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Mobsters, Molls and Mayhem

April 17, 2008 |  5:30 pm

Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection in the the Regional History Collection of USC Libraries

Dodgers and the Giants, opening day at the Coliseum.

William Dotson at USC's Doheny Library sent the Daily Mirror an invitation to a reception for the "Mobsters, Molls and Mayhem" photo exhibit and even though the event was several weeks ago, it's been on our minds for several reasons because the gathering was one of those troubling crossroads of fact, fiction and fantasy that seem to define Los Angeles history.

Fiction was the first element the Daily Mirror encountered, as we saw our old friend James Ellroy inspecting some of the photos culled from the 80,000 images that were taken in 1958 and are available in the Examiner collection. The "Demon Dog" of fiction was in a bright yellow sweater that hardly seemed demonic. It was good to see the old boy; it's been a while since the press event for "The Black Dahlia." We chatted a bit. He's writing. 

Fact, of course, is close to our hearts at the Daily Mirror so it was gratifying to talk for a few moments with Tyson Gaskill, one of the curators, about assembling the exhibit. We also chatted with USC professor Greg Hise, who made some introductory remarks, and Catherine Quinlan, dean of USC's libraries.

Tyson, who worked on the exhibit with Andrew Wulf and Jill Breznican, said going through the old copies of the Examiner to select the images was a revelation that shattered his preconceptions of the past. The experience "forever changed my vision of the 1950s," he told the Daily Mirror. "The 1950s were awful," he said. "It's hard to convey that. I thought it was an era of tedium."

Eminent_domain_examiner Greg, an associate professor of urban planning and history and geography, took a broader view, noting the scope of the 1.8 million images taken between 1920 and 1961 in USC's Examiner collection, along with the photos in the "Dick" Whittington collection of commercial and aerial photography. One of the best aspects of the photos, he said, is that they portray issues like land use and immigration in a visual manner rather than as abstractions. The Daily Mirror concurs: A woman sitting on her front porch with a rifle (at left) to keep the state from taking her home for a freeway speaks simply but powerfully about the issues of transportation and housing.

Greg as well as Catherine touched on one troubling question that we're sure keeps archivists awake at night: What will become of newspaper images and corporate documents in the Digital Age? Both of them raised the question of whether it would be possible to stage a similar exhibit 50 years from now using photos from the Los Angeles Times. In 2058, will a 50-year-old CD still work and will jpeg still be a recognized format?  Let's cross our fingers.

While we were at it, we ran into the family of John B.T. Campbell, the legendary--or notorious--editor of the Herald Express. Campbell was the newsman who nicknamed many of Los Angeles' famous murders, according to the late Aggie Underwood. The Daily Mirror didn't know, until meeting his descendants, that he was nicknamed "The Tarantula."

We also said hello to Dace Taube of the Regional History Collection, to whom every researcher in Los Angeles owes an incredible debt of gratitude.

And finally, and this is what keeps the Daily Mirror awake at night, comes fantasy. During the reception, we encountered an individual who made elaborate claims of personal knowledge about one of the more famous crimes in Los Angeles history. We listened politely, jotted down a few notes and were saddened to discover that this person's tale, with all its finely embroidered details, was utter rubbish. We suspect we will never understand what makes people concoct such yarns. We just wish they would stop.

"Mobsters, Molls and Mayhem" will be on display at Doheny Library through May 15. Tell them "Woof, Daddy-o."

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