Great Murders of San Francisco and Los Angeles

Yesterday while foodling on the Internet I discovered a retired police detective in San Francisco has been creating Google My Maps of all the San Francisco murders, year by year.  Great Murders of 1933, Baffling Murders of 1943, Drive-By Shootings of 1953 – you get the idea.  He doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the Fifties yet.  This is helpful data for a novelist.  And I can learn what neighborhoods not to move to if I go back in time.  I hope he reopens and then solves all those cases now that he’s retired.

My grandfather also was murdered (this is true), and it had a huge impact on the family right down to today.  Everybody knew who murdered him (it was his business partner) but the guy got off scot free.  The D.A. who prosecuted him later went to San Quentin for accepting bribes.

This happened in roaring LA in the 1920s.  My grandfather was a man in his forties with a young family – on his way up.  Here’s a picture of him in 1922 standing by one of his oil wells.

He was a wheeler-dealer, a millionaire on paper, but he’d built a house of cards only he knew how to hold together.  So when the crash came, the family, including all the country cousins who came out from Kansas to work for him, were back on the street – figuratively speaking.  We couldn’t even pay the property taxes on our Pasadena mansion.

Over the years I’ve thought of writing a book about the whole sordid story.  It has the makings of a bestseller and it would satisfy my itch to know.  The shock waves from the murder reverberated through my childhood even though my grandmother and mother would never talk about it.  But it’s pretty rough stuff too and I would have to face issues like – was my grandfather a crook like his business partners? I don’t think he was, but what if?  Do I want to know?

Once I went to Los Angeles, spent a couple days there reading the newspaper accounts of the 1924 murder and trial in the public library, I went to the Hall of Records and found the will of the man who shot Grandpa down, I went to the morgue to see if they still had a file on the case.  They did, but it contained only one sheet of paper.

But I ultimately decided I didn’t want to spend the next five years in the company of some unpleasant people who thought about money all the time while I wrote a book about them.  I moved on to the next subject – a strawberry ice cream soda at the Colorado Street Creamery.

I’d still like to read that book if somebody else would write it.  Aprilbaby would be a good choice, she needs a new bestseller.  But all in all I think I’m glad I moved on to the trippy hippie stuff.  My memories are lot more fun.

Footnote:  There seems to be no way to link directly to a My Maps map.  To see the murder maps, click on my link, which will bring you to Google Maps for San Francisco. In the left-hand column, click on the My Maps tab. Now drag down to ‘Featured Content’, then check the box at ‘Popular user-created maps’.  That will bring up a lot of content – drag through it and you will see links to the murder maps.


How To Write A Novel Set In The 1920s

1) First, get in the mood by watching this terrific video by Aaron 12

2) Now listen to a 1920s pop singer like the fabulous Ruth Etting, (she’s the clam’s garters) or the endearing, sweet and lovable Annette Hanshaw until you start to Get Hot!

Lovable and Sweet by Annette Hanshaw

When the music stops sounding quaint and you’re thinking “Hey, I want to go Leona Wilderson’s house party and dance the Charleston (Charleston?) all night with a red hot hopper!” then you’re getting there. You’re almost ready to write.

3) Memorize stories about how much fun your ancestors had in those glory days. Like here’s my Dad in 1924 with a few intimate friends…

and here he is on the way to a costume ball with his incomparable cousin, the reigning princess of Haight-Ashbury radio…the unforgettable…Miss Margaret Hancock.

Now, when your hot tamale is ridin’ the trolley, when your goose is on the loose, your cherry smashes have strawberry rashes and your cuddling cutie’s shouting Rootie Kazootie, start typing! You can’t miss.

Oil Under The Streets Of Los Angeles

Here’s a photo from my Dad’s collection of 1920s snapshots. It’s June 1925 and the Belmont High Girl’s Athletic Association is showing off for Club Day. Click on it so you can see them better. That’s Dad’s girl friend LaVerne in the middle. Dad always had the cutest girl friends. You should have seen my mother, for instance. A real wow. The cat’s pajamas. In fact maybe I’ll put up her picture too…

OK, here’s Mom in 1926. She was an acting student at the Egan School of Dramatic Arts and this was her hand-out shot. In case anyone needed a good-looking teenager to star in a play. I tricked it out cause I don’t know how to leave well enough alone.

Dad was an acting student too. They met when they were assigned to do a scene together from a popular play of the moment called You And I for the Pasadena Rotary Club luncheon. Or maybe it was called You and Me and it was the Glendale Elks Club. But you get the idea. They are young lovers having a spat. Then at the end of the scene they made it up with a big kiss. Dad always said he was kissing Mom before he even knew her last name. Well, one thing led to another – and here I am, some eighty years later, still going out to lunch on the same story. Waiter! There’s a fly in my soup!

Anyway, to get back to oil under the streets of LA for a minute, last year’s girl friend LaVerne and her friends are posing on the athletic field at Belmont High, which was and still is right downtown off 2nd Street. Look behind those flappers in their tennis whites, if you can take you eyes off them for a minute. I count five or possibly six oil derricks rising out of the neighborhood behind them. I just hope there won’t be blood, don’t you?

In The Shadow of the Babcocks

Sunday afternoon. Spring in New England. For something to do, Patrushka and I drove over to Westerly, a neighboring town where the Babcock-Smith House Historical Museum was having a little fete. It’s one of those eighteenth century mansions so beloved by New Englanders, where their prosperous sea captain ancestors copied the manners and styles they had seen on visits to England.

The Babcock part of the Babcock-Smith house is of special interest to the Pondering Pig because – well, they’re his ancestors too.

My grandma, Nana Meyer, used to tell me about the Babcocks, her mother’s people. Farmers, preachers, and wanderers, they were restless, eccentric folks who came over with the Puritans and slowly crossed America following the wagon tracks all the way out to Pasadena and San Francisco and now back to Westerly, Rhode Island all over again, at least for today.

My Nana Meyer was a no nonsense sort of grandmother, and when I was little I was afraid of her. But she improved immensely as I got older and she began to tell me stories about her girlhood on a farm in Lincoln County, Kansas. And about her family, the stock she had come from. Her Dad, Ferdinand, was a Prussian soldier who’d skipped out and caught a boat for America as soon as the Prussian army had finished beating up the French in the early 1870s. First he got a job building a waterwheel somewhere in Delaware, then he heard they needed carpenters to build the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, so he went up there. From Philadelphia he slowly made his way west, working on the railroad till he got as far as Kansas. At the end of the Santa Fe railroad line, in Ellsworth, toughest cow town on the frontier, where Wyatt Earp kept law and order with a smoking six-gun, he met pretty Amy Babcock, my great-grandmother and Nana’s Mom, and a direct descendant of the Babcocks of Westerly.

They got married in 1879 and drove a horse and wagon up to Lincoln County to homestead. First they lived in one of those sod houses. Nana was born there but later Ferdinand carpentered a rough wooden cabin from planks he bought from his railroad friends.

Nana had a picture of the cabin, just a shack really, and another of her family taken in the 1890s…Ferdinand, still young, bold and handsome with a big walrus mustache and Nana, called Mabel in those days, beautiful, 12 or 13, with thick dark hair like her Dad’s tumbling over her shoulder and sweet wistful expression. I would have fallen in love with the girl in the picture except I knew it was Nana Meyer. And there were her two little sisters – my pretty blonde great-aunt would get polio and have to make a life for herself in a wheelchair – and her brother who ran off west and was never heard from again.

Amy was dead sick. You could see it in that photo with her haggard face and dark circled eyes with the light gone out and bony emaciated face – she was fixin’ to die. Yet she was only 35. TB maybe, it roared through the country with scythe and skull’s head bared in those days. And Nana had one other picture she always carried with her – Amy’s Kansas grave.

Nana carried those pictures around with her because she had no bureau to keep them in – Nana had no home. She traveled around the country and up to Toronto, staying a few months with each of her children and sisters and then taking the train on with just two suitcases to hold her belongings. Her husband, my grandfather, had made the big bucks in LA in the Roaring Twenties, but he got shot down and she lost what was left of the fortune in the Depression. Now she was a wanderer, one more American with no home but just that restless standing on the platform listening for the whistle one more time.

I grew up with a sense of the myth-steeped history of my family. We were part of the great sweep of America. I would ask Nana to tell me about when she was a little girl and I could see it in my mind when she talked. I saw her little one room schoolhouse with its sixteen year old teacher. I saw Nana and her family riding through the wheat fields in their little buggy at dusk going to the schoolhouse for the big spelling bee. And how well Nana had done, taking second place in the whole county. My cousin has Nana’s little autograph book from that school – an album where her classmates wrote sentimental sayings and remembrances to her when she had to drop out of school. Nana kept it all her life.

Because after Amy died, Ferdinand packed up the cabin, filled his shabby battered suitcase and caught the train west to Pasadena, California to start over. He left his kids with Amy’s sister Aunt Neen up in the sandhills of western Nebraska.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s why we Americans are like we are, somehow. Restless, wandering Jack Kerouac Americans except years and years before he was ever born. My America. And my people have always been here. Nana was a Prussian soldier’s daughter. But she was also the daughter of Amy Babcock, whose ancestors had been original settlers in Roger William’s Rhode Island, birthplace of American freedom, and had scrabbled from there all the way out to the saddletramp cowtowns of Kansas by 1879. Her tough-minded great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Jabez Collver, had sided with the British during the Revolution and then had to fight his way to Canada with his six strapping sons on the dark forest roads of York State across the Niagara River, a damned Tory. But her grandfather Moses crossed the roaring river back again and strode on to Ohio along the forest roads preaching the gospel in every town he came to. With his little family in the wagon beside him wondering where they would ever find a home again.

Now the Pondering Pig and his princess bride Patrushka are heading west from Rhode Island – in just a few weeks, in our little gypsy cart. We aims to get to California if we can. I think I’m going to stop in Lincoln County and see if I can find Amy’s grave. If I do, I’m going to buy that girl a big bouquet of spring flowers.

And you’re all coming with us in the wagon, in a sense. I’ll be posting from the road wherever we can find a wireless connection out there in the great dark Johnny Appleseed forests of Ohio, along the wide rolling Huckleberry Finn Mississippi, in those saddletramp sixshooter cowtowns of Kansas. And down below along the great dark mesas of New Mexico and Arizona.

Once more into the breach, my friends. We’re Americans of the restless kind. It’s in my blood. But I’m glad we’ve got some friends on this journey. Makes it a little safer around the campfire at night when the coyotes are howling and Patrushka and I are singing “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairee” and there’s a scurrying noise in the brush beyond our circle of light. Glad you’re along on this journey. Wagons Ho!