Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Every day, I visit a friend who is recovering from cancer surgery at Glendale Memorial Hospital, so I took a short detour and visited the boyhood home of Caryl Chessman, the "Red Light Bandit."
Photograph by Larry Harnisch / Los Angeles Times
3280 Larga Ave., Atwater Village, Calif.
Photograph by Bob Jakobsen / Los Angeles Times
Caryl Chessman, left, with Detective E.M. "Al" Goossen, Jan. 23, 1948. At the time, Chessman was living at the home on Larga and had been arrested 6th Street and Shatto Place after a high-speed chase. He was convicted on eight counts of robbery, four counts of kidnapping, two morals charges, one count of attempted robbery, one count of attempted rape and auto theft. He was sentenced to the gas chamber on two counts of kidnapping and was executed in 1960.
Goossen worked many prominent cases of the 1940s and '50s, including the gang slaying of Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino and the murder of Gladys Kern, a real estate agent who was killed while showing a home in Los Feliz. He worked as a private investigator in the San Fernando Valley after retiring from the LAPD.
Sept. 30, 1957
Riding along was Sid Parratt of the Department of Water and Power office in Independence. Sid probably knows the area better than anyone and he pointed out places of interest and their historical backgrounds.
This is mountain country with strange formations--immense areas of black lava rock, huge buttes which seem out of place, an occasional green spot in an immense wasteland.
Just north of the little town of Zurich, Parratt pointed to the right and said, "See that clump of trees way over there?" I did, far in the distance.
A highly unusual project was being built there, he said. Last year some uncommunicative men from Caltech had scouted the Owens River country, he said, looking for a suitable site for some kind of laboratory. It had to be in the wide-open spaces where the air was always clear. They finally settled on 275 acres and leased it for 25 years from the department.
As Parratt understood it, they were building a laboratory to detect radio signals from outer space. However, there was fantastic speculation about the project. Imaginative folk were saying it had something to do with tracking guided missiles.
You have to keep in mind that the people in the section see brilliant flashes of the Nevada atomic blasts and some of them are nervous about radioactivity and other things they don't understand.
This is to report there's nothing mysterious about the project. It is known as a radio astronomy installation. It is headed by John G. Bolton of Caltech and is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.
The buildings are almost completed and work is going ahead on the railroad tracks on which two huge antennas can be moved to capture signals from outer space. It will be a year before the first antenna is complete, another year before the second is in operation.
The project was inspired by the realization that astronomers have gone about as far as they can with visual inspection of what's out there. They hope through radio astronomy to gather additional evidence of such things as the shape and configuration of galaxies. They know already that gas clouds emit certain signals and sensitive equipment elsewhere has recorded radio waves bouncing off the moon and additional information on Jupiter.
To put it another way, the radio astronomy people do not anticipate that they'll intercept any hot flashes from little green men on Mars.
Let's hope that if there's anybody out there, they're not checking on our misbehaving planet, either.
DURING A LULL a pharmacist on duty at a San Fernando Valley super drugstore phoned a bookie and placed some bets. (I know there aren't supposed to be any bookies, but there are).
He was dictating the name of the horse he wanted in the seventh race when the assistant sales manager excitedly dashed up to him and exclaimed:
"What in the devil do you think you're doing? It's all over the store!"
The pharmacist had inadvertently rested his elbow on the store's intercom switch and his bets were going out over the loud speaker.
INEVITABLY, no matter how serious the situation, the jokesters take over. Perhaps it's a good thing thus to temper a crisis with humor.
For instance, some made fellow at Disney studio keeps calling and asking, "Have they sent the freedom balloons down through the Cotton Curtain yet?"
If not, he says he has a message to put on them: "Peace, it's wonderful!"
AROUND TOWN--A City Hall worker who likes to disconcert people in elevators with irrelevant remarks said to Tom Mannix the other day, "I wish payday would get here--I'm tired of eating at the Midnight Mission." Several passengers quivered noticeably...George Fedor, pixy Vine Street bartender, says he just rented a new house. No furniture in it, but wall-to-wall floors.
Oct. 2-3, 1957
OK, let's go get a cup of coffee and talk about our friend "The Money Man." We can just drive up Central Avenue until we find some all-night place. I'm not really hungry. I can never eat after being at a murder scene anyway.
How about here? Looks like we have the place to ourselves.
There's two things I forgot to tell you about Max "The Money Man" Shayne. The medical examiner said he'd been dead about four hours. That would make the time of death about 11 p.m. I'll get to the other one in a minute.
What do you think? An obvious robbery and homicide? Nothing unusual?
Maybe I'm too suspicious, but I don't like it. Not at all. We've had half a dozen stranglings in L.A. in the last six months. All women. Every one of them put up a terrific fight. Here you've got "The Money Man," a big beefy guy who's been in the joint and there isn't a mark on him. Strangled with a hankie? C'mon.
Yeah, it sure looks like robbery. He always carried a stack of $100 bills. And it looks like someone rummaged through his clothes, because we found the address book, business cards and that insurance policy on the floor of the car.
You want to know about the insurance policy? That's what I forgot to tell you. He took it out Sept. 10 with a $2,295 initial premium. And the first newspaper accounts had the amount wrong. It was for $250,000 ($1.7 million USD 2006).
Here we've got a guy with a criminal record, facing a prison sentence for fraud. He's a scam artist who takes out a big insurance policy and less than three weeks later he's dead. And he doesn't put up a fight.The details are murky but he'd also been fooling around with a couple of other life insurance policies in the last month.
Yeah, it bothers me. But not as much as it bothers the insurance company. You see, there's a suicide clause in that policy. If the individual kills himself within two years, all you get back is the premiums you've paid.
I'll take a refill, thanks.
The cops will pick up a guy named Earl Fernando Matlock, a 35-year-old laborer. It seems he's been passing a lot of $100 bills recently. It seems he can't explain where he got the money.
Matlock says Shayne came by his home, 10719 Weigand Ave., on the afternoon of the killing.
This is his story:
"He talked about some trouble the government was going to make for him but that it didn't make much difference to him because he had only six months to live.
"He said he wanted to die and I told him to get some cyanide if he wanted to do something like that.
"Shayne said: 'No, it can't look like suicide.' "
He offered Matlock $1,000 to help him kill himself. When Matlock wouldn't do it, Shayne threatened to get him, Matlock said.
"I kept trying to get out of the parked car and he would keep pulling me back. My shirt got torn and he scratched my face when we were struggling.
"So I pulled the strap from the back seat around Shayne's neck but released it when he slid down into the seat to avoid being seen by a passing car.
" 'Why don't you go ahead and finish it?' Shayne asked.
"I thought then that I'd better do something so I pulled the strap tight again, intending to just make him unconscious so I could leave. When he went limp, I wiped my fingerprints off the car and left."
He says that while they were struggling, Shayne shoved the billfold and some jewelry in his pockets.
Matlock was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the gas chamber. The only problem is that the judge barred any testimony about Shayne's insurance policy and the suicide clause, so the case was appealed. He was retried and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1960, Molly Shayne sued Beneficial Standard Insurance for payment of the policy and the company countersued, saying that the death was a fraud. She finally got a settlement in "five figures," according to The Times.
Matlock died in 1964 in Marin County. He was 42.
Time to go. It's nearly sunrise and the breakfast crowd will be coming in. We should leave a good tip, we've been here a long time.
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 the final part of Seidenbaum's "The Troubles With Students" in which he visits UC Berkeley and discusses the "Majorca or fight" syndrome: "If we don't bring down the university this year, then I'm going to Majorca and paint.... If we haven't radicalized this campus by the end of the quarter, then I'll accept the goddam fellowship at Cambridge." 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. (Hey, isn't that Larry Magid?)
Click below to read the rest of the article.
Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1957
It's almost 3 a.m. and we're parked on 134th Street between Water Way and Central Avenue in Compton. In two years, there will be houses all along the north side of the street. It's hard to make out in the dark, but that's a big, orange Cadillac in front of us. Our victim is in there. Ready? Let's take a look. Keep your hands in your pockets and don't move anything.
That's him behind the wheel. Max "The Money Man" Shayne, 43. He's heavyset, bald and wears glasses. Strangled with a man's linen handkerchief, otherwise there's not a mark on him.
There's the cutoff end of a woman's silk stocking near the body. Pockets are turned inside-out and papers, business cards and an address book are on the floor of the car. He usually carries a stack of $100 bills, but his wallet is missing. He's got 20 cents on him. According to these business papers, he has a piece of two Anaheim cafes and carries $175,000 in life insurance.
Kind of a shady customer. Shayne was arrested in Berwyn, Ill., in 1937 for receiving stolen property and sentenced to a year in prison. He and his brother Irving are out on bail while they appeal a conviction for defrauding the Federal Housing Administration. Prosecutors said the Shaynes used the Money Man agency to arrange home improvement loans that were used to pay off bills instead.
His widow, Molly, says she wasn't aware of any threats and said he hadn't been worried about anything recently. Got a son named Sherwin and a daughter named Sheila.
We better get moving. Officers A.E. Wise and R.L. Brown of the Compton Police Department are making their rounds and they'll be here soon. Nothing more to see here, anyway.
To be continued.
As a child of the 1950s, it's a treat for me to see the old comics, with the large panels and fine draftsmanship. Some don't hold up terribly well but others remain classics, like "Li'l Abner," which has been featuring a bald female spy named "Jewel Brynner."
You asked for Brenda Starr, here she is, from Sept. 29, 1957:
And Al Capp's parody of Milton Caniff's "Steve Canyon":
The correct answer is Caryl Whittier Chessman. A very impressive showing by Duane Laible. I didn't expect anyone to guess so quickly.
Meet the boy bandit gang, which terrorized Los Angeles with a string of robberies and shootings in early 1941. The gang formed while the young men were assigned to county road camps for stealing cars.
Los Angeles Times photo
From left, William Taylor, Caryl Chessman, Robert Tollack, Andrew Rutledge and Donald Abbott, Feb. 7, 1941.
"[William] Taylor and I were in Road Camp No. 7 in Las Flores Canyon," Chessman said. "Auto stealing. You pick up ideas there. We did. And here we are."
Gordon Klee, who was later eliminated as a suspect, said: "The rest of us were in Camp No. 1 in Soldedad Canyon. Same rap. I've known Chessman all my life. We went to school together. So when we got out last autumn, we just naturally drifted together."
Before they were arrested, the gang stole cars and robbed service stations and liquor stores across Los Angeles. Several gang members, sitting in a stolen car in Flintridge, got the drop on a pair of sheriff's deputies who stopped to question them, and stole their patrol car.
A Times reporter asked why they committed the robberies.
"Lucrative," Chessman said.
Here's a 1948 picture of Chessman:
Photograph by Bob Jakobsen Los Angeles Times
David H. Knowles, left, and Caryl W. Chessman.
Bonus fact: Chessman lived at 3280 Larga St.
The answer to the last mystery photo was guessed in an hour. I hope this one will be more of a challenge.
Our famous mystery guest is one of the young men in this photo. He wrote a number of books that were translated into many languages. The other four men, as far as I can determine, are forgotten.
Guesses so far:
- Is the man on the far left Norman Mailer? (No).
We have a winner!
Caryl Chessman in the middle. Duane Laible