Wages of Sin



That headline pretty much covers the whole story; just another night in a boardinghouse in SRO land.

In the spring of 1895, Charles Stanley was working as a cook at the Glenwood Hotel, Riverside, where he met a pretty young waitress, Bessie Bradley. Within a month they were married, had found new jobs in downtown Los Angeles, and taken rooms at 132 1/2 South Broadway.  But conjugal bliss did not ensue.  Bessie was said to have married Charles in a fit of pique after she was jilted by another man.  By autumn, she and her fried, Mamie Fleming, a fellow waitress at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, began spending time with two traveling salesmen who took their meals there, Charles G. Smith, and Alfred Cleveland. 

Bessie Stanley (nee Bradley) soon informed her husband that she was leaving him because he could not support her adequately on the $7 a week he made as a cook at the Geneva restaurant, and that she had taken a job, at Mr. Smith’s urging, as a milliner on Spring street.  She promptly moved out of their lodgings and went to room with Miss Fleming at the Albermarle boarding house on Spring street. 

LA Times Historical Archive

Charles contrived to meet with Bessie at the Cosmopolitan as often as he could, to plead with her to reconcile, but she refused.  When he followed her one night he saw her new beau, Smith, accompany her back to her rooms, at which point he went to the police to solicit their help in compelling her to return to him.  The police declined to get involved.

A few days later, Charles visited his wife to once again entreat her to come back to him.  She replied that it was impossible, she could do better.  He then asked Miss Fleming, who was present, to leave them alone.  Miss Fleming testified later that both she and Bessie were afraid, but she finally left the room on the condition that Charles promised to do his wife no harm.  But seconds after she closed the door, shots rang out. She flung it open, only to see Bessie sprawled on the bed, blood pouring from a wound on her head, and Charles on the floor, a bullet hole in each temple, and the bullet itself imbedded in the fingers of his left hand, which he must have pressed to his brow before he pulled the trigger.

Bessie recovered fully from her wound, and returned to her family home in Fresno. Four years after this tragic affair, the wife of Charles G. Smith sued for divorce in New York. The story of Charles Stanley and Bessie Bradley featured prominently in the court proceedings, providing fodder for the New York papers for weeks.

The Panicking Patrolman


In June 1907, a drunk woman was arrested for shooting her sweetheart during a fight in a rooming house. It should have been a straightforward case, but things are rarely simple in SRO land, and the unravelling of loose threads soon ended the career of a young policeman.

Right after the shooting, when things still seemed clear cut, the police told the press what they believed had happened. A newsboy called Buck Wilson and his girlfriend, Lena Carter, “an exceptionally pretty girl about 19 years of age” who, until recently, had been working in a massage parlor, had spent a warm Sunday afternoon and evening at Venice beach in the company of Buck’s roommate and his girlfriend, Grace Rhyn, “a few years older than Miss Carter and also very pretty”. When the party returned to the rooming house at 523 West Sixth street where Buck and his roommate lived, they were all drunk. Shortly after midnight, an argument between Buck and Grace Rhyn suddenly turned violent, and they started to fight. Lena Carter tried to intervene but Buck knocked her to the floor. At this, she ran to an adjoining room and procured a loaded revolver. She returned to the room where her lover and her friend were still struggling, aimed the pistol at Buck’s back and pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through Buck’s left lung. She fired again, but the shot went wild.

The shots were heard in the street, which was soon filled with hundreds of excited people. The police had to force their way through the crowd in order to get to the apartment. Everyone present was arrested and taken to the police station, with the exception of Buck, who was taken to hospital. None of them would speak to the police, but Buck was eventually convinced to give some details of what had happened, which the police dutifully relayed to the reporters.

But something wasn’t right, as became clear when a patrolman called Holden went to his superiors with a new piece of information.

Patrolman Holden, who had pushed his way through the onlookers and made the arrests, had seen another policeman at the scene, Patrolman Charles Norris, a new officer who had evidently been there before the crowd had formed in the street but did not stick around to assist Holden. After Holden had taken the suspects to the station, he tried to contact Patrolman Norris to find out what he knew about the shooting and why he had left the scene, but Norris was nowhere to be found. According to the manager of Norris’s rooming house, which was just across the street from where the shooting had occurred, Norris had hurriedly removed all his belongings from his room and left for some unknown place.

His strange behavior took on a more sinister cast when it was revealed that the gun that had been used to shoot Buck belonged to Norris. When questioned about the gun, Lena Carter admitted that Norris had been present, but maintained that she alone was to blame for the shooting.

Late on Monday afternoon, Norris turned himself in at his police station and was immediately taken to the cells, where, that night, he told his side of the story.

He had been walking home along West Sixth street when he heard people quarrelling in the building he was passing. He went up to quell the disturbance, and tried to pull Buck Wilson off Grace Rhyn. While he was leaning over, Lena Carter pulled his revolver from his pocket and started shooting. As he tried to stop her and get the gun back, Patrolman Holden entered the room, whereupon Norris fled, fearing implication in the affair.

Why had he quit his rooms and gone into hiding? He could give no clear explanation, or at least none that was accepted by his colleagues. Norris was told that he would be suspended from duty and would likely be charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

The next morning, an elderly couple arrived at the station — Norris’s parents, who knew nothing of his arrest and had become worried when they had missed him on his beat. The desk sergeant did not have the heart to tell the old people that their son was locked up and took them to a detective, who broke the news gently. “Mrs Norris said, with tears in her eyes, that her boy was good,” the police told the press, further saying that the father was an old soldier, “and proud of it”, and was ashamed that his son should be in jail.

At the request of the district attorney, Norris was paroled in order to be with his parents while awaiting a formal charge. “When their son was finally released, the old couple straightened their bent backs and tried to walk proudly down the street. Even the policemen who are used to touching scenes could not help sympathising with the young man and his fond parents”.

Norris and Lena were tried separately. At his trial, Norris finally confessed that he had known Lena Carter for some time, having met her when he walked a beat on Spring street, and had recently “spent two nights” with her, his wife being absent in Cincinnati. Further, he admitted that it was no accident that he had been in the room; Lena had sent for him on the night of the trouble, just prior to the shooting. Everything else, however, was as he had originally said: he had been trying to separate the brawling man and woman when Lena took his gun and shot Buck, and he had panicked when officer Holden arrived and had fled in order to avoid being dragged into the mess.

If only Holden hadn’t recognised him. If only he hadn’t left his gun behind.

If only he had never met Lena Carter.

At Lena’s trial — at which it was revealed that her real name was Mrs Evelyn Ferguson (she had used the name Lena Carter “for convenience”) — she claimed that she had been frantic with worry that Grace Rhyn’s weak heart would give out during her struggle with Buck, and had simply used the quickest means possible to stop the fight, never meaning to hurt him so seriously. Her story was undermined somewhat by testimony from a neighbor that she had cried, “Let him die!” as Norris had tried to help the wounded man.

The police court accepted that Norris had no part in the shooting of Buck Wilson, but took a dim view of his disgraceful disappearance following the crime. He would face no criminal charges, but he would never work as a police officer again.

Lena/Evelyn’s fate is a mystery, as the coverage of the trial appears to end abruptly halfway through the proceedings. Presumably, the case was either dropped or reached a non-newsworthy conclusion, perhaps due to Buck’s full recovery a month after the shooting, which would have reduced the charge from murder to attempted murder. Whatever the case, it does not seem to have been reported, and Lena — that is, Evelyn — vanishes from history. The last glimpse of her that we catch shows her standing in court on July 19, 1907. “Neatly attired in a blue suit,” she stood alone in the dock, facing an uncertain future. However, “aside from a little nervousness, she seemed to be thoroughly satisfied with her prison life.”

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, June 10-13 and 26; July 19. 


Book collectors of old L.A.

Shopkeeper William “Scotty” Manson, 47, lived alone behind Acme Stamp and Hobby, supplying used books and collectable stamps to the passing trade. Any customer was potentially a worthy one in the SRO Land of 1956, as Bunker Hill was crumbling and the detritus of human life washed ever further each morning onto the streets surrounding Skid Row.

When two gents came in together and asked for a quantity of books to be boxed, Manson thought he’d made his grubstake for the day. Alas, the fellows had a further request: could he just be so kind as to place all his money in the box as well? A flash of a long knife accompanied the suggestion.

Like any savvy shopkeeper of his place and era, Manson was armed, with a .45 caliber revolver in his pocket. He stepped back and drew his weapon, but the young man with the knife was quicker, and slashed his chest and belly. The would-be thieves turned and ran as Manson unloaded his weapon, then collapsed in the door of his shop. At General Hospital, where he was taken in serious condition with three deep cuts, he told police what had happened.

But even without Scotty’s report, the scene on the street told the tale. One robber, Charles Brooks, 28, resident of a hotel at 224 Boyd, reached 1st and Broadway, then fell, gushing blood. He survived part of the ride to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, where he was DOA.

The second miscreant, Eugene Sparkman, resident of a hotel at 534 Wall, made the acquaintance of a motorcycle cop a block from where Brooks went down, and was popped. Taken into evidence was the book he’d kept hold of as he fled, reform-minded prison warden Lewis E. Lawes‘ “20,000 Years in Sing Sing,” with its heartwarming dedication “To those tens of thousands of my former wards who have justified my faith in human nature.” We can only hope he ran into as enlightened a prison manager as Lawes, in his unreported but inevitable next stop.

Pass Me a Napkin, or I’ll Shoot!

Ex-convict Ray Davis, 31, was seated at the counter of a café at 456 South Main Street, when he realized that the napkins were just out of reach. He asked the man next to him, Bob Sahagain, a 21 year old Sioux, to please pass him a napkin. Bob chuckled, saying “I can’t”, then turned away from Ray to continue his conversation with a friend.

Ray thought that Bob was being rude and asked him once again to hand over a napkin. Bob turned to him, laughed, and repeated that he couldn’t do it. Maybe it was a case of diner rage, or perhaps Ray was flashing back to his prison days, taking his meals in a crowded mess hall, where manners were an artifact of a society too far removed. Whether they were past, or present, the demons in Ray’s head prompted him to pull out a .25 caliber pistol and shoot the young man in the back.  

What Ray had failed to notice about Bob was that he was totally blind – he had two glass eyes! The patrons of the café decided that if anyone needed to be taught a lesson about etiquette, it was Ray. Surely shooting someone at the dining counter of an SRO Land café could be considered the height of bad manners. A small mob formed immediately following the gun play. Ray was soon disarmed and the patrons began to beat him, breaking his jaw. They continued to beat him until the cops arrived and ended the confrontation.  

Bob was reported to be in fair condition at General Hospital.Ray was booked at Central Jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.  

I think I’ll have dinner at home tonight.