The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: Another Good Story Ruined

Another Good Story Ruined -- The Black Dahlia

  Medford Map  

This item comes from the Atlantic:

by Mark Bernstein

“My morning drive to Eastgate, our software workshop, is literary.

“In the car this morning, I listened to the estimable Katherine Kellgren reading  Connie Willis' new historical fiction, Blackout. This is fun (and better for my blood pressure than talk radio), but it's also work: Eastgate has always been very interested in interlinked electronic narrative and for years I've been trying to interest hypertext writers in  historical fiction. I've not always been convincing. If the argument doesn't go better soon, I may try my hand.

“My morning drive takes me past the former site of the Fannie Farmer School, deeply influential in popular American cookery and in American technical writing. Next comes the the house from which the Black Dahlia embarked for Hollywood and a different narrative than she'd contemplated.”



Sorry, no. I haven’t been to Medford, Mass., for years so I’m not sure what is being pointed out as Elizabeth Short’s house these days. In fact the triple-decker home at 115 Salem where her family was living when she was killed was torn down years ago. I have combined a 1920 map of Medford, with a red dot showing the approximate location of 115 Salem, and a Google map. Note the location of Fifield Court, where the Pacios family lived.

Pages of History – Morrow Mayo’s ‘Los Angeles’

  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

Morrow Mayo didn’t do terribly well in the first page of his chapter on the 1927  Marion Parker case (“Strange Interlude”) in “Los Angeles.” Let’s see if the next page is any better.

We find that once again, Mayo has trouble quoting documents accurately. This is his version of William Edward Hickman’s telegram to Parker’s father:

  Morrow Mayo, Los Angeles, Page 294  

In comparing this text with a photo of the telegram from the Los Angeles Evening Express, Dec. 19, 1927, we find that he dropped a few words and he misspelled Marion as Marian. The text actually reads:

[Marian] Marion secure. [Use good judgment.] Interference with my plans dangerous.

[Marian] Marion Parker

George Fox

[I apologize for the poor quality of the scan. It was a challenging day with the microfilm reader.]

Keep reading for a photo of a letter Hickman sent to Marion’s father compared with Mayo’s purported text of the letter. And I have to say that while Mayo’s transcription makes Hickman sound somewhat rational, seeing the actual letter, with its crazy quilt of cursive writing and printing, conveys some of Hickman’s lunacy. 

  Hickman Telegram  


Fact-Checking ‘Los Angeles’ – Part 1

Fact-Checking ‘Los Angeles’ – Part 2

Continue reading »

Pages of History -- Morrow Mayo's 'Los Angeles'

  Hickman Telegram  

  Los Angeles, Morro Mayo  

Any day I can do research is a good day – even if I run into trouble, as I did on Tuesday. I stopped by the Los Angeles Public Library to delve into the microfilm on the Marion Parker case. And here’s what I found in the Los Angeles Evening Express for Dec. 19, 1927. (Sorry about the quality of the scan. It was a challenging day).

No, your eyes aren’t fooling you. Morrow Mayo made a slight error in transcribing William Edward Hickman’s telegram. [It should be the special delivery letter]. And the names were below the text, as signatures.


Fact-Checking “Los Angeles,” Part 1

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Pages of History -- Morrow Mayo's 'Los Angeles'

  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

For many people, this will be an exercise in tedium. But I’m hopeful that the research fanatics among the Daily Mirror readers will find it engaging.

I’m going to spend some time on Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles” to examine its reliability. In other words, I’m going to fact-check portions of the book, mostly against reports from The Times.

Mayo often quotes The Times   in his book, so we know he referred to it for some details, but we may find ourselves on a treasure hunt to unearth his other source material, so I expect to examine other period newspapers along the way, depending on just how far it’s worth carrying the whole matter. 

I’m starting with “Los Angeles” because this is where most contemporary historians begin. To be sure, there are earlier works on the subject, but where they are dry, dusty and plodding recitations of the past, “Los Angeles” is a jaunty dash through history with a guide who gives readers a wink and a sly look as he promises to tell “the real story.” Mayo is an entertaining and engaging author,  but (spoiler alert) he’s not especially accurate, and his errors, combined with his caustic commentary, have influenced generations of writers – even those who may not be aware that they are following in his footsteps.

Where to begin? I’ve decided to start in the last section of the book, rather than at the beginning, (the Portola expedition discovers the future metropolis is inhabited by “a tribe of circus freaks,” Page 6) or at the end, with Mayo’s bibliography, although it will be fun to examine his source material in another post, depending on one’s idea of fun.

In a brief biography on the book jacket, Mayo says that he spent six years in California working for various newspapers before he began “Los Angeles” in 1931, so I’m starting with an event that he observed first-hand: the sensational coverage of the 1927 abduction and killing of Marion Parker by William Edward Hickman. One would expect that a newsman would be fairly accurate in writing about an event that occurred a few years earlier and was still fresh in his memory. But is he? Let’s put him to the acid test.

Before going further I should note that the Hickman case involves a particularly gruesome  killing of a 12-year-old girl and the original accounts in The Times are extremely graphic. I’m not much on ghoulish sensationalism so I don’t plan to recount everything that was done to Marion Parker unless it’s necessary to contrast it with Mayo’s version of the crime.  

Here’s Page 293 of the chapter titled “Strange Interlude.”

Continue reading »

Pages of History -- Morrow Mayo's 'Los Angeles'

  Morrow Mayo, March 26, 1933  

In one of my previous posts about Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles,” I said that The Times did not review it. In fact, The Times did review the book, but the item somehow manages to evade ProQuest’s search engine and it was only with difficulty that I located the March 26, 1933, piece by Paul Jordan-Smith.

A sample: In former years dull old men and half-witted ecstatics slobbered forth chronicles of American towns that were calculated to uplift but were, in sooth, trifling, soporific and deadly. Now, by way of revenge and reaction, scores of smart young men are muckraking and we have a deluge of cloth-bound exposes, as like as peas in a pod.


Morrow Mayo on the Daily Mirror
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Another Good Story Ruined – The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short fake picture
Here we have another popular faked picture of Elizabeth Short. The image on the left is genuine, as far as I know. The bizarre image on the right has been flopped and retouched. 


Another Good Story Ruined – The Black Dahlia

Another Good Story Ruined – The Black Dahlia


I was talking about the Black Dahlia case the other day to someone who pulled up this picture on a cellphone.

Looks great, doesn’t it? But it’s a fake.
Here, I’ll show you.


Another Good Story Ruined – The Black Dahlia

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Another Good Story Ruined – The Black Dahlia

It is deceptively difficult to write with any degree of accuracy about the Black Dahlia case. Here’s a recent example of a mangled account by Scott McCabe of the Washington Examiner:

On this day, Jan. 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short, anaspiring actress, disappeared, triggering a criminal investigation in which she was dubbed the "Black Dahlia."

--In fact, there was no investigation until her body was found. Short was so disconnected from society that nobody realized she had vanished. [And yes, bonus points for the typo.]

A week later, her body was discovered cut in half and mutilated in a Los Angeles parking lot.

--In fact, the body was discovered in a vacant lot.


The Black Dahlia -- Another Good Story Ruined

dropcap_T_1910he anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s killing is Jan. 15, so I thought I would try to anticipate the annual rehash of fiction and mistakes with a post commenting on potential sources on the 1947 case. 

People often ask me which book I recommend to learn about the crime. My answer is always the same: None.

All of the books are terrible and if you read them, you will only have to “unlearn” everything that’s wrong. Understand that I’m not just talking about the usual suspects (“Severed,” “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer,” “Black Dahlia Avenger” and “The Black Dahlia Files”) but also books that touch on the case, like Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” James Richardson’s “For the Life of Me” and Agness Underwood’s “Newspaperwoman.”

People should especially avoid Will Fowler’s “Reporters” and Kevin Starr’s dreadful account in “Embattled Dreams,” which draws heavily on Fowler’s book, but confuses Fowler with his father, Gene!  

To be fair, “For the Life of Me” and “Newspaperwoman” have some value, but their accuracy is mixed and without knowing where Richardson and Underwood go wrong, it’s best not to read them.

I used to recommend “Farewell, My Black Dahlia,” by Tod/Todd Faulkner, which appeared in The Times on March 28, 1971, but I have decided that its errors outweigh any value it might have. For one thing, whoever wrote the introduction to the story gave Short the middle name “Ann,” an error that has gone viral in the ensuing decades and even made its way onto the label of her FBI file. In fact, she had no middle name, regardless of what you may read anywhere else.

Well, then, what about her FBI file? It is online and readily accessibly, but it’s extremely problematic. The file is heavily censored and because the FBI had no jurisdiction in the case, there is nothing in the way of original crime reports. A great deal of the file consists of wire service stories clipped from various East Coast papers. It is interesting (to a research drudge, anyway) to see how the “buro” played the Los Angeles newspapers against one another, but most people aren’t going to care about such “inside baseball” details.

How about “Childhood Shadows?”Mary Pacios is a friend and I like her. But I can’t recommend her book.

”Exquisite Corpse?” There are some books that aren’t allowed in my house. That’s one of them, along with William T. Rasmussen’s “Corroborating Evidence.”  For years, “Severed” had to stay in the garage, but I spent so much time having to debunk the book that I finally brought it inside.

The websites? Ignore them all, especially the WikiPedia article. I won’t dwell on my experience with WikiPedia, as it deserves its own post, but as far as I’m concerned WikiPedia is sinkhole of rumors and misinformation run by crackpots, factoid zealots and coding tweakers. Over the years, various “trolls” have adopted WikiPedia’s page on the Dahlia case and fought off all attempts to restore sanity. I’ll refrain from recommending my own website because it’s out of date and I want to remain above-board and avoid accusations of advocating my own research.

So what do I recommend?

I always suggest the same thing. Anyone truly interested in the case and not a collection of mistakes  and fiction should read the first few months of the Los Angeles newspaper stories, from Jan. 15, 1947, up to about March. The newspaper coverage isn’t perfect, but there are fewer errors than in any other resource.

I would recommend reading the Examiner, then the Herald-Express, The Times and the Daily News, in that order. I wouldn’t bother with any of the small suburban papers in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Pasadena, etc. 

The Times is online via ProQuest and via The Times' website. The others are in the microfilm collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. Perhaps a bit inaccessible, but anyone who is truly interested in the factual account should be prepared to do some pick and shovel work. I was told some years ago that the January 1947 microfilm of the Examiner is pretty battered and that part of the film is missing. With luck it’s been replaced by now.

And by the way, I always mark the anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s death with a donation to Heading Home, an agency that works with abused women and the homeless in her hometown of Medford, Mass. 

“Black Dahlia Avenger” on the Daily Mirror

Amazing Predictions for 1961!

  Dec. 31, 1930, New Year's  

dropcap_w_1934hile the rest of the news business spends the final days of December looking back at the major events of the year, the Daily Mirror is peering forward, and for us at least, the future is clear: 1961 brings the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs invasion. “The Apartment” will win the Academy Award as best picture. Gary Cooper will die of cancer and Ernest Hemingway will kill himself.   

We are also looking ahead to the last full year of the evening Los Angeles Mirror and the morning Los Angeles Examiner, both of which folded in January 1962, giving The Times supremacy in the morning market. The reconstituted Herald Examiner (d. 1989) struggled for survival as a feisty, sensational afternoon paper,  racked by labor problems and increasingly irrelevant to Americans’ changing lifestyles and preference for TV news.

What else can we see? 1921 is the year of the Fatty Arbuckle case and 1941 brings us the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. And in 1981, we have the dawn of the Ronald Reagan era.

As I often say, “so many stories and only one Larry Harnisch.” Where shall we go and what shall we do in the coming year?

Mystery photos? Of course, they’re one of my favorite parts of the blog. Paul Coates and Matt Weinstock? Yes. And Tom Treanor. I’ll try to do more with some other Times columnists who have only appeared fleetingly in the Daily Mirror: Lee Shippey and Timothy Turner, for example. And perhaps the mysterious 1930s film columnist Tip-Off.

The Daily Mirror has evolved quite a bit since I began the blog nearly four years ago. There’s more on Hollywood and film, and a bit less on crime. Part of the reason is my need for variety and part of the reason is what I find – or don’t find -- in the old papers. The crimes of the 1950s are fascinating and 1957 was a great year, but by mid- to late 1959, The Times’ coverage seemed to shift away from detailed reporting on the police blotter, a trend that continued into 1960. Perhaps the crimes weren’t as interesting to The Times editors as they were in the 1940s and early '50s, or The Times was devoting more of its resources to subjects like politics.

One thing I hope to explore in the coming year is a theme I touched on in a series of posts I called “Another Good Story Ruined.” Why is Los Angeles history so hard to get right and so easy to get wrong? I sometimes think the books on Los Angeles are nothing but a catalog of errors.  It might be worthwhile to examine some of the more common mistakes and myths about our past and see if I can find the origins. Authors of books about Los Angeles can expect the Daily Mirror to do a bit random fact-checking, which should fun and, I hope, illuminating.

I do need to pick my shots carefully. Extended coverage like Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles or the 1960 Democratic National Convention is labor-intensive and such projects seem to hold little interest for Daily Mirror readers. I’m not sure why, as they are significant events in local history, but they tend to be a lot of work for very little return.

And now it’s request time.

Daily Mirror readers are a loyal bunch. In fact, statistics show they spend an amazing amount of time on the blog. What would you like to see in the year ahead?

ps. Only four years to the Watts Riots.

E-mail me

Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis' Armored Car [2nd Update]


Behold the war machine of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis! A 1910 Franklin Model H landaulet!

May 21, 1910, Franklin Virtually no one who writes about The Times and Gen. Harrison Gray Otis can resist referring to a cannon mounted on his car. Otis is “the man you love to hate” of Los Angeles history, and what could be more delicious than the armor-plated Otis-mobile with its fearsome artillery piece.

Sorry. It was an auto horn. Honk!

At right, a May 21, 1910, article in The Times describes the custom Franklin. Curiously enough, although Otis wasn’t a shy man, The Times was coy about who owned the new vehicle.  

It’s a bit difficult to tell from the photo, but the front of the car (which was air-cooled and had no radiator) resembled a large cannon – at least according to The Times. The bronze car horn was meant to emphasize this military appearance. Here’s a modern photo of a Franklin, which shows the rounded hood and front grille. And yes, it looks a bit like a cannon.

Let’s roll backward through a few examples and see who got it wrong. Ready? 

"Otis began tooling around town in an armored car with machine guns mounted on the hood," "Before the Storm," Rick Perlstein, 2009. [Ooh! Machine guns! I like this one!]

“... Harrison Gray Otis "patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood,"  “Dominion From Sea to Sea” by Bruce Cummings, 2009.

[Update] "He mounted a cannon on the hood of his limousine and made sure his chauffeur was prepared to repel, at his command, any enemy attacks," "American Lightning," Howard Blum, 2008.

“ emphasize his truculence, he later had a small, functional cannon installed on the hood of his Packard touring car,”  "American Urban Politics in a Global Age," by Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Judd, 2008. [A Packard? Oops!]

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis "continued to live in a perpetual state of combat readiness, dressing for work in uniform and mounting a small cannon on the hood of his car," "High Steel," by Jim Rasenberger, 2004.

[Updated Aug. 29, 2010: "a small, functional cannon was installed on the hood of Otis' touring car to intimidate onlookers," "City of Quartz," Mike Davis, 1992.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood..." "Water and Power," William L. Kahrl, 1983.

"Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it," "The Powers That Be," David Halberstam, 1979. [Not the late David Halberstam! Nooooo!].

[Updated  Aug. 27, 2010: "Otis toured the city with a small cannon mounted on his car," "Thinking Big," Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolf, 1977.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood…," California Historical Quarterly, 1976.

Let’s skip a bit. I think we’re getting close to the roots here.

The story of the cannon appears in Morrow Mayo’s 1933 book “Los Angeles,” “Otis had a small cannon mounted on his automobile and went dashing about like a general at the front.”

And we find it in Louis Adamic’s 1931 book, “Dynamite,” “… while fighting the unions, he mounted a small cannon on the hood of his automobile!” 

If anyone finds an earlier example, please send it along.

Note: The mystery isn’t over. The “prominent citizen” who bought the car had this inscribed on it: 1G. 1B. 1R. Cal. SSA. GV WYB. Any guesses?
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