226 S Main-The Swanfeldt Building

The photo on the right shows the Swanfeldt Building as it appeared in the late 1920s, with its northern half still occupied by the Swanfeldt Awning & Tent Company. The southern section is home to the Union Rescue Mission (URM).

In 1926, the URM purchased the southern half of the Swanfeldt building for $100,000. The City’s seizure by eminent domain of the URM’s building at 145 N. Main forced them to make a quick move to new quarters. The structure demolished, the old 145 N. Main property is on what is now the southern lawn of City Hall.

The Swanfeldt family operated Catalina Island’s celebrated “Tent City” from 1895 to 1902, and were the canvas kings of Los Angeles. Even after the tent concession monopoly was relinquished to the Santa Catalina Island Company, the Swanfeldts continue to set the bar for tent manufacturing in the southland. It is of peripheral interest to note that in its earliest days (circa 1893) the Union Rescue Mission operated out of a massive tent on 2nd Street near Main.

By 1931, with the URM still occupying only the southern half of the three-story Swanfeldt Building, 300 to 400 people were fed daily, with the number swelling to well over 500 on Sundays. 100 men were bedded nightly in the third-floor dormitory. The dining room was in the basement of the structure, and could accommodate 325 people at a sitting. Meals were served each morning and evening, with breakfast provided to those who had spent the night. The clothing commissary, which offered donated items including suits, work clothes, hats, shoes, neck-ties and socks, was on the second floor. The laundry, which in 1931 was a very recent addition, was on the ground floor. The URM’s managers immediately made note of the savings in time and money that this new laundry facility provided.

As the depression proceeded and the first hints of war were heard, the URM felt the need of more space. In 1938, the URM purchased the northern half of the Swanfeldt Building, and the Swanfeldts moved their plant to North Figueroa Street. In early 1942, the URM purchased The Oddfellows Club Building just to the north of the Swanfeldt—note the the “IOOF” in the upper coursework— and it became the Victory Service Club, a social club and assistance center for young Christian servicemen and their friends, which will be the subject of several forthcoming blog posts.


Transience: Outreach & Enforcement #1


In anticipation of the October 20 rooftop screening of the Union Rescue Mission’s 1949 film Of Scrap & Steel, in this post we’ll examine two stills from the film as a window to understanding how two mid-century Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies dealt with the task of enforcing statutes concerning transients.

The first of the two film stills on the left was shot on Main Street in front of the Fun Palace at 243 South Main. The second still was shot on 2nd Street, just east of Main.  

The first, Fun Palace still shows one of the notorious LAPD “Black Maria” vans, with an officer shuffling an old “rummy” into the back. This scenario was common at the time. Arrest was the primary tool used by the LAPD for dealing with transients within the borders of Skid Row. In future blog posts we will delve further into the history of vagrancy statutes in Los Angeles, the evolution of the City’s Public Policy on the topic, and the role of the LAPD as an enforcing agency.

It is the second still showing an officer in what appears to be a dark brown uniform which is of particular interest. The nitrate print of the film was so badly damaged that when it was digitized, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s traditional green uniform appears as dark brown, so it is unclear what type of officer is patrolling Skid Row in search of drunks to roust. Closer observation reveals the familiar LASD deputy’s badge on the left breast. But what are LASD deputies doing on East 6th Street, in an area clearly within the jurisdiction of the LAPD? 

What the film does not show is that just moments before the deputies pulled up to the curb and hustled the transient into their car, an LA County Health Department official issued this man with a vagrancy citation. Working in tandem with the Health Department, LASD deputies would sweep through Skid Row, arresting anyone who had received such a citation and lacked the capacity to immediately flee the scene. Interestingly, this is the same method which would be used on larger scale social control operations like the clearing of the residential community Chavez Ravine in the early 1960s.

While we now understand how it is that LASD deputies might make arrests along Skid Row, within the boundaries of the LAPD, the motivation for such arrests still needs clarification. 

When the Hall of Justice was opened in 1925, the LASD was put in charge of running the Hall’s jail. Because prisoners in the Hall of Justice were put to work on road crews and doing other County work, it was in the interest of the powers that be to maintain at all times a capacity population. The routine arrest captured in the second still was one of the ways in which that population was maintained. When this man sobered up, he would be put to work.



Two Sides of the Street

In anticipation of this weekend’s free walking tour The Flâneur & The City: Victorian Los Angeles, and the October 20 free screening of the Union Rescue Mission’s film Of Scrap & Steel, in this post we explore the Union Rescue Mission’s Victory Service Club at 220 South Main, which opened in August of 1942 in the newly-purchased northern part of the Swanfeldt Building. The URM had purchased the southern portion of the Swanfeldt Building in 1926, after having their original 1896 headquarters seized by imminent domain for the construction of City Hall.

The top photo on the right, which is a still from Of Scrap & Steel, shows the Fun Palace at 243 South Main. The second photo, not a still from the film, shows the URM’s Victory Service Club, across the street at 220 South Main. The third photo, another still from the film, shows the Victory Café, which was just a few doors south of the Fun Palace on the west side of Main Street. At first glance, the missionary-run Victory Service Club could not be more different from the penny arcade and its neighboring café, but a closer look reveals how these longtime neighbors coexisted and were shaped by each other.

The Fun Palace, run by veteran showman and coin-machine operator Fred McKee, was incorporated under the name Victory Amusements, which suggests a business connection to the Victory Café. Research reveals that the Fun Palace played a vital role in the leisure time activity of servicemen on leave in Los Angeles during WWII. Men in uniform who were seen hanging around the machines without playing were quickly identified by staff and given 50¢ in pennies. This was a wise investment in good will, and the establishment received a healthy return on its investment. 

Soon after the war began, Fred McKee determined that servicemen up from their bases for a 24- or 48-hour “R&R” leave needed more than just a bright, clean place to test their skill and try their luck. They also needed somewhere to bed down for the night, and a welcoming place where they could fortify their souls in the face of the tremendous job ahead of them. To that end, Fred maintained a list of private homes and religious organizations which offered free accommodations to servicemen, and the Fun Palace became known as a destination for men on leave seeking direction in Los Angeles.

In March 1942, the URM’s Board of Directors allocated the necessary funds to purchase the northern half of the Swanfeldt Building and open a center whose objective would be “a day and night ministry seeking for the men in uniform that vital experience of Christian realities” which the URM described by the phrase “response.” This venue would stand in stark contrast to the bars, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and amusement arcades which provided more earthly amusements along Main Street.

In August 1942 the Victory Service Club opened its doors under the direction of Rev. Robert Bolin Hubert Mitchell. He brought in directly under him the young Rev. Don Spencer McCrossan.

Don McCrossan would shepherd the Victory Service Club through WWII, Korea and the Vietnam War. By his retirement in 1975, the club had played host to more than three million servicemen, and provided an unexpected oasis of comfort on Main Street which deserves to be remembered.



Testimonial #1: Bill Stiles

Introduction to Bill Stiles

Los Angeles in 1913 was fast becoming a modern metropolis. The streets were a crazy quilt of traffic comprised of pedestrians, horses, bicycles, and automobiles. It had grown from a small pueblo of fewer than 100 residents into a city of approximately 400,000 souls – many of them in need of saving.

The Union Rescue Mission had been leading people to God in the City of the Angels since 1891. One of the tarnished souls wandering the streets of Los Angeles on the evening of October 20, 1913 wasn’t a resident, he was a visitor to the city on a mission of his own – to rob a Southern Pacific Railroad train!

The man’s name was Bill Stiles, and he was in Los Angeles with two cronies making plans for a train robbery. When he’d left his downtown hotel to roam the streets of the city he had left all of the tools of his trade, guns, high explosives, and “soup” (nitroglycerin) in a suitcase in his room. As he was strolling along Main Street he spied a cop walking in his direction. Bill had been feeling uneasy about the upcoming robbery and seeing the cop did nothing to calm his nerves. He didn’t know if he was being shadowed by the law or if it was chance, but he wasn’t about to risk his freedom – particularly since he hadn’t been out of prison for very long. He had come upon the Union Rescue Mission at 145 North Main Street and figured it was as good a place as any to shake his possible pursuer.

Bill grabbed a seat near the front of the room, seeking anonymity in the crowd of worshippers. Stiles would describe the evening later saying: “I did not hear much of the service, for my mind was upon the work for the next day.” In fact his mind was so occupied with the next day’s work that he was just about to get up and head back to his hotel room when one of the Mission’s workers approached him and asked him to give himself up to God.

Stiles told the evangelist who had invited him into the fold that he didn’t believe in God because of the horrible life he’d lived so far. As he stood up to walk out of the Mission he realized that his legs wouldn’t move! He found himself fastened to the floor by, as he would later state, “a power not of this earth”. Bill may not have known it then, but he’d just been saved.

Despite an evening of tears, prayer and confession, Stiles returned to his hotel room that night. The next day he informed his co-conspirators that he’d found God and that he was finished with his life of crime. His friends told him that he was crazy and they went off to meet their own fates – both were gunned down in separate holdups.

It was barely dawn on the day after he’d cut his old life loose forever when Bill arrived at the Union Rescue Mission. The front door was locked, so Bill began tapping on a window until Mother Benton let him in. Mother Benton was surprised to have a visitor at such an early hour, but she was even more shocked when Stiles confessed to her that the suitcase he carried with him was filled with “soup”. With Stiles in agreement Mother Benton called the cops to surrender the explosives. When the officers arrived they asked a few questions then they carried off the suitcase, leaving Stiles uncharged.

Mother Benton was stunned by the contents of Bill’s suitcase, but if she’d known then that she was talking to a man who had been considered deceased for nearly 40 years she may have collapsed on the spot.

The man in Los Angeles who was calling himself Bill Stiles was at the center of a historical controversy that continues to this day. Bill Stiles was the name of one of the bandits who had been shot down during a raid conducted by the Jesse James- Cole Younger gang on a Northfield, Minnesota bank in 1876. And the man in Los Angeles was claiming to be the Bill Stiles that had ridden with the gang to Northfield!

The identity of the dead man in Minnesota has been the cause of controversy since the day of the robbery. So, too, has the actual number of bandits involved in the raid.

The reports contemporary to the time of the Northfield raid indicate that there were eight men involved in the crime. A poem entitled “The Robber Hunt” published in the Winona Republican in September 1876 refers to eight men:

“This is the eight, that smelled the bait,
That is, the malt, that lay in the vault,
That was in the bank at Northfield”

Was there a ninth man waiting outside of town? And if there was a ninth man, who was he? Could the man in Los Angeles be an imposter with nothing more than a good tale?

The speculation and controversy over the identity of the Los Angeles Bill Stiles (dead bandit, or live Christian convert) has continued unabated for 135 years everywhere but at the Union Rescue Mission. Once the Bill Stiles who presented himself at the Mission all those years ago found a faith in God, he found the acceptance of the Mission’s congregants who had no incentive to disbelieve him. In fact everyone at the mission felt that “a wonderful change had been worked in the heart of Bill Stiles”.

In the end perhaps it’s not important to know whether the Bill Stiles in Los Angeles actually rode with Jesse James and Cole Younger or not. A man who carried around a suitcase filled with guns and nitroglycerin would be considered an outlaw by anyone’s measure, and he would certainly be viewed as a man whose soul needed saving. Whatever had held Bill Stiles’ feet to the floor at the Union Rescue Mission on that October night in 1913 was true and good, for it was said of him that he was “our faithful night watchman, alert and watching while his fellows sleep, much as he used to, only for a different purpose”.

Bill Stiles passed away on August 16, 1939. As for the veracity of Bill’s story of his outlaw days – that’s between the old cowboy and his maker.

Note: If you’d like to learn more about Bill Stiles and the ninth man controversy, I suggest that you read The Jesse James Northfield Raid : Confessions of the Ninth Man by John Koblas.

Bill Stile’s Testament

It was on the evening of October 30, 1913, in the Union Rescue Mission, 145 North Main Street, Los Angeles, California that I was arrested by the Holy Ghost and gave my heart to God.

This was the first time I had been in a church service since a small boy, nearly 44 years before.

My criminal life began when I was 14 years of age back in New York as a pickpocket. I had Christian parents and a lovely home. My father was a practicing physician. They did all they could for me but the devil got hold of me in some way, and I seemingly could not keep from doing wrong. They sent me into the country, but I did no better there. I overheard them talking of sending me aboard the Schoolship St. Mary, and then I ran away.

I drifted westward, and in 1876 joined the James’ gang with the Younger Brothers, and was with them in the Northfield Robbery. I escaped the vengeance of the law, and made my way to Omaha, Neb. I had served three terms of one year each behind prison bars. In 1900 I was convicted of a crime and sentenced to life-imprisonment. When those doors closed upon me it was terrible; no one can know my feelings but those who have passed through such an experience. It was a life of torture; a living death.

On the 19th day of March, 1913, I got my release from prison, and friends took me to the state of Washington, where I found employment in a lumber town. I did not like it, however, and soon found a friend who gave me work for two months; but when he came to me one day and said that he could not employ me longer, I knew my past had been revealed, and became discouraged. At last I gave up trying to be good! I found it impossible, and determined to go back into my old life of crime. I knew it meant death to me, so I began to prepare for what I knew in the end would be the taking of life before they would get me. I was desperate, and once more the old outlaw spirit was upon me and I was becoming a demon at heart. I went to Tacoma and Seattle and looked up some of my old pals – men who did not care for their lives. With them I planned to go back into my old work of train robbing.

I came to Los Angeles on the 19th day of July, 1913, and began to look up this country, both along the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads, preparatory to “striking” and then striking again. I went into the mountains for a month, in the vicinity of what is now known as Pisgah Grade, and drew my maps and laid my plans. I came back into the city and put my men (as they had bad records and were wanted by the police) in hiding. The night before the intended robbery I walked down Main Street, thinking over my plans and the course mapped out, when I found myself in front of a mission. Just then I saw a policeman coming down the street and naturally feeling suspicious, I stepped inside to avoid him and walked way up front.

I did not hear much of the service, for my mind was upon the work for the next day. I felt a little uneasy, for I had left my suitcase in my room, and in it some of the “soup” (nitroglycerine), some high explosives, and my guns. I had everything ready and so far my plans had gone smoothly; but as I say, I felt worried, and was just getting up to leave when one of the workers came to me and asked me to give myself up to God. The life I had lived did not allow me to believe in a God. I do not remember his reply, for when I attempted to get up I had no control over my legs. I do not know what you think, but I know my legs were fastened to that floor by a power not of this earth. I kept trying to get up, when a woman came and sat down beside me, and urged me to go up to the altar. I listened to her pleadings for a time and then consented to go, thinking it would do me no harm anyway. What seemed so strange to me was that I did not have any power to resist. It was not the woman, for I had been a woman-hater since my early life; it was the power of God. As soon as I gave my consent my legs were released, and I went up and knelt at the altar. I heard them praying, and a strange feeling came over me. It seemed as though something in my heart was loosening up, and I began to feel happy; then a warm light came from above and made my whole body burn. How sorry I began to feel for my past life of crime! I could not keep back the tears – tears of real repentance. I heard them tell me to repeat a prayer, but I had found the Lord before that. Oh, what a joy came into my heart!

I went out of the mission knowing that first real joy and happiness in the Lord, for I was conscious that my sins were forgiven. I could not go to bed for joy, but walked the streets for hours. I forgot all about the train robbery I had planned for the next day; forgot the suitcase and guns. Next morning after my conversion, I told my companions what I had done and they said I was nutty. I told them if I was, I hoped God would give me more. I then separated from my old pals and they went their way. I am sorry to say that two of them have paid the death penalty already – one was killed in a raid in the north, and the other in Arizona. For a number of days I sat in the mission. I was happy – happy for the first time in my life. Finally I began to come to myself and to think about the law, knowing that I was liable to be arrested, for I had revealed my past life. I thought about going away, but was held from doing so by a feeling of love that seemed to draw me closer and closer: and such a delight was in my heart and soul that I knew I was in the presence of God’s Spirit. I was experiencing the greatest joy I had ever known, and the peace of God flooded my soul. I kept getting happier and happier until it seemed as though I loved everybody and everybody loved me. I knew no evil, nor thought no evil – I was “A new creature in Christ Jesus.”

That heart of mine was as hard as stone; nothing had ever melted it, and my soul was black with many a crime, but the Lord took me and washed me as white as wool. There is nothing but the power of God that can take the wickedness of life out, and keep it out. During all my life I had walked in the valleys and through dark paths, until up from the depths below He lifted me out – of darkness into His marvelous light. I know that a man who has lived the life that I have can never reform, but through the power of God he can be transformed and given a new nature; it’s the birth of a new spirit. I would not take the whole world for the joy the Lord gives me.

I broke my mother’s heart, and sent her to her grave in disgrace. A dear old father and sisters and brothers have all passed away, and their last thoughts were of me. I think I can see them now, their faces shining with the glory of God as they look down upon me from the glory-world beyond the skies, and rejoice, for “He that was dead is alive again, and he that was lost is found.” Now in place of carrying guns to destroy life, I carry the Word of God that gives life – eternal life.

There is no such thing as reformation for one like me. It takes the power of the Blood of Jesus Christ to blot out transgression and clean one up. Nothing else can take away our sinful appetites and set us free from the power of the evil. He that is free in Christ Jesus is free indeed.

“Wherefore He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.” (Heb. 7:25) The promise has been made and stands sure, but you can sit there until doomsday and it will profit you nothing until you come. Six hundred and forty-two times in His Word, God has invited men to come. “Whosoever will may come.” The “whosoever” covers every man, but the “will” may leave some of you out. “Whosoever will may come.”

I have had repeated offers to go back into the old life since my conversion. Men have even offered to supply the money for necessary outfit or equipment. But it was the strength that I got from God alone that helped me to stand.

[Signed] XXXXX

Note: After twenty-four years of a victorious life Bill Stiles recently passed to his eternal reward. His friends who were present the night he was saved and knew him intimately all during his Christian life, witness to the fact that he served his Heavenly Father faithfully to the end. – Ed.
March, 1937



The Union Rescue Mission Archive Project on inSROland

It begins simply enough: as part of the ongoing project to document the forgotten history of Downtown Los Angeles, our present aim is to blog about a series of previously-unknown documents from archives of the Union Rescue Mission (URM).

We will begin by sharing some of the testimonials of faith made by those “saved” by the mission’s outreach. Each of these testimonials tells the story of a life run off the rails then back on again, and offers insights into fascinating historic subcultures which are infrequently documented.

We will also be presenting photographic documentation of the early buildings which housed the URM. These now-demolished sites will be placed in their historic and present-day contexts, to fill in some of the gaps in the century-long history of Downtown Los Angeles as a zone of poverty, addiction, redemption and transformation.

Along the way, we will introduce some of the interesting individuals whose work at the URM contributed to its mission, and uncover aspects of forgotten social history which were documented, sometimes inadvertently, by URM staff.

The URM exists to rescue men and women who have been utterly abandoned and become discouraged and helpless. It seeks to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ into their hearts, which will lead them out of temptation and to salvation. Within this lofty intent sits the more earthly goal of feeding and clothing the poor in areas which historically have been blighted, and giving them tools by which they can improve themselves.

Very quickly we already have two distinct aims by which we can distinguish and give context: that of public policy and that of Faith. These two aims cleave the problem space neatly into two parts: 1) the finite, delineated by its limited resources, clothes, energy, food, land, and those in authority who can allocate them, and 2) the infinite, that small, intangible part in all of us which is the gatekeeper to something bigger, delineated by its resources without limit: love, charity, compassion, strength. Those in authority have absolutely no control over the quality, quantity or allocation of these infinite resources.

Attempted solutions for improving the hardships faced by the poor are manifold in Southern California. They range from the official Public Policy for the County and the City of Los Angeles, Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement, Job Harriman‘s Llano del Rio commune, the URM, and Sister Aimee Semple McPherson‘s Four Square Gospel. Note that of the solutions just listed only the first two are political, one is an attempt at a utopia, and two others come out of a literal reading of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the notion of a solution straddling the two kingdoms – one which feeds the stomachs and the souls of the masses – may seem fanciful, those leaders who have been most effective over the past century have had their feet planted firmly in both.

To start our exploration of the URM and the significance of its work in Downtown Los Angeles, let me lay out some important milestones in the form of dates and locations which will be helpful in understanding the context as our work begins.

  • The first rented building, 2nd & Main (1896)

    Operating under the name Pacific Rescue Mission, Col. M.C. Mason, since 1894 the superintendent of the Mission, rents a building (address unknown) at 2nd & Main in which to continue their good works.

    Beginning in 1891, the Mission work had gone on under temporary canvas tents in the area, and on the iconic gospel wagon which traveled up and down Main and Los Angeles Streets, 1st and 2nd Streets, stopping at the many saloons along the way seeking penitent souls who wished to “go on the wagon” and dry out.

    The only director listed in both the 1891 annual report and in the report for 1896 is Lyman Stewart, founder and president of Union Oil. His influence will be felt over the URM for decades.

  • The second rented building, 145 N Main (1903)

    Under Col. Mason’s successor, Mr. Jeffreys, a hall is rented at 145 N. Main, on what is today the lawn of City Hall. It continues to operate under the name Pacific Rescue Mission.

  • Street mission, 2nd & Los Angeles Street (1907)

    The Mission’s core outreach with their gospel wagon is curbed, as city ordinances are passed prohibiting street oration for the areas around 2nd & Los Angeles, and all area speaking permits are rescinded by the LAPD as well. These rules reflect the city’s public policy to curb the activisim of the emerging labor movement, with an unexpected side effect of curtailing the Mission’s work in the saloon district.

  • The second rented building becomes the first purchased building, 145 N Main (1907)

    After almost a decade of operating the ground floor hall in this narrow, two-storey building sandwiched between two saloons on a street of pawn shops and electric photograph parlors featuring various racy entertainments, the Mission purchases outright the building at 145 N Main, demonstrating its commitment to continued outreach to the community.

  • A new name (1908)

    On January 23, 1908, The Union Rescue Mission is incorporated as a California Public Benefit Corporation. Union Oil’s Lyman Stewart sits on the board of directors.

  • Enter BIOLA (1908)

    On February 25, 1908, Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) is founded, with Rev. T.C. Horton as President. Horton had been on salary at URM for two years as an assistant pastor in charge of bible teaching.

    Lyman Stewart of Union Oil will be BIOLA’s principal benefactor, giving the institution over a million dollars in his lifetime.

    In addition to being the principal financier of BIOLA’s 1914 Italian Revival auditorium and Bible college at 550 South Hope Street (behind the Central Library), Lyman and his brother Milton would at the same time sponsor, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, the publication of the 90-chapter volume of scriptural study “The Fundamentals,” sent free to Christian workers all over the world.

  • Exit 145 N Main Street (1926)

    The City of Los Angeles finalizes its seizure by imminent domain of 145 N Main in preparation for groundbreaking on the new City Hall. With just weeks remaining before the URM must vacate, new quarters are secured just to the south at 226 S Main, next door to the Cathedral of St. Vibiana (1876).

  • Public Policy and the Depression (1931)

    The City of Los Angeles passes a $5 Million bond measure to create a much-needed work relief program. Although 16,000 jobs were created, the program was seen as inadequate by critics.

    Los Angeles Supervisor John R. Quinn believed that there were 200,000-400,000 non-citizens living in California. If local governments could only get rid of those free-loaders, he believed unemployment would no longer be a serious issue, and crime rates would plummet. Charles P. Visel, Director of Unemployment Programs for the city began to explore the option of deportation as a solution to unemployment.

    The Los Angeles County Welfare Bureau used up its entire fiscal appropriation in April. Its director requested more funds, but was denied. Upon his announcing he has no choice but to to close the department, the Board of Supervisors comes up with $250,000 to keep it afloat.

    Meanwhile, the URM considers merging with BIOLA at the direction of some of BIOLA’s supporters, but ultimately the URM board resolved the issue by recognizing that the Mission is well adapted to its location on Main Street, and would best continue to serve its soul-saving purpose there.

  • Public Policy and the Depression (1932)

    It is estimated that 344,000 people are unemployed in metropolitan Los Angeles. The city has an $11 million deficit, and appears to be out of money and ideas. Civic leaders begin to warm to the notion that the destitute should be kept out of Southern California.

    City Council passes an ordinance forbidding begging on the streets of Los Angeles. The LAPD begins to meet incoming freight trains in the city’s rail yards. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce recommends that the National Guard be stationed along the State’s borders to keep out undesirables.

    Statistics for the Union Rescue Mission from 1932:

    Meals served: 179,084
    Shelter beds provided: 37,725
    Baths given: 11,650
    Fumigated for vermin, &c.: 470
    Accounts of aid given to needy families: 225
    Worship services held: 2,038
    People attending the Mission’s worship services: 182,959
    Professed conversions: 3,070
    Gospels of John given out: 3,094
    Pieces of clothing given out: 5,988
    Pairs of shoes given out: 735
    Number of pieces washed in laundry: 48,415
    Men registered for work (Mission’s employment center): 3,314
    Men found jobs through the Mission’s employment services: 493
    From Oct. 10, 1932 to Jan. 23, 1933, sent 183 men to state work camps
    Motto still “No Creed but Christ”
    For every $7.10 spent by the Mission, a man came to Christ

    Total expense $21,816.41




    Independent of any particular location or points in time are two last important concepts: the notion of Skid Row itself as a neighborhood which has always had a rapidly changing demographic and numerous forces at work in its shaping, and the rise of Urban Redevelopment as public policy.

    It is estimated that only about 5% of the homeless in Los Angeles occupy the roughly 50 square blocks of what is now known as Central City East (Skid Row). It is that concentration in such a small area which helps create the area’s unique characteristics. Skid Row is demarcated to the east by Alameda, to the west by Main Street, to the north by 2nd, and to the south by Olympic.

    Post-1945, public policy in the City of Los Angeles changes dramatically. The creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency in 1949 will become the rock upon which Urban Redevelopment is built. This agency, an autonomous taxing authority, is charged with the dual—and conflicting—goals of commercial revitalization of blighted areas and the creation of affordable housing.

    The CRA will be the major force driving public policy in Skid Row from the 1950s through the present day. The policy of geographical containment of the disenfranchised, the formation of housing trusts, and the 1992 relocation of the URM to its current location at 6th & San Pedro, all are the work of the CRA.

    So get ready to discover the unwritten history of the Union Rescue Mission, Skid Row and Downtown Los Angeles. We’ve created a visual template to distinguish the posts which comes out of our work on the URM archives from other material presented on the In SRO Land time travel blog, and will be providing an RSS feed and a single link to the site to point interested visitors directly to the URM material.

    Finally, we must express our debt of gratitude and thanks to the staff of the Union Rescue Mission, particularly to Liz Mooradian, the self-selecting keeper of the archives, and to the Mission’s CEO, Rev. Andy Bales. It is due to their support of this project and belief in the historical value of the URM’s archives that we are able to share these extraordinary documents with you now.


Grave Embarrassment in the Alexandria Hotel

Tongues were wagging on every floor of the Alexandria Hotel this morning, following the delicious faux pas of conservative businessman Walter Dinmore, a resident of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Roused by his “Jap” valet to take an important long distance telephone call from Santa Barbara in the lobby, the tousled Dinmore hurried from his room, only to encounter barely supressed merriment at every turn.


First a crew of Catholic girls fresh from their worships chortled, then an elderly lady he waved into the elevator seemed about to perish from the giggles. A bell hop dropped a pitcher of water, so great was his glee upon seeing Mr. Dinmore.

Finally, the gentleman was alone in the telephone booth, where he had a moment to reflect upon the curious afflictions of his fellow guests… and gaze down his own legs, to see vast billows of pink silk pajama material covering his shoes. Mortified, he dashed for the elevators, but found them engaged. In rising horror, he grabbed a porter and demanded aid. The porter led the humiliated Dinmore into a secret nook below stairs where he could divest himself of his shameful sartorial sin, then slink upward, his errand quite forgotten.

Below, a place where pink pajamas are not welcome.

Babies For Sale

A girl of 16, Sadie Engelmann, left her family to try her hand at fame and fortune on the stage.  In San Diego, her beauty, if not her craft, won her many admirers, among them a dashing stenographer with the US Navy by the name of John Harvey.

When Sadie found herself abandoned by John and in need of a midwife, she checked in to the Bellevue Avenue Lying-in Institute in Los Angeles, where she deposited a newborn boy, whom she left in the care of the proprietress, “Dr.” Catherine Smith. At this point a disagreement ensued between Sadie and “Dr.” Smith concerning the details of the babe’s status.  Sadie claimed she left the child temporarily in “Dr.” Smith’s care, in order to earn enough money to pay the bill she incurred during her delivery. She testified that once she had settled her debt she would re-assume custody of the child.  “Dr.” Smith alleged Sadie sold her the newborn outright to pay off her debts and to free herself from the undue burden of its care.  Whatever the exact nature of their understanding, “Dr.” Smith appears to have taken possession of the child, and in turn sold the baby boy to a Mrs. W.W. Wilson, who had already acquired three other infants in a nefarious plot to appear as if she were the mother of quadruplets.

Stole baby quartet

The miraculously sudden appearance of the quartet of babies attracted the attention of the authorities, who promptly summoned Mrs. Wilson, “Dr.” Smith, Sadie Engelmann, and other parents of the illegitimate infants in to court to sort out the affair.  During the course of the trial, Sadie Engelmann claimed to have been accosted and threatened by various burglars “of Mexican aspect,” who, she alleged, were sent by “Dr.” Smith to dissuade her from testifying.

According to court testimony, Mrs. Wilson grew despondent after many years of trying to bear her own children, and eventually conceived the plan to to fill her and her husband’s home with a readymade brood of abandoned youngsters. She enacted this plan years before the quadruplets affair, procuring three children, whom she presented to her husband as his own, each time using an ingenious series of pads and pillows to trick him into believing she had indeed carried each child to term. The children were in the couple’s possession at the time of Mrs. Wilson’s attempted quadruplets heist.

The trial ended with the conviction of “Dr.” Smith on the charge of child stealing. Upon appeal, the court handed down a sentence of 5 years probation, during which Smith was to cease and desist the practice of midwifery.

Eventually, Mrs. Wilson was permitted to adopt the three children in her care before the trial, and to become a foster-mother to the two girls among the quadruplets. The boys, including Sadie Engelmann’s son, did not survive infancy. Mrs. Wilson went on to take on more foster-children, and to run a daycare facility in Hollywood.

A successful, failed bank job

Bank of America, Broadway & 7th (LAPL)

The desperate man walked into the Bank of America branch and crossed the lobby to the second teller window–to Mrs. Joy Holker, 28, the one with the kind eyes. He handed her a brown envelope and a note which read “This is a holdup. Fill up the envelope. Also have a jar of acid.” She obeyed, quickly stacking $540 in $10 bills and passing them across the counter. But as she counted, she gave her robber the once-over. She didn’t buy it, not from this guy. As he turned away, she came out from behind the counter and chased him onto Broadway, screaming “Stop that man!”


A motorcycle cop, Charles Randolph, heard her cries, as did patrolman R. Mierdiercks. They took off after the robber, who had darted east on 7th Street. He turned south down Spring, and tried to hide in a parking lot mid-block. They busted him there, and he surrendered peacefully.


Kenneth St. Onge, 35, had a cap pistol, a bottle of colored water and a sob story. He said he’d come out from Detroit with his wife and seven sons last September, but couldn’t find any work. For three weeks, the family slept in their 1947 Studebaker, until wife Esther found work as a waitress. They’d then moved into a quonset hut at 1480 Landa Street, rent $25 a week plus utilities. After two months, the electric bill came. It was $67, which is how they learned their landlord had wired up an apartment, a trailer and a garage to their meter. With only one pair of decent shoes for all the children, he’d spend his days driving first one, then another child to attend a class or two, then pick up Esther. Whatever she made in tips, that was their dinner fund. Everything else went to the landlord.

Then Esther got pregnant again, and couldn’t stay on her feet all day. They had nothing left.  He didn’t know what else to do, so he did this.  “I guess I knew I’d get caught, but I figured at least the State would have to take care of my wife and kids,” he mused.

Los Angeles briefly fell in love with the sad sack, especially after he appeared on local television bemoaning his fate. Over $1000 in donations poured in, along with clothes for the kids and a job for daddy at City of Hope. The family was offered a furnished home in La Puente for nothing down.


Just over a month after his life of crime fizzled out, a proud Kenneth St. Onge celebrated Easter with his wife and children in court, as Judge Thurmond Clarke ruled “Because of your record, your family and your children, I am going to grant you probabtion in this case. For robbing a national bank, I’ve certainly been very lenient.”

“People have been so kind. I know everything is going to turn out all right now. This is,” said St. Onge, “the best break I ever had.”

And all he had to do to get it was to cross over to the dark side. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, we guess, maybe nothing more profound than that most folks like to hear about someone who’s got it even worse than they do.


Photos: Bank of America from LAPL, others Los Angeles Times

Ghosts of the Menlo Hotel

The old Menlo Hotel, corner of Winston and Main, was the way station for many a visiting Angeleno, and the last exit for a few. The Menlo offered moderate weekly and monthly rates to appeal to the varied respectable folk who flocked to the growing city. Most of them are long forgotten, but it’s hard to feel badly about this obscurity. When the names are known, too often there’s tragedy attached.

Case in point, Mrs. Harriet Mortimer Palmer, aged 25. On the afternoon of April 10, 1890, she used a revolver to shoot herself through the heart in her room in the Menlo. Harriet and her husband, both invalids, had come from Toronto during the winter. They lived quietly in the hotel, he struggling with his heart disease and she with consumption.

In March, her condition worsened, but when Dr. T.J. McCarthy was called, she refused his care, and demanded to move into an adjoining room away from her spouse. Once alone, Mr. Palmer spoke candidly with the doctor, complaining that his wife’s nervousness and irritability were a torment, as were her regular threats to do harm to herself. The worry was impacting his own health.

On April 10, Mr. Palmer had a crisis, and the doctor came several times to attend to him. It was during one of these visits that a shot rang out in the next room, and when McCarthy rushed in, he found Mrs. Palmer dying, sprawled across the pillows she had heaped upon the bed to catch her as she fell. The bullet passed through her left breast, spine and shoulder, and was recovered about fifty feet down the hall. A note in her satchel read “I am thoroughly tired of life and so end it by my own hand. Please kindly send notice of my death to my aunt in Canada.” As for Mr. Palmer, he was reported to be in critical condition, and it was feared the shock of his wife’s death would kill him. But if it did, his passing did not make the papers. The maids came in and cleaned their rooms, and life at the Menlo went on.


menlo hotel palmer suicide headline

Late one evening in March 1896, a respectable looking young woman in a gown of black, woolen brocade and a matching cape lined with salmon silk made her way out to Westlake Park. She removed her cape and hat, placed them neatly on a bench, and drowned herself in the lake. In the morning, her things were spotted by gentlemen walking in the park, and after a brief search, her corpse was found floating near the shore.

Westlake Park Boat House, usc collection CHS-32466  

above: Westlake Park Boat House circa 1900, California Historical Society Collection, USC

Unidentified, her body was exhibited for most of the day in the undertaking parlor of Orr & Hines, where a stream of grim voyeurs trailed through, each pretending they hoped to give a name to the victim. In the afternoon, a friend finally gazed upon the face and knew it: William Davis, restaurant man, declared “This girl was until recently my mother’s chambermaid at the Menlo Hotel. She left a week ago last Sunday, giving us no reason.”

In her purse was found a pawn ticket from Mr. Morris’ shop, showing that she’d left a watch under the name Nellie Emerson. This was the name the Davises first knew her by, although over the five months of her employment they had accidentally found that she was really called Minnie Judy. Minnie was 24 with family in the Northwest, and had been out on her own since the age of 16. She was described as unfailingly good natured, so her departure and apparent suicide were a mystery.


menlo hotel judy suicide headline

Two men came forward with stories of having seen the girl before her fatal plunge. Veterinarian R.T. Whittlesay, offices on Broadway near Seventh (just a block from the funeral home where she lay on display), remembered a sad face gazing into his window on Tuesday night and was certain it was she. And an unnamed colored man who worked in a Winston Street corral and had known her for a year claimed he saw Minnie Judy the night of her death coming out of the old Los Angeles Theater with a dashingly dressed, dark-haired man. He said he heard the man suggest they catch a cab, as the last streetcar had passed. But officials had doubts about this tale, as the witness described the girl as wearing a large, feathered hat, not the small, modest one found on the bench in the park.

Why would a girl drown herself in 1890s Los Angeles? We have the usual suspicions. Had she been “ruined” by some cad, or did she have an inner sadness she didn’t show to other people? Was she really out at the theater with an unknown man the night she died? We’ll likely never know. But spare a moment to remember this poor lost girl of the city, and Messers Walters, Irving, Holt and Canserd whose morning constitutional was shattered by their discovery of the waterlogged lass, and the hundreds who took a few moments of their day to gaze upon a dead, drowned face for their amusement. And remember too the old Menlo Hotel, which was briefly home to thousands of anonymous souls, and to a very few whose names we know.

The Case of the Medical Electrician aka Abortionist

“The girl was thirsty and wanted ice water constantly.  She wouldn’t eat much, and vomited black stuff.  She was in a great deal of pain on her left side and her abdomen.”Â  So ended the short life of Lillie Hattery, age 22, on February 5th, 1897, in the clinic of “Dr.” Calvin S. Hastings, Medical Electrician, according to testimony presented at his murder trial.

When Lillie Hattery came from San Bernardino to visit her sister in Los Angeles in late January, she arrived with the names of people rumored to perform “criminal operations.”Â  “Dr.” Hastings, who practiced without the benefit of a medical license, was third on the list.  According to testimony at the trial, Lillie paid $200 for Hastings’ services, which included multiple applications of electrical current to the back and abdomen, as well as a surgical procedure, which resulted in copious blood loss by the patient.  Lillie suffered from fever, convulsions, and severe pain for a week, during which Hastings treated her solely with electrical stimulation. Two licensed medical doctors examined Lillie’s body after it had been delivered to the morgue, and determined that the cause of death was septicemia due to blood poisoning.  They also determined that she had been pregnant and undergone an attempted abortion.

At his trial, Hastings testified that Lillie Hattery suffered from an injured ankle, which he treated with electrical stimulation.  He claimed that she appeared in good health until the very last moment before she succumbed to what he assumed must have been an internal abnormality such as a diseased heart or some other affliction.  Although the prosecution presented evidence of perjury and intimidation of witnesses on the part of both Hastings and his nurse, along with surgical instruments found in Hastings’ offices that were commonly used for abortion procedures, as well as closed court testimony from a young woman who had recently undergone the criminal operation in Hastings’ care and had almost died, the jury still found Hastings innocent in the death of Lillie Hattery.

Hastings was even able to post bond during the trial, thanks to the generosity of a female admirer, and re-located his Medical Electrician clinic for business down the street in the Hammond Block at 120 1/2 South Spring.  Hastings’ Medical Electrician Clinic’s Grand Opening so provoked a dentist in residence there that the man came to blows with the rental agent, and promptly moved out of the disgraced office building, where, he claimed, no decent woman would now darken a door.

Spring Street, looking south from First Street 1900-1910
USC Digital Archive

After his acquittal, Hastings married the woman who posted his bond.  In later years she turns up as one of the many sufferers who find miraculous relief at the hands of the great healer, Rama, of the Rama Institute at 305 ½ South Spring Streets, Los Angeles. One can only wonder why Mrs. Hastings’ own husband was unable to heal her deafness with his electrical stimulation.

LA Times Historical Archives

Dr. Calvin S. Hastings was still practicing medicine without a license in 1911 when the state attorney filed a complaint against him during a campaign to shut down so-called “Quack Chink Doctors.”