Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It Wasn't His Fault

Dec. 19, 1907
Los Angeles

What you have to understand first about George White is that he isn’t to blame. Oh he’ll take his prison sentence for robbing the Hot Rivet Saloon, 1006 N. Main St., but it’s not his fault; he fell in with the wrong man. He just hopes that when he’s released he won’t be turned over to the Army as a deserter.

“The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was the Army,” White says. That’s where his problems began, you see. That’s where he got the habit of never staying too long in one place. And that’s where he got in trouble with a tough, cocky lieutenant who was always riding him.

White was used to serving in the Philippines, where life was “swift and rather free,” but he was transferred to the East Coast. One day the lieutenant ordered White, who was trained as a carpenter, to do some carpentry work but White refused and fled after beating up his superior officer. That wasn’t his fault; the lieutenant shouldn’t have been giving him such a hard time.

He began wandering: London, Scotland and all over the U.S. But not as a freeloader, for he always earned a living. “I worked most of the time,” White said. “I would get a job and stick at it a while and then I would get this itch to go someplace else.

“I have done everything that you can do to earn money at except law, theology and medicine; and I could make a pretty good bluff at those if I had too. All during this life of wandering I had definite ambition. I wanted to study law. In fact, I did read law for 10 months. But I never could get far enough ahead to do anything much.”

White was in Portland, Ore., and doing fairly well, he says, when he met a down-and-out ex-soldier. White says he felt sorry for the man and loaned him $5. Nothing wrong with that, you know, for there’s a unofficial fraternity among former military men.

And then White got that itch to travel and decided to come to Los Angeles. Of course he was broke and he ran into his old friend from Portland. The friend didn’t have much money, and certainly couldn’t repay White, but he knew about the Hot Rivet Saloon, and how it would be full of ironworkers who had just been paid, so a robbery would be easy pickings.

Robbing a crowded saloon might frighten most men, but the Army teaches you not to be afraid and how to handle a weapon, White says. It wasn’t his fault; the military taught him how.

So on Nov. 16, 1907, a little after 11 p.m., White walked into the Hot Rivet with two pistols drawn and said: “Get into the back end of the barroom or I will plug you.” His partner, who had entered the saloon half an hour before and had several drinks, emptied the cash register of $103 ($2,134.45 USD 2005) and an $85 paycheck, scooping the money into his hat. It wasn’t White’s fault that neither man wore a mask, so they were easy to identify. The plan was to leave town immediately.

“I would know that big fellow a year from now if I met him on the street,” one witness said. “His eyes are as black as coal and his chin is square set. The other fellow is a smooth talker and it surprised me when he walked behind the bar and started to get the money. I had three drinks with him.”

White hit the rails, but was caught in Yuma by a Southern Pacific detective who was rousting a hobo camp and thought White resembled one of the robbers described in a police bulletin. White denied the charges, but the railroad detective had him photographed and sent the picture to the Los Angeles Police Department, where it was identified by half a dozen holdup victims.

Naturally, White says his partner cheated him out of his fair share of the money. That wasn’t his fault, either, but he refused to tell police the man’s name. In fact, he wouldn’t have been arrested if the detective hadn’t found his revolver. You see, he needs to carry a gun because the railroad brakemen shake down hobos riding the rails and if they can’t pay, they’re thrown off, sometimes while the train is moving. It’s not his fault.

“I’ve got to go to prison now,” White told The Times. “A fellow only has one life to live and it’s pretty hard to know he has wasted that. It’s all off with my ever becoming a lawyer now. The best of my life will be caged up. It will be all the way from five to 15 years before I ever see outdoors again.”

It’s impossible to tell what became of White after he served his prison sentence. He told police he had a wife and baby but hoped they wouldn’t learn of his crime. But it wasn’t his fault.

Lmharnisch.com

Lmharnisch.blogspot.com

e-mail: lmharnisch (AT) gmail.com

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