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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: September 16, 2007 - September 22, 2007

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Paul V. Coates--Confidential File

Sept. 20, 1957

Paul_coates Yesterday, a Confidential File staff member went on a shopping tour.

His companion was a narcotic addict.

Together, they visited a few of this town's friendly druggists. And when they returned to my office, they brought with them enough dope to keep the addict from withdrawal convulsions for quite a while.

I'm sorry that a member or two of the State Senate Interim Committee on Narcotics --in town this week--didn't go along with them.

Because if one or two had, they would have learned that the problem here isn't a back-alley monopoly by pushers of marijuana and heroin.

It is as open as the door of your neighborhood drugstore.

As proof, I offer the bottles purchased by the addict and the File staffer. Among them:

Elixir of terpin hydrate and codeine.


The first can be purchased in any drugstore without prescription. So can dozens of other similar narcotic-containing medications.

The latter--Dexedrine--requires a prescription. But an Eagle Rock druggist decided that such red tape could be eliminated if the pair would be willing to pay a little extra.

They did, getting 30 10 milligram Dexedrine capsules for slightly more than $4 ($28.66 USD 2006).

The "shopping trip" was the addict's idea.

He telephoned me concerning it earlier this week.

"I'm going to break the habit," he told me. "I'm getting myself committed."

The caller was a young man, married, with two children. At one time, about nine years ago, he had a pretty good business, a new car and a new home.

It was heroin, he admits, which broke him. He got hooked through "friends." And in about two years, he found his $30-a-day need had melted away every one of his assets.

1957_0920_novita Out of money, he suddenly found that the pushers wanted nothing more to do with him.

Necessity was forcing him to kick the "H" habit down. It was tough, though, and he needed some sort of crutch--an inexpensive one.

He found it, on the drugstore shelf, available to anyone, any age.

It came in a bottle labeled:

"Elixir of terpin hydrate and codeine."

Price: one buck. No prescription necessary.

Each four-ounce bottle of "cough medicine" contains about a quarter of a gram of codeine, an opium derivative. Its alcohol content is 39% to 44%.

It's potent. And, as it understates on the bottle:

"Warning: May be habit-forming."

For the young addict, it has become a habit worse than "H."

"I shook heroin," he told me. "But this stuff I've tried to--and couldn't."

Today he averages about six bottles a day. That's roughly 15 grams of codeine.

And that is 50 times more than the recommended safe dosage of 30 milligrams.

I asked him what happened the half-dozen times he tried to kick it, or cut down.

"It's always the same. My eyes water, my nose starts running and then come the chills and convulsions.

"But how can you quit it," he shrugs, "when it's so easy to walk to a drugstore."

I checked on federal regulations regarding sale of the addict's "medicine." The regulations state that pharmacists may dispense it without prescription "provided the preparation is furnished in good faith, for medicinal purposes."

The law also states that druggists should have each customer sign his name and address when purchasing such drugs.

I asked the addict if he usually signed.

He laughed. Maybe one time in five, he said.

And he added:

"I've been picking up 15 to 20 bottles a week from the same Hollywood drugstore for a couple years.

"And a bunch of kids--lots of them teenagers--are doing the same thing."

If the State Senate committee is interested I'll be glad to supply the names of the Eagle Rock and Hollywood drugstores.

A case of nerves




Sept. 22, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0922_howerton_johnNeighbors knew that something was terribly wrong in the home at 3460 Ardilla Ave., Baldwin Hills. They never saw Cathy, the 4-year-old daughter of John B. and Patricia Ann Howerton. Their boys, Allan Wayne, 5, and baby Steven, were fine. But Cathy was a mysterious little girl who always seemed to be hidden.

Eventually detectives learned the answer. John had been beating Cathy constantly since the day she was born.

John, who worked as a milkman, blamed his nerves. It was his nerves that made him beat Cathy with a belt. It was nerves that made him burn her with cigarettes. It was nerves that made him jump on her hands and feet. And that's why she was starved.

"I never really believed that Cathy was my daughter and she got on my nerves," he told police.

Finally, using the pretext of John's application to the California Highway Patrol, detectives visited the house, where the walls were peppered with holes from John's fists. They insisted on seeing the children and after half an hour of preparation, John brought her out. Cathy was covered with makeup to hide her injuries.

When they asked what happened to her, John had a ready answer: She fell.

Cathy was rushed to General Hospital, where she clutched at a jail matron's skirt and pleaded: "Please be my friend. I have no friends."

A year earlier in Santa Ana, the Howertons had been arrested on child abuse, but Patricia had taken the blame and received psychiatric treatment. "I needed him to support me," Patricia sobbed. "He beat me continuously until she was born, then he started on Cathy."

After officers locked John in a cell, they asked if he wanted to know how Cathy was doing in the hospital. He said: "She's your problem now, not mine."

His only worry in the world: "I guess this spoils my chance of ever becoming a Highway Patrol officer."

After that, the Howertons vanished from the pages of The Times. If Cathy Howerton survived her childhood, she would have celebrated her 54th birthday on Thursday.

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College fashions, VIII

In 1969, The Times sent one of its best and most respected writers, Art Seidenbaum, on a tour of California college campuses: UCLA, USC, Stanford, UC Berkeley and someplace called San Fernando Valley State. The resulting series for West magazine was later published in Seidenbaum's book "Confrontation on Campus."

So in honor of all those who are taking their kids back to campus for the fall, here's Part 8 of Seidenbaum's "The Troubles With Students" in which he visits UCLA and discovers that SDS stands for "Sandbox Dictator Society." The dress code is Army fatigues and beards for the men; serapes and tights for the women. And lots of revolutionary self-righteousness. Don't worry, man. It's cool. We're all pass/fail here.


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Iron lung



Sept. 21, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0921_murrill If the Murrill family's story were fiction, it would be comic, but alas, it is fairly tragic, quite absurd and entirely true.

In 1949, Jeffrey Lee Murrill  was born to Robert Murrill, a 27-year-old cabinetmaker, and his 19-year-old wife, Doris Elaine, who was paralyzed by polio and kept alive in an iron lung back in the dark ages of medical technology.

Unable to breathe on her own, Doris lived at Rancho Los Amigos while her husband took care of Jeffrey. Apparently this arrangement put a crimp in Robert's social life, because in January 1957, during a liquor-drenched trip to Las Vegas, he decided it would be a fine idea to get married.

Apparently no one in Las Vegas' thriving marriage industry (nor a woman identified as Mrs. Mattie Bingamin) asked Robert: "Excuse me, don't you already have a wife back in Los Angeles, parked in an iron lung?"

When Robert finally got around to seeking a divorce, he told the judge that it would be better if he had custody of their son. "She doesn't want a divorce," he complained to Judge Henry M. Willis, "because she's afraid her son will have a stepmother. The boy is all she has to live for."

However, Robert assured the court, "he wanted to hurt no one, his wife least of all," The Times said.

Did I mention that Doris is a little bitter about the whole situation?

Unfortunately, Oprah wasn't around to say: "Your wife is paralyzed, she's in an iron lung, her son is all she has to live for, you want to take him away and but don't want to hurt your wife? What planet are you from?" 

Willis granted a divorce in 1957, but for reasons that The Times never explained, granted a new trial before he retired.

During a final divorce hearing convened in 1958 at the home of Doris' parents, 901 N. Avenue 57 in Highland Park, Judge Burnett Wolfson refused to give Robert custody of Jeffrey, ruling that the boy was to stay with his father only until Doris was able to take care of herself.



"I'm doing this because I know you're going to get well. You'll be dancing again," the judge said.

"I sure wish I could," Doris replied.

With that, the Murrill family vanished from the pages of The Times. California death records show that Doris Elaine Murrill died Nov. 17, 1963, at the age of 33. The Social Security Death Index lists several Robert Murrills. The only one born in 1922, like the man in our story, was Robert J. Murrill, who died Dec. 11, 2005, in Riverside at the age of 83. Jeffrey Lee Murrill would be 57 today.

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Paul V. Coates--Confidential File

Sept. 19, 1957

Paul_coates Never underestimate the power of little old ladies.

I did, two days ago.

I accused a frail, grandmotherly type, born circa 1887, of pulling an amusing little con game to gain herself a free meal or a few bucks pocket change.

She answered classified ads--I pointed out--representing herself as a wealthy, slightly eccentric old dame. Promising to buy $1,000 pieces of furniture or invest a fast ten grand in some business venture, she would then commence to wangle a free dinner invitation or "suddenly" discover she'd lost her change purse and "borrow" an easy five or ten bucks from the unsuspecting advertiser.

In Tuesday's column I mentioned a visit by Granny to the home of interior decorator Barney Feldman.

She promised to purchase a $1,000 antique bed which he had advertised. She was a windy old bag, jabbering at Feldman for more than two hours before squeezing a few bills out of him with the "lost purse" routine.

But by stating that such con was Granny's forte, I feel that I've done her a great injustice.

Granny's game, obviously, is for much bigger stakes.

To put it in scientific police terms, she's a joint-caser.

She cases burglary jobs, finds out when homeowners will be away and then sends her boys in to clean out the place.

Following Tuesday's column, I received five calls from persons who had fallen prey to the old lady's cunning.

All reported striking similarities in her modus operandi.

And three of the five reported their homes burglarized shortly after her visit.

The MO similarities were near-unanimous on these points:

She answers antique ads as a specialty and knows a genuine Chippendale when she sees one.

She says she's been in town only a few days.

She says she's from the Seal Beach or Long Beach area, and has property on the desert.

She asks to bring a sister around to approve her purchase, inquiring casually as to when the seller will be home.

Granny's racket is many years older than she herself is, but like Grandpa used to tell me:

"It takes old folks to get the most miles out of old horses."


From a woman in Ontario, in the Pomona Valley, comes a postscript on nomads Robert and Marjorie Wyatt and their five children.

Two weeks ago, the plight of the hungry and homeless family stirred much sympathy in our city.

The Ontario woman writes:

"A few days ago, on returning from Covina on the freeway, we picked up the hitchhiking Wyatt family.

"We brought them home, fed them and gave them some clothing. Then we fixed them a place to sleep.

"The children were dirty as pigs and permitted by their parents to do whatever they pleased, no matter what they destroyed or whom they hurt.

"I had to feel sorry for them, though. The oldest girl would have loved an opportunity to go to school.

"A friend of ours secured a job for Mr. Wyatt in the grape vineyards, but apparently he'd rather bum food and clothing for his family.

"Because, immediately afterward, they hit the road again.

"My husband is a disabled World War II veteran. We receive state aid for our four children as his pension check is less than $200 a month and he is unable to work.

"But honestly, we try to take care of our children and give them a good home and send them to school. Things have looked pretty black sometimes but we've always managed to keep our family together and in one place.

"It hurts me to see people like the Wyatts doing what they are. Isn't there a law that can take the children away from them?

"I hope this letter doesn't sound bitter."

[Postscript: I missed Coates' initial column and wasn't able to post the original stories on the nomadic Wyatts, who were in the news after Robert Wyatt pointed a gun at someone who criticized him for keeping his five children on leashes. And, yes, that sounds like the rambling Brink family described in the 1947project.]

Hollywood confidential

Sept. 20, 1957
Los Angeles

This doesn't look good.


In praise of comix

Sept. 20, 1957
Los Angeles

Hey moms and dads, comic books don't rot your children's minds or turn your kids into hoodlums. No, really! Comics are  good, wholesome entertainment that will ensure your offspring become lifelong lovers of fine literature. Mad magazine, like all EC comics, is especially valuable for young, easily influenced minds, as are any publications with "Weird," "Terror" or "Horror" in the title. 

If you don't give your children comic books, every library in the nation will close down in 20 years! You don't want that, do you?

And be sure to put them in tightly sealed plastic bags!

ps. You can keep all those issues of "Richie Rich." Those comics will destroy your sense of humor forever.


Dodger deal could unravel

Sept. 20, 1957
Los Angeles

Not so fast there, potential Dodger fans. It seems the Los Angeles Unified School District owns 2 1/2 acres in the middle of Chavez Ravine and officials are leery of selling. (Check out the deal on maple wagon wheel bunk beds on the jump. Perfect for those little buckaroos to hit the hay, moms and dads!)


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Fall fashions

Sept. 20, 1957
Los Angeles

A classic look, from a Bullock's ad:



Hollywood confidential

Sept. 19, 1957
Los Angeles



Snooze alarm



Sept. 16-19, 1957
Los Angeles

"State Senate committee hearing" is one of the most boring phrases in the English language and the thick dust of half a century only adds layers of tedium.

But let's stand in the back of the hearing room at the State Building,* temporarily resurrected on the long-vacant northeast corner at 1st and Broadway, and watch the witnesses struggle to deal with the question of drug addiction.

The police are going to say what they always say: Drugs are becoming more of a problem, the courts are too lenient and law enforcement is hampered by rulings supporting suspects' rights. The answer: Tougher, mandatory sentences and compulsory classes for youngsters on the dangers of drugs.

The therapists have their own boilerplate: Long prison terms don't work and it's difficult to rehabilitate addicts. Their answer: Hospitalization.

Are you yawning yet?



Let's take a moment to listen to a father talk about his daughter, who is in her early 20s. If she can't get drugs, she'll use alcohol. "Daddy, I've got to have it," she says.

She's one of eight children, he says. The other seven are fine: "All are married and have families and make good livings. We have a good family."

Even the addicted daughter is "lovable, polite, sympathetic and one of the kindest persons I know," he says.

It all started when she was 16, he says. There was a party and she wanted to go. He was reluctant but met the host's mother, who assured him that she would be a chaperon.  Then the call from the police: "We have your daughter." The kids were smoking marijuana.

He and his wife put the girl in a school back East. She ran away.

They brought her back to Los Angeles and put her in another school. She started using heroin "just for fun."

Then an interracial marriage (please recall that we're talking about 1957), a child, divorce and brief trips back home when she wasn't in jail, Camarillo or Patton State Hospital.

1957_0917_dope How does she pay for the heroin? She's a prostitute, the father says.

When she has nowhere else, she comes home for a few days, then vanishes. "She never gets a phone call at our home," the father says. "We don't know how she contacts them."

He finally got her admitted to a federal hospital in Kentucky for treatment. "I helped her pack her things and got her promise that she would faithfully make the trip, and I bought her ticket and gave her some money and put her on the bus," he said.

If you know anything about addicts, you know what she did next.

At the moment she's in jail, he says. Arrested yet again for narcotics.

He said: "I am her father and I love her. But I'd rather see her in her casket than the way she is today."

Fifty years later, you can hear the same story at any A.A. meeting in Los Angeles.

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*Not to be confused with the recently demolished "new" state building, an ugly and utterly artless L-shaped box that was torn down without generating a single complaint from preservationists. This building was constructed on the site of the old Central Jail on 1st Street and Mason Opera House on Broadway.

If you build it, they will come

Sept. 19, 1957

Los Angeles


Note that the artist working in 1957 envisioned parking for 24,000 cars. Actual number of parking spaces in 2007? 16,000. Do you think this might cause problems?

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