The Perils of George Reeves, and the Death of Superman at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive.

 

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Photo courtesy of http://www.moviefone.com

Occupying a thoughtful place in my medley of childhood memories are hazy after-school days waiting for my mother to pick me up from the babysitter. I was an irrepressible kid, always looking for trouble, but late afternoons in California were ripe with engaging boob-tube content that would usually shut me up for hours at a time. Wedged between the Tom and Jerry Show and Emergency! was the Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. The image of Reeves as the beefy, indestructible man of steel was crystallized in my mind. George Reeves WAS Superman. Later in life, as I began looking into the man behind the man of steel, I found myself disheartened by the unsettled circumstances surrounding his death.

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William Duke,  1974

George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer on January 5, 1914, to Don Brewer and Helen Lescher. Troubled by an unstable marriage, Helen took George and fled to Illinois shortly after his birth. He never saw his father again. The pair eventually ended up in California, where Helen married Frank Bessolo. Frank took kindly to George, assuming fatherly responsibilities for the boy, and George responded in kind by taking his last name. Familial bliss in the Bessolo household lasted roughly 15 years before things began to go south. While attempting to work on their fractured union, the couple thought it best to send young George away to visit relatives. But reconciliation was not to be, and George never saw Frank again. His mother later told him Frank had committed suicide.

Reeves kept his mind off the lack of harmony at home by focusing on acting and singing, which were quickly becoming his passion. He enthusiastically pursued performance throughout high school and college, eventually gaining admission to the celebrated Pasadena Playhouse. It was there he met and fell in love with Ellanora Needles. They eventually married, but divorced 10 years later. George was finally getting his foot in the door in Hollywood, securing bit parts in several films, most notably in 1939 as one of the Tarleton twins in Gone with the Wind. Just as he was hitting his stride and making a name for himself in Tinsletown, his acting career was unceremoniously put on hold in 1943 when he was drafted into the Army, where he stayed until the war’s end.

Out of the Army, divorced, and ready to make a name for himself in Hollywood, George met and began dating the older and very married Toni Mannix. Toni’s husband Eddie was head honcho at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which at the time was the largest and most revered film studio in Hollywood. Eddie Mannix was powerful, notoriously grouchy, and very connected with several undesirable characters in the California underworld. He had a mistress of his own, and didn’t seem to mind young George in Toni’s life. Indeed, the odd quartet could even be seen dining together at posh Hollywood restaurants. Eddie loved Toni, and despite their unorthodox relationship just wanted to keep her happy.

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Sam, Toni, and George – Photo courtesy of http://www.cheddarbay.com

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George, Sam, Toni – Photo courtesy of http://www.leesaylor.com

By those close to the couple, George’s sultry relations with Toni seemed to be contingent upon her well-connected social circle – in particular, her very formidable husband. Toni thought nothing of using Eddie’s money to spoil George. She began referring to Reeves as “the boy,” showering him with gifts of clothing and cars. But perhaps Toni’s most extravagant offering to the boy was a sweet pad in the desirable Benedict Canyon neighborhood high in the hills above Los Angeles. This modest home was 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, Reeves final residence and the next stop on our dark tour of California.

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1579 Benedict Canyon Drive – Photo by William Duke

The stars were aligned for George Reeves to land roles that would inevitably make him a star. With his chiseled jaw, perfect hair and athletic frame, he was the quintessential matinee idol. Coupled with the aforementioned Mannix connection and his impressive stage and screen background, George was one well-written script away from fame. Toni was madly in love with handsome George, and driven by her own insecurity, kept a careful eye on him. It soon became clear Toni wasn’t about to help George with his career. The big leading-man roles for MGM were not to be. Perhaps this was Toni’s way of keeping her grasp on George’s affection, as she certainly noticed the way he flirted with some of the younger starlets.

In June of 1951 George was offered the role of Superman for a prospective television series. Little did he know his performance would immortalize him as the man of steel, and make him famous beyond his wildest dreams. At the time, television was still frowned upon as a throwaway medium by the classically trained old Hollywood guard. Motion pictures were where you wanted to be. George pondered that the role could be potential career suicide, but he felt the need to branch out and make steady money independent of Toni, so he took the role.

The Adventures of Superman began in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. Ostensibly to be used as the pilot, or possible stand alone B-movie, Mole Men had a limited budget and shaky production. Season one filmed shortly after, and although big-money interest was tentative at first, ABC ultimately picked up the show in 1953. George Reeves was now a professional television actor, though somewhat begrudgingly. He was happy for the work, but viewed his Superman gig as decidedly lowbrow. He didn’t envision the role that would make him a big name would be performed in a cape and tights.

The early 1952-1954 episodes of The Adventures of Superman were violent and noir, and full of gangland crime, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Later, the series took on a more lighthearted tone, with the villains displaying an open buffoonery that appealed more to children, which was always the intended demographic.

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Photo courtesy of http://www.pinterest.com

With the success of Superman, Reeves soon realized he had become very famous, especially with children. He gave up smoking in public, and soon found himself inextricably tied to the heroic persona of the caped crusader. He eventually ceased public appearances in costume due to brazen physical challenges by surly teens. Small children could also be cruel. George often had to fend off rocks and plunder thrown his way to test his perceived superpowers.

Recipients of signed Superman memorabilia from George Reeves have noted that he never signed as Superman, but always as George Reeves. He never wanted to lose his identity in what he viewed as a temporary role on the way to his perceived station in life. Perhaps George was in denial, as he had already become synonymous with Superman. The association would follow George for the remainder of his days.

National Comics, in order to maximize exposure, sent George on cross-country promotional tours, with staged scenarios in front of whooping kiddies that demanded the immediate intervention of Superman. After the big rescue, George signed autographs and posed for photos before bidding farewell and moving on to the next stop of the tour.

In October of 1958, the sixth season of The Adventures of Superman was officially a wrap. George finished his obligations for the cross-country promotional tour in New York, a city he always loved. He needed to get away from Hollywood and what he saw as several wasted years of his life. He had been soundly typecast, and was beginning to wonder if there was life beyond Superman. After checking into the Gotham Hotel, George went out for drinks at the chic Toots Shores restaurant. It was there he met Leonore Lemmon.

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Leonore Lemmon – Photo courtesy of http://www.leesaylor.com

Leonore Lemmon was a New York society girl, with wealthy parents and a stint living in London that gave her a worldly sophistication. George was immediately smitten with Leonore, impressed with her style and the elegant way she carried herself. She was cosmopolitan and hard, yet betrayed a smoldering vulnerability. She was also fifteen years younger than Toni. The couple started taking trips together, smiling away in photographs in Miami and Palm Beach. Soon, George declared he was in love with Leonore, and promptly nestled her into 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive.

When Toni Mannix caught wind of the romance, she was livid. How dare George move this trollop into the house she provided out of the goodness of her heart? Incensed with jealousy and rage, she began to obsessively drive by the house and repeatedly call at all hours. George tried to lay low, hoping things would eventually simmer down. He reluctantly took the phone off the hook, which could be a risky move for an ambitious actor anticipating word of that elusive starring role.

Eddie Mannix, watching this torrid episode unfold from afar, was dismayed to see his wife crushed. Though they both had extramarital affairs, Toni and Eddie remained close. He was adamant about always taking care of her. He wondered what George was thinking, deliberately hurting her like this.

On June 15 1959, George and Leonore hosted a small party at the Benedict Canyon house. These boozy get-togethers had become a regular thing once Leonore entered the picture. George’s tolerance for alcohol was legendary, but not everyone could put away hooch like Superman, so these functions often wound up with everyone involved passed out drunk. In attendance that night were screenwriter Rip Von Ronkel and his wife, Carol, and Richard Condon, a friend who had been staying with George. After a few minutes of drinks and conversation, George and Leonore excused themselves from the party and headed off to dinner at Scandia, a well-known, exclusive eatery on Sunset Boulevard.

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Scandia Restaurant – Photo courtesy of http://www.oldlarestaurants.com

The couple had much to discuss. George had recently proposed to Leonore, and they were planning on tying the knot in Spain the following week. On this particular night, however, the lovebirds were apparently unable to agree on anything, and left the restaurant after a heated squabble.

George and Leonore returned to Benedict Canyon to find that his guests were still there working on George’s fully stocked bar. After a few minutes of conversation, George and Leonore excused themselves and went upstairs to bed.

Whatever activities Leonore had planned with George when she went upstairs – sex or sleep – neither were going to take place that night. After a few minutes, she dejectedly came back downstairs to hang out with her impaired guests.

Since George and Leonore had established themselves as party hosts, they would often leave the front light on as a beacon to friends that they were awake and ready to receive guests. William Bliss, a loose acquaintance of George, happened to be in the neighborhood that night. He took the bait and was soon in the living room slurping booze.

George, trying to get some damn sleep, came downstairs briefly to complain about the noise, then stomped back up to his room. Fearing he might have been rude to his houseguests, he returned downstairs minutes later to apologize. He had a quick drink then headed back up to bed. In perhaps a cruel display of candor, Leonore oddly quipped that George was headed upstairs to kill himself. Moments later, a shot rang out. William Bliss went up to George’s bedroom to find the actors nude body covered in blood, with a gun on the floor beneath his feet. Almost an hour later, those assembled at the death scene called the police.

This is where things begin to get sketchy, as the apparent suicide of George Reeves gets sucked into a black hole of hearsay, conjecture and conspiracy theories. Circumstantial evidence points to a few possible scenarios.

The most probable conclusion to this tragic tale is that George Reeves shot himself. He was feeling all of his 45 years lately, with no real career prospects aside from another season in tights. Reeves allegedly confided in Leonore that he was not feeling particularly optimistic about his future. He was prone to depression, often self-medicating with alcohol. Pain pills had recently been added to mix, which can be a deadly combination. There was also a history of suicide in his family, which statistically increased the probability that George killed himself.

The Los Angeles County Coroner determined that suicide was in fact the cause of death, and after a hasty investigation, closed the case.

Helen Bessolo smelled a rat, and wanted a full investigation into the murder of her son. Her inquiries turned up a few interesting possibilities. Indeed, the ongoing fascination with the death of George Reeves has continued to this day, partially due to the diligence of Helen and the investigators she employed. The evidence that George Reeves was murdered is entirely circumstantial, but compelling.

Here are a couple of murder theories:

Toni and Eddie Mannix had George killed: George was being stalked and harassed by Toni after the break-up in ways that would have landed her in jail in the 21st Century. Shortly before George died, he was in an automobile accident, which resulted in a concussion and a nasty gash on his head. This injury necessitated the prescription for pain pills that were part of the toxic cocktail found in his bloodstream at the time of death. A few days after the accident, a mechanic discovered that his brake fluid had been deliberately drained. Let’s not forget that Eddie Mannix was a powerful player in Hollywood, with a crew of vicious friends and associates tied to organized crime. On the night of George’s death an assassin could have been hired to lie in wait until George settled into bed, or snuck in the back door unbeknownst to George and his inebriated guests. Then, used George’s own gun to do the deed.

Another theory is that Leonore Lemmon killed George.

Apparently, George had told Leonore that he had changed his will, and she was now the sole beneficiary of his estate. This was not completely true. George was going to revise the will after the wedding, but didn’t live long enough to do so. According to friends, George and Leonore hadn’t been getting along, and the wedding plans were said to be seriously stressing George out. Could Leonore have shot George while a group of drunken guests reveled downstairs? After all, it did take them almost an hour to call the cops. Was this to allow time to get their stories straight? Also, Leonore suspiciously returned to the house after it had been sealed off as a crime scene and swiped a few thousand dollars in traveler’s checks, which were going to be used for the wedding. She later returned part of the money, but would a grieving bride-to-be have the malicious forethought to steal wedding funds from her dead fiancé?

As I sat in my car across the street from 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, I soaked in the odd vibe of the neighborhood. There is a dark history here. It’s only a short distance from the location where on that fateful night in 1969 Sharon Tate and her friends were killed by a tweaking Tex Watson and Susan Atkins under the supposed spell of Charles Manson. As the sun sets and is obscured by the twisting hills above Hollywood, you can almost feel the bad energy. The Reeves house itself is modest, but peaceful. It’s surrounded by trees, looking very much the same as it did in 1959. It was here that one of my childhood heroes, Superman, unsure of his future, went upstairs to bed and never returned.

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The final resting place of George Reeves in Altadena, California – Photo courtesy of http://www.cheddarbay.com

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Photo courtesy of http://www.findadeath.com

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Photo courtesy of http://www.findadeath.com

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1579 Benedict Canyon Drive – Photo by William Duke

Sources:

Grossman, Gary  Superman: Serial To Cereal

(1977)

Popular Library Edition

ISBN 0-445-04054-8

 

Kashner, Sam, Schoenberger, Nancy   Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, The Lady, And The Death Of Superman

(1996)

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN 0-312-14616-7

 

Henderson, Jan Alan Speeding Bullet: The Life And Bizarre Death Of George Reeves

(2007) Second Edition

Michael Bifulco

ISBN-10 0961959673

ISBN-13 978-0961959678

 

www.wikipedia.com

 

Wood, Gaby Who Killed Superman? The Sinister True Story Behind The Death Of George Reeves

March 16, 2016 The Telegraph UK

 

www.straightdope.com Was Superman star George Reeves a suicide – or murder victim?

 

www.chasingthefrog.com Hollywoodland

 

Rubio, J’aime Hollywoodland Forever Interesting Twist – Toni Mannix Wasn’t Married When She Dated Superman!

March 27, 2013

www.hollywoodlandforever.blogspot.com

Copyright 2013 – published by Dreaming Casually Publications

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The Cecil Hotel, the Night Stalker, and the Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam

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Photo by William Duke

I recently spent a few nights at the notorious Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. My first visit to the Cecil was about ten years earlier, while attending an event at the grand old Olympic Auditorium. At the time I knew the hotel’s dark history, which is what initially attracted me. I knew about the murders and suicides. I knew about the Night Stalker’s tenure in the Cecil during a particularly prolific period of his life. But now, with the bizarre death of Elisa Lam, and the hotel’s influence on the fifth season of the charming FX series American Horror Story, the Cecil deserved a closer look.

I’ve always liked the character of the dark, seedier parts of any city. Ghosts tend to come out of the mouths of old buildings, and the present seems to submit to the weight of the past. Everyone has a story. Many are operating under the radar in a secretive, shadowy alternate universe. Others are merely feeding the faces of addiction, the great equalizer.

The Cecil Hotel opened in 1924, in what was at the time an upscale, pre-Depression section of downtown Los Angeles. During the 1930s the area surrounding the hotel quickly became skid row, so the Cecil was downgraded to a reasonably priced bed for traveling salesmen. By the 1950s, the hotel had fallen into disrepair, housing low-income transients and long-term single room occupants with shared bathrooms.

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Photo courtesy of http://www.blumhouse.com

 

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Photo courtesy of http://www.blumhouse.com

For a destitute transient often ravaged by addiction, without any prospects for a better quality of life, suicide often becomes the most reasonable option. The Cecil soon became a perfect destination for leaps of desperation onto the unforgiving street below.

The Cecil was also reportedly one of the last places Elizabeth Short was seen before becoming immortalized as the chopped-up, beautiful Black Dahlia, whose remains ultimately wound up as a grisly display on Norton Avenue. Her troubled life soon became tantalizing media fodder. I’ll go into greater detail on Elizabeth Short in another chapter.

In the late 1950s, the Los Angeles Times reported that area residents had started referring to the Cecil as “The Suicide.” Although there were reports of self-inflicted gunshot wounds and pill popping, jumping from windows remained the popular method for doing the deed. In 1962, after a heated argument with her husband, Pauline Orton jumped from her window on the ninth floor. The 27-year-old Orton succeeded in ending her life, but not before landing on 65-year-old George Gianinni, who happened to be walking on the sidewalk below. Both were killed instantly.

One could make the argument that any hotel housing low-income, long-term residents in the heart of skid row was ripe for foul play. However, nothing could prepare the Cecil for the diabolical dweller that would soon tip the scales so far south of heaven that there would be no turning back.

Richard Leyva Munoz Ramirez was born to Julian and Mercedes on February 29, 1960 in the border town of El Paso, Texas. The youngest of five, Richard was a shy, sweet child with soulful eyes, high cheekbones and an inquisitive nature. He enjoyed solitude. His father was stern and strict, and abused his children physically and mentally, as his father had abused him. Richard often took his sleeping bag and slept in a nearby cemetery to escape his father’s wrath.

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Richard Ramirez – Photo courtesy of http://www.thedailybeast.com

Trying to put together the puzzle of how a Richard Ramirez could come into being is a complex task. His early influences coupled with his environment only offer part of an explanation. I think some of us have an inherent darkness that follows us during our impressionable early development. I know I did. Where we go with that dark passenger is of great consequence in shaping who we become. Knowing and acting upon societal virtues is paramount.

The environment in which Richard was born was not far removed from the lingering effects of the U.S. government’s nuclear bomb testing in nearby New Mexico. Birth defects were common, and the government took no responsibility for the damage inflicted on the community, livestock, and drinking water. One of Richard’s siblings was brought into the world with large lumps on his head and neck. Fortunately, the lumps eventually dissipated, and he suffered no lingering effects. His brother Joseph wasn’t so lucky. Seemingly healthy when he was born, Joseph couldn’t stop crying, and was in constant pain. It was eventually determined that his bones were not forming correctly. He would be plagued by painful surgeries, and have to wear dehumanizing leg braces for the rest of his life.

With the Night Stalker in utero, Mercedes Ramirez took a job at the Tony Lama boot factory. Richard’s father had a good job working for the Santa Fe Railroad, but with five mouths to feed, the additional income was much appreciated. Working at the boot factory eventually started taking its toll on Mercedes. She began to have dizzy spells, which often resulted in fainting, and ultimately led to her giving notice. The benzene, xylene, and toluene she was inhaling throughout her shifts were at the time thought to be harmless. One can only guess what effect these chemicals had on Richard’s development.

As Richard grew into adolescence, he idolized his cousin Mike. A Vietnam veteran with many confirmed kills, Mike captivated Richard with tales of murder and rape in a faraway land. Mike had photos to accompany his tales of dead soldiers and captive women tied to trees. Mike claimed that he raped and killed these women, and had the gory pictures to prove it. These snapshots should have been traumatic for a young impressionable mind, but Richard was fascinated. Indeed, Richard soon discovered that the images left him sexually excited.

Julian and Mercedes soon realized Mike was a bad influence on Richard, and forbid the two from seeing each other. They eventually backed down, reasoning that with Mike’s military background he could potentially instill in Richard a sense of responsibility. Instead, Mike taught Richard the ways of a predator in the jungle. How to stealthily move around in the dark with precision, and wait unseen for hours in the stillness of night. This knowledge was essential for Richard’s current career aspirations, which consisted of robbing houses and selling the plunder for cash.

Mike’s girlfriend Jessie was critical of his relationship and influence on the young, wide-eyed Richard. She didn’t approve of them cruising around all day smoking pot and talking about Mike’s atrocities in Vietnam, and she wasn’t shy about expressing her concerns.

Richard’s relationship with Mike came to an abrupt end one hot summer night. On May 4, 1973, during a heated argument, Mike took a 38-caliber revolver he oddly kept in the refrigerator and shot Jessie point blank in the forehead, killing her instantly. Richard witnessed the entire affair. He later stated that the incident played for years like a loop in his head, and the psychological repercussions that go with such an experience cannot be understated.

Mike eventually pled innocent by reason of insanity, and the jury agreed, sending him to a Texas mental hospital. Richard’s life took a turn for the worse after Mike was locked away. He skipped school, argued with his father regularly, and distanced himself from the remaining people he was close to. He found solace in frequent visits with his brother in Los Angeles. He fell in love with the grime and urban decay so prevalent in Los Angeles. He also saw LA as fertile ground, with women to prey upon and wealthy homes to hone his creepy-crawling skills.

But Richard was left with a nagging internal struggle. His intense sexual desires were in direct conflict with his rigid Catholic upbringing. To remedy this dilemma, he came to the conclusion that Satan was in control of his existence, and pledged his allegiance and loyalty to the Dark Lord. Richard could now act out his misguided compulsions without the pesky misgivings that come with fearing God and hellfire in the afterlife.

In early 1984, Richard hopped a bus to California.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Richard checked into the Cecil Hotel. The Cecil was cheap, and he liked its proximity to the Greyhound bus station. He would often eat breakfast at Margarita’s next door, and then peruse the porno magazines at Dave’s Adult Bookstore. Eager to indulge his fetishistic nature, he usually went right for the magazines that had bondage and sadomasochistic themes.

Sparing the reader the ghastly nature of his crimes, let’s just say that upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Richard Leyva Munoz Ramirez followed his destiny to become one of the most prolific rapists and serial killers in American history. He would often leave his bloody clothing in a dumpster in the alley behind the Cecil before heading back to his room to blast his beloved heavy metal music. He’s been immortalized in the media by the barbarity of his crimes, his courtroom antics, and the lovelorn black-clad women who stood in line for hours hoping to get a seat in court just to be in his presence.

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Richard Ramirez – Photo courtesy of the LA Times

The Night Stalker died on June 7, 2013, while awaiting execution in San Quentin. In the end, his convictions were:

-13 counts of murder

-5 counts of attempted murder

-11 counts of sexual assault

-14 counts of burglary

After sentencing, Ramirez defiantly told reporters, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”

 

Meanwhile, the imposing Cecil Hotel stood tall in downtown Los Angeles.

 

Then, in 1991, Jack Unterweger blew into town.

Jack Unterweger was born in Austria in 1950, the result of a short-lived union of an American soldier and a Viennese prostitute. Jack could never shake the shame of his mother’s whoring, and by adulthood Jack had a seething rage bubbling under a rather charming exterior. As a result, Jack killed several prostitutes, and was eventually caught and sent to prison. He dryly stated at trial that with every prostitute he killed, he envisioned killing his mother.

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Jack Unterweger – Photo courtesy of http://www.biography.com

He was sentenced to life in an Austrian prison. While serving time he became something of a celebrity, penning short stories, plays, and a much-touted autobiography. He soon became revered by the art-house literary scene in Vienna, and enjoyed the notoriety, money, and power his creations allowed. He was seen as a victim of circumstance, and slated for an early “rehabilitated” release from prison after serving only 16 years of a life sentence.

In the summer of 1991, Jack found himself in Los Angeles, checking into the Cecil Hotel in homage to Richard Ramirez. The darkness of the sinister structure beckoned. In a laughable twist of irony, Jack had been commissioned by an Austrian magazine to write about true crime, specifically prostitution, on the sordid streets of Los Angeles.

Demons of old soon resurfaced, as Unterweger killed three prostitutes in rapid succession, strangling each of them with their own brassieres. The jig was up.

After a brief transcontinental chase, and unable to charm his way out of his murderous conundrum, Jack was finally tracked down in Miami. He had killed a few prostitutes in Austria before heading to LA, and now had to face the music for his international adventures. He was ultimately convicted of nine homicides and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

But a life sentence was not to be. Besides, prison wasn’t Jack’s style. On June 29, 1994, he hung himself with a pair of pants from a rod in his cell. He could never silence the rage of his conception: ashamed of his mother, and deeply disappointed in his father.

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Jack Unterweger – Photo courtesy of http://www.crimemagazine.com

 

For the next several years, it was business as usual at 640 South Main Street in downtown Los Angeles.

In early 2013, British tourist Michael Baugh and his wife, enjoying the amenities of the Cecil Hotel, noticed a pronounced drop in their water pressure. Come to think of it, the water that did trickle out of the faucet tasted funny and smelled terrible. When other guests complained, maintenance was called in to check the water tanks on top of the roof. When they opened the hatch of one of the four cisterns, they discovered the problem. Looking up at them inside the 10-foot tall, 1,000-gallon tank was the nude body of 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam.

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Elisa Lam – Photo courtesy of http://www.livescifi.tv

Elisa left her native Vancouver for a sun-kissed, solo California road trip. She hit Los Angeles first, with plans to visit Santa Cruz and other popular northern California destinations. She used public transportation, and was diligent about keeping in touch with her family. During her short stay at the Cecil Hotel, something strange and terrible occurred. What exactly happened to Elisa Lam would fuel international speculation, and initiate widespread Internet chatter of demonic possession and supernatural phenomenon.

After her body was found, a terrifying bit of hotel surveillance footage surfaced. Security cameras caught Lam darting in and out of an elevator, frantically pushing buttons for every floor. She appeared distraught, and seemed to be running from someone, or something. She stepped out of the elevator and stood still for a brief moment before her limbs began to twist and contort in an unnerving, unnatural manner.

The world witnessed the peculiar final moments of Elisa Lam’s life, immortalized in grainy, unsettling security camera footage in a notorious skid row hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles County Coroner’s official manner of death for Elisa Lam was accidental. The cause of death was drowning, with bipolar disorder being a contributing factor.

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Elisa Lam surveillance footage – Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department

 

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Elisa Lam – Photo courtesy of http://www.ymbdad.blogspot.com

I laid in bed in my room on the seventh floor, staring at the ceiling in fits of insomnia. I thought about Elisa Lam, and imagined her lovely spirit still roaming the halls, frightened and unaware that the fear was in her mind. Hers was a sad fate. I think the most plausible explanation is that Elisa had a psychotic episode, which ultimately led to her very tragic death. How she got past the security door to access the roof, scale the water tank, squeeze into a small port on top of the tank and drown remains a bit of a mystery.

In 2015, the curious goings-on at the Cecil Hotel inspired  American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy to dedicate an entire season of the popular TV show to a downtown LA hotel. The fictional Hotel Cortez is a Cecil doppelganger, though much more opulent, with a decidedly chicer clientele. Lady Gaga starred as the sensual house vampire, and series mainstay Evan Peters co-starred as the ghost of a notorious serial killer looking to add to his gruesome legacy.

My experience with the Cecil Hotel has been positive, and the staff has always been courteous and accommodating. I found my room to be clean and serviceable, though I couldn’t seem to rouse myself out of bed in time for the continental breakfast in the dining hall. The room Richard Ramirez lived in, the room where Jack Unterweger stayed, and the Elisa Lam room are “off limits.” No worries though, the hotel is creepy enough.

Before checking out, I asked the gentleman working the front desk if he knew a bit about the history of the hotel. He said no, and handed me the business card of the current manager. When I called her to try to get some inside information, she was pretty defensive and all she would say was that the hotel was built in 1924.

As a fan of haunted history, I can understand why the Cecil would try to distance itself from its infamous past. However, it will take more than a name change and a coat of paint to deny the ghosts that still reside deep within the bowels of the building. Indeed, most old buildings have a history, but few have the notoriety of the Cecil Hotel.

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The Cecil Hotel  – Photo by William Duke

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My Room at the Cecil – Photo by William Duke

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The Elevator – Photo by William Duke

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The Seventh Floor – Photo by William Duke

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Sources:

 

Carlo, Philip The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez

(1996)

Pinnacle True Crime

ISBN-13   978-0-7860-3425-3

ISBN-10 0-7860-3425-4

 

Rylah Juliet Bennett, Inside The ‘American Horror Story’ Hotel

October 7, 2015, LAist

 

Brown, Dara, NBC News February 21, 2013

 

Stevens, Brad, Blumhouse.com November 5, 2015

 

Turnage, James Elisa Lam, Morbid History Of Two Serial Killers Unfolds At Cecil Hotel“ Feburary 22, 2013, Guardian Liberty Voice

 

Newton, Michael An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers – Hunting Humans  

(1990) Breakout Productions

ISBN-10 1559500263

ISBN-13 978-1559500265

 

February 20, 2013 The Cecil Hotel, The Associated Press

Union Rescue Mission Los Angeles, What is the History of Skid Row?

www.urm.org

 

www.lachamber.com History of Downtown Los Angeles ‘Skid Row”

 

Barragan, Bianca The Cecil Hotel, Curbed LA October 7, 2015

 

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The Terrible Tale of the Lamb Funeral Home

 

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The Lamb Funeral Home  Photo by http://www.hauntedlosangeles.blogspot.com

“Which undertaking is it then that does not seek to make some sense of life and living, dying and the dead?”

The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch

 

Working in the funeral business completely changed me, as I expected it would. Yet, I hadn’t prepared myself for how profoundly living in the world of the dead would affect the way I saw this fragile span of time we have here on earth. I gained an extraordinary appreciation for life, earth, and all the creatures it contains. I experienced death through the lens of many different cultures, customs, and religious traditions.

The undertaker is in charge of meeting with families to gather information about the deceased, secure the church and/or provide a chapel, prepare the body, and ultimately conduct the funeral. Our responsibilities are similar to those of a wedding planner. The florists keep busy.

If a family decides not to cremate, the undertaker is left with the responsibility of a helpless body that is the physical representation of a loved one. If there is a service with an open casket, that body needs a lot of preparation before it can be put on display for grieving friends and relatives. Perhaps saying goodbye one last time will help them through the cruel reality of death.

Although I met with families and conducted services occasionally, my area of expertise was embalming, and preparing the remains for viewing. In Mortuary College I was more aligned with the embalming nerds than the students interested in the business aspects of the dead. There was immense satisfaction in presenting a peaceful looking body to the family, especially after a particularly agonizing death. I tried not to look at it as business. I looked at it as art.

I was fortunate during my time in the land of the dead to be surrounded by people who cared. I worked for and alongside good folks who had the utmost respect for the dead bodies and sad families we dealt with daily. When someone compromises those standards, or takes advantage of a family at one of the hardest times of their lives, we tend to take it personally.

For much of the 20th century, Lawrence and Lucille Lamb owned and operated the Lamb Funeral Home on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, not far from the stately turn-of-the-century mansions that populate the northern end of the city. Home of the celebrated Rose Bowl, there was an implied sophistication to the clientele. Old California money built and maintained Pasadena.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, Lawrence and Lucille retired from the business, and left the responsibilities of the funeral home to their daughter, Laurieanne, and her husband, Jerry Sconce. In the early years, they made sure the mortuary retained the integrity and trust that Laurieanne’s parents worked so hard to establish. They were active in the community and attended Chamber of Commerce mixers. Families were served. The dead were buried. The reputation of the funeral home remained honorable. That is, until Jerry and Laurieanne decided to hire their son, David.

David Sconce made it clear from the time he was hired that he wasn’t just interested in helping families in their time of need, he intended on getting rich in the process. David was a beefy football player tough guy who wasn’t afraid to bully whoever got in the way of what he wanted – and he wanted to hit gold with this funeral home gig. Lacking the principles and tact necessary to deal with grief-stricken families, David decided to manage the cremation end of the funeral home.

David had an obsessive, creepy interest in organ harvesting, and began looking into expanding the mortuary/crematory to include a tissue-harvesting facility. He figured the dead bodies slated for cremation wouldn’t mind having their organs removed and sold.

David’s buddy, who owned an adult bookstore, helped finance the ghoulish enterprise. They called it Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank. In order to justify the organ removal, David had the fine print on the funeral home cremation authorization forms covertly altered. Unsuspecting families would unwittingly give consent to have their loved one’s eyes and organs removed before cremation. The deceptive wording on the authorizations became a growing bone of contention among his employees.

To add some clarity as to how this egregious fraud was so easily imposed on customers, one can only read the fine print on a cremation authorization, which is a document that must be signed by the legal next of kin before a body can be cremated. If the deceased had a pacemaker, it must be removed, as these little buggers are known to explode and cause irreparable damage to the inside of the cremation chamber.

David altered the document so it was cleverly worded “to remove tissues, to remove pacemakers.” The anguished families would just assume this alluded to tissue surrounding the pacemaker.

If the deceased had surgical pins or artificial hip joints, these items were also discarded after cremation and not returned to the family with the cremated remains. This was and continues to be noted at the bottom of a California cremation authorization.

In my experience meeting with families to discuss cremation, they usually avoid details about grandpa being cremated. Typically, they just want to know where they need to sign their name as next of kin, and how long it will take until the ashes are ready for them to claim. David took advantage of this understandable avoidance of detail.

The subtle tweak in the cremation authorization allowed the unscrupulous David Sconce free reign to harvest organs. And if this whole operation wasn’t suspect enough, David began wielding a sturdy pair of pliers to extract gold fillings from all the dead mouths awaiting tissue removal. He collected them in a jar until it was filled enough to justify cashing them in. He had a jeweler friend who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make some easy cash off the dead.

With the organ harvesting and cremation operation in full swing, David continued to look for opportunities to make more money. He undercut the local competition by providing a considerable discount on his cremation services. Soon, he had more bodies coming in than his small facility could handle.

The cremation oven, often called a retort, was designed to cremate one body at a time. Great care was always taken to avoid comingling of remains as the retort was cleaned and prepared for the next body. David didn’t have the time or the inclination to complete the cremation process properly. He began stuffing as many bodies as he could inside the chamber.

When relatives returned to pick up the cremated remains of their loved ones, Dave and crew simply returned a receptacle of cremated remains that came from a 55- gallon drum that served as a mass community grave.

When a couple of local funeral directors began to get suspicious, they confronted David, who denied any funny business. When pressed, David threatened legal action and ordered the morticians off his property. Impatient and compulsive, David paid a couple of his old football buddies to rough up the grumbling funeral directors. They were quickly brought up to speed and told if they kept making trouble for David and his family business, they would be permanently silenced.

In spite of this, suspicion and protest continued among the locals of the industry. How was it possible for David to ethically cremate the influx of dead bodies with the equipment and time available to him? Tim Waters, who owned a rival crematorium, perhaps protested too much. He was beaten for his troubles by David’s goons and would be dead before the end of the year. David Sconce probably poisoned him with oleander, but it was never proven inconclusively.

In 1986, fire consumed the Pasadena Crematorium that was used by the Lamb Funeral Home. There were allegedly 38 bodies loaded into the two furnaces, which were designed to contain only one body each. Somehow avoiding any legal repercussions, David wasted little time securing a much larger facility in Hesperia and opened shop under the name Oscar’s Ceramics, purportedly telling officials he was making tiles for the space shuttle.

Business was fruitful at the new location until neighbors started complaining about the constant smoke and acrid smell at all hours of the day and night. One local, who was an Auschwitz survivor, recognized the smell all too well. There was also a horrendous puddle of oil that was leaking out of the back of the building and onto surrounding properties. The substance was found to be liquefied fat from the overloaded retorts.

The following year, the fire department raided and shut down Oscar’s Ceramics. David’s credible employees in the tissue-harvesting end were finally quitting over the sketchy cremation paperwork that was never corrected. The Lamb Funeral Home gig was up, and the facility was unceremoniously closed. At the end of the day, the Lamb family faced charges for mishandling human remains, fraud concerning prepaid funeral accounts, and discharging hazardous waste.

I’ll save the reader the tedious details of lumbering litigation and lengthy criminal proceedings that went on for years against the Lamb Family. David eventually served less that five years in jail, and the Lamb/Sconce family was never allowed anywhere near the dead for the rest of their lives.

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Former site of the Lamb Funeral Home  – Photo by William Duke

As of 2016, the mortuary at 415 East Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena is an abandoned building that is currently for sale. Another funeral firm operated at the site briefly, but couldn’t seem to shake the horrors committed by the Lamb family. I recently had a look inside the dark interior of the building. Funeral homes are usually strangely attractive to me, but the negative energy and persistent darkness of the rooms in the mid-day light was menacing.

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Former Site of the Lamb Funeral Home – Photo by William Duke

The building where all those bodies were burned under the name Oscar’s Ceramics also remains in an unassuming industrial section of Hesperia.

David once again popped up on the public radar in 1994 after his involvement with a bus coupon scam in Arizona.

In 2013 he was sentenced to 25 years to life for violating a lifelong probation that was part of his original conviction.

Thirty years later, the dead finally got a small measure of deserved retribution.

 

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Sources:

Braidhill, Kathy Chop Shop (1993)

Pinnacle True Crime Nonfiction

ISBN 1-55817-693-4

 

Englade, Ken A Family Business (1992)

St. Marten’s True Crime Library

ISBN 0-312-92820-3

 

Lynch, Thomas The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade (1997) W.W. Norton and Company

ISBN 0-393-04112-3

 

Johnson, John A Mortuary Tangled in the Macabre: In a scandal that has rocked the state’s funeral industry, three members of an All-American family face trial in Pasadena in a case that promises to tell a ghoulish : tale of organ theft and –perhaps- homicide.   December 30, 1988, Los Angeles Times

 

Johnson, John Ex-Mortician Charged in Oleander Poisoning February 10, 1990, Los Angeles Times

 

Torres, Vicki   Ex-Mortician Pleads Guilty in Bus Coupon Scam: Guilty: David Sconce also faces charges in Pasadena Superior Court of conspiracy to commit murder. June 30, 1994 Los Angeles Times

 

Uhrich, Kevin Couple Convicted of Misappropriating Funeral Funds : Trial : The wife is found guilty of illegally removing and selling body parts at mortuary; husband is found not guilty of same charges. April 7, 1995 Los Angeles Times

 

Former Altadena Crematory Owner Sentenced Pasadena News Now May 6, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of the Mystic, the Party Girl, and the Haunted House on Lombard Street

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1000 Lombard Street, San Francisco Photo by William Duke

During the foggy nights driving for DeSoto Cab in San Francisco, I was invariably asked to whizz the awestruck tourists down the long and winding section of Lombard Street. The serpentine stretch between Hyde and Leavenworth is noteworthy for being a chaotic mix of cars, camera-wielding tourists, and cable cars, as you are spit out of the curve onto Hyde Street.

Standing at the head of the snake at the bottom of the twisty hill is the mammoth three-story structure that is 1000 Lombard. Overlooking the sweeping view of Telegraph Hill, 1000 Lombard is in the heart of the neighborhood known as Russian Hill.

Russian Hill is an affluent San Francisco neighborhood, north of Nob Hill, south of Fisherman’s Wharf, and west of North Beach. At one time it was a goat pasture, with a cemetery that contained the remains of Russian seal hunters. Children living in the area during the Gold Rush tripped over their headstones, so it was decided to call the area Russian Hill. There were also a lot of hangings in the area in the early 19th Century, which have drawn many a psychic to try to find the source of supposed “bad energy.”

Pat Montandon was an Oklahoma native, and the seventh child of a Nazarene pastor. She moved to San Francisco as a young lady with big aspirations, but for now she was divorced, jobless, and without any connections. Pat eventually took a job at a hip clothing store called City of Paris, and began to expand her social circle.

A popular, attractive blond, Pat began hosting parties at her new digs, a charming third-story flat at 1000 Lombard. She soon became a well-known socialite, meeting the right mix of San Francisco high-society, yet engaging hippie types on the party scene to keep her credibility with the young folk.

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Photo courtesy of Pinterest

She reveled in her life as party hostess, and even penned a book in 1967, How To Be A Party Girl. Her notoriety opened up many local opportunities, and she soon began hosting a movie of-the-day show on local station KGO-TV called “Pat’s Prize Movie.” During commercial breaks, Pat would discuss dating, philosophy and current affairs, or sometimes read poetry.

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Photo Courtesy of http://www.sfist.com

Her show became so successful she hired a Girl Friday, Mary Louise Ward, aka Mary Lou. Pat and Mary Lou became fast friends. In 1968, Pat had a request from a viewer for a love potion. Mary Lou suggested they visit local celebrity and founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, to get his assistance with the love potion.

The Black Pope himself answered the door, never one to shun the calling of two attractive girls. He led them down a dark hallway and into a sitting room. After a few minutes, he materialized with two glasses of a pink and purple-layered alcoholic beverage. Pat and Mary Lou sipped their cocktails while LaVey gave them a brief tour of the house, and specific instructions on a potion of love.

They left LaVey’s black house on California Street with love potion in hand and a new idea for a party. Astrology and occultism were all the rage in the swinging sixties, so they hatched the idea to have an astrology party, complete with cabalistic trappings like palmists, tarot card readers, and crystal gazers. They giggled as they left the black house, exited to begin preparations for their shindig of sorcery.

The party was slated to begin at nine o’clock sharp, but guests began pouring into the Lombard Street house uncharacteristically early. The furniture had been moved out to allow the free roaming of guests, candles were lit, and the whole space was buzzing with chatty attendees. Each sage had their own little section of the house cordoned off to accommodate lines of guests desiring their services. Noticeable was the absence of the tarot card reader, who eventually arrived, albeit very late.

Things got weird quickly. The tarot card reader, with his uninvited entourage in tow, began rudely demanding drinks. He had a fierce red beard, and a green velvet suit decorated with feathers. He quickly set up shop and began reading for the enthusiastic line that had formed since his uncivil arrival.

Pat made a reasonable effort to get the agitated oracle a drink, but stopped several times along the way to mingle, and finally forgot the drink altogether. A half hour passed, and suddenly the tarot card reader, now frothing with rage, firmly reminded Pat that she forgot his drink. As Pat tried to apologize, the soothsayer jumped to his feet and exclaimed that he was leaving, and that he had never been treated so rudely. In a dramatic gesture, he cursed Pat and the Lombard house, shocking everyone within earshot.

“I lay a curse upon you and this house. I do not forget, and I do not forgive. Remember that!”

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Photo by Hank Donat  MisterSF.com

Two weeks later, Pat arrived home from shopping to find that the Lombard flat had been ransacked. Some things had been taken or destroyed, but there was no evidence of a break-in. The police were called, and a full report was taken, but the whole incident left Pat understandably shaken.

Things were never the same after the curse of the mystic. Breaking and entering cannot necessarily lend itself to a supernatural origin, but other unexplainable things began happening to Pat Montandon in the house on Lombard.

Pat’s dog never had a problem living in the house before, but now he refused to go indoors. When he was finally dragged in, he was fearful and cowered in the corner. Pat began hearing footsteps on her balcony at all hours of the night, and a photograph of her had been placed under her bed with her face scribbled out with a ballpoint pen. She called the police again to try to locate a point of entry for a possible intruder, but found none.

The house soon became almost uninhabitable, due to an unexplained chill in certain rooms, and Pat soon developed pneumonia. A peculiar band of unfriendly hippies moved in upstairs, and the hallways and balconies outside were soon littered with cigarette butts and spit, despite being cleaned weekly. The walls to the foyer were suddenly filled with strange symbols and obscenities. Pat considered moving, but she had just signed a lease. Besides, huge apartments were difficult to find in San Francisco at an affordable price, so she decided to stay put.

As Pat burrowed in bed with piles of blankets, any attempt to sleep was thwarted by screams, sobs, and moans coming from upstairs. The last straw was a large blood-colored stain that appeared directly above her on the ceiling and then disappeared. She immediately called the police and her landlord.

The hippies were promptly ejected from Apartment 3. They had made a mess of the place, and all their furniture was in a pile in the middle of the room. It seems they attempted to burn it in some sort of ritualistic way. Soon after the move, the doorbell began buzzing at all hours of the night, and to Pat’s horror, she discovered faces pressed up against her windows. The following morning, security guards were stationed outside her residence.

Pat was slated to begin a whirlwind book tour for How To Be A Party Girl the following week. She hoped the tour would give her some distance from her life in San Francisco, and perhaps initiate a fresh start upon her return.

Pat returned to Lombard Street to discover that Mary Lou had put a large bouquet of flowers in the front room. A nice gesture, but she felt the place was still cold and gloomy. She began having headaches, backaches, and dizzy spells, which often became so severe that she had to lie down to keep from fainting. The doctor prescribed her some little white pills that helped the pain, but not the dizziness.

Pat had been dating a man who lived several blocks from her Lombard residence, and there was a perfect view of her place from his 33rd-floor penthouse. She began sleeping at his pad a few nights a week, and her health seemed to bounce back to normal. Her dog stayed with her, wanting no part of the Lombard residence.

Mary Lou had been staying at the Lombard house when Pat was there, but was occasionally there alone. She braved the unbearable cold, but any type of supernatural force had no interest in her…. or so she thought.

On June 21, 1969, Mary Lou Ward was found dead in Pat’s bed, a victim of a violent fire. She was found in a prone position, face down, burned beyond recognition, with charred lower extremities. The cause of the fire was never determined. Mary Lou didn’t smoke. The door was locked from the inside, and the bedroom was the only room impacted by fire. She was apparently dead before the fire started, but toxicology reports came back and nothing suspicious was found in her blood. The cause of death was undetermined.

In the ensuing months, racked with grief, Pat tried to find answers. Was Mary Lou murdered? Pat moved in with her beau, but employed a psychic to have a look at the cursed apartment and conduct a complete investigation. The results were intriguing. The psychic concluded that this was a supernaturally “active” house, and suggested Pat stay as far away as possible. The report cited areas of coldness in the apartment and the smell of smoke in certain areas. The report also included several creepy photographs of areas of the house with blurbs of ghostly light, particularly in areas that Pat’s dog seemed most afraid.

Pat continued her research by investigating the history of the home. It was originally a large house, but was split up into apartments in 1949. There had also been at least four tragic, untimely, and unexplained deaths associated with the house. All of these deaths were unmarried females.

Weird.

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll often stop and gawk at the monolithic edifice beyond the gate that is 1000 Lombard Street. As beautiful as it is, there is something unsettling about the place, especially at night. As far as I know, there were no more ghostly shenanigans at the house after Pat finally vacated it for good. The skeptic in me tries to rationalize and explain away all that took place there, but there is no explanation for the death of Mary Lou Ward and the others. The only answer I can come up with is that if you are a single woman, 1000 Lombard is indeed haunted.

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1000 Lombard Street San Francisco Photo by William Duke

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1000 Lombard Street San Francisco Photo by William Duke

 

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The Intruders, by Pat Montanan Photo by William Duke

 

 

Sources:

Montandon, Pat The Intruders (1975) Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, Inc. New York SBN 698-10636-9

SF Memoirs: Pat Montandon, San Francisco’s Golden Girl SFist.com, May 2, 2012

The House On Crooked Street: A review of The Intruders, by Pat Montandon The San Francisco Examiner, February 6, 2010

Weirde, Dr. Dr. Weird’s Weird Tours: A Guide To Mysterious San Francisco (1994) Barrett and James Books ISBN 0964355906

www.wikipedia.com

http://www.trinalopez.com

 

 

 

 

Moaning Cavern– A Pile of Bones, and a Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Calaveras is Spanish for skull.

Sometime in the blustery Calaveras County winter of 1921, Vallecito resident Addison Carley discovered a large hole on a flat near his home. He heaved several rocks into the opening, hoping to gauge the depth, and was answered with silence. Native Americans had been aware of the cavity for years, ostensibly using it as a burial ground. Addison became more than just curious, and as his obsession with the black void deepened, he set out to discover just how deep this hole bored into the earth, and what was in it.

The first records of the existence of the cave date back to 1851, as mineralogist John Trask was contracted by the state of California to survey portions of the Mother Lode Region. Trask was lowered to shallow depths of the cave, but failed to find the bottom, or determine just how large the chamber was.

To facilitate access to the cave, an intricate wench system was designed, as gold miners smelled a potential honey-hole. The miners squeezed into wine barrels secured by rope and were lowered deep into the dark abyss. The apparently large and bottomless cavern was mined for approximately two years, but gold was never found. Gold thrives in quartz veins, but all the miners could find was limestone. As far as the candle would allow the explorer to see, the interior of the cavern was filled with monstrous calcite formations.

Exploration of the cave ceased, although its legend continued to grow. Over the next fifty years there is no record of anyone entering or exploring the cave, but a number of ideas about the nature of the opening were entertained. Rumors circulated of two French explorers seen removing two very old human skeletons from the cavern. Locals developed two theories: the cavern was a bottomless pit, or an entrance to the center of the earth.

Residents were fascinated with the idea of the cave, yet frightened by the possibility that something very real, or even supernatural could live inside. It wasn’t just the unknown depth of the hole that sparked the locals’ curiosity, there was also the unsettling observation that the cave made a very ominous, very pronounced moan.

On Christmas day in 1921, Addison Carley, Clarence Eltrigham, and Dan Malatesta set out to disprove the bottomless pit theory, and succeeded. With 300 feet of manilla rope, they finally hit what they thought was the bottom. Carley had since purchased the land that contained the cave, firm in his resolve to find something — natural or otherworldly — deep inside his investment.

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Interior view of the cavern. Photo by William Duke

Carly had an additional entrance to the cave blown open with dynamite to enable easier access. Exploration would soon begin, poisonous gases and unearthly monsters be damned.

At around 165 feet, at what Carly had assumed was the bottom of the cave, he made a macabre discovery beyond the small platform where he stood: A huge pile of animal and human bones, calcified over time, in front of a small clearing that contained another large chamber.

It was soon discovered that this additional chamber plunged more than 100 feet underground, though one could only journey down safely to about 70 feet before running out of air. But for now, Addison Carley and his crew had to contend with a huge pyramid of the dead.

Some of the remains were initially removed, but the county soon declared the cavern an ancient burial ground. Removing human remains from a burial site without written permission from the next of kin was against the law. One skull in particular was carbon dated and determined to be over 12,000 years old. The possibility of the cavern being a burial site was obvious, as was the possibility that hapless and perhaps intoxicated explorers fell in and plummeted to a sure and harrowing death.

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Them Bones. Photo by William Duke

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Photo by William Duke

Addison Carley saw the potential that his hole in the earth could be a lucrative enterprise. He began lowering tourists and adventurous locals down the hole in a halved wine barrel for 10 cents, with the catch being that it would set them back another 25 cents to get back up. Deterred by the liability of this treacherous system, Carley decided there had to be a safer way to get folks to the bottom of the cave. Enter Albert Tangemann.

Albert Tangemann was the owner of Stockton Welding Works. In 1922, he devised a blueprint for a large spiral staircase that would allow easier access to the bottom of the cave. Using scrap metal left over from World War II battle ships, Albert arc welded a 100-foot spiral staircase, a first of its kind.

Moaning Cavern's main chamber as seen from the bottom. 100 feet up, a rappeller begins his descent. Photo also shows the spiral staircase, and the signature formation, the massive flowstone known as "The Igloo."

Moaning Cavern’s main chamber as seen from the bottom. 100 feet up, a rappeller begins his descent. Photo also shows the spiral staircase, and the signature formation, the massive flowstone known as “The Igloo.” Photo by http://www.guideoftravels.com

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Photo by William Duke

Moaning Cavern was open for business in 1922, and has remained open ever since.

The twisting staircase was astounding, and for a time was as much of an attraction as the cave itself. However, a unique problem presented itself after construction of the staircase was completed — the cave stopped moaning. What had once been a sinister moan that lured the unsuspecting explorer to the mouth of the cave was gone.

Scientists proposed the moan that bellowed from the entrance of the cavern was a result of the reverberation of the sound of water from a well inside the cave hitting limestone. Over many years this caused the beautiful calcite formations, which populate the inside of the cave. Apparently, the new staircase absorbed the sound, which caused most, if not all of the moaning to cease.

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Calcite Igloo Creature. Photo by William Duke

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The Intrepid explorer. Photo by William Duke

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In 1973, the Potter-Herman Broadcasting Company purchased the cavern and the surrounding property from the Addison Carley estate.

Today, Moaning Cavern is part of the Cave and Mine Adventures, which includes nearby Black Chasm Cavern, and California Cavern. All have guided tours, but Moaning Cavern is by far the largest and most interesting of the three. The sheer size of the cave is so overwhelmingly large, the Statue of Liberty can apparently fit inside the main chamber. To truly appreciate the enormity and beauty of Moaning Cavern, one must stand deep inside the cave and look up at the daylight beaming in from the terrestrial entrance. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fellow explorer vigilantly rappel down from the mouth of the cave and meet you on the first platform.

Outside the cavern, zip lining is available, as is a man-made rock climbing tower. I experienced great joy watching my intrepid wife zip line down through a grove of trees, laughing and screaming as she whizzed by above me.

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Zip Line. Photo by William Duke

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Zip Liner. Photo by William Duke

Visitors who desire a longer, more involved tour that doesn’t involve rappelling can opt for the 3-hour adventure trip, which takes you farther into the labyrinth of tunnels inside the cave. From what I’m told, it can get a bit claustrophobic.

Moaning Cavern is a fun, fascinating excursion. The summer months can be sweltering in Calaveras County, but the average temperature inside the cavern is a cool 60 degrees. Picnic tables are also available outside, so if the weather is agreeable, pack a lunch, and don’t forget to say hi to Smokey.

 

Sources:

Roberts, George and Jan   Discover Historic California (2004)         GemGuides ISBN 1-889786-29-2

San Andreas Historical Archives, San Andreas, California

Calaveras County Library, San Andreas, California

Calaveras County Museum, San Andreas, California

Murphys Library, Murphys, California

www.wikipedia.com

Where Did the Moan Go? The Calaveras Enterprise, September 10, 1969

W.W. Elliott Calaveras County Illustrated and Described (1885)

     Calaveras County Museum and Archives Vallecito History – A History of Vallecito, California, Since 1848

The Ballad of Scott and Laci: Murder and Betrayal in the Valley of Almonds.

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Illustration by Adam Strange

The Central Valley, often referred to as the nucleus of the state of California, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in America. The Mediterranean climate creates hot, dry summers and wet, cold winters. The dense Tule fog settles in for most of the winter, which makes navigating the country roads slow and dangerous. Spring can be a particularly lovely time in the valley, as the grasslands are rich with California poppies, the beautiful blossoms of the Fremont Cottonwood, aromatic almond orchards, and the ubiquitous Valley Oak tree.

Time moves slowly in the valley. Chances are your friends’ parents know each other, and even residents of some of the larger towns like Fresno, Stockton, and Modesto still have strong ties to the farming communities that surround them. I was born and raised in Oakdale, a small town on the easternmost rim of the valley, where the fertile land connects with the foothills before being swallowed by the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In 2002, I was fresh out of mortuary college, and had recently started my internship at San Francisco’s oldest funeral firm. Like generations of undertakers before me, while attending school I lived and worked part time in a mortuary. It was kind of a rite of passage. Now, I was back living at old, familiar 1114 Sutter Street, ready to start new adventures with the dead.

Since 9/11, I had gotten into the habit of having CNN on all the time, usually with the sound off so I could listen to music. On Christmas Eve 2002, the wife of a Modesto fertilizer salesman went missing from her home near La Loma Park.

Laci Peterson was very pregnant, with an expected delivery date of February 10. Her husband Scott had gone fishing that morning off the Berkeley Marina. He came home to find their dog McKenzie roaming around outside the gate of their home at 523 Covena Avenue with his leash still on. Scott took his time calling around to friends and neighbors before his father-in-law finally called the police to report Laci missing. The media frenzy that would attach itself to this slow-build, true story drama was about to begin.

Laci Peterson was born Laci Denise Rocha, on May 4, 1975 at Doctors Hospital in Modesto to Dennis and Sharon Rocha. Sharon grew up in nearby Escalon, where Dennis’ family owned a 365-acre ranch. Dennis and Sharon met at Modesto Junior College and began dating, eventually marrying and settling down in a small house on the Rocha family ranch. She had two children with Dennis: Brent and Laci. Small-town family life agreed with them at first, but after Dennis began drinking heavily, Sharon filed for divorce a little over a year after Laci’s first birthday.

Laci had a gregarious nature, and family and friends described her as a “bubbly, energetic, and happy” child. She earned the nickname JJ, which stood for jabber jaw, because she could never seem to shut up. She would ramble at great length about the myriad of subjects that occupy a young girl’s world. She had a broad, winning smile and loved to cook from an early age.

In 1977, Sharon Rocha met Ron Grantski. After an extended courtship, the couple decided to move in together, uniting their extended families together under one roof in Modesto.

After graduating from Thomas Downey High School in 1993, Laci was accepted to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, about a four-hour drive from Modesto. She settled into a small cottage in the quiet coastal town of Morro Bay. Making friends was easy for the charismatic Laci, and she always performed well in school.

One afternoon, Laci and a couple of her friends were eating lunch at the Pacific Café, a small but popular spot on the Embarcadero. She thought the waiter was very handsome –Love-at-first-sight handsome. His name was Scott. Laci left her number, hoping he would call her and ask her out, and he did.

Scott Lee Peterson was born to Jackie and Lee Peterson in San Diego on October 24, 1972. Jackie Peterson had three children before Scott who had been given up for adoption. Jackie ran an antique store, while Lee owned a corrugated box business.

Scott had an upper-middle class upbringing, very much the golden boy, never wanting, never taking responsibility for his actions. As a result, the roots of narcissism grew deep and strong.

Scott attended the University of San Diego High School, where he developed a passion for golf. When he started driving, his parents purchased him a Peugeot convertible. He was well liked by his peers, but had a reputation as a loner and a bit of a womanizer.

Peterson was eventually accepted to Arizona State University with the hopes of becoming a professional golfer. When he discovered he didn’t have the chops of a pro-level golfer, he transferred to Cuestra Junior College in San Luis Obispo, eventually ending up at Cal Poly. While going to school, Scott worked at the local golf club and waited tables at the Pacific Café.

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Laci and Scott –Photo by Ignailz

Scott and Laci were married in August of 1997 at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, in nearby Avila Beach. The wedding was well attended, with friends and family coming together on a lovely sunny day to celebrate the couple’s nuptials in style.

The wedding did have its setbacks: Laci’s father Dennis arrived late and drunk, unable to put on his slacks, instead falling down and ripping said pants right through the seat. The resort manager had the creative idea to staple the slacks together, which seemed to work well enough to get the inebriated Dennis through the service. Laci’s dad was obviously still abusing the booze, which was the primary reason for his divorce from Sharon. Scott also added to the dysfunction of the day, as he was seen hitting on the waitress in the bar before the wedding.

Scott and Laci settled into their new life, working and going to school near the crushing waves of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Scott bought his father out of his half of the family corrugated box business, and Lee naturally and proudly assumed his son would take over the family enterprise. Scott almost immediately and somewhat callously sold the business and invested in a sports bar they named The Shack. The sports bar enjoyed some success, and for a while the couple enjoyed the fruits of their labor, with Laci preparing food as Scott poured beer and soda.

Soon, the responsibilities of owning a business and keeping track of employees began to infringe on whatever private life the Petersons attempted to have. In October of 2000, they decided to close The Shack for good and move to Modesto, where Laci could be closer to her family. It is unknown what level of financial loss they endured, if any, when The Shack went down.

Upon their arrival in Modesto, Scott took a job with Tradecorp, an international company that sold agricultural supplies. Laci had eyes on becoming a mother and homemaker. Scott’s parents gifted them $30,000, which they used to put a down payment on 523 Covena Avenue.

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523 Covena Avenue–Photo by William Duke

Laci soon became pregnant. Somewhere around this time the mind of Scott Peterson became very dark. Perhaps it was always dark, but like most sociopaths, he could pass as a well-adjusted adult until backed into a corner.

Excited about this new chapter in their lives, Laci wanted a bigger house and a new car to go along with the baby. Scott was ill prepared to deal with her ambitions, because in his mind he was still a consummate bachelor, a world traveler, and an avid golfer. After all, his parents had just shelled out $23,000 for his membership to Modesto’s Del Rio Country Club, where monthly dues were about $390. There was also a mistress…

Scott began dating Amber Frey, a massage therapist from Madera, in November of 2002. She was a single mom looking to settle down and play house with an honest man. Scott tearfully told Amber that he was bracing himself for the holidays, as this was his first Christmas alone since he had “lost his wife.” The details, according to Scott, were “too painful to talk about”.”

Amber took Scott to holiday parties as they planned their future together, and Scott even tagged along when she picked up her daughter from school. She sent out Christmas cards to friends that included a cozy photo of her and Scott. Amber Frey thought she had hit the domestic lottery.

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Amber Frey–Photo by Andrea Renault-Globe Photos, Inc

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Photo by CourtTV

After Laci’s disappearance, the drama unfolded slowly in the eyes of the media. Scott became the poster boy for how not to act if there is even a remote possibility people are beginning to suspect you of killing your wife and unborn child. He acted shady, avoided the press, and claimed he wanted to “keep the focus on finding Laci.”

I watched this story intently as it played out on television. I drove down to the valley just as soon as I could get away from San Francisco, but the police had closed off Covena Avenue to everyone except residents, police, and the media. I was just a looky-loo undertaker seduced by a story I knew was going to turn into a murder investigation, and by that point I was gleefully willing to wager on Scott’s involvement.

Amber Frey, while not the brightest light, began to suspect Scott Peterson was too good to be true. Apparently, she didn’t watch the news. She had a good friend who was a police officer, and it didn’t take much detective work to figure out that the Scott Peterson Amber was dating was the same Scott Peterson with the missing pregnant wife from Modesto.

Amber called the tip line, and was soon in contact with the Modesto Police Department. She readily agreed to a phone tap in an attempt to possibly extract information from Scott about Laci’s disappearance.

Interestingly enough, the detective in charge of the phone tap was Officer Steve Jacobson from Oakdale, my hometown. He was always cordial to me when we were classmates in high school despite the fact that we were polar opposites. Thanks for not stuffing me in a trash can, Steve.

Early in the investigation, detectives questioned Scott’s whereabouts on December 24. He told police that he went fishing at the Berkeley Marina, almost 100 miles from his Modesto home. He took along his newly purchased boat that was stored at 1027 Emerald Avenue in Modesto, a warehouse space Scott used for business purposes.

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1027 Emerald Avenue–Photo by William Duke

Scott wasn’t much of a fisherman. The clandestine boat was privately purchased on December 9, the same day Scott told Amber that he “lost his wife.” Laci’s parents were shocked that he even had a boat, and when initially questioned by detectives about what he was fishing for on the day Laci disappeared and what kind of bait he was using, he didn’t have an answer.

While the Amber Frey phone taps didn’t exactly elicit a smoking-gun admission of murder, they did shine a harsh light on Scott Peterson as a compulsive liar. He fed Amber tales of international business travel, wining and dining clients in France, and morning jogs on cobblestone streets in Belgium.

During a well-attended vigil for Laci in La Loma Park in Modesto on New Year’s Eve, Scott was conspicuously silent, never addressing the press or pleading publicly for the safe return of his wife. Instead, Scott was on the phone with Amber, claiming the crowd noise in the background was a wild New Year’s Eve party in Paris. Just chalk it up to another day in the life of international playboy Scott Peterson.

On January 7, 2003, Scott requested that Dish Network add the Playboy Channel to his existing package. A few days later after returning home from his nephew’s christening, he upgraded to a hardcore porn package, then went out and looked for Laci.

Scott and Laci had decided to name their baby Connor. His expected arrival date was February 10, which also happened to be Amber’s birthday. Scott handled this unfortunate coincidence by changing the due date in all media interviews and conversations with police, friends, and family to February 16.

On a sunny and clear day on April 13, the disemboweled body of an infant washed ashore at Point Isabel, not far from the Berkeley Marina. Soon after, a headless torso materialized a little farther down the bayfront. I was very familiar with Point Isabel. When I lived in Berkeley in 1999, I would often walk my dogs around the coastal trails and let them frolic a bit in the bay. Point Isabel was now besieged by police and the media.

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Photo by Chris Hardy/SF Chronicle

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Photo by William Duke

After the bodies washed ashore, Scott was nowhere to be found, but he had been sniffing around the Berkeley Marina on a number of occasions after Laci’s disappearance. Police had attached a GPS device to his truck so they could track his whereabouts, only to discover that he had been staking out the location of the bodies.

Scott Lee Peterson was arrested on April 18, 2003 near Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, near San Diego. He was getting ready for eighteen holes with some pals, but The Man foiled his plans, as they were still breathing down his neck concerning that pesky murder investigation of his wife and unborn son. He had grown a goatee, and dyed it and his hair an odd orange-blonde mixture. It was almost like he didn’t leave the product in long enough to complete the dying process.

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Photo by The California Department of Corrections

He was driving a used red convertible Mercedes Benz that he purchased using his mother’s name. In the car, police found $15,000 in cash, credit cards, camping supplies, formal wear, 12 pairs of shoes, Viagra, four cellular phones, and Mexican currency. It didn’t seem like Scott was planning on an immediate return to Modesto to find Laci’s killer.

Peterson was stuffed into a police car and returned to Stanislaus County Jail, where a throng of angry residents awaited with vulgar screams and “baby killer” signs.

The trial of Scott Peterson was moved out of Stanislaus County to Redwood City in San Mateo County. The inevitable media circus ensued. Members of the jury looking to have their intelligence insulted didn’t have to wait long, as Scott dumped his small-town lawyer in favor of tan and cocky super-attorney Mark Garagos.

But even a high-profile celebrity attorney couldn’t save Peterson, as he was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife Laci, and the second-degree murder of Connor, his unborn son. On March 16, 2005, Judge Alfred Delucchi sentenced Scott Lee Peterson to death. He was sent to San Quentin, where he remains today awaiting the gas chamber while enduring a long, dismal existence in prison

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Photo by The California Department of Corrections

I followed the trial of Scott Peterson closely. Even without the bodies washing ashore in the San Francisco Bay, the totality of circumstantial evidence in this case was overwhelming. I think Scott figured he would tell everyone he was golfing that fateful morning, and if the bodies washed up one day, he had an alibi.

I think he became paranoid with the possibility of being spotted at the Berkeley Marina – which he never was – so he had to change his story. He seriously underestimated what a powerful human tragedy this was in the eyes of the public, and how the media just couldn’t resist the titillating possibilities as the narrative slowly unfolded.

To play devil’s advocate, if Scott would have just stuck to his golfing story, there was enough activity around Laci’s disappearance that could have shed the light of reasonable doubt in Scott’s favor. For example, around the time of Laci’s disappearance a burglary occurred ay 516 Covena, the house across the street from the Petersons. Witnesses reported seeing a large brown or medium-dark colored van in the area.

Also around this time, officers were made aware of a report from a sexual assault counselor that chronicled the activity of a group of alleged Satanists living at Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale. A woman came forward and claimed to have been lured into a brown van, where she was later raped and forced to take part in a satanic ritual.

Historically, any time satanic activity comes up, allegations must be taken with a grain of salt. However, at the very least this van business could have possibly planted the seed of reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds, if only Scott would have stuck to his golfing alibi.

In July of 2012, Scott Peterson filed a 470-page appeal. In 2015, the long-awaited response to that appeal came down hard and swift. The essence of that response states the following: “Fueled by the trifecta of selfishness, arrogance and wanderlust, Scott Peterson decided to take matters into his own hands” and killed Laci and Conner Peterson. The document was signed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris and written by a deputy prosecutor, Donna Provenzano.

If you plan to visit these sites, do so on a nice day. Bring a lunch, park near the Peterson house on Covena Avenue and then stroll down to La Loma Park for a brisk hike. The warehouse on Emerald Avenue is located in an industrial section of Modesto near the interstate, and is not quite as compelling. Point Isabel and the Berkeley Marina are definitely great hiking spots, with plenty of places in the area to stop and take in the beauty of the San Francisco skyline. I think Laci would want us to remember her with love and beauty in our hearts.

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Photo Credit– F.B.I.

Sources:

Bird, Anne   33 Reasons Why My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty  (2005) Regan Books ISBN 0060850337

Crier, Catherine  A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation (2005) Harper Books ISBN 0060849630

Frey, Amber  Witness: For The Prosecution of Scott Peterson  (2005) Regan Books ISBN 0060799250

Rocha, Sharon  For Laci: A Mothers’s Story of Love, Loss, and Justice (2006) Crown Publishing Group ISBN 0307338282

http://www.wikipedia.com

http://www.modbee.com

The End of the Land, Part 1: The Ghosts of Playland at the Beach

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Former site of Playland at the Beach- Photo by William Duke

There is an expanse of land facing the mighty Pacific Ocean that reveals itself as you journey past the Cliff House Restaurant along the Great Highway in San Francisco. Observing the area directly across from Ocean Beach that surrounds the rusty old Safeway and soulless condominiums, one gets the impression that there must be more of a history to this curious segment of the city.

In 2005, I moved to an apartment on 36th Avenue at Balboa, almost a mile from Great Highway in the outer Richmond District. The Richmond and Sunset Districts, which surround Golden Gate Park, have always had a separate feel from the rest of the city. As the area became my home, I discovered it was just another face of San Francisco, with its own compelling history and fascinating places to examine. I had been exploring the ruins of the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights Park for years, and was aware of an amusement park that once thrived across from Ocean Beach.

Playland at the Beach, which had been dubbed the “Coney Island of the West Coast,” certainly didn’t start out that way. In 1884, a steam railroad was constructed to make Ocean Beach easily accessible as a recreation spot. In 1913, Arthur Looff and John Friedle established Concessions on the Beach, with shooting galleries and carnival games. This was an expansion of the existing Hippodrome, which was a building that contained a carousel that was built by Looff and his family. Looff and Friedle became partners, and by 1921 they had acquired several rides and attractions. They renamed the area Chutes at the Beach after one of the rides, the Shoot-The-Chutes. They were open from noon to midnight, every day.

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Chutes at the Beach—Courtesy of a Private Collector

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Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

The wives of Friedle and Looff never got along, and by 1923 they were quarreling more than ever. Due to the open hostility between their families, John Friedle decided the only remedy to the situation was to buy Looff out of his share of Chutes at the Beach. In order to avoid infighting within his own family, Friedle saw the need to hire an outside party to oversee operations at Chutes. Enter George Whitney.

In 1926, George Whitney was made general manager of Playland. Along with his brother Leo, George started to see a bright future for the seaside location, and when the opportunity arose they decided to go in as partners in hopes of owning it all. The Great Depression came at the right time for the Whitneys. Property values waned and America was hesitant to spend money on recreation, creating the perfect opportunity to buy the property on the cheap as it became available. In 1929, George and Leo Whitney purchased many of the attractions and renamed it Playland at the Beach.

Playland was initially looked at as a diversion for adults, but the Whitneys wanted to make it a fun place for families. The golden age of Playland followed, boasting 14 rides, 25 concessions, and 4 restaurants. A large wooden roller coaster named the Big Dipper was built, and families from all over the world flocked to San Francisco to see Playland.

However, the park had its share of quirks. Like many coasters of the day, The Big Dipper roller coaster had no restraints, and riders were urged to hold on tight as it whirled around creaky turns in the thick ocean air. In 1945, a sailor on shore leave stood up at the wrong time, hit his head on a beam, and died later that afternoon. An urban legend grew around the incident, with the sailor’s head coming completely off and landing in a car full of park revelers who happened to be eating lunch.

Laffing Sal was a large, matronly, animatronic woman that was placed in front of the Fun House in an effort to lure folks in. True to her name, she guffawed incessantly at visitors as they entered. Sal’s gaping mouth and continuous cackling unintentionally scared children. Coupled with screams from the roller coaster, she could be heard from several blocks away.

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Laffing Sal– Photo by James R Smith

The Fun House was described as an amusement park within an amusement park. Fifteen cents would get you in. Once through the mirror maze, the fun- seeker would have to contend with the likes of the precarious Joy Wheel, moving bridges, shaky staircases and crazy catwalks. Throw in a 200-foot indoor slide, and the funhouse became the template for carnival horror flicks for the remainder of the 20th Century. Young boys would often line up near the air jets hoping for a salacious peek as unsuspecting women would walk through and have their skirts blown up around their head.

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Photo by Dennis O’Rorke

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Fun House Interior——Greg Peterson/Chronicle 1972

The marine layer on Great Highway is usually thick with a gray, noir fog most of the year, creating a forbidding atmosphere that was perfect for popular spook rides that stayed open until midnight every day of the year. Attractions like Limbo and Dark Mystery thrilled park goers, who were swept away in carts through surrealistic facades around twisting, nightmarish turns as creepy plywood characters did what they could to scare them. Dark Mystery originally had an African theme, but was changed to a more surreal theme in the 1950s. Spook rides became a staple of 1940s-50s carny America.

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Photo by Ken Kaffke

Originally designed for the 1929 Worlds Fair, the Diving Bell was a bizarre attraction. Several riders were sealed in a watertight chamber and lowered down a cylinder that stopped in a large tank. Through algae-clouded windows, the participant would observe whatever happened to be thriving in the murky water, which was usually just floating garbage with the occasional fish, just to keep things real. The inside of the chamber was dank, rusty and leaky, which made for an edgy experience. Once suitably claustrophobic, the unsuspecting participant would then be abruptly shot skyward, propelled by the water pressure, finally settling above ground after a dramatic splash. The ride promised fun, but many found the experience terrifying.

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The Diving Bell- Photo by Dennis O’Rorke

In the early 1950s, Walt Disney made contact with several owners of seaside amusement parks to pick their brains about what made the parks operate successfully. Later on, George Whitney went to work for Disney and convinced him not to use live animals on the Jungle Cruise, which led to Disneyland’s first experiments with animatronics.

Chet Helms was a beloved countercultural icon who organized events at Golden Gate Park during the halcyon days of the flower power 1960s, and produced the first light shows at the legendary Avalon Ballroom. He was one of the main pioneers of the hippie movement. Under the name Family Dog, Helms organized dances and light shows with live entertainment from the happening bands of the day. In 1969, Helms took over a building on the northern end of Playland that many San Franciscans knew as Topsy’s Fried Chicken, or the Slotcar Raceway. He called it The Family Dog. Opening night was June 13, 1969, and featured the Jefferson Airplane. For the next year of the Family Dog’s existence, music lovers would head out to the Great Highway, gyrate to the likes of the Grateful Dead, then stumble down in the cool ocean air and have a smoke with their toes in the sand.

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The Family Dog on Great Highway –Photo from http://www.jerrygarciasbrokendownpalaces.blogspot.com

By 1955, the luster of Playland at the Beach began to tarnish. Despite its rigid construction, some were now viewing the Big Dipper as a wooden death trap, but most locals still loved it. Sadly, for reasons known only to George Whitney, the Big Dipper was torn down. The ride was replaced with a smaller coaster called the Alpine Racer, but it failed to recapture the magic of the Dipper. The people who worked on the midway during this time thought that the removal of the Big Dipper was the first nail in the coffin for Playland.

In 1958, George Whitney died. George Jr. ran Playland for a while, but eventually sold it. The cost of keeping the park open was high, and the magic was gone.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a shift in the zeitgeist of the San Francisco youth movement, as hippie idealism and peace and love gave way to speed, heroin, and violence. Two teens were killed in a fight at nearby Skateland, which resulted in Playland being viewed by many as dangerous and uncool. The hip kids had better things to do, and adults got tired of looking over their shoulders and fearing for the safety of their children. The end was near.

On September 4, 1972, Playland at the Beach was officially closed. It was demolished the following month. The land that Playland occupied became a sandpit, owned by millionaire developers to make way for the condominiums that remain there today. Where the Diving Bell once stood is now a crusty Safeway. Laffing Sal was shipped to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The city of San Francisco wanted people to forget about Playland.

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Clem Albers/Chronicle 1972

The only attraction from the days of Playland at the Beach that remains on Great Highway is the Camera Obscura, which is located next to the Cliff House Restaurant. The Camera Obscura is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings, in this case the Pacific Ocean, onto a large, flat surface using only sunlight. The Camera Obscura was placed next to the Cliff House in 1946, and has remained in continuous operation to this day.

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The Camera Obscura- Photo by William Duke

The arcade games from the midway, as well as an original Laffing Sal (there are several) can be found at Musee Mecanique, which lies at the foot of Taylor Street at Pier 45. Admission is always free, and Musee Mecanique boasts “one of the world’s largest (over 200) privately owned collection of coin operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.” As a local who rarely goes to the tourist-ridden Fisherman’s Wharf, I highly recommend having a look at Musee Mecanique.

If you want to get a feel of Playland, or just talk with some friendly, qualified folks who can answer all your Playland-related questions, check out Playland-Not-at-the-Beach in El Cerrito. Owners describe the space as a “temperature-controlled 9,000-square foot building chock-full of amazing things to see and do. There are 30+ pinball machines set on free play, arcade games, videogames, carnival games of skill where you can win prizes, penny arcades full of antique amusement devices, live magic shows, an amazing hand-carved miniature circus, side show acts, miniature dioramas, fascination games, and historic exhibits with artifacts from the Sutro Baths and Whitney’s Playland in San Francisco.” It’s definitely worth a trip to El Cerrito.

A couple of other interesting tidbits related to Playland at the Beach:

  • Down the Peninsula in Burlingame sits the It’s-It ice-cream factory. The yummy ice cream cookie sandwich was created by George Whitney, and was first served at Playland. They don’t do tours, but Its-It cookie sandwiches are easy to find in grocery stores all over California.
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The Original This Is It Ice Cream Shop at Playland—-Photo Courtesy of a private collector

  • The original Looff carousel can be found beautifully restored south of Market at Yerba Buena Gardens.

I recommend learning a little more about Playland, then head on up to the top of Sutro Heights Park, preferably at night, and look out over the plot of land that Playland once occupied. As corny as it may seem, use your imagination, and with the ocean wind blowing in your face, listen for Laffing Sal, the Fun House, and the screams and smells of Playland at the Beach.

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Greg Peterson/Chronicle 1972

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Photo by Dennis O’Rorke

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Photo by Dennis O’Rorke

Sources:

Perry, Charles   Haight Ashbury, A History Wenner Books (2005) (1st ed.) ISBN 978-1932958553

Weirde, Dr. Dr. Weirde’s Weirde Tours: A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco (1994) Barrett and James Books  ISBN 0964355906

DVD Documentary- Remembering Playland at the Beach (2010) November Fire Recordings  ASIN-BOO4XITND0

http://www.mksgrist.wix.com/playlandatthebeach

http://www.playland-not-at-the-beach.org

http://www.museemecaniquesf.com

http://www.wikipedia.com

http://www.jerrygarciasbrokendownpalaces.blogspot.com

http://www.outsidelands.org

http://www.laffinthedark.com/articles/pacific/pacific.htm

http://www.oceanbeachbulletin.com

http://www.visityerbabuena.org