Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Courtesy Card



Large ImageI have ceased blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” Wolfe uses the “Laura” format, in which the anonymous, butchered body is found and the narrative proceeds in flashbacks.

I am taking a few requests before wrapping up the project as it’s extremely time-consuming. Yesterday we looked at Will Fowler’s tall tale about Elizabeth Short’s supposed physical abnormality at the request of Regular Anonymous Commenter.

Let me elaborate on the question of courtesy cards. Vincent Carter’s book “Rogue Cops” makes a great issue of them.

Whew. Now how am I going to boil down all this nonsense to a few simple paragraphs?

“Rogue Cops,” Page 3.

Carter is talking about two detectives named Jerry McGhee and Frank Bain. We’re told it is January, but not what year. Whether there were actually two detectives named McGhee and Bain or whether they are fictional has not been verified.

Let’s check Proquest. Hm. I find a Lt. McGhee of the Beverly Hills Police Department, 1931. That’s the only one. No Jerry or Gerald McGhee in the 1946 Los Angeles phone book. I do find a J.E. McGhee in 1947—a motorman on a streetcar.

How about his alleged partner, Bain?

Hm. Officer H.L. Bain testifies in the Harry Raymond bombing, May 1938. He’s also identified as Howard (Jerry) Bain. Sgt. A.W. Bain of the Beverly Hills Police Department, 1949. Hm. Again, not in the 1946 Los Angeles phone book. Patrolman R.L. Bain is mentioned in The Times, 1946. Not a detective.

Well this isn’t a good start, is it?





Large ImageOK… they pull up to some place in Hollywood and lock their car. “Lock the car,” Bain said. “We don’t want to wind up walking home because some moron car thief doesn’t recognize this as an unmarked police car.”

This is puzzling. In the 1940s, most LAPD cars were unmarked (at least I assume Carter is talking about the 1940s). If you check the photos of the Black Dahlia crime scene you won’t find a single marked black-and-white. The old-time officers tell me “we drove whatever we could get.”

They head for Room 201 but can’t find the man they are seeking. They cruise Hollywood, passing Lucey’s at 5444 Melrose.

They head back “home.” We’re not told where that is, but the implication is that it’s a heavily minority division.

They take Crenshaw Boulevard south. “The streets were empty as they approached Eighth Street. Ahead, a grey Mercedes sedan blasted the signal, going north at a high rate of speed. There were four men in the car.”

Recall that Crenshaw dead-ends at Wilshire Boulevard, and 8th and Crenshaw is the first intersection south of Wilshire. Hm. Google Earth makes it look like there are traffic lights there now but I don’t know if there were signals there then.

Our friends McGhee and Bain peel rubber in a U-turn as the gray Mercedes turns right on Wilshire, then goes into Hancock Park. OK, that generally fits with the handy Thomas Bros. Guide.

“The Mercedes, lights out, pulled to the curb and parked in front of a luxurious bungalow court. McGhee parked a half block down the street. [Not named, unfortunately, and that would help, especially if one is writing factually]. Bain and McGhee both bailed out on the passenger side, closing the door quietly.”

“Three of the men in the Mercedes got out of the car and walked to the Court where they entered a corner bungalow, leaving the door open behind them. The fourth man, the driver, got out, locked the door and walked around the car to the sidewalk where he followed his three passengers toward the bungalow court, bringing up the rear about twenty feet behind. Bain and McGhee, who had remained undetected, intercepted him at the entrance to the bungalow. They both shoved their badges toward his face and Bain said, ‘Police. You’re under arrest.’ Taken totally by surprise, the Mercedes driver fled through the open door to the middle of the living room, where the other three men were standing. Bain and McGhee were right behind him.”

Bain tells the driver that he ran a traffic light [note: Los Angeles had traffic semaphores in the 1940s, when I assume this occurred].




Large ImageAnd here we go:

“The man said ‘oh,’ and almost, Bain thought, with a sense of relief. Bain was right. The man reached into his left breast coat pocket, pulled out his wallet and unhurriedly began to sort through the contents. It was not a driver’s license that he handed over to Bain, but a small business card. The two detectives immediately recognized the card as an ‘LAPD courtesy card.’ Bain and McGhee knew that somehow, ‘innocently’ and unwittingly, they may have bitten off more than they could chew. It was only a matter of a few minutes before they began to suspect just how much they may have bitten off.

“If a person was a holder of one of these ‘courtesy cards’ as both of the detectives were well aware, it had been presented by a high ranking police officer, Captain and/or above, to a Very Important Person who carried a lot of clout. The courtesy card had evolved from a former practice by Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs, Inspectors and Captains of handing out duplicates of their badges to business men, politicians and mob bosses from whom they expected favors in return for the insulation the badges provided from annoyance and unwanted attention from rank and file police officers who might be encountered in the routine performance….”

Blah blah blah. Jeez this is boring. What a windbag.

Anyway, our pals Bain and McGhee discover a bloody room at this bungalow.

The detective captain who supposedly wrote the courtesy card shows up and talks to the driver of the Mercedes. After about 10 minutes, the captain tells our two intrepid detectives to go home.

Aha. NOW we find out the date: Jan. 15, 1947.

OK. Anybody see anything wrong with this story?

Beside the fact that McGhee and Bain appear to be fictitious names? And that the police captain isn’t identified? And we don’t find out the exact location of the bungalow?

How about the fact that our author, Vincent A. Carter, doesn’t explain how he knows any of this. Did he get it from McGhee? Did he get it from Bain? What’s the deal?

And what about our pals the two Irish cops, the young, aggressive detective and the salty old veteran?

These two guys are detectives, right? That means they have some smarts, presumably. They’re headed home at the end of their shift and they arrest a guy for running a red light? Without getting his ID? And they’re both right there with the supposed suspect instead of one hanging back to cover the other one in case something goes down?

Granted, I’m not a police officer, but I think they might have, oh, I don’t know, at least run a field sobriety test just to see if they could nail the guy on something more than a traffic violation. At least if the guy is tanked they won’t look quite so stupid hauling him down to jail for a minor traffic violation.

Now about the courtesy cards.

They existed mostly in the 1930s through the early 1950s and were nothing more than a police officer’s business card with a message on the back reading something like: “So and so, a good friend of mine. Any courtesy extended to him/her will be appreciated.” In fact we find just such cards in the possession of a dead, former burlesque dancer in 1949.

According to The Times of Oct. 26, 1949, Rena Lucille Hodge, whose body was found in hotel room on East 3rd Street, had two courtesy cards in her purse. One signed by Officer C.O. Smith and another signed by Officer R.E. Myers. According to The Times, “At the time the cards were issued, Smith was on the Central Division vice squad and Myers was on the administrative vice squad. Smith, now in charge of vice at University Division, said he could not remember the woman and doubted that the card was his. Myers, now a detective attached to the police business office, could not be reached for comment concerning the card that was allegedly his.”

A little more research reveals that the courtesy cards were frowned on even in the 1930s. On Aug. 11, 1935, a Times editorial praised their invalidation. And as the editorial notes, they carried no weight except in traffic offenses. In fact, in 1941, a state law enforcement agency warned of a fraudulent scheme involving the sale of courtesy cards.

And think about it. Since a courtesy card was nothing more than a business card with a signature on the back, they could be easily forged. If they existed at all in the LAPD they were banned by William H. Parker when he became chief in 1950, according to retired police officers.

The bottom line: Courtesy cards were frowned upon in the 1930s to the 1950s, were easily forged and even when they were in use, were intended for nothing more than traffic violations. They were certainly not a “get out of jail” card as portrayed in “Rogue Cops.”

Now I don’t know for sure, but I have a hunch this story is going to show up in Wolfe’s book down the line. I could be wrong, but I somehow don’t think so.

And by the way, did you notice our suspects were driving a Mercedes? In 1947? Uh. Let’s have some fun and see how many Mercedes were for sale in The Times in 1947.

Zero.

OK, let’s check from 1940 to 1949.

A 1937 convertible for sale Jan. 1, 1940 (license 39M29).

A 1937 coupe (6X881) Feb. 24, 1940. Ha. The guy was still trying to unload it in March.

A 540 four-passenger coupe with a custom body (6C2688) or (6S2688) in June 1940. Still trying to unload it in October 1940.

Mercedes service and sales, 1352 Ivar, Jan. 2, 1941. (I wonder how long he’s going to stay in business?)

SS supercharged convertible coupe (14Z477) Feb. 28, 1941. Still trying to sell it in March.

A model 540 convertible club coupe, (37Q602) or (37Q6), Feb. 22, 1942. Still trying to sell it in March.

SS competition for road or track (65A138), March 31, 1942. Still for sale in April 1942.

Type S competition (54Y451), May 21, 1942.

Small, rear-engine Mercedes, (2C9281) Jan. 24, 1943. Still for sale in February 1943.

SSK speedster (5X4491) April 1943 (and the rear-engine model is also still for sale).

For 1944: A whopping zero.

September 1945: The Times classified ads list Floyd Clymer’s book about Mercedes. No cars, just the book.

A rear-engine model for sale (82A484) Jan. 9, 1946.

Not a single Mercedes listed in 1947.

1928 four-passenger sport model (7T5856) July 5, 1948.

1937 convertible (36P393) Aug. 29, 1948. Still for sale in September 1948.

1940 five-passenger sedan motor No. 427-568 Dec. 30, 1948. Still for sale in January 1949.

Something for sale Aug. 5, 1949, but I can’t find it in the listings.

A 1939 540 motor No. 10098243, Sept. 30, 1949. Still for sale in October 1949.

And that, folks, is every Mercedes listed in The Times classified from 1940 to 1949. All 15 of them. Gosh. Do you think people might have been uncomfortable driving a German car during World War II?

Time for my walk.

Shout out to:

Lithuania (82.135.208.170)

Hong Kong (218.103.211.114)

AOL user in Reston, Va. (152.163.101.5) Windows 98? Upgrade!

Hurry back!

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