Downtown Los Angeles is a tale of two cities and thousands of madcap stories.
The two cities are the neighborhood’s two halves: the haves and the have-nots. In one corner, you’ve got your jolly, monied hipsters; in the other, Skid Row, the infamous area between Main and Alameda where L.A.’s largest population of homeless reside. There’s been a lot of talk of Downtown’s rapid rebirth (read: gentrification) in the last decade. But it’s always, more or less, held these halves—before the fresh young blood, there were the lawyers, businessmen, money managers, politicians, developers, railwaymen, barons of industry. And, always, ever present in the background, to the east, was Skid Row. Downtown is, and has often been, a land where opportunity and squalor comingle. And out of this unholy marriage, there’s a whole lot of vice.
In its earliest days, these parts were the end of the transcontinental line. You can still see the remnants of ancient railways—the Santa Fe Railroad Building (now converted to lofts) is at 6th and Main. Civil War vets on the other side of the country hopped aboard and headed west to take up in the cheap single-room occupancy hotels established around the now-demolished Central Station and La Grande Station. They worked as laborers and congregated in flophouses and bars. It was poor and violent. By the dawn of the last century, the intersection of 1st and Los Angeles Streets was dubbed Hobo Corner (there’s now a DoubleTree and Starbucks there). Only two blocks west, however, were the high-rises of Spring Street, dubbed “the Wall Street of the West.” And another three blocks west were the tony Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill, an area developed by the 13th mayor of Los Angeles, Prudent Beaudry.
And in all the years since these earliest days, these strange streets bounded by Figueroa to the west and Alameda to the east, have been haunted by all manner of man and monster—from serial killers and mobsters to occultists and the wreakers of havoc. Here are 10 of their stories.
The Story of How a Séance Led to One of Los Angeles’ Most Beautiful Buildings
It’s one of the most beautiful and iconic structures in all of Los Angeles, but the Bradbury Building, at the corner of Broadway and 3rd, wouldn’t be the glorious, light-filled wonderland it is had it not been for the spirit world.
So the story goes: Lewis Bradbury made his fortune mining in Mexico and decided to move to Los Angeles, where he hoped to stake his claim and build his name.
“The only thing a man with money is going to do in late 19th-century America is build a business block or build a mansion,” said Kim Cooper, Los Angeles historian and founder of Esotouric Bus Adventures, who’s thoroughly researched the Bradbury.
The original plan was to work with Sumner Hunt, an architect whose firm designed a number of fashionable homes and offices across Los Angeles. However, Bradbury found Hunt’s work for him to be too conservative.
“He wanted something special,” said Cooper. “He’s Bradbury. He’s conquered Mexico. He’s pulled fortunes out of the soil. And he wants to leave something forever that people are going to talk about.”
Wandering Hunt’s office, Bradbury spied the drawings of a young draftsman named George Wyman. Wyman had been reading a hugely popular science fiction book by Edward Bellamy entitled Looking Backwards, which described a utopian society in the year 2000. Bellamy detailed the gorgeous buildings of the future dominated by glass and light, and Wyman interpreted the ideas in illustration.
“‘Young man,’” Cooper said, imitating Bradbury, “’I want you to build my building.’ And Wyman said, ‘No, no, I work for my boss. My boss is building your building.’ And apparently, Bradbury said to him, and this is the story that came through the children of George Wyman, ‘No, I’ve already decided I’m not going to work with your boss and you should go home and think about it.’”
“A medium would have ectoplasm coming out, and trumpets would play and voices would be heard and messages would be conveyed. This was very common—often theatrical, often fraudulent.”
Wyman would not ponder on this alone. Rather, he called in a medium. Spiritualism was in vogue in the latter years of the century. So many young men died horrifically in the Civil War that a small industry of charlatans arose to help calm the living.
“A medium would have ectoplasm coming out, and trumpets would play and voices would be heard and messages would be conveyed. This was very common—often theatrical, often fraudulent. But in private homes, it was just as common to get out a planchette,” said Cooper. “So that’s what he did.”
Wyman gathered around a table with some others and asked to summon his brother, who Cooper believes died of natural causes. “The question they were asking was should George [Wyman] take this commission. It could make him as an architect, at the same time it could cause conflict with his employer. And the planchette started to move and the pencil started to scratch into the paper. And it spelled in Palmer script, ‘Take Bradbury you will be’ and then there was just complete gibberish.”
One of the attendees left the table and when they returned they happened to see the writing upside down. They could make out the word: Successful. “Take Bradbury and you will be successful.”
“With the encouragement from the Beyond, [Wyman] took the commission and ended up spending all of Bradbury’s money and then some,” said Cooper. “He had the opportunity to essentially bring this vision of the future into reality [and Bradbury was] was willing to invest in it because it was to be his permanent memorial on Earth.”
And in many ways it was. Bradbury died in 1892, the year before the completion of the building. Wyman, on the other hand, fell into obscurity.
“He didn’t have a long or illustrious career,” said Cooper. “He had this wonderful commission. It just fell into his lap.”
The Story of the Former Slave Who Built a Fortune
When Biddy Mason died in 1891, the Los Angeles Herald wrote a simple, six-sentence obituary. There was no mention, however, that at the time of her death, she was the wealthiest woman of color this side of the Mississippi.
Born into slavery in Hancock Country, Georgia, in 1818, Mason was forced to make the six-month journey to California in 1851 by the slave owner, Robert Smith, who came to these parts looking for gold. They settled initially in San Bernardino, but when word spread to Smith that California was a free state, he hid the slaves in the canyons of Santa Monica and prepared to take them to Texas. However, the slaves were soon arrested for their own protection while pleadings were made to a district judge for emancipation. On January 21, 1856, the judge handed Mason her free papers, ruling that, “All men should be left to their own pursuit of freedom and happiness.”
For more than a decade, she worked as a nurse and midwife and, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 1905, “on the basis of [her] frugality and keen business acumen have been founded the fortunes of her descendants.” With her savings, Mason purchased three pieces of land in Downtown: 331, 333, and 335 South Spring Street, all at a time “when South Spring Street was little more than a vineyard and settlement of [a]dobe houses.” The price was only $250. When she died, that investment was estimated to be worth more than $100,000 ($2.7 million today). Twenty years later, the estate was worth $300,000 ($8.3 million).
“In the slums of the city she was known as ‘Grandma Mason,’ and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles.”
But her fortune wasn’t her only legacy. She established the first AME Church in Los Angeles, right there on Spring Street, and in her days, she was known as one the most charitable in the city. “In the slums of the city she was known as ‘Grandma Mason,’” reported the Times in 1909, “and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles.”
The Times also reported this anecdote:
“During the flood of the early [eighteen] eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring streets. By the terms of this order all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill. Her home at No. 331 South Spring Street in later years became a refuge for stranded and needy settlers. As she grew more feeble, it became necessary for her grandson to stand at the gate each morning and turn away the line which had formed waiting for her assistance.”
Biddy Mason’s original properties are long since gone, replaced instead by the appallingly unattractive concrete structure of Broadway Spring Center. There is, however, a plaque and display commemorating Mason that was erected in 1991.
The Story of the Many Deaths and Murders of the Van Nuys Hotel
Even before the hotel at the corner of 4th and Main opened, calamity struck. The Los Angeles Herald reported in 1896 that “a large oil tank which was being hoisted in place in the new Van Nuys hotel building fell as a result of a weak rope breaking. In the descent it struck [James] McNulty, who was passing, bruising his body and crushing it badly in places.”
Nevertheless, the Van Nuys opened as scheduled in January of the following year, and was hailed as a marker of “an important epoch in the history of the city. Los Angeles now has a hotel that is equal in style and furnishings and comfort of the very best to be found anywhere in the United States.” But, the day after the opening, another bad omen befell the property. A runaway horse-drawn streetcar struck a telegraph post just outside, injuring the horses so badly that several of them died.
Then came the first of many, many deaths.
Then came the first of many, many deaths. A waiter, Charles Gamble, was “caught in the elevator and crushed, then released, dropping from the third story to the cement floor of the basement.” Horrifically, he was alive and conscious for another 30 minutes, despite his hideous injuries, which were described by the Herald: “mangled in a terrible manner, his head and one side of his face crushed to a pulp, both legs broken above the knees so that the bones protruded from the quivering flesh, one foot nearly torn off, injured internally and ejecting blood with every breath.”
Four years later, a janitor peered into that elevator shaft and was struck by the falling 4,800-pound lift car and instantly killed. In 1911, an elderly reclusive millionaire who’d been living at the hotel for five years died of heart disease, though the Los Angeles Times notes that “his life of ennui, confinement, and lack of exercise [hastened] the end.” A depressed man took revenge on his estranged wife in 1924, by swallowing cyanide, rudely doing so in the presence of a porter. And in 1937, a 71-year-old resident of Akron, Ohio, and guest of the hotel was found upright in her chair, bludgeoned to death—the Times reported that “a brick was found in the woman’s bed while the bed clothing also was saturated with blood.”
By this point, the hotel’s ignominious name was stricken, replaced with the Barclay. And it’s the strange case of Otto Wilson that is so inextricably linked to the Barclay Hotel.
He put the corpse in the closet then went off to see a Boris Karloff movie at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway.
Wilson, a discharged Navy pharmacist, arrived at the hotel one November morning in 1944 with a young prostitute, Virgie Lee Griffin, whom he’d met at a bar down the street. They booked a room, withdrew to it, and drank whiskey together. At some point, Griffin asked for more money and Wilson hit her. Wilson confessed, “I socked her. And then I cut her. I was going to dismember the body and get rid of it, but I found that I couldn’t do it. So I left.” He put the corpse in the closet then went off to see a Boris Karloff movie at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway. He picked up another prostitute called Lillian Johnson and took her to a now-demolished hotel that was once next to Grand Central Market on Hill Street, and on account of what he called “her cussedness,” killed her, too. He then walked across the street to a now-demolished bar that was next to Angel’s Flight, sat down and had a drink. He was arrested there and in 1946 tossed into the gas chamber. It’s suspected that this day of havoc wasn’t the first of his murders, but no others have ever been proven—though this hasn’t stopped some from dubbing him the L.A. Ripper.
Though now apartments, the Barclay’s still there, perched at that corner. Caddy-corner is one of the best restaurants in Downtown, Baco Mercat.
INSIDER TIPYou can better many tales of horror and woe by taking Kim Cooper’s Esotouric Bus Adventures, which frequently operates a tour called Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice, which features the Van Nuys and many of the stories in this article.
The Story of the Wildest Saloon in Downtown
The Bismarck Café, a basement saloon on the corner of Main and Winston Streets, was better known by police as “the Bucket of Blood.” It was the epicenter for the rough-and-tumble down-and-out from the time it opened in 1906. It was the Cheers of Skid Row. “Most everybody goes down there,” said one of the patrons in 1907, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In an expose in August of 1907, the Times described it as a place where “only sandwiches and beans are served in the way of eatables,” with décor “fitted up in frontier style. The floor is covered in sawdust. With an ordinary garden rake the filth is cleaned out once a day.” It was alleged that women were paid to lure in other, younger women, mostly domestics, “whose dresses were above their shoe tops.” The men would lust after them, plying them with beer. Fights routinely broke out and thieves would often hide out here after a robbery.
The proprietor, a Chicago politician named Jack Edwards, showed up in L.A. in 1901 with only $4.50 in his pocket. As he told it to the Los Angeles Herald, “I had the 50 cents and my wife had the $4.” He was described as “muscular and fearless.” But after the Times story, business began to sour. Edwards tried, temporarily, to clean up the Bismarck. “No person of questionable age was admitted. The waiters were instructed to keep customers as quiet as possible. In several selections rendered by the band there were strains of sacred music.” Two Catholic priests even accidentally stumbled in, thinking it was somewhere better.
“The thirsty and gore-seeking public was turned away due to the canker of financial distress which seems to have eaten the vitals of ‘the bucket.’”
In didn’t last long. By the end of the year, the bar was, yet again, a Dickensian dive of lost souls. But in 1908, all well to rot. The Times reported in February that Edwards had “discharged a union bartender for dishonesty,” and replaced him two new bartenders who “were denied admission to the local union.” As a result, picket lines formed outside. In June, the police commission revoked the Bismarck’s restaurant license. And soon thereafter, Edwards went bust.
As the Los Angeles Herald reported at the time that, “the thirsty and gore-seeking public was turned away due to the canker of financial distress which seems to have eaten the vitals of ‘the bucket.’”
Edwards died in 1939. The Bucket of Blood is now Blossom, a very pleasant Vietnamese restaurant.
The Story of the Bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building
William Randolph Heart’s paper, the Los Angeles Herald, ran the news first in October of 1910: “EXPLOSION DESTROYS TIMES BUILDING; 30 THOUGHT DEAD.”
“An explosion that shook the ground within a radius of half a mile wrecked the Times building at First Street and Broadway at 1:07 o’clock this morning, sending a sheet of flame high in the air and wrecking the structure.”
There would be no Los Angeles Times edition for October 1. But, the following day, using a different press, the Times resumed operations with the headline, “TWENTY-ONE KILLED AND MORE INJURED IN THE DYNAMITED ‘TIMES’ BUILDING – BOMB EXPLODED BY THE ENEMIES OF INDUSTRIAL FREEDOM AND OF THIS PAPER.”
In the fifth paragraph of the article, it was reported, “The union has struck. The great coup consists of broken hearts of innocent workers. That is all. The rest is as nothing.”
He drove the streets of Downtown in a limousine, on which was affixed a machine gun.
Los Angeles was an open shop town—it had successfully resisted unionization from the very beginning. The publisher of the Times, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, did everything in his power to maintain the city’s anti-union sentiment, including turning his paper into propaganda. Gen. Otis was a Civil War veteran, who was lauded as larger than life. The legends surrounding him continue to this day—common (and unproven) lore insists that he drove the streets of Downtown in a limousine, on which was affixed a machine gun. To the unions and their sympathizers, he was a villain, plain and simple.
The culprits were the brothers McNamara—John, the secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers union, was considered the brains of the operation, and James, a unionist, carried out the attack. James planted a suitcase of dynamite in Ink Alley, next to the Times building; he left another at the home of Gen. Otis, though it failed to detonate.
“O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins.”
The bombing did nothing to dissuade Gen. Otis of his position on the unions; rather, he doubled down. Even before the brothers McNamara were identified and captured—that wouldn’t be until April of the following year—the Times ran a number of excoriating columns. Two days after the bombing, next to a cartoon of Justice without a blindfold, holding a sword on which reads, “For Industrial Freedom,” the Times wrote, “O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins.” Two weeks later, they decried “the greed of monopoly in labor” and fantasized vengeance against the attackers: “Death at the end of a rope would be too much of a holiday. The bitter lesson of torture, by fire, long drawn out, would prove more fitting and more lasting as an example.”
In the end, John McNamara got 15 years and James life in prison; Gen. Otis died a rich man in 1917. In 1935 the L.A. Times moved into its Times Mirror Square headquarters, a city landmark, at Spring and 1st Streets—however, in 2018, the Times moved out of Downtown for El Segundo, just south of the airport.
The Story of the Many Deaths and Murders of the Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel opened just before Christmas of 1924 on Main and 7th Streets, three blocks south of the Van Nuys. It was without the fanfare of the Van Nuys, but likewise, it was without the same omens that plagued that hotel almost three decades before. However, almost a century later, the Cecil’s name is synonymous with murder and calamity.
The first of the tragedies were suicides. W.K. Norton, a 46-year-old from Manhattan Beach, south of Los Angeles, checked in November of 1931, giving his name at the front desk as James Willys of Chicago. He swallowed poison-filled capsules. The maid found him hours later. The following year, a 26-year-old ended his life with a bullet to the right temple. In 1934, a former sergeant in the Army Medical Corps cut his own throat with a razor—he left a farewell note behind, in which he lamented his illness. Then came two jumpers—a woman from the ninth floor in 1937, who became entangled in telephone wires on the descent, and a marine fireman from the fourteenth floor in 1938, who landed on the skylight—and another poison-swallower, a 39-year-old sailor in 1939. There were another five who leapt to their deaths between 1947 and 1975, including Pauline Otton, a 27-year-old who landed on 65-year-old George Giannini. As the Times reported, police initially thought they “might have leaped out of the window together, but they found the man had his hands in his pockets and his shoes still on. If he had fallen nine stories, the impact would have knocked his shoes off.”
Then there were the murders. Dorothy Jean Purcell was 19 and pregnant when she checked in with a 38-year-old man in 1944. In the middle of the night, she ran to the bathroom and silently gave birth. Believing the baby was stillborn, she threw him out the window. The autopsy, however, revealed he was in fact born alive, with air in his lungs.
Three weeks later, after receiving complaints about the water pressure, maintenance discovered her body in the water tower.
In 1964, “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood—so known as she was always seen feeding the pigeons in Pershing Square, just four blocks from the Cecil—was found stabbed, strangled, and raped in her room in the hotel. An arrest was made in her death, but police couldn’t find a connection between the suspect and Pigeon Goldie. The case has never been solved.
And neither has the most recent, and perhaps, most notorious case of the Cecil. Elisa Lam was 21 when she came to Los Angeles in 2013 and checked into the hotel. She was last seen on February 1. Security footage showed her acting confused in an elevator. Posters went up all over Downtown. But no one found her. Three weeks later, after receiving complaints about the water pressure, maintenance discovered her body in the water tower. She’d been there for weeks—and in all that time guests had been using the water to bathe, to brush their teeth, to drink. A British tourist even admitted to CNN, “The water did have a funny taste.”
In the years following the case of Elisa Lam, the Cecil changed its name to Stay on Main. It’s since, however, closed its doors—it’s being renovated and is expected to reopen sometime this year.
The Story of the Creation of the Academy Awards
The Biltmore Hotel opened on October 2, 1923, and—much like the Van Nuys before it—was lauded as one of the finest in the world. The Los Angeles Times championed, “the Los Angeles Biltmore has every other hostelry faded to a pale pink.”
The massive hotel, occupying the entire block of 5th Street from Olive to Grand, was part of the migration away from the main arteries of Main and Spring Streets. The fashionable no longer mingled in those seedy parts abutting Skid Row, but preferred the stretch between the gardens of Pershing Square—over which the Biltmore stood—and Figueroa Street, where the wealthy socialized in the recently constructed headquarters of the Jonathan Club.
On May 11, 1927, a gathering of the elites of the film industry assembled in the Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom. For some time, Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, had been barking about the need for a film association that could take on labor disputes—he’d already organized 36 industry folks in January to establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The charter for the Academy was granted on May 6 and the May 11 banquet was announced. There were over 200 invited guests, including actors Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, and Douglas Fairbanks, who was the first president of the Academy; director D.W. Griffith; and studio heads Carl Laemmle and Joseph Schenck.
[He was] so inspired that he began drawing on the table cloth. His creation: a sword-wielding knight standing atop a film reel. Oscar.
It’s unknown exactly what went on behind closed doors that day, but it’s said that Mayer proposed for the formation of an annual award given for film. Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s art director, was said to be so inspired that he began drawing on the table cloth. His creation: a sword-wielding knight standing atop a film reel. Oscar.
Two years later, the first Academy Awards were held, although the Biltmore was shunned in favor of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. However, the Oscars returned to the Biltmore Hotel in 1931 and from 1935 through 1939.
INSIDER TIPThe Biltmore Hotel is also known for being the last spot where the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, was seen prior to her murder. She was dropped off here on January 9, 1947. Six days later, her body was discovered dismembered in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue, in the neighborhood of Leimert Park.
The Story of the Zoot Suit Riots
Long before the 1992 riots or the 1965 riots, there were the riots of 1943—the Zoot Suit Riots.
Los Angeles was at a boiling point then. The United States was two years into the War—drafted soldiers from across the country descended on the city, waiting to ship out to the Pacific; Japanese Americans were taken from the city and interred; thousands of Mexicans arrived under the bracero program to fill the void in agricultural labor. And then came the Sleepy Lagoon murder—a young Latino man had his skull busted open in South Los Angeles in ’42. The police and the press blamed Mexican gangs, and 22 Latino youths were prosecuted. Soon, Mexicans were made to be the villain and their garb came under attack.
War-time rationing led to alterations of men’s fashions—fitted was in, it required less fabric. But the zoot suit, which came out of Harlem in the ’30s, was a standard wardrobe for minorities. Now, it was deemed as unpatriotic, un-American.
The papers began reporting heavily on crimes committed by zoot-suit-clad criminals: “Zoot Suit Youths Blamed for Death,” “Zoot Suiter Object of Police Search,” “Attacks by Orange County Zoot-Suiters Injures Five.”
What happened next is a bit murky and wasn’t reported by the Times—which is strange, considering its obsession with zoot suiters—but United Press published a small item that said, “a group of eleven soldiers and sailors were attacked Thursday night [June 3, 1943, on Main Street, in Downtown, just south of Chinatown] by a gang of 35 ‘Pachucos,’ wielding rocks, chains, clubs, and knives. Sailor Joe Dacy Coleman received a broken jaw and other servicemen suffered minor injuries.” Other reports state the incident occurred on May 31—and that on June 3, sailors retaliated by returning to Main Street in Downtown and attacking any zoot suiters who crossed their paths.
The following day, on June 4, the Long Beach Independent splashed the headline: “Sailors Take Matters Into Own Hands; Stage Attacks on Zoot Suit Gangs.” The violence began east of Downtown. On June 7, the Times began to report that for the last 72 hours, police had been standing by “during a long series of more or less bloody encounters between gangs of zooters and servicemen.”
A riot alarm finally rung at 10 p.m., after complaints that “zooters were massing ‘500 strong’ for a knock-down, drag-out battle.”
According to the Times, the “habitual zoot-suit congregation” of Downtown was initially quiet, however on the night of the June 7, it erupted. “In the heaviest street rioting on Downtown city streets in many years, thousands of servicemen, joined thousands of civilians…along Main St. and Broadway hunting down zoot-suiters.”
The marauders halted all streetcars, searched all theaters, and when finding the wearer of a zoot suit, ripped it from their body. They shouted, “We’ll destroy every zoot suit in Los Angeles County before this is over.” A riot alarm finally rung at 10 p.m., after complaints that “zooters were massing ‘500 strong’ for a knock-down, drag-out battle.”
The clashes spread throughout the city and subsided after five days. The Navy banned servicemen from entering Los Angeles proper and zoot suits were banned. City and state government officials began active investigations—some spread wild conjectures that Nazi agitators caused the chaos. The mayor of Los Angeles blamed zoot-suited Mexicans, calling them hoodlums and rascals, and exonerated servicemen, saying that their actions were “entirely understandable and largely excusable.” Eleanor Roosevelt waded into the controversy, stating that she believed the root cause to be long-standing prejudice against Mexicans. The Times published a response, calling her ignorant and accusing her of embracing Community party propaganda, “which has been desperately devoted to making a racial issue of the juvenile gang trouble here.”
In the end, over 150 were injured and more than 500, mostly Hispanic, arrested.
The Story of the Skid Row Slasher
On a Friday morning in 1964, David Russell, a 63-year-old homeless man, was discovered in the patio of the Los Angeles Central Library—the stunning Art Deco structure on 5th, between Grand and Flower Streets. His throat had been cut wide open, yawning from ear to ear. The following day, a 67-year-old retired meat salesman was found murdered, throat similarly slit, in a flophouse in the heart of Skid Row. And then—nothing. They were two horrifying, yet unsolved slayings.
But a decade after the murders, in December of 1974, the body of Charles Jackson, a 46-year-old transient from Louisiana, was strewn across the patio of the Central Library. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. No one recalled the murders a decade before and instead theorized that an episode of NBC’s Police Story starring William Shatner was the inspiration—an episode had just aired in which homeless men were murdered. The theory received increased attention when one week later, a second man was murdered in an alley off 5th Street, between Spring and Broadway. And a third man was killed shortly thereafter, his body discovered in Skid Row. Both of these men had slashed throats. Still, no one remembered the ’64 killings. Instead, detectives investigated at NBC Studios in Burbank.
Strangely and for reasons still not known, the Slasher abandoned his hunting grounds for Hollywood, where he claimed another two souls.
But the murders kept coming. Just before Christmas, the fourth victim appeared—again, outside the library, in the bushes on Flower Street. In January, they found a fifth murdered homeless man at a rundown hotel on Grand and 8th. By now, the murderer had a name: the Skid Row Slasher. A sixth came in mid-January. Ten days later, a seventh victim, Samuel Suarez, was found in room 528 of the cursed Barclay Hotel. Strangely and for reasons still not known, the Slasher abandoned his hunting grounds for Hollywood, where he claimed another two souls, George Frias and Clyde Hay.
Then the murders stopped. Just like a decade before. And it took another year for detectives to make an arrest.
He then attempted to break into Burt Reynolds’ house.
The culprit was Vaughn Greenwood, an inmate who was currently in Folsom Prison, serving 32-to-life. He was arrested the year before, in February of 1975, for a bizarre rampage in which he first attacked two men who discovered him burglarizing their Hollywood Hills home. He then attempted to break into Burt Reynolds’ house. But while fleeing Reynolds’ house, he dropped an envelope addressed to himself in the celebrity’s driveway, which led police directly to Greenwood’s door. While searching Greenwood’s home, the cops uncovered a pair of cufflinks that they would eventually come to find had belonged to George Frias, the first of the Hollywood victims. Much as the February 1975 arrest proved to be the reason for the end of the Slasher’s reign of terror, it turned out the decade hiatus was due to the fact that Greenwood had been in prison in Chicago, after attacking someone with a knife attack there.
When he was finally indicted for the Slasher’s crimes, the public learned the full extent of his brutality. The Los Angeles Times reported in January of 1976: “Each of the victims was slain in a distinctive manner—throats cut through to the spine, bodies arranged in a certain way—and in some instances there was evidence of macabre ritualism.” The rituals included, “removal of the victims’ shoes—subsequently placed with toes pointed toward the slain man—salt scattered to create a grim mosaic around the bodies, and unexplained markings around the wounds.” There were other rumors speculating that Greenwood poured the blood of his victims into cups and then drank from them.
He was sentenced to life in prison and is currently in the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. He’ll next be eligible for parole in 2027, when he’ll be 83.
And Finally, the Weirdest Story Ever to Be Born in Downtown, a Land of Strange Happenings
When Kim Cooper of Esotouric Tours was asked what the strangest Downtown story is, she immediately said, “The Great Eleven Cult of Bunker Hill.” Cooper is a purveyor of the odd and horrifying tale—and she spins all these yarns in her guided tours—but this one is so peculiar it inspired her to write a book about, The Kept Girl.
“This whole thing begins [in the 1920s] when this beautiful girl, Ruth Wieland, is working at a taxi dance hall on Main Street to support her mother who’s living up on Bunker Hill,” said Cooper. “And I don’t know if she was schizophrenic or fanciful, but she was walking home through old Downtown after having dirty old men paw her all night, and an angel starts whispering to her and saying you and your mother need to lock yourself up in a room and I will dictate to you the Lamb’s Book of Life.”
Three days later the Angel Michael came to them and dictated the writing.
Ruth returned to the home she shared with her mother, May Otis Blackburn, at 355 S. Grand Ave. (it’s long since been demolished, replaced with a highrise), and three days later the Angel Michael came to them and dictated the writing. After 42 months of visiting angels (Gabriel also spoke to them) they completed the work, which they also called the Great Sixth Seal, in 1925 and formed the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven.
Although they were said to have withdrawn to their home for over three years, both mother and daughter got married to Ward Sitton Blackburn and Sam Rizzio, respectively, and amass a cult following that numbered in the hundreds. Throughout the flourishing of their sect, a number of peculiar incidents arose.
May’s mother, who was also Ward’s stepmother by marriage to Ward’s father, remained chained to a bed for two months and 16 days. “But during that time,” she said, “I never was happier. The angel Gabriel finally released me.”
Meanwhile, Ward, whom the cult dubbed “King of the North Star,” stood at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont (which is now Koreatown), counting automobiles for no discernable reason. “I counted [the cars] and made a report to my wife,” he said, nonsensically. And Ruth’s husband, Sam Rizzio, is suspected to have been poisoned by his wife—he vanished in 1924 and was never found.
Not to worry, Ma Blackburn was quite sure she could be raised from the dead. And so poor Willa’s body was preserved in spices, salt water, and ice.
Then there’s the Rhoads family—William, his wife Martha, and 16-year-old daughter Willa—who were all roped into the clan. Willa even became a priestess, but died young of diphtheria on New Year’s Eve of 1925. But, not to worry, Ma Blackburn was quite sure she could be raised from the dead. And so poor Willa’s body was preserved in spices, salt water, and ice—600 pounds of the stuff, which had been delivered weekly. Seven puppies were sacrificed in Willa’s honor and placed in a separate casket—the dogs represented the seven notes of Gabriel’s trumpet. After four months, the Rhoads family moved the body to a house on Vermont Ave., then after five months, to a house in Ocean Park, a few months later, they relocated to a home at 1094 Marco Place, in Venice. Each time they transferred Willa, they propped her upright in the backseat of the car—she was so well preserved, passersby thought her to be alive. In Venice, they buried her underneath the floorboards along with the caskets of dogs.
In the end, it wasn’t murder but greed that did them in.
The Blackburn Cult moved to a ranch in Santa Susana, way out in Simi Valley—eventually, the Manson Cult would likewise call this town home. While here, and while waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the 300 in the fold got into all manner of strange mischief: animal sacrifices, ceremonies in the nude, and the allegation that one member, Frances Turner, was baked in an oven.
In the end, it wasn’t murder but greed that did them in. The Blackburns managed to sucker wealthy oilman Clifford Dabney out of $50,000 by promising that the Lamb’s Book of Life would, according to the LA Times, “solve all the enigmas of nature and make possible the location of all deposits of precious metals and minerals.” Of course, it revealed nothing, so Blackburn went to the cops in October of ‘29, accusing May Blackburn of swindling him.
Though the trial of Mother Blackburn was ostensibly about her grifting, it became about the cult and led to a conviction. However, it was overturned by the California Supreme Court, who ruled that the oddities of the sect were prejudicial.
It’s not entirely clear what happened to the Great Eleven. Some said they moseyed up to Lake Tahoe to live out their days, some said they didn’t. All that’s known is they’ve disappeared into the past. A few more strange ghosts that walk the streets of old Downtown.