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