Taking Her Oath

Taking Her Oath

I was very fortunate to purchase this news photo on eBay a few years ago. It shows newly minted SFPD policewoman, Blanche Payson, being sworn in by Police Chief D.A. White. I suspect the photographer was careful to make sure the photo on the wall of famed police detective, Isaiah Lees, was also visible in the picture. Lees, who died in 1902, has been credited as being the policeman who came up with the idea of the Rogues’ Gallery (mugshot photography). While that claim can be debated, there’s no doubt he was an early user of photography to help identify criminal suspects.

Blanche Payson_marked

Here’s the full photograph. It was printed in reverse and a note on the back specifies that it needs to be flipped “so hands will be right.”

But back to Blanche: She was also a first. The photo was likely taken to announce the fact that San Francisco had hired its first “special” policewoman. Blanche would be charged with directing traffic and keeping things safe and orderly for women and children at the Toyland exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. “Mashers” (men who sexually harassed women) were to be her special quarry. She also guarded the Liberty Bell while it was on display at the expo.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Bush in Santa Barbara in 1881 to Thomas and Sarah Bush. By the time she married Eugene Payson, a commercial traveler, in 1908, she had changed her first name to Blanche. In 1910 Payson placed an announcement in the local papers that he wouldn’t be responsible for his wife’s debts. The couple divorced but she kept his surname. In 1923 she married Allen Thurman Love, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Blanche was hired in part because she had family connections to policing: her uncle, Dan Martin, served as the first police chief of Santa Barbara. She also came recommended for the job by William Pinkerton, the renowned private detective of the Pinkerton Agency (“We Never Sleep”).

Blanche Payson advice (better photo) - Newspapers.com

Blanche directing traffic at the Panama Exposition.

Another useful attribute was that Blanche was an imposing physical presence. Depending on which press report you believe, she was somewhere between six foot four and six foot six inches tall. Not to mention that when she was hired, she weighed in at 235 pounds.

After the exposition ended Blanche moved to Hollywood and took up a new career: film actress. It’s possible the acting bug bit her when she was essentially “on stage” while working at the expo.

She made her first film, “Wife and Auto Trouble,” at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1916. She successfully transitioned to “talkies” and made many more films, mostly slapstick comedies, over the next three decades. With her towering height, she often played the “heavy” for comedians, including The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. She continued to appear in films until 1943.

Blanche Payson in reunion photo - Newspapers.com

Blanche (upper left) at a reunion of the Mack Sennett “Bathing Beauties” in 1950.

In 1925 a reporter interviewed Blanche about her police career. She informed him that, in her opinion, women made excellent police officers and were particularly well suited to being traffic cops. “Women do not lose their heads so easily as men. They do not burst into profanity on such slight provocation. They are not so dictatorial as men,” said Blanche.

Blanche died in Los Angeles on the 4th of July in 1964.

Stealing Horses

Stealing Horses

Can you imagine a time when stealing a horse (or two) could earn you hard time in San Quentin?

Meet the men who accomplished that feat: Frank Adamson and James Carey. In October of 1912, Frank stole a horse and buggy in Turlock that belonged to Emil Johnson. He drove it to Fresno and on the way he picked up his buddy, Carey. When the pair got to Fresno they sold Johnson’s horse and buggy and stole another one that belonged to Albert Bowen. Then they drove Bowen’s “rig” to Coalinga, where the city marshal, Eddie Burns, apprehended them.

The law did not take stealing horses lightly: Johnson and Bowen were likely to have been put out of business when their transportation suddenly vanished.

It seems quaint now, but back in the day lawmen out west communicated about wanted men by sending out flyers or “circulars” to their fellow lawmen in other communities. Marshal Burns had gotten one of these communiqués from the sheriff of Ventura, E.G. Martin. Thinking he might have rounded up the crooks Martin was after, he wrote to him to check on whether the men he had in custody were the ones wanted in Martin’s jurisdiction.

Marshal Burns must have been a very thorough man because he even commissioned photos of the culprits. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words. He fastened the photos together and sent them, along with a letter, to provide Martin with a visual of the suspects.

horse thief letter

Neither man was wanted in Ventura, but 24-year-old Adamson owned up to Burns about his lengthy prison record. He said he had been a prison trusty (an inmate deemed trustworthy who got special privileges) in Stockton, where he was serving a six month sentence for stealing a bicycle, when he abused that trust by escaping. He’d also done two years in a penitentiary in his native New Zealand. Not to mention that he’d served time in British Columbia and in Ashland, Oregon.

They were convicted of grand larceny. Carey, a 36-year-old native of The Emerald Isle, apparently had no priors, but he was dumb enough to go along for the ride with Adamson. It earned him four years in San Quentin. Adamson, the “Kiwi,” got six years.

Adamson and Carey SQ

San Quentin prisoner inmate photos of Adamson and Carey. California State Archives

Adamson was deported back to New Zealand after he was released in 1917.

Featured: suspect photos of Frank Adamson and Jim Carey taken October 26, 1912 in Coalinga, California.

The Milkman

The Milkman

What do rattlesnakes have to do with crime? In this case the answer is nothing. Why are the two young men in the news photo holding a large, venomous snake? The explanation is on the back of the photo:

Leonarde Keeler back_crop

Leonarde “Nard” Keeler, the young man on the left, was one of the fathers of the lie detector or “polygraph,” as he called the machine he helped invent. The machine was developed as a scientific alternative to “the third degree,” in which a cop basically beat a confession out of a suspect. John Larson, a police officer in Berkeley, California, with an interest in psychology, thought there had to be a better way to sort the guilty from the innocent, so he created an early version of the lie detector in 1921. As a teenager Keeler got to know Larson and August Volllmer, the pioneering Berkeley chief of police known as the “father of modern law enforcement.” While he was still in high school Keeler became Larson’s assistant.

Keeler and the lie detector - Newspapers.comThe idea was to hook someone up to the machine and measure their vital signs while asking them a series of questions. If a particular question caused the vital signs of to go haywire it indicated they were lying. That, at least, was the theory.

Born in Berkeley on Halloween 1903, Keeler’s father was the poet and naturalist, Charles Keeler. Keeler attended several colleges, including UCLA and Stanford, but he was never an enthusiastic student. He was far more interested in the lie detector than in his studies. However in order to pay his expenses while he was in college, Keeler kept two-dozen rattlers in a “lonely” water tower near the university and ran his unusual “dairy” out of the tower.

During the gangster era of the 1930s, Chicago was the perfect place to research crime and to work on developing the lie detector. Keeler, Larson and Vollmer all moved to Chicago. Eventually Keeler and Larson became enemies because Larson, the more science-oriented of the two, considered Keeler to be nothing more than an egotistical showman who wasn’t interested in science and only wanted to generate headlines and promote his “Keeler polygraph.” The two continued to back bite and snipe at each other for years. The older and wiser Vollmer tried to stay out of the fight.

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Polygraph chart signed by Keeler, October 18, 1940. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Keeler married Katherine “Kay” Applegate, one of America’s first female forensic scientists, in 1930. For a time it seemed the couple was a real life version of Nick and Nora Charles, Dashiell Hammett’s fictional sleuths, but after Keeler discovered Kay was having affairs with other men, they divorced. Always popular with the ladies, the handsome Keeler philandered, smoked and drank his way into an early grave. He died of a heart attack in 1949.

Nard Keeler sold snake venom, but was he a snake oil salesman? The bottom line is that the reliability of the polygraph continues to be controversial and, generally, the results of the test are not admitted as evidence in court.

Featured photo: from the collection of the author.

Earnest Ernest

Earnest Ernest

Ernest Perez was 21 years old and a native of Mexico. His first name fits his gaze as he looks seriously up at the camera. The photographer could not have asked for a more beautiful light in which to take Ernest’s mugshot.

He was arrested on October 7, 1922, for petit larceny, details unknown. The jail warden thought he was reliable or he wouldn’t have made him a “trusty” — the inmate in charge of disciplining other prisoners when they were at work outside the jail. If you weren’t into power trips, being the trusty would have been an awful job.

Ernest Perez_low_marked

After serving 20 days in the Yuba County jail in Marysville, with 80 more to go, Ernest saw his chance. He took “french leave” and headed into the wild blue yonder of California.

CharlesJMcCoy-1000Charles J. McCoy sent out wanted letter after Ernest disappeared, hoping that an officer of the law would see it and see Ernest and arrest him and return him to jail to finish his time.

A police officer prior to being elected sheriff of Yuba County, in 1914, Charles followed his father, Hank McCoy, to the job. He remained in the job for 31 years.

It’s not possible to catch up with Ernest and find out what he did with the rest of his life. Hopefully he found a way to make a good, honest living, but as a Mexican living in 1920s America, that would not have been an easy task.

Featured photo: Ernest Perez, from the collection of the author

Photo of Charles J. McCoy: courtesy of James Casey 

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

The Love Nest

The Love Nest

COLTON, Sept. 16.—Accused of living as man and wife at the Anderson hotel here, Mrs. Helen M. Cassidy and William J. McLean, prominent real estate broker of this vicinity, were in A. W. U’ren’s justice court this morning for preliminary hearing. They are charged with adultery, and also contributing to the delinquency of a minor, with the husband of Mrs. Cassidy as the complaining witness.

The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California), Sept. 17, 1926

Helen Cassidy had a stormy marriage. She and her husband Howard separated three times and had also gotten divorced and remarried. By 1926 the couple’s marriage was on the rocks again, so Helen took their youngest child, a five-year-old daughter, and left Howard. He moved back to his home state of Colorado with their two sons.

Helen took up with an older man, a real estate developer named William Johnston “W. J.” McLean. The couple, along with Helen’s child, moved into a residential hotel in Colton, California, a community just east of Los Angeles. The Anderson Hotel was close to where McLean and his business partner planned to build 100 stucco homes inspired by Spanish architecture. The Iowa-born McLean, who was unmarried, had previously worked in the Hollywood film industry as an assistant director.

Anderson Hotel

Anderson Hotel in Colton, circa 1930.

Howard hired a detective to locate his wife and their child. The detective found Helen and the little girl living with McLean at the hotel. The newspapers described the couple’s abode as a “Colton love nest.”

Furious over what Helen had done, Howard brought suit against his wife and McLean for adultery and contributing to the delinquency of a minor child. He also threatened to sue McLean for damages over alienation of Helen’s affections, demonstrating that “hell hath no fury like a man scorned.”

Adultery, defined as sex acts between a married person and someone who is not that person’s spouse, was a criminal offense in California at the time Helen and Howard were battling out their marriage out in the courts. The laws have since been changed and it’s currently only an “offense against public morals” in California, but it remains a crime, at least on the books, in many other states.

Convicted of adultery just after Christmas in 1927, Helen and McLean were sentenced to five to seven years each in state prison. Somewhat ironically, the pair was incarcerated in the same prison — San Quentin. (Women were held in San Quentin from the late nineteenth century until 1933 when the California Institute for Women in Tehachapi opened its doors.) Their mug book photos were taken during a period at San Quentin, in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the subject faced the camera head on and an angled mirror was placed over his or her shoulder. Only a single mugshot photo was produced, reducing both time and cost of photography.

Howard sued for a divorce, which was granted while Helen was still inside, and he got custody of the couple’s three children. Helen requested that she be allowed to see her children once she was released from prison. According to her attorney, “She writes to me that she thinks she has atoned in full, under the execution of the sentence of the law, that a year in prison has changed her and that if she cannot see her three children her heart will break.” The divorce court judge agreed that Helen had “atoned for her sins” and should be allowed to see the children “at any reasonable time.”

Helen was paroled from San Quentin after 14 months and McLean was released after he served 18 months. The couple didn’t reunite after their prison terms were up. McLean returned to L.A., where he no doubt carefully checked the marital status of his future girlfriends. Helen moved to an apartment by herself in Berkeley, just north of the UC campus in northern California. Hopefully Howard followed the judge’s orders and allowed his ex-wife to see her children again.

Featured photos: San Quentin prisoner photos of Helen Cassidy and W.J. McLean. California State Archives.

A Man of Many Mugshots

A Man of Many Mugshots

His Second Term.

MARYSVILLE, Oct. 22, — Antonio Ferasci was today sentenced to ten years in San Quentin for burglary. Ferasci served a term for the same crime from Sonoma County in 1899 under the name Peter Ferasha.

Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1900

Despite the report from the L. A. Times, it was actually Antonio Ferasci’s third sojourn in a California prison.

Born in Switzerland around 1860 to Bernardo and Pasquala Ferasci, by the age of 24 Antonio had immigrated to Canada. He married Cecelia McLean Kelly, a 22-year-old, half-Indian woman who had not previously been married, in a Roman Catholic ceremony on December 18, 1884 in Granville, British Columbia. The marriage was not a success, and Cecelia Kelly, described as a single woman, was an inmate in the Penetanguishene “asylum for the insane” by 1911. She died there, aged 56, of arteriosclerosis on December 16, 1918, and was buried in the hospital cemetery.

Antonio 1st time

San Quentin photos from first sentence to prison

On June 23, 1898, 38-year-old Antonio, described as a laborer, was sentenced to one year in San Quentin Prison for grand larceny. The crime was committed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. He was released on April 23, 1899, after ten months served.

Six months later, on October 17, 1899, he was sentenced, under the alias Peter Ferasha, to a year in Folsom Prison for 2nd degree burglary committed in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. “Peter” claimed he worked as a dairyman before his conviction. He may have been connected with the Union Creamery Company, a dairy business started in San Luis Obispo by Swiss brothers named Louis and Angelo Ferasci in 1895. If so, the brothers were no doubt not pleased to share a surname and possibly bloodlines with a convicted criminal.

Antonio 2nd time

Folsom photos from second sentence to prison

Apparently officials didn’t realize that Antonio had been to prison in 1898. If they had known he was a repeat offender it’s likely would have gotten a longer sentence. Instead he again served ten months and was discharged on August 17, 1900.

Antonio, two times an ex-con by 1900, was not finished yet with crime or its consequences.

Two months after his release from Folsom, he was convicted of 2nd degree burglary committed in Marysville, a city in Yuba County, north of Sacramento. He listed his job as “stone fitter” at the time of his arrest. This time officials were wise to his previous two-term record, so he was given a ten-year sentence to San Quentin. He served six and a half years and was released on April 24, 1907.

Antonio 3rd time

San Quentin photos from third sentence to prison

The third time worked the charm! It’s impossible to know whether or not he reformed, but Antonio never went to prison again, at least not in California.

Featured photos: Antonio Ferasci mugshot photos taken by a professional photographer in Marysville, California, in October 1900. From a glass negative in the collection of the author.

Other photos from the California State Archives, Sacramento.