were assigned to the Turf Club at Santa Anita.  Across the room they spotted Oliver Hardy, the portly half of the popular comedy team Laurel & Hardy, and they decided to ask him if he’d consent to being photographed.

Perry reached Hardy before Aggie did and said: “Well, Mr. Hardy in person.  Will you let us have your picture, Mr. Hardy?”  Hardy glanced up from his racing form and answered no; he said he was busy. When Aggie asked him, “Why, Mr. Hardy, won’t you let the Herald-Express have your picture today?” He looked at her and this time answered yes.

Perry reached for his camera, and as he prepared to get the shot he asked Hardy if he was accompanied by his wife or daughter – if so, maybe they’d like to have their photos taken too. Hardy became belligerent and said: “Don’t ask so goddam many questions”.  In fairness to Hardy, it’s entirely possible that he was touchy on the subject of marriage because he and his wife Myrtle would divorce that same year.  Perry wasn’t sure what to make of Hardy’s comment, and at first he thought that the comedian was kidding. He quickly changed his mind when he saw Hardy’s thunder cloud expression. According to Aggie, Perry told Hardy not to get “so goddam tough”; at which point the situation quickly deteriorated, with the two men about to exchange blows.

Oliver & Myrtle Hardy w/ Stan & Ruth Laurel

Oliver & Myrtle Hardy w/ Stan & Ruth Laurel

Hardy made several pointedly unkind remarks about news photographers and ended by hitting Perry on the shoulder and saying: “Put down that camera and I’ll throw you over that rail and break your goddam neck.” Aggie stepped between the two men before they could start swinging, and suggested to Perry that they leave.  They didn’t want Hardy’s picture anyway.

As Aggie and Perry headed for the exit, Hardy took the opportunity to get in the last word.  He called out, “PUNK!” Aggie glared at Hardy and said: “I wouldn’t make the situation any worse, if I were you, by calling people names.”  Hardy again had to get the last word and said: “I didn’t call any names.  I said PUNK and that still goes.”

Back in the newsroom, Aggie figured that it would be a good idea to get the incident on record, just in case there was a phone call from Hardy’s publicist or studio.  She and Perry submitted a memo to city editor, Cappy Marek, describing the incident in detail.

Cappy read the memo and became furious – he was an editor who always backed his reporters and photogs. In a huff, Marek got Hardy’s publicist on the phone and in no uncertain terms let him know about the behavior of his client.

Good relations with the press counted for a lot in those days, as Hardy’s publicist must have explained to the cranky comedian. Within a day or two of the Santa Anita incident Cappy Marek received a letter from Oliver Hardy.

oliver hardy tieHardy gave his side of the story which put him in the right, of course. He said that he’d never called Perry names – which got Aggie’s ire up. She repeated to Cappy that she had been present when Hardy had called Perry a punk. She’d heard him loud and clear. Hardy’s explanation didn’t reconcile with Aggie’s version, but she let it go.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she had observed that “…some folks are handy at offering insults in public and later trying to present apologies in private”.  It was her opinion that: “Beyond that no comment is necessary.”

Aggie and the Aviatrix

Aggie arrived at the Herald-Express city room before 7 am on a mid-January morning in 1935. Lewis S. Young, the assistant city editor, assigned the new reporter a desk, locker and an old Underwood No. 5 typewriter.  In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said: “I didn’t foresee that the typewriter and I were to become friends on hundreds of hot stories and were not to be parted until I was ordered to the city desk twelve years later”.

Aloha, Amelia Earhart!

Aloha, Amelia Earhart!

Lewis Young handed Aggie her first assignment; interview Amelia Earhart.

Earhart had just successfully completed a solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland and had returned to Los Angeles where she had a home in North Hollywood.


Earhart wasn’t in when Aggie arrived, and her household was being uncooperative.  Aggie wasn’t about to give up, especially on her first assignment.  She staked out Earhart’s home for over seven hours, occasionally she walked a few blocks to a grocery store to grab a bag of cookies and use the pay phone.  When Earhart finally turned up, Aggie was able to convince her, and her mother, to pose for photographs and submit to an interview.  Earhart wasn’t immediately forthcoming during the interview; but through her questions Aggie managed to discover something that Earhart had not previously disclosed – that she had abandoned her plan to fly to Washington, D.C.  The aviatrix also accurately predicted passenger flights from Los Angeles to Hawaii!

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

The photographs and interview were a coup, and Aggie’s bosses at the Herald were pleased.  But she wasn’t happy. During those seven hours in front of Earhart’s home, she had suffered pangs of doubt. She’d spent years learning her craft and establishing her reputation at the Record, and she felt like she was starting over.  About a week after the Earhart interview Aggie decided she wanted to return to the Record, even under its new ownership. She had enjoyed the diversity of her duties at the Record, and she wasn’t sure that she’d ever feel at home at the Herald.

Aggie placed a call to Les Adams, managing editor of the Record, but her friend at the switchboard, Alice Gross, wouldn’t put it through.  Alice told Aggie: “You don’t want to come back here. Things are in an awful fix here, Agness.  I’m not going to let you talk to Les.”  And she didn’t.  Aggie would have to stay put.

Aggie decided to express her discontent to Arthur “Cappy” Marek, the city editor who had hired her.  Marek reassured her, saying: “things will work out all right; just wait and see”. Cappy convinced Aggie to give the Herald another chance.  It was a decision that would challenge and reward her for the next thirty-three years.

Aggie and the Herald-Express

LAPL Photo

Photo of Hearst radio car is courtesy of LAPL.

Smart and hardworking, Aggie began to earn a reputation as one of the best reporters in town and she was eventually courted by William Randolph Hearst for his publishing empire. She resisted his overtures (and even his offers of more money) because she was happy at the Los Angeles Record. Aggie said in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, that she had heard the term “working for Hearst” uttered contemptuously; but she was too busy learning her craft to pay much attention to the gibes.

Photo is courtesy of LAPL.

Exterior view of the Herald-Express Building, that was formerly known as the Evening Herald. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan and built in 1925; it is a California Mediterranean style with Churrigueresque detailing. The Herald-Express Building is located on Georgia Street, between 12th and Pico streets. Photo date: November 8, 1937.
Photo and description are courtesy of LAPL.

It wasn’t until the Record was sold to Illustrated Daily News in January 1935 that Aggie agreed to become a reporter for the Herald-Express. Even though she’d been assured of a raise, and told that her place at the Record was secure, Aggie decided to accept a position at the Herald.  About working for William Randolph Hearst, Aggie said: “…I did not feel I stigmatized myself when I accepted the Herald-Express offer.  The invitation was a life line, and one did not need to be bereft of ideals to tie onto it.”


Now all she needed was a story.

Spencer-Crawford Murder — Epilogue


Clark’s bid for municipal judge was interrupted by his arrest for double homicide.

On the stand at his first trial, David Clark said that he’d shot Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford in self-defense because the men had tried to get him to help them frame his friend Police Chief Steckel. He referred to the two dead men as skunks.

On August 23, 1931 the jury deadlocked and a second trial began on September 22nd.The second trial ended in an acquittal, perhaps in part because there were eight women on “Debonair Dave’s” jury – and he had always appealed to the ladies.  In fact, one of the jurors, Mrs. Florence H.R. Gorham, was very impressed with Clark’s wife Nancy and approached her following the verdict. Gorham told her: “I loved you from the first time I saw you”.


A few of the female jurors from Clark’s trial look adoringly at “Debonair Dave”.

Following the acquittal, Clark left the legal firm he’d been working for and set up his own practice. His primary client was Guy McAffee, a former LAPD vice cop turned racketeer.  Clark was paid well for his association with members of the Combination.  He went on this way for a few years and then, suddenly, in January 1937 he was reported missing – he’d completely vanished. After two months he was located in Nice, France.  He was described by the U.S. Consul as “…insane and without the courage to commit suicide”.  McAfee paid $800 for Clark’s ticket home.

Dave’s wife Nancy divorced him in 1939, and his life spiraled downward for several years. His law practice foundered and for a while he lived in obscurity running a small store near Costa Mesa.

Only a few friends had remained loyal to Clark.  George Blair (a friend from his USC days) and his wife Rose, nicknamed “Toots”, took him in through the summer and fall of 1953.

On Armistice Day, November 11, there was a family party. George was passed out drunk on the sofa.  He was awakened by “a kind of an explosion, like a backfire.”  When he sat up and looked around the room he saw Dave sitting in a chair. George asked “Where’s Toots?”  Dave looked at him and said “I killed her”.

Toots was toast.

Toots was found in the kitchen, dead of a shotgun blast. She and Clark had been arguing about him “mooching” off the family.

Dave ultimately pled guilty to murder in the second degree and was sentenced to from five years to life. He only served three weeks.   In Chino Prison he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on February 20, 1954.

NOTE:  For an in-depth look at David Clark and the Spencer-Crawford murder case you should read: A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age by Richard Rayner.

For more on the odious Combination, you may also want to check out John Buntin’s book: L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. TNT has picked up the book for a new series.

Aggie and the Double Murder — Part Two

Aggie’s epiphany to interview David Clark’s parents, following his arrest for the murders of Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford, was a brilliant blend of feminine intuition and a reporter’s gut instinct. None of her male counterparts had thought of the family angle, and so while Aggie was scoring a front page exclusive the other reporters were busy rushing down blind alleys.

David Clark's gun. Weapon allegedly used to murder Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford

David Clark’s gun. Weapon allegedly used to murder Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive.]

The front page exclusive with Clark’s parents led Aggie to yet another great interview — this one with Herbert Spencer’s widow. A friend of Aggie’s who knew the Spencers arranged the interview.  Aggie was nervous; she was still an inexperienced cub reporter.  She may have lacked experience, but she was also smart and determined. She made a point of reviewing everything that had been reported about the case and poked around to find holes in the coverage. Once she’d mastered the facts, she compiled a list of questions which she took with her to the interview.

Aggie admitted to Mrs. Spencer that she was a cub reporter, and her honesty paid off. Herbert Spencer had been a reporter and a city editor for many years and his widow wouldn’t have been deceived if Aggie had tried to masquerade as a seasoned newshound.

Mrs. Spencer answered Aggie’s questions about Herbert’s background; all the while Aggie was leading up to the hardball questions she knew she’d have to ask to get an interview worth the printer’s ink.

The murders of Spencer and Crawford had revealed to Angelenos some of the corruption in the city’s government. Aggie had no choice but to grill the widow Spencer about Herbert’s possible involvement in bribery, extortion, and shakedowns. Mrs. Spencer defended her husband’s reputation in no uncertain terms. She had loved him and believed in him. She was convinced that he’d had no part in the Combination’s illegal activities.

When Aggie returned to the newsroom she was nervous about writing up the story, but Rod Brink, the city editor, told her to “just write the facts as you’ve told them to me”.

Aggie’s interview with Mrs. Spencer resulted in quotes that made the story resonate with readers who were eager to get the inside scoop.

The widow told Aggie: “I was a newspaperman’s wife for fourteen years, and I loved it.  He’d call and say: ‘I’ll be home late, dear, just had a peach of a murder’.  I never, never thought that his death would turn out to be a peach of a murder”.

Despite her grief Mrs. Spencer expressed sympathy for the shooter’s mother!  The resulting headline was: “Sorry for Dave’s Mother,’ Says Herb Spencer’s Widow”.

Aggie had scored another two-line, eight-column banner at the top of page one!  There was a photo of Mrs. Spencer over the story, with Aggie’s by-line.

Gertrude Price, Aggie’s mentor, was thrilled with the two exclusive interviews that Aggie had scored in what was then the biggest story in L.A.  Price told Aggie: “The best reporters in town, with all their contacts, weren’t able to get that story. It’s an important story, and you got it. You got it exclusively.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Aggie scooped the competition. It was an auspicious beginning to a stellar career.


Aggie and the Double Murder

On May 20, 1931 Los Angeles’ citizens were shaken by the murders of Charles H. Crawford and Herbert F. Spencer.

Crawford was a former saloonkeeper and a powerful player in the city’s shadow government, the sinister “Combination” which was made up of members of the underworld and members of Los Angeles’ political elite.  Nicknamed “The Gray Wolf” and “Good Time Charlie”, Crawford was ostensibly an insurance man, but actually made his money in gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging. To further his image as a legitimate businessman he had even bankrolled the CRITIC OF CRITICS, the political crusading weekly operated by the other victim in the case, Herbert Spencer.

Spencer had taken a bullet to the heart and was stone dead when cops rolled to the scene, but Crawford was still alive with a bullet in his abdomen that had ruptured his liver and one of his kidneys. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital where he received blood transfusions. He regained consciousness for a few moments and the law asked him for the name of his assassin(s). In true underworld style, Crawford said his secret would accompany him to his grave. And it did.

Herbert Spencer was a former police reporter who had become associated with a political crusading weekly, the CRITIC OF CRITICS. Before he was gunned down Spencer and his wife, nicknamed Frankie, had left their home at 2446 Kenilworth Avenue in the Los Feliz hills early enough so that Herb could drop Frankie off at a Hollywood hairdresser, and still have enough time to make it to a meeting with Crawford on Sunset Boulevard.

A home in the hills? A Hollywood hairdresser? How could a journalist make enough in 1931 to afford such a lifestyle? Simple, he milked the rackets for what he could get. He probably never expected to meet an end similar to that of Chicago Tribune newsman, turned crook, Jake Lingle. Lingle had been murdered gangland style on June 9, 1930, shot down in the streets of Chicago. Apparently Spencer believed that mob style hits only happened in Chicago and New York.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939. [LAPL Photo]

Whispers in the corridors of City Hall pegged Crawford as the target of a hit ordered by his former employee Guy McAfee. McAfee and Crawford had been feuding for months before the slayings. McAfee appeared to be winning a power struggled for vice in the city and had been referred to in one newspaper as the Capone of L.A.  People assumed that Crawford was the target, and Spencer was collateral damage – too bad for everyone that McAfee had an iron-clad alibi.

McAfee was a former police captain who had been in charge of LAPD’s vice squad – which was undoubtedly how he met his wife, a former madam in one of the local brothels.  (McAfee is thought to have been the model for Raymond Chandler’s suave mobster Eddie Mars in THE BIG SLEEP).

Following the murders there was panic among members of the Combination; one man even turned up at the city jail and, fearing for his life, asked to be locked up for his own safety. Other Combination members fled the city in terror, some of them stayed away for years.

When the perpetrator surrendered one day after the slayings, the city was stunned to discover that the shooter was David H. Clark a former deputy district attorney who was then running for a municipal judgeship!   Clark, known around town as “Debonair Dave”, had been a star in the D.A.’s office and he seemed likely to achieve even more as a judge.

David Clark and his wife, Nancy.

David Clark and his wife, Nancy.  [LAPL Photo]

Aggie read all of the stories about Clark and noticed a significant gap in the coverage; no one had interviewed Clark’s parents!  Aggie received permission from the city desk to pursue her angle on the story.  After calling every Clark in the Los Angeles phone book  Aggie finally located the parents in Highland Park. For her efforts she was rewarded with an exclusive interview and photographs. The interview earned Aggie an important by-line and ran under the headline, “Mrs. Clark Says Son is Innocent”.

Aggie’s crime reporting career had begun with one of the most important stories of the day.


Aggie Underwood – Reporter

Aggie began her career as a reporter assisting Gertrude Price with the women’s page.  Through her assignments Aggie became acquainted with dozens of people in public office, many of whom would become her best news contacts later in her career.

It was at the Record that Agness acquired her nickname.  As the reporters got to know and like Agness it was inevitable that her name would end up shortened. One day the sports editor, Stub Nelson, shouted out “Aggie” and the nickname stuck. Aggie wasn’t pleased at first; she’d hated the nickname when she was a kid. Again, it was her friend and mentor Gertrude Price who explained life in the newsroom to the younger woman.  She told Aggie that she should embrace the nickname as a sign of acceptance and individuality.

Wrestler c. 1930s

Wrestler c. 1930s

By 1929, Aggie had taken on extra duties at the Record, and she was rewarded with free tickets to local theaters and events – a major perk in lean times.  One day she approached Stub Nelson and asked him for tickets to a wrestling match – she wanted them for her husband.  Stub gave her the tickets on the condition that she report on the match for the sports page. Aggie didn’t know anything about wrestling, but Stub assured her that it wouldn’t take her long to learn the ins and outs of the sport.  Stub was right; in Aggie’s thorough fashion she took the assignment seriously and grilled her husband about various holds and falls, and the next day her story appeared in the sports section.

Aggie’s wrestling match assignments continued, and she was determined to learn all that she could about the sport. She became so adept at covering the wrestling matches that she was soon assigned to covering the auto races at Ascot speedway.

Eventually Aggie was summoned by Rod Brink, the City Editor, who introduced her to an elderly man who had been credited with planting the first cotton in California. Brink told Aggie to interview the man and said that her story would be a by-liner, which meant that her name would appear above the story.

Aggie’s career as a reporter was underway.