I Want to Live!

baxter shorter headline 

121 North Flower Street

April 15, 1953

 

The most sensational trial of 1953 has to have been that of Barbara Graham. The defendant was accused, along with Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, Baxter Shorter, and John True of the beating death of Mrs. Monahan during a home invasion robbery.  The crime itself was so banal that it may not have made it to the front page of the LA Times at all, and it definitely wouldn’t have stayed there for as long as it did had it not been for Barbara, an attractive 29 year old prostitute and drug addict. 

 

The story had all of the elements of a lurid tale from a sleazy detective magazine.  Barbara Graham, abandoned by her Santo Perkins Grahamteenaged mother in Oakland years before, had spent time in the same reformatory where her mom was an alumnus. Barbara had worked as a prostitute, and had become addicted to drugs. She’d been introduced to her co-defendants by none other than her husband, Henry, a small time career criminal. It was rumored that not only was Barbara having an affair with Perkins – but also that she, Perkins, and Santos were frequently engaged in threesomes. The press had a field day.

The crime itself was apparently the result of misinformation given to Perkins. He was told that Mrs. Monahan (former mother-in-law of Las Vegas gambler Tutor Scherer) had a sack full of money and jewelry that she kept in her home (the same kind of tragic misunderstanding would result in the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959, and become the subject of Truman Capote’s brilliant novel, “In Cold Blood”).

On the night of March 9, 1953, the gang drove to Mrs. Monahan’s home in Burbank. Barbara knocked on the front door and told the woman that her car had broken down, and asked to use the telephone.  The men were waiting right behind Barbara and before Mrs. Monahan could respond, they all pushed their way into the house where they immediately started screaming at her. The gang of strung out miscreants kept demanding to be told where she kept her money and jewelry. Mrs. Monahan repeatedly told the crooks that she didn’t keep cash at home, but they were so hopped up on drugs and adrenaline that they didn’t believe her.  One version of the story was that Barbara started to beat the victim with a pistol while the men laughed and egged her on. The older woman was beaten to the floor by “Bloody Babs”, as she would later be dubbed by the press, who then smothered the victim to death by tightening a pillowcase over her head.  Not surprisingly, Babs’ version of the story shifted the blame onto her partners.  But as far as the law was concerned, since all the defendants were present during the commission of the murder, they all shared the guilt.

Baxter Shorter

It wasn’t until the suspects had been identified and arrests had been made that the tale would take a turn onto Bunker Hill.  Once the drugs and false bravado had worn off and the specter of possible death sentences began to loom large, it was a sure thing that a member of the gang would look to the law for a deal. It was Baxter Shorter who decided to save himself by spilling his guts to the DA. Shorter was an ex-con and a known associate of LA’s premier gangster, the diminutive but lethal Mickey Cohen. Shorter’s friends got wind of his visits with the DA, and they became very nervous. 

Baxter and his wife Olivia lived in an apartment at 121 N. Flower, and it was from that location that Shorter was kidnapped by two men. In a photo shown to her by police, Olivia identified one of121 N Flower the kidnappers as Emmett Perkins. The other man was almost certainly Santos. No shrinking violet, Olivia tried halting the kidnapping by brandishing a 30-30 carbine at the husband snatchers, but they told her that they’d shoot her where she stood if she didn’t back off. Olivia told the cops that she had seen a female in the men’s car. She wasn’t able to get close enough to provide a description of the woman, but she was able to describe the car as a 1951 Dodge or Plymouth five passenger coupe – coincidentally, the same kind of car owned by Barbara. Once the car sped away, Baxter Shorter vanished forever.  Nary a bone fragment nor a tooth would ever surface, and he would be declared legally dead in 1960.

Barbara maintained her innocence until the end. Being a mother of three, she may have avoided the death penalty if sheBarbara Graham hadn’t made the mistake of offering a fellow inmate $25k to provide her with an alibi for the night of the murder. Unfortunately for her, the cellmate was actually a cop, planted to befriend her and gather information. Barbara’s blunder had doomed her to death. Santo, Perkins, and Barbara would all die in San Quentin’s gas chamber on the same day.

Graham’s execution was the paradigm for cruel and unusual punishment and would be the topic of many impassioned editorials, even by supporters of the death penalty. On the morning of her execution she’d dressed in a beige wool suit and brown pumps, and had tried to prepare herself to face death. She was scheduled to die at 10:00 am on June 3, 1955, but was granted a stay until 10:45 am. Her execution would be delayed one more time, causing Barbara to ask “Why do they torture me?”  Finally at 11:28 am Barbara was blindfolded at her request, and was led from the holding cell to the gas chamber.

In a macabre moment the executioner, Joe Feretti, gave the condemned woman a bit of advice: “Now take a deep breath and it won’t be so bad” – to which she replied, “How the hell would you know?”

For a fictionalized account of Graham’s story, rent a copy of the 1958 film, “I Want to Live!” starring Susan Hayward.

Life and Death Of and In the Astoria

theAstoria
The Astoria Apartmentsthe advantages of the city’s tourist hotels with the quiet of the residence section. Plus, at no extra charge to you, grewsome murder.


The Astoria contains over 125 guest rooms, beautifully furnished. Many are en suite, with parlor, bedroom and bath, dining-room and kitchen. A number of single rooms are also provided, both with and without private bath. Among the attractive features of the Astoria is the beautiful view of the city to be obtained from practically every room of the building. A spacious office and lobby, a dainty ladies’ reception-room, and a dancing hall are some the features which have been provided by E. W. Smith, the owner of the building. These are handsomely decorated and furnished, and will undoubtedly serve to make the Astoria popular.

—December 17, 1905

 

Before Bunker Hill hit its cinematic skids, t’was the place of purloinery more aligned with the tony climes of Monte Carlo than El Monte: cat-burgling jewel thieves were at purloinerywork! In October of 1911, Astoria resident Mrs. W. F. Sapp returned to her room one afternoon to find…nothing amiss. But her mother, Mrs. W. W. Loomis, of the adjoining apartment, called attention to having heard her daughter next door at her writing desk while said daughter was supposed to be absent. They opened the locked writing desk…to behold…gasp! The chatelaine bag, lockets and bracelets and the like were gone, as was the ancestral family tin box (found later in the lavatory, a can opener found on the fifth floor above) once filled with gold watches, fobs, and diamond-set pieces, now scattered to the underworld of crooked, loupe-wearing bangle merchants.

But not all crimes at the Astoria were so quaint.
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Edna A. Worden lived in the Astoria. Forty-eight, New Hampshirite, kept to herself mostly, known around the place as a woman of culture and refinement. Kept the bookshelves of her one-bedroom in the Astoria lined with Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Dickens, Byron, Poe, the Greek philosophers, and many a Bible. She made a meager wage as a WPA worker, and with the monthly $30 sent to her by her ex-husband back east, made a good life for her and her twelve year-old daughter Marguerite.

Marguerite, a student at Belmont Junior High School who, had she made it to Monday, was to have entered a Beverly Hills school for girls.

MargueriteWSunday, April 4, 1937. Little Marguerite made a habit of always coming down to the desk to borrow the Sunday paper. This morning she did not. A concerned John Riley, the elevator operator, put an ear to the Wordens’ door and ascertained a low moan; he summoned Astoria manager J. E. Harrigan, who, with his trusty stepladder, peered through the transom. After what he saw police arrived in short order and even hardened Detective Lieutenants Ledbetter, Bryan and Lopez, after kicking in the door, had to halt in their tracks at the horror that lay in wait.

Edna lay sprawled over a cot in an array of splatter, her head against the floor. Marguerite was on the bed, her head covered with a pillow, topped with a discarded brickbat, mortar glued to its sides, sticky with blood and gore. The room was cluttered, revealing a desperate struggle during their sexual assaults and skull shatterings. Edna’s purse was turned inside-out, otherwise, the room was unrifled—Marguerite’s mute witness rag doll, her ivory-bound prayer book with a shiny dime atop, her freshly washed and ironed blue gingham dress on a nail above the bed. The fates conspired to aid their attacker; on one side of the apartment was a storeroom, on the other, the apartment of old Harry Tutin, partially deaf.

downoliveThe Wordens’ attacker or attackers had climbed the Angels Flight stairs and forced entry through the kitchen window just below Olive Street. Shoes were removed before climbing in—traces of sock wool were removed from the plaster casts. (The feet, size eleven.) The assailant is almost certainly responsible for the March 2nd rape and brick-administered basal skull-smashing of Rose Valdez, 20, attacked while her year-old baby slept in a crib by her side.
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Bunker Hill was blanketed by the entire homicide squad assigned to all-night duty, with four squads of regular detectives and fifty men from Metro combing the City for suspicious Black Men—not exactly racial profiling, since it was a black man who ran from the scene of the attempted January 25 brick-attack on Mrs. H. W. Koll in Monte Sano hospital; the February 3 Barclay hotel room skull fracturing of Elizabeth Reis (again, leaving his brick behind); and the March 28 Zoe Damrell attack in her home at 1026 Ingraham, she left barely alive by a brick-bearing assailant who bore remarkable resemblance to the large black gentleman seen lurking by the Valdez house immediately before her murder.

Assorted Los Angeles sickos—alleged—were brought in for questioning, their faces and addresses plastered throughout the papers (doubtlessly tarnishing their lives forevermore) but all were cleared, not only through their alibis, but because the Worden killer had the bad fortune of leaving something else behind besides his brickbat: before putting on his gloves, he moved a milk bottle. Fingerprint central.

So if the killer skipped town, there’s a good chance he could have, would have never been caught. But a certain Robert Nixon just had to kill women. With bricks. This time in Chicago, on May 28, 1938, the nineteen year-old Nixon brick’d Mrs. Florence Johnson, wife of a Chicago city fireman, and gets popped for it, and confesses. A little digging revealed that during the time of the Worden and Valdez killings, he lived at 803 South Central Avenue.

Nixon initially denied involvement with the crimes, but after LA Police Chief Davis announced that comparison of fingerprints made positive identification of Nixon, Nixon admitted to the whole brick-laden shebang—the Wordens and Valdez, plus the Chicago murders of Mrs. Florence Thompson Castle in her hotel room in 1936, and the rape/murder of student nurse Anna Kuchta in August 1937, and assaults on at least seventeen other women.

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In June 1938, Howard Jones Green, Nixon’s sometime accomplice, was shipped from Chicago to view the murder scene at the Astoria. He admitted to beating little Marguerite on the head (with his pistol butt, and not the brick) but denied partaking in the sexual assault, and admitted they grossed all of eight dollars from the venture. He ‘fessed up to the March ’37 Zoe Damrell attack and for that was given five to life; what became of his Marguerite trial we’re not told.

On June 16, 1939, Robert Nixon went to the chair at the Cook County Jail. Thus, he did not live to read 1940’s smash lit-hit Native Son, which explained that his predicament was destiny, a societal byproduct of racist racial conditioning. So argued the lawyer for Native Son‘s protagonist Bigger Thomas, accused of killing a white woman in Chicago, as penned by Richard Wright, who made great use of the sensationalistic Robert Nixon newspaper reporting at the time.

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Less than a decade later, plans were underway to remove every trace of Bunker Hill’s 136 acres from existence. After a four million dollar increase in annual taxes, and a grant from the federal Urban Renewal Program, oil tycoon William T. Sesnon Jr. finally began his twelve-year-in-the-making dream of wholesale land acquisition in October 1960. Nine thousand persons were eventually displaced, and the first building to be demolished was the Astoria’s neighbor, the Hillcrest, in September 1961. The Astoria went soon after. The land sat barren for eighteen years until the federally subsidized, Dworsky modular prefab Angelus Plaza (designed with a 1200′ People Mover) broke ground in 1979.

 

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Astoria images courtesy of the Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library

Shot between Astoria and Hillcrest courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Newspaper images from the Los Angeles Times 

Mrs. Allen Slain By Ex-Beau

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Location: 255 South Bunker Hill Avenue
Date: August 13, 1933

The newlyweds kept a modest apartment here at the Alta Vista. Oh, it may have been something of a step down in the world for bride Harriet Fencel Easton Allen, 25, who had attended USC and UCLA and studied art for two years in Europe, and whose father John was former superintendent of the L.A. Athletic Club and manager of the Jonathan Club, but then again, it was convenient to husband Robert Allen’s cafe at 257 South Olive.

Early this morning, Harriet woke to a knock on the door, and she answered without waking Robert, but soon she was screaming and running back toward the bedroom, "Bob, Bob, wake up! It’s Bruce!"

Yes, it was T. Bruce Moore, 42-year-old drug clerk, longtime friend of Bob’s and rival for Harriet’s affections, and he had a gun in his hand. Just a few days ago he’d gone into the cafe and said that if Bob didn’t make Harriet happy, he’d kill him, but he’d apparently reconsidered, because it was pajama-clad Harriet whose brains he blew out. She fell at her husband’s feet as he woke in confusion, then saw her assailant shoot himself in the head. Moore lingered for a few hours at Georgia Street Receiving Hospital before dying.

In the killer’s pockets were year-old seaside photos of himself with the dead woman, and on the back of one he’d penciled a last will and testament leaving his insurance, furniture and some land in Arizona, total value $2255 to his sister Elsie Bitner. But this will would be challenged in court when Mrs. Carol E. Moore came forward claiming to be Moore’s widow, as their divorce decree had not been entered at the time of his death.