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Tragedy and Death In Los Angeles: 12 Lesser-Known Evil and Eerie Real Events In L.A.’s History

The Mineral Wells Fire.

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]os Angeles’ history involving tragedy and death does not make it into American history textbooks. Often the harsh realities get glossed over for a cleaner narrative. But as any person who has lived long enough in Los Angeles may know, heartbreak and broken dreams are our bread and butter here. From the Mansons to the Black Dahlia, we have contributed more than our fair share to society’s collective nightmares, so just in time of the Halloween season, we are looking back on an ominous baker’s dozen of some of the lesser-known and truly evil bits of Los Angeles history. 

We dug real deep into the L.A. Meekly podcast to bring out the rare horror-filled gems that even those who consider themselves obsessed with macabre history may not know about. Welcome to L.A.’s intensely malevolent side of history.    

jean m barrie
Jean M Barrie. All photos via L.A. Meekly.
Jean M Barrie. Photo via L.A. Meekly.

Jean M. Barrie and Her Mummified Babies

Would you believe that J.M. Barrie (the guy who wrote Peter Pan) left a suitcase filled with two mummified babies in the basement of the Glen-Donald building near MacArthur Park? Well, the LAPD did. That is because in 2010, when they found the suitcase left there since the 1930s with the initials JMB and two mummified aborted fetuses inside, they had little else to go off of until they realized it belonged to a Jean M. Barrie of whom little is really known; least of all what the hell was going on with her suitcase. Find out more about Jean M. Barrie and Her Mummified Babies here.

The Salomon family.
The Salomon family.
The Salomon family.

The Disappearance of the Salomon Family

On October 13, 1982, Sol, Elaine, Michelle, and Mitchell Salomon all disappeared from their Northridge home, never to be seen again. There was no forced entry, nothing stolen, and the only clues were some ripped carpet and a couple of bloodstains. Was it the sketchy business partner? A mafia hit? A staged disappearance? We will never know. Find out more about the Disappearance of the Salomon Family here.

The Billionaire Boys Club.
The Billionaire Boys Club.
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Billionaire Boys Club

Who would have thought a secret fraternity of wealthy and privileged boys from Harvard-Westlake would get up to no good? It was all stock trading, BMWs, and dinners at the Hard Rock Café for the so-called Billionaire Boys Club until they got conned out of their money and accidentally murdered one of their members’ dads while trying to blackmail him into giving them millions of dollars. It was a sensational news story that went on years later to influence two fellow rich and privileged boys in town: Erik and Lyle Menendez. Find out more about Billionaire Boys Club here.

The Alphabet Bomber.
The Alphabet Bomber.

The Alphabet Bomber

On August 6, 1974, a bomb went off in the Pan Am terminal at LAX, killing three and injuring 36. The culprit ended up being a man named Muharem Kurbegovic, aka the Alphabet Bomber; so-named because of his mission to bomb a location in town for each letter in the name of his one-person terrorist organization “Aliens of America” (“A” being for airport). He was caught before his second bomb could go off at the Greyhound station downtown. “L” stood for the “locker” it was in and also the “lifetime sentence” he is currently serving. Find out more about The Alphabet Bomber here. 

An archival image of the Chinatown Massacre.
An archival image of the Chinatown Massacre.
An archival image of the Chinatown Massacre.

Chinatown Massacre

On October 24, 1871, a Chinese man arrived in Chinatown to free his sister from a gang who kept her hostage as a sex servant, but the ensuing gunfight attracted a nearby LAPD officer shot and killed in the crossfire. This officer was white, which prompted the white crowd who had gathered to watch to spread the word that the local Chinese population was “killing the white man by wholesale.” This crowd swelled to 500 angry white residents (about 1/10 of the entire city’s population at the time) who began to attack any Chinese person they saw. By the time the night was over, some 19 Chinese residents of Chinatown were murdered in what is believed to be the largest mass lynching in US history. Find out more about the Chinatown Massacre here.

An archival image of a rattlesnake planted in a mailbox by the Synanon cult.
An archival image of a rattlesnake planted in a mailbox by the Synanon cult.
An archival image of a rattlesnake planted in a mailbox by the Synanon cult.

Synanon

If you have ever heard the urban legend of reaching into your mailbox and getting bitten by a hidden rattlesnake, you have the Synanon cult to thank for doing just that in their attempt to murder the lawyer trying to bring them down. What started as a drug treatment center in the old National Guard building in Santa Monica (as they all do) quickly became a prison of abuse, violence, and money laundering. Too many crazy things happened in this cult to fit here but suffice it to say that at one point, they all shaved their heads and were used as extras in the movie THX 1138. Find out more about Synanon here.

An archival image of Ralph Glidden.
An archival image of Ralph Glidden.
An archival image of Ralph Glidden.

Ralph Glidden and His Bone Museum

We all know the Catalina Casino on Catalina, but before that, the big attraction on the island was Dr. Ralph Glidden’s museum. In a sick attempt to fund his archeological research, he dug up and desecrated over 800 indigenous Pimuvit gravesites and arranged the remains as a museum decoration. Finger bones lined the window frames. Vertebrae hung from the ceiling, and leg bones held up shelving. Part Indiana Jones, part Ed Gein and all unforgivable, this ghoulish and offensive museum was allowed to stay open until 1950. Find out more about Ralph Glidden and His Bone Museum here.

An archival image of a tragedy that took place on the Windward Pier.
An archival image of a tragedy that took place on the Windward Pier.

Tragedies on the Amusement Piers

The amusement piers of the early 20th century in Venice, Ocean Park, and Santa Monica were home to many romantic, joy-filled memories, sure. Still, they were also scenes of mayhem and tragedy. There were many fatal accidents on the amusement rides and animal attacks thanks to the old-timey wild animal displays. A couple of the worst incidents: a captive cinnamon bear mauled a little girl on the Windward Pier in 1918, and a reptile attacked a woman at the Alligator Farm in 1915. Find out more about those tragedies here.

The St. Francis Dam.
St. Francis Dam.
The St. Francis Dam.

St. Francis Dam Disaster

William Mulholland is remembered as either the hero or villain who brought enough water to L.A. to turn it into a megacity. Only those who place him in the villain category like to remember how his career ended. St. Francis Dam was an exercise in greed and hubris that ended on March 12, 1928, when the dam broke, sending 12.5 billion gallons of water rushing from Santa Clarita to the Pacific Ocean in Montalvo, 55 miles away. This fatal flash flood left behind a trail of destruction two miles wide that killed 431 people, making it the biggest manmade disaster in California history. The culprit was an ancient peculiarity in the earth the dam was built on, which was ignored in Mulholland’s haste to quench the growing city’s thirst. Find out more about the St. Francis Dam Disaster here.

The Mineral Wells Fire.
The Mineral Wells Fire.
The Mineral Wells Fire.

Mineral Wells Fire

Nowadays, L.A. sets a new record for the biggest wildfire ever each year, but the record for deadliest is still held by the Mineral Wells fire in Griffith Park. On October 3, 1933, nearly 4,000 men were clearing brush in the area when a fire broke out. Many volunteered to fight it but, not being trained firefighters, they all got trapped by the blaze: 29 died, and 150 were injured before the professionals could get there to save them.

The other Black Dahlia Murder.
The other Black Dahlia Murder.
The other Black Dahlia Murder.

The Other Black Dahlia Murders

The brutal mutilation and murder of Elizabeth Short is considered the most famous unsolved murder case in Los Angeles history. Many do not know that Short was only one of many women savagely murdered during the 1940s whose killers were never found. Georgette Bauerdorf, Ora Murray, Jeanne French, Virgie Griffin, Lillian Johnson, and Laura Trelstad suffered similar mutilations, and their killer/killers were never found. A string of copycats, or was one maniac responsible for all of these murders?

The Mummy found on the Pike.
The Mummy found on the Pike.
The Mummy found on the Pike.

The Mummy on the Pike

In 1976, while filming an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man on Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Pier, a crew member working inside the “Laff In the Dark” ride tried to reattach the arm of a background mummy only to discover that the figure was just that: A mummified corpse painted over in Day-Glo. After a forensic investigation, it was found that the mummy was formerly the outlaw Elmer McCurdy who was shot and killed by police in 1911. His unclaimed body was then picked up by carnival men posing as his family members, and after years of traveling, the carnival circuit ended up on the Pike. Find out more about the mummy on the Pike here.

The Black Death in L.A.

In 1924, the area known as the Macy Street district (an impoverished area around the current Twin Towers Correctional Facility) suffered through an outbreak of the pneumonic plague. It began at 724 Clara Street and spread from there, infecting everyone in its path, making it as far as Belvedere Gardens. By Halloween of that year, after weeks of it spreading, the area had gone into quarantine. Homes and structures were burned down or bulldozed, rodents were rounded up and exterminated, and in the end, 37 people were dead from the plague. Find out more about the Black Death in L.A. here.

This list of lesser-known evil histories in Los Angeles was written by Greg Gonzalez and Daniel Zafran, who hosts a podcast dedicated to all of L.A.'s complicated history. Check out their podcast, L.A. Meekly, for more.   

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