East-West Triangle

East-West Triangle

On the night before Midi was killed, I sat in my hotel room and prayed to God. I had procured a butcher knife from the café in which I worked and, as I sharpened it on a whetstone, I prayed to Him for strength. The next morning I went to the Takaoka home and entered Midi’s bedroom. She was as sleep. I awakened her and held her hand. I said ‘Molly, what has happened? You can’t marry Bachand.’ She said ‘Ray, I guess New York has spoiled me.’ She started to get up and put on her stockings. I couldn’t control myself any longer. I struck her many times on the head with a cold chisel then slashed her across the throat with the butcher knife.

— Raymond E. Johnson, confession for the murder of Midi Takoaka

On the morning of August 11, 1936, Ray Johnson, a 39-year-old Los Angeles cook, murdered his lover, 25-year-old Midi Takaoka. The mortally wounded young woman was able to stagger outside to the lawn of her home at 1211 North Commonwealth Avenue, where she collapsed and died.

Midi Taka better pic

Midi Takaoka, Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1936

Mizuye, known as “Midi,” was a professional dancer and singer. She was born in Ehime, Japan, in 1910 to Imahei and Kazuko Takaoka. Midi and her three siblings immigrated with their parents to California in 1918 when she was five.

Midi’s father, Imahei, described as a “fire-and-brimstone Christian minister,” was a founder of the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. When he died of tuberculosis in 1930, aged 45, Midi’s family was left destitute. To help them survive financially, she and her two younger sisters, Mary and Myrtle, formed a vaudeville trio called the Taka Sisters.

Though the Taka sisters weren’t triplets, they billed themselves as “the only Japanese triplets on stage” and it helped them find an audience. They danced around in a routine similar to the “three little maids” from the Mikado, then threw off their kimono and danced to fast jazz. The show was risqué and, after headlining at Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago in 1935, the beautiful sisters became nationally known, performing in nightclubs across the United States.

Taka Sisters

The Taka Sisters, The Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1936

Midi and Ray had known each other for three years. They met at the famous Palomar Dance Hall in Los Angeles, where Ray worked as a cook. He was in love with Midi but the relationship was complicated because he was 14 years older and had a wife who refused to divorce him. Another problem was the laws against interracial marriages that existed in many states at that time.

Midi was tired of waiting for Ray to get himself free. On a trip home, after performing in New York City, she met a new man named William Bachand. While traveling west on the bus, the pair fell head over heels in love. By the time they reached St. Louis, William had proposed marriage and given Midi a ring. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, he asked Midi’s mother for her hand in marriage and apparently Kazuko agreed to the match. William gave Midi a second ring to seal the deal.

The couple went to Yuma, Arizona, on August 9th, to try to get married, but authorities turned them away because Midi was Asian and William was white. Dejected, they returned to Los Angeles.

Johnson and Bachand pics

Rivals: Johnson and Bachand, The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1936

Hearing about Midi’s new love, Ray became enraged. Shortly after the couple got back from Arizona, Ray attacked William, stabbing him five times with an ice pick at the Takaoka home on the night of August 10th. Midi’s younger brother, Hallelujah, pulled Ray off and ordered him to get out. William, not seriously injured, was treated at a local hospital and released. Ray’s jealousy went unquenched, so the following morning he returned to the home, where he murdered Midi and then fled.

A guilt-stricken Ray turned himself in to the sheriff of Corona, California, three days later. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in November 1936. He received a life sentence for the murder, plus 10 years for the ice pick attack. He served his sentence at San Quentin prison. Despite the life sentence, he was paroled after 12 years, in 1948.

William Bachand returned to his home in Massachusetts and promptly got into trouble with the police. In March 1937 he was arrested in Leominster for stealing a bicycle and passing a bad check, all while wearing a stolen army uniform. Police uncovered his romance with the murdered woman and he admitted he lied to Midi about his background, telling her he was born in France and worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He also lied about his age — he was only 18 years old when he met Midi. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to four months in the house of correction. In 1944 he was again in police trouble for larceny and check fraud. Rather than return to prison he skipped town and was also charged as a fugitive from justice.

Midi’s sisters disbanded their act after her murder and never performed again. Due to their Japanese ethnicity, the Takaoka family was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, during Word War II.

California finally repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1948. Arizona’s ban was not repealed until 1962.

Featured image: Raymond E. Johnson’s San Quentin mugshot, California State Archives

Mistaken

Mistaken

LOS ANGELES, May 11. — Carl York, 22-year-old police informer who was shot down by detectives through “mistake,” died today in General hospital. He succumbed to five bullet wounds while police sought to link him with a series of recent filling station robberies. They claimed nine attendants identified the youth as one of two bandits who staged a series of recent spectacular raids in which attendants were kidnapped.

York denied any complicity in the robberies.

San Bernardino Sun, May 12, 1935

Carl York, a police informer, and W.L. Lanier, a narcotics squad detective with the LAPD, mounted the rickety stairs to the second floor door of a cheap Los Angeles rooming house during the early hours of the morning on May 8, 1935. Carl and Lanier didn’t know it, but three LAPD robbery squad detectives were staked out in a “bandit trap” near the bottom of the stairs outside the house, waiting for the occupants to return. The detectives had already searched inside the house, where they’d found a handgun and a small amount of narcotics.

“We’re police officers, hands up!” came the command from below as Carl and Lanier moved towards the door. Carl’s hand moved towards his hip pocket and the officers on the ground floor opened fire. Lanier wasn’t hit but Carl slumped over, seriously wounded. Lanier shone his flashlight in the direction of the gunfire. Recognizing one of the shooters as a fellow officer, he identified himself and ordered them to stop firing.

shooting photo

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935.

Carl didn’t have a weapon. He was taken to the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries three days later. He left a wife and small daughter in Denver, Colorado.

Carl York not a mugshot

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935

News reports described Carl as both an “undercover agent” and a “police informer” who was engaged in a narcotics investigation when he was shot by mistake. Both the LAPD narcotics and robbery squads were involved in separate investigations that brought them to the rooming house on the morning that Carl was shot. Each squad was unaware of what the other was doing.

The police claimed witnesses identified Carl as one of two men who carried out a series of raids in which parking lot attendants and vehicle owners were carjacked at gunpoint, robbed of small amounts of cash and kidnapped. Over the course of four days in April 1935, the bandits struck 12 times. The culprits drove the stolen cars, sometimes with the victim inside, through the city at high speeds. They’d abandon one car and steal another one. The victims were frightened, but not injured, though one man was thrown from his vehicle while it was moving and another was forced to hand over most of his clothing before being released from his car semi-nude.

Carl York mugshot

News photo mugshot of Carl York, May 9, 1935. Collection of the author.

The L.A. coroner ordered an inquest into Carl’s death. The verdict was “justifiable homicide” — an accidental and unintentional shooting by the officers. The Municipal League demanded an inquiry into Carl’s shooting, but nothing came of that.

After Carl’s death, four men reported to be Carl’s criminal associates were charged with robbery and conspiracy to rob but there’s no evidence that they were ever tried or sentenced to prison.

Then in June 1937, a series of kidnap robberies that were eerily similar to the crimes of April 1935 occurred in Bakersfield, California, 115 miles north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles residents Moran Pierce and Charles W. Taylor, both aged 23, committed the crimes.

Armed with automatic pistols, Pierce and Taylor staged their first holdup at El Tejon garage. They stopped E.W. Stevenson of Burlingame, as he drove into the garage in a big Packard, and subsequently held up Henry Lopez, garage attendant. Both Stevenson and Lopez were taken out on the Edison Highway, obliged to get out of the car and were strapped to the fence with belts.

 

Pierce and Taylor returned to Bakersfield and held up H.R. Thompson, operator of a Richfield service station, at Twenty-first Street and Golden State Highway. They abandoned their stolen automobile after this holdup and returned to their hotel.

The Bakersfield Californian, June 15, 1937

Pierce and Taylor were captured in their flophouse the morning after the crime spree during a search of all the rooming houses in the vicinity. The two men admitted to the Bakersfield kidnap robberies, along with some other burglaries. They also told police they pulled two service station kidnap robberies in Los Angeles a few days before the Bakersfield crimes. Both got life sentences, with Pierce heading to Folsom State Prison and Taylor going to San Quentin.

No photo of Taylor was located, however Pierce and Carl bear a resemblance to each other. It’s plausible that Carl was mistaken for Pierce who, along with Taylor, committed the Los Angeles kidnap robberies in April 1935. Then the pair laid low for a while only to reappear and commit similar crimes in Bakersfield. If so, Carl was telling the truth when he said he had nothing to do with the kidnap robberies. After death he was vilified as a criminal when perhaps all he’d done was help the police with their narcotics investigation.

Featured photo: Moran Pierce (left) in his Folsom prison photo, collection of the California State Archives. Carl York (right) in a news photo mugshot, collection of the author.

An Experienced Woman

An Experienced Woman

When Judge Smith sentenced Aimee Meloling to serve three years in San Quentin Prison for burglary, she commented, “May your honor’s heart soon be as soft as your head.” Aimee might have rejoiced at getting a lighter sentence than her husband, Albert Webb Meloling, known as “A.W.” He was ordered to serve five years in Folsom Prison for the same crime. However Aimee was under the impression she was going to get off with a slap on the wrist, not hard time in San Quentin.

The Melolings, a young, middle class couple from New York, had broken into the room of a fellow guest at the upscale Granada Hotel, a residential hotel in Los Angeles, in 1905. They stole what was described as a set of “handsome hand-painted chinaware” along with some “valuable steins” (beer anyone?). The crime was burglary, so planning was involved.

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The Granada Hotel in Los Angeles, circa 1900.

Was the theft just a moment of weakness for the Melolings or was it an ongoing practice? Did they have an irresistible eye for attractive china they couldn’t afford or were they temporarily short on cash and in need of something to pawn? Both got long sentences for a crime that seems relatively minor, so possibly the police suspected they had dabbled with burglary before. Or maybe the judge just didn’t care for Aimee’s attitude.

The prison sentences came as a shock—the couple was under the impression they were going to get probation. At a court hearing a month earlier they met a man who had just been sentenced to five years in San Quentin. After being introduced by the deputy sheriff, they had a nice chat with the soon-to-be prisoner. The deputy apparently suspected what the Melolings didn’t yet realize—they would soon be headed to prison themselves and would need all the friends they could find there.

Aimee three

San Quentin Prison mugshots of Aimee Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Albert three

Folsom Prison mugshots of Albert W. Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Aimee served two years and four months in San Quentin. Before she was released, in October 1907, an appeal was made to the governor of California to commute A.W.’s sentence so his wife didn’t have to “survive on her own.” The governor agreed and commuted the sentence but for unknown reasons it was later restored. A.W. wasn’t released until January 1909, after serving three and a half years.

Out of prison, the couple reunited and lived in a variety of locations in California. A.W. tried his hand at an array of careers, ranging from hotel proprietor in San Francisco (lock your room!) to running an auto livery in Santa Barbara and working as a commercial artist in Oakland. The couple had a son in 1916 but they later divorced.

By 1933 Aimee was the matron of the Alameda County jail in northern California. She looks happy, in a 1933 newspaper photo, escorting a new prisoner to San Quentin, but of course her role was as the jailer, not the jailed.

It isn’t a total surprise that a woman who didn’t expect to go to prison but ended up there anyway chose a career in the corrections field. After all, she had a lot of experience.

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Alameda Jail Matron Aimee Meloling, lower left. The Oakland Tribune, January 24, 1933.

Her Radiant Smile

Her Radiant Smile

Christmas 1907 was not shaping up to be a merry one for Pauline Lyons. The 26-year-old Texas woman was sentenced, just before the holiday, to spend the next eight years in San Quentin State Prison. To add insult to injury, this was her third trip inside. However no one would suspect that she was anything less than thrilled about the state of affairs, judging by her radiant smile when her mugshot was snapped on December 17th.

In fact four things stand out about Pauline in all her mugshot photos: she was attractive, well-groomed, fashionably dressed and she had a beautiful smile.

Born Ethel Wilson, her first recorded court appearance was on October 19, 1895, when she pleaded guilty to battery and was fined $20 for blackening the eye of Helen Lewis, a fellow Los Angeles prostitute. She was 14 years old at the time.

Pauline Lyons 2

1st Prison Stay: Ethel Wilson, San Quentin Prison Photograph Album, August 1, 1899. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Four years later, in May 1899, she was accused of robbing a client named Peter Jonssen of $10.17 in the tenderloin district of Los Angeles. This time she got more than a fine; she was sentenced to San Quentin for four years. With such a long sentence it’s likely she had other run-ins with the law that were not reported by the press. She served two years of her sentence and was released on August 1, 1902.

Sometime between her 1902 release from prison and 1906, when she was arrested again, she got married and changed her name to Ethel Lyons. Her husband, R. F. Lyons, was employed as a cook for the crew at the Oxnard sugar beet farm of Albert Maulhardt. Ethel worked as a housemaid for Mrs. Maulhardt.

In August 1906 Ethel pleaded guilty to stealing $500 worth of jewelry from her employer. She hid the valuables in her mouth in order to smuggle them out of the house.

Ethel was bound over, and the little court audience was visibly moved as Mrs. Maulhardt gently pressed the hand of the erring woman who sobbed as she was led away.

Oxnard Courier, August 3, 1906

Ethel’s husband was fired from his job as cook (though he apparently played no part in the theft) and she made another trip north to San Quentin. This time her sentence was one year, of which she served ten months. She was released on June 12, 1907. With two stints in prison behind her, she must have yearned to avoid another incarceration. Unhappily it didn’t work out that way.

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2nd Prison Stay: Ethel Lyons, San Quentin Inmate Photograph Album, August 12, 1906. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

After getting out of prison for the second time Ethel decided a name change was in order and began calling herself Pauline Lyons. She remained in northern California, settling down in Oakland. The following month she and a companion, Joe Thompson, were arrested and jailed for setting a fire in West Oakland. The pair was also accused, in the confusion that followed the fire, of robbing Charles Valentine of a diamond valued at $300. Pauline pleaded not guilty but she was convicted and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin.

Pauline Lyons3

3rd Prison Stay: Pauline Lyons, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photograph Album, December 17, 1907. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

She was released from prison on April 17, 1913, after serving five years and four months of her sentence. Possibly Pauline Lyons became an upstanding citizen, keeping her nose clean thereafter. However an intriguing set of newspaper articles presents a different possible scenario.

In 1931 an African-American woman named Pauline Lyons was jailed in San Bernardino, California, accused of shooting a man named James H. Hoggans at close range with the intent to commit murder. Hoggans was wounded in the mouth, ear and arm. She claimed Hoggans threatened to hit her with a chair so she grabbed a .38 caliber revolver out of a nearby coat pocket “to bluff him” but evidently ended up shooting him instead. Her age was reported as 33 years, so if this was the same Pauline Lyons who was sent to San Quentin three times, either the reporter was in error or Pauline had shaved 17 years off her age. Hoggans recovered and decided not to press charges and Pauline was released from jail.

Assuming the two Pauline Lyons are one and the same, the attempted murder charge scared her straight because Ethel Wilson, aka Ethel Lyons, aka Pauline Lyons, stayed out of jail from then on.