Fate Rolled the Dice of Fortune for “Farmer” Page


Image courtesy of the LA Times Historical Archive

By the time he was 12, Milton B. Page had his own corner of downtown Los Angeles, as well as his nickname “Farmer,” for his shambling gait and ill-fitting clothes.  By morning, Farmer Page sold newspapers at 2nd and Spring; by night he rolled dice and played poker with his fellow newsboys in the alley nearby.   After a stint playing valet to his younger brother Stanley, a famous jockey, Farmer returned to the city and eventually conducted a big game in the basement of the Del Monte Bar on West Third Street.  Club after club followed, until Farmer owned controlling interests in five establishments, and was the de facto leading gambler in Southern California. 

While Page and his dealings were well known to the downtown police force, his first significant clash with the law didn’t come until 1925, after he bested a disgruntled former employee, Al Joseph, in a gunfight at the Sorrento, on 1348 West 6th Street. Page claimed the shooting was in self-defense, the culmination of a drawn-out underworld feud between himself and Joseph, who had become a member of the notorious “Spud” Murphy gang of San Francisco, and had made repeated threats on Page’s life.  Page turned himself into the authorities after the slaying.

In the court proceedings, Joseph was portrayed by the defense as a vicious and turbulent man, a hijacker and a thug, who “packed a business gun of large caliber, and a smaller social gun for festive occasions.”  Farmer was found innocent of murder, and was excused his 50 thousand dollar bond. 

The trial might have freed Farmer, but the testimony of his many associates revealed the extent of the gambler’s bootlegging operations, and resulted in eventually driving Farmer out of downtown and on to a gambling boat moored off the coast of Santa Monica. From there he followed fellow kingpins Guy McAfee and Tudor Scherer to Las Vegas. These big shots of the Roaring Twenties banded together and bought controlling stakes in such hotels and casinos as the El Rancho Vegas. Fittingly, “Farmer” Page died in a hotel at 2205 West Sixth Street in 1960, at the age of 73.  He was survived by a son, the seemingly mild-mannered bookstore owner, Milton B, Page, Jr.

Quick Death for a Dime in Downtown

Up until the fall of 1906, an Angeleno could walk into a pharmacy downtown (or discreetly dispatch a messenger boy) without a doctor’s prescription and buy morphine, cocaine, opium, codeine, heroin, laudanum, carbolic acid or other potentially fatal poisons, packed for his or her convenience in nickel, dime, or 25 cent bags.

Image Credit: LA Times Historical Archive

Of course, many of these drugs were highly touted miracle ingredients in the elixirs of the day, thought to be so beneficial, in small doses, that they were suitable for children.

Image Credit: Addiction Science Network

But 1906 brought a slew of new ‘poison control’ laws, which required pharmacies to employ only registered pharmacists to dispense drugs, to maintain a “poison registry” of the names and addresses of customers who purchased medications deemed dangerous, and to refrain from dispensing such drugs without a prescription from a licensed physician. The laws were not strictly enforced until May of 1907, when a crusading Secretary of the State Board of Pharmacy by the name of Charles B. Whilden made a sweep through 33 drug stores in downtown Los Angeles and bought dope at 16 of them. 

At Wilson’s Pharmacy at 6th and Figueroa a young boy behind the counter sold Whilden carbolic acid; a few days later a young lady, presumably the boy’s mother, but no registered pharmacist, sold him laudanum.  Similar transactions occurred at Frank T. Rimpau at 355 North Main Street, F.J. Giese at 108 North Main Street, Los Angeles Pharmacy at 212 West Fourth Street, Angelus Pharmacy at 801 West Third Street, and many other downtown retailers. The pharmacies were fined $100 for each violation. Several of the owners argued at sentencing that if future regulations prohibited them from selling opiates they would have to close their doors, as these products accounted for more than half their total profits. 

In June Whilden continued his poison investigation in Chinatown, where he arrested four proprietors of opium dens, even though the dens were licensed  and the opium sellers paid a monthly fee of $25 to the city.


All offenders were released after payment of fines, and business returned to usual in the downtown dens of vice.


Crib District Gets a Makeover

They weren’t pretty but they sure were cheap, and easy to find. All an Angeleno had to do to ease his itch before the turn of the century in LA (or maybe pick up another one) was head downtown to Alameda and Ferguson Alley to an area known as the Cribs.  There, in the tenderloin, you’d find a rookery of one-story shacks divided into even smaller compartments, called cribs, which were rented to “fallen women” of all nationalities for $1.50 to $3.00 a night.

At least that was the case until February 1st, 1902, when the Cribs underwent a sudden transformation.  At dawn carpenters and sign painters invaded the district, and by the end of the day the Cribs were reinvented as “cigar stores” and “dressmakers,” where the likes of “Frankie” and “Louise” and “Georgie” would sell “Gents Neckwear” and do “Corset Stitching,” “Feather Curling,” and “Fancy Work.”

The ploy, designed to skirt the most recent in a series of crackdowns on vice in the crib quarter, didn’t hold up for long.  On February 5th, police raided Cribtown and arrested 17 women for vagrancy.  The patrol car only had room for 13 prisoners, so the remaining four were led on foot to the police station, followed by a crowd of saloon bums and macquereaux (pimps, or macks).

Chaos ensued in the station, where the booking desk sergeant struggled to record the incomprehensible names of the French and Belgian prisoners.  The majority of the women were released on bail before nightfall, put up by the main landlords of the cribs, who shelled out nearly 4 thousand dollars for their return.  A few months after this bust, the crib district finally went dark when the police, clergy, the Salvation Army, and women crusaders allied to shut down the saloons that anchored the neighborhood.