Angels Dictate at 355 South Grand Avenue

Location: 355 South Grand Avenue
Date: 1922-?

When the Angel Michael spoke to Ruth Wieland in 1922, she was a Spring Street taxi dancer living on Bunker Hill. She first heard him as she walked along Broadway, then three days later in her room at 355 South Grand Avenue. Over the next 42 months he dictated the "Lamb’s Book of Life" to Ruth and her mother May Otis Blackburn, speaking occasionally, night and day–but only if they stayed inside and away from the bustle of everyday life.  In time, the handwritten book comprised such vast bulk that, at least according to May, it would have taken sixteen stenographers six months to transcribe it.

Much later, after the women were arrested for hustling oil man Clifford Dabney and their strange tale splashed across the papers, one Arthur C. Osborne appeared to announce he was Ruth’s bethrothed in those heady early days, when he loaned the girl $1500 to help finance her divorce. He told her she was too delicate to work, and that he would pay the bills while she and May worked on the holy book, also known as the Sixth Seal. Then she and mama vanished. He came to see Ruth in jail, but she was cold and told him to talk to her lawyer.

For by 1929, pretty Ruth’s tastes had moved far beyond sad sack guys who loaned cash to taxi dancers. She was the priestess of The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, perhaps the wackiest in an era of wack-a-doodle cults and alternative faiths the likes of which continue to color California’s reputation for peculiarity to this day. With Mother May, Ruth commanded a small army of true believers who inhabited "Harmony Hamlet," a retreat in the Santa Susanna mountains, near Moorpark (later the haunt of the Manson Family), where about 100 cult members lived like hermits after driving their cars into the mountains and leaving them to rust as a sign of devotion. But who needs wheels when you have nude, interracial dancing? Not you, mister.

The Great Eleven began on Bunker Hill and found its first faithful there. Ruth and May couldn’t spend all their time taking dictation from aetherial beings. They were social butterflies, the pair of them, and enjoyed sharing philosophy and bossing people around. Before long, both had found new husbands, Ruth with the doomed Sammie Rizzio, likely murdered in 1924 for the sin of striking his bride, May with weird Ward Blackburn, he of the Chinese moustaches, prodigious claws and fondness for collecting rainwater in a coffee can at the corner of Wilshire and Western. And it was likely on the Hill that Clifford Dabney found the ladies and became convinced that their holy book, once finished, would give him the power to discover hidden mineral wealth within the earth, to hold the power of life and death, and to reanimate the corpses he created while chugging along down Broadway in his customized human reaping machine and calliope. He began writing checks, which Ruth and May were only too happy to cash.

After several years, when all the money was gone, Clifford Dabney’s wealthy uncle Joseph took a break from berating his boozehound employee Raymond Chandler to offer his nephew a bail out, if he’d take those looney women to court. He did, and the story that came out ultimately included the symbolic exorcism of all the madness in the world via abusing a batch of crazy quilts, grandmas happily chained to their beds, ladies baked in brick ovens, poisoned sands, the abiding mystery of the Lord’s Furniture Set and the ritual mummification of a teenage priestess and her seven pet puppies.

But these odd tales take us far from the Hill, and this is not the place for them. If you are curious about the Great Eleven, join us on the Wild Wild West Side crime bus tour, when we will visit the grave of the young mummy and talk at length of the practices of this most original downtown faith.

Photos courtesy the Los Angeles Times and the UCLA Library Digital Collections. 

The Marcella — 223 South Flower Street

MarcellaToday we discuss The Marcella, who once flaunted her classical order on Flower (she is Italian, please be advised the C in her name is not pronounced s as in sell, but like ch as in chin). See how her name beckons, proud but not haughty, from her entablature? She wants to take you in and protect you under that great cornice with her large corbels. Despite her imposing presence, she is warm, and welcoming; the wide porches bespeak grace, and the timberframe vernacular on the bays coo cozy by the fire lad, there’s good feelings in mortise and tenon.

But don’t speak of fire. Fire struck the Marcella in October of 1912, sending well-to-do ladies like Mrs. L. M. Harvey to Pacific Hospital after having leapt from upper stories. Other occupants hustled (stricken with panic; see below) and scantily attired into the street. Marcella owner C. F. Holland states he’s looking at $3,000 ($65,983 USD2007) in damages, $2,000 to the rugs and furniture alone.
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It is reported that a man was seen running from the building a few minutes before the fire broke out. The storeroom, where the fire began, was not locked. The mystery is never solved but Marcella, stout of bay and stalwart of column, cannot be burned away. She perseveres.
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The Marcella is a building so lovely she attracts only the comeliest of patrons. She is home to Miss May Long, a lass so fetching that when in May of 1913 she turned her attentions to one Earl G. Horton, he is gunned down by another suitor outside of his apartment house near Temple & Victor.

 

 

 

 

 

Jealousy over a woman causes upset again at the Marcella on October 25 of 1922 when Emergency Patrolman Claude Coffrin went to visit Mrs. Tillie Smith in her Marcella apartment. Not long after Coffrin’s ingress, there appeared Emergency Patrolman Anthony Kazokas and a civilian, Joe Cummins. Kazokas had loaned Cummins his revolver and badge to settle his romantic score with Coffrin over Tillie.

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Coffrin and Cummins fought, and Coffrin gained control of the gun; he phoned the Detective Bureau and over came officers Nickens and Ellis. Cummins at that point grabbed the gun back from Coffrin and stuck it in Nickens’ side, and Patrolman Kazokas jumped on Detective Ellis. Ellis brained Kazokas out cold with the butt of his gun, but Nickens ended up shooting Cummins through the neck.

The lovely Mrs. Smith was arrested on violation of parole; she had been sentenced on the 18th to pay $50 and spend thirty days in jail—suspended—for “social vagrancy”. Apparently, quality of young lady was beginning to decline at the Marcella.
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Other upstanding members of society to grace the Marcella’s rooms were the Jacksons, of whom you read all about here.
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And remember Barbara Graham? What helped send Barbara to the chair was hubby Henry’s testimony on the witness stand. Her last-ditch alibi was that she and Henry were together that night of March 9, 1953—but Henry testified he had already moved out and was living with his mother…at the Marcella. (A mere two blocks down from the Lancaster, scene of Baxter Shorter’s abduction.)

Little Tommy Graham, now five, was living in the Marcella in 1957 when Wanger Pictures gave him $1000 for filming his executed mother’s life story.

 

 

Fire again struck the Marcella, this time in 1962, and this time it meant business. On March 30 a blaze razed the upper two stories of the structure. Twelve fire units quelled the blaze in half an hour; She of 223 South Flower vanished from memory soon afterward.

Here we are looking north on Flower through the intersection of Third, 1965. See the little Victorian, left center? The Marcella was just on the other side of that.
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Today Flower Street makes a sharp turn between Third and Second to avoid the Bunker Hill Towers. The Marcella stood just on the other side of this pool:

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Interesting, and, what, perhaps a little unnerving, but certainly instructive, to consider that the image that began this post, and the one immediately above, were taken from the same spot.

Top image courtesy Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library; center images courtesy William Reagh Collection, California History Section, California State Library

 

Livin’ it up at the Hotel Lincoln

Location: 209 South Hill

Date: July 1905

Hotel Lincoln

W.D. Montgomery and his stepdaughter, Mary Meister, arrived in Los Angeles during October 1904. W.D. had purchased the Hotel Lincoln, at 209 South Hill, with funds provided by his wife, Laura. She soon followed the pair to Bunker Hill, and the three took charge of the day to day running of the hotel. At first everything appeared to be going well for the new owners, and they seemed to be an average hard working family. Yet beneath the surface the household was filled with discord and secrets, and it would take only a few months before everything began to unravel in a very public way.

 

W.D. had never been a teetotaler, but once in Los Angeles he’d started drinking heavily. Maybe it was the stress of W.D.’s drinking, but Laura’s rheumatism began to flare up to the point where she became bedridden. Mary was in charge of Laura’s care, but after downing several whiskeys, neat, W.D. decided that he would take over. His bedside manner left everything to be desired. When Laura felt too unwell to eat her lunch, he told her that she would eat every morsel if he had to “cram it down her throat”. Not surprisingly, Laura’s appetite didn’t respond well to this threat, and in a fit of pique W.D. grabbed the lunch dishes and hurled them out of the window!

Laura tried to persuade W.D. to attend one of Francis Murphy’s temperance meetings and take a sobriety pledge. W.D. wanted nothing to do with Francis Murphy or sobriety, and in a fit of rage at his wife’s suggestion, he smacked her.

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Everyone who came into contact with the couple thought that W.D. was nothing better than drunken brute, particularly when in full view of several hotel guests he chased Laura through the hotel, then grabbed her by the throat and throttled her. Although W.D.’s drinking and behavior had certainly spiraled out of control, he may have had good reason for behaving so badly. He’d become convinced that Laura was being unfaithful and had started following her. He trailed her several times to an obvious assignation in Ocean Park. Later, at home, W.D. confronted Laura and she confessed her infidelity. After 13 years of marriage, the couple divorced.

 

By July 1905, Laura had run off with the railroad man with whom she had been having an affair. The hotel had been sold to Mrs. Belle McWilliams, and W.D. and Mary were running it while the deal was being finalized.

 

Mary Meister

Suddenly, Mary came forward with shocking allegations against W.D. She said that he had ruined her (early 1900s doublespeak for seduced), and that he had been going around town telling anyone who would listen that he was in love with her. One day at the corner of First and Broadway, W.D. began to shout at his stepdaughter, saying that if she turned her back on him he would kill her and then himself.

 

It was his downtown outburst that compelled Mary to have her stepfather arrested on a charge of insanity. The two appeared in court to try to settle the unholy domestic mess. Mary broke down on the witness stand and began to sob. All eyes were on her as she turned to W.D. and said “You have ruined my reputation, and now I don’t know what to do”. W.D. Montgomery looked astonished. “I didn’t do anything of the sort” he replied, “I would marry you tomorrow”. Then W.D. went on to shock the courtroom further by saying “I thank God that the railroad man ran away with my wife”, adding, “I didn’t love her and she knew it”.

 

By the time Mary and W.D. were finished testifying, the spectators were left wondering what exactly had been going on at the Hotel Lincoln, especially before Laura arrived to join W.D. and Mary in 1904. Could they have been having a relationship then? Was that the reason Laura had become involved with the railroad man? Mary was tight lipped, but wouldn’t deny that she and W.D. had been engaged to wed! Meanwhile, W.D. continued ranting and raving in court, and finally had to be taken to the County Hospital for observation.

 

With Mary embarrassed to be seen in public and W.D. babbling away in the County Hospital, the story maytangled web have ended there – but one more bizarre chapter remained to be written.

 

Someone contacted police, telling them that the reason W.D. Montgomery’s behavior had been so erratic was because he had been drugged by a person (or persons) who wished to gain control of his property! The former hotel owner had been deeply in debt when he sold the Lincoln to Belle McWilliams, and it was later learned that he had borrowed against furnishings that he didn’t own. Not one single bill was paid by the Lincoln during June, even though receipts showed that $1000 had been received from patrons, and that W.D. had obtained a loan of several hundred dollars.

Then, one night in early July, W.D. crept down to the safe and made a hasty $1100 withdrawal. He was discovered later in the gutter – drunk, disheveled and penniless. Shortly thereafter, bankruptcy proceedings would be instituted against him.

 

A bankruptcy hearing would be held, and the judge would hear varying accounts of the deal to purchase the Hotel Lincoln. According to Mrs. McWilliams, she’d been given a bill of sale by W.D. in the amount of $8000, but she would actually pay only $6900 for the hotel. That shady little sleight of hand was intended to defraud W.D.’s creditors to the tune of $1100. Belle told the court that she wasn’t wild about the plan, but she’d gone along with it because W.D. owed her money.

 

Sadly, there would be no further reports of W.D.’s colorful exploits in the Los Angeles Times.

Bunker Hill: A Hotbed of Spiritualist Fraud!

spiritualists

On October 16, 1924, Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Sloan took rooms at the Alexandria Hotel under the name of Dr. Chamberlyn Snow, and arranged a meeting with William A. Jackson, President of the National Independent Spiritualist Association, Inc. (NISA).

He wanted to set up practice as a spiritualist and medium in Los Angeles, he told Jackson, but was unable to get a permit under the city’s ordinances regulating the operation and advertisement of spiritualist practice. That license would require that "Snow" be ordained by a recognized spiritualist organization, and the problem was, he told Jackson, "I don’t know a damn thing about spiritualism."

This was, Jackson said, no problem at all. All Snow needed to do was to produce a check for $175, and he could be ordained as a spiritualist minister and healer. Snow gave his money to Jackson’s wife, Lois A. Jackson, secretary of N.I.S.A., and all was in order.

On November 7, 1924, acting on Sloan’s information, warrants were issued for the arrest of the Jacksons, the 8 other directors and officers of NISA, and 36 mediums and spiritualists in Los Angeles, on charges of criminal conspiracy, attempts to obtain money by false pretense, larceny by trick and device, and other related charges.

lankershim building The NISA headquarters were located in the Lankershim Building at 3rd and Spring, and many of those arrested lived right on Bunker Hill.

Besides the Jacksons, who resided at 223 S. Flower Street, were Professor Bernard of 316 1/2 S. Broadway, Mabel Tyler of 318 W. 3rd Street, and Michael Crespo, BS, MS, and PhD, the so-called "miracle man," who lived at 145 S. Spring.

The bust led to an investigation of over 200 spiritualist groups, 48 of them located in Los Angeles. The cities of Alhambra and Long Beach set about passing ordinances that would make the practice of spiritualism illegal.

Crespo was the easiest target and first major conviction of the bunch, found in violation of the State Medical Practice Act, and guilty of performing illegal marriages and divorces.

NISA records revealed that the organization boasted a membership of over 235,000 people, and held property valued at $112,000; more importantly, they had ordained approximately 5500 people. In many cases, they had not followed the organization’s rules that those ordained would have to "demonstrate the gospel, philosophy, and science of continued existence after so-called death according to some commonly accepted or approved methods of the NISA."

On February 26, 1925, the Jacksons were found guilty of issuing certificates to unqualified persons, allowing them to circumvent city ordinances regulating the practice of spiritualism. William was sentenced to 90 days in prison and a $500 fine, and Lois to 30 days in prison and a $250 fine.

City Prosecutor Friedlander said of the proceedings, "If this prosecution… has done nothing else, it has at least stripped the highly colorful veneer of an organized group of religious imposters who were preying upon a class of credulous, superstitious, and unthinking people and brought to the surface a detailed and elaborate method of fraud."

When NISA’s charter was revoked by the state on December 2, 1925, Harry Houdini wired his congratulations to the staff of the Times, saying "It was well done. You have thrown an obstacle in the path of fraudulent spiritualism which will last for years to come."

Image from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection